Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Our Life. Our Times :: 7 :: E-tailing cow-dung


“Increased internet penetration, improved security measures, convenience of shopping in lives pressed for time, and, of course, dozens of retailers to choose from” are some of the factors which, according to the Government of India’s e-Commerce Report, have given fillip to e-retailng. Another factor that seems to have been overlooked is the convenience that e-retailing offers to seniors like us who are unable to walk around markets from shop to shop for buying their essential requirements. As being advertised over the television, as many as 10 crore (billion) items are on offer for consumers to choose from. And, they belong to whole range of commodities, from essentials to items of luxury. In fact, one is spoilt for choice.

The latest to hit the e- market is an item which many would find odd but it is essential for some households. Cow-dung cakes are what are being sold through e-retailing sites. With progressive urbanization, shifting of cattle from urban centres, increasing availability of liquid petroleum gas and upswing in household incomes cow-dung cakes made the disappearing act. They are just not to be seen anywhere in urban areas whereas earlier they used to be ubiquitous, especially in small towns, district towns or even in some major towns. In metros they were hidden from public view but they were certainly there as these were the sources of energy for poor people.

It seems, gone are those days when one would find children picking up cow-dung, carry it home for the women of the house to make cakes out of them. The walls of the houses in settlements of poor would be plastered with them. The idea was to dry them up to make them little more solid. Mixed with clay cow-dung was also used for refurbish floors and walls.

I remember my mother buying cow-dung cakes off a hawker. A woman used to hawk them around loading cow-dung cakes in jute bags on a donkey. The donkey would be barely able to move with the heavy load of these cakes-full of sacks hanging down his flanks. The cakes used to cost around Rs. 5.00 for a hundred and about twenty of them would be given away as bonus. Used for lighting up the coal-fired (soft coke) ovens or for igniting the wooden logs in the earthen chulha (Indian clay oven) these were, therefore, essential items for at least middle class or poor households. The only hydrocarbon for use as source of energy used to be kerosene which was too messy as also smelly. Without the cow-dung cakes cooking would seem to have been impossibility. Of course, the women of the household would take in the smoke that used to be raised rather copiously by the cow-dung cakes and burning soft coke or logs of wood.

Drastic changes have been wrought during the last half a century or so. Formerly what were traditional sources of energy have since been discarded and today, generally, it is liquefied petroleum gas or liquefied natural gas or electricity that have become sources of energy for almost all the people. And, yet there is demand for cow-dung cakes. Since retailing them from shops or through hawkers has been discontinued, suppliers, sniffing rising demands in urban centres, have taken recourse to e-tailing the stuff.

Traders say the demand is picking up in cities. Even representatives of Amazon say that demands are mostly from metro cities. Here cattle are scarce and mostly it is the dairies on the outskirts which deal in this precious commodity. Used also for religious purposes, cow-dung cakes are an essential component of articles required for Hindu ‘puja’ (worship). In the southern provinces where affluence has been witnessed after economic liberalization the demand is particularly high and it is reported to be building up. In any case, according to Hindu Ayurveda, burning of cow-dung cakes with a bit of camphor has always been reckoned as air purifier. Perhaps, people up north in Delhi should not try it as they have already enough of smoke and particulates in their air.

The scarcity of cow dung is somewhat surprising. Once Late Mahesh Buch happened to mention that he was unable to procure cow dung for his organic farm. Apparently, it has become a big business, more so with the onset of organic food culture. Once, again, cow’s excreta are an essential component of organic manure. With the rise in awareness of the harmful after-effects of chemical farming the consumption of organic food has taken a big leap. Even the new fad of natural food is also stoking demand for this commodity. Whether in kitchen gardens or farms owned by restaurants in big cities, cow-dung cakes are in big demand. And, that is where the online portals come in to fill in the gap created by the absence of former retailers.

Sensing big time profits businessmen organizations have, as is their wont, started profiteering. The prices of cow-dung, seemingly, are leaping up to touch the skies. Already there are cries for monitoring and for price control. Self-restraint, an attribute that should be essential among businessmen is something unfortunately alien to them. Online cow-dung cakes, or patties as they are called, are being hawked around at exorbitant prices. On eBay 35 cow-dung cakes are available for Rs. 325/-. Another site on Amazon offers 9 cakes for Rs. 999/-, Rs 100/- a piece. People in the trade admit that e-retailers hike the prices to uncomfortable levels for the customers. While the price of five or six cow-dung cakes actually is around Rs. 20/-, e-retailers offer them for Rs. 1000/-. Perhaps, the business  with great potential is being killed in its infancy. Perhaps that is the price one has to pay for the change that has come over the country.

*Photo from internet

Friday, March 17, 2017

Our Life, Our Times :: 6 :: Patriotism and the National Flag

The National Flag at Attari
India seems to be in the midst of a competition to hoist the biggest and the tallest national flag. As they say, some people wear their heart on their sleeves; we seem to be showing off our patriotism on our flags. The taller and the bigger it is the better it would seem to be.

One does not know how and who started off this fad of having tall flagstaffs to hoist flags the dimensions of which keep increasing by the day. The other day, the flag hoisted near the Attari border with Pakistan created a stir. Mounted on a 360 ft. tall staff, claimed to be the tallest of all flagstaffs in the country, it flies the heaviest ever national flag (55 tons). Its dimensions are 120x80 ft and it has cost the Punjab Government Rs. 3.5 Crore (billion). The annual maintenance contract for it has had to be awarded to a private company as, apparently, the Amritsar Improvement Trust, the institution that installed it, does not have any outfit that could possibly take care of it. So close to the border it is that the flag is claimed to be visible from the Anarkali Bazar of Lahore in Pakistan.

Its enormous height and size have brought in controversies in the wake of its unfurlment at Attari. Pakistani Rangers guarding the borders with India have alleged that such a tall flag has been installed only for espionage purposes. They think it would be used to peep across the borders from this side to pry on the goings-on there. They said that the flag at the top has powerful cameras to monitor activities in Pakistan. One is surprised to hear such a stupid argument. India didn’t have to have a tall flag to mount surveillance over and across the borders as hundreds of air force and civilian planes, leave alone satellites, fly at greater heights in the area everyday. These could do a better job and very easily at that. Nonetheless, authorities in India did convey to the Pakistanis that there was no camera on top of the pole; there was only a light - a regulation light that had to be mounted there.

But then this is only one of these tall flags. The second highest is somewhere in Ranchi – the capital of Jharkhand. The flag pole is 283 ft. high. Several states seem to have jumped on to the bandwagon to install tall flags – in what looks like competitive patriotism. Hyderabad, Pune, Faridabad, Raipur and so on all have flags flying at a height that is above 200 ft. Closer home, Bhopal too tried its hand at installing, once again, an under 300 ft. tall flag. It swayed violently in the rather strong breeze and soon got torn. I remember it having been replaced at least once. But for months now it is no longer visible anywhere. Probably the project has been given up as a bad job even though quite a tidy sum was spent on it from the public exchequer

One wonders who in these governments were trying to prove their patriotism. Enormous amounts of money have been wasted tn this what seems to be futile exercise. Patriotic fervor cannot be measured by the size of the flag and the height at which it is flown. The flags of smaller sizes flown at lower heights, for example at Rashtrpati Bhawan, are no less patriotic. Besides, there is a Flag Code as modified in 2002 that needs to be observed. According to it, the biggest size for the flag could be 6300mms x 4200mms. I have not come across any amendment that allows flags exceeding these dimensions to be flown.

With the proliferation of the outsized flags one wonders whether the extant Flag Code is being violated. If that is so the authorities should cry a halt to the frivolity being displayed in respect of the National Flag that symbolically represents our values and aspirations.

*Photo from internet

17th March 2017

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Kalika Prasad - a life well lived and highly admired


Last night in a moving programme homage was paid by Zee Bangla to Kalika Prasad Bhattacharya, a distinguished folk artist of Bengal. Bhattacharya’s suffered an untimely demise in a highway accident in which his vehicle was hit from behind by a speeding truck. The truck driver unwittingly snuffed out a life that had just started blooming in the area of folk art and folk music of Bengal.

Zee Bangla was closely associated with Kalika Prasad in its superb musical reality show called “sa re ga ma pa” which is currently running and is heading for a closure for the year sometime in the near future. The programme of an hour and a half was of grief expressed through pure music – sombre and mournful. Some of the singers were in tears while performing on the stage. Even the anchor, popular Bengali cine actor Jisshu Sen Gupta, couldn’t help hiding his face from the audience as tears welled up in his eyes.

Kalika Prasad Bhattacharya was a relentless worker in the field of folk music, particularly of Bengal. On his initiative “sa re ga ma pa”, possibly the best musical reality TV show in India, included folk music and competitors were entertained who were specifically inclined towards folk songs. He was kind of an encyclopaedia of folk music and whenever a number would be sung he would step out of the shadows and explain the song and its nuances for the benefit of the audience. His was an enviable fund of knowledge on not only folk music of Bengal but also of various traditional genres of Bengali music. He once openly confessed on the stage of “sa re ga ma pa” that he had never imagined that Bengali ‘kirtan” would one day find its way into television prorammes. He was too modest to claim that it all had happened because of his own relentless efforts. He would say “kirtan” was the “adi Bengali sangit’ (original Bengali music), sort of, mother of all other genres.

His biggest achievement was perhaps to bring out up front on the television the talents that have been lying hidden and untapped in the remote recesses of the state. He brought them, their folk music and even their basic or, to use an unsavoury word, crude instruments including those of percussion to the television studios offering to the world the rich cultural heritage of the state and its hitherto anonymous practitioners. Some of them trekked all the way to Kolkata to be present in the programme to pay homage to Kalika, their benefactor. Even the Santhals of tribal Bengal of Purulia, Medinipur, etc. were able to display their folk music, folk dance etc. over the wires because of him. A group that was Kalika’s find sang last night in chorus a Santhali number for the occasion, the tune of which was adopted by Tagore for one of his compositions.

A word about the programme “sa re ga ma pa” is necessary. Zee TV is running similar programmes in their several language channels. Even some other channels like from Soni stable have attempted to cash in on the rising popularity of such programmes. So many such programmes are being run that sometimes one feels that the whole country does not have much to do except singing or participating in music contests. But among such a huge assortment of more or less similar programmes Zee Bangla’s “sa re ga ma pa” easily walks away with the cake. Facilitated by sound advice from those who sit on judgment the standards of performance have steadily climbed higher and higher. In fact, over the years I have myself felt that the standard of competition has only risen with the singers stepping out in the wide world to find immediate takers for their talents. What is more, the standards of production have improved tremendously, each item being well planned, well executed and with excellent props. The entire experience that one gets is visually pleasant and the sound of music is immensely pleasurable.

*Photo of Kalika Prasad Bhattacharya is from internet

15th March 2017

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Destinations :: Mahabaleshwar (1979)

Strands of native grass swaying in the breeze
In 1979 my jurisdiction was enlarged with the headquarters remaining at Nagpur. Earlier it was only confined to the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra; now it included the Marathwada Region as well which meant inclusion of four more districts, numero uno of which was the District of Aurangabad.  I had to visit the place quite a few times during my tenure at Nagpur. During one such visit we decided to make it to Goa. On the way we thought we would take in Mahabaleshwar as well.

We had heard quite a lot about this hill station on the Western Ghats
A beautiful spot
that are also known as the Sahyadri ranges. The mountain range is, incidentally a World Heritage Site now and is considered to be one of the hottest hotspots of biological diversity. Access to Mahabaleshwar is via Satara, a prominent town in Western Maharashtra south of Pune. We had a well located inspection bungalow at Mahabaleshwar behind a British-era post office building. Since we had only two days at our disposal we could take in whatever was easily approachable. We did not try to explore the distant sites that
River Krishna flowing away
are archaeologically or historically important. Our objective was to take it easy in a weather that was very amiable. Located at a height of around a thousand metres (3000 ft.), 
Mahabaleshwar has a very pleasant climate right through the year barring, of course, four monsoon months when the place gets heavy to very heavy rains.

Another beautiful locale
In the very pleasant climate one can only take in the nature that the place offers. Its undulating topography, half rural and half urban set up is captivating. There are valleys and hills that make the place a paradise for trekkers. Alas, we were not at that age when we could put on the trekking shoes and go climbing up the gentle hills that are covered by green vegetation. But we trudged quite a distance to a view point to see the sun go down beyond the hills. Incidentally, it is said that Mahabaleshwar has around it the only intact evergreen tropical forest of the country.

Originally known as Malcolm Peth after an Englishman who probably was instrumental In establishing the settlement, the place came to be known as Mahabaleshwar around 1820s. It has always been heavily overlaid with the influence of Mahadeo, another name for Hindu God, Lord Shiva, a suggestion of which one finds in the very name of the place. As is well know, Mahabaleshwar is from where the River Krishna
Sun going down beyond the Sahyadris
originates and flows down through several states before it goes and empties itself into the Bay of Bengal. It is one of the longest rivers of India and originates from the Sahyadris close to Mahabaleshwar. About 10 kilometres away is the Panchaganga temple that is claimed to be 5000 years old. It is from here that Krishna River originates from a gomukh (a snout) along with a few of its tributaries, one of which is Koyana. Koyana is well known for the 1967 earthquake of 6.6 magnitude which was suspected to have been induced by the dam that was built on the Koyana River.

The British used to love Mahabaleshwar for its salubrious climate. They even used to move the capital of the Bombay Presidency here from Bombay during the summer months. There are reported to be some colonial-era bungalows in the town, some in disrepair and some others renovated and still in use. Town-wise there is nothing much in it. It is
At a high point with low hills in the background
virtually like a one-horse town, catering to a population of around 15000.

 The town has, however, developed some fruit farms where strawberries are grown. The place reportedly produces around 85% of the country’s strawberries. The ones we get in Bhopal come all the way from Mahabaleshwar. Of late. Every second shop in the small town is reported to be selling strawberries and cream One of the farms used to produce honey as well as jams. Leather goods industry is another which is ding well. The whole country is fond of the chappals or slippers made in Kolhapur. Something similar is made in Mahabaleshwar that, to use a cliché, are sold like hot cakes.

Two days later it was time for us to move. We came down to Satara and caught a bus for Goa. In those days, there was no Konkan Railway. Goa was approachable only by pretty atrocious roads from the upcountry.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Bhopal Notes :: 48 :: Indiscriminate sand mining – digging one’s own grave

Sand mining in Morena on River Chambal
Looks like, we have become blind to the consequences of our actions. In our quest for development, more importantly in the quest of legitimate or illegitimate wealth, everyone – from a businessman to a real estate thug or a politician – is out to milk the natural environment of the country regardless of the consequences of their interventions on it that eventually impact the people at large.

Of late, numerous people including politicians have been claiming that Bhopal has become a real estate hub of the country. Perhaps, the claim is justified. Even a layman can see the ads in the newspapers about the new constructions that are ceaselessly coming up all around the city. None knows whether these are coming up with or without a plan, the new City Development Plan being now overdue by as many as 12 years. Reports have indicated from time to time that these are coming up in accordance the 2005 City Development Plan but that seems to be farfetched as the lands earmarked in 2005 must have already been used up leaving little, if at all, for new constructions.

All that, however, is beside the point; what is important to know is that the break-neck pace of construction in and around Bhopal has exponentially raised the demand for sand in meeting which the rivers of the region are being denuded of it. A report recently appeared that as many as 32 big and small rivers of the region have lost most of their waters and some have even gone dry. Even a fairly big river like Betwa, a tributary of Yamuna, was recently reported to have gone dry at Vidisha. People have been wondering as to how this could happen this year after a bountiful monsoon. But, every action has its reaction. It seems the farmers have been illegally diverting water from the river for irrigation. Then, of course, the main reason of indiscriminate mining of sand – legal or illegal, more of the latter – has to be accounted for.

Even after hefty bribes paid at various points before delivery of the stuff mining of sand is immensely profitable. It produces quick bucks and the unscrupulous miners have enriched themselves. Bribes and political backing does the trick. From the reports one gets it seems to be free for all; only one has to be resourceful, has to have right connections, has to be unscrupulous enough and unconcerned about the environment and its future and, bingo, money rains down on to one’s lap. One recalls the sad incident of a young Indian Police Service office sacrificing his life to stop the sand mafia from carrying out their sinister operations. He was just run over by a heavy vehicle of the mafia.

 The government’s indifference tells a tale of apathy and utter unconcern for the rivers of the region that may result in a bleak future for it. Denuding of the rivers is likely to entail water-stress in the region adversely affecting the millions of the region. That in-stream sand mining causes degradation of rivers is well known. Not only does the river bed is deprived of the protective layer of sand that holds water keeping the nearby aquifers charged, continued extraction may cause the stream to degrade the river up to the depth of excavation. This causes severe damage to physical and biological environment of the river systems. Drying up of rivers is one of the serious consequences which could lead the neighbouring areas to become water-stressed. The rampant destruction of riverine eco-systems all over country needs hardly any mention. Madhya Pradesh, however, walks away with the cake in this regard.

In fact, indiscriminate sand mining in rivers is virtually like digging one’s own grave. For the folly of the current generation future generations may have to pay heavily. In this connection, a mention needs to be made of the hypocrisy of MP government which is running a Narmada Seva Yatra – journey along the river to serve the Narmada River. Behind it what is being done is exactly opposite of “Seva”. Tons of sand is being extracted from the river, mostly illegally. It was reported that 1000 trucks ply on the road between Hoshangabad and Bhopal every night transporting sand with predetermined rates of bribe to be paid at various check points. Even the close relatives of the chief minister were found to have been involved.

No wonder, none raised the issue, not even in the Legislative Assembly except in feeble voices. The crooks, including politicians, are playing with the future of the region. If today the agri-GDP of the state is climbing at the rate of around 14% it is likely to plummet in the ensuing years if the state’s rivers are ceaselessly ravaged.

Unfortunately, the government is unmindful of the damage that is being wrought in state’s river systems. Curiously, the toothless bodies like the State Pollution Control Board or other public organizations charged with the responsibility o conserving the state’s physical environment have been mutely watching the loot that is going on. One hopes that it is not too late already to restore the rivers in question to their pristine condition.

*Photo from internet

Friday, March 3, 2017

Virat among the billionaires

News has just come of Virat Kohli, the captain of the Indian cricket team, signing an endorsement contract for a period of eight years for more than Rs. 100 crore with Puma, the German manufacturer of sports goods,. This has brought young Virat in the “Rs. 100 crore Club”. Among cricketers, he is perhaps the third player to cross the 100 crore mark with Sachin Tendulkar and Mahandra Singh Dhoni preceding him.

 But Virat has been a “crorepati” several times over even before he signed the Puma contract. He has been on the scene for quite some time and has acquitted himself very well ever since his debut in the national team. No wonder, brands have been chasing him and he has been signing product endorsement contracts that suit his persona. Slowly and surely he has developed an iconic status among the country’s cricket-crazy youth who never seem to get enough of him.

So, the air in the country is getting thick with news of crorepatis and aspiring crorepatis. For those of us who are now ancient, having been born in the first half of the last century, the talk of crores creates a disconcerting bewilderment. Having been born and brought up in the days of “rupees, annas and pies” a crore of rupees seemed so distant, so formidable. The school fees used to be paid in paises and in college it used to be a few odd rupees. Even that would be halved if and when two or more siblings would be in the same college. After post graduation getting a job fetching a salary from Rs. 300 to Rs. 500 would be considered creditable as it would be reckoned to be out of the ordinary.

 Parents would go looking for a groom for their daughters whose salary would be in four figures. The classified ads used to be littered with such ads. Nursing the ambition, the parents labored hard all their lives to bring up their daughters nurturing them to make them good enough for a four-figure-salaried groom. Then, even if one takes the Hindi movies of the late 1940s or early 1950s lakhpati, a man with a hundred thousand or more but with less than a crore, was what a businessman or an industrialist was known as. Beyond that, a crore, was perhaps unimaginable and none would seem to have ever bothered to attempt making a crore. Only a filthy rich or a decadent landlord or a corrupt and black-marketeering baniya could perhaps salt it away, if at all, and, if he managed to do that, he wouldn’t flinch from flaunting it in the midst of the surrounding abject poverty.

The by-and-large innocent society was seemingly administered a shock, as it were, with the advent of Indira Gandhi whose reign in 1960s and 1970s was known for its “briefcase” culture. Her ministers and even her younger son started playing around with mammoth amounts of cash. One remembers LN Mishra, the then Commerce Minister, who would get regular supplies of briefcases brimming over with cash,  and would use them for ascending channelization of their contents. The briefcases, would never be returned to their rightful owners. Corruption had become so rampant that everybody in politics was involved in it. Indira Gandhi’s supporters in the Parliament began attacking her saying she was sitting on a pile of black money. The era of collecting crores had effectively dawned, albeit, in illegitimate cash.

 High inflation was a natural corollary – high inflation breeding higher prices and still higher inflation, all the time shearing away the value of the rupee that used to be so precious once upon a time. Then in 1990s came the economic reforms, a change over from pseudo-socialism to pseudo-capitalism. Business and industry, nonetheless, flourished spawning many more crorepatis, few legit but more illegit.

To come back to cricketing billionaires, it is only now that the game of cricket has spawned a few billionaires. Earlier they used to be paid a pittance and even big names like Nawab Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was paid a very meager allowance for a five-day test match. Those days the game was generally played for the love of it. Things changed drastically after its professionalization. Consequent on the acquisition of the distribution rights to TV channels, the Board of Control for Cricket in India became the richest cricketing organization in the world. While this shifted the centre of gravity of cricket from London to Mumbai, the ever-flowing cash enabled it to pay handsome retainer fees in a graded manner to cricketers of various levels in the country. Thus there are many who have made a few crores over the last few years even without signing mouth-watering endorsements. Then, of course, the Indian Premier League (IPL) brought a windfall for them.

Cricket is an area where new-age crorepatis jostle around the stadia. The other area is the IT and Management fields where virtually every person who has come out of IITs or IIMs is a crorepati. They are so because of their brains which fetched them jaw-dropping packages in placements right in the institutes where they undertook their courses. The film industry is another one where, whether you deliver box-office hits or not, you get paid lavishly to boost your finances to make you a crorepati. Once you put across a box-office hit you, kind of, hit the jackpot. Multi-crorepatis in the film industry are numerous who lead a fabled life with luxury homes in India and/or abroad and stables crammed with luxury or high-end cars.

Businesses and industry, of course, have their respective shares of billionaires but, generally, they keep their financial information under wraps for fear of the tax-man. Among the businessmen and industrialists only 97 super-wealthy were reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2015. In an economy that boasts of being worth more than $ 2 trillion the number of declared billionaires would seem to be laughable. None knows who is at fault.

Likewise, politics is another ‘industry’ that breeds every five years a large number of super rich. Apart from the political movers and shakers, a large majority of legislators in states and at the Centre are crorepatis. It is not that their salaries and perks that make them so; most of them are corrupt and find myriad ways of accumulating illegal wealth. Even the meanest politician in a municipal corporation finds ways that facilely lead him to billions. Most of it is kept unaccounted to be used at the time of elections to bribe voters in exchange for votes.

India has come a long way from those modest days of early 20th century when it had a fat layer of hopelessly poor, a thin layer of middle classes and a micro-fine layer of rich and well-to-do. Today, on the other hand, though tax-paying crorepatis are reported to be only 18500 there are many more (excluding sporting and professional billionaires) who operate under the radars refusing to be recognized as crorepatis. While poor have shrunk in numbers the middle-classes have inflated.

No wonder lifestyles have changed and the market has upgraded itself to meet the demands of the rapidly generated billions. While Big B owns four bungalows in Mumbai’s costly land and gifts away a Bentley as a birthday gift to his son, others go for flats worth multi-crores in London’s Kensington or Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah or those churned out by the likes of Lodha. Likewise, while Lamborghinis and Rolls Royces adorn the garages of super-rich, Mercedes and Audis have become passe for our new-breed fat cats.

27th Frbruary 2017

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...