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Archive for December 2011

The government’s bid to muzzle the Internet has stirred up a storm. But what exactly is it so worried about?

 

A war has been declared in cyberspace. The weapons of mass destruction are a spate of barbed posts that are being aimed at leaders of the Congress. “Kapil Sibal’s censorship Bill will be called Social Networking Inspection Act (SONIA),” says one post. “Before Independence, it was Queen Victoria who looted our country; now it is Sonia Gandhi,” says another.

For over a week now, posts have gone viral, in more ways than one. The government’s bid to muzzle hate messages on the Internet has unleashed a flood of similar messages.

Early last week, the media reported that Union minister of information technology Kapil Sibal had asked Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft to remove “malicious and defamatory content” against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

But the minister now stresses the government doesn’t intend to screen Internet content. “We had a discussion with them (service providers) on how unacceptable matter has been circulating in social forums,” he says.

The government has called for an “open discussion” on the issue on December 15. “We want the social media to put a proper self-regulatory mechanism in place,” Sibal says.

What exactly got the government’s hackles up? Though there are sites that are aimed at religions (Sibal told a channel that he’d been referring to sites that portrayed gods and goddesses in almost pornographic situations), the Congress has its share of detractors on the Internet. And in the line of fire are Prime Minister Singh and Gandhi.

Some of the hate groups against Singh on Facebook are “We Hate Manmohan Singh”, “Dr Manmohan Singh Worst Prime Minister Ever”, “Manmohan Singh is a puppet of Sonia Gandhi”, and “Gandhigiri: Get Well Soon Manmohan Singh ji”. The dozen groups on Yahoo and Facebook against Sonia Gandhi include “We hate Sonia Gandhi”, “I hate Sonia Gandhi”, and “Sonia Gandhi: Go Back”.

Social networking forums such as Orkut, Facebook and Twitter have always been platforms for unfettered speech. A sizeable section of India’s 2.8 crore Facebook users have also voiced their dissent — mild, strong or venomous — on the site.

“Online forums are for all — not just for anti-establishment voices alone. If someone doesn’t like a post or comment, he or she can always post a counter-argument. It is the most viable medium in a democracy,” academic Nivedita Menon says.

The move has triggered a heated debate on the right to dissent, with some arguing that there is a thin line between disagreement and abuse. For instance, many of the comments against Gandhi and Singh on the Internet would be libellous if they appeared in newspapers or television. “Gali gali main shor hain, Sonia Gandhi aur uski party duniya ki sabse badi chor hain (The uproar in every lane is that Gandhi and her party are the biggest thieves in the world),” says one post. “Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi ney India loot li (Singh and Gandhi have looted India),” says another.

Many of the pages have doctored images of the leaders. In one, Gandhi and Singh are portrayed as a bride and groom; in another, Singh is shown hugging Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has a baby in her lap.

That the campaigns have their support is evident by the number of members and the frequency with which the “like” button — underlining appreciation — has been clicked.

Though most of the posts and pages are staunchly against the Congress — the Congress’s official websites were even hacked on Friday — the political affiliations of those behind the campaign are not always clear. Some of the pages have been supported by anti-Congress campaigners such as the group India Against Corruption, which led Anna Hazare’s crusade for the Jan Lokpal Bill. One page names as members Hazare’s lieutenant Manish Sisodia and retired intelligence officer M.K. Dhar. Both Dhar and Sisodia, however, deny they are members of any of the hate groups.

The posts and counter-posts on the “I hate Sonia Gandhi” page on FB — which has 921 members, including the group Akhand Bharat — tell their own story. “It is time for India to elminate (sic) the Indian Gadafi family,” says one irate user. “We hate Sonia Gandhi” has 1,379 likes (“She is a villein [sic] for India,” says one status update), while “Sonia Gandhi: Go Back” has 7,124 members. “Gandhigiri: Get Well Soon Manmohan ji” is liked by 1,216 people.

The Telegraph posted questions to the campaigners, but got no response. Only Akhand Bharat replied to a query with: “There is no hate group for Sonia. It is love for India.”

But the latest whipping boy of the sites is Sibal. Groups campaigning against him include “Kapil Sibal Sucks”, “India Against Kapil Sibal — A voice for freedom of speech”, Kapil Sibal — the Loser”, “I Hate Kapil Sibal”, “Kapil Sibal: Destroyer of India” and “Kapil Sibal is an Idiot”.

Even in the Congress, there are murmurs of dissent on the way the minister handled the issue. “His biggest blunder was that he cited examples of posts and doctored images of Singh and Gandhi,” says a party leader. “This has irked people as they see it as a stifling of public voices and restrictions on political dissent.”

The Congress now is on a damage control mission. “No government can even remotely police the unpoliceable,” says chief spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi. What the government wants, he stresses, is a discussion.

The discussions started in September when Sibal asked representatives of the service providers for an appropriate solution to abusive content in four weeks. Two reminders were sent to them in October but there was no response. Last month, the companies replied, saying they could do nothing because they adhered to US community standards.

What’s clear is that the government has been monitoring such posts for a while. Google, in an October report, says the Indian government wanted 358 items to be removed from January to June, 2011. Out of these, eight pertained to hate speech, 39 related to defamation and 255 were against “government criticism”.

Netizens believe that only self- regulation can work on the Internet — a position Sibal has now adopted.

“The Internet community can do the censorship on its own. Options to report spam or abuse are already available,” says Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society.

Online experts also stress that “offensive” is a subjective term. “What is offensive for one may just be fun for the other,” says Rahul Roushan who runs Faking News, a satirical news website that often takes potshots at politicians. Two of its most popular spoofs were on Gandhi and Singh. One had the headline “Manmohan Singh yet to call back Sonia Gandhi after receiving missed call” and the other said, “Congress authorises Sonia Gandhi to choose new curtains for party office”.

Roushan says he is ready to face legal action if he’s sued. “I respect the law of the land. I also clearly understand that we need to maintain civility and also cannot hurt religious and cultural sentiments,” he says.

Legal experts say there are anyway appropriate laws to deal with online abuse. Cyber lawyer Pavan Duggal points out that a person can be punished for three years if he or
she sends a message “by means of a
computer resource or a communication device, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or
ill will.”

But Sibal holds that the government is not interested in legal wrangles.

“We don’t want to get mired in long legal proceedings. Our intentions are good and we want the problem to be solved at the earliest,” he says.

Abraham points out that Sibal’s diktat is an extension of IT guidelines the government enforced in April. “It requires companies to respond quickly if individuals complain that content is ‘disparaging’ and ‘harassing’. If the complaint is valid, the companies should pull down the offensive information within 36 hours.”

And this usually happens. The Centre for Internet and Society sent notices to intermediaries on seven different occasions, saying it found specific user-generated material offensive. In six of the seven cases, the companies removed the “offensive” material.

The Congress’s reaction, therefore, seems over the top. In any case, the party and its leaders are not the only ones under attack. There are groups such as “Mayawati — not the daughter of Dalit but the daughter of daulat (wealth)”, “L.K. Advani Sucks”, “We Hate Narendra Modi” and “Oust Narendra Modi”.

“Last year, someone mischievously diverted the domain of our website to the Congress site,” says the Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT cell convener, Arvind Gupta. When the cell found that a fake account for party leader Arun Jaitley had been opened on Twitter, it complained to the police’s economic offences wing and also to Twitter.

“We never created a hullabaloo over it,” Gupta says.

The experts fear that with such moves, India is following in the footsteps of closed regimes that have tried to fetter the Internet. “It is silly that the world’s largest democracy
is joining the bandwagon,” says Abraham.

Nihita Biswas is 22, and Charles Sobhraj is 66. But what’s age got to do with love?

Charles crops up in the conversation as soon as we set the ball rolling. Coffee, I ask the mother and daughter, as they settle down in my hotel room in Kathmandu. Mother Shakuntala Thapa says yes, but daughter Nihita Biswas opts for milk. “I don’t drink coffee because I fear it will turn my teeth yellow like Charles’s,” she says. “I have asked him so many times to switch to herbal tea or milk, but he never listens to me,” she says with a smile.

The reference is to 66-year-old Charles Sobhraj. Biswas is his wife — they were married in jail, she says — and Thapa, his lawyer.

At 22, Biswas already sounds like a harried wife, weighed down by a husband who just won’t listen. “I call him stupid,” she says. “He trusts everyone but people have always let him down.”

Many would say it was the other way round — that people trusted Sobhraj, and he let them down. Described as a serial killer, bikini killer and serpent, he has been accused of befriending tourists — and then killing them.

But Biswas is unfazed by this. “He has always been misunderstood. I know that he is innocent. He cannot even kill a chicken, let alone a human being,” she says. “I have every reason to believe him but no reason to believe the others.”

As she reaches out for her glass of milk, she suddenly looks like the young college student that she is — in her spaghetti top and white slacks. Her dark eyes and round face hint at a Bengali connection. And that’s not surprising, for Biswas’s father was from Calcutta.

Thapa met him in Calcutta, and they were married when she was 18. The two studied law in Kathmandu. But their relationship was rocky right from the beginning and finally broke up when their son, Babu, was 25 and Biswas 15. “My husband barely stayed with us and eventually abandoned us,” Thapa says.

Biswas adds, “He has given us nothing except a surname.”

Thapa looks weary — the dark circles under her eyes speak of worry and sleepless nights. “It has been a traumatic experience for us for the past few days,” she says.

Late last month, the Nepalese Supreme Court upheld a verdict issued by the Kathmandu district court sentencing Sobhraj to a 20-year life term for the 1975 murder of US citizen Connie Jo Bronzich in Nepal. Thapa called the judges “corrupt” after the judgment — following which the mother and daughter, charged with contempt of court, had to spend a night in a police lock-up. “That was the most dreadful night ever. We wept all night,” says Thapa.

Life outside the lock-up has not been easy either. “The media alleged and my lawyer colleagues taunted me, saying that I had sold my daughter to Charles. At times, it is torturous, but I gather my strength to fight against all odds,” she says.

The daughter nods. “My mother is a pillar of strength,” Biswas says. The two are always together — Babu is mostly in India — and share a special bond. That’s why, Biswas stresses, she believed she’d stay single.

And then Sobhraj happened.

“I cannot explain my feelings for him in words. I never thought that such a man even existed. He is so unusual,” she says.

Biswas first met Sobhraj on May 5, 2008, in Kathmandu’s central jail. He was looking for an interpreter who knew English and Nepalese, and an acquaintance put her in touch with him. “We shook hands, and he addressed me as ‘Ma’am’. He looked deep into my eyes. I was awed by his aura,” she recalls.

Sobhraj gave her a long list of food that he wanted her to bring for him — chocolates, canned chicken sausages, French breads, guava juice and green vegetables. “The next day, when I met him with all this, he told me that he had not slept the night before thinking of me,” she says shyly.

Three weeks later, Sobhraj proposed to her. It was only then that Biswas informed her mother about their relationship. “When I heard she was dating Charles Sobhraj, I could not believe my ears,” laughs Thapa.

Thapa was eager to meet the man whose exploits she’d followed closely in the media in the 1970s. She met him, saw the “love in his eyes” for her daughter, and was convinced that he was the man for her. Soon, she was his lawyer.

But does she worry about the 44-year gap between the two? “My husband was just two years older and our marriage didn’t work. For a girl, it is always good to be married to someone who is older and more mature,” Thapa reasons.

Biswas has her own take on the subject. “He looks 10 times healthier than I do. And age is not a factor. All that matters is that he is loveable and caring,” she says, carelessly running her fingers through her hair.

I suddenly spot the sparkle on a finger. It’s a gold ring from Sobhraj, she says.

The two, she adds, were married on Dussehra day in 2008. “We had thesindoor ceremony — that is the most pious way of getting married in Nepal,” Biswas says.

Biswas meets Sobhraj almost thrice a week. He spends his time in jail reading books, listening to music — jazz, blues and even ghazals — doing martial arts and playing with his three kittens. “He talks about philosophy, relationships, politics — on everything. He has a great thirst for knowledge,” Biswas says.

Sobhraj, I point out, is believed to be a lady’s man. Doesn’t she fear that he’ll move on? “I don’t compare myself with the other women in his life. They are not in his life anymore because they did not deserve him. I am here because I can keep him happy.”

I am not surprised that Biswas was called a “rebel” by her teachers in Kathmandu’s St Mary’s School where she studied till Class XII. The second-year political science student says that she’ll never regret her decision to be with Sobhraj.

And the future, she holds, is not all that gloomy — despite the Supreme Court ruling. Biswas says a UN body has declared that Sobhraj was not given a fair trial.

He’ll be released one of these days, she holds, and the two will live happily ever after. “We will either live in India or in Paris,” says Biswas.

By now, our tea-time meeting has extended to dinner. Biswas bites into a piece of chicken and tells me the secret of the four Cs in her life. “Chocolates, cheese and chicken were the three Cs that ruled my life. Now there is the fourth C — and that’s Charles, of course,” she says, laughing heartily.

Some of Jharkhand’s up and coming steel and power plants are being built with the help of Chinese engineers. But the expats have an uneasy relationship with the locals and can’t wait to get back to their own country.

It’s a hot and sultry afternoon, with a power cut adding to the heat. Li Rui and Wang Pu have broken for lunch, and are playing a desultory round of weiqi, an ancient Chinese board game. Li, 41, lights a cigarette and looks around his room despairingly. “The temperature is unbearable and so are the living conditions. I would’ve never come to this obscure place. But the company wanted this project, and so I had to come,” he says. The temperature in his hometown in China’s Shandong province is a pleasant 24 degrees in June. “Life is so much easier there,” he says.

But it’s going to be a while before Li goes home. He is the deputy president of the Shandong Province Design Metallurgical Engineering Company Ltd — a Chinese hardware engineering firm which has been helping Calcutta-based Electrosteel Steels Limited (ESL) set up a plant in a village called Siyaljori, 22km from Jharkhand’s Bokaro Steel City. Li has brought in 120 senior engineers and five interpreters, including Wang, to set the ball rolling for the Rs 8,400-crore project.

There are 1,216 Chinese workers in Siyaljori, 30 per cent of them women. These include skilled and semi-skilled workers that the ESL has brought in through two other Chinese consultancy firms — the China First Metallurgical Construction India Private Limited and Ershisanye Construction Group India Private Limited or the 23rd MCC — to help build its steel plant.

A senior ESL official reveals that the project will be executed at half the cost with Chinese machineries and manpower. “To instal the machineries we imported from China, we needed Chinese hardware engineers,” says Rama Shankar Singh, director and plant in-charge. And Chinese help, he explains, is vital. “China produces 700 million tonnes of steel annually as against India’s 60 million tonnes. Chinese experts are employed to complete the project faster.” Siyaljori — a one-horse town, if any — doesn’t look like Chinatown. But for the last three years, Chinese men and women have been living there at a stretch for three to six months. The signs of the inhabitants are only visible inside their rooms, which have been decorated with red Chinese calendars, lanterns, chimes and candles. These are signs that recall home in a country several thousand kilometres away. Life, by all accounts, is tough.

“We start our day at 6am and end it after 12 hours with a three-hour lunch break,” says Xinnian Li, the director of 23rd MCC. “After coming back to the dormitory, there is no recreation. Even the Internet connection is poor.”

UNHAPPY LIVES: Chinese workers at the ESL construction site in Siyaljori. Pictures by Sonia Sarkar

The visitors live in a 40-acre campus, 8km from the plant, in single rooms in a complex that resembles military barracks. The rooms are furnished with a bed, a table, a sofa and a cupboard. Each barrack has a few air-conditioned rooms for the bosses. The three Chinese contingents have their own canteens, and two have Chinese cooks. The evenings, the workers say with the help of interpreters, are mostly dull. Sometimes they play volleyball, and occasionally they watch a Chinese film, clustered around a laptop. Some try to beat their loneliness by listening to Bollywood music.

“Though I don’t understand the language I love the rhythm,” says 28-year old Net (he uses only his first name), the HR manager of 23rd MCC. ESL buses ferry the workers to and from the construction sites. The dormitories are guarded by 36 police personnel round the clock and are under CCTV surveillance. That’s because the Chinese presence has provoked some violence in the area.

Entrepreneurs, though, are not complaining about the foreigners. About half a dozen restaurants offering Chinese food have opened since the ESL project started three years ago. “Our sales go up by 25 per cent on the weekends when they dine in our restaurant,” says Kartick Singh, senior captain of Seventh Heaven at Mahuda, 20km from Siyaljori. The restaurant even organises birthday parties for the visitors with cakes, chocolates and flowers.

Bokaro jewellers are happy with the visitors as well. “The Chinese like and buy silver, especially anklets and bangles,” says Prakash Singh, owner of Jewar India. Music shop Unique Collections is doing brisk business too. “The Chinese have been buying CDs of new Bollywood numbers — such as Sheela ki jawani and Munni badnaam hui — in bulk to take to China,” says owner Ritesh Yadav.

Spending freely isn’t a problem for the Chinese workers, whose salaries here are higher than what they’d get back home. “Our engineer gets a monthly salary of Rs 90,000, which is at least 20 per cent higher than China’s pay scale,” Li reveals, adding that semi-skilled Chinese workers get Rs 50,000 a month, almost double of earnings back home.

Siyaljori isn’t the only place in Jharkhand with Chinese manpower. Giridih- based Atibir Industries Company Limited, which is building a Rs 350-crore steel unit, has employed around 20 Chinese engineers in Mahtodih.

The Abhijeet Group’s Corporate Power Limited has engaged the Shanghai Engineering Power Construction Company for its 1,200-mega watt thermal power plant coming up in Palamau district. “The Chinese are hardworking, disciplined and focused,” emphasises ESL’s Singh. Yet what’s palpable in Siyaljori is the lack of interaction between the locals and the foreigners. Both the communities are wary of each other, and there have been skirmishes. “We have advised the Chinese to have minimum or no interaction with the locals,” says Bokaro collector Amitabh Kaushal. Security at the site was beefed up two years ago after attacks by villagers on the management and on some Chinese staffers. Saket Singh, Bokaro’s superintendent of police, says 22 criminal cases have been filed against the management and 50 against villagers. “To avoid further tension, we want to reduce the interaction between the Chinese and Indians,” he says. A police station has also been set up nearby to ensure peace.

Resentment has been brewing over compensation packages offered by the ESL management for acquiring land, and benefits the Chinese workers get that the locals don’t. The perception that the locals are being denied unskilled jobs has been stoking the fire, but the ESL and Chinese contractors claim that the Chinese workers are “skilled technicians of high quality” and not unskilled. Locals who do have jobs complain of a huge disparity in pay.

A Chinese carpenter is paid a monthly salary of Rs 30,000 whereas an Indian, says an Indian interpreter working there, is paid Rs 2,100 for the same work. “Unlike the Chinese workers, we are not given any uniforms, boots or helmets,” says Sanjay Kumar, a welder. ESL chief Singh, however, says this is not an issue the company can address. “We cannot interfere with the functioning of the Chinese contractors who pay their Chinese workers. Our labourers are paid according to our wage rules.”

Not surprisingly, with the hostile conditions, most Chinese workers want to go back home. “I am just waiting for my visa to expire next month. I will go and never come back. It is not worth coming back here, leaving behind the family,” complains Wang Xing, a carpenter. For the Chinese visitors, it’s been a summer of discontent.

 

Paris Olympics, 1900. India’s total medal tally: 2

Beijing Olympics, 2008. India’s total medal tally: 3

An additional medal in a span of 108 years is nothing to write home about. But India’s abysmal record in global games — barring the occasional cup in cricket — doesn’t surprise anybody. After all, when you think sports, you think of corrupt officials, crumbling infrastructure, frustrated players — and a host of defeats.

But now, after years of mismanagement and apathy, efforts are being made to boost sports. And some measures are in the offing.

A National Sports Development Bill is expected to come up in Parliament in its next session. If it gets enacted and implemented — there are seemingly as many detractors as there are supporters of it — India’s usual lament at the end of a tournament may turn into a cry of joy.

“This is much needed. Every organisation has to be answerable to achieve goals,” says former hockey captain Pargat Singh. Others are not so sure. “Whatever the sports bodies do should be their business and nobody else’s,” retorts Commonwealth Games (CWG) Federation president Michael Fennell.

What’s clear is that the country’s apex sports body, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), and 35 national sports federations — for long accused of patronage, coteries and corruption — are in for a shake up.

Among other things, the Bill proposes that:

No president of the IOA or of the federations can serve more than three terms. Other office bearers can stay on for two terms. And no one can continue beyond 70 years of age.

Polling in IOA and federations will take place through secret ballot. The process will be videographed. Twenty-five per cent of all seats in sport bodies should go to prominent sportspersons.

Federations will also have to submit a long-term development plan every four years to the government.

A national sports ombudsman will address issues of sexual harassment and corruption.

Many believe that one reason Indian sports have never taken off is the fact that the federations, established to promote sports such as hockey, athletics, wrestling and football, are mostly headed by politicians and bureaucrats who have little to do with the game but have been sticking to their posts for long years.

The Archery Association of India, for instance, has been headed by V.K. Malhotra of the Bharatiya Janata Party for the past 32 years. Satish K. Sharma of the Congress has been steering the Aero Club for 24 years. CWG secretary Lalit Bhanot held the secretarial post in the Athletics Federation of India for 15 years. Former CWG chairman Suresh Kalmadi has been the IOA president for 17 years (see box).

Limiting their terms, many believe, will cleanse the system. “This is one of the first steps we have taken to do away with corruption in sports bodies,” stresses Union sports minister Ajay Maken, who mooted the bill.

Indeed, it has often been argued that some federation heads feel if they can’t be ousted, they are not accountable to anybody. And that leads to a host of negative factors.

For one, slackness sets in. “And slackness is detrimental to the development of any sport,” warns former badminton champion Prakash Padukone, who thinks even three terms is too long a period for presidents.

Stagnation, adds former billiards champion Michael Ferreira, is another problem. “As one gets entrenched in one position for years, the ‘hardening of the arteries’ syndrome emerges and it becomes increasingly difficult to be nimble,” he says.

Many, on the other hand, think the proposal is undemocratic. “We strongly oppose it. This kind of bill exists nowhere in the world,” says wrestling federation president G.S. Mander, who is serving his fourth term in office.

But the move is not new. National sports guidelines introduced by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975 stated that office bearers would not be allowed to serve more than two consecutive terms. The rules, however, were flouted by federations, while the ministry looked the other way.

In 2010, then sports minister M.S. Gill issued fresh guidelines and set new norms to deal with age fraud, corruption and doping — which are now a part of the bill.

Despite all this, the bill is just one small step forward. Experts point out that unless money is poured into federations and sports — and utilised well — the medal tally in world events is unlikely to change dramatically.

The government believes it is addressing the issue of money as well. The minister points out that federations have to now prepare a four-year development plan, spelling out details of what they are doing for sponsorships, marketing and promotion, along with their plans for coaching, the development of clubs and providing facilities and equipment.

How far that’s going to help bringing in money is anybody’s guess. After all, for a game to flourish, budgets have to spill into crores of rupees. The Indian cricket industry, for instance, clocks an annual turnover of Rs 5,000 crore. That of golf is pegged at some Rs 3,000 crore, according to the Professional Golf Tour of India, an organisation that oversees the sport. But this figure includes golfing real estate development, sponsorships for apparel, equipment and accessories, besides prize money. Yet the prize money offered at golf tournaments in India is still peanuts.

And cricket really took off after private enterprise stepped in with big bucks. The last Indian Premier League round of matches fetched Rs 3,500 crore in sponsorships, advertising and prize money, according to some estimates.

Most sports outfits in India also depend on government funding, which has always been limited. The government’s sports budget dipped from Rs 3,315.67 crore last year (when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games) to Rs 1,121 crore this year.

And even this money tends to get lost in transit. Rahul Mehra, who filed a petition in the Delhi High Court in 2009 questioning the long tenures of federation office bearers, stresses that money often doesn’t reach the right quarters. Insiders recount numerous instances of misuse of funds: money allotted for a sport being spent on federation elections; money meant for sports funding lavish parties; sums earmarked for athletes never reaching them and so on.

“When I started my career in 1994, there was no boxing ring in Haryana,” says boxer Akhil Kumar. “We used aluminium pipes to make a temporary ring. We wore jute gloves instead of leather ones. The federation had been given the money to meet our basic needs, but we got nothing.”

Now, federations will have to submit audited financial accounts and will be answerable to Parliament.

But the BJP’s Malhotra believes the ministry is “over-stepping” its limits. “Our accounts are checked by the comptroller and auditor general of India. We are not answerable to the ministry,” he says. “We fund them, so we need to see their accounts,” retorts a senior ministry official.

A body, the government warns, can be derecognised if it fails to comply with the rules. “Upon withdrawal of recognition, the federations will not receive any assistance from the government and will have to forego the right to regulate the sport in India,” says Maken.

Already, the move is being challenged by the sports groups. The IOA posted an online response on its website, saying that sports federations were recognised by the IOC, and such recognition “cannot be subjected to recognition given by the government.”

But those on the field maintain that these provisions work only when there is talent. A former sports minister stresses that unless India discovers hidden talent at the village level — and then trains them professionally — it will never be able to come up with world-class sportspeople. China, for instance, identifies talent in schools and then provides them with world-class facilities for practice. The erstwhile Soviet Union started zeroing in on children when they were seven. If they showed talent by the time they were 10 or 11, they would be made to join one of 5,000 junior sports schools after regular classes. The most skilled young Russians were enrolled in one of 600 Olympic reserve schools.

“Catch them young should be our theme,” says the former minister. India, he says, should have a “talent identification programme” for determining potential in schools and colleges.

But identifying talent is not the same as nurturing it. Sportswomen often complain about coaches or officials who ask for sexual favours in exchange for sporting opportunities — a grouse that the government is dealing with. The bill states such complaints will be addressed by a national sports ombudsman. “We barely get a chance to communicate with federation bosses and put across our grievances. An ombudsman would certainly help,” says boxer M.C. Mary Kom.

The provision would help resolve issues such as the T.S. Ranjitha case. Last July, the hockey player publicly accused her coach and Olympian Maharaj Kishan Kaushik of sexual harassment. The case is still dragging on.

Despite all the goodies that the government has in its bag, what’s surprising is that it doesn’t take into account the Sports Authority of India (SAI), which looks after infrastructure and organises tournaments.

“Regulating sports federations will not get us anywhere. It should regulate the functioning of SAI,” says former hockey federation president K.P.S. Gill.

In fact, poor or underutilised infrastructure is the bane of sportspeople. Shooter Jaspal Rana points out that expensive sophisticated equipment is lying unused in the Karni Singh Shooting Range for want of bullets. Less than six months after the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the range — with dirty floors and badly maintained stairs — underlines gross negligence.

Maken, however, insists that all will be well soon. Tenders are being floated for the cleanliness of stadiums. “We have also set up a consultative committee to deal with infrastructure,” he says.

Anirudh Burman of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, who has been studying the bill, argues that what federations need are targets — such as the number of medals in a particular event or sport. “In the absence of targets, it is questionable what these sports bodies will finally achieve.”

Maken, however, believes that medals will follow if the reforms are put in place. “Medals are the net result of the process,” he adds.

The countdown has just begun.

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When Delhi decked up for the Commonwealth Games, its sportspersons were practising in makeshift camps.

Sanjana Nayak has a dream. She wants to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games next year. But Nayak can see her hopes ebbing away. With just a year before the Games open in Delhi, the medal-winning gymnast is still looking around for a place to practise.

The Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium (IGI), which has the sole gymnastic training camp run by the country’s apex sports body, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), has been closed for the past two years for renovation leading to next year’s mega event starting on October 3. Players have been asked to practise in a government school in east Delhi but the school lacks even basic equipment such as uneven bars and spring boards. “I want to win at least a silver medal for my country, if not a gold. But now I doubt that it can ever happen,” says Nayak, who won the bronze in the 49th Senior National Gymnastics Championships in January this year.

Nayak is not the only one in despair. Players from different disciplines have been complaining about the lack of basic training set ups in Delhi. All the major stadiums — the Jawaharlal Nehru Sports Complex, Talkatora, Shivaji, Chhatrasal and Major Dhyanchand — have been closed for the past two years for renovation before the Games. Players are practising in makeshift camps.

The government, surprisingly, is not greatly worried about the impact of shut stadiums on the performance of the players. “At present, we are concentrating on the physical infrastructure and nothing else,” asserts Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit. “Since Delhi is the host city, we have to make sure that everything — from the stadium to transport and hospitality — is perfect,” she says, suggesting that players make use of facilities in Delhi suburbs.

The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) has not set any deadlines for the host country on opening up venues, but for both the Manchester and Melbourne games, hosted in 2002 and 2006 respectively, the playing grounds had been opened a year before the event.

Delhi is nowhere near any of its predecessors when it comes to practice grounds. Take the case of 20-year-old athlete Vipin Kumar, who won silver medals at the Delhi State Athletic Championships in 2007 and 2008. Kumar practises at the Lodhi Gardens in central Delhi every day. The park may be huge, but has no other facilities, such as a proper running track, that athletes need.

“The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium had two synthetic tracks which are essential for an international event. Since it has been closed for renovation, the only choice athletes are left with is the SAI-owned Central Secretariat grounds in south Delhi,” says Kumar. “Though it has a normal track, the field is full of potholes that can lead to injuries. So I avoid going there,” says Kumar, one of the probable athletes for the Games.

India won the bid for hosting 2010 Games in 2003. Six years later, players feel that little has been done to help or train them. As the Games near, the government seems set on finishing all the pending work. But while it focuses on completing its projects, the players complain that they are being sidelined.

“By 2010, the stadiums will be ready — but not the sportspersons,” says Pramod Kumar, Vipin’s coach and also a gold medalist. “There is no time to groom players to compete at the international level even if the stadiums open anytime soon.”

Kumar’s concern is justified if one goes by India’s performance record in athletics at the Commonwealth Games so far. Milkha Singh is the only Indian to have won a gold medal — way back in 1958. For the forthcoming Games, India is eyeing 141 medals, including 47 golds, in athletics. But old sprinters like Milkha Singh think it’s an “impossible” mission.

“It is heart-rending to see that not a single athlete could win a gold medal in the past 50 years after me. Athletics is an extremely important sport in the Commonwealth Games with the UK, Australia and Africa being the toughest competitors,” he says.

Clearly, the game is only as good as a player’s performance. And, Singh stresses, the interest in the Games and the number of spectators will wane if India doesn’t win a fair number of medals. “Looking at the present state of affairs, I have no hopes.”

Boxing, which is a game where Indians are expected to fare well, doesn’t present a rosy picture either. India, which won five medals including a gold, two silvers and two bronzes in boxing in Melbourne, has been hoping to bag 44 medals in the sport.

“The government has conceived big dreams for us, but the effort they are putting in to make these dreams come true is too small,” says Satinder Kumar, who won a gold at the Junior Asian Championship 2006 and a silver in the International Boxing Tournament in Russia this year. “There is no future for us,” says Satinder, who has been practising in a boxing ring in a government school for the past few days.

Celebrity boxer Vijender Singh, who won silver medals in the Beijing Olympics 2008 and a bronze in Melbourne, says he is shocked to see the “pathetic treatment” being given to sportspersons. “Nothing has changed since the last Games. I didn’t get any facilities then, and our juniors are not getting them either. The Delhi government received around Rs 400 crore from the centre for the preparation of the Games, but where the money has been invested is a big question. Nothing has been done to improve facilities for the players,” he says.

The government, adds award-winning boxer Raj Kumar Sangwan, should have come up with other arrangements for the players before closing down the existing stadiums.

Commonwealth Games Federation chief Michael Fennell agrees. “It is the responsibility of the local sports bodies, especially different federations, and the government of the host country to make adequate alternative arrangements for the home players,” Fennell told The Telegraph from Jamaica before arriving in Delhi for talks with the government. “We encourage the host country to prepare their players in a way that they give their best on their home turf. But we leave it to the host country how to do it.”

Needless to say, the host country has done little so far. A top Indian shooter complains that though Delhi shooters do not have an electronic range to practise on, India hopes to win 120 medals. In Melbourne 2006, Indian shooters won 26 medals — the largest number of medals for the country in the event.

“The Karni Singh Range at Surajkund in Faridabad has the only electronic range available in the national capital region. Now that it’s closed for repairs, shooters have to make do with the shooting range at the Siri Fort Sports Complex, which runs with the aid of a manual pulley,” he says.

But Organising Committee (OC) officials reiterate their promise to open the venues “well in time”.

“It is true that the facilities now available for the players are not of a ‘high’ standard but they are good enough for the players to groom themselves. All Commonwealth venues will be perfectly ready 10 months before the event,” says OC secretary Lalit Bhanot.

The players would find that funny — if they weren’t so busy finding alternative practice grounds.

How Commonwealth Games had threatened to bring life to a near standstill in the capital.

Mani Shankar Aiyar has made quite a few new friends in Delhi. The member of Parliament may well have irked the Congress with his critical comments on the Commonwealth Games but, like him, the Delhi denizen can’t wait for the event to get over. The much touted Games threaten to bring life to a standstill in the city. From office commuter to construction worker, from panhandlers to schoolchildren, people are already reeling under the weight of the Rs 11,494-crore extravaganza. Here are some who are, or will be, affected by the Games, estimated to attract 1,00,000 international visitors and 5,000 sportspeople.

LIFE IS UGLY

For the average Delhi resident, life’s gone topsy-turvy. Construction on the roads is leading to traffic jams which mean long commuting hours. The city’s popular downtown market spot — Connaught Place — is like a war zone, with deep craters everywhere. Digging across the city — for new roads, flyovers, metro lines and pavements — has led to disconnected phone and Internet lines in many areas. Bus stops have been dismantled and parking areas are being taken over by civic authorities for the Games.

Though chief minister Sheila Dikshit promises that all rubble will be removed, people are more worried about the bigger inconveniences they’ll face during the 12 days of the grand event, beginning on October 3.

Major roads will be blocked to ease the movement of delegates from one venue to the other. Schools have been ordered shut from October 1-17 to ensure no school buses ply on the roads during the Games, disrupting traffic. Some schools cut down on their summer vacation to factor in the October break. “We are also working on Saturdays to make up for the loss,” says Tagore International School principal Madhulika Sen.

EXTRA WORK, LOW WAGES

Sixteen-year-old Arjun Ahirwal is gulping down his lunch — daal and chawal— in the tiny makeshift brick hut he shares with four others at the Games Village on the banks of the Yamuna. He has been working for five hours, from eight in the morning, and is ravenous. After an hour-long break, he will be back to carrying sand and breaking bricks till 6pm. The unskilled labourer from Jhansi, Madhya Pradesh, gets Rs 130 for eight hours of work — much less than the Rs 203 fixed by the Delhi government.

Since he is not registered with the Delhi Construction Workers Welfare Board (DCWWB) — which is mandatory for construction workers — he cannot fight for his wages, or ask for the health and other benefits he is entitled to. “The contractors deliberately do not register these labourers to deprive them of their benefits,” alleges lawyer Colin Gonsalves, who has been fighting for the workers on behalf of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) in court.

Responding to a PIL filed by the PUDR, the Delhi High Court in February ordered the state government to register 17,000 labourers. But the Delhi Legal Services Authority, which is monitoring the registration process, says that only about 10 per cent of them have been registered so far.

The chief minister insists that the workers’ problems will be resolved. “The labour commissioner will look into issues such as safety and living conditions, and necessary measures will be taken,” she says to The Telegraph. But she adds that the registration of migrant labourers will take more time.

The sight of children working at the sites is not uncommon either. Chhotu, 14, says he came to Delhi with his uncle from Muzaffarpur in Bihar five months ago. He carries sand and cuts bricks at the Village site. The Games authorities pass the buck when questioned about the violation of labour laws. “It is the job of the employer — realtors Emaar MGF and the Delhi Development Authority — to look into labour issues,” says CWG organising committee secretary general Lalit Bhanot.

WHERE IS MY HOME?

School had just begun when it was brought down. “They crushed our classrooms,” says 12-year-old Lakshmi, who saw the bulldozers — put into operation by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) — three years ago. The school, close to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium where many events will be held, has given way to a parking area. Lakshmi’s home, in a nearby slum, has been demolished as well. She now lives in another slum in Jahangirpuri, some 22 kilometres from where she used to reside.

Civil society groups say more than 40,000 families in different slum clusters across the city have been evicted and their homes demolished for new parking lots. And no one has been rehabilitated. “Since these clusters came up after 1997, the families were not covered under the rehabilitation policy of our Slum and Jhuggi Jhopri department,” says MCD spokesperson Deep Mathur, who insists that the total number of affected families is not more than 10,000.

These evictions are illegal, retorts Miloon Kothari, the executive director, Housing and Land Rights Network’s (HLRN), a non governmental organisation. “It’s a violation of UN guidelines on evictions, displacement and rehabilitation,” he says.

Beggars too have been picked up from traffic signals, put into mobile vans and packed off to beggars’ homes run by the Delhi government. According to a HLRN report, more than 50,000 adult beggars and 60,000 child ones would be removed from the streets by September.

But Diskhit says the move is to rehabilitate them. “Child beggars will be put into school and adults will be given an alternative for earning their livelihood.”

SALE SEAL

The city is being beautified, and street vendors are feeling the heat. Only registered vendors can operate in Delhi, but the problem is that out of an estimated 3.5 lakh street vendors, only 20,000 have been registered so far by the MCD, says Mukut Sharma, programme manager, National Association of Street Vendors. “The remaining vendors have been asked by the cops to wind up their business despite the existing National Policy on Street Vendors and Master Plan 2021 that allow us to flourish,” he says.

And while the clients of the vendors — a Rs 3,500-crore industry that sells anything from food to clothes — are equally unhappy to find them gone, Dikshit says the government has other schemes for them. “We plan to appoint them as daily wagers. Some women vendors have already been appointed for the job of carpentry and painting in one of the cultural parks in the city,” she says.

Critics, however, are not convinced. “The Games are nothing but a circus,” says Mani Shankar Aiyar. Architect K.T. Ravindran voices his concern too. “There was enough time for the government to do things more discreetly without causing any inconvenience to anyone,” says Ravindran.

NO RALLYING AROUND

Jantar Mantar, one of the few places in Delhi where democratic protests are legally permitted, has also come under the CWG scanner. Recently, the police and the New Delhi Muncipal Council, which governs the area, dismantled temporary shacks put up by protestors. “We want to show our city clean during the event. Jantar Mantar will be back in action after the Games,” says Dikshit.

There will be a winner in the Games who will tot up the maximum number of gold medals. But Delhi-ites know who the losers are — the citizens themselves.

British singer Amy Winehouse’s recent death in London shows how celebrities often fall victim to the dangerous cocktail of depression and drugs.

A heap of newspapers lay scattered outside her door. Inside, Parveen Babi lay dead. When alarmed neighbours called in the police, she had been dead for three days. Her foot had turned gangrenous because of diabetes. Torn by severe mental ailments, the actress — once worshipped by millions of fans — died all by herself.

That was in 2005. But years before that, it was clear that she was slipping away when the star of blockbusters such as Amar Akbar AnthonyNamak Halal andDeewar called the press to her Pali Hill house and courteously distributed copies of a statement accusing actor Amitabh Bachchan and former US President Bill Clinton of scheming to kill her. The shapely, sleek-haired star had given way to a plump woman with frizzy hair and tiny black protrusions on the edge of her face.

But Babi’s death didn’t really shock the Hindi film industry, which has seen the rise and fatal decline of several artistes. For many in the Hindi film industry, the untimely death of singer Amy Winehouse miles away in England only underscores Bollywood’s own tragic deaths. From actor-director Guru Dutt, who died in his room after a night of drinking, to his wife, the singer Geeta Dutt, who became an alcoholic, to composer R.D. Burman, who died a lonely death as his career plummeted — there are many who have succumbed to the pressures of success and failure.

Today, some industry insiders fear, alcohol has given way to hard drugs. A young actress whose parents are both in the industry has been trying to battle a drug addiction. Another upcoming star was caught buying drugs. Actor Sanjay Dutt, who suffered from serious addiction, is one person who has come out of this, perhaps not unscathed, but alive. For many others, however, death by depression — often aided by substance abuse — has been the only outlet.

“Depression is a deep rooted problem that exists in all strata of society. But the effects of demands on sensitive people in the creative field, because of the expectations that are thrust on them, are more serious, especially if they fail to live up to those expectations,” says director Mahesh Bhatt, who had a relationship with Babi, and made two films on their troubled affair.

Bhatt recalls that Babi came to him one day, shaking with fear, and rambling about a group of men who were after her. “I had never seen her so helpless,” he says. “She went to the US for treatment, but was never the same again. She had recurring bouts, withdrew into a shell and stopped interacting with the outside world.”

But the incident that shook the industry occurred one October morning in 1964, when Guru Dutt was found dead in his room. His friend and scriptwriter Abrar Alvi later recalled in a book that he had been drinking till late into the night. The next morning, when his bedroom door was forced open, they found him dead, with a glass carrying the residues of a pink liquid — dregs of a sleeping pill — next to him.

Guru Dutt and Alvi had often discussed suicide, says journalist Sathya Saran, the author of Ten Years With Guru Dutt  Abrar Alvi’s Journey. They had talked about how sleeping pills could aid death — and the problem of becoming unconscious while swallowing pills without dying. “I had even tried it once, and he had at least twice before,” she quotes Alvi as saying in the book.

“He [Guru Dutt] had worked it out,” said Alvi in the book. “He told me, ‘You must take it like a mother gives medicine to her child… crush the tablets and dissolve them in water.’”

Saran believes Guru Dutt was “depressive” by nature. “At one moment, he was full of life while the other moment he would be depressed without any reason. He attempted suicide a couple of times and that too without any reason. In the last days of his life, he used to drink regularly but never got abusive. He withdrew himself totally. He lost interest in everything,” she says.

But his niece, director Kalpana Lajmi, stresses that while he was a heavy drinker, he was not an alcoholic. “Guru mama was undergoing clinical depression. Every one knows that when you are depressed and consume alcohol and on top of it also take sleeping pills, you will automatically die of a heart attack. My mother tells me that my uncle died in a position that looked like he was calling for help.”

His wife Geeta Dutt, with whom Guru Dutt had a stormy relationship which many attributed to his closeness to the actress Waheeda Rehman, died in 1972 of complications related to excessive drinking.

“Geeta was a gregarious and chirpy woman but when one’s marriage goes wrong, everything else goes wrong,” says Lajmi. “Geeta was grossly misunderstood. She could not fight the demons and started drinking when Guru Dutt was alive and succumbed to alcohol at the age of 42. It was a case of incapability of self-control as far as she was concerned.”

Clearly, the deaths follow no regular patterns. For some, the end comes with depression on their journey downhill after they have touched the peak of their careers. Actress Meena Kumari, who was once the reigning queen of Bollywood, became an alcoholic over the years and died a dismal death.

“One reason people in tinsel town often become targets of depression is that they forget their own self because their life revolves around being somebody else on the screen,” argues Delhi psychiatrist Rajat Mitra. “They often lose their healthy self-esteem since their sense of self-worthiness is based on external factors such as fame and recognition. They feel debilitated when failure comes.”

One victim of failure was musician Rahul Dev Burman. When the music of 20 out of 22 of his films flopped, the talented composer fell into depression, recall Anirudha Bhattacharya and Balaji Vittal, the authors of the 2011 book R.D. Burman: the Man, the Music.

“Burman once told his friends that in the 1970s and early 1980s, his evenings used to start at midnight as he used to be neck deep in work all day long. That was when producers used to line up in front of his house for meetings,” says Bhattacharya. “But from the early 1990s, his evenings started at 6pm as there were barely any visitors.”

Vittal recalls that in 1989, when he underwent open heart surgery in London, there was no one by his side. He died five years later, ironically when his last film — 1942 Love Story — had resurrected him as a music director of immense talent.

In an industry which worships success and kicks at failure, Burman had few friends left when his music stopped working its magic. At a function to release an album by actress Leena Chandavarkar and Amit Kumar, he was despondent when asked if he was planning to attend a mega party being thrown by a top producer-director, for whom he had composed many a hit song. “He has not invited me, though I was his favourite at one time, just because my music is not doing well these days,” he replied. He added that the director had dropped him after signing him up for a film and taken on another composer without even letting him know. “This is the film industry for you,” said Burman.

Sociologist Shiv Viswanathan points out that such depression is to be seen more in the creative industry than elsewhere. “There are more chances of an erratic creative person being pushed into depression because his creation can turn out to be a disaster despite his best efforts of making it a hit,” he says. “Bollywood stars have too many poignant erratic highs and lows in their lives. They have too many expectations which are difficult to meet and that makes things worse for them,” he says.

High expectations, Bhatt suggests, may have been the problem with Raj Kiran, an actor who briefly tasted success before disappearing. Recent reports suggest that he has been living in a mental health institute in the US. “Why Raj got into depression is anybody’s guess. He may have set high expectations for himself which he could not meet or maybe his mental illness was a genetically pre-ordained disorder.”

Actor Rishi Kapoor, who acted with Kiran in the 1980 film Karz, says he had been trying to locate Kiran for long. “He is a living example of how ruthless the film industry can be when you are no longer saleable and are in dire need of work,” stresses Kapoor.

One person who has been there and done that is actor Sanjay Dutt, who overcame drug addiction and returned to cinema with a bang. “I can speak from my own experience that drug addiction can take a toll of your personal as well as professional life. I plead that no one should get into the spree of taking drugs even for a lark,” he says.

But battling drugs, he says, gave him the strength to move on. “I have emerged stronger after that.” He, however, was one of the few who did. The others never lived to tell their tale.

(My colleague Jyothi Venkatest contributed equally)