Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Tribute to a mentor; a father-figure | RIP Jehangir Pocha

I first encountered Jehangir Pocha as I suspect many of his friends have. I saw a group of people laughing and he was right in the middle. I was told I should meet him and so hesitantly stepped forward, conscious that I might interrupt the merriment. He motioned for me to join the group and effortlessly continued entertaining us.

Jehangir, JP, was then the Beijing correspondent for the Boston Globe and Businessworld Magazine. I was a 21-year-old working for the China HQ of an international NGO called AIESEC; an organisation he had been a part of in his youth. It was 2005. We were both at the AIESEC International Congress in Agra. 

I don't recall too many details from that first meeting. He may have been narrating some of his ruthlessly entertaining stories or his many bawdy jokes. At any rate, I do remember it ended with him discussing what may or may not be legal for him to take back to Beijing. He always had a twinkle in his eye. 

We met properly a month later at Cafe Paris on Beijing's Sanlitun street. It was a work meeting; and our relationship remained formal until I left AIESEC a year-and-half later. I was headed back to India and wanted to be a journalist. He offered to connect me to the team at Businessworld. As luck would have it, I had already interviewed with them and was offered a contract. I mailed him telling him about the offer and ended with "Will you be coming back to India any time soon?". His reply gave nothing away: "That's great. I'm sure I'll see you there soon!" 

Two weeks later, Aveek Sarkar, ABP's proprietor, introduced him to the newsroom as Businessworld's new editor. His eyes were twinkling. Or maybe it was a knowing wink. He was now my boss. Over the two years I worked at Businessworld, he became so much more - a mentor, friend, guide...

Late one evening, he stopped by my desk as I hacked out a story. "Have you had dinner?" he asked. "Nope." "OK, let's grab something to eat." He had his chauffeur get in the back seat, popped in a classical music CD ("because it's relaxing") and took the wheel. We stopped at a five-star hotel. "Thank god you're dressed properly," he said as we got out. "The Finance minister hosts just one of these every year. Apparently, it'll help us understand his budget better."  

Jehangir was like that. He'd take a 23-year-old novice to the Finance Minister's post-budget dinner, allow him to write a cover story (twice) and let him edit two sections of the magazine. He once sent a 27-year-old colleague to interview a future Prime Minister. A young cub-reporter was allowed to pick her beat. A 22-year-old was taken off the 'Guest Desk' and sent off to report because he "saw potential" in him. JP bet on people and he almost always beat the odds. 

A year later, he offered me my second job. He was moving to NewsX and had a few roles open for reporters. I had never dreamed of being a television reporter, but he thought I could handle it. It was a steep learning curve. 

I still remember my first day anchoring. It was 6 am on the 17th of April, 2009. Delhi was about to begin voting in the General election. I was a nervous wreck and it showed. In fact, I reckon I was a disaster. JP offered me a coach... one of our senior anchors would work with me to iron out my many, many rough edges. Within six months I won an award for environmental reporting on TV. A month later, a fellowship to report on the 2009 Copehagen Climate Summit followed. The environment was never a hot beat, but I loved it. JP didn't hesitate on sending me out on assignment even once. He cared about good stories. Beats did not matter. 

There are many examples about JP's personal generosity. Like the time he offered an ex-colleague his chauffeur and car for as long as she needed, when a close relative passed away. Or the time he personally marched down to India Gate when one of his young reporters was injured during the Delhi Gangrape protests. Or the time he offered another ex-colleague a job because her previous employer would not take her back after she'd taken a break following the death of a parent.

But the one thing he was most generous with was his time. He'd work with young reporters for hours to improve their stories & story-telling... adding a fact here, or turning a brilliant little phrase there. He exhorted us to "elevate" our stories. He was an aesthete. Style mattered as much as substance. 

He'd counsel us about love, friendship, career choices, lifestyle choices. He'd talk movies, books, religion, philosophy, music (he loved his music, as most Parsis do!). He was a keen photographer and would spend time with the camera team, discussing their fine art. 

None of this was work for him. This was about building his people. And it never mattered whether we excelled under his employment or our next. He took pleasure in seeing us grow.

He cared deeply about injustices. He made us care too; not about the ratings but about the subjects of our reportage. "To be a good journalist, you must first be a good person," he told me once. 

When I left NewsX to join the India Today Group, the discussion with him was the hardest. I choked back tears. He allowed me to finish my piece and after an hour-long heart-to-heart he wished me luck. We drifted apart after that; conversing once every six months or so. It was always easy chatter, though. Our last conversation was only a week ago. Ironically, much like our first, it was about work. He promised to 'catch up another time'. I will regret not having that conversation. 

The last time we communicated was two days ago. I had congratulated him on the ratings for NewsX - they'd caught up with Times Now at No. 1, after consistently posting great ratings over the past month. He brushed it off. I reminded him that he'd worked hard for this day, that he'd earned it. He replied with a smiley. 

Jehangir died this morning of a heart attack at the age of 46; far too young. He had just started on life: marrying Ranjana only last year, he was the cool dad to her young son Aditya, and fathered two beautiful twins of his own, Darius and Naira. 

His Facebook timeline over the past year is testament to his deep love for his new family. His facebook timeline over the past 18 hours is testament to how deeply he was loved by us, his friends. He left this world as I found him... surrounded by the people he so loved to entertain. 

We will all miss you, Jehangir. This place is brighter, smarter, more elegant, more generous and better-off from your time here. Thank you for everything. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Getting Them Home

Just a few quick points on the Indians trapped in Iraq. This morning I tweeted, asking this question:

 Apparently, some geniuses thought I was asking why the Prime Minister wasn't personally standing on the ground in Tikrit stopping ISIS's advance. Others wondered if I was serious about launching an Entebbe-style rescue operation to get the 40 kidnapped Indian workers in Mosul.

No. That's not what I was asking. If you seriously thought I was advocating for a Prime Minister to go to a war zone, you're the idiot, not me. And the less said about our incapability of launching an Entebbe-like raid the better.

So, please pay attention to the words. I was asking why we haven't seen the same 'personal supervision' here with as many as 10,000 Indian lives at stake. And I was asking about 'evacuations', not rescue operations. Mr Modi set very high expectations as Chief Minister through his determined actions. So far (as of 12:35 pm on 19th June) he hasn't even tweeted once about the 10,000 Indians trapped in Iraq or plans to bring them home. That's odd for a leader who has often been praised for his masterful communications; and odder still for a man who took the lead in supervising evacuations of thousands of pilgrims (the exact number remains in doubt) one year ago.

In fact, it's been 8 days since ISIS captured Mosul and we have yet to see mass evacuations of any kind begin. Ironically, India has perhaps the world's best record of mass evacuations from warzones: 
- Back in 1990, Air India set a Guinness World record for evacuating 111,711 Indian citizens from Kuwait, Iraq & Jordan, operating 488 flights over 59 days, during the 1st Gulf War.

- In 2006, the Indian Navy and Air India teamed up to evacuate 2,280 people, including several Nepali and Sri Lankan citizens from the fighting between Israel and the terror group Hezbollah.

- In 2011, Air India and the Indian Navy teamed up once again to evacuate some 19,000 citizens from war-torn Libya.

- Just this month, this same government made excellent arrangements to evacuate 1,000 Indian and other South Asian students from war-torn Eastern Ukraine.

The expertise of many who served in 2006, 2011 (and certainly 2 weeks ago) are still at the government's disposal. I'd wager that at least some of those who were involved in 1990 are still in a position to at least advise the current government. So why haven't we seen any movement yet? The fighting was never an excuse in previous situations.

If we are serious about evacuating our citizens, let's get it going. But please, let's not have utterly rubbish comments such as 'Why should we bother about them if they did it for money?' or 'They went there of their own free will.' 

One Modi supporter (who has requested that I remove her name from this post because her tweets were protected) made the following comment on Twitter: "I don't know what mass evacuations @PierreFitter is talking about, coz my limited knowledge says only 100/ 100k Indians are in insecure areas"
Well [name redacted], ISIS is now less than 50 miles away from Baghdad. We have 3,000 Indians in that city. Why are they still there? Surely, the idea of an evacuation is to get them out of harm's way BEFORE the fighting begins. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Climate Change: The Story From the Delhi Weather Station

My artefact focuses on Delhi, India's capital, and home to the country's top lawmakers and policymakers. I want to show Delhi residents how their own city's climate has changed in just one generation. This is no longer about their children or children's children. This is here and now. 

Hopefully, India's lawmakers and policymakers who live in Delhi, will understand how badly this problem can affect their own quality of life and thus be spurred into action, purely out of self-interest. 

While the city government  has taken steps to reduce pollution, such as powering all public transport with natural gas, the average Delhiite is still largely unconcerned about the effect their lifestyle has on the environment. For example, the city's 21.7 million people add an average of 1,000 new cars to its roads every day. The resulting emissions means Delhi's air is just as bad, if not worse than Beijing's.

The changes outlined by local data for Delhi mirror exactly the predicted trends for climate change for the country: India is projected to get hotter and wetter. However, there will also be fewer days of rain on average, every year.

Let's take a closer look at the data for Delhi taken from the city's Safdarjung Weather Station (Source for data). The three charts below depict data beginning in 1978 and ending in 2012. They tell a clear story of how the city's climate has changed.

CHART 1: Average Annual Temperatures
The blue line depicts average annual maximum temperature in Celsius. The blue trend line begins at about 31 Celsius in 1978 and ends just under 32 Celsius today. The red line is is the average annual minimum temperature. This has risen slower. The trend line here begins at about 19 Celsius in 1978 and ends about 0.2 Celsius higher.

CHART 2: Annual Rainfall (mm) 
The blue line depicts annual rainfall in mm. The trendline begins at about 670 mm/ year in 1978 and ends at 800 mm/ year in 2012. On average, Delhi is now getting a staggering 130 mm/year more rain in just 36 years.

CHART 3: Days With Rain & Days With Storms
Even though Delhi receives more rain every year, the number of 'rain days' and number of 'storm days' is reducing. This suggests more rain falling per day. The red line - Rain days - starts at 62 per year in 1978 and ends at 58 per year in 2012.
Interestingly, the blue line - storm days - begins at 38 per year in 1978 and ends at 24 per year in 2012. This is a dramatic reduction in the number of storms, suggesting that while each rain day brings more rain, there are fewer storms, on average.

All this is bad news for the city's residents.

From Charts 2 & 3, we can extrapolate more analysis on Delhi's rainfall. In 1978, the city received an average of 10.80 mm for every day of rain (670 mm/ 62 rain days). In 2012, it received an average of 13.79 mm for every day of rain (800 mm/ 58 rain days) - an average increase of nearly 3 mm for every day of rain. Effectively, there is more rain pouring down each year as well as more rainfall on every day that it does rain.

Delhi's archaic drainage system clogs up after even a moderate rain shower, flooding the capital's roads. To adapt, the city will need to repair and overhaul its existing drains quickly. This could potentially cost tens of millions of dollars, money the city doesn't have thanks to its large fiscal deficit.

The city's average maximum temperature also continues to rise sharply - an average of about 1 degree Celsius in just 36 years. This means more intense summers. The only positive is a relatively stable average minimum temperature, which suggests less erratic winters.

The city will need to plan for more intense summers. This means spending more money on day-time shelters for homeless people, more public water fountains and a worsening peak electricity demand thanks to all that extra air conditioning. All of this costs more money, which means higher taxes on the city's residents.

Climate change may be bringing fewer climatic storms to Delhi, but it certainly hasn't left the city without its share of socio-economic ones. If India's policy makers and lawmakers, who call the city home, don't act fast, they may become the victims of their own apathy. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

What Every Mobile Phone User Should Know

So I tweeted this morning about a potentially serious privacy/ security breach that anyone who uses a cellphone should be aware of. I've got the details below, but a little background first.

I recently bought a new sim card for a smartphone. The number I was issued had been 'recycled'; i.e. it had been used by someone earlier who had then returned it. Small problem: 'Vishal K.' forgot to inform his bank, his life insurance company and about half-a-dozen other firms who store his personal information.

The result: every few days, I receive an SMS meant for Vishal. Sometimes it's innocuous; a new sale at a store, or the usual spam texts about real estate. Gosh, I even know what RO water purifier system he uses.

But three events in particular got me very worried. The first was a series of texts from his bank. The second was a series of texts from his life insurance provider and the third was a birthday wish from a store.

I now know Vishal K's bank, his loan account number, his life insurance policy number, its premium value and his birthday. If I was your proverbial bad guy, I'd already be "social engineering" him. That would give me access to more personal data that would allow me to impersonate him.

As someone who covers cyber security, this worries me greatly. Most real world and even online services only require details such as your birth date or email or address to confirm your identity. If a hacker gets their hands on these, it's game over.

The really good hackers can make you pay, literally. In fact, you really should read this excellent and chilling piece. A reporter challenged a group of hackers to find out everything they could about him. Their creativity and skills gave them control of everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING!) in his life, except his children. Even that was only because he expressly told them his kids were off limits.

I should add here that I have already informed Vishal K's bank and life insurance provider about the problem. However, I think you can see exactly how this could have worked out very, very badly for him.

The problem here is how mobile operators assign new connections. Sometimes, new number series open up, but most new subscribers are given recycled numbers. If the person who used the number before you forgot to unregister his/ her mobile number, you are going to receive texts meant for them. There is no way to avoid this.

So, if you do change your mobile number please, please, please make sure you update this with critical service providers. Important personal information could fall into the wrong hands. Once that happens, you can easily lose control of everything from your email IDs to social media accounts or worse, your bank accounts. Stay safe! 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Republic in Practice

Arvind Kejriwal's 30-hour dharna outside Rail Bhavan last week raises many questions. Was it the only way a chief minister can express disagreement with the central government? Did he really have no other way to bring change? In fact, are such dharnas even desireable in a Republic? 

On Republic Day, let's examine this from the perspective of India's Constitution.  

You've probably read or at least heard of B.R. Ambedkar's famed exhortation to "abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha", during his speech to the Constituent Assembly in 1949. Ambedkar's 'Grammar of Anarchy' speech is widely quoted because it lays down the primacy of the Constitution for the proper functioning of Indian democracy (and government). 

"If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives... When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods." (emphasis mine)

That speech was made in the presence of Mahatma Gandhi's followers and friends, including Nehru. None objected. 

What would Gandhi himself have said about Ambedkar's speech? The historian A.G. Noorani recounts a conversation between Gandhi and his former secretary Purshottam Trikamdas. Here, Trikamdas is appealing to Gandhi to reconsider a petition to make 'Satyagraha' a constitutional right for Indians.

'Tomorrow, when India is free, would you say that satyagraha is a constitutional right and write it into the Constitution. And, if we do, what does it mean? It means that anybody can break the law with impunity and nothing could be done. Actually, it would be contrary to your own ideas. Satyagraha, you say, means disobeying authority and facing the consequences. Now, if satyagraha is a constitutional right and it is permitted, what are the consequences to face?' It would be said to the credit of the great man that he started thinking and he said, ‘There is something in what you say.' Next day, he sent for me and said, ‘ You are right. I have decided not to send that letter.'

Even Gandhi, the man who pioneered Satyagraha & civil disobedience, decided that such practices no longer have any place in a democratic republic. 

Arvind Kejriwal would like us to believe that he had no other option but to protest outside the offices of the Central Government. Either Arvind Kejriwal is deeply uninformed about the options that do exist, or he is deliberately misleading his fans for mileage.

Let me explain with some context. There is a bigger picture problem that no sane person will deny: Delhi, a state for all intents an purposes, has no police force of its own. This has caused problems in the past and will continue to do so until it's fixed. 

The problem begins in 1991, when Delhi was granted partial statehood under the 69th Amendment to the Constitution. Delhi should have been given authority over everything in List II of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. The Delhi Police, however, did not get transferred to the state's control. Interestingly, Land was another subject that did not move under the State's control. This led to the slightly comical situation of a Chief Minister having to request the Central government for help in finding a home.

I digress. So what should Kejriwal have done if he was genuinely interested in long-term change that would bring the Delhi Police under his government's control? His highly-controversial law minister Somnath Bharti should have advised him on the "constitutional methods" available. For example, he could challenge the flawed provision of the 69th Amendment before a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court. Surely there is no sense in perpetuating a situation that has repeatedly caused problems. Surely the Court would have seen the sense in this. 

Or he could have waited for a decent showing in the Lok Sabha elections, and moved a Lok Sabha motion to re-amend the 69th Amendment and bring the Delhi Police under the control of the state government.

Instead, Kejriwal chose a highly visible protest. It got him plenty of attention (not all of it positive), but it achieved very, very little. Two police officers have only been sent on leave and the Delhi Police are still not under the state's control.  

Many of Kejriwal's fans believe that he is a man on a mission; that he is personally incorruptible and therefore, obstacles in front of him should be done away with in the interest of the greater good. Afterall, if his intentions are sound, why should he be stopped?

For their benefit, I hark back to Ambedkar's 'Grammar of Anarchy' speech. In the paragraph that immediately follows his famed exhortation, he says:

'The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not "to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions" There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.'

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Pale Blue Dot

I find myself going back to this video every now and then. It was my introduction to Carl Sagan, but it also did much more than that. 

The Pale Blue Dot, Sagan's masterful book about the place of humans in the universe, changed my life. It made me look very differently at the world and our place in it. Just something I wanted to share on New Year's Day.

The following is an excerpt from the book:
"The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

This is the 'mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam'; planet earth photographed on Valentine's Day 1990, from 6 billion kilometers away by Voyager 1 (now the farthest man-made object in the universe). Look very carefully, you'll see it. 

Sagan goes on:
"Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light."

Watch Sagan narrate those words, set to some beautiful music and unforgettable scenes from all-time great movies.