Tuesday, February 18, 2014

AAP, Mohalla Sabhas and Democracy

Arvind Kejriwal’s short lived 48 day government in Delhi continues to dominate the news cycle even after it fell. It’s certainly been eventful, with allegations of flip-flops, drama, racism, poor governance and being the B team of the Congress being juxtaposed with some credible achievements. My view on all this is that Kejriwal was under a disproportionate amount of scrutiny, because of the high standards he set for himself. Impatience is never a virtue in public life, and Kejriwal has been guilty of it, while being a victim of the same. The allegations of dramatics miss the point, since political parties in this country have to be dramatic. Moreover, if people had a problem with dramatics, they should have complained when it was a major ingredient of the Jan Lokpal movement, or as recent as his swearing – in ceremony. The most serious allegation is that of racism. While the jury is still out on the legitimacy of the party’s claims on the case, the fact remains that the case was an example of the bias of the majority taken as fact, with propriety and the rights of the accused being a casualty. His government’s biggest contribution, the mohalla sabhas, has been condemned to the footnote in this heady mix of claims and counter-claims.

As somebody who believes that grassroots democracy is the only panacea to the many ills facing the country, the idea of mohalla sabhas struck a chord with me. There has been criticism to this idea, but unfortunately, it has been consigned to the ideologically inept argument of AAP being a party of overground naxalites and anarchists. The idea of citizen councils having a say in the development of their localities seems perfectly reasonable, even mandatory in any democracy. If we do claim to be the world’s largest democracy, surely it follows that we will empower grassroots democracy and usher an era of real development? The criticism of this idea seems to be borrowed from Ambedkar’s famous quote on villages being a den of superstition and communalism. The criticism seems to be that such councils will bring in another layer of red-tape to a system which is a labyrinth of babudom, favours and hierarchy. Doesn't it already take a number of years for any project in this country to be approved? Wouldn't another layer simply make this process more drawn out than it already is?

There seems to be a large section of this country which seems to consider roads built, steel and concrete as evidence of development. When we talk about development, this constituency thinks only in terms of tar, steel and concrete. Of course, this is a perfectly valid assumption. No country can progress without proper infrastructure and infrastructure is central to every citizen’s lives since it is for public use. However, there is also the question of how do we go about creating world-class infrastructure? Some people, most of them unsurprisingly cheerleaders for the Modi version of crony capitalist “development”, seem to have a fascination with the Chinese way of going about these things. Where existing structures are demolished to make way for these shiny new toys of the elite and the concern for rehabilitation is secondary. Where the local population simply has to accept that their livelihood is going to be destroyed and they have to learn to deal with it, helped by whatever morsels the benevolent leader throws at them. Big bucks for big business, shiny new toys for the elite, while the poor suffer from the deluded assumption that all this was for their own good. This is “development” you see. It doesn’t matter that the poor will remain excluded from these new toys built from their livelihood; what matters is that we have these new toys and the world will marvel at “Shining India”. This constituency has taken a beating of late after 20 years of “development”, with support cutting across party lines. Since land remains under the discretionary powers of our Honourable Representatives, such “development” meant bigger kickbacks while the sheep vote for them after swallowing their venal claims of this being progress. Since the government outsourced vigilance to the CAG and the Supreme Court, no more could they claim that spectrum allocated at half the price is the only way to bring down call rates or that inflated cost of toilet paper at a sporting event will raise India’s standing in the comity of nations. So, a pliant media, aided by big business which clearly did not appreciate their thievery of national resources being stopped, re-booted the phrase “policy paralysis” when there has been a policy paralysis since at least 1965. Since thievery has to be sold as progress in a democracy to gain votes, this “policy paralysis” became the sole reason for lack of development.

It is a disgrace that engagement with the people is seen as a roadblock to development in some quarters. If a road is to be built in my locality, I am the biggest stakeholder. Not the guy who drives his swanky SUV. Development means that road should serve as an instrument of progress for me and my neighbours. It should help us travel from place X to place Y, help us get to our places of work faster and not be ridden with potholes at the slightest amount of rain. If it is truly an instrument of public good, why will there be opposition? Surely, I should decide what comes in my locality, not some babu or politician whom I see only once in 5 years! Is it development when big business comes to my door, wants to buy land and my livelihood for a fraction of the market price? Is it democracy or the often used “governance” when I have no say in how my livelihood is affected? Clearly, there are concerns with engagement; what is to be done when the council is overtaken by anti-social elements? What is to be done when the council exhibits the bias of the majority, as seen in the case where a locality decreed that people from the North-East move out? However, these are not reasons for not having this process of engagement. So what is the reason for the fervent opposition from some and the cries of horror from the media?
The present political and economic system in this country is clearly in a state of decay and has been for some time. After liberalisation in 1991, we had a real chance to end the system of discretion, wherein one politician decides everything. However, we chose to scrap it only partially. The venal powers-that-be could clearly see that the powers they were getting rid of would be compensated by holding on to some discretionary powers that would be hugely beneficial, especially when private capital went unchecked. The media followed suit, and hence the yarn of “the most historic period of fighting poverty” was being spun. As it did when such policies were the norm in the west, inequalities increased. A culture of greed, opulence and selfishness was celebrated as “achievement”. Public resources started being sold to the highest bidder. The government started selling off its responsibilities in health, education, food, shelter, housing to private parties, all in the name of development. All this has created a culture where the 10% growth, 90% thievery model of development in Gujarat is seen as a panacea to all our ills. Since such models benefit big business the most, support from those quarters was assured. The simple act of engaging with the people, threatens this system like no other. When people are empowered, they will refuse to be hoodwinked continuously. They will ask questions, demand answers and demand results. They will no longer continue to accept girls wanting to be thin as excuse for malnutrition. They will not accept public services being decrepit and of poor quality for years together. They will not accept this system where a poor man, who can only afford to send his children to government schools, pulls them out since they don’t get a proper education in those schools. They will no longer accept doctors not turning up in government hospitals while the sick die of inadequate infrastructure. They will no longer accept being told to sell their land to make way for a factory which makes no attempt to make their lives better than before.

Therefore, the debate on AAP is a debate on democracy. It is about the kind of democracy we want, where people engage with their representatives and everybody works in tandem for a better India. Or a sham democracy wherein the only power the citizens have is to vote once in five years and trust in the benevolence of the leader. The hope that a liberal centre would be free from the bias of the majority held true at a time when people truly worked for public welfare. When the centre is victims of the same bias, what sort of liberalism can we expect? When the President of the main Opposition Party terms homosexuality as “unnatural and against Indian culture”, is it liberalism? When the government, after opposing decriminalisation in 2009, supports the same with an eye on polls, is it liberalism? The mainstream is littered with the bias of the majority, the same den of superstition and communalism Ambedkar rallied against. When the mainstream refuses to conform to the liberal ideals of this country with an eye on votes to be gained by pandering to the den of superstition and communalism, there is no logic in this argument.  This debate also challenges the existing view of what a leader should be. When Kejriwal went on his dharna, or sat on the road, it disturbed some people since “he represents the people of Delhi before the world”. For a people obsessed with how we are perceived, this is unsurprising. Unfortunately, image is more important than specifics for us. As long as we present a veneer of being democratic and holding true to our values, we will be happy. This hypocrisy must end.

It isn't my case that only AAP represents good for the country. It is my belief that for the challenges we face at this time, they represent the best option. Their mistakes should be condemned; the Khirki incident seems to be one, but we must remember that since they are the biggest challenge to the status quo, they represent the biggest hope for this country at this time. Not “chappan inch ki chaati” politics; not politics of venality and sycophancy.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Why Stuart Broad isn't a cheat

The first Ashes Test between England and Australia featured some fascinating cricket, but all the talk has been focussed on one incident rather than the fantastic individual pieces of cricketing skill we saw from both teams. When Stuart Broad refused to walk when he was caught by Michael Clarke at first slip, he reopened a fascinating debate on morality in sport.

I've always maintained that sport is more than just about who won and who lost; it’s about skill, determination and the will to succeed. These are very noble things, and therefore, Sportspersons have always been feted; their names sung by grateful fans, generations weaned on stories of fantastic performances on the field of play. So when an issue of morality is raised, it is deeply troubling to the human psyche which is accustomed to treating Sportspersons with a great deal of respect. There are some who will argue that this logic cannot be extended to modern day sports. Today, the business of sports is just as important as the action on the field of play, probably even more. Keeping with the theme of an age where the market extends to every part of human life, sports today is a very “corporate” being. Like it or not, “Karbon Kammal Sixes”, “Aon Training Centre”, “Etihad Stadium” and the rest of it are a here to stay. In an age where who sponsors whom is just as important as the players on the field of play, can we really expect Sportspersons to behave in a way their predecessors did? When love for the game results inbeing robbed, why should we expect sportspersons to be bound by a moral code that simply does not exist?

That does not mean it can be argued that anything goes on the field of play, as long as you win. Winning may be more important than it was in the past, but there are limits to the complexity of this debate: match fixing, doping and the like cannot be justified. The fact is that sanctimony is always directed at the opposition. When Greame Swann calls a Sri Lankan player a cheat for not walking and defends Broad for the same, he is doing what we all do. I laugh when a Man United player “dives” in order to get a penalty, but scream obscenities at the referee when the boot is on the other foot.

Therefore, the Gary Neville argument in his master class on diving is probably more apt than the moral pronouncements that have been expressed since the Broad incident. To quote Red Nev, it would be very harsh to call these players cheats for not abiding by somewhat dubious expectations with regard to morality. They work so very hard for one moment; that moment will provide judgement on years of hard work. Can we then expect them to throw it all away in order to abide by some unrealistic standards of morality? Of course Broad would eke out the smallest advantage; he’s there to win matches for his team, not the Fair Play Award. It was the job of the Umpire to judge whether he was caught or not. When the Umpire is not sure, can we really expect Broad (or any other sportsperson for that matter) to go back to his teammates and say that Fair Play is more important than winning the game?

There are some who say that Sportspersons are idols and therefore, will always be expected to have higher standards of behaviour than us mortals, lest our kids be taught that it’s OK to cheat. That argument certainly has traction when it comes to match fixing or doping. Is diving or not walking when you are out as bad as doping or match fixing? I don’t think anybody is saying that diving or not walking is a virtue, it’s just a part and parcel of the modern game. It will happen, it cannot be stopped. Fighting it is a lost cause. We would be better off evolving a mechanism to deal with it. The “Spirit of the Game” is tosh; it exists for everybody but our team. When England were at the receiving end, they were fighting for this infinitely virtuous quality. When they stand to gain an advantage, they forget about such sanctimony and try to win the game. Let us not pretend that the rest of us are  any different.

In football, if a player dives, he/she is in danger of receiving a yellow card. Cricket has a similar precedent of players being banned for not walking when they are clearly dismissed (or so the web tells me). Let the authorities apply this penalty when such an incident occurs so that it is dealt with, instead of mourning endlessly for a quality which belongs to the past. By holding sports hostage to qualities of a bygone era, we are deluding ourselves. Sportspersons are products of our society. Expecting them to abide by a moral code none of us would follow if we were in a similar position is unrealistic to the extreme.

Monday, March 25, 2013

India: A nation of idiots (Part 2)

Talking of institutionalized corruption, what happened to the Anna Hazare movement? As much as a disagree with the argument that one institution can magically eradicate corruption, the idea of people demonstrating against corruption was much welcome. To quote Winston Smith, if there is hope, it lies in the proles. As much as the Outer Party (middle India) fancies itself to be the crusader of everything moral and right, unless the poor fight the machine that is the status quo, nothing will change. After all, a politician is a shrewd specimen. If he/she feels that reform and change is what the people want, that he cannot play the people and trust the poor to put him back to power on the back of the usual packet of biryani and the packet of desi daaru, why should he/she prescribe to the idea of change when he has much to benefit from the status quo? And why will the poor protest, when his life is dependent on drudgery which does not include the luxury of worrying about the poor?

But why will any of us protest when the machine can simply bring up the glitz and glamour of the Hindi film industry? We are so enamoured by smut and fluff (while ignorantly claiming our culture to be the greatest in the history of mankind, since it apparently looks down on the same smut and fluff that the “culture-less” West propagates) that it distracts us from thoughts of the future. The best example of this is Sanjay Dutt. Logically, if it were a poor Muslim youth who made the same choices, he would rot in jail with all of us baying for his blood, and we will take great joy in the inevitable hanging to death. We’ll take rallies, celebrate the event as if it was the greatest in the history of mankind, and distribute sweets. In fact, the facts of the case show that the people accused of the same crime, who weren’t Sanjay Dutt, have been charged under TADA, while the Gandhian Munna Bhai is charged under the Arms Act. The irony of somebody who lauded Gandhian thought in a movie being charged under the Arms Act might be right up there with Arundathi Roy’s laughable “Maoists are Gandhians with Guns” logic. But since it is Munna Bhai, he’s a sweet guy. What did he do? Allowed his house to be barrack for a terrorist who cut Mumbai into a thousand pieces, even if said master could not fulfill his master’s dream of bleeding India into a thousand pieces. He’s suffered for 20 years! His suffering: a number of crores a year, special treatment, the adulation of the brainwashed and other luxuries which most of us can only dream of. Such horrid levels of suffering must be the most any individual has suffered in the history of the Indian Republic. Pity and mercy in this country exist only for the powerful. Talk of taking death sentence off the books; you are accused of being a wishy-washy liberal who bleeds for the criminal but not for the victim. The hypocrisy is astounding.

There exist a few holy cows in this country and the biggest of them is the Armed Forces. We are all grateful for the men and women who put their lives on the line so that we can sleep in peace. However, even the gravest crime they commit is almost excused. We have a brave woman who has been fasting for 10 years for the withdrawal of AFSPA, which clearly has no place in any decent society. Apparently, raping women, torture, random arrests are all prerequisites for fighting terrorism. The idiocy of this argument is never contested by the presumably educated. Another holy cow is religion. Despite our claims of being liberal, we are the farthest thing from a liberal society. I reject religion even though I come from a religious family. The idea of a God, as comforting as it may be, is nauseous when we demolish another religious structure in His name; kill, maim, loot and commit the worst crimes. An entity in whose name hatred is propagated, to me, is not an entity worth going gaga over. If a believer says that this God is a deeply merciful entity and then goes on killing in the name of the same merciful entity; it this believer cannot respect his/her beliefs, why should I? If we see the history of religion, we see that religion is more an army of killing, hatred and injustice; not the entity it presents itself to be. Even more nauseous is the hatred propagated by these purveyors of God. The homosexual is a deviant and the female is a second rate commodity. Equality is a concept alien to religion, and by extension, alien to a nation which is obsessed with religion. How many of us refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Caste System? Those of us who belong to the privileged castes will argue that we are different, that caste does not matter to us anymore. We will then make excuses for the caste system; that “blood matters”. How can any society which even in the slightest way excuses such barbaric thought claim to be a liberal society? We are constantly brainwashed into a state of considerable apathy.  Whether Sachin Tendulkar will retire or not is a matter of national debate. That one in six families in Urban India live in slums, with mobiles but no sanitation, public health facilities, safe drinking water housing or decent education is worthy of a footnote in the bowels of the newspaper. The philosophical conundrum of modern day capitalism: where the private sector is the solution for all problems is roundly ignored. We fail to note even the most basic criticism of our economic model; that the private sector will only solve problems where the possibility of a profit occurs, not in the most basic duties of the state (health, education and housing). To us, history is a playlist of YouTube videos; myth and propaganda is dressed up as history. One look at the bestseller list in books shows our fascination with mythology: the trilogy of Lord Shiva by Amish sells more than books which force us to think and to question the world around us. There is nothing wrong with reading books on religion, in fact, one of my most treasured gifts is a book titled “Am I a Hindu”, gifted to me by my father. However, mythology is one man’s fiction. It matters just as much as those Mills and Boon romance stories.

It is very easy for me to fall victim to the lazy assertion that there is no political party which is truly liberal, that prescribes to the ideals enshrined in the constitution (laughable how the right denies the existence of the idea of India. One can only pity the deluded for suffering so much delusion so as to not see the obvious). I refuse to do so. Politicians are representative of society. Unless society changes and moulds itself in the way our founding fathers wanted, there will not be liberal political parties. In conclusion, we are a nation of idiots. To borrow the famous line from Justice Markandey Katju, 90% of Indians are idiots, and I include myself in this. For far too long, I have been victim to myth and propaganda. I choose to move towards the 10%, and unless the rest of us do the same, we will remain a nation by, of and for idiots. 

India: A nation of idiots (Part 1)

With a year left for the Lok Sabha elections (or less than a year, if you choose to believe the media driven hype of early elections), the media is going to go all out with opinion polls, articles presumptuously titled “State of the Nation”, as if a sample size of 1000 people represents the opinions of the millions that constitute the Indian electorate. Presumptuous or not, one must admit that speculating the results of an election is a deeply satisfying activity, especially in a country as diverse as India. There are a million contours to every election in India; admittedly, this article can only capture a few of them: the ones that appeal to a middle class, liberal youngster.

To say that Narendra Modi has emerged on the national stage would be an understatement. Young India’s fascination with Narendra Modi enthralls me. We might not uniformly agree on Modi’s qualifications to lead this great nation, but we cannot ignore the fact that he is a serious candidate. Young India’s stand on whether Modi’s record on development trumps the serious accusations he continues to face vis-à-vis 2002 is a larger sociological debate which invariably involves the facets of class and religion. All I can say is that as a resident of Ahmedabad, I cannot deny Modi’s record on development or the many desirable elements of his administration. Despite seeing Modi’s development first hand, I will not vote for him come the election. The reasons for this will be apparent as we go on.

Another habit the media gets into when covering any general election is the habit of declaring that the coming election is “one of the most important in the history of the Indian republic”. I fail to understand the logic of this argument, since every election is by definition a crucial one. The winner gets to decide policy for a considerable amount of time, and every policy has the potential of changing the fortunes of the nation one way or the other. However, it cannot be denied that India is at a crossroads. The problems facing the nation need not be stated again; they have been repeated ad nauseam in the climate of pessimism that has persisted over the last few years. My memory of the last general election was the theme of change that underlined it: young people, qualified people would finally get into politics and try to make a change. Reform would come, and India would be transparent, a slightly better place than the competitive race to the bottom it is at this time. Then the same old faces got elected, and those of us who held hope in change and reform pointed out to the presence of young MP’s (especially in the Congress), naively ignoring that most belonged to dynasties. The irony of pointing to the inheritors of a dynasty as evidence of upcoming change and reform was lost on us. The election of 2009 was about the status quo, with some smatterings of change tossed to us deluded liberals to keep quiet until the next election. And the cycle is set to continue…

For me, too much of talk on this election has centered on individuals: Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi (at least until Rahul baba virtuously declared that he wasn’t interested. That was an act of renunciation unseen in mankind’s vast experience with elected or unelected royalty) or any of the other names that have propped up. This points to the idiocy of the discourse on our polity, that we choose to focus on individuals rather than the ideas they represent. What is Narendra Modi’s idea for India going forward? Or Sushma Swaraj? Or Chidambaram? Of course, there is no point in asking for Rahul Gandhi’s idea for India since his ideas include silence, or few words spoon-fed by his MBA coterie or Mummy’s lieutenants. To be fair to Modi, he did express an idea for India; an “India first” form of secularism which unfortunately is illogical because secularism and nationalism are independent of each other. We might have a unique definition of secularism in this country (where it is synonymous with tolerance), but even tolerance and nationalism are independent of each other. History has shown us that focus on nationalism is deeply intolerant. I abhor the idea of a nationally imposed rigidity on our consciousness. The idea reminds me of the dystopia wonderfully illustrated in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty- Four. Besides, the idea of a civilization which embraced liberal thought when the rest of the world embraced savagery choosing to embrace rigidity is troubling (as it should be to anybody with the slightest historical knowledge of the Indian civilization, very different from the myth propagated by the tilak, chaddi and lathi types).

What then, of the economy? For a nation which gobbles reports which prophesize an economic superpower (at least the sections of our country which can read, and afford the luxury of reading reports which can simply be termed as prophecies), we have a tremendous amount of economic illiteracy. Notice the collective angst when petrol prices are increased. While there is an argument for a transparent mechanism (one of my aims when I started my MBA course was understanding how petrol or diesel is priced. I am about to finish the course and have a wonderfully exciting  job to look forward to, but I am no closer to understanding what goes behind the  price that we all have to pay for petrol), the bouts of irritation middle India shows is immoral. Why should the government subsidize my petrol when millions go to bed hungry? Surely, when I can afford the latest gizmos or religiously buying the latest Manchester United jersey, I can afford to pay more for petrol. The culture of subsidies in this country can be a good thing if the needy actually benefitted from it. Like most things in this country, something ostensibly for the poor is actually for the middle class, which calls itself aam aadmi without an ounce of shame. How do we balance the needs of development, the compulsion of sustainability and the need for transparency (which should be a basic requirement for a country calling itself the world’s largest democracy)? Which politician has answered this question apart from the usual kow-towing to big business? Not to mention the massive behemoth in the room that is institutionalized corruption. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My Letter to Committee of Three Eminent Jurists

Respected Sir,

Let me first begin to thank you for the work that your committee is doing. It is hoped that through your committee, we can end the horrific culture of rapes in our country, but also address the larger misogyny which perpetuates the cycle of violence against women. 

We cannot address the problem effectively unless we first accept that there is one. We've taken the easy route a number of times in the past; instead of addressing the issue from a long term perspective. We need to first accept that our culture tolerates misogyny. No amount of cultural revisionism can hide this shameful fact. I hope that your committee understands this fact, and does not pander to the whims of some, who insist that our culture is not the problem, despite overwhelming evidence that it is. 

I appreciate the enormity of the task ahead of you. Not only do you have to address the issue of rapes effectively, you also have to take into account much of the public anger. It is a fact that many believe death penalty with other "harsh" laws (from one extreme of hanging in public to execution a la Saudi Arabia) to be a solution. You have to take into account the emotional reaction of the Indian people, the issues pertaining to culture and society, the legal perspective (especially with the stand of our country with regard to the death penalty) and juggle all these issues effectively to satisfy the public, which is angry. 

As my duty as a citizen of this country, I ask for your committee to take into consideration the following points:-

1. Death penalty is not a solution. It can only be a deterrent, which can be effective as a part of a wider solution to combat the menace of rape. May I remind you that only three countries have a stand against capital punishment. This suggests that internationally, the consensus is that capital punishment is inhuman. However, considering the practical aspects of having to satisfy a public which demands the death penalty, I suggest that the courts decide which falls in the rarest of the rare category, and lay down reasons for why it does. Similarly, when death penalty is not awarded, reasons be laid down for why the court believes that the case does not fall into the rarest of the rare category. 

2. Fast track courts and special courts be set up, where rape cases can be disposed of as quickly as possible. The present status quo, where a victim has to wait months to even have a chargesheet against the accused, is unacceptable. 

3. Laws be amended to reflect the changing times we live in. The term "outraging the modesty of a woman" is insulting. Let us call a spade a spade. 

4. The police must be made to be more sensitive towards the victim. Harassing the victim in any way; by making her wait ages to register an FIR or by laying down "moral" judgements (which are the exact opposite since they are filled with misogynist sentiments) is unacceptable. 

5. Making all pillars of the state sensitive to curbing this menace. 

6. Combating rampant misogyny in our society by educating our children. We need to change our textbooks, go into every school (government or private) and teach the children that a man and a woman are equal; and that both can do what they want. Similarly, educate adults as to why making excuses for rapists (by suggesting that they invited this tragedy upon themselves by the dress they wore or where they were) perpetuates this cycle of violence. 

7. Ask the government to draft a legislation which bars any person accused of sexual assault in any form from being eligible to hold public office. What can we teach our children when rapists sit in the hallowed halls of Parliament and make decisions on our behalf? 

8. Ban Khap Panchayats. Sati used to exist in ancient times. Do we allow this today? They are an archaic, unconstitutional entity which deserves the highest condemnation.  

Finally, let me say that we cannot end this menace by simply amending laws or pandering to the lowest common denominator. We need change in attitudes towards our women. We claim to be a civilized society. Let us take this opportunity to become one by ensuring equality for men and women. Otherwise, 10 years from now, a similar committee will look into the same issues and we would be walking in circles till the crows come home. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

My views on the Glazers, MUST and the IPO

Manchester United is in the news once more. Only this time, it’s not because of achievements on the pitch, but because of incidents off it. Since the heartbreaking end to the season (well, to us reds, anyway), we’ve had signings, the usual dose of rumours, prophecies of doom, the usual summer activity. But what’s unusual is the feeling amongst some of the support that the club isn’t in good shape.

Since 2005, when the Glazers took over the club, there has been a section of the support which has refused to have anything to do with the club as long as the Glazers are in charge. The reasons for this are widely known, but this issue has come into greater focus because of the IPO launched by the club in the New York Stock Exchange. Initially, the IPO was meant to tackle the club’s $680 million debt. Now it transpires that the owners intend to use the proceeds of the IPO to pay only a part of the debt, and pocket the rest. This has provoked some furious reactions from fans, with even Sir Alex Ferguson being accused of complicity in the murky dealings of the Glazers.

When I started this blog, I did so because I wanted a space where I could put my views out. I did not think of whether anybody would be bothered about reading it. My intention was only indulging in a hobby. That remains true even today. Over the last few days, I have read many articles on the subject, which made my think of my own views. Do I approve of the Glazers? What of the IPO, or the allegations being thrown at Sir Alex Ferguson?

I am no fan of the Glazers. They should not have been allowed to buy the club, and it is United’s great misfortune that the fans allowed them to buy the club in the first place. They have taken millions out of the club to service a debt which isn’t ours. Now, what is the other side? The Manchester United Supporter’s Trust (MUST)? I do not approve of them either.

MUST claims that the only way out for United fans is to boycott the club. They argue that going to the stadium on matchdays, buying merchandise, subscribing to MUTV, all this puts money in the pockets of the Glazers. Their argument is that to fight the Glazers, fans must refuse to line their pockets. The logic of this argument is deeply flawed. If fans stopped going to the games, it is the team which will suffer. If the fans don’t support the team, it is the team which will suffer. MUST’s logic comes across as excessively militant, when a little foresight is essential. The fans are the lifeblood of any football club. If they boycott, everything will fall apart. To me, that a fan lets go of his/her club the moment he disapproves of the owners’ business model comes across as somewhat sad. That brings me to Sir Alex’s comment on “real fans”.

What rankles MUST and their supporters is the fact that Alex Ferguson, a man who used to campaign to reduce ticket prices, is part of a regime under whom prices are ridiculously high, the atmosphere in the stadium is stifling to say the least, and corporatization is in the extreme. They are entitled to feel this way; however, in my view, it is ridiculous of them to expect Sir Alex to lay out his reasons as to why he is comfortable with the Glazers’ ownership. If he says he is, then I think he’s earned the right to be taken at face value. I am sure he has his reasons as to why he feels the way he does. Is he entitled to outline those reasons for the support? Not really. However, Sir Alex must explain what he meant by “real fans”. Does it mean that he thinks that the actions of those who left the club and choose to boycott it because of the Glazers aren’t real fans? Or does he think that because you don’t approve with the mode of business, at the first sign of trouble, you cannot cut your links with the club and still claim to be fan?

I feel that the expectations of MUST with regard to Sir Alex are a little unfair. They want him to publicly speak out against the Glazers. They want an employee to speak out against his employer at a time when the employer is out to only make money for himself, even if it is at the cost of his asset. When Sir Alex was accused to benefiting directly from the IPO, he issued an angry riposte, clarifying that he does not benefit from the IPO; and that the allegation “insults me”. This has dented the credibility of the MUST crowd, because by tarnishing Sir Alex’s name, they open themselves to the accusation that there exist ulterior motives behind their posturing.

MUST have from the beginning, insisted on using strong-arm tactics that focussed solely on removing the Glazers. Where there existed a scope for a true bridge between the fans and supporters, they have proven to be nothing more than a militant organisation; to the point that they have alienated what could have been their trump card: Sir Alex Ferguson. That Duncan Drasdo, CEO of MUST, pays token respect to the boss (his twitter profile has him standing behind a picture of Sir Alex Ferguson), while wilfully dragging his name through the mud (the IPO allegation, conjecture on his role in the stud fiasco in 2005), calls into question their intentions. While the exit of the Glazers is something we all want, how is that being achieved? By militant tactics which probably will hurt the club much more than anything the Glazers do.

That does not mean that I support the Glazers. They should never have been allowed to own the club. Again, questions must be asked of MUST. When the board said no to the Glazers’ initial approach for the club (saying that the bid relied on a large amount of borrowing), it was seen as a victory for the club. However, a little more than a year later, the Glazers owned the club. Since the club before the sale was a PLC, the Glazers had to buy shares from the market, and it is feasible that MUST members sold these shares. Relying on militant tactics after the takeover, when they had enough shares to represent fans’ interest, seems strange. Now, they claim that the failure of the IPO will make the Glazers sell the club. That is by no means definitive. Early reports indicate that the IPO will not be as successful as the club hoped, which means a drop in the value of the club. On the one hand, a lesser value will mean greater possibility of the club being sold; on the other, it will mean lesser money for improving the team and reducing debt. If the Glazers do not sell the club in the event of a failed IPO, it means lesser revenue with no reduction in debt. A very worrying scenario.

The amazing part of all this is how the team continues to be successful. It is certainly a testament to Sir Alex’s genius. The disappointment of last season aside, our record over the last few years is incredible. It is unfortunate that factors in no way connected to the performance on the pitch are setting a pall of doom around the club, even if prophecies of doom seem excessive. It can only be hoped that the team emerges relatively unscathed from all of this. For that to happen, Sir Alex Ferguson must be allowed to do what he does best: win things on the football pitch. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Malnutrition: urgent action required

At a time when the world thinks of India as a major economic power in the making, malnutrition still is a major problem which contributes to the poor human development situation in our country. The figures are deeply disturbing: the prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world, nearly double that of Sub-Saharan Africa. The UN estimates that 2.1 million children die every year before they reach the age of five. Though India has many programs to tackle malnutrition, not much headway has been made in the fight against malnutrition.


Malnutrition is identified into two constituents: protein-energy malnutrition (this is widely prevalent in India and other developing countries) and micronutrient deficiencies. Physical findings help in early identification of malnutrition, which is useful in early rehabilitation. Gomez classified protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) into three degrees: Grade 1 which is severe malnutrition (90-100% degree of PEM), Grade 2, moderate malnutrition (75-89% degree of PEM) and Grade 3, mild malnutrition with less than 60% degree of PEM.

Malnutrition is widely prevalent in rural areas, with tribal areas having the poorest nutritional status. We take the figures in Gondia district of Maharashtra, where there are 1, 02,692 children between the ages of zero and six. Of this, 779 are in the severe malnutrition category and 3,411 in the moderate malnutrition category. From April till July this year, 118 infants did not reach the age of one. Of the children between the ages of zero and six, 22% are underweight and roughly 3% are severely underweight. The weaker children are identified by anganwadi workers or Accredited Social Health Activists under the National Rural Health Mission and brought to the Nutritional Rehabilitation Center (NRC). Shockingly, the NRC in Gondia district opened only on August 15 this year.

The situation in nearby Gadchiroli district (with a tribal population of more than 50%) is not much different. Of a total of 93,983 children aged between zero and six, only 63% are of normal weight.

Among the various states of India, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar have very high rates of under-nutrition. Even states like Mizoram, Sikkim, Manipur, Kerala, Punjab and Goa, where the numbers are lower, the rate of malnutrition is greatly higher than that of developed countries. Further, anemia is found in over 70% of individuals in the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana, and Jharkhand.


People in the far-flung villages were reluctant to bring weak children to the NRC or even seek medical attention, she adds. Poverty was one of the main reasons and the parents mostly worked as agricultural labourers and found it difficult to stay in hospitals and look after their children. In addition to this, scattered population makes access to good health care facilities very difficult. Infants are neglected after birth and do not get proper nutritional supplements. Many villages are in inaccessible areas. Poor nutrition is also reflected at birth with 20 per cent of infants having low birth weight. Malaria and other diseases compound the health situation even more. In addition to this, many anganwadi workers (or Accredited Social Health Activists) do not turn up in many centers. Most growth retardation occurs by the age of two, and most damage is irreversible. The prevalence of underweight in rural areas 50 percent versus 38 percent in urban areas and higher among girls (48.9 percent) than among boys (45.5 percent)


The Government has introduced many programs to tackle malnutrition. The most famous among these are the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) set up in 1975 and the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). The ICDS national development program is one of the largest in the world. It reaches more than 34 million children aged 0–6 years and 7 million pregnant and lactating mothers. NRHM, created for the years 2005-2012, seeks to improve the availability of and access to quality health care by people, especially for those residing in rural areas, the poor, women, and children. The ICDS’ emphasis on older children has meant that infants under the age of two and pregnant women barely get covered. After the age of 2, growth retardation is irreversible. Thus, this program has failed.

Another program for tackling malnutrition is the Public Distribution System and the Mid-day meal schemes in Indian schools. The Mid-day meal scheme, set up by the Akshaya Patra Foundation, runs the world's largest NGO-run midday meal programme serving freshly cooked meals to over 1.2 million hungry school children in government and government-aided schools in India. This programme is conducted with part subsidies from the government.

Like many government programs, the challenge for all these programs and schemes is how to increase efficiency, impact and coverage. Corruption is also a huge problem.


As we have seen, malnutrition is a huge problem in our country, with millions of children dying before they reach the age of six. Malnutrition amounts to a massive human development crisis, where the state is unable to provide the most basic facilities to so many of its people. It is now estimated that India will be unable to meet its Millennium Development Goals of halving malnutrition by 2015. On the contrary, disparities are growing. Even though GDP growth is impressive, malnutrition is decreasing by only a few percentage points. Malnutrition has an effect on productivity: it is estimated that physical impediments caused by malnutrition knock off 3% of GDP. One solution for the problem is fortifying food handed out by the Public Distribution System (PDS) to lower rates of anemia and decrease nutrition. A long term solution, which needs urgent emphasis, is redirecting our energies towards pregnant women and infants under the age of two. Unless we do this on a priority basis, malnutrition will continue to be a huge problem for our country. India has missed a huge window of opportunity; we cannot afford to do so any longer. The future of our children is at stake. We must act now.