Monday, June 28, 2010

Another hartal

Vazhuthacaud Junction in Thiruvananthapuram at 11.45 am on Saturday, June 26.
area normally buzzes with activity at 11.45 am on most days, including Saturdays.

Kerala ‘enjoyed’ another hartal a couple of days ago. This one was to protest against the rather sharp rise in fuel prices. The hartal was called at really short notice — a lead time of about 15 hours. It obviously threw life in Kerala out of gear: no shops or restaurants or banks or public transport during the 12-hour hartal.
The decision to raise the prices of petroleum products and to let some fuel prices be determined by market forces is a pretty strong punch below the belt for most Indians. And for a State like Kerala that imports much of what it consumes, the pain is probably going to be more intense. There’s no doubt about that.
But how this hartal or the others that are likely to follow are going to send fuel prices down is unclear.
Why can’t all those benevolent people who promote hartals chose, instead, to focus their energy on finding meaningful solutions to the issues that spark-off hartals. For instance, economics and logic would indicate that there’s only one direction in which petroleum prices are likely to go — up. So wouldn’t the folks who called the hartal on Kerala on June 26 do more all around good if they choose to promote and support the adoption of non-petroleum energy sources? Why can’t they form a science cooperative to do research into non-conventional, sustainable energy sources and how they can be used — instead of petroleum — to fuel India’s growth?
Wouldn’t pushing for initiatives like this have much more meaning than calling silly hartals? And, perhaps more important, they would arguably create much more goodwill for the ‘brand’ and probably bring in more votes too.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Putting children first, always

Child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, is very often discussed only in whispers. Partly, because it is such a sensitive subject, but mostly, I suspect, because it is something society would like to pretend ‘does not happen’. And when it comes to discussing the role tourism plays in facilitating child abuse, especially the sexual abuse of children, the whispers are almost inaudible. Not surprising, perhaps, given the billions of dollars that ride on the global travel and tourism economy.
India is mostly rooted in the ‘it does not happen here’ camp on child sexual abuse; though we make the occasional empty gesture. And given that India is working very hard to position itself as a top global tourism destination, people tend to scurry for cover when you mention tourism and child abuse in the same sentence.
For several years now, there have been indications that sexual abuse of children by tourists has been spreading in India. One voice that has been speaking very strongly and loudly about the links between tourism and child abuse is the Bangalore-based Equations. Over the past decade, it has looked into child prostitution and tourism, sexual abuse of children in tourism destinations, child pornography and tourism and so on.
The results of work by groups such as Equations has been mixed. For instance, tourism as a cause for the exploitation of children was mentioned in the Goa Children’s Act 2003. However, how effective the Act has been in deterring child abuse is not clear.
Similarly, in May last year Kerala Tourism launched the ‘Kovalam Vigil’ campaign against child abuse in Kovalam, near Thiruvananthapuram. Kerala Tourism had also indicated then that it would conduct vulnerability assessments in other tourist destinations in the State and would then take the campaign across Kerala. But it appears that little progress has been made on this initiative.
So it was tremendously encouraging to read in June 23rd’s The New Indian Express that Kuoni Travel Holding — arguably the world’s largest travel company — has been quietly working against tourism-driven child abuse, including sexual abuse.
Besides being a signatory to the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism (Child Protection Code), Kuoni is working to sensitise its customers to the issue of childe abuse by disseminating information through a flyer titled ‘Never turn a blind eye’. Equally important, it has been conducting workshops across the world to make its partners aware of “commercial sexual exploitation of children in tourism and take action against it.”
In India, the company held a couple of such workshops in Goa and Kerala last year, and according to the Indian Express report, held another one in Kochi early this month. According to the report, around 70 tourism companies that participated in the ‘closed’ workshop have decided to become signatories to the Child Protection Code and implement a series of measures against child sex tourism.
What is even more encouraging is that child protection is part of Kuoni’s Supplier Code of Conduct, and is being introduced into all its contracts with business partners and suppliers. And according to the Indian Express report, Kuoni will now do business only with hotels and tour companies that sign the Child Protection Code.
Kuoni’s determination to tackle tourism-driven child abuse head-on is heartening. Of course, it remains to be seen what happens on the ground and also whether Kuoni consistently enforces its zero-tolerance policy on child sex tourism. But the very fact that a travel industry leviathan has adopted such a policy is reason enough for other tourism and travel players, both in India and across the world, to pull up their socks and put children first, always.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Where the trinity rules

Blink and you’d probably miss the turn off to Suchindram from the highway that links Thiruvananthapuram with Kanyakumari. If you do miss it though, all you need to do is ask and you’ll be back on track in a jiffy. For Suchindram is a pretty important village as it is home to the very unique Thanumalayan or Sthanumalayan temple.
Once part of the erstwhile Indian kingdom of Travancore, Suchindram is now in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district. The village, though, is a lovely mix of Tamil and Kerala influences. So while the people there speak Tamil, there’s a very subtle Malayalam lilt to it; and when they speak Malayalam, the Tamil influence is audible.
While it’s not very clear just how old the Thanumalayan temple is, it most certainly is several hundred years old and played a vital part in the affairs of Travancore. According to P. Shungoonny Menon’s A History of Travancore published in 1878, the ruler of the erstwhile kingdom of Cochin signed a treaty of alliance with Travancore at Suchindram in 1685 AD. The book also has several other mentions of Suchindram, including references to rulers of Travancore worshipping at the Thanumalayan temple.
As you turn off the highway and head towards the village, the temple’s rajagopuram or tower appears, soaring into the cyan sky. For a moment, all your eye can take in is the gopuram, which dominates everything around it. And then you notice the large tank that borders the temple; but only for a moment. For you are immediately drawn to the fleet of exquisitely carved, wooden temple cars standing sentinel around the temple. A couple of them are large, massive even, and look like they’ve rolled in from another, timeless world. And perhaps they have, for they carry the gods during the temple’s annual festival in December.
That feeling of timelessness lingers as you enter the temple, with only your senses to witness the wonders within. You have to leave your camera — and if you’re a male your shirt — and other trappings of the modern world at the door.
Touts, however, are not left at the door and dog your first few steps, chanting, in a medley of languages, the services they offer. Shrug-off this band of polyglots though, and the pace drops a notch or two. And as you make your way through the temple, from one subsidiary shrine to another, your cloak of serenity is occasionally buffeted by the clink of anklets and the murmur of prayers punctuated by the ringing of a bell.
What makes the Thanumalayan temple a very special place of worship is that the idol in its sanctum sanctorum is of the Hindu trinity — Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma; a rather unique configuration. Equally special is the temple’s distinctive, 22-foot statute of the god Hanuman, believed to have been carved from a single block of granite.
The mood in front of Hanuman’s idol is ebullient; a mix of piety and delight, as people exclaim at the size of the statue. Or marvel at the fact that the temple priests need to climb a flight of stairs and clamber onto a scaffold of sorts to anoint the idol with butter. In the chamber in front of the sanctum sanctorum though, the atmosphere is more restrained. And through the haze of the oil lamps and incense sticks, the gentle radiance from the sanctum sanctorum seems to reach out and enfold you and, for a moment, you can almost see eternity.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Memories of summer

On a depressing, rain-spattered day, some pictures that bring back the warmth of summer. At least in my mind and on the screen.

A flower seller’s stall in Trivandrum’s Chalai market

Chips galore

Priest at work: Summer is festival time at many temples in Kerala. This is the priest from a little temple near my place. Every summer, the temple has a 10-day party — its annual festival. And on the ninth day, the presiding deity is taken in a procession for a tour of the neighbourhood, stopping in front of many houses and businesses for a small pooja or offering for a good year. As darkness falls, the throb of the temple drums increase a notch and oil-soaked torches spring to flickering life.

Sunset in summer

Turbulent waves and red flags on the beach mean that the Indian Summer Monsoon is almost here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The great railway circus

Indian Railways’ turnaround story has been tom-tommed across the world. It has inspired at least one book, has been discussed at b-schools across the world and the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad even developed a case about the railways’ turnaround. And then came the declaration that the ‘turnaround’ had more to do with nimble accounting and less to do with actual improvements on the ground.
The truth, perhaps, lies somewhere in between the two sets of claims. What is apparent though is that for all the progress it may have made, Indian Railways has miles to go.
A regular Jan Shatabdi coach
A few days ago, I travelled on a Jan Shatabdi — touted as a sort of flagship train — between Trivandrum and Kochi. This particular train connects Trivandrum and Kozhikode and its introduction in Kerala was greeted with much delight. For what distinguishes the Jan Shatabdi from other commuter trains is that it covers distances much faster and offers clean, comfortable, modern coaches to travel in.
The no-frills, regular second class seating coach on the Jan Shatabdi
That’s the theory. For many months now, perhaps because it is a ‘Jan’ Shatabdi and not a true blue Shatabdi, the train that connects Trivandrum and Kozhikode most often has worn-out, filthy coaches that are probably at the end of their lives. Often, the special Shatabdi coaches are replaced by regular, run-of-the-mill coaches with no frills like individual seats or seatback tables to work on.
And from time to time, the train even has regular sleeper coaches that seat only 72 people, while tickets for 106 people are issued in that particular coach. So people with seat numbers between 73 and 106 end up depending on the generosity of their fellow passengers to squeeze into the available space or are forced to stand till they find a seat or get to their destination.
The two types of coaches meet
Why this happens is not really clear. What is clear though is that those who run the railways, including the grand panjandrums who run the Southern Railways, don’t particularly care about quality and service, especially on the ‘non-Metro’ routes. So while Indian Railways’ may be making more money today than it ever has, the real turnaround will happen only when the attitudes of those who run it changes. Now that will be a truly remarkable turnaround; one worth tom-tomming.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


As ‘pink’ papers go, the Financial Times is a jolly good read. It often seems to me that the FT has the right mix of news and views, a pretty global worldview, good reporting, inspired editing and stories that go beyond business and the obvious — all laced with a dash of British humour. Quite a potent and appealing combination.’s management section is something I enjoy going back to pretty often and the FT management blog had become a daily read. What makes the FT stand out is pretty much what made the management blog worth visiting too. It was especially useful as an aggregator of management news, with links to interesting management-related stories from around the Web.
So it was pretty disappointing to read that the management blog is downing its shutters. It’s not very clear why the FT pulled the plug on the management blog. While the last post talks about “doing more with less” it also hints about a resurrection — something to look forward to. For now though, there’s one treat less in my daily buffet.