Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year Greetings

May you find success, prosperity and happiness in this new year.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Tourism Potential

The New York Times has an interesting statistic- New York City attracted close to 7 million foreign tourists while 4 million foreign tourists visited India in 2005. Every Indian knows the huge potential for tourism in India. If we can attract 30 million tourists to India and assuming a per person spending of $2500 (which I believe is very modest), that works out to a $75 billion earning opportunity! And thats not even counting domestic tourism, which is very huge.

There seems to be very little initiative from the government in realizing this tremendous opportunity. There are several things which I can think of that the government can do-

-Promote India as a great place to travel abroad; the Indian consulates at various countries that have been identified as having potential should advertise in the media; they should ensure that applying for a tourist visa is hassle free and obtaining information about India is easy
-Encourage setting up budget hotels in India; many travelers prefer a place that provides a clean bed and bathroom instead of anything more fancy; govt. should lease the huge land holding the railways have to hotel developers and provide tax breaks for them
-It will be a huge help if the staff at the airports, railway stations and other places where tourists need to deal with govt. agencies are trained to be customer friendly

Many more suggestions can be added to this list. I believe we have many advantages built into our democratic way of life that if we can take care of a few important factors such as those mentioned above, India will be a natural tourist destination even without heavy advertising and promotion. I am sure it is not difficult for the govt. to realize that tourism has the potential of increasing the quality of life for millions of Indians.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Public Broadcasting

I do not have cable TV at home. I have access to only one channel and that is the local public television channel, which I watch once in a while. Some of the programs on this channel are extremely entertaining and educational; especially the science programs (Nova, Nature and some others) and the news analysis programs (Frontline and some others). Most of this TV stations's programs have very little or no advertising. It is mostly supported by contributions from viewers, other donors and may be some funding from the government.

I am beginning to realize the importance of good public television for strengthening democracy. The vast terrestrial network Doordarshan in India has is such an asset if used effectively. The Indian government should loosen its grip on public TV, make it truly autonomous and guarantee funding to it and also allow it to accept donations from viewers and others. It should ensure that public TV becomes a forum for independent film makers and also promote investigative journalism as a check on both government and corporate activities. Perhaps it could invite documentary film makers to produce high quality educational content for national broadcast.

Television can be made a little interactive by allowing viewers to choose what programs they want to watch from a list of options. Previews of these programs can be put up on the internet or in the near future on cell phones. Viewers can then vote for which programs they want and the one which gets the highest votes can be aired. Surely this isn't too difficult to do and all the technology needed already exists.

Operating the terrestrial television network on a no-profit no-loss basis ensures that the medium is financially sustainable and at the same time not altogether at the mercy of market forces. This will provide it with some leeway in its choice of content. The same could be done with All India Radio too.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Land Reforms

Very often we read in the news about some state government or the other promising some private corporation that land will be made available to them for setting up their business operations. Most recently the Andhra Pradesh govt. promising land for a semi-conductor fab plant and a car manufacturer, West Bengal for Tata Motors, Orrisa for mining companies and land for the special economic zones are several examples. I always thought it curious that it was the various governments that were trying to come up with land; shouldn't the corporations be buying land themselves?

Ravikiran Rao's article points out that farmers are not allowed to sell land for non-agricultural purposes. Now that makes everything clear. It is this utterly insane law that prevents corporations from directly buying land and makes them go to the state governments. It isn't difficult to imagine all the corruption this law causes. It also isn't very difficult to imagine the negative consequences of such a law, several of which are pointed out in the article mentioned above.

Do take the time to read the article. Awareness of the basic problem brings about understanding of the issues. Gaurav Sabnis has a related article on land reforms. The fundamental right to property was abolished by the infamous 44th amendment made during the emergency years. That right should be brought back.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Damage A Simple Beedi Can Do

A couple of years back, Parliament passed a bill making it mandatory for beedi wrappers to have a danger mark on atleast 50% of the area. The danger mark included a skull and two cross-bones. The bill was to come into affect during February 2007. Nothing wrong in having a health warning on something that is genuinely a health hazard. But that was until a by-election was to come up in Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh.

It happens that a significant percentage of voters in the karimnagar constituency are poor beedi workers, more than half of them women. They feel putting a large warning on their beedi packets will leave no place for their brand logo and might also dissuade people from buying their products; a potential threat to their already poor livelihoods.

The three way political battle for the Karimnagar seat between the ruling Congress, the TDP and TRS parties has turned the whole issue on its head and allowed it to acquire several dimensions. All three political parties are scrambling to assure the voters that they are not responsible for the law and are desperately trying to stand up as the saviors of the voters' livelihoods! But then, there is also the issue of very bad health affects from smoking beedis. To me the whole thing is a classic problem in politics, policy and economics.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The God Hypothesis

It is quite a surprise as well as a pleasure that Richard Dawkins' new book The God Delusion is turning out to be a best seller. May be there are many who are trusting their common sense and discarding this unnecessary body of belief we call religion. I wonder how long it will take for all of humanity to realize that they don't need the concept of a god anymore.

Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, says- "the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief". Indeed, it truly is a long nightmare! Dawkins has a superb description of god (as described in the old testament of christianity)..."arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully".

The sooner we understand and accept the fact that our lives and perhaps the entire universe itself is pointless, the more happier we will be and our lives will be so much more productive.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Child Labor In India

Everywhere in India, it is a fairly common to see children-sometimes very small children-working in a variety of places; road side eateries, tea stalls, dhabas, construction sites, domestic help in cities and towns and as agricultural help among other places in rural areas. Then there are the homeless children everyone sees most commonly in railway stations among other places.

Last month legislation banning employment of children less than 14 years as domestic help and in eateries came into effect. While it is important to provide the problem of child labor with a strong legal basis, I believe this latest ban is futile. In the conditions prevalent in India, simply banning child labor without sorting out many other related issues isn't going to work. The government must ensure that there is a practical alternative for children who are going to be displaced from work because of this ban. There must be free and compulsory schooling, nutritious meals must be provided for them, health care services must be provided, they must be given access to vocational courses, even sporting activities. Simply preventing children from working and then giving them nothing useful to do is retrogressive.

Surely all that involves a huge financial expenditure; but what better investment can we make than in our own children? Finding the money needed for financing these projects won't be a huge challenge for the government. The current issue of Frontline discusses the issue of child labor in India and the legislation in question in great detail.

Further Observations on US Elections

The dust kicked up by election issues seems to have finally settled. The Republican party was routed while the Democratic party has gained majority control of both the houses of congress. There were two principal issues over which the elections were fought; the war in Iraq and corruption/scandals.

The former issue forced the defence secretary Rumsfeld to resign while the latter caused many incumbents to loose re-election bids. The average turnout at the polls was around 40%. For a nation that takes pride in being the most progressive democracy, that is a very low level of participation in the election process.

Not one of my American friends and colleagues voted. Some of them were unaware that there was an election(!) while many others had no idea who the candidates in the fray were or what the issues being debated were. Many told me, they don't vote because their vote cannot change anything and so doesn't count. I disagree with them. I believe the US and its politicians and others involved should make an effort bringing many more to the polls, starting with college students first.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Critical Thinking

Best piece I read today...

"Criticism is the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a mental habit and power. It is a prime condition of human welfare that men and women should be trained in it. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances. Education is good just so far as it produces well-developed critical faculty. ...A teacher of any subject who insists on accuracy and a rational control of all processes and methods, and who holds everything open to unlimited verification and revision is cultivating that method as a habit in the pupils. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded...They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence...They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices...Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens." -William Graham Sumner

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Domestic Violence Act

Indian women have been empowered with a new act-The Domestic Violence (Prevention) Act. The law has a broad definition of domestic violence and includes not only married women, but also mothers facing abuse from children, widows from relatives, sisters from brothers and even women in live in relationships. It essentially tries to ensure that women are free from domestic violence of all forms.

I believe that is an important piece of legislation. Used together with anti-dowry laws and the recent reforms to the Hindu inheritance act, this new law, atleast legally protects and empowers Indian women in a very broad based way. However, as with any other legislation and policy, implementation is the key. The act is rich in detail about how it will be implemented and how victims of domestic violence can seek assistance, but until there is awareness in every strata of society, it may be of little use.

Womens' organizations in India and NGO's working in the area of women's rights and empowerment are doing a great job of putting some pressure on the government in getting such laws enacted; I hope they are doing an equally good job spreading awareness about these laws, especially to rural women.

I wonder if laws trying to ensure social justice and equality can be gender free. I mean, while it is all very nice to have laws protecting the women, what about the men? Surely, we don't have to look very far to find men at the receiving end of their wives' tantrums!

More info about this is available in this interview at Rediff