Living with diversity: Salad or soup, asks Mallika Sarabhai

Standing up for a pluralistic society
Standing up for a pluralistic society

The recently concluded general election in India saw thousands of candidates contest to enter the Indian Parliament. Among the candidates I watched closely were writer Shashi Tharoor (who ran on the Congress ticket and was elected from Kerala state) and dancer Mallika Sarabhai (who ran as an independent candidate in the Gujarat state and didn’t win).

The classical dancer turned social activist had one of the more colourful campaigns in the world’s largest election: her public rallies included dance numbers, and her website (UPDATE in March 2013: no longer online) – featuring interactive elements like blogging, flickr images and online fund raising – was ranked the best by a communication research agency.

But where Mallika – whose performances I have enjoyed watching on successive visits to her home town of Ahmedabad – really stood out was in whom she opposed. She was the independent candidate from Gandhinagar, one of India’s most high-profile constituencies, a state capital that has been polarized along Hindu-Muslim lines since riots in 2002. Her opponent was Lal Krishna Advani, the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP.

Mallika Sarabhai dances during campaign trail
Mallika Sarabhai dances during campaign trail
The two candidates couldn’t have been more different. The 82-year-old veteran politician epitomised Hindu nationalism and majority hegemony with its attendant intolerance of minorities. Mallika, hailing from an upper class Indian family of freedom fighters, industrialists and intellectuals (her father Vikram Sarabhai was father of the Indian space programme), stood for pluralism, non-violence and tolerance. When she entered the fray in March 2009, she described her candidature as a Satyagraha against the politics of hatred.

She didn’t win the election, but lost with grace and dignity. Within days, she wrote in Outlook magazine one of the most remarkable pieces coming out of the cacophonous Indian election. She made it into an open letter addressed it to L K Advani, her main opponent.

“As a proud Hindu and a proud Indian, I feel vilified by you,” she wrote. “You have reduced the great Sanatana philosophy to a Taliban-style Hindutva. As an Indian, you have tried to reduce my identity to a single factor—Hindu or not. You let your goons, saffron-clad terror units wielding lathis and worse, terrorise us and live above the laws of this country.”

For me, the most insightful paragraph is this where she takes on what it means to live with the huge cultural, social and political diversity that makes up India: “I am a post-Independence Indian. I was brought up to value and treasure my unique Indianness, to value our Constitution, which gives equal rights to all Indians, irrespective of belief, culture, practice or language. I learnt to revel in the differences that made us a rainbow country. We are a salad-like melange of cultures and not a soup where all variations get reduced to a homogeneous pulp—this, to me, is our greatest strength.”

Read full text of Dear Shri Advani by Mallika Sarabhai

Eschewing grand speeches, microphones, banners and slogans, she just listened to voters
Eschewing grand speeches, microphones, banners and slogans, she just listened to voters
Salad or soup – that’s an interesting way of framing the challenge. And not just in the delightful melting pot that is India, but in many other mixed-up, tossed up cultures and societies of today…not the least in my native Sri Lanka, where we have seen the primitive forces of tribalism over-ride all other considerations in recent years. One released, it’s very hard to put this genie back in the bottle.

And how I wish our own privileged upper middle classes would take to the rough and dirty game of politics, if only to stand up against the peddlers of hatred and hegemony. If only…

Mallika could easily have continued her cultural work through the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts and her social activism. She decided to take the plunge this year because she thought the time had come to get into active politics. She was encouraged by her friends, mainly social activists, united under the banner of Friends of Democracy. Mallika is one of the several petitioners demanding justice in the post-Godhra riot cases. She was quoted in The Times of India as saying she decided not to join any party as she believed that there was no party free of corruption, criminalization and horse-trading.

As the Washington Post reported during her campaign trail: “Sarabhai, one of a handful of professional people running as independents in the upcoming elections, rejects the standard Indian political appeals to caste, religion and linguistic ethnicity, and speaks of empowering voters to unseat corrupt and ineffective politicians. Her campaign, she said, seeks to reclaim the shrinking space left for ordinary people’s voices in a democracy dominated by political parties that too often rely on mudslinging, muscle-flexing and money power.”

She and other courageous Indians have miles to go before they can sleep. Encouragingly, she has pledged that her campaign will continue.

As she says signing off her essay in Outlook: “I may have lost this election, but I will continue to work for the disadvantaged and dispossessed, and to ensure that their voice shall be silenced no more.”

Images courtesy Mallika Sarabhai campaign website and Friends of Democracy Flickr account

Sri Lanka: Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

Sri Lanka: Island of suspended dreams has a second chance...
Sri Lanka: Island of suspended dreams has a second chance...

This is one of my favourite images. Showing southern part of India and my native Sri Lanka, it was captured by one of the early US space missions, nearly four decades ago.

Much has happened on the tear-drop shaped island since this image was taken: among other things, we’ve been through a civil war that lasted a generation, and robbed the dreams of at least two generations. That war officially ended on 18 May 2009.

The Day After, on 19 May 2009, I wrote a 1,500-word essay titled Memories of War, Dreams of Peace. The editor of Groundviews, Sri Lanka’s leading citizen journalism website, published it in full, and within minutes of my emailing the text to him.

I’m humbled and gratified that in the past few days, it has been widely read, commented on, quoted online and reproduced. Some have agreed with me; others have dismissed me as a naive dreamer. A writer cannot ask for more.

20 May 2009: (New York) reproduces the essay in full

24 May 2009: The Sunday Leader (Colombo) reprints the essay in full

I look back briefly on the brutal and tragic war – not in anger, but in great sadness. I then look forward in a wistful, dreamy mode. My premise was: “Now that the war is officially over, will this mark the beginning of real peace? I want to believe so. I want to audaciously dream of peace. The alternative is too dreadful to consider.”

This is not exactly what I’ve been trained to do. As a science writer and film-maker, I gather and analyse information, which I try to present in logical, coherent and accessible ways. In recent years, I’ve also been writing op ed essays in areas where I have some competence and experience. In writing this essay, I consciously departed from all that. I’m neither political scientist nor activist to engage in ideological or technocratic discussions, which others have already started in earnest. I wrote this at an emotional level, looking back and looking forward.

But my training did come in handy in framing the timely and necessary questions. My chosen ‘author intro’ for this essay thus reads: “Writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been a dreamer for all his 43 years. He asks more questions than he can answer.”

We've doused the flames of war, but much more needs to be done...
We've doused the flames of war, but much more needs to be done...
If my views come across as naive or idealistic, I shall plead guilty as charged. My emotions this week are best described as cautiously optimistic, but as some readers on Groundviews pointed out in their comments, our high hopes have been betrayed before. But can we afford not to dream privately and publicly at this juncture? I don’t think so. We have suspended our dreams for too long, and it’s time to start dreaming again.

There are as many kinds of dreamers as there are dreams. One of my favourite quotes comes from the British soldier and writer T E Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame): “All men dream, but not equally…the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Post-war Sri Lanka: Can we dial up a better future?

Chamara Pahalawattage: At 18, he is already using his 6th mobile (Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP)
Chamara Pahalawattage: At 18, he is already using his 6th mobile (Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP)

When many able-bodied young men and women of his age were joining the armed forces in large numbers, Sri Lankan school-leaver Chamara Pahalawattage chose differently. He decided to try his luck with odd jobs at construction sites.

That, by itself, was nothing unusual. Tens of thousands of young men and women like Chamara join the labour market every year. Schools don’t equip them with attitudes or skills for self employment, so most would idle years away looking for regular jobs in Sri Lanka’s public and private sectors. Frustration would prompt some to take to political agitation, or worse.

Chamara is at such crossroads in his own life, but he is unlikely to go astray. The enterprising young man has boosted his chances of part-time work by getting himself a mobile phone.

“After buying a phone, I get calls asking me to come for work. The phone makes it so easy,” he says. “Otherwise people will have to come looking for me…or I have to go to them.”

If a skilled mason or carpenter takes him on as an assistant, Chamara gets a daily wage of LKR 700 (US$ 6 approx) plus a mid-day meal. That income augments the modest LKR 4,000 a month (US$35) his mother makes cooking meals at a nearby factory.

In February 2009, we filmed a day in the life of Chamara, a resident of Gonapola, in Sri Lanka’s western province. This was part of a profiling of telephone users at the bottom of the (income) pyramid – or BOP – in emerging Asian economies, undertaken by TVE Asia Pacific on behalf of the regional ICT research organisation LIRNEasia.

Watch our short video profile of Chamara Pahalawattage:

Going by his household income, Chamara is BOP at the moment – but his aspirations extend above and beyond. An only child raised by his widowed mother, Chamara developed an interest in mobiles while still in his mid teens. He bought his first mobile two years ago, when in Grade 11 at school.

“Almost everyone had phones, so I also wanted one,” he recalls. “From then on, I got used to having a phone!”

And has he been keeping up with technology! He buys second-hand phones for better features: he currently owns his sixth phone in just over two years. He had paid LKR 7,500 (US$ 65) for his latest phone at the beginning of 2009.

Besides voice and SMS (texting), his phone supports MP3, video recording, song downloading, voice recording and some other functions. After a hard day’s work, he unwinds listening to the radio, or swapping songs with friends — all using their mobiles.

Chamra spends an average of US$3 to 4.50 per month on phone use, and – like all other BOP telephone users we interviewed in India, Philippines and Thailand – he is thrifty with value added services that cost extra. This is something that has been confirmed by LIRNEasia’s Teleuse@BOP 2008 survey.

“Some of my friends access the internet through their phones and download songs,” he says. “I then get these songs from them. My phone has bluetooth. I use it to transfer songs from my friends’ phones.”

Chamara has every intention of moving up the labour market – someday, he wants to hold a more regular job, with an assured monthly income. Right now, in spite of being connected, he can’t predict how many days a month he’d find work.

Hello, can you hear our dreams?
Hello, can you hear our dreams? Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP
“I don’t check newspapers for jobs. Instead I ask the people I know…mostly my friends,” he says. This probably indicates another shift from a wide-spread habit among literate Sri Lankans scanning newspapers for recruitment notices.

LBO 9 March 2009: Sri Lankan low income customers can use mobiles more for business: study

The official end of the 30-year-long war should be good news for Chamara and millions of other tech-savvy, eager youth like him. Like me, they can once again start dreaming of better tomorrows.

Telecommunications would be a good place to start. For several years, it has been the fastest growing sector in the Sri Lankan economy — one that has not only connected people across distances and cultures, but also been a ‘social leveller’.

The telephone subscriber base grew by 35.5% in 2008 (and 47% in 2007). The country’s tele-density (number of telephones per 100 persons) jumped to 71.9 in 2008, from 53.4 in 2007 -– thanks largely to the phenomenal spread of mobile phones.

As I noted last year: “It is not by accident that telecom has remained the fastest growing sector in the economy for a decade. This was triggered and sustained by the far-reaching policy and regulatory reforms which ended the then fully state-owned telecom operator’s monopoly, and allowed the entry of new players, technologies and business models.”

Of course, improved telecommunications are necessary, but not sufficient by itself, for us to evolve into an inclusive information society. Building on technology and systems, we must become discerning creators and users of information. Knowledge – not paranoia or rhetoric – needs to form the basis of policy and actions that propel us to the future.

Photos courtesy Niroshan Fernando, TVE Asia Pacific

I remember Auden: We must love one another or die…

W H Auden (1907 - 1973)
W H Auden (1907 - 1973)
It begins in a bar, and ends with a prayer. It was written in another century by a poet on the opposite side of the planet on the day the deadliest war in history broke out.

Almost 70 years later, at the end of my own 30-year-long war, I have been reading and re-reading September 1, 1939. I’m trying to make sense of what is happening around me. The near hysterical mass euphoria on one side, and bewildered dejection on the other.

I was just six when the poet W H Auden died, and only 13 when this bloody, protracted war started. As I wrote in an essay published on the day after the war ended, I have lived all my adult years with this war providing a constantly grim, sometimes highly disruptive backdrop.

I survived the war in its various phases, including uneasy lulls when guns were temporarily silent. I watched most of my own friends join the exodus of genes and talent from a land where they saw no hope or future. I chose to stay on, but questioned the wisdom of it each time a major atrocity took place. I went through six jobs and one marriage, and raised a child who would soon be the same age as I was when the war started.

Are we at the end of the long, dark tunnel? Is the promised land of peace and prosperity now at hand? Have we seen the last of multi-barrel guns, grenade launchers, helicopter gunships, claymore mines and the deadly suicide bombers? Or will national security and anti-terrorism continue to dictate what we can or cannot do as citizens in a free, democratic and finally peaceful country?

I honestly don’t know. Probably it’s too early to tell. But I’m uneasy with celebrations when so much healing and rebuilding need to be done. I’m worried about continuing the simplistic division of people into patriots and traitors. As I wrote earlier this week, this perception of Us and Them is our first landmine on the long road to peace. I don’t know why we as a people continue to insist on everything being in black and white. What happened to the myriad shades of grey?

For some months now, I’ve been turning to classical and modern poems for solace and comfort. When prose fails, verse must take over. Auden himself disliked this poem, but few words in English move me as his line: “We must love one another or die.”

So here it is, the full and original words of September 1, 1939 – for whatever resonance it may offer us across the gulf of seven decades straddling two centuries:

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

– W. H. Auden

Us and Them: Sri Lanka’s first landmine on the road to peace…

Cartoon by Jeff MacNelly, Chicago Tribune
Cartoon by Jeff MacNelly, Chicago Tribune

In our troubled times, cartoonists often provide more than mere caricature and entertainment. War and peace are no laughing matters, and neither is the profound advice some cartoons offer us. As a product of our image-saturated, popular culture driven world, I derive part of my insights from cartoonist-philosophers whose economy of words is unbeatable.

I haven’t discovered exactly what provoked the American cartoonist Jeff MacNelly (1947 – 2000) to draw this brilliantly perceptive cartoon in May 1992. But the three-time Pulitzer prize winning editorial cartoonist of the Chicago Tribune (and creator of popular comic strip Shoe) has captured a sentiment that has characterised so many tensions and suspicions in his land and mine: us and them.

It’s at the root of so much conflict and grief, be it between Islam and the West, or Israel and Palestine, or Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Its entirely a matter of perception, largely a creation of our insecure and insular minds. Yet we argue, wage war and kill each other for the sake of this strong tribal perception.

In an op ed essay published on Sri Lankan citizen journalism website Groundviews today, titled Memories of War, Dreams of Peace, I asked:

“Can we as a nation finally stop glorifying the war and its weapons, and return to our cultural heritage of ahimsa? How do we turn the current opportunity for peace into something tangible and lasting, so that we don’t allow political violence and war ever again? Do we have what it takes to go beyond chest thumping and finger pointing, and begin to care and share? Would we eventually be able to liberate our minds from our deep-rooted tribalism that sees everything through the prism of us and them?”

Indeed, one of the first – and hardest – challenges as we try to unify Sri Lankans and rebuild our war-ravaged country is to get over this division.

Read the full essay: Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

Sri Lanka: Can our suspended dreams resume after the war?

Once thought extinct, this rare bird has reportedly been seen again in Sri we await confirmation!
Once thought extinct, this rare bird has reportedly been seen again in Sri Lanka...but we await confirmation!

22 May 2009: I remember Auden: We must love one another or die…
19 May 2009: Us and Them: Sri Lanka’s first landmine on the road to peace

They say the long and bloody Sri Lankan civil war is over, and I’d say not a moment too soon. I really want to believe it. I simply must: the alternative is too depressing to consider.

Sure, there is no independent verification – it has been a war without witnesses for the last few years. But I am willing to take an unusual leap of faith if that’s what it takes to usher in the long-elusive peace. I will go to the ends of the earth, and suspend disbelief if I have to, in return for lasting and meaningful peace.

As we stand on the threshold of change – with the promise of peace – I am overwhelmed with memories of a tragic past. And I hope we can once again start dreaming of a better future – and make it happen.

After a hiatus of three decades – three quarters of my own life – I dare to dream again. I hope other Lankans will soon revive and resume their suspended dreams.

So what kind of a future Sri Lanka can we, must we, should we now dare to dream about? Where do we look for the vision and inspiration?

One of the greatest poet philosophers of the East had articulated many decades ago the very essence of my dream for a post-war Sri Lanka. I once heard the late Lakshman Kadirgamar – another tragic casualty of our war – render these momentous words at a South Asian gathering in his impeccable English which brought out all its nuances.

Across the gulf of space and time, Rabindranath Tagore speaks for many of us:

Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore

Posted on 19 May 2009: Us and Them: Sri Lanka’s first landmine on the road to peace

Op ed published on 19 May 2009: Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

‘Can you hear us now?’ India’s bottom millions connect to information society

Mobile champion: farmer Sayar Singh in Rajasthan, India - photo by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP
Mobile champion: farmer Sayar Singh in Rajasthan, India - photo by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP
At the end of the world’s largest general election that lasted nearly a month, Indians have just re-elected the Congress Party to govern over the world’s largest democracy for another five year term.

It’s too early to discuss what role, if any, the recently enhanced telecommunications services played in this outcome. But there is no doubt that access to telephones – especially mobiles – has revolutionised the life of the billion plus Indians in the past few years.

Farmer Sayar Singh epitomises this change. Earlier this year, we filmed a day in the life of Sayar, a resident of Pushkar Nala in India’s Rajasthan state. This was part of a profiling of telephone users at the bottom of the (income) pyramid – or BOP – in emerging Asian economies, undertaken by TVE Asia Pacific on behalf of LIRNEasia.

Sayar is definitely BOP: growing wheat and flowers on his ancestral land, he makes around INR 6,000 (USD 115) a month – on which income he sustains an extended family that comprises his wife, four children, elderly father and an unmarried sister. Life isn’t easy for this 33-year-old, but his spirit of enterprise is as abundant as his praise for his newly acquired mobile phone.

He only bought a mobile in mid 2008, but eight months later, that investment had definitely improved business and social life for him. So much so that his life’s narrative is clearly divided as Before Mobile and After Mobile.

“Our life before the mobile phone was hard,” he says. “I took two days to do what I can now do in a day. Now I can get in touch immediately and all my work happens faster and more easily!”

He now tracks market prices and moves his produce quickly for better profits. With workload reduced and income doubled, Sayar has reaped dual benefits from his mobile.

Watch our short profile of Sayar Singh, ardent promoter of mobile phones in rural India:

This isn’t Sayar’s first experience with owning a telephone. Earlier, he was frustrated with a fixed phone that didn’t work half the time. The service was so bad that he gave up the phone after a while.

He recalls: “Phone wires in our village were often faulty. They used to be out of order for 2 or 4 days, sometimes even half a month! All my work was affected. I couldn’t talk to my brothers and sisters. Call charges were also high. When my phone line was down, I had to call from STD booths or neighbours’ phones.”

In our interview, Sayar kept referring to his fixed phone connection as ‘government phone’ – a reflection of the state-owned former monopoly. It was a reminder of just how bad telecom services were in India until only a few years ago.

As Shashi Tharoor, the former UN Undersecretary General – who, incidentally, has just been elected into Indian Parliament from his native Kerala state – has remarked, India had possibly the worst telephone penetration rates in the world.

He wrote in 2007: “Bureaucratic statism committed a long list of sins against the Indian people, but communications was high up on the list; the woeful state of India’s telephones right up to the 1990s, with only eight million connections and a further 20 million on waiting lists, would have been a joke if it wasn’t also a tragedy — and a man-made one at that.”

Connected and contented: Sayar Singh by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP
Connected and contented: Sayar Singh by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP
Tharoor recalled the infamous words of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s communications minister in the 1970s, C.M. Stephen. In response to questions decrying the rampant telephone breakdowns in the country, the minister declared in Parliament that telephones were a luxury, not a right. He added that ‘any Indian who was not satisfied with his telephone service could return his phone’ — since there was an eight-year waiting list of people seeking this supposedly inadequate product.

According to Tharoor, Mr Stephen’s statement captured perfectly everything that was wrong about the government’s attitude: ignorant, wrong-headed, unconstructive, self-righteous, complacent, unresponsive and insulting. “It was altogether typical of an approach to governance in the economic arena which assumed that the government knew what was good for the country, felt no obligation to prove it by actual performance and didn’t, in any case, care what anyone else thought.”

All this didn’t change overnight, and as Tharoor reflects, the key contribution of the government was ‘in getting out of the way’ — in cutting license fees and streamlining tariffs, easing the overly complex regulations and restrictions that discouraged investors from coming in to the Indian market, and allowing foreign firms to own up to 74 per cent of their Indian subsidiary companies. “The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has also been a model of its kind, a regulatory agency that saw its role as facilitating the growth of the business it was regulating, rather than stifling it with rules and restrictions.”

It still took time for this revolution to be felt at the bottom of the pyramid. As LIRNEasia says: “Just five years ago, the Indian telecom industry’s massive momentum barely included the poor. The country had slightly over seven access paths (fixed and mobile connections) per 100 people, but in rural India 100 people were served by only 1.5 access paths. Even in urban India, the poor were unconnected.”

Then things started changing rapidly. According to LIRNEasia’s latest teleuse@BOP survey, 45 per cent of Indian BOP teleuser households had a phone in late 2008: 37% had a mobile only; 5% had a fixed phone only; and 3% had both. This is massive progress from the 19 percent of BOP homes with a phone just two years ago. Read more about BOP telephone penetration and use in India.

Tharoor has called this the “mobile miracle” — one that has accomplished something socialist policies talked about but did little to achieve: empowering the less fortunate. Rapid mobile penetration in my native Sri Lanka has had a comparable social transformation – in a commentary last year, I called the ubiquitous mobile ‘Everyman’s new trousers’.

Of course, the mobile revolution is far from over. There are many more millions yet to be connected, and those already connected expect affordable, reliable and value-added services.

“Indian BOP is still in the mobile 1.0 mode using mainly voice and missed calls functionality. Messaging is being used by only a third of the BOP population. Mobile payment and government services use is almost non-existent,” Rohan Samarajiva, chairman and CEO, LIRNEasia, was quoted as saying soon after the latest study was presented in India in February 2009.

How far and how much value added mobile services can penetrate the BOP remains to be seen. Sayar Singh, for example, currently spends US$ 8.6 to 9.5 a month on phone services – over 8% of his enhanced monthly income.

“I haven’t subscribed to any services like cricket news or astrological forecasts. I don’t need them…and I don’t want to spend on them,” he said in our interview.

But mobile telephony is an area where the boldest projections have been exceeded – so never say never.

Photos by Suchit Nanda for TVE Asia Pacific

Cellphones and the Economic Modernization of India: Listen to Shashi Tharoor at Asia Society, NY, in 2007:

Hitchhiker’s (Rough) Guide to the Media: Who wants a free ride?

If you got a message, hitch a ride...
If you got a message, hitch a ride...

How can research institutes and advocacy groups use the mainstream media effectively to communicate their findings and analyses?

What is the secret of some researchers receiving more media attention and coverage than others? Why are some ‘media darlings’?

Are there ways to secure quality coverage for public interest content without having to pay high rates for media space or air time?

TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) addresses these important questions in a new framework to engage the mass media for communicating for influence and social change. We call it a Hitchhiker’s (Rough) Guide to the Media.

The framework, building on a dozen years of TVEAP experience in working with television broadcasters and other media outlets across the Asia Pacific region, guides individuals and institutions to get the best out of the media. One key to success is building sustained relationships with media professionals and their gatekeepers (the bosses at media organisations who decide what content to publish or broadcast).

We introduced the framework to a group of ICT researchers drawn from across Asia who came together for a two-day workshop in Hyderabad, India, on 1 – 2 December 2008. The workshop aimed to build their capacity to use different communication frameworks and tools to engage policy makers, various other stake-holders and the wider public.

Workshop participants were all drawn from various action research projects on ICT or ICT for development supported by the Pan Asia Networking programme of the International Development Research Institute (IDRC) of Canada.

Our friends at IDRC have recently edited highlights of our presentation into a short video, which mixes excerpts from an interview they filmed with me. It can be watched here:

More about the workshop is found on a dedicated blog.

Read more about our framework on TVEAP website.

“Development” is seen as a hard sell in the increasingly commercialised media in the Asia Pacific. Researchers, activists and educators engaged in development work often complain that they are blocked out of the print and broadcast media. Yet they fail to understand a basic truth about the media: there is no quota of print space or air time set aside for development. Information and opinions on development topics must compete with other areas of human endeavour for the limited space and time available.

It is unrealistic to expect any legally or otherwise guaranteed space or time for development content. Even if there were, that can only apply on the media owners and media professionals. There can be no guarantee that media audiences will accept such content.

I get rather weary when well-meaning development players complain about the airwaves being full of entertainment, as if that airtime is something they have been deprived of. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with entertainment. The world will be a very dull place if the broadcasters listened to development people and packed every minute of air time with ‘information and education’.

Hitch a hike, but don't expect to get in the driver's seat...
Hitch a hike, but don't expect to get in the driver's seat...

This is the big challenge to the development community — how to get that delicate balance right, and learn to co-exist with other forms of media products catering to the wide and varied human interests. Hitch-hiking with the media avoids confrontation, looks for the common ground and tries to nurture collaboration for mutual benefit.

As my colleague Manori Wijesekera (presenting in the photo above) told the Hyderabad workshop: “Researchers and activists are a good source of information and opinions for the media, who need a constant supply of these. This can be a win-win situation for both parties, but we have to remember that we are hitching a ride with the media. So we can’t get into the driving seat or demand too much at once!”

So here’s our commercial: TVEAP conducts short, customised training sessions and workshops for researchers and civil society groups to enhance their media skills. These offer guidance on how to build and sustain ‘bridges’ with the media, and receive quality coverage that go well beyond publicity and public relations. If interested, get in touch with us!

Photos courtesy TVEAP Image Archive

From Nyota Uhura to Michelle Obama: The inspiration continues!

Inspiration across generations...
Inspiration across generations...

Actress Whoopi Goldberg was a child of 10 when the original series of Star Trek started its first broadcast on NBC in the US in September 1966. The futuristic science fiction series – about a spaceship travelling across space and time in the 23rd century in search of new civilisations – was to leave a lasting impression on many members of her generation.

In Whoopi’s case, it went beyond just general inspiration. Something in the show seemed incredible to the African-American child growing up in a land where colour and race were still divisive factors. She recalls running around the house, screaming: “Hey mom, look! There’s a negro woman on TV — and she ain’t cooking dinner!”.

‘That woman’ was the character Nyota Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. This anecdote is captured in the 1997 documentary Trekkies, which explored the global fandom inspired by the show, which has gone on to become a franchise covering several TV series, 11 feature films (including the latest ‘origins’ film released on 8 May 2009), an animation series, as well as numerous books, video games and computer games. As Forbes magazine once noted, the allure is comparable only to that of Star Wars.

Sometimes, less is more!
Sometimes, less is more!
Uhura featured as the communications officer on board the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Animated Series, and the first six Star Trek films. She is significant as one of the first major black characters on an American television series and for engaging in a then-taboo interracial kiss with Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). In the 2009 film, a younger Uhura is portrayed by actress Zoë Saldana.

The inclusion of Uhura, a black woman, in a critical technical position was certainly idealistic in the mid 1960s when the American civil rights movement was still agitating for equal rights for African Americans. She one of the first black women featured in a major television series not playing a servant; her prominent supporting role as a female black bridge officer was unprecedented.

As I’ve just noted in another blog post: “At a time when there were few non-white or foreign roles in American television dramas, Gene Roddenberry created a multi-ethnic crew for the Enterprise, including an African woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and—most notably—an alien, the half-Vulcan Spock. In the second season, reflecting the contemporaneous Cold War, Roddenberry added a Russian crew member.”

But was the character, donning a sexy mini skirt uniform, somewhat tokenistic? Perhaps. But it still had considerable inspirational value – which is never to be under-estimated.

In fact, after the first season of Star Trek, Nichols had become frustrated at her relative lack of lines. At one point, she considered quitting the show, but was talked out of this decision by the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.. MLK told her that a show that depicted a black woman working alongside whites in a position of importance was important for the goal of racial equality.

Another version of the story has MLK telling Nichols that he was a big fan of the series, and she “could not give up” since she was playing a vital role model for black children and young women across the country. It is also often reported that Dr. King added that “Once that door is opened by someone, no one else can close it again.”

After NBC executives cancelled Star Trek in 1969, Nichols went on to star in other roles — and also worked for NASA in a campaign to encourage African Americans to join the space service. Among those she helped recruit was Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to fly aboard the Space Shuttle, in September 1992. Jemison has cited Star Trek as an influence in her decision to pursue a career in space.

Goldberg: From inspiration to a regular role
Goldberg: From inspiration to a regular role
Meanwhile, things came full circle for actress Whoopi Goldberg, who was to get her own regular role in Star Trek: The Next Generation whose original run lasted from 1987 to 1994. In this successor series, she played the recurring El-Aurian female character Guinan.

Things have also moved on in the real world, where Barack Obama is now the President of the United States, with Michelle Obama as one of the most influential – if not powerful – women in the world. On 28 April 2009, CNN ran a story titled Why Michelle Obama inspires women around the globe. It noted: “Those who focus on Michelle Obama’s impact on America are underestimating her reach. The first lady is inspiring women of color around the globe to look at themselves, and America, in fresh ways.”

There is no linear link between Nyota Uhura and Michelle Obama, and the real world has very far to go to reach the utopian ideals of Star Trek. But the very fact that we have the Obamas where they are is an assurance that things can slowly move towards Gene Roddenberry’s grand vision.

Star Trek: Advocating a world of equality, tolerance and compassion

Going where no trekkie has gone before?
Going where no trekkie has gone before?
I’m exactly as old as Star Trek: we were both born a few months apart in 1966 (I’m older by seven months). But because we grew up on opposite sides of planet Earth in the pre-Internet era, our worlds didn’t collide until we were both well into our teens. From then on, I’ve been a Trekkie/Trekker since.

I can’t wait to see the latest (11th) Star Trek movie that opened on 8 May 2009. It’s an ‘origins’ movie – a chronicle of the early days of Captain James T. Kirk and his fellow USS Enterprise crew members. Read plot on Wikipedia.

Our world was very different when the one-time US Army pilot, screenwriter and TV producer Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, the original series. It started airing on the US network NBC in September 1966. The Space Age was less than a decade old, and only a few men (and a couple of women) had made short trips to near Earth orbit. The great Space Race was in full swing, and NASA was spearheading the largest peace-time operation in history, aimed at landing men on the Moon and getting them safely back before the decade was out.

Star Trek, in contrast, offered ambition and hope. Every week at the appointed time, the United Star Ship Enterprise and its intrepid crew took viewers roaming around the universe. The stories appealed as much for insights into the infinite possibilities (and combinations) of life, technology, compassion and power at a cosmic scale, as for its glimpses of the near-Utopian human society in the 23rd century.

As Manohla Dargis, said this week reviewing the latest Star Trek movie (2009) in The New York Times: “Initially aired in 1966, Star Trek was a utopian fantasy of the first order, a vision of the enlightened future in which whites, blacks, Asians and one pokerfaced Vulcan are united by their exploratory mission (“to boldly go”), a prime directive (do no harm) and the occasional dust up.”

According to Dargis, the enduring appeal of Star Trek and the global cult following it inspired is “a testament to television’s power as myth-maker, as a source for some of the fundamental stories we tell about ourselves, who we are and where we came from.”

Star Trek Original SeriesAnd, we might add, where we are headed. The show was unique, for its time, for its portrayal of diversity and unity among the wider cast of characters. As the Wikipedia notes: “The show was unique, for its time, for its portrayal of diversity and unity among the wider cast of characters. As the Wikipedia notes: “At a time when there were few non-white or foreign roles in American television dramas, Roddenberry created a multi-ethnic crew for the Enterprise, including an African woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and—most notably—an alien, the half-Vulcan Spock. In the second season, reflecting the contemporaneous Cold War, Roddenberry added a Russian crew member. “

This utopian scenario needs to be contrasted with the prevailing reality of the American Space Programme. No American had ventured beyond near Earth orbit in 1966, and NASA was struggling to catch up with the Russians. Yet, by the time Star Trek original series finished its initial run in September 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin had returned safely and triumphantly from the Moon. In the event, the Apollo programme landed a dozen astronauts on the Moon, all of who returned safely – as did the astronauts of the disaster-stricken mission, Apollo XIII. Without exception, all of them were white and male.

The journey has only just begun...
The journey has only just begun...
It took many years for reality to catch up with Star Trek‘s vision, and then, only just. Although a Russian (Valentina Tereshkova) had become the first woman in space early on in 1963, it took the Americans another 20 years to have their first woman astronaut: Sally Ride, who traveled to Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle in June 1983. A few weeks later, in August that year, Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., became the first black American astronaut. Multi-cultural crews did not become commonplace until the late 1990s, when the International Space Station became operational.

It wasn’t just racial equality and harmony that Star Trek advocated in its subtext. While bringing intellectually stimulating entertainment, it also celebrated values like compassion and tolerance. In the Cold War world locked into Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), Star Trek gently reminded viewers that mutual co-existence was a viable option…if only enough effort was invested in it.

As space visionary and science fiction grandmaster Sir Arthur C Clarke noted in a 40th anniversary tribute to the series in 2007: “Appearing at such a time in human history, Star Trek popularised much more than the vision of a space-faring civilisation. In episode after episode, it promoted the then unpopular ideals of tolerance for differing cultures and respect for life in all forms – without preaching, and always with a saving sense of humour.”

He then added, in characteristic style: “Over the years, the sophistication of storylines and special effects has certainly improved, but Star Trek retains its core values – still very much needed in our sadly divided and quarreling world.”

The Enterprise will be cruising the galaxy for centuries to come...
The Enterprise will be cruising the galaxy for centuries to come...