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.