Friday, 5 July 2019

(Don’t) Waste the Thunder, Recycle

6:30 PM, I pressed the doorbell of my flat. As I was waiting for my brother to open the door, my eyes fell on a dozen cold drink bottles gathered in the polythene lying by the dustbin (No thanks to my cold drink addicted little brother). I picked them up and brought them inside. In about 30 minutes, I repurposed these bottles into these cute pen holders. What motivated me to do this at the end of a tedious work day? Because I imagined them being dumped in a place called Ghazipur Garbage Mountain and contributing to the horrible stink that will ruin my evening tea in my balcony.

Friends, I live in Kaushambi, Ghaziabad and at a very short distance of Ghazipur Garbage Mountain. When I saw it for the first time, I mistook this giant structure for Delhi ridge, extension of Aravalli (poor geography, I know).  Living here for past two years, it has been my worst nightmare come true to stay so close to this ticking bomb. When I visited the flat for the first time, I imagined the spacious balcony as the perfect spot for stress busting. Little did I know that this would be the most depressing spot of my house, thanks to the view it offers.

This Mt Everest of Rubbish is 65 metres in height and is about to cross the height of Taj Mahal(75 m) by year 2020, making it the 8th wonder of the world for sure. Each season, the site exposes us to new perils. In summers, the fires last often for days due to the methane gas being emitted from the dump. The flood of smoke curling up from the dump gives the impression that the city is on fire. During monsoons, it stinks of deadly and noxious gases. Poor me, I was such a fan of the earthy scent produced when first rain falls on dry soil. And now that scent is foreboding. In winters, it is not visible from distance, thankfully the fog obscures it. But you can imagine the composition of fog in the nearby areas. It is a sureshot way to hell.  True, I am not an early riser, but thought of having a morning walk (trek) in the Ghazipur surroundings wakes up the procrastinator in me instead and makes me bury my head in the cushions harder. The nights are worse with the smelly storms erupting in the crystal mountain by the alarm. The conditioning of gust of wind with horrible smell has made me stop associating the wind with the pleasant weather. At times I wonder, how much my lifespan has shortened by staying in the vicinity of this filthy mountain of doom (sorry mumma, your fasts won't be able to undo much).

Going along with the sarcastic rave reviews of this site on google, I stopped nearby to click a picture. The mound resembles a reclining ogre with smoke coming out of its many cervices and an unbearable smell seeping around. I am not sure whether I will be able to visit the world's most beautiful place, but definitely I have photographed the worst place in this world and was lucky enough to have a close look. This surely is the best place to feel death with the vultures and other bird of prey circling over the smoking mountain doom. Stray cows, dogs, rats and hundreds of waste pickers comb through the heaps of filth. Dozens of trucks shamelessly disgorging trash. The toxic leachate drained into Yamuna like rivulets of molten lava. It is not just a passive disaster, as predicted by many. In 2018, a section of the hill collapsed and buried two people alive. It is surrounded by the ghost flats, thanks to the advertisement of "Garbage side view" by the doomed builder. Another fun fact, the name Ghazipur and birds of prey hovering above the dumpyard, are shared by North India's largest Vegetable and chicken market.

I have posted these pictures of the site on to the Swatch Bharat twitter handle, but to no avail. Who on the earth can clean this festering mess? Who has the will? Can something be done? I can't answer these questions. What I can do is to tame these small demons (plastic bottles)  into cute little pen holders  and prevent them from landing into the ticking bomb.

The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.

#saynotoplastic  #recycle #beatplasticpollution #refusesingleuse

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Book Review: Brief answers to the big questions by Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, the most renowned scientist after Einstein, narrates a coincidence that he was born exactly 300 years later, i.e. 8th Jan, 1942 after Galileo died, i.e., 8th Jan 1942. It dawned upon me to find another coincidence, that I was born on 50th birthday of Stephen Hawking, i.e.,8th Jan 1992 :D.

He has brilliantly linked science(physics to be specific) and mathematics with the real life social and humanitarian problems, thus bridging the gap between elite scientist and common man.
He has been able to present the science in a very engrossing and lucid  way. The big questions he deals are: Is there a God? How did it all begin? Is time travel possible? What is inside of a black hole? Is there other intelligent life in the universe? Will artificial intelligence outsmart us? How do we shape the future? Should we colonize space? Can we predict the future? Will we survive on earth? 
I wasn't expecting concrete solutions for these questions, but Stephen Hawking is able to explain these complicated and highly unpredictable questions in a way that everyone would understand while providing food for thought and firing the imagination of the reader. 
The complicated and intellectual stuff is blended with his sharp sense of humor- comments on Trump, stupidity of human race etc. Initial 4-5 chapters are science laden. While the last three chapters are crucial for the present world- the future of our planet, colonization of other planets, and the rise of artificial intelligence. He charts his strategy to save us. He suggests science to be the only savior to these problems.
There are far too many mentions of Star Trek(have put it in checklist) surely underlining his vision for the future of humanity. Few harmless repetitions are out there giving a feeling that all the independent essays are just sequenced up, lacking a coherent compilation. The justification lies in the fact that the essays were written as independent modules by Stephen Hawking and the book was completed by his academic colleagues and family member after his demise. The final touch up might deserve more attention.
To sum up, the title does justice to the content, a great introductory collection of essays to big ideas. It is a masterpiece for school students, under graduates or layman to understand the very basic problems of science and their importance in life.  As he lived his life with optimism, never give up attitude and a great vision for humanity, he suggested scientific literacy to be an essential component for future.
I would recommend this intellectually stimulating book to the leaders of global world, including politicians to realign their priorities to what matters.
Quotes I liked from the book:
"If you look behind every exception person there is an exceptional teacher"
"Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don't just give up. Unleash your imagination. Shape the future."

Friday, 16 November 2018

Patriarchy cuts al(l)ways

One evening, Sohan was going through his Facebook wall. He read the #metoo status of Rohini and felt like sharing it. He copied and pasted the status, recalling a heinous incident he went through. Little did he know, that the night will pass pacifying his batchmates in a college facebook group, in response to his unexpected status. Memes were being shared on the group with the morphed images(his face imposed on the body of a bollywood heroine). That night, he became the hot target of jokes. In the end, he decided to delete that post and deactivate his FB account.

It is an illustration of the effect of Patriarchy which is little known in our society. Patriarchy is the social system governing rigid dichotomy of gender roles, in which males predominate in the roles of political leadership, social privilege and economic control of property. According to the concept of patriarchy, men are supposed to be strong, unemotional and logical. While, women are supposed to be expressive, caring, weak and dependent. This differentiation is mostly justified as per the inherent natural biological differences and is further reinforced with the empirical evidences and theory like "The men are from Mars, and women are from Venus". Thanks to our long term conditioning, the force of patriarchy has become the water that we all swim in like fish irrespective of the gender. In conventional and plain understanding, the victim is a woman while the perpetrators might be men or society in general.

In this article, I will discuss the lesser known dimension of Patriarchy, i.e., man as victim of patriarchy.

Lets begin from the childhood. The typical notion is that men are not expressive, but have you ever wondered, a 2 year old baby boy cries as much as a baby girl does. So, gender has no role to play right from the childhood. It is the social conditioning that forces a boy to wear a mask as time passes. A newborn baby girl is draped in a pink towel, while a newborn baby boy in a blue towel from the hospital itself. The segregation begins here, pink dolls vs blue trucks, fairytales vs Super Heroes.
Even in schools, in the class of SUPW(socially useful and productive work) , a girl is given the fair opportunity to explore her artistic talent by making flower  or rangoli or mehandi designs. It is a free class for the boys. Even punishment in school varies for the two genders. Since the boy is supposed to be rough and tough, he will be punished (murgha punishment) more severely than a girl child(usually the standing punishment).  A brother is supposed to take care of her sister(may it be younger or the elder one), pick her up late at night from her friend's place.

Alas! boys are systematically brutalized in order to prepare them for positions of domination. "Mard ko dard nahi hota" , "hath me chudiya pehni h kya", "real men don’t cry", type of mentality is forced down their throats, robbing them of core aspects of their humanity. To be more explicit, patriarchy is a form of cultural violence, which includes the physical, emotional, and spiritual brutalization of boys. The beauty of an equally responsible relationship and magnanimity of sharing and caring are not the essential elements expected from them.

When there has been hue and cry about the violence inflicted by males in our society, we forget the fact that no human being would ever do anything harmful to another human being, if they didn’t get brutalized in the first place, to the point where they lose the contact with their own natural self and it erodes their generosity, compassion and kindness.

Going further, as soon as a boy turns 25, job pressure starts building upon him. And by the time he turns 28, he is supposed to be the breadwinner of the family, which means he should choose a ‘stable’, socially acceptable and ‘masculine’ career rather than go after his passion which isn’t usually expected from women. In choosing a career of fashion consultant, he might have to pay the cost of being labelled as a gay or a pervert. He faces the restriction on the choice of clothing, the company, pursuing his passion.  How many guys can get their legs shaved(despite scorching summers) without being judged? Their choice is also ultimately dictated by the social norms.

While getting married, he is supposed to protect his male ego, where he cannot accept a girl of higher social or economic rank in the social hierarchy without challenges. The pressure to outperform his life partner never wholeheartedly allows him to support her (Watch the movie Akele hum Akele Tum).

Post marriage, women are seen as natural caretakers of the household, while men are discouraged from spending too much time with the children. Since the childcare is seen as a feminine activity, the fathers remain alienated from the feeling of being emotionally connected to their kids. Father figure has limited role of providing financial security to the kids. In the bollywood movie, Kabhi khushi kabhi gum, Amitabh Bachchan too was a victim of this phenomenon. Despite having emotions for his son, he had to pretend as a stone hearted person. As per social norms, men and women can't be equal parents to their children. It says that women are considered fit to take care of children and this results in women getting custody of children in maximum cases of divorce.

Patriarchy denies emotional literacy to men. The rigid gender norms might also be the reason behind high rates of suicides among men as men are less likely to seek help for emotional problems. The ingrained fear of being seen as weak puts a lot of pressure to hide their real emotions.

The cult of masculinity further turns a blind eye towards the fact that men can also be the victims of sexual abuse, or domestic violence. And if they were victims it was because they were not being manly enough. Or they are supposed to be sex hungry so their consent is implicit. Similarly, domestic violence is supposed to be directed at women only. While, there is a real possibility of men being victim of domestic violence. 

Men are confined to this conception of what it means to be a man. It forces them to live up to an unachievable standard based simply because they are men.

What can be done?
At societal level, it is impossible to change overnight. But change can begin at home. So start by dis-identifying  or de-associating yourself with everything that you have been conditioned to think or do. Learn cooking when you need to learn this life skill and not because of your gender. Learn to drive as and when needed. Question everything that you do. Undo your socialization and choose what you want to be. Be free of social norms, obligations or fear of being judged. Set your own values free from patriarchal suppositions.
Feminism, a new wave and a new concept is good for men too, since it is the bedrock of gender equality. It seeks to get rid of those archaic norms of what a “real man” or a “real woman" is expected to be. This value needs to be imbibed in the kids of today. [A must read: We should all be feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie(read the book review here)]. 
At the end, humanity, duty, responsibility, kindness and emotions are gender neutral concepts. There is a need to acknowledge that in the current set up there is a problem with gender stereotyping and we must fix it. It needs sensitivity towards and from both the genders. Lets strive towards a world where Sohan and Rohini will be looked at through the same lens. Imagine, how much happier we all would be, shunning the weight of entrenched gender expectations.

Book Review: We should all be Feminists

We should all be Feminists This book is adapted from the TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of the same name.

This book is a personal essay where she talks of the experiences of sexism she faced in Nigeria. It eloquently discusses what feminist means contrary to what it is assumed to be. Feminism is more of equality rather than preferential treatment to one or other sex (I have written a blog post on similar lines: Modern feminism: Equality). Equality is the core of feminism only to be seen with the lens of inclusion and awareness. She argues that the first step to cure discrimination is to acknowledge it and that acknowledgment can come only with the personal touch or an extreme level of empathy. She strengthens and makes her explanation more convincing by exploring the other side too- how the gender divide hurts both the sexes almost equally. As it is only 50 pages long and intriguing book, it’s impossible to leave this book in between and it definitely leaves you with food for thought. Though the author has shared her own experiences and has hardly discussed anything in great detail. Yet further interpretation and exploration is left up to readers who can ponder over their own life and further think or write another 50 pages quoting their own experiences(I was able to do so :P). These instances mostly go unnoticed in our society most of the times, this book helps you pause and think about fresh dimensions of such instances. I clicked a few pages and forward it to my friends narrating the specific instances in past.  This book is a perfect piece where you read less, but have a great takeaway. This book is tiny, insightful and a brilliant short read.  I read this book and became a part of chain (second so far). Passing it on, I recommend this to everyone. Especially, the youngsters who are recently introduced with the concept of feminism.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Last nail in coffin

"I am extremely sorry for my behavior last night, if possible forgive me!!", and she walked into the bedroom.

"Is this sorry enough and for how long?", he posed the question to the empty air in the room.
"Aren't you saying it thousandth time?  I really wish if it could come straight from your heart. But you say it more like your favorite english word having infinite healing power with no feeling of regret or a real concern.  You say it because you are too familiar with my weakness to start afresh even after every tornado. You know that my heart will melt eventually. You know I cant be angry on you for long.  But, do you know, even an eraser has its limit and it cant always remove all the dents by the monster pencil? Just because I care for you, and, I cant see you in pain or guilt, does not mean that you will keep hurting me again and again. I do understand, it might not be deliberate and intentional all the time. But, the frequency and casualness of things call for an oblique intent not to be considerate at all. Aah, no worries, dear! I hold no grudges against you. You know you are forgiven even before you say sorry to me. But, do you really think my forgiveness can always fill up those cracks which are created and widened again and again? It can bridge the moment between us but not the distance which goes further and further.
Still I forgive you. Sorry to say, but at times, sorry is not enough to keep going. At times, sorry is not enough to rekindle the extinguishing flame of a relationship.
I am sorry, you have to stand at the receiving end of understanding this time.
I am sorry to choose indifference over holding grudges.
I am sorry to choose moving on straight over the repeated cycle.
I am sorry for giving up on you.
And sorry, we have exhausted our quota of sorries!!"

Monday, 25 June 2018

Karwa chauth for husband, rakhi/bhai dooj for bhai, ashtami for children. Is there something for wives/sisters/mothers?

If you are a Hindu woman, you are bestowed with a very important role, to take care of your family. You are supposed to keep fast for karwa chauth for husband, ashtami fast for children, tie rakhi to bhai for their well being. Is there any fast for well being and longevity of wife, sister or mother? Or is this the privilege exclusively available to the male community, again thanks to our patriarchal society? Does this logic says that it is the male community which needs protection?

Alas! statistics says otherwise. Right from female foeticide to crime against women, it is the women who are vulnerable and need protection spell, if any.  Going by that logic, in the contemporary world, it should be the responsibility of man to keep their woman safe.

For those who dont know karwa Chauth, it a North Indian festival in which married women will fast from before sunrise till she can see the moon that night. And unfortunately, if moon is not visible then the fast will continue the other day. Absolutely no water or food is taken at this time.  Lets check the utility of this fast. If at all, it had some substance, women dont need to divorce her husband if they develop hatred towards them. They would just cheat while fasting to reduce his age. Or if a husband is diagnosed with kidney failure or blood requirement, instead of arranging for new kidney or blood, the wife can go for fasting. Jokes apart, as per scientific studies, intermittent fasting can be disastrous for a woman's hormones, causing things such as reproductive issues and may worsen other pre-existing health conditions.

By not having a drop of water, I am opening myself to dehydration. Without any food, I am stressing my body. Does my husband's life carry more value than my own?  I hope its not. Moreover it totally defies logic and science. How would my eating less will make my husband live longer. Though there is concept of one soul after marriage(do jism ek jaan), yet the bodies would remain separate.  And even if it works in some hypothetical world, shouldn't it be the two way process? Isn't this tradition against the concept of gender equality? Shouldn't husbands also show reciprocity?

Then there is another kind of fast to get a good husband- Solah (16) Somvar, (as if there is no need of a good wife). Again by logic, the sex ratio says otherwise.  Increasingly, the average age of unmarried boys is increasing because of skewed sex ratio. Bride money is taking the place of dowry. Shouldn't the guys take note of this serious issue and start fasting?

Then, many of the mothers keep fast of Asthami for their children's well being. Doesn't this also goes against the common sense. Mother being more aged than her children needs protection from health hazards and age hazards. Shouldn't children fast for their mother?

Disclaimer: In principle, I am not against any religion or associated faith of fasting. People have different reasons behind fasting, including health reasons(cleansing of toxics), family legacy and minimalistic living etc, and I respect them all. I am just against the notion of stereotyping of the fasts against a particular section of society, i.e., women.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Tax privilege to India's privileged

Why do people fall for greed, amass lot of power and wealth, engage in corruption? There are many reasons including poverty and opportunity, lack of ethical standards, competition for resources, poor deterrence and misuse of discretionary powers. However, I would like to draw your attention to lesser known and acknowledged reason - willingness to provide the cushion to the future generations. As widely known in India, "sat pidiyo ka sochna padta h ( we have to think for our seven generations while earning and making any substantial decision)". Given our present status of social security, there is always an urge to save for the future generation. This urge results in Dynasty politics, skewed ownership of resources and inequality of opportunity. The Rich becomes richer, poor becomes poorer.
विरासत की कुर्सी पे राज करते हैं ||
फिर भी खुद पे नाज़ करते हैं ||

Today, we shall discuss about inheritance and feasibility of taxation on inheritance. First lets understand, what is inheritance? An inheritance is money or property which you receive from someone who has died. Inherently, it is a birth right, however its morality and sustainability can often be questioned. Allowing privileged families to concentrate property ownership and thus deny the prospect to others is not justified. It creates an unfair hierarchy of the resources which further undermines the legitimacy of the very idea of property. Earth has given to all men and women equal means. So exclusively privileging some of God's children with inherited property and not others seems to be morally wrong.

Image result for inheritance tax imagesThe recent work of Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty First century highlights that the inherited wealth grows faster than overall output and income and furthers the inequality. What might the possible way out then? Depriving of the inheritance rights might create chaos in further distribution of inherited wealth. Taxation seems to be fair way out - specially the progressive one.

Further, tax is the price we pay for civilization and progressive taxation acts as a balancing force. Inheritance tax is a tax that is levied against a particular asset during the time of its inheritance. 

Firstly, I want to be clear that inheritance tax is not at all related to death tax, so it hardly can be criticized in the name of "no taxation without representation".  It is a tax on the recipient of the income , the lucky winner chosen by the lottery of birth.
Neither there is a concern for double taxation. Its similar to the sales tax which is paid out of the income which has already being taxed.

There are number of arguments for inheritance taxes:
  • Firstly, they promote fairness and equality. It is morally legitimate, as the heirs have rarely done anything to deserve the money that comes their way. 
  • Secondly, they are going to definitely fill up the Government coffers and increase the tax base and in turn overall tax revenue.
  • Thirdly, parents would focus on increasing the capability by investing in children's educational and social skills, rather than spoon feeding with the silver spoon. They would hardly prefer a depreciating lump sum package over a self sustainable skill set to their children.
  • The parents who choose to leave a truckload of money for their successors, tempts them to lead an unproductive life with the easygoing money they already have access to. There are numerous examples of such rich brats. Studies have revealed that easy access to unearned wealth destroys the incentive to work and to experiment - one of the reasons the wiser among the super-wealthy are generally careful to limit the money they leave to their children and make them financially prudent by themselves
  • It would further reduce the gender divide. Since  in a country like India, inheritance rights are still limited despite having all the laws in place
  • they are progressive in nature, hardly hurting the lower rung of society. Its in the nature of direct taxes, which is supposed to increased for a developing economy
  • This might be a potential stimulant for the economy. If people know that they have to pay taxes with exorbitant rates on their money to be left behind. they’ll be more likely to spend it when they’re  alive.
  •  In fact, inheritance tax is a life saving tax: it promotes social mobility, uniformizes the opportunity, limits the inherited advantage, redistributes wealth
  • It would definitely reduce the greed to earn more and more and save more and more for future generation. The distinction between luxury of oneself and luxury of future generations bridles more corruption
  • Last but not least, more property would have to be sold while inheriting to pay the tax. It might ease the house-price inflation and giving people the chance to buy property by having higher liquidity

Its interesting to note that inheritance tax, which was known in India as ‘estate duty’ and is imposed on the property passed to an heir, was brought in effect in 1953 and abolished by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985 as it failed to reduce wealth inequality.

International scenario
Estate duty or inheritance tax is there in most of the developed countries like US, UK, Japan, France etc. and the taxes in these countries are as high as 50-55%. Countries such as the UK and the US already have inheritance tax in place. In fact, the US has three types of taxes on estates/assets being passed on to the next generation, which are, Gift Tax, Estate Tax and Inheritance Tax. 
However, these countries have a structured social security and retirement plan in place. 

Which safeguards to be kept in mind while implementing it?
No policy can be without its potential shortcomings, loopholes and disadvantages. We need to analyze it from Indian angle too.
Rich/HNI always get their own way, its necessary to plug those loopholes. The threshold can be kept higher(more than 10 crores) and reasonable tax rates so as to prevent the burden on the middle class. The implementation can come in phases. There should be robust mechanism which can be used to validate the real asset holdings. Digitisation of property, pan coverage of such records is necessary for that.

Those countries who have kept in place this system, have robust social security system. Indian concept of Hindu undivided family is the only existing full proof social security as on date. Indian government should think about this pressure on individual against the future uncertainty. Robust social security system is the demand of time

There is the risk that heirs will be forced to sell homes as soon as inheritance happens. It can be mitigated by allowing them other channels to pay the taxes gradually rather than by immediate sale.

This transition should be smooth and step by step so as to accommodate the upheavals which may result. Target the wealthy by setting a meaningful exemption threshold. Second, close loopholes for those who are caught in the net by setting a flat rate. With the revenue generated by higher inheritance tax, reduce other taxes like surcharges and cesses.

However, since the politics trumps economics mostly. This economic measure has to make its way out after passing through many tests- and a strong will for redistribution of wealth is needed for the same.

(Don’t) Waste the Thunder, Recycle

6:30 PM, I pressed the doorbell of my flat. As I was waiting for my brother to open the door, my eyes fell on a dozen cold drink bottles ...