Getting to Dhaka

Kolkata, INDIA

India is also getting networked as never before. But that seems to be mainly for the middle classes. Some musings en route to Dhaka for the APC Asia ICT Policy Meet, to be held in mid-April 2006 at the Bangladeshi capital.
It was very much of a touch-and-go kind of event. But late last night, the visa to Dhaka finally arrived in my hands, and I was largely to blame for the delays and misunderstandings.

In our part of the world, visa games are nothing new. India and Pakistan are particularly -- and unproductively, in my view -- distrustful of one another. So, South Asian meets can usually happen in Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bangladesh. Social turmoil in parts of the region sometimes (often?) unfortunately makes that difficult too.

In the case of getting a visa to Dhaka, it was a delay (on my part) in applying for it, compounded with a communication gap that compounded the problem. There was a string of holidays just as the deadline came close.

Five days back, there was this message that the High Commissioner's office wanted to talk to me. A few phone call later things became clear. Thank goodness for more affordable phone rates within India... in my younger days, you had to queue for hours just to make a long-distance call. It transpired that my invite-letter had gone to the Kolkata (Calcutta) visa section, and my passport had been sent to Delhi.

In this part of the globe, nothing works like 'pehechan'. It basically means the friend-of-a-friend syndrome. When I was duly introduced, the press minister at Delhi was very helpful. "Welcome to Bangladesh," he told me on the phone, with much courtesy. But there was still this issue of whether the travel agent would be able to get the passport in on time, and send the visa back from Delhi to Goa (a little under 2000 kms almost) via Mumbai or Bombay (600 kms from Goa)!

It did happen. Thanks in large part to a friendly and efficient travel agent back in my home state, the smallest province (or state) of India. This former Portuguese colony of 451 years is located on the west coast and is currently known better as a holiday destination and less for its sense of efficiency.

Anyway, they kids were all geared up for their summer holidays' break with their grandmum in Mumbai or Bombay, and had been counting the days in anticipation.

So off we went.

Riza ("I say I'm seven, because I don't know to write seven-and-half") and Aren (his favourite curse words, hopefully at the end of his Terrible Two's are "Stupid Donkey") jumped onto the Mandovi Express at 11 am on Monday, April 17. Getting reservations in this summer holiday season (when the Indian middle class travels) can be a struggle. But fighting the visa uncertainity and a high fever that Aren developed on Easter eve (brought on by a throat infection), we were on rails.

The train was comfortable; just that the kids were a bit too keyed up, and didn't allow Pamela to get any sleep. I got a little. Ten-and-half hours later, the train chugged into Dadar in Mumbai (formerly Bombay, the overgrown city that the Portuguese handed over to the British as 'dowry'). Joce, Pamela's brother and the kids' favourite uncle, was at the station.

We fought seemingly incessant traffic jams to get home. Just before reaching home, we negotiated with Vishnu, a local three-wheeler rickshaw-driver, that we would ring his mobile (at an unearthly hour of 3.30 am) and he would drop this blogger to the station for the equivalent of US$4. It's terrible to disturb a guy's sleep half-way through the night. But the promise was kept, and here I am.

After half-an-hour's nap, we set off. On the strees of Bombay ("the city which never sleeps"), the contrasts of India were all the more visible.

At two or three stretches of the road, heavy equipment did road-digging and other work, as the second-most populous country hopes to keep its date with becoming a "developed" region (whatever that is supposted to mean... and never mind what happens to the planet when Indians and Chinese efficiently start consuming like Western Europeans, if at all we can...) sometime in the long-distance future. Side-by-side, the homeless slept on the hazy roadside, on narrow dividers along the road. A man brushed his teeth vigorously on the roadside, as he apparently got ready for his pre-dawn tryst with work.

India is also getting networked as never before. But that seems to be mainly for the middle classes.

Just a little earlier, around mid-night, I walked to the ATM -- check the links for rural ATMs in India here -- and withdrew some rupees. Booking tickets, from any station to any station in India, is very easy with the computerised booking system. That is, apart from often-long queues and a shortage of tickets. Today, you can manage to phone half-way across this large country for cheap. Two brief "don't worry" phone calls made over a distance 2187 kms away cost the equivalent of 25 cents US. If the rickshaw driver doesn't have a mobile phone, his brother has one.

But is the average citizen benefitting? Maybe, only in an incidental way....

Thanks to technology, I sit keying in these musings in the airport at href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolkata"> Kolkata (formerly Calcutta, a city of 13 million, close to the border with Bangladesh and the world's largest mangrove forest. Wikipedia says: "The first human settlement of the area around Kolkata dates to more than two millennia ago. The city was the centre of power of the British Indian Empire, serving as the capital of British India till 1911."

This is thanks to Sify.com, a major ISP ( GenderIT.org. ">internet

service provider) that gives you a renewable card for 50 cents, and then allows you to access the Net from literally hundreds of cybercafes across India.

In a price-sensitive country, where the majority grows up carefully not wanting to waste its money (and frugality was a virtue till not very long ago), accessing broadband in a cybercafe costs the equivalent of 50 cents per hour. Even in an international airport!

If you're part of the educated, travelling section (still excludes many hundred millions) this is fine. But we have a long, long way to go before such technologies touch the life of the common(wo)man....


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