Monday, August 31, 2009

Vir Sanghvi on Torture

I have written in admiration of Vir Sanghvi's style in the past, but have a number of issues with his column about torture in yesterday's Hindustan Times.
Sanghvi begins with a hypothetical question: what if you had a terrorist in custody who could provide information about an imminent attack? Would it be acceptable to torture him in order to save a number of lives? Phrased the way it is, the question is skewed in favour of those answering, "Yes, torture would be acceptable in such a scenario."
When a question involves a guarantee of saving innocent lives, it is hard to argue against. In the real world, though, states which employ torture have a pretty bad civil rights record. Torture claims far more innocent lives than it saves.
Sanghvi himself acknowledges the "sliding scale where policemen keep lowering the requirement for the use of torture". What he does not point out is that torture was routine in Indian police stations long before terrorism became a major threat. It wasn't as if we allowed torture in exceptional circumstances and then saw its use spread to non-terrorist suspects.
There are other problems with Sanghvi's argument. He advances the CIA's use of waterboarding as evidence that, when push comes to shove, every nation will stretch its definition of the acceptable. The difference between us and the West, he suggests, is merely a matter of them waking up recently to threats we have experienced for a long time.
This line of thinking ignores three important facts. First, the CIA is an organisation very different from the local police. All spy agencies engage in activities in foreign countries which count as illegal in those nations. American spies break Chinese law, just as Chinese spies break American law. The comparison between the CIA and the Indian police, therefore, is fundamentally misguided. Second, while waterboarding was used by the CIA against non-US citizens captured in foreign lands who were considered beyond the pale of the American justice system, the overwhelming majority of those tortured by Indian security forces are Indian citizens. Third, the technique of waterboarding was specifically okayed at the highest levels of the Bush administration after being vetted by constitutional experts, an opinion which has been overturned by the Obama team. Torture by Indian police and military personnel, on the other hand, contravenes Indian law, and has not been labelled an accepted practise by any legal or governmental authority.
Every day new reports are published about how waterboarding and other rigorous forms of interrogation compromised the search for the truth after 9/11. The interrogations were frequently driven, not by a desire to uncover details of the plot, but to find politically desirable evidence, such as a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
There's as yet no hard evidence that waterboarding prevented any attacks on US soil, but the US and Britain have prevented a number of terrorist assaults through conventional means, and brought the plotters to book. You can read details of some of the trials here and here and here and here and here and here.
Torture is no substitute for thorough investigation, except in television shows like 24. Cruel violence will get anybody to speak, but what the person says will usually be aimed at getting the torture to stop. If those being questioned believe they will be hurt for as long as they maintain their innocence, they will admit guilt. This has absolutely nothing to do with whether they're actually guilty or not. Sanghvi mentions such drawbacks in passing, but goes on to say, "The argument against torture is not one of efficiency. It’s one of human rights." Actually, it is both. The inefficiency of torture makes it a far greater threat to individual rights, because it ensures the innocent are treated as harshly as the guilty.
In the final analysis, the public does not support cruel acts against criminals primarily for utilitarian reasons, but out of a desire for vengeance. I suspect most Indians would be glad to see Ajmal Kasab whipped even if there was no further evidence to be got from him. I am reminded of a scene from the Ridley Scott thriller, Body of Lies. Hani Salaam, the head of Jordanian intelligence, dismisses the efficacy of torture in warding off future attacks. What works, he says, is good intelligence from assets on the ground. Later in the film Leonardo DiCaprio witnesses a man being flogged by Salaam's assistants, and asks what happened to his dismissal of torture. "This isn't torture", the smirking Salaam replies, "it's punishment".

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Amar Kanwar

The film maker Amar Kanwar spoke during the penultimate session of the Art Summit conference. The panel’s subject was Mapping Alternative Networks: Artists and Communities.Kanwar began by making the seemingly banal statement that it is very difficult being an artist. He then went on to the nitty gritty concerns a film maker faces and, having gone through those, returned to his original statement, which now had some meat on it. He took another path away, speaking about politics and dispossession and how a director might want to tackle some of these issues, and the problems that can create. By the time he finished, his original statement was imbued with melancholy honesty.
The structure of his talk, I realised, bore a strong resemblance to that of his documentaries. The first one I saw was A Season Outside. It starts at the Wagah border, where Indian and Pakistani soldiers go through a peculiar ritual each evening while closing gates through which trade is conducted during the day. The film develops into a meditation on violence, but keeps returning to Wagah, to the faces of those on both sides who crowd to watch guards do their goose-stepping routine.
Before I heard his talk, I took the structure of his films to be akin to that of Hindustani classical music. I’ve never studied the form, but, from what I understand and have heard, it involves a broad framework (the raga) which leaves a lot of room for improvisation. The vocalist keeps returning to one note only to depart and explore new territory. Each return marks the addition of a new layer of meaning and emotion, which is precisely what happens in A Season Outside and Somewhere in May, a film about Burmese exiles in Norway.
For independent non-fiction film makers in India, structure is the crucial stumbling block. The form defines itself in opposition to the conventional made-for-television documentary, which has an instrumental view of its subject. Typically, a television documentary will cut sentences from different parts of an interview and piece them together to advance the argument efficiently. It is a soundbyte driven form. Independent film makers, on the other hand, tend to feel a responsibility to their subjects and don’t want to violate the flow of interviews too much. Hesitation, repetitions, and long pauses are frequently accommodated as a way of getting to know the person being interviewed.
The interview is only one example of how the two forms differ. The independent documentary is less constrained by time and content, and allows for personal interventions and formal experiments. The downside of the freedom to experiment is that such films frequently become self-indulgent or plain tedious. The musical structure evolved by Kanwar, aided by Ranjan Palit’s searching camera and Sameera Jain’s editing skill, is a massive achievement in this context. But that is not his only success.
Kanwar’s films are deeply engaged with politics -- with the resistance movement in Burma, Dalit poetry, anti-military protests in the North-east, among other issues -- while also being extraordinarily personal and emotional. Within the spiral structure I’ve described, each return ratchets up the emotional level a notch till viewers' eyes brim with tears. The control of image and pace ensures the films never spill into sentimentality.
India's narrative tradition, both classical and contemporary, is extremely melodramatic, and wedded to repetition. Since modernism's mantra was 'less is more' and postmodernism is too ironic to cope adequately with deep emotions, our tradition has seemed at odds with what is cutting edge. Amar Kanwar is one of the very few artists (Ritwik Ghatak being another) to have enlisted the emotional slant of Indian narrative, all that dard and karuna, in films which manage also to be sharp, relevant and contemporary.

A strange thing happened to Amar Kanwar around the year 2001. He had already established himself in alternative film circles, when a gentleman named Okwui Enwezor came to Delhi looking for artists. Enwezor, a thirty-something Nigerian who had made the United States his home, had been appointed the artistic director of the most important art exhibition in the world, Kassel's Documenta. He brought a distinctly political, postcolonial perspective to bear on his curatorial choices, and cast his net beyond artists who showed in galleries. From India, he picked Amar Kanwar along with the Raqs Media Collective, bypassing the usual channels of selection, leaving me delighted, and many in the art world befuddled. Documenta 11 part-financed Kanwar’s A Night of Prophecy, a film about poets in conflict zones, which was screened through the exhibition’s run in Kassel in 2002.
Kanwar had become a name to be reckoned with in two different worlds with two very different systems of financing. A typical independent documentary is funded by an NGO. The director, who doubles as producer, makes a certain amount up front, with further money coming through DVD sales and telecast rights. To make 5 lakh rupees, a director would have to sell 500 DVDs priced at 1000 rupees each, quite a tall order. The art world, on the other hand, depends on scarcity rather than volume. A video artist will make an edition of, say, ten prints of a video, to be sold for maybe 5 lakh rupees a pop. After the gallery commission, just two sales will provide the video artist the same amount of money that 500 DVDs got the documentary film maker.
It is no wonder that, during the art boom, many experimental film makers reinvented themselves as video artists. The boundaries between the two are blurry enough for the transition to be made without too many eyebrows being raised.
Amar Kanwar, however, didn't make the shift for financial reasons, he more or less had the status of video artist thrust upon him. Following Documenta11, he has featured at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Geneva; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Art Basel, Miami Beach; the Whitney Museum; and had a solo show at London’s Whitechapel gallery in 2007, a year during which he also featured in Documenta12 with a video installation called The Lightning Testimonies. He has won prestigious prizes like The 1st Edvard Munch Award for Contemporary Art from Norway.
All this is well and good; it’s obvious from what I’ve written that I believe Kanwar deserves such honours. His art gallery and museum success, however, raises some questions regarding the relationship between the forms of documentary film and video art. There may be considerable overlap between the two, but Kanwar’s style is nowhere near the blurry boundary dividing the two forms. He is a director in the classical mould, who creates pure, carefully crafted images. Video art has had little use for those kinds of lyrical, emotive frames; unable to compete with film at the level of image quality, video artists developed an intellectual, contrapuntal, effects-driven form. Amar Kanwar comes out of a tradition that can be traced back to Robert Flaherty rather than Nam June Paik.
In order to fit in better within the bracket of visual art, Kanwar has taken to creating multi-channel installations, of which I have seen two, the first at the Apeejay gallery in Delhi and the second at Documenta12 in Kassel. He has also made documentaries on the same subjects, and there's no doubt in my mind that these work better.

The Lightning Testimonies, his eight-channel installation at Kassel in 2007, was fairly well received (the blurry picture above is a result of clicking without flash in a dark room). It makes for harrowing watching, composed as it is of tales of women raped and murdered by Indian security forces. But there is a sense of emotional overload to it, with little of the meditativeness that characterises Kanwar’s documentaries. When there is relief from the brutal tales, in the form of images of water dripping off eaves or flowers blooming, these feel out of place in the video art context for the reason mentioned above.
Kanwar’s linear projects are also frequently selected for exhibitions; for instance, A Season Outside was part of AfterShock, a show held in Norwich in 2007 for which I contributed a catalogue essay. The film was screened in a proper auditorium during AfterShock, but most galleries and museums offer rather rudimentary screening facilities. If there is seating, it usually consists of benches without backrests. People come and go throughout, since videos tends to be screened in a loop. All this disturbs the reception of films that demand to be seen from beginning to end with complete attention.
It’s no surprise, then, that a review in the magazine Frieze said of A Season Outside, after its screening at Whitechapel Gallery (see clarification below): “At times the pace of his journey is too slow and the outcome all too predictable: the experience is a little wearying.” I don’t believe any lover of independent documentaries would have emerged from a screening of the film in an auditorium with the same impression. The reviewer also wrote, “It’s interesting that Kanwar’s work has ended up in a contemporary art gallery rather than an arthouse cinema. There’s no particular reason, as far as I can tell, that he should be seen as an artist rather than a documentary maker.” The reason is simple: a man named Okwui Enwezor came to Delhi and looked beyond the normal curator's horizon.

Clarification: Amar informed me that the Whitechapel films were shown exactly the way a documentary programme would be, in a proper auditorium with published screening times, rather than as a loop in a gallery space. The Frieze reviewer's response, then, is mystifying to me. The entire piece is here.

Following the conversation with Amar, I want to clarify that I have nothing invested in the turf war between artists and film-makers, and no interest in erecting a barrier to keep film makers out of video art. Those familiar with my writing will know that I have often expressed disappointment with the quality of video art coming out of India. In my experience, artists generally know little about the history and possibilities of the form. Most choose to use video merely because it is fashionable and easy. Among the exceptions is Kiran Subbaiah, about whose work I wrote this post. Amar Kanwar's multi-channel explorations are far superior to most of the video art being produced in the country, and I have no problem whatsoever with him showing in galleries and museums. I maintain, however, that his most interesting and original work is in the single-channel format and this is best viewed from beginning to end in a darkened auditorium.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Indian Art Summit

I'm back after spending the 21st and 22nd at the second Indian Art Summit in Delhi. The atmosphere was upbeat throughout, with the occasional shift to frantic. Dealers seemed pretty happy with the sales as well as new contacts they made among the 40,000 or so who thronged Pragati Maidan over the four days the art was on display.
I was invited to chair one session and speak in another at a conference accompanying the art fair. The organisers were a little overambitious, stuffing the programme with more speakers than it could comfortably hold. I didn't mind having my slot reduced to 15 minutes, but the squeeze was unfair to some foreign invitees.
For maximum effect, I took on one of the holiest cows of modern critical theory, the work of Walter Benjamin, in arguing that art writing and curation today concerns itself too much with politics. Following the principle of shoot first, mumble later, I thought I'd clarify and modify my position during question time, but no questions were forthcoming.
I've taken to checking weather websites before any travel, and they all forecast heavy rain for Delhi the day I landed. Our Met departments, which follow an interpretative strategy all their own, had failed to spot the coming showers. The capital isn't equipped for downpours, and the streets soon flooded, as did access roads to the art fair venue and a couple of rooms within, though luckily not the main exhibition halls. Pragati Maidan forbids private cars from crossing its main gate, and a shuttle had been arranged to take visitors the final 200 meters. Unfortunately, a lake formed between the car park and the shuttle stop. Visitors had to walk through knee-deep water to get to the minibus, and repeat the process while returning to their vehicles after being dropped off.
Since I hadn't got much sleep the night before my 6am flight to Delhi, I thought I'd turn in early and wake up fresh to rework my paper. As my head touched the pillow in my room at the Indian Islamic Cultural Centre, a twanging noise began next door, in the backyard of the India International Centre Annexe. It was the start of a weird new age electronic fusion concert that kept me awake for another 90 minutes.
Speaking of weird, the Islamic Centre is weird. The foundation stone was laid by Indira Gandhi the year she died, 1984, and the place was inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi 22 years later. It was funded by a mix of state, private and foreign donors, whose names appear on a plaque near the reception. Much of the space is given over to lodgings beginning to show signs of wear -- stains on carpets, doors that won't latch and so on -- but the building has delusions of grandeur, boasting an Iranian dome of glazed blue tiles which covers a rotunda that's entirely bare apart from a fancy staircase curving along its side. Ramzan began the last day I was in the capital, and the coffee shop opened at 3.30am in response, but the religious presence was pretty muted otherwise. There wasn't even a mihrab in my room. Come to think of it, I didn't notice any pointer to the direction of Mecca in the hotels we stayed at during our Iran-Syria holiday.
The Art Summit is the brainchild of Neha Kirpal, who works for the PR firm Hanmer MS&L. Neha had little connection with the art world before she thought up the idea, but obviously knew a lot about event management. She and the Hanmer team have created an exhibition that is already, in its second year, the biggest of its kind in India.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Benazir and Imran

In the mid-nineties, as Imran Khan and Benazir Bhutto became implacable foes, I wondered what their relationship had been like when both were at Oxford. Benazir was a student at Lady Margaret Hall, and Khan attended Keble, housed in a red-brick neo-Gothic building down the street from LMH. There weren't many Pakistanis in Oxford in the early 1970s. Bhutto and Khan, as the two most prominent, must have met frequently, but they never spoke about those days after they became political foes.
I imagined a soap opera situation in which the prime minister's daughter and the young sports hero briefly became lovers before going their own way, only to end up on opposite sides of a political divide two decades later.
Now, a new biography of Imran Khan suggests that the two were, indeed, romantically involved. The actual evidence provided by the author Christopher Sandford appears pretty weak. He told the Daily Mail, "for at least a month or two, the couple were close. There was a lot of giggling and blushing whenever they appeared together in public," and added: "It also seems fair to say that the relationship was "sexual", in the sense that it could only have existed between a man and a woman. The reason some supposed it went further was because, to quote one Oxford friend: 'Imran slept with everyone.'"
Imran has already denied there was anything romantic, let alone sexual, between Benazir and himself. This hasn't stopped the Times of India from headlining its article: 'Imran, Benazir had a roaring affair at Oxford'. Notice the quote marks, though nobody has said anything of the sort. Interesting how the relationship mutates from, 'they giggled and blushed' to, 'it was sexual in the sense it could only have existed between a man and woman', to 'roaring affair'.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Karan Johar and prejudice

Karan Johar has reported that Shahrukh Khan was 'shattered' by his experience of being kept in a room for an hour and questioned by security at Newark airport. Khan doesn't feel like ever stepping on US soil again, and his best pal Johar is bound to empathise.
This creates a problem. Johar likes to locate his films outside India: New York City (Kal Ho Naa Ho), London (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham) and Miami (Dostana) have featured in past productions. After a few Indians were mugged in Oz, Johar protested by moving to the US a film shoot planned for Down Under. Now that Americans have proven themselves racists and Islamophobes with their vile treatment of Shahrukh, which was but a step removed from the gas chamber, Johar might want to take his trade elsewhere.
A return to England is a good idea. Of course, the speech and manners of that country are laughable, entirely deserving of the mockery (starting at 1.09 in the clip) dished out in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Luckily the Brits have been taught some Indian culture and made to sing our national anthem. It was different in the US. The Chinese restaurant owners in Kal Ho Naa Ho, for instance, didn't understand that the gratuitous insults they faced from the Indians across the street were only fair given that Chinese people look and talk so funny.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bob and Shahrukh

Two bits of news caught my attention today. This morning I read about a guy in New Jersey calling the police after spotting "an eccentric looking old man" wandering about the yard of his home, which had a For Sale sign on it. An officer named Kristie Buble answered the call and caught up with the disheveled man a block away. He was walking around in pouring rain. She asked him who he was, and he replied, "Bob Dylan". She asked him what he was doing, he said he was looking at a house for sale. And what was he doing in town? He was on tour with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. He had no ID, was wearing black sweatpants and two raincoats.
Concluding the man was "acting suspicious", Buble decided to drive him back to the hotel where he said he was staying. He was very co-operative; "He said he understood why I had to verify his identity and why I couldn't let him go," Buble said. "He asked me if I could drive him back to the neighborhood when I verified who he was, which made me even more suspicious".
She was met by her sergeant at the parking lot of the hotel, and told him, "Sarge, this man claims he's Bob Dylan". The man peered into the car and shook his head, "That's not Bob Dylan".
Needless to say, it was Bob Dylan. The officers were left feeling sheepish after the identity of the living legend was verified by staff. There is no indication if Dylan got a ride back to the place from where he was picked up.

A few hours later came news of Shahrukh Khan being held up at Newark for two hours. "I was really hassled at the American airport because of my name being Khan...It was absolutely uncalled for...I felt angry and humiliated," said the actor, who was heading to Chicago to participate in an Independence Day celebration. Coincidentally, Shahrukh has a film coming up titled My Name Is Khan, in which his character is harassed by US authorities and feels angry and humiliated.
You can't buy such publicity.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Egon Schiele and the Flu

Vienna is the Aishwarya Rai of cities, extraordinarily beautiful but cold and rather boring. It is redeemed somewhat by the paintings of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. The latter's been on my mind because my friend Chetna, who visited Vienna last week, came away a fan of the man; and Sotheby's recently organised a lecture about the nude in modern art in which the Austrian artist's drawings and paintings featured prominently.
Jabeen and I had expected to be impressed by Klimt on our Vienna visit, but Schiele came as a surprise. That's because Klimt is among artists whose works communicate well through photographs. Schiele's paintings do not, which is why I had not been overly impressed by them before walking through the Leopold and Belvedere museums. You might look at the image above and like it, but will get little sense of how moving the original is.
Part of the reason it touches us is biographical. The infant in the frame replaced a bunch of flowers in the original composition after Schiele learned that his wife Edith was expecting. She died in her sixth month of pregnancy, and he three days later, aged 28. Both succumbed to the influenza pandemic of 1918.
The outbreak of the so-called Spanish flu at the end of the first world war claimed more lives than the war itself had done: fifty million in all. About a third of the world's population is thought to have caught the infection. The country which lost more people than any other was India (then undivided). Between 15 and 17 million Indians died of the flu in those months, from a citizenry of 300 million. The equivalent in today's terms would be 50 million deaths, the entire population of all our major metropolises put together.
Despite the collosal damage it caused, the flu of 1918 and 1919 hardly figures in the nation's imagination. We hear about the plagues of the late 19th and early 20th century that, well, plagued Bombay and Poona, but influenza finds no place in our history books or folk tales. We read stories about cholera, small pox, leprosy and dozens of other ailments, but never ever about the worst wave of death ever to wash over the sub-continent.
I thought of these things as I travelled back from town this evening, passing people wearing masks, handkerchiefs, scarves, anything to keep out the H1N1 germ. The Spanish flu, too, was an H1N1 strain, but far more lethal. What if something that infectious and dangerous were to return? Our response to swine flu has proved that our defenses are too paltry to withstand an assault like that. We would be able to keep the death count down below 20 million, but considering the kind of panic a dozen deaths have caused, it is clear the entire nation would go berserk with fear. Something that doesn't appear to have happened eighty years ago.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Baptist Coelho and Werner Herzog

Having heard many good things about it, I was disappointed by "You can't afford to have emotions out there...", Baptist Coelho's solo at Project 88. The exhibition is, ostensibly, about Indian soldiers posted on the world's highest battleground, Siachen. But Baptist Coelho never got anywhere near the glacier, something that was apparent to me as soon as I entered the exhibition space. Or it was clear that if he had, indeed, visited Siachen, and come back with the images collected in this show, it was a worse outrage than my sister going to New York and only getting me that lousy T-shirt.
Coelho travelled as far as Ladakh, but visiting Ladakh isn't worth jack. Couples go to Ladakh for their honeymoon. Soldiers go to Siachen to die, and not from enemy fire. Seriously big difference. If you want to do a show about Siachen, go to Siachen, you're bound to find something interesting there. In Ladakh, Coelho found a sentimental narrative that he could pretty much have made up in Bombay or London. Poor soldiers sent miles up in the mountains, cut off from family and friends, suffering from frostbite and altitude sickeness, under-equipped etc etc. In one video, layers of clothing are peeled off a torso to reveal hairy, slightly paunchy flesh. The piece is titled, in case you didn't get the message, Beneath it all... I am human... Another video is split into two screens: on the left a small girl makes black paper airplanes, on the right, a seated armyman with his back to the camera tosses them into the snow. All rather reminiscent of J.P.Dutta's Border and LOC. I found myself humming Sandese aate hain, humein tadpaate hain while watching the piece.
If Coelho had got to Siachen, he might have found truths not composed of such easy sentimentality. I felt this very keenly because, the previous day, I'd given a short talk to introduce a festival of Werner Herzog films organised by Max Mueller Bhavan, to complement a show of photographs of Herzog and his productions captured by Beat Presser. As part of the prep, I saw some of the German director's movies again, and read once more about the lengths to which he goes to seek what he calls the ecstatic truth, travelling from the mountains and jungles of Peru to the fierce heat of the Sahara desert to the intense chill of Antarctica. The point of such exertions is the belief that out in those extreme places are lying images which will challenge any preconceived ideas one might have. The image itself will convey a kind of truth, which is neither moral nor sentimental.
It might be unfair to juxtapose a young Indian artist's production with that of one of the world's best known film-makers, but this blog isn't about reviewing shows the way I would in a journal. It is about conveying my state of mind in a more personal way, and that was the state of mind I brought to bear on "You can't afford to have emotions out there..."
I do believe, in general, that a lot of art being produced and applauded in India does not go that extra mile required to achieve true excellence. It is complacent work, though it might not seem that way to artists, who always have stories about the difficulties faced in achieving this image or that sculpture.
If you're looking for pearls, make sure you dive deep, for you won't find any oysters mid-way between the surface and seabed.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Breaking transport monopolies

The state government has taken a step toward introducing public transport on the Neral-Matheran road by buying mini-buses for the purpose. Whether it can actually break the stranglehold of private operators is another matter. For those who haven't heard of Matheran, it is a popular hill station not far from Bombay. The closest railhead is a small town called Neral at the foot of the mountain. The only public transport between Neral and Matheran is a narrow gauge train which traverses a picturesque route but takes forever doing so. Those who want to get to their hotel rooms fast have only one option: private taxis.
The taxis wait till they've got enough custom before starting. Though they're officially full once four people have bought tickets, they frequently hustle for two or three more clients, stuffing these unfortunates in the back seat of the Omni. If you land at Neral at 2pm on a weekday in lean season, you might have to wait an hour before the driver deigns to finish his chai and ferry you up the winding path.
The worst thing about the private taxi cartel in Neral is that it deprives locals of reasonable commutes. Most tourists can afford fifty rupees per head for the fifteen minute ride, but Neral citizens who work in shops and hotels in Matheran don't earn enough to be able to afford even cut-price back-of-the-van seats. They climb the hill each morning on foot, and climb down after their shift is done, spending something like three hours in the to and fro. During fierce downpours common in this season, the trek becomes a nightmare for daily wage earners, though it's a delight for weekenders wanting to hike the slippery trails and get drenched under waterfalls.
The labourers of Matheran have long demanded a regular bus service between the railhead and
hill station. It's a testament to the venality of politicians and civil servants that a few taxi drivers have for decades managed to stall this legitimate demand.
While on the subject of oligarchies, let me mention two more tourist spots in need of augmented transport:
The dozens of ferries between the Gateway of India and Elephanta Island are controlled by two people. The ferries take forever to get to the island, and there's definitely room for a quicker service, but of course it's not going to happen.
No trip to Varanasi is complete without a dawn ride along the ghats in a rowboat. The boats seem to be the same ones that were playing the waters when the Buddha stopped by some 2500 years ago. I guess their creaky charm is part of the rustic appeal of the place for foreign tourists, but surely there's room for more comfortable vessels alongside these antiques. I put this to our boatman, who revealed that Varanasi's boats are owned by members of a cartel who allow no new entrants and see no need for innovation. Those who do the rowing receive only a fraction of the stiff fee paid by travelers. The rest goes to owners, who use bribes, threats and violence to stave off competition in the lucrative market.
This morning's article about Neral-Matheran buses is here.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Aviation Mess

Vijay Mallya is on every TV station whining about aviation regulations and taxes, all of which existed in exactly the same form when he decided to launch the vanity project that is Kingfisher Airlines. At the time, he brushed aside concerns about profitability, boasted about providing lavish service at reasonable prices, and looked forward to flying Airbus A380s to distant countries. Then he gobbled up AirDeccan, briefly changed it to plain Deccan, then to Kingfisher Red. None of it worked. The firm's been bleeding money at a rate of 1 million dollars a day for the past 18 months. Now he's going to the Centre hat in hand. He wants the government to get involved in private airlines while most frequent fliers wait for the day when Air India is privatised.
Meanwhile, an airline called Indigo, set up by promoters who prefer stay in the background, an airline run efficiently with clean, new planes, punctual service and budget fares , has managed to turn a profit in the harshest of times.
Here's the funny thing. We have, in India, an industry that suffers dreadfully from over-regulation and over-taxation: liquor manufacturing. Prices are extortionately high at the shop in most states and, in Bombay, the VAT on any glass of beer, wine or spirits sold in a restaurant just went up to a ridiculous 25%. Yet, alcohol manufacturers make good money, and Mallya makes more of it than anybody else. Enough to fund an F1 team that is stuck perpetually at the back of the grid.
So, rather than coming up with absurd ideas like a day-long strike, or asking for a state bailout, he ought to reflect on his own ill-advised business plan and, if he can't find a way to rectify matters, declare the airline bankrupt. It's been done before, you know. Remember Modiluft, Damania, East West?