Monday, September 26, 2016

Happiness, street vendors, and negotiations......

Few days back I was watching a documentary series, "India's Frontier Trains". The three-part series was on trains connecting India with its neighbours - Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Yes, there is a train connection between India and Nepal, and that train is the only functioning train for the whole of Nepal.

In the episode on the train between India and Bangladesh, the program documented a life of a chocolate seller inside the train. He boards the train in the Bangladesh side of the route. A sole bread winner for a family of four, he earns by selling chocolates in the train.

He faces a perennial problem: because of hot weather conditions, his chocolates melt. In those hot days, his earnings are meager. A basic cooling device like this costs seventeen pounds and he couldn't afford that.

What moved me was the insensitive nature of some passengers in haggling with this struggling chocolate seller. They would force down the price by 10 pence or more (which is more than 10% of the product price) by telling one reason or the other. This seller, faced with poor sales, often gives away discount.  

Finally, the seller manages to save money and buys a cooler for seventeen pounds. He brings home the device, and the entire family was so happy to see their priced possession on one of the important festival days, Eid. They had no new dress, nor they had costly feast. But the sight of a new cooler was enough to bring joy in their life.

The program ends by showing how this chocolate seller is able to make more money due to the new cooler.

Often, when we meet roadside vendors, the relationship is unequal. The vendors are poor and have pressing family situations, and we (the salaried with stable income) are under no such pressure. So its easy to bring down the price. A saving of Rs 10 or Rs 20 makes us feel good. But what if we don't haggle. I think we will discover new relationships with sellers, and over a period of time, they wouldn't over price just because we don't haggle.

I think we need to go an extra mile to make these unequal transactions equal. Can we?

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Being hopeless....

Three months back when my mom was visiting me, she experience heart palpitations for two consecutive nights. Worried I called my cardiologist friend who asked us to visit him in the government hospital on that day as it was a non-OPD (out patients day) duty for him. Apparently non-OPD days are less crowded. As we sat waiting, we saw many worried parents bringing their just born babies to treat serious heart problems. What struck me were the faces of these parents - a feeling of hopelessness. This was their last hope to treat their infants in a state-run hospital as they don't  have money to take them elsewhere.

Fortunately, the staff at this government hospital were treating patients sympathetically. I hoped the patients would have got the best of treatment available. In comparison, patients were treated as cattle herds at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), India's premier hospital. To get an cardio OPD appointment, you will have stand in the line from 5 PM the previous day. And at 4 AM, a token is given. Thereafter, if they are lucky to get inside, they will wait anywhere between one to three hours to see the specialists. Again you will see a sea of faces with hopelessness written all over them.

Recently I was listening to a TV interview of the mother of the Delhi gang rape victim. She was narrating how hopeless she felt when she knew her daughter wouldn't survive and she as her mother can't do anything about it. For a moment, I put myself in her position and shuddered at the thought of it.

I am sure there are people everywhere who face hopeless situations with lack of money and other things, and I really hope and pray that come out of that situation as fast as they can. And no one should ever be in a helpless and hopeless situation. More importantly, can we seek to identify at least people around us who are going through such situations and help them.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Life’s lessons from people around us……


On a day when Indira Nooyi, head of Pepsi, was in the news with her frank comments on women and career (though it's not the first time she said this), I was thinking of many unsung heroes that we see every day. We not only ignore them but also miss out on opportunities to learn from them. Couple of incidents come to my memory. A friend was admitted in a state-run hospital recently, and the patient next to him was a frail looking mother of four children. She has been in hospital for more than three months. She was so weak that someone has to help her to do the basic stuff. My friend was saying the couple from Bihar were probably from a very poor background, "The way the husband took care of his wife was amazing. He fed her with great patience, and took care of her needs. Probably my mom would have taken care of me like that."
Pretty much sure the family would have slipped back into poverty with this illness though the treatment in a state-run hospital is almost free with negligible fees (Rs 375 (around $ 7) for 10 days. It's also a sad commentary on the state of affairs in our country, where a poor has to travel 1,000 kilometers to get treated in a better hospital.
The second example is of my friend who take care of his terminally ill dad. My friend had few other siblings and was clearly under-achiever in terms of job or money earned. But of all the siblings, my friend shifted his job from a metro to a small city with a lower pay, and made every effort to get his dad treated even when doctors said there is no hope. At home, he would do everything for his dad, who was not able to move.
We glorify and applaud whatever the successful say, and there is nothing wrong in that. However, there are vital life lessons that one can learn from the least successful amongst us who sacrifice immensely to shower their love to people around them.
In my book, the poor husband from Bihar and my friend who took care of his terminally ill dad occupy a pride of place. I am sure, in fact more than 100% confident, that when my friend's dad passed away he would have been a happy man to see one of his siblings reciprocating his unconditional love even though he couldn't talk or express otherwise.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

With no choice and voice….


Last Sunday I took a friend of mine to the emergency gynecology ward in one of Delhi's private mission hospitals. It was a lean day with not much of activity and I was chatting with my friend's husband, it was then I noticed a pregnant women walking in along with two of her relations. They have been referred to this hospital by the nearby government hospital as the private hospital would take better care of her. The reason: the estimated weight of the baby she was carrying was grossly under-weight, measuring only 1.2 kgs even after nine months of pregnancy. She was in great discomfort as her membrane broke, and sat next to me in a wooden bench.
In the meantime, I saw a lady doctor talking angrily out of frustration with relations of this pregnant lady, including her husband. With little knowledge of Hindi, I couldn't follow the conversation. Another friend had come by this time, and also a senior doctor was summoned by the lady doctor who first talked to pregnant lady's relations. The doctor was saying they have to do C-section, and they have to keep the baby in the ventilator post-operation because of complications they have detected.
The relations, who to me seem like a middle-class family, just refused to accept this. They didn't want to sign the admission form and was arguing with doctors not to keep the baby in the ventilator. From the time the pregnant lady arrived, this went for more than half-an-hour. The lady in pain was not even asked or consulted, and was looking at her husband and two relations helplessly. And suddenly they all decided not to admit her and took the pregnant lady away. The doctors were taken aback but not surprised like I was, probably they see such cases more.
Then on Sunday night as my friend was admitted in hospital, a lady got admitted well past 10 PM. This lady just delivered a baby three weeks back via C-section, and the stiches gave up and it has become a wound. According to this lady, as narrated to my friend, her in-laws refused to take her to the hospital and didn't allow her to make phone calls to her parents. But somehow she made the call and her parents brought her to the hospital. Apparently her parents have to plead with her in laws for doing this.
If this is happening in an urban centre like Delhi, one can imagine the plight of the women in rural areas. The common theme in these two incidents: the women in question are not consulted and they remained a spectator. I only pray that the pregnant lady delivered safely and her baby is looked after well. I was wondering had these been financially independent, would they have been subjected to such treatment. Probably yes, and knowing the way our society works for many of these women, it still may not be enough.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Be a democrat in US, but root for BJP in India


Before I say anything I would like to disclose my knowledge of political affairs in India. I had lot of assumptions and predictions for this just concluded elections, and none of them came true. So I am not going to talk politics and waste time. But this election season reminded me of a funny incident when I was a student in Arizona State University (ASU) in 2004.
As a thumb rule, I discuss politics only with close friends. So my flat mates in Phoenix had no idea about my political likes and dislikes. So on the day when BJP lost the elections, one of my flat mates – who used to hate George Bush and an active supporter of Democrats – saw me in that morning, and said, "What John, people have done this" in a disappointed tone.
He saw no contradiction whatsoever in supporting democrats in US and at the same time supporting BJP in India. It was after that I started noticing Indian students in US, and people who got their jobs in US recently, most of them exhibited this kind of duality.
Later, I was discussing this with a sociologist professor (who teaches in a US university), he told me these students over time when they acquire wealth, they might shift their allegiance to Republicans. I have no data to prove my assertion of duality of newly arrived Indians in US or what my sociologist friend was saying.
Probably ideology doesn't matter, support any party which is favourable to them.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

See oneself in some other’s shoes

Seven or eight years back, while waiting for a pointless editorial meeting to begin, a colleague of mine narrated a horror story of how his family had to literally run away in a single day from their ancestral property in Kashmir. Even now, they haven't returned and their house is occupied by people whom were not given permission and they don't pay any rent. Until then, this event in Kashmir was a fact that resided in my mind, but when I heard it from my former colleague, I put myself in his shoes and truly felt the anguish his family would have felt.
In the last three or four months, I have taken the opportunity of reading and watching stuff related to 1984 anti-Sikh riots and 2002 Gujarat riots. Reading many of the first person accounts made me shudder that the slaughter happened at the very city where I am living right now (1984 riots). Friends and neighbors turned into butchers, and strangers protected families. In both these riots- based on eyewitness accounts as narrated in books/ newspaper reports/ police reports- there are a lot of commonality. First, it was certainly not a spontaneous response. For example, in Delhi when Sikh houses were being burnt, survivors narrate how fuel was arranged systematically. Imagine if anyone decides to burn 10 houses, it's not an easy task to find enough fuel. Second, police turned a blind eye- refusing to take action. There was a delay in recording statements, and in many cases, cases were not recorded. Third, the victims' families have never got the sense of justice to what they gone through. 442 convictions in 1984 riots where nearly 8,000 Sikhs were killed. No top level leaders who were seen as main organisers of the riots are convicted.
This general election has brought out so much hatred. Comments that are clearly divisive, often by Indians living abroad who among them many claim to care more about India than people living in India, and are often laced with half-truths. Such abusive behaviour, I feel, is laying the foundation for future riots. I wish these people take a moment to put themselves in the shoes of people who are affected by violence, and see the vanity of what they are talking.
Amartya Sen in his book "Identity and violence", says the problem is because people identify others with just one identity. In most cases, it is religion. To them, all Muslims are like that or all South Indians behave like that. As a civilization, we need to embrace the varied identities one have (for example, I am an Indian, also a Tamilian, Christian by birth and faith, former Journalist, economist by training, badminton player, father of a 20-month son, data lover, news junkie, likes rock music, and many more). In my life, I find I have more common things with people who love data/ journalists than people from my church. I wish people may see the wonderful diversity we have in a country like India.
And more importantly, I hope people would learn from past violence that have taken away so many lives due to riots, and embrace diversity!

Monday, October 28, 2013


Had a chance to visit three cities in Texas in eight days, so my observations in all probability be superficial but nevertheless it's useful to highlight some of the things I observed. 

Design of cities - in all the three cities - Austin, Houston and Dallas - the broad design of city is a concentrated downtown where all official and commercial establishment are located and residential places are spread out miles apart. The suburbs are connected via wide road networks that transport people mainly via car, usually just one occupant. Austin is trying to develop residential accommodation in downtown though. This is accompanied by near complete lack of public transport. 

For example I was staying at my friend's place in a Houston suburb, and I had to travel 5.9 miles to catch the only available bus from that place to downtown. Though people talked about traffic jam but I generally found that travel time is less than a minute a mile. My friend in Dallas picked me from Dallas downtown to his house in 35 minutes and the distance travelled was 29 miles if I am not wrong. 

In contrast it takes not less than 45 minutes to travel 24 kilometers from my flat in Delhi to Gurgaon. Often it takes more than an hour. A huge productivity loss. Imagine developing an efficient public transport system (end-to-end) so that people could travel a kilometer in less than a minute. I could save at least 60 minutes if i am commuting from Delhi and Gurgaon on a daily basis. And if million trips are made in the National capital region (NCR) then it's half million hours of time saved each day or increase in productivity. This would result in higher output, and more importantly make transport more accessible to all people. 

Only by making investments in developing infrastructure that will increase productivity of people, a long lasting impact on growth of the economy can be achieved. Of course, the best option is to have houses right next to commercial establishment.