Blog Archives

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?

Renewing my resolve to use public transport to explore my city better- May 18, 2012

So many of us criticize the cities we live in. We dislike the noise, the traffic, the delays, the stress of it all. And yet, we choose to stay on. Because of the opportunities large cities offer us.

Many a times, these opportunities are real and realized by most of us. Well paying and challenging jobs, good schools, and access to good facilities for entertainment, shopping, etc. But often times, we are attracted to benefits that are at best theoretical, rarely used in practice.  How many of us fully utilize the fantastic opportunity for exposure to the arts, for instance? Scores of friends I know have never been to a museum or art gallery while living in big cities for most of their lives, missing out on one of the most enriching experiences ever. And while I understand many have no interest in art, people like me who really want to go are so bogged down by the daily routine that it’s hard to make the break and do what you want to do!

Transportation and accessibility play a key role in this. Cities that have been automobile-centric for decades are in the trap of having created a culture of driving to places. So even when public transport does come into the picture, it takes years for people who do not need to drive to use public transport.  There is no culture of walking for instance, among the car riding population. Every type of public transit needs some amount of walking and without that walking habit, transit is not considered an option.

Lack of parking is a serious deterrent for those wanting to use the car to get somewhere. I have often cried shy of visiting exciting places in my city because of my anxiety about finding safe parking for my car.

When the Delhi Metro came to Gurgaon, I envisioned these countless family trips into Delhi. I do take the Metro to work often and my kids do love it, but it’s not too often that we all ride it into town to eat out, visit someone, shop or attend an event. We usually end up taking the car, for silly reasons. Finding parking at the Metro station is a problem. Last mile connectivity in Delhi is usually not such a serious issue, but can be if it gets late or during peak traffic. Frankly, we’re just not used to lugging the kids through public transit. Happy visions of being responsible citizens and traveling by Metro melt instantly when I think of carrying my kids back from the Metro to the car park. And if you were trying to take an auto within Gurgaon, most likely your driver would be all of 16 and driving so recklessly, all you can do is pray!

Last summer, we spent a week in Barcelona and used the Metro there extensively. It was exhausting, but we got used to it by Day 2 and factored in the time it would take to use public transit into our packed touristic schedule! The Delhi Metro is certainly a lot easier to use, I can vouch for that!

Even as I write this, I am strengthening my resolve to overcome these seemingly minor obstacles and expose my family to public transport. I think it is an essential if I would like my kids to become aware, responsible and resilient enough to face the urban environment of the future, which will be a lot more challenging!

Businesses that target the poor need to look beyond sales figures: Learning from the MFI debacle- Feb 26, 2012

An independent probe has suggested that certain cases of suicides among poor borrowers in Andhra Pradesh in 2010 were, in fact, caused by harassment by employees of microfinance institutions that lent money to them (read related news). The microfinance industry in India has seen a rapid rise and a steep downfall as well, when malpractices that surfaced in Andhra Pradesh caused the government to pull the carpet from under its feet by passing regulations that have sort of paralyzed the industry.

Their experience serves as a grim reminder for all industries, enterprises and organizations that serve the poorest of the poor that this is a segment distinct from others in many ways; a tougher market to sell to, the toughest to serve. Many enter this market assuming that any value addition to the poor will be appreciated and therefore, their product/service will be successful and scalable. Many of these hunky dory business plans fail miserably. For many reasons.

The vulnerability of low-income households is in itself a double edged sword. While introducing a new product or technology (like innovations in seeds, farming technology, irrigation, new income generating skill training or equipment) could enhance lives; but its failure or incorrect application might push families further into poverty. The margins are so thin, that any investment that does not give returns hurls the family into a deeper spiral of deprivation, depression and hopelessness. Compounded with other issues like lack of awareness and education, over-indebtedness, social and economic marginalization by other classes in the community, low skill levels, large family sizes and no method of redress in case of injustice, the poor have a raw deal indeed. When they invest in a new product or service, they do so believing it will change their fortunes. When it doesn’t, they are driven to desperate measures, ranging from migration, prostitution, pawning valuables and assets and even suicide!

It is, therefore, doubly imperative for all organizations serving the poor to have a holistic view of how their new offering will impact their lives. Who will consume it (the new product or service), who within the family will be impacted and how, what will they give up in order to consume it, will it impact their quality of life or income generation negatively, will it cause the poor to be further marginalized or disadvantaged, etc, etc? What will be the impact on communities of poor, in the immediate, medium and long term?

For the argument that consumers always have choice and therefore the responsibility to choose widely rests with the consumer simply does not work for the poor. New products and services, therefore, must be introduced along with a comprehensive awareness generation drive among the target communities. Moreover, periodic evaluations are needed to ensure there are no negative impacts. Training of employees and more stringent processes would need to be put in place as well. All of this means higher upfront costs and M&E costs for those operating in this segment.

In the affordable housing segment as well, many loose ends need to be tied before scalable, workable models emerge. There seems to be a wide gap between what the poor perceive as their needs and what the market is offering them. Haphazard, self-built housing is, therefore, on the rise (mHS is hoping to target this self-construction market). Because housing is a particularly complex issue that involves higher costs and is deeply connected to quality of life and emotional stability, organizations in the low income housing space need to be extremely analytical about their interventions and have strong links with the communities where they work to be able to develop appropriate solutions and have a long-term positive impact on the poor.



Taking responsibility for how and what we consume can possibly save our planet! Jan 27, 2012

Andy Pag’s a guy who traveled around Europe, Asia and the Americas for two years in a truck fueled by used cooking oil. He recently blogged about what he learnt and the lessons were not about sustainable energy and the technology that went into retrofitting his truck to use a more eco-friendly fuel. Instead, he learnt that unnecessary consumption is the essential evil we all need to fight. To quote, “So much of the things we consume and the way we consume them are entirely superfluous and actually serves to isolate us from the communities we are surrounded by. In developed countries it feels like a system that feeds and feeds on dissatisfaction, while persuading us its delivering quality of life.”

While in the West the life of consumption has been the norm for decades now, what does this new realization mean for people like us who live in the so-called developing world? We in India are still holding as our ideal the quality of life offered in the developed world. We aspire to 24X7 services like electricity, Internet, water, etc. We expect controlled interior environments, thereby adopting air conditioning and heating in a big way. We argue about why we shouldn’t aspire to the good things in life and why we should be expected to give these things up when the West has had it for so long! Which is all very valid and is the sort of argument that has gone round in circles for years at the climate change conferences since the Kyoto Protocol was signed way back in 1997.

In the end, it’s about lifestyle choices and if we think our personal sacrifices can save our planet, we should probably be making them. It’s also about the culture of consumption, a culture that constantly asks us to compare our lives to others and follow a comparative way of evaluating our lives and the comforts in it. It is this that deeply disturbed Pag during his travels. True change could happen if we “start to value quality of life over aspirational living standards”, he says. We need to begin, in India, by evaluating the immense damage done by an oversimplification of the climate change-global warming story and the myth that using technology to reduce our carbon footprint is the magic formula to safeguard our future. Pag’s experience debunks the myth and urges us to take responsibility for our choices. Not something we like, but do we have a choice?


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