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Beyond protests, what’s next? Snippets from the media that cleared my mind

It’s been hard to lead a normal life amid the shrill noise of protest and violence in India-out on the streets as well as in the confusing, noisy world of news and media, life’s been tough. Especially for those of us who tend to be emotional, patriotic, easily involved and passionate about issues like rights, respect, dignity and all that good stuff.

For many of us, there has been no doubt that protesting the state of affairs has been long overdue and yet, there is a sense of despair about what the outcome of protests could be, will be. I work in the development sector, though not in women’s development, but since so much is interconnected, I have the small consolation that I do get to play my little itsy bitsy role in the fabric of ‘change’.

Satheesh Namasivayam’s editorial on The Hindu’s Open Page on Sunday, though, was a mood-lifter. It gives tremendous credence to the act of protesting as well as clearly outlines the various ways in which protests can be and must be taken forward to bring out meaningful outcomes. The last of Sateesh’s points addresses the work to be done within us. “You do not go too far in the work of leadership without beginning the evolution work on self,” he writes.

And in that vein, Tabish Khair’s piece in the Magazine section of the same day’s Hindu turns the discussion on young men. Titled ‘A letter to young men who protested against rape’, the article praises men for joining the protests, but also asks them to really prove their intent by shunning the patriarchal habits ingrained in themselves and those around them. The piece speaks to the youth and I’m curious about reactions from young men about being asked to cook, clean and do housework alongside their mothers and sisters. More importantly, Tabish tears apart a lot of the generalizations and assumptions we have been making while protesting crimes against women. Which women? What kind of women? He exposes us- we have been driven to impassioned protest because we see in Damini ourselves, what of the thousands of ‘other’ women who face worse? In calling on men to set an example for their sons and daughters by shunning age-old patriarchal values and truly respecting women, Tabish calls for real change.

And finally, there can be no change without collaboration. Union Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid’s editorial in The Hindustan Times today is likely to be seen by anti-government readers as a too-late too-false too-tame apology, but I would rather acknowledge his point. Perhaps there is no way for a public figure to grieve publicly without seeming to resort to cheap publicity or adding to the stress of the already too-tense atmosphere (or take the risk of falling flat seeing as we are so used to political figures turning up with blank faces to announce relief money or empty condolences after a tragedy). It is true, though, that governments and citizens would need to be on the same side to truly fight societal menaces like corruption or lack of safety. Khurshid brings up the issue of India’s image in the world’s eyes at the end of his piece.

Yes, India is being touted as unsafe for women, unsafe in general. And while there are rape statistics, records of poor justice, etc to back up these claims, I think we go completely overboard with sweeping statements about safety after a sensational crime takes place. At our weekend workshop with students from Katha and University of Minnesota, we inevitably ended up discussing the infamous Delhi rape case, and safety in general. One participant from the US pointed out that she felt safer (in the daytime at least) in a Delhi slum that in a poorer part of an American city; another mentioned that in a Brazilian favella, it would have been impossible to take out an iphone and take a picture without having it stolen (or forcibly taken from you) and so on…. We judge ourselves too harshly and we let the world pass judgement on us too easily. Yes, we hate the government right now, but in our passion to protest we also forget that we are proud citizens, that we love our country and our city and that there is so much positive about where we live as well. Let’s not forget this even as we go about doing all we can to make our public spaces and our lives safer and better.

And I have to point out, as a parting shot, that the best thing to come out of all the protesting, from my perspective, is a renewed focus on public spaces, urban design and infrastructure. When citizens begin demanding better urban spaces, a lot can be done. Here’s to a permanent change from citizen apathy (and sheer lack of awareness) to an informed, invigorated bottom-up process of urban renewal!

New ailment: Aiming for less than perfection in a world of instant gratification

It’s always great when you see an editorial in the newspaper that puts your thoughts into words succinctly and accurately. Sidharth Bhatia’s op-ed in todays HT says it all when it calls for media to return to the basics and brass tacks in terms of the standard procedures of verification, cross checking and editorial screening of the content it publishes.

Well, the lack of screening is something that is becoming a rampant problem. And it’s not just media, its each one of us. Because we live in an age of instant access, when uploading information and sharing it takes a few seconds and gets instant feedback and attention, we often ignore our old values. Values that asked us to be sensitive, to verify the truth of something before we shared it, and that demanded a certain check of quality before we deemed something to be ‘final’ and good enough to be made public.

We’ve all stared at our Facebook pages and tried to make sense of something that reads like this: “Wndrng wht to do tdy. BFF out! 😦 :(” and the message coming up on my screen right now says “dost, the fun of chilli dilli wintrs”…..I am glad to say I don’t have too many people who write like that on my friends list, but we are all guilty of hitting that share button without whetting the content thoroughly from time to time!

So when I sat with Udai this morning to cajole him into finishing the homework that had piled up all week, I was in no mood to tolerate shoddiness! He had done an hour of work diligently, but then he was lapsing into strange sentence constructions, poor spelling and bad handwriting…and it wasn’t the mistakes that bothered, it was the fear that he would think its ok to let things go, ok to not aim for perfection, ok to not better himself. It’s a real fear. I’m working on keeping the faith!

Ironic indeed! The media picked up the most inconsequential aspects of THiNK2012

I was struck, the umpteeenth time, by how narrow minded the media is. They didn’t really think at the Thinkfest. They just picked controversial lines and twisted them into captions and entire stories, devoid of sense and context.

Easily one of the most impactful speakers and perhaps the most evolved was Irish rockstar and political activist Bob Geldof. He is best known for his charity supergroup Band Aid that has worked to eradicate poverty in Africa. Band Aid’s Do they know it’s Christmas was inspiration for We are the World,  the 1985 hit song writeen by Michael Kackson and Lionel Richie that brought the best in rock and pop together under the banner USA for Africa.

Bob was very very rock-star like with a very British sort of wry humor and his interview was a powerhouse of ideas that could impact the most cynical individuals. He spoke so eloquently about the power of charity, about the right of a father to bring up his children, about deprivation and hard work, of family values and what entails a home. The press only picked his showman’s statement about Goa being the place where he got his drugs from. “My best drugs came from Goa” says Geldof screams The Times of India’s local edition in font size XXXXXL. Goa gave me my best drugs: Bob Geldof, are the headlines of the local paper, the Herald. Of course, Bob was unapologetic about what he said. He is a rockstar and he said these words before he started his rock and roll concert in complete jest, which was smashing for its quality of music as well as his superior showmanship! He also said crazy stuff like, “It feels like I’m playing at a wedding” when the audience pattered put pilot applause instead of hooting and screaming for more! In the end, he rocked the floor!

Typically, of three days and scores of speakers atThink2012, only the Bollywood types and the politicians were covered extensively by the media. They, both these categories of people, had nothing original to say whatsoever. And no one was surprised by that! So little do we expect from them. Reema Kagti was the only from from Bollywood with spark and Praful Patel astonished me (in not a very good way) with his honesty about how iffy politician’s ethics are, but save for these two blips on the radar, the celebs failed to impress. The real stars, the scientists, the social innovators, the out-of-the-box thinkers got sparing column space. Who cares of Steven Cowley is inventing a power source that will take the world out of the absolute misery of fighting for sources of energy? Who cares if one man, David Christian, has the pedagogic recipe called Big History to imbue future generatins with tolerance and inclusive thinking? And who cares if Ian Lipkin might have research that can stop diseases from spreading?

Clearly, these are puny issues. In comparison, SRK’s loneliness and Rishi Kapoor’s barely-there relationship with his father might truly impact the way we navigate our lives!

Lines drawn in the building sector: Thoughts while speaking at a media briefing- June 28, 2012

Speaking to a group of journalists from across the country can be an interesting experience. For me, it was fun being on the other side. For all the years we ran our media services company (Nupur and me), we were the ones being educated and briefed. I was used to having my antennae out and asking questions that might sound daft to an expert panel. Today, as I fielded queries about the obvious and popular issues, I knew very well that there is a value in stating and restating well known facts, clarifying positions and so on in the interests of hopefully more informed and mature writing and more accurate dissemination of information about the building sector.
Every sector has its typical face offs and actors. In construction, builders crib about corruption, long and tedious approval processes and the like. They hardly ever profile positive initiatives on public platforms, which gies to show what their worth is (only a handful of developers can stand stall and talk about their work). Activists take up cudgels against the lack of ethics and malpractices of developers. Not for profits and professionals struggle with issues on and off the ground, but put up a more positive attitude. Everyone, media included, cribs about the government. So too at today’s event, which was a media briefing organised by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a lot was said around subjects like environmental clearances, green building design and planning, energy efficiency and sustainability; yet, the people in the room were divided about which sides of certain issues they stood on and united in their opinion of the inadequacy of government action. As a moderator put it, “We are experiencing a collapse of governance (politics is controlled by industrial lobbies)….and the media is often our first line of defence.” He cited examples of honest officials resorting to leaking controversial information to the media when they find evidence of an influential (and politically connected) industrialist being involved in something grossly illegal and know an official report will fall on deaf ears.
Another interesting theme in the context of energy and environment was the expressed need for urban Indians to reexamine our lifestyles. Yes we will consume more as we become prosperous, but unless we exert some control, we could be spinning into a disaster, a self created crisis of resource deficiency. I wonder what the mainstream media made of that thought. Interestingly, the Left aligned journos who kept asking for government subsidies for everything from housing to five star rated appliances had no comments to offer on equality of resource distribution!
That brings me to ratings. The BEE enforced appliance labelling has been one if the mode successful exercises in India of creating a system that incentivises consumers to use energy efficient products. The ratings were voluntary and in a few years of observation, it is clear that Indian consumers value them. The labelling is now mandatory for some appliances and more will join that list as the market acceptance grows. Kudos to all those in the field who have worked hard at making a success of this. These star ratings began at a time when the Indian market was considered terribly price sensitive. No one knew if anyone would value a more efficient product. Aggressive consumer education had its payoff.
To those of us in the affordable housing space, it is heartening to review the star rating experience. However, the challenges at our end are many, not the least educating informal sector consumers who are not well educated and spread across the country about the benefits of the ratings. We are heavily dependent on government incentives that might succeed in luring developers into the rating game for affordable housing.

Maniacal media mongering is hurting India’s story more than falling output or policy deadlock- June 15, 2012

‘Is India’s Growth Story Over?’, says a Time headline. Other lesser publications have gone to town talking about the possibility of Indian being the first ‘fallen angel’ among the BRIC countries. Fallen angel? Seriously?

The panic mongers may have the last laugh (though I sincerely hope not!), but I find it really hard to palate this hyperbole. I find it laughable that an agency like Standard & Poor, which should aim for increased credibility, would resort to using flowery language like ‘fallen angel’! And just for that, I tend to believe they are also playing to the gallery in something that seems to have become a media and public relations game rather than a real assessment to inform investors.

Yes, certainly, India is facing a political deadlock and a sluggishness that is unfortunate. However, compared to the global climate, we are still a growing economy with plenty of potential. Unfortunately, for us Indians, our tendency is to not learn from downturns and shock. Rather, when India managed to brave a worldwide recession, instead of looking long and hard at where we could bolster ourselves for the future as global economies kept sliding, we spent a lot of time patting our own backs and ridiculing the West for not having sufficient safeguards in place.

Well, what we are facing now is the fallout of that sort of complacence. We also excel at riding high and long on small wins. Public perception in India of India can change from day to day, and I mainly refer to that when I say ‘we’ (I genuinely believe policymakers and entities like the RBI are quite level headed in their decisions). Foreign investors on the other hand, have had issues with India for a very long time. The policy issues, corruption and red tape have long inhibited investors and will continue to do so, irrespective of ratings.

Interestingly, stats show that absolute  investment was highest in 2008-09 (at US$ 41,874 million) and dips by about 10-13% in the following two years. This year, from April 2011 to Jan 2012, US$ 38,346 million have come in as FDI as per provisional estimates by the DIPP.

I am genuinely concerned about S&P’s statements because they seem very alarmist. I am more concerned about Indian media houses presenting the S&P point of view as larger than life and giving relatively less space to the defence by the government, which is also very balanced in its own right. In this respect, I found the following but from the Time article very reassuring. From my limited (very) perspective, I tend to agree.

According to Rajesh Chakrabarti, assistant professor of finance at the Indian School of Business, the possibility of a downgrade by S&P is not surprising, since the India brand has been taking a hit on many fronts for the past several months. However, he is not convinced by the reasoning offered by the agency. “While there is indeed a slowdown on policy initiatives and growth has slowed down, the fact that a country [could lose] its rating because some of the anticipated things did not happen is a rather strange argument. Normally, a downgrade would happen because of adverse events rather than non-happening of positive events.” He adds that growth slowing down per se is not a risk factor. “While [slower growth] may reduce the prospects of future gains, it does not make the country more risky.”

I am deeply disturbed by media that thrives on creating panic. Do they not understand that the domino effect of panic and dejection alone can cost our economy billions? We can still look at a realistic growth estimate of 6% this financial year, far better than EU’s 2011 growth rate of 1.6% and United States 1.5% and even South Africa’s 3.4% (they were recently added to to the BRICS). If anything, educated, middle class Indians should push for better governance at local level and campaign relentlessly for reforms. Occupy movements should be about think

Even so, if S&P’s maniacal statements push reforms through, I’ll take back my whining!

Changing media scenario: Can we be responsible for how we ingest and relay information? May 19, 2012

A few of us friends got together for dinner today, one of them an army officer. Talk inevitably, amid loads of nostalgic discussions about school times, turned to the attitude of the media about sensitive issues like corruption, defense, etc.

There were two opinions on the issue. One, that the media hypes issues, even at times perverts facts to sensationalize. The other, that the media, in whatever way, plays the role of a watchdog in society and the content should be looked at in that perspective, perhaps with a bit of salt but also with grains of truth hidden in there.

I have a few more thoughts to add. Media is the only source of information for a citizen on many issues relevant to his life. Therefore, to be irresponsible on the part of media and to carry content that actually misleads the public in unethical. On the other hand, people consume news and opinions guided by their interests, sensibilities and political leanings. Therefore, no matter how varied the opinions carried by media, it is not really drastically changing thought processes, only influencing them to some extent.

At this time, when both economics and politics are being tested in our country, a skeptical attitude to media is dangerous. With social networking sites and a variety of digital media rewriting the way we relay and ingest information, the question of who takes responsibility for providing well-researched, authentic information or expert opinions is a very different and much larger one. We consume the media, but we also are the media, so how about we each start with being responsible and honest ourselves about what we communicate?

Satyamev Jayate: Can so much reality shake Indians out of their stupor? May 6, 2012

I missed the first episode of Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate this morning, but when I saw it trending on twitter and the sort of overwhelming response twitterati was coming up with, I had to watch! I am not a TV watcher at all, so its a big deal for me to stay up just to watch a TV show! Now, this better be good…

Just finished watching. It was good. All the right elements- well-researched, a tear jerker, Aamir’s humble attitude….Yes of course, as the twitter folks said, it is commendable that he’s putting his star power behind issues that matter, using his fame to change attitudes and influence personal decisions. I can actually imagine, in today’s Bollywood obsessed India, some guy (or woman, shocking but true and not an aspect Aamir dwelt upon!) actually refraining from female foeticide because Aamir Khan said it is a despicable thing to do.

But the most important thing Aamir said today, the one thing that struck me, is that we really need to believe that we are the change. The onus of India’s problems is on us, on each of us, and it is we who have the responsibility and the power to make the change.

What’s bringing India down is not the dysfunctional government or the corrupt babu; the real problem is us, for taking things lying down, for always passing the buck, for never taking initiative, for being passive citizens. We need to change that within ourselves, we need to reassert our right to live in a fair and just society, where everyone has equal opportunity; to live in well-governed cities and villages, breathe clean air, afford the basic necessities, live with dignity.

For any of us who have stepped outside India and visited developed nations, it’s not the glitz that dazzles us any more. We have plenty of our own in India now. It’s the fact that every citizen, however poor, can rightfully expect to live a dignified life. When we return, we are shocked to register that back at home, we have learnt to live without the basics. It makes my blood boil to live in an address where property prices per square foot are through the roof, but the road outside has no street lights. But we say nothing! People would rather lose their dignity and leave town than report a rape to the police for fear the victim, their daughter or wife or daughter in law, would never be able to live a life of dignity again! And we say nothing?  This list can go on. We need to find a way to make ourselves heard and change will come!

That would be Aamir’s true contribution. If Satyamev Jayate can be a conduit to capture the voices of India’s people, not just as statistics, but as footage, as letters, as outpourings of thousands of people who want to see the change, be the change, it would have done its job! Hopefully, the ‘last mile connectivity’ that the program offers in the form of support to NGOs that work for the causes he takes up, will also make its impact. Bravo Aamir, for subtly showing Indians that we’re sleeping while the nation falls apart, and then showing us how we can save it! Done like a true showman by changing the rules of showbiz once again!

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