Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Making a Difference: ...Not Just a Piece of Cloth

Here is real life fairy-tale rags-to-riches story...

...except that this is a story of converting what the urban India considers "rags" into the "riches/resources" for those who - due to some quirk of fate - were born elsewhere, in some other families...

So here goes...

In October 1991, the mountainous region of Uttar Kashi in Northern India was hit by a 6.5 richter earthquake, causing widespread havoc and making countless people homeless. Anshu Gupta, a 21 year old student from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (New Delhi), and a freelancing photo-journalist, decided to visit the affected areas to do a feature. What struck him, and remained imprinted in his memory was the insensitivity with which the relief was being provided to people.

He recalled much later:

“The hill people are poor but they are proud. They were aghast at bundles of clothes dumped from moving trucks, literally on their heads. They withdrew and chose to wrap themselves in potato sacking cloth."

That lesson remained with him:

Help and charity should not deprive people of their basic human dignity and self-respect.

Back in Delhi, one day while passing by a hospital, he was intrigued to see an unusual signboard printed on tricycle-rickshaw:

"Dilli pulis ka laash dhone wala" (Disposer of dead bodies for the Delhi Police).

This was an odd unheard-of job-description for a rickshaw-puller. Curious to find out more about this, Anshu located and talked to the rickshaw-puller, Habib.

Habib had a strange occupation, which remained invisible in the impersonal hum-drum of the metropolitan life.

Everyday a number of people died on Delhi footpaths – due to illness, cold or plain hunger. Their bodies remained unclaimed; there was no suspicion of “foul play” since everyone accepted that these deaths were, in legally accepted parlance, “due to natural causes”. However, these bodies had to be disposed, and Habib was hired by the Delhi Police to take these bodies to the nearest crematorium, for which he would get Rs. 20/- and 3 yards of cloth to cover each body.

Anshu talked to and followed Habib on his routes, and finally wrote a feature on Habib. What however, jolted him was a statement by Habib:

“The body count goes up in winter. I can barely cope.”

What would be a business bonanza for Habib was also a sad statement about the life of a large part of populace in the capital of the country. Habib’s own 5-year old daughter, who would often accompany, once told him:

“When I feel cold at night, I just tightly hug the dead body on the rickshaw and sleep with it.”

Anshu felt deeply about this experience, and discussed this with his batch-mate, Meenakshi. It was difficult for him to remain just an objective photo-journalist, and not get involved...

...Life, however, moved on. Anshu completed his course, and joined Escorts in the corporate communication department. Meenakshi joined BBC radio, and they got married in 1995.

...and then one day, in 1998, the life took an unexpected turn.

...When a disaster strikes somewhere, there are wide-spread efforts, by many agencies, to collect clothes, medicines, utensils, grains, etc. And many of us, donate whatever we can/ feel like donating. Behind these acts of charity, there is also a “feel good” factor of having done our bit for the society; and then we return back to our normal daily life.

In a similar situation, when Anshu and Meenakshi put together their disposable clothes, they were shocked.

Here they were, as Anshu recalled later..

"...a young family of two adults, new home-makers for just three years, not wealthy by any means and we have 67 pieces of good, usable garments we don't want any more. Yet, but for the disaster we wouldn't be giving them away."

The dots of past encounters connected as a personal insight…

...The same is true for most of us. To quote Anshu from the video below:

"(It) literally take a disaster to happen, and then you take out clothes… so our basic issue was that half the country does not need a disaster, but they need clothing. For every single person who does not have enough to cover himself or herself, winters are a much bigger, regular disasters.”

And so, Goonj was born.

Anshu Gupta left his corporate job, and formed an organization, Goonj, to collects, process and distribute what the urban India disposes to those who really need it
Since then, from a pile of 67 clothes in 1998, today Goonj has grown:

  • it collects and dispatches 20,000kg of clothes from collection centers across five cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Jalandhar and Hyderabad)

  • across 19 states in the country, and

  • the are requirements specified by around 100 grassroot NGOs

    If this makes sense to you, please spend 7:10min of your time to view this video to know what Goonj does:

    … better still.
    Visit the Goonj Website!

    Which brings me back to an old question:

    Are we??...

    thanks for the suggesions, Kiran:

  • Please click here to find Goonj's Collection Points

  • You can also participate in The Giving Challenge by helping Goonj win $50000

  • Sunday, January 20, 2008

    Among Nations that Torture

    Which are the nations where a foreigner risks torture and abuse?

    The list contains names of notorious countries such as: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, Mexico, China... and..

    ...and according to this Washington Post article (and other reports):

    The United States of America!

    This list is from a manual prepared by Canadian Dept of Foreign Affairs for its diplomats to create "greater awareness among consular officials to the possibility of Canadians detained abroad being tortured."

    Or as the MSNBC news video below comments:

    "Sometimes, a nation's descent into moral depravity is marked by sudden events... a coup, for instance. Other times, the signposts are smaller, subtler increments...

    Meanwhile, responding to the pressure and "unhappiness" expressed by its two "closest allies", Canada has agreed to delete these two countries from the list. The Canadian Foreign Minister has explained:

    "The document is a training manual. It is not a policy document or a statement of policy. As such it does not convey the government's views or positions... It contains a list that wrongly includes some of our closest allies. I have directed that the manual be reviewed and rewritten."

    That would also involve rewriting:

  • My Guantanamo Diary
  • Abu Ghraib happens in USA also
  • Kidnapped to Order
  • Abuse Of Iraqi POWs By GIs
  • Is this just "abuse"?
  • The Ultimate Privatization

    The Canadian govt may "review" and "rewrite" the list. But (click on this link) -
  • The US has used torture for decades. All that's new is the openness about it

  • Friday, January 18, 2008

    News (and its Readers) for Sale!

    A friend sent me an article News for Sale by Sucheta Dalal which starts with the statement:

    "If you are an investor who depends on India’s largest-selling economic newspaper for unbiased news, then you must know and understand the concept of “private treaties” (PT). Since The Times of India (TOI) far outsells every other English newspaper and The Economic Times is by far the market leader in the economic news category, the concept is of universal interest."

    What are these Private Treaties which Times Group - Bennett Coleman Co Ltd (BCCL - have?

    As their website explains:

    ""Private Treaties helps clients undergo a paradigm shift in their self - perception and their marketing plan. Using the Times Group's acclaimed ability to create brands, it transports the Treaty partner to a higher corporate plane. It achieves this by:

  • Risk Sharing: transforming client's 'commodities' into 'brands' by creating synergy between the client's business model & our dynamic & ever expanding reach

  • Innovating: imparting, and helping implement cutting-edge solutions which also create tremendous financial value

  • Value Enhancing: PT reinforces the wisdom that, within the next three decades, the success of any enterprise will depend on its ability to use its intangible assets, not its ability to amass and control physical ones. The Group is eminently places to help its partners make this leap into the future."

    The mechanism of this partnership is innocently simple:

  • the Times Group/BCCL picks up equity in young fledgling companies (as a '05 article in Business World explains, "these companies are in their growth phase and have other working capital priorities."

  • the company ploughs back that same money for advertising support in Times Group/BCCL (as the head of Times Group Head of Private Equity explained, this arrangement aims at "helping emerging companies realise the power of advertising")

    Everyone wins... And after all there is no law that says that a media house cannot also be an equity investor in its advertisers!

    so what is the catch?

    Not that one needs to guess that, but as this article in Busines Standard explains:

    "The “private treaties” can be defended in theory — on the basis of the claim that journalists in the publications concerned are free to write what they want about any company, and are not duty-bound to sing the praises of the companies whose shares the publisher holds. The bitter truth is that this is hogwash —the Chinese walls that used to separate editorial and business departments in most newspapers have become porous, and in some cases have been demolished without ceremony. Evidence that has surfaced supports the view that journalists in the affected publications are being asked to play the piper’s tune. So from a journalistic standpoint, there is nothing to be said in defence of space-for-shares barters."

    In more concrete terms, as to what this means, Sucheta Dalal's article however quotes a mail (accessed by her magazine, MoneyLife) by the Economic Times Editor:

    "At ET, we are carving out a separate team to look into the needs of Private Treaty clients. Every large centre will have a senior editorial person to interface with Treaty clients. In turn, the senior edit person will be responsible, along with the existing team, for edit delivery. This team will have regional champions along with one or two reporters for help -- but more importantly, they will liaise with REs (Resident Editors) and help in integrating the content into the different sections of the paper. In this way, we will be able to incorporate PT into the editorial mainstream, rather than it looking like a series of press releases appearing in vanilla form in the paper."

    Times Group/BCCL, however is not alone in this race. In fact, the Indian media is catching up with this model, e.g., check this article:

    HT, Bhaskar, Jagran eye shares-for-ad divisions

    Which somewhat vindicates a posting I had made some years back on my other blog:

    What Does Mainstream Media Sell? and to Whom?
      "Though somewhat dissonant, I find this a more logical way of looking at the mainstream media, and the business model it follows.

      The conventional way of looking at media is that it serves a valuable social purpose in the free society. It frees the content - news, views, entertainment - to reach it to common man. One assumes also that this information, provided by media, helps the common man to make more informed decisions.

      But, often we tend to forget that media - specifically, the mainstream media - is also a business. It creates, packages and sells a service to its customers, and gets paid by them for the quality of service provided.

      It is this perspective which turns the conventional view of media on its head...

      ... most of us tend to believe - somewhat naively - that when we buy a magazine or a newspaper, or watch a TV channel, we are the customers, because we pay for it (even if nominally).

      We tend to ignore that the media revenues come, not from subscriptions paid by its readers/ audience, but from advertisements paid for by businesses.

      So, perhaps, a more rational way of looking at media should be like this: Media sells its subscribers/ audience/ spectators/ readers to its primary customers - the businesses, and gets paid for that service!!!

  • Sunday, January 06, 2008

    Power of Nightmares

    Adam Curtis' documentary "The Power of Nightmares" starts with the statement:

    "In the past, politicians promised to create a better world. They had different ways of achieving this. But their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered to their people. Those dreams failed. And today, people have lost faith in ideologies. Increasingly, politicians are seen simply as managers of public life. But now, they have discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares."

    here is a good example:

    In a way, this is also an expression of the American belief in USA's "Manifest Destiny" - a moral idea which helped it annex of territories. Something to akin to the "manifest destiny" of Roman Empire, as described by Joseph Schumpeter in a 1919 essay:

    "There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interestswere not Roman, they were those of Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies, the allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest - why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, it was manifestly Rome's duty to guard against their indubitably aggressivedesigns."

    Needlless to say, the documentary "The Power of Nightmares" was never aired in USA!!!