Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It pays to be cautious when you are in foreign territory

In Europe, your skin colour easily gives you away and you can be easy prey if you are not a trifle careful. People quickly recognise you as Indian, and if you aren’t one, then possibly a Bangladeshi or a Sri Lankan. Most Pakistanis have a much fairer complexion anyway and, therefore, you are unlikely to be identified as such.

For all the discipline, cleanliness and the good things of life, climate included, many parts in Europe aren’t really as safe as you might think. While I was on the tube from Cologne to Brussels Nord, there was an announcement that came several times before we alighted, cautioning passengers about pickpockets at the station.

Thankfully, my co-passenger was the friendly sort. She was from Brussels Nord and walked me all the way up to the hotel. And as we trudged up the steep incline, there were many eyes on me, most of them with a Turkish-Arab background, and quite a few Blacks as well who it was clear were up to no good. She was kind enough to advise me not to go out late evenings as it was not a very safe place for visitors. I heeded her advice and remained indoors, already quite tired by all the travel.

In Dusseldorf, I was shadowed by a couple of men, one I’m certain of Arab descent, and the other a German who puffed non-stop. I had a little time on my hands after a visit to the printing fair and chose to walk around near the hotel, looking for souvenirs inside a few shops. I really had no clue I was being followed. It was only when one of them hastened up to me before I entered a store and asked me to come outside to talk that I quickly understood what was happening.

Fortunately again, the owner of the store happened to be Indian and I made sweet conversation with him hoping the guy would back out. But he was loathe to let go and trooped inside the store, his eyes on me constantly. Since the hotel was close by I managed to get by, but only just. He had almost caught up to the entrance and finally left only after the hotel manager came to my side. That was when I spotted the German puffing away wildly. He had driven up to the kerb to pick up his friend. And I wondered what it was they wanted from me.

Well, the store I trooped into was run by Batra from Delhi. There was a discount sale going on and that had caught my eye. It was while talking to him that I realised the goods were all from Delhi and, would you believe it, China! He had come to Germany when he was 19, probably in the late-1970s. His married daughter was helping him with the business. And they seemed to be quite prosperous. He said he was sending money to his folks back in Delhi and looking after others who constantly harried him for monetary help.

Pictures show the Turkish neighbourhood where I stayed overnight on my return Cologne; Batra posing in front of his store in Dusseldorf; a group of Indian girls talking excitedly to their families as they stand in awe before the Cologne Cathedral; and another group of young engineers from BGR Boilers, Chennai, led by S Venkataraman, the GM. They’ve been in Germany the past three months on work and it was their day out.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Can our city planners take a leaf out of the Dusseldorf book?

In Chennai, we have trains, buses, taxis, autorickshaws, the MRTS and now in a few years the Metro. But except perhaps at the Central or Egmore railway stations, how easy is it to connect to the different places in the city? Not very.

If you are to travel on the MRTS (mass rapid transport system), and if you are a lone woman you need the courage because the stations are ill-lit, lonely and infested with anti-social elements, you are not likely to find any mode of transport outside the station to ferry you to the place you wish to go. A classic example is the Indira Nagar MRTS station. If you are to emerge from here, you will be greeted by vehicles whizzing by on the toll road outside, with little chance of an auto stopping by. The same can be said of the Mylapore and Thiruvanmiyur stations, perhaps the whole lot. Which clearly shows lack of proper planning. Even if there are autos outside the Mambalam or Kodambakkam railway stations, the drivers are waiting to fleece you, and you have to walk quite a distance to reach a bus stop. I wonder whether the Metro Rail will provide better connectivity, but knowing how our planners work it may not be very different from what we have presently.

It’s so very different in some of the places I have visited abroad. In Dusseldorf, for example, you can straightaway head for the subway from inside the main station if you wish to catch a train. Once outside, there are taxis lined up and a few metres away, tram and bus stops. It’s all public transport. Taxis run on meters and if the distance is too short the drivers advise you to walk, luggage and all. Imagine what our guys here would do!

I did not see any private public transport as such, certainly no autorickshaw type of vehicle. The point is that public transport is so well maintained and reliable that it will put even our best private transport (Volvo buses within and outside Chennai, if you will) to shame. For one, there is no conductor; it is assumed people are honest and will pay, and they do. There are ticket checkers on trains and they are friendly and cheerful, greeting you before punching the ticket and wishing you a pleasant journey.

I noticed a bus driver, an attractive blonde, greeting every passenger who got in and they in turn wished her as well. Our conductors and drivers don’t even know how to smile; the moment they are on the bus they think they are headmasters descended from heaven.

So, effectively, with such wonderful public transport, fixed fares and friendly staff, there is no bargaining, no waste of time and energy, no bad words exchanged. Everything is well and everyone exudes a positive energy. There is no crowding, forget overcrowding. That of course has to do with the population. A nation of 1.2 billion, and counting every second, just cannot hope for that kind of thing. But at least our city administrators can learn from such examples and try to replicate them here, such as providing better connectivity, penalising auto drivers who fleece passengers and putting an end to such practice, and ensuring that travelling by public transport is a pleasure, which will result in even the better-off or elite to use such services instead of taking out the car every time. Will it ever happen in our lifetime?

Pictures show taxis (all Mercedes Benz and BMWs) lined outside the Dusseldorf main station; the inside of a bus that had the driver greeting passengers as they entered from the front; luxury trams just a few yards away from the station entrance; a poodle on a bus (pets are allowed on trains and buses); and the inside of a local train on which I travelled.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A different world out there in Brussels

Picture postcard scenes from Brussels, these. Many use cycles to commute, and parking everywhere is near perfect. No haphazard parking anywhere. It’s almost as if it’s a sin, just like it’s almost a crime if you honk. The only time I heard a driver horn was when a police vehicle swept by. There are hardly any motorcycles; I must have seen three or four during the week I spent there – the odd Yamaha or Triumph.

One of the things that never cease to amaze me is the level of discipline people in the developed world have. Drivers stop when the traffic signal turns red even if it is 2am or 3am when there’s not a soul in sight. Pedestrians wait ever so patiently to cross streets until the signal turns green. Will we ever even strive to reach some semblance of such discipline? If only we could.

Super roads everywhere. I didn’t find a single spot where some sort of digging was about. The only thing that surprised me was the number of cigarette butts lying on pavements, even right outside petrol bunks. On the way to a sales outlet in a bunk there were scores of cigarette butts lying. And for all the campaigns against smoking and cigarette packets carrying warnings, people in these parts smoke like chimneys.

In streets, on footpaths, outside railway stations and bus stops, young and old, men and women puff away to glory come. I didn’t notice too much of chattering on mobile phones though, not like many of use here who are keen do to tell the world what we are up to or who love pressing the keys of the instrument for effect. They must have got over all that years ago, if ever they did indeed indulge in that kind of flaunting.

Pictures show cycles parked neatly on a pavement; the way to the gas station that was littered with cigarette butts: a quiet side street where too I noticed many butts lying; the super roads; and families cycling away.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Rendezvous with a digital press major in Brussels

It was quite a pleasant surprise when I received a call about three weeks ago from the editor and publisher of Indian Printer & Publisher and Packaging South Asia, asking me to attend a special press event being organised by Xeikon International, the Netherlands-based major in the labeling business. Later on, as it turned out, I was also asked to attend the digi:media trade show in Dusseldorf, a first by the organisers of the famous drupa festival. So followed a rush for the visa and other arrangements and, even before I knew it, I was off to Brussels where the event was arranged.

‘Go beyond your limits’ is the Xeikon credo and, well, they did really pull out all stops to ensure that the press event was a success. Xeikon is one of the founders of the digital label press technology and the event was to provide select editors from around the world an insight into developments and market growth expectations as well as update on the company’s product portfolio.

After a 10-hour flight I landed in Brussels where the pick-up was arranged. Off I was driven to the Crowne Plaza in Antwerp. Freshening over, I was whisked away with a couple of other senior editors to the Xeikon headquarters in Lier. After formal introductions, there was lunch, complete with the choicest of wines. It was all perfect PR and it worked well. None of us even sighed once until the presentations got over late in the evening. Senior editors from Chicago, London, Paris and New York were present. I was the only Indian.

The organisers seemed to believe in the saying, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. There was cocktails and dinner at a boutique restaurant in downtown Antwerp, but even that was preceded by a brief presentation.

A packed first day indeed. Indian companies can take a leaf out of the Xeikon book to understand how press conferences and get-togethers should be arranged without PR being overbearing. In Brussles, they did it very effectively and in great style.

Pictures show the sumptuous meal in store for lunch; the eye-catching Xeikon hoarding at one end of the hall; yours truly with the Xeikon director and the PR chief; the Xeikon business development manager talking hardcore business; and a view of the spectacular amphitheatre in the company’s HQ.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Views of a former civil servant

Shantha Sheela Nair, who served as a civil servant for 37 years, is a delightful person to be with; she always has something interesting to say and is usually full of ideas. She’s just retired but continues to speak at public forums, driving some of her ideas into people’s minds.

One of Sheela’s pet subjects is water and sanitation and during her tenure as Corporation Commissioner, Chennai, and chairperson of Metrowater, she did her best to get the rainwater harvesting programme going, with help from committed individuals such as Sekhar Ragahan who runs the Rain Centre.

It was during a year of drought and elections to the State Assembly that the RWH programme was driven through – and despite opposition and the debate appearing in the media, no judge, according to Shella, wanted to be seen as coming in the way of affecting water supply. RWH paid rich dividends for Chennai citizens, although in several places its implementation was not proper.

Speaking recently to an audience comprising UNCEF officers and local journalists, Sheela stressed the need to use less water in toilets. If it could be done in aeroplanes and spacecraft why could vacuum toilets not be possible on the ground, she wondered. The beginning, she said, had to be made with children and toilet-training before considering the larger aspect of decentralising water management.

As far as desalination was concerned, Sheela said there were no answers yet to where the effluents would go and what would happen to the brine. “A lot of our problems emanate from the fact that we have gone too deep into the ground (in search of water),” she added. She referred to the Roman aqueducts and the storing of water underground using the power of gravity.

Narrating her experiences of heading the disaster relief team in Tamil Nadu post-tsunami, Sheela said that tackling issues such as women’s menstrual hygiene and lack of sanitary pads was Herculean. To add to the chaos, there were paedophiles taking advantage of the presence of orphans; yet the administration did all it could to prevent any wrongdoing.

Sheela was for corporate bodies to show more sensitivity while handling issues pertaining to the locals and the environment. She also wanted young journalists to question technology and use indigenous technology as far as possible.