At the Smokies: Tourists disturbing animals


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On a recent visit to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, USA, I noted how well-maintained the premises of the national park are. However, it seems like they have to put in place a mechanism to stop tourists from venturing too close to the deer. While there are signboards telling tourists not to venture out of way or disturb the animals and plants, I saw several tourists who taunted the deer and tried getting too close. It only scared off the animals. In several places there is barb wire, but that didn’t really stop them. Wish there were guard towers or better fencing to discourage tourists from doing this.

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Gun control: Good guys v/s bad guys


Just yesterday my brother-in-law made a valid point. There is so much protection given to children here in the United States of America (USA). There are guards stationed near schools during opening and closing hours to guide traffic so that students can safely pass. All vehicles have to stop when there is a school bus ahead boarding children. School bus drivers can even give you a ticket if you break a traffic rule. This is scenario one.

And then you have the Newtown shooting massacre that killed 20 children. Scenario two.

So why is so much being done to protect children and then when it comes to guns, there seems to be a sense of oversight?

Some may say that protecting children and gun control are two separate issues. Agreed. But in the case of Sandy Hook they aren’t. A guy had a gun. He used it. Children died. Wouldn’t those children still be alive today if that guy did not have access to a gun? Of course they would be.

The question is as much about protecting children, as it is about allowing (or not) the common man to own a gun. In this case, the Newtown shooting is an example of what a gun can do.

We all know that the gun topic is a political one. There has been a lot of back and forth on the availability of guns, high-end ammunition, so on and so forth. So far there hasn’t been any clear and outright stand coming out of the annals of power about whether one should be allowed to have guns or not. Any question in this regard almost always refers to the National Rifle Association (NRA). Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, said in an interview to TIME, “The NRA is only powerful if you and I let them be powerful.” This is where this issue takes on political colours. And we know there isn’t going to be a clear-cut solution any time soon.

No let us for a moment support guns. So that young guy walks into Sandy Hook Elementary with a gun. Then the principal pulls out her gun (let us assume she had one) and shoots down the guy, preventing the death of any of the students or teachers at the school. Well, it all sounds perfect on paper and in hindsight. But a gun for a gun isn’t the answer. The question should be whether Adam Lanza (or his mother, who was the license-holder) should have even had that gun in the first place.

There have been several supporters of gun ownership who have vociferously spoken about this. Most notably is radio host Alex Jones who appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight. Jones said that the law that allows possession of firearms is to protect the American people from “tyrannical government and street thugs.” It’s a dangerous argument.

Here’s what I believe. A life lived in fear is not a life well-lived at all. It may sound philosophical, idealistic, call it what you may. What is the point of walking around in a shopping mall with a gun in your purse? Are you genuinely interested in buying new clothes or are you on the lookout for a predator with a gun who might go on a shooting spree?

There are good guys and there are bad guys. We cannot allow the possession of firearms in the hope that the good guys will get the bad guys. We cannot allow the usage of guns with the argument that the good guys are only protecting themselves. For every bad guy that’s killed, ten good guys have to die. That’s the way war works. And we cannot always be in war. It needs to stop some time. And that time is now.

The good guys will have to learn to live without guns, with the hope that the bad guys learn too.  And then they are no longer bad.

Oprah Winfrey’s India visit


Oprah Winfrey’s visit to a Mumbai slum and a contrasting visit to a rich family’s house, has received much criticism. Another firang who has come to coo about our slums, some may ask. Or talk about the unabashed luxury that exists on the other side.

We must first however understand that Oprah’s Next Chapter is a show that is primarily meant for the western audiences. It is a show that airs in the  United States of America on Oprah’s television network OWN. And therefore, the India episode must be viewed from the perspective of an American watching it. It wasn’t meant to be made for us Indians.

That said, okay, so she came and decided to take a tour of one of the country’s largest slums. I don’t particularly see anything wrong with that simply because she chose a topic of her choice and went ahead with that. Now, why take Gregory David Roberts to show you around, is the next obvious question. Again, may I say that if the show was primarily meant for an Indian audience, I would have though Shabana Azmi would have been the ideal person to take Oprah around. But how many people in America would be able to connect with Shabana as much as they would with Gregory? And he anyways did not have too much of a role to play in the episode that appeared on TV. he didn’t act like a mediator between Oprah and the families she met there. He was merely present there and was quite negligible. He did, however, make a very important and honest point to Oprah after she met with the case study family. He spoke tolerance. And it is so true that we as a country are so tolerant and therefore don’t mind the stench from the storm water drain, or the unscheduled power cuts, or the water that does not come out of the tap. We may complain a couple of times but we have lived with these problems for almost always. And it is most certainly because we have tolerated all of this. We have put up with all of this. Gregory David Roberts was bang on.

Now coming to the criticism about the meeting with the family in the Dharavi slum and some of Oprah’s questions. At the outset, I would like to say, that we couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador than the little girl Aanchal. She was simply amazing. She was so real and true and it came through beautifully through the television screens. Aanchal explained to Oprah about how they live in their little home, her father’s dreams and her own of course.

Oprah was very direct with her questions. As she always is. You would know if you have followed her previous show on TV that ran 25 seasons.

How could she make Aanchal’s father cry on TV, some may ask. I don’t think she did. What is wrong if a man cries? She didn’t probe him. She didn’t coax him. She didn’t question him till he had a meltdown. She asked him one question and it was an emotional one. Him crying, showed the reality of his life. His daughters were happy. He wasn’t. He wanted better for them. And he said it. Oprah was simply there, asking questions.

And it isn’t like there aren’t any poor people in America. So before we shout from our rooftops telling Oprah to get over the fact that we have slums in our country, that we have people who are utterly poor, we must also understand that she is well aware of that and has covered it extensively in her previous show.

I remember a show where she showcased a lady living in a really tiny house with some ten children from her extended family, as she was the only one left to take care of them. It was a touching and moving story. And at the end of it, Oprah surprised the family by gifting them a house of their choice.

So for all those criticising her for showcasing how small Aanchal’s house is, please stop and breathe. It’s her show and it isn’t like she did or said something incorrect.

Contrasts

Oprah Winfrey then travelled to meet a more upmarket family in Mumbai. A family that has a priest over to do their daily pujas. A family that writes their kitchen menu on a white board with a marker. And a family that eats on silver plates. That entire portion seemed quite ridiculous to me, not for its programming, but for how that family seemed to me! But it was also the point Oprah was trying to make in her show though she did not say it. The brazen contrast between these families. One, content in their hole of a home. The other, living a luxurious life but claim and that being together is what matters.

And why is Oprah surprised about eating with your hands? Especially when burgers and pizzas are eaten with your hands as well? It is a question that she seemed to genuinely have and the gentleman very rightly responded saying that a large part of India still eats using their hands.

The part that surprised me the most from Oprah’s questions throughout the show were about arranged marriage and love. She asked Aanchal’s parents and also the rich family. And later A R Rahman.

This is what I think Oprah tried to keep as a common thread through her meetings with people. It’s probably a subject that she is trying to understand and even when she was interviewed at the Jaipur Literature Festival, she spoke about this. I doubt, coming from the west, she can still comprehend the concept of an arranged marriage. Again, catering to her audience back home.

Of clichés and stereotypes

So, could her show have been any different? Should it have? Probably not. Because it wasn’t meant for us anyway. It happened to be aired in our country. I assumed that they would air the entire series but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

When people like Oprah visit India, I always wonder why they end up going to a city like Mumbai or Delhi, and not to cities like say Bangalore or Madurai or Darjeeling or Korba. Well, it would have been nice if she did not go to Mumbai and went somewhere else and spoke about something else. But it’s her show. In her next episode, which I haven’t had a chance to watch, I think she visited Brindavan to talk to single women and widows, and later Rajasthan. So yes, she did showcase a different India.

One only hopes she comes back, visits more cities, and talks to more different people. Hey, who else can make A R Rahman as uncomfortable as we have ever seen him and make him speak an amount to last him a while!

Should NRIs be allowed to vote?


Well, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh seems to think so. The Indian government has issued a notification to this effect for registration of overseas voters under the Representation of People’s Act (1950). Dr Singh believes this will help them participate in the country’s election process, and in turn help in growth.

But is this a well-thought out move? Especially when India is yet to deal with some fundamental issues when it comes to elections and voting?

A majority of us believe that our duty with elections begins and ends with casting our vote. The fact that we have a duty (not just an option) to engage with our local elected representative isn’t always known. And more so not done. How many of us have met with our local corporator on ward issues rather than personal complaints? It’s a different matter that local corporators aren’t always seen engaging with the public out in the open.

The same applies to Members of Legislative assembly and Members of Parliament.

The practice of making governance a collective effort is still at a nascent stage in India. Very often it’s the residents’ welfare association that does this. And resident welfare associations aren’t present everywhere.

But even before engaging with your elected representative, there comes the all important selection from the list of candidates. Who do we vote for? And on what basis?

For a large majority, the choice is based on the two most prominent political parties in the country – the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Regional parties like the Janata Dal (United), Janata Dal (Secular), Nationalist Congress Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and others are of course also big players. And then there are the Independents who people like me probably vote for, more to refrain from voting for any political party.

It is only a recently rising number that actually look at the manifesto of each of the candidates and choose to vote based on the candidate’s background, manifesto and potential. Whether that translates into results is not clearly known always.

Given that we Resident Indians ourselves haven’t not only understood these basics, or choose to ignore them, but also refuse to be a part of this country’s governance system, it raises several questions about how Non-resident Indians are going to help in any way.

‘NRIs cannot be bribed’

Archana Narendar welcomes the government’s move to allow NRI voting. She lives in California in the United States of America. She feels that being allowed to vote will help her make her country better.

Her sentiments are echoed by another resident of the United States, Arathi Vittal. “I think the idea of NRI votes is wonderful. NRIs will track the economic development of their birth country, think more about investing in India and will increase patriotism among NRIs”, feels this New Jersey resident.

When asked how her vote will help in an election, Archana says, “Most NRIs are educated and are capable of making a better judgement. I also believe many NRIs want to improve their homeland and would make judgements on that interest.”

Kalpana Ananthashekhar, a resident of Alabama in the US says her vote would help in electing the deserved candidate if everyone made the “right choice”. And Arathi feels NRI voters cannot be bribed and that their votes will be well-informed and researched.

What about the Non-Returning Indian?

So now the NRI can vote. Next month, elections in UP. On what basis will he cast his vote? Fine, we’ll let him vote. But how is he going to benefit from voting when he does not even live in that constituency?  Political parties gain because they may get a couple of extra votes. But what else? It’s unlikely to make or break an election.

How many NRIs when living in India, actually voted (if they were 18 or above and witnessed an election)?

Will an NRI living in Pennsylvania engage with his local MLA in the Shantinagar assembly constituency in Bangalore?

The NRI voting does not allow for those who have received citizenship of a different country to vote. It ideally allows those who have gone abroad for education, employment or some other reason, even if for more than six months at a stretch. Here is the notification issued by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs http://moia.gov.in/writereaddata/pdf/notificiation_nri.pdf

Very often it is unclear if a person who leaves the country will return. Leaving aside the formalities that they require in terms of documentation including visas et al, there are many who are living abroad for many years without citizenship of that country.

There is also no indication if they will ever return to India. So technically they are still NRIs. So if you have stayed out of India for more than six months at a stretch, you will still be allowed to vote. Whether there is a cap for the other end of the spectrum, isn’t very clear still.

There are said to be 11 million NRIs. How many of them, when they leave India, believe or know that they are going to return?
When there is a cloud of uncertainty over this, why is the Union government looking to tap in on their votes?

Why is their vote so essential?