State of Chennai food safety

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This scene at the junction of Kodambakkam High Road and Jagannathan Road shows the concern of the Tamil Nadu Government towards public health, and even common sense.
A row of footpath vendors serve lower cost meals to patrons from what are commonly known as ‘kaiyendhi bhavans’ – cart stalls that are stand-and-eat joints.
The less affluent patrons had to pick their way arounds mounds of wet, black sewer muck today.
This is the way the government led by a ‘strong rule of law’ party, the AIADMK, advances public health!

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Chennai Corporation on Twitter

The Chennai Corporation is on Twitter http://twitter.com/chennaicorp and it has an invitation on its website asking people to join the conversation.

Not many seem to be doing so, while official tweets seem to have frozen on June 17. The last tweet by the civic body is one announcing its Tamil website. The Hindu recently wrote on social networking as a useful tool for governments. The Corporation Commissioner should read it. http://bit.ly/d9vTTc
The Twitter account is yet to be verified, and has not may followers for a city of 6 million plus inhabitants. It would be good if there is a confirmation that the Corporation is using social media in a genuinely interactive manner, rather than merely as a ‘me too’ add-on to its seemingly wide range of options for citizen feedback (helpline, email, feedback form and so on).

Wheel clamping on Chennai’s Anna Road

As we leap in the dark towards our transport future, preparing for impending battles with other road users in our expensive cars, the Police are rubbing their hands gleefully. They wheel clamped this car, as they had many others before it, at the P.Orr and sons bus stop today, July 13 in the evening. A paper notice was stuck under the wiper helpfully, containing a mobile phone number and warning that the car had been paralysed.

Normally, there is no tear to be shed for someone parking in a bus stop. But this particular spot on Anna Salai deserves mention because there is no indication anywhere that it is a wheel-clamping area. No board, no warning, nothing. What is more, in the normal course, cars are parked at this very spot and the Police take no notice. That is, there is no enforcement 95 per cent of the time.

A sad end to the shopping. At Anna Road, at P.Orr and Sons bus stop.

So it is possible that you thought this was perfectly okay, because you had done it in the past, without any problems. Until one day the clampers arrived in your absence and went about their business, to your shock and surprise. It is depressing see motorists then waiting for the somewhat ancient ‘recovery’ van of the Police arrive later, and a stone-faced officer sitting in the cabin. This person usually will not look you in the eye, and issue whatever instructions from his perch in the cabin, while you stand helplessly, several feet below and look up. Fits the idea of policing, Indian style.

What is surprising to me that this happens relatively frequently — the five per cent cited above translates into several cars — especially during the weekends, at such a prominent place. Yet, there is no initiative to put up the mandatory tow/wheel clamp signs here. I wonder who is less literate, the police or those who watch this everyday, silently and do nothing about it.

In any case, if you are on Anna Road (Mount Road) near P.Orr and Sons, beware!

Update: Just a few days after I took this picture, I found another car wheel-clamped a few feet away from the spot.

In this case, apparently a footpath vendor had cautioned the driver not to park the car there,  as they would ‘lock’ it.

Another vehicle wheel clamped at P.Orr and Sons, Anna Salai, Chennai

Surprisingly, the driver of the car disregarded the advice, and kept it right there. It is not clear if he had some privileged status with the Police, which he hoped to rely on.

Despite at least one or two cars being wheel-clamped at the same spot everyday, and many more on Fridays and Saturdays when shopping is at its peak, there is no warning sign as of today (July 23).

The problem with such arrangements is that they are not uniform. Lack of proper signages is a peculiar Indian phenomenon, something that persists despite the rapid increase in the vehicular population.

The lack of uniformity in enforcement is the second issue, as it makes the system unreliable. There is also the issue of different classes of road users. Those with a red light on the car (‘lal batti’ or ‘sihappu vilakku’) are free to park where they wish, although they are encroaching on bus bays.

Sadly, the Chennai City Traffic Police give a poor account of themselves to visitors to the city.

Also, what is the city going to do as it adds about 800 vehicles a day to the existing base of over two millions?

How to send Reader’s Mail to The Hindu in Chennai

The Reader’s Mail column in The Hindu is one way of conveying grievances, complaints and suggestions to the Government and civic authorities such as Chennai Corporation, Metrowater, Municipalities, Panchayats and Metropolitan Transport Corporation.

On July 5, The Hindu announced in its regional pages that the City Bureau would henceforth accept Reader’s Mail via e-mail.

The announcement made it clear that the e-mails should have ‘Readers’ Mail’ in the subject line, and contain the postal address and the telephone number of the sender. The address to which the e-mail has to be sent is: reporting.thehindu@gmail.com

The most effective way to highlight your point is to keep it short, precise and simple. The better-written your letter (e-mail), the greater the chance that it will be chosen for publication. You can also provide helpful footnote hints to the mail, such as web links and other evidence in support of your claim. This makes it possible for the mail to be pursued further and perhaps turned into a news story.

A CMDA-approved layout afloat: Jeeva Nagar

Even an approved layout in a suburb of Chennai, which cost Rs.3 million for 2,400 sq.ft. just a few weeks ago, can “go under” like the economy — in this case, because of monsoon rains.

Jeeva Nagar, Kattupakkam, under Mangadu Town Panchayat (Kancheepuram District) is a big lake, with a few houses that appear to be floating in the water like giant ship bridges.

The layout was originally sold by a real estate company called BLB Estates, T.Nagar, and it is approved by CMDA as a residential layout, vide document reference PPD LO 134/2003.

The real estate company did not tell the residents that the site had been excavated heavily by the brick kiln industry, and was therefore virtually a lake. They sold it in March, 2004, a year when it was bone dry. Today, the residents are left to fight for roads that will not be under three or four feet of water. The Mangadu Panchayat is indifferent, while the Kancheepuram District Collectorate is too far to look at the situation annually.

This is the kind of municipal governance that the DMK government celebrates as its achievement in ensuring “urbanisation.”

This video uploaded to YouTube by a resident is telling:

Producing journalism of the accountable kind

Among the motivations to launch this blog was the desire to track the attitude of publishers in the mainstream media, including those in the so called new media, towards citizen rights, social trends, processes and government.

Those who have followed the media closely in the post-liberalisation era cannot fail to notice the gradual decline in public interest in the media in general. The advent of 24X7 noisy and entertainment-oriented news television, forever churning out titillating and colourful trash, and organising contrived debates on issues to generate sensation,  has put pressure on newspapers and magazines to also follow suit with their print equivalent.

To many serious readers, therefore, a grey and intellectual journal like Economic and Political Weekly appeals a lot today, while the newsprint-intensive mainstream publications that are dipping in both price and quality hold little interest.

To those journalists who long for a return of the halcyon days of the print media when the corrupt and soft underbelly of the establishment, hidden under layers of starched white clothes, was fair game, here are some contemporary thoughts from a colleague in the Western media.

The Washington Post has reported that its Executive Editor of many years, Leonard Downie Jr. is leaving on September 8. Although the mainstream media in the US has suffered a decline through the Bush presidency, and its investigative credentials rendered flaky and hollow (what has it done about Guantanamo Bay, for instance), these comments offer the hope that US newspapers will regain some of their vigour, although they may still fall short of the standards being set by alternative new media organisations in America.

Mr. Downie’s comments will no doubt appear hopelessly utopian to many Indian publishers today, as they chase advertising revenues and make common cause with the pro-profit establishment. The Indian middle classes are led by them like proverbial animals mesmerised by the consumerist and hedonistic apples that are thrown all along the way.

We cannot but agree with Mr. Downie’s comment that “the most important and rewarding journalism you could produce, regardless of platform, technology or audience, is accountability journalism.” And by accountability, he means the kind of journalism that makes the corrupt section of the establishment shake its shoes. That kind of moral courage is what gave the media the exalted status of the Fourth Estate in our democracy. Sadly, India’s media has corrupted itself so much as to become unrecognisable today.

The media’s shrinking moral universe

Magsaysay winner P. Sainath upbraided the media in his convocation lecture to the graduands of the Asian College of Journalism the other day, for giving up its basic function of upholding liberal values and keeping democracy in good health.

A glance at the “moral universe” of today’s media, not just in India but even in the developed world, leaves no one in doubt that the unbridled, corrupting free market is strangulating journalistic ethics. Neo-conservative thuggery in high offices was sufficiently powerful to blind the US media to what was happening in Iraq. Although some apologies were tendered by media houses, they never really intended to resume their roles. Even within the US, few voices are picked up by the media in support of the common man.

The repeated attempts to manufacture consent for neo-liberal reforms by India’s own media, with private television displaying the most avarice, continue. The dilemma of a market-led media universe is that its body has many tumours feeding on lucre and choking vital organs of democracy. These are gradually sinking without the benefit of the media’s support to fight the disease; the main sections of newspapers shrink constantly, while fluffy supplements expand.

It is a difficult time to write about policies on welfare, on housing, health, education, empowerment, food, agriculture, the environment and pensions. Even if these were to be written about, the tenor has to be supportive of the free-market, of loans, insurance and speculation.

What then can newspapers do to regain their commanding heights, particularly in countries with weak democratic systems such as India? Free as the media is in this country (some would say more free than some other democracies), the truth of market control of news agendas is self-evident. Investigative journalism of the most basic kind, involving diligent reporting of facts, is in a frozen state. Newspapers appear to be the least interested in using the Right to Information Act, to expose bad governance and corruption. For some newspapers, the RTI Act is almost an embarrassment because they now have no excuse for not getting the facts.

The attainable goal for newspapers is to strengthen ethics and return to the agenda of public interest. Although there might be “co-existence” theories being advocated to the media, the essential role that it must play is that of a watchdog vis-a-vis the establishment. Sadly, watchdogs will not suffer thieves silently, and when you have a system that is largely controlled by thieves, including in the so-called pillars of democracy, they will have to go about their job in the way that they are expected to. There is nothing for the media to be ashamed about if it must display a Rottweiler personality towards the establishment; so brazen are the thieves today, that only such fierce displays of integrity can persuade them to mend their ways.