Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Constable Tomar's tragic death

Constable Subash Tomar's death during the protests has created plenty of controversy. Frankly, I find the controversy wholly unnecessary. The usual suspects are trying to paint this as some sort of media conspiracy. This is bizarre, since we still don't know so many things.

This is what we know for sure:
- Two widely-distributed photos show Constable Tomar collapsed on the ground near India Gate this weekend. He is unconscious. Two civilians & 2 policemen are trying to revive him.
- Ct. Tomar was then taken to hospital where he died on Tuesday morning.
- Doctors say he bears no "major, external injuries" and attribute his death to cardiac arrest.

The two versions - not necessarily contradictory:
- The police claim Ct Tomar was beaten and died as a result. This is plausible - even in the absence of "major external injuries". How? I'll get to it.
- One of the civilians who helped him says he did not see Ct Tomar being attacked. He says the policeman collapsed in front of him. This is also plausible and does not necessarily contradict the police version. How? I'll get to it.

Possible scenarios that led to constable Tomar's death:
- The police are flat out wrong/lying and Ct. Tomar did suffer a heart attack from the strain of policing the protests. He wasn't attacked at all.
- Ct. Tomar was attacked earlier - as the police claim - which led to internal injuries. This explains the absence of "major external wounds". Perhaps the boy was not present at this time. It's possible Ct. Tomar did not realise the extent of his injuries and continued policing until he finally collapsed - which the boy did witness.
- The doctors have not yet released the autopsy report. We don't know whether Ct. Tomar suffered internal injuries. All we know is his body didn't have "major external injuries".

Let's hold off on the conspiracy theories for now. The autopsy report is the only conclusive statement on what happened to Ct. Tomar. Until it comes out, both the police and the young man's versions of what happened can only be seen as that: versions of the same story.

As for the media's part, these conspiracy theorists love to paint the media as stooges of the Congress. In this case, the Congress-led Delhi government has been fighting the Delhi Police over its handling of the protests. And it's the Police's version that people seem to have a problem with. Anyone see the problem here?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Tell-tale Email

So I got an email this morning from someone claiming to be my "new relationship manager" at HDFC Bank. Here's the problem, dear HDFC. 

This is NOT how you send emails from a relationship manager to a client. It's the third email of its kind that I've received in the past year. All used similar formatting. One even had pink fonts!  

1. The formatting is terribly unprofessional and the email is not even addressed to me
2. You change my relationship manager far too often. 
3. Thanks to the awful formatting, this actually looks like a scam than a legitimate communication from a relationship manager to a client.
4. If your team is not sending these emails, someone is running a scam in your name. I'll help you trace the person by forwarding all such communication I've received to date. 

Dear Sir/Madam,
Seasons greetings from HFDC Bank.

It is my pleasure to inform you that I have been appointed as your new relationship manager, as a part of our preferred program. It is a free-of-cost service provided by the bank to all preferred customers. Now onwards I'll be your one point contact for any queries, banking & investment requirements.  I am also attaching the list of benefits you are entitled to as part of our preferred program. Kindly intimate me an opportune time when I can meet you and briefly and formally introduce myself .

  • Dedicated Relationship Manager
    At HDFC bank it is our endeavor to nurture a truly personal relationship with you. After all, if you don’t deserve undivided attention, who does? We offer you your very own Relationship Manager who is experienced and professionally trained, and will cater to all your banking and financial services needs. So, whether you want expert advice on mutual funds or a demand draft issued, you can trust your Relationship Manager to get the job done.
  • Customized Investment Solutions
    Comprehensive Investment solutions include tax efficient investment avenues, buying and selling of shares, convenient tax payment options; all under one roof. You can also benefit from our extensive research across Equities, Derivatives, Debt and Mutual Funds, in addition to the expertise of a dedicated advisor to take care of your financial needs. Keeping your risk profile in mind we will customize an investment strategy for you, restructure your portfolio and allocate your assets optimally in order to realise your long term investment goals.
  • e-Broking
    HDFC Bank offers a gateway for e-Broking, via 
    HDFC Securities Trading account, to facilitate easy T+2 settlements at a special price. Enjoy the convenience and flexibility of buying and selling shares over the phone or the Internet.
  • Expedite Tax Payments
    Step into the nearest authorised branch and pay your taxes through HDFC Bank cheques and collect your challan immediately over the counter.
  • Relationship Pricing
    Get preferential pricing* across a wide range of financial products like 
    Credit CardLoansDemat accountsHDFC Securities Trading accounts, Forex, Gold Bars etc. Just ask your Relationship Manager for further details.
  • Business Solutions
    Along with your family's banking needs, we also cater to the financial needs of your business with Business Loans like Working Capital Overdrafts, Trade Finance, Commercial Vehicle Loans, Loan Against Property or Forex Services.
  • As a Preferred customer you also receive:
On-demand exclusive privileges including -No charges on NEFT
This stands for National Electronic Funds Transfer (NEFT). It is a system that facilitates an individual or company to electronically transfer funds from any bank branch to any individual or company having an account with any other bank branch in the country.
It stands for Real Time Gross Settlement. It means that funds transfers happen immediately, in real time. Instructions are processed at the time they are received rather than later. 'Gross Settlement' means the settlement of funds transfers occur on an instruction by instruction basis. This is considering that the funds settlement take place in the books of the Reserve Bank of India, the payments are final and irrevocable.
transactions through Netbanking.
Free alerts on your mobile phone or in your mailbox by registering for our InstaAlert facility. 
Free registration for e-Age Banking - Avail of MobileBanking,NetBanking, or PhoneBanking.
Waiver of AQB
Average Quarterly Balance (AQB) is the average balance to be maintained in the account over a period of a quarter.
non-maintenance charges.
Free Preferred EasyShop Platinum Debit card with limit of Rs. 1,00,000 at ATMs and Rs. 1,25,000 at merchant establishments per day .
No charges for balance enquiries and cash withdrawals if you transact on non HDFC Bank ATMs (VISA/ MasterCard / Euronet/ SBI/ Andhra Bank) in India.
An HDFC Bank Credit Card which offers you exclusive and preferential benefits!*
Free "At Par" cheque book payable at any HDFC Bank branchacross the country, so you do away with the need to ask for demand drafts.
Locker facility at just 50% of the annual fee. (Subject to availability)
Demat Folio Maintenance Charges waived off for the first year. Differential Transaction Based Folio Maintenance charges from second year onwards.
Preferential Forex rates.*
Combined monthly statement for your Savings, Current and Fixed Deposit accounts for which you are the principal holder. This facility is also available for email statements.
Free Standing Instructions facility.
Cheque pick-up facility.
BillPay to pay all your utility bills and LIC premiums throughPhoneBanking and NetBanking.
  • Annual Service Charge Waiver
You are entitled to a waiver of up to Rs. 2,000* per annum on a host of service charges:Demand Draft / Manager's Cheque charges
Inter-branch funds transfer charges
Stop Payment charges
Cheque return / collection charges
DD cancellation charges
Hold Mail charges
Duplicate statement charges
Certificate of balance charges
FIRC charges
Recovery of old records charges

( For more information please feel free to call or mail undersigned or visit our website: )

Thanks & Regards, 

******** *********** (name deliberately fuzzed out)
Relationship Manager
HDFC Bank Ltd 
Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon
(number deliberately fuzzed out)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A New Media

For some time, I’ve wanted to explore the long-term prospects for journalism in India. This has been brought on by several simultaneous events.  

For one, I’ve rarely had a conversation with another journalist that doesn’t delve into our mutual disappointment and disillusionment over how the news is covered. Bias towards certain groups or political parties is a part of this. Larger still is our disappointment at how important and sensitive issues are treated. Whether it’s showing the 26/11 attacks live or even asking a widow about her dead husband, the press has misfired more often than not. 

The second reason I wanted to get into this was the advent of new/ social media. I don’t see this as a threat as much as a wake-up call to re-invent journalism. 

Finally, I think journalism is hugely important to democracy. It helps inform the national discourse when it is done fairly and intelligently and is committed to presenting the truth. Without it the national discourse has broken down into echo chambers. In my view, recent efforts to craft “alternative narratives” are a symptom of such echo chambers.

What we really need is a clean break for neutral ground. We need an intelligent, fierce, fair-minded and comprehensive conversation on issues that matter most. It is from this perspective that I want to start the dialogue. 

Finally, I want to say this. What appears below is based on personal experiences and opinion. It does not and is not intended to reflect on all journalists. If you understand what this means, I welcome your comments. 

There was a time when the news media was great at breaking news. We used to have a role in ‘covering’ press conferences. Oh, and we used to do some sizzling op-eds. To be fair, parts of the media are still great at all this stuff. But we’re no longer the only ones doing this. 

Cameras connected to cellphones connected to the internet are breaking news faster than any media house can. Live-streaming has cut out the middleman at press conferences. And blogs, Facebook and Twitter have become indispensible in disseminating views and opinions quickly and widely. 

The old news media’s first-mover advantage is over. Ironically, we have become less relevant even as more people have become interested in current affairs. Some of the wounds are self-inflicted. Others are due to economic and technological changes. Whatever the cause, we will not survive unless we change. 

For those who aren’t in the news business, some background is necessary. Since early 2008, in line with the wider economy, revenues for the media have collapsed. Without advertising, every private media house has been forced into mass layoffs. Besides being terrible for journalists who lost their jobs, the events of 2008-2010 had a dramatic effect on the functioning of newsrooms as well. They are understaffed and over-worked even as the news has increased in pace and complexity. 

Dozens of experienced (and more expensive) staff have been laid off in exchange for inexperienced but cheaper hands. The effect on the quality of news is telling. Younger journalists are capable but it would be unfair to expect Woordward & Bernstein-level stuff from them. 

A TV news anchor now goes on air with one eye on agency feeds, another on the rundown and a magical third eye on updates breaking on Twitter. All the while, one ear is tuned to the producer, another to the studio assistant, the mind is stringing together sentences and the tongue is struggling to keep up. Oh, and he or she has to appear calm at all times. This is by far the hardest job I’ve had to do and it is not getting easier.

Reporters are under constant pressure from editors to break news faster than rivals who were mere inches away at the same briefing. I’ve seen cameramen get chewed out for being a minute behind the competition – even though the fault lay with a malfunctioning camera port. 

Journalists now have to work harder for longer, with fewer resources than before, to produce more news that is greater in complexity. The point of telling you all this is not to make excuses for the news media’s failings. It is to give an appreciation of the kind of pressures under which the news is gathered and produced today. In this environment mistakes will happen. Sadly, many of these mistakes are viewed as conspiracies. I’m coming to this next. 

This is a serious matter; and a tricky subject. Take for example, the criticism of the English media from the Right. Their main targets are some of the liberal-leaning media houses. Interestingly, many journalists whom these same folks regard as “India’s best journalists” are aligned with the BJP! This doesn’t mean either set of journalists is bad. It only means that biases exist. But are biases bad? No, not if they are disclosed. Yes, I believe political biases should be disclosed just as business reporters state their investments. It is the respectful thing to do. 

But the news media’s credibility isn’t only affected by political leanings. TV anchors yell and ‘debates’ often degenerate into barely-controlled rants (sometimes by the anchor himself). It gets worse. Magazine covers sensationalise the news to sell more copies. Plain-vanilla reports offer sketchy details of a major policy announcement. Younger, untrained reporters neglect basic questions because they lack guidance from an overworked editor. Inaccurate data or ‘facts’ sneak in because professional fact-checkers are unaffordable. 

All of these undermine a new product’s credibility just as much as a reporter’s alleged slant.  

Modern technology has replaced the journalist as a disseminator of some kinds of information. Personally, social media –Twitter in particular– helps me stay on top of news genres I’m interested in. And I don’t have to leaf past stories about what Prince Harry did or didn’t wear in a Las Vegas hotel room. 

Similarly, how many get their news only from nightly TV shows? How many get their news only from the newspaper or a weekly magazine? These old media products are losing relevance in a world where information and, more importantly, sources don’t wait for prime time or the paper boy. 

Some smart sources have cut out the news media entirely. Narendra Modi’s Google+ hangout is a great example. He had a message to deliver and he did so effectively, fielding questions tailored to his strengths.
The future of journalism (and journalists) rests on how relevant and credible we can be. We must learn new habits, unlearn others and re-learn a few more. And we need to do all this in the face of tight budgets and resources. 

Modi’s fans unsurprisingly praised his online hangout but neutral audiences were disappointed. Questions about his kurtas made me cringe just as much as the time I heard a senior editor ask Manmohan Singh about who he wanted to win the 2011 Cricket World Cup. 

Unlike Google+ users, journalists routinely get front-row access to authority. So, the person interested in Modi’s style statements is forgiven more easily than the editor who wanted Dr Singh’s opinion on the World Cup.

Sometimes we use this access very well. It was a sight to behold as Subodh Kant Sahai squirmed while facing questions about his alleged nepotism during coal block allocations. Other times we use our access terribly. Shobha De should not be appearing on a prime time show about a terror attack in Mumbai. In short, we need to go beyond the soundbite. We need to ask serious people serious questions. When time allows, it is a good idea to get audiences to participate in such questioning.  

Another focus should be long-form investigations and features. Think 60 Minutes or Pro-Publica. The news media is the only entity with the capacity for well-researched, thoroughly fact-checked and well-produced reportage. We need more of it. And we need to take it across platforms, so it can be accessed by as wide an audience as possible. 

Somewhat related is the news media’s capacity to cover all sides of a story. What’s the economic impact of FDI in retail? What is the political motivation behind it? How will it change social behaviours? How will it help or hinder farmers differently from consumers; or small business owners from big box store owners? The news media’s advantage is not that it can answer such questions but that it can find answers to them thanks to its access to authority figures. More importantly, unlike single-subject experts who write blogs, the news media can then place these diverse answers in one place giving audiences the chance to examine an event in its full context. 

Also related to access to authority is the media’s ability to break credible news quickly. I deliberately place ‘credible’ and ‘news’ before ‘quickly’. If the information doesn’t come from a ‘credible’ source it should not run. A constable who claims he knows what Kasab said in his confession is not a credible source unless it can be confirmed that he was in the room. 

If a piece of information isn’t ‘news’, it should not run, let alone run as 'breaking news'. Amitabh Bachchan getting a cold falls in this category. Team India's departure to the World Cup is news for many but hardly the sort that deserves a 'breaking news' tag. 

‘Quickly’ is essential when you’re competing. But it is the last filter. I’d much rather get it right and stay credible in the long-run than get it first but have audiences doubt future reports. So many times I’ve seen desk editors ignore information from their own reporters on the ground in favour of news from a rival channel that cannot be confirmed but sounds more sensational. 

Another way to stay relevant is to provide neutral spaces for debate. Echo chambers are driving away people who want to hear original, well-argued opinions. Get two opponents and give them time and freedom to engage. The moderator should only keep the discussion focused or prevent it from degenerating into cyclical arguments. That said, neutrality doesn’t mean allowing nonsense to pass for debate. For example, folks who call climate change a “liberal conspiracy” should be treated with the same disdain as those who call the moon landing a hoax. 

News media must start investing in multi-platform, multimedia, interactive stories. Data is hugely important in the public discourse, but if presented badly it can also be terribly boring. Stories need to be well-produced so they are more watchable and readable. This requires some re-tooling and re-training. I’m comfortable with print and video. But my inability to code can hold me back in the future. So I’m taking classes to remedy this. You can place a graph in a newspaper but it would be a total waste of the web’s potential if the same graphs went online without animation or a voice-over to enhance its ‘watchability’.

And that brings me to Social media. Yes, some journalists are skeptical of it. The very attributes that give social media an advantage over news media – speed of dissemination and reach – also create serious problems. The recent SMS and social media-driven rumours that led to ethnic and religious tensions and clashes across India are one example. It has been argued that one of the reasons these rumours were believed is because people didn’t trust reports from the news media. That only reinforces my argument about the importance of the media to stay relevant and credible in a democracy. 

But social media has its upsides too. For example, news websites can code tools that sift through the torrent of tweets following a terror attack and isolate those nearest to the locations based on embedded GPS data. On average, these would have greater relevance over tweets from another country about the same incident.

Also, several journalists (I’m part of this group) have used people we encountered on Twitter as sources in stories. It has allowed us to discover and provide a platform to voices outside of the Delhi chatterati circuit. Introducing diverse and authoritative voices is important for a large, heterogenous democracy like India. More of our tribe should do this.

I don’t want to drag this on for too long. I’ll end here. The news media can be a powerful force for good if it gets its fundamentals right and if it learns a few new tricks. It will also need to renounce old habits that worked 10 or even five years ago. Else, it is condemning itself to irrelevance and skepticism.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Drop in Wind Forces Team Anna to Change Tack

About a week ago, I reported on what people within Team Anna were thinking about the direction of their movement. Short version: They couldn't seem to agree.

Among the things I did not write was the division within IAC on entering politics. In April, Arvind Kejriwal travelled to Himachal Pradesh. There, he met volunteers to discuss the possibility of propping up candidates in the upcoming assembly elections.

This trip was not sanctioned by the core committee. Indeed, when some heard of it, they were furious. Here is what one core committee member told me about the fallout of Kejriwal's trip. The comment appears in full, without edits. 
"Anna's movement was a spontaneous, unique movement in India's political movement. Elections though is a different ball game. If you're doing so, no harm in doing it. But you must do this carefully and provide a serious, well-thought out alternative to the current political parties. Whether the HP tryst was right, I'm glad they've forgotten about it. I don't think the group was happy about this at all. This was a bad thought and I'm glad that finally the group was sensible enough to abandon this thought. We simply don't have the logistics in place to do it. 
Perhaps we can join Baba Ramdev who has some ground-level support and make 1+1 into 11. (Me: this line is important) I don't guarantee we'll win but we stand a better chance if stand together." 

Folks within the movement say Kejriwal, who is currently fasting with his associates Gopal Rai and Manish Sisodia, is against joining hands with Baba Ramdev. (They also claim he began the fast on 25 July to distract from Baba Ramdev's own fast planned on 9 August. But that's another matter).

Earlier Today, Anna Hazare announced that IAC would in fact fight the 2014 general elections by propping up honest candidates. His announcement came on the same day that Baba Ramdev is expected to arrive at Jantar Mantar to lend IAC support.

Last April, I vividly recall the moment Baba Ramdev joined Anna during his first fast at Jantar Mantar. There was a sudden rush of excitement through the crowd. Then there were loud chants. And cheers. I remember thinking: "It's like a medieval knight has galloped in to save the city from a siege".

I can see only one reason for Kejriwal suddenly coming around to having Baba Ramdev back on stage. He's seen the signs. And the signs aren't good. If Team Anna is serious about propping candidates in 2014, they need someone who can put boots on the ground to campaign. Baba Ramdev has the mass support they need quite desperately.

I took this photo of just the MEDIA presence at Jantar Mantar on Day 1 of Kejriwal and his associates' fast. (This photo doesn't account for the innumerable print journalists and jib cam operators who were also around).

Compare that to what the CROWD looks like on the morning of Day 3. 

The same Core Committee member I mentioned earlier had this to say about the frequent protests and fasts IAC was organising. Again, I'm quoting the person in full without edits.
"Where we are going wrong, I think is we are in a hurry. And whenever you're in a hurry, you end up making mistakes. Some people in this core within the core don't have ideas of a people's movement. They want frequent dharnas and this sometimes tries people's patience. This is what we saw in Bombay."

The writing is on the wall. The people are tired. Team Anna needs a booster shot. For better or worse - voters will decide this in 2014 - they've now got Baba Ramdev on board.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Kejriwal's Coterie: The Backstory

This Friday, I wrote this piece for India Today's online edition. In short, it says Arvind Kejriwal and a small band of associates are working to promote themselves through the India Against Corruption movement. And that they are taking decisions – including holding a fast of their own this 25th July – without consulting other IAC core committee members.

Since then, I've got several comments from Mr Kejriwal's fans accusing me of running a 'hit job'. So let me explain the genesis of this story and how I went about reporting it. Then you can decide whether this was a hit job or an unbiased report.

Last April, I reported on Anna Hazare's first fast for the Jan Lokpal Bill at Jantar Mantar. There, I met a former colleague who had quit the news business to volunteer with IAC. She appeared very content; happy to be "making a difference". We met again in August when I reported on Anna's longer 12-day fast. Then too, she seemed completely in love with her volunteer work for IAC.

We didn't speak again until May this year. I had since switched jobs. My friend called again but I was about to leave for an outstation assignment so I promised to call when I got back. I forgot to do so when I returned 10 days later. 

About two weeks ago, she called again. This time we met. During the course of the conversation we drifted towards her work at IAC. She told me several IAC volunteers - including her - had grown disillusioned with the way the movement was being led by Arvind Kejriwal. She detailed the personality clashes, cancelled core committee meetings and even alleged financial impropriety. I asked if there were others who felt like her. Within two days I had about 10 phone numbers and email addresses of other unhappy volunteers. 

Each one I spoke to provided letters and even audio recordings of conversations they'd had with Arvind Kejriwal. They had complained about the direction IAC was taking. In all but one case, he didn’t respond. When he did to one, he said all the information being sought could be found on IAC’s website. This is the same man who once led the RTI movement.

When I completed my interviews with the dissident IAC volunteers, I got the feeling that some problems stemmed from ego clashes with members of Arvind Kejriwal's "coterie" (a word used by many volunteers). I have deliberately ignored allegations that seemed to stem from such purely personal matters. The ones I have incorporated into the story were corroborated by other volunteers and thus, I felt, were fit to use.

No story of this kind would be fair without a response from the "accused". I contacted three IAC core committee members and another person who was closely associated with them. 

The latter was former Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh. He had helped Kejriwal draft the Jan Lokpal Bill. He declined to speak, saying that airing his differences would weaken the movement, which he felt was on its last legs anyway.  

The first core committee member I spoke with was Kiran Bedi. She requested my questions via email. She responded within 1 hour. I want to personally thank her here. She had just lost her sister to cancer - something she only told me about in her reply - and still took the time to respond.  This was incredibly gracious of her. The main thrust of her reply was nothing was seriously wrong with the IAC.

The second CC member I spoke with requested anonymity in exchange for talking about IAC. This person had been among the first few to be invited by Kejriwal to join the IAC's CC. Like Kiran Bedi, this member also rubbished allegations of financial impropriety. When I asked this person why the last financial audit was already 3 months late, the response I got was “Just because it’s late, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong”.

However this CC member admitted that Arvind Kejriwal's "yes men" were proving to be “detrimental” to IAC. The person admitted that several voting decisions on the CC were being influenced by the sheer number of Kejriwal’s people. I was even told of detailed steps discussed by the CC to reduce the associates’ influence. The person said the associates did not know how to run a public campaign and laid blame for the “Mumbai debacle” on their insistence to host more rallies even at the risk of public fatigue.    

The last person I contacted was Arvind Kejriwal himself. When we spoke, he said “I am in the villages and reception is bad. Could you email the questions to me?” I did; detailing every allegation that had been corroborated with other volunteers and the core committee member.

I then sent Kejriwal a text saying the questions had been mailed and that I had got a delivery receipt for them (this was Saturday afternoon). I got this reply one minute later: “I won’t be able to do it before tomo as I will reach home late nite”. I replied: “No problem sir. My deadline is Monday at 12 noon. Thank you”.

On Monday, I had not yet got a response. I sent him a reminder at 9:30 in the morning. No response. At 2:45 pm, well past my deadline, I sent another reminder. I even asked him to at least reply by evening so I could incorporate his side into the story post-facto. Still no response. That was the last I communicated with him.

The story went live on Friday. There is no doubt Mr Kejriwal received the questions and my reminders. I got delivery confirmations for all of them. He has chosen silence. The volunteers and the core committee member have said what I have to say.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sarabjeet/ Surjeet - What Went Wrong?

It's the kind of cock-up that could have sent Indo-Pak relations deeper into the abyss. Two days ago, I was reasonably sure that news of Sarabjeet Singh's supposed release was too good to be true.

For one, there was the timing. Indian officials had just arrested a man who could destroy the cover of the ISI and Hafeez Saeed in the 26/11 case. Why would Pakistan respond kindly? Some commentators suggested this was perhaps an attempt to distract from the arrest - by showing a kind side.

But even if Islamabad was trying to distract attention from Abu Jindal's arrest, why would it pick a man whom the Supreme Court had convicted for deadly bombings and sentenced to death? It simply didn't add up.

So let's look at the facts
During the 19:00 bulletin on Headlines Today, Faratullah Babar, official spokesman for the Presidential office of Pakistan speaks with anchor Padmaja Joshi.

About 19 seconds into the conversation, Babar says "Yes, I can confirm that Surjeet (he pronounces it Sir - as in Knighthood) Singh's death sentence *has* been commuted to life imprisonment..."

Here, you have a mispronounced 'Surjeet', which we can forgive Babar for. However, it's the *has* that adds to the confusion. Surjeet Singh's death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment more than 20 years ago. Sarabjeet, though, was still on death row and therefore, still a hot-button topic in Indo-Pak relations.

Surely an official spokesman would know the difference between "has been" and "had been" commuted. With Babar saying "has been" no one suspected he was referring to someone whose death sentence was commuted more than two decades ago. But this is just step one of the cock-up.

Babar spends roughly 40 seconds explaining that since Surjeet (again, he pronounces it Sir-jeet, not Soor-jeet) has completed 20 years in jail - a life term - he would be released shortly.

At the 1:03 mark, Padamaja Joshi does the right thing. She re-confirms. "Sir," she asks, "Essentially we can break the news right now that Sarabjeet will be released?". To this, Babar responds: "[inaudible]...Sarabjeet (not Sirjeet) will be released...".

Here's the sequence again:
You have a mispronounced name.
You have a statement indicating the commutation of the death sentence "has" recently happened.
You have a request for confirmation of the prisoner's name and that his death sentence has indeed been commuted and he will be released.
You have confirmation of the same from an official spokesman.

Who do you blame here? Certainly not Headlines Today. When asked to confirm, Babar clearly says Sarabjeet. Nowhere in his conversation does he indicate this was a two-decade old commutation that had now come to light. It would be reasonable for Headlines Today to assume that the 'Sirjeet' he referred to earlier was simply a mispronounced Sarabjeet, not a mispronounced 'Soorjeet'.

What added to suspicions and confusion - I was among those bamboozled and angry - was it then took 5 hours for Pakistani authorities to clarify their mistake.

This is a terribly regrettable error. Sarabjeet's family had its heart broken. Surjeet's family has been reunited. I feel elated for the latter, crushed for former. And, sadly, we have to leave this case where it currently stands until the wheels start turning in Islamabad and Rawalpindi again.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Backpack Journalism

A recent tweet about Shyam Saran, India’s former Foreign Secretary, brought on memories of a particularly eventful seven months in my reporting career.  This period begins in October 2009 at the Bangkok round of talks ahead of the Copenhagen Climate Summit. It was the first time I would be working alone as a TV reporter. 

As any TV hand will tell you, this is not ideal. At the very least you need two journalists – a cameraman and a reporter. This isn’t because the PD-177 is a particularly complicated piece of kit. It’s largely because there are so many moving parts to a TV story, you need those many eyes and hands to make sure nothing slips through the gaps. 

I had moved to television six months earlier after spending 2 years in print. My crash course in solo TV reporting lasted 10 minutes. A friend taught me basic camera controls and how to get the right shot – slow pan, steady wide shot, mid-shot, close-up, slow zoom, etc. I also learned how to shoot myself: set up the shot, flip the viewfinder screen and get in position, fine tune the frame, hit record, wait 2 seconds… and go. Then he wished me luck. 

My kit was as basic as it gets: the aforementioned PD-177 and a laptop to cut and transmit footage. The Bangkok conference was a great learning ground. A parade of environmental activists was a challenge, requiring a fair bit of running around. The interviews (Shyam Saran’s was one of them) needed little active camerawork.

Armed with a bit more confidence, I took this same kit on assignment to Ladakh one month later. There are two problems with shooting solo in Ladakh. First, you’re lugging about 15 kgs of equipment at 10,000 feet. I reported one piece at 18,000 feet at Khardung La, the highest motorable pass in the world. You’re also weighed down by cold weather gear. Secondly, you have the harsh conditions. The sun at those altitudes screams down with all its ultra-violet ferocity, forcing you to use strong light filters. The batteries also last less than half their usual lifespan thanks to the cold. This means constant recharging and extra weight for backups.

Stupidly, I didn’t listen to the locals who advised at least 36 hours of doing nothing to help the body acclimatize to the rarified air. By the end of day two I was wracked by altitude sickness. The migraine was so severe I started to throw up and couldn’t even fall asleep. Luckily – very luckily - it didn’t get worse. Altitude sickness can easily turn to pulmonary edema and kill you. A combination of diamox pills, Kashmiri kahwa, and plenty of sleep and water had me back on my feet in two days. Still, I had to get extra oxygen from the army unit stationed at Khardung La because my lungs had not yet recovered. Suffice to say, I'm never not following local advice again. 

The big event was the Copenhagen climate Summit that December. It would be two weeks of intensive daily reporting. I worked out a schedule. My day began at 7 am. After breakfast and an equipment check, I’d hike the 1 kilometer to the Bella Convention Center, equipment in tow. Once there, I’d get a fix on the day’s events and what had transpired during negotiations overnight. This would be part of my first report to the studio that day. Thanks to the time difference, it would arrive just in time for the afternoon bulletins. By 2 pm, I’d send another report of how the day was shaping up to hit the prime time bulletin. I’d spend the rest of the afternoon collecting bits and pieces of information for my late-night report (this was usually a phone-in at about 2:30 am Copenhagen time, for the morning bulletin in Delhi). My diet was mostly sandwiches, coffee and the occasional Coke.

The strain began to show by the end of Week 1. An American non-profit had organized a field trip to nearby Samso island, which ran entirely on renewable energy. It was here that I picked up my first and (thankfully) only injury as a journalist, so far. While climbing up the inside of a windmill, I tried to push my camera through to the next level. My awkward posture and the weight of the camera combined to twist my hand. My arm would be in a bandage for the next 1 month. The pain would last a whole year. To date, I can feel a slight pinch when I flex my wrist a bit too much. But again, I wouldn’t trade the opportunity for the world. Copenhagen was a hugely rewarding experience personally and professionally. Here I was: 1 guy from a small TV operation in India, reporting a story that was being covered by gigantic teams from organisations such as the BBC, AFP, AP & Reuters.

The last in my series of backpack reports came on an assignment to Israel in April the next year. This time I was with a colleague –Arjun Hardas. While he was well-versed with regional politics, his utility with a camera – but his own admission – was “limited”. This meant doing most of the shooting myself. But that also meant I had the opportunity to actively listen while Arjun engaged and probed our interlocutors. It was great exposure to what is seemingly one of the most intractable political stories and compelling human experiences on the planet. Sadly, the channel never aired most of the content we put together – 6 feature stories, including one from the Gaza Strip, and a half-hour documentary. Our assignment was part of the channel’s plans to showcase its international coverage ahead of a planned re-launch. The re-launch never happened and the stories eventually got outdated. 

I quit NewsX last October, but I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunities to literally see the world. Few things match up to speaking with key personalities in global stories – Ban ki-Moon, Yvo de Boer, Shyam Saran, Danny Ayalon. But there are even fewer things that match up to getting the story from the people who are living it – a fruit seller in Gaza city whose supplies are under constant threat, a retired Israeli general who lost his family to a Palestinian bomb attack, the Ladakhi man who is single-handedly building glaciers to save his region from drought, a young Indian girl who put a promising career on hold to lobby government ministers to save the climate. These are the stories I love most of all. They’re the stories I’m proudest of.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

An email to the CEO, Tata Croma

Dear Ajit,

I'm writing to you because of a rather ridiculous set of events perpetrated by the staff at your call center. After 9 days of dealing with them I have reached a conclusion: they are incapable of making a phone call. This is ironic since they work in the aforementioned call center.

You see, I bought a 1.5 ton Croma Window AC on 27th May from your South Extension store in Delhi. (Invoice number: SLF02A04801003955). Nine days later it remains in the spot where your delivery men placed it.

I've made about 30 phone calls to your call center in the past nine days. These calls have averaged about 20 minutes each (Yes, I timed them). Most of the time was spent on hold, listening to a scratchy recording of Vivaldi's 'La Primavera'. This was interspersed with a female voice telling me to join Croma's "Extended Warranty Smile Club". Another irony, I realised. I had actually bought a two-year extended warranty for the AC. But I was NOT smiling. 

Anyway, I bore you. Let's get to the wonderful staff you have. I spoke with a number of them. Some of those stalwarts are Dharmesh, Ali, Pankaj, Prabjyot and their managers Anup and Samuel. I spoke with at least three others. But you know, so many new friends in such a short time. Hard to remember all their names.

Each one of these 'by the book' phone operators (they all use the same lines) told me this: "I am sorry for the inconvenience sir. We will organise it soon. Someone from the concerned team will give you a call back". I've been waiting for that call for nine days.

Ok, wait. That's not totally accurate. I did get one phone call from a technician today. When I told him my address - in Noida - he said: "Sir, I was given the address of D-14, South Extension 2, Delhi. I only do Delhi installations. I don't come to Noida". Now, the South-Ex address sounded familiar. You're not going to believe this. You've probably been there yourself. It's the address of YOUR STORE! Your brainy phone operators told the technician to come to YOUR STORE and install an AC! I'm not making this up. Really! That's what happened. I swear. God promise!

Ajit, imagine hearing thrice a day, for 9 straight days, that "someone will call you soon". And then you get that phone call. After nine days. And the guy says "Sir, I can't do it. Please call the office for a Noida technician". You know that rather crude street-term KLPD? I believe it could apply here. I'm sure you will agree.

Can you imagine having to live in the 45 degree heat of Delhi, sleeping at 1 a.m. because it's so uncomfortable, then waking up at 5:30 a.m. because it's already over 35 degrees? And you know the worst part? It's not even the heat. It's the knowledge that just a few meters away is a perfectly good, spanking new air conditioner, packed up in a box. No, I suppose you don't know the feeling. You're the CEO. If this happened to you, someone would lose their job.

Look, Ajit, I don't want anyone to lose their job. I'm trying to pay off my own EMIs. I wouldn't wish joblesness on anyone else. Not with the state of our economy, for sure. But I also don't normally have to email CEOs asking for help because their staff aren't "with it".

I'm sure you will agree that I don't exactly have too many options left. So please let me know that I can still have some faith in the Tata brand. I'd really like to come into your SMILE CLUB. Except, right now, I feel like the guy who's been asked to wait at the gate while secuity runs their checks.


An angry, frustrated but still hopeful customer

UPDATE: About an hour after I hit 'send', I got a call from a gentleman called Sriram from Tata Croma's Okhla office. He apologised profusely and brought his senior technician Gurmeet on the call. Gurmeet said he would come by my home at 9:00 am this morning to install the AC.
He lied. Ok. Ok. That's just being snarky. Gurmeet rang my doorbell at 6:45 am. By 7:30 I had a fully-functioning AC cooling down my bedroom.
I only wish Tata Croma could have gotten this done without me having to email Ajit. But, you know, win some, lose some.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Aamir Khan: Channeling Dickens

"I mean to strike the heaviest blow in my power for these unfortunate creatures," declared Charles Dickens to E.M. Fitzgerald in December 1838. The 'unfortunate creatures' he spoke of were the mill workers of England, disabused of any modern notion of workmen's rights or safety.

He dealt that blow with Hard Times, a novel he published in 1854. This bleak portrayal of the "Condition of England" is widely believed to have contributed, at least in part, to the awakening of the middle class to the plight of the working class. England is a better place thanks to Hard Times.

And that brings me to this Sunday. I had been bombarded with ads for Satyameva Jayate for at least a month. I knew it would take the same coveted Sunday 11 am spot TV channels once reserved for The Mahabharat. I knew it would feature Aamir Khan and an audience. I could even remember the tune to what I will confess is now a rather grating, possibly plagiarized, opening theme.

But I didn't watch the show that Sunday morning. I felt it was all to 'plastic'. Instead, I followed the lively, opinionated reactions to it on Twitter. By evening, I had read enough to make me curious. And so I did... on YouTube, where a 1-hour clip was posted online sans-ads.

For me, the show brought nothing new by way of facts. Colleagues had been covering instances for years. What the show did for me was put a very real face to the crime. The statistics were now guests with names. The names had faces and life stories. And Aamir Khan was helping us access these stories with empathy. These were real, believable people.

Perhaps the most shocking for me was the story of the mother-in-law attempting to kill her granddaughter. Here was a woman, a vice principal of a school, wife of a Delhi University professor, mother to an orthopaedic surgeon and a PhD in mathematics, kicking a helpless baby down a flight of stairs. It would be hard to find a more repugnant human being. This is a woman who should've known better; should've believed better, should've acted better. In her, I see a collective failure - our collective failure. 

And that's why I think Aamir's show is important. Every Sunday morning, every Indian with access to a television will watch a show that challenges our prejudices, bringing to light a side of India we'd rather to ignore. He must walk a fine line between preaching and awakening. In that sense, I think he has it exactly right - letting his subjects tell their stories. And allowing us to listen, without interruption or judgment.

The negative reactions have ranged from cynicism to, bizarrely, anger. Some folks baulk at the Rs 3 crore Aamir is being paid. Others accuse him for being just another celebrity chasing more celebrity. A handful condemn him for spreading "propaganda". One incensed Tweeter asked me why only India was the focus of such shows. I'm quoting him here - "do u agree/disagree to the fact that female feticide happens in Australia? yes or NO". Later he said "Propaganda remains propaganda".

Yes, there are such folks. I'm afraid they are beyond help. But a great number are being woken up to the horrors and shame that exist in our country. No matter what Aamir Khan is being paid, I wish him success. For, like Dickens, he too is striking the heaviest blow in his power for these unfortunate creatures.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Justice Katju's letter to Ambika Soni on Social Media

I got this from a friend (who I shall name if he likes). I'll just say a couple of things before leaving you to it.

1. The letter shows a colossal lack of understanding of the nature of social media. Holding Twitter & Facebook responsible for user posts is like asking the sweepers in charge of Speakers' Corner at Hyde Park to censor people who speak there.

2. Perhaps it's time to junk the term 'social media' itself. For one, it'll avoid confusion for people who just don't get it. Also, as I noted in a short, earlier blog post, the term is quite limiting. On a related note, like Facebook & Twitter are more like Online Public Squares. They serve many more purposes than just being alternatives to the media.

And now for the letter (all emphasis is mine). 

Mrs. Ambika Soni,
Hon’ble Union Minister for Information & Broadcasting

New Delhi.


Dear Mrs. Soni,

I am deeply distressed that a new practice has developed in the social media of its misuse for defaming people/groups/religions/communities. The recent example is of dissemination of a CD which even the author admitted  had been distorted for defaming a reputed senior lawyer of the Supreme Court and Member of Parliament, and the threat to defame a Union Minister. The social media kept uploading the CD despite a Court injunction against it and despite the author admitting that he had doctored it.

In my opinion unless some curbs are placed on the social media nobody’s reputation will be safe in India.

I have repeatedly said that while there is freedom of the media in our country, no freedom can be absolute, and has to be coupled with responsibilities. The reputation of a person is a valuable asset, and cannot be permitted to be trampled upon by mischievous people. The social media often acts irresponsibly, which can irreparably damage a person’s reputation.

I would therefore request you to set up a team of legal and technical experts to find out ways and means of checking this menace, including, if the government thinks fit, initiating suitable legislation for this purpose, for filtering out such offensive material.

Yours sincerely,

          (Markandey Katju)