Posts Tagged ‘P. Sainath’

What Montek Ahluwalia can learn from Sir MV

31 May 2012

“I don’t think many Indians care about the country,” he (George Fernandes) said. “By Indians I mean those in the highest places. If they cared they wouldn’t have been looting the treasuries as they are and they wouldn’t be allowing the crooks of the world to treat this country as a grazing ground. Some day we will sink and this is not anything to do with China or with Pakistan. It is because this country is cursed to put up with a leadership that has chosen to sell it for their own personal aggrandisement.”

I was struck by the note of despair in his voice. It was hard to believe that this was the country’s Defence Minister speaking, a politician who had reached the pinnacle of his career.

Amitav Ghosh in his book ‘Countdown

***

By K.B. GANAPATHY

Reading an article some time back in India Today magazine, and on May 21, 2012 in The Hindu about Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the great Sardar, deputy chairman of the planning commission for the last nearly eight years, I was livid with anger and felt ashamed of myself as much as helpless for being unable to do anything to stop such alleged stealing and squandering of my nation’s wealth, created from the sweat of my countrymen for the development of my country.

Though a democracy, see how helpless we the Aam Aadmi are. And to think that his case of extravaganza in splurging our country’s wealth on himself is just a tip of the iceberg of a behemoth of Indian bureaucracy, frightens me.

I was suddenly made aware that what is bugging this country’s development is not just corruption but also a very highly indulgent bureaucracy rolling in luxury at State expense. Instead of helping build our nascent free-nation, these pseudo-intellectual, highly educated bureaucrats are bleeding our country of its tax and natural resources.

Thanks to the RTI Act and some of the newspapers like The Hindu and news magazines, this kind of ‘corruption by other ways,’ is also being exposed.

As I was reading The Hindu article by P. Sainath, I was reminded of bureaucrats of my own princely State of Mysore — some of the Dewans — specially two well-known ones: Sir M. Visvesvaraya and Sir Mirza Ismail, legends in their own time and perhaps for all the time to come in the matter of administration and honesty.

About Sir M. Visvesvaraya it is said that when he was on official tour and stayed in the government guest house (also known as inspection bungalow) after his official work, he would switch off the electric light and remove a candle from his pocket and light it for his personal work! That’s the level of honesty.

What a contrast to the total degenerate conduct of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, as reported in The Hindu.

It is keeping this Sardar in mind, the renowned author and journalist Khushwant Singh, being a Sardar himself, with natural pride in such situations which anyone would display, had said, in a lighter vein I suppose, that the prophesy of a Sikh Guru that ‘Raj Karega Khalsa‘ had come true with three Sikhs in top positions ruling India — Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, Army chief Gen J.J. Singh (Retd) and Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

This was during the 2004 victory of Congress. UPA-1 rule. But now, the Sikh Army Chief is not there but the other two are there in office. However, the question is, doing what? Oh, yes. From June 2012 when the new Army Chief, Lt Gen Bikram Singh, takes over as Army Chief it will again be ‘Raj Karega Khalsa.’

But, what about Montek Singh Ahluwalia?

A real Sheikh of a country that is ready to fall apart, the Centre cannot hold. If you have not read the The Hindu article, here I give a sample of it.

The title itself is sarcastic in tone — “The austerity of the affluent.” And it gives a peek into the details of financial abuse of office, “A rural Indian spending Rs. 22.50 a day would not be considered poor by a Planning Commission whose deputy chairman’s foreign trips between May and October last year cost a daily average of Rs. 2.02 lakh.”

And this man tells the Supreme Court and the dumb Indians that an Indian who spends (or earns) Rs. 29 a day in urban area and Rs. 23 a day in rural area is not a poor man.

What cheek, what gumption, what audacity and what economics!

The man undertook, between May and Oct. 2011, “four trips [abroad] covering 18 nights [which] cost the exchequer [tax payer] a sum of Rs. 36,40,110; an average of Rs. 2.02 lakh a day,” according to The Statesman News Service, says the article.

At the time it happened, that amounts to US $4,000 a day. And we are a poor country? Absurd. This is a poor country for ‘Aam Aadmi,’ not for bureaucrats like Montek Singh Ahluwalia and politicians. The truth is that this is a rich country where poor people live, because of rulers like Ahluwalia and other corrupt leaders.

There is more startling statistics to come from RTI: “Dr Ahluwalia made 42 official foreign trips and spent 274 days overseas during a seven-year tenure. That is ‘one in every nine days’ he was abroad. And that is excluding travel days. The India Today story found that his excursion cost the exchequer [of our country] Rs 2.34 crore. This could be apart from what Indian embassies abroad spent on him on frills such as hiring limousines. Even a Moghul Emperor would not have had this kind of luxury, freedom and enjoyment.

Apparently, Ahluwalia was and is a law unto himself as much as a boss unto himself.

No one to question him, not even his de jure boss, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh.

And remember, all this when our ‘dumb’ Prime Minister pleaded for austerity in 2009 and his Cabinet responded handsomely to the call. The message was for the opposition too. But look at this. This is the spirit of austerity practiced by the ruling party, as also the BJP opposition.

Praful Patel (UPA-NCP) cabinet minister and Nitin Gadkari (NDA-BJP) have hosted two of the costliest weddings ever, says the report.

The Hindu article mentions many more instances of such spending of looted money by our netas, bureaucrats and industry tycoons as you and I watch the world collapse around us helplessly.

What did Chanakya say in his ‘Chanakya Neeti‘?

“Do not live in a country that does not allow you self-respect, honour, means of living, a family, kith and kin, friends, well-wishers, ways of education and self-development. Quit such country. It is not fit for living.”

Alas! Quit and go where?

Jeena yahan marna yahan

Iske siva jaana kahaan…

(K.B. Ganapathy is the editor and founder of India’s most successful English evening newspaper, Star of Mysore, where this piece originally appeared)

Photograph: Deputy chairman of planning commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, at a hydrogen energy exhibition in June 2007 (courtesy Manvender V. Love/ Press Trust of India)

***

Also read: Montek Singh Ahluwalia gets a Padma for what?

Ayyo, Amma, Maami, is tea a national drink?

CHURUMURI POLL: Is the ‘dream team’ exposed?

The curious case of Mukesh Ambani & Raghav Bahl

9 January 2012

PRITAM SENGUPTA in New Delhi and KEERTHI PRATIPATI in Hyderabad write: Media criticism in India, especially in the so-called mainstream media, has never been much to write home about.

Operating on the principle that writing on another media house or media professional means exposing yourself to the same danger in the future, proprietors, promoters and editors—most of whom have plenty to hide—are wary of taking on their colleagues, competitors and compatriots.

That risk-averse attitude amounting to a mutually agreed ceasefire pretty much explains why the biggest media deal of the decade—Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) funding Network 18/ TV 18 group to pick up ETV—has been reported with about as much excitement as a weather report.

That the newspaper which issues P. Sainath‘s monthly cheque, The Hindu, declined to publish media critic Sevanti Ninan‘s fortnightly column on market rumours about the impending deal (without telling readers why) provides a chilling preview of what lies in store as the shadow of corporates lengthens over the media.

In 2008, New York Times‘ columnist Anand Giridharadas wrote of why the Indian media does not take on the Ambanis of Reliance Industries in an article titled “Indian to the core, and an oligarch“.

“A prominent Indian editor, formerly of The Times of India, who requested anonymity because of concerns about upsetting Mr Ambani, says Reliance maintains good relationships with newspaper owners; editors, in turn, fear investigating it too closely.

“I don’t think anyone else comes close to it,” the editor said of Reliance’s sway. “I don’t think anyone is able to work the system as they can.”

***

First things first, the RIL-Network18/TV18-ETV wedding is an unlikely menage-a-trois.

Reliance Industries Limited is a behemoth built by Dhirubhai Ambani and his sons Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani using a maze of companies and subsidiaries built on a heady cocktail of mergers and demergers, using shares, debentures, bonuses and other tricks in the accounting book—and many beyond it.

The only known interest of the Ambanis in the media before this deal was when they bought a Bombay business weekly called Commerce and turned into the daily Business & Political Observer (BPO) to match the weekly offering, The Sunday Observer, which they had acquired from Jaico Publishing.

(Top business commentators like John Elliott and Sucheta Dalal have alluded to a blog item to convey that Mukesh Ambani’s media interest goes beyond the recent announcement.)

Anyway, BPO, launched under the editorship of Prem Shankar Jha, was long in coming unlike typical Reliance projects. Suffice it to say that in 1991, when India was at the cusp of pathbreaking reforms, some of India’s biggest names in business journalism were producing dummy editions of BPO.

The Ambani publications were under the gaze of the more media-savvy younger brother, Anil Ambani, who operated with R.K. Mishra, the late editor of The Patriot, as chairman of the editorial board. The Observer group shuttered before the beginning of the new millennium.

As Mani Ratnam‘s film Guru based on Sydney Morning Herald foreign editor Hamish McDonald‘s book The Polyester Prince makes clear, the Ambanis have always cultivated friends across the political divide, but they have been identified with the Congress more than the BJP.

Raghav Bahl‘s Network18/TV18 is in some senses an ideal fit for RIL.

Till its latest cleanup came about a year and a half ago, it was difficult to understand which of its myriad companies and subsidiaries came under which arm. It too has friends on either side, but suffice it to say, CNN-IBN‘s decision not to run the cash-for-votes sting operation in July 2008 revealed where its political predilections lay.

Eenadu and ETV, on the other hand, is a long, different story.

***

The ETV network of channels was launched by Ramoji Rao, the founder of the Telugu daily Eenadu. Rao has many claims to fame (including launching Priya pickles), but he is chiefly known as the media baron behind the transformation of the Telugu film star N.T. Rama Rao into a weighty non-Congress politician.

Rao and his men are known to have crafted speeches that tapped into dormant Telugu pride for the politically naive NTR. The massive media buildup in Eenadu—Ramoji Rao pioneered multi-edition newspapers with localised supplements—saw NTR become the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh just nine months after launching the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 1982.

Two years later, when NTR was removed from office by a pliant governor (Ram Lal) working at the behest of Indira Gandhi‘s rampaging government, Ramoji Rao played a key role in protecting the numbers of TDP MLAs by having them packed off to Bangalore and Mysore, and building public opinion through his newspapers.

When NTR’s son-in-law N. Chandrababu Naidu walked out of TDP to “save” TDP, Ramoji Rao backed Naidu and played a hand in his ascension as CM. Thus, Ramoji Rao galvanised non-Congress forces in the South leading to the creation of the National Front, which installed V.P. Singh as PM in 1989 after the Bofors scandal claimed Rajiv Gandhi.

In 2006, Ramoji Rao placed his political leaning on record:

“I submit that until 1983 the Congress was running the State in an unchallenged and unilateral manner for the past 30 years. The Congress party became a threat to democracy and in view of the single party and individual rule by Indira Congress, the opposition in the state was in emaciated condition. It has been reduced to the status of a nominal entity. The dictatorial rule of the Congress proceeding without any hindrance. I submit that as the opposition parties were weak and were in helpless situation where they were unable to do any thing in spite of the misrule by the ruling party, Eenadu played the role of opposition. I submit that in the elections of the State Assembly held in 1983, the Congress for the first time did not secure a majority in the elections and lost the power to the newly formed Telugu Desam Party. I submit that on the day of poling i.e. January 5, 1983, I issued a signed editorial on the front page of Eenadu supporting the manifesto of Telugu Desam Party and calling on the electorate to vote for Telugu Desam Party giving cogent reasons for the stance taken by me.”

In short, the marriage between RIL-Network18/TV18 and Ramoji Rao is one between a largely pro-Congress duo and a distinctly non-Congress one.

***

Indeed, Ramoji Rao’s troubles that has resulted in substantial sections of his ETV network getting out of his grasp and into RIL’s, are largely because of his consistently anti-Congress stance, which gained an added edge in 2005 when the Congress under Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy (YSR) trumped the TDP under Chandrababu Naidu in the assembly elections.

Reported The Telegraph:

A slew of news reports in Eenadu and programmes on ETV since 2005 have accused Congress ministers, politicians and senior government officials of corruption and hanky panky. One report, for instance, debunked the official claim that the number of suicides by farmers had dropped. Another attacked construction by Y.S. Vivekananda Reddy, the chief minister’s brother, on disputed land. A third said that Eenadu had discovered, based on a survey, that voter lists for elections for local bodies had omitted the names of opposition party sympathisers.

It didn’t take long for YSR to hit back.

It was a two-pronged attack: his son Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy launched a project to own launch his own newspaper and newschannel house to take on the might of Eenadu and ETV. Simultaneously, a Congress MP from Rajahmundry attacked Ramoji Rao where it hurt most: his finances.

Arun Kumar Vundavalli, the MP, revealed that Rao’s Margadarsi Financiers had started dilly-dallying about repaying depositors, even after their deposit period had expired. Kumar showed that Margadarsi Financiers—a Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) company, of which the karta was Ramoji Rao—had collected deposits from the public, although a 1997 RBI law forbade HUFs from doing so.

Margadarsi Financiers owned a 95% stake in Ushodaya Enterprises, Ramoji Rao’s company which owned Eenadu and ETV.

A one-man committee of enquiry constituted by the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government revealed that Rs 2,600 crore of money was collected from the public in violation of RBI norms. Although his companies were not in great shape, Ramoji Rao assured the Andhra Pradesh high court that he would repay the full amount of Rs 2,600 crore due to the depositors.

Enter Blackstone.

In January 2007, the world’s largest private equity player indicated that it wanted to pick up 26% in Ushodaya Enterprises group for Rs 1,217 crore. At the time, it was reported to be India’s single largest foreign direct investment (FDI) in the print media.

The Blackstone offer placed the value of Ramoji Rao’s company at Rs 4,470 crore.

But the FDI proposal got stuck in the I&B ministry for months, allegedly at the behest of Vundavalli, who raised a variety of concerns over the Blackstone-Eenadu deal. In January 2008, when the clearance for the Blackstone investment was still not coming, Mint asked:

“Does the promoter of an Indian company, who is selling a stake in his family’s media firm to a foreign investor, have the right to do what he wants with that money, in this particular case, pay off liabilities of another company that his family separately also owns?….”

“FIPB records then show that the finance ministry, specifically citing Vundavalli’s claims, ‘has observed that prima facie, it appears that the purpose of securing funds from M/s Blackstone is not for advancing the business of Ushodaya Enterprises Ltd, but for repaying the deposits taken by M/s Margadarsi Financiers.”

When the Blackstone deal did not materialise, Nimesh Kampani of JM Financial stepped in as Ramoji Rao’s white knight although, as Sucheta Dalal writes, Kampani was never known to have any interest in the media except in deal-making.

According to VC Circle, Kampani picked up 21% of Ushodaya Enterprises for Rs 1,424 crore, which valued the company at Rs 6,780 crore, or over 50 per cent more than what Blackstone was willing to accept.

“The first public report of Kampani’s investment came in early February 2008, or around 10 days after stock markets crashed globally.”

Now, YSR got after Kampani.

Andhra Pradesh police issued a “look-out” notice for Kampani. Nagarjuna Finance, of which Kampani had been director, had allegedly defrauded depositors. Although Kampani had resigned from the independent directorship of the company nine years earlier, it was a sufficient handle to beat him with.

For months, Kampani had to stay out of India, fearing arrest. It was only after his bete noire YSR met with a bloody death in a helicopter crash in September 2009 that Kampani could return home. In May 2010, rumours surfaced of Mukesh Ambani buying up JM Financial but they soon fizzled out.

Shortly before buying into ETV, Kampani had recently sold his stake in a joint venture with Morgan Stanley to his foreign partner for $440 million and had the cash. The Margadarsi bailout, it was assumed, was in his personal capacity. It took a petition in 2011 filed by YSR’s widow seeking an inquiry into Chandrababu Naidu’s assets assets for the penny to drop.

Enter RIL.

YSR’s widow, Y.S. Vijayalakshmi, an MLA, alleged that when gas reserves were found in the Krishna Godavari basin in Andhra Pradesh in 2002, the Chandrababu Naidu government wilfully surrendered its right over the discovery in favour of Reliance, “while allowing Naidu’s close associate Ramoji Rao to be the vehicle of the quid pro quo.” (page 32)

“In consideration for the favour done by the Respondent No. 8 (Chandrababu Naidu) in allowing the State’s KG basin claim to be brushed under the carpet, the Reliance group facilitated the payout of Ramoji Rao’s debts to his depositors. This was carried out through known associates and friends of Mukesh Ambani.

“Two of these known associates of Ambani and the Reliance Group are Nimesh Kampani (of JM Financial) and Vinay Chajlani (of Nai Duniya).

“Kampani extended himself in ensuring that Ramoji Rao would be bailed out. Within a short span of 37 days between December 2007 and January 2008, six “shell companies” were floated on three addresses, which are shown as Sriram Mills Compound, Worli, which is the official address of Reliance Industries Limited. Reliance diverted Rs 2,604 crores of its shareholders money through the shell companies to M/s Kampani’s Equator Trading India Limited and Chajlani’s Anu Trading.”

In other words, RIL’s involvement in Eenadu through Kampani became known only recently in response to Vijayalakshmi’s petition, but it was market gossip for quite a while.

T.N. Ninan, the chairman of Business Standard and the president of the editors’ guild of India, wrote in a column in January 2011:

“If reports in Jagan Reddy’s Saakshi newspaper are to be believed, Mukesh Ambani is a behind-the-scenes investor in Eenadu, the leading Telugu daily.”

Vijayalakshmi’s 2011 petition makes several serious allegations.

That Ramoji Rao entered into the deal with Kampani’s Equator just 23 days after it was registered although it had no known expertise or business; that Ushodaya sold Rs 100 shares to Equator at a premium of Rs 5,28,630 per share; and that Ushodaya’s valuation had been pumped up by Rs 1,200 crore by its claims over a movie library.

Vijayalakshmi’s petition concluded:

“The interest shown by Reliance group in coming to the rescue of Ushodaya Enterprises headed by Ramoji Rao is clearly in defiance of any prudent profit-based corporate entity (since) Reliance does not gain any returns by virtue of that investment.”

***

It is this RIL baby that is now in Network18/TV18′s lap.

The timing of the RIL-Network18/TV18-ETV deal also hides a small story.

It comes when the probe into the assets of Naidu and his associates (including Ramoji Rao) has moved from the High Court to the Supreme Court. It comes when a parallel probe into Vijayalakshmi’s son Jagan Mohan Reddy’s assets has entered a new and critical phase. It comes when the KG basin gas controversy is heating up. And, above all, it comes when 2014 is looming into the calendar.

Several questions emerge from this deal which has politics, business and media in varying measures:

1) What does it mean for Indian democracy when India’s richest businessman becomes India’s biggest media baron with control over at least two dozen English and regional news and business channels?

2) What kind of control will Mukesh Ambani have over Raghav Bahl’s Network18/TV18 when and if RIL’s optionally convertible debentures (OCDs) are turned into equity?

3) What kind of due diligence did the financially troubled Network18/TV18 do on the Kampani-Ambani investment in ETV before agreeing to pick up RIL’s stake for Rs 2,100 crore?

4) How will CNBC-TV18, which incidentally broke the news of the split among the Ambani brothers in 2005, report news of India’s biggest company (or its political and other benefactors) now that it is indirectly going to be owned by it?

5) Is there a case for alarm when one man has a direct and indirect stamp over three of the five major English news channels (CNN-IBN, NewsX and NDTV 24×7), three business channels (CNBC-TV18, IBN Awaaz, NDTV Profit), and at least five Hindi news channels?

6) Do Raghav Bahl and team who ran a handful of channels heavily into debt, have the expertise to run two dozen or more channels, especially in the language space where there are bigger players like Star and Zee?

7) Is the ETV network really worth so much, especially when Ushodaya’s most profitable parts, Eenadu and Priya Foods, are out of it? Or is RIL using Network18/TV18′s plight to turn a bad asset into a good one?

8) Is RIL really tying with Network18/TV18 with 4G in mind, or is this just spin to push an audacious deal past market regulators such as SEBI and the Competition Commission of India (CCI)?

9) How immune are Mukesh Ambani and Raghav Bahl from political forces hoping to use the combined clout of RIL-Network18/TV18 to blunt negative coverage ahead of the 2014 general elections?

10) And have Network18/TV18 investors got a fair deal?

***

Infographic: courtesy Outlook

Also read: The sudden rise of Mukesh Ambani, media mogul

The Indian Express, Reliance & Shekhar Gupta

Niira Radia, Mukesh Ambani, Prannoy Roy & NDTV

Montek Singh Ahluwalia gets a Padma for what?

29 January 2011

PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: Unlike the Padma awards last year which had the media doing cartwheels over the inclusion of the controversial New York hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal for the Padma Bhushan, the 2011 roll of honour has barely created any bubbles in the champagne glasses.

The silence of even a committed partypooper like P. Sainath might make it seem as if the scam and scandal-tainted Manmohan Singh government has finally got something right. But has it?

Au contraire, we present item No.7 on the list of the 13 awardees chosen for the nation’s second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan.

No. 7: Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

Discipline: public affairs.

Stranger things have happened in India id est Bharat, of course, but it’s strange that the inclusion of a serving bureaucrat who is the serving deputy chairman of the planning commission should go uncommented upon in the business press that is currently lying in the lap of neo-liberal luxury in Davos.

Question #1: Is it a good idea for a serving babu to be elevated to the exalted status of a Padma Vibhushan?

A diligent user of Wikipedia will be able to see if pen-pushers have been similarly provided a “service lift” before sadda Montek, but that is not our beef with the career-bureaucrat”s selection. It is more primal. It’s like WTF is his contribution to humankind to deserve the Padma Vibhushan?

WTF, as in What’s The Funda, yaar.

Generally but not always, the preferred method of picking up a Padma Vibhushan is to carefully pick up a Padma Sri first and then even more carefully pick up a Padma Bhushan.

Take Azim Premji. The Wipro boss, who has provided employment to a few thousand people, got a Padma Bhushan in 2005 and had to wait till 2011 for get his Padma Vibhushan. Or take the actor Akkineni Nageshwara Rao (ANR), who has provided pleasure to a few million people, who went through the long route.

But our brilliant babu gets fast-tracked to Padma Vibhushan just like that—sans a Padma Sri, sans a Padma Bhushan—in fact his name preceding Premji’s, who’s ninth on the list? WTF.

WTF, as in Who’s The Fu Manchu, yaar.

Question #2: Are Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s qualifications so immense, his achievements so mammoth, and his contributions to his countrymen and women so extraordinary that he deserves nothing but the second best award the nation can give straightaway?

Even a cursory glance at Montek’s Wikipedia page tells you that there is nothing particularly out-of-this-world in the man.

Words and letters like DPS, Bishop Cotton’s, St. Stephen’s, Oxford, BA, MA, MPhil are littered all over. He apparently picked up one half of his strange accent as the youngest “division chief” in the much-abhorred World Bank; and the other half as a director in the even more abhorred international monetary fund (IMF).

But that’s typically the trajectory of most high-achieving climbers—creepers as some call them—and for that we decorate him with a Padma Vibhushan?

WTF, as in Wisconsin Tourism Federation, yaar.

Question #3: Is Montek Singh Ahluwalia the only officer among the 5,159 IAS officers in the country doing yeoman service in the year of the lord 2011?

However, it is the timing of Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s choice, given his record past and present, that is most baffling.

Montek’s role in the Enron scandal in fixing sky-high anti-consumer electricity charges that ultimately turned the Dabhol Power Company belly-up is much documented to be retold again.

As the advocate Prashant Bhushan wrote in 2004:

Jyoti Basu called him a “World Bank man”…. As revenue secretary and then finance secretary through most of the 1990s, Ahluwalia spearheaded the neo-liberal economic policies in India, exactly according to the prescriptions of the WB/IMF. But his enthusiasm for privatisation went beyond the most basic financial prudence that even the World Bank observed.”

In suddenly awarding the Padma Vibhushan at this juncture it is as if Manmohan Singh—the father of LPG: liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation—is fobbing off his blue-eyed boy with a piece of chikki having failed in accommodating him in the reshuffled ministry a couple of weeks ago.

(Montek recently figured in the Niira Radia tapes, courtesy his kinsman N.K. Singh, as eyeing a ministerial portfolio.)

And then there is the ultimate irony of it all.

When food inflation and fuel inflation are screwing the aam admi, when Maoist violence is shining a light on planning in the tribal areas, when farmer suicides are going on unabated, when bureaucratic redtape has made India the worst business destination in Asia, the nation decides to decorate the deputy chairman of the planning commission with a Padma Vibhushan!

For what, pursuing growth at all costs?

Question #4: By rewarding a fellow-traveller, has Manmohan Singh sent the clearest signal yet that he may not be around as prime minister this time next year to do the needful?

History might not give a rat’s posterior to the Padma Vibhushan, but it will surely remember neo-liberal Montek’s neo-conservative George W. Bush moment last week.

Just like the US former president blamed the global food crisis in 2007 on hungry Indians eating more, Montek observed that “the high inflation number points towards people eating healthier food, better lifestyles“.

As the food expert, Devinder Sharma writes:

“Montek Singh Ahluwalia has been at the helm of India’s planning process for quite some time now. It is during his tenure as the deputy chairman of the planning commission that India has been pushed deeper and deeper into the quagmire of poverty. With the largest population of hungry in the world, the Global Hunger Index 2010 has placed India in the pit.

“I wasn’t therefore shocked when I read Ahluwalia blame the hungry for the rise in food inflation. From someone who literally lives in the ivory tower of the Yojana Bhawan, anything can be expected. But what, of course, surprised me was the audacity with which he blamed the poor and hungry in the rural countryside for the rising inflation.”

And for this Marie Antoinette-esque moment, we decorate the deputy chairman of the planning commission with a Padma Vibhushan? WTF.

WTF, as in Who The Fuck is Alice, yaar.

Question #5: By goofing up with Sant Singh Chatwal one year and Montek Singh Ahluwalia the next, surely something is rotten in the Singh Parivar?

Of course, similar questions can be asked about some of the other business choices on the 2011 list: like, is there some rule that everybody on the Infosys board should get a Padma honour (as evidenced by the choice of “Kris Gopalakrishnan, for what?) Or, what really is ICICI bank chief Chanda Kochhar‘s stellar contribution?

It’s just that Montek Singh Ahluwalia gets our goat nicely, thank you.

Also read: A Padma Bhushan for K.V. Kamath?

A Padma Bhushan for the BGS swamiji?

Why Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt must decline Padma Sri

The vital stats that Viveka Babajee’s death hid

1 July 2010

P. Sainath, the Magsaysay Award-winning rural affairs editor of The Hindu, says the media did a poor job of explaining the impact of the recent fuel price hike on the poor while it expended time and space on the suicide of “supermodel” Viveka Babajee.

Delivering the silver jubilee lecture on “Mass Media: But where are the Masses?” at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Sainath says:

“In the last 15 years, everything that has become a convenience to the upper middle-class has become cheaper. You take air tickets, computers, cars etc…they are all affordable for us. But in this same period rice, wheat, electricity, water, etc. has become 300-500 per cent more expensive for the poor. Why is this not reflected in the media?

“Today newspapers have no labour correspondent, housing or primary education correspondent. We are explicitly telling 70 per cent of this country that they don’t matter to us”

Read the full story: ‘Media has lost its sense of priorties’

Also read: ‘Is media in denial on Indian recession?’

’80% of Indian journalism is stenography’

‘Indian media doesn’t cover 70% of population’

India’s best editors, wiser than rest together?

24 October 2009

rajdeepNew

Via Twitter, CNN-IBN editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai, names the “most outstanding election analysts across channels” on counting day, October 22. His verdict: Kumar Ketkar, editor of the Marathi daily Loksatta, and Palagummi Sainath, rural affairs editor of The Hindu, both of whom were on CNN-IBN.

“Wiser than all Delhi editors put together,” says Sardesai, whose own election show had the usual sprinkling of said “Delhi editors”, who also appeared on CNN-IBN.

Ahem.

Also read: Don’t ask me, ask her. Don’t ask me, ask him

Why Rajdeep, Barkha must decline Padma Shri

India’s best editors? Just press ‘Click’

Not the land of the cow, land of the holy cows

How much is Rs 30 crore per hour for two years?

17 August 2009

With a drought that everybody loves around the bend, P. Sainath of The Hindu tears into the hypocrisy of a national discourse that wails about “fiscal imprudence” when farmers are waived off loans of Rs 70,000 crore but applauds when Rs 130,000 crore of concessions are doled out to the “corporate mob”:

“Let’s take only what the budget tells us (Annexure 12, Table 12, p.58). Income foregone in 2007-08 due to direct tax concessions was Rs. 62,199 crore. That foregone on excise duty was Rs. 87,468 crore. And on customs duty Rs. 1,53,593 crore. That adds up to Rs. 3,03,260 crore.

“Even if we drop export credit from this, it comes to well over Rs. 200,000 crore. For 2008-09, that figure would be over Rs. 300,000 crore. That is a very conservative estimate. It does not include all manner of subsidies and rate cuts and other freebies to the corporate sector. But it’s big enough.

“Simply put, the corporate world has grabbed concessions in just two years that total more than seven times the ‘fiscally imprudent’ farm loan waiver. In fact, it means that on average we have been feeding the corporate world close to Rs. 700 crore every day in those two years.

“Imagine calculating what this figure would be, in total, since 1991. (Er.., what’s the word for the bracket above ‘trillion?’) Ask for an expansion of the NREGS, seek universal access to the PDS, plead for more spending on public health and education — and there’s no money. Yet, there’s enough to give away nearly Rs 30 crore an hour to the corporate world in concessions.”

Read the full article: Drought of justice, flood of funds

Link via Anand V.

Also read: ’80% of Indian journalism is stenography’

‘Indian media doesn’t cover 70% of population’

Not by P. Sainath: Everybody loves a good IT sop

‘India is a nation of two planets: rich and poor’

Carper’s Index: Can crorepatis relate to crores?

10 June 2009

Number of ministers in Manmohan Singh council: 79

Number of ministers from Lok Sabha: 64

Number of ministers from Rajya Sabha: 15

***

Number of crorepati ministers from Lok Sabha: 47 out of 64

Total assets of ministers of  UPA team: Rs 5 billion or Rs 500 crore

Average worth of each MP in 15th Lok Sabha: Rs 5.1 crore

Average assets of each minister: Rs 75 million or Rs 7.5 crore

***

Number of Indians who get by with less than Rs 20 a day: 836 million

Rise in price of rice between 2004-08: 45 per cent

Rise in price of wheat between 2004-08: 60 per cent

***

P. Sainath in The Hindu:

“In a complex and layered verdict driven by many factors, one factor seems clear: most governments that stressed welfarish measures—particularly cheap rice and employment—gained in last month’s election results. This was regardless of which party was leading them–the Congress, the BJP, the BJD, the DMK or any other. Some of these measures might not have led to large numbers of people going out to vote for those governments. But they at least  lowered hostility levels amongst the voters in a hungry nation.”

Read the full article: Price of rice, price of power

Also read: Everybody loves a good number: 93, 77, 54, 33…

Everybody loves a good ‘poor voter turnout’

Everybody loves a good “poor voter turnout”

4 May 2009

The poor turnout in “literate” constituencies like Bangalore South and Bombay South has left everyone confused. OTOH, many point to the futility of the media-entertainment-industry campaign to get the “educated middle class” out, post “26/11″. OTOH, there are some like M.J. Akbar who believe it is not the rich who did not vote, but the poor.

P. Sainath in The Hindu is, however, very sure:

“On the whole, slumdogs vote in larger numbers than the white-ribbon, candlelight crowds do…. Generally, the poor vote in greater numbers. (The rich capture governments by other means.) The poor usually want to use the vote. It is the one instrument of democracy they get to exercise….

“[In contrast] there is, face it, the apathy of the comfortable. Those who might well explode in drawing-room or television studio outrage about high taxes and 26/11. But who see no real need to fiddle with the status quo. The comfort zone classes exist and are more urban than rural.

“There is also, for the non-comfort zone classes, the small matter of issues. When last did the problems of food price rise, BPL cards, or ration quotas, dominate campaigns in either the Lok Sabha or the State Assembly polls? Or those of, sanitation, water, housing, demolitions and jobs? For millions in India’s megapolis, as elsewhere, these are very real issues.”

Photograph: via Flickr

Read the full article: Celeb crusades and the death of politics

Also read: An epitaph to the literate, educated middle-class

61% vs 51%: so much noise for so little impact?

Is Indian media in denial on Indian recession?

20 April 2009

P. Sainath, the Magsaysay Award-winning rural affairs editor of The Hindu, writes in today’s paper:

“At least two major newspapers have informed their desks that the word “recession” is not to be used in connection with India. Recession is something that happens in the United States, not here. The word stands exiled from the editorial lexicon. If a rather disastrous situation has somehow to be indicated, the term “downturn” or “slowdown” will suffice — and it is to be used with some discretion. But not recession….

“Now many of the publications and channels into this kind of evasion have also been laying off employees in droves, including several journalists. Those poor souls (many with large home loan EMIs contracted when the economy was in even less of a “downturn” than it is now) are losing their jobs because of — well, whatever.

“Imagine you were one of them, working at the desk, filtering copy for your readers to reassure them that all is well. In the evening, you’re exorcising the columns of the ghosts of recession. Next afternoon, you find you are a victim of what you’ve purged. The hypocrisy of the media in acting the opposite of what they tell their audiences is the reality — gee, that’s part of business strategy. Scare the public and there will be less spending. Which means less advertising, less revenue, less etc.”

Read the full article: No issues: a recession of the intellect

Link via V.Anand

Should we really ‘learn’ from the United States?

11 December 2008

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The terror attack on The Taj Mahal Hotel and The Oberoi-Trident in Bombay—not so much the attack on the Victoria Terminus, though—has seen an explosion of middle-class machismo.

At one level, there is a verbal outrage against the political class as evidenced from TV studio discussions, candle light rallies, and posters and placards. At another level is the slight suggestion of the frustration brimming over.

“Enough is enough,” has been the battle cry on several lips, demanding “action” (short hand for a military strike short of war).

But a dominant strand of discussion has been the United States’ response to the attack on the World Trade Centre towers.  “See how well they have guarded themselves. There has not been an attack on their soil for seven years,” is a line that trips off tongues with effortless ease.

“Look at tiny Israel. See how they protect themselves.”

Really?

***

P. Sainath, in today’s Hindu, attacks the notion that India should “learn” from the United States about how to respond to the appalling slaughter in Bombay:

“Look at the USA,” goes the refrain, “after 9/11 has there been another attack on the US?”

“This knocks at the doors of insanity. The US “response” does stand out as worth learning from. There is very little it did not get wrong.

“It launched two wars, one against a country that had not a single link to the events of 9/11. Close to a million human beings have lost their lives in that response. That includes 4,000 US troops in Iraq and nearly 1,000 in Afghanistan. That is apart from several hundred thousand Iraqis losing their lives. Countless Afghans die each month, as one of the world’s poorest States sinks deeper into devastation. Millions have suffered dislocation and deprivation….

“There are other lessons. Almost every week now, the US bombs some part of Pakistan—its firm ally of decades. Civilians are routinely killed by this…. The media too have much to learn. The “embedded journalism” that disgraced some of America’s leading media institutions…. The damage of whipped up hysteria with the United States…. The barbaric prison camp at Guantanamo from where several prisoners have been released as innocent after years of brutal torture.

“Inside the United States, the curbing of civil liberties—a vital 9/11 response—was at its worst since the McCarthy period. The Patriot Act was just one symbol of these. And Geroge W. Bush now ranks among the most despised US Presidents of all time. “

Read the full article: Why the United States got it wrong

Quick, spot the real face of India that is Bharat

27 August 2008

Amitabh Bachchan, of course, thinks that India is no longer a third-world country; that it is a developed one. But have economic reforms—the process of liberalistion, globalisation and privatisation that began in 1991—reduced poverty?

The World Bank’s latest estimates of global poverty show that every third poor person in the world lives in rising, shining India. Of the total 1.4 billion global poor, 33 per cent are here. Worse, poverty came down much faster between 1981 and 1990, than between 1991 and 2005.

According to the new estimates, 828 million people (or 75.6% of India’s population) live on less than $2 a day (approximately Rs 80). In contrast, in sub-Saharan Africa, 551 million people (or 72.2% of population) live on less than $2 a day.

1980: 421 million (60% of population) live on less than $1.25 (approximately Rs 50) a day mark

1990: 436 million (51% of population)

1999: 447 million (45% of population)

2005: 456 million people (42% of population)

Map: courtesy earthtrends; data from World Bank working paper 2003

Also read: Everybody loves a good number: 93, 77, 54, 33…

‘Rising India’s share of world’s poorest is growing’

Indians should never ask where on earth Gabon is

Is India still a developing, third world country?

23 August 2008

Amitabh Bachchan in The Telegraph, Calcutta:

London, August 22: India should no longer be dismissed as a “Third World” country but should henceforth be given due respect as a “developed nation”, Amitabh Bachchan, said in London yesterday….

No doubt, economists will protest that India combines extremes of wealth and poverty, but Bachchan stated: “India today is a recognised force and I hope to see that India is no longer referred to as a Third World country or a developing nation – it should be referred to as a developed nation and a first (world country).”

Read the full article: ‘India a developed country’

Illustration: courtesy Bafta

Also read: Indians should never ask where on earth Gabon is

P. SAINATH: India is a nation of two planets: rich and poor

U.R. RAO: Rising India’s share of poorest is growing

Everybody loves a good number: 93, 77, 54, 33…

Are you a part of the 1%—or the other 99%?

19 May 2008

Neerja Chowdhury in The New Indian Express:

“Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly described Maoist violence as the biggest internal security threat, and today from 55 districts they, Naxals or Maoists, have spread to 175 districts, almost one-third of the country and this should be a cause for worry….

“We also have to look at why 77 per cent of Indians spend less than Rs 20 a day, which is a figure put out by the government appointed Unorganised Sector Commission’s report and which the government has not denied. We have the 61st round of the NSSO—another government body—tell us that only 1% of Indians spend more than Rs 80 a day.

“Even if this sounds exaggerated and does not take into account black incomes, the figures are mindbogglingly huge and are in stark contrast to the other reality of India—its billionaires going up from 25 to 48. With some of the growing restiveness at the ground level, some of it taking the shape of Maoist or SIMI-supported violenc, the chickens are coming home to roost.”

Read the full article: Blind to citizens’ angst

Also read: Everybody loves a good number: 93, 77, 54, 33

Rising India’s share of the poorest is growing

Indians should never ask where on earth Gabon is

Anyone here with an open mind & reads English?

4 May 2008

Palagummi Sainath has been the stalwart correspondent of our times. In an era of “feel-good” journalism, the Hindu‘s rural affairs editor has an been unapologetic harbinger of drought, disease, despair and death from parts of Bharat that the Indian mass media can’t reach, won’t reach, and no longer wants to reach.

At the same time, Sainath has also been sharply critical of the mass media’s methods, priorities, skillsets and doublespeak—its disconnect from mass reality, its loss of compassion and outrage, its chase of the trivial and the frivolous that will fetch advertising lucre.

But, quod erat demonstrandum, few in the English hack-pack, have had the intellectual stamina (or editorial freedom) to attempt a counterpoint to Sainath’s blistering barbs. Is the agrarian crisis the only story the media must follow all the time? Is it so wrong to be interested in the stock markets? Is the media doing nothing right? Are reforms a bad thing merely because Sainath says so?

London-based journalist Salil Tripathi wrote a much-required piece for Mint, the business daily of the Hindustan Times last week, in which he raised precisely those questions. (Reproduced here with the author’s permission)

***

By SALIL TRIPATHI

The foreign correspondent Edward Behr had titled one of his books Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? It pithily shows journalistic callousness, where reporters hardened by tragedy cannot respond in a humane way to a crisis. But it is one thing to be moved, quite another to be moved by the idea of being moved. And honest reporters try to avoid falling into that trap by reporting facts, letting them speak for themselves.

A journalist is supposed to be good at observing facts, reporting them accurately and objectively, and telling stories. A journalist is not a post-trauma counsellor, therapist, medical assistant, or someone who can compensate victims financially or represent them legally.

Accepting this circumscribed role requires humility: Journalists are neither qualified nor elected to play roles requiring different skills. And yet, in a scathing indictment, distinguished journalist P. Sainath has criticized his colleagues for their lack of outrage and compassion over India’s rural crisis, and for paying attention to frivolous stories, such as fashion shows.

In a recent address before the Editors’ Guild of India, the Magsaysay Award-winning journalist said the media is charmed by frivolity because of a fundamental disconnect between mass media and mass reality. The poor, he argued, are structurally shut out from the media. Corporate agendas dictate the media, and the institution has become more elitist than the other estates of democracy—the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

To be sure, the Indian media is not infallible. But if newspapers fail to serve readers, the market will fix the problem, and more serious alternatives will emerge (as indeed they have).

By juxtaposing a fashion event with the Vidarbha farmers’ suicides, Sainath is pitting the so-called India against Bharat, or “shining” India ­versus “declining” India.

Far from solving any problem, it accentuates an unnecessary divide.

The tragedy of farmers’ deaths cannot be denied. But on a scale of outrage and compassion, is it the most important story of the day?

What about the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster, or the oustees of the dams on the Narmada river? Or the Sikh survivors of post-Indira Gandhi assassination massacres in 1984? Or the victims of the Gujarat pogrom, a group I feel compassion for, after the failure of Narendra Modi’s administration to protect civilians?

Who, if not the Indian media, kept those stories alive?

In any case, how sound was Sainath’s analysis of rural India and the solutions he offered? Was the narrative, in each case, one of debt-ridden farmers, driven by hunger and poverty, taking their lives? But then, in The Times of India, earlier in April, Mohammed Wajihuddin wrote of alleged murders passed off as suicides to get compensation from the state, making real the morbid fears of perverse incentives the government’s compensation package created. Economists had already pointed out potential moral hazard by loan waivers; few had predicted that the word “moral” would be in its original, and not economic, sense.

Sainath also lamented that eight million people have given up farming in the past decade, and many are looking for urban jobs “that are not there”. Really? As the informal sector of unorganized workers is far larger—and undocumented—on what basis can one conclude that there are no jobs for migrant labour in towns and cities? And what’s wrong with a few million farmers giving up farming?

Many economists have shown that Indian farm productivity is low because the land-holdings are too small, making efficient farming unviable. There are too many Indians trying to work as farmers and many would prefer to do something else. The land is not productive; agriculture’s share of India’s wealth is declining, and the sector is not growing rapidly. A transition to services or industry is a good thing.

Finally, Sainath returned to his perennial theme, rural hunger. He said that per capita availability of certain foodgrains had declined, implying that farmers committing suicide was a tragic consequence. He said, “The availability of foodgrain has fallen from 510g a day in 1991 to 422g in 2005—a fall of 88g for one billion people for 365 days a year! That means your average family is consuming 100kg less of foodgrain than it consumed a decade ago. Where is your outrage?”

My outrage is over questionable statistics. As economist Surjit Bhalla showed in response to an earlier Sainath assertion, food consumption per capita has risen. As Indians have prospered, they are eating different types of food—not coarse cereals, but fish, meat, eggs and milk. In a 2007 study in the Economic and Political Weekly, Praduman Kumar, Mruthyunjaya and Madan M. Dey concluded that food consumption in India was moving towards higher-value commodities.

Maybe those reforms are working. Anyone here with an open mind and reads English?

Also read: The first casualty of a cosy deal is credibility

’80 per cent of Indian journalism is stenography’

28 April 2008

P. Sainath, the Magsaysay Award-winning rural affairs editor of The Hindu, at the Rajendra Mathur memorial lecture organised by the Editors’ Guild of India, says the moral universe of the India media has shifted; outrage and compassion among journalists has died.

“One, the fundamental feature of the media of our times is the growing disconnect between the mass media and the mass reality. Two, there is a structural shutout of the poor in the media. Three, there is a corporate hijack of media agendas. Four, of the so-called four estates of democracy, media is the most exclusive and the most elitist.

“The moral universe of the media has shifted. Two things have died-outrage and compassion. You have a lot of drawing-room outrage, but not over issues that moved earlier generations of journalists. The structural shutout of the poor is evident in the way beats are organised in newspapers.

“How many national media journalists were covering the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha? There were six. But there were 512 journalists covering the Lakme Fashion Week in Bombay.

“There is journalism and there is stenography; 80 per cent of journalism you are reading or viewing today is stenography. Everyone knows there is a crisis of credit. Thanks to the loan waiver. How many of your newspapers or channels have told you that the guys who are claiming that they have expanded credit have closed down 4,750 bank branches in the last 15 years?”

Read the abridged text of the lecture: The terrible steno

Also read: ‘Indian media doesn’t cover 70 per cent of the population’

‘India is a nation of two planets: the rich and the poor’

Link via Anand V.

‘Indian media doesn’t cover 70% of population’

28 March 2008

The Magsaysay Award-winning rural affairs editor of The Hindu, Palagummi Sainath, continues his one-man crusade against the growing disconnect between mass media and mass reality.

At the launch of the website of Janashakthi, a Kannada weekly, in Bangalore on Thursday, Sainath said:

# Media is disconnected with 70 per cent of the population and is not talking to them. During elections, it is these 70 per cent who make news. During such time, all the opinion polls will be washed away due to huge under current of these voters.

# Except one TV channel and one newspaper in the whole country, not one media organisation thought Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar admission in Parliament that about 1.6 lakh farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2007, was news.

# Mass media even failed to report the outcome of a house-to-house survey of farmers, conducted by the Maharashtra government, which revealed that 2 million farming families were in a highly distressed state

# Indian media is giving importance only for the “elite” section of society. 512 media representatives cover a week-long fashion show held every year in Bombay, while six representatives of the national media do not wish to stay in villages to study and report the causes of farmers’ suicide in the Vidharabha region.

# Budget announcement of waiving of farm loans of over Rs. 50,000 crore has been described as “unprecedented” in the mass media, when such concessions were being given to the corporate sector every year.

# While the media spoke about the farmers and there were panel discussion on television channels, there were no farmers or somebody who knew about farming on the panel.

Read the full stories: ‘Farmers’ crisis not represented in media’

‘Media is away from reality’

Also read: ‘A media politically free but chained by profits’

‘Take big steps, urgent steps, fast-paced steps’

‘Conventional journalism serves the powerful’

Announcement: P. Sainath lecture on media

24 March 2008

P. Sainath, the Magsaysay Award winning rural affairs editor of The Hindu, will deliver a lecture on the media in Bangalore on Thursday, 27 March 2008. The lecture has been organised by the cultural tabloid Janashakti.

The venue is the Senate hall of Central College. The time is 4 pm.

Also read: ‘A media politically free but chained by profits’

‘Take big steps, urgent steps, fast-paced steps’

‘Conventional journalism serves the powerful’

If you give it to them, you must give it to us too

11 March 2008

P. Chidambaram‘s waiver of farm loans in the Union budget has raised more questions than it has provided answers. Why did the government wait for four years before acting? Who will foot the Rs 60,000 crore bill? Will it really stave off suicides, especially when 60 per cent of all farm loans are from private moneylenders? Will it translate into votes for the United Progressive Alliance in the next elections, as Sonia and Rahul Gandhi seem to think? And so on.

But what the reactions to the write-off does is to expose how deep the divide is between urban, Incredible India and rural Atulya Bharat; between industrial and agricultural, pro-reforms and anti-reforms. Despite 17 years of liberalisation neither side has any room in its heart for the other. The demise of Nehruvian socialism, it seems, is seeing the Nehruvian middle ground dissolve before our eyes into an either-or, “My way or the highway” slugfest.

Former Procter & Gamble India head Gurcharan Das, with all his eggs in the LPG (liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation) basket, writes in The Sunday Times of India that to win an election, the UPA government doesn’t mind a whole nation becoming dishonest:

“Human society is based on trust. When an ordinary person takes a loan, he feels duty bound to repay it. He will even sell his family’s jewellery to fulfill his promise. This is because we learned as children from our mothers to keep promises. Tulsidas’ ideal, praan jaye par vachan na jaye was held up to us as a moral ideal. We admire Karna in the Mahabharata for not switching sides because he had given his word to Duryodhana. This loan waiver wounds that moral universe. It tells the farmer not to bother to repay his next loan, because, who knows, another party will be in power and it, too, will cancel his debts. What message does this send to the honest village woman who struggles every week to repay her micro-loan?”

At the other end of the spectrum is P. Sainath, the Magsaysay Award winning rural affairs editor of The Hindu. He writes of the irony of the Vidarbha farmers whose plight resulted in the waiver not being its beneficiaries, of the anomalies of the size criteria and land classification. But he uses the opportunity to twist a knife into the Doubting Dases.

“Is the waiver ‘unprecedented’? Each year, nationalised banks write off thousands of crores of rupees as bad debt. Mostly money owed by small numbers of rich businessmen. And theirs is not a ‘one-time waiver.’ It is a write-off that recurs every year. Between 2000-04, banks wrote off over Rs. 44,000 crore. Mostly, this favoured a tiny number of wealthy people. One ‘beneficiary’ was a Ketan Parekh group company that saw Rs 60 crore knocked off. However, those ‘waivers’ are done quietly. In 2004, last year of the NDA, such write-offs went up by 16 per cent. Such ‘waivers’ have not slowed down since 2004.

“And all this is apart from the annual Rs. 40,000 crore ‘giveaway’ to the rich, mainly corporate India. That has been the average in the budget every single year for over a decade. Then there are the straight handouts. No one knows how many thousands of crores are lost by handing out spectrum the way it’s being done. But we know it’s a staggering amount. Tot up the ‘tax holidays,’ exemptions and the rest of it and you’re looking at sums that make the ‘unprecedented’ one-time farm loan waiver look like loose change.”

Also read: CHURUMURI POLL: Farm loan waiver: right or wrong?

‘A creative, courageous, committed editor’

2 February 2008

SUDHEENDRA KULKARNI writes from Bombay: When someone who is very close to you, or occupied an important place at some time in your life, passes away, do you somehow remember the person just before the tragic news reaches you?

It happened to me yesterday afternoon. On a cold but sunny day in Delhi, I was sitting with a senior journalist and discussing, among other things, Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s strongly critical views on Islamist fanaticism and separatism.

I said, “One of my most satisfying works in journalism was a series of six articles on Dr Ambedkar’s harsh critique of Pakistan, which I wrote for Blitz.” As I said it, I remembered Russy Karanjia, the legendary editor of Blitz, where I worked as his deputy, and a profound feeling of gratitude crossed my mind. “What a wonderful editor he was,” I exclaimed to myself, “and how much freedom he gave me to express my views.”

Within a few minutes, I received an SMS from a good friend and former colleague: “Mr Karanjia has passed away.”

The news made me numb.

Karanjia. One of the greatest names in Indian journalism. Owner-editor of what was once the most popular weekly in India. A tabloid that did what its name suggested—a journalistic blitzkrieg, week after week, with its sensational news reports. Free, Frank and Fearless. That’s how Blitz described itself, and lived up to its self-description.

Neither Karanjia nor Blitz are names that ring a bell among readers belonging to the younger generation, because the weekly folded up in the mid-1990s and Karanjia, who always liked to be in the limelight, disappeared from public view nearly a decade ago, confined to his ocean-front apartment on Marine Drive in Bombay. But there was a time—and it stretched for nearly four decades beginning with the 1940s—when young and old alike, even in the remotest parts of India, used to queue up before newspaper stalls to buy their copy of Blitz.

This was partly because there weren’t so many newspapers and magazines those days, nor TV news channels. But a far bigger reason for the popularity of Blitz (which was published in English, Hindi and Urdu, each edition selling in lakhs) was Karanjia’s unique brand of tabloid journalism—irreverent and investigative in news (readers used to wonder how Karanjia routinely attacked the Congress party and its governments, and yet managed to be on extremely friendly terms with Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi), radical and idealistic in views (with an unmistakable leftist and pro-Soviet orientation, which was the intellectual flavour of the time) and never lacking in a little bit of titillation.

It is because of the last ingredient that Karanjia was often accused, wrongly and unfairly, of indulging in “yellow journalism” by those in the profession who were jealous of his success.

Blitz courageously and creatively espoused many worthy causes. Apart from Karanjia himself, this contribution to socially committed journalism came, first, from Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, the celebrated writer and film-maker (his Saat Hindustani marked Amitabh Bachchan’s entry into Hindi cinema) who wrote the immensely popular ‘Last Page’ column, and later from P. Sainath, who worked as deputy editor for over a decade. Sainath later became one of India’s best-known writers on rural poverty, doing Karanjia proud by recently winning the Magsaysay award.

In the last phase of his journalistic career, he became increasingly disillusioned with communism and the Communist’s anti-Hindu secularism. Simultaneously, he became a strong sympathiser of the BJP and the Ayodhya movement. It was then that he insisted I replace Sainath as deputy editor and give a new, pro-Hindu orientation to Blitz.

I did this with commitment and conviction as expected from my editor. This, of course, shocked his Communist friends who accused him of saffronising Blitz. But Karanjia stood his ground. He was never dogmatic in his support of the Left and as early as 1976, he became an ardent devotee of Sathya Sai Baba. He later wrote a book on yoga.

It was around this time that I accompanied him to a meeting with L.K. Advani, along with R.V. Pandit, a common friend and another fearless publisher. Karanjia was so enthused after that meeting with Advani that he agreed to come as a special guest at the national council meeting of the BJP in Bangalore where he declared his support to the Ayodhya movement.

Karanjia was born in 1912 in Quetta, now in Pakistan, which has produced another great Parsi name in journalism —Ardeshir Cowasjee, the celebrated columnist of Dawn. A journalist who started his career as a war correspondent for a British paper during World War II (hence the name Blitz), he founded Blitz in 1941. Its first issue came out on February 1, exactly the day he breathed his last 67 years later, at age 95.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Blitz was Karanjia’s life, his passion, his mission. He made history with it. Interestingly, Wayside Inn, the famous (and now-extinct) restaurant near Kala Ghoda, where the decision to launch Blitz was taken over a cup of tea by a group of three young and fiercely patriotic journalists—B.V. Nadkarni and Benjamin Horniman—was also the place where history was made for another, grander, reason: Dr. Ambedkar wrote the first draft of the Indian Constitution here.

Like all Parsis, Karanjia was kind-hearted and gentle to the core. He served India with devotion and passion. About Parsis, Mahatma Gandhi had said, “In their number, they are beneath contempt. In their contribution to the nation, they are beyond compare.” Russy K. Karanjia, you were, indeed, beyond compare. You touched my life, just as you touched the lives of millions of Indians.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni is former media advisor to prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani)

Photograph: courtesy Mid-Day

Also read: The Russy Karanjia obituaries

A farmers’ bugbear trumps a farmers’ bandhu

27 January 2008

ASHWINI A. writes from Bangalore: Artists and artistes have angled for it; bureaucrats have gone on bended knees for it; industrialists have moved mountains for it. Lobbying, self-promotion, chamchagiri, proximity, friendship, favouritism, nepotism, caste, region, religion, language—everything counts in the Great Padma Race.

Sometimes, when none of that works, the truly deserving get it.

So, let’s not bury ourselves in the burroughs of our mind pretending that the Congress-led UPA government has done something new or unheard of. If, for all its sanctimony, the BJP-led NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee could hand it to the surgeon who operated on his knee, it shows that there are no angels in the nanga hamaam.

Still, a nation subliminally reveals itself in the kind of people it chooses to drape the tricolour around. And, in the process, a government reveals how its mind works in the way it goes about it.

So, whilst we may blow hot air over whether N.R. Narayana Murthy should have been chosen for the Padma Vibhushan the same calendar year he “insulted” the national anthem, and whether a one-hit wonder like Manoj Night Shyamalan should have got the Padma Shri, there is one unmissable irony in the UPA list.

And it is this: P. Sainath, the pioneering journalist who implanted the plight of our farmers on the national consciousness, has been ignored. And K.V. Kamath, whose ICICI Bank has played a stellar in the deaths of so many debt-ridden farmers, has been recognised with a Padma Bhushan.

No to Sainath, yes to Kamath: how’s that for a cocktail coalition that came to power on the aam admi‘s shoulders and is forever announcing farmers’ packages!?

As it is, the omission of a journalism giant like Sainath from the honours’ list is surprising when relative gnomes in the profession like Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt are on it. It reveals the kind of visibility that the mandarins of New Delhi prefer, despite all the pre-poll rhetoric about “reforms with a human face”.

But even if that can be explained as a savvy, politically correct move to give television its due with elections around the corner, it is the Sainath-Kamath disconnect that is the more striking.

True, Kamath has been a visionary banker, who in the space of a decade has created a global giant that is snapping at the heels of State Bank of India. But what is ICICI Bank’s record and reputation despite all its growth and profits? It is the byword for banking thuggery and each day it sets ever lower standards.

It hires goondas and criminals to recover money from loan defaulters. It employs thugs to flex their muscle and take away cars at traffic signals if they miss an EMI. Its foul-mouthed “executives” call customers in the middle of the night and mouth obscenities to housewives to break them down.

Government workers with a Rs 15,000 loan have died, unable to bear the physical torture. And dozens of debt-ridden farmers have eaten pesticides, unable to bear the humiliation. No single bank has prompted the Supreme Court and Reserve Bank of India more in issuing fresh guidelines than Kamath’s ICICI.

For this, we decorate him with the Padma Bhushan?

Is this the Manmohan Singh government’s way of running with the farming hares and hunting with the banking hounds?

In the opposite corner is Palagummi Sainath, whose reports in the last decade and a half on the plight of farmers and the myriad issues confronting the farming community, post-liberalisation, have shamed governments, exposed the bureaucracy, and stirred the conscience of the public.

A man whom Amartya Sen describes as “one of the world’s greatest experts on famine and hunger.”

In 2006, when Manmohan Singh was going to Vidarbha to announce a package for India’s worst-affected farming belt, he invited not his agriculture minister or some IAS officer but Sainath to brief him. Yet, when it comes to a civilian honour, a bugbear of farmers gets the nod over the benefactor of farmers.

Maybe, Sainath was asked, but he said no.

Maybe, but how likely considering that he has had no qualms in receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award among several others?

Still, a civilian honour for a CEO whose bank has institutionalised criminal ways for loan recovery reveals more than a little on how the “system” works. And the lack of civilian recognition for a missionary journalist, whom the world honours, for writing about the trials, troubles and tribulations of those who feed us, tells its own story.

But, maybe it’s a good thing Sainath is not on the list.

On a list dotted with bold-face corporate names like Ratan Tata and Lakshmi Mittal, Suresh Neotia (Gujarat Ambuja) and Shiv Nadar (HCL), Baba Kalyani (Bharat Forge) and Vikram Pandit (Citigroup), Amit Mitra (FICCI) and Colette Mathur (World Economic Forum), Sainath would have looked very odd indeed.

Maybe. But how likely?

Photographs: courtesy The Hindu (Kamath); Sadanand Menon (Sainath)

Also read: Wish good night to K.V. Kamath and his whizkids

SUDHEENDRA KULKARNI on P. Sainath: ‘Take big steps, urgent steps, fast-paced steps’

Does death not count if it is not due to terrorism?

Yesterday’s caste is today’s struggle for equality

18 January 2008

P. SAINATH in The Hindu:

“A signal achievement of the Indian elite in recent years has been to take caste, give it a fresh coat of paint, and repackage it as a struggle for equality….

“Casteism is no longer in defensive denial the way it once was. (“Oh, caste? That was 50 years ago, now it barely exists.”) Today, it asserts that caste is killing the nation—but its victims are the upper castes. And the villains are the lower orders who crowd them out of the seats and jobs long held by those with merit in their genes….

“How many upper caste men have had their eyes gouged out for marrying outside their caste? How many higher caste bastis have been torched and razed in land or other disputes?

“How many upper caste folk lose a limb or even their lives for daring to enter a temple? How many Brahmins or Thakurs get beaten up, even burnt alive, for drawing water from the village well?

“How many from those whose “privileges are dwindling” have to walk four kilometres to fetch water? How many upper caste groups are forced to live on the outskirts of the village, locked into an eternal form of indigenous apartheid?”

Read the full article here: Discrimination for dummies

Also read: Never quite top of the heap, now even lower

‘Rising India’s share of the poorest is growing’

12 January 2008

126th among 193 nations in Human Development Report.
133rd on the quality of life index.
39 per cent of adult population illiterate.
35 per cent living below the poverty line.
25 per cent without access to safe drinking water.
60 per cent without access to sanitation.

In rising, shining, leading India id est Bharat, nothing is what is seems, or is made to seem, in spite of a 9.5 per cent GDP growth last year or a 8.5 per cent growth rate this year.

Prof U.R. Rao, former chairman of the space commission, in Deccan Herald:

“While stating that the population below the poverty line has significantly decreased since 1980, what is forgotten is that the actual number of BPL population has practically remained the same at about 375 million, while it has decreased from 1470 million to 970 million across the world.

“In other words, India’s share of poorest people in the world which was about 25 per cent in 1980 has now increased to 39 per cent.”

Read the full article: Tackling rising poverty: ominous signs

P. SAINATH: Don’t ever ask where on earth Gabon is

‘India’s a nation of two planets: the rich and the poor’


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