Friday, December 19, 2008

You are pathetic, Mr Tata

Tukaram Ombale was an unarmed sub inspector belonging to the much maligned Mumbai police. He was the first to have the presence of mind to push a barricade into the middle of the road to stop the car carrying some of the Mumbai terrorists. As a result of his action Mumbai police now have a prize 'live' catch Mohammed Ajmal Kasab who seems to be singing like a lark, but Ombale lost his life when the terrorists opened fire and he got seven bullets in his stomach.

I could go on -- there were unarmed or inadequately armed policemen at CST who still tried to take on the militants and their AK-47s with their WWII vintage Enfield 303 rifles. The ATS lost 3 senior officers, the NSG lost one, numerous civilians, and not just those who were guests in the Taj lost their lives. Perhaps these policemen were foolhardy, perhaps even foolish, but they had no thought of saving their own lives in a desperate situation. Inspector Jadhav, another brave policeman who actually managed to I said I could go on.

What does Mr Tata do? He commiserates with his guests at the hotel (of course since they bring the moolah in), not a word of appreciation for the NSG, for the pathetically armed Mumbai police or any of the brave individuals who gave their lives. He criticises poor intelligence, poor security, he objects to having to go through the State Government to get the Navy commandos (what does he expect -- that they should be under his direct command?). Of course there was poor intelligence, very poor coordination and a very poorly armed police force. These things have now been discussed ad nauseum though I still must say that intelligence can rarely be so perfect as to pinpoint where exactly an attack would take place and it's impossible to protect all public places. (Note however that the Taj was indeed warned and they even introduced extra security measures for a few days which was withdrawn by the management because their high class guests found it irksome and intrusive).

Mr Tata has no thought for any of these people who did their best in the worst possible circumstances. All he can worry about is the loss his business has suffered and how it's all the fault of the Government. Not a word of consolation for the families, not a penny offered to the families who have lost their only bread winner (it's doubtful they would take it at this point). Ombale's salary probably would not even pay for Mr. Tata's shoe shining expenses. Years of just watching the Sensex go up and down clearly destroys the brain and drives everything out of it other than thoughts about the bottom line.

And Mr. Tata is one of our most distinguished Corporate Czars. God help us from all the others, in that case.


After three days, Mr Tata now says his statement should not be seen as a “lack of appreciation for the various agencies that fought the terrorists’’ during the carnage of 26/11. Well, thank you, Mr. Tata, I am sure we are all deeply grateful...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Rabbit was right

Slow and steady doesn't win the race, at least not on this world, I think.

In a recent visit to Europe (the cause for this long hiatus from this page) I couldn't help noticing that life is so much more leisured and slow compared with life in India. This got me thinking about the growing economies of China and India that are nowadays compared with those of many European countries some of which are almost facing recession. (So is the US but I think for different reasons). So here is my two bit cartoon version of at least one reason why this is true. I should warn you that this is a simple thesis based on ordinary everyday observations,

As I said earlier the first thing about Europe and particularly France that strikes you is how everything moves so much more slowly (except on the highways). It starts with the airport. In most places, a one hour gap between connecting flights would be ample. In Charles de Gaulle airport(CDG), that is about half a day to be on the safe side. If you have the misfortune of landing at Terminal 2G which is beyond the outer periphery of the airport, you are dependent on a shuttle which makes its stately appearance every 10 minutes or so and picks up passengers, waits awhile to take a break, then makes its ponderous way to the other terminals (2C, 2F...) at the blistering speed of about 10km/h. There is a certain unhurried grace with which these buses move. Having reached Terminal 2C (or 2F or whatever) you are met with a huge (well only about 50 people say) crowd of people at passport control, manned by one (if you are lucky, two) immigration officials who go about their task in a slow methodical manner, clearing something like one person a minute (they also take frequent breaks from their onerous task to chat with their colleagues), thereby causing hordes of people to miss their flights. In India any immigration section is manned by a minimum of 20 people at peak hours. The only way to not miss a flight at CDG is if the pilot of your aircraft is kind enough to actually wait for connecting passengers.

Life doesn't get any faster once you are inside. When you have been up since 5am, the first thing you want on your 11am flight is sustenance. This is a very major and serious process. First the beverage tray comes around distributing its largesse. If you happen to sit behind a Frenchman you might as well kiss your food goodbye for a good extra 10 minutes during which he will methodically check out each bottle and discuss all the wines available with the stewardess (or cabin crew as they are called now) and which one would be appropriate for the meal to come (all this for a reheated meal wrapped in foil and plastic). If you are lucky the discussion will not descend all the way to the terroir of the wines. On a fast day, meal service takes 2 to 2 1/2 hours, something like the minimum time taken in a typical French restaurant. (I have seen Jet Airways serve a full meal on a one hour flight from Chennai to Hyderabad -- but then I guess you don't get wine!). Descending from the aircraft means politely waiting for all the people in front of you who, after the doors have opened, decide to start struggling to drag their baggage from the overhead bins. It would of course be extreme bad manners to try and push past them in a vain attempt to catch your disappearing connecting flight.

This pattern of life is repeated in all spheres - in supermarket queues, in restaurants, in ticket lines at the station (a horror if there is any, with every passenger insisting on discussing his/her complete vacation plans with the ticket clerk). A line of 3 people can easily take half an hour and I am not exaggerating, compared to something like 15 that a ticket clerk in India will clear in the same time.

I do not claim that the frenetic pace of life that we see in India, where you trample metaphorically or physically over whatever comes in your way, to get ahead, is a better system. There is something very dignified and comforting in the graciousness of interactions in the public sphere (including the habit of greeting everyone you pass). It also is a mark of a certain level of discipline in the environment Europeans grow up in. This is however,sometimes taken to extremes. There are times when it is more productive to work a little faster, a little longer, take shorter breaks, fewer vacations. Unfortunately, years of a comfortable life have made Europeans disinclined to change their slow and gracious lifestyle. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who normally writes some pretty infantile columns on globalisation once put it well though -- while the French are fighting to preserve their 35 hour (or is it 34?) week, Indians and Chinese would be quite willing to work 35 hour days if that were actually possible, to better their lot. Few Indians or Chinese take the kind of vacations that Europeans take (can you imagine anyone in India taking a whole month off year after year, something Europeans do regularly every August, to say nothing of Christmas and New Year breaks). In the present globalised world where the playing field is getting increasingly levelled by the day (or Flat as Friedman insists on putting it), it's unlikely that this pace of life, desirable though it might be, will survive.

There is one field where the Europeans (almost all of them, the French, the Germans, The Italians, the English) do substantially better than us, despite this lifestyle. And that is academics. How do they do it?

Monday, December 1, 2008


The world suddenly seems such a different place since my last post. How much difference does a week make?

The title of this post came about in a conversation recently amongst some friends and colleagues. It refers to two events. One of these was the terrorist attack on three very public places in Mumbai of which there has been saturation coverage in the media. Hundreds have again died, just months after similar though not quite the same kind of attack in Delhi, Jaipur and other places. For a few days there is enhanced security, talk of setting up an FBI like organisation, improving intelligence. Then it's all forgotten and we are back where we started, till the next attack.

The second event got little or no coverage in the press (except a bit in the local newspapers) and that was Cyclone 'Nisha' hitting Chennai. Coincidentally the two events spanned the same few days. Some of us in so called 'low-lying areas' had to leave our houses and apartment buildings and take shelter with friends, relatives and colleagues to avoid being marooned in a sea of water. Every year there is flooding and large parts of the city resemble a lake with bits of buildings sticking out from under the water. Every year the Corporation claims it has redone the storm water drains and things will be better - and they remain the same. Of course this year was particularly bad, as bad as 2005, the intervening years have been somewhat less destructive. And so it goes - people crib, complain and then finally, with no other option, grit their teeth and bear it. The total number of people who died in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu due to this cyclone is in the same ball park as the Mumbai attack.

All this is supposed to show we are a resilient culture. But this is just wishful thinking (or to put it more politely, hogwash) - making a virtue of inaction. So I wonder, is it some kind of fatalism that affects all Indians, borrowed from Hinduism, that you suffer because you deserve it, you must have done something bad in your past life. The inexorable law of karma justifies not only the misfortune but provides an escape route from finding a long term solution to a crisis. Interestingly, I think Christians and Muslims seems also to have been affected by this ingrained fatalism bug. It's probably the price we pay for being Indians.

How many disasters, deaths, tribulations must one suffer before concerted preventive action becomes the norm? Is it so difficult to improve intelligence, to improve coordination between agencies, provide high tech equipment, take tips from other countries which are also battling terrorism. I do not advocate, unlike the BJP, something akin to the Patriot Act which throws fundamental rights to the winds and loosens the restrictions on security forces to misusing their powers. The law of the land is not the problem. It is also impossible really to completely secure open public spaces. However we can, with some effort, have better intelligence and importantly, make use of it.

Similarly surely we (or City Corporations) can make a concerted effort to improve infrastructure so that people's lives are not made a living hell with monotonous regularity. Being rendered homeless, or made a refugee even for a short period, is an experience that one can do well without.

So all this brings me to the title of the post -- forbearance. Is that then a virtue or just plain incompetence?

Tailpiece: For a different aspect of the Mumbai attack, see Martha Nussbaum's article. For a clearly balanced and non-partisan view of South Asian Jihadi Groups, read Hussain Haqqani's article. Hussain Haqqani is a diplomat who is presently Pakistan's ambassador to the US.

Comments, as always, welcome.