Aarogya Setu App Has Brought Privacy Laws Under Public Surveillance Yet Again

On 25th May 2018, the European Union (EU) took the reins of data protection in the global digital economy with its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Internet users worldwide were faced with a brand new umbrella of terms and conditions that global technological giants scrambled together for GDPR compliance. A month earlier, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had already apologized for the Cambridge Analytica scandal with “…I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time…”

Facebook Apology for Cambridge Analytica
Facebook Apology for Cambridge Analytica | Source: Jenny Kane, Associated Press (ABC News)
App-Based Contact Tracing
Fig. 1 App-Based Contact Tracing | Source: Nature

Before the world was burdened with the Covid 19 pandemic and the surveillance of contact-tracing apps (Fig. 1), the maze of global data mining ensured a large percentage among digital consumers worldwide was happily unaware of the technological possibilities of location tracking and data protection. Simultaneously, there has been ample evidence globally of the vulnerability of technological information systems. As recently as April 2020, Zoom had photobombed meetings by uninvited intruders, Google is being sued for illegally collecting children’s biometric data, and multiple Android apps are obscuring malware and spyware distribution. With the uncertainty of Covid 19’s one-week incubation period, governments worldwide faced the issue of weighing public safety against individual privacy in trying to contain an unknown infectious spread. As a result, privacy concerns have entered the mainstream, and the possible ubiquity of Covid-19 surveillance has finally dawned on the global digital consumer.

 

According to MIT Technology Review’s Covid Tracing Tracker (Fig. 2), 4 countries among 22 which have launched contact-tracing apps have made installation mandatory for its citizens. Although India’s Aarogya Setu installation is a mandatory requirement only for travellers, Qatar has made it compulsory for all its citizens and Turkey requires installation for only those citizens testing positive for Covid 19. Among these 4 countries, China’s “health code” system on Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s Wechat has been ‘rolled out in more than 100 cities across the country’, and is ubiquitous for its extensive surveillance of citizens. The resultant worldwide privacy concerns have caused many social activists to question data protection and retention policies.

MIT Technology Review Covid Tracing Tracker (Flourish)
Fig. 2 Covid Tracing Tracker | Source: MIT Technology Review

 

Aarogya Setu - Bug Bounty

Despite the United Kingdom’s ambiguous response to Boris Johnson’s Chief Advisor, Dominic Cummings’ 419 KM excursion to County Durham, the government is quite clear about the necessity of Covid 19 contact-tracing. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has announced that its ‘test and trace system’ will maintain records regarding “personal data about people with coronavirus” for 20 years, with their contacts’ information stored for five years. In India, Mr. Robot-aliased French Ethical Hacker, Elliot Alderson’s exposé of security concerns about Aarogya Setu prompted the Indian government to announce its Data Access and Knowledge Sharing Protocol . Recently, Aarogya Setu’s source code has been released on GitHub, and a bug bounty was announced.

Of course, the vulnerability of global data information systems was confirmed recently by CyberNews’ security analysts when they discovered “800 gigabytes of 200 million detailed user records on a publicly accessible server” including data files ostensibly attributed to the United States Census Bureau. According to the CyberNews Team, “Certain codes used in the database were either specific to the Bureau or used in the Bureau’s classifications.” Unprotected databases are not the only global privacy concern. Data mining is often hidden among unnecessary app permissions or the terms and conditions of registration that generally users do not pay attention to. For example, on 27th May 2020, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich in the United States filed a lawsuit against Google for its “willfully deceptive and unfair acts and practices” regarding collection of users’ location information despite “Location History disabled” and “Web and App Activity.”

As governments join the global data surveillance for Covid-19 tracking, privacy concerns are no longer the limited purview of the individual consumer. The MIT Technology Review team which is “watching the Watchmen” considers Singapore’s Trace Together at the forefront of contact tracing apps with its decentralized approach, open-source license, and ‘opt-in’ feature. For the Senior Editor of the MIT Technology Review, Patrick Howell O’Neill, “The way forward is to ensure transparency in contact tracing apps in terms of data collection and retention. With the Chinese health codes determining movement in public spaces as well as private establishments such as offices and restaurants, contact tracing apps and Covid-19 surveillance is likely to remain a glaring reality in our daily lives for a few years to come.

Cover Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Digital Publishing Startups are Redefining the Industry as Amazon Maintains Lead

The pursuit of hygge during COVID-19 social distancing has forced the Tsundoko-afflicted to dust off the books in their homes, and prompted busy readers to boost e-book sales worldwide. With Amazon shifting its attention to ‘essential goods and services’ and independent bookstores suffering due to reduced footfall, digital publishing platforms and reading services are flourishing globally. According to Emma Charlton, fiction sales in the United Kingdom have had a 30% increase while sales of children’s non-fiction titles surged by 66% in the United States. Even as digital libraries such as Internet Archive and JSTOR have provided access to millions of books and journals, Seagull Books is offering a book a day to readers worldwide. The million-plus subscribed Scribd has also pitched in with free access to its library.

JSTOR - E-Book Offer
Seagull Books - E-Book Offer
Seagull Books – E-Book Offer

Although the COVID-19 lockdown has positively impacted the global e-book industry, publishing startups have been re-drawing the boundaries of the traditional printing press and conventional publishing houses for years.

BlondePlotters
The Blonde Plotters

My VLF, winner of Bookseller’s FutureBook Booktech Startup of the Year, is the global online literary festival. Launched in 2019 by The Blonde Plotters, Gwyn GB, Kelly Clayton, Deborah Carr, who found travelling to literary festivals expensive from their residence in Jersey in the Channel Islands near France, My VLF provides free access to thousands of books and author interviews, similar to a venue-based literary festival. Co-founder of My VLF, Gwyn GB says, “Although the award has not made much difference in registered users since it’s an industry award, the recognition has prompted new publishers and authors to get in touch with us.” The Covid 19 lockdown has also brought collaborations with publishers who had scheduled book launches, and cancelled British book festivals coming together for My VLF’s Big Book Weekend.

Lee Constantine (Publishizer)
Lee Constantine (Publishizer)

As with most startups, gaps in industry paradigms often precipitate identification of technological solutions. My VLF is similar to Notion Press which was established when engineers, Naveen Valsakumar and Bhargava Adepalley were unable to find a publisher despite friend Jana Pillay’s father owning a publishing house. According to Publishizer’s Lee Constantine, “96% of book proposals get rejected by agents and publishers… And many authors are left to navigate this process on their own… So Publishizer started as a way for authors to crowdfund their own advance by selling pre-order copies… All of these happens before the book is written, so it’s a very lean approach to publishing a book.”

Jasleen Khurana (Qwerty Thoughts)
Jasleen Khurana (Qwerty Thoughts)

Among start-ups taking the unconventional route in the publishing industry is Qwerty Thoughts. The social book-reading platform’s discussable format of a book enables readers to simultaneously interact with the text and other readers. Co-Founder of Qwerty Thoughts, says, “Every book is a virtual reading room. We have incorporated chat rooms plus live reading. So while you are reading, you can see who all are reading a book at that particular time. You can directly chat with them inside the book; and if you’re reading the same chapter, you can directly have a live chat on that particular chapter or that particular paragraph even which you are reading together”.

Richard Nash (Red Lemonade)
Richard Nash (Red Lemonade)

The range of publishing startups include publishing start-up veteran, Pothi.com, crowdfunding publisher Unbound, and photobook printer Binder. Co-Founder of Canelo, Michael Bhaskar’s list of publishing startups includes more than 500 companies worldwide. While many companies on Bhaskar’s original 2014 list have remained active, companies like Red Lemonade found it difficult to continue operations. Richard Nash of Red Lemonade, who was unable to raise the capital necessary for business development, explains that “One of the biggest challenges that publishing start-ups face in the East and the West is adoption cycles. It takes a very long time for publishing start-ups to scale… Any investor, they want to see activity on the platform.”

Shubhojit Chatterjee
Shubhojit Chatterjee (Binder)

B2B publisher and founder of photobook publisher, Binder, Shubhojit Chatterjee agrees that it is more difficult to retain consumer clients than business clients. Citing Pothi.com as an example of how long it takes to establish a publishing start-up, Shubhojit says, “customer relationship management is really important. Whenever a customer has an issue, we ensure we respond immediately to address their concern… And customers remember that we went the extra mile to resolve their issue.” 

 

Abhaya Agarwal (Pothi)
Abhaya Agarwal (Pothi)

Among the first Print-on-Demand companies in India, Pothi.com, has come a long way since it was established in 2008, with nearly 12000 print titles and 8000 e-books presently. Co-founder Abhaya Agarwal attributes the platform’s success to “word-of-mouth publicity. We have always prided ourselves on our customer service and transparency. Because self-publishing can be a very scammy thing… There are tons of companies making huge promises and charging large amounts. So we have always been very careful. we can under-promise and over-deliver but never the other way around.” Abhaya is also proud of being able to provide opportunities to unconventional authors including graphic novel illustrators through the Comix India collaboration.

Of course, Amazon, the tech behemoth that started the publishing disruption, is still going strong with “authors earning more than USD 300 million from the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select Global Fund in 2019, totalling more than USD 1.1 billion since the launch of Kindle Unlimited.” As Brian Heater & Anthony Ha assert, “Kindle can take credit for doing the lion’s share in changing our perception of what a book is.” As more publishing start-ups try to re-define the reading and publishing experience worldwide, the modern printing press of digital libraries and independent publishing is expected to incorporate more technological solutions that blend existing printing standards with innovations for the narrative of digital humanities.


 

With Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness, the British Empire’s Indictment Continues

Combined with the meanness of a pedlar with the profligacy of a pirate… Thus it was (that) they united the mock majesty of a bloody scepter with the little traffic of a merchant’s counting house, wielding a truncheon with one hand and picking a pocket with the other 

    – Richard Sheridan

 

Book Cover -An Era of DarknessWhen a 23-year United Nations’ veteran with experience at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UN for Peacekeeping writes about the colonial hegemony of England, how could you refuse? After his famous Oxford Union debate questioning Britain’s reparative responsibility towards ‘her former colonies’ went viral, Shashi Tharoor had publishers clamoring for a more comprehensive exposition. An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India addresses Britain’s ‘colonial amnesia’ with a perspective-laden history lesson for those unfamiliar with British colonialism and India’s struggle for independence. For those who are familiar with Indian history, the narrative is a trudge through known facts while waiting for Tharoor’s eloquent gems.

 

Thomas Roe
Thomas Roe

Writing as an “Indian of 2016 about the India of two centuries ago and less, animated by a sense of belonging morally and geographically to the land that was once so tragically oppressed by the Raj”, Tharoor meticulously breaks down the British Empire’s arrival and conquest of India, including its barbaric practices against ‘uncivilized’ Indians which were frequently rationalized with the stereotypical stiff upper lip, and the ‘consequences of the Empire’ in post-colonial India. Beginning in 1615 with the arrival of the first British ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, appearing in Jehangir’s royal court, the author traces the British Empire which had its precursor in the East India Company’s (EIC) trade expansion and the decidedly deliberate ‘looting of India.’ EIC’s expansion was ably supported by British soldiers who destroyed Indian looms and have even been alleged to “break the thumbs of some Bengali weavers, so they could not ply their craft.” While the 1857 Indian mutiny ensured the formal control of the British Crown, imperialist policies began as early as the late 18th century when the East India Company established ‘Mayor’s Courts’ in 1726. However, the supposed ‘rule of law’ established during colonial India refused to accommodate Lord Ripon’s attempt to “allow Indian judges to try British defendants,”

 

Tharoor systematically argues against British claims of providing India with civilizational tools of education and democracy even as ‘the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries’ laid the foundations of the United Kingdom’s thriving industrial development (Fig. 1). Economist Utsa Patnaik asserts that “between 1765 and 1938, the drain amounted to 9.2 trillion pounds ($45 trillion).” Tharoor also examines Empiric claims of enabling India’s political unity in detail including British expropriation of Indian royal authority and Lord Cornwallis’ ‘Permanent Settlement’ (1793) for 90% revenue from land taxation which exploited village communities in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa similar to the haciendas in Latin America. Neither is he convinced that British parliamentary democracy is suited for contemporary India which he feels “has created a unique breed of legislator largely unqualified to legislate.” 

Share of World GDP (0 - 1998 A.D.)
Fig. 1: Share of World GDP – United Kingdom vs India
Source: Angus Maddison – The World Economy

 

Of course, the fairly exhaustive examination of British colonialism does not fail to ponder over the ‘British Colonial Holocaust’ claimed by researchers to be a direct result of the institutional failure of Winston Churchill’s policies during the devastation of the 1943 Bengal famine causing the death of nearly 3 million people. Even Leo Amery, appointed Churchill’s Secretary of State for India in 1940, recorded Churchill’s famous ‘breeding like rabbits‘ quote when he pushed the British Prime Minister to send food supplies to Bengal.

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According to Tharoor, while the British Empire had forgotten India’s centuries-old historical legacy of cultural assimilation and the consequential embracing of English during its freedom struggle, Britain’s culpability in India’s intellectual subordination is evident in the nation’s 16% literacy at independence. Tharoor asserts that “it is striking that a civilization that had invented the zero, that spawned Aryabhata (who anticipated Galileo, Copernicus, and Kepler by several centuries, and with greater precision), and Susruta (the father of modern surgery had so little to show by way of Indian scientific and technological innovation even under the supposedly benign and stable conditions of Pax Britannica.” 

 

Even as Britain continues its frequent ‘self-exculpation’, barbaric colonial practices have been par for the course in enlightened despotism’ around the world. But the British Empire’s indictment came as early as 1839 when writer and spiritualist William Howitt said, “The scene of exaction, rapacity, and plunder that India became in our hands, and that upon the whole body of the population, forms one of the most disgraceful portions of human history.’ And as Horace Walpole sneered in 1790, “What is England now? A sink of Indian wealth”. Of course, the Kohinoor remains a British Crown Jewel to this day. Whether or not the historical territory of British colonialism in India is familiar to you, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India is a shining example of an Indian’s perspective of colonialism.

 

COVID-19 illustration on World Map

Socio-Economic Distancing and Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of Red Death

As the Wadhawans raced across empty highways to their Mahabaleshwar retreat, media professionals across the country were furious at the flagrant disregard for the national lockdown. Accusations of crony favouritism pointed at elite privilege even as migrant workers trudged across state borders facing the uncertainty of life and livelihood. The socioeconomic distancing caused by the infectious Covid-19 has been evident not just in India but around the world. As Lorena Tacco, an Italian factory worker is quoted in Max Fisher and Emma Bubola report, “Who cares about the workers’ health, while the rich run away”, the rich sit in their high towers, mostly unaffected it seeme, similar to the protagonist in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death

 

As was true nearly two centuries ago, socioeconomic status has afforded barriers to Covid 19’s indiscriminate spread around the world. According to Irma T. Elo’s analysis of ‘Social Class Differentials in Health and Mortality’, while “educational attainment influences occupational trajectories and earnings…many researchers in public health and sociology interpret the income-health gradient to be causal from income to health,” since a decent income often “facilitates access to health-generating resources.” But Poe, the quintessential twister of tales, had other plans for Prince Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death. Among Poe’s most allegorical works, the mid-19th century tale of social distancing delves into Prospero’s quarantine in a fortified abbey with more than a thousand royal compatriots and the celebratory mood-lifting party after months of isolation against the infection.

 

The Masque of the Red Death.jpegSet against the backdrop of the Red Death, a fictitious plague-like disease ravaging the populace in the kingdoms of Prince Prospero, The Masque of the Red Death explores the ubiquity of disease in the luxurious halls of Prospero’s royal hideout while his dominion outside, battles the burdens of widespread sickness. Describing the opulence of Prospero’s masked ball with its extravagant costumes and eclectic entertainment, Poe details the septuple imperial suite which served as the masquerade’s polychromatic venue. Furnished according to a particular colour theme, each of the seven chambers was lit by the stained glass in the Gothic window adjacent to each room, filtering light from torchfire blazing across the corridor. While the first six rooms corresponded to the colour of the stained glass in blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, the seventh apartment… closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries, and scarlet panes… was ghastly in the extreme. Brett Zimmerman considers the polychromatic symbolism as alluding to the journey of life, from “blue representing Neo-Platonic notion of pre-birth and birth,” to “black as gloom, woe, death, mental degradation, criminality, and red as disease or plague, along with a red-black combination representing infernal love, egotism, and possibly even damnation.”

 

 

Perhaps the seventh room’s ebony clock itself was the allegorical representation, its dreadful hourly chime interrupting the merrymaking as the orchestra paused, the masked dancers squirmed, and it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. Coincidently, Poe’s ironic clock resonates in the apocalyptic Doomsday Clock as it presently contemplates the end of the world at “100 seconds to midnight.” The seemingly prescient Edgar Allan Poe describes the final moments of Prospero’s masquerade when the clock strikes midnight announcing the arrival “of a masked figure (who) had out-Heroded Herod” with accoutrements resembling the countenance of a stiffened corpse… besprinkled with the scarlet horror of the Red Death.” The sight of Red Death personified filled Prospero with rage, and he shouted, “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him — that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!” Of course, that is not the end of Poe’s twisted tale! 

 

 

World Health Organisation - Coronavirus Tweet
World Health Organisation – Coronavirus Tweet

While the world grapples with Covid-19, it has already realised that although socioeconomic disparities can exacerbate the infectious spread, the virus is indiscriminate in its gong of mortality, as Poe stated a couple of centuries ago, “and now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night”, not unlike the coronavirus infection which had even the World Health Organisation fooled until January this year. There is still hope that the impact of Covid-19 can be curtailed, before reaching the pandemic devastation of the deadly Spanish flu in 1918, which killed more people than World War I at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. As millions cope with the havoc caused by the latest coronavirus, it must be said again– STAY SAFE! 

Tang Goucal on the Global Value Chain

“Asia should take its traditional position as thought leader of the world” – Dr. Rajiv Kumar, Vice-Chairman, NITI Aayog

Asia and the Emerging International Trading System or perhaps Asia AS the Emerging International Trading System, with more than 1/3 of the world’s population and more than 50% stakeholders in the global value chain, our (Asia’s) positioning in a post-colonial narrative has seen the global flexing of muscles with the US-China trade war causing flurried dialogues of geo-economic influences. Dutch Ambassador to India, Nepal and Bhutan, Martin Van Den Berg avers that “nationalist trade interests have turned to protectionism” and “negotiations are no longer about trade concerns but power politics.” According to Valentina Romei and John Reed who examined purchasing power parity (PPP) adjusted GDP data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), “Asian economies, as defined by the UN trade and development body UNCTAD, will be larger than the rest of the world combined in 2020.” While External Affairs Minister, Dr. S Jaishankar asserts, “Trade and other forms of economic growth are critical elements of creating more effective multipolarity”, Consul General of the People’s Republic of China, Tang Guocai suggests that “the spirit of global village comes before the global value chain.”

Even as the rising fear of Coronavirus has caused stock markets to dip and affected the free movement of persons, sovereign powers entangled in an increasingly interdependent financial network cannot ignore Asia’s presence as a growing skilled workforce and a mammoth market. For Pearl Group CFO, Sanjay Gandhi, the question is “how do you bring the continuation of business?” Dr. S Jaishankar suggests that, “Competing against those with structural advantages cannot be a casual decision justified by political correctness. There is interest in the world to create additional drivers of growth while ensuring a global strategic balance.”

20200228_180512.jpg

Held at the J.W. Marriot Hotel in Pune between 28th February to 1st March 2020, the three-day inaugural session organized by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Pune International Centre (PIC) considered the push-pull of the periphery towards the centre as represented by existing flaws in the international trading system and its multinational bureaucracy of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank, and the United Nations. Former Asst. Secretary General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, Lakshmi Puri asserts it is imperative to “change the unequal exchange as represented by the centre-periphery model of trade” for an “equitable multilateral system”

 

Aaditya Thackeray
Aaditya Thackeray

 

Featuring speakers ranging from government officials from India, Maldives, and Sri Lanka; industry leaders, international dignitaries, and diplomatic experts, the geo-economic conference offered a mélange of perspectives. While the Indian central government was ably represented by Dr. Hardeep Singh Puri (NITI Aayog), Dr. R.S. Sharma (Chairman, TRAI), Dr. Bibek Debroy (Chairman, Prime Minister Economic Advisory Council); Prof. Samir Brahmachari, founder Director of CSIR- Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology, provided the representative frontier of scientific innovation in India. Aaditya Thackeray, Minister for Tourism, Environment & Protocol, Govt. of Maharashtra, exemplified the next generation of politicians already at the helm of state affairs. International dignitaries included the Amb. Zhang Xiangchen (Chinese Ambassador to WTO) and ministers from Maldives (Uz. Fayyaz Usmail) and Sri Lanka (Shehan Semasinghe).

As talks veered towards WTO reforms, Dr. Harsha Vardhana Singh, former Deputy Director-General at World Trade Organization, stated, “Given the fact that the US is unwilling to move ahead with the solutions suggested by the panel led by David Walker, plurilateral consensus is essential.” Even as the multi-faceted economic perspectives of developing countries (DCs) work towards gaining a strategic balance between nationalist trade interests and regional cooperation, technological innovations are breaking barriers to trade and sovereign borders. According to Dr. Kishore Mahbubani, Founding Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Relations and Singapore’s former permanent representative to the United Nations, “Balkans of Asia have succeeded due to the open regionalism approach such as ASEAN”. Dr. Mahbubani also suggested that the balancing factors in geopolitical dynamics will be cultural confidence, the historical legacy of Indians succeeding and very strong domestic government.

 

Prof. Samir Brahmachari
Prof. Samir Brahmachari

 

While the Indian polity has restored its electoral faith in the Narendra Modi government, former Lead Economist, World Bank, Dr. Jayanta Roy contended that “India has been a hesitant globalizer” and “comprehensive trade and logistics facilitation” is essential for the country’s growth as a leader in the global value chain. Dr. Shailesh Kumar, Chief Data Scientist, Reliance Jio, who wants to “democratize AI” suggested that “We need to Olafy or Uberify these (technological) solutions” and enhance “integration between producers of technology and the farmer or patient.”

 

Amb. Gautam Bambawale, Hon. Hardeep Singh Puri, Aaditya Thackeray, Bhavish Aggarwal with Dr. Vijay Kelkar and Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar of Pune International Centre
Amb. Gautam Bambawale, Hon. Hardeep Singh Puri, Aaditya Thackeray, Bhavish Aggarwal with Dr. Vijay Kelkar and Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar of Pune International Centre

As the world battles with the ramifications of Coronavirus and its implications on the global value chain, the Asia Economic Dialogue has just begun towards a multilateral system that considers geo-specific factors in trade negotiations including differential treatment for least developed countries, fair international arbitration processes and dispute settlements, and the considered accountability of the expansive digital economy. Dr. Rajiv Kumar, Vice-Chairman, NITI Aayog, is certain that “Asia should take its traditional position as thought leader of the world… and it is unarguable that Asia’s economic status should reverse to before colonial times. The question is if the global economy is ready for it?”

 

Image Source: Pune International Centre

mumbai-urban-transport-project

Urban India’s Public Transport is Yet To Arrive!

Consider the state of public transport in your city – How accessible is the network of public buses or trains…How cost-effective in terms of your intended destination? If you live in an Indian metropolitan city which has begun metro operations, is the situation better or has it become worse? Then consider India’s financial centre, Mumbai, with a population of 13.9 million and a governmental budget sufficient for an additional INR 36 billion for the construction of the Shivaji Memorial in Arabian Sea. Compare to Tokyo, Japan’s financial powerhouse, with a population of 12 million residents. Despite recent upgradation of Mumbai’s BEST buses, the stark contrast of public transport systems in both cities is testimony to poor planning in urban development, rather than access to resources. While Mumbai has the second highest migrant influx per year after Hyderabad, India’s annual rate of urbanization of 2.37% has burdened the public infrastructure in nearly 500 cities comprising more than 70% of the India’s urban population.

 

Although capacity building has become a developmental norm since decades, instead of adequate development that envisions future needs, governmental projects for urban transportation have been playing catch up. Despite initiatives for city-specific Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority(UMTA) and the Sustainable Urban Transport Project (SUTP) including capacity building projects being implemented under various schemes such as Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation & Urban Transformation (AMRUT), India’s public transport system (Fig. 1) remains fragmented and lacking in meeting the requisite demand. 

Fig. 2: Mode Share in Various Indian Cities (2013) Source: Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs
Fig. 2: Mode Share in Various Indian Cities (2013) Source: Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs

 

wp-1579861111342.jpg
Rupa Nandy, Regional Head, UITP India (International Association of Public Transport)

According to Rupa Nandy, Regional Head, UITP India (International Association of Public Transport), the biggest challenge is that “there are no adequate public transportation systems that exist in India.” Combined with multiple authorities instead of a centralised authority, “seamless journey experience to the user” has been difficult to achieve. Although Kolkata (57%), Hyderabad (49%), and Mumbai (44%) utilize public transport than any other mode of transport, public transportation facilities in major Indian metropolitan cities are inadequate on varying parameters such as availability, frequency, capacity and fleet condition. Compare India’s population of nearly 1.37 billion to Singapore’s 5.70 million. Perhaps the hybrid challenges of developing urban transport can be addressed with best practices from Singapore’s development planning which has resulted in nearly 80 per cent of trips (4.24 million) in the country performed on Public Transport comprising of bus, MRT, LRT, Taxis.

 

To mitigate the burden of urbanization on infrastructure, the central and state governments have initiated multiple initiatives such as developing metro rail systems (Fig. 2) and technological integration through data sharing such as General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). However, inadequate support from the public transportation available in many urban agglomerations in India has resulted in the expansion of private vehicle ownership and shared mobility services, which has caused traffic congestions across multiple cities. According to NITI Aayog’s Transforming India’s Mobility Report, “Citizens spend almost 1.3-1.6x additional time in peak traffic for our top four metros, compared to 0.6x for Singapore and Hong Kong.” 

 

Metro Rail in India (February 2019) - Operational (642 KM) and Under Construction (691 KM) | Source: Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and Maps of India
Fig. 2: Metro Rail in India (February 2019) – Operational (642 KM) and Under Construction (691 KM) Source: Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and Maps of India

 

Adoption of technological solutions have been similarly fragmented. While Kochi was the first city to integrate GTFS data with the Chalo app for commuters, Delhi is rapidly integrating its public transportation system through initiatives such as the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System, mobile applications such as PoochhO and the Common Mobility Card (ONE). NITI Aayog’s Transforming India’s Mobility Report suggests that economic loss of congestion has been estimated “at over USD 22 billion annually for India’s top four metros.” In addition, challenges in India’s urban transport development include safety issues such as adequate installation of CCTV cameras, and enhancing accessibility for persons with disabilities through the Accessible India campaign. 

 

Despite multifarious transport development schemes being implemented, including the Pradhan Mantri Jal Marg Yojana (PMJMY)’s mission envisages creation of 110 new waterways across the country, the diversity of India’s urban agglomerations present hybrid challenges for transit-oriented urban planning. Even as Nirmala Sitharaman recently announced a INR 102 lakh crore national infrastructure pipeline, the Indian Government has already begun multi-administrative integration, beginning with Indian Railways’ restructuring through the Indian Railway Management Service (IRMS). While effective utilisation of technological solutions can enhance seamless integration in multi-modal connectivity, customising city mobility plans for mode appropriateness are essential to developing the transport infrastructure and ensure productive deployment of resources. Even as public transport agencies in various small towns and metropolitan cities of India compete with ride-sharing services such as Uber and Ola expanding across the country, the hybrid challenges of developing urban India’s existing public transport systems will require faster adoption of technological solutions and strengthening integrations between multiple operators and agencies around the country.

 

Cover Image Source: World Bank

GadgetWise – Smartphone Apps That Will Make You Smarter in 2020!

5 million apps! That’s how many options are available in the leading app stores worldwide in 2019. With Google Play Store and App Store listing more than 2 million apps, the consumer is not only spoiled for choice but uncertainty as well. As you wade through the multitude of choices in this digital maze, worrying about having enough space on your memory card (or maybe not), the criticism of ‘too much time spent on the phone” might not consider the positive aspects that smartphones provide in terms of productivity and personal well-being.

From educational apps to productivity enhancers, from apps which track your health or exercise/diet to options for daily motivational quotes or regular happiness assessments; the multi-million dollar apps industry provides customisation that might come at a premium but is often available for free. If you’re looking for the best, these are the most popular apps among those downloaded:

 

Educational Apps

Dragonbox Algebra
Dragonbox Algebra

For students grappling with grueling school schedules which are increasingly competitive, mobile apps can provide an edge in academic preparation. While content libraries such as Epic and Khan Academy offer a range of educational material including audio-books and videos, games like Dragonbox Algebra 5+ and 12+ ensure math-haters have a fun way to learn the dreaded subject. 300 million language enthusiasts love Duolingo for its Candy-Crush approach to learning nearly 35 languages.

 

 

 

Wolfram Alpha
Wolfram Alpha

Available schedulers include iStudiez Pro and myHomework Student Planner, and knowledge wizards such as Socratic and Wolfram Alpha provide problem-solving ranging from a simple history factoid to bewildering questions in categories such as mathematics, science and technology as well as society and culture. Last-minute exam preparation is easy with Quizlet which allows you to create flashcards for note-taking or speed-testing your memory along with the option of downloading from among 335,784,000 existing study sets. Desmos Graphing Calculator is even being incorporated into school assessments and testing such as the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress by state organisations. While apps such as Tynker: Coding for Kids and SoloLearn offer free lessons in computer programming, online learning platforms such as Meritnation, Toppr, Gradeup, and Coursera have apps for mobile learning. So, even if your kid seems to be wasting time on their phone, they could just be self-starters engrossed in an educational app.

Medical/Health Apps

BlueStarHealth management has been made easier with apps like BlueStar and mySugr for patients with Diabetes, along with options to manage your medication with Dosecast and CareZone. While Medimetry, Doctor Insta, and Lybrate provide online consultation services; Portea and Zoctr assist with home healthcare services. Along with facilitating diagnostic tests, Docprime, Practo, and Credihealth also make booking appointments with doctors easier.

Even as doctor consultations anytime-anywhere is the recent healthcare trend, advances in mobile technology have ensured portable medical testing such as ultrasounds by Lumify and skin cancer screening by SkinVision. Updated information about clinical trials worldwide is also available from Guideline Central and Clinical Trials Mobile for those seeking to participate. In case of emergencies, there are apps such as VMEDO and Medulance which you can rely on for booking ambulances and finding registered blood donors near you.

Exercise/Diet Apps

In 2019, more than 800 million people use fitness apps worldwide for calorie counting, workout companions, or barcode scanning for nutritional information. As the digital fitness industry grows exponentially, verifiable data is important for diet plans to work. Among the leading weight loss apps, Lose It! offers a personalised analysis based on your daily diet log (including ‘Snap It’ for tracking portion sizes) to provide a projected date for achieving your desired weight. With curated nutritional information about ‘7 million+ foods, restaurant items and brands from around the world’ and integration with fitness wearables, Lose It! is among the most user-friendly apps.

Lose It!
Lose It!

Similar weight-loss apps include MyFitnessPal which has the additional feature of a barcode scanner and FatSecret which includes community support. While Fooducate grades food items based on scanned nutritional information, HealthyOut scans nearby restaurants for healthy options. Leading workout apps include Map My Fitness, Nike Run Club, Strava, Freeletics and Yoga Studio. On-demand workout streaming is also available from NEOU. If the motivation Diet Coach (Android/ iOS) offers isn’t enough, you can sign up for Sweatcoin (in select countries) and collect sweatcoins for outdoor walking/running. The sweatcoin is a digital currency which can be exchanged for goods from its 300+ partners.

Productivity Apps

Trello
Trello

From organisers that remind you about your schedule to integrated task automation, apps for productivity depend on personal requirements. While Evernote helps with note-taking including “meeting notes, web pages, projects, to-do lists”, IFTTT (Android, iOS) is ideal for automating tasks based on an an “If This, Then That” structure. Organising to-do lists are made easy with apps such as TickTick which includes shareable tasks, with Trello and ToDoist extending to project management features. Trello’s upgrades (Power-Ups) provide enhanced workflow integration with third-party services such as InVision, Jira, Salesforce and Slack. Of course, Dropbox remains one of the most popular integrations for online storage and sharing.

Self-Care Apps

SuperBetter
SuperBetter

According to the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation (IHME), depressive disorders are among the top three causes for disability globally. Considering nearly 500 million people suffer from mental disorders worldwide, it is not surprising that self-care market is generating more than USD 10 billion in annual revenue. Apps to enhance well-being include gaming solutions from SuperBetter and Happify, meditative techniques from Calm and Headspace, and CBT mood trackers based on cognitive behaviour therapy such as MoodKit and Sanvello. While Breathe2Relax (Android/iOS) offers tips on diaphragmatic breathing for stress management, MindShift provides strategies for coping with anxiety. When all you need is a calming soundscape, Relax Melodies includes “100 soothing sounds and music” that can be combined for a meditative playlist. For that gentle reminder to ‘Rest, Hydrate, Fuel, Breathe, Move’, Aloe Bud is around to make sure you take care of yourself.

While the jury is still out about the accuracy of nutritional/healthcare information available on many apps, research suggests that apps which promote physical activity have been found to be generally effective. Considering consumer well-being in the digital economy extends beyond financial measures, the expanding app landscape can be harnessed to bring positive changes to your life. Whether tapping into a knowledge database or finding the fitness app that works for you, sometimes even a gentle reminder could be sufficient for self-improvement. 

List of apps mentioned in the report for your easy reference –

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E-Waste Scrapyard in China | Source: Greenpeace

The Modern Junkyard – Electronic Waste and the Right to Repair

44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste in the modern junkyard and 8 million tonnes of plastic dumped in the oceans ANNUALLY! That’s a lot of waste management each year.

Mapping out E-waste | Source: World Economic Forum

Mapping out E-waste | Source: World Economic Forum

With the global economy expected to be flush with 25- 50 billion electrical goods by 2020, it’s not surprising that policymakers worldwide are focused on waste management solutions. Considering that even solar energy’s photo-voltaic (PV) modules are likely to leave behind 90 million metric tons of waste by 2050 each year, the hazardous impact to environment and health is, as yet, not adequately discernible.

 

Woman Washing Clothes in Chinese River | Source: Greenpeace
Woman Washing Clothes in Chinese River | Source: Greenpeace

The concomitant environmental degradation is subject to measurable scrutiny, but nearly 80% of e-waste presently remains unaccounted for. Meanwhile, millions of tonnes are being shipped off to developing countries in Asia and Africa in a centre-periphery model that has existed for centuries. The Agbogbloshie dump near Ghana’s capital, Accra and Guiyu in China’s Guangdong Province are among the largest e-waste dumps in the world, with the Giuyu waste junkyard spanning 52 sq. km and more than 5000 family-run recycling workshops. In India, northern Delhi’s Seelampur is locked in a battle of noxious fumes in a city with the highest air pollution in the world.

 

Harmful Effects of e-Waste Dumping | Source: Greenpeace
Harmful Effects of e-Waste Dumping | Source: Greenpeace

Although “67 countries have enacted legislation to deal with the e-waste they generate” including India’s E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016, an increasingly developed world is characterized by new gadgets that are cheaper to purchase than repair. According to leading Right to Repair activist, Gay Gordon-Byrne, the trend is going to continue –  “Because the cost of manufacturing will drive those changes. People are competing on price at the retail level. So, you know, speaker A is a hundred dollars and speaker B is $200, and you can fix speaker B, but not A, Well, if you’re like everybody else, you could buy the cheaper one, right? Which is probably assembled with a lot more glue and a lot less mechanical fasteners, just because of the cost of manufacturing.”

 

With annual e-waste “equivalent to almost 4,500 Eiffel Towers,” the burgeoning Right to Repair movement is offering an alternative. While modern consumer culture engenders product disposability, 1,653 Repair Café groups held nearly 20000 meetings in 2018, repairing “more than 350,000 products” while preventing “around 350,000 kilograms of waste.” In India, the first Repair Café was organised in September 2015 by Purna Sarkar and Antara Mukherjee at Rangoli Metro Art Centre on MG Road, Bengaluru. According to graphic designer, Antara, “It’s a hands-on approach. Volunteers will help you with the repair, will tell you what could go wrong. Basically, get people interested… A direct way to apply your intellect.”

While the Indian Repair Café has not yet ventured into high-end electronic repair such as cameras, printers, and mobile phones, their 39 workshops have a 90% repair rate, with a landfill diversion of nearly 4300 kg. Most of the 1010 items at the Bengaluru workshops include kitchen equipment such as “mixies, grinders, hand blenders” and household items including “radios, cordless landline phones, and mosquito rackets.”

The Right to Repair Movement | Source: Great Lakes Electronic Corporation

The Right to Repair Movement | Source: Great Lakes Electronic Corporation

 

India is ranked as the 5th highest generator worldwide for its yearly e-waste of 2 million tonnes which is expected to grow at a rate of 30% annually. Despite 178 registered e-waste recyclers in India, the informal sector forms an unorganized industry within this circular economy in clusters such as Shastri park, Seelampur, Mustafabad in Delhi, and Moradabad in UP. Open burning and acid stripping are involved in e-waste recycling of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) such as PCBs (Printed Circuit Board).

 

 

As part of India’s e-waste strategy, “the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has developed indigenous technology at C-MET and Central Institute of Plastics Engineering & Technology (CIPET) for recovery of precious metals and plastics from e-waste respectively,” and implemented an awareness programme involving “more than 3 lakh participants during 600 workshops and activities.”

 

E-Waste Dismantling in Sangrampur | Source: Sean Gallagher
E-Waste Dismantling in Sangrampur | Source: Sean Gallagher

 

E-waste As a Resource | Source: Umicore
E-waste As a Resource | Source: Umicore

 

“More than 100 million computers are thrown away annually in the United States, with China discarding 160 million electronic devices a year,” according to The Energy and Resources Institute. Despite the Basel Ban Amendment for banning export of hazardous wastes becoming international law, countries that have not yet ratified the amendment include “Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, India, Brazil, Mexico, and the global leader in waste per-capita, the United States.” Simultaneously, the European Union recently passed legislation requiring manufacturers to adhere to ‘Right to Repair’ standards based on its ‘Energy efficiency first’ principle, while activists battle for similar legislation in the United States. For Gay Gordon-Byrne, “Legislation just takes a long time. That’s the number one challenge.”

 

While the Right to Repair movement gathers momentum worldwide, it is crucial that effective implementation of waste management legislation is as integrated as the global digital economy, very least, if there is to be any hope of reversing global environmental degradation and the resultant climate change tide!

 

The Perseverance of Dream Catchers

Veena Baruah
Veena Baruah

The golden years… When life has become a blurry montage of experiences, often tempered by patience in the face of obstacles and compromise in the midst of complexities, a different breed of senior citizens decides that it’s time to chase unfulfilled dreams. Veena Baruah’s retirement from her teaching job at Juhu’s Maneckji Cooper School got her thinking, “What is my unfulfilled dream, what can I do, what will give me satisfaction?” For many, retiring after decades of working years brings about a lifestyle change combined with elderly ailments. The routine likely maintained daily for decades of professional life suddenly requires re-scheduling.

Surjit Kaur
Surjit Kaur

Surjit Kaur joined Terence Lewis Dance Academy’s senior citizen classes, “I really wanted to learn dancing, you know, properly.” Among her proudest moments among various public performances is an appearance in Shah Rukh Khan’s Happy New Year promotional TV show. Since retiring, Surjit has begun participating in marathons such as Mumbai-Pune marathon, and in talent shows such as Umang.

 

 

 

Sailesh Mishra
Sailesh Mishra

The Silver Innings foundation and its annual talent festival for senior citizens, Umang, has helped many to shirk their inhibitions and perform in front of a cheering audience. Silver Innings founder Sailesh Mishra says, “Since 2008, we found many seniors who have left their careers, or lived their lives for their families, their society or nation… But they did not get a chance to explore their talents, their skills, their hobbies. That’s why we started Umang.”

Sailesh’s “social keeda” prompted him to leave behind 17 years as a corporate marketing executive and volunteer for the Dignity Foundation. As he realised the paucity of social welfare organisations “working for seniors”, Sailesh founded Silver Innings for elderly support and services. Silver Innings’ Umang, the Senior Citizens Stage Talent Show, has “people from 60 to 92 years participating.” Among participants, Navanita Parmar (78) has moved on to professional choreography for other senior citizens and children with disabilities.

 

Vaishali Joshi
Vaishali Joshi

For someone like Vaishali Joshi, dreams re-surface before retirement. A classical singer and an ex-Senior Accounts Officer with the Central Government, Vaishali, “passed Visharad in Hindustani Classical Music in 2004, when I was working only.” With retirement, personal goals emerge out of the shadows, put aside earlier for the hum-drum of monotonous work routines. Vaishali, who joined organisations such as “Senior Sobati and bhajan classes” post-retirement, found that senior citizen forums also provide the opportunity to explore hidden talents and unfulfilled interests. And the silver lining appears…Time to finally focus on personal goals and dreams, without the baggage of family or children.

 

 

 

Shibani Bagchi
Shibani Bagchi

 

For Shibani Bagchi, it means having the time to pursue her Masters in Social Welfare towards her PhD dream: “I want to work for children and women from the disadvantaged communities, and try to contribute towards bettering their lives in whichever way I can.”

Those who are not yet ready to part ways with their careers often search for job opportunities with service providers such as HUM Communities and NotRetired.in. Familial pressure, which extends to being the family’s primary care giver, often drives life choices for many, and retirement offers the perfect spark to re-ignite unfulfilled dreams. As Veena reminisced about her youthful desire to act, she was reminded that “my parents, my father especially, wouldn’t allow it.” When she finally decided to send a few photographs to a model coordinator, it took nearly 6-8 months to receive a callback, and the offers began pouring in. Of course, she hasn’t looked back since.

According to the United Nations Population Fund’s “India Ageing Report” (2017), the global elderly population will be approximately 2 billion, accounting for 20% of India’s population. While organisations such as the Dignity Foundation have been working for elderly care since the 1990s, a recent spurt of senior citizen forums include community-driven platforms like Parikrama and Silver Surfers. With the support of social welfare professionals, retirees such as Ramgopal Cancherla (69) find new avenues to spend their time. The former Head Sales & Marketing at Sanofi-Aventis, Ramgopal, has become a laughter coach.

 

Hira Mehta
Hira Mehta

Spare time in post-work years trigger unexplored hobbies. Since retirement, podcaster and former Corporate Communications manager at ICICI Bank, Hira Mehta has already authored “Twisted Tales and More…” in her 50s, made short films like The Selfless Soldier, and even pursued her acting dream in short films including The Blue Helmet.

Sailesh says, “Life doesn’t end at 60! After 60, you just get retired from your job, not your life.” Many dream catchers will agree.

Angel Child Sculpture

In The Aftermath of a Miscarriage

Miscarriage occurs in 10–25% (or more in older women) of all diagnosed pregnancies – Science Direct


When the joy of pregnancy gives way to a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), the suddenness of the traumatic experience can cause a spiral of grief, guilt, and depression. While the psychological ramifications the mother goes through is frequently palpable, the grief often extends to their partners and respective families. According to clinical psychologist, Daanesh Umrigar, “There’s a lot of stigma attached to it… Motherhood and death… Two basic things that cause a lot of conflict for the individual. Couples also tend to keep it hush-hush.” Media professional, Rizoota Kashyap Chaubey, was heartbroken after her miscarriage, but she says, “It got me and my hubby closer, to understand life and the importance of it.” For some, the trauma of pregnancy loss can extend for months according to the
International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, with miscarriages leaving in their wake “30 – 50% of women with anxiety and 10 –15% experiencing depression.” 

 

Anupama Maurya Chugh
Anupama Maurya Chugh

With 5 miscarriages in 4 years, it has been difficult for Marketing Merchandiser, Anupama Maurya Chugh: “I have done all required investigations. Every time, I followed all advised instructions; but every time we failed. Now I’m left with lots of sorrow and pain.” Umrigar has found that, “Often, they try immediately afterward… Two things:  ‘are they biologically ready and are they psychologically ready?’ and ‘even if the child is unborn, it does not mean that the mother has not internalized the grief.'” Despite the possibility that 1 in 4 pregnancies could result in a miscarriage, policy interventions facilitating psychological support are inadequate, and Sanghamitra Acharya suggests that “the support of bereavement arising out of early deaths does not form a part of any (Indian) policy including the Health Policy of 2017.” 

 

Priyanka Kumari
Priyanka Kumari

With a woman’s identity largely structured around motherhood in India, the psychological impact of social response to a miscarriage influences the woman’s experience of grief and is often a barrier to emotional recovery. Stepping out after almost 2 months since her pregnancy loss, Composting & Gardening coach Priyanka Kumari encountered “rumours… that she is careless, she is into all forest, soil trees, insect, and weird stuff, so she didn’t take care.” Priyanka says, “Neighbours were a little empathetic, but they too gave unsolicited advice. In my experience, out of 100, only 5 % people felt my pain genuinely and didn’t judge me, didn’t make stories.” Umrigar says, “Social reaction could lead to internalization of the grief.” Those experiencing recurrent miscarriage like Anupama have it worse with the stigma of pregnancy loss exacerbated in a largely traditional society like India.

 

In case of women from less-advantaged socio-economic sections of society, a miscarriage changes power equations within the household as well. Researchers Lisa Roberts, Barbara A. Anderson, and Susanne B. Montgomery assert that “for poor women with low autonomy and low education levels, from low castes, who are socially isolated and highly dependent on their husbands, fertility is ubiquitous to their identity and worth.” 

 

Factors-Affecting-Pregnancy-Loss

Self-image as derived from social identity is crucial in emotional recovery from the grief experienced as a result of miscarriage. Social derision or lack of empathy adds to an Indian woman’s trauma of pregnancy loss. While Anupama had her husband’s support, she says, “Only my family and few of my close friends supported me… otherwise, everyone… either office colleague, relatives, neighbours… is still asking me when will we have baby. That is the reason I have stopped/ reduced attending any family function, social gathering, or other ceremonies.” Additionally, those who empathise with the women experiencing miscarriages often are ill-equipped to provide emotional support. 

 

Daanesh Umrigar
Daanesh Umrigar

In many countries, memorial ceremonies are held to bring closure to losing the unborn child which include naming the baby and planting a tree in their memory. Umrigar suggests to support the individual, “Allow the person to go through the grief. Don’t push it under the carpet. Allow the person to talk, talk about their emotions. If the person is crying, it’s fine… it’s an expression of emotion. Don’t alienate the person, don’t let them feel like they are going through it alone. Social interactions should be such that they are supportive and also productive for the individual… even if the person doesn’t feel like going out, (you could consider) coming over, being there for the person.”

 

Ultimately, it is essential to ensure the mother does not blame herself for the pregnancy loss, as many are prone to do. With non-invasive prenatal screening (NIPS) available nowadays, it is also possible to identify potential risks early to be better prepared for possible eventualities. Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, suggests that “Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.” In the aftermath of a miscarriage, it is essential that individuals allow themselves to go through the bereavement process and slowly get involved with activities that motivate them out of the spiral of grief or guilt. As social awareness regarding mental health improves in India, there is hope that women will have increased support through such traumatic experiences which often have a deep psychological impact.

 

Special thanks to Malini’s Girl Tribe and Miss Malini for their assistance.

Defying Love’s Boundaries – Bollywood’s Heroine in the New Millennium

Mohabbat bhi zindagi ki tarah hoti hai, har mod aasaan nahin hota, har mod par khushi nahin milti, par jab hum zindagi ka saath nahin chhorte, to mohabbat ka saath kyon chhorein.

[Love is similar to life – every turn isn’t easy; every turn doesn’t bring happiness… But if we don’t abandon life, then why do we abandon love?] – Mohabbatein

P.C. Barua and Jamuna in Devdas (1935)Although the first Indian romantic film, Devdas, released in 1935, Bollywood’s tryst with romance began in 1929 with the Melody of Love, the first talkie film screened in India at Calcutta’s Elphinstone Picture Palace. Bollywood love generally involved singing around trees; close-ups of touching flowers depicting the taboo kiss; love triangles; and extra-marital affairs. While the Bollywood heroine mostly toed the line of tradition and propriety, films like Ijaazat (1987) and Lamhe (1991) attempted to break the Bollywood romance mold. But, even though Indian cinema remained circumspect towards depicting empowered women, TV programming took the lead with shows like Rajani (1984) as housewife turned social crusader, and Udaan (1989) about a woman’s journey of becoming an Indian police officer.

images (4)

By the late 90s, the Indian audience broke the shackles of state-owned programming with the advent of foreign TV media. Televisions beamed women taking center stage with serials like Tara (1993), Shanti (1994), and Aarohan (1996). Emboldened by popular demand, Bollywood filmmakers began to explore cinema beyond traditional narratives; and the new millennium brought female roles re-imagined with portrayals of independent women stepping outside conservative notions of propriety in Indian society. The year 2000 introduced Bollywood lovers to ideas of identity and agency, with the release of Astitva and Kya Kehna. Actor extraordinaire, Tabu, jostled with a lover’s inheritance and an illegitimate love-child in Astitva, while re-discovering her identity and courage; aided ably by her son’s girlfriend, Namrata Shirodkar. Meanwhile, Kya Kehna had Preity Zinta carry the mantle of single mother, and an unborn child ostracized for its out-of-wedlock status.

23293.jpgSimultaneously, the allowance of 100% FDI in the film industry, caused international companies like 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney, and Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., setting up shop in India, influencing Bollywood film production and distribution. Combined with the expanding presence of multiplexes and reduced budgets due to digital cinema technology, Bollywood filmmakers were increasingly able to risk off-beat stories. Films like Lajja (2001), Filhaal (2002), and Provoked: A True Story (2006) showcased female protagonists battling misogyny, surrogacy and domestic violence. When a film about a women’s hockey team, Chak De! India (2007), earned more than 100 crores INR, the box-office stamp of approval for women-centric films had arrived, albeit reasoned with King Khan’s (Shah Rukh Khan) presence.

images (5).jpeg

More than 70 years after Bollywood’s first romantic film was released, its contemporary version, Dev.D (2009) brought modern India to the forefront, set in Northern India unlike Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novel about a Bengal village boy’s lovelorn life. While the characters remained the same, the story incorporated a modern Paro (Mahie Gill) shunning the chauvinistic Dev (Abhay Deol), and Chandramukhi as Chanda (Kalki Koechlin) prostituting for survival after an MMS scandal destroys her family. With its modern take on an oft re-hashed love story, Dev.D brought independent film-making and empowered women to the forefront of Indian cinema. Ishqiya (2010) featured Vidya Balan as a widow seeking revenge for her attempted murder, manipulating two common thieves with her seductions, in a bid to confront her murdering husband. Ishqiya’s box-office success spurred a gamut of woman-centric films such as 7 Khoon Maaf and No One Killed Jessica (2011), English Vinglish and Kahaani (2012).

images (6).jpegHowever, it was the arrival of Queen (2013) that put the spotlight of a box-office success on the able shoulders of its female lead, Kangana Ranaut. Queen featured Ranaut as Rani, a bride spurned a day before her wedding, who decides nevertheless to go on her European honeymoon alone. Breaking the shackles of her typical Delhi upbringing, she encounters friendly strangers and new adventures, making her confident in her independence, even as her fiancé realises his mistake. Adding to Bollywood’s explorations of women’s empowerment and female sexuality was Margarita with a Straw (2014). The film featured Kalki Koechlin as Laila who suffers from cerebral palsy struggling with her love for Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a female activist in Manhattan, even as she copes with her conservative mother’s (Revathy) opposition.

images (7).jpegWith Lipstick under My Burkha (2016), Bollywood saw the sexual aspirations of women in small town India unveiled. The rebellious streak features prominently among the four female protagonists, with a feminine camaraderie that is increasingly becoming a major plot point of contemporary Indian cinema with films like Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) and Veere Di Wedding (2018). Not surprisingly, with the increasing influence of women directors such as Meghna Gulzar, Shonali Bose, and Alankrita Shrivastava, women’s representation has moved beyond traditional societal norms, and Bollywood’s heroine is frequently pushing boundaries in the new millennium.

Mata-Hari.jpg

Book Review – Paulo Coelho’s The Spy

Fans of Paulo Coelho will find The Spy unlike his more prosaic narratives such as The Alchemist. Woven around the events of the First World War, The Spy promises to be Mata Hari’s last confessional without as much soul-searching as you might expect of an “innocent” prisoner awaiting the French firing squad. Famous as the seductive dancer who brought the “religiousness” and “disinhibition” from faraway lands to France, The Spy traces Mata Hari’s journey from being Margaretha Zelle of Leeuwarden, Netherlands to her eventual conviction as a spy for the Germans.

Beginning with her departure for Leiden to train as a kindergarten teacher, the dichotomy of Margaretha’s familiar surroundings and the impending turbulence is most represented by her mother’s gift of tulip seeds. “A symbol of the country” and her destiny or perhaps just Calvinist ideals, the sexual assault by her Leiden school’s principal ensures Margaretha’s restlessness in “Calvinist Holland” and propels her to respond to military officer’s Rudolf MacLeod offer for marriage.

While the journey to Indonesia with her husband promises a romantic sojourn in exotic lands, reality only brings her the conventional life of the military wife. Even as she suffers through an occasionally abusive marriage, fate brings her to an event featuring Java dancers and a bloody suicide that causes her to bolt back home. Adopting her nom de scène as she leaves her former life behind for her dreams to shine in the City of Light, she arrives in Paris during the 1900 World Fair.

As Coelho sketches her journey as “a classical dancer to oriental music”, The Spy is peppered with political and cultural references of early 19th century Europe including Freud, Pablo Picasso, and the Émile Zola’s infamous letter J’Accuse. However, despite the occasional emotional insight, Coelho misses the mark in engaging the reader in the life of one of the most famous entertainers in the world.

Even if the matter-of-fact narrative is considered to portray Mata Hari’s general appearance of divaesque nonchalance, The Spy seems dry given she writes her final letter within the confines of Saint-Lazare prison infested with rats and “used only to break the spirits of those who thought they were strong – women like” Mata Hari. And while liberal France may have allowed her nudist seductions on the stage, the narrative suggests her “high-society” exaggerations resulted in the accusation by Captain Georges Ladoux and arrest on February 13, 1917. Her subsequent confessions elicited by prosecutor of the Third War Council, Captain Pierre Bouchardon ensure her death sentence which was executed on October 15, 1917 – Mata Hari was neither bound nor blindfolded; she stood, gazing steadfastly at her executioners, as the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away.

Considering the Parisian entertainment scene in the early 19th century and the book’s flamboyant protagonist, the glamour seems insipid, and the narrative is uninspiring with Coelho’s literary sparkle experienced only infrequently – “I was an exotic bird traversing an earth ravaged by humanity’s poverty of spirit.” Perhaps the author was so enamored by the mystery that is Mata Hari as to fall short of infusing The Spy with her glittering persona.