Author Archives: vpdot

Propositions on the California Ballot in November 2016

I’ve been an American citizen and diligent voter since 2008. Mulling over the propositions on the ballot in every election is a task I usually look forward to, but this year both the number of initiatives on the ballot and the sneaky provisions in many of them left me tired and not a little confused at the end of the process.

Here are my recommendations and if some leave you scratching your head, take a moment to check out my reasoning further down.

Proposition Intent Recommendation


Proposition 51 Allow Public School Bonds Vote NO
Proposition 52 No Diverting of Hospital Fee Vote YES
Proposition 53 Voter Approval for Revenue Bonds Vote NO
Proposition 54 Public Display of Legislative Bills Vote YES
Proposition 55 Income Tax Increase extension Vote YES
Proposition 56 Tobacco Tax Increase Vote YES
Proposition 57 Parole for Non-Violent Criminals Vote YES
Proposition 58 Non-English Languages Allowed in Public Education Vote YES
Proposition 59 Overturn of Citizens United Act Advisory Vote YES
Proposition 60 Condoms in Pornographic Films Vote NO
Proposition 61 Drug Price Standards Initiative Vote NO
Proposition 62 Repeal of the Death Penalty Vote YES
Proposition 63 Background Checks for Ammunition Purchases and Large-Capacity Ammunition Magazine Ban Vote YES
Proposition 64 Marijuana Legalization Initiative Vote YES
Proposition 65 Revenue from Disposable Bag Sales to Wildlife Conservation Vote NO
Proposition 66 Death Penalty Procedures Initiative Vote NO
Proposition 67 Ratify Ban on Plastic Bags Vote YES

Proposition 51 – California Public School Facility Bonds Initiative: Voting Yes gives the state the authority to issue $9 billion in bonds that would mainly fund school infrastructure. The cost per annum to the state is estimated to be $500 million.
While there is no denying that California schools have infrastructure needs, a big problem with this bond is that it does not allocate funds on a need basis but on a first-come, first-served basis. This means that savvier school districts could easily divert bond money towards their own use instead of the money going to needy districts. The push for this proposition has come from realtors and while it has the support of both school boards and California PTA, it is opposed by Governor Jerry Brown, who thinks it is a give-away to developers, who had a big hand in writing this proposition.

Proposition 52 – Voter Approval to Divert Hospital Fee Revenue Dedicated to Medi-Cal: In 2009, a new program was created such that California hospitals were required to pay a fee to help the state obtain matching federal Medicaid funds. This program has resulted in California hospitals receiving roughly $2 billion a year in additional federal money to Medi-Cal. However, the state government has diverted some of the funds from the hospital fee program to the general fund. This proposition makes it much more difficult to divert Medical funds to general funds and also extends the hospital fee indefinitely so the state can continue receiving matching funds from the federal government. It has the support of every major newspaper editorial. Though I am generally not in favor of pushing more decisions to the voters, this proposition keeps funds where they belong.

Proposition 53 – Voter Approval Requirement for Revenue Bonds above $2 Billion Initiative: This proposition requires statewide voter approval before any revenue bonds can be issued by the state if the bond amount exceeds $2 billion.
This proposition is a perfect example of pushing a decision best taken by a democratically elected legislature onto the voters. As it is we have way too many propositions on the ballot every Presidential year. Do we really want to get into the nitty-gritties of each and every big spending proposal that the government wishes to make? Voting yes on this proposition will seriously hamper the ability of the government to do its job. In fact, some language in this bill requires even local projects to be approved by a state-wide vote. Ridiculous!

Proposition 54 – Public Display of Legislative Bills Prior to Vote: Requires that every bill is published in print and online at least 72 hours before each house of the legislature can vote on it. Also allows any individual to record open legislative sessions.
Even though this proposition is funded by a single billionaire Republican, it seems to bring more transparency to government, always a better direction for democracy. It also prevents a tactic known as “Gut and Amend” which allows legislators to remove complete sections of a bill that has been approved and replace it with completely different language at the last minute.

Proposition 55Extension of the Proposition 30 Income Tax Increase Initiative: Proposition 55 would continue the tax rates instituted by Proposition 30 through 2030, instead of Prop 30 expiring in 2018. The tax increase impacts the 1.5 percent of Californians with a single income filing of at least $263,000 or a joint income filing of at least $526,000.
What can I say – I am a tax and spend liberal! And the deciding factor for me is that 89% of the funds go to K-12 schools and 1% to community colleges. And if you are making half a million dollars a year on a joint income, you can afford to give an extra 1-3%!

Proposition 56 – Tobacco Tax Increase: This proposition increases taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products by the equivalent of $2 per pack. It does not address the allocation of that money, which presumably will be the same as before, going to anti-smoking initiatives etc.
I don’t smoke and I believe smoking is bad, so I would have been in favor anyway, but the kicker is that this proposition puts a tax on e-cigarettes as well, and considering how vaping is getting more and more popular among new and young smokers, I am happy to support anything that discourages that practice.

Proposition 57 – Parole for Non-Violent Criminals and Juvenile Court Trial Requirements Initiative: A “yes” vote supports increasing parole and good behavior opportunities for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes and allowing judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults in court. About 25,000 nonviolent state felons that could seek early release and parole under Proposition 57. Also, instead of prosecutors, judges would decide whether to try juveniles as young as 14 years old in adult court.
Given our knowledge about the development of the adolescent brain, I am completely in favor of leeway in sentencing guidelines for juveniles. Also, it makes sense to try other methods of rehabilitation for non-violent offenders than throw them in our already over-crowded prisons. However, the Mercury News opposes the proposition for being poorly written. My guess is that the proposition is deliberately worded loosely to give law-enforcement some discretion in who to release.

Proposition 58 – Non-English Languages Allowed in Public Education Act: 20 years ago, Prop 227 mandated that English learners be taught in English-only immersion classes. Supposedly this was because bilingual education was not preparing immigrants, especially Hispanics, for the workforce as they were able to get by in their native language in school.
Fast forward to today and educational methods and practices have changed to using bilingual methods to impart instruction, even language. Proposition 58, therefore, wants to repeal Prop 227 to allow teachers and educators more flexibility in imparting instruction.
On the face of it, this makes sense to me and the proposition has the support of teachers state-wide.

Proposition 59 – Overturn of Citizens United Act Advisory Question: As far as I can tell, this proposition doesn’t actually do anything but ask California’s elected officials to use their authority to propose and ratify an amendment to the Constitution overturning Citizens United. Despite being a rather toothless measure, voting yes signals your support for overturning Citizens United, the law that prevents any checks on corporate money in American politics.

Proposition 60 – Condoms in Pornographic Films Initiative: A “yes” vote would be a vote in favor of requiring the use of condoms and other protective measures during the filming of pornographic films, as well as requiring pornography producers to pay for certain health requirements and checkups.
At first this seems like a no-brainer, till you discover that not only do most major newspapers oppose it, it is a rare bill that is opposed by both the California Democratic AND California Republican parties! This is because this proposition opens the door to millions of frivolous lawsuits. A statement for the opposition says “Under Prop 60, California will become the first state in the nation to allow and incentivize ANY RESIDENT to sue a worker for how they do their job, creating the potential for a lawsuit bonanza that will fill up the courts and sidestep a government agency, costing California millions.” Check this link for more on the opposition.
The Proposition is also opposed by the only association of adult movie workers, the people who have the most to gain from such a health initiative, if it were legit.

Proposition 61 – Drug Price Standards Initiative: A “yes” vote would mean that state agencies would pay the same amount for prescription drugs as the VA. It does not regulate the price paid by individuals.
Again, at first glance this seems to be a clear choice. We all hate Big Pharma, especially in the light of the recent Epi-Pen price hikes. And this proposition is fervently opposed by pharma companies. However, the problem seems to be in implementation. By linking Medical drug prices with VA prices, the state runs the risk of having pharma companies raise prices on VA drugs to meet the letter of the law. Or some drugs would become unavailable. Or pharma companies could raise the prices on the drugs that are not supplied to the VA. The cartel nature of the pharmaceutical industry in this country leaves a bad taste in the mouth but a law that cannot be implemented and only hampers the negotiating ability of the state cannot be a good one.

Proposition 62 – Repeal of the Death Penalty Initiative: A “yes” vote supports repealing the death penalty and making life without the possibility of parole the maximum punishment for murder.
This one is a personal choice but I don’t believe in the philosophy of “a life for a life.”

Proposition 63 – Background Checks for Ammunition Purchases and Large-Capacity Ammunition Magazine Ban Initiative: A “yes” vote supports prohibiting the possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring certain individuals to pass a background check in order to purchase ammunition.
The opposition to this common-sense bill is the usual “civil liberties violation” one, but most sane people approve of background checks and don’t feel the need to own large-capacity guns or ammo for personal safety.

Proposition 64 – California Marijuana Legalization Initiative: Legalizes recreational marijuana and hemp under state law and establishes certain sales and cultivation taxes.
Marijuana would now be legal (for adults), taxed, and licensed. Funds would be used to study marijuana, develop protocols for safe use, and disbursed to health centers and non-profits working in this space.
To decide how to vote on this proposition, it’s worth looking at the effects of legalizing marijuana in Colorado. The state’s top health official, Dr. Larry Wolk, says, “… since legalization no … troubling public health trends have cropped up yet.” Legalization has brought millions into state coffers. The police, who were worried about the increase in drug-related offences have mainly struggled with DUI issues.
Lawmakers in Colorado who held their breath after the law was passed in 2014 concede that the new law has not had any real negative impact in the state.
As for the DUI problem, Stanford students are already working on a “pot-alyzer!” The more this compound is legal and out in the open, the better we can study it, understand it and of course, use it!

Proposition 65 – Dedication of Revenue from Disposable Bag Sales to Wildlife Conservation: This is the first of 2 initiatives related to the ban of plastic grocery bags. A “yes” vote is a vote in favor of redirecting money collected from the sale of carry-out bags by grocery or other retail stores to a special fund administered by the Wildlife Conservation Board. Currently these funds go to the store themselves.
This is one sneaky bill, sponsored by a few out-of-state plastic bag companies. There are two very suspicious aspects to the bill. First is Section 6(a) of the bill, which says that if this measure win more votes than Proposition 67, which seeks to uphold the plastic bag ban law SB 270, then all the provisions of Prop 67 would become void, which could be interpreted as rescinding the bag ban by the courts. Potentially, the law SB 270 banning plastic bags could be reversed if Prop 65 wins.
Secondly, this measure would make grocery stores oppose banning plastic bags, if it meant a loss of the revenue from the sale of plastic bag alternatives. It would also make a 10-cent fine into a government tax, which people instinctively dislike. Also, it would not, in any way, reduce the actual use of plastic bags.

Proposition 66 – Death Penalty Procedures Initiative: In the guise of changing procedures relating to death penalty convictions, what this proposition essentially does is nullify the repeal of the death penalty under Prop 62 if it gets more votes.

Proposition 67 – Plastic Bag Ban Veto Referendum: A “yes” vote is a vote in favor of upholding or ratifying the contested legislation banning plastic bags that was enacted by the California State Legislature under the name Senate Bill 270.
This proposition essentially ratifies SB 270 that bans the use of plastic bags statewide. But the reason this proposition, also brought by plastic bag manufacturers, is on the ballot is to confuse voters into picking Prop 65 over Prop 67, because of the end use of the carry-out bag revenues. Then the provisions of Prop 65 would be used to overturn SB 270. Don’t get fooled. Vote Yes on 67 and No on 65.

A Journey to Bring Peace Through Music

pruthvi śāntir antarikshagam śāntir dhyau śāntir diśa śāntih
diśa śāntir avāntaradiśā śāntir agniśāntir vāyur śāntihi

(May there be peace on the earth, the skies, space, in all directions and in the elements)

With this invocation, 150 voices joyfully soar in the oratorio Shanti, a Journey of Peace, singing of a connected world where there may be many ways to reach the source, but there is no concept of the “other” and we are all united in a state of oneness.

This ambitious choral work, augmented by dance and multimedia, is the creation of Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran, (fondly called Kanniks) and makes its premiere in the Bay Area on April 30, 2016. A blend of Indian and Western voices, Shanti is composed in a unique style developed by Kanniks, a blend of Indian and Western choirs with support from instruments and dance performances.

“My work is strictly based on harmonizing Indian ragas,” explains Kanniks. He is very particular about maintaining the structure and purity of the Indian ragas while writing polyphony for them. Kanniks uses the foundation of Indian classical music, particularly Hindustani classical music, to create a new sound that combines Indian and Western voices. “We have our way of singing with a little bit of ornamentation and voice texture,” he notes. “Our voices are trained to sing a certain way. When you combine our voices with the traditional Western soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sounds, that’s when you get goosebumps!”

Kanniks, who is trained in Carnatic music, gave his first vocal performance at the age of 13. A graduate of IIT Madras, he arrived in the US in 1984 to pursue a Masters in Materials Engineering and later an MBA in Information Systems. He began attending Western classical concerts out of curiosity and was spellbound by the music as well as the discipline of the performers. He taught himself Western music theory and MIDI and began experimenting with his new sound.

“Western composers have tried to incorporate some elements of Indian classical music,” he says. “But the music still has a Western approach, with just a feel of the raga – or an Indian sound in places. My compositions are written from an Indo-centric perspective.”

To his surprise and delight, he has been able to integrate many more elements into his creations than he thought possible to begin with. “When you talk about Western music you are talking about a range of frequencies that are available through various instruments. I visualize a length of an alaap (the improvised section of a raga) then support it with voice layers which harmonize without hurting the raga. On top of that I add layers of strings, woodwinds and even percussion like timpani and brass. They are all playing different things but the unified effect is what gives you chills.” The orchestra and Western voices he uses to enhance the ragas are not standalone pieces; they provide support and depth.

Kanniks created his first piece Basant (Spring) in 1994 in Cincinnati, where he lives and works as a consultant in the field of data warehousing and analytics. Basant was performed with a group of young, amateur Indian singers and accompanied by a Cincinnati church choir and local orchestra.

“Working with Western musicians was quite a learning experience,” he recalls. For one, the musicians could not abide the constant drone of the tanpura, an instrument used by Indian musicians to keep the pitch. Taken aback initially, Kanniks came around to their point of view. “I figured the Goddess Saraswati would not be offended if we switched it off,” he laughs.

He also realized that he could not rely on any improvisation on their part. “The entire score has to be written down and fixed,” he says. “It is comforting to have Indian musicians who can just wing it based on your instructions, but with Western musicians you have the satisfaction of knowing that the sound will be exactly the same each time and delivered perfectly.”

He also quickly realized that unlike Indian performers, Western musicians were very disciplined when it came to rehearsals. “If I had a rehearsal from 9 am to 11:30 am, the musicians would troop in at 8:50, start tuning their instruments and be ready to begin at 9 sharp. At 11:30 they would just pack up and leave, even if we were in the middle of a piece.” Unused to this behavior, Kanniks put it down to rudeness before realizing that this was, in fact, professionalism!

How does he come up with the themes of his compositions? “I think that even with my very first piece, Basant, my effort was to find unity through ragas and conveying the message that together we are bigger than the sum of our parts, though I am better at articulating that message these days!”

His second piece, The Blue Jewel, conveyed how the environment is sacred to us all, no matter which culture we come from. Film slides played during the performance captured the wanton destruction of the earth by human beings, while ragas with diabolical or devil’s intervals, sung by the choir, suggested the discord the environmental destruction had brought about. The piece ended on a message of hope and a prayer that we could correct course and respect and restore the blue jewel of the Earth. “When you want to show something big, music alone is not enough,” says Kanniks, who uses multimedia in nearly all his performances.

One exception is his Ragas in Symphony, which recently had a sold-out performance in Dallas. “It does not have a story line like Shanti,” explains Kanniks. “It is just about the changing of the seasons. We start out by holding the sacred sound of cosmic energy – Om. It is from this energy that everything manifested. You and I and everything else are a manifestation of this un-manifest reality. When we sing the piece we get in touch with this reality.” Ragas in Symphony also debuted the Nightingale Overture, a composition by Kanniks that paid tribute to the work of M.S. Subbulakshmi, the acclaimed Carnatic vocalist.

Shanti, A Journey of Peace, is Kannik’s most ambitious work. The musical extravaganza features both Indian and Western vocalists, a Western orchestra, multimedia support, and several dance troupes that bring the music to life. This synthesis of Indian and Western music in choral form is a new genre by itself.

Here is an excerpt of a previous performance of Shanti

Indian classical music, despite its beauty and complexity, has no choral or, for that matter, no vertical elements to it. “Indian classical music is about individual self-expression,” Kanniks points out. “There is no word in North or South Indian music that signifies a concert, a coming together of musicians.” Indeed, the closest modern word for a musical performance in South India is “Kachcheri” which is derived from an Urdu and Hindi word meaning “court,” signifying the patronage of musicians in the king’s court. Kanniks’ creations, therefore, forge a new path for Indian music.

“Here’s what I would like to leave behind,” says Kanniks when discussing his legacy. “Maybe one day we can have 100 choirs in a 100 cities. Each choir has a leader who I mentor. I create hundreds of taranas(melodies) with these harmonies that are performed by these choirs. Eventually each choir becomes self-sufficient.”

“My dream is that when the city hall is celebrating Diwali, this choir is invited to perform. We become part of the musical landscape. And when a newcomer moves to a city and they want an opportunity to sing, they find this organization and join.”

“To begin with, I will be the source of the music and provide the template. In another 10 years people familiar with the music will start writing their own compositions.”

Kanniks’ dream is well on its way. He has founded and led community choirs in 10 cities in North America including Cincinnati OH, Bethlehem PA, Dallas TX and Washington DC. He has expanded his work to Europe (The Hague – Netherlands). Now he brings his opus Shanti to two venues in the Bay Area, supported by a devoted and enthusiastic set of Indian and Western musicians and performers.

To experience the magic of Shanti – A Journey of Peace for yourself, check out

Performances are at 5 pm and 9 pm on April 30, 2016 at Flint Center in Cupertino and at 7 pm on May 21, 2016 at the Interstake Auditorium in Oakland. There is a special 50% off promotion going on the 5PM show on the 30th of April. Please avail of this discount using the discount code ‘MAR’ at Ticketmaster, accessed through the link above.

(Full Disclosure: I am one of the singers in Shanti! My experience with the rehearsals has been enormously uplifting and I often find myself humming the tunes while going about my day’s work. There’s something to be said about having a head filled with music, isn’t it?)

Senior Centers – A home away from home?

Update: This post was originally published on September 2010. There’s been a lively interest in the comments all these years so I have reposted to the front page to keep it current.
By Geeta Padmanabhan
In a society where one of the first lessons a youngster learns is to respect and obey the elderly in the family, touch their feet as often as possible or at least when he/she takes leave and returns from a trip, where every young girl moving to her husband’s home is told to take care of the in-laws and treat her husband’s family as her own, the growing phenomenon of retirement centres must come as a bit of a surprise.

Vidyadhan – Bridging the Gap

Education at the primary and secondary levels in India is free in India when delivered through government schools. The quality of education varies wildly, and there are some glaring shortcomings in the program, which is why most NGOs and non-profits working in this sector tend to focus on early education, midday meal schemes (to keep kids in school) and supplemental tutoring. This makes eminent sense, since fixing the foundation and getting the basics right are the keys to literacy.

But kids who finish elementary school and have aspirations for college are often left out in the cold. There is tuition, however low, and hostel fees for those wanting to study out of town. In my own family, my father-in-law was an orphan who was determined to go to college and ended up begging for sponsorship from rich merchants in Bhubaneswar to pay his fees. He ended up with a phenomenally successful career and set up a small trust called Digjyoti to help kids like himself in Orissa.

The Vidyadhan program, set up by the Sarojini Damodaran Foundation, is a similar program conceived on a much larger and more professional scale. The program started in 1999 in Kerala and has given out 4,000 scholarships so far. About 750 students are helped each year at this time, but the plan is to grow this number to 100,000 in the next 5 years and cover as many other states as feasible.

I spoke with Meera Rajeevan, the program director, recently via phone and asked her how the candidates are selected. Since the program began in Kerala, where Kumari Shibulal and SD Shibulal, ex-chairman of Infosys, hail from, a network of trusted friends and family have been involved in means and merit testing. Currently, aspiring candidates for the scholarships have to pass an entrance test and an interview after which a volunteer visits the family to ensure the candidate does indeed have a financial need.

Volunteers also monitor progress on a regular basis (often more than once a year) to determine of the candidate continues to be eligible. It is a fairly rigorous process with hardly any misuse of funds by any recipient in the decade and a half since the program began. Each district has a district coordinator who keeps tabs.


One of the earliest recipients of the Vidyadhan Program is Dr. R. Gauthamen, who is currently on a Fellowship at Oxford. Dr. Gauthamen’s family ran a tailoring business in Alleppey that was constantly subject to the vagaries of demand. When he graduated high school with high grades, he was interested in studying medicine but his father could not afford the college or hostel fees. His teachers recommended him to the Foundation and after a detailed interview and home visit, his scholarship was approved. (The test was added in later years.)

The Vidyadhan program supported him through his MBBS and MD in India after which he rajendranapplied to Oxford. Today he is doing a super-specialty in neonatology at John Radcliffe Hospital. He also works as a sponsor and liaison for the Vidyadhan program in London. “When I first met Mr. Shibulal,” he says, “I asked him why he was doing this for me. He told me that the day would come when I could pay it forward and that is what I am doing.”

Kumari Shibulal personally interviews all the potential candidates in Kerala. “Once, when I was talking to a girl who had applied, she broke down and started crying about her father’s ill health and how this was causing her family a great deal of suffering,” she recalls. “When she left after the interview I couldn’t stop thinking about her and I ran behind her to assure her that everything would be all right.” The Shibulals ended up paying for the family’s medical expenses as well. The family takes a very close and personal interest in this activity of the foundation and is keenly invested in the success of each student.

Now the program is expanding into Karnataka where the foundation takes the help of a local NGO called Vidya Poshak to administer background checks. Says Meera Rajeevan, “Unlike Kerala, we find that parents in rural Karnataka are less interested in sending girls for further education. So we are focusing more on the girl student here.” The program also gives a higher weightage to kids from rural areas.

In order to scale to 100,000 students, though, the SD Foundation realizes that it cannot be the only sponsor. The approach now is to find external individual and corporate sponsors from around the world who will directly sponsor the children. In an innovative approach, the Vidyadhan program makes sure that all sponsorship money is directly deposited into the bank account of the student. All administrative fees are borne by the foundation.

I asked Rajeevan if there was any potential for misuse. She confidently asserts that it has never happened, with even drop-out rates being only in the 10-15% range. This number, usually arising from the student not meeting the performance criteria, goes down to miniscule levels for kids who successfully make it to college and is a testament to the selection process. “And even if there were any misuse,” she points out reasonably, “it would be only for a year’s worth of funds.” Sponsors have also access to the students’ grades and fee receipts which brings even more transparency to the process.

What are the challenges for this program? “Each state has its own issues,” she says. “In Karnataka there is less awareness of the need for education.” Also, mentoring is a much needed investment for these kids who often suffer from low self-esteem as they rise above the circumstances they grew up in. Many cannot speak English well and find it hard to participate in the non-academic activities of the institution they join. This is where Rajeevan hopes the one-on-one sponsorship model will make a difference. “It is not mandatory, but if the sponsor wishes to get more involved with the student they are supporting we would very much welcome that.” The program is working on an online mentoring model as well.

As Dr. Gauthamen puts it, “Education is the best route to upward mobility.” To support the Vidyadhan program in its efforts or to become a sponsor/mentor for a college going student please visit

Note: My husband and I have been very impressed with the program and have decided to sponsor one student. Keep checking in here for more updates as the process begins.

India’s Daughters Don’t Just Need a Cultural Change

Facebook has been aflame with the documentary “India’s Daughters” where the filmmaker got unprecedented access to a convicted rapist who laid out exactly the way many Indian men view women. (The documentary has been banned in India, but, as is the case with most forbidden things, has immediately become the most sought-after piece of film on the internet. Follow this link if you still have not seen it.)

Celebrities like Javed Akhtar, Kirron Kher and Jaya Bachchan have taken to the air to express their outrage. I have not seen any of their speeches, nor do I have to. While I was in India recently, the lament was universal – cultural change must happen. The mindsets of people must change, whereby they learn to respect women and value their daughters.

The sad truth is that this call for attitudinal change has been going on for a long, long time. And there is no denying that much needs to be done in this regard. According to Wikipedia

In April 2013, Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat noted that the legal principle of reliance on the sole testimony of the victim had become “an easy weapon” to implicate anyone in a case of rape. Justice Kailash Ghambhir of the Delhi High Court stated that penal provisions for rape are often being misused by women as a “weapon for vengeance and vendetta” to harass and blackmail their male friends by filing false cases to extort money and to force them get married.

If our judges can believe this, boy, we have a long way to go.

And therein lies the problem. We do need the activism that has led to the expansion of definition of rape and the enactment of tougher laws, the activism that still continues to fight for marital rape to be added to the list. We do need to educate our society on the value of women. But while we are waiting for society to catch up, women will still be gang-raped and murdered.

Societal change is a generational, sometimes multi-generational, process. In the meantime what are our women and girls to do?

Let’s look at the statistics. The conviction rates for rape cases in India were 44.3 percent in 1973, 37.7 percent in 1983, 26.9 percent in 2009, 26.6 percent in 2010 and 26.4 percent in 2011.(Courtesy First Post). Not only was the conviction rate low to begin with, it has steadily worsened over the last few decades.

What’s the point of having better laws if they are not going to be enforced? Enlightenment begins at the courthouse.

Enlightenment also begins at the police station. The estimate of unreported rapes varies between 50% and 90% in India. Rapists are often people in power, at least relative to the victim. Rape is an exercise of that power, of strong over weak, of powerful over powerless. And the fastest way to do something about that is to transfer that power.

First, make separate cells in police stations, run by female officers trained in administering rape kits, supported by prosecutors trained in rape laws, that provide assistance and support to victims. These cells can even provide a level of anonymity till a case can be made against the perpetrator and should be able to provide safe houses for the victims once a case goes to trial.

Second, fast-track rape cases and cases of violence against women though the morass that is the Indian judicial system. If the initial processing has been handled well, these cases should be relatively simple to prosecute. Create a separate judicial panel that is well-versed in crimes against women in each state to adjudicate these cases.

Third, put stiff fines on eve-teasing, groping, and any other actions that are precursors to violence. Today’s eve-teaser gets emboldened when his actions go unpunished and he might well escalate to more aggressive behavior. The local thulla should have the authority to slap that fine and, if he is corrupt (a high likelihood) then he should be reported to the rape cell in the local police station.

A zero-tolerance policy and stiff and swift punishment has to be the first response to this crisis. Nothing signals our attitude towards these crimes better than how we treat the people responsible for committing them. And if it means, Justice Bhat and Justice Ghambhir, that some innocent men are going to be swept up into the system unfairly, well, at least they are going to get their day in court, instead of getting thrashed by a mob.





The Ghost of Christmas Present

Mona Inaya

Ari and MonaHolidays bring on a kaleidoscope of sentiments, unlocking bolted doors to beautiful beginnings, reunions, peaceful endings, decisions to either forgive and let go or be emotionally distant. The magic and excitement that lead up to the big REVEAL on Christmas day heighten anxieties on all levels. There’s sleeplessness, moodiness, tension, mixed with anticipation and perfectionism, all in the name making another happy. And then, when the day arrives, the moment passes beforeyou can truly “enjoy it”. The holiday is over. The clean-up is finally done. The decorations all putaway, without a trace they ever existed, to rummage through again for another do-over next year.

How many of you hide your chaotic life to put on a smile for the future memory frozen in time by the holiday picture? And how many of you feel like the inflatable Santa that just popped, (after it took you 5 hours to set it up), when the special day doesn’t go as planned after all the thought that went into it?

I so wanted to make this Christmas for Ari a really special one. Last year she was too young to Christmas Dinnerunderstand the fuss. I’d been waiting 30-odd years to share the magic of the season with a child and we were in India, where I felt I needed to put in a little more work into something that would have been rather effortless in the United States. I was also terrified of messing up and being like the Grinch who stole Christmas. She and I had gone through a lot in the previous year and I had a crazy notion that a mini Xmas Spectacular would erase all that. Above all, I just wanted to make her happy.

BUT Ari had her own plans. We thought she had the normal seasonal cold/cough but we had to rush her to the hospital for a sudden spike in her fever – a 103.9° temperature (The pictures don’t reflect how sick she was because Christmas magic made her feel excited to dress up). She caught a viral fever and then bronchitis. The doctor who had been her pediatrician from the age of 2 months finally concluded that she has chronic allergy bronchitis, which will trigger from allergy or a cold, and she’ll be susceptible to asthma and other respiratory /lung infections too.
Of course, our Christmas dinner was cut short, after I had spent at least 8 hours in the kitchen, and our spirits were dim, after we’d been on a high all month. And it suddenly was just a normal day… we were sad and scared for her. No parent can stand to see their child silently crying, using their blankie to stop the tears rolling down their cheeks, and confusion in their eyes. It’s not a terminal illness, or even unmanageable, nonetheless, it’s a lesson.

Ari with treeI learnt that it’s not the end of the world if everything doesn’t go according to plan, and while no one can plan for the worst, we have to be emotionally flexible, hope for the best, and work around the obstacles. And most importantly, I learnt what was really important to me, to us. I will never forget this Christmas Eve, because as a family, we were there for our daughter’s 1st Christmas. It was/is another reminder of why we are all together. It wasn’t a spoiled evening, or even an obstacle; it simply was proof of how much we care for each other, and how lucky and grateful I am for everyone who came to our rescue!

Mona Inaya, who previously blogged on this site as Yamuna Kona, brings up her daughter as a single mom, and has started a blog where you can follow her journey. Check out

A Returning Indian Entrepreneur Reflects – Part 3

Kashyap Deorah

It’s been 7 years since I wrote the first piece about moving back to India, and 5 years since the second piece after settling into the move. A few life changing events have happened since then. I sold Chaupaati to Future Group in India in 2010, we had our boy Kanav in 2012, I sold Chalo to OpenTable in the US in 2013, and subsequently moved from Powai to Berkeley in 2014 to integrate the acquisition as Shruti took on a fellowship at the Public Policy School of UC Berkeley.

As 2014 winds down, Shruti has finished her fellowship and I have concluded my gig at the acquiring company. Shruti remains committed to influencing policies towards cleaner energy and environment, and I remain committed to building world class tech companies out of India. Other than that, we are sufficiently confused about what we call home now and have decided to take 4 months off to travel the world and figure it out. Quoting my recent tweet – “India > Morocco > Spain > Chile > New Zealand > Australia > Hawaii > US (6 continents, 5 islands, 4 months, 3 people, 2 hemispheres, 1 life)”.

Encouragement and feedback from the Indian diaspora, friends, and colleagues have inspired me to write part three. Here is a short recap of my first two pieces to jog your memory. The first one contrasted life in the U.S. & India with regard to other people’s influence over our daily lives (opt-in v opt-out), relationships within the household (2C2 v 4C2), business environments (Sequoia v Banyan tree) and the diversity in social group (nationality v professional). The second one contrasted the two cultures with regard to socio-economic priorities (aspiration v experience), consumption patterns (survival v progress), impact of structure (chaos v order) and the experience with elements (man v nature). I am writing part three at a time when there is adequate clarity about the confusion before there is confusion about the clarity. So go ahead and have fun once more at my expense.

The “6-hour flight” test
Couple v Couple Dozen

An American colleague pointed out to me that a 6-hour flight from San Francisco to any place outside the U.S. would only take you as far as Mexico or Canada. Europe is an entire mainland and ocean away, and Asia Pacific needs you to cross the largest ocean of the world. Latin America and the Caribbean are out of bounds too. That got me thinking. .. Picking Delhi as the base, a 6-hour flight out would cover 26 countries, including China, Russia, 7 SAARC countries, 7 East Asian countries, 8 Middle Eastern countries and 2 African island countries. The list would be larger by another dozen countries if there were more non-stop flights or if they were an hour or two longer.

The contrast is starker if you consider the world’s population covered in the circle within the radius of a 6-hour flight. New Delhi would cover half the world’s population within a 6-hour flight radius while San Francisco would cover one-fifteenth. No wonder Americans seem a bit disconnected from the rest of the world.

“US is a time machine for India”… NOT
Same v Different

Between 2003-2006, major Sand Hill Road VCs set up shop in India to invest in tech startups. Their thesis was that what worked in the US could be replicated & adapted for the Indian market. A decade, a correction, and some long fund cycles later, the asset value looks promising on paper but the realized value has been a disappointment. In layman’s terms, the business of investing in Indian tech startups has not returned money after a decade. The depth of an IPO environment is a good yardstick of market maturity. You can count the number of Indian tech IPO’s on the fingers of one hand. In fact, no tech company that started after 2003 has gone IPO. As a sliver of hope, four companies that started in 2006 or later have raised money at a valuation over a billion dollars, and their best bet for an IPO is in financial markets abroad, as their company structures already reflect. It has not been all smooth sailing for them either as the Indian government flip-flops between leaving you alone and trying to come after you.

After being part of consumer businesses in both markets with millions of users in each, I have learnt a few things. First, the economics in India work in favor of solving problems through people rather than machines, while the opposite is true in the U.S. Second, the Indian consumer’s tolerance for pain to avoid spending is in sharp contrast to the US consumer’s propensity to pay for control & convenience. Third, for consumer tech businesses at scale, revenues per customer are a fifth in India as a direct result of purchasing power parity but unit costs are only half due to smaller or no gap in real estate, tech talent, or fuel costs. For these reasons, India will not evolve like the U.S. for any foreseeable period of time.

The Indian entrepreneur’s dilemma
Returns v Impact

When my Indian company was bought by the leading group in the $400B retail market of India, their market cap was about a billion dollars. A few years later, when my U.S. company was bought by the leader in a $50B niche in the hospitality market of US, their market cap was well over a billion dollars but with far lesser volatility. Despite being similar sized acquisitions, my Indian company was a full-fledged business with profitability and scale at the time of exit, while my U.S. company exited thrice as fast after building a product that had yet to be launched. An IPO environment in a larger market with predictable policies seems to outweigh the depth of latent market opportunity.

Immigrants are cursed for life because of their inability to reconcile their life in the place where they grew up and have parents with the new life created in the comforts of the developed world where they made money and had children. Indian entrepreneurs get a double whammy for trying to reconcile the gratification of solving the more fundamental problems of India with the lucrativeness of solving the more incremental problems of the developed world. I first tried to build a business for the U.S. market while being in India and right out of college 15 years ago. We have come a long way since then in our ability to succeed with that model, my last company being a validation of that, and I would bet that the next 15 years will see some pleasant surprises.

The Formative Years
Entitlement v Perspective

As we think of our next chapter in life, we find our perspective being driven by the fact that we are parents. We must deliberate the choice of where Kanav’s formative years should be.

Neuroscience shows that life experiences in the past continuously result in formation of brain patterns that determine how future events occur to us, resulting in the thought processes that determine our actions and decisions. Patterns formed between the ages of 3 and 16 (roughly) become the OS of our brain. This OS is stuck with us for life, and does not really alter unless the computer crashes due to a major life event and you need a recovery disk boot-up. Patterns due to experiences in rest of adult life are only apps on top of the OS and do not alter our core personality. 90% of critical brain development of a human happens by the age of 5. As a parent now, I need to be deliberate about how my child spends the formative years of life, especially 3 to 5.

Another daunting fact is that the life expectancy of an American is nearly 79 years, 20% more than an Indian. It is no surprise that my friends in U.S. look and feel younger than friends of the same age in India. At the same time, due to experiences with lack of structure and diverse identities while growing up, my Indian friends are far more adaptive to multiple divergent perspectives than my American friends are.

On the one hand, you obviously want a long and healthy life for your children. On the other hand, an upbringing in India, balanced with access to diverse perspectives globally, would make them more grounded. When they enter adulthood they might be more thankful for the privileges of the developed world and have more empathy for points of view of the rest.

Shruti works in a field where policies are made in the U.S. and applied to India. I work in a field where products are made in India and applied to the U.S. Kanav is at an age where our choice of what we do next and where we do it from would shape the rest of his life in a meaningful way.

With great choice comes great confusion. Shruti, Kanav and I are about to begin a once-in-a-lifetime journey together to figure all this out. The travel involves a fortnight in US and India each, but most of it in neutral third countries with just the three of us. No bias of the place we are in, positive or negative. It is time to fall in love all over again, with each other and with the planet. The serendipitous timing of our career breaks and the liability-free age of our son gives us the opportunity to invest in some soul-searching while globe-trotting. The answer to what’s next for each of us will present itself. I feel like Truman Burbank.

Follow me on Twitter / Flickr to find out where it leads.


Hindi in Bay Area High Schools

In 2007 I wrote about Hindi being accepted for foreign language credit in area high schools, mainly due to the tireless efforts of Madhu Aggarwal of the Madhu Bhasha Kendra. Since then over 100 students have used the Kendra to complete their language credits and 55 are currently enrolled, but their journey has not been easy. Because of the dearth of trained and certified language teachers in the schools themselves, students have had to work on their credits outside of their primary high school in certified programs like those of the Kendra.

All that is changing with the enrollment of the first Hindi language instruction student at the Teacher Education Department at California State University, East Bay.

Sharon Simonson of SV1World does a nice job of capturing Hindi’s journey thus far. She writes

Anupama Sarna plans to complete her Hindi teacher certification at CSU, East Bay next year. The principal of a private, nonprofit Hindi language school in Fremont would be the first to gain a primary teacher certification in Hindi and become the second certified Hindi language teacher in the state. The honor of first California certified Hindi teacher goes to Madhu Aggarwal, the founder of the Fremont school, MBK Language Center, who in 2013 gained her primary certification in science, then added Hindi language….

“Now when I go to a (public) school asking that they start a Hindi program, they can no longer say they can’t find (certified) teachers. That has been a major roadblock to even initiate these conversations,” she said. “Considering the number of Indian people (in Fremont), there is no reason whatsoever that Hindi is not offered in our school system.”

(You can read the entire article here.)

Mihir Baya is one of the high-schoolers who attends Hindi language classes at Madhu Aggarwal’s school. He is a freshman at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont and found the opportunity to study for a language class outside school useful because he could pick another elective of his choice at school.

Mihir started learning Hindi last year in 8th grade because his parents wanted him to learn one of the most important languages of his culture. Says dad Vinod, “The intent was to have some familiarity with the language of our origin, so that when he is India or interacts with folks back home he can do that with some ease.” He searched for programs that offered high-school credit and found Madhu Aggarwal’s classes.

Says Mihir, “I can now read and write fluently but am still working on grammar and fluency in speaking Hindi.” Since he skipped a level in his Hindi program, he gets to complete 3 years of language requirement that most UC’s look for in just 2 years.

Madhu Aggarwal hopes that the availability of Teacher Certification training in Hindi will open doors for other teachers interested in teaching Hindi at the high school level. The ultimate goal is to make Hindi seamlessly available in high schools across the country, and that can only happen if there are enough trained teachers available.

Her one-woman crusade has taken Hindi, India’s national language, from an exotic foreign phenomenon to mainstream education in the U.S. Perhaps one day we will have immersion classes in Hindi like the Mandarin ones in local elementary schools. As the Indian economy and market become more and more attractive to non-Indian businesses and visitors, Hindi might become a sought-after world language. A rich, complex, and inclusive language, it rewards students with a whole new perspective on a warm and welcoming culture. Bonus: You wouldn’t have to read the subtitles in Bollywood movies anymore!

Propositions on the Ballot on November 4, 2014

It’s that time of the year again. Yes, that time when we scratch our heads and say, “What, there’s an election again?” then blissfully ignore it till it’s time to complain about why government isn’t working!

If you’re in the 3% of voters who actually vote in midterm elections, more power to you. Here are the propositions on the ballot this year and how I will vote on them.

SUMMARY:                                                                                                                                   Proposition 1 – Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Act: VOTE YES                               Proposition 2 – Rainy Day Fund:  VOTE YES                                                                       Proposition 45 – Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act: VOTE YES Proposition 46 – Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Cap and Drug Testing of Doctors Initiative:  VOTE NO                                                                                                                                     Proposition 47 – Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative: VOTE YES               Proposition 48 – the Referendum on Indian Gaming Compacts: VOTE NO


Proposition 1 – Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Act: VOTE YES

Essentially, the drought has scared the government sick,(as it should you) and it is scrambling to catch up on spending some money to improve water conservation, storage and recycling systems. It would issue bonds for this purpose and use money from the General Fund to pay off the bonds. The way the money would be spent is as follows – watershed restoration ($1.5 billion), groundwater cleanup and monitoring ($900 million), water storage ($2.7 billion), flood management ($395 million), water recycling ($725 million) and stormwater capture ($200 million). (courtesy Mercury News). The two main points of opposition are that there is a lot of spending for watershed restoration that polluters should be on the hook for instead of taxpayers, and that a large percentage is kept for water storage, which means building new dams, which ecologists disapprove of.

While noting the opposition, I think we do need to spend some money of building efficient water systems so I am voting yes.

Proposition 2 – Rainy Day Fund:  VOTE YES

The measure creates a rainy day fund so that California budgets are not subject to the vagaries of economic swings. It requires annual transfer of 1.5% of general fund revenues to state budget stabilization account and additional transfer of personal capital gains tax revenues exceeding 8% of general fund revenues to budget stabilization account and, under certain conditions, a dedicated K–14 school reserve fund.

Governor Brown has been touting this as a savior to school budgets, but the fact is that the K-12 reserve fund only kicks in under very special circumstances. In addition, the measure caps the amount local school districts can hold in their reserves, which sounds really bad. But, my limited experience with the Fremont school district has led me to believe that school districts do tend to be ultra conservative with reserves, sometimes reducing teachers and increasing class sizes even when there was money on hand to keep going for a year or two, so I am not really bothered by this. The fact is that a decent rainy day fund makes complete sense.

Proposition 45 – Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act: VOTE YES

This measure would require changes to health insurance rates, or anything else affecting the charges associated with health insurance, to be approved by the California Insurance Commissioner before taking effect. The main opposition to this comes from health insurance companies (of course!) and the arguments are that it gives too much power to the Insurance Commissioner. Well, we do want some regulation of health rates. As the Mercury News argues, we have regulation of car insurance in California, and that works well, so why not regulation of health insurance rates as well? If the insurance commissioner takes decisions that benefit companies instead of consumers we just elect him/her out.

Proposition 46 – Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Cap and Drug Testing of Doctors Initiative: VOTE NO

This measure was developed after 2 children were killed by a driver under the influence of alcohol and abused prescription drugs. It would mandate random drug testing of doctors, and increase the cap on damages for medical malpractice from 200,000 to 1,000,000 dollars. It would also make doctors use a tracking system to make sure a patient is not getting multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors.

I am quite conflicted about this. I initially thought that the damages would make malpractice premiums go up and was opposed to the bill on those grounds, but turn out that the cap was set in the 1970s, and if it was pegged to inflation, it would be around $1.1 million by now so that’s fair enough. The use of the tracking system also makes sense. But the random drug testing of doctors begs the question, do we have that little faith in our doctors? Mine have been routinely competent and hard-working and I suspect most of you would feel the same way. There’s something really icky about subjecting doctors to that kind of treatment. I would have to vote no based on that. Why not write a clean bill just raising the malpractice damages to factor in inflation and fix the tracking of prescription drugs?

Proposition 47 – Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative: VOTE YES

Finally a no-brainer! This measure would reduce the punishment for non-serious, non-violent crimes form a felony to a misdemeanor. It would also permit re-sentencing for anyone currently serving a prison sentence for any of the offenses that the initiative reduces to misdemeanors, hopefully clearing our jails of people who don’t deserve to be there. There are adequate precautions for people who have been convicted of more serious crimes before.

Proposition 48 – the Referendum on Indian Gaming Compacts: VOTE NO

In 2005, a Native American tribe approached the governor to build a casino offsite from its tribal reservation. This was approved by the legislature by way of AB 277. This measure, Proposition 48, asks the public to ratify that compact. In short, if you vote yes, the approval will go ahead for a casino to be built outside the tribal reservation. If you vote no, it will not.

I guess which side you take depends on whether you like having lots of casinos in the state of California. If you think casinos are good (or harmless, at any rate), vote yes. If you believe this sets a dangerous precedent of tribes being allowed to build casinos outside of their reservation (which it does) and lots of new casinos are not a good thing, vote no. I know what I am picking.

Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya – Lacking a Core

Humpty_Sharma_Ki_Dulhania_PosterI blame Farah Khan. After the huge success of Main Hoon Na filmmakers realized that they could just slap a coat of fresh paint on old Bollywood hits, add a tribute scene or two, repackage the tried and tested formula with some contemporary flavor and thrust it on unsuspecting audiences too young to remember the original.

Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya makes no bones about the fact that it is a DDLJ remake. The opening credits show the tapori hero Humpty Sharma unashamedly crying to the final train scene from the original movie. To this hackneyed plot are added updates that are supposed to represent modernity, namely,
– Hero with a funny name (Barfi, Bunny, Humpty)
– Heroine who smokes, drinks, and swears (Tanu Weds Manu, Shuddh Desi Romance)
– Guilt-free premarital sex
– Sympathetic family
– 2 sidekicks for the hero (young unknowns who have replaced the comic relief characters Johnny Lever etc. used to play)
– Loose, street banter
– Side plot where everybody demonstrates how cool they are with someone being gay by making jokes about homosexuality.

DDLJ was a complete romantic fantasy, but it was Aditya Chopra’s own fantasy, so the movie still had some authenticity despite the caricatured characters and unrealistic plot. HSKD is based on someone else’s fantasy, so the characters, their motivations, their environment are twice removed from reality. It is as if the writers of HSKD lived in a film set their whole lives where they experienced nothing except other Bollywood movies.

Each character is a pastiche of many other Bollywood screen entities and this leads to characters behaving in schizophrenic ways. Ashutosh Rana as the heroine’s father swings wildly between an Anupam Kher-like sympathetic figure and an Amrish Puri tyrant. Alia Bhat channels a firebrand Kajol from DDLJ, a demure Rani from KKHH, and a no-holds-barred Kangana from Tanu Weds Manu, sometimes in the same scene. Varun Dhawan as the titular Humpty tries very hard to create a personality for himself, but his slack-jawed dialogue delivery does no justice to his character, who is a blend of Aamir from Rangeela, Shahrukh from DDLJ and Saif from, well, any Saif movie.

Even the scenes are cut/pasted from other movies. This leads to very jarring juxtapositions. The heroine comes from a fairly conservative family but they seem to be okay with her spending the night with strangers. She and the hero impulsively have sex one night, most likely the first time for her, but the next day she seems cool with it, something her upbringing, as shown in the movie, does not support. The heroine’s father, despite having serious objections to Humpty, agrees to let him stay in his house for five days when the lovebirds koochy-coo every night and exhibit PDAs every day.

It doesn’t help that the music sucks. Music has saved many a bad movie from disaster (I Hate Luv Storys comes to mind) but in this case the soundtrack is a generic 3-wedding-songs, 1-tragic-song package that does nothing except provide bathroom breaks.

The leads are nice looking, especially Alia Bhatt who is bursting with health and vitality but, in the hands of inexperienced director Shashank Khaitan, both she and Varun Dhawan (David Dhawan’s son) just wing it through the movie. Dhawan, in particular, has his mouth open all the time and looks like he is just about to drool. It is an ultra-relaxed style of emoting that is popular these days, but what inexperienced actors don’t realize that it takes a lot of effort to look natural. For pointers I would direct them to Kangana in Queen, who achieved that effortless style after working hard at it in several movies earlier.

Unfortunately these kind of movies have been successful and, judging by the reaction in yesterday’s screening, the audience liked the movie just fine. In a summer drought of light-hearted time-pass fare, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya is a drop of recycled water, not tasty, but relieving thirst all the same.