Friday, December 4, 2015

Where to read news in India

From not reading news at all till middle of college, I have come a long way. Everyday I open multiple news sites, twitter accounts and I get multiple newspapers at home. However, most people I know don't actively think about the news that they are consuming. Most editorials in India are really bad. Most places don't do good and enough ground-level reporting.

Here's my opinion on best places to consume news in India. I hunt for news on education, healthcare and data backed opinion so increased bias towards those.

Business-Standard - Excellent overall.
Well researched, insightful pieces that are backed by data. They really clear the air on economy, government efforts and policies. Pretty good editorials also by Shekhar Gupta, Mihir Sharma and Ninan. Way better in content and credibility than Economic Times.

Indian Express - Great general editorials.
Especially Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Their coverage of select stories is also fantastic. However, news selection is limited and tends to get carried away in its anti-establishment angle.

Indiaspend - Data pieces
Finally someone is researching problems in India using data. They cover a wide spread of problems.

Times of India - Widest news coverage
I know, I know. Toilet paper, Times of Boobs etc. Now set aside your outrage. It does have advertorials and lacks credibility. But it has the widest coverage. Everyday I see so much local news covered that is not covered in other newspapers. There is just more news in a TOI paper than in other papers. Compare and see.
It's editorial is pretty bad. They print Chetan Bhagat for christ sakes!

Scroll - Ground reports
They cover more education, education and other social sectors than any other paper. Every few days, a great piece of journalism will come like this one on healthcare in Kolkata.

The wire - Insider, anti-establishment pieces
They need more improvement but still produce some good reads.

Livemint - Good longform articles
Cover business areas that other newspapers don't. My personal favourite is Anurag Behar's column that stands out from the capitalist tone of the business papers.

The Telegraph - Outrageous headlines are fun to read.
Opinion by Mukul Kesavan and Ramachandra Guha are good. Nothing else to write home about.

Hindi - I still haven't come across a really good Hindi newspaper. Navbharat Times has decent news. Lokmat is Indian Express in Hindi so nothing new there. Naubharat is absolutely trash. Amar Ujala is average.

I want to keep on updating this post in light of new information. If you have any suggestions, let me know. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

नानी और धूम 3

2013 की बात है| धूम 3 रिलीज़ हुई थी| माँ देहरादून में थी नाना-नानी के पास| माँ को पिक्चरों का बड़ा शौक है पर अब तो कभी कभी ही देख पाती हैं|  देहरादून में हमारे घर के पास ही नया multiplex बना है| नाना-नानी को तो अब पिक्चरों का शौक नहीं रहा पर धूम 3 का  माँ का बड़ा मन था तो नाना-नानी को खींच कर multiplex ले गई| आप लोगों को धूम 3 का बारे में पता नहीं है तो ट्रेलर यहाँ देख सकते हैं|

दोपहर का शो था| टिकेट खरीद कर ये तिकड़ी सिनेमा पहुंची| अपनी सीटों पर इन्होने कब्ज़ा किया| पिक्चर शुरू हो गई| 15 मिनट बाद नानी थोड़ी बेचैन हो जाती हैं| सीट में हिलते हुए वे माँ की तरफ मुड़ी और बोली -
'अरे ये पिक्चर शुरू कब होगी ?'
माँ थोड़े अचम्भे में बोली -
'पिक्चर तो शुरू हो चुकी है| 15 मिनट से चल रही है|'
नानी ने मन में कुछ सोचा होगा| चुप चाप स्क्रीन की तरफ वापस मुड़ गई और शायद पिक्चर को और ध्यान से देखने लगी|  माँ को लगा की उनका मन लग गया है पिक्चर में| सब पिक्चर में इंटरवल हुआ तो नानी उठ कड़ी हुई|
माँ:  क्या हुआ?
नानी:  मैं घर जा रही हूँ|
माँ:  मगर क्यूँ?
नानी: पिक्चर में कुछ हो तो रहा नहीं है| लोग सिर्फ मोटरसाइकिल (motorcycle) ही चलाए जा रहें हैं| मैं सोने जा रही हूँ|

इतना कह कर नानी उठ कर घर चली गई| लगता है उदय चोप्रा का आकर्षण भी नानी को धूम 3 में नहीं रोक सका|

Thursday, July 2, 2015

India has given up on its citizens' healthcare

We were sitting in an executive room of one of the big private hospitals in the country. After our point of meeting was discussed, the two senior healthcare professionals lamented on the severe shortage of healthcare amenities in the country. 

Contrary to my expectation, they both rued the fact that unlike other countries, Indian government was not spending enough money on setting up public hospitals and healthcare facilities. They said that private hospitals such as theirs will never be able to serve the majority of India's population because of the costs. A larger public healthcare system will also ease their own pressures and workload. Also, hospitals need to be in the vicinity of people rather than far away. In their experience, they find that people prefer a 'good-enough' doctor closer to home than the 'best' doctor far away. Some of the government hospitals they had seen had an extremely good infrastructure and simply needed to be managed well. 

I got curious about our spending on healthcare and some basic research paints a very dismal picture. India has one of the lowest spending on health in the world. It is a miserly 4.5% of our GDP. Rather than GDP, the share of government's expenditure will paint an accurate picture about the government's intent towards providing minimum healthcare to all its citizens. 
And that's where we fall spectacularly. Only 4.7% of our annual budget! All the countries listed below including Pakistan (4.8%), Bangladesh (7.8%) and Nepal spend more share on their citizens' health. USA, UK, Germany, Japan spend close to 20% of their expenditure on health. China is getting there slowly.

Health Expenditure by the Government
All data from WHO (2013)

If one believes that healthcare is a public good and quality healthcare should be provided to all citizens, then a larger share of expenditure needs to be borne by public funds. Higher spending in private institutions in health (like in education or transport) indicates an unequal society. This also reflected in the data. 

More equal societies like Scandinavian countries, Germany, France, Japan etc showed more than 70% of healthcare expenses borne by the government. Unequal societies like USA and China had more private spending. Sadly, we had one of the lowest public spending in the world at 32% with the remaining 68% being paid by citizens to private institutions. 

Public vs Private Distribution of Healthcare Expenditure

The lack of public commitment to health simply creates a market for private players to provide services and extract profits. Our politicians have their hands deep inside this market. Given the fundamental nature of health, it is the poor that are affected the most.

Additionally, we have a severe shortage of skilled human resources in this field. The Medical Council of India is one of the biggest scams in the country which doesn't allow setting up of more medical colleges despite dire need of professionals. The crores of backdoor donation industry keeps on thriving while the Indian government has given up on our healthcare.  

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Why I don't want to be an IAS Officer

"China was ruled from the top down by a Confucian bureaucracy, recruited on the basis of perhaps the most demanding examination system in all history. Those who aspired to a career in the imperial service had to submit to three stages of gruelling tests conducted in specially built exam centres, like the one that can still be seen in Nanjing today – a huge walled compound containing thousands of tiny cells little larger than the lavatory on a train:

These tiny brick compartments [a European traveller wrote] were about 1.1 metres deep, 1 metre wide and 1.7 metres high. They possessed two stone ledges, one servicing as a table, the other as a seat. During the two days an examination lasted the candidates were observed by soldiers stationed in the lookout tower … The only movement allowed was the passage of servants replenishing food and water supplies, or removing human waste. When a candidate became tired, he could lay out his bedding and take a cramped rest. But a bright light in the neighbouring cell would probably compel him to take up his brush again … some candidates went completely insane under the pressure.
No doubt after three days and two nights in a shoebox, it was the most able – and certainly the most driven – candidates who passed the examination. But with its strong emphasis on the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism, with their bewildering 431,286 characters to be memorized, and the rigidly stylized eight-legged essay introduced in 1487, it was an exam that rewarded conformity and caution. It was fiercely competitive, no doubt, but it was not the kind of competition that promotes innovation, much less the appetite for change. The written language at the heart of Chinese civilization was designed for the production of a conservative elite and the exclusion of the masses from their activities."
This extract about 14th century Chinese bureaucracy is from Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest. 

Indian Civil Services Exam. The number of my friends who have prepared or are preparing for this exam for months and years is not small. It has become an industry, like all competitive exams in India become. Seeing their hard work, I was curious about the selection procedure. So I went through the earlier question papers of subjects I have some understanding about. I also looked at the interview questions. While I am not any expert, I have a feeling that this selection process is not unlike the Chinese model of 14th century. 

Like most competitive exams in India (CAT, CLAT and the like), this one is also deadly dull, excludes the masses and produces a conformist, conservative, mostly English speaking elite. And boy, elite it definitely is.

Why do so many of my skilled friends who are engineers, accountants, scientists and lawyers want to be IAS officers? The most common reasons are 
  1. Assurance of a Sarkari Naukri (government job) - The holy grail of Indian families. This is not the main reason for many of my friends who have other lucrative career options if they so desire. However, I wonder, why not other government jobs which require their skill. There are engineers, scientists and lawyer jobs in the government which are also at similar pay scales. 
  2. Power and Prestige - This is the main reason. IAS officers are treated like demi-Gods. They have big houses and many servants. Their families live comfortably. They are part of this elite community. They have a lot of power and prestige, much more than other government positions. That's why my engineer friends prefer to be IAS rather than civil or mechanical engineers in Railways or Defense.  
  3. Service the citizens - Some people choose this because they think this is a good way to provide essential services to the citizens and make their lives better. However, the number of people for whom this is the prime reason is a small minority.

Given all this, how does the bureaucracy actually perform?
A study by the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, released in 2012, ranked and rated Indian bureaucracy as the worst in Asia. According to the study, India's inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy was responsible for most of the complaints that business executive have about the country. A paper prepared in 2012 by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions states that corruption is prevalent at all levels in civil services and it is institutionalized.

The problem with too much prestige based on success on a single selection process (which is debatable) is that the selected feel unreasonably meritorious. Most IITians, IIM grads and bureaucrats suffer from this syndrome in varying quantities. In the case of civil services, this leads to excessive pride in generalist and managerial abilities. Inter-domain transfers hinder the development of specialized knowledge and expertise. Some good recent opinions on this are in the Express and Business Standard. A good case for a separate Indian Education Service is made by Ranjekar and Giridhar, stalwarts of Azim Premji Foundation and University. I am sure that there are other fields where a similar case can be made.

If you speak to bureaucrats, they will tell you all kinds of problems - political interference, uneducated masses, lack of initiative in the system etc. Seldom will they mention that they have just been transferred from the agriculture to the education department and have no clue about the principles or best practices in education.

This (arrogance?) is caused by many factors. There is social superiority given by their position. The quality of their Grade 2 and lower officers and support staff is even worse. The sycophancy by private vested interests and their junior staff is nauseous. Apart from corruption and political influence, while the entrance may be meritocratic, the promotion system is entirely the opposite of meritocracy. Initiatives can lead to 'problems'. Given many such experiences over time, many choose to just pass time without controversy. So much better to be inactive and safe rather than proactive and unsafe.

In no developed country do generalists (apart from politicians) have such power and control over areas which should be in the hands of specialists.

Personally, I find it difficult to work if I am given respect and standing which is not based on my expertise. In IAS, I don't have the choice of choosing my field or my mentors. And I want to specialize in a field and do good work in it.

I do want to work to improve the public system, especially education. But maybe becoming a bureaucrat is not the best option. Though, it might be worth reconsidering if they start the Indian Education Service.

Disclaimer: The intention of this post is not to malign bureaucrats. There are hard working, sincere people at all levels in the system and India would be even worse without them.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The agony of IPL on TV

I am not the 'classiest' of cricket fans as I don't normally watch Test cricket at a stretch. I also don't care much for the IPL or its teams. Still, it has normally been watchable despite being quite forgettable. Post World cup fatigue is obvious this year like it was in 2011.

However, This IPL is probably one of the worst sports broadcasts in the history of the world. The trashy bollywoodization of the sport is now complete. It all starts with the 'theme' song - India ka tyohaar - which just shows dancing un-commentators like Siddhu, Shoaib Akhtar, Gaurav (started as a VJ) and some women I don't care to know the names of. If one just looks at this wedding style dance sequence, one can never guess that it is about a sports tournament.

The studio match analysis starts and ends with a bunch of girls doing a dance routine in cheerleader clothes. Except for titillating the horny Indian male, they serve no other purpose. The commentary in the studio is done by some TV artists with expert comments from Siddhu and Akhtar. There is not a single serious and half-decent sports commentator that has been recruited to give this tamasha feel like a tournament.
Who can shut him up?
Siddhu has gone from bad to worse. When he is not mouthing couplets, he is still mouthing couplets. There is no pause, only excited, meaningless poetry. In fact, he talks so much that Sony Max does not even keep a co-commentator during large stints of Siddhu's commentary. For our MBA loving society, this is gold. Commentator efficiency metric can be devised which leads to profit maximization due to this cost reduction of another commentator. If Siddhu can't keep the audience engaged, show made-up women conducting dumb interviews.

There is hardly any difference in our daily soaps, prime-time news and IPL broadcast. In this tackiness, the real cricket played by the players gets undermined.

Sadly, this tackiness is not only there on TV. It is also there in the stadiums. Sidharth Monga writes describes his agony trying to follow 'cricket' in the stadium.

Update: They have some decent, regular commentators like Gavaskar now in the studio.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Guilty Elite: The Bloody Poor #2

It is very common to hear statements like these from my family and friends -
  • Oh these poor people don't want to work...
  • You don't know these poor. I know them very well. All of them are lazy... 
  • They don't plan for the future but waste their money...
  • They should not be treated well or they will get used to it...
  • They want to live on subsidies and free stuff...
  • MNREGA and Food Bill has spoiled them. Why will they work?...
It is reminiscent of those movie showing the colonial British where they used to say: 'These bloody Indians....' The ignorance of their lives is the same. The transactional nature of the interaction with them which is devoid of any human relationship is the same. Clumping together a huge group of diverse people is the same. Most of all, the tone and the contempt for our fellow country men and human beings is ALSO the same. 

I came across this wonderful poem by Shefali. Her other wonderful poems and writing can be accessed here. I have attempted a very poor and literal translation in English as well.

आम  आदमी (The Common Man)

मेरे देश में इंसानियत न जाने किस कैफियत में जीती है,
पानी बहता है घर में, बाहर गरीबी दिनों की प्यासी होती है |

(I am not sure why humanity lives in such stinginess in my country
water flows in the house, outside poverty is thirst for days)

क्यों पालता हूँ मैं यह 15, 26 , 2 अक्टूबर के ढकोसले,
362 दिन जब मेरी मोहब्बत आँख मूँद कर सोती है |
क्यों स्वार्थ  का अंत नहीं मेरे, क्यों मैं कुछ बाँट नहीं पाता,
गाडी की चमक के सामने, क्यों उसकी रोटी की भूख छोटी है |

(Why am I part of the shams on 15 Aug, 26 Jan and 2 Oct
when my love sleeps peacefully for 362 days of the year.
Why is there no end to my self-interest, why can't I share something,
In front of my car's glossiness, why is his hunger for bread frivolous.)

"My boss is a sadist" goa के लिए छुट्टी देने से कतराता है,
मेरी 19 साल की नौकर का इक बार न आना, मुझे रास नहीं आता है |
"यह छोटे लोगों को छूट देना , होती है अच्छी बात नहीं",
झट से कह देता हूँ मैं, आती उसकी बूढी अम्मी याद नहीं |

(My boss is a sadist because he detests giving me leave for Goa,
Absence of one day of my servant for 19 years is hated.
"Giving leeway to these smaller people is not good",
I say it quickly without thinking about his old mother.

Pizza Hut में मैंने अपने बच्चे का जन्मदिन मनाया था,
उसके सामने 2 बच्चों ने हमारा कूड़ा उठाया था |
पेशावर में जो हुआ, उससे मेरा खून खौला था,
3000 बच्चों को भूख ने उस दिन, मौत की तरफ धकेला था |

(I celebrated by child's birthday at Pizza Hut,
2 children cleared out the garbage in front of it.
I blood boiled at what happened at Peshawar,
Hunger killed 3000 children that same day.)

भिखारियों को पैसा देना, माफिया को बढ़ाता है,
NGO को दिया पैसा तोह करप्शन में ही जाता है |
मेरा दिल फेसबुक पर गरीबों के लिए धड़कता है ,
पर मुझे अपना पैसा मेरे बैंक में ही अच्छा लगता है |

(Giving money to beggars strengthens the mafia,
Giving money to NGOs is adding to corruption.
My heart beats for the poor on Facebook,
but I like my money in my bank only.)

मैं कैसे कर लेता हूँ यह, सोच के मैं शर्मिंदा हूँ,
आम नहीं हूँ ख़ास हूँ मैं, यह सब करके भी ज़िंदा हूँ |

(I feel ashamed about how I manage to do this,
I am not common but privileged that I am alive even after doing all this.)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Guilty Elite: Toilets #1

This is the first post in a start of a series (hopefully) which will show inequality. I will try and keep judgment out of it.

I went to watch Byomkesh Bakshi at R-City Mall today. When I was in the loo, it seemed like they had managed to fit in an inordinately large number of urinals in that space. I don't think anyone would ever have to wait for someone else to finish. Feeling very curious, I counted.

In a Cinema in Tokyo (from Wikicommons)
Another place where I have never had to wait is the public toilet at CST Station in Mumbai. It has many stalls for men to stand and pee on the wall. It doesn't have urinals. I remember counting the stalls there as well.

I did some basic finding and calculation about the number of people visiting at each location. R-City mall has 8 theaters. One theater I counted had around 250 seats. Let's take that to be the average. Tomorrow, 6th April Monday, there will be 42 shows running during the day. So the maximum number of people that can ever watch a movie in a single is day is roughly (250 x 42) 10,000. I think, R-City would be happy to have even 7,000 people in a day and the average would be more like 5,000.

So here are the statistics (minor errors possible):

Movie show timings - 9 AM to 1:30 AM
Train timings - 4 AM (ish) to 12:45 AM

Number of people visiting daily

  1. CST Terminus: More than one lakh -  > 1,00,000
  2. R-City: 5,000 average (10,000 is the absolute best case)
So CST has at least 10 (usually 15-20) times the number of people.

Toilet Facilities

  1. CST Terminus: 42 urinals. 4-5 taps. Don't know about toilets.
  2. R-City: 47 urinals. 7 wash basins. 7 toilets. 
More number of every facility and obviously, much better in quality. I don't have pictures of either since I couldn't find any of them empty at any point of time.

P.S. As much as things change, the more they remain the same. :)
Our consecutive seat numbers. 17 after 15