Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ssssh...it's Private!!

Deep in my heart lives a desire to watch birthday celebrations, baby shower, mundan, naamkaran ceremonies and marriage anniversary celebrations of hollywood's leading ladies & men live on BBC News, CNN, CBS News & FOX News channels and that too for the whole day! And I know that I'm going to leave this world without having this desire fulfilled. How sad!

In contrast, the Indian TV news channels worked themselves up into a lather to bring us the 70th birthday celebrations of Amitabh Bachchan live into our bedrooms. Right from a day before the birthday we were drenched in promos reminding us to join Big B's birthday on the respective channels. You couldn't escape this whole tamasha even if you wanted to for the Big B was omnipresent.

I'm surprised how Sr. Bachchan allowed this media intrusion into something that should have been a totally private affair. For he is the same fellow who had shunned media when it was poking its nose into his alleged affairs with actress Rekha.
Yesteryears film actress Shilpa Shetty's pregnancy too got wide media coverage including who designed the clothes she wore during the baby shower ceremony and what not. The nation was kept updated right till the baby was delivered. Ditto with Aishwarya Rai's pregnancy and motherhood. And wait for a repeat on Saif & Kareena's wedding day. I bet our newshounds would follow them till they enter the airport on their way to their formal honeymoon destination Some channels may even show us the airborne flight claiming that `this is the flight in which Saifeena have taken off for so & so place...' followed by maybe a soundbyte of the porter who loaded their suitcases onto the plane. He may be asked questions like -`Were they looking happy?'; `Did you see them holding each other's hand while walking?' etc.

Of course, unlike their American & European counterparts, Indian journalists' budgets don't allow them to travel abroad and book rooms in the same hotels and continue chasing the couple and lay their eyes, ears and hands on whatever they can. So sadly the coverage ends there. 
 
As long as the media covergae is favourable, media exposure is welcomed by everyone. In fact, most celebs and politicians hire PR agencies who bribe the presswallahs in so many ways to get free coverage for their clients. Media exposure provides the vital oxygen called publicity which in turn helps boost their demand and consequently their market price. For all you know, the wide coverage, specially on TV might even be bringing sponsorship for the event in the form of booze & food supply. We know very well how liquor companies, barred from direct advertising, use such parties to publicize their brands by getting into a deal with the organizers.

But when the same media starts sniffing out extra-marital affairs, stories of nose, chin, boob jobs etc., our celebs lose no time in crying hoarse. The media suddenly turns a villain, a monster that needs to be exorcised. Invasion of Privacy!!! They scream vilifying the press indignantly. 
 
Now the question that needs to be answered is – How does a birthday, engagement ceremony or anniversary celebration become a public affair and by the same yardstick how does a romantic outing or extra marital affair become a private affair? It is common knowledge that birth is an outcome of a strictly private act between two individuals of the opposite sex. And so is the delivery of a baby which happens within closed confines of a home or hospital except for the poor & the dispossesed who are forced to deliver babies on railway platforms, roadside and corridors of govt. hospitals. Ditto for marriage and childbirth which again fall in the private domain with only a select few getting invited.

Well, the truth is that while media may still be able to live without celebrities, the reverse is just not possible. Celebrityhood & stardom thrive on visibility in the media. The more the merrier! And since relationships by definition are 2-way, both make use of each other to sell. Of course celebs ideally look for a one-way street wherein they get to use the media as and in the manner that best suits their interests. Life doesn't work that way my dear celebrity!

Then come the politicians & bureaucrats who are nowadays working overtime to castrate the bull called RTI to their privacy. The prime minister wants the RTI Act to deal with privacy issues as well.

Prime Minister sir, what people of the political class and the bureaucrats do privately is something that your intelligence sleuths must be knowing jolly well. Shady deals are cut outside of public purview; money doesn't exchange hands through official records and the `colorful' life that some of our politicians & bureaucrats live post office hours can even make famous bollywood villains like Ajit, Ranjeet & Shakti Kapoors feel jealous and inferior. And all this anyway falls beyond the purview of RTI. And when we got to have a look at the rainbow colored life of Narayan Dutt Tiwari, it wasn't through the RTI keyhole. The videos were handed over to the press by the affected party after a deal went sour. The RTI Act can only help ordinary mortals, the mango people, to get info on public servant's personal biodata, known sources of income, declared assets, attendance, transfers & posting records and pretty harmless stuff of similar nature. I am trying hard to imagine the kind of personal info one can seek under RTI that would violate a public servant's privacy. And I'd surely file an application seeking such `deeply personal' info before your proposal comes into effect! 
 
Many years back, a newspaper had printed a photo of Shankar Dayal Sharma, the then President of India, showing him tripping & about to fall on the ground during a ceremony at Raj Ghat (or was it Shakti Sthal?). The president's office had expressed its displeasure at publishing this photo. Sitting in the newsroom, I and my colleagues were debating the correctness of the decision to publish that particular photo and the right of Rashtrapati Bhavan in conveying its unhappiness. I believed then as I believe now that publishing such pictures is alright and fits perfectly into the definition of `news'. Afterall it was not a private moment as this happened to a public figure, at a public place and on a public occassion! You can differ with someone's editorial perspective but cannot question his freedom or the right to do it. Remember reports of U.S. president George W. Bush choking on a pretzel & fainting inside the White House! By widely reporting this incident, did the American media intrude into Bush's privacy?
Birthday celebrations of the President, Prime Minister & other political figures are reported every year without any objection from the concerned persons. On the contrary, invites & press releases are sent for the press to attend and report. The ones who report become the `good boys' in the govt.'s eyes. The day these people start treating these personal occasions as strictly private; the day they would stop using public money for these clebrations is the day they'll have the moral right to fault the media for intruding into their private lives.

When a minister, MP or MLA throws an iftaar party, it is (s)he who purposely invites the media for coverage of the event – to show off that he has arrived; to display his well heeled connections and to impress the muslim community that (s)he is secular etc. If using private, `made for media' parties for political growth is alright then what is wrong if the same press reports about these fellows misusing their official positions as public servants to trade in immoral favours? 
 
Come on celebs, politicians and bureaucrats! The press is not your private slave who can be commanded as per your whims & fancies. You alone cannot choose when and what to feed the press and the manner in which it should be reported. If you have the right to live off the glory bestowed by the media, the media too has the right to feed off your life. However tame and tameable, the `press' has a mind of its own too!!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Corruption without interruption: May god bless you

Have you ever wondered as to why almost all the religious gatherings in your neighbourhood including Bhagwati Jagrans, Paaths, Kathas, Satsangs, Pravachans, Langars, Daans and donations etc. are invariably sponsored by individuals and business entities that are not really known for their `above board’ practices when it comes to making money? Very few, if any, of such sponsorships involve cheque payments as transactions in cash and kind are the norm. Majority of the sponsoring traders, shopkeepers & businessmen are known to be indulging in tax evasion, dealing in spurious and adulterated stuff, price manipulations, evading or underpaying dues owed to the govt. & civic bodies (by way of electricity theft, tampering of electiricty meters in collusion with department officials, undervaluing properties etc.), encroachment on public land and cheating customers – all of which are seemingly against what any religion preaches. And yes, all of these also fit into the definition of corruption.

Do you notice the contradiction here – guys supporting so-called pious and well meaning religious events & rituals actually indulging in so many `unreligious’ things day-in and day-out? Not only that, most places of worship are constructed using land, money & materials donated by these very people. Obviously, god, if (s)he exists doesn’t really care about the type of donations coming to his/her kitty. Even though god is supposed to know everything at all times (afterall, whatever happens in the world happens exactly as scripted by god) as god is said to maintain a realtime database or confidential report of all creatures, (s)he doesn’t really care if the donor has earned the money the right way or the wrong way.

Doesn’t it surprise you that in a country full of people who claim to be religious; in a country where people are forever ever ready to loot, burn and kill in the name of religion and in a country with negligible number of atheists or agnostics, corruption thrives as if there is no tomorrow. And it is not just limited to businessmen, politicians or bureaucrats.

We have the working middle class population, the office going types who are vocal votaries of the current anti-corruption movements sweeping the country. Yes, people like you & me who are largely victims of big ticket systemic corruption and who tend to lose more than they gain by way of corruption. And much as we all may love to paint ourselves as being just victims of a corrupt system that has been imposed upon us by the political-business class, the fact is that a good number among us seldom leave an opportunity to be corrupt as & when we get one. We perpetrate corruption in an equal measure, if not more. Ours may be of a lower denomination with a smaller footprint, but corruption it is. For sure.

I know of media professionals, studio guests who would travel to their workplace by public transport and charge their clients for AC Cab fare simply because they are entitled to it; outstation subject experts for TV debates who stay with their friends but ask you to pay them hotel stay charges, that too in cash. Many in the corporate sector (private or public) produce fake bills with amounts matching their TA-DA-Per Diem entitlement, even when their actual expenses are on the lower side. And of course, many of us try and get away by bribing cops, govt. Servants and practically anyone and everyone with a nuisance value.

The great Indian middle class’ penchant for marrying off their daughters to civil and public servants is no secret. The dowry or groom price for such candidates varies as per their potential to earn money by indulging in corruption. The greater the potential, the higher the groom price. Therefore, a cop employed with a police station would always be in greater demand than his counterpart in a paramilitary outfit like the Central Reserve Police Force, SSB-Sashastra Seema Bal or the National Security Guards. An engineer employed with the Public Works Department or a municipality would fetch higher dowry than the one employed with the Indian Army.

Then there is another type of corruption – the non-monetary one. This type mostly involves morally & ethically corrupt practices for advancement of one’s own interests. Doling favours which are monetary or non-monetary in nature is one of the most common forms of this.
  • Granting admission to child in a school could help the school owner businessmen get official clearances for their other ventures – like approval of building plans, grant of licences etc.
  • Employing spouses, sons & daughters of influential politicians & bureaucrats in a TV News Channel could ensure ease in getting govt. Advertisements or immunity from prosecution against wrongdoing, if any. It can also help the channel owners use the resulting `goodwill’ in making life miserable for their competitors.
  • Trading sexual favours for advancement of one’s career is commonplace in today’s competitive corporate environment.
    Contrary to popular perception, corruption does not happen only in the govt. or the public sector companies but even in the cherished private sector and multinational corporations. And this is not limited to the organisational level but percolates deep down to individual employees.
  • Sucking up & flattery in workplace for improved career prospects. There are so many forms in which this is done. The gifting spree preceding the Diwali festival is just one example. I have no knowledge if residents of Ayodhya started this practice when they lit up their homes to celebrate the return of Lord Rama, their ruler, from his 14 year long exile.
So, are we really religious? And do we really care if our actions are going to please god? Are we really afraid of being punished by god? Nah!

No religion teaches us that it is okay to indulge in corruption. In fact, alomost all religions in this world disapprove of and condemn corruption as a sin. Yet in a world full of religious people, corruption thrives unabated.

With religion itself becoming a source of income for some; with most places of worship receiving donations in cash, gold, silver etc., it is next to impossible to account for the money thus received. Very few owners-managers of these places would be getting their accounts audited. With godmen of all hues & shades amassing money and wealth at a pace that would put many a capitalist-industrialist to shame, religion hardly offers any role models against corruption. Those who can afford even bribe their gods and in turn, receive blessings through their respective religion contractors.

Religion is at best a tool of convenience and a device of unparalleled utility. Visiting places of worship and participating in relgious congregations and rituals is just another way of socialization and networking. It no longer serves as the lighthouse of morality or probity. Ditto is the case with the community and culture one lives in. With everyone compromising on values like honesty & integrity and trying to intellectually justify it one way or the other, there is no one to look up to; no example to emulate.

In times where the speed at which you succeed is as critical as success itself, I wonder if the coming generations will have anyone to guide and inspire them to move on the non-corrupt path.

While it may still be possible to substantially reduce corruption in the government and public institutions, I am not sure how will we get rid of everyday corruption that common people indulge in out of their own volition and for their own success.