It’s okay to sell and drink alcohol in India. But it’s not okay to advertise it on television. Immensely silly, I think.
Now I’m off to get me some packaged drinking water.
My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.
To buy it online from the US, click here.
I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.
If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho
Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.
And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.
It’s okay to sell and drink alcohol in India. But it’s not okay to advertise it on television. Immensely silly, I think.
Now I’m off to get me some packaged drinking water.
CNN-IBN tells us about the All Kerala Drinkers’ Welfare Association, an association that “pledges to protect the rights of alcoholics.” This association has apparently “presented the government with a 15-point demand that includes a room for the lower-middle class drinker.”
I wonder why they haven’t asked for reservations yet. Don’t government offices discriminate against alcoholics?
(Link via email from Gautam John.)
Posted by Amit Varma on 17 March, 2007 in India
There is nothing in the world as dangerous as blind faith. No, no, this is not yet another rant against organised religion: there is enough damnation already scheduled upon me. There is another beast that benefits from blind faith quite as much as religion, and that causes as much harm from our lack of questioning: a beast called government.
Don’t get me wrong, we need government. We need it to take care of law and order, of defense, and for a handful of other things. (I don’t have a very large hand.) But the governments we have, not just in India but virtually everywhere, are vast, monstrous behemoths that are many multiples of the size they need to be. The cost of this, of course, is borne by us: we pay far more tax than we should need to in order to keep government going, and to justify its size the government clamps down on private enterprise and individual freedoms.
Part of our blind faith in government comes from the way we view it. Governments are not supercomputers programmed to work tirelessly for the public interest, nor are they benevolent, supernatural beings constantly striving to give us what we require. On the contrary, governments are collections of people, individuals like you and me, motivated by self-interest. The actions of government are the actions of these men and women, and the best way to understand how they are likely to behave—and therefore, how governments are likely to behave—is to consider their incentives.
“High-profile court trials live on TV soon,” reports the Times of India. The report elaborates:
The government is speaking to major SMS operators to examine the feasibility of having major cases decided by public voting.
Ok, ok, I made that second bit up. The government doesn’t need to do that. It has other revenue streams.
Posted by Amit Varma on 14 March, 2007 in India
My belief in how we should deal with Pakistan was outlined in an earlier post, where I wrote:
I embrace what appears to many to be two contradictory approaches: an uncompromisingly hard line when it comes to terrorism, and a deepening of trade and people-to-people contact. Both work towards the same end.
I remmbering discussing this with Nitin Pai over a series of emails, trying to bring him round to my point of view, and Nitin has now come out with an excellent Op-Ed in Mint that elaborates on my point about using trade to subvert the military’s hold on Pakistan, and explains how the peace process should be re-engineered. Do read.
Orkut has been at the heart of many storms in India (1, 2, 3, 4). Well, no doubt facing the threat of being blocked in India, they have agreed to cooperate with the Indian government to catch people who post “objectionable material on the web.” Indian Express reports:
Following a meeting between representatives of the site and the Enforcement Directorate last month, the Mumbai Police and Orkut have entered into an agreement to seal such cooperation in matters of objectionable material on the web.
“Early February, I met three representatives from Orkut.com, including a top official from the US. The other two were from Bangalore. We reached a working agreement whereby Orkut has agreed to provide us details of the ip address from which an objectionable message or blog has been posted on the site and the Internet service provider involved,” said DCP Enforcement, Sanjay Mohite.
The big worry here is what Mr Mohite means by “objectionable message or blog.” As I’d outlined in my WSJ Op-Ed, “Fighting Against Censorship,” free speech is coming under sustained attack in India, and giving offence is too often treated as a crime. I hope the Indian government won’t misuse this to act as a cultural or moral police: India isn’t China, and should have nothing to fear from free speech.
Update: Brazilian authorities also get special access to censor Orkut. Details on Boing Boing.
Update 2: Google responds. (Scroll down.)
Why do I find this conversation fascinating?
Shut up. That was a rhetorical question.
(Link via email from MadMan.)
Posted by Amit Varma on 13 March, 2007 in India
ATimes of India report begins:
Protests against Bengal’s industrial revitalisation could receive a new fillip after the suicide of a 62-year-old cultivator, an organiser of the Krishi Jami Raksha Committee (KJRC) in Singur, who lost nearly an acre of land to the Tata Motors project.
This is either dishonest reporting or shoddy journalism, and I shall give the benefit of the doubt to the reporter and assume that it is the latter. The protests at Singur are not against “Bengal’s industrial revitalisation” but against the forceful appropriation of land by the government. As I wrote in an earlier post on eminent domain and Singur, it really does not matter if the farmers got compensation: if they did not want to sell, it is theft.
Now, eminent domain might be justifiable as a last resort for matters of public use, such as building roads, but it is outrageous when it is applied to take land from poor farmers and give it to a rich industrial house. The irony here is that Tata would probably have been willing to negotiate with the farmers for the land directly, but by law, farmers aren’t allowed to sell their agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. Yes, that’s right: even if Tata was willing to talk to the farmers and negotiate with them, and farmers were willing to sell, it would have been an illegal transaction. So Tata had no choice but to go to the government, which, of course, is not into negotiating, and simply took the land by force.
I entirely agree with Shruti Rajagopalan when she writes here that the fundamental right to property, revoked in 1978, should be reinstated in our constitution. An “industrial revitalisation” is only sustainable when property rights are sacrosanct. Otherwise it’s a mockery.
Most of the Indian women I know who are around 30 years old are unmarried—and they’re happy that way. That is why I was somewhat bemused by this line in a Reuters report of Liz Hurley’s wedding:
Indian women are commonly married off in their teens to a man of their parents’ choosing, and are a cause of despair if they are still a spinster at 30.
Clearly the reporter in question, Jonathan Allen, had just flown down to India for the wedding, and obviously hadn’t spent any time here to get to know the place. Perhaps he even read Kipling for his research.
In tune with their coverage of India in the 19th century, another Reuters headline reads, “Horses, elephants to star in Hurley’s Hindu wedding.” I’m relieved that there is nothing in the text about how Indians worship the cow and consider it their mother. Joy.
Everybody wants a share of the pie. Reservations, pah!
(My feelings on reservations have been expressed here. What else is there to say? The divisions grow…)
This piece of mine has been published in the March 9, 2007 issue of Time Out Mumbai as “Field Days.”
Television was the best thing that happened to Indian cricket, and then the worst.
Once upon a time television pushed cricket into the modern age in India. As India opened up to the world a decade-and-a-half ago, in more ways than one, kids in small towns throughout the country tuned into satellite television and saw a brave new world. Instead of homegrown DD commentators uttering banalities in two languages, they saw the best cricket broadcasters in the world educating them on the game: From the likes of Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Geoff Boycott and Martin Crowe, they learned to appreciate the nuances of the sport. They picked up the values that would help them thrive in international cricket: once, pot-bellied Indian cricketers would saunter between wickets and refuse to dive while fielding because, apparently, Indian grounds were hard. Look at any Indian cricketer below the age of 25, and you shall see the good that television has done.
But television also made itself a slave to the monster it created. In a celebrity-obsessed era, viewers craved the familiar, and broadcasters stopped taking chances: at a certain point in time, it became default policy to hire ex-cricketers as commentators. Sometimes ex-cricketers provide the insight only a player can. But most ex-cricketers who have turned to commentary in the last few years have been hired for star value. They know it, and don’t work as hard at preparing for a game as they should, and it shows. Cliches abound, as they work on auto-pilot. It is no coincidence that India’s only world-class commentator is the only non-player who’s made a place for himself in the commentary box: Harsha Bhogle. It is unlikely that too many others will get a chance.
A 30-year-old gent from Mumbai has reportedly approached the Bombay High Court asking that they declare him to be God. HIndustan Times reports:
“I am the supreme lord and the god of all religions. I am Jesus Christ, Lord Ram, Lord Krishna and even Gautam Buddha. Earlier, I was born as Alexander the great,” Dharmendra Mishra told the court.
This supreme god had one prayer to make to the high court — ask President APJ Abdul Kalam to officially declare him as god and hand him the affairs of the nation.
“Give me the power to rule the country, the world and the United Nations,” he told the division bench of acting Chief Justice J.N. Patel and Justice S.C. Dharmadhikari.
This is savagely joyful. To my unending dismay, the court dismissed his petition, “saying that such a case does not fall under the jurisdiction of the judiciary.” Pah.
But the most delightful element of it all is that the fellow works in a call center. I can imagine some poor housewife from Texas calling a helpline because her washing machine isn’t working, and this guy picks up and says, “Hello, this is God on the line. How may I help you?”
Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in India
Because the economy benefits from her marriage to Arun Nayar. Times of India reports:
The hospitality sector estimates that the Jodhpur wedding [between Nayar and Hurley] should cost about Rs 1 crore.
I’m assuming that with so many foreign guests coming down, and some of them perhaps being tempted to return later, the indirect benefits of the wedding will be even greater than that. And much of the money spent may not have been spent within India if not for Liz Hurley. Thus, however much we may envy the rich their ability so spend so ostentatiously, we should actually encourage them to do more of this, because it ends up creating jobs for people at the bottom of the ladder throughout the hospitality industry.
Also read: “Lavish weddings are good for the economy.”
Or rather, US$7.922 billion. That’s how much money a Punekar named Hasan Ali was allegedly worth until recently. CNN-IBN reports:
The Income Tax department claims to have traced unaccounted wealth valued at Rs 35,000 crore to accounts operated by a Pune-based businessman Hasan Ali.
If true, and if that is the sum total of Mr Ali’s wealth, he would place No. 62 in the Forbes list of the richest men in the world. What I find stunning is that with this kind of money, he didn’t simply buy himself immunity from the legal system by putting top politicians and bureaucrats in his pocket.
And on an entirely unrelated note, is it only me who finds the following line, from the Wikipedia page on the Sahara Group, somewhat amusing?
Sahara india parivar is the largest family in the world. [sic]
Such procreation must happen!
(CNN-IBN link via email from Gautam John.)
Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in India
Naveen Mandava had an excellent Op-Ed in Mint today, which he reproduces on his blog, titled “The Unknown Education Revolution in India.” It adds to the argument for school choice in India, and illustrates how lesser government regulation can lead to greater growth.
Also read: My WSJ Op-Ed on the subject, “Why India needs school vouchers.”
Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in India
This is the latest installment of my column for Mint, Thinking It Through. It is an elaboration of my concerns behind my ongoing series, Where Your Taxes Go, and I’d like to thank all the readers and bloggers who have sent me links for that. Keep them coming, and keep expressing your outrage on your own blogs as well.
These are good times for Unani. In his latest budget, the honourable P Chidambaram allocated Rs. 563.88 crores for the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. I kid you not, I am not making this up for your satirical amusement. That departments exists. And you work your ass off, and make sacrifices, so that it can be funded. You and your maidservant.
On my blog, I have a section called “Where Your Taxes Go,” where I document strange instances of how our taxes are put to use. There is much there that is trivial and amusing—a moustache allowance for a havaldar in Lucknow, compensation for a bank employee mistakenly declared dead, salary for an 11-year-old teacher, relocation of monkeys from New Delhi to MP (only Rs. 25 lakhs). There is also much there that underscores the irresponsibility of our politicians—toilet refurbishment allowances for Jharkhand legislators, parliament hold-ups that cost 20k a minute, the 90 lakh free TVs that the DMK promised in Tamil Nadu to get elected there. Most of us are so used to government wastage that we shrug this off. “Pata hai yaar,” we say together in a gruff chorus of a billion nonchalant voices. “So what is new? Gorment is like this only.”
This year’s budget allocation: Rs. 563.88 crores. (PDF link.)
When the Taliban bans music in the areas where they’re in charge—this one is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan—it’s hardly surprising: we all know what they’re like. But you wouldn’t expect a bunch of people in Haryana to ban DJs, would you? Well, they have. And here’s one reason why:
Due to high volume of music preferred by DJs, people can’t milk buffaloes and cows in the morning as the animals are unable to sleep at night.
Monstrous. Even cows have a right to pardy!
(Link via email from Gautam John, who spotted it on Youth Curry. And yes, I know I said no more cow posts, but the public demand is driving me nuts. So here you go. Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84.)
And in case you missed it, the Taliban has also effectively banned shaving. It’s good news for Afghan lice, but it adds an urgency to the War on Terror. After all, Gillette needs to expand into new markets.
You’d think in a poor country such as ours, food would be almost sacred. Well, check this out:
In a country where millions go to bed hungry, Rs 1 million worth of food meant as a holy offering at Orissa’s Jagannath temple was destroyed on Friday because a foreigner had entered it—an act seen as defiling the premises.
Ooh, God is so sensitive, She sulked and refused to eat because a foreigner entered Her dwelling place. Ooh, poor thing.
(Link via email from Sanjeev Naik.)
Posted by Amit Varma on 06 March, 2007 in India
All the newspapers today are full of the “rave party” that was busted by cops near Pune yesterday. It is a party that I might well have gone to in my youth (I never did drugs, but I did like to rebel), and I feel sorry for the kids who’ve been arrested for activities that harmed no one. It is a pity that so many victimless acts are treated as crimes in our country. If I want to snort a little of whatever it is kids these days snort, what business is it of anyone else? Unlike cigarettes, where bystanders can be hurt by passive smoking, most recreational drugs don’t even harm anyone else.
But then, who cares about individual freedom in this country?
For your enjoyment, an email conversation is reproduced below, between me and my kind friend Manish Vij, who has consented to the publication of this most-enlightening exchange. Please read from the top. As I am blogging this via broadband, the grain of rice in front of me lies unsullied.
Warm regards and Happy Holi
(Link via email from reader Jayakamal Balasubramani.
given their predictions for the World Cup. Daruwalla says:
In 1983, the combination in the Indian team was that of Capricorn (Kapil Dev), Cancer (Sunil Gavaskar) and Libra (Mohinder Amarnath), which worked wonders. Even this time, captain Rahul Dravid (Capricorn), Sourav Ganguly (Cancerian) and Virender Sehwag (Libran), may repeat the success story.
With 15 guys in each squad, you can probably get any combination of sun signs that you desire, and it is not unlikely that all the squads may contain a Capricorn, Cancer and Libra. Note that both gentlemen are being cautious, though Jumaaaaaaani more or less counts Australia out of the running. No matter what happens, though, I’m sure believers will note only the parts of their prediction where they seemed to have got it right. Always, the confirmation bias.
My take on the World Cup: After a close perusal of some fine coffee beans (followed by their consumption, as is necessary for the ritual to be successful), I have come to the conclusion that my earlier post on this subject, written months ago, was somewhat off target. To my list of seven favourites, I add an eighth: New Zealand. I don’t think I can get any more precise than that.
A version of my story below was published today in Mint.
Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it?
The historian Ram Guha once compared cricket in India to football in Brazil. It is easy to disagree with that, but hard to figure out which hairs to split. On one hand, cricket in India is surely followed more fervently, with temples made for some cricketers, with an obsessive passion that Brazilians, for all their lust for football, surely can’t match. People have even speculated, not entirely flippantly, on the economic impact cricket has on India because so many people stop working when a cricket match is on.
On the other hand, football matches between minor club teams in Brazil can attract tens of thousands of spectators, while Ranji Trophy games in India generally draw so few people that you could fit them all in a bus. Much of the following of the game in India revolves around celebrities, with few fans concerned about the nuances of the game.
Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it? Do Indians really love cricket? It is futile to generalise about an entire country – each individual has his own relationship with the game – but certain patterns of love and longing for cricket run through the country. And outside it.
Mulayam Singh Yadav does not want the CBI to carry out the probe in the case of his alleged disproportionate assets. His fear of the CBI is, by itself, a sharp comment on the efficiency of the agency.
And what is that comment? I suppose that depends on which party you support.
... is in assuming that government spending can solve all our problems. The government may spend more on education, but that doesn’t mean that Indian kids will get anywhere near the education they should, or that the education system will become better. Our mai-baap sarkar may announce a safety net for workers, but that doesn’t mean that workers will benefit. It may extend the REGB, but that doesn’t mean that it is doing anything to enable the growth of employment in this country. In some cases, it might actually be harming the cause of those it claims to benefit, by spending money inefficiently that, had it never been taxed in the first place, would have done more good for the economy.
Beyond that broad point, I will offer no comments on the budget—there’s enough of it out there in the MSM already. I’m just glad there isn’t a cess on blogging.
The BJP has done well in the Punjab and Uttarakhand elections, and already people are calling it “a saffron wave.” That is as much rubbish as all that talk about the UPA having got a mandate from the last elections. (As I mentioned here, one look at the constitution of this Lok Sabha should disabuse notions of a “collective will.”) Individuals vote in elections for their own individual reasons, and much of the time, in an age of a fractured electorate and hung parliaments, huge amounts of luck determines who gets into power.
It is, of course, typical of us to try to discern patterns in all of this. But these patterns, these mandates, they’re illusory things. No point celebrating or mourning yet, depending on which party you support. Flip-flop hota rahega.
Also read: my essay from last week, Don’t Think in Categories. It’s relevant.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, in a piece titled “Parable of the Shopkeeper,” offer us this mind game:
Suppose you plan to open a shop on a street that is lined with houses. These houses are evenly distributed along the street. There are two things you know at this point of time. There is a competitor who is patiently waiting to open a shop just next to yours. And the customers who live along this street will walk into the shop that is nearest to their homes.
So, where will you build your store?
Well, if you build it at the corner, your competitor will simply build one next to yours but closer to the center, so more people will end up going there. The logical thing, therefore, is to build one close to the center. And that, indeed, is what politicians do. As Niranjan writes:
I suppose there’s a certain honesty in this kind of dishonesty. Is it not revealing?
Let’s see, what else could be started in this vein? Tutorials on how to bribe government servants? Demonstration videos of how to break traffic rules? Street plays promoting intolerance?
Nah. There wouldn’t be a market for those. They all come naturally to us.
(Link via email from reader Aboli Salvi.)
Posted by Amit Varma on 26 February, 2007 in India
... It’s about fear.
Gautam John brings my attention, via email, to a place called “Love Land” in South Korea, which is a theme park “crammed with soft porn memorabilia.” Check out the pictures. Do you think such a place would ever be allowed to come up in India?
But once, they allowed Khajuraho...
You see any earthly reason for it? I don’t.
As a blogger, I often get phone calls from journalists who have been instructed to write a story on blogging. Generally, all they know about it is that it is some new kind of buzzword, and they have often not read any blogs. Their questions invariably include the phrase “blogging community.”
Oh how they generalise. “What does the blogging community feel about the new KBC?” they ask, or “What do bloggers write about?” I try to be polite and say that I can only speak for myself, but I won’t deny that the image of hanging a journalist upside down just above a vat of boiling oil gives me great glee at such times.
I’m amused by all the speculation around whether Amitabh Bachchan will consent to being a candidate in India’s presidential elections. If anything, it shows how meaningless the post is, a vestigial organ of government. In the past, it’s been used to kick politicians upstairs, reward old partymen for a few decades of service, or make a symbolic gestures about inclusiveness. (The calculus of caste and religion plays a part; see here and here.) But at least most previous presidents have had some kind of experience in politics and governance. Why does Bachchan deserve to be president?
On the other hand, do consider who won it last. I can’t imagine Bachchan coming up with anything quite like APJ Abdul Kalam’s poetry. I can live with “Eir Bir Phatte.”
It’s frustrating being a libertarian in India. Libertarians, broadly, believe that every person should be have the freedom to do whatever they want with their person or property as long as they do not infringe on the similar freedoms of others. Surely this would seem a good way for people to live: respecting each other’s individuality, and not trying to dictate anyone else’s behaviour.
Naturally, libertarians believe in both social and economic freedoms. They believe that what two consenting adults do inside closed doors should not be the state’s business. Equally, they believe the state should not interefere when two consenting parties trade with each other, for what is this but an extension of that personal freedom. And yet, despite having gained political freedom 60 years ago, personal and economic freedoms are routinely denied in India. Even worse, there is no political party in the country that speaks up for freedom in all its forms.
On India’s Republic Day, January 26, the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society will launch a campaign for school choice. It’s an apt day for the event. While India’s constitution guarantees universal and free education, the government has utterly failed that mission. It’s time to encourage the private sector to step in.
American pop icon Paris Hilton corrupts Indian minds. That, at least, is the fear held by mandarins of Indian culture. So they’ve barred television channels in India from airing Ms. Hilton’s new music video, “Stars Are Blind,” in yet another example of the censorship fever sweeping the country.
A version of this piece by me was first published on November 8, 2005 in the Wall Street Journal as “Self-Delusion.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog.
Organized slavery ended decades ago, but to go by the criticism of some leftist commentators in India, one would imagine that it is alive and flourishing in the world’s largest democracy.
Recently it has become especially fashionable to hit out at call centers, or business processing outsourcing (BPO) units as they are officially known. A study published by an institute that comes under India’s Labor Ministry compared conditions in Indian BPO outfits with those of “Roman slave ships.” Chetan Bhagat, the author of a new book set in one such unit, “One Night @ The Call Center,” recently claimed that call centers are “corroding a generation.” It is common, almost clichéd, to hear call-center workers referred to as “cyber-coolies.”
Imagine this scenario: someone kidnaps a child and, for decades, maims and exploits him. Then, in a sudden revelation, we learn that the kidnapper was once under the pay of a branch of the mafia that is now defunct. There is instant outrage, and everyone condemns the crime. “How could you have taken money from the mafia?” they ask.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions—and nobody knows that better than India’s poor. There can be no better intention than removing poverty but, for more than half a century, a well-intentioned and bloated state has only perpetuated it with misguided policies and regulations. And New Delhi still hasn’t learned from these mistakes. The Indian government is soon to embark on perhaps the grandest waste of taxpayers’ money yet: the Rural Employment Guarantee Bill.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is due to visit Washington in a few weeks, and editorialists and commentators have already started writing about the emerging economic power of India. New Delhi’s decision to start liberalizing its economy in 1991 is touted as a seminal event in India’s history, the moment when it threw off the shackles of Fabian socialism and embraced free markets. It is the stuff of myth—and to a large extent, it is exactly that.