Saturday, October 25, 2008

To be a critic or not

I have been watching this debate from the sidelines for a while now. I am not jumping into the fray at this point to pick sides. I am not here to defend MC. He is capable of doing that on his own. But I want to talk about what I understand to be the purpose and message of this blog.

First, because I want to preempt any criticism that I'm an NRI so I don't know what it means to be a Keralite, I'm going to state that part of my livelihood is in Kerala. You might ask, does that mean you live in Kerala? No, but I have lived here and visit Kerala very frequently. Just because I find opportunities to work overseas as well does not mean I am any less capable of talking about Kerala. That bit was for those on this board who think "Non-resident Keralite" stands for "Non-Keralite".Pick issues with what I have to say, not where I come from.

Second, as a Keralite, I am used to being the recipient of a great deal of admiration for Kerala's achievements. And I am proud when I hear it because it is an uplifting chapter in the story of India's general social stagnation. But no one on this board or anyone still alive is directly responsible for this success. Oh yes, we have teachers, a newspaper savvy public, ambitious parents etc, but these are all the products of an infrastructure that was laid down more than fifty years ago. So what, you might say, we are still the most literate state in India! Well, the thing is, once you become literate, you should cease holding yourself to the standards of less fortunate states. You should hold yourself to the standard of self-progress. Put very simply, have you expanded the opportunities in your immediate environment to grow? I believe the answer to that for the past few decades is a resounding no.

It is one thing to be proud of a reformist past and another to be a reformer. MC is not claiming to be a reformer. As he has made it plain, he is just a commentor. But he is not resting on his laurels either. I would take that perspective any day to any Keralite who is wilfully blind to our political stagnation. I don't think DOC has ever pretended to be a "get your Kerala news here" blog. If that's what readers want, they are better off going to a newspaper. What MC has done here is to carve out a little niche to bring up Kerala's problems and to take our leaders to task. And that is still a just cause. I can tell you from experience too, I hear a lot less praise about Kerala than I did in the past. Literacy and healthcare are growing in other states. And others are becoming better informed about Kerala's poor political culture. Pretty soon, it will be no miracle to be a literate, healthy, non-violent and civilized state in India. When that happens, I would be disappointed if it weren't Kerala because that would mean we squandered our head start.

Third, we have a long list of social and economic problems. Which state doesn't, you might ask. But that is the wrong question to ask. One should ask, why do we have them at all? Why is it that even when we are a largely educated population, we still cave in to the threat of a hartal and stay at home? Why is that many of our college campuses, not all, are still beset with political violence? But most importantly, are we asking the right questions? That is, should we even be concerned? To me, the single most glaring example that some things are wrong in Kerala was last year's Onam. While hired hands went around town curling their moustaches and enforcing a city-wide ban, state-sponsored stores made a killing at the expense of the consumer. I seriously wondered (to myself mostly, because the people around me have been rendered numb to all this from age), are these hartals conducted for the benefit of opposing "imperialism" and the thousand other causes we have been told, or for the people who exploit the cracks in the systems that is our public food supply? Do not tell me we have the most efficient public distribution system in the country. Tell me if we have an efficient public distribution system to begin with.

Fourth, this blog's title. I had my personal debate with MC a while back over the blog's title. I would still like to see it changed, but it is merely a superficial concern. So superficial that I have left it to him to decide. I still write here, because you cannot judge a book by its cover. Isn't that the main criticism hurled against so-called money-grubbing NRIs? That Kerala can't be judged by its cover...that you have to live there to experience it. I believe that applies to everything. Just because our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters toil away in other lands doesn't mean you somehow forget that once upon a time, there were no jobs in Kerala but government jobs. Just because we are the healthiest and most literate state in India doesn't mean we sit on our laurels and don't criticize our leaders when they fail to provide us with more than literacy and healthcare.

It is human to idle, human to criticize, but divine to reform. Do we have any angels on this board? I don't think so and I don't think any of us should stop being just critics till one of us shows the way.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gulf News and Bitter Truths

I happened to go to "foreign" last month. I mean to the Gulf. And this post is basically some insights and malayalee related aspects that I noted during the trip. But first of all, I was truly amazed by UAE, especially Dubai, for one simple reason. They have built a city right in the middle of the desert out of nothing. They dont have oil like their neighbours, they dont have huge industries, they dont have backwaters, they dont have Disney Land. But yet they created one of the greatest cities in the world right there. By perhaps just selling a hype? Anyway, this post is not about Dubai and the Arabs. This is very much about Kerala.

While in the Gulf, I had the opportunity to meet several malayali entrepreneurs who are now among the well-known Non-Resident Keralites. Despite their success and stories about their hard work, they had one common regret to share: how Kerala has treated them. Almost all of them described their persistent efforts to set up business in Kerala (some before leaving to the Gulf, and others after they made some money in the Gulf and wanted to reinvest in Kerala), and how difficult it was for them because of our wily politicians and corrupt systems. Not only were they constantly required to pay bribes, but they also had incessant political (one even described how a local committee member of a party threatened him) demands and threats. And I am talking about stories and events as early as the mid 80s to the present day.

I also talked to several malayali construction workers and cab drivers. Even they had a common grouse - their own state and the peoples attitude. Even they couldnt refrain from scolding our politicians, our hartals and egoistic society. Even they seemed to recognize the stark differences in attitude and conduct between a malayali in Kerala and a malayali outside the state. But it was really heart-wrenching to see their plight, and despite the burning sun they toiled so hard and without a complaint or remorse of separation from their dear ones.

Why? To make their Gulf dreams come true. To not let down their families back in Kerala. To save the little that they earn and send it back to their loved ones, even if they miss a meal. At the airport I saw several of them at the money-changers, converting their soiled Dirham notes into fresh, ironed Rupees that they could proudly show home and their curious neighbours. Despite their tired faces, they had a little smile on their face. I noticed how most of them kept combing their hair and fixing their moustaches, preparing for the home-coming with so much aniticipation of being with their loved ones again.

Back home, it was not difficult to see why there is an air of arrogance, disobedience, and disregard for the system. A state with an economy totally dependent on the toils of its people outside it. Unemployed youth who take for granted their livelihood. Adults who dont really need to work, but can engage in timepass and gossip since they are assured of their moneys via UAE exchange and Western Union.

But have we wondered who is paying the price of all this?

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Monday, October 06, 2008

State Number 1? Who are we fooling?

Picture this. A city in Kerala boasts of the first shopping mall in India, long before mall-mania caught up even in metros. But decades later, while every other city and town has opened up to the idea of providing better service, more choices, and higher quality products to its consumers, Kerala painfully lags behind, despite its initial headstart. Sometimes I feel that malayalis have failed to understand the meaning of "service". This lag pans across almost all the sectors and indices one can think of, be it healthcare, womens empowerment, education, agriculture, and pretty much every positive indicator of progress and development.

Ofcourse, one could argue and list out the number of new "shopping malls" that have come up in Thrissur or Trivandrum. A new "mall" that opens in Kerala, just for example, will inevitably have an "Ammus Fancy Store", a "Pretty Ladies Center", and a "Shanthi Bakery". Add to it a "Kailas IT and Communications Center" which sells mobile recharge cards and provides photostat services, and "Sheetal Multicuisine Restaurant" which will have chicken fried rice and chilly chicken in the menu.

Alright, now thats a wee bit of an exaggeration (just a little bit of humor, so the sensitive ones out there, please dont take it to heart) but the point is, despite headstarts and huge "first" advantages, we have literally fallen back on almost all fronts and stagnated. As citizens, we seldom have choice and continue to be stuck with whatever is thrust upon us. And without the power of choice, we can never call ourselves empowered or progressive.

The most classical example is of the Technopark in Trivandrum, which was claimedly India's first IT park, started in 1994. But 14 years later, how far behind other states are we in terms of generating IT jobs and revenues? (Its great to see that finally we are picking up pace and increasing our IT exports. But vultures in the form of politicians and unions are ominously waiting to fleece the industry and ruin the new-found pace.)

Or take the example of Tourism. While Kerala Tourism has done exceedingly well and created a real good avenue for catapulting our state in the international tourists map (we almost made it), I can sense a decline over the last couple of years. Its partly due to lack of infrastructure keeping pace, and partly due to the attitude of the people. I have seen how harassed tourists are in Kerala. Whether it is by professional beggars or touts selling "collections", or auto/taxi walas trying to fleece them, or punks trying to tease the women, or the infamous year-long hartal festivities, it all adds up.

Last week at the Cochin airport I could see a airport security person really tormenting a foreigner couple, shouting in Hindi at him to keep his cellphone in the bag for Xray screening, while the couple were helplessly fumbling not knowing what to do. The other officers and officials at the airport, most of them malayalis, just giggled and stood watching. I spoke to the couple and they were all praises about the wonderful state that we have. But they also mentioned how a few of the people can really cast a negative shadow on the overall great experience and beautiful state that we have. They also mentioned how disorganized the tourism experience in the state is, despite its huge publicity and hype, allowing only seasoned travellers manage without getting harassed.

Questions for our politicians: Apart from fleecing and milking any entrepreneur or industry that does well, what has the government done to help our people progress? As soon as tourism started to develop and private players started making progress, the political buffoons have interfered and ensured that they get a large piece of the pie (all in the name of the poor, but what did they really get?). Its the same with healthcare or higher education. 75% of the healthcare in Kerala is provided by private hospitals, but apart from fleecing the hospitals in the name of various taxes and regulations, the government has done nothing concrete or sufficient to promote healthcare on its own. Similarly for higher education, instead of ensuring that the private players maintain a standard, our politicians were only interested in making sure that their parties and leaders get their coffers filled. In the process, they have made sure that the sector has been ruined.

Questions we should ask ourselves: Isnt it time we felt a bit ashamed of electing such inefficient people, year after year? How has our much-acclaimed 100% literacy, best in India health indices, best in India education indices, and other ratings that we rant about at the drop of a hat, helped us as a state? Have we really been able to take advantage of them or made any genuine progress since then? Or for the least, have we, as a community, been able to refine our behaviour and attitude? We are failing to provide a good environment and congenial atmosphere even to our own children, and they are left with no choice but to go elsewhere to learn or earn a living comfortably, and live a better life. And worst, we have now begun to see them, quite easily, as a separate group who dont belong to us. Now, that is a very ominous trend.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Greatly Inflated Mallu Ego

Today i saw an ad on a malayalam television channel about a vegetarian curry powder from an apparently well-known company in Kerala. The theme of the ad was about how other companies are mixing "non-vegetarian" extracts to make their vegetarian products more tastier, and how only this company's products are pure and tasty.

The concept brought to my mind a very infamous characteristic of us malayalis, one that we cannot really be proud of. Many people have related the "crabs in the can" theme to malayalis. And in some aspects its strikingly true. We have this nasty habit of trying to "look" better by putting others down. Instead of focusing on our own deficiencies (at least the ones that are correctable) and trying to improve ourselves, we always expose the flaws of other people, and then try to look relatively better of (or probably console ourselves).

While our politicians are the biggest trendsetters for this sort of trashy attitude, it seems to have caught on with the people in general as well. It is this same false prestige that leads to so many of our woes, including the deeply instilled sense of casteism, communal divisions, and gender inequalities.

Some of the comments to posts on this blog also point towards this characteristic. You can see scores of comments about how Kerala is better than Bihar and UP in many aspects. When we talk about how malayalis mistreat women, we dismiss it by talking about Delhi. If its about hartals, we see comments about the farmers strike in France. If we talk about personal freedom, we get comments comparing ourselves to Iraq and how better off we are. We try to focus on all the ills and troubles of everyone else, and try to cover up our defects, while we, as a state, sink further down.

I remember a forum on development in Trivandrum, where almost for a year people celebrated the widening and beautification of a half-a-kilometer stretch of road in the city, and termed it as the "model road". Every day there would be pictures of that stretch from various angles. And alongside that there would be bitter comments about how Kochi roads are congested and pathetic, which made for greater celebration.

I think this is a very laughable way to look at ourselves, while we gloat ourselves claiming to be 100% literate (which itself is a very silly claim in my opinion!) and the malayali culture being so superior to everybody else. I think this false sense of pride and inflated ego really holds us back from progress, and is one of the biggest reasons why we get stuck in time.

Agreed we have a great culture and tradition, but it should not be something we hold on to obsessively and bring ourselves down by disallowing change and fresher perspectives.

Thanks to Silverine for this link. Absolutely classical malluism.

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