Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A cotton farmer, a fashion week and a bull run!

Beautiful women, designer clothes, opulent settings, flashy cars and celebrity film stars come together to make a very heady cocktail. Way more seductive than the story of some poor cotton farmer. For the producers as well as the consumers of media, sex and money always triumphs over almost everything else. Karan Johar, Shobha De and TOI rule!

Is it any surprise, then, that skimpily clad women walking the ramps of the Lakme India Fashion Week were all over the media - in newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and on the internet. You could not have missed, nor the Sensex hitting 11,000 mark. However, you were very likely to have missed the news of the 400th farmer committing suicide in Vidarbha (in the western Indian state of Maharashtra)

(more at the new blog site...)


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Nine hours of shut-eye each night?

Yes, that is what experts suggest – children should sleep for at least nine hours each night. A good way to know that your kids are getting enough sleep is to check if they get up refreshed in the morning, with little or no cajoling. They however may not be getting enough sleep if they sleep in class, are irritable, display low energy through the day, avoid physical activity, and display lack of concentration. Of course these symptoms do not necessarily indicate lack of sleep, however lack of sleep ‘can’ cause these symptoms.

It appears that not sleeping enough affects our children’s lives much more dramatically than common sense would suggest. The effects range from irritability, poor performance at school and playground, and all the way to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and infections. (more at the new blog…)

Recommended Podcasts (Includes Podcast 101)

If you are already familiar with podcasting and know how to download and listen you could jump to part II — a list of some wonderful podcasts available for free download. Most of these twenty odd podcasts are in ‘Talk’, ‘Documentary’, or ‘Interview’ format and are mostly informative, incisive, inclusive, and international.

Part I: So what is a Podcast and where do I begin?
A simple way to look at this is in reference to a radio. Imagine that BBC decides to take a feature program that it has already broadcast on the traditional radio and decides to make it available on the internet for you and me to download and listen. It could as well be a music group wanting to sample its music online, or it could even be you wanting to share some audio content trough the web.

Technically this has been happening for many years now but it never became very popular because it used to be a bother to regularly check back with all your favorite sites for new episodes and then sit around and watch the episode download.

On-demand radio has now reached the next generation. (more at the new blog…)

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Engagement media?

In any media, while the size of the audience is important, the consumers’ relationship with the media is perhaps equally important. ‘Engagement’ is the buzzword. But what does it really mean?

Is a commuter who is shuffling through FM radio stations in her car just as engaged with her media as someone who is listening to a downloaded podcast by hooking her iPod into the car radio? Who is likely to pay more attention? (This is attention economy, right?). Who is likely to listen through the advertisements? Who is likely to remember the name and message of the show sponsor? Who is likely to be favorably predisposed to the show and the communication that goes with it (she obviously likes the show otherwise she wouldn’t make the effort to download it.)
(more at the new blog site…)

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The consumption and seduction treadmill

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has filed a suit against Kellogg and Viacom for marketing unhealthy foods to kids. [Read SpongeBob SquarePants, Health Risk in ‘The Nation’]

What about parents? Do they have a role to play in deciding what their children will consume, and how much of it? Or is it ok for them too be too busy providing for the family to worry about what is it that they are providing? How many kids do you know who eat mountains of chips, drink buckets of soda, and are married to their screens – TV, PC, PSP, Gameboy…

There appears to be too much happiness all around for this to change any time soon! The kids are obviously happy to get cheap entertainment and calories; the parents are happy, with the children out of their way, they can focus on their careers, friends, whatever. The corporations (are not saints!) are happy to sell one more box of cereal, chips, soda, video game… Even the health industry is happy – all these potentially obese, diabetic, heart-patients represent lots predictable future profits.

-- Ajay Jaiman

Just encountered the story of Author Judith Levine, she spent a whole year without shopping. Read ‘A Consuming Life’ at Newsweek.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

‘Criminal Tribes’: Notified, then de-notified…

‘My father is a thief’ read the tattoo on the arm of a child in the 1980s hit Bollywood film Deewar. In genuine Bollywood tradition, the child grows up to become Big B and then the obvious happens.

Imagine tattooing that message for hundreds of years, generation after generation, on millions of children. No, this is not a Deewar sequel, nor is it a plot of some xenophobic fiction. Tens of millions of children have suffered this fate in India, starting sometime in 1871. Unfortunately, Big B never turns up in real life. Sure, there have been heroes who have made a difference – we’ll come to that in a moment – but first the background.

In 1871, the British Government in India enacted the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 under which members of, what were then mostly nomadic tribes, were required to register with the local magistrate and report to the guardrooms several times in a day. The Act also gave broad powers to the local government to forcibly move these 'notified' tribes to 'permanent reformatory settlements'.

Why? Former director of the Baroda-based Tribal Literature Project and noted tribal scholar G.N. Devi suggests that the story goes back to the early years of the colonial rule. “In those times, whoever opposed the British colonial expansion was perceived as a potential criminal. Particularly, if any attempts were made to oppose the government by the use of the arms, the charge of criminality was a certainty.” The other plausible theory is that after the 1857 rebellion, the colonial authorities grew nervous about nomadic people who moved around carrying important commodities such as salt and honey, and possibly carrying intelligence the British could not control.

Perhaps some form of ‘self-interest’ led the British to enact the Criminal Tribes Act. The more worrisome question is: why did the Government of independent India replace it by the 'Habitual Offenders Act’ which preserved most of the provisions of the former Criminal Tribes Act? More than 50 years after independence, we still refer to these tribes as De-Notified Tribes (DNTs). They are still living with the tattoo on their forearm!

Police academies, I hear, still teach officers about the history of the so-called criminal tribes. No wonder, then, that members of these tribes are regularly rounded up for interrogation every time there is a petty crime in the neighborhood. Their children still fall under the needle of suspicion and get thrown out of schools on flimsiest and unsubstantiated accusations. Private enterprise and the public sector continues to refuse them jobs. They are prosecuted everyday by anyone who has the power to do so. Irrespective of the reason why the British branded them criminals, even today our society does not allow them access to an honest livelihood.

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a week with one such DNT called the Charras in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. It was obvious to me that some of them participate in the brewing and distribution of illicit country liquor. Locals also confessed that some among them do indulge in petty crime. I also happened to meet someone who ‘proudly’ claimed to have whole-heartedly participated in the post-Godhra riots. But, what was obvious to me was that most people I talked to wanted a different future for their children. The children themselves expressed a desire to get educated and find a profession that offered some respectability. Doctor, pilot (the locality is adjacent to the airport, which may have something to do with this), lawyer, a police officer are the choices I heard repeatedly.

Will they make it? Will this generation break through? I am hopeful and this isn’t just wishful thinking. My hope is based on the changes I witnessed during my visit, changes caused by the good work of Jnanpeeth-Magsaysay award winner Mahasweta Devi, and the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes-Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG).

In Charranagar, a suburb of Ahmedabad, the breakthrough is being made possible by a partnership between the NGO Sneh-Prayas, Budhan Theater Group, and the few locals who have managed to access the mainstream. They manage an informal evening school that is bustling with activity until late at night. Older kids teach the younger ones and help them with homework. A library of mostly recycled books is at hand for those in need of a textbook or desirous of reading some fiction.

In an ironic yet appropriate twist, the Sneh-Prayas outreach centre recently moved into a larger building, which until recently was just another illicit-liquor brewing factory! The rent the owners get will keep them away from the trade, says Keshav Kumar, the trustee of the NGO. He has ambitious plans for this new space. He wants to set up a training centre that will help the locals find economic sustainability outside of their ‘traditional craft’. He also has plans for informal education and vocational education for locals.

One of the first initiatives for technology-driven informal education is taking shape now. The first Hole-in-the-Wall project was commissioned in Chharanagar recently (the reason why I was there)*. At this centre, children will learn to use computers and use computers to learn. This will also be a test-bed to study the relationship between collaborative, informal learning and the perceptions and achievement motivation of Charra children. Children in the age group of eight to fourteen will be tracked for their formal academic performance in school, their self-esteem, achievement motivation and their perceptions about education, learning, computers, careers…

If some of these experiments and initiatives do succeed, as I hope they will, then it would be nothing short of a miracle. A generation would throw away 150 years of baggage and find their place under the sun!

-- Ajay Jaiman

*The author visited Charranagar on the invitation of Sneh-Prayas, a Ahmedabad based NGO, which funds informal schooling and educational support for the students of Chharanagar, and works with Budhan Theatre to sensitize the Police Authorities of Gujarat.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Internet censorship: Google, China and the rest of us!

Google’s submission to Chinese censorship rules is perhaps more significant than Yahoo, or Microsoft’s submission, mainly because Google has, over the years, become ubiquitous to search. More importantly, Google’s submission invites concern because many people see Google to be this ultimate poster boy of free speech – irrespective of whether they are aware of Google’s official policy of ‘don’t be evil’.

Google has responded to large-scale media criticism by saying, that this move will eventually expand access. At their Official Blog they say “Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world's population, however, does so far more severely.”

So what are they censoring? Information about Tibet, Taiwan, and anything deemed anti-government or "politically sensitive". According to CNET, this includes Falun gong, teen pregnancy, homosexuality, beer, and jokes. Some of the sites banned by Google (according to CNET): are:

Not all sites have been banned – a search at for Tibet or the Dalai Lama, for instance, does throw up some ‘dissident’ or politically sensitive sites. One such Tibetan web site Phayul decided to ban itself and draw attention to the issue.

A nice post at Boing Boing points out that “Nowhere is Google's evil more keenly felt than in Dharamsala. It is home to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans who fled here after China invaded their country in 1949. Now, thanks to Google, any Chinese who wants to get information about the Dalai Lama, human rights, or Tibet will only get criticisms, official government policy, and lies, respectively. For Tibetans this isn't just a censorship issue. It's an extension of China's de facto practice of cultural genocide into cyberspace, and Google is part of that.”

There is large-scale public protest and outcry, and rightly so, but fortunately even Google cannot censor the web, even if it wished to. Paul Boutin points out at his blog that if you search for Tiananmen at you only find beautiful touristy images. However, if you misspell it as Tianenmen, Tienanmen or Tiananman you can find the tanks. CNET also points out that “The University of Pennsylvania's entire engineering school server--which hosted one Falun Gong site--was blocked from Google's China site. So was an Essex County Web site, which sports the word "sex"--as in "Essex"--in its domain name.”

Human rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says that Yahoo provided electronic records of its customer and cyberdissident Li Zhi which led to led to an eight-year prison sentence in December 2003. That was not an isolated case. RSF quotes that case of “Shi Tao, who was jailed for 10 years last April on the basis of Yahoo-supplied data” and suggests that “Yahoo works regularly and efficiently with the Chinese police.”

Reporters Without Borders maintains an eye-opening ‘Press Freedom Barometer’, according to which 2006 has seen 5 Journalists and 3 media assistants killed, 118 Journalists, 3 Media assistants and 58 Cyberdissidents imprisoned. While China leads the pack, it is not the only country prosecuting free speech and dissent.

Here is the list of journalists imprisoned by some countries:
• China (32)
• Cuba (24)
• Ethiopia (17)
• Eritrea (13)
• Burma (5)
• Uzbekistan (4)
• Iran (3)
• Maldives (3)
• Rwanda (3)
• Algeria (2)
• Israel (1)
• Egypt (1)
• Iraq (1)
• Laos (1)
• Libya (1)
• Nepal (1)
• Nigeria (1)
• North Korea (1)
• Tunisia (1)
• Turkey (1)
• Turkmenistan (1)
• United States (1)

It is heartening to see that India does not figure on this list. Over the past few years, India has had a few misadventures with censorship, reportedly related to terrorism and national security! The most recent one involved Google (Google Earth to be precise) once again, and fortunately, in that instance Google did not take any action.

Google does not always comply. Google is denying the US Federal prosecutors’ request for handing over a random sampling of one million search queries submitted by users over a one-week period. The US Federal prosecutors have asked Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and America Online for this information in order to defend a controversial 1998 Child Online Protection Act, related to Internet pornography.

That, to my mind, is the only special case – safety of children online – where there is a pressing need to exercise some access control, which appears to be different from censorship. Most societies deny or restrict children’s access to bars, adult stores, automobiles... not all restaurants and stores but only bars and adult stores; not automobiles per se but the driving of automobiles. Adult supervision along with some form of legislation works well in most societies. Controlling and restricting children’s access through supervision and technology along with some form of legislation should work on the net too.

The equation is very simple: even though many people seem to be getting it wrong -- children can be protected by restricting access. Adults can be protected by freeing up access.

-- Ajay Jaiman