Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Once upon a time journalists reported news

That was many years ago. Decades ago. Or perhaps even earlier than that. Then, both sides discovered that journalists, media by virtue of putting out stuff in print - the very scarcity of it can create, sway and even modify opinions.

And it is true. Much of our opinions come from the media we watch. Very little of our opinion is truly independent - unless you have read about it, inquired about it and created your own line of opinion. Which is why we all think secular. We all believed in the Doordarshan news and the news that our papers printed. Which really explains a lot of our 'thought' positions. Unless you truly read beyond that, you will believe in what the herd writes.

Be that as it may, people realized that one could pay to put news in print. And thus it happened - beyond advertisements. We began to see agencies put our news slanted in one way to influence opinions in one way and so on.

Just before a movie released, a news item would talk about an 'affair' between the cast. That raises curiosity and people often went and watched the movie.

Just before a major brand of soft drink was launched in India, there was a lot of badmouthing of sugarcane juice - who they perhaps considered as their major competition.

These are just examples, but there are many such examples. Because of the scarcity, print media and electronic media held sway, because once you had access to that inner circle, you could print anything and get the public to believe anything - including fake revolutions, fake honesty and what not.

Now this has been taken further ahead by newspapers - which are happy to take paid news. They will carry news - because it is paid for or (hold your breath) because they have a stake in your venture which they will pay through 'planted news'. And then lobbyists discovered it - which is why often one finds laudatory articles on companies, missile systems, even cricketers - hoping it will sway opinions of people.

Enron famously declared that it had spent a few crores 'educating' Indians - most of the money went into hands of politicians and perhaps media as well.

The latest scam here is all about the Agusta helicopters where some 16m Euro was spent creating a favorable impression of the helicopters in the India media. Now while we wait for the list to come out - it is to be noted that this is nothing new.

Covers with notes were distributed before elections, in party offices - all so that coverage could be bought.

Along the way journalists also discovered that with their access, they could lobby, they could sway opinion and they became opinion maker instead of reporting the news. We have had famous examples like the Radia scam.

Since then media has proliferated, social media has boomed and the opinion of old media has waned like no other. And media hates it.

Now when the Agusta scam broke out, hardly has a journalist come out in the open that this is a unethical practice.

Accepting money, favors, trips - and then writing about it is unethical. But some think otherwise...
And the last word from Chitra SD - the one who broke the Bofors scam decades ago

Sunday, May 01, 2016

A gust of wind

The Agusta story is up in the air. Wiki here. Long story short: An Italian court has convicted the chopper company chief and many familiar Indian names are in it.

It is no secret that the UPA was corrupt. Many scams are in different stages of investigation. The Coal Scam, the 2G scam, the Airtel-Maxis scam, the National Herald scam and now the Agusta probe.  (I am sure there will be many many more scams that will come to light, but leave that aside for now.)

What is common to each of these scams? None of these scams was accepted by the Congress and they said it was all politically motivated, propaganda and what not. And their political minions in media often toed the line.

The Coal Scam was broken by Hansraj Ahir - a BJP MP. The 2G scam was broken by Gopikrishnan of the Pioneer. Not one of these was broken by the Lutyens cabal of journalists.

But leave that aside for the moment. The NDA government is ensuring that the probe is happening independently - though I am not sure if anything will come out of it. It may only result in mud-slinging a la Bofors or it may result in real convictions.Whether independent probes mean that bureaucrats will take the probes to its logical conclusion  or not is also not clear. Hopefully the government will ensure that these probes are taken to its logical ends - with the arrests of the accused.

Now, here is the situation today.

Most of our so called chattering classes never tire of reminding us that BJP and Congress governments are equal. They never tire of writing oped pieces that tell us this. Why, at the height of UPA corruption they wrote us this: Are Indians endemically corrupt? And this. There were many such pieces/debates and the subliminal kind of harassment that often passes off as intellectual speak. The essence of it was somewhat on these lines:

So what if the 2G license were sold off on the cheap and people made money on the side - that helped keep rates low. (A completely bogus if it were if you see the rates at which subsequent auctions happened)

In military deals, kickbacks are coming - everybody does it. Even if you took out the kickbacks, the cost of the equipment would still the same. (Ditto bogus - in the recent past, India itself has managed to renegotiate many a price)

The coal scam they told us was no scam at all, because the coal was lying there unused.

In the last two years, the NDA government has streamlined procedures, made things transparent and even reduced the level of 'human' 'discretion' that was the euphemism for allowing corruption into deals, pricing etc. They have done this from coal and spectrum auctions to procurement of cement to military equipment.

(The earlier NDA government also completed their tenure without a single scam, for the record.)

And before I forget. Manmohan Singh was honest - they never tire of telling us. Tell me, which honest guy allows the loot under his very nose? In his office? Being arm twisted to change policies to enable money to be siphoned off?

With the Agusta and the National Herala scam, it is fairly proven that corruption is endemic to Congress. Even the famously silent Signora Sonia has come out facing a mike for the first time in many years.  TV channels are reporting on the corruption and asking questions of Signora for the first time ever. There are still a few that distract and divert, but leave them - because the Agusta story has a second chapter - that of money paid to journalists to help in 'positive' coverage. And one of Indias greatest journalists has come out defending it (ahem).

So, why are these worthies not highlighting the effort of the government to keep top down corruption at zero and ensure that it stays that way. Agreed the former is more of a function of ethics at the top - but the latter - to create processes in a place that was always (to use the words of the columnists) corrupt is really something.

Now, why aren't these same worthies writing about Narendra Modis honesty? Or of this governments resolve to eliminate corruption - both at source and also go after past cases without interference? And this is just at the center.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

New Start ups in Bangalore

Given all the civic issues in Bangalore, here are a few start up suggestions:

Horse taxis: These are the only things that can negotiate the current traffic in Bangalore. And environment friendly. They can also jump cross barriers.

Human Relay Race couriers: To deliver, even bikes get stuck. Human relay racers on the other hand can deliver stuff faster.

Advanced drone delivery: To begin with they can start for goods. Later on, this can diversified into delivering people into offices. Charging the drone may be a problem given the electricity, but at any rate, the person will fall on a vehicle stuck on a traffic jam.

Sleeper buses: Sleeper buses help people get a good nights sleep on the way back to home from office. Besides, the moment they reach home, they have to start the next days journey. And in the day journey the bus doubles up as work cabins with wifi. Book your space in it using an app.

Food delivery at traffic jams: You order in one signal and using GPS, the food delivery catches up with you as you are stuck and delivers at the traffic jam. This is also extended to restaurant booking apps. You book a seat based on where you are stuck and the restaurant books your place. Then once confirmed, you also give you order - and by the time you reach the restaurant, the food is on the table!

Traffic Valets: Special drivers who will drive you though the traffic and return the vehicle to you once the traffic is cleared.

Micro drones with a live update of road traffic: Drones continuously feed you images of the route to your home/office so you can decide if you can go or work or do something else.

Traffic auto pilots: These are not self drive cars, but just small self drive applications on cars which will move your car only in centimeters per second and only in a straight line (and at times in zig zag motion to confuse other drivers).

Private pot hole fillers: Using an app, private agencies fill up potholes and the bill is submitted to BBMP - who do not have time to do anything anyway.

Bangalore and Taxes...

Bangalore, much touted as Indias silicon valley, is perhaps the worst metro to live in these days.
Property taxes were hiked in Bangalore a few months ago. The hike almost doubled the amount property owners pay in Bangalore and as per zones. (The hike has since been rolled back - partially.)
The zones have been classified in BBMPs infinite wisdom along these lines:

The city is classified into six tax zones -- A to F, with A the high tax bracket, and reducing to F, the lowest bracket. As a result of the reorganization, some areas have been moved from the lower E and F zones to D, C, B or A zones, where the tax is heavy. "Owners of properties which have moved to higher tax zones have to cough up more tax. The recent property tax hike has come as an additional burden to them. In some cases, where properties have jumped multiple zones, the tax may go up 100% per cent or more.

The logic used seems to be the hike in property rates - mind you, not the civic amenities provided. So, if you walked into any of these 'posh' localities and expected to see a beautiful modern city, you would be wrong. What you would see are dilapidated roads, bad sewage, no water supply and erratic electricity. Traffic conditions are abysmal. Pollution is high. There is tons of dust floating everywhere  Yes, you will also see big cars, huge apartment buildings. 

Now let us see how this money is getting used. No, I am not in a mood at this point to dive into data and give you sources, but anecdotal evidence is sufficient. 

Let us look at basic stuff you need in a city. The first is water. The water situation in Bangalore as per this article is so bad that the city will have to be evacuated by 2023. BBMP (or BWSSB) does not supply water to the entire city. It supplies it partly to the part of the city. From the link above, see this:

Most residential properties then rely on water supplied through tankers, that have emerged as one of the most powerful lobbies in Bangalore. It is such a booming business, that there have been instances of the water tanker mafia using force to prevent residential societies from digging borewells to reduce their expenditure on water supplied by them.

While the last sentence may be a bit of an exaggeration - the point is that each of those so called high end zones where property prices have 'jumped' are on the outskirts of the erstwhile city and have no amenities whatsoever provided by the BBMP/BWSSB. The water supply is by water tankers - most apartments have no Kaveri connection.

(Now, don't get me wrong - I don't mean that we need to get precious Kaveri water from pristine parts of rural Karnataka so that Bangaloreans can flush it down their drains - but where is the plan for the city my dear government when you area collecting so many crores?)

So, water is in bad state.

What about sewage? Again from the earlier link: 

"The 850 km of storm water drains meant to carry surplus water from higher elevation lakes to lower levels in a cascading system of natural rainwater harvesting, now instead carry the city's sewage into these existing so-called lakes," said Balasubramanian.
"Only 30 per cent of the sewage is treated by the sewage treatment plants and the rest flows into the existing lakes," he said.
If this is not enough - given any few days there will be a sewage pipe leak in some part of these 'posh' localities. And it takes ages to clear those. 
Every single IT complex or kindergarten has its own generator in these posh areas. No, apartment buildings in Singapore or Mumbai do not have those. Because the state (or electricity company) supplies electricity. But no, not KSEB. 

Despite the country generating more electricity in the last two years, Karnataka is not interested in supplying it to its denizens.  This article is from September, but I can assure you it is not radically different now. 

That leave us with traffic, roads and suchlike. Most main roads in Bangalore are paved, but that about it. I have seen service roads laid in way that it forms asphalt waves, craters. I have seen roads cave in first and then vehicles cave into that. There are many other dust paths that also qualify as roads. 

What about traffic? Most of Bangalore gets up each day and simply stands in queue in a traffic jam. Here is one story about Whitefield (one those posh localities - hey, it even has a posh name), but no there is no white not field - there is just one massive traffic jam. 

What are the plans? Nobody knows. What is the mitigation to this situation? Nobody knows. The government is hardly interested except in collecting high property taxes. Lakes are dying. There is no water. There is barely any electricity. Untreated sewage goes into lakes on a good day - on a bad day it just accumulates on roads. The road themselves are another story. 

So, why are we paying such high taxes Mr. Chief Minister?

(Some stupid formatting issue - can't figure out what is the issue here)