Archive for February, 2007

Mr. Production

(Puru – this one’s for you.)

In the early days of our relationship, oh, some twenty odd years ago, Mark would say: “When you are old and infirm, I’ll take such good care of you. Will you take care of me?” And my answer was always an emphatic “No”: a) I’m not a romantic, and b) I’m not the nurturing type.

Well, life sure got me. We’re not to the “old and infirm” part (because I sure wouldn’t be taking care of him) yet (or are we?), and Mark has had every accident or illness known (and some unknown) to man. And I’m just talking about in his adult life!

Where to start? Broken femur on a rafting trip in 1990? Giardia while on safari in Tanzania, just before climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1994? Bruised kidney while kayaking in 1995? Arthroscopic surgery to graft new articular cartilage on his knee in 1997? Skin, flesh and muscle rubbed off (major boot-bang!) both shins while back-country skiing in Yosemite in 1998? Third degree burn from a hot pack in 1999? Concussion while kayaing in 2000? Strep infection that left him speechless and motionless in 2002?

Why don’t we start with the big one.

  • San Francisco, November 2001 – Hit by a car while riding his bicycle to work. Concussion, broken pelvis, sprained wrist and knee. Loss of certain cognitive functions, like word-finding. Full recovery time: 9 months.
  • Pondicherry, February 2005 – Dengue fever (broken bone disease), mis-(self)-diagnosed first as a reaction to Larium (mefloquine), then as malaria.
  • San Francisco, March 2005 – Surgery to remove a benign tumor (granuloma formed around an infection caused by a worm) in the lower lobe of his liver.
  • Bangalore, January 2006 – Ideopathic trigeminal neuralgia (suicide disease), considered more painful than child birth.
  • Mumbai and Ahmedabad, February 2006 – Pulmonary pneumonia.
  • San Francisco, June 2006 – Ruptured Achilles tendon (affliction of the middle-aged man) requiring 2 surgeries to reattach. Full recovery time: 4 months.
  • Bangalore, January 2007 – Hit by a bus. Major road rash on left foot and arm.
  • New Delhi, February 2007 – Acute appendicitis and subsequent emergency appendectomy.

What next?!?

Today, while mincing his way back from the dining room at the Sri Aurbindo Ashram in Delhi, he said: “I’m going to get in such great shape this summer!”

The belief in immortality remains strong.

His anticipated response to this post? A peevish: “Do you have to recount every cold that I’ve ever had?”

Corruption in India – Part II

Part II: The Scam

In Part I of this report, “Corruption in India: A Case Study”, I introduced the major players involved in this story: Subhash Projects & Marketing Limited (SPML), an engineering, construction and project management company, and C.S. Khairwal, Chief Secretary, Government of Pondicherry. In this post, I will outline the gross neglect of Government procedures and regulations and the cronyism and corruption that paves every step of the Pondicherry (now Puducherry) port development process.

  1. Tender for consultants for a feasibility study. I mentioned in my previous entry that SPML submitted a proposal to undertake a feasibility study for the port project and was rejected for lack of experience. No feasibility study was conducted.
  2. The Port Director for Pondicherry was transferred for asking too many questions.
  3. The National Institute of Port Management, official consultant to the Government of Pondicherry, was dumped halfway through their contract for delivering unfavorable findings.
  4. There was no tender for the port development. DS Constructions was initially selected unilaterally.
  5. Mr. Rumneek Bawa, CEO of DS Constructions, joins Subhash Projects. SPML is then awarded the port development contract.
  6. C.S. Khairwal is involved in a hastily awarded concessional agreementwith SPML, by-passing procedural norms. (Mr. Rumneek Bawa stays at C.S. Khairwal’s house when in Pondicherry.)

Who Benefits from the Port?
Who benefits from the port? By Emanuele

SMPL Wins; Pondicherry Loses

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Government of Pondicherry and SPML is outrageous.

  • 400 acres of prime property (beachfront!) is handed over to SPML at a lease of Rs. 2000/acre/year. To give you an idea of how ridiculous this price is, in 2002, the Department of Industries & Commerce, Pondicherry, offered subsidies to encourage entrepreneurship by women and members of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes at a ceiling of Rs. 5000/month for starting industries in rented buildings. Obviously the comparison is not parallel, but I think you get the picture.
  • The leased land can be sold by SPML in ten (10) years at the prevailing market rates. Market rate today is Rs. 5000/square foot.
  • Revenue sharing of only 2.6% of profits with the Government of Pondicherry. The norm is 30% of revenue.
  • The Government is to buy back the port in 50 years at prevailing market rates.
  • SPML will make no investment in the project. They will raise funds by mortgaging the leased land and floating shares. (Early this month, the SPML Board approved an issue of securities – just after their debarrment from the Securities Exchange expired – to qualified institutional buyers for an aggregate amount not to exceed $100 million.)
  • All clearances and licenses are mandated by the MoU.
  • All mitigation measures (for pollution, environmental degradation, etc.) are the responsibility of the Government of Pondicherry.

Had enough?

Next: Part III – Port a Cover-up for Real Estate Development

Corruption in India: A Case Study

Part I: The Players

I know that corruption in India is pervasive – it touches every aspect of daily life. Yet everytime I hear another story, whether of petty corruption or grand larceny, I am head-shakingly shocked; incredulous. I’m usually not in one place long enough to have to face the small payoffs or to follow the grand cover-ups from start to finish, but this one issue that has come up affects me, my friends and all of Pondicherry and the neighboring coastal areas of Tamil Nadu.

Background

The Government of Pondicherry has offered a sweet-heart deal to a developer, Subhash Projects & Marketing Limited (SPML), to build a deep water port in Pondicherry. Not only will this be an environmental disaster, but everything about this deal is a scam – from the premise of the project (the port) to the awarding of the contract. You can read about the environmental issues on Mark’s blog, as well as on the Save Our Beach blog set up by the Pondicherry Citizens Action Network, which includes a pages with downloadable presentations and documents. I will go into more detail on the scam in a future posting. First, I want to introduce the players.

C.S. Khairwal, Chief Secretary to the Government of Pondicherry

  • Khairwal joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1974 and has a long history of corruption.
  • C.S. Khairwal is number one on the Central Vigilence Commission (CVC) list (List “A”) of officers against whom the commission has “advised launching of criminal proceedings” since 1 January 1990.
  • In December 1997, the CVC advised prosecution for Khairwal’s misconduct as Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Surface Transport.
  • He was prosecuted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for possessing “disproportionate” assets – 28 “immovable” properties valued at Rs. 20 million.  The CBI “failed” to file the appropriate papers that would have permanently seized Khairwal’s properties, so they were released back to him.
  • He was arrested with a mistress and actually spent 2 days in Tihar jail.
  • Khairwal was prosecuted by the CBI for illegal possession of a huge quantity of foreign liqour.
  • The Central Government, rather than suspending Khairwal for his crimes, “retired” him.  He promptly moved from New Delhi to Pondicherry, where he as reinstated at a higher level than his previous post. (C.S. Khairwal’s home in Pondicherry, complete with an indoor, basement, swimming pool, extends onto half of the road in front of the building. The road has to take a jog around his house.)
  • Khairwal is closely connected with the SPML, the developer to whom the port contract was awarded.  The representatives of  SPML stay at his home when they visit Pondicherry.

Subhash Projects & Marketing Limited (SPML)

“Subhash Projects & Marketing Ltd. (SPML) is India’s leading engineering, construction and project management company with more than 25 years of experience in large-scale turnkey projects in the public and private sector. Having successfully undertaken over 350 projects in the areas of water & power management, power distribution, infrastructure and environmental projects, and with a well-qualified and highly skilled team of more than 1000 engineers, the Subhash Group is geared to build a future that India has never seen.” From the SPML website

  • On 28 January 2004, SPML was debarred from accessing the securities market and dealing in securities for 5 years by the Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) for price manipulation, irregular subscriptions, misstatements and nonlisitng of shares. That period was reduced to 3 years on 13 December 2006 by the order of the Securities Appellate Tribunal (SAT), Mumbai.
  • SPML has no experience in building or managing ports. In fact, it was originally considered and subsequently rejected by the Governmet of Pondicherry for “want of experience.”
  • SPML was indicted and punished with fines by the Calcutta High Court and Supreme Court for obtaining contracts through underhanded dealins with the Ministry of Power.

Part II  – The Scam – coming soon.

NOT on the Samjhauta Express

“A fire sparked by explosions has swept through two carriages of a train bound from India to Pakistan, killing at least 65 people on board.”

Read more in this BBC report.

“You are NOT on the train to Pakistan that just exploded? It is a strange question, but I want to hear back from you.” Jean Yao

No, we were not on the Samjhauta Express, the Delhi (India) to Lahore (Pakistan) twice weekly train that was blown up around midnight, presumably by “terrorists”.  We are still stuck in New Delhi, awaiting our visa approvals from the Foreign and possibly Home Ministries in Pakistan so that we can start Phase II of our Friends Without Borders project in Pakistan.

 What this means for our travel to Pakistan is not yet clear.  Our contact at the Pakistani High Commission left to investigate the scene and we assume that representatives of the Foreign Ministry have more to think about right now than our visas.  Ironically, we were invited to dinner at Nirmala Deshpande‘s with the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Khurshid Kasuri and his Indian counterpart, Pranab Mukherjee, the Minister of External Affairs tomorrow, the first day of Khurshid Kasuri’s three-day trip to India.

What this means for our project is very clear – it is more critical than ever to work with children of both countries to humanize the “other”. 

Delhi Never Looked So Good

Two and a half days in Varanasi has given me a totally different outlook on Delhi – I’m actually glad to be here.  (Anything, anywhere – just get me out of Varanasi!)  Sure, everyone still tries to rip you off.  And sure, the weather is always horrible (in this case, cold and wet). But I have a new appreciation for a once-hated city. 

Mark and I went to Varanasi to attend the 7th International AIDS Conference from 4 to 6 February 2007.  Far from being a gathering of scientists and NGOs dealing with the latest technologies and thinking on HIV and AIDS, it was a poorly-run showcase of the grand-standing Academic Committee of Kashi Vidyapeeth (renamed Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth), the “second” university in Varanasi.  Mark paid a little bit more attention to the proceedings on the first day of the conference and wrote this scathing report.  I nodded off during most of the presentations that day.  The next day, we only attended one session in the afternoon and skipped the final day all together, breathing a sign of relief when we got to the airport and saw our first plane.  (I was a little nervous on the way to the airport because there were no signs of activity anywhere near the vicinity of the airport.)

Ordinarily, one derives pleasure from playing hookey.  However, we had no better alternative to missing the conference proceedings than staying in our dingy hotel room.  There was no guilty fun to be had.  Varanasi is unappetizingly poor, dusty and unsanitary.

It gave us no small comfort that we were flying to Delhi.  But once we landed, we were thrilled to be here (or was it just that we were thrilled NOT to be in Varanasi?) and willing, for a few days, to pay the price (in more ways than one) of being in the capital city.

Boy, Delhi is expensive.  Transportation alone, if you are anywhere in Delhi that is not covered by the Metro (subway), can run you over U.S. $10 a day.  That’s a lot of rupees.  Not to mention the food.  There are very few options for travelers besides high-priced restaurants in strip mall settings.

OK, ok – you caught us.  We’ve become mall rats.  Why?  Internet access.  Delhi is comparable to Los Angeles in terms of its spread.  Multi-lane freeways ring the city and there are no services within walking distance of anywhere you might stay or visit.  (Hence the high transportation costs – you have to take an auto rickshaw or taxi everywhere if you don’t know the bus routes.)  Much of the city real estate is taken up by government buildings, consulates, high commissions, and parliamentary and state bungalows, mansions, and palaces.  Much of the housing spreads low and wide.  So, all the services are concentrated in area “markets” (e.g. N-Block Market, Vasant Kunj) or the equivalent of strip malls (e.g. PVR Priya Cinema Complex, Vasant Vihar or South Extension Parts I and II).  When we are not in meetings trying to advance our Friends Without Borders project, you will find us at a Reliance World, in the Broadband section, in one strip mall or another.

The Best Hot Chocolate in India

Choco la

“A chocolate in the mouth is better than two on a plate.”

Drum roll please… and the winner is… Choco la, located at the PVR Priya Cinema Complex in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi.

Actually, this may be the only place in all of India that serves the kind of hot chocolate I am talking about – single origin hot chocolate made from cacao sourced from different parts of the world. This is not your Nestles Quick, Bournvita, Hershey’s or any other mix-heaping-teaspoons-with-milk-and-stir drinks that you serve to kids. Nor is it like the fancier cocoa powders you get from choclatiers (e.g. Valrhona or Ghirardelli) in Europe or the United States. This is the hot chocolate that makes Paris a food lover’s mecca; not hot cocoa.

The “Tanzania” served at Choco la is just under par with the Chocolat Africain served at Angelina’s in Paris. Just under par because Angelina’s hot chocolate is thicker (and served with a pitcher of water because you need it to chase down the chocolate) than the hot chocolate served at Choco la. These hot chocolates are so thick that you need a spoon to get the last drollops. The “Tanzania” is the most “bitter”, dark hot chocolate of the three served at Choco la, with a cocoa content of 73%. The Tanzania “combines subtle fruitiness with a richly varied assortment of aromas and a remarkably fine hint of vanilla.” The sweetest hot chocolate served is the Papua, “a milk chocolate with a varied palette of lemon, caramel, walnut, rounded off with a hint of Tahitian vanilla”, and the other is the Sao Thome (Indian spelling here), a dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70%. Choco la’s chocolate is sourced from Barry Callebaut of Belgium.

Choco la also sells regular hot chocolates (Italian, Viennese, Spicy Chocolate, Hazelnut, Agasajo*), handmade truffles and chocolates, as well as ice cream, cakes, baguettes, and other baked goods. Choco la also serves some amazing food: all-day breakfast (amazing eggs benedict – Anupa – this one’s for you), soups, salads, sandwiches, “nibbles”, “small bites” and “bigger bites”, including pastas and a veg burger with potato wedges. (Highly recommend the potato wedges!)

If anyone knows of any other places in India where you can get single origin hot chocolate, please let me know. I’d be only too happy to conduct a taste test.

 

* A special mention for the Agasajo-style hot chocolate based on a Spanish recipe – dark chocolate with cinnamon, rosewater and saffron.

 

“Save Earth. It’s the only planet with chocolate.”

Sound Horn (Awaz Karo)

Sound Horn 

Noise pollution is sanctioned… no… the correct word is mandated, by the Government of India.  Amazing but true.  In addition to permanent registration, insurance certificate, driver’s licence and pollution under control (PUC) certificate (yeah, right!), you must have some version of “Sound Horn” (Blow Horn, Horn Please, Awaz Karo, Awaz Do) and a “slogan” (my favorites are “We Two Our One” and “One Family One Tree”) painted on the back of your commercial vehicle before you can get a “free to operate” permit from the Regional Transport Office (RTO).  It is a matter of safety.

Sound Horn1

Most drivers in India never have to take a driving test in order to get a license.  Some people are “gifted” a license on their birthdays or graduation, others “pay” for them.  Traffic regulations are rarely enforced except as additional income for traffic police or people impersonating them.  One-ways are multi-ways; people make turns (including U-turns) from wherever they happen to be; and any shortcut is fair game, whether they are footpaths (sidewalks) or happen to cross a multi-lane freeway. (In Delhi, footpaths are built about a foot above the level of the road, but still, whenever the footpaths have ramps, there is sure to be a motorcycle using it.) 

Sound Horn2

Rear-view mirrors are a rarity, and even if your vehicle has them, they are rarely used.  So, every vehicle must sound their horn in order to notify the pedestrians, ox carts, cyclists, cycle rickshaws, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, cars, busses, trucks and the animals (dogs, cows, buffaloes, goats, and sheep) that you are behind them and about to pass.  The pedestrians, ox carts, cyclists… have no qualms about entering a roadway without looking at what is coming behind them and waiting for the opportune moment.  In India – that moment will never come.  So, it is up to the people and vehicles behind you to signal their presence as you blindly enter at whatever speed you happen to be walking, riding, driving. 

Please Sound Horn

Every day, the horns get louder and louder – ear splitting loud.  The worst offenders are the buses.  Government buses are put into service without the requisite mirrors or windshield wiper blades because someone has pocketed the money that would have paid for them somewhere along the way.  Whether private or government run, the drivers of buses are homicidal (there is no consequence to hitting a vehicle – the drivers simply have to get away from the soon-to-form mob and flee the scene of the accident) – you must get out of the way, particularly if you are driving in the opposite direction, or risk death.  The air horns on these buses are blown constantly, as drivers pass anything and everything in their way, even if they are stopping just in front of the passed vehicle.  All large commercial vehicles have a driver’s assistant whose primary job it is to lean out the window on the passenger side and excoriate pedestrians, ox carts, cyclists… to move out of the way.  In narrow by-ways, these driver’s assistants may even give people a push. 

The second worst offenders are the young, hot-shot motorcyclists, who ride way too fast, weaving in and out of traffic with their thumbs permanently on the horn.  It doesn’t matter where they are, what time of night, or whether there is anything on the road that could possibly move – their horns trumpet their macho presence.  The truck drivers aren’t so bad in comparison to the bus drivers or the hot shots, but when they want to pass, you’d better get out of the way. 

This honking, ringing, tooting and clanking are so ubiquitous that people expect you to sound your horn, even when they can see you coming, and complain if you don’t.  Noise pollution is so high (bhajans blaring from every temple during festivals, movies played at speaker-distorting levels, political sloganeering blasted from hired auto rickshaws) that people’s normal speaking level is the equivalent of shouting anywhere else. 

One piece of travel advice for people coming to India – bring ear putty – normal foam ear plugs will not do.  

Ladies Only

Ladies Only

The Mumbai suburban trains move over 6.4 million passengers every day running 2,070 train services on two lines: the Central Line, which connects the eastern suburbs with the city, and the Western Line, which connects the northern suburbs. In the course of this amazing feat, an average of 10 people are killed every day. (According to a senior safety consultant for Indian Railways, every conductor, through no fault of his own, will kill an average of 3 people over the life (no pun intended) of his career.) Every two to four minutes, depending on the time of day, a “slow” or “fast” train, terminating at different points along the line, leaves a station. The trains keep on schedule by barely stopping at the scheduled stations. At the major stations, such as transfer points, the trains stop for a maximum of 25 to 30 seconds. That’s seconds! At minor stations, the stop is as little as 12 seconds. So, seasoned commuters follow a protocol for the train they should ride depending on their destination that has been developed to ensure ingress and egress of the maximum number of people in the shortest amount of time. The “fast” trains, the ones that carry the bulk of the long-distance commuters, have a mafia of regular riders that punishes people for daring to break the unwritten rules – they will not let you get off at intermediate stops!

Each 9- or 12-car train has a bogie for luggage and vendors (these are people taking bulk goods in and out of the city) which also contains a compartment for the handicapped. (How a handicapped person would ever get into the compartment is a mystery, since there are no special provisions for ramps or railings. Did I mention that the trains stopped for a few seconds at each station?) Each train also has a number of first class compartments (sometimes full bogies) for those commuters willing to pay 1300% over the cost of a second class ticket. (Some companies that pay for their employees’ commute mandate first class season tickets for the safety of their employees.) A first class compartment is not that different from the second class compartment except that the seats have a bit of padding and the number of people in each compartment is restricted by the price differential to only double the capacity (as opposed to triple). And every train has at least two bogies for Ladies Only. Some of the compartments are “for all the 24 hours”, while others allow men during off-peak hours (10 or 11pm to 4 or 5am). Children accompanying their mothers, small school boys, young male vendors and blind beggars are also allowed.

Men are envious of women who get to ride in what they perceive to be the relative spaciousness of Ladies Only bogies, while women claim that the men’s compartments are more organized and the “ladies” more vicious. (Avani Shah tells of a woman’s glass bangles cutting her as she is whacked in the face and just yesterday, Sachi Maniar tells of having to hang out of the door because the woman in front of her would not let her squeeze in. Apparently, pinches and elbows are not uncommon.) However, I’ve found the second class Ladies compartments quite civilized, with a system not unlike that of the men.

First, choose your train. If you are going to Andheri (a suburb that was once considered the end of civilization but is now the middle of the burbs) on the Western line, you take the slow train to Borivali and never a fast train going further on to Virar (which is now considered the end of civilization and does not appear on tourist maps). Second, you move deep into the car so that those getting off at earlier stops can position themselves strategically for exit by the appropriate door. If you don’t move, people will question you: “Where are you going?” and then urge you to move “inside”. There have been times when I could not possibly see a way to squeeze “inside” and when women urged me to move forward, I would motion for them to go around me. And somehow, they squeeze by me and into spaces that were invisible to me. There is no parting of the seas. Just some slight tidal movement that envelops.

Before the train blasts several months ago, each bogie had overhead racks for parcels and bags. During commute hours, even purses were handed over to be placed on the racks to allow for maximum body space. If the racks were full, those seated would take bags and purses on their laps. Women going to the end of the line would question those seated to find out when they were getting off and make deals for their seats. Women who hadn’t made any deals would grace lucky standees with a tap and offer their seats as they got up. Most of these gestures take place wordlessly and fairly systematically: the passing of the bags, the motioning of people to move over so that someone could rest one buttock cheek on the seat, the tap to offer a vacated seat…

Regulars share tiffins, drinks, snacks, and fruit. They practice singing. A new sari is untied and retied by more experienced wearers. And on top of all this, vendors ply their ware. I know – it is unbelievable. The vendors come in waves, depending on the time of day. During off-peak hours, they sell earrings, necklaces, bangles, hair bands, hair clips, combs, saris, purses, pens, flash lights, pens that have built-in flashlights, books, toiletries, household goods… During commute hours, they sell fruits, vegetables and snacks. And not just packaged snacks, but full on preparations of bhel ( served in a newspaper cone with chopped onions and tomatoes, a squeeze of lime and a deep fried puri that is used as a scoop), idli and vada complete with South Indian chutneys, samosas with tamarind chutney… all for less than a dollar. The snacks are usually 5 rupees (about 11 cents) and almost everything else is 10.

These past few days in Mumbai, I’ve been lucky enough to miss the commuter crush with two holidays, reverse, and mid afternoon or late commutes. A good thing too, because I’m out of practice.

Hello Bombay

For the first time I can remember, Mark and I were not looking forward to traveling again. We had become fully engaged in life in Pondicherry in the three weeks we had there after getting back from our first wedding circuit and were not ready to leave our friends and the projects we had started with them. While we are never fully ready to leave any place we happen to be, we are usually excited to get to our next destination and take up other projects. This time, the desire to stay was strong. That is, until we got off the plane. It feels great to be back in Bombay.

I’m a city person. I know how to function in cities. I like city people. I know how to deal with them. And despite the fact that Bombay has over 13 million people (or because of it) – the city “works.” Public transportation is efficient; taxis and auto rickshaws are plentiful, and all the drivers use their meters. People don’t have time to try and cheat or haggle with you. Everyone is on the go.

Bombay, like New York City, is about speed and efficiency. (When people complain to me that New Yorkers are rude, I reply: “No, they are not rude, they are just efficient.”) Bombay, like New York, doesn’t sleep (dry cleaners are open until 11pm, food joints until 2:30am). And Bombay, like New York, is about fast and convenient food. Food vendors line the commute routes selling everything from the famous bhel, pau bhaji and vada pav to boiled eggs (which are peeled for you in the blink of an eye and served with salt).

And the degree of separation here? Despite the fact that Bombay has over 13 million people (or because of it), the degree of separation seems to be, at least for us, one.


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