Saturday, 16 December 2017

TRAVEL ADVISORY : STAY AT HOME.


    At 67 I'm well past my sell-by date and would be difficult to off-load even at a discount sale for grandmothers. Notwithstanding this, however, I'm fairly active and " vigorous", to borrow a word famously used by Mr. Virbhadra Singh a few years ago. I walk three miles every morning, and till some time back two more in the evening with my Golden Retriever who, sadly, is now in canine heaven ( not to be confused with bovine heaven which is near Gorakhpur). I liked travelling the length, breadth and filth of our great country but have now decided to give it up and stay parked in my Patparganj flat. Travelling has become just too dangerous these days.
   Earlier, I used to drive up from Delhi to my cottage in Mashobra a few times every year. Not any more, for a number of reasons. Firstly, one never knows when the sturdy Jats who straddle the national highway might suddenly wake up from their bhang induced stupor and discover that they still haven't got the reservation promised to them at the last five elections. These sturdy folks generally prefer to speak in sign language, and their default statement is the stiff finger drawn angrily across the throat, and I don't want to be around when a couple of hundred thousand of them are conversing in that manner. Their discussion last time resulted in hundreds of cars and buildings being set on fire, 36 of the more vocal debaters being killed, and Rupees 10000 crore in damage to property.
   If, however, the Jats are in slumber, you can bet the god-men of Haryana are active. Being gods, they naturally have a low opinion of the Constitution and the IPC and look askance at those who question their right to confer special favours on unwilling ladies or to use nut-crackers on disobedient disciples. Their followers express their devotion also by torching cars and travellers on the highway. The Haryana police usually arrive after this religious service is over, torch the remaining cars and beat up the surviving tourists, just to show they have an open mind on the subject. And don't forget the gau rakshaks lurking behind every cow-spat. I like carrying up frozen mutton kababs and tikkas for the evening bonfires, but I'm sure the rakshaks would take a different view if they stopped my car and discovered them in my ice-box. Given their usual SOP I'd be, quite appropriately, mince meat in an unscheduled bonfire before I could yell " Good gau-d !" No, sir, road travel is definitely out for me.
   Why not the railways, you may well ask. I've tried that too, but never manage to catch the right train. I went to Kanpur Central one day to take the Garib Rath superfast to Delhi, and to my delight found that it had arrived ten minutes before time! Unable to find my name on the reservation chart, however, I approached the TTE. " Saary, sir," he said," this is not today's train- this is yesterday's train arriving 23 hours and fifty minutes late!" In the last twenty years I've never once reached my destination at the scheduled time. Makes you wonder: why do the Railways print time tables at such great cost? And even if you do get on to the right train, chances are your right toe will have been nibbled off by a rat while you were asleep, or the expired food will give you colitis, or the dirty blanket( not washed for weeks, according to a CAG report) will bless you with mange. And if you persevere through all this, there is still the derailment or collapsed overbridge to look forward to.
   The airlines? I've done my share of flying (though, sadly, I never made it to the Mile High club) but have decided its no longer for me. There are too many risks involved. I might be arrested at the gate for carrying a cigarette lighter. I would almost certainly be refused boarding if I wasn't carrying my Aadhar card. If the baggage guy doesn't like my face( to be fair, nobody does) he may extract everything of value from my baggage and put a packet of drugs  or a bullet in my baggage. I might get beaten up on the tarmac by the ground crew, or get slapped by the Duty Manager at the counter, or shoved aside by VVIP security, all daily occurrences these days. If I do make it to my seat I might find a woman on the next seat, and that might just be the beginning of a whole new set of problems, with the omnibus charge of sexual molestation staring me in the face, especially if the lady happens to be built on a generous scale and parts of her overflow onto my seat. I'd be too scared of any meeting of minds taking place, but a meeting of the flesh would be inevitable, just a casual hello from one epidermic cell to the other- but it would be bad enough, legally speaking. Additionally, I suffer from restless leg syndrome and when asleep my legs take on a life of their own- they move, twitch, jerk, yank. The condition being gender neutral, such involuntary movements do not distinguish between male and female objects they might encounter on the seat in front. Neither does the law, unfortunately, and if the object beside me or in front of me were to complain, I'd be jail bait- homosexual advances under Sec. 377 or sexual molestation under Sec. 376.
   No, sir, its no longer safe to travel in India. I'll stay in my Delhi flat, much to the annoyance of my wife. She will, of course, want to throw me out, but that's no shit- she's been wanting to do that for forty years. I console myself that I'll be in good company, after all all great travellers- Marco Polo, Magellan, Hieun Tsang, Amundsen- at some point hung up their boots and decided to put their feet up on the dining table.. In fact Alexander the Great had one look at the hordes of bhakts across the Sutlej and quietly headed back for Delhi- sorry, Delphi. That's why he continues to be Great- had he crossed the river he would have either been road-kill, on the no-fly list or in Tihar jail.   

Saturday, 9 December 2017

INDIA'S HEALTH SECTOR NEEDS MORE GOVERNMENT, NOT LESS.


    The conventional wisdom is that the less government we have, the better. In fact, that was precisely what Mr. Modi had promised us in 2014 with his rousing " Maximum governance, minimum government." Of course, he confused governance with intrusion into our private lives, but that is the subject of another column some other day. My assertion here is that there is one sector in India to which this policy should not apply- the Health sector. If proof were needed to validate it, it has been provided by two shocking incidents  in just the last month, both in Delhi. The first was the case of the little girl who was treated for dengue in Fortis Hospital, Gurgaon; she could not be saved but her parents were nonetheless presented with a bill for Rs. 16 lakhs: this was after the parents had turned down a preposterous suggestion to do a whole body plasma transfusion at a further cost of Rs. 45 - 50 lakhs ( on a patient who was already 80% brain dead!). An " inquiry" has been ordered ( the classic cover up) but the affair is a good as closed: we shall hear no more about it. The second case occurred on the 30th of November: twins born to a mother in the Max hospital in Shalimar Bagh were declared dead immediately, packed up nicely like an Amazon prime parcel and handed over to the parents. On the way to the cremation ground, one of them was found to be moving-he was alive! ( This baby also died subsequently a week later). The AAP govt. has now cancelled the hospital's licence after an inquiry ( the order will probably be stayed and the matter will  drag on in the courts for years). The callous insensitivity of the medical fraternity was revealed on prime time TV  when the President of the Indian Medical Council put the onus on the patient/ relatives- he advised us that we should not assume death if the patient has a low body temperature or hypothermia! Why should WE assume anything, Doctor Aggarwal ? Isn't it for the people like you and the hospital to do all the assuming, specially when you charge us hundreds of thousands for it ?
    These are just cases that found their way to the news: similar stories are playing out in their hundreds everyday, in hospitals and nursing homes all over India. A sting last week by CNN-TV18 exposed how doctors and path labs collude to fleece patients and share the spoils.. Profiting has now degenerated into profiteering. The list of malpractices indulged in by the medical profession is menacingly imposing, and has been revealed by whistleblowers and NGOs such as SATHI ( Support for Advocacy and Training in Health Initiatives): commissions, failure to prescribe generic drugs,  "sink tests" by path labs where all the samples are thrown into the sink without testing and false reports generated, corporate hospitals' unwritten rule that 40% of OPD cases should be converted into admissions, unnecessary and expensive tests. Even diagnoses are deliberately distorted in order to milk a patient for all he is worth: a report by Medi-Angels, a Mumbai medical centre that offers second opinions has reported that 44% of 12500 patients advised surgery for stents, joint replacements, cancer etc. were advised against it by the second consultants. ( Most of us have our own personal horror stories about this.)
    There are reportedly 4.50 million cases of medical negligence in India every year. But the citizen has little recourse to justice, except to go the Consumer Courts which is both expensive and time consuming. Govt. policy, till now, had visualised that the medical profession would regulate itself and had established the Medical Council of India for the purpose by statute. This body, however, like most internal regulatory bodies, has been a spectacular failure; it has become the protector of the practitioners that it was supposed to regulate and monitor. I have googled incessantly to find out how many doctors it has disbarred or deregistered for negligence or malpractices- I have been unable to get any information, because in all probability it hardly ever does so. All it does is lay down ethical guidelines, conveniently forgetting that it has legal obligations to the patients too. In contrast, in the USA about 450-500 doctors lose their licence EVERY YEAR, and in the UK the figure is between 150 and 200 ( incidentally, most of them are of Indian and Pakistan origin !- not an export we should be proud of).
    The medical profession has consistently resisted any attempt by the govt. to discipline them or to cap their exorbitant charges/ fees. But ( after the Kunal Shah case in 2013 where Rs. 13.00 crore was awarded as compensation to a patient) they have been demanding a cap on the compensation award! So far they have manged to get away every time by arm twisting the govt., their strength lying in the fact that the private sector provides 80% of health care in the country. Successive govts, both at the centre and the states, are responsible for this dismal state of affairs: the state spends barely 2% of GDP on health, whereas the WHO recommendation is a minimum 5%: he who pays the piper calls the tune, and that is why doctors and corporate hospitals are humming all the way to the bank. But this has to change. Govts. have to drastically increase outlays of the health sector: the 2.50- 3.00 % promised by the Union Health Minister by 2022 is just not good enough. Self regulation has failed, the cupidity of doctors shows no sign of abating, and corporate hospitals are medical vampires who suck your blood and make you pay for it! This is one sector that requires maximum government. It is high time that the National Clinical Establishments ( Registration and Regulation) Act 2010 and the Clinical Establishment ( Central Govt.) Rules 2012 are implemented and enforced by the Center and all states . Currently only a handful of states and UTs have done so, and that too for mere registration purposes only. If implemented sincerely the Act empowers governments to deregister clinical establishments, entertain complaints, award compensation, initiate criminal cases where needed, cancel licences of  doctors, hospitals and other health related commercial facilities, fix the rates of various medical procedures ( as it already does for CGHS and EGHS members), lay down minimum standards of treatments. The MCI's mandate should be limited to advising on medical education issues, and issuing ethical guidelines ( the only thing it is good at). The health consumer has been betrayed by the medical profession and the govt. must now step up to the plate and do the right thing. It must protect the ordinary citizen and not be seen to be siding with, or succumbing to the blackmail of, these corporate profiteers. As the poet lamented:

" Inquilab-e-aasman se kyon na ho uljhan mujhe,
   Main pukaru dost ko, awaaz de dushman mujhe."    

Friday, 8 December 2017

ALLOW US TO DIE WITH DIGNITY


         [ This article was published in the New Indian Express on 6.12.2017 ]

    Responding to a PIL by the NGO Common Cause in the Supreme Court asking that the right to die with dignity be declared a fundamental right, the Union govt. has opposed the concept of a Living Will. The reason given by the  Additional Solicitor General was that “ it could be enormously misused.” This attitude is extremely regrettable, though not surprising since it is consistent with the government’s backward looking and obscurantist stand on some other progressive and liberal reforms. It had opposed the declaration of sex with a child bride as rape, it still refuses to delegitimize marital rape, and it supports the odious Section 377 of the IPC which criminalises homosexuality. It justifies this antediluvian mind-set by claiming that the peculiarities of the Indian ethos sanctify these practices or beliefs, and that Indian society cannot be trusted not to abuse good laws. This is a strange position to adopt for a country which seeks to be a superpower and leader of nations.
    A Living Will is the ultimate assertion of privacy and the desire for dignity on the part of an individual. It is an “advance medical directive” to a physician or one’s next of kin by a person of sound mind, stating his wishes for end- of- life care, in case he is unable to communicate his decisions at that point in time owing to illness or incapacitation. It specifies the type and extent of medical care he desires and appoints a person( power of attorney) to carry out his wishes or take medical decisions on his behalf. It can state, for example, that no aggressive interventions such as attachments of ventilators, heart-lung machines, intubation, dialysis, tube feeding etc. be made to keep him alive.
    The Living Will is a response to advances in medicine which can keep a person “alive” indefinitely even though he may be in a coma or in a vegetative state, brain dead, with no hope of recovery. This life support comes, however, at great financial and emotional cost to the next of kin, unnecessarily prolongs the suffering of the patient and also blocks scarce health care infrastructure which could be used for someone with a better prospect of recovery. The only gainer is an avaricious hospital system which makes more money by aggressively keeping a patient going even where there is no hope. Can we ever forget the tragic case of Aruna Shaunbag of Mumbai who remained in a coma for 42 years before God mercifully intervened? Even the higher courts did not allow the hospital to withdraw the useless life support systems and denied her the relief and release her tortured body and soul were entitled to.
    The concept of a Living Will was first mooted in the USA in 1969, and has  been accepted by most of the developed world:  USA, Australia, Canada,  UK, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland- all have framed legislation to permit it, and some have even devised standardised formats  for it to make them more legally acceptable. Adequate safeguards have been built in to avoid the kind of “misuse” our govt. is apprehensive of. A recent study in the USA revealed that 80-90% of respondents would refuse aggressive medical intervention if they were in an incapacitated state with no hope of recovery. The figure would be higher in India, given the dismal state of our health care; India is one of the worst countries to die in- the Quality of Death Index places us at 67 out of 80 countries.
     In its draft bill- The Medical Treatment of Terminally Ill Patients ( Protection of patients and medical Practitioners) Bill- the govt. expressly forbids recognition of a Living Will by providing that “ every advance medical directive( called living will) or medical power of attorney executed by a person shall be void and of no effect and shall not be binding on any medical practitioner.” Therefore, if a family of an incapacitated patient wishes to refuse life support in deference to the latter’s wishes, it will have to apply to a High Court for permission . Clearly, the govt. is confusing the Living Will with euthanasia, and not recognising that what is involved in a Living Will is not withdrawal of life support when the patient is comatose but an advance  refusal to permit it , a decision made when in full control of one’s senses and faculties. The distinction is critical, because it is the person himself deciding, not someone on his behalf. And the right to privacy and the right to a life with dignity gives him this entitlement.
    The govt’s position is just not right or compassionate. Approaching the courts (as suggested in the draft Bill ) could take months as evidenced in recent cases of abortion of rape induced pregnancies. The apprehended “misuse” of the Living Will is no justification as just about every law in India- dowry, domestic violence, sex selection, Sec. 377- is misused: that can never be a reason for rejecting a progressive legal provision. Not just constitutional, moral and ethical considerations are involved here too. One, if I can legally decide ( in a normal will) what to do with my worldly possessions, why can I not be allowed to decide what to do with a useless body that has become a curse and a source of intense suffering? Two, if the law allows me to tell a doctor to cut me open to remove a tumour or cancer to alleviate my pain, it should also allow me to tell a doctor not to touch me, and to let me die, for precisely the same reason- to end my agony. These are two sides of the coin, and I should be the one to decide which one to flip- not a disinterested government, doctor or judge.
    Medicine or law should not always be active protagonists in the process of dying- there are times when they should be simple bystanders.






Saturday, 2 December 2017

RATINGS, REVIEWS AND BEHEADINGS


    This is the season of " Ratings" when all kinds of agencies come out with their ratings and the govt. cherry picks which ones to accept and which to slam. It was all kicked off by the World Bank which breathlessly revealed that India had jumped 30 places to a rank of 100 in the "Ease of Doing Business" index. This was, of course, the same Bank which had showered encomiums on the USA in 2008-09 just before its economy collapsed in the sub-prime disaster. The index is not based on hard facts or figures but on the "expectations" of its team, the primary expectation being that the BJP will win in Gujarat and HP and therefore the Bank should ensure that its own ease of doing business is not adversely effected by a sulking govt. As is the practice with its five star hotel consultants it did not bother to consult anyone who is not on the Forbes list of Indian dollar millionaires. It also does not appear to have consulted Mr. Sanjay Leela Bhansali who is encountering quite a few problems these days in doing his business.
    Next off the block was Moody's, an eponymous name whose similarity with another name, we hope, doesn't colour its assessments. It  upgraded India from BAA3 to BAA2 ( in layman's language , from Junk to Trash status - can you spot the difference?), making hasty reparations for its adverse report on the economy just a few months ago. This did not, of course, have anything to do with helping out the BJP in the Gujarat elections but was presumably the result of a well timed epiphany. Thereafter Forbes came out with its by now boring revelation that Mr. Mukesh Ambani is the richest man in India, a position he will continue to occupy for the next ten years thanks to a cooperative TRAI. And on the 23rd of November we were greeted with the QS World University Rankings for BRICS countries, in which only two Indian universities feature in the top 20 ( quite pathetic, you would say, but I would disagree- given that our Universities are being slowly converted to RSS shakhas, having even two in the list is welcome). And, finally, our very own Ms. Chillar was rated as the most beautiful woman in the world: if only our Sikkas had not been demonetised we'd have bagged the second and third spots too. So as you can see, its quite a mixed bag of ratings, somewhat like the bag of trash you throw out of your house everyday- bio-degradable and recycled.
   But the real churning is currently going on in the world of film making and distribution, where the rating system has been completely revised in the last three years. Earlier the Censor Board rated films as A, U and A/U- patently a defective process as there was far too much emphasis on vowels, making the certification sound like a diphthong. It also did not take into account what the govt. and/or the mobs wanted. So the Board has now decided to abdicate its role and await the views of the mobs, or the results of impending elections, whichever comes first. In order to facilitate this it has just ruled that all films should be submitted 67 days in advance- enough time to break a few heads, vandalize a few theatres, cut off some noses and impose multi state bans.
    There was a time when film critics used to review films and award them Stars- from one to five. This too was confusing, because this is how ACs and hotels  are also rated, and readers were left wondering whether the stars denoted the energy saving values of the film or the decor and ambience of the theatre. For example, if a Salman Khan film got 5 stars did it mean that he was expending too much energy on beating up the baddies, or that the multi- plex provided reclining seats and complimentary pop-corn? Our rent-a-mob types, who in any case never read anything other than VHP or Bajrang Dal posters, were particularly unhappy with this protocol and desired a change.
    It has taken three years for this change to materialise, but it has finally arrived with the movie PADMAVATI. In true democratic fashion the rabble ( ably supported by politicians, the police, the royals and actors of the Swacchh Bharat sponsoring breed), have now come out with their own system of rating films. It is simple, based not on the "put in the vowel" principle but on the "throw in the towel" policy and can be comprehended by any stick wielding simian. And best of all, one doesn't even have to see a film to give it a rating ! It has just four categories: A, B, C, and D. Here is what they denote:

[i]  A-- -----Agitate.   
[ii] B( 1 )-- Burn.
[iii] B( 2)-- Ban.
[iv] B( 3)-- Behead.
[v]  C( 1)-- Consult.
[vi] C(2)--  Censor.
[vii] D----- Discard

As you can see, its a very simple and progressive roster, progressing in an ascending order of violence in which, as in the Kaun Banega Crorepati quiz, the Director is offered an exit clause at every stage. Even the sturdiest of them will usually lose his head and exit by B(3), at which point he is invited to go in for consultations/counselling in the manner of a dying man being counselled by a priest. The mechanism for this is under the active consideration of the govt.: the VHP ( Vishwa Hindu Parishad) has already demanded that a committee with their representatives be set up for the purpose and no film be released without its consent. Of course, consultations with other stake holders of Indian culture and nationalism will also be necessary- the Bajrang Dal, Ram Sena, Shiv Sena, Karni Sena, All India Gau Rakshak Sena,  and others of a similar ilk already in the pipe-sorry-sewer line. Its only after this stage that the film will go to the Censor Board ( C(2)) which by then is also busy consulting historians, pesphologists, shamams, soothsayers and the four witches in Macbeth. By this time, naturally, the film  will have to be discarded ( D) since by then it will have more cuts than the Rajasthan Canal during a prolonged drought. All film production will cease, Sunny Leone will regrettably go back to Canada, Amitav Bachhan will become Baba Ramdev's brand ambassador, Salman Khan will resume a different kind of shooting- black bucks and chinkaras- which is a far safer occupation in India these days than shooting films. As for the rest of us, the more committed ones will devote themselves to re-writing history, and the rest will sing the national anthem or bhajans during weekends. Best of all, Moody's will give us a new rating- LOL.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

THE MISSING FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT


    The Indian Constitution gives us six Fundamental Rights: right to Equality, right to Freedom, right against Exploitation, right to Freedom of Religion, Cultural and Educational rights, and the right to Constitutional Remedies. The Supreme Court has recently given us another one: right to Privacy. It sounds pretty impressive on paper. Now, I'm no legal expert- for a long time I was under the impression that "corpus delicti" meant a beautiful body, and till recently I thought that RIP on a judge's grave meant Recused in Perpetuity, in deference to a common practice in inconvenient cases. But even I can see that these fundamental rights are not available to large sections of society, and of late they are being denied with renewed vigour.
    Equality still eludes millions of dalits, tribals and the poorest of the poor; our push for a digital India with Aadhar as its trumpet call is further disadvantaging these sections and denying them access to public welfare services such as pensions and food rations. Talk of equality is a farce when 200 million people go to bed hungry, when 15% of the population in under nourished( FAO figures), when 34% of the children are stunted, when the top 5% of Indians own 65.5% of the country's wealth while the bottom 50% have to make do with only 4.5%. Freedom is still a dream for millions of bonded labour and child workers, and for those who are indiscriminately arrested by the police, for the more than 400,000 undertrials in prisons, most of whom will be acquitted if their cases ever come up for trial in a system as clogged as a railways toilet. Freedom of religion did exist for some time, but is now being threatened by new conversion laws in some states that require the approval of a District Magistrate before one can exercise that option. The sporadic demands for a Uniform Civil Code and a muscular assertion of majoritarianism constantly haunt the minority psyche. Educational rights consist of mere statistics of enrollment figures; in actual practice, so dismal is our govt. educational system that a Class 6 student lacks the ability of a Class 2 student; 27.51 of every 100 children who join school drop out by the time they reach Class XI. Those who pass out of college are unemployable. The hardest hit here are the physically disabled: of 28 million not even 0.1% have access to schools and 0.01% to higher education. The courts are waging a valiant but losing battle to enforce our right to Constitutional Remedies, hamstrung by an adversarial central govt. and its own internal shortcomings. How, for instance, does one enforce one's constitutional right to freedom of expression when the govt. will not act against those who murder it ? Seventy journalists have been killed in the last 14 years, hardly anyone has been punished. How can this right be exercised when draconian laws- criminal defamation, sedition- are used to muzzle any contrary voice ? These remedies, unfortunately, are available only to the rich and powerful, usually to save their own skin.
    There is, however, one Fundamental Right that the Constitution has not given us, but one which is being enforced these days on a daily basis- the Right to be Offended. " Hurting the sentiments" of any one of the country's seven religions and 7331 castes/communities is an offence under the IPC and is the trigger for claiming this right. This legal oddity has always existed, right from the days when the film Kissa Kursi Ka and Rushdie's Satanic Verses were banned by the Congress, but over the last three years it has acquired an accelerated virulence and a violent character. Organisations- mainly perceived to be of the far right- have sprung up whose sole purpose in life is to feel offended. Anything which does not conform to their regressive ideology or can help them win the next election is a legitimate source of causing offence, and therefore for raising the demand for a ban, criminal prosecution, apology or mindless violence. Offence is taken at girls wearing jeans or a young couple going out in public ( Valentines Day ?), MS Dhoni appearing as a Hindu God on a magazine cover, Kamal Hassan's comment about Hindu terror, any form of sympathy for a Kashmiri or for the Kashmiri perspective, support for a  Pakistani cricket team, any questioning of the Indian Army ( sedition), possession of cattle or meat, intercaste marriages. Creative work- films, books, paintings- the very mediums which advance civilisation and its best values, are the primary founts of imagined offence and hence the primary targets for the proponents of this right.
    Taking offence has de facto become a fundamental right these days and is being practiced on a daily basis. The latest instance is that of the film PADMAVATI. Official Rajput organisations have joined hands with criminals and louts to ransack theatres, offer Taliban type of rewards for beheadings, hold up trains and threaten to maim the artists. As the furore over this film has demonstrated, two factors are conferring legitimacy on the sinister assertion of this right to be offended. One, neither the central govt. nor the concerned state govts are taking any action against these criminal elements for violence, criminal intimidation, destruction of public and private property, wrongful confinement, instigating public disorder, contempt of court, etc. Second, and even more telling, is the fact that this manufactured disturbance is being supported by these same govts, directly or indirectly. Union Minsters have done so by proclaiming that film-makers should  be "sensitive to cultural feelings" and to the "status of women", state Ministers have lamented that the feelings of the Rajput community have been "hurt", the UP, Punjab and Haryana CMs have asked for a ban on the film, the MP and Gujarat Chief Ministers, in their attempts to out Herod all other Herods, have actually banned it ( even though the Supreme Court has refused to do so!), the Rajasthan CM wants it to be censored, the Union Home Minister declares that even if the film is cleared by the Censor Board the govt. can always review it. The Congress and other opposition parties maintain a psephological silence, for this is the age of votes, not values. Only Mamta Banerji has had the guts to speak out in support of the film.
    Other constitutional rights be damned. The only fundamental right which matters in India today is the Right to be Offended, and this has become the new clarion call for the self appointed custodians of the country's culture and national pride. The govt. appears to agree and has legitimised it by its inaction, bans and statements. It may as well take the next step and legalise it: amend the Constitution and provide for it as the seventh fundamental right. We may as well end this "willing to wound but afraid to strike" charade and reveal ourselves in all our regressive glory. Then our country can officially become the kind of unfortunate place WB Yeats had written about , a place where
    " The ceremony of innocence is drowned,
       The best lack all conviction, while the worst
       Are full of passionate intensity."
Welcome to the New India of 2022. 

Saturday, 18 November 2017

WHO SAYS BEGGARS CAN'T BE CHOOSERS ?

 
    The community of beggars doesn't usually make news, but it did last week, twice. In Hyderabad the govt. has gone into an overdrive to remove a major "nuisance" from its roads- not encroachments or bag-snatchers (as you might assume) but beggars! All because Ivanka Trump is visiting the city, and the administration doesn't want her to see the real India. So what else do they want to hide-garbage, potholes, smog, cows, the urinating Indian male? Are beggars the worst of the ills of our country and towns that they have been singled out for this special attention form a govt. that donates crores of public money to temples and vastu rituals to make the CM's new house more auspicious? Couldn't some of this largesse have been used to rehabilitate them?
    Actually, maybe our sturdy beggars don't need to be rehabilitated, as this other story from Pune indicates. The Pune police rounded up seven beggars last week and produced them before a magistrate intending to lock them up for a couple of weeks. Bail was set at Rs. 5000.00 and the cops got their black van ready for the drive to the jail, confident that this penurious desiderata of society would never have this kind of moolah. To their utter shock, all seven came up with the bail amount immediately- in cash!-, deposited it with aplomb and reverted to their temporarily disrupted trading activity! Its obvious to me that Mr. Jaitley has been targeting the wrong section of the business community so far in his black money crusade- he should forget the names in the Panama and Paradise papers and concentrate on our entrepreneurial beggars. Recently one of them died in Delhi and it was discovered that she had left behind two flats and a sizeable bank balance! Why not make them go digital too and give them POS swipe machines and PayTM apps, as part of"ease of doing business" ? There would then be no need to hide them from Ivanka Trump, I'm confident she would be impressed with our digital derelicts.
    Now that we are on the subject of mendicants, however, a few anecdotes from my hoary past come to mind. In 1980 I was posted as Deputy Commissioner, Una, and one day received an order from the govt. to intimate by next day the number of beggars in the district! Apparently, the information was required in response to an Assembly question by an MLA who was clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel in his quest for votes. I immediately realised I had a major problem: this earth-shaking information had never been compiled, the Census was silent about it, these artful dodgers never stayed in one place to be counted, and they didn't advertise on prime TV. Since I had only two and a half years's service by then, I consulted with my SDM, one DD Sharma, who'd been making the govt. proud for the last 34 years. " No problem, sir", was his instantaneous ( I swear) response, " we'll send a report that we  have 387 beggars."
" How do you know?" I shouted. " we've never counted the blighters!"
" Exactly", replied DDS. "Nobody's ever counted them, and nobody ever will, or can. An idiotic question can only get a meaningless answer. There's no way they can challenge our number."
So I sent the reply, and  never heard about the matter again. The MLA is presumably still looking for those 387 votes. But I learnt an important lesson: the govt. just loves numbers- it doesn't matter how you derive them or how fudged they are. In later years DD Sharma's nostrum saved me a lot of legwork and midnight oil- say, about 170 litres ?.
    In the late 80's the issue of beggars nearly caused a major rift between the state govt. and the Planning Commission( may its departed soul rest in peace). It was, however, an exchange of words underpinned by subtle innuendo, to grasp which one must understand two things. One, the summer months in Shimla are also the peak tourist season and this attracts hundreds of beggars from all over north India. This is also the time( naturally!) when a Planning Commission delegation usually visits to " review" the pace of Plan expenditure. Second, in the winter months of December-January a state govt. team visits Delhi to extract the maximum moneys it can from the Planning Commission in the next Budget. Do keep this in mind while I recount the episode.
   The Planning Commission high-powered team was in town that summer ( as state guests, naturally) and during the meeting one of them remarked on the large number of beggars on Mall Road and the Ridge. Was it, he asked sarcastically, due to the failure of the state govt's social welfare schemes? No, replied the Finance Secretary, it was because all the beggars from Delhi landed up in Shimla in the summers! The Planning Commission chappie was nonplussed, but only for a moment.
" I see," he remarked, " and I suppose these beggars come down to Delhi in the winters, right?" Touche!
Both sides had established their begging rights ! Bonhomie was re-established that night over drinks in Hotel Holiday Home, billed as tandoori chickens, naturally.
    Beggars may or may not be destitute but they have their pride and maintain some basic minimum standards, as I discovered in Delhi in the mid-nineties. I used to drive in my battered Maruti 800 from Bharti Nagar to my office in Shastri Bhavan everyday. An aged beggar had claimed a spot near the Khan Market traffic light as his own, in the same pugnacious spirit as the Chinese on the Doklam plateau. Like Doklam, it was a strategic location since hundreds of vehicles had to perforce stop there. I, of course, never made a donation to his coffers since I was in the market myself for handouts, what with two sons in Modern School and EMIs for a flat which never came up above ground level. I was also burdened by the principle that " the good Lord giveth and the Income Tax Deptt. taketh", hence there was no surplus available. But one evening it had started drizzling when I was on my way back from Shastri Bhavan. As I stopped at the light I took pity on the beggar out in the rain, stepped out and gave him a two rupee note ( this was before Mr. Modi so the two rupee note had not yet been demonetised). The old rascal took one look at the note, dug into his bulging jacket, extracted a ten rupee note and gave it to me. " Yeh lo, sahib," he said with what was almost a chuckle," lagta hai aapko paise ki zyada zaroorat hai." Having correctly diagnosed, and confirmed, my humble station in life, he shuffled off to the next car.
    I don't see the old man there any more. I have a feeling he has acquired and moved into one of those premium flats on Tughlak Road. I, of course, have moved to Patparganj.

  

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

THE LANGUAGE OF GOVERNANCE


[   This article was published in THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 13.11.2017 under the title: THE STRANGE LANGUAGE OF GOVERNANCE.]


               In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. And then God committed one of his periodical goof-ups, the first after the original mistake of creating Eve and involving us for perpetuity in sexual molestation cases: he created the Bureaucracy and the Bureaucrat took over the Word. Originally intended to convey meaning, the Word now became a means to conceal!- a mechanism which even the RTI Act has not been able to dent. But let’s not scoff at this, for concealment is an art- given the sheer scale of goof-ups and gerrymandering constantly going on in the labyrinths of power, concealing them behind just a few words requires far more skill than merely revealing to us that our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. Shelley may well have been right when he said that, but could he have hidden behind words a hefty kickback in danger of disappearing? That's what one Minister was once required to do, without Mr. Vinod Rai finding out about it.
      Having successfully negotiated the required payola from a contractor, a Minister called for the file and wrote on it "Approved." The contractor, secure in the false illusion( like Lalu Yadav a-la Nitish Kumar) that the Minister was now committed and could not go back on either his word or file noting, refused to pay up. Unfazed, the Minister requisitioned the file again and simply added the word  "Not" before "Approved." The now chastened contractor, acknowledging defeat at the hands of a master. prostrated himself ( like Nitish Kumar a-la Amit Shah) before the icon of democracy and begged for his contract back, wondering at the same time how the worthy would find a way around the neological cul-d-sac. The Minister, a wordsmith par excellence, extracted the file from his drawer and just added the letter "e" to the word "Not." The final noting read " Note Approved"- two simple words that concealed twists worthy of a Saki or an O'Henry !
     In the mid eighties in Shimla a powerful Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, whose wife wished to devote all her time to disciplining other IAS wives and thus delegate her culinary responsibilities to a cook, moved the Finance Deptt. for the creation of a Class D post. The file duly reached the JS in Finance. Now a JS, compared to a Secretary to Chief Minister, occupies a slot in the bureaucratic food chain comparable to the position of the plankton in relation to the sperm whale, and in the normal course the file should have been cleared without a whimper, or whatever sounds the plankton emits. In this case, however, this humble organism ( born and bred in the badass corridors of Hindu College) refused to accept his humble station in life and rejected it ! A livid Secretary to CM, accustomed to worms squirming before him and not turning, returned the file with the noting: "Has this file been seen by the Finance Secretary? If not, it may be put up before him." ( Senior Secretaries belong to the same lunch club and are usually more adept than the macaque monkey in scratching each others' backs). The JS returned said file after recording on it the standard default option of all Finance Deptts.: " FD regrets to reiterate its rejection of the proposal." An epileptic Secy to CM decided to teach this callow fledgling a lesson. Confident that he now had this amoeba cornered, he put the ball back in JS's court with a thunderous ace: "At what level has this decision been taken?" The JS, having dealt with seven foot Jats on a daily basis in Jubilee hall, was unfazed and responded with a classic cross-court of his own: " Secretary to CM is respectfully informed that the decision has been taken at the competent level." Game, Set and Match. No actionable information revealed. The sperm whale retired shortly thereafter, sans cook.
    Another story which comes to mind is that of a  young Deputy Secretary in Shimla ( now grown long in the tooth and safely parked in the USA) whose newly acquired wife happened to be in Delhi. He kept applying for leave to spend some time with her, especially during those long winter nights in Shimla when a quilt is not enough to keep one warm. His applications were invariably rejected by the Chief Secretary who had long ago replaced his wife with a bottle of triple XXX rum. The DS then changed tack: he requested for leave on  "compassionate grounds", stating that he had to check up on his aging parents in Delhi. Even this crap did not cut any ice with the CS ( the mixed metaphor may be excused). The increasingly desperate DS then made his final gambit, taking a huge chance: he applied again, this time on "passionate grounds" viz. that he was only recently married and had not seen his wife for many months and would not be able to recognize her if he did not see her soon! It worked! Off he went to Delhi and he has not left her side since then- much to her annoyance, of course. The power of the word- the deletion of three letters- made all the difference between marital bliss and enforced "vanprastha". Why, he may even have joined the RSS if denied leave again, left his wife and become a Chief Minister !
    My own favourite is the one about the officer who wanted a bigger garage built in his official residence to park his two cars. He sent a note to the Secretary PWD requesting that the "garrage be constructed immediately.'' The latter's response revealed his stout English Literature background: " Request approved. However the officer may be informed that while a garage can always contain two cars it can never contain two 'R's'! "
    The good Lord need not worry- His Word is in good hands.