Thursday, July 23, 2015

Smart people, Smart cities.

The fantasy to see our cities getting ‘smart’ is a welcoming thought. There’s no harm in
fantasising about our cities decked out with the best facilities, at par with the developed countries. We should unabashedly dream more and have the will to pursue them dutifully against all odds, making the necessary sacrifices. The smart city schemes won’t revamp the cities in a night, just like a human doesn’t evolve in a touch after owning a smartphone. Everyone involved in system must contribute fearlessly and proactively, right from the administrators, people who elect them, social organisations who monitor them. There should be acceptance to new ideas and ability to shed off the old ones, enduring all troubles, to build smarter cities.

The 10 primary municipal facilities that makes a city ‘a smart city’, include, (1) Water (2) Electricity (3) Cleanliness- Sewage and Waste Management (4) Public Transport (5) Affordable housing (6) Computerization (7) Public interest & e-Governance (8) Eco-friendly systems (9) Security and Safety (10) Health & Education. This information is available on official government website. Incidentally, except for computerization, it is no different than the municipal or state tasks mentioned by the constitution. Still, it has regressed than any progress. The only factors are responsible, the dirty politics, and the dormant people. (Well, that’s us.)

One example that speaks for itself, if policy and execution are kept dissociated is public participation. The previous government brought in Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) to secure funds for developing urban areas. One of the regulations to allot the funds was, that the ward sabhas should be held based on Gram sabha and the law should be changed accordingly. Maharashtra state government was smart enough to acquire the huge funds creating the law but never formed regulations to execute it. With these funds, roads were paved again and again, old but fully functional street lights were replaced with new ones, bicycle tracks were built that not only cyclists find hard to ride on but the pedestrians can’t walk too. Neither the ’renewal’ ever happened nor the cities ever got smarter.

Though the current government does mention public participation in the smart city schemes, the question is whether the government will comply by the schemes. It is necessary to uproot the old ways of administration and more laws should be issued and executed in public interest, posing strong rules and regulations play a key role in fulfilling such vast dream. If it is treated just like another project, everything will follow ‘Sarathi’s path. ‘Sarathi’ was an impressive project started by of Dr. Shrikar Pardeshi in Pimpri-Chinchwad, which was gone to dogs post his service. The current state government must build stronger municipal systems. It should not tolerate the corporators who think of the ward as acquired kingdom in feudal allegiance and bear no duty towards its well being. The laws should make them worry about the urban development than the percentage share with contractors.

While pointing out the rotten politics, we should be aware and responsible citizens too. The city revamp begins right from separating the waste in wet and dry, to fearlessly question the corporators. If the corporator doesn’t budge, we as citizens should make him sit at home since he deserves it. We should bring about a change in the way we think and perceive. More than the wide roads, wider footpaths symbolize development. More than the number of cars running in the street, the efficient public transport shows the progress of the city. We should demand its use so the government has no choice but build better public transport systems.

Recently, my friend Harshad Abhyankar, shared an true incident on social networking website. At the inaugural speech of Smart City Scheme, central minister Mr. Venkaiah Naidu stated that the funds were secured for Bus purchases, BRT, bicycle and pedestrian facilities. In the Q & A session, a question was raised if the funds are for flyovers too. Mr. Naidu’s baffling reply was “No, because they are not smart solutions!” Until all of us stop the superfluous expenses and apply the long lasting, eco friendly and smart solutions in its truest sense, only then, there is a possibility that we can build better cities, smart cities!

-Translated by Madhuwanti Vaidya

(Original Marathi article was published in Maharashtra Times of 23rd July 2015)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Curtain Call

“Hello, I am speaking from Pune, Maharashtra. May I take two minutes of your time?” was how the calls began. The person on the other end, a voter from Delhi, would suddenly pay attention to this person from Pune who personally called them. The voice from Maharashtra would humbly request them to cast their vote to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – a request that would take many Delhi voters by surprise. They found it delightful that someone from another state is so concerned about the betterment of their state. While some of them promptly replied with a, “yes, my family and I are voting for AAP,” while there were others who engaged in discussions over the issue. They would ask about the various allegations against the AAP and from the other end, the person from Maharashtra would address these concerns. Majority of the recipients of these calls gave a positive feedback at the end. Those who were staunchly against the party also mellowed down to a point where they would say, “We will think about the AAP. Thanks to you, we did learn a few nee things about them.” After the call, a pre-recorded message would ask the caller which party the voter was more inclined to vote for. These answers were then recorded and used to get an estimate of the inclination of the people of Delhi. This is the Calling Campaign that played a major role in AAP’s success in the capital.
While AAP’s volunteers from Delhi and rest of India were in Delhi’s streets and mohallas, volunteers from other cities as well as Indians from foreign nations aided them through the calling campaign. When the campaign started, around 2000 calls were made during a day. However, this number exponentially rose to around 75,000 calls per day towards the end of the campaign. The people of Delhi received thousands of calls daily from AAP’s volunteers in Maharashtra – and throughout the campaign, the calls that were made from Maharashtra outnumbered all other states. A lot of effort went into ensuring volunteers’ active participation in the campaign and the volunteers themselves were so enthusiastic that some of them spent their weekends and off-days repeatedly calling voters in Delhi and urging them to vote for the AAP.
One can estimate the success of this campaign by simply taking a look at the numbers. Total number of calls was more than 1,022,000. That means as few as 1 million homes were spoken to. 21% of those calls were made from Maharashtra alone. In the last two weeks of the campaign, 95% of the people said their vote would be for AAP. And now, if you take a look at the results, you will see how flawless the polls done by the calling campaign were.
All this may sound glorious, but it is a Herculean task to pull it off. Setting up this infrastructure that is capable of withstanding the quantity of calls and to achieve the goals that were set when the activity was undertaken was an elaborate process. Let’s take a closer look at it.
There were three fundamental techniques used, one of which was set up on the smartphones by Arvind Kejriwal’s aide from the IIT – Prasonjit Patti. The second tech, developed for the internet was provided by Mohanraj Thirumalai. But incase these two ways fell short, the volunteers bought a toll free server just in case. There was a team looking after social media marketing, recognition, reporting which was supervised by Shashank Malhotra (Delhi), Kartikeya Maheshwari  (Philadelphia, USA) and Gopal Krishna (Patna). Shrikanth Kocharlakota was the US based volunteer who had the responsibility of promoting the calling campaign on social media. A team to train the callers for the campaign was led by Amitabh Gupta (Rourkee) and Alka Harke (Delhi). Apart from this, a team led by Akash Jain was responsible for supervising that the calls are successful. There was a helpline set up for the volunteers participating in the campaign which was under the supervision of Alka Harke which was operated by volunteers in cities like New Bombay, Baroda, Aligarh, Anand, Punjab and Haryana. Communication between departments was given a lot of importance and throughout the campaign; Mahesh Kedari from Chinchwad was overseeing the department that ensured smooth communication between members and volunteers. The calling campaign took place in 25 states; therefore a Coordinator was placed in each state. In Maharashtra it was Amit Khandelwal who handled that responsibility initially and carried forward by Ajinkya Shinde. A Coordinator to look after all the states’ Coordinator also existed – Vikas Shukla (Bengaluru) and Ashish Jain (Chandigarh). And then there was Gopal Sharma in Pune who was looking after all these teams. In Delhi, Bhaskar Singh formed a link between Gopal Sharma and the Party’s high command. All these members are in the age group of 25-35. Most of them volunteered for this campaign while juggling their full time jobs in the IT sector. Being from different cities, a majority of them haven’t even met one another yet; but they were all united by the one conference call and a dream to win Delhi that they all shared.
The biggest fear we had was what if the opposition parties use the infrastructure set up by us to promote themselves. The reason for this fear was the bad experience of the elections in 2013, where 33% of the calls were made to promote BJP or to create a negative perception about AAP using the AAP campaign infrastructure. That mistake would not be repeated this time around. There was a team in charge of the security of this infrastructure and every call made was recorded. If it was noticed that a volunteer is being counterproductive, he/she would be blocked immediately. Initially, many of the calls made were made to existing members of the party. Using all these elements, it was easy to supervise whether anyone is badmouthing the party or bringing it to disrepute or simply promoting an opposing party. Most of these bad apples were caught before we reached out to any voters. Hence, during this election, the negative campaigning was brought down to as little as 0.00001%
The expense incurred in carrying out this campaign was hardly over 1 million rupees. And a major part of that was simply in setting up the hardware for the infrastructure required for its functioning. The campaign on social media was totally free. This calling campaign ran by the AAP will go down in history as a revolutionary way to propagate a political party for an election using the modern media. The discipline and belief with which every single member trusted the party and propagated its ideology and vision for Delhi, it seems only logical that the AAP won in such an unprecedented manner.
The highlight of this initiative was the fact that these weren’t paid tele-callers. These were common people with an extraordinary drive to change the status quo. No one shrugged the work saying “the elections are in Delhi, why should we help?” These were the people who are so infuriated by the political scene of the nation that they were keen to start the process of change, albeit in Delhi, while they wait for their turn in their state and the next lok sabha elections. And most importantly, they did so without any personal vested interests.
Jagdish Bellary from Gulbarga was one of these people. Confined to a wheel chair, he was upset he won’t be able to go to Delhi and work in the field, but he participated in the calling campaign and made phone calls for 8 hours at a stretch. He also managed the calling campaign in Karnataka. Rakesh Dwivedi from New Bombay shares Jagdish’s enthusiasm. He would start talking to three Delhiites on three separate mobile phones and turn it into a group discussion and would convince all of them to vote for AAP. He also pulled an unimaginable feat of making 826 calls in a day. To get a perspective, people have lost their seat for lesser votes. Sanjiv Jindal from Nanded made a whopping 1011 calls to Delhi during the campaign. There is no doubt that this historic win was only made possible by the dedicated and perseverant task force of volunteers that worked behind the curtain.
This is a very positive and important phenomenon that people from all across the country are willing to participate in the process of honest governance in such large numbers with no regard to caste, religion, region - in the true spirit of this nation. People from various corners of this country reached out to more than a million homes in Delhi and urged them to vote for change and a better tomorrow and the people of Delhi responded by voting for AAP candidates in 67 out of the 70 constituencies.
When a play ends and the curtain closes, the performers re-appear on the stage for one last hurrah and accept applause. AAP’s calling campaign put an end to the archaic way of politics and governance in Delhi and announced a change in the way politics will be in the future. To these performers of the calling campaign, my humble applause.

-Translated by Omkar Rege
(Original Marathi article was published in Maharashtra Times of 15th February 2015)

Friday, January 9, 2015

O ri duniya…

“Kalaa to hamesha aazad hai.”

Raja Ravi Verma firmly states in a scene, while having a word with some of the Congress leaders. He simply means whether or not this country gains independence, nothing can confine his art. Soon after his nonchalant statement, his artistic brilliance is targeted and ensnared. Religious fundamentalists join together and bring Raja Ravi Verma before the court by filing legal complaints against him on the grounds of- offending religious sentiments and manifesting vulgarity and promiscuity. He is assaulted on numerous occasions and is also beaten up. They pelt him with stones and also set his printing press ablaze. In spite of all this, the court stands unyielded in the favour of the independence- the artistic independence!

This tale, set at the end of the 19th century in Aamchi Mumbai, unfolds itself in Ketan Mehta’s much awaited release of the film ‘Rangrasiya’. The peculiar irony here that citing the reasons of the ‘profane nude scenes which will hurt the religious sentiments’, the Censor Board held back its release for nearly 6 years. At last, the film was able to make its way to the cinema halls in November. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but get reminded of M. F. Hussain repeatedly. Hurting religious sentiments, exhibiting vulgarity were the one and the same reasons that M. F. Hussain was accused of, though M. F. Hussain was marked by misfortune. Unlike Raja Ravi Verma, the point in the history that he was born in, was not conducive to serve him proper justice. To add to the misery, M. F. Hussain was Muslim by religion. Hussain’s effigies were burnt in protest, rallies were organized. Vanity and peremptory religion was highly glorified and at the end of the day, the art was handcuffed and sent behind the bars. The more unfortunate occurrence was Hussain’s disinclination to fight for his art. He fled the country. No different were the people, who too were unwilling to fight for him, moreover to congeal and fight for the freedom of expression. No one went against those people, who dared to strangle the free art. The reason for it, is the non-existent liberalness and acceptance. It also lacks wisdom that diversity is an opportunity to grow and widen your perspective. If so and so person makes a painting, or makes a film, or writes a book and I find some of it objectionable, I go completely neurotic, gather around the people with the same thought and conviction and create mayhem by vandalizing, committing arsons, sending threats, just to ensure a legal ban on that particular painting-film-book? What sort of mentality is this? Despotism? Subjugation?

Many people aren’t aware of what exactly forbearance is. It is understood that there is tolerance in forbearance but the concept doesn’t cease at that point. ‘Don’t get fooled while I bear it, you will pay the price when the time comes’ is not part of it. Acceptance is the first step towards forbearance. In it, two types of acceptances are expected- first is other people can have a different set of beliefs, which by the way they do have and second is they have the right to express that opinion through many or any of the media i.e. speech, graphic art, motion picture, writing, theatre, performing arts etc. No development can be achieved towards being forbearing unless these two are accepted. The moment they are, the contribution of the ‘bearing’ falls in its own place. There are no hard feelings.

We’re at a juncture of establishing a civilized culture followed by colonization and living in wild. Till the end of the 20th century, civilized culture was celebrated and prospered. From now onwards, man should start to evolve towards being a global human. Some would deduce being a global human is to embrace globalization. Many interpret this as westernization/ westernization of the entire world. I do not suggest that. Some would also argue that becoming homogeneous is being global. I don’t mean to address that either. Homogeneity, westernization or westernization is fatal for the extreme, yet stunning diversity this world has. According to me, being the global human, being broad minded can be paired to forbearance. I see global lifestyle as different ethnicities and societies living together harmoniously by preserving the mélange, having respect for each other, drawing inspirations and learning from one another. For making this happen, forbearance among one another cannot be superseded. As said by the French philosopher Voltaire, ‘I do not agree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’  This one quote is the paradigm for the creation of a wise democratic society in the modern world.

There are 3 reasons behind articulating this here. First is - the disturbance caused after the recent release of Vishal Bhardwaj’s magnificent feature ‘Haider’. Second reason is - aforementioned film ‘Rangrasiya’. and the third reason is - today (16th November) is International Day of Tolerance. United Nations have announced this day to be celebrated as the International Day of Tolerance. Prejudice is rising to power day after day, dwindling in wisdom. Some die while protesting against such insular groups, while some simply join them. Some dense ignorants are elected as their leaders, minting and shepherding the flocks. Looking at all this, the mind harks back to the verses dating back to 57 years by Sahir Ludhianvi, in the film ‘Pyaasa’-

Yeh mehlon, yeh takhton, yeh taajon ki duniya
Yeh insaan ke dushman samaajon ki duniya
Yeh daulat key bhookhey rawajon ki duniya
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai

Jala do isey, phoonk daalo yeh duniya
Mere saamne se hata lo yeh duniya
Tumhari hai tum hi sambhalo yeh duniya
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai

[This world of places, thrones and crowns,
This world of societies that resint humanity,
This world of those hungry for (material) wealth,
What is this world, even if I get it?

Burn it, smoke away this world!
move this world away from me!
It is yours, you nurture this world!]

The lines naturally take the train of thought to the verses by Piyush Mishra in ‘Gulaal. But Piyush Mishra doesn’t retort to burn the world down like Sahir Ludhianvi.. On the contrary, suggests that this world is volatile, often in flames by petty reasons and needs to be taken care of well in advance, which is positive.

Jaisi bachi hai, waisi ki waisi, bacha lo ye duniya
Apna samajh ke apno ki jaisi utha lo ye duniya
Chhitput si baaton mein jalne lagegi, sambhalo yeh duniya
Kat-pit ke raaton mein palne lagegi, sambhalo yeh duniya…

[Save this world, whatever is remaining in here, as it is,
Think of it as your own, and pick it up (in your arms, to protect it),
(else) it'll start burning in small-unimportant things, save this world,
it'll be cut-bruised-beaten and will be living in nights (dark times), save this world]

-Translated by Madhuwanti Vaidya
(Original Marathi article was published in Maharashtra Times of 16th November 2014)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Political Waves

After his first appearance on Dusshera, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared once again on radio sharing his ‘Mann ki Baat’ (Heartfelt sentiment) addressing to the entire nation. Truly simple gesture. The term of the predecessor Mr. Manmohan Singh, made us forget that a Prime Minister can have a conversation. What stands out in Mr. Modi’s term, is the media communication, may it be social media, internet presence or our topic of discussion, the radio. During the General elections and Assembly elections, countless loops of political party campaigns with all sorts of jargon were broken loose on different channels, as no party would dare to undermine the medium’s strength. Prime Minister’s address to nation was a significant event that took years to see light and every individual had the power to listen to his words directly. Why did the PM choose to appear on All India Radio while all the political parties have already reached every household with ease? Clearly, the goal was to reach masses, from those who can’t afford a tv to those who can but are on the move, wrapping up with a very pleasant promise to frequent on this sonic medium that is available at hand.

Running for elections, campaigning has become a costly affair off late. Especially when a person’s attention span has reached its all-time low, reaching to maximum voters isn’t easy. The political parties have noticed people’s lack of enthusiasm in politics, so to grab more voter’s attention, they’ve made the election campaigns an wild event by extensive advertisement, public speeches, flyers etc. Naturally, the political parties with lesser capital for campaigning become the runt of the litter.  We’re not focussing on its unfair nature or the election commission’s shortcomings. After being elected as CM, Prithviraj Chauhan could print full page newspaper ads, before the code of conduct could enforce, for PM Narendra Modi government-owned All India Radio was available free of cost. Why can’t the low-cost radio be for the rest of the parties? Television ads and newspaper ads cost a fortune and setting up your own isn’t economical too. The private radio channels operate mainly in urban areas with only object of entertainment. Just like television channels are at TRP’s wit’s end, radio channels too are concerned about their RAM (Radio Audience Measurement). Ministry of Information and Broadcasting charges huge fees for setting up a radio channels. Even that isn’t an affordable medium. For a political leader with humble resources for campaigning there only too few options available. Some would be tempted to blame it on news media but it would be improper. Considering the equation between heaps of money and how it affects election campaigns, the huge money is essential for the survival of the news media. Also, it will be implausible that if money will bring the voters’ appreciation or if that is apparently the truth, democracy is in big trouble. Free and fair elections are fundamental needs of democracy.Our constitution also recognises ‘equal opportunity’. Why not apply it and give chance to David against the Goliath?

In my point of view, the solution is a community radio that runs for a specific region. This pivotal medium has helped the social organisations to bring about radical changes that discusses on social values, agriculture, educational programmes etc. After the year 2008, launching a community radio is not a Herculean task anymore, as it was in 2003 when it took off. As per the online statistics provided by the Ministry of Information and Broadcast, there are 171 community radios still running in the country and 282 waiting for approval. Out of those 171, only Tamilnadu has 27, Karnataka has 22 and 18 in Maharashtra. Initial capital for a radio ranges from minimum of 3 lakhs to 20 lakhs, as per standard of technology, which is marginal compared to the rest of mass media. This could become a gem for the local parties, even so, according to the recent ministry regulations, community radios run by or for political parties are banned. Democracy evolves with maximised participation in politics, contrary to a silly opinion that democracy should not involve politics. Just like social media for the privileged, the availability of such widespread medium that reaches out to the grass roots of the population, will force all the local parties to openly compete against each other creating equal opportunities . If political parties are to have mouthpieces, why not authorised radio channels? It will not only generate awareness among the citizens who are the ultimate voters but also be an effective tool in the local elections. Owing to our Prime Minister’s suggestion, I have submitted my proposition, along with an e mail, addressed to Information and Broadcasting Minister Mr. Prakash Javdekar. Let us see what happens next!

To reduce the progressive disease of the unaccounted money in dirty local politics, the broadcast of local radio channels can prove to be an overthrow. To fortify our democracy, let the radio waves wander in the political waves!

-Translated by Madhuwanti Vaidya
(Original Marathi article was published in weekly Lokprabha of 14th November 2014)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Ghosts from the past

We have a tendency to be very emotional about our history. Their chest swells to twice its size with a feeling of superiority which germs from the glorious tales of their ancestors. Once this sentiment comes into being, the politicians begin to reinforce these beliefs. So, even if they ruin the future by their present actions, their speeches about the past are enough for people to blindly support them.
Once we, as a society, take more pride in our past than what we are right now; it should be inferred that we are moving backwards. And those who criticize this are labeled as being insensitive to the great deeds of historic figures. One is also made to face pointless questions like “Why did you bring this up about this particular persona?” “And why not during another?” “Is your criticism not stemming from your caste?” “Would you have dared to speak up if it were a figure that belonged to that religion instead of this one?” These arguments make you wonder whether our society, in general, is mentally stable.
And like any patient suffering from mental disorders, the society too must take therapy or consultation from a counselor. For the counseling of society, literary greats, journalists, social activists, teachers, professors and others should come forward and persistently show the way forward.

The reason behind writing this is the recent course of events that have transpired in the city. A proposal to change University of Pune’s name to ‘Dnyanjyoti Savitribai Phule Pune University’ has been passed in majority by the senate of the University and has been forwarded to the state government. It is a tradition all over the world to name buildings, roads, government schemes, universities after historical figures, and there is nothing wrong with it. It always is a great reminder of that person’s contribution to society. It can also be seen as a mark of respect shown by the people towards that person. Therefore there is no reason why new roads, buildings or schemes should not be named after these figures.
However, irrationality creeps in when names of existing bodies are changed. Firstly, why is there a need to replace an existing name by naming it after a person from history? Fundamentally, the need for a name is to create an identity. Once a name is given, the place or event or a building for that matter, can easily be identified. Why, then, is there a need to change names? By doing so, all we are doing is living in a past. For instance, the name of Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus was changed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. If you look at that structure, it is one of the best examples of Victorian architecture.  When the British came to power, they never changed the name of Raigad to ‘Fort Edward’ and neither did Shaniwaarwada become ‘King George Wada’. Similarly, even after they left, it wouldn’t make any difference to its functionality had VT remained to be known as VT. Besides that, renaming a structure built by the British in honour of Shivaji Maharaj is not only illogical, but on some level, defeats the very purpose of honour.
By inflating the pride of the people by this and other such re-namings, the issues of the present often get neglected. By always playing a hand based on the cards of the past, some of our leaders keep abusing power in the pretext of being proud of their history, while doing nothing about the present.
History should prompt us to create new history. But that willingness is never generated, neither is one allowed to act   differently and at the same time, we are simply looking to hold back those who try to change things around us. In summary, our society is trapped in a disparity between singing songs of praise about history and being an escapist when it comes to act. Probably, we are simply trying to hide our present impotence by taking our past out on a procession. That, according to me, is a very serious social problem.
I dream of a society that takes inspiration from history to move forward towards newer horizons – where schools, universities, bridges, roads and buildings are named after historical figures, so as take motivation from them; where people strive to maintain standards of these places named after their great heroes; where people won’t try to erase existing names just in order to demonstrate their superiority for the sake of historical feuds. And most importantly, I dream of a society where civic studies gets more weight age than history; where it is considered more important to be a good citizen in today’s world, than to glorify something that has happened centuries ago.
Reminiscing old times and memories is something people do in the twilight of their life. That is not expected from us, a country known as the world’s youngest nation today. The sooner we rid ourselves from the ghosts of our past, the better chances we have of becoming an omnipotent society.

-Translated by Omkar Rege.