Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Mumbai’s lifeline and the lives that depend on it

Hi pals! Here is this good friend of mine, Jaideep Varma, who has written this wonderful debut novel, Local, published by Indialog, Delhi. The story? Well, its about Akash, 28, who works in a multinational by day and lives on a local train at night. The contradictions of his two lives change him forever. I can assure you that it is an innovatively-structured, highly entertaining novel about the real, everyday Mumbai.
For those who wants to know more about the author: Jaideep was born in Kolkata in 1967, and grew up in Chandigarh and Pune. After a short stint in Chennai, he has been in Mumbai since 1990. He was in the advertising business, but since 2000, has been writing fulltime. He has also written for publications and websites such as Gentleman, Tehelka and Rediff. Local is his first novel.
You could buy this book from us as we do the distribution in mainly Mumbai. Contact: editor@zzebra.net Or you could buy the book from Amazon. Here is the link: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/8187981997/ref=sr_11_1/103-3523255-3860601?%5Fencoding=UTF8

Monday, April 17, 2006

Pressing Interests in Conflict

It’s more than a decade since the debate over whether the Indian government should allow the entry of foreign media interests and foreign investment into the country’s newspaper sector began. In this span, there have been several arguments, mudslinging matches and political interests about the subject that spilled over from — where else — the print media to the telly and the Internet.
Those you oppose the entry claim that foreign media interests into the press sector will not make constitutional sense as neither “freedom of speech and expression” nor “the freedom to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business” is guaranteed to non-citizens by the Constitution of India. And those who support the entry argue that it would only bring in more financial investment, editorial quality and transparency, and does not interfere with India’s constitutional rights?
Not surprisingly, now the internecine fight (yes, it’s now ceasing to become a mere debate) is between the big newspaper groups, who feel threatened by the foreign print media magnates, and the small newspaper groups, who feel threatened by the Indian print media magnates. Capitalists and communists are hand in hand in their fight to either protect their own businesses from foreign invasion or to welcome it.
So you have a Times of India editorial saying: “With a fraction of that stake [26 per cent foreign holding] at his command, a media magnate from abroad can twist the arms of any manager or editor, not least if the magnate’s prime interest is to take the politics of the country in a given direction.” And you have The Hindu’s N Ram saying: “Once allowed in, foreign capital will also launch new newspapers in collaboration with Indian parties, which can be either active or passive partners.”
Again not surprisingly, a large number of the press barons and editors this writer spoke to are in favour of the entry of foreign papers, notwithstanding the ‘threat’ they may face with regard to circulation, advertisements and even journalistic quality.
An unperturbed Santosh Goenka, former executive publisher with the Indian Express group, is one of them. Says he: “I don’t find any threat. We have been having media tie-ups with several foreign journalists for a long time now, and it has only helped us provide more information. Journalists will get more pay, and the quality of news coverage will definitely improve.”
This opinion — that journalists will be the main beneficiaries — was endorsed by most of the media persons who agreed to share their views. But what about ‘press freedom,’ the command Indian papers have over the readers… what will happen to them?
“I don’t understand what is so sacrosanct about Indian publications. Obviously, the only advantage with the entry is that there will be better pay-scales. Whether they will control our media is one thing we have to be very careful about. We have always taken chances; I think here too we should do that, says R Jagannathan, business editor of DNA.
And what about opinion-makers? Wouldn’t the foreign papers get a stranglehold on them? Mani Shankar Aiyer, Congress politician and well-known columnist, says: After 54 years of Independence, India is a sufficiently self-confident country to withstand that. After all, it is not as if opinions are deadly viruses that can e imported from foreign countries.”
Jug Suraiya, senior editor, The Times of India, agrees: “Any journalist worth his/her salt would welcome the move — if I am getting the chance to pit my skills in the international arena, I would be glad. Moreover, the foreign print media is already here. You have got Time, Newsweek and the like readily available. Now, it is just a question of formality.” The Times of India bosses may not agree, though.
But will the foreign papers be objective in reporting about India? Or, contrarily, as outsiders, will their objectivity be greater than that of Indian journalists — some of whom are even believed to be paid off by companies and political parties? “We are allowing in everything from cars to potato chips. So why now the media? We don’t have to be afraid of them — we are better journalists,” says a confident Prabhu Chawla, India Today editor. “The only thing I would insist on is a level-playing field. The government should allow duty-free imports of capital equipment, and compassionate loans for upgradation for Indian publications.”
Another objection, which was a matter of much debate when satellite channels began making inroads into India drawing rooms, is whether Indian culture will take a battering. Will these publications be another tool for ‘colonisation’? This fear, too, seems to be unfounded. Media critic Iqbal Masud, who passed away sometime back, had said: “I have never objected to their entry; cultural colonialism is media crap. I can tell you one thing. Without an international perspective, Indians can never improve. Tell me, who are our best English writers? Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Chandra, Shashi Tharoor? All have been educated and worked in and been exposed to a sophisticated world. That’s quality for you. It wouldn’t come sitting inside an abysmal well. Even vernacular writers like Quaratullain Haider excelled after their stint in a foreign milieu.”
Goenka echoes the same sentiment. “In this age, there is a serious quest from out youngsters to acquire the latest trends from all over the world. The entry of satellite television only proves this. If change has to occur, it will. No force can stop it.”
But the sceptics remain unconvinced. Sarosh Bana, deputy editor, Business India, is among them. Says he: “The Indian media is capable of standing on its own feet; we need no outside help. The foreign media is one-sided. The cultural arrogance they proudly flaunt will definitely creep in. Why should we allow something of this sort?”
Sherna Gandhy, a former senior editor with the Times of India, agrees to an extent. “The foreign papers will influence out thinking process. Their views and opinions are in great measure anti-Third World, and unquestionably show a slant when it comes to news concerning us. Regardless of the advantages it is going to provide the profession, the foreign media’s entry will surely help filter down unwanted elements.”
Strongly supporting the 1955 resolution keeping out foreign papers, former editor of Patriot, Sitanshu Das, says: “The media is not merely about producing a commodity; it cannot be considered on the same footing as, say, food processing. It concerns aspects like education, religion and politics of the country. Hence, there should not be any foreign equity participation in the Indian print media. It should be handled by Indians themselves.”
But Aiyer draws a different picture: “I don’t think there is any point denying entry to the foreign print media, especially as we have allowed in their electronic counterparts. (The foreign electronic media had, in the form of radio, entered our homes as far back as in the 1940s). If there were any perils of The International Herald Tribune replacing Dinamani and Dinamalar in my region, of course, I would have been concerned. But that is not the case — it is impossible for them to replace our press. They can only supplement, and strengthen, the Indian media.”
Now, the man from the street says: “Even liberalisation has failed to register any marked improvement in our lives. So, why this debate?”
— Sunil K Poolani

Nafed Hardly Feeds the National Exchequer

There is something rotten in the labyrinthine corridors of the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation Ltd (Nafed). Well, the stench has been getting exposed in the media for some time now, but certain pertinent questions still remain. Unanswered. Nafed deals with many products. So, where do we start?
Let’s take copra for instance. A study of certain basic facts and figures has prompted one to look into the following aspects: From April 2000, till it stopped procurement six months later, Nafed had procured 1.2 lakh tonne of copra at the minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 3,250 per quintal as against the market price of Rs 2,000.
This, says a Nafed source, is less than 15 per cent of the total production — the rest has been apparently sold off by farmers at the market price. Well, now the question arises: When all the farmers know about the MSP, why are they not selling to Nafed at a much higher price of Rs 3,250?
The sources give a four-part answer:
1) Nafed has limited funds allotted to it — about Rs 500 crore. With these funds, if it has to prop up the market price to the MSP, it should buy the entire quantity in one to two months. But, as it is known now, Nafed does not do this, probably because the market will crash again when the funds dry up.
2) Since the funds are inadequate, the meagre procurement by Nafed is far from adequate to raise the market price to the MSP level.
3) This situation, then, gives ample chance for discretionary procurement, which facilitates chances for fraud by middlemen and some Nafed officials.
4) Nafed officials ensure that they do not procure from the farmers’ cooperatives that are not in ‘league’ and buy only from a handful of very powerful, politically connected middlemen, who buy copra from farmers at the market price of Rs 2,000, and sell it to Nafed at the MSP of Rs 3,250. So far, these middlemen have bought 1.2 lakh tonne of copra at Rs 240 crore and sold it to Nafed at Rs 390 crore.
A clean, cool profit of Rs 150 crore. Simple mathematics — and all at the cost of the national exchequer. ‘‘Evidently, the money from the exchequer, which is supposedly meant to help farmers, is not reaching them. Instead, it goes into wrong hands. Not satisfied with the killing made this year, there is a concerted effort to raise the MSP next year to Rs 3,650, so that the stakes are higher,’’ says a Nafed official.
To add insult to injury, Nafed has been collecting copra in its godowns since April 2000. Unlike grains, copra is prone to fungal attack on storage, besides being attacked by insects. Informed sources in the industry say that unless this copra, bearing a market price of Rs 240 crore, is not quickly liquidated, most of it will have to be thrown into the Arabian Sea.
The option before Nafed, or the government — that is, if they are willing to perform — is to immediately investigate the scam, as big stakes are apparently involved. Also, Nafed must be directed to liquidate the 1.2-lakh tonne of copra, lest it rots.
In the medium term, it is suggested that the government ensure a transparent mechanism of procurement by Nafed, so that any farmer’s cooperative that wants to sell to Nafed can do so and no discretionary powers of rejection should be vested in the federation. It is popular knowledge that the low coconut oil and copra prices have been caused by a rampant adulteration of coconut oil by palmolein and liquid paraffin. ‘‘Respective state governments have been completely ineffective in stopping this menace because of vested interests,’’ say the sources. ‘‘What the government should do now is to impose a 50 per cent duty on coconut oil and copra and encourage higher productivity in coconut farming.’’
The issue is of such magnitude that even Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha, who herself was embroiled in several corruption cases, had alleged that two state ministers in the previous M Karunanidhi-led DMK ministry and their cohorts had deprived coconut farmers of about Rs 16 crore out the procurement price for copra offered by Nafed. Nafed, she had said, had paid Rs 41.275 crore for the 12,700 tonne of copra procured so far. ‘‘Out of this, middlemen and benamis had reportedly defrauded a sum of Rs 15.875 crore.’’
Several attempts were made to get an official version from Nafed on the above aspects. But Nafed officials, however, wants to remain mum on the whole issue.
And this is about copra... just one commodity that Nafed procures.
— Sunil K Poolani

What is Nafed
Nafed, which functions as the national apex body of cooperative marketing in the country, was set up on October 2, 1958. It is under the administrative control of the Union ministry of agriculture. The organisation’s job is to promote cooperative marketing of agriculture produce for the benefit of farmers. Nafed is also responsible for internal trade covering a wide range of agriculture, horticultural, tribal and allied produce. When directed by the government, it also implements market intervention scheme for horticulture and other crops in order to provide market support to the farmers. Export and import of various agro-products, like fresh fruit and vegetables, oilseeds, spices, foodgrains and pulses, are all streamlined through Nafed.