31 December 2005


A tsunami, a hurricane, an earthquake, a war. Lives snuffed out within minutes. Losses much more. And, don't forget the bombings and the bird-flu. That, too, was 2005.

As Bob Geldof reminded us during Live 8: many children will go hungry to bed tonight.

If this is reality, what's in store for us in 2006?

Despite these pictures of gloom, there is one difference between the New Year and the previous. That difference is our confidence - an undeniable, unshakable confidence in ourselves which has made us stronger, fitter, smarter in the past 365 days.

We have survived to tell the tale. And, we shall pursue our lives in 2006 with the same confidence and courage and hope and optimism.


28 December 2005

Living it up

Living it up’ seems to be the motto here in Bangalore. And I’m not just referring to the Christmas/New Year holidays. Bangalore is a happening place – all year round. At least, that’s what I can gather while talking to people and going around the city. There’s money in people’s hands, which explains the overall cheerfulness I see everywhere.

The first thing to notice is the boom in the construction and real estate industries. Buildings are coming up everywhere and people are buying up properties like nobody’s business. A friend handling the advertising for a builder was concerned. According to him, just a couple of ads deliver all that’s necessary in booking flats or commercial properties these days; thereby, reducing media spends by builders and client billings for the agency.

Shops and restaurants are crowding the city, with people happily spending their easily-earned money from their IT and BPO jobs. For a marketer, it’s a paradise for brands – particularly for apparel, accessories, cosmetics, sportswear, mobilephones, consumer electronics, automobiles, retail and restaurants. Everybody is sporting a Nike, a Reebok, a Levi’s or a Titan. I-pods and the Nokia N-series mobilephones are being eyed with envy. Sales of diamonds and hair colour are shooting up. Most homes now have a car or a two-wheeler – some, a combination of these, in multiples. I spent an hour or so at a Toyota dealer in the city and was amazed at the number of vehicles sold right before my eyes.

Restaurants are sprouting up all over Bangalore, many with innovative names. And, people are crowding these places all through the week, no matter how much they have to pay for their food. For me, pizzas with my nephews and nieces chalked up a bill of Rs.2,000/-; a weekend lunch with a friend at a well-known Chinese restaurant put me out by Rs.1,000/- (without alcohol); and a cup of mocha at a new coffee bar cost me almost Rs.100/-. These rates were definitely much higher than what’s on offer in Mumbai. But, what’s interesting is that all these restaurants have most of their tables full.

Other businesses are doing well too. Hotel occupancy is at an all-time high in Bangalore. A friend confirmed that this was mostly from business travellers and there was a slight dip in occupancy in the weekends. A snap survey also indicated that tobacco and alcohol consumption was also on an all-time high, their biggest growth coming from the young-adult consumer segment. Most of these young adults are now pouring out on the streets after their typical BPO shifts, even on weekends. Unless, of course, they are living it up at a pub or a restaurant, a shopping mall or someplace else.

26 December 2005

Shades of Christmas

Walked into The Royal Orchid coffee shop just before 11 this morning and took up a place in the garden patio overlooking the KGA golf course. Wanted to kill some time over a cup of coffee and catch up on my reading, before I ran an errand for a friend just after noon. The breeze was cool and the sun was just warm enough on my face to make the sit-out a wonderful idea. The book I was reading - 'Shade' by Neil Jordan - picked up speed and I could feel the aroma of steaming coffee coming along to make this a wonderful day.

I waited to catch the eye of any one of the waiters to order my coffee, but I was found lacking in success. Several of them hovered behind me, rearranging tables and chairs, making quite a din. I sat and waited, but none even looked at me, let alone come to ask for my order. I decided not to holler for a waiter. I decided to bet on myself, to see if any of the waiters would actually come to take my order, putting my money on their not coming… at the cost of forfeiting the pleasure of a cup of coffee at that wonderful moment.

Sure enough, even after an hour and a half when I got up to leave, no one came to take my order. No one came to offer me the menu card, nor leave a glass of water on my table, which is customary in all Indian restaurants. No one wished me, nor nod in my direction. I reflected on the moment. Was it just me? Or, was this a shade of the regular apathy of Bangalore I had experienced several years ago when I decided to return to Mumbai and not settle in this city?

Perhaps I was too quick to judge. I dropped the thought from my mind. On the way out of the main hotel doorway, the smartly-attired attendant held-open the glass door for me, saluted, and wished, 'Good Day, Sir… Merry Christmas.' Well, all was not lost yet. I happily returned his wishes.

23 December 2005

Plate-glass future

From the way things are taking shape here, you'd expect Bangalore is where the future is. The IT and telecom boom is shaping the city's future and, with the rapid influx of highly-paid skilled workforce from all over the country, the city is developing a consumer powerbase envied by most other metros.

This economic explosion is also changing the city's skyline. Bangalore is rapidly evolving from an architectural perspective. Side by side, companies are constructing monstrous building complexes of concrete and plate-glass; only to be mirrored by shopping complexes in similar design and building material.

Old buildings are torn down and in their place you find another concrete and plate-glass structure - a shopping centre, a bank, an office or a restaurant. Beautiful colonial-era bungalows which Bangalore was so proud of are now fewer in number, reducing Bangalore's architectural heritage by a great deal more than just a building. Some of Bangalore's history and heritage are also lost in the process.

When I spoke to several Bangaloreans about this, they indicated something I can only describe as 'mixed feelings'. Some expressed their disappointment, even annoyance, at losing a part of their architectural heritage; but they were fewer in number. Others felt that, if the trees and the gardens and the best of the colonial buildings were not destroyed, they didn't mind the change. After all, Bangalore was the country's IT centre!

Looks like, we're going to see a lot more rubble and plate-glass in Bangalore's future.

22 December 2005

Bangalore, not so 'very green'

A friend had come to pick me up at the Bangalore (HAL) airport. It was 8:30 p.m. and as we waited in the traffic jam just outside the airport, my friend squarely blamed the traffic police for half the city's traffic problems. Surely this can't be true, I surmised. But my friend was insistent, pointing out that the traffic police were negligent about their duties. Sure enough, we located the traffic policeman on our beat, standing in a corner in a fluorescent jacket, eating a banana, while vehicles on the road nudged each other, blowing their horns.

Apparently, this is a common phenomenon everyday, in almost all corners of Bangalore. Bangalore's traffic jams have become legendary, being reported in the media everyday, without any solutions surfacing from the millions of discussions taking place all over the city. With more and more IT and BPO companies setting up shop in Bangalore, the city's human and vehicular population is growing at an astronomical rate. The city's roads, infrastructure plans and administration are just not geared up for this explosion.

Bangalore's traffic problem is now new… as you'll find in die-hard Bangalorean Birbal's lament in www.koramangala.com going back a year: “Sad, isn't it? I mean, after all Bangalore's charm was in just going out; shopping, movies, dinner at a restaurant; or perhaps that late night drive for ice-cream on MG Road or paan at Brigade Road. A time will come when our grandchildren will read in their history books about, 'Once upon a time, there was this garden city called Bangalore.'”

I decided to test the traffic conditions myself and took an auto-rickshaw ride from Hennur, one of Bangalore's suburbs, to another suburb called Koramangala. The journey took an hour, long by Bangalore's standards, winding through detours as the roads were dug-up and under construction in many places. Being a Mumbaikar, I'm used to long auto-rickshaw rides, and hence I didn't mind this all that much. Perhaps, I was expecting it.

But, what surprised me was the amount of dust that enveloped me through the journey. Once I arrived at my destination, I actually saw the auto-rickshaw driver blow a thick layer of dust from his dashboard as he waited for me to pay his fare. This was not what I had seen, nor experienced, in Bangalore before. Bangalore has always been a very green city. There has always been - and still are - trees everywhere. Several parks adorn the city too. This was what Bangalore was known for. But now, dust seems to cover it all.

20 December 2005

Two Mumbais?

There is Mumbai, the commercial capital of the country; the city that contributes as much as 40% of the country's coffers in taxes. Then there's a Mumbai divided: South Mumbai, the country of the haves; and Suburban Mumbai, the country of the have-nots. This divide is debatable of course, with suburban Mumbai catching up on demographics and development. Upmarket highrise residential complexes, movie and entertainment multiplexes, shopping centres and malls now decorate the suburban Mumbai skyline, not South Mumbai which had once been the hub of cosmopolitan activity.

Once upon a time, South Mumbai was where it all happened. People thronged there for work and business, for their shopping, and for their entertainment. In many ways, for Mumbaikars, going to South Mumbai was like spending a day out. This, no doubt, referred to the millions who travelled in buses, local trains, cars and share-taxis, for an hour or more, just to reach their places of work and/or entertainment. On the contrary, people in South Mumbai would saunter in from home in 40 minutes or less, fresh as a daisy, or perhaps with a hangover from the party the night before. While people in Suburban Mumbai toiled to reach home in time for dinner, South Mumbaikars would reach home from work, change, and go out for the evening.

Today, this divide is widening. Not in lifestyle, but in anger and resentment in suburban Mumbai which complains about “the iniquitous distribution of the city's revenues,” according to a media report (going back to August this year) on www.rediff.com by Saisuresh Sivaswamy. Other voices have spoken up too. There's a feeling in suburban Mumbai that there should be two Mumbais - with separate administrations and civic authorities managing the two municipalities. The report goes on to say, “There is already a division of sorts in place, or call it a recognition that the city is too vast to be dealt with from one point, between the Mumbai Collectorate and Mumbai Suburban… The throbbing suburbs of Mumbai cry out for a better deal, and its destiny cannot be decided in a part of town that scarcely has any concern for it. The viable solution is to bifurcate the city into two civic administrative units, Mumbai City and Mumbai Suburbs, each with its own municipal corporation that will raise money from, and spend, within its jurisdiction.”

13 December 2005


What is suburbia? Is it the thriving habitat of the middle-class in concrete high-rise buildings or in unpainted houses with grilled windows? Is it a milieu of people fighting over drinking water, shopping for fresh vegetables and fish alongside heaps of garbage? Is it the throng of a million commuters in crowded buses and local trains every day?

Some say yes, sadly, while others rejoice at the sign of eternal life.

Suburbia may not be everyman’s dream-world, but it has a disposition that is worth celebrating... as this poem from
http://www.daypoems.net declares:

Suburbia! I Think It Time to Praise
by William Brendan McPhillips

Suburbia escaped me when I wrote.
An unintended slight, I should explain,
I've lived here long and put it in my vote,
Despite the city's population, pain.

The country, farms, were fodder to the Muse,
And cows not cattle set the rural scene,
And forest stretching distance fed its hues
To measure out the glades of treasured green.

And yet suburban contradictions kept
Me from returning to familiar fold,
And urban constancy made sleep un-slept,
So here I am suburbanite, and old,
Amid conflicted contradicted ways,
And yet against the contradiction, praise.

Suburbia is not always the brick and bitumen anonymity that people make it out to be. It has its own character and its own beauty. Over the years, it has been a source of inspiration for many. Artists, poets, writers, photographers, architects alike have toiled to portray their feelings, thoughts, ideas and designs of suburbia creatively – displaying their love, their despair, their isolation, their discovery of the self and their loss with the onslaught of modernity.

If you look deeply enough, you too might find suburbia a source of wonder and inspiration.

10 December 2005

Art and suburbia

“Ah, Suburbia. Reviled and idealized. Strived for and loathed. Ridiculed and praised. Suburbia is many things to many people and has become an icon of modern living. Whether it is cookie cutter homes or ‘cook-outs’ in the summer, bikes on the lawn or the ‘Stepford Wives’. Whether you find the modern-day ‘Utopia’ serious, amusing or just plain absurd, turn your eye towards Suburbia, its landscapes and inhabitants, and show us what you see.”
[Prospectus: EBSQ Self Representing Artists’ show ‘Suburbia’]

I’m a product of the suburbia. Most of my life I’ve lived in the suburbs – that peripheral place that is frowned upon by the inner city population. This is particularly true of Mumbai, where the inner city is confined to downtown ‘South Mumbai’. I don’t mind this suburban segregation or nomenclature. It, kind of, describes who I am. You see, traditionally, suburbs were those clusters of people who lived outside the fortified city walls, away from the main centres of commerce and the high-life. Today, this is still true. What I find most interesting about suburbia is not its alternative city-like communities and its commerce, but the fact that it represents an entirely unique individualistic culture of people and their aspirations.

Having lived in several suburbs of cities in India and a few of them abroad, I had a longing to find out what suburbia really meant. This culture of suburbia, these aspirations of the people living there, are they unique to a specific city or region of the world? Or, is there something universal in the concept of suburbia?

When I turned to Australia (where I’ve spent several years of my childhood), a country known for its suburban culture, its suburban aesthetic, I found an interesting interpretation from an artist’s point of view. Howard Arkley (1951–1999), who exploded the banality of suburbia in his hallucinatory airbrushed paintings, once said in a 1994 interview to Leo Edelstein:

“Because we’re actually – you know, we’re talking about the international global village, everyone’s the same, but when it actually starts to appear, that you could be here and you could be in California and this street could be anywhere in the world, then people have a problem – they want this uniqueness, they want this special quality, but the thing is if they looked harder they would actually find that it is unique… It’s unique in the same way that a tree’s a tree and dirt’s dirt, but for the particular artist who can perceive something special, then it becomes something else. Well, everything out there is exactly the same – a road’s a road and a paling fence is a paling fence but...”

But, does this answer my questions? Maybe yes. Let me think this over.

06 December 2005

Creative vision

Picasso, Mozart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Coco Chanel, Charles Chaplin and Walt Disney. Rabindranath Tagore, Raja Ravi Verma, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Satyajit Ray. These people have shaped our lives by creating art, music, architecture, poetry, fashion and film. They are icons in their own right and will be remembered for generations. We have all learnt from them and still appreciate their genius.

However, in a culture where children are growing up with digital art and re-mixed music, with newer and newer tools developed for desktop art and garage music, where exactly is our creativity heading? Is the paintbrush and the human voice being replaced by the mouse and the computer keyboard? Are we looking at a brave new world of technology where poetry and music and art will be generated by computers or similar digital machines? Would human creativity no longer produce art?

And, what is going to happen to the indigenous art and music and creativity India is so famous for? Will there be no audience for these? Which artist among us is shaping the creative vision of our generation?

05 December 2005

Can art be criticised?

Some say that art is the representation – albeit an external representation – of the artist’s experience. It’s the representation of the artist’s original emotion in a communicable form for all to see, hear, feel, sense, etc. Which would mean, the quality of a work of art ought to be a measure of the artist’s ability to loyally represent his/her unique emotion or experience to us.

Yet, we like some art; we criticise and throw away others. What gives us this authority to do so? If the origin – the source – of the art is an emotion or experience unique to the artist, and we have no access to it, how can we even judge a work of art? This, in fact, takes us to another question: If we can’t judge art, who can? Who can determine who is a good artist and who is not?

According to Dr Sam Vaknin’s article in authorsden.com, ‘The Basic Dilemma of the Artist’, traditionally, artists have used their own reference groups – their audience, so to speak – to measure their art. This audience is a defining part of the artist’s creation – the work of art itself – and inseparable from the artist’s reputation. This reference group, this audience, is expected to have in its possession some sort of a universal guidebook – a source of knowledge – which can be used to interpret the artist’s emotion and experience from his/her art. This reference group can aptly judge the representation for what it is.

If this is true, then the concept is unique in its challenge. For, if the artist happens to be too emotionally involved with his/her art, the reference group has a privileged status. This group is the only one which can judge art – or, has the capacity to pass judgement on art. For, only this group can interpret what transpired in the artist’s mind.

I admit this is not ‘the real thing’ – the creation called art from the artist’s original emotion or experience – but it’s a pretty good substitute. While we sit back making assumptions – guesswork really – about what the artist may have felt in creating a work of art, this reference group happily goes about voicing its views, advice and criticism.

Of course, there is an outside chance that these views, advice and criticism of the reference group may not be loyal – or even close – to the artist’s original emotion or experience. After all, the emotion, the experience, the creation all belong to the artist, who is the only person who can refute these. But then, the artist is too emotionally involved with his/her art to make a logical representation.

03 December 2005

The creative thinking process

The little girl had the makings of a poet in her, who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said, “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?”
[Graham Wallas in his book The Art of Thought]

The creative thinking process has confused mankind for centuries. From ancient times to present-day ‘creative thinking’ teachers, the likes of Roger von Oech and Edward de Bono, people have tried to understand the human brain and make sense of our thinking and creative processes. More accurately, the creative thinking process – or, how do we get ideas? Where do ideas come from?

Here are two schools of thought to keep you busy thinking:

Graham Wallas (1858-1932), social psychologist, in his seminal work, The Art of Thought (1926), described four stages of the creative process:
Preparation. The person expecting to gain new insights must know his field of study and be well prepared. People get inventive ideas mainly in their own fields – poets in poetry, scientists in science.
Incubation. Many ideas come only in a period of time spent away from the problem, usually after actively engaging with the problem. [Archimedes got his idea in the public bath.]
Illumination. The ‘flash’ of a new idea. Resting the mind by doing other activities and letting the creative ideas form. [This is indeed a mysterious phase.]
Verification. Ensuring that the idea actually solves the problem. Since many great ideas don’t always work out in actual practice, this final step is vitally important to the success of any project.

Roger von Oech, creative thinking speaker and specialist, most famous for his book, A Whack on the Side of the Head, recommends a seven-stage process and says that creative thinking can be learnt and practised. He breaks the seven stages into two groups: The Germinal phase where ideas arise, and the Practical phase where the ideas are evaluated and processed.

The Germinal Phase
Motivation. The desire to be creative, generating the energy.
Search. Information gathering; looking in other fields for ideas; looking at the big picture; being willing to go astray, exploring other areas.
Manipulation. Transforming and manipulating the resources and ideas found, delaying judgement and eliminating some old assumptions.
Incubation. Walking away from the problem after a time of focused attention and turning it over to the subconscious. This ‘letting go’ puts the problem into perspective, and the planted idea grows in the subconscious. Delaying action often improves ideas.
Illumination. The Aha! or Eureka! experience [Archimedes again!]. Oech advises, “…ideas can strike at any time, so always carry a means of recording an idea.” Recognising one’s creative time of the day may also be important.

The Practical Phase
Evaluation. Making a decision even if the ideas aren’t perfect.
Action. Completing the creative process can be the most difficult step of all.

According to von Oech, the focus of the creativity technique is on the Germinal phase and how we can generate and manipulate ideas. For more on Oech’s techniques, try this link on ‘10 Mental Locks’ – or, visit his Creative Think website.

And yet, others protest, creative breakthroughs don’t always come from the most expert thinkers. But then, why leave things to chances!

02 December 2005

Creativity, expression

Think about creativity and you immediately think of artists and musicians, poets and writers, dancers and actors, designers and architects. Film-makers and photographers, even tribal craftsmen. Maybe people in advertising. On a long stretch, some scientists may also fit in (remember Archimedes?). What you won’t think of when you consider creativity is an accountant, a salesman, a secretary, a farmer or a housewife.

Why is that? Why do we rule out certain trades or professions in favour of others when we think of creativity? Is creativity restricted only to a few professions or a few types of people?

If creativity is a mental phenomenon based on mental and conceptual skills – if it’s about problem solving and innovating, about insight and imagination – then there shouldn’t be any specific boundaries to creativity and its applications. Anyone can be creative. After all, at any given moment, we all use a very small portion (reportedly only 10%) of our brains. So, what stops us from being creative?

Perhaps because, creativity has a lot to do with expression. As much thought as expression. And, not everyone is good at that. Expression requires courage and, therefore, has a great deal to do with the psychological profile of the creative person. Then, there’s the need for opportunity – or the creativity in context to something. Situations matter. So does culture and societal norms which may encourage creativity. And today, even technology. Hence, you find specific creative movements (Impressionism, rock music, film animation) in specific periods in history, in specific places of the world.

This apart, a creative person must also possess special faculties/skills in order to express himself/herself. Which takes us into the realm of communication.

01 December 2005

Creative people more attractive to others

I’m the proverbial ‘suit’, working on marketing and business strategies. Much of my work deals with helping my clients push marketing messages through to their customers, hoping to catch them (the customers) at the right place, at the right time, and win them over. My work is not perceived to be creative. Creativity is reserved for creative people; I’m not one of them.

A conservative view, no doubt. I didn’t let it bother me until I read this BBC news story, ‘Creative people luckier in love’, which openly stated, “the more creative a person is, the more sexual partners they are likely to have.” Apparently, “artists and poets had an average of four to 10 sexual partners, compared to three for non-creative types.”

The sub-head announced, “If you are hoping to improve your love life, it may be wise to develop artistic traits, researchers suggest.” I didn’t need to hear this. 46 and single, I felt lonely – even jealous.

Dr Daniel Nettle, who was a part of the team which researched this phenomenon, explained, “Creative types lead a bohemian lifestyle and tend to act on more sexual impulses and opportunities, often purely for experience’s sake, than the average person would.” He went on to add, “It’s common to find that this sexual behaviour is tolerated. Partners, even long-term ones, are less likely to expect loyalty and fidelity from them.”

Professor John Gruzelier, professor of psychology at Imperial College London, gave a somewhat contrary point of view, saying, “…some arts required introversion. Some creative people, such as artists and writers, are solitary people. They are almost hermit-like. That’s partly because they are so driven. Their art is all they want to do.”

Confused? Well, as usual, there was a perfectly good reason for this contrary behaviour. Creative people could be displaying the ‘positive side’ of their personality traits seen in schizophrenia, the article stated. Would this be such a good thing after all? Not so sure now. I think I’ll stick to my marketing and business strategies for the time being.

15 November 2005

Eugenics, an American point of view

[Eugenics - The study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding.]

“The overwhelming number of immigrants who came to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were really in search of economic opportunity. They were in search of better jobs, higher wages, education for their young, a better livelihood and better lives down the road. But they were also concerned - and this was especially true of minority groups in parts of southern and eastern Europe - with political liberty, the ability to participate in the political system, the ability to function in the world without the oppressiveness of a totalitarian regime. And, of course, they were also interested in religious liberties.

The vast majority of immigrants who came to the United States spent at least some time in cities. Many ultimately would go out to the countryside and would be engaged in farming activities, but most spent some time in the cities. And many made their livelihoods and their futures in the cities as industrial workers. Naturally, with such high concentrations of immigrants, it changed the whole nature of American urban life. Foreign language newspapers appeared. Stores that catered to the specific food needs and consumer desires of the newcomers arose. The newcomers themselves used the high concentration of population in cities as ways of launching themselves as entrepreneurs - push carts, small stores; these were the ways that many of these newcomers entered the economy. The cities buzzed with the activity that came out of these various immigrant groups.

America was the glowing land of opportunity, but when they actually arrived, they discovered something else other than a glowing land of opportunity. They discovered at best a land that had jobs, but often a land that was not completely receptive to them and where they would in some cases suffer even greater hardship and poverty than they had in their home countries.

Not everyone who came to the United States liked it. Not everybody who came to the United States succeeded in the way that they thought they ought to. Many were also lonely for family and for friends. In some cases, men returned to find wives because they weren't happy with the women who they met in the United States. They wanted a woman from the old country who understood the ways of their group.

And so there was a constant flow, a circulation, if you will, of immigrants back and forth between their home countries and the United States. And some groups were actually labor migrants.

[There was a kind of] love-hate relationship that the United States and its people had with new arrivals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. On the one hand, the United States desperately needed the labor of these newcomers. On the other hand, they were strange to many Americans. They were of different religious persuasions. They were poorer. They looked different from most native-born Americans. And so, there was a fear of the stranger. On the one hand, we wanted immigration. On the other hand, we didn't want immigrants. And so there was an effort to repel those newcomers, sometimes by simply discouraging them, not giving them jobs, not being decent to them and fair to them in terms of housing, and so on.

There was also an effort to pass laws and restrictions that would repel newcomers. Many Americans felt that they needed protection from these immigrants, protection from their bodies and protection from their culture.

Opposition to immigration was really of two kinds. There were Americans who feared that the newcomers would take their jobs or drive down the wage scale and resisted immigration because it simply wasn't in their own economic best interest to support immigration. American labor unions, including the American Federation of Labor, opposed immigration very often because the immigrants worked for lower wages.

But there was another genre of immigration opponent that was concerned with who the immigrant was and what the immigrant was. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League was concerned about the racial composition of these newcomers. In the United States and in other countries of western Europe during this period, there was an increasing attention to eugenics, the belief that you could improve the human condition and improve human stock by careful breeding.

Overall, eugenicists looked at immigration as an enormous challenge. Not all immigrants were inferior, but many eugenicists believed that it would be to the advantage of the United States to limit immigration severely, particularly from parts of Asia and parts of southern and eastern Europe, precisely those areas that were the big donors of immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. And so eugenicists became major advocates of limiting immigration.”

[Entire Citation: Alan Kraut, Professor of History, American University, in an interview with PBS.]

13 November 2005

The transnationals

Immigrants have not remained the same over the years. They have changed from one generation to another, becoming more modern in their outlook to immigration and what it means to their current generation. Compared to the once-in-a-lifetime moves that the earlier immigrants had made years ago, the contemporary immigrants are likely to move back and forth between their country of origin and the new host country. Thereby, creating an entire generation of transnational ethnic communities moving around the world.

However, these transnational ethnic communities tend to split the socio-economic and political loyalties among migrants, creating an imbalance in the societies they migrate to, and slowing down the process of absorption and integration I had written about in my previous posts. These transnationals (that’s the nomenclature used to categorise them) tend to organise themselves around their own ethnic communities, obviously relying on a common language and a common cultural heritage.

There are other changes as well. According to Rina Cohen of The Institute of International Affairs of the B’nai Brith Foundation, Canada, which studies the immigration of Jews into Canada, “In most cases, transnationals become bilingual and bicultural, but different communities may exhibit various levels of cultural separatism in relation to the host society.” In a chapter titled, The New Immigrants: A Contemporary Profile, she writes:

“Individuals who took part in large immigration waves in the past never fully cut off their bonds with the homeland. However, they rarely returned. Due to the financial and technical limitations of the time, these bonds primarily lasted in the cultural and sentimental domain, and were seldom manifested in active shuttle movement or intensive communication across borders. Economic ties with countries of origin were demonstrated through periodic monetary remittances to both relatives and charitable organizations. Although many of the immigrants of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fostered the dream of return to their homeland, for most of them, in reality, it never happened and settlement in the host countries was a once-in-a-lifetime, irreversible process. Thus, integrating into the host community was a necessary element in a successful process of immigration.”

Today, there is something else to be factored in. And that’s technology. With the developments in telecommunications and the Internet, the transnationals have taken on another hue. No longer is it necessary for them to travel anywhere physically. The technologies allow the transnationals – or anyone, for that matter – to be in more than one place at one time. Which means maintaining physical and social links with their country of origin is now that much easier.

All this is, of course, changing the socio-economic and political order of both receiving and sending countries.

12 November 2005


"A nation, in that sense, is like a very large extended family. Now, in the great settler nations, such as the United States and Australia, which experienced continuing, periodic immigration, the cultural element in nationhood has been much more important than the ethnic element. Even though the new immigrants arrived bearing existing cultural heritages, they went through a process – partly automatic, partly conscious policy – that assimilated them into the existing cultural identity of their new nation. The entire English-speaking world, unlike the bureaucratic European Union (EU), is designed to both assimilate and retain their immigrants’ private cultural and ethnic identities from their past lives. Hence, while immigrants were assimilating into the culture of the United States, there was a second process going on as well: the national identity of the host country was assimilating influences from the immigrants’ ethnic cultures.

Because of this great absorptive capacity and ability to turn immigrants into Americans in a relatively short time, America is not naturally a multicultural society. It has an enriched common culture that draws upon different cultures to produce a distinctive mix in which members of the society have common memories and allegiances. They can look back to the same heroes and sing the same songs, and from that everyday culture they draw ideas, emotions, and memories that they can exchange easily with one another. Such a civilizational society is quite different from multiculturalism, which asserts that numerous cultures should remain distinct within the society and that assimilation involves surrendering an important part of one’s soul. The English-speaking world, by contrast, is open to these cultural influences, which means that newcomers are not only able to adapt to it but also are able to retain enough of themselves not to feel that they are surrendering their souls. The society that emerges from such a process – when it is well done – is a relatively stable, effective one that unites people.

Immigration, of course, always creates problems for both host and immigrant. For example, when large numbers of Irish Catholics began to immigrate to America in the nineteenth century, they were seen by most Americans, who were Protestants, of course, as incompatible with the nation’s liberal political traditions… In fact, the history of almost all American immigrant groups includes a period of "ghetto" ethnicity followed by assimilation and absorption into the wider society.

Thus it seems likely that in order for absorption to work, a society must have either moderate, steady immigration, which makes assimilation possible, or periods of great immigration followed by pauses in which the country absorbs and digests those who have arrived."

[Entire Citation: "The European Challenge to American Power" by John O'Sullivan, American Outlook, March-April 2001]

10 November 2005


Re-adjustment is an issue with immigrants of all types – not just those who cross borders illegally.

While some immigrants adjust willingly and easily to a new culture, other immigrants have strong attachments to their culture of origin and find such a transition difficult. A few immigrants even develop the ability to negotiate two cultures comfortably, without sacrificing their identification with either culture.

Ethnic identity comes into play and involves attitudes, values, behaviours, and evolving changes in the social context. The older the individual immigrant, the more strongly embedded are these attitudes, values and behaviours. During a geographic re-location, the process of a new identity formation is challenged. Simultaneously trying to learn a new language, dealing with a new culture, relating to peers, finding employment… creates stress and pushes back the re-adjustment process.

Faced with such challenges, what is an immigrant to do?

According to Christine J. Yeh, Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Teachers College, Columbia University, studies have identified four coping strategies that immigrants can use in their acculturation process:
1. Assimilation – i.e. interaction with individuals from the host culture and devaluation of one’s own culture,
2. Integration – i.e. maintenance of one’s culture as well as interaction with individuals from the host culture,
3. Marginalisation – i.e. rejection of one’s culture of origin as well as avoidance of individuals from the host culture, and
4. Separation – i.e. maintenance of one’s culture of origin and minimal interaction with other groups, especially individuals from the host culture.

Easier said than done! This is pure theory and difficult to implement – or even rehearse – in one’s own life. Rarely does the acculturation process proceed without problems. It is usually stressful, and difficulties in adaptation crop up everywhere. To start with, one of the major barriers for immigrants is learning a new language.

There’s more. In many cases, differential acculturation takes place, creating generation gaps within immigrant families and groups in terms of values, expectations, attitudes and behaviours. These heighten family/group conflicts and delay the overall re-adjustment process.

08 November 2005

An immigrant's life

For illegal immigrants, the grass is not always greener on the other side. Life is degrading, even traumatic. Most illegal immigrants stay in groups, making up their own campsites, before venturing out to build shacks as shelters. Food is scarce. Water even more scarce. Sanitation is a serious problem… leading to diseases… and death. The weather is merciless. And, there’s always the lurking fear of getting caught by border patrols. Beaten, tortured, raped. Deported. For illegal immigrants, life sucks!

Only while reading a
paper called ‘The Life of Illegal Immigrants’ on the Internet did I find out aspects of an illegal immigrant’s life which I had no clue of. The paper, which draws heavily on Leo R. Chavez’s 1992 book, "Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society," about lives of illegal immigrants in the United States, explains, for instance, that the illegal immigrant’s border crossing can be viewed in three phases: separation from the known social group or society; transition; and incorporation into the new social group or society. Each phase has its own idiosyncrasies and challenges… to be overcome.

In the end, it leaves something to think about: "What we must realize is that people can have a common goal and still have their own identity, therefore retaining their culture and still having a sense of patriotism to the United States."

I wonder if the US is listening.

07 November 2005

Never mind the consequences

Lives and livelihoods are subject to insecurities. And, this fact is particularly true for the billions who inhabit the developing countries. In countries like Mexico or Bangladesh, where millions of people work in the agricultural sector, whose incomes from production suffer everyday due to market fluctuations and recessions, this problem takes on a serious note. Added to this are the insecurities of the millions who are unemployed, and those who work without proper employment contracts.

Unlike developed nations, most developing countries don’t even have formal social protection mechanisms like social security or unemployment benefits or healthcare endowments of any kind. When income from agricultural production suffers, or jobs disappear, people have little to fall back on. The need for food, water, shelter, healthcare become powerful drivers for migration to urban areas, or across borders. For many, crossing international borders in the search of income opportunities seems like the only answer… no matter what the consequences are.

And what consequences are we talking about? The US-Mexico border is a case in point.

Illegal immigration across the US-Mexico border has always been a problem for the United States. Border patrols have been active for decades, but over the years have become mired in corruption. So, a new strategy is in place. On the US-Mexico border, the US government has decided to deploy military troops (over 10,000 soldiers in the last count), besides the usual border patrol, to stem cross-border migration. Some fear, these troops are not trained to help or save people, but rather to engage illegal immigrants in combat – to search and destroy, and to kill.

Even farmers and ranchers in Arizona, Texas and California have decided to take matters in their own hands. Not only have they driven illegal immigrants off their properties, some ranchers have even shot the aliens and left them to die in the desert. Imagine having to live through poverty in your own country, then heat-strokes and dehydration in the desert – even hypothermia at night – only to be shot down like dogs when you’re closer to civilization… and to living your dreams!

This, of course, has increased tensions between the two countries. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has stepped in. Human rights activists and the media are out there doing their jobs, but no solution seems to be in sight. Meanwhile, cross-border migration continues unabated, never mind the consequences.

Closer home, illegal immigrants across the Indo-Bangladesh border perhaps face a similar predicament.

05 November 2005

Should borders be open?

Whether it’s choice or necessity, people migrate… temporarily or permanently. Perhaps, what’s important is to regulate it, manage it better, rather than put a stop to it altogether.

This was one of the viewpoints expressed when BBC News Online asked several economic and political commentators to outline their views on whether countries should operate an open border policy.

In their introduction to the online article, BBC News stated, “The issue of migration is high on the political agenda for governments around the world. Western governments are often under pressure to restrict the entry of migrants. Developing countries find themselves losing highly-skilled professionals while at the same time receiving important revenues from emigrants.”

According to Brunson McKinley, director general of the International Organization for Migration, “…when managed effectively, migration holds great potential for migrants and for host communities. The ultimate goal is not to obstruct or prevent mobility but to better manage it for the benefit of all.”

Free movement of people is supposed to be a fundamental human right, but some felt that borders are essential to nationhood and, therefore, the idea needed to be sanctified.

For instance, Sir Andrew Green, chairman of MigrationWatch UK, spoke against an open border policy. He stated matter-of-factly, “Given the huge disparities of wealth, open borders would lead to massive flows of people from the third world to the industrialised world until conditions there approximated to their home countries. This would be a recipe for chaos and would be entirely unacceptable to the inhabitants of the industrialised world.”

Jagdish Bhagwati, Professor of Economics at Columbia University, New York, raised another point. He felt migration was not always a matter of economics or politics. Often, communitarian arguments were brought in to moderate or to limit the flows of people across borders. In his view, creating a proper world body – something along the lines of the International Labor Organisation – to steer and regulate the process of migration could help deal with the issue.

To learn more, log on to Should Borders Be Open?

04 November 2005

Can India learn from the U.S.?

Illegal immigration is not just India’s problem; it’s an issue the world over. Millions of people cross over borders in African nations due to war and oppression. Millions from African, Asian and Arab countries migrate to Europe for jobs and better living. However, the U.S. is still the most attractive destination for immigrants, with a constant flow of illegal crossings over the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to Centre for Immigration Studies (CIS), “There are an estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens in the country, a number estimated to grow by more than 400,000 a year.” Another CIS report states that this illegal immigration problem is unlikely to go away or reduce in magnitude as “communities of recently arrived legal immigrants help create immigration networks used by illegal aliens and serve as incubators for illegal immigration, providing jobs, housing, and entree to America for illegal-alien relatives and fellow countrymen.”

How does the U.S. government tackle this problem?

“The standard response to illegal immigration has been increased border enforcement. And, in fact, such tightening of the border was long overdue. But there has been almost no attention paid to enforcement at worksites within the United States. Nor has there been any recognition that the networks created by high levels of legal immigration contribute to mass illegal immigration.”

In an article Use Enforcement To Ease Situation in The Arizona Republic dated October 23, 2005, Steven A. Camarota, Director of Research at CIS, says: “To deal with the problem some advocate a mass amnesty coupled with increased legal immigration, while others want mass deportations. But there is a third way: attrition through enforcement.”

And, here’s the scary part: Camarota boldly advocates, “If America becomes less hospitable to illegals, many more will simply decide to go home. To do this, we should enforce the law barring illegals from holding jobs by using the national databases that already exist to ensure that each new hire is legally entitled to work here… Attrition through enforcement is really the only option if we want to solve our illegal immigration problem. Implementing such a policy will save taxpayers money, help American workers at the bottom of the labor markets and restore the rule of law.”

Is there a lesson for India here?

[Citation: The Center for Immigration Studies]

02 November 2005

Nowhere people

The illegal immigrant problem continues between India and Bangladesh. According to a South Asia Forum for Human Rights’ (SAfHR) working paper, “the more they try to grapple with ‘security concerns’, the more it eludes them.” The working paper is authored by Ranabir Samaddar, who has also authored a book, ‘The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal’ on the subject of cross-border migration originating between the two countries.

No-where People from the Indo-Bangladesh Border, as this working paper is called, highlights the human rights aspect of the problem:

“The unfortunate reality is that both India and Bangladesh wish the problem to vanish, both wink at each other, both suffer the nightmare of millions of peasantry on the move, both adopt communal vision and denounce these people who are voting on the state-system in South Asia with their feet, and both desperately pray that these nowhere people somehow vanish, giving the political class of the two countries relief.”

“Solution, to the problem of ‘illegal immigration’ within the traditional ‘security perspective’ seems to be an impossible goal. However, if the ‘problem’ is not perceived essentially as a security problem – i.e. an invasion of a country by illegal immigrants from another – but rather, if the states could be persuaded to see this as a human problem – i.e. indigent people crossing international borders in search of a decent livelihood – then hopefully we could find a solution through a combination of measures.”

But Samaddar just doesn’t leave the discussion to human rights. He feels the implications of cross-border migration affects socio-economic and political issues as well. As he says,
“In this reappearance of partition politics, cartographic, communal, and political lines are being replicated within the borders, creating new visible and invisible frontiers. The unique feature of these nouvelle frontiers being produced internally is that these are not vertical lines separating two spaces, but concentric circles continuously dividing and reassembling these divided spaces into the universe of the nation, law, citizenship, rights, obligation, morality, and habitation.”

31 October 2005

Cross over cross-border migration

Illegal immigration from Bangladesh has been a recurring problem for India, but it is now that the volume of illegal immigrants has reached an alarming number. In spite of repeated protests by India, there has been no appreciable sensitivity shown by Bangladesh. India is, of course, cross about this.

The immigrants cross over for two main reasons: economic, and religious oppression of minorities (Hindus) from an Islamic Bangladesh.

Reports suggest that, annually, close to 15 billion dollars are earned by Bangladeshi migrants working and trading in India. Not only does this boost Bangladesh’s GDP, Bangladesh also has less mouths to feed every year. Smuggling is rampant, with cattle and cash and many other items smuggled out of India daily.

Then, there’s the issue of these illegal immigrants acting as cheap labour for various Indian businesses and industries. According to one report, there are over 13 million Bangladeshi labourers working in India… a great many of them in West Bengal (5.4 million), Assam (4 million) and Delhi (1.5 million). This, of course, would not be possible without the help of conspiring local Indian politicians. These local politicians sympathise with these illegal immigrants in order to strengthen their vote banks.

The Indian government, during its successive tenures, has turned a blind eye to this simmering problem, with the result that, now, it’s eating into India’s land, food and water resources, employment opportunities, health and literacy. Above all, it has also become a security threat.

There’s an increase in the crime rate in India and many of the robberies, dacoities and smuggling activities (cash, gold, cattle, arms and body organs) have been traced to Bangladeshi immigrants. There are also traces of subversive and terrorist activities. One report states that, since 1990, Assam has seen the birth of 9 Muslim militant outfits owing allegiance to Harkat ul Mujaheedin and Lashkar-e-Toiba.

According to a recommendation of the National Security System, dating back to February 2001: “The massive illegal immigration poses a grave danger to our security, social harmony and economic well-being. We have compromised on all these aspects so far. It is time to say enough is enough.”

Is anybody listening?

[Citation: South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG)]

30 October 2005

Cross-border resilience

An editorial from South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR) points out a cross-border problem close to home. According to the editorial, “India has successfully transformed itself into a national security state… protecting territorial borders with little visible regard for the human lives that inhabit those areas.” The editorial makes a case of the happenings at the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Apparently, the Indian leadership is taking a tough stand on illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, very few people living in the border region between India and Bangladesh have a citizenship of either country, possessing the proper legal papers to prove who they are. These people are caught between the forces of both countries, with no place to go. They feel policing by both countries as prejudiced and discriminatory.

At times, there are serious outbursts of violence, increasing ethnic, social and political tensions between the two countries. But, the migration just can’t be stopped. Scarcity of land and water, natural disasters, unemployment, degrading living conditions in the less-developed Bangladesh automatically induce migration into India. India feels this destabilizes it socio-political, economic and ethnic position, and is willing to do whatever is necessary to stop or, at least, reduce the flow of migration.

The editorial is rather silent on Bangladesh. However, it presents a case for India’s wrongful attitude to cross-border migration through the Indo-Bangladesh border, tracing its history from 1947 to present-day, commenting on how the border is consistently being militarized. It blames India’s Border Security Force (BSF) for its merciless treatment of the immigrants, killing many, sparing no one, branding its victims as infiltrators, ISI agents and smugglers.

Still, India finds its cross-border migration a tough issue to handle. The immigrants are resilient and will stop at nothing. As the report says, “Threatened and hungry people will defy borders whether by braving bullets or by melting into the darkness.”

28 October 2005

The future of (international) migration

"The primary reason there is not more migration is that the citizens of the industrialized world don’t want it."
[Lant Pritchett, economist]

Let’s face it, international migration takes place because people from poor nations move to the rich industrialised nations. Considering the number of poor nations in the world – and the billions of people who suffer there – by now, we ought to have seen international migration in larger numbers. Then, why don’t we?

According to one school of thought, that’s because forces of mass migration face opposition – in, at least, three different ways. Some people in industrialised nations believe that their own poor will suffer if they allowed in immigrants as cheap labour. Some others believe that trade in goods is sufficient to create a convergence of incomes worldwide. Even others believe that sending enough aid to poor countries will forestall increasing migration.

Is there any evidence to support this? Economist Lant Pritchett is not so sure. He believes, sooner or later, politicians and heads of states will take steps to develop a domestic and international migration regime. The idea behind it being prevention – or, at least, stemming – of population migration. How will this work? I don’t know yet, but it is likely that the anti-migration sentiments of the rich ‘receiving’ countries will play an important part in stemming the population influx.

In a November 2003 article titled, The Future of Migration, a 2-part series from YaleGlobal, Pritchett writes, "Technically, migration is prevented by people with guns. It is the threat of violence that prevents people from crossing borders to take advantage of the economic opportunities. In nearly all industrialized countries (the preferred destinations of migrants) the people with guns are employed by a democratic government, a government which usually represents the preferences of its citizens. Thus, the primary reason there is not more migration is that the citizens of the industrialized world don’t want it."

Pritchett goes on to dispel several myths about migration increase and control, including those beliefs cited earlier in this post, holding his fort with fairly sound reasoning. Of course, he states, the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) have their tasks cut out as well: to halve poverty, ensure universal completion of primary schooling, and reduce infant mortality by two-thirds before 2015. The question is, will the MDGs be achieved in every country? And, what if they aren’t?

Once again, Lant Pritchett comes up with a proposition. But don’t take my word for it; read his article on The Future of Migration and find out.

25 October 2005

Breaking down the barriers

Human migration is at an all-time high in terms of absolute numbers. More people have moved from their home territories to new areas in the past 5 years than ever before. According to Gaia Watch of the UK, at the start of the 21st century, one out of every 35 persons worldwide was an international migrant. In 2002, almost one in every 10 persons living in the more developed regions of the world was a migrant. In the 1990–2000 period, the more developed regions were gaining about 2.6 million persons annually through net international migration and this migration was accounting for two thirds of the population growth in these regions.

Not only has there been cross-border or international migration, even within countries, people have moved from rural areas into towns and cities. Recent population figures indicate that the urban population of the world is continuing to grow faster than the total world population. In 2003, about 48 per cent of the world population lived in urban settlements. Economists say, this was foreseen and is really a by-product of rapid urbanisation. With globalisation, the growth of urban industries and lack of employment in the agricultural sector, cities promise prosperity to millions of people across the world. Of course, this is prevalent in Asian and African nations, but migration figures also support Latin American nations and Eastern Europe.

People migrate for various reasons. Most people move for economic reasons, but some migrate to escape political or religious persecution… or simply to fulfil a personal dream. Widespread unemployment, lack of farmland for agriculture or business opportunities, natural calamities, or war at home are some clear reasons for migration. Encouraging these are factors that attract migrants to another country or a city: a thriving economy, a labour shortage, and favourable immigration laws where international migration is concerned. However, there’s no denying that the greatest attraction lies in the promise of wealth and better living standards.

Perhaps this problem is yet to spark a political or religious war, but it certainly is breaking down some of the economic barriers.

[Citation: Gaia Watch of the UK, Population Research Bureau.]

24 October 2005

Doubling time

The World Population Awareness Week (17-23 October) just got over. I bet you didn’t even know. You didn’t even know that such a thing as a World Population Awareness Week exists. After all, nothing much was reported in the media. Nothing much was talked about in other circles either. Where are all those social activists who rave and rant about world population growth?

No matter, let me clear the air a bit. The World Population Awareness Week doesn’t directly deal with issues such as overpopulation or population growth. It focuses on gender inequalities… about the inequalities women face in healthcare, education, employment… about the importance of family planning. After all, the decision to have children is the very essence of freedom.

Attached to this very issue is the matter of human birth and population… the matter of population growth and distribution. If you’ve followed my posts over the last couple of days, you would have read about the concern many sociologists, economists, politicians and heads of states have about the growing population in the world. To put it crudely, there are too many people in this world… and they are multiplying rapidly.

Population grows geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8…), rather than arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4…), which is why the numbers can increase so quickly.

"A story said to have originated in Persia offers a classic example of exponential growth. It tells of a clever courtier who presented a beautiful chess set to his king and in return asked only that the king give him one grain of rice for the first square, two grains, or double the amount, for the second square, four grains (or double again) for the third, and so forth. The king, not being mathematically inclined, agreed and ordered the rice to be brought from storage. The eighth square required 128 grains, the 12th took more than one pound. Long before reaching the 64th square, every grain of rice in the kingdom had been used. Even today, the total world rice production would not be enough to meet the amount required for the final square of the chessboard. The secret to understanding the arithmetic is that the rate of growth (doubling for each square) applies to an ever-expanding amount of rice, so the number of grains added with each doubling goes up, even though the rate of growth is constant."

Similarly, for population. It works on the principle of doubling time. Doubling time refers to the number of years required for the population of an area to double its present size, given the current rate of population growth. Population doubling time is useful to demonstrate the long-term effect of a growth rate, but should not be used to project population size of a specific area… as several other factors can influence population growth.

[Citation: Population Reference Bureau,
Population Growth]

22 October 2005

The Population Bomb

“Just remember that, at the current growth rate, in a few thousand years everything in the visible universe would be converted into people, and the ball of people would be expanding at the speed of light.”
[Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb]

In the early 1970s (perhaps late 1960s, I’m not quite sure), Paul Ehrlich in his (now infamous) book, The Population Bomb, predicted that, by the end of the 20th century, human want would outstrip available resources; India would collapse due to its inability to feed itself; and mass starvation would sweep the globe. Many believed him then, accepting his words as some sort of prophecy. However, as you can see, you are all still here reading this blog; and Ehrlich’s dark words now sound like the words of a madman… or, at least, pure fantasy.

Ehrlich believed that our planet’s natural resources were finite and would, one day, be used up if our demand for them did not decrease. With an ever-increasing population fuelling demand and rapid industrialization consuming more and more resources, he felt confident of his prediction. Added to this were his concerns over pollution, environmental degradations and incidence of widespread diseases. Today, although we are alive and have not disintegrated into an Ehrlich-style catastrophe, we do carry concerns over the same issues.

The growth in world population is indeed a problem in our hands… spurring on related concerns over food, water, healthcare, housing, electricity, education, employment… and depletion of natural resources such as forests and oil reserves. But, that’s not all that’s bothering us today. Migrations of huge numbers of people from less developed countries to developed nations, and from rural areas into cities within a country have become socio-economic as well as political problems.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, an US Agency researching population trends and their implications:

“Through most of history, the human population has lived a rural lifestyle, dependent on agriculture and hunting for survival. In 1800, only 3 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas. By 1900, almost 14 percent were urbanites, although only 12 cities had 1 million or more inhabitants. In 1950, 30 percent of the world's population resided in urban centers. The number of cities with over 1 million people had grown to 83.

The world has experienced unprecedented urban growth in recent decades. In 2000, about 47 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas, about 2.8 billion. There are 411 cities over 1 million. More developed nations are about 76 percent urban, while 40 percent of residents of less developed countries live in urban areas. However, urbanization is occurring rapidly in many less developed countries. It is expected that 60 percent of the world population will be urban by 2030, and that most urban growth will occur in less developed countries.”

21 October 2005

City of Crows

The demands of rising population are many, and Bombay faces its frenzy almost everyday. More and more people are joining the city’s already overcrowded streets, pushing the limits of socio-demographic parameters and throwing the city’s governing council into deeper trouble. But what can they do? At one level, it means providing housing, water, electricity, sanitation, healthcare and education for millions. At another, it’s a huge vote bank to rely upon during elections.

But, what about those millions who enter the city with hope? How are their lives affected by this migration… this force-fit situation? Some Bombay residents argue: How does it matter to them? It’s us who suffer from this invasion… this encroachment into our lives and our livelihoods. These immigrants come in and take away our jobs, our businesses and our incomes, robbing us of our own possessions. Some simply watch and accept this as life… or existence, leaving it to the government to deal with it.

Whatever be the argument, there’s no denying that this migration of people into Bombay is an old phenomenon. For years, people from various parts of the country have landed up in Bombay… nurturing their personal hopes and ambitions. What’s become of them? What are their stories? If you’d like to know, then there’s no better example than tracing Bombay’s own Dharavi slum to understand their predicament.

A great deal has been written about Dharavi and its problems, but I can introduce you to one that has captured my attention and has remained with me for sometime. It’s a photo-essay by Robert Appleby and is available in two parts: a story called City of Crows and a photo album that accompanies it. It’s not just representative of Dharavi, but Bombay as well… although from a foreigner’s point of view.

20 October 2005

Homeless in Bombay

Like millions of others, I came to Bombay to find a place I could call my home. I wanted to work hard, make money, settle down. Unlike millions of others, I got lucky – to an extent. Work hard I did. Made money too – not a lot perhaps, but some. But, one thing I haven't done yet is settle down.

That’s because I still haven’t got used to Bombay’s dense overpopulated claustrophobic life, its disorderly growth, its noisy garbage-filled streets, and its dirty rundown slums that occupy at least half the city. Did you know that, of the 18 million people living in Bombay today, two-thirds live in slums or on the streets?

What happens to these people everyday when I’m too busy with my work or my social life… or sleeping cozily in my bed at night? Do I even care about them?

In a heart-warming story, Bombay: Turmoil and a Heart-Shaped Balloon, on
www.thingsasian.com Kenneth Champeon presented a 360-degree sort of view that had me thinking for several days. It went something like this:

“The Bombay homeless are not easily ignored. They sleep at doorsteps… crevices of unopened shops… Girls slept on the medians of thoroughfares; their mothers rocked cradles made from two sticks and a taut cloth.

The unchecked growth in population is a grave concern. One Indian colleague of mine cited it as the source of all of India's problems… Recent estimates of Bombay's population density reach the incomprehensible figure of 17,676 per square kilometer, compared to 1,200 of London (Seabrook, 49). The Times of India regularly reported transport vehicles backing or barreling over a lone child, or rows of sleeping citizens. Taxis plowed into tea-couriers, cows.”

According to a BBC News article, Bombay faces population boom, Bombay’s population will reach 28.5 million by the year 2020, and Bombay will replace Tokyo as the most populated city in the world.

Do I even care about what will happen then?

19 October 2005

Bombay streets

Photographing Bombay streets can be quite a feat. The streets are overcrowded and there’s always a problem of finding a safe place to stand to a take a shot. Whenever I’ve found a safe spot, moving people and traffic have come in the way of my shot... so much so that taking the shot has always been a split-second decision for me.

Then, there’s the choice of subject and framing. Half the city looks like a slum, with shacks, sewage and waste dumps making up the landscape. Buildings are badly maintained. Walls are defiled with dirt and posters. Footpaths are taken up by hawkers selling their wares, beggars with deformities, people sleeping in corners or below lampposts; all are badly littered and stained.

On most occasions, I’m not sure what to photograph, as most scenes look similarly ungainly. Hence, I stick to photographing buildings.

This photoblog from "m" is representative of my views.

17 October 2005

Bombay from the streets

Diwali Celebration in a Chawl
There's more to street photography in India than meets the eye (at least, as far as the above picture goes). But, professional street photographers are difficult to find... anywhere in the world. The profession doesn't pay much. And, few understand its abstraction and beauty.
My photograph of a Diwali Celebration in a Chawl (ghetto) is a sample of what street photography can be and, hence, I've posted it here. However, I have a great deal to learn about street photography... and am doing so by reading on the Net. In fact, Wikipedia has an informative, though clinical, article on the subject which I've just discovered.
You can also read another recent account by Colin and Christian Jago from Scotland at auspiciousdragon.net. Of course, the best learning takes place shooting pictures on the streets.

16 October 2005

Street photography 2

What exactly is street photography?

It’s photography on the streets, or anywhere else for that matter. What highlights street photography is a freedom – a non-existence of rules – that the photographer has in choosing, composing and shooting his subjects. The photographer is not bound by any special equipment, accessories or technicalities of photography… and is free to move around (thanks to the lack of equipment) and shoot whatever he or she feels like.

People are common subjects for street photographers. So are activities and events, or a lack of them, which reflect different moods on the streets. No street photo is less artistic or less scientific than another. Spontaneity is key in capturing a good street shot. Which means, street photography is self-expression in its truest sense. It’s about the photographer, not the subject.

Does street photography follow any guidelines at all?

Really speaking, three things matter in street photography: enthusiasm, an open mind, and creativity – most of which cannot be taught. Of course, you do need a camera with film in it. A digital camera is perhaps lighter and easier to carry. And, it helps to keep your subjects in focus; although, I’ve seen many blurred and out-of-focus shots which are excellent examples of street photography. In fact, street photographers usually take advantage of available light (including soft light and shadows), weather (rain and fog can act as low-budget special-effects), and movement.

That’s enough from me. It’s time to see some good street photography, and these links are simply great: iN-PUBLiC, Alan Wilson, Johnny Mobasher, ZoneZero.

If you’d like to get a clearer perspective on what I’ve said so far on street photography, then visit
http://www.nonphotography.com and you'll get the picture.

15 October 2005

Bombay architecture

[My attempts at photographing old buildings from the streets.]
Municipal Corporation Building

Bombay University

Street photography 1

When I was younger and had time to spare – like on a weekend – I’d pick up my camera and just head out on the streets, taking photos of whatever caught my fancy. I’d shoot buildings (I have a fascination for old architecture), hoardings with interesting messages, trees and people.

Of all my subjects, people were the most difficult to photograph, and I was always afraid of photographing them. They hardly ever remained stationary long enough for me to get them in the frame and click the shutter. And, even if they didn’t move too much, by the time I’d get close enough to get a good shot, they’d get up and walk away. So much was my disappointment at this that I had decided to give up street photography altogether.

In fact, I didn’t even know that my sojourn on the streets with my camera was considered a genre of photography called ‘street photography’. Then, a couple of days ago, I read an article called ‘The Indecisive Moment’ by Gerry Badger on ‘stream-of-consciousness’ photography, from Issue 9 of the Harvard journal ‘Fantastic’. And, while reading about Robert Frank, William Klein and Garry Winogrand, my passion for street photography was re-kindled.

From an article on Garry Winogrand by Peter Marshall from the portal About.com, I discovered that (and I quote from the article):

“Winogrand was the photographer who more or less invented and defined the genre we know as ‘street photography’; from his first photography until his death he photographed mainly on the streets – and his best work is on the streets of New York. Of course others had photographed on the street before, in particular Europeans such as [Andre] Kertesz and many of the New York photographers associated with the Photo League, but their work was largely concerned with character and anecdote; with Winogrand the view was wider and could be considered environmental. He photographed people, but his focus was on the street and the person (or people) in it rather than simply on the person.”

But, what really moved me was a quote from Winogrand, reproduced at the end of the Harvard ‘Fantastic’ article by Gerry Badger:

“I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books. I look at the magazines (our press). They all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn’t matter, we have not loved life.”

[Garry Winogrand, quoted in John Szarkowski, Winogrand: Figments from the Real World, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988, p 34.]

You can see Garry Winogrand’s pioneering work here.

29 September 2005

A hidden agenda?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, could photographs create a language of their own?

Photographic images are everywhere: from photo albums at home, to ads in newspapers and magazines, to posters and display material at stores. They are on our passport and our driving license. They are on television and the Internet.

A photo is essentially a record of a (past) reality and is often stored for its remembrance value. Sometimes, even as evidence. It’s a representation of a thought, an idea, a happening, or an event. Whether you look at it as a mere objective record, or subjectively from a photographer’s point of view, you can’t deny the fact that a photograph carries meaning. It speaks to us – often in a personalised manner – and contributes significantly to our perceptions of the people and the world around us.

Let’s face it: photographs are an essential part of our culture. Most of us have produced – or continue to produce even now – photos of our own, with our own cameras.

But, what of the act of photography? Why do we take photographs? Why do we look at photographs? Somewhere deep in our minds, is there a hidden agenda in our love for photography?

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but I can recommend an excellent essay on this very subject by Batia Boe Stolar called “To Shoot or Not To Shoot: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Photography.”

Ms Stolar starts off with ethics in photography, quoting from Susan Sontag, giving a detailed perspective to some of the issues I’ve written about in my earlier posts this month. Her focus being, the "social and historical value" of photographic images, which is possibly the most important issue in photojournalism.

When dealing with aesthetics, Ms Stolar’s topic becomes a little complicated because she still doesn’t leave the issue of ethics behind. As she talks about Walker Evans, James Agee, Diane Arbus and more, she quotes from Roland Barthes, mentioning "essence and sensibility" as critical ingredients in photography. And, I agree.

Incorporating aesthetics and ethics in the same frame is possibly the aim of every photographer. But, when Ms Stolar questions aesthetic ideals, metaphors and the "I" in photography, it all becomes rather mind-boggling.

23 September 2005

Taking ethics seriously

Here are some golden words – from “Ethics Matters” columns in News Photographer magazine written by Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Lester:

A photojournalist is a mixture of a cool, detached professional and a sensitive, involved citizen. The taking of pictures is much more than F-stops and shutter speeds. The printing of pictures is much more than scanner and computer settings. The publishing of pictures is much more than cropping and size decisions. A photojournalist must always be aware that the technical aspects of the photographic process are not the primary concerns.

A mother crying over the death of her daughter is not simply an image to be focused, a print to be made, and a picture to be published. The mother's grief is a lesson in humanity. If the photojournalist produces a picture without a thought for her tragedy, the lesson is lost. But if the photographer cares for her loss, is made more humane, and causes the readers to share in her grief, photojournalism has reached its highest potential.

Despite its frustrations and low moments, the lesson of humanity is why photojournalism is an extremely rewarding profession. For that reason, photojournalism is worthy of the most ethical actions possible toward the people you encounter through your photography yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Taking ethics seriously does not imply doing no wrong. We all make mistakes. We all knowingly choose, sometimes, to do what is expedient or what serves our own self-interest over what we know to be the most ethical.

Taking ethics seriously does mean, at a minimum, that we are trying to do our jobs without causing unjustified harm. It means, ideally, that we are looking for ways to do our jobs better than we have and to make our world, our profession, and ourselves, better as well.

Photographs have great emotional power. Those who take ethics seriously stay conscious of the power that they have and the responsibility that they have to use that power judiciously.

22 September 2005

Objectivity and ethics

Objectivity is valued by photojournalists, but nothing replaces the ecstasy of an attention-grabbing, technically-pleasing photograph. It might even win an award – and fame for the photojournalist. Sometimes, this feeling can go to the head, and a photojournalist may adopt unethical means to get that "one brilliant shot" and catch the limelight.

That’s where the question of objectivity and ethics arises.

How cool, detached and objective should a photographer be to let a situation become visually dramatic, and not help a subject in physical trouble? Or, in an extreme case, should a photographer encourage subjects to become more violent during a demonstration so that a dramatic picture can be taken?

How far should a photographer go to take a memorable photo? How involved should a photojournalist be to bring to us truths we love to see in our newspapers and magazines?

Here are some examples from Paul Martin Lester's Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach:

Let’s take the question of misrepresentation. Lewis Hine, at the turn of the century, posing as a company man, sneaked into a factory and took photographs of young, tired children working with dangerous machinery. When questioned for his actions, Hine replied, although it may be wrong to falsely represent himself, the greater injustice was the exploitation of children. And, he wanted the whole world to see that.

J Ross Baughman’s photographs of Rhodesian soldiers torturing their victims were withdrawn from the Overseas Press Club competition because of "so many unresolved questions about their authenticity." Baughman, apparently, had worn a Rhodesian soldier’s uniform, carried a gun and joined a Rhodesian cavalry patrol for two weeks in order to get the pictures.

One school of thought suggests, "When a photographer misrepresents him- or herself and becomes a participant to violent actions, credibility should be severely questioned."

Then there’s involvement. Bill Murphy took photographs of a man jumping to his death. He was criticised by readers for not helping to convince the man not to jump instead of taking photographs. Stormi Greene, while doing a story on families near the edge of serious abuse, was criticised for taking photographs of a mother spanking her child when she could have easily helped the mother with her work or by giving money. "The mother needed some help... not the documentation of her treatment of those poor kids on film."

Is this what objectivity and ethics are all about? When taking that memorable shot, are news photographers completely without compassion?

When questioned, Murphy had confessed, "I did all I could" to persuade the man from jumping, and had to live in agony for years for this decision to shoot the pictures. Even Greener explained, "I was guilt-ridden and frustrated with the ethics that I had to live with, [but] the first rule of journalism is to divorce yourself from your subject... and do nothing but document and record..."

Would Greener have dropped her objectivity if the mother had severely beaten her child? Greener had asserted that, had the mother abused the child, she would have intervened.

Where does objectivity end and ethics take over? When does compassion override objectivity? There are limits to interpretations of objectivity and ethics. Photojournalists – and editors – ought to know that.

Lewis Hine child labour photographs can be found here.

J Ross Baughman Rhodesia photographs can be found here.

[Citation: Paul Martin Lester, Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach]

20 September 2005

Real, or manufactured?

Many photojournalists ‘cross the line’ in order to get a great shot. They exaggerate or romanticise scenes and subjects to create a greater impact for their audience. When they should ‘capture’ the scene and report it as it is, sometimes, they go as far as to ‘create’ it, specifically asking subjects to pose for a picture… or allowing themselves to be manipulated by the subjects, who pose for the camera to justify their means.

If photojournalism is about finding and reporting the truth, then a posed picture – or one that exaggerates a scene or emotion – is a lie.

When we see a photograph on the front page of our morning newspaper, how can we be sure that the photograph is an accurate image of the event or scene being reported? How do we know if it is real, or manufactured? Does photojournalism correspond to the same standards of objectivity that guide news reports? Or does the medium, by its very nature, require artistic influence?

Some authorities say, for news photographs, photographers should abide by strict standards to ensure objectivity: there should be no intentional blurring or unusual composition or framing. Any scene that misleads the news consumer is a violation of photojournalistic ethics.

The New York Times, for example, sets this standard for the integrity of news photos: "Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene… Pictures of news situations must not be posed… And it also means that the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach."

This submission in poynter.org tells you more about the guidelines set by The New York Times.

[Citation: backspin]

18 September 2005

Restricted space

A photograph is also news. When it appears in newspapers and magazines, a photograph can have tremendous impact in shaping our views. Perhaps more impact than even words on headlines. And, by doing so, a photograph can influence our decisions, leaving lasting impressions of world or local events.

Yet, in many cases, a photographer doesn’t have the freedom to place his or her photograph on the covers – or in the inside pages – of newspapers and magazines. Is it an editorial decision that blocks the way? Sometimes yes; but not always so. There are other forces that determine which photographs end up on the covers of our newspapers and magazines. Here are excerpts from war photography from a story, Calling The Shots, Paul Woolf filed in

“After Vietnam, the American government accused the media of causing it to lose not only the war itself but, perhaps more importantly, public support for the war. As far as the American government was concerned, photographs of Vietnamese children in agony, their skin flayed off by American napalm, were rather unhelpful.”

“The British were aware of this. When the Falklands War came along in 1982, Mrs Thatcher was keen not to make the same mistake that the Americans had made. So, she introduced the ‘pool system’. This saw the military choose – officially, at random – just a few journalists and photographers to be granted access to operations. These few then supplied all media organisations with their words and pictures.”

“In Gulf War Two, a new element was added to the ‘pool system’: the concept of ‘embedding’ selected journalists with the armed forces. While on the surface ‘embedding’ appears to give greater and closer access to what’s ‘really’ going on, in reality it gives the military an even greater control over what journalists and photojournalists can see and say. Any deviation from the official line, and the photographer or journalist is sent back to HQ.”

The concept: the government controls what’s ‘allowed out’. The result: fewer photographic viewpoints on an event.

Woolf says,
“most photojournalists have not welcomed the ‘pool system’, nor the ‘embedding’. They feel that these systems curb their freedom to take photographs that, they believe, uncover the truth of a news story or an event.”

In fact, Woolf talks about Peter Turnley, an American photojournalist, who has broken away from this ‘restricted space’ to create his own. With help from
www.digitaljournalist.org, Turnley has been able to showcase some of his outstanding photographs from the recent Iraq War. You can see these photographs here. To see more of Peter Turnley’s work visit his website.