Posted on 23-03-2014
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

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

My friend Jean Michel, whom I consider among the world’s best French chefs, always tells me that the balance of salt and pepper is the most critical part of a savory dish to capture the guest’s taste buds. He says he disrupts a sweet dish with a pinch of salt to raise the sweet’s savory undertone. All this is quite understandable in Western models of Cartesian dualism, the philosophy of mind and body distinction developed by René Descartes.

Hi-funda pepper and salt: Let me now recount other tasty pepper and salt effects. As a guest lecturer in an MBA school in Europe, after a general introduction, the first question I threw at a global group of senior management attendees was, “What’s the difference between salt and pepper?” I expected a quick answer but it swelled into a big subject, perhaps because the almost 100 participants in the class were from different countries. I’d allocated 20 minutes for them to write and explain salt and pepper, but the 5-6 people in every table were keen to narrate with examples. The result was fascinating. Technocrats, scientists, managers of different subjects equated the result, or turned the subject around in their mouths towards gravitation, density, weight, analysis of its nature connect and so on. In sum, they were happy weighing the subject as heavy substance. I gave them full liberty of expression, without interrupting their serious case, but I could never imagine it would occupy my whole session. In those pre-PowerPoint days, this first slide in my OHP presentation was so well thrashed that I did not need to open the 19 other slides I had prepared. My session was enthusiastic and far-reaching. When I put my “Thank You” slide saying we salt makes savory products tasty, and pepper that adds spicy zing to the tongue, everybody was thrilled: “The best of marketing action is simplicity,” they concluded.

Pepper, salt, sugar disruptive social phenomenon: On returning to India, I find pepper, salt and sugar have a totally different aspect at the social level. When I take a Caucasian friend to a coffee shop or restaurant and invite them to have nimbu pani (fresh lime water) or lassi (Indian milk shake), my conversation in placing the order flummoxes them. Should it be salty, sugary or both; I confidently answer the waiter’s queries on more salt, rock salt or black salt and sometimes less sugar, leaving my friend quite curious about the meaning. Europeans take it as perversion and want to taste such a concoction but very few seem to like the taste. This is the way that I can clearly express how different India is. The typical South Indian curd rice plays more with the salt and spices effect to enhance taste, but my 83-year-old Bengali mother will put a touch of sugar in it, and that’s my cultural education, the taste I have grown up with is what my tongue will accept.

Among the country’s biggest snacking consumption is “chaat.” It now seems to have become a kind of luxurious snack too because 5-star hotels have a special counter to make chaat. On one side the chefs handle Indian chaat, on its opposite side is Japanese sushi. You can imagine the contrast of chaat vs sushi. Chaat is definitely a more disruptive cultural phenomenon as it has salt, pepper, sugar and a fourth element, the sour aspect with tamarind as the base. Now I observe that this disruption has been extended to Indian politics as well.

Pepper, salt, sugar politics: On a daily basis, different political party members use umpteen types of pepper to create hot topics. Aside from peppering up Parliament House, they have spicy, fiery street protests that pull out historical perspectives and legendary politicians of yesteryear to justify their authenticity. The idea is to scorch with peppery subjects. From time to time the media acts as a catalyst by adding some sweet syrup in it and the debate rolls on to gather weight and speed along with it. The public laps up this disruptive situation, the mudslinging debate is the taste we have become habituated to.

Then suddenly another political drama puts salt on all the wounds that have opened up like corruption, minority issues, regional racism among others. Salt, pepper and sugar can be flung from any direction; this is exactly the way we enjoy our political debate every day. In this kind of unstructured form you will find some disruptive catalyst political party playing with the death of farmers; another political party will count in which state what number of farmers committed suicide. When the debate veers into the corruption topic, it again flogs the salt, sugar, pepper misbalance, who did more, who did less. Similarly when politics-talk hits the riots, it’s who killed how many people where. As of now, no political party has found a great solution to balance pepper, salt, sugar and sour, the way we get them in our chaat, nimbu pani or lassi.

Uniqueness of Indian politics: Undoubtedly, no country in the world has this disruptive taste legacy of combining pepper, salt and sugar the way its specific to Indian culture. This multi-dimensional taste belongs to Indians and extends into our social tolerance levels. So who will win the forthcoming parliamentary elections is totally dependent on how the trio-taste of salt, pepper and sugar pans out in electioneering.

In the meantime, to tide over the 24 days left to know the outcome, all political parties and media have become fantastic shakers, shaking up the salt-pepper-sugar of political antics to find or destroy the right balance. But who knows the right balance? Perhaps the end taste will be sour like tamarind (imli), a very India-centric disrupting taste that’s succulently sour. This is our political drama that connects hugely to the mouth taste of our 1.2 billion people. Let’s enjoy our salt, sugar, pepper politics, perhaps along with tamarind.

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Posted on 16-03-2014
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

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

India, the world’s most populous democracy, never converges to nation building. A 2013 UN report stated that a third of the world’s poorest people live in India.

Democratic pitfalls in politics: In our democracy, anybody can get a political party ticket to be a Member of the Legislative Assembly or Member of Parliament and wield power. Even a murderous criminal, slapped with court cases, can become an electoral candidate, as also a jailbird who can pull strings to emerge on bail. Political parties are ferreting out silver screen personalities to woo as candidates to gloriously pull in their fan base. They mostly win, whether through popularity or arm-twisting the public is not clear.

In empowering retired film stars as politicians, their on-screen fame gets transferred to political power. What can a film star deliver to the country? Indian film audiences particularly favour fantasy and theatrical plots, so that’s become the standard output from Bollywood and regional cinema. Short on real social relevance, these films do not project new ideas nor futuristic social or technology trends. Their history documentation does not help the public to learn something beyond the obvious. Through cinematography, film personalities like Charles Chaplin, Orson Wells, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Meryl Streep, Georges Lucas, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio Gassman, among others, have incited a paradigm shift in people’s ideation, inspired invention, and shown different dimensions that combine art, socio cultural change and philosophical debates.

India’s film personalities are yet to be credited with having bought in newness that’s changed society for the better. Their popularity is based on their professional talent of dancing, acting, and dramatic off-screen love affairs. Most Bollywoodians live in a paradisiacal world; they provide low cost entertainment, particularly to the poor. Nowadays non-resident Indians (NRI) worldwide also lap up these films of unbelievable, mythical or ideal social life stories not seen in Western society.

Can filmy people solve administrative or development issues through politics? Do they understand the requirements of the poor, of employment, of city infrastructure? Poverty-striken voters who have no choice in the way they live imagine that these film personalities who create miracles in cinema may also create fantasy in politics. They like the idea of unreachable stars being physically visible now. Political parties use stars to camouflage what’s unsavoury. It’s almost like FMCG products using film stars in advertisements or as brand ambassador to gloss over the product’s unknown factors, quality deficiencies or to reach consumers with easy familiarity. Should professionally active stars paint their faces for the studio floor or the Parliament House floor? The answer is part of democratic India’s political science.

In this context a candidate like Nandan Nilekani is unique in every sense but his party should not use him to hide its defects. I’d earlier written (in October 2009 and October 2013 that India needs high quality technocrats and visionary entrepreneurs to govern and change our political colour. I consider Nilekani an apolitical doer. He has displayed integrity, entrepreneurship with ingenuity, managerial leadership in his business career and successfully devised the mammoth Aadhar project. Even if his political party does not win the election, whoever forms the Government should be obliged to take him in a paradigm changing role. I have seen such an example made by French President Francois Mitterrand who took opposition party people as Ministers. He played the role of a national president, not a political party’s president.

Underprivileged people’s democratic pitfall: The disastrous way that most of our underprivileged people live, with no shelter, work, education or food and non-existent social security, seems to be a democratic right. Nobody, least of all the Government, has made sufficient effort to educate them practically, provide jobs, improve their living style. The longer they live in such non-empowered situations, the less will they know about how to fight for their rights. Is this their democracy? Political parties enjoy the underprivileged people vote bank, make them promises that are rarely kept after the votes come in. Pure-play political drama pops up on TV nowadays. It’s all about candidates, tomato throwing, ink smearing, polls predicting party seats, analysts interpreting poll results, rallies, violence, dynasty and tea seller politics. Does the underprivileged 80% understand this circus? But they know for sure of that ceremonial day of outing to cast the vote; they expect no return.

Social and infrastructure democratic pitfall: Our democratic code is so tolerant that a man can urinate anywhere on the street, with no civic consideration, no social respect. He’s oblivious to women walking past him. This act becomes disgraceful because it’s done in full public view, but who cares? Is tampering with public infrastructure another democratic right? Overloaded trucks damage smaller roads they are not supposed to ply on. To place underground broadband or electrical cables a road contractor digs trench-like holes. Sometimes he does not refill the hole for months, even years. Obviously cars and motorbikes get stuck at night, or people fall in, break bones. After one contractor loosely fixes the road, the next, the drain pipes contractor, starts digging again. There’s just no respite for citizens. The trend is never to finish any work elegantly or on time. This is the continuity of jugad, an intrinsic part of our democracy.

Comparing pitfalls in our democracy to the Rubik cube puzzle, it’s almost impossible to get the single colour winning pattern. As all political parties in India are looking for coalition partners, perhaps we need to learn from European league football clubs like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Manchester United on how to lease and mix players of different political parties to make an exciting team. World Cup football represents individual countries, but league football very successfully gets the best players from different countries. Should we get a league team coach from there to train us on how to manage a coalition like European league football?

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Posted on 09-03-2014
Filed Under (PARADOX) by Shombit

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

It was a beautiful time in December when I first landed in the Andaman Islands. The Bay of Bengal view was enthralling; undulating mountains met the sea and merged infinitely into the sky.

But reaching our 4-star hotel, apparently the highest category in Port Blair, disappointment kept getting heaped on, from the illogically high cost of rooms being over $300 per night, even more than 5-star hotels in mainland India, to bad hotel upkeep to lack of hygiene and cleanliness. I could barely sleep the first night even in this beautiful paradise, my body was scratching. It was just better to go in front of the window to enjoy Nature’s beauty than experience the hotel’s facilities.

The next morning we suddenly came upon an unusually beautiful scene. Swaying in the sea breeze were hundreds of rows of huge white sheets hung on clothes lines stretching hundreds of meters. The sheets were neatly wedged into two intertwined tight ropes on two edges, while the other two edges were cleverly suspended in an amphitheatre of green grass that sloped down to a serene pond filled with lotus leaves. Around the pond were a few large rain trees that made the sunrays play hide-and-seek on the stark white drapery.

This vast mesmerizing scene on the road’s bend reminded me of the famous environmental art I saw in New York in 2005. Created in Central Park by artists Christo and Jean Claude, their art had bright saffron color fabric covering 37 kms of the park with 7,503 gates of five meters height. This married couple artists specialize in constructing visually impressive artistic works using reams and reams of fabric. They had wrapped the whole Parliament House in Berlin using 100,000 sq. meters of fireproof polypropylene cloth and Miami’s Biscayne Bay with 603,850 sq. meters with pink floating fabric. Theirs is vanishing art, “It takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain” says Christo.

The hanging white clothes we were crossing comprised a truly stunning sight, but of course it was not an officially declared work of environmental art. It was Port Blair’s dhobi ghat (washerman’s enclosure). The large pond had flattened slabs of rock. Men facing away from the water but legs inside it were vigorously bashing huge white double bed sheets on stone slabs. They’d take the cloth from large bins that were caked with white chemicals from having been used over a long period for bleaching the cloth. Dipping these sheets into water, they’d fold each sheet, then, with biceps gleaming, thrash it forcefully. First on one side, turn it around, flog the other side, before washing off the chemicals and detergent in the pond behind them. Undoubtedly an inhuman, laborious job in today’s modern technology world.

A wall being built had a notice that claimed it to be a welfare measure of the local Government representative. The wall will certainly hide this spectacular view from tourists. Was concealing the washermen’s workplace from public gaze a reason to construct the wall? These white sheets are bed linen that tourists sleep on, so would their cleaning method disturb the tourists? After all the water was stagnant, it looked whitish next to the washermen, greenish near the lotus leaves. Directly from this water, the linen are hung up to dry and ironed in the evening before delivery within 24 hours back to the hotels.

“I have been in this business for 30 years. We have to get labour from mainland India because Andamanese are not willing to do hard work,” said Muthu who originally hails from Tamil Nadu. Even his son going to college wants a Government job rather than bash clothes. Muthu says all hotels, even the most expensive ones, use this laundry system. The dhobis charge Rs 2-4 for small items like pillow cases and Rs 7-10 for bed linen. Each hotel gives 200 to 400 sheets per day in winter so the business is good. From the clothesline I did notice the brand labels or etchings of several different Port Blair hotels in the sheets and towels. So this was the hotels’ sense of hygiene, a jugad (just-fix-it) system for laundry.

Jugad, the patch up solution I wrote about last week, is used by those who have meager resources. The dhobis in India, a caste based on their occupation have traditionally provided this service that people need. They earn a living using the resources they can muster up, which are hard work, stamina and the skill of laundering. As per age-old custom, they collect clothes from different houses, mark each household’s clothes with a unique symbol in black indelible ink, and return the washed, starched, ironed linen within a few days. We knew the flowing water streams dhobis washed the clothes in, and trusted them as a recognized part of society. However, today when we go to 4 and 5 star hotels, paying large sums of money to live as in the Western system, our expectation is that mechanical methods be used for basic jobs like clothes cleaning. That’s because washing thousands of white bed sheets every day, and that too with chemicals in a stagnant pond, is unnatural in the traditional system and clearly overstretches available traditional resources. If such hotels can pretend to provide Western comfort, why don’t they also buy a few washing machines for their laundry?

I was doubly confirmed when we found the same dhobis collecting bed linen from the hotel. So I had no choice but to buy bed and bath linen to use in the hotel. How could I put my face in the towel or bed sheet washed in that polluted water? Perhaps my itching would stop too.

Beautiful Andamans can be paradise holiday to the whole world. But this kind of jugad spirit after charging international cost is really horrible. Such jugad can destroy our tourism income instead of attracting global travellers.

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Posted on 02-03-2014
Filed Under (PARADOX) by Shombit

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

5 o’clock in the morning. Driving to Bangalore airport with colleagues. No traffic jam at this time, but the car is moving very slowly. I was sleepy, opening my eyes just anticipating my flight time. Suddenly I blinked. Was I dreaming or was what I saw real?

A 3-wheeler auto-rickshaw in front of us was carrying a 40feet long pipe that was sticking out width-wise from both sides. He covered the whole road; no vehicle could overtake him from either side, nor could he speed with the heavy, unwieldy pipe.

Images of William Wyler’s 1959 blockbuster Ben-Hur entered my mind’s eye. In that most spectacular chariot race ever put on film, Prince Judah Ben-Hur’s devil-like friend Messala was using a saw on his chariot wheel and colliding time and again, while his four horses charged at high speed, trying to overturn Judah’s chariot. Now here was this auto-rickshaw, its destructive pipe weapon horizontally cutting the entire airspace. We were tailing it for over 30 minutes somehow trying to cross, when unexpectedly the auto-rickshaw took a sharp u turn to the right. Just imagine how it could swerve! Two troubled-looking men on the backseat were hugging the colossal pipe for dear life.

Delayed at airport arrival. A kind airline customer services manager rushed me through a special security gate at Bangalore Airport’s newly opened wing looking dreamy with soothing lights and decoration. The stylish shops reminded me of New York’s Trump Tower ground floor shopping area. Waiting in a lean queue, drops of liquid suddenly fell on me, startling me. As I ducked, I noticed a few buckets capturing driblets from the ceiling. It was not raining that day, so what was that unpredictable contamination in this high-tech airport barely a month old?

On another occasion, landing at Delhi airport, I went into the toilet. As I was habitually sitting, checking mails in my mobile phone, water suddenly gushed into my cubicle, the bottom half of my trousers became wet. Here I was, about to go for a project review meeting with the Board of Directors of an American client of mine in the sophisticated Oberoi Hotel, Gurgaon. Fortunately my dark trousers hid the wetness. I yelled at the neighbouring toilet occupant to control the health faucet water jet. He too rushed out apologising; then showed me his helplessness as the defective water jet was still overflowing. He said he obviously couldn’t have known this before he used it. We set out to look for the gentleman cleaner. We found him outside. He was clueless; he requested us to complain to the management so the defect would get rectified. In yet another Delhi airport toilet experience opposite Starbucks Cafe, I was holding my nose while entering a smelly cubicle. Suddenly I saw vapour clouds descending from the top, beautiful jasmine fragrance wafted in. I couldn’t understand how Nature became so magical, entering my cubicle to reverse the odour. When I came out it was the gentleman cleaner spraying air freshner. Undoubtedly his work was welcome but it only temporarily covered the stick. By the way, Airport Council International has named this the world’s second best airport after Seoul Incheon in South Korea. I wonder if the judges ever used the toilets here.

In semirural areas I’ve seen motorized, hand-made 3-wheeler transport contraptions like rickshaw carts with a wooded platform open on all sides. Men passengers dangle their legs from 3 sides, women and children sit on haunches in the centre. Such unofficial transport with no licence to ply can certainly fulfil the purpose of being speedier than bullock carts. But just imagine the life risk to passengers when overloaded trucks jostle alongside for road space.

The just-fix-it approach is jugad. It’s endangering, a temporary patch to a problem, a solution with no predictability, no process, no discipline. The auto-rickshaw driver transporting the 40-ft pipe will earn money because he can use his vehicle like a cart without doors. The point here is that the manufacturer is least bothered that his 3-wheeler auto-rickshaw is only a jugad delivery. It can jeopardise everyone’s safety on the road. The owner of the unscientifically motorized rural cart ingeniously found this livelihood while serving passengers with cheap transportation. We cannot fault the economically underprivileged where jugad becomes their fundamental need. But we can certainly charge those in authority for dereliction in providing the poor with opportunities to earn. Also, improper construction supervision resulted in a dripping airport ceiling, while pitiable toilet maintenance made the cleaner powerless. Both are examples of the “chalta hai (will do)” attitude of unsafe jugad. 

To prove they are at par with reputed global players, which is not the case, India’s industrialists have donated millions of dollars to their US alma mater Harvard or MIT. When there’s dire need, why not intelligently invent to meet India’s requirement of low cost, world-class, advanced livelihood machinery? If Indians don’t invent with outstanding R&D spend for our country’s needs, who will? Eg, Designing an affordable rural passenger vehicle will demolish hazardous jugad. When industry addresses this jugad phenomenon by setting examples, common people will automatically abandon their perilous jugad mentality. This is the only way our industrialisation can be based on the country’s requirement.

Most bottom level service people or workers in India earn Rs 5000 to maximum Rs 20000 per month. They cannot change their jugad mindset, which oftentimes earns them quick, extra money. The privileged class has the responsibility of changing the precarious jugad lifestyle of poor people. MacDonald’s and KFC are showing anti-jugad ways by introducing processed housekeeping standards. Even in Bangalore’s crowded, cluttered, hygienically imperfect, principal bus stand, Majestic, these foreign outlets are clean, disciplined and non-jugad where you can enjoy a low-cost but quality dinner.

I don’t see any political manifesto say, “Jugad hatao, aam admi ki jivika garima se barhau (don’t just-fix-it, uplift the common man’s livelihood with dignity).” Implementing such a goal will change our country’s face in the global field.

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