Tuesday, August 15

70 Years - Two peculiarities

As we mark 70 years of independence I can't help but feel how less of an inward looking people we have become. While it's easy to see how, to quote Nehru, a 'nation long suppressed' slowly finds its feet after two centuries of subjugation, it's hard to justify two traits we as a people consciously or sub-consciously exhibit - self neglect and self doubt. These are characteristics amplified by our ubiquitous media - which therefore is my bugbear here.

To start with, our media seems to have gradually turned lesser and lesser Indo-centric with each passing year. While it's a fact that we no longer live in a socialist cocoon and are intertwined economically with the major world powers that be, we often misunderstand the nature of our global assimilation by needlessly focusing on foreign local issues that are hardly relevant to the Indian populace. We do this at the cost of the now mundane but more pressing problems the Indian common man (sic) faces. As the 24X7 media evolves the myriad stories that impact India gradually seem to have been accorded tier II status. A recent example would be the coverage that 'Charlottesville' received as opposed to the trickle given to Medha Patkar's 17 day long fast or the Floods that continue to ravage and displace large swathes of poor in Asom, Bihar and Bengal. The distress in agriculture including the incessant farmer suicides, our killer roads, sanitation (or what passes for it) and crime against women are all now banal items for the media and merit attention only when the afflicted involve someone influential (like say the Chandigarh stalking case) or when the story has 'shock value' (like the farmer protests in Delhi few months ago). I for one can't recall a single tragedy that has happened in the country which was accurately flagged or forewarned by our media. While the media does do well to reflect and even stoke popular rage after events such as 'Gorakhpur' it rarely works as a pro-active, pre-emptive watchdog that highlights shortcomings in governance before a situation worsens and eventually collapses. And we shouldn't even get into trivialities such as on how well the media sustains its investigations or actually 'follows up'. I remember, that after having turned a nelson's eye to the long spate of over 40 politically connected murders surrounding the dubious government recruitment exams in a state, a certain veteran journo once furiously tweeted in 2015 and vowed to cover the 'Vyapam scam' everyday till justice is done. As expected, this bravado fizzled out within days. And of late, to make matters worse, media houses have aligned themselves in two distinct camps - pro and anti government (an unwanted American import). Any residual hopes of meaningful, objective reportage thus go crashing further. All this proves how our media is still hands-off rather than hands-on with our issues that warrant attention and a sense of activist news coverage.

Another curious obsession our media shows is on how their foreign counterparts cover Indian happenings. Be it a sporting achievement by our national team or a near-positive, albeit dubious, statistic on the economy, our fourth estate fervently projects an op-ed or a quote by any non-Indian straight into our living rooms. We suddenly find hitherto unknown, and potential lightweight, columnists writing paeans on our growth figures and other achievements which we Indians ourselves find circumspect. A sporting icon is not regarded great till he or she is validated by a foreign expert. All this is however very much inline with the general Indian longing for acceptance by the 'international community' (euphemism for Caucasians as the dark skinned don't qualify). The way we Indians suddenly metamorphosize into a courteous, well mannered pal when in the company of a foreigner goes beyond our role of being a gratuitous host and into the realm of desperate praise-seekers. In the alien's presence, our slums, sewers, our legendary sexism are all brushed under the carpet and the glitzy malls, cinema halls, monuments and natural beauty are put up on display. All this to quench that urge to impress the visitor with our uncertain sense of self existence. In the process though we come across like tail wagging dogs somehow vying to get strangers to pat them. Athithidevo 'bow-wow'. And be it our news presenters on TV, airline staff or hotel staff - they all seem to bend over backwards to ensure traveling guests "blend in". To give the "international feel", the airline crew in our private carriers dress only in western formals leaving the poor ol' Government carrier Air India to carry the flag of tradition and adopt Indian wear for its staff. A similar fear leads our corporations (Indian MNCs) to believe in the more "accepting" nature of western styles. For some reason, saris, salwars, kurtas are symbolic wear reserved only for national holidays. My gripe is limited to their formal wear, I must add, as I barely care how anyone dress off duty. Another instance of our nervousness is the time when our tinpot rulers got their occasional fit of cultural pride and started to rechristen our cities by dropping their colonial names and adopting their indigenous/historical names. It would've been completely valid to ask if the Government had no other pressing issues instead of such antics. But instead, the popular war-cry that citizens came out with was "This will affect adversely impact the city's global brand and image". We actually believe that foreigners are imbeciles who will invest and do business with India by factoring such reasons! Apparently, better policies, permissions, improved infrastructure and corruption are only secondary to anglicized names and western attire. This unending search for external certification continues to carry us to mindless heights. I also remember, a couple of years ago, an Indian news agency had put up a tweet of a photo of PM Modi's official plane parked right next to POTUS's air force one on the apron of an airport during a global meet. That the news agency thought it worthy to put up this piece of information is another manifestation of our larger malaise. Perhaps, deep down, we're still slaves and perhaps we, as the famous line in the movie Lagaan goes, 'Hamesha jooti ke neeche hi rahega!'. I wonder if some of my countrymen would not be slighted and in fact take solace in the fact that this Hindi line as it was delivered by an English actor in an anglicized accent.

Happy Independence day!

Friday, July 14

On IT Layoffs

I've a dirty schadenfreude about the recent wave of job losses and office closures that are being reported in the IT/ITES industry as, to start with, I never really thought of software engineers as engineers at all ;) I realize it's a really unpleasant situation, and I pity those who've been retrenched as afterall who'd get pleasure by seeing someone jobless? However, small happenings like these bring with them a sense of perverted justice coming to people like me. I may regret it.

Snide remark: while core or traditional engineering (Civil, Mechanical, Chemical, Electrical) grads were always fated to sweat it in the unforgiving outdoors, greasy shop floors or steamy plants, our Comp Sc./IT siblings enjoyed a mollycoddled, solitary, hindrance free devotion to a glorified abacus cum typewriter. Being rarely exposed to the elements, they can be credited to bringing the "soft" back in software.

Recap: by smartly leveraging relatively cheap/er, English educated, English speaking (debatable proficiency), technical Indian workforce our IT giants who began by offering low cost solutions to MNCs quickly expanded their global footprint and widened, out of necessity, their employee base thereby stunting the brain drain. Soon, a swarm of NRIs, who largely emigrated to the US to solve the Y2K bug never to return, joined the Indian IT bandwagon and we soon had a plethora of IT start-ups ala Mom and Pop stores around the corner. And as they began to be flooded with assignments, these companies began to over-plan and over-hire in anticipation of more orders. Overwhelmed with campus hires, pre-placement offers and lateral entries technical/educational institutions and recruitment agencies made a killing. Pay-scales offered at entry stages were far higher than what graduates from other specializations could obtain and the compensation at higher levels was unimaginable for non IT folk at the time. Engineering graduates from other specializations were also encouraged to join in and trained from scratch to become consultants. Consultants were posted to cozy "site" postings (client side) which were usually abroad, at client offices, as an incentive thanks to liberal work visas (e.g. H1B) in pre-protectionist Europe and North America. IT thus also became an easy access pass to a dream emigration.

  • The emergence of a vast army of idle employees "on the bench" wasting time while waiting for the next big opportunity where they can be plotted. Employees eventually spent months and years at end idling and leaving their skills wasted. The latest bout of retrenchment may actually be that companies are now realizing
  • The opportunistic emigration by exploiting work permit norms and obtaining residency many an Indian employee found himself joining the band of the nouveau riche. Their eventual ascension, at least back home in India, on the social ladder now meant that they were prized and much sought-after potential bridegrooms who commanded a hefty dowry from pliant families who wished to "handover" their daughters to an NRI and claim bragging rights. Warm regards, Gultis :D
  • My primary grouse is that because everyone was drawn to IT, a shortage of core engg. graduates ensued. Many engineers, frustrated with their tough working conditions, were found spending money and enrolling for classes on a programming language or two to make it to the IT corporations.

Gripe: The sheer nature, though, of the IT business that evolved over this period invariably meant that these companies served foreign clients spread across the world and rarely within the country. This brought in precious FDI for the Government but did little help as far as Indian public sector or the public at large was concerned. IT cos barely contributed substantial for their own countrymen whereas core engg. professionals built roads, buildings, tunnels, aeroplanes, furnaces, boilers and what-have-yous. While the IT guy always welcome the site sojourns the core guy, on the other hand, dreaded site postings and only prayed that if he is transferred to another site at least it be closer to his home. One word, two perceptions.

Point: Some industries grow faster than others. IT grew, and how!, but lead to a skewed workforce. Corporate India seriously needs to have a re-look at how traditional engineers are being perceived, treated and compensated. They toil hard and in sometimes unforgiving conditions in the face of steep targets. Closing the gap with IT engineers should be a priority. Effort and skill across sectors needs to be weighed evenly and the difference in wages needs to be brought down. Even getting your salary on time is a luxury in the construction industry since the past five years! The Government needs to seriously encourage construction and capital projects in general and do its part to ensure that some engineers don't suffer low wages just because of market forces, demand and supply. Every graduate needs to be given the opportunity within the country to live a life other technical graduates do.

P.S: I need to counter some of my own points
  1. I concede that the IT industry did have an indirect impact by being an infrastructure 'attractor' as physical assets were and are being built to facilitate IT entrepreneurship through exclusive SEZs and development of mass transportation, ring roads, etc. 
  2. The point on Indians not benefiting is now gradually changing as more indigenous companies benefit from our IT expertise and more e-governance initiatives are undertaken.
  3. My point about being 'on the bench' applied to almost every sector and not just IT but I've found it more prevalent among IT cos.
  4. I know the indispensability of IT in today's world, nowhere am I calling for it to be shutdown or undervalued.
  5. Core engineers draw very good salaries abroad, especially in the Gulf and Africa, but my point is that they shouldn't need to venture out for a good living.

Monday, March 13

What Voters Want

Does good delivery of infrastructure translate into votes? History answers in the negative, at least as far as transportation infrastructure goes.

1999: After building the hugely successful greenfield Mumbai - Pune Expressway, the Shiv Sena + BJP combine lost Maharashtra.

2004: Here we find how the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana - PMGSY - and the National Highway Development Program - NHDP (remember Golden Quadrilateral) - which took off, touted as Vajpayee's brainchild, didn't yield political dividends for the then NDA Government. Neither did Delhi Metro which began operations in 2002 and was globally appreciated.

2017: The parallel to be drawn here is that despite commissioning the massive Agra - Lucknow Expressway in a record time of 23 months, arguably the fastest for such a length - 302 km, and having almost opened the first phase of Lucknow Metro at a brisk pace, we saw how the Samajwadi Party (SP) meet the same fate in UP. The Moradabad - Bareilly National Highway project too saw operations starting during SP's tenure (central government projects do not finish without the state government's assistance). Banking on all these, while I did feel SP's #KaamBoltaHai election slogan was a bit arrogant, it can't be denied there were good reasons why it was adopted in the first place.

This makes me wonder that Governments that do well on the infrastructure front often face a backlash from the masses instead of being entrusted with governance again.

Perhaps the people, the voters, don't really know what they want.

Sunday, September 13

Where violation is a virtue

It's taken an overnight tunnel site accident that resulted in loss of one, perhaps 3, innocent lives in a highway project of my company that compelled me to put pen to paper on what's increasingly becoming a general, undiagnosed malaise among our countrymen.

I feel fortunate and thank God for keeping me safe and away from that tragedy as it was no later than three days since I visited that tunnel myself as part of an audit in that project. While I lay here, hale, I feel terrible about those poor workers who're no more. Trapped under the collapsed earth, inside, with hardly any air to breathe, few may even be clinging on, fighting for dear life for rescue to reach. I pray they all are rescued before their last throes.

Times like these one wonders if science has failed us, or have we failed to harness it to the extent we could. Or maybe there's something else. Engineering is always a challenge in a diverse geography like India. And our knowledge of niche engineering is largely confined only to the limits of the experience our resident engineers possess and our education system, or the lack of it. A fortunate few pursue and obtain Class I, state of the art knowhow abroad. But largely, subject specialisation lacks variety and depth overall in our institutes. The system, we know, doesn't merit knowledge and aptitude, but reproduction of content on paper. An assembly line of doubtful degrees moves every year. We feel the pinch when on the ground, while undertaking construction in tough terrain. While fighting the forces of nature, our dependence on imported knowledge increases. We then realise we hardly possess expertise to doubt an advice in a technical and practicable way. The advice may prove something that may fail us in the most dire of need as the matter is usually taken as Gospel truth and unquestionable, especially when it emanates from a national belonging to a developed country.

We trust, but fail to verify.

Again, such outsourced solutions to homegrown, inherent problems often assume a level of work culture and discipline that's widely seen and followed abroad, usually in the home country of the advisors or consultants. The work ethos in Indian projects is such that negligence is often perceived as a virtue. A project manager found ignoring safety and environmental measures is deemed practical and pragmatic, and someone who's really driving the work at a scorching pace. A man like him is most likely to meet timelines and reduce the company's woes. With debts piling up, banks increasingly sceptical on further lending, mounting interest costs and an unsympathetic Clients, infra Cos are in dire straits no doubt. So Mr. Bulldozer eventually becomes the apple of the CEO's eyes, his numero uno, and almost always a potential elevation come March. These modern day minotaurs are notorious for ignoring workers health, hygiene and camp quarters. Tragically, they overlook a fact that foreign advice often presumes good to excellent working conditions and systems, and an uncompromising dedication to quality.

In both, he bargains while his workers pay a price.

I also find some other indirect reasons for worker deaths, accidents and general unsafe working conditions. They, in my view, are:
  1. Constant comparisons to China, that feed hallucinations of fast growth and imaginary catch up. Work is sped up full throttle as our Elephant (white) needs to fly past the flying dragon soon. 
  2. Unavailability and increasing rarity of Land as a resource and grants of other clearances. This leads to contractors making do with whatever is at hand and cutting corners in the process. 
  3. Unrealistic project durations set by the client, one who's fond of toothing it's own horn to market construction of 10, 20, 30 km per day to grab headlines. 
  4. Scarcity of construction materials especially sand and aggregates. These lead to acceptance of substandard works as rework costs using these materials are very high to the contractor. Clients and consultants often "sympathise" with the contractor. 
  5. Local problems and political interference leads to a feeling among contractors to just finish the damn job and get out of there. Environment, health, safety be damned.
  6. Most infra Cos are owner driven and hold no internationally accepted HR practices and almost no sense of accountability. Rarely do heads roll following a disaster at site. The buck never stops anywhere. 
  7. Last but not the least, palms of who's who of the project are invariably greased and a below average performance is "considered". 
Our population is like a large jute sack full of peas. Even if a pea or two pop out when we're running with the sack, it doesn't matter.

Friday, May 8

On the Salman Khan case

We Indians love grabbing the high moral ground. Given a chance we'd love to sit pretty atop an ethical perch looking down on the mortals, some popular some commoners, and judge them till death. The Salman Khan hit-and-run episode that culminated in his convition nearly 13 years after the occurrence is a case in point. While most of us, the professedly non-partisan viewers, have chastisized him for runnning away from the scene, offering no remorse and blatantly lying on oath during trial, few have actually gone into the how and why "society" (sic) perceived the entire case and the individual in question. 

By having the comfort of not being a party to this sad incident one can easily make an opinon and colour it with a sense of right and wrong. It does'nt need much to do that. Anyone with even a basic sense of what constitutes humane behaviour can say what SK ought to and ought not to have done at the scene and later during trial. But when the authorities comes knocking at your door how many of us can actually stand our ground and do the very things what we expect this "celebrity" should've done? The truth being: put yourself in his shoes and you would have done something similar, no matter how firecely you condemn SK now. How easy is it to find those who, after committing a crime, brave the odds and turn themselves in, face the judgement and bear the punishment. When push comes to shove we too would hire a 'black coat' and try twisting the law of the land without batting an eyelid. No one wants to bear the full brunt of the law, and this I dare say applies to almost any goody-two-shoes. In the courtroom, even a saint would do all he can to cushion the weight of the law before it falls on him. And this is all under oath. It's the fear of the gavel, milord!

We always tend to set and expect celebrities to consistently meet the unassailable benchmark of values. While the standard would usually not apply to our kith and kin we argue and demand the rich and the famous observe it without protest. Aren't these celebrities being human (pun not intended) afterall? Isn't it about time that we see them as fallible individuals just like most of us are? Why do we feel that they need to live their lives setting examples to one and all and always try to attain the highest moral pedestal, nothing less? There are no Mr/Ms Perfects and let us accept that. They too can, and have, faultered and had a brush against the laws of the land. Unfortunately an innocent life was lost but it could have actually happened to anyone. A boozer, a rash driver, a driving enthusiast, an adrenaline junkie... anyone. SK was perhaps all of this.. only he was caught in the act and killed a pavement dweller in his moment of madness.

Come to think of it, we've all tried and probably have "breaking/broken the law" either for fun or out of negligence but we have, albeit in smaller and less serious measure. We're no law abiding citizens ourselves and let's admit it. Among us there are employees who produce fake bills for reimbursements, those who bribe traffic policeman when caught without helmets or seat belts, and those who jump the occassional traffic signal when "no one's around, watching". We're as "sincere" as any celebrity. Again in SK's case, had it been a common man who was in his shoes, the arguments his lawyer would've made could have been as deceiving or worse. The man would've probably bribed one and all and got his name cleared. However, here, the media didn't take its foot off the pedestal in SK's trial and we all voyeuristically read on and judged SK after every proceeding, being true to our nature as 'armchair critics'. Were our values on leave since 2002 till now when we watched his movies and TV shows, raved over his performances (although I personally thought it impossible, given his acting or the apparent absence of it), and recommended his movies to our friends or family? Why didn't we boycott him back then? How did his movies prove such blockbusters had we innocent observers not patronized his films and shows? We're all selective Ghajinis. I also find it hypocritical that many of us came out with this "spare a though for the victim' family" supplement while damning Salman. Most of us, we know this, don't even acknowledge the presence of the numerous poor and homeless people we encounter daily, either at the bus stop, at the station or at the traffic signal. Do we really "spare a thought" for the poor? Honestly? Are we actually so socially caring or charitable that we defend the poor victim's family's rights only when they are violated by celebrities? Where's our voice on the issues our country faces everyday where lower sections are stamped upon? Unbelieveable! But then, everybody likes to be a spokesperson for the poor right? To his credit, SK did engage in a lot of charitable work and espoused many a cause even before the incident. We can doubt our own sincerity towards causes but not that fact.

In closing: nobody's perfect, we're all nobodies. To borrow MJ's lyrics: "I'm starting with the man in the mirror; I'm asking him to change his ways".

P.S: This in no way is my attempt to criticize the judgement or condone Salman Khan. Accepting celebrities for the ability to err is what we can learn, given how frequently we err ourselves.

Sunday, September 26

Few of my poems

These poems I wrote for an Event on FB where, the words being limited to twenty and has to include one word (mentioned in CAPS) from the preceding poem, made for a great string

Jeering his GENIUS,
the "Whites" gave him many;
a snub, but scant they knew,
his find ushered their moment of epiphany
- ode to Ramanujan


Lonely lanes to venture,
bystanders leave no glance,
JUST an abandoned walking trail,
with a stranger in a strange land


This GAME brought us all together,
like subjects of the same sultanate,
alas, but not forever,
as today is the penultimate


Better be it,
that the games fail,
may it be ON the coffins of our high handedness,
the final nail


The patrols pass by,
penetrating gaze - warning by each soldier,
lest there sparks wanton panic,
staring into EYES of the beholder


Set off, jumping gun,
trusted my impish gumption,
now on a ROAD to penance,
back to a path of redemption


Nay-sayers burn with envy,
at my poetic knack and wealth,
for those found wanting,
CLAIM work for public health
- mocking a fellow participant


ROADS I build,
but not their routes,
pity they suffer from farsight,
despite dwelling and gazing atop palm shoots
- making fun of Mallus


All my detractors,
who get me fuming,
I'll come up with many a repartee,
even if I hit ground RUNNING


Like I'm drifting the backwaters,
sipping on Coconut juice,
but folks apparently FAIR,
these Kuruvillas, Matthews and Josephs confuse
- another dig at my fellow Mallu participants


Breathing sighs of relief,
thanking God a-plenty,
as I enter here; a numerate,
pray I can count to twenty


Motley FLIGHT of poets,
idioms and puns abound,
northerners, southerners, western, eastern,
wonder why I be the only Gulti around?


Once an ace,
honoured often with a shawl,
now a street-dweller,
the only BLANKET will be his shroud


FIERY head but flawless grace,
femme fatale and blissful face,
the woman of substance - for all to gaze


New year's party,
city-bred guzzled crazy,
shamefully displayed their hedonist fangs,
village-folk whet their mouths with HUNGER pangs


Our saving grace,
at a sport you ace,
star, so bright that shall shine-a,
pray glory at the 'Games, SAINA!


She bumped into a stranger,
in her dreams he changed her,
deep in his thoughts she was falling,
its when it struck - it was the CALLING


Storming the city with kalashnikovs and grenades,
taken as a prisoner of war,
he retracted when made to FACE BOOK
- on Kasab


'Saffron terror' - the pseudo PITCH,
lack of faith or pseudo-secularists - which?


Drifting up in a BALOON of hope,
he longs to ignite his yearning flame,
and lamp murky clouds, seeking love


Our lips besides one another live their own;
TODAY, they speak words otherwise unkown;
for tomorrow keep mum and forlorn