May 19, 2007

When my deo spray posed a threat to America

I don’t know which colour-coded alert (orange, yellow, blue or black) is now on in America. But with my every visit to this country, I learn about new threats to its homeland security. I was careful this time not to keep my nail-cutter in the shaving-kit as part of my hand baggage during air travel. The last time I did, the officer at the security check (Hong Kong airport) took the nail-cutter away before I could board the flight to San Francisco.

They were after my shaving kit this time as well; at the security check-point in Seoul (during transit) the man picked out my deo-spray and said, “No, not allowed”, before tossing it into a thoughtfully placed trash-bin. Toiletries so collected at airport check-points can keep the shelves always filled at Chennai’s Burma Bazaar. The US federal security bans carrying gel (more than three oz) in any form in the hand-baggage.

It is on such occasions I miss my wife. She has a way with the airport security officials. During our last visit to the US together we had our baggage scanned on arrival at San Francisco and I watched helplessly a customs official rummage my hand baggage and pull out a plastic container with betel nuts. As he was about to toss it into the bin my wife spoke up on my behalf. “It is supari,” she said, “we take it after meals for easy digestion”. The man saw sense in it, and asked my wife if there was anything else we were carrying. “No”, she said with a straight face, while I knew she was carrying rasam powder, milk sweets and banana chips.

This time my wife and I traveled on different dates. While I lost my can of deo-spray my wife had breezed through the airport formalities with her Mahalakshmi sweets and assortment of other eatables for her pregnant daughter-in-law and beloved son.

My son Ravi, who travels frequently within the US, says they were more considerate at domestic airports. Once at San Jose when he told the security officials he didn’t want to lose his after-shave gel. They offered to courier his can of gel to his residence at San Ramon. He wound up paying the courier charges ($ 10), which was more than what the gel had cost him.

My wife’s complaint is that I am anxiety-prone. My anxiety is that, unknown to me, my wife packs in sweets, eatables and curry power in supreme indifference to the restrictions at the US airports. My telling her about such baggage violations, sniffer dogs and the trash cans at the airport security checks has little impact. I get silenced by her saying, “I will take that chance, so long as you don’t blurt it out to them”. So I let my wife do the talking. I can’t bring myself to telling people at airports, ‘we’ve nothing to declare’, particularly when I know not what my wife'a baggage had that didn't show up on the electronic scanner.

Cross-posted in Desicritics and Zine5

May 11, 2007

SOFTEN: Infosys staffers' initiative

IT professional S L Manjunath e-mailed the other day asking if I could help him identify some localities of the poor who might need the used clothes his friends on the Mysore Infosys campus had collected. First, I thought it was rather naïve of my young friend to have come up such request. Because, the poor are found everywhere in our country. I thought all that Mr Manjunath and his friends needed to do was step out of their swanky campus to look out for them.

On reflection I sensed their problem. Not all poor people need be needy for the kind of clothes Mr Manjunath and friends wish to distribute – old jeans, branded shirts, skirt and tops, and salwaar-kameez. Handing them out at random to alms-seekers in front of temples may not be a good idea. I have seen well-to-do devotees doling out their used clothes to the poor lined up in front of Raghavendra temple on Thursdays. In most cases the takers are not the end-users. And the discarded clothes find their way to the neighborhood flea market.

Mysore Infosys is an exclusive township, housing some 4,500 company trainees, who come from all over India and abroad for a 16-week training course. Many of them, given to an upscale lifestyle, often discard clothes and things they sparsely use. Manjunath and a group of his campus residents hit upon the idea of reaching out to the needy with clothes they collect on the campus.

They formed a Social Forum to Enable the Needy (SOFTEN), initially to help the economically disadvantaged children in Mysore’s corporation schools to acquire soft-skills such as proper communicating and analytical abilities and improvement of language skills, notably, English. During the current school vacation SOFTEN plans to run a ‘soft-skills’ course for the benefit of deserving Class X students from some local corporation schools.

Presumably, the idea for collection and distribution of used clothes is a SOFTEN spin-off. In advanced countries they have Salvation Army and thrift shops through which the collected clothes are distributed. Collection of clothes and other useful items from those on Infosys campus would be easy, given the initiative of spirited township residents such as Munjunath. The problem is in evolving an effective distribution system.

If an operating system with a clothes collection centre on the campus, and distribution outlets in the city, can be put in place in Mysore, it could serve as a working model for Infosys and other IT corporate townships elsewhere in the country. Orphanages and old age people homes would be natural outlets for consumer useables. Public-spirited individuals and institutions that can spare show-room space and a couple of volunteers could come forward to set up used-clothes outlets, run by volunteers.

NGOs such as Mysore Grahakara Parishat (MGP), Rotary and Lions Clubs, Institution of Engineers (which routinely rents out space for sales of books, garments, handicraft and other consumer items) can designate space for SOFTEN’s distribution outlet, where the poor and the needy could go to pick up the clothes they need.

It has been my observation that NRIs, notably young professionals, are given to discarding clothes, shoes and other serviceable consumer items as they go out of fashion, or when new styles and models are in the market. It would help if each NRI were to set aside five kg (out of their total baggage allowance of 60 plus kg) for bringing their used clothes on their every trip to India. The parcels of clothes they bring in could be deposited in drop-boxes set up at airports, to be picked up by the NGO coordinating distribution among the needy.

Crossfiled in zine5 and Desicritics.

May 8, 2007

Karnataka ban on lotteries

Those opposing the ban appear to have no credible case. The best Arunachal Pradesh (which petitioned against the official notification) could come up with in the Karnataka High Court was 1) It was a small state, with the state-run lotteries being its main source of revenue; 2) The state has made infrastructure investment in Bangalore for a lotteries distribution network; and 3) Lakhs of people, including the physically challenged, were dependent on lotteries trade.

The stress on the physically challenged wouldn't be lost on the handicapped,who are unlikely to be pleased with such crude attempts to plead their cause. Anyway, for most sellers commission from sale of lottery tickets can’t be their main source of income. Haven’t we seen children hawking lottery tickets in street corners?

A state, however small, that has to rely on lottery trade to run its affairs can hardly be considered a viable administrative unit..