December 10, 2010

life in financial markets & journalism: ratan tata needs to improve himself first

Rata Tata lives in an illusionary world of his own making where twisting and distorting the truth is a daily necessity. Its been many years since I could not but help to realise that this man, like many of his peers in Indian and world industry, does not merit the flattering write-ups by senior editors and journalists in Indian and world media (which, by the way, still continues shamelessly by some newspapers, magazines and television channels despite all the recent exposes as per the conscious decisions of their editor-in-chiefs).

As a journalist, I am amused when I see many media editors harp about integrity in journalism and then go on to practise insidious journalism, executed very cunningly. I have written about this a couple of times in my blog but it needs to be stated again: editor-in-chiefs in a majority of media organisations in India hold large amounts of power without any accountability to any one. Unfortunately, majority of the readers and viewers of Indian media choose not to notice this.

Anwyay, there is a good write-up by a columnist at Outlook magazine's website putting Rata Tata's recent statements to media in an insightful perspective. I share it below.

The Banana Sheiks

The Niira Radia tapes have firmly put the spotlight of adverse attention on politics and the media. But surprisingly, the loudest voice of protest—which is also a claim of innocence and a warning that the focus on the mud-smeared keeps attention off the real beasts in the 2G story—has come from India Inc. Ratan Tata, head of the Tata group and Radia’s foremost client, calls the leaked tapes “unauthorised” and their publication and the subsequent buzz “a smokescreen” for the real scam. He has asked the government to book those guilty in the 2G scam “but stop this banana republic kind of attack”.

For this paragon of propriety, rightly affronted by the breach of privacy, the whistle-blowing that brought the tapes into the open is symptomatic of a “banana republic”—never mind that it exposes the nexus between business, bureaucracy and the media. He has even enlightened us, in the course of a television interview, on what happens in banana republics: “Banana republics are run on cronyism. People of great power wield great power. People with less power, or those who are not in power, go to jail without adequate evidence or their bodies are found in the trunks of cars.” Sounds like one of the many cautionary notes wise men pronounce regarding the conditions the country could slide into if the rule of law is not upheld. But listen to those words, coming from a powerful industrialist, from the perspective of a whistle-blower, presumably someone with “less power”, and you would be forgiven for reading a threat between those lines.

Something good may come of it, after all, for the great man has helped us with the diagnosis by telling us how banana republics work—through cronyism, which has been on ample display in those very tapes he despises, though the more precise term for what the tapes reveal would be crony capitalism. What the cag report on 2G and the tapes reveal is the sale of spectrum at throwaway prices, changes in eligibility and procedural criteria to favour a few chosen ones, windfall gains through sale of equity and resale of spectrum, cartelisation through cross-holdings in supposedly rival companies, and lobbying for the appointment of a minister whose decisions made all that possible. They also hint at money-laundering, bribery and manipulation of policy, administration, the media and even the judiciary in matters like aviation and the quarrel over natural gas between the Ambani brothers. The primary driver in all this is capital: it is corporate houses that employ lobbyists to cozy up to politicians, bureaucrats and the media; it is corporate houses that cultivate and invest in these groups in order to corner windfalls. Corporate houses, therefore, cannot claim victimhood in a kleptocracy of their creation.

The diagnosis is for the UPA-2 government, professed champion of inclusive growth and the aam aadmi, to understand and act upon. For it’s crony capitalism that has driven the miracle growth rate of close to nine per cent. Rajeev Chandrashekhar, a Rajya Sabha MP and former FICCI president, has pointed out that agriculture has grown at a dismal one per cent and manufacturing at no more than three per cent. The so-called miracle has been achieved through phenomenal growth in mining, real estate, construction. Recent scams—Adarsh, CWG, the Bellary brothers’ many depredations, Yediyurappa’s land largesses to relatives, and not the least, the 2G scam itself—are strong enough indications of the profitable webs big business casts.

The public revulsion these scams have evoked should be a wake-up call. Pointing to bigger stains on the clothes of the opposition will not be enough to save this dispensation. Governments that were complacent about corruption were overthrown despite a decimated and vanquished opposition in the wake of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement in the 1970s and the Bofors disclosures in the late 1980s. The scale of robbery this time has been revealed to be so high, its execution so systematic, that it will take much more than window-dressing to save the government—and much more important—the poor who live in hope.

When the licence-permit raj was disbanded, ushering in liberalisation and globalisation and the promise of plenty, it was said cronyism would come to an end: anyone with initiative could compete on a level playing field. How mythical this is the robber barons of big capital have just driven home to us. The real smokescreen—one Ratan Tata is unlikely to warn against—is the neo-liberal rhetoric that shields crony capitalism and allows it to stealthily profit by influencing policy and leave India’s poor with empty bowls.

December 05, 2010

life in general: (part 1) 'unheard voices..' book written by harsh mander

There is one book that is very dear to me. It is Harsh Mander's 'Unheard Voices: Stories of Forgotten Lives' written by him some years back.

I share below excerpts from the book. It is one of the 20-odd stories of common Indian people that Mander has written about in the book.

Excerpts from the book:

Two decades after he was uprooted from the land of his ancestors, Nanhe Ram, still speaks little. Looking much older than his sixty years, he sits for long hours outside his dilapidated hut in the resettlement village of Aitma. He has no land, no cattle, no sons; his ageing wife labours all day in the forests or in the fields of the big farmers of the village, to keep the fires burning.

There is anguish but little recrimination, as he talks haltingly of the past. The first time they heard about the large dam that would submerge their village, he recalls, was when daily wages were twelve annas (which would probably be in the mid-1950s). Their village, as, indeed, the entire region, was hardly connected to the outside world, and until then they had encountered very few government officials. When men on bicycles, wearing trousers and shirts, rode into their villages to inform them about the dam, the tribal people living there had got scared and run away into the forests.

He did not know then that a gigantic thermal power complex was being planned in the neighbourhood of his village, at Korba, for which the two rivers that flowed there, the Hasdeo and Bango, were to be dammed. Fifty-nine tribal villages like his were to be submerged, twenty completely and the rest partially, along with 102 square kilometres of dense sal forest, to create a vast new reservoir of 213 square kilometres. No one consulted with the 2,721 families of these villages, condemned to become internal refugees in the cause of ‘national development’, profoundly and irrevocably. Some 2,318 of these families, who like Nanhe Ram were the least equipped because of their temperament, culture and lack of experience, to negotiate their new lives.

The survey work continued for six or seven years, and it was in 1961 that the first phase of the project, for the construction of the barrage and major canal was sanctioned. Nanhe recalls their fear and excitement when a small plane flew in as part of the on-going survey work. However, it was only a decade and a half later, in 1977, that the first settlement, Nanhe’s village, was actually submerged. In the intervening years, construction continued apace, but no one from the government planned any steps for their rehabilitation or even as much as spoke with them about how they might rebuild their lives in the future. They were completely ignored.

In 1977, a few months before their homes were actually submerged, the farmers were packed into a truck and driven to the divisional headquarters of Bilaspur, located in the heart of the Chhatisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh. Nanhe recalls that they arrived at the imposing building housing the district office in the late afternoon, and were bundled into a courtyard. There they were addressed by an official, who informed them that their village would be lost to the dam reservoir in just a few months, during the net monsoon, and that the government was therefore paying them the first installment of their compensation. For Nanhe, this was a niggardly Rs 540.

When their truck returned to their village, it was morning. The inhabitants found that the local revenue officer, the tehsildar, was waiting for them. The tehsildar wanted to recover the land revenue due from Nanhe out of this compensation amount. Nanhe lost Rs 300 to him, and the remaining Rs 240 also disappeared before long merely in day-to-day survival.

During the meeting at the district office, someone had timidly asked, But where are we to go when our village goes under in the next monsoon? The official had replied tersely, How do I know? Why don’t you go to your relatives’ homes? But, some weeks later, a bank of activists held a series of meetings in their village. How can they ask you to go to the homes of your relatives, they thundered. Did your relatives build this dam? They organized demonstrations and rallies, in which many young tribals of the village also participated. Nanhe was confused and frightened, and he held himself aloof. Eventually, the government conceded that the tribal families that were being submerged would be given house-sites in a resettlement colony located in the forest uplands.

In the few months that remained, Nanhe made plans in his own way for the future. Where and how they would live, he did not know. He was worried first about his cow, whom they all loved. He knew that he would not be able to take care of her in the resettlement village, at a time when even keeping his wife and two daughters alive would be very hard. He also could not think of selling her, because she was like a member of the family. So he gave her to an Ahir cowherd, and promised to pay him Rs 150 each year for looking after her. Nanhe continued, despite all his subsequent tribulations, to save and send money for the upkeep of the cow for ten years, until the cow died.

Just a day before the monsoon broke, the trucks arrived. The people were given only a few hours to bundle their belongings into the trucks. They were then driven to the resettlement village, in which house plots of .05 acres each had been hurriedly cleared for them in the forest. The rains broke early, and Nanhe and his family spent the entire monsoon huddled with their few belongings under a mahua tree. In the dry spells, Nanhe struggled, trying to build a small hut, while his wife scoured the forests for food.

The remaining instalments of compensation were paid only fifteen years later, in 1992. Nanhe received a cheque of Rs 2,000, which he used to repay loans to the moneylender. Nanhe survived on occasional wage labour, but only barely. It was around then that for the first time, under pressure from activists, the government initiated a few livelihood programmes. Although the government has since spent some two crore rupeeds in the resettlement region in recent years to belatedly provide livelihoods to the displaced families, there has been little success. Fishing in the new reservoir is dominated by outside contractors. Forty lakh rupees were spent on a poultry farm, which ran for a few months, with twelve beneficiaries who were given 100 birds each. The birds suddenly died of some illness, and the farm closed down. The manager of the poultry farm departed after making a young tribal girl pregnant. Ambar charkhas or spinning looms were installed, but raw material supply and marketing were erratic. The looms provided wages in fits and starts, and that too only one rupee a day.

The resettlement villages are at the periphery of the large artificial reservoir, connected by earth roads that get submerged after the rains each year. In these inaccessible, remote, artificial settlements, not only are jobs hard to come by but life is very hard in other ways as well. Schools, health centres, credit cooperatives and ration shops rarely function. If someone is seriously ill during the rainy months, the only way to reach a hospital is by undertaking a perilous journey of three hours on a small leaking dinghy.

Not surprisingly, of the 208 families that had been resettled in Aitma, only sixty remain. The rest have migrated, either to the forests as encroachers, or to the city slums, in desperate search of means for bare survival.

Nanhe is among the few who remain, because he had neither the strength, nor the will to struggle and to start life anew one more time. He sits quietly outside his hut for most of the day. But sometimes when he speaks, he says softly to anyone who is willing to hear. When I am on a boat, in the middle of the reservoir, and I know that hundreds of feet beneath me, at that very point, lie my village and my home and my fields, all of which are lost forever, it is then that my chest rips apart, and I cannot bear the pain…

December 03, 2010

life in journalism: a welcome torchlight on unhealthy aspects of Indian journalism

Every once in a while the ugly facets of Indian media editors come out in the open. Last week, Outlook magazine published the tapes between Nira Radia and a few media editors and journalists. Everything about the issue and the tapes can be on Outlook's website here, here, here, here, here and here.

Nira Radia and her firms including Vaishanvi handle the public relations of all the companies of the Tata Group (whose chairman is Rata Tata) and the Reliance Industries Group (whose chairman is Mukesh Ambani).

Its good that the Radia tapes have been published by Outlook magazine. Such a torchlight was necessary, and I am sure other dirty aspects of Indian journalism would also not remain un-hidden forever.

The editors who feature in these tapes are not the only ones who subtly plugged Radia's clients in their publications and television channels or to political parties using their influence. There are a few other media editors too who do the plugging in their publications/channels but do so in a very cunning manner. I have no doubt that over time these editors would receive payback for their un-ethical and dangerous liaisons with large companies and their PR representatives.

I have written about the unhealthy practises in journalism in my blog a few times. In one of my blog post (29 September 2008 one) I even mentioned Vaishnavi company (owned and run by Radia) by name. I share below the contents of that blog post:

There is a slyness with which India Inc and their pubic relations (PR) companies treat the media. Partly, of course, it is the media's self-imposed cowardliness but it also due to the sophistication that the public relations companies (or in some cased the companies do it directly without hiring a public relations firm) deploy to discourage/intimidate/fool the editors and journalists that dare to ask even basic tough questions about their client-companies.
As a journalist, I have seen how some PR companies directly deal with the Editor-in-chief (or other senior editors) of a publication or a news channel and try to manipulate them if they perceive a junior-level editor/reporter probing the affairs of their clients a little deeper (such a journalist, in my view, would only be carrying out his/her journalistic duties more diligently).
The PR companies that try to aggressively wield a lot of influence on the top media editors include Genesis Burson-Marsteller, Vaishnavi PR, Perfect Relations and 2-3 more.
The media dare not even write about their PR companies as a part of the regular coverage of the role of all kinds of business entities in the economy and industry. But in June this year Tehelka magazine dared and wrote a story on them (you can read it here). It was a welcome torchlight on an evasive bunch of people although I still felt the story was soft.
There is a lot more to say about the techniques used by the PR companies that would do a Goebbels proud. The readers/viewers of Indian media do not adequately know the kind of insights/news/analysis they are missing out on due to such Goebbels'.