Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Let that Imagination Fly!

Book Review: The Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripathi
(Book 1 of the Shiva Trilogy)
#1 National Bestseller

Lord Shiva. Mahadev. The destroyer of evil. The God that we worship, recast into a man that was worshiped in the greatest land there was - Meluha. The Indus Valley Civilization.

In Book 1 of his trilogy, Amish, an IIM-C alumnus, takes us through a fairytale world of his own. While some believe mythology to be a fairytale in itself, Amish skillfully builds a fairytale from a fairytale! A Tibetan monk, a widowed princess Sati (who also goes by the name of Parvati), an ancient scientist named Brahma... oh, the list of innovations is delightfully endless!

Perhaps the only thing that I did not like about the book is the writing style. OK, I now that's probably what everybody else loved about it, but not me. I'm a purist - a tale of war must be written in a sombre mood, not like something out of Calvin and Hobbes. The language, the swearing ruin the plot at many places. It feels less like a story from India and more like American Pulp Fiction. Indeed, if not for the brilliant storyline, this would have been a huge flop.

Nonetheless, The Immortals of Meluha does leave you craving for more, to find out what eventually happens to our Tibetan tribal chief-turned-God. I, for one, cannot wait to dig into the second book in the trilogy - The Secret of the Nagas.

The third and final book - The Oath of the Vayuputras - will be released next year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Peters Out too Soon


Producer: Yash Raj Films
Director: Maneesh Sharma
Starring: Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma, Parineeta Chopra, Dippanita Sharma, Aditi Sharma and others
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)
Pros: Good premise, nice scenes of Goa
Cons: Drags off into familiarity, poor acting, stupid costumes, bad music

It could've been a sequel, really. After the hit movie Band, Baajaa, Baaraat saw a new duo emerging victorious at the box office, Maneesh Sharma once again brings Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma together for much of the same ol' stuff!

Rick Bahl, alias several names, is a conman who uses his charm to entice gullible women and then flies off with their money. Ah, what a classic tale! Indeed, before I sat down to watch the movie, I was quite optimistic about it, given the interesting story. Bahl, having duped several women over the years, has to face three of his former victims and their secret weapon (Anushka Sharma).

Well, it sounds good on paper, for sure. Sadly, the execution is a dud. The story becomes astoundingly predictable, even boring at times. It becomes a re-run of Band, Baajaa, Baaraat at times, with Anushka Sharma gluing the very same expressions on her face time and again. Not that she's alone - the three supporting actors (Parineeta Chopra, Dippanita Sharma and Aditi Sharma) hardly show any emotion at all, even after being cheated upon. All we get are wax-like expressions and some shoddy delivery.

Ranveer Singh, thankfully, managed to pull off a good performance, although the choice of costumes (or the lack of them, at times) made him an eyesore. Agreed, he has built up a good physique for the movie, but then, at least get some apt costumes!

This movie would've passed had the music been good. With some beautiful scenes of Goa, it could've still refreshed a tired soul. Sadly, it does no such thing. Aadat se Majboor just manages to get your feet tapping until it becomes repetitive and downright boring. Much like the storyline, the songs fail to make the movie worthwhile. Overall, a terrible movie. I'd skip it if I were you. (OTFS)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Smoke and Fireworks

The recently-concluded Bonn Conference on Afghanistan, convened on the tenth anniversary of the first Bonn Conference that paved the way for a post-Taliban Afghanistan, can be described as a terrible diplomatic charade that has fooled no one. The ISAF mission is in trouble, Karzai cannot take control on his own and the fundamental question of neutrality is yet to be settled.

The Conference saw delegates from over 100 countries, including Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna and his American counterpart Hillary Clinton, discuss the future of the South Asian country. However, the absence of any Taliban representative and Pakistan proved to be the greatest hurdles, ones that eventually led to failure.

The truth is that the future of Afghanistan is still being decided by foreign powers who would like nothing more than to influence the country to their side. The history of the nation - often described as the graveyard of empires, after a book of the same name - proves conclusively that external interference has been its bane for centuries. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was the Taliban takeover, which was akin to a Pakistani conquest of Afghanistan.

Despite this knowledge, the Bonn Conference still kept up a charade about Afghanistan's future. Has there been any agreement on regional cooperation? Has any country vowed not to use Afghanistan to further its own ambitions? Far from it, the Americans have begun to discuss a permanent military presence in the country!

Ultimately, the future of Afghanistan will have to be decided by the Afghan people themselves without any external interference in its affairs. Till this chimaera is reached, such worthless conferences such as the one in Bonn are best avoided.

The Great Fall: Part 2

Some historians argue that Gorbachev's reforms were meant to ease state control on the economy and therefore, reduce spending. Others feel that he had long ago concluded, privately, that the Soviet Union could not continue.Whatever it may be, history went to prove that his actions sparked off a wave of consequences.

The Republics
The Soviet Union was a Union of several Republics distributed around Eurasia, going from the Nordic to the Baltic to the East Asia and to the Islamic. Under the Soviet Union, the idea was always that these varied cultures were part of one Union. This was enforced through repression of cultural differences. Unlike India, whose ancient civilization allowed the mixing and co-existence of numerous cultures, the Soviet Union was a more top-down affair.
But the policy of glasnost changed all that. Increasingly, the newly-freed media focused on the excesses of the Soviet system and the negative aspects that had been ignored till then. Information led to political awakening and eventually, Moscow's ability to control dissent began to weaken. 

At the same time, winds of change were blowing across the Warsaw Pact states, which had been Soviet satellites till then. The most dramatic example of this was the unification of Germany in 1989 following the destruction of the Berlin Wall. One by one, democratic forces rose to power in all of the Soviet Union's former allies. 

While Gorbachev's political reforms gathered steam, his economic reforms began to fizzle out, largely because he left most things untouched. State controls over production and prices along with emboldened regional Republics refusing to share tax monies with the Central Government saw the Union fall into bankruptcy. 

The Last Days
By now, another significant event had taken place: Boris Yeltsin had become President of the Russian Soviet Republic and was fiercely opposed to Gorbachev. Yeltsin had no illusions of a mighty Soviet Union - he championed the cause of Independence for its Republics, Russia in particular. 

August 15, 1991. Having been reassured by Gorbachev that all was under control, the Soviet Cabinet had gone on holiday. But then, Prime Minister Pavlov saw the text of a new treaty that would change the federal structure of the Union and pave the way for decentralization, meaning death for the Communist Party. Stunned, the hurriedly-reconvened Cabinet decided to sent a delegation to the President, who was relaxing in the Crimea. That delegation ended in failure, although it managed to prevent Gorbachev from returning to Moscow to sign the treaty. Desperate measures were needed as the treaty leaked to the media.

On Aug. 19, the Cabinet, without the President, declared a state of emergency. Tanks rolled into major cities and the Stalin-era repression was back with a vengeance. The Emergency Committee tried to win over Yeltsin, but for reasons unknown, failed. Instead, he organized his nationalists to oppose the Committee's strong-arm tactics, calling the emergency unconstitutional, as it was not approved by the President. The Russian regional Parliament became the centre of anti-Communist activity, something that even the KGB was unable to stop, mainly because of they feared killing so many of their countrymen in the process.

On Aug. 21, the Emergency was called off. Gorbachev returned and met Yeltsin, hoping to ally with him. The Emergency Committee had composed largely of his own appointees and was backed by the Communist Party, both of which stood discredited, its leadership arrested. Thus, On Aug. 22, Gorbachev walked with Yeltsin to the Russian Republic Parliament, hoping to make new friends. Unknown to him, he had walked into a trap. 

The Final Coup
Instead of listening to what the President had to say, Yeltsin read out a series of 'crimes' committed by the Communist Party and ordered a ban on its activities in the Russian Republic. Effectively, he had announced a coup and had overthrown the Party in Russia. Remember, Gorbachev was still the General Secretary of the Party and did not want its control to end, not yet at least. Therefore, the Party's abolition in the Union's single-most important Republic came as a rude shock to him.

Gorbachev had a choice. He, as President, still controlled the Army and could use that to retake control. His absence to the Crimea meant that he did not know that the Army had previously refused to take so many Soviet lives, something that would be necessary in any attempt to foil Yeltsin. 

Or, he could resign from the Party, effectively winding it up and ensure the disintegration of the Soviet Union. His mind must have gone through these two choices - his final choice would end up changing history. In the end, he chose the latter. On Aug. 24, he resigned as General Secretary, but held on to the Presidency. Yeltsin was allowed to wind up the Party's assets in Russia, the Party itself being in disarray.

One by one, Soviet Republics began to declare their Independence, beginning with Ukraine. Moldova followed. Soon, a wave turned into a flood. By Nov., 1991, only Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were left. On Dec. 8, heads of these Republics created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a new Union and annulled the treaty that had created the Soviet Union 74 years ago. The CIS was enlarged later. 

On Dec. 24, the Russian Federation informed the United Nations that it would succeed the Soviet Union's membership, including its permanent membership of the Security Council. No country objected to this. The next day, Christmas of 1991, Gorbachev formally resigned from the Presidency and the Soviet flag was lowered from atop the Kremlin, to be replaced by the new Russian tricolour.

Finally, the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, perhaps the greatest geopolitical event of our times. 


Friday, December 23, 2011

The Great Fall: Part 1

In the lands that we now know as Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe once stood a colossus of a nation, the largest country to have ever existed in modern times and one that, historians would argue, imploded.

In this documentary, we try to relive the last days of the Soviet Union - days that were full of uncertainty, days that saw Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika fundamentally altering how people looked upon the Soviet system, and the final, failed coup that led to the collapse. These are visions from the final days of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

A Faltering Economy
Through the eighties, the Soviet Union faced disaster on the economic front. On one side, there was the unending military build-up, including of nuclear weapons, aimed at the Americans and their bloc. The 1979 occupation of Afghanistan began to cost the Soviets dearly, with the Pakistani-ISI assisted mujahideen bleeding the occupying force.

But one event that hit the state coffers badly was the sudden fall in the price of oil. Several regions of the USSR, particularly Siberia in the Russian SSR, were rich in oil and gas and these were a major source of wealth. A fall in the price of oil saw a massive fall in the economic might of the Soviet state. Moreover, decelerating food production eventually forced it to purchase foodgrains from abroad.

Politically, a power struggle was on in the Kremlin, with Yuri Andropov becoming General Secretary and then assuming the Presidium of the Soviet Union, but unable to make all the changes he would have liked to because of his influential rival, Konstantin Chernenko, who succeeded him as General Secretary.

The Gorbachev Era
However, in 1985, Chernenko died and in his place, the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) Politburo appointed much-younger Mikhail Gorbachev, a move that would prove to be a game-changer. Gorbachev came from the Nikita Khrushchev-line of leaders, whose central theme was de-Stalinization of the Union, which mean a more technocratic government that gave more freedom to the masses, something that was antithetical to Stalin-style Communism.

By this time however, unmatched American military spending saw the Soviets cutting back on civil spending. Presumably, the costs of maintaining the assets of a superpower were just too high. It was at this stage in 1988 that Gorbachev enacted the Law on Cooperatives that gave, for the first time since the collapse of the Czar, the right to privately own business. It almost seemed at though Soviet Communism was going the way of Deng Xiaoping's China, but that was not to be.

New Freedoms
Gorbachev chose to largely ignore economic reforms, despite the Law on Cooperatives, and chose the path of political reforms instead. He introduced perestroika (economic freedom) and glasnost (openness), both of which saw ideas being discussed on a scale hitherto unimaginable in the Soviet Union.

But that's not all - he called for democratization of the system, with a multi-candidate elections, although he stopped short of asking for an end to Communism. He forced the CPSU to amend the Constitution and create a new Soviet Congress of People's Deputies as the legislature. To fight increasing intra-party dissent, he created a new office of Executive President, independent of the CPSU and assumed the role of the first, and only, Soviet President.


A Surprising Outcome

At the start of this semester, everything seemed to be working against me. The Cultural Council was demanding more time than ever - from much more work in Kshitij (particularly the recruitment) than I had ever imagined to the Freshers' Debate to the Mock PD. A new set of challengers had emerged in CE-III, all with the sudden realization that a high CGPA does matter. As if that were not enough, the subjects and the people who taught them were well below the standards expected.

With all this in mind, I was confident that my CGPA would take a hit this time. Ah, but destiny had something else in mind! Thanks to a few words of advice from my mentor and friend, I put my extra-curricular work and rather average performance behind me and worked on the ETE, complete with a study schedule (poorly followed, as always) and a number of textbooks (three for CE-311!). And here are the results.

The two biggest surprises were CE-311 and CE-351, in which I had badly messed up the MTEs. Thanks to some very kind tutors and exceptionally good ETEs, I cracked these two, with an A+ apiece. IEQ-04 was bang on target, with a total of 91/100 guaranteeing me an A+ even if it went to absolute grading (which it didn't thanks to a kind professor). CE-321 was always a turntable sort of subject and whether the Camp was counted or not, the A+ came as a pleasant surprise, since I had factored in an A initially.

CE-331 was a relief, despite the A. This subject saw totals reaching 96/100 and with a clear bias in favour of girls. Therefore, the gradient was pretty steep, with grades changing very quickly. Just getting into the A-band was an achievement in itself. Nonetheless, I did manage to learn something from this, an I look forward to its follow-on course, CE-332. CE-341 was a pretty similar story, although this time, I had the highest score, but got just an A because the HOD intervened to see that nobody got an A+. It was arbitrary interference and thoroughly unfair, if not illegal by the Institute's rules. But what can one do when even the faculty can't take him on? The good news is that 2012 is his last year in that position and his heir-apparent is a reasonable man indeed.

So, with such a high SG, I managed to break my own record which was 9.673 (end of 1-2, the Golden Semester). Because of the pathetic subjects, I won't call this another golden semester. Maybe next time?

Another Coldwave

Waking up is probably the hardest part of all. The warm blanket, the socks, the sweater... all discarded. It's the time of year again when the earth freezes over, when an overpowering cold takes control of the northern parts of the nation.

Last year, we just had one, long, powerful cold wave, in which even sub-Himalayan regions like Roorkee saw the mercury fall to zero on the Celsius scale. But this year, it seems as though we would see a repeat of the winter of 09-10, with a number of small coldwaves spread unevenly.

Still, small is a relative term. Already, the cold is near unbearable, and it's just December. Fact is that the coldest month of the year is inevitable January and that's when the real coldwave is expected. Sadly, over a hundred people have died in North India due to the cold.

As yet another winter chugs on ahead, the shivers and mist are starting to get to you. It seemed fun back in first year - not anymore.  

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Not an Apt Format

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the 11th Vivekananda Memorial Debate at IILM, New Delhi - the self-styled "India's most sought-after debating platform." Well, I'm not so sure. Having devoted over a year in Parliamentary Debating, going back to a regular-style debate was a good opportunity to hone my core skills.

Motion: "Is Generation Y savvy enough to lead the nation ten years from now?" (not drafted like a motion, but read ahead)

If only it had been a debate. In my opinion, a debate has to give you an opportunity to rebut your opponent - to say that you said so and so but you're wrong because of so and so. However, IILM's format only allows a small refutation from participating teams and judges and that too without any cross-questioning. You can actually get away with a vague answer!

But it doesn't end there. The biggest handicap of all is fact that you get a measly three minutes to make your point - in three minutes, all you can do is send off a flurry of assertions. So you had one speech in which we had to bear the agony of listening to how facebook and twitter were going to change the world and how we bore the brunt of 9/11 and Katrina - at the end, I wished they had defined "nation" in the motion. You ask a question in the refutation and all you get is a repetition of points!

What was really infuriating was the fact that early speakers were handicapped, as the ones later easily referenced previous speeches and commented on those. This gave them a huge advantage because they could turn a 6 min speech into a 3 min one. In fact, the whole event was really a competition in oration rather than a debate. One team tried their best to make it a Parliamentary Debate, but by the time they finished their definitions and enumerations, time was up! Of course, they just kept talking, which was the other shock for us - the judges were ignoring the time limit!

Overall, this format, while extremely simple, is not really meant for debaters with some experience, least of all those with experience in PDs. This self-styled "India's most sought after debating platform" (which all engineering schools except IITR decided to skip) was not really worth the hype. Still, I did get to see the neat IILM Campus and their exquisite canteen (free food coupons!), from where you get a view of JLN Stadium. Not entirely a waste of time, really.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

One Day as a Delhiite

This past weekend, I had the pleasure/misfortune of spending two days in the National Capital, New Delhi, for the 11th Vivekananda Memorial Debate. Delhi, as always, is a massive city bustling with life. But it is also an unequal city, where child labour is rampant.

The most distinctive part about Delhi is the Metro - a shiny wonder that can very well be described as the Gold Standard of urban transportation in India.  Never have I seen something so superbly punctual and automated in India. I made repeated journeys along the Blue and Green lines and also had the misfortune of having to disembark at Rajiv Chowk once, which is as busy as a regular railway platform, if not more!

But the Metro is really so easy to use that, armed with a map of the network, you need not care to ask anybody for directions. You purchase the token based on your final destination - and you can then use any route you may like to. Obviously, when time is at a premium, you will go for the shortest route possible. That's the case 9/10 times. But in some cases, you can take a longer route just to enjoy the view - unless you're on the Yellow Line, which is mostly underground!

Yet, for this wonder and that of others (such as JLN Stadium - the pride of India), Delhi still remains a very difficult city for newcomers to adjust to. The police, trained in politeness for the CWG, have gotten back to their old conniving ways. And at the junction of Delhi and UP, all rules of decency break down as we return to the old world - hawkers, beggars, child labourers, unscrupulous middlemen... that's the Delhi that the media does not talk about.

Yet, for all the impersonality, Delhiites are quite helpful. I managed to find my way from JLN Stadium Metro Station to Lodhi Institutional Area by asking a few directions - a common feat in other cities but one that often leads you nowhere in Delhi. Of course, the numerous signposts, the extra-wide roads and walkways and the super-smooth traffic did help. A glimpse of one of the most wasted buildings in India - India Habitat Centre - served to remind me that we do indeed, live in two countries.

My day as a Delhiite was full of wonder, as travel of 50 km and more seemed like a breeze, as my kind hosts treated me to most delicious food and as the sight of young kids studying for exams in the Metro took me back to the past. A good place to visit - but I would not like to live there.

Monday, December 19, 2011

When Goa was Liberated

Fifty years ago, in a decisive move that would have ramifications in Africa and East Timor, the newly-independent Republic of India pushed her soldiers into the Portuguese enclaves in India - Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli - and liberated historically Indian territories that were under foreign occupation for 450 years.

The Liberation of Goa was as much a decisive victory for the Indian Armed Forces, which invaded the territory from land, air and sea, as a ringing defeat to the imperial ideology that sought to take control of other territories under the garb of 'civilizing' them. Prime Minister Salazar's attempts at portraying Goa as some province of Portugal - a lame excuse, if ever - fell flat in the face when countries upon countries congratulated the Indian Republic for doing what was right.

African colonies looked upon the Liberation of Goa as a source of inspiration, their independent neighbours hoping to make it a model for Angola and Mozambique. Even as the invasion proceeded, Salazar's Government called for a resolution against India at the UNSC, but failed due to a timely veto from the Soviet Union. Indeed, Nikita Kruschev congratulated Prime Minister Nehru and asked him to ignore the hypocritical voices of condemnation from the same people that enriched themselves by enslaving their colonies.

The Liberation served to inform the world at large that Independent India - a land of a united people - would never again allow foreigners to control their destiny again. The final collapse of foreign rule in the subcontinent also showed that non-violence is never to be taken as a mark of weakness rather, it is to be taken as a warning of much greater consequences.

Opinions 24x7, on this historic day, remembers those brave soldiers, sailors and officers who lost their lives in the Liberation of the enclaves. We stand united today, with Goa an important part of the Union, a proud and free people.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Not Entirely a Waste of Time

With the end of this year's Survey Camp, another milestone in our endeavour to be mahaan Civil Engineers has been crossed. And the result: a beautiful yet thoroughly inaccurate topographic map and a new facebook page called 'kaissa kataa yaaaar!!'

Well, it wasn't all that bad really.After all, I learned how to use a Total Station, which means that I actually can perform a real survey with some better (much better) planning. I also revised my concepts of GPS, although I can't do anything beyond a FastStatic survey!

The camp was as much a physical test as a mental one. While climbing the hills and getting down into that dry riverbed from the slippery slope was an ordeal in itself, it was nothing compared to the mental stress that we had to take on. At any point of time, an argument could have turned into a fist fight. There was crying and screaming and a hell lot of swear words flying through the airwaves. Perhaps our united opposition to the working style of the professor, whose only aim in life seems to be to prove that he knows more than you (although he doesn't), was the only reason we didn't pounce on each other.

Once the seriousness of the camp began to dissipate, there were picnics galore. Most went to Chandi Mandir, which is a long climb up the very hill on which we were performing a part of the survey. Then there were the visits to Rajaji National Park and the nearby Dam. Facebook's servers filled up with pictures from these visits, backed by our amazing LAN. We went from having to submit a group file, individual files, an analog map and a digital map to having to submit some (copied) readings and a well-decorated but thoroughly inaccurate PT!

Another wonderful part about this camp was the fact that I managed to keep a good conversation going with a number of people with whom I never spoke to normally. I also believe that I am actually very difficult to work with, perhaps because I think too much of myself. Must work on that. While many people rejected Civil Engineering entirely following this camp, I actually felt that, had it been planned like a project and not a practical, it would have been superb. The planning was faulty, not the premise itself.

Well, with beautiful PTs submitted with false TS and GPS data, the hostel is beginning to empty. I, however, have miles to go before I sleep. Fortunately, I can sleep beyond 5::45 AM now!

(Series Concluded)

Day 10: This needed ten days?

The final day of the Survey Camp was meant to colour our PTs and add the title, scale, legend etc. The fancy work for this is 'mapping,' but it's really just that. It started with us adding gorgeous curves to our PTs - we call them contours. And then we got our first and only set of instructions for the day -

"You know the quality of your surveying. Now just make it beautiful."

Off the mark was my team, with my partner erasing everything and re-drawing the map most beautifully. Of course, it was no longer a map in the truest sense of the term, but then, who cares? Ah, the beautiful colours that appeared as the rivers and canals turned blue, the mountains turned green (and brown, in some cases)... there came a table of legends, there a linear scale. And last, but not the least - the control point coordinates, obtained by whichever means (mostly GPS)!

Of course, there was the slight problem that our GPS data hadn't been processed. But once we realised that you-know-who wasn't even planning on visiting us today, it didn't matter at all. We were free birds waiting to finish our grains and fly away. A few photocopies and some reproduced matter and viola! GPS coordinates at your service!

However, we faced a problem in that the ink took quite a bit of time to dry. So, I had to skip lunch in order to continue with my work. The best part was contouring. I quote: "Contours are not approximate. Contours are arbitrary!" We were even given two sample maps to look at and both of them were so arbitrary that we were truly inspired. After all, when a wasteland can look like a plush lawn, what's the harm in putting a road over a hill (without a tunnel)?

By 4:30 PM, I was finally done. Ah, the joy of seeing a work of art worth its weight in gold (how much does paper weigh, I wonder?)! The joy of seeing a file full of botched-up readings! Oh God, why did we need a ten-day survey camp when we could have done this in ten minutes using Google Earth? Our final map was so beautiful and so worthless that it is truly deserving of an IITian!

Map ripped off the table. File submitted. Signed next to my name. And there ends our Survey Camp. And then came the facebook pictures!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Day 9: A Holiday? YES!

Although this crappy camp deserves not just one individual bunk but several mass bunks, I decided to skip just one day, and that too for a good reason. Fortunately, it was the same day that I was supposed to use an Autolevel, which is actually a regular Dumpy Level with a very good lens... not worth my time (plus, I never want to do an analog survey again).

However, it seems there was divine will involved here for, when I made my first journey to CED today (Kshitij-related work), there stood an Autolevel in the middle of nowhere! Oh, the fear is sent through me - it seems this horrendous camp will not leave me! As curious onlookers peered through that accursed lens, I dashed away. Once at CED, I finally found my chalice - an A+ in CE-311. After three years and three courses, I finally broke the glass ceiling for Environmental Engineering! Good riddance now!

OK, now back to the reason why I skipped the camp. I had my interview for Honda YES, which was pure gossip. We discussed FDI in retail, movies, literature, future plans, responsibilities... everything but ecotechnology! The Japanese guy was particularly interested by my name, perhaps because he guessed its shorter version - Sushi!

At 6:00 PM, it was time to head back to CED for seeing my final paper - CE-321. Well, I never actually managed to see it, because I got 50/50 in it and he refused to let me see it, asking me to "Get out and go home!" Ah, the delight at seeing another potential A+! Sources tell me that despite being a despicable creature, the Camp prof actually does not have a problem with me and therefore, should give me OK marks, if not good marks. Which means that this camp is toast as far I am concerned!

Of course, it's not over yet. There's still Day 10 (the poor matkas have till Day 14, the snails they are!), which involves colouring and adding a legend - no big deal at all. We just need to sneak in a few contours here and there and we can call it quits. Finally!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Day 8: Finally, a Real Survey

After an entire week of learning absolutely nothing except how to avoid an angry professor, I can finally say that I did learn something new. And what an experience it was!

The Total Station is an integrated theodolite, with tacheometric cross-hairs, and a microprocessor: that sounds pretty fine in theory. But when you do it in the field, you realise just why a TS along with an electronic compass is called 'The Complete Surveyor.' Yesterday, I thought GPS was God. I was wrong: GPS is the Prophet. TS is God!

The principle of a total station is simple ranging by means of laser-guided electromagnetic radiation. At each station, you need to set and orient the point that you're on, starting with zero bearing at the beginning and back sighting your way along the traverse. Once you get the hand of it (and its nomenclature, in particular), it is so fast and so simple that a station hardly takes five minutes.

Unless you happen to be working right behind the group that takes an hour on each. A pathetic sight it was, to see people fumbling around with the buttons (the input system is rather primitive, I must admit). Another group issued an extra reflector and disappeared with both. A TS survey is not really about ranging (the computer does that for you) but more about managing your reflectors: which is why so many teams made it a real headache.

The ending was simply classic. We decided to drop Stations 8 and 11 (9 and 10 were already deleted from the survey) i.e, we drop the slums. The final Stations was No. 1 (the picnic spot) and we ran there with all our life, despite the fact that our time was up. I was determined, we all were, to complete this one practical. It is the only real thing we learned and we just had to complete it.

And with one click on 'ALL,' it was done. Measured reading 12 was my last reading (although I now realise that I should have also taken 21, but that's OK for a learner), after which we got back for the post-processing. The data was good, although the traverse was incomplete due to the missing 21 reading.

And the cherry on top of the cake? That prof knows nothing about TS and is prepared to admit it (a rare combination, mainly the last clause) and kept his mouth shut as we discussed the best way to orient our first station. Oh, the wonderful silence!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Day 7: Don't touch that GPS Receiver!

God paid a visit to us today. No, I don't mean that spectral presence that supposedly defines our fate. I mean the US DoD's Global Positioning System (GPS) - the ultimate answer to your surveying requirements.

Having performed a bit of GPS surveying for CE-321, I was smart enough to bring along a newspaper. We had to wait for a good half an hour at each station and ensure a PDOP less than 4. Amazingly, some points were so good that we got 1.9 in one case!

Sadly, GPS surveying, for all its benefits, is not as good as it's made out to be. For one, the amount of time you have to spend at a station is huge. Secondly, you need to be precisely over a station, which is not easy when you have seven PTs around you. And thirdly, the station must not move by a micron or you have to start all over again. After three repetitions at the same point, I was forced to shout down at anybody who came within a meter's distance!

Until you-know-who came along with some stinging comments. I've heard criticism before, but this was downright unfair. A simple mistake does not warrant a general condemnation of our IITian status, and most definitely not from some loser who everybody from his colleagues to the labourers make fun of! Yes, so we make good managers, better managers than engineers. So? We are being trained as though we live in the 1800s, what else are we supposed to do? Teach?

That two-minute long one-sided slandering event ended with a very angry partner, who was ready to walk away from the camp that very minute. Of course, I managed to convince him that its not worth wasting your time over such a big loser. We performed our survey at seven stations and terminated it at about 4:00 PM. And when we returned, we found that we (the GPS groups) and the TS groups were the only ones left! Presumably, they all left early to see that old lady's paper. Rumour has it that the other prof encouraged them to leave even earlier.

A few golden words that I was told of today - "Accha, aadha camp ho bhi gaya? Mujhe laga tha ki yeh toh halfway abandon karna padega. Ise kuch aata nahi aur bacchon se kuch karwana bhi nahi sakta." Yes, half (more than that for the UG students) of this stupid camp has ended and I learned nothing at all! 

Most of us have already given up on this camp. Large contingent leaves for Chandi Devi Mandir and Rajaji National Park everyday and you-know-who doesn't even get a hint of what's going on. And he tell us about being alert! Presumably, he does realise that nobody is doing anything real (almost all the PTs are fake) and hence, he has agreed to let us to the colouring on Day 10 in the Department itself. Since I'm skipping Day 9 for Honda YES, I have just one more day to survive in this pathetic excuse of a camp site.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Day 6: Civil's Day Out

After yesterday's rain, we were looking forward to a little more precipitation today. That did not happen, such is our destiny, but yes, there was a very thick fog. And that was good enough for us - after all, that spy of a professor couldn't see a thing with his binoculars standing in the middle of dense fog.

But since when has God been so kind to civil engineers? By the time we got to Base Camp, visibility was 100%. And so began yet another day with that stupid PT. This time, the prof asked us to come to him for a viva, which is very strange, since this is supposed to be a project, not a practical (his words). But forget that: he's crazy, after all, according to his own colleagues and subordinates.

Today was a special day, since a majority of students were involved in PT surveying, which means that nobody did anything. Some went to the Chandi Mandir, some to a local dhaba, while some enterprising others set up a picnic spot at Station 1. Oh, what a sight it was! Both UG and PG people, nestled in the lap of nature, sleeping, singing, reading and just chilling out. It seems that whatever seriousness we had before the camp is all but gone now. I myself took the time to relax, drawing a few lines here and there to complete my PT. In case I missed any features, I faked them. After all, PT surveying is all about faking it!

The day was pretty unexceptional, except for viva, which I conveniently skipped. I can;t do it forever though: he will have me soon. However, I can delay it a bit, as some people did by cleverly telling him that they had just reached Station 3 and refused to climb back up! In the end, I spent the entire afternoon at the tea stall, taking out just enough time to fake some elevation readings. And viola - a highly-detailed topographic map is ready!

Fortunately, we can return to modern civilization tomorrow with a GPS-based survey. Truly speaking, this entire camp could have been completed in 2-3 days of we just used GPS or Total Station - that's what real engineers do (and now they just use Google Earth!). Why we wasted out time on 200-year-old surveying techniques is beyond my comprehension, although the lab workers insist that it's because we have outdated people teaching us outdated things. I agree!

There has been a lot of discussion over the marks associated with this camp. Some say it's a part of CE-321 and carries 10 marks; others say it's 20. And the prof himself says that it's a separate two credit course that we never registered for! I say - when everybody has a different story, there is no story at all.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Day 5: A Little Divine Intervention

Winter is the time of the year with minimum precipitation, unless you count snow of course. Well, in the lower parts of Uttarakhand, it does not snow. Therefore, this is the driest time of the year.

5:45 AM. Another cold morning, another headache. And the brisk preparation for yet another day of the Survey Camp. And then you notice the unthinkable: rain! Yes, it was pouring hard on R-land and, from our knowledge of Hydrology, it should be the same in Haridwar, with an exceptionally long base time for the Hydrograph (ignore that part).

Well, we were a bit off the mark (so much for Hydrology). It did rain a bit at the Base Camp, but it wasn't much. And so began the tried and re-tested ritual of submissions and boring lectures. Until it started to rain. Oh, the wonderful feeling when you see the Professor's face and read 'WTF' all over it!We lodged ourselves in the Mess Hall, laughing our hearts out at our luck! Indeed, some were convinced that our extended presence in a temple was the cause for this divine intervention.

Yeah well, it didn't last long. The Prof decided to screw each group with an impromptu viva. One was left in tears. Fortunately, before he got to me (well before, actually), the glorious sun uprist (to borrow Coleridge's words). We were also informed that Stations 9 and 10, being the most stupidly placed, were deleted from the official traverse. We tried to convince him that Stations 7 and 8 had become seepage tanks and 1 and 2 hazardous zones due to the rain. The answer - 'Are you shameless?'

And then we landed up at Station 3, where two snakes were reportedly sighted. The best part about PT surveying is that you can fake it entirely. We took as many points as we could and once we realised that we had a lot of points, we faked the rest. And then we went to Station 5 where, by means of intersection, we were done in 20 min flat!

Sadly, in all this buzz, we forgot to take the requisite elevations for the topographic map. We're supposed to take it tomorrow but of course, that's not going to happen. We will mark elevations, but since it will be with respect to any base station, it will be entirely fake. Need I say more?

Are we wasting our time? Yes, of course. Have we learned anything new? Absolutely not. Why are we doing this? I have no idea. The entire batch feels so screwed right now (it's not just the camp, the grades are pretty poor too). Every other facebook post makes fun of CE. The grades are ruined, the professors are terrible, the placements are negligible. And this worthless camp to top it all off!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Day 4: North, East and the Rest

A hitherto indisputable truth we learned from our courses in Geomatics Engineering is that, come what may, GPS readings will always be far more accurate than analog readings. Well, we were finally proved wrong today.

The day started with the prof cursing us for not having taken the bearings of any points. We told him that we were not issued any compasses. He made his way to the equipment room, all ready to pounce on the lab workers. He came back in a minute, sullen-faced, and cursed the entire world because there was just one compass available!

The practical today was PT surveying, a simple affair. Sadly, without any coordinates, all we could do was draw the grids while teams went and took bearings. But soon, out of the blue, came GPS readings. Initially, he refused to divulge them, but when he realised that each party was taking an hour to obtain bearings, he gave up and handed over the data.

Ah, GPS! Such a sweet, merciful thing! We plotted the points and chose any traverse of our choice. And then we made our way to Station No. 5 to begin the most enjoyable part of the camp. We plotted such wonderful things, why, it almost felt like poetry. And then it came...

"The Northings and Eastings have been interchanged. You have to restart."

One phone call ruined the entire day. Presumably, some idiot who did not know how to report readings provided us the data, breaking away from the standard reporting convention. Well, that was the end of my PT surveying, because my team effectively ditched me, while I took my own anger out on the poor GPS guy (who, I admit, did apologize for his error). We spent the afternoon chatting with the lab workers, who told us just how pointless this whole camp is and also that we will emerge as thoroughly outdated surveyors through it. How enlightening!

But that wasn't the end of it, for, a phone call informed me that the GPS angles are off from the real ones by as much as 30 degrees - in simple words, the GPS readings are wrong. I'm not sure why - it could be because of an error with magnetic North, or maybe the base station kept losing lock. But I think it's because the people who took the readings were incompetent - after all, who taught them? And it wasn't just the ground coordinates - the elevations were off by a whopping 20m!

So now, as we enter the half-mark (and beyond it in my case), we are left with wrong readings, incomplete PTs and some fantastically voluminous Autolevel data. And then we wonder why nobody gets placed!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Day 3: In Search of Sacrifice

It's getting worse by the day. Yesterday, we were at loggerheads with each other. A good night's sleep brought some sanity back, but not for too long.

We've now come to realise that this camp is a total waste of time and hence, several students were absent today. Some came in between with some fake excuses, some abstained for the entire day. What's more - we have a mass bunk planned, the second one ever in CE-III.

However, the more enterprising (including myself) concluded that the death of an individual would ensure that this camp is not just cancelled for us but for the next one hundred generations at least. And so came in the nominations: the irritating brat in the class, the other irritating brat, both, some matka (or all of them) etc. But the winning entry was the professor himself! Oh, wouldn't that make our day?

Let me reproduce a conversation on that note:
"You know, you guys are planning cold-blooded murder over here."
"So are you with us?"
"Yeah, definitely!"

Now, fantasies apart, the day was actually very productive. As usual, the rules changed in the morning, and we were free to define our own traverse (a closed one, this time) using the given CPs. Only later did we realise that three points do not make a traverse! Surprisingly, our efficiency was double of yesterday, although it still took about two hours per station. Add the irritating GPS and TS guys and you actually had very crowded stations.

Which is when we realised we were being spied upon. Yes, unknown to us, the prof has a clear view of the entire site from the roof of the Base camp and he spies on us with a pair of binoculars! Which explains how he managed to call someone to ask why there were so many people there! As if that wasn't enough, he decided to go on a surprise check, where he interrupted everything from Vishnu-like sleep (sic) to a nice little tea party. Of course, he only found less than half the students - no professor can beat his students at hide-and-seek!

The sleep that I got in the journey back was by far the best ever. Sadly, with a mound of calculations to make, including a huge fault in the lack of bearings, I'm forced to sleep late tonight. Anyway, it's Plane Table Leveling tomorrow - not a very difficult proposition.

PS: There is a proposal going around to complain about this pathetic camp to the HOD. After all, he's just hungry to bite into complains.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day 2: "I Bhaant Quality, not Quantity"

OK, so that wasn't a good start. But then, who says it will be any different today? The bus started late yesterday, it will do so today. And with that began the process that made an entire batch of students 'defaulters' and also gave us half an hour's break.

The lesson that we all took away from Day 1 was that taking this camp seriously is injurious to health (both mental and physical). So, we had already made up our mind to enjoy ourselves. Some, of course, took it more seriously than others and spent the entire day on the riverbank. Well, to each his own.

The practical is actually very difficult to do: taking bearings, distances and angles from all stations. And we discovered even more properties of our traverse, such as the invisible Station No. 8 or the truant Station No. 5, not to mention the shit-laid route to Station No. 3. Fortunately, the professor told us that he wanted good readings from a few stations, and we would merge readings later. Therefore, the work was shortened significantly, since working on more than three stations in a day was impossible. Quality, not quantity, was the mantra. Bad move, really.

Oh, we've made new friends among the hogs in the area: they're friendly, but thoroughly disgusting and rather sex-obsessed.

Surprisingly, the food was much better today and the beds in the hall (not meant for us) rather refreshing. After all, never before have boys and girls eaten together over a sleeping late-night gamer. And the professor seems to be coming around to the realization that we are not the ideal, disciplined officers that he was hoping for. Not that he isn't trying to make us such, but at least we've come to a common understanding.

Now, here comes the troublesome part: tempers are rising in general. I don't deny that it's my fault to some extent, but then, everybody is frustrated. In particular, when there is a clear bias in favour of those who took ICE-03, there are a lot of sly remarks going around. Nobody can really stand each other for too long anymore during the camp, and the only way to talk is to burst out random cuss words at the pigs. Add an ugly UG-PG confrontation today, and it was not a pretty picture.

The bus journey back was, again, very gloomy. Nobody has the energy to talk and after the initial chit chat, most of us went back to sleep. Waking up in the morning is the hardest part of all and the realization that we are using thoroughly outdated techniques with no practical significance only makes it worse. For now, everyone just hopes to get through the next eight days. No geodetic endeavours here.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Day 1: Recce, Recce, All the Way

It was supposed to be easy: go about the place, prepare a little guide for yourself (and your group). Shouldn't take longer than two hours. Wrong!

First, a little about the site. It's in Haridwar, but it's not godly at all. Located at the base of the Mansha Devi shrine (and there are several other Devis at the base), the most distinctive landmark here is the Gowri Shankar Goshala. Let me not deliberate further, except by assuring PeTA that flies are having a lovely time here.

Anyway, the practical. We were informed that the stations were already established. My name, being so strategically placed, sent me to Station No. 10 with the reconnaissance (recce) table, which a few chosen losers were given (all with strategically-placed names; bless our parents), while the rest were handed over a little sheet of paper and a map from last year so that they could copy it and go frolicking about like Little Red Riding Hood.

Station 10. A slum. Oh, how sweet. What juicy flies, what voracious swine! Oh, the pithy swear words! Nonetheless, we are Civil Engineers and we must be ready to float in a septic tank to determine the volume of solids. As long as it doesn't move, we can handle it. Sadly, that was not the case here. We marked a few stations and, right on cue, we were told that they were poorly-placed and would be relocated. Frustrated, we ditched the slum and went to the hills, which we hopes would be an easier job, given the advantage of elevation.

Ah, but how can it be so simple? What is a camp without a treasure hunt, after all. The stations were placed cleverly, so that it took a good old trek to reach their base and a further bit of rock climbing to get to them proper. And once you're there, beware of sari-pulling monkeys who, one friend wonders why, has a very red butt and no sense of decency at all. And if you can avoid them, do try to avoid the gaping holes in the ground, or the loose rocks. Just a suggestion. If you fall and approach death, I'm sure there's an ambulance waiting for you some 200 km away. Perhaps they can use your GPS receiver to find you (if the monkeys haven't stolen it, that is)!

Well, despite the hassles, we finally finished and returned for lunch at a cool 2:30 PM. It wasn't great, but it could have been worse. We sat in the shade of the temple, the cows chewing away their regurgitated fodder in a corner. Ah, bliss!


Yes, my fundamental right to put my ass where I want to was violated. A new task: take a theodolite and verify that your sites are indeed inter-visible. No, don't check distances, just make sure that you are not a blind old bat. Oh, and get out of the base camp (while he catches his forty thousand winks).

It all fits so well. Yesterday: the bus may leave early but not later than 7:30 AM. Today: we left at 7:50 AM. Yesterday: you will not return before 7:00 PM. Today: we were back at 5:50 PM. Execution at its best! Now, what's left to be seen is whether the recce tables will be marked at all and, if so, how fair the marking will be (seeing as though Little Red Riding Hoods had Rembrandt-esque sketches ready).

Overall, a pathetic start, the only silver lining to which is that it ended. But there are still miles to go before I sleep (beyond 5:45 AM).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Far too Harsh

The recent verdict by a Pune court to award a penalty of Rs. 100 crore on news channel Times Now in a defamation case is clearly disproportionate to the crime. The case, Justice (Retd.) P B Swant vs. Times Global Broadcasting Ltd. (a concern of the Bennet, Coleman and Company Ltd., the publisher of The Times of India), has received a lot of criticism from the legal fraternity.

Rs. 100 crore in our society is a very large sum - according to Arun Jaitley's assessment - and the incorrect picture shown on the channel for no more than 50 seconds does not merit such a huge sum. The Bombay High Court, due to procedures related to monetary fines in civil suits, declined to intervene till the channel coughs up the amount. What is even more saddening is that the Justice went ahead with the case despite a large number of apologies from the channel.

This case shows two aspects - media freedom (including freedom to make mistakes and apologise for them) and defamation, which is a very serious issue. In my opinion, in all cases possible, the judiciary should try its best to ensure that the media is encouraged to do its work without fear, for the grater good of society. In that process, there can be mistakes (we're all human, after all). While defamation does - and must - invite penalty, the penalty must not be to such an extent as to strike unquantifiable fear in the Fourth Estate. That would be a mockery of our democracy.

In the present case, the amount of Rs. 100 cr seems not just arbitrary and unsustainable, it also appears to be vindictive. The public mood today is somewhat anti-media, but that should not be the criteria employed. The mistake made here was one that any media group could make - it is surprisingly common - and the channel has apologized several times. Vindictively charging an obscene amount as penalty will be bad for collective society. This judgment cannot stand.

What's Happening in Burma?

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her historic visit to Burma today, the first by an American official of such high rank in over half a century. She was welcomed by the Army-backed civilian government in the capital Nya Pyi Daw.

Since the pseudo-civilian Government was elected to power after decades of direct military rule, several changes have taken place in the country - not least of which is the rapprochement of ties between democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, there are even reports that her National League for Democracy, which recently got itself registered, is planning to get her elected to Parliament in a by-election.

From freeing a number of political prisoners to cancelling a hugely unpopular dam project backed by China, Burma is clearly undergoing the most sweeping changes since it was partitioned from British India. One way to explain this is that Burma seeks to free itself from its vassal-like existence vis-a-vis China, for which it would have to ally itself with regional powers - particularly India - as well as the US.

Of course, the change is only visible in the Burman areas - in Kachen, which has a raging insurgency, there is nothing short of direct military rule, a cruel one at that. Yet, it would be wrong for the SecState would to expect monumental changes. At best, an assurance of greater freedom and democracy is what can be expected. And the US itself should seek to offer a carrot by partially lifting sanctions on the South East Asian country.

India has a huge stake in Burma, mainly on account of energy and security issues. But even historically, Burma has always been closest to India culturally. Suu Kyi, an alumnus of Delhi University, is deeply respected among Indian Burma-watchers. A move within Burma, not imposed from outside, to bring her back to the political mainstream is undoubtedly good for India.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Simply Unacceptable

The regrettable episode that played out this week, when India and China postponed a major round of dialogue over the border dispute, should serve as a moment of awakening for the Chinese, who have been trying to unduly influence all other countries in the region.

Although the respective governments have kept quiet, it is an open secret now that the main reason for the sudden postponement was the Chinese side's insistence that New Delhi prevent the Dalai Lama from speaking ta a Buddhist seminar in New Delhi. This is of course, unacceptable, since the event is apolitical in nature and India is a free democracy.

For long now, China has been bullying its neighbours and indeed, several countries in the world. Shamelessly using its economic clout, the Chinese forced a boycott of the Nobel Prize ceremony when a dissident was warded the Peace Prize. The Chinese have been indulging in state-sponsored piracy in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. It is China's belligerence and domineering attitude that has given the US an opportunity to announce its return as an Asian power.

China must know that, while India is all for talks, any interference in our internal affairs and attempts to force their way will be thwarted. While India's GDP is no match for China's, that does not mean that China has bought over India or any of its neighbours. Imperial China might have had several vassal states around it, but in today's world, countries talk face-to-face without shackles.

The Indian Government was right in calling off the meeting in the face of such open belligerence from the Chinese. China must wake up to the fact that the entire region is re-aligning itself against China's euphemistic 'peaceful rise,' which is anything but peaceful. Such episodes will not help China one bit. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Ocean and IOR-ARC

India assumed the two-year Chair of the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) this month with Australia as Deputy Chair under the troika format for the grouping. IOR-ARC, formed nearly two decades ago to promote regional cooperation and unimpeded trade through the Indian Ocean, has not exactly lived up to its lofty goals.

As an association of eighteen (now nineteen, after Seychelles rejoined the group) nations representing the continental rim of the Indian Ocean, the grouping can be the ultimate guarantor of peace and stability in the world's most important sea lane. The Indian Ocean is the stage where a large number of navies operate in different capacities, whether it be the forces in the Gulf of Aden or those in the Malacca Straits or even the American forces stationed in the area, particularly in Bahrain and soon to be in Australia.

The freedom to use this critical Ocean for peaceful purposes is of paramount interest to all powers. Therefore, close coordination between the blue-water navies of the region is a must. IOR-ARC is an appropriate forum for just that. Sadly, it had not been used to its full potential yet. But with the situation in Somalia growing worse, piracy in the Gulf of Aden is bound to rise. Already, some members like the Maldives and Indian (near Minicoy) have experienced the effects of piracy closer to home.A joint operation is the need of the hour and it can be done under the aegis of IOR-ARC.

Disaster relief is another important area of cooperation. The 2001 Tsunami saw the Indian Navy rise to the occasion to assist efforts in other countries. The system needs to be institutionalised for the common good of our people. IOR-ARC has a great potential in this, the Asian Century, but a lot more needs to be done. Undoubtedly, India must lead the way.

Think of the Middle Class

The Union Cabinet's decision to allow 51% FDI in mutli-brand retail came as a surprise to many. After all, this is coming from a Government that is fighting virtually everyday for its existence, leave alone taking strong and important decisions.

Predictably, the Opposition came out in Parliament against the move, saying that it would badly hurt small traders. While the BJP's opposition seemed to be hypocritical, given that the party has always been in favour of reforms, the Left's opposition was on expected lines. And even Uma Bharti's threat to 'burn down Wal Mart' stores is not entirely unexpected, given that we're about to enter another round of State elections.

Sadly, in all the rhetoric, two groups have been forgotten entirely: farmers and the Middle Class. As the Government rightly said, this move is not unplanned not is it haphazard - the regulation includes clauses that ensure that farmers will be able to make full use of the supply chain infrastructure that corporates are required to create. Direct procurement and horizontal integration will eliminate middlemen from the whole process, which is excellent for a farmer, who earns less than half of what customers pay for his produce.

For the middle class, the move signals more options and better choice at cheaper rates. With inflation refusing to budge from the 9-12% band, customers are already depending on Indian corporate retailers for cheaper supplies. This move would significantly help the middle class improve its lot, be it in the metros or in the Tier-II cities.

Unfortunately, the political discourse in the country pays lip service to farmers and scorns at the middle class. It's almost as if the rich and better-off are to be punished for being rich and better-off while the poor are to be kept poor to exploit them. While the fear of small shops being closed down is real, that does not mean that employment will fall. New avenues will be generated, this time with a guaranteed fixed income. After all, companies are going to hire locals to work in their stores.

A BBC Documentary also pointed out that Indians might actually prefer small stores over retail chains, for a variety of reasons. If this is the case, then a stable equilibrium could be reached and this whole argument would become pointless. The move is a positive step in an innumerable number of ways and that's why it's so shocking to see that it came from UPA-II.

To conclude, let me point out that people tend to criticize reforms as being something that only helps 10% of the population. I would say that Nehruvian economics did not help anybody, leave alone the top 10%. At least now there is a chance for the common man to live a better life.

A Shot in the Arm

The CRPF, in a dramatic encounter in the Jangalmahal area of West Bengal, killed top Maoist leader Koteshwar Rao alias Kishenji, who is third in the insurgent group's hierarchy. The initial response from the MHA was that it was '99% him,' but now a sympathizer has verified the claim.

The death of Kishenji stands as a monumental moment in the counter-insurgency operations, 'Operation Greenhunt.' In any war, it is very important to bargain the final deal from a position of strength. That would have been a far-fetched thought as long as the central Maoist leadership continued to enjoy safety in the jungles as foot-soldiers bled the Government troops.

However, the fall of Kishenji is bound to have a huge impact on the Maoists. A weakened central leadership will badly affect fresh recruitment and even have a fallout on current enlisting. A movement that the Prime Minister described as India's single most dangerous internal threat could have been dealt a body blow.

Sadly, some groups have gotten into politics with this whole issue. The Bengal Government's decision to institute a CID probe into allegations of a fake encounter, with none other than the CPI leading the charge, shows that politicians have not woken up to the need to defend Indian democracy. Politics on internal security issues will lead to disaster.

In the immediate future, the guerrillas will no doubt brace themselves for any further assaults. They will also be planning revenge attacks. Catching any more leaders, such as Suchetra Mahato, will be even more difficult. Nonetheless, this is bound to pressurize the Maoists to lay down arms and come to the negotiating table. A movement that started to protect the rights of adivasis and the poor has taken on a mindless violent streak that has destroyed the lives of the very poor that it claims to represent. We must be resolute in our purpose to protect the Indian Union.

Friday, November 25, 2011

In Our Minds

Today marks the third anniversary of November 26, 2008, remembered as 26/11, when gun-tottering militants from Pakistan invaded the financial capital Mumbai and killed over 170 people. It was one of the darkest days since the formation of the Republic, a day that still reverberates amongst the masses.

On that day of 26/11, brave constables and officers of the Mumbai Police, Navy commandos and commandos of the NSG laid down their lives to liberate Mumbai from the terrorists. They remain forever, heroes of the entire nation.

Since that day three years ago, much has happened and much has not. Our coastal security, not under the overall control of the Indian Navy, is still woefully inadequate. While funds have been sanctioned, decision-making remains stymied due to both bureaucratic delays as well as political wrangling. Meanwhile, Mumbai's police modernisation remains a far cry. After 26/11, it was thought that there would be an upheaval at the hustings. That did not happen.

The 26/11 trial remains stalled. In India, Ajmal Kasab is yet to be hanged. In fact, his security has become a great burden on the State. It would have been far better had he been tried in a military tribunal as a Prisoner of War. At the same time, the trial in Pakistan has gone nowhere at all. However, Indo-Pak ties seem to be on the upswing nonetheless, with calls for 'de-linking' the composite dialogue from terrorist activities.

The Indian populace is angry that nothing has moved forward on 26/11. The Government seems determined to bury the hatched. But we will not forget, we will not forgive. 26/11 remains a cold, dark day in our hearts and we will see the perpetrators brought to justice.

Bail is a Right

The Supreme Court released five corporate executives accused in the 2G case on bail after several months of incarceration. As expected, the media was out in full condemnation, asserting that the accused should not be allowed bail.

The current debate over bail is very disappointing. While the nature of the accusation is very serious, that is still no reason to deny anyone bail. Two assertions by the naysayers stand out here: the accused, being powerful people, can influence witnesses and tamper with evidence; and that the accused should get their 'just desserts.'

The first assertion falls flat on closer examination. For one, investigations into this case did not begin all of a sudden: they began a clear year after an FIR was filed and that too after a great deal of pressure from civil society and Parliament. Even then, only certain accused were arrested, their equally influential relatives and colleagues were free to do whatever they pleased. Therefore, the idea that tampering of evidence is possible holds no ground: if it did, everybody should have been arrested, not just the accused.

The other assertion is extremely dangerous. A central tenet of jurisprudence is the presumption of innocence. All accused are innocent until proven guilty. If we were to reject this concept and throw all accused in jail for indefinite periods of time, it would lead to an extremely dangerous situation in the country, one where anyone with a grouse would file a false, non-bailable complaint just to teach his adversary a lesson. It would not just be morally wrong but also in violation of Article 21 of the Constitution.

Sadly, the media seems to entertain a certain mob mentality and the judiciary, to some extent, is influenced by it. The Supreme Court came out against this trend, but it did so rather late. Nonetheless, bail must be seen as the right of an individual and presumption of innocence upheld, or else we become a banana republic.

Not Another Logjam

The first few days of the Winter Session of Parliament augur tough times ahead for the UPA-II Government. Even before the session began, the principle opposition BJP declared a boycott of Home Minister P Chidambaram, alleging his hand in the 2G Spectrum scam.

However, the time is not for politicking. Currently, 31 bills are pending before Parliament, while the Government wishes to introduce 21 new bills. Given that the current session is for a measly 17 days, their is an urgency to get these bills passed.

And yet, the Opposition and even some components of the ruling combine continue to disrupt activities over some reason or the other. On the one hand, this reflects poorly on the Opposition, which seems to have forgotten that they are MPs elected to legislate, not goons who are supposed to destroy the parliamentary system of our country. The Government for one needs to be less officious and talk with an open mind with the Opposition, while also managing its own flock.

A massive amount of important legislation is pending in Parliament, including the Lokpal Bill. This session must be extended if necessary and cannot be washed under any circumstances.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Horrible Semester

Nov. 18, 2011 marked the last teaching day for the current semester, whose ETE is scheduled to begin from the 25th. It also marked the end to what has probably been the single worst semester since I joined IIT Roorkee, academically speaking.

While there has not been any repeat of EC-102 (thankfully), the subjects this time (and the teachers) did not inspire us. Not even nearly, actually.CE-351 was the only exception, where the subject was quite interesting and the teacher was also good, although he could have been better. But that's the only positive there.

CE-311 was the worst subject that I have ever had to study, one that has ensured that I will do whatever it takes to avoid environmental engineering. It's just not civil engineering enough! CE-321 was a good subject, one that actually meets my idea of modern technology and programming, but the way the exams and practicals were held left me disappointed. Nonetheless, I think I've confirmed that Geomatics engineering remains one of my top choices for PG.

CE-331 was an exciting subject because it was out first from Geotechnical Engineering. The teacher taught it very badly, but the subject was still good and the practicals even better. I'll be looking forward to more later. CE-341 was virtually non-existent and can really be discarded altogether. IEQ-04 was by far the best elective I took, even though the lack of designing knowledge hampered it a bit.

About the time table - after last sem's extremely jammed up schedule, I was looking forward to a more empty schedule. Sadly, even this sem was busy. Monday was a long day, but not necessarily boring. The worst of all was Tuesday - five continuous lectures was unbearable. Surprisingly  Wednesday was virtually empty, with just one lecture and one tut! Thursday was back to normal with a full line-up of classes, although TIEQ-04 was something I looked forward to. Lastly, Friday was another busy day with the second half of Geomatics Engineering and its three-hour lab (though we barely had half of those!)

Overall, I would not like to have a repeat of this semester, academically speaking. On extra-curriculars, it's a whole new ball game.

How we Survived

Since the evening of the 19th to today, IIT Roorkee's entire network shutdown due to some glitch in the Information Superhighway Centre (ISC). Consequently, nothing but the Campus Intranet was working, leaving everybody in the dark.

For first and second years, it simply meant a reduction in the amount of time spent on Facebook. But for the higher years, it also meant coming dangerously close to missing deadlines for internships, off-campus placements, competitive exams etc. For faculty, this meant a loss in precious time.

It is a major security flaw in IITR's information architecture, that one single individual's absence from the campus can virtually black out the institute for days on end. As per sources, it was not a major problem but one that could be fixed by any technician if they have the password to the system. That, sadly, is in the hands of one and only one individual, who was in Delhi. Now, we has supposedly fixed the problem (for now) remotely.

The Internet is such an important part of our lives now that even a day without it brings back memories of our second year, which was spent with no Internet connection inside the hostel whatsoever. A sad life by IIT standards, indeed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Another Milestone Crossed

Nearly five years since we started counting, Opinions 24x7 has his another milestone, with 1.5 lakh hits on the counter. Although our two top articles - Murder in Antarctica and Roadies 5: Ladyboys Inc. - continue to rake in massive hits, newer articles are also attracting readers.

We have successfully enthused blog enthusiasts from India's Northeast through a mix of fiction and reality. Opinions 24x7 reiterates its support to Irom Sharmila and her movement against AFSPA. At the same time, we also have a steady stream of readers from Pakistan and Brazil, particularly for our International stories.

In the coming months, we will be kicking off two new series - The Union Shall Fall and IOTY 2011. And of course, in the summer, we will be blogging on my summer intern, whether it be in Canada, Muncih, Auckland, Mumbai or at home in Hyderabad.

Opinions 24x7, on this fine occasion, rededicates itself to the cause of working for the enlightenment of the nation. Jai Hind!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

One More Time

In less than a week, my fifth End Term Exam will begin. It's getting quite tiring now - the regular drill of exams. This semester was particularly bad not least because of the pathetic band of teachers we had but also because of the dreary subjects.

Sadly, I'm sure that this sem will see my CGPA finally collapsing back to eight point something. It's inevitable - my MTEs say as much. God alone knows what sort of distributions will come out this time, given that professors seem to either give marks for free or none at all!

Lets go for a subject-wise analysis (I missed this for MTE-2: my apologies). First, my biggest hope and saviour, IEQ-04. Even with absolute marking, I hope to get an outright A+ here. With the highest total so far in the class and a rather-biased professor, this should be a piece of cake. Finally, I selected exactly the right elective!

In CE-331 and CE-341, my marks are quite high, but not the highest (which is OK). Every mark will count here. Given that the former also includes a practical exam, it will get tighter. In CE-321, I am sure to get either a B+ or an A. My marks are quite good in comparison to the class average, but this prof cuts marks rather randomly and does not listen to any arguments. Therefore, while it does depend somewhat on the PRS, extrapolating my current performance lands me at 8 or 9. There is the question of the role of the Survey Camp, but that will have to be overlooked for now.

Then come the real flop shows that will drag my CG down. CE-351 is really a simple subject that needs nothing more than a bit of patience and creativity. Which is what I realized after MTE-1, when my horrendous 9/25 left me shell-shocked. I did bring back some stability with a 24/25 in MTE-2, but the damage has already been done. It's a similar story in CE-311: 23/25 and 14.5/25. A very sorry state indeed. In either of these, the best I can hope for is a B+.

A word on CE-311: this is the worst subject that I have ever taken. Every aspect of it, from the teacher to the exam to the course itself, makes it the victim of my malice. I would scrap this course if I could without any second thoughts. I'm just happy to be rid of it on Dec. 2. Good riddance to bad rubbish, literally.

Next sem, I hope, will be better.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Timely Intervention

With the debate over the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) heating up, with even Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha joining the protestors, the intervention by former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, the man behind India's nuclear weapons programme, is both timely and credible.

Dr. Kalam started out with an enlightening essay in The Hindu, where he rebutted point-by-point the allegations made by those against nuclear power. In particular, he showed, both through numbers as well as judgment, that the Fukushima disaster was nowhere of the kind that Hiroshima was (as many advocates have been claiming) and also that the KKNPP has an even smaller chance than Fukushima of facing such a crisis.

He followed up his essay with a series of meetings and speeches in Kudankulam, where he tried to point out that nuclear power is really our gateway to a better future. His words were backed by Government officials who have been trying to explain the nuances of nuclear power to the locals. Sadly, the protesters seem to have rejected his claims and continue to block the project, which itself is dangerous because, as the AEC Chairman pointed out, you cannot just turn off a nuclear power plant like some electronic item.

Dr. Kalam's injection of rationality into the debate was much-needed. One hopes that protesters can be made to see the light of reason so that India can provide clean energy to the millions in need of it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Remember the Baritone

Widely acclaimed as a musical prodigy who scaled the tallest of mountains in the world of Indian music, Bhupen Hazarika was one of India's most talented singers. Born in Assam, Dr. Hazarika's early education was completed in Guwahati. At the age of 12, he recorded his first song - a sign of many more to come ahead. So passionate was he about music that he went on to do his Ph.D from Columbia University, New York, in the field.

Within his own country, it took time for him to find recognition. He started off with singing Assamese music and became popular in the Northeast and West Bengal. However, it was only when he tried his hand at other forms of music, such as Rajasthani folk, did he find a wider audience. Dr. Hazarika went on to compose hundreds of songs. He even sang some with another Indian prodigy, Lata Mangeshkar.

But perhaps his greatest contribution was to his home state - Assam. It would be no exaggeration to say that his music put Assam on the Indian cultural stage. His colleagues have always lauded him not just his work but also his knowledge of traditional music from Assam and the larger Northeast. He took pains to rejuvenate the cultural space in the region whether it be the first Assamese movie or the first colour movie to be screened in Arunachal Pradesh.

Dr. Hazarika's death in Mumbai represents a tragic end to a distinguished career. He was a nationalist through and through, strongly believing in the unity and integrity of this great nation. Many of his works belied his disgust for the ULFA, which he described as a monster. In his death, the Union has lost one of its greatest sons and a voice that inspired the world has been silenced.