Posted on 28-02-2010
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

The Indian EXPRESS/ The Financial EXPRESS article

With a global insurance client Chairman, a Scotsman operating from Japan, I visited homes of consumers who earn Rs 5,000 per month in different states in India. We micro-detailed their thoughts and lifestyle, and went to their kitchen, bath room, bedroom to puja room. Sunday morning we were in North Kolkata’s Hatibagan weekly open birds market, and the flower market under Howrah Bridge. We could barely walk for the crowd, the wet mud and multi-coloured bird cages. Then we went on to the outstanding, Western standard South City Mall and saw people spend Rs 25,000 for a single branded garment. "Shombit, this India is really incredible. Within a few kilometres you can see extreme poverty, folklore, to highly Americanized modernity."

The Tourism Ministry’s "Incredible India!" advertising raises curiosity for traditional India, but when people see copycat Western malls and cars, they see no modern evolution, and call it Americanization. That’s why we need to make India incredible in another angle in the near future, India has to be disruptive rather than folkloric.

Century after century India’s been renowned for its trading business. Today it’s highly driven by body shopping, low cost basic to intelligent manpower for the HR needs of developed countries. A new culture has recently emerged, that of downloading. When will we ever become an inventive society that uploads into the Internet, and not merely downloads? ‘Innovation’ has become an industry buzzword, used as a business tactic to satisfy shareholders in quarterly results. In developed countries, physical inventions are uploaded on the world-wide-web as e-information. Those who can afford a computer in India take the opportunity to download this fruit.

Evolving from being conquerors to cowboys to inventors, Americans have made their country rich and famous. Their inventions have changed people’s working and living standard with functional betterment of human life, mass scale consumption, high end lifestyle and unbelievable entertainment. The US has become an economic power to reckon with, aiding all round growth and commanding the world. Just take 10 American companies, GE, Bell, IBM, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, 3M, Xerox, Microsoft, Apple, Nike, that have become the world’s biggest brands. Their initial initiative was invariably inventive. These brands acquired power not with media hype and advertisement investment using film stars. They had fundamental innovation at inception, which made them authoritative enough to stay in the customer’s subconscious mind as indispensable requirement for a better life.

There may be heavy criticism of the US encouraging mass consumerism. But nobody can deny that mass consumption has democratized human rights in developed countries. Painter Andy Warhol, who made pop art famous, had said that America is great because, "the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You know the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and you can drink Coke, too. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good."

Undoubtedly, access to money led to consumerism, but industry’s approach has always been inventive to improve American life. A basic American family cannot afford a Trump Tower restaurant in New York’s 5th Avenue but a few dollars will buy his entire family a sumptuous meal at McDonald’s nearby the Trump Tower. Chains like McDonald’s invented quality processes in sourcing, manufacture, service and globalisation so that there is complete predictability in what they offer, no matter where in the world they are located.

In India’s unequal society, the biggest population chunk earns below Rs.10,000 a month. Our $millionaires or $billionaires living in Western style comfort may need no invention, but everyone else in India requires inventions that have the flavour of India’s soil, just like Americans invented for American people. Most inventions there, even today’s richest man Bill Gates, seem to have started in the garage. Perhaps inventions will happen in slums here. Can we think that by 2020 the minimum wages of an individual will become Rs 25,000 per month as per today’s monetary valuation as they fulfill 8 hours of efficacious work? If that becomes feasible, we will realize the Government of India’s vision of becoming a developed country by 2020.

Most Indian companies target the populous “bottom of the pyramid” to sell their products to, but pay scant attention to how these poor people will afford these low priced goods. People have to earn first. Only when their buying power becomes powerful, can there be a robust pyramid of human society.

To achieve the status of being a developed country, India requires soil relevant invention. What does this mean? Here are three idea examples that India specific invention has to achieve: (1) The yearly income of a 2-acre land owner farmer has to increase from Rs 40,000 to Rs 300,000. (2) Porters should get an auto-mechanised device to transport heavy loads without expending their manual labour like bullocks do. This will power his everyday working efficiency for earning Rs 25,000 per month. (3) A totally moulded, minimally mechanized and service-proof 4 wheeler vehicle with very low cost of ownership can be created for use in transportation of commercial goods and for the family’s lifestyle purpose.

Britain’s Industrial Revolution from the 1760s auto-mechanized everything, and facilitated high productivity with reduced labour. This improved people’s living style. For India to really become incredible, we absolutely need a revolution of India-centric invention of auto mechanized devices for 70% of our billion + people. That would get rid of poverty too. To represent India as a developed country, a certain homogeneity is required among the poor and rich. It’s every individual’s human right to get a certain level of comfort in life at both the workplace and the home. After that, merit can take a person far into boundaryless achievement depending on every individual’s drive and calibre.

The West has proved that functional devices can end slavery and improve human life. Privileged Indians should take a call to abolish the unofficial “slavery” of the underprivileged where sub-minimum wages are paid for unorganised sectors like migrant construction workers and domestic staff. Servants should become service people.

Helping the poor with money makes them the dependent poor. We need to give them an instrument for personal growth. In other words, no free fish, give a fishing rod to catch fish everyday. This is the way incredible India can really fall in place. To change India’s inequality we need the INDIA acronym to become Innovative Nation Driving Inventive Action (INDIA). Such a disruption will make India incredible in its essence.

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Posted on 21-02-2010
Filed Under (ENTERTAINMENT) by Shombit

The Indian EXPRESS/ The Financial EXPRESS article

You may enjoy the failures children experience in reality television, but unconsciously, like antibiotic, you absorb the frequent advertisements at the pause of reality shows. When a child or earnest youngster is highly criticized for his or her imperfect performance, tele-spectators find vicarious fun there, although most do not admit it. It’s comparable to the excitement that stung the Romans when watching gladiators rip each other apart, or the excruciating thrill Spaniards feel when they roar as the bull fighter or the bull died in the ring of every famous bullfight.

Let me restrict the impact of reality TV to children as they are the most vulnerable. Why do the brilliant judges think they are entitled to criticize youngsters any way they want to in front of millions of tele-spectators? Have they thought about the future career of these aspirants? While enjoying the defects and defeat of striving young artists save the winner, you the tele-spectator, are endorsing the total success of the program’s producer for getting high TRP ratings for the TV channel.

The reality boom hit the US at the turn of the century with shows such as American Idol and Survivor; earlier shows like Miss America Pageant never made the big time. India’s highly proliferated native cultural societies copying the Caucasian American seems a mismatch. Look at America’s evolution, from being invaders into a continent to embracing the cowboy culture. Their selling-marketing attitude made them take big risks and gambles, and led to their becoming outstanding inventors of all time. US inventions have changed the way the world thinks and works with its rapid advancement of digital technology. All such disruptive consequences may have created American society to be forever agitated. In the US, every citizen is allowed to carry a gun for self protection and defence as the crime rate is supposedly very high. As gun-toting people, their mental make-up is totally skewed towards being daring and damn-care. We cannot compare this with India’s culture that has transcended from ancient traditions which has a compromising attitude.

Let me illustrate with a personal experience of the disconcerted American social order. I once accompanied an American client of mine from New York City to his suburban home in New Jersey after working hours. There was a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam that could be seen for miles. My client suddenly switched on a device atop his dash board which had programmed inside it different kinds of irritating sounds. The one he chose was the machine gun shot. In this colossal traffic jam, he attacked all the cars in front with gun shots, as though he was taking part in The Terminator film. I watched amazed, feeling stupid, as we’ve never experienced this in Europe. He laughed saying this way the time will pass faster, and we will not feel bored. By the time we reach, he said, we’d have killed so many vehicles that this, he finds, has become his best stress busting tool. On another occasion in a friend’s car, I noticed an unsettling program he activated in his car. He put his car radio in the auto scan mode so that every 30 seconds the radio station changed, and he ended up listening to a medley of songs. These are anecdotes of disquiet in the American way of life which is a unidirectional society.

American entertainment has its own history since the last 60 years. It is far removed from Indian entertainment that runs on outstretched fantasy. But India is imitating America’s hybrid culture without evolution, just jumping from fantasy to reality in a short span of time. Americans have become tired of blockbuster Hollywood films and scripted TV shows like Dallas and are now turning towards reality TV. I have no cribs against American culture, I love their Barbie doll and hamburger ethnicity, but when India blindly follows this culture, authenticity gets discounted. And originality all but dissipates into just collecting money from TV advertisements. Indian reality game shows and voyeuristic people-watch programs are good for boosting TV ratings. However, when young performers have to take barbs from so-called guru and maha-guru judges, their morale gets totally destroyed.

In the last 11 years, the artists that have emerged from such national and regional channels have been just a handful, less than ten at the national level. I find it quite amoral and inhuman the way children are harassed by judges on TV shows. When the prestige and confidence of debutant artists break, can it result in producing artists from the masses, as is the purported objective of these entertainment programs? The performing arts cannot be taught facing a public forum; doing so intimidates the children.

Famous silver screen actors and playback singers are often the judges. Actors have the advantage of shooting take after numerous take until the correct retake is captured. So in the released film, the public never sees their shortcomings and flaws. In today’s practice, singers dub with modern technology, recording line after line, multiple times and in multiple tracks. They sometimes don’t even see the musicians. All voice imperfections are corrected with digital technology. Even in front of an audience on stage, the musicians have to manage a singer’s mistakes. The public is never privy to the professional artists’ kitchen. But when these artists become reality show judges, its amazing how, sometimes with sugar-coated words, they feel free to bombard the young ones with high definition censure. Undoubtedly, reality TV has helped underprivileged people to express themselves, earn money and fame, but criticising them on TV is a totally anti-artistic solution.

As a telespectator you enjoy the defeat of hapless children artists. They do not exactly get physically killed as did the barbaric gladiator competitors in the Roman Emperor’s arena, but such reality shows can kill their self-esteem. Incidents have already happened where children have become severely unwell, such as becoming paralytic with the shock of defeat. It appears that the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights is enquiring into the long hours, remuneration and working conditions of children in reality shows, especially as employing a child under 14 is a crime


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Posted on 14-02-2010
Filed Under (WOMAN) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

I love to trickle down the crevasse of our social fibre, away from software emperors PowerPoint and Excel sheet, or cyber gods demanding cut, paste, save before loads of hard work disappears forever into irretrievable temporary files. I always carry my small movie camera and notebook when wading into the ocean of humanity. By chance, I recently discovered Vasundhara who said she helps make babies. Seeing my raised eyebrows imagining her seductive powers over men, she quickly elaborated, “What should normally happen in the bedroom, I create in a test tube in my laboratory. I am an embryologist.”

For married women in India, it’s almost a crime not to have children. The whirring pressure is from the family, society, being ostracised from religious functions, and her own severe knock in confidence. Nobody checks if low sperm count could be the problem. Previously, early marriages made the family proudly recognise women for being baby containers. Of course when it’s a male baby she gets more respect. Curiosity made me drive a quick research across a hundred girls between 20 and 28 years in metros today. About 40 per cent of these career women don’t want a baby as their bodies would deform for nine months, and they’d rather avoid the pain and future responsibility. In fact, 24 per cent prefer a live-in relationship while 46 per cent opt to marry only after they are financially independent. From some other research at the workplace we found that when middle management women get thwarted in career growth they then prioritise family, marriage and children.

Vasundhara said a new problem has emerged in society in the last ten years. It’s the weakening of the male sperm due to over usage of pesticides and chemicals in food and drinks. Environmental pollution from cigarette smoke, synthetic estrogens in poultry and dairy feed, tight fitting jeans and underwear, gonorrhea among others, are reasons for male infertility. This male problem has seriously increased in the age group of 25 to 40 years. So educated young couples who can afford it, frequent IVF (in vitro fertility) clinics to have babies conceived in test tubes.

It seems statistically the birth rate has gone down in India, and those below the poverty line decreased from 55 per cent in 1973-74 to 26 per cent in 1999-2000. According to demographer Professor PN Mari Bhat of the International Institute for Population Sciences, there is a strong co-relation between this poverty reduction and decline in fertility rates in the past three decades. But my social fibre journey into test tube babies suggests that it matters little whether India has over a billion people with millions of unwanted babies. Every couple’s birthright is a happy marriage with a child, and their desire is for procreation.

The world’s first test tube baby was Marie Louise Brown born 25 July 1978 in England, and the second was Durga, born 67 days later in Kolkata. Dr Subhas Mukhopadhyay brought her into the world, but sadly the medical profession disbelieved his achievement, and in depression he committed suicide in 1981.

At the IVF clinic, Vasundhara explained, the wife’s egg is sucked out of the ovary under anesthesia, and cultured for a couple of days in an incubator with 37 degree centigrade temperature. The husband’s sperm is simultaneously taken and used to fertilise the eggs in laboratory conditions. About two or three fertilised embryos are then injected into the wife’s womb for the baby to grow naturally inside. Should the wife be unable or unwilling to bear the child, a surrogate uterus can then be used.

Surrogacy is a subject fraught with controversy, dilemma, emotional upheavals and rackets. A surrogate mother lends her uterus to continue the pregnancy for nine months. Once she delivers, genetically the baby will belong to the couple whose egg and sperm were used. In India, a childless couple is generally willing to pay around Rs 10 lakh for the donor egg or sperm. This is where the racket begins. Touts get poverty-stricken girls and boys to donate, pay them a few thousands and pocket the rest themselves. It appears that sophisticated college-going girls and boys donate eggs and sperm directly to IVF clinics. The stakes are of course much higher for touts at the surrogate mother stage. Here middle class married women who already have children are used as they are less likely to get attached to the baby.

Commercial surrogacy is banned in countries such as Sweden, Spain, France, and Germany, while South Africa, the UK and Argentina allow and evaluate surrogacy requests on a case-by-case basis. India legalised surrogacy in 2002, and the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) has set national guidelines to regulate it.

Reproductive outsourcing is a new and rapidly expanding business in India. The industry value was estimated to be $449 million in 2005, and reportedly surrogacy cases have doubled in the last three years. Typically surrogate mothers are paid $15,000 in the US, and agencies claim another $30,000. The entire cost in India ranges from $2,500 to $6,500.

Meandering the social fibre, I stumbled into emotional potholes aside from the commercial, legal and ethical connotations. What can the couple do if the surrogate mother does not give them the baby? Technology has no heart but will the surrogate woman’s heart allow her to forsake the baby for money? How much is the right payment for her? What if she dies at childbirth? Should the child know about the surrogacy? If the child is handicapped and not wanted by anyone, what happens? A child of foreign genes born to an Indian surrogate mother will be the citizen of this country or the genetic parents’ country?

In his 1936 film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin was ahead of his time depicting the frustrating struggle during the Great Depression of proletarian man pitted against the dehumanising effects of the machine in the Industrial Age. Surrogacy and test tube babies take me back to his great vision of how the world is becoming so artificial.

To download above article in PDF Pesticides and test tube babies

Financial Express link:http://www.indianexpress.com/news/pesticides-and-test-tube-babies/579487/0

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Posted on 07-02-2010
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit


Who would have believed that one of India’s least industrialised states today, West Bengal, was the ignition of the late 18th century Industrial Revolution in Great Britain? Nobody talks about how Bengal fired up this turning point in the West.

From early 17th century, India had very superior cotton manufacturing with dye technology, mechanical devices and elaborate division of labour among specialised craftspeople. Indian cotton was so popular among all classes of British women that English silk and wool weavers felt threatened and rioted. So by 1725 Britain banned Indian textiles. But the demand for Indian fabrics continued. This stimulated mechanisation of Britain’s textile industry.

Here’s how Bengal fits in. The East India Company defeated Undivided Bengal’s Nawab Siraj-ud Daulah in the Battle of Plassey in June 1757 as the Nawab’s commander-in-chief, Mir Jafar, betrayed him. This spurred British domination over India. American historian Brooke Adams has recorded that the “Bengal plunder” from the Nawab’s treasury was so excessive that it fuelled Britain’s Industrial Revolution from 1760 and changed the world’s lifestyle forever.

The conquerors remitted an estimated £1 billion to Britain. Robert Clive who led troops against the Nawab collected £2.5 million for East India Company, and £234,000 for himself. His colleague William Watts grabbed £114,000. To put these figures in perspective, an annual income of £800 was sufficient for luxurious living by British nobleman of those days.

So, says history, the plunder of Bengal post Battle of Plassey sparked the Industrial Revolution which rapidly auto-mechanised the British textile industry. The inventions between 1764 and 1785 were the spinning jenny by Hargreaves, the water frame by Arkwight, the mule by Crompton and the powerloom by Cartwright. John Kays had invented the flying shuttle and coal began to replace wood in smelting, while in 1768 Watt matured the steam engine.

The spoils from Bengal boosted Britain’s economy but its fallout was de-industrialisation for India. Once England established industrial capital, it needed markets for selling its products. It was again Bengal, the first Indian region the British colonized, that was forced to absorb these goods so England could sustain its Industrial Revolution. The drain of wealth into Britain destroyed India’s industries, and impoverishment led to a string of famines. Historian RC Dutt writes, “The people of Bengal had been used to tyranny but had never lived under an oppression so far reaching in its effects, extending to every village market and every manufacturer’s loom. They … had never suffered from a system which touched their trades, their occupations, their lives so closely. The springs of their industry were stopped; the sources of their wealth dried up.” This domineering British control pushed India hundreds of years behind in economic development.

Those struggling times made our Independence movement look like momentary politics. The call to abandon British manufactured products, make handloom cloth or get salt from the sea without industrialisation once again instigated de-industrialisation. Can this be considered a vision for India or was it just political shock factor of that time? India today is growing with industrialisation fuelled by foreign investment of Western developed countries. This is changing the country’s economic perspective for the better. This development is totally opposite to both India’s de-industrialisation post British Industrial Revolution in 1760 and Independence movement tactics before 1947.

Not only did the British plunder Bengal in 1757, they created two blunders we continue to suffer from 250 hundred years later. First, their divide and rule policy created fissions between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal which persist in pockets throughout India today. Secondly, they divided United Bengal into East Pakistan and West Bengal, aside of course from creating West Pakistan too. From 1947 upto 1970, five million people were displaced from East Bengal. West Bengal is yet to recover from displacement which continues till today.

My family fell victim to this political chaos and had to abandon land holdings and prosperity in East Pakistan. My father, his widowed mother and 10 siblings came to squat in a piece of land with other refugees 30 kms from Kolkata. Economists say West Bengal ranks third among states in the number of small retail shops being 4.5 million. An estimated 20 million are directly dependent on these small shops. I can vouch for this. Every time I return to my erstwhile refugee colony, my childhood friends have expanded a section of their house to set up a small store as they have no other job opportunity there.

The most frightening part of my refugee colony childhood was the arrival of the land tax man. He’d go around tom-tomming a drum, alerting and threatening people to pay land tax on time, or he’ll forfeit our houses. Our thatched roof, bamboo wall, mud floor house was small, but at least it was better than the tents other refugees lived in. My grandmother Nalini Bala would console me in this nightmare. I recently heard from my father that West Bengal Government subsequently regularised the squatters’ colony and gave free land rights to refugees where their houses stood. My pleasure of owning this miniscule piece of land is more than having a farmhouse in California! It must have been the same for landless farmers who were given land for free. But nobody had taught them the value of industrialisation, so these landowners cannot understand why suddenly their land is required for industrial development. People have not been educated on the requirement of the balance between agriculture and industry. Without having their buy-in, it’s difficult to have industrialisation, so West Bengal’s livelihood continues to be small retail stores.

After 1991 economic liberalisation, while India flourished, Bengal languished. With no industry, local people fight each other for power and money. The central subject today is who will come to power, not how to industrialise the state or educate the masses for industrialisation.

Still reeling under the ghost of the 1757 British plunder of Bengal, the unhealthy blunder that continues is no collective spirit for industry in Bengal today. Only an evangeIist, a thinker and implementor, can preach the masses the value of bringing a balance between agriculture and industry to change Bengal’s economy beyond any political manifestation.

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