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October 15, 2011

Nandan Nilekani

Good profile here.

December 3, 2006

From the NPR archives

- A really nice interview that Terry Gross conducted with Kiran Desai and Anita Desai; it aired in Fresh Air on November 20th.

- Another Fresh Air interview with Jhumpa Lahiri from Sept 2003

- A surprisingly good Amitabh Bachchan interview that aired in April 2005

December 12, 2005

The highway

Amy Waldman wrote a brilliant series of 4 essays on the changing social and economic conditions in India. The series is anchored around the subject of the national superhighway ('Golden Quadrilateral') that India has been building. These are very well-written and well-researched.

Here are the individual links to the essays (courtsy Aaron Swartz) in case the series eventually goes behind the TimesSelect wall.

Mile by Mile, India Paves a Smoother Road to Its Future
In Today's India, Status Comes With Four Wheels
On India's Roads, Cargo and a Deadly Passenger
All Roads Lead to Cities, Transforming India

Here is the Q&A with Amy Waldman.

November 11, 2005

Of all India's failures, lousy infrastructure may be the most puzzling. The nation's highway network stretches just 124,000 miles, compared with 870,000 miles in China. Most of them are simple two-lane affairs, maintained badly if at all. In 1999 the government launched a national program that will build another 28,000 miles of highways at a cost of $38 billion. The first phase calls for construction of a Golden Quadrilateral highway linking India's four largest cities. It's not enough. Morgan Stanley estimates. India is spending only about $2.5 billion a year building roads, while China is spending $25 billion a year. For goods sent by rail, freight costs are twice the average of other developed countries' and three times those in China. At India's ports, shipments often languish for days waiting for customs clearance and loading berths; goods typically take six to 12 weeks to reach the U.S., compared with two or three weeks for goods from China. Electric power in India costs twice as much as in China: Public utilities sock it to industrial producers to make up for the power they give away to farmers and the urban poor. The national grid is so bad that as much as 40% of the electricity generated is simply lost in transmission.

The result is that firms in India pay far more than rivals in China to produce, distribute, and export their products. Consider the plight of Bharat Forge, India's most successful auto-parts supplier. Bharat has the world's largest single-site forging facility. Over the past five years the company has become a trusted supplier of crankshafts, axle beams, and steering knuckles to top-tier clients such as Toyota, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler. Exports account for 40% of sales. But Bharat is located in Pune, an industrial city 75 miles from Mumbai. CEO Baba Kalyani says that, based solely on distance, his trucks should be able to travel to Mumbai's port and back two times each day. Instead, even with the recent completion of a new highway linking the two cities, a roundtrip typically takes three days. Kalyani figures infrastructure-related delays at the port put him at a 17% cost disadvantage relative to overseas competitors.

From India on the Move, Fortune, Nov 4

May 2, 2005

Ranjana Gaur runs 'Social Action Research Centre' (SARC). SARC tries to fights child sexual abuse in Varanasi. I have some ideas about Varanasi and can imagine how hard it must be to even the raise the subject in that city. It is entirely an uphill battle.

She was recently awarded Perdita Huston human rights award.

Outlook says that you can contact her at SARC, 147 Vindhyavasini Colony, Ardeli Bazar, Varanasi, UP. Tel: 09415225665 / 0542-3097521. Someone should try to set her up with a website and a donation page!

February 16, 2005

Nepal

A lifetime ago, as a third year engineering student, I spent some time travelling through Rajgir, Nalanda and Kathmandu. I bicycled around the Kathmandu valley until I ran out of money. On the bus journey to Kathmandu, I had my first taste of Himalayan foothills.

That trip shaped my perception of travel. Unknowingly, I had bought into Warner Herzog's declaration, "Walking is virtue, tourism deadly sin."

A few years back, on a whim, I took a flight to Kathmandu from Calcutta and (to cut a long story short) after two days, landed in Jomsom, in a tiny airstrip squeezed next to a mountain. Next morning, my flight back to Pokhara was cancelled due to inclement weather. It was cancelled the morning after too. And the morning after that.

if life were a fairy tale, I would had been thrilled to be stranded in the sub-Tibetan plateau. But instead, along with a German logistics manager from Singapore equally desperate to get back, I started a long march back to Pokhara. We made it in 4 days (or was it 5?, I forgot). My friend's porter was furious. Our feet were swollen and full of blisters.

But I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I had to walk back to Pokhara. One of the things that I want to do again in life is to do the entire Annapurna circuit. I wanna do it properly. I keep trying to talk my wife into it.

But it may be a very long time before we can take such a trip. The news coming out of Nepal over the last few weeks has been deeply troubling. In a recent editorial, Financial Times said that Nepal has had one of the highest numbers of 'disappearances' in the past year.

Earlier this month, Nepal's king Gyanendra sacked the elected government and assumed power himself. The Nepalese people have been offering both overt and covert resistance (via Acorn). But in the short term, I am not hugely upbeat about the prospect - either of Nepali politicians to regain power or of the King's ability to fight back the Maoists. Nepal seems likely to start a descend into the kind of violence that Peru went through with 'Shining Path'. In fact, last year a BBC story claimed that the Maoists may had been inspired by the Shining Path rebels. The terrain and the economic conditions are certainly similar.

Neither Nepal's trouble with democracy, nor its Maoist problems can be resolved without genuine support from its two big neightbours. Unfortunately, Gyanendra seems to have reached some sort of a quid pro quo with China (via Acorn). India seems to be struggling to find the right tone (for once I can't crib about our policy makers. The situation does call for hand wringing).

From my short trips to Nepal, I took away an impression of subterranean resentment towards India - I do not know if this is for real, but it is certainly reflected in a slightly condescending attitude towards the Nepalese among many in our country.

All through the hike down to Pokhara, I had seen (literally) hundreds of European, Israeli and a handful of American backpackers. Ghorapani - with one of the most spectacular views of the Himalayas that I have ever seen in my life- felt like an European tourist town with Nepalese innkeepers. But I did not meet another Indian. This can partly be explained by the higher cost of hiking in Nepal Himalayas. But I suspect that that we are also remarkably incurious about our next door neighbours ....

CNN has a timeline of Nepal's turbulent history.

By far, the best place to keep up with news from Nepal (or for that matter for any news on South Asian politics and foreign policy) is Acorn. I believe in a less mascular role for Indian foreign policy establishment than Nitin appears to, but I find his commentary on the South Asian affairs incredibly rich in both content and insight.

February 7, 2005

Stray thoughts on building sustainable advantages in IT

- McKinsey Quarterly recently published a report (unavailable without priced membership) about the comparative advantages in IT industry for India and China. The report concluded that Indian IT industry's economy of scale, established ladership and business practices provides India with powerful advantages. Chinese IT industry - because of its highly fragmented nature - would take a long time to catch up. It seems to have gotten wide coverage in Indian media.

- I recently read news coverage of an interview with Narayan Murthy (Infosys Chairman) in which he talked about the infrastructure burdens of the cities (power, roads, water, transportation) and how these are limiting the growth of IT industry in India (I lost the link).

-International Herald Tribune has a story about how Wipro is trying to widen its talent pool:

" By hiring Prity Tewary, Wipro, India's third-biggest software exporter, may have found the key to expanding the engineering talent pool that Indian universities produce in a year .... She and 1,100 others, many of them plain vanilla science graduates, are studying for a four-year master of science degree in software, telecommunications and microelectronics on Saturdays. Wipro is paying their tuition, providing them with classroom resources on its sprawling, university-type campuses, and giving them stipends that start at 6,000 rupees, or $137, a month. In turn, the student-workers are helping the company go beyond the limited universe of 184,000 fresh engineers available for hiring as programmers each year.

"We build our own engineers," says S.K. Bhagavan, who oversees Wipro's in-house "talent transformation" team of 70 faculty members. In a year, Bhagavan's team conducts 150,000 hours of training, and that includes coaching in "soft skills" needed by a work force that interacts with clients globally.

... At an aggregate level too, India needs to convert more of its generalist scientific talent into software professionals to sustain the industry's competitiveness. Of a total population of 7.7 million science and technology professionals in 2000, about half, or 3.8 million, were science graduates. Only 970,000 were graduate engineers, according to an estimate by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research in New Delhi. While India does need more science doctorates to carry out research, it doesn't need more unemployed physics graduates.

Seven out of 10 employees hired in the last three years by Infosys Technologies, Wipro's slightly bigger competitor by market value, were fresh graduates. In order to raise the quality of the talent it hires, the Bangalore-based company has released some of the course material it uses to train employees to universities under a $2 million "Campus Connect" initiative."

- Joel Spolski gave some interesting advise to computer Science graduates in USA a few weeks back (via Kingshuk). They are as applicable for Indian developers:

Would Linux have succeeded if Linus Torvalds hadn't evangelized it? As brilliant a hacker as he is, it was Linus's ability to convey his ideas in written English via email and mailing lists that made Linux attract a worldwide brigade of volunteers.

Have you heard of the latest fad, Extreme Programming? Well, without getting into what I think about XP, the reason you've heard of it is because it is being promoted by people who are very gifted writers and speakers.

Even on the small scale, when you look at any programming organization, the programmers with the most power and influence are the ones who can write and speak in English clearly, convincingly, and comfortably. Also it helps to be tall, but you can't do anything about that.

February 5, 2005

Catering to the BPOs in India .....

According to Nasscom, India has around 8.13 lakh IT professionals , which amount to at least 8.13 lakh meals per day. Taking Rs 30 as the minimum cost of a thali, you can earn a mouth-watering Rs 244 lakh per day!

With many BPOs serving two square meals a day, 8.13 lakh meals is a much discounted figure. The delectable dal makhani and palatable paneer can earn you lakhs. Those who smelled this inviting opportunity early on are now earning big money.

Here is the whole story

December 28, 2004

South East Asia Earthquake and Psunami weblog is regularly updating its list of volunteer organizations and charities supporting Tsunami victims and seems to have the most complete list. It is also a clearinghouse for information on resources, aids, donations and helplines for Tsunami victims

New York Times has a comprehensive list of agencies in USA that are providing assistance to the Tsunami victims and are accepting contribution. Washington Post has a slightly different list of agencies to which one can donate money or supplies. The Post said that most groups are recommending donation of money (wherever possible).

December 26, 2004

Charities offering relief to countries affected by the Tsunami

There really isnt much to say.

I have listed below some of the aid agencies that are rushing men, material and resources to South and East Asia in support of the quake relief efforts.

Please Do consider giving.

Doctors Without Border

Medecins Sans Frontieres will be sending a charter to Indonasia within 24 hours. They are also sending an assessment team to Indian, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Burma. I think very highly of MSF.

you can donate to MSF through this page.

Prime Minister's relief fund in India

Dr Manmohan Singh asked for donations to his National Relief Fund to help support the flood-effected people. Obviously, they havent made this easy. This page gives you the account number for sending checks to the relief fund. Mark it to the local Indian Embassy/consulate. If you want to pay through credit card, use this form.

Oxfam

Oxfam is taking donations for its relief efforts in areas affected by Tsunami in South and East Asia. They are active in some of the quake effected areas - specially in Sri Lanka.

You can donate to Oxfam through this page.

Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

I am not huge on Red Cross. But let us face it - they have the best ground operation in South Asia. They already have an extensive operation - helping to evacuate victims. Their site allows you to define where your donation dollars go.

You can send money through this page. For those in India, it is probably easier to send a check to Indian Red Cross.

World Vision

This BBC story said that one third of the dead in the coastal regions are children. World Vision is trying to help. You can donate to them through this page.

CRY is the most well known NGO in India among those that work with children. Their online donation page is here. Although, I havent seen anything yet about what they can do in supporting the relief efforts.

Update: There is a more India specific list of agencies here)

December 15, 2004

A modern fairy tale

A quarter century ago, Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. They found that the artifacts of Kabul museum - 5000 years of Afghan history - had vanished.

For a very long time, people expected the objects to show up on the global black market of art objects. But nothing ever come up. Eventually, the Russians left. The Taliban came to power. They too destroyed or looted what they could lay their hands on. But whatever left the vaults of Kabul museum in the year of 1979 could not be found.

And now the artifacts have been coming back.

About 8 government museum employees made a pact in '79. They stored these objects in small boxes and hid them away in various locations. They promised each others not to open the boxes until and unless all of them were present. The pact held through 25 years of bloody history of Afghanistan. And now the artifacts are coming back - boxes of 2000 year old Bactrian gold jewelry and ornaments, boxes of coins depicting Afghan royalty dating back to 500 BC, ivory plaques from 2000 year old Kushan culture .....

The archaeologist Fredrik T. Hiebert has been taking inventory for the Afghan government. All told, there are 20,400 objects. Less than 100 are still missing. Guy Gugliotta filed the story for Washington Post last month.

If you like cheer up stories, here is another one of how Iraqi engineers revived the marshes that Saddam had drained off to kill the way of life for Marsh Arabs.

December 6, 2004

Worse that Papua New Guinea

At 65%, India has a worse literacy rates than Zambia, Tanzania or Combodia. Because the NUMBER of people in the educated middle classes is so high (as opposed to the percentage of people), our perception of the scope of this problem is skewed.

Kaushik Basu claims that we can't get kids to go to school until we start getting their teachers to take classes regularly. This statement threw me because I had been very fortunate in my teachers in the primary schools (and before you start getting snarky on me let me point out that I went to a government school). Basu says that a recent World Bank - Harvard study concluded that teacher absenteesm in India is 25%. Only Uganda seems to have a worse record (Papua New Guinea does better)

He suggests an interesting approach for resolving this problem in his BBC column.

(Via Suhit Anantula)

December 3, 2004

A lousy tax system

" .... Businesses in Bangalore run their own bus services, contract with private suppliers for drinking water, and install generators to protect themselves from interruptions in electricity supply. The state can't fix the shambles because it is broke. India's government debt exceeds 70% of GDP, so more than half its tax receipts go to paying interest.

But the debt isn't because of excessive spending in the past. India's government expenditures amount to about 15% of GDP, compared to an average of around 40% of GDP in the OECD. Rather, India's financial difficulties stem from a badly designed and administered tax system. Rates and rules for personal and corporate income taxes appear reasonable by international standards. Nonetheless, India's government collects income taxes amounting to only about 3.7% of GDP, about half that in South Korea and the other Asian tigers.

Agriculture in India accounts for about a quarter of GDP, but even wealthy farmers don't pay taxes. Export-oriented companies in the software and other industries enjoy tax holidays on their profits, although their employees do pay taxes on their personal incomes. Despite reasonable rates, tax evasion is widespread. "

From Amar Bhide's article on tax system in India

November 27, 2004

In Light of India

Octavio Paz served twice in the Mexican embassy in India. In 1951 when he was transferred from Paris to Mexico’s newly opened embassy in Delhi - apparently a punishment for his participation in events commemorating of the Spanish civil war the anniversary. He was transferred to Japan soon after.

He was sent back as Mexico’s Ambassador to India eleven years later when he was already well established as a poet. He stayed on until 1969 when he resigned his post in protest against Mexican government’s repression of the student uprising of Oct 1969.

His book - ‘In Light of India’ (written in 1993) is more a collection of essays on India than a memoir of his years there. But it benefits from the anecdotes of his years in India and the insights that he gained during his stay.

Paz has a searing intellect and breathtaking depth of knowledge on comparative literature, religion and history. He uses them to reach interesting and provocative conclusions.

In the concluding two chapters he compared the theological foundation of Eastern religious traditions with that of Judeo-Christian ones.
I do not entirely agree with his conclusions. I always felt that Hindus for a very long time have jived far more with the rituals of religion established at a much later time than with the abstract theological ideas established in the Vedic ages (we probably would have avoided a lot of grief otherwise). But irrespective of wheather you agree with him or not, his discursive journey through the intellectual history of Asia, Europe and native American traditions is a rich and stimulating read.

This is a book of personal impressions, sometimes a little disjointed and shallow, sometimes brilliant - but always engaging. Take for example the following extract:


“The difference between Hindu and Christian asceticism is even more marked than between their eroticism. The key word of Western eroticism – I am referring to the modern West, from the eighteenth century to the present – is violation, which is an affirmation of the moral and psychological order. For Hindus, the key word is pleasure. (Ed: I suppose he is not talking about the contemporary VHP variety) Similarly, in Christian asceticism, the central concept is redemption; In India, it is liberation. These two words encompass opposite ideas of this world and the next, of the body and the soul. Both point towards what has been called the “supreme good”. But there the similarity ends – redemption and liberation are paths that lead from the same point- the wretched condition of man – in opposite directions. ….

The origin of the Christian cult of chastity is not in the Bible but in Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism. Nature and the body are not condemned in Genesis or the other books of the Old Testament. …… Christianity probably would not have adopted Plato’s pessimistic vision had it not been for two ideas that, although they do not appear in Greco-Roman tradition, are the true sources of Christian attitude toward the body: the belief in a unique God, creator of the universe, and the notion of Original Sin. These two ideas are the spinal column of Judaism and Christianity, and the point of convergence of the two. In the story in Genesis, God makes man from the primordial mud, and his companion from one of his ribs. A material creation, like that of a sculptor with wood or stone. Adam is made of mud, and Even is “bone of (his) bones and flesh of (his) flesh.”. The first divine mandate is to be fruitful and to multiply.

In Eden there are two trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The fruit of the first is the food of immortality, and while Adam and Even live in the Lord’s garden they will not know death. As for the other tree God expressly forbids them to eat its fruit. …. Adam and Even ate the fruit and God expelled them from Eden. Their failure was disobedience. But the root of that failure is something infinitely more serious: they preferred themselves. Their sin was not loving God, their creator, but instead loving themselves and wanting to be gods. …. Within this conception is a condemnation of the love of the body. The Platonic condemnation of the body was made to reinforce the notion of Original Sin: the shameful preference of the creature for itself. The true idol of mankind is man himself.

…..From the Hindu perspective, the story in Genesis is meaningless. Apart from certain incoherencies in the narrative, there is an idea that is difficult for Hindu tradition to accept: the notion of a creator God. … In general, the Hindu sacred books say that the universe is the result of the working of mysterious and impersonal laws. From the Vedic era on, religious thoughts knew a unifying principle, which the Upanishads called Brahman, the being of man. Yet they never inferred from this principle the existence of a God who was the creator of this world and of men. That which is divine, not a divinity, is the creative force and the matrix of the universe. The idea of the Original Sin, the consequences of the first disobedience, in which the shameful love of man for himself and his indifference to the Other and to the others is incomprehensible to Indian tradition. The universe was not created, and thus there is no Lord, no command, and no disobedience."

(Click below for the rest ...)

Continue reading "In Light of India" »

November 22, 2004

India and China

In next month's New York Review of Books, Amartya Sen talks about the exchange of ideas between ancient Indian and Chinese civilizations (Via Another Subcontinent)

November 16, 2004

A weak dollar and the IT industry in India

backgrounder in NYT about the impacts of the falling dollar :


"...There are at least three schools of thought on whether a dollar collapse is likely and, if it happens, what it would mean.

One group, which includes the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, contends that ...the dollar may well decline in value,.. but the decline would be gradual and would help reduce American trade imbalances by making exports cheaper and imports more expensive. The Bush administration goes one step further, arguing that America's huge foreign debt simply reflects the eagerness of others to invest here....(Ed: Dr DeLong demolished the treasury department argument in this post).

A second school of thought holds that foreign governments like China and Japan will continue to finance American borrowing and keep the dollar strong because they are determined to sustain their exports and create jobs.

But a third school, which includes officials at the International Monetary Fund, worries about a collapse in the dollar that would send shock waves through the global economy. ..... That group argues that the dollar needs to depreciate another 20 percent against the other major currencies but warns about a run on the dollar that could reduce its value by 40 percent.

A collapse of that size would severely affect Europe and Asia, which ave relied heavily on exports to the United States for their growth. steep drop in the dollar could lead to higher interest rates for the federal government and American private borrowers, as foreign investors demanded higher returns to compensate for higher risk. And it could expose hidden weaknesses among financial institutions and hedge funds caught unprepared.

"There is a school of thought that the U.S. can keep borrowing forever," said Kenneth S. Rogoff, professor of economics at Harvard University and a former chief economist at the I.M.F. "But if you add up all the excess saving being thrown out by the surplus countries, from China to Germany, the United States is soaking up three-quarters of it right now."...

For Mr. Rogoff and several other economists, the question is not whether the dollar declines - but how fast and how far the fall turns out to be."

What does it mean for India?

Bad things obviously. We are sitting on the biggest reserve of US$ in our history. I read a few news stories that suggested that Chadambaram is looking to invest them in infrastructrue projects. (I wish we would use it to pay off part of our debt!)

The IT Industry is probably slightly better prepared for the short term. The big three have long since recognized that future holds a stronger Rupee. They may be able to buy themselves some protection fo the immediate future, . But in long run, it would obviously impact their revenue stream adversely - about half of India's IT revenues come from USA.

Unfortunately, this is happening at a time when the effects of rising staff cost are also being felt. The bigger firms are increasingly looking towards China and elsewhere to bridge the resource gap. (I should note here that right now English speaking Chinese software engineers are more expensive. But Indian salaries should reach parity soon. On the other hand, the churn rate in China is lower. They also have a larger pool of untapped IT personnel). Add to this, increasing commoditization of many sortware support / maintenance activities.

IT sector in India is staring at serious margin erosion. I think we are looking at a shake up in the industry in the next two to three years. Obviously like all such naval gazing, this could be way off base.

This article in Outlook looked at a different set of parameters and reached similar conclusions.

November 9, 2004

Section 377 stands

The Delhi High court, in its infinite wisdom, decided to maintain that homosexuality is illegal.

Meanwhile, AIDS in India is slowly gaining crisis proportions. Here is another article from 'Foreign Affairs' that I had flogged here earlier (PS: although in retrsopect, I ought to stay away from pointing to any AEI research)

November 6, 2004

Bollywood and Hollywood

Check out Tyler Cowen's provocative twin posts on Mrs Gandhi and the irrationality of the Indian Voter. I have very different views on the Indian voter, But I would get to that later.

But let me direct you to his more interesting remarks on Bollywood.

From what I see around me, there seems to be two largely distinct and seperate audiences. The urban, English speaking population that likes Hollywood films is not much into mainstream Bollywood films (And of course I am excluding parallel/art films from my definition of Bollywood). Likewise, the mainstream Hindi film consumers in India watch very few American films. There is certainly a subset of the audience that watch a lot of both (and cable has increased this audience substantially), but I do not think that it is still a significantly large number)

There is also very little distribution for good English movies outside the metros. Only soft-porn and action blockbusters usually get into the smaller cities. (Again, cable tends to short circuit these easy assumptions)

Can it change? Of course it can. I feel ambivalent about (what I think of as) cultural exports to and from India. I wrote a longish post on this here. My views have not changed substantially since then.

A few additional points to what I said there:

1) Bollywood has a vast consumer base outside of India in Central Asia, Middle East (including Iraq!) and China. We have done a terrible job of exploiting that.

2) I always thought that Bollywood films tend to reflect existent social mores more than they shape social mores. As a high school student, I enjoyed reading Pritish Nandy's back page commentary in the 'Illustrated Weekly'. He used to make the same point very well. (although he is now producing duds as a producer of Hindi films)

Over the last few years, Bollywood films have been becoming more open and secular in their treatment of sexuality. It is possible that they only cater to metropolitan India and to the broader diaspora living abroad that has more far purchasing power than it did a decade back.

3) I am not very familar with films coming out of the South. It doesnt sound like I am missing out much (obviously, there are always exceptions like Adoor Gopalakrishnan). Similarly, there are exceptions in Bengal too. But mostly, watching new Bengali films these days is torture.

I think the really interesting stuff is happening in the realm of low budget films made in English. The current generation of art filmmakers in India often think in English. Unlike the previous generation which grew up under the shadow of colonialism, they are far more comfortable with the idea of creating in English language. Unfortunately, by doing so they are giving up on a large audience.

Ram Guha

Indian historian Ramachandra Guha was on his way to UC Berkeley and Oberlin to give a series of lectures. He was turned back from Toronto airport.

Guha also writes for the consumer magazines. Essays he wrote for Outlook magazine are available through this page (registration needed). I quite liked 'The absent Liberal' and 'The ones who stayed behind'.

October 11, 2004

Random Links

John Lancaster has a good story in Washington Post about Sudhir Kakar's new book on Gandhi's relationship with Madeleine Slade (Mira). Here is a review in Outlook by Mark Tully

Upbeat story in Wired about innovation in India .
A little condescending, but well written article in Slate on e-voting in India as compared to US initiatives
Depressing column by Tavleen Singh on income tax department's newfound right to attach property in India.

September 27, 2004

In a very timely post on the frightening ability of Americans to sometimes completely delude themselves, Prashant noted the passing of Arthur Blood - dissenting diplomat and then US consul general in East Bengal - who protested the Nixon administration's complicity in the Pakistani crackdown in (what is now) Bangladesh in which as many as 3 million civilans may had died.

The complete cable that Blood sent in protest, alongwith all other US government documents related to the Bangladesh war are now declassified and are available here.

September 5, 2004

Secularism: The debate degenerates

Regular readers may remember an older post on the debate sparked by the very public exchange of words between Ashish Nandy and Sanjay Subramanium on secularism in India. Subramanyam has since then responded to Amit Chaudhuri's rejoinder in The Telegraph.

An interesting new weblog called Locana provided a good overview of the conversation so far and the blogosphere's reaction to it.

Locana feels that Subramanyam has made his point well. (In that, he agrees with Amardeep Singh, who too felt the same, although he has a few significant caveats of his own in his post).

My views on Subramanyam and his debating tactics are closer to Chaudhuri's which he expressed in a later article (you have to use the text box on top of the page to select August 14, 2004 and then click on 'Opinion' using the right hand menu to find the the Chaudhury article). I would like to think that people may be letting their agreement with the position that Subramanyam has staked out (i.e. a defender of secularism) cloud their judgement on the quality of his argument. Subramanyam uses that secure perch to attack a broad range of subject matter ranging from Tagore (as a kid who grew up on Tagore, I found that last unexplained slur rather offensive) on one hand to what he considers colonialism friendly literature on the other.

Since I have not read any of Nandy's books, I would refrain from commenting on the merits of the Subramanium's innuendos (that Nandi is ignorant, repetitive and a closet RSS supporter).

My main problem with Subramanium is his intellectual sleight of hand. Subramanium's uses a variety of logical fallacies - ad hominem attacks, false cause, fallacy of many questions - rather than provide a disciplined argument.

Working in USA, I have seen Bush campaign employ slander very effectively; for the first three long years of their administration they had been very effective in shutting down dissent in USA. That sort of message discipline was originally practiced by the communists.

I lean towards the notion that the last few years of the revisionism and attacks have taken their toll. The secular liberal commentators in India feel under sieze and are in danger of coalescing around monolithic positions from which you stray at your peril. But it is still disquieting to see an Oxford don write a rejoinder in a newspaper so completely lacking in depth and so dripping with jargon and slander. The only charitable explanation that I can come up with is that Mr Subramanyam is a very angry man and his pent up anger and vanity washed out his inclination to engage on ideas.

The first time I read his piece in The Telegraph, I almost laughed and agreed with this headline. But rereading it now, I feel rattled enough to try to write something up and see if I can peddle it somewhere.

August 11, 2004

The Elephant Paradigm by Gurcharan Das

Last week I finished reading "The Elephant Paradigm" - an extended essay about contemporary India' struggle with change and economic liberalization.

Das is an unrepentant social liberal and a champion of free trade. For those familiar with current thinking on trade and globalization, some of what he says may seem to tread over well-worn grounds. Some of the stuff sounds a little breathless too. But the book is still a very good read for anyone interested in India. He is incredibly well read, has a refreshing intellectual honesty and is not afraid to champion unpopular or unconventional opinions. At his heart, Das seems to be a liberterian, but one with deep humanitarian instincts.

I did not always agree with him. But I found myself surprisingly engaged by the book.

The book is primarily concerned with the economic and social liberalizations of the nineties and their impact on our private and public lives. In the last few chapters, Das charts out a broad agenda that he feels that India should follow if it is to pull its people out of grinding poverty and illiteracy. He covers a lot of ground and as a result the book lacks in depth. But scattered throughout the book is a lot of food for thought for anyone who frets about India.

Unfortunately, it is not available through Amazon.

August 4, 2004

Talking about secularism in India

It started rather innocuously. Nayar gently chided Nandy in Outlook magazine for his increasing scepticism about the Nehruvian consensus:

“"I met Ashis Nandy the other day to find out if the message I got from his writings on secularism was correct. What I understood, I told him, was that he did not believe that secularism was suited to the genius of India. He replied: "You are more or less correct." He's not the only one. In fact, there's a growing breed of intellectuals which has arrived at similar conclusions. They think the secularism agenda has flawed the Indian state right from the beginning. According to some of them, secularism, by virtue of being a western concept, is alien to India. For others, it is anti-religion and, therefore, in contradiction with the bedrock of our society's beliefs. ...."

Nandi responded here :

" Secularism is not communal amity; it is only one way of achieving such amity. As an ideology, it is not even 300 years old. Yet, despite the consistent failure of secularism to contain the growth of both Hindu nationalism and Islamic, Jewish and Christian fundamentalism in recent years—both in India and elsewhere in the world—only a few seem to have the courage to look beyond it. ....

Nayar, whom I have given company in many battles—including some he would call secular—has got me entirely wrong. Actually, my criticism of secularism is an aggressive reaffirmation of these proto-Gandhian traditions and a search for post-secular forms of politics more in touch with the needs of a democratic polity in South Asia. "

This rattled Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Professor of Indian History and Culture at Oxford University. The good professor wrote.

"The essay by Ashis Nandy, A Billion Gandhis (June 21), demonstrates once more that this celebrated Indian psychologist and maverick thinker is exactly as dazzlingly clever as he is tiresomely repetitive and profoundly ill-informed"

I felt that Subramanian's essay made uncalled for personal attacks (of course his comments about the Bengal Renaissance also stung, but for all I know that could have been the intent! )

Anyway, after many letters (including one from Subramanyam that seemed more honest than his earlier op-ed) and silence from Ashish Nandi, Amit Choudhury penned a two part commentary in The Telegraph, reproduced in The Outlook:

"Why is secularism at once a serious responsibility, a crucial ideal, and, not infrequently, a hollow piety among our middle classes? It’s because our middle classes, after Independence, did not emphasize the need for transparency and accountability in its own public and private practices, and the importance of equality as a realizable ideal, as much as it has emphasized secularism; it’s when those who speak of secularism are also seen to benefit from, and perpetuate, their own advantages as members of an educated elite that it — secularism — begins to sound like a hollow moral dogma.

Our educated elite may, at least in substantial part, be secular, but it is also deeply hierarchical, both in its internal composition and in relation to those who don’t belong to it. You cannot blame the waning of secularism on the fanatic alone — it cannot flourish in a climate that has been so increasingly inimical to egalitarian impulses, a climate in which the "enlightened" classes are so reluctant to acknowledge their own complicity in pursuing a path of self-promotion and self-interest through nepotism and compromise."

It is a hugely well written rejoinder.

(Links stolen from Kitabkhana)

February 19, 2004

Greetings from Varanasi

I sent Edward a mail from here which he has now posted in Bonoboland. Check it out. This is also posted it below. But you ought to check out the new look Bonoboland. I think Edward has managed to get some of the smartest minds on the blogosphere writing there with him.

Continue reading "Greetings from Varanasi" »

November 5, 2003

Memoirs of Iranian women

Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis made waves in Europe. The English translations seem well received in USA too:

Here is the Guardian profile
The Time story
And the NYT review.

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is another memoir out of Iran that sounds interesting. Atlantic Monthly has an interview with Nafisi here. The Guardian story is also nice.

'The Storyteller's Daughter' by Saira Shah got reviewed in NYT recently and does sound like something I would like to lay my hands on (via Oxblog). I dont think there has been an insider's perspective (well, it is not quite that, but at least she has an Afghan ancestry) on Afghanistan in English language for quite some time. A very long time back, I read Syeed Mujtaba Ali's travelogue of Afghanistan in Bengali (I also talked about it here). Ali was in Kabul in the thirties right before a coup, during a time when coups in Afghanistan used to be family affairs. This was in the thirties, set approximate around the same time as Byron's celebrated travel history Road to Oxiana. It is extremely well written, but unfortunately not available in English.

Anyway, I don't think these women are representative of either the education or the freedom that is available to most Muslim women in Middle Eastern or Central Asian countries. They mostly come from the educated, city-based upper middle class families that have always been more Westernized, more liberal than the traditionalist rural folks in Asia. But they do go a long way towards demolishing the image of Muslim women that the Mullahs have been trying so hard to project.

October 20, 2003

The regional economies

Amy Wildman has a very positive story on Indian economy in today’s NYT. I have always enjoyed her coverage of South Asia. In this article, she captured the dichotomy of economic development in India very well:

“Much of India is still mired in poverty, but just over a decade after the Indian economy began shaking off its statist shackles and opening to the outside world, it is booming. The surge is based on strong industry and agriculture, rising Indian and foreign investment and American-style consumer spending by a growing middle class, including the people under age 25 who now make up half the country's population. After growing just 4.3 percent last year, India's economy, the second fastest growing in the world, after China, is widely expected to grow close to 7 percent this year.

…..India is now the world's fastest growing telecom market ... Banks are now making $15 billion a year in home loans ... The Bombay Stock Exchange's benchmark Sensitive Index has risen by more than 50 percent since April, hitting a three-year high. Foreign exchange reserves are at a record $90 billion… India is slowly making a name not just for software exports and service outsourcing, but also as an exporter of autos, auto parts and motorcycles. ...The seasonal monsoon that ended recently was the best this agriculture-dependent economy has seen in at least five years ..That, in turn, is putting income and credit in rural pockets, spurring a run on consumer goods that will only strengthen when the harvest comes in later this year.


Then she also measures the cons:

“…..Of course, truisms about what holds India back have not disappeared. The shortfalls in infrastructure, particularly power and education, are staggering. Twenty-six percent of Indians still live in poverty, and data suggest inequality is widening even as the poverty rate falls. Overall employment is essentially stagnating.The heavy dependence on agriculture, which still accounts for 25 percent of gross domestic product and 70 percent of employment, means that a bad monsoon, like the one last year, can hobble the economy. The country remains politically dependent on subsidies that have helped swell fiscal deficits that limit growth and investment in education and health. ”
In spite of all the negatives, a story like this, on the NYT homepage, is a big deal. And frankly, this worries me a little. I too think believe that India has an opportunity here that a country rarely gets. But I also think that Vivek Uberoi (who recently joined us in IndiaEconomyWatch) hit the bull's eye when he said on an e-mail to the group:
“There is so much breathless commentry on the Indian economy in the western press these days--which is quite nice. However, India remains a desperately poor country and life for a lot of Indians is still nasty brutish and short. We should not loose sight of these people at IEW.”
I worry that if we are not careful, the growth may accelerate the endemic corruption of Indian institutions and the increasing fragmentation of our politics that is eating away our society. I wonder about the effects that the essentially regional nature of the current IT and BPO boom may have on Indian politics and society.

Obviously, I was reading Kenichi Ohmae. Ohmae is the prophet of the rise of Regional economies. In his last book published quite some time back, He talked about, how in Japan, some regions have been bearing a disproportionate part of national developmental burden in and how this has created huge social dischord.

"….Of the country’s (Japan's) 47 prefectures, 44 are net recipients of government subsidies. The other three – Tokyo, Osaka and Aichi (Nagoya) – pay the rest. ….More than 85% of the nation’s wealth is created in the regions of Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka, Sapporo, and Nagoya. All the others receive more from the central government than they pay in.

.. This arrangement is both reflected in and sustained by the country’s voting patterns. The heart of the LDP’s traditional support came from the rural areas, to which is returned a disproportionate share of the centrally provided subsidies, in the form either of direct grants of money or services or for indirect protection like trade barriers against the import of foreign rice or beef.

… If I live in one of Japan’s three major cities, this arrangement quickly begins to lose its appeal. I may be as reasonable as the next man, but it is hard to see why I should keep footing this kind of bill.”

Yesterday, in his rejoinder in Slate (which is worth reading in its entirety) to David Brook's new column in NYT, Daniel Gross nailed one of the core economic issue underlying the current tumult in USA:

Essentially, the Northeast (for my definition here, I use New England plus New Jersey and New York) subsidizes the federal government to a massive degree. Incomes are far higher in the Northeast—and the equally Democratic West Coast—than they are in other regions. Meanwhile, many other regions—say, the South and the Great Plains—subsist on federal largesse. On a per capita basis, those in the Northeast pay far more taxes and receive far fewer benefits than people in other regions.

On a percentage basis, those with the largest disconnect between the amount they ship to Washington and they amount they receive back are in the Northeast. New Jersey receives only 62 cents back on every dollar shipped to Washington, while Connecticut and New Hampshire receive 65 cents and 66 cents, respectively.

The data flies in the face of received notions about wealth, partisan affiliation, and dependence on the federal government. The five largest recipients of federal largesse in 2002 were all non-Northeast states: New Mexico, North Dakota, Alaska, Mississippi, and West Virginia (four of which went Republican in 2000). The states shortchanged the most were New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Massachusetts—four of five of which are in the Northeast, and four of which voted Democratic in 2000. In fact, when you look at the voting behavior of states—based on 2000 per capita income—11 of the 13 wealthiest states voted for Gore while 15 of the poorest 17 states voted for Bush.


So, two of the biggest economies of the world are still wrestling with the social impact of skewed development. However, the relative homogeneity of people in countries like Japan or USA have so far held the ensuing social dischord in check. India has a lot of things. But one thing we don't have is homogeneity.

I don't think anyone would dispute that right now we are looking at the development of three powerful regional economies in India. In the South, there is what I would call the golden triangle of Bangalore, Madras and Hyderabad. New Delhi and the satellite towns of Gurgaon, Noida and Faridabad in the North and the Bombay-Pune corridor in the West are the two other key hubs that together with the Southern cities form the center of gravity of the IT / BPO / biotech boom in India.

But unlike Japan, India also has the problem of an increasingly fragmented and violent political system. All the Southern states are run by regional parties. The center of gravity of political power resides in the Gangetic valley of Northern India which is largely being bypassed by the technology led economic rejuvination in India. If you consider the fact that the large food and fertilizer subsidies are mostly going to big farmers in Northern India, that the bedrock of caste and religion based politics is in UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, that the basic distrust between the Hindi speaking North and the Dravidian states never really went away, you would probably agree that we are looking at a potentially much bigger social upheaval in India unless we can figure out how to bootstrap the rest of the country.

September 9, 2003

indie movies from India

In the last few years, there has been a spate of low budget Indian English movies. They don't have the polish and sophistication that established directors, expensive sets and pricy cinematographers bring to a movie. But neither do they suffer as much from Bollywoodish melodrama. There were also the sleeper hits of last year from well known Indie directors, Mira Nayar (Monsoon Wedding) and Gurinder Chadha ('Bend it like Beckham'). Both crossed the cultural chasm that plagues movies about South Asian experiences. Incidentally, I recently watched 'Mississipi Masala', a movie made few years earlier by Nayar. I think it is more honest than 'Monsoon Wedding'.

What triggered this particular bout of profundities is reading the reviews of Everybody says I'm fine, the first feature film made by Rahul Bose and 'Where is the party yaar', directed by Benny Mathews ((via Sajit Gandi and Prashant Kothari respectively).

Rahul Bose was a fixture in the Bombay theatre scene. He first came to national prominence through his role in 'English August'. The book was incredible. It came out when we were still in college. We couldn't stop talking about it. The movie was also well made. But it does not have as much charm that the book does. But the gals could not stop talking about Rahul Bose.

Bose also acted in Aparna Sen's 'Mr and Mrs Iyer' opposite Konkana, Sen's daughter. It was released a few months back. Even if you see only one Indian movie this year, I would strongly recommend that you watch this. It has its weaknesses. But it is by far one of the best Indian movies made in the last few years. Most of the dialogue is in English and it is sub titled well.

I also saw Leela ( the reviews here). Leela is more feel-good and mushier. But what is important about Leela is not that it is shallow in resolution, but that it attempts an honest examination of sexuality and cross cultural identity.

Indian economy watch weblog

I have been feeling the need for something like this for a very long time. Thanks to Edward for putting this in place!

August 5, 2003

India and China III

I really wanted to post about Guy Bourdin, but I am not done with it yet. So I would continue where I left off about Indian and Chinese economies.

Those who have read my last two posts (here and here) about India and China probably realize that I am not terribly optimistic about India's prospect of shooting ahead China in terms of economic growth. Neither are most observers. However, Mr. Tarun Khanna, a professor in Harvard Business School and Yasheng Huang, a political science professor in MIT had recently written an article in 'Foreign Policy' magazine that sounded optimistic. It says,

"India has something that China doesn't. "Companies that compete with the best that Europe and China has to offer", such as software company Infosys Technologies Ltd. and pharmaceutical maker Dr. Reddy's Laboratories Ltd. India lacks the physical hardware of a modern economy, but it has more of the software of a modern economy - courts, financial system and the like - than China. Their bottom line: India's homegrown entrepreneurs may give it a long term advantage over a China hamstrung by inefficient banks and capital markets."

For a Wall Street Journal story on August 28 called 'India Could Narrow Its Economic Gap With China' Mr David Wessel hinterviewed Khanna. Khanna claimed:

"China was sold to multinationals to allow it to sidestep entrepreneurs...you could be hardpressed to find a single homegrown Chinese firm that operates on a global scale and markets its own products abroad"
. WSJ noted wrily:
The argument, not surprisingly, is making them very popular in India. Their article has been widely described or reprinted in the Indian press, not always with permission. (Note to India: Intellectual-property rights matter). The Chinese, Mr. khanna hears, are translating it and distributing it discreetly.

..Joydeep Mukherji, who tracks India and China for Standard and Poor in New York, thinks the professors are on to something....He finds that Chinese miracle is less impressive than its press clippings. Shave a bit off the official statistics for exeggeration, China has grown probably 7% a year for the past decade of so. India has grown at 6%. But China as a nation saves about 40% of income and invests that plus what the foreigners invest. India saves about 24% domestically, and draws relatively little foreign investment.

So China to make it simple, is like a business that invests $40 and earns $7 a year. India invests $24 and earns $6 a year ( Ed: This back-of-a-paper-napkin kind of calculation is, to my mind, way too simplistic. But who am I to argue with Standard and Poor?)....

"India gets more bang for its buck". Mr. Mukherjee says. Its banks have less than half as many bad loans as China's. "The bottom line for me: If India can raise its savings and investment rate modestly, then it can raise its growth rate quickly". That "if" ..is an important qualifier. Mr. Huang and Mr. Khanna may yet prove to be lousy forecasters."

In my previous posts on the same subject, I also talked about slavery and its impact on world trade. I noticed that Edward Hughes had also weighed in on the subject in a fascinating e-mail that he sent out sometime back that. It had interesting insights:

"Paul Krugman has asked the interesting question: "why hasn't indentured servitude made a comeback in the modern era". I've a sneaky feeling that his interest in this topic may not be unrelated to the projected 'relative personpower shortage' there will be in the developed world in the coming decades, and thus the potential for shifting relative factor values. My own instincts are that Paul is barking up the wrong tree here if you want to think about the world as we know it ....

The best way to start looking for it might be by going back to the problem of "indentured servitude", and asking why is this not being re-inevted. You see, my response would be to say that it already has. It already has due to the the existence of what is called 'undocumented labour'. This is a strange anomally since it is precisely the absence of documentation which creates the servitude, and the servitude is based on an oral rather than a written contract, enforced either by some fairly nasty looking people, or by the permanent threat of recourse to official judicial procedures. It is a really strange irony this which leads our democratic 'rule of law' to become the infrastructural underpinning for the most extensive abuse of 'wage labour' since the time of feudalism.

I first started thinking about things in this way after a chat with Margy, Bonobo's Sofia-based anthropologist. Regular readers will know we've been having some difficulties with the Bulgarian e-mail filters, and that the problem may relate to our use of the term 'locutorio' or call-centre (this is the place where the illegals send the money home). Now Margy asked me what I knew about Bularia's Tsar (you see how I went straight to Krugman in my head) Simeone. Well the interesting detail is that he spent a good part of his exile in Madrid, his wife is Spanish, as are his four children. Now I don't think I'll make explicit what should be clear implicity, I value my health too much. The second little pearl that I got from Margy was her question: do you have a market in your village? Well I was slow, and didn't understand, I think I was thinking about all those nice Provençal village markets my wife so loves. No, she came back, a slave market. And my mind was suddenly down in Andalusia, in Almeria and El Ejido, with the images of all those migrants waiting on street corners for the 'jefe' to arrive and select the meat he needs for the day. I was born in Liverpool, and can still remember the humiliating rituals associated with casual labour (from Ireland, of course) on the docks. And then I thought of slave-slav, and a very interesting piece by the much under-valued Ronnie Findlay. The point here is that Findlay stresses the importance for the evolution of the European economy of the 'white' slave trade, of Slavs via the Netherlands down to Andalucia and North Africa. And then two little neurones suddenly fired-off together. History in a certain sense is repeating itself, only it's tragedy both times, no comedy here. The indenturing system is in fact the nation state with limited legal right to movement. In parallel with this is an enormous modern 'slaving' system, which officially speaking does not exist (nor is its existence treated in any neo-classical model that I've ever seen).

So whole countries are literally converted into 'people farms'. Remember some countries only have one known source of export earnings: their children. Pakistan and Ecuador immediately come to mind, but there are of course others. In the Philipines the topic is taken so seriously that the ministry of labour has a special department to handle 'migrant labour'. Then there are the new countries from the East, the slav/slaves, or the undocumented Kurds in Syria (they have no legal status at all!). Well you can see where all this goes. Indentured labour has just been re-invented (if it ever died out) and on a massive and unprecedented scale. The consequence: a reduction in the relative price of unskilled labour (and incidentally one more reason why deflation is coming). This labour needs to move freely and legally. It is strange how all our ideologues are strangely quiet on one topic where market mechanisms really could work against vested interests. Wage levels would regulate the movement of free people, and equilibrate an unbalanced world. But as Paul says, oh never mind."

July 1, 2003

India and China II

After having spent yesterday happily slandering China, I wish I could simply extrapolate that argument to their high tech industry. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work.

China today is an economic juggernaut. Unless India invests heavily in infrastructure, very soon they would be playing catch up with Indian services sector including the software industry. And the march that they are stealing on services has nothing to do with cheap labor. The top universities in China are producing first rate engineers pretty much on an assembly line. When you combine that with Chinese work ethic and infrastructural superiority, the only thing that is holding them back is their trouble with the English language. And That is not exactly an insurmountable barrier.

Peter Mcdermott, traveller and programmer, maintains an interesting weblog from Beijing where he works in the IT sector. It gives you a good flavour of the techy life out there.

There is a good story in BusinessWeek about why Indian software companies feel comfortable that they won’t be challenged by China soon. I think it is foolish.

I am too burnt out at the end of the day to write another treatise about China. We'll keep that for the time the Chinese premier makes the return visit to India!

February 2, 2003

The Other face of fanaticism

From Pankaj Mishra's 'The Other Face of Fanaticism':

The Hindu nationalists have presented themselves as reliable allies in the fight against Muslim fundamentalists. But in India their resemblance to the European Fascist movements of the 1930's has never been less than clear. In his manifesto ''We, or Our Nationhood Defined'' (1939), Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, supreme director of the R.S.S. from 1940 to 1973, said that Hindus could ''profit'' from the example of the Nazis, who had manifested ''race pride at its highest'' by purging Germany of the Jews. According to him, India was Hindustan, a land of Hindus where Jews and Parsis were ''guests'' and Muslims and Christians ''invaders.''

It goes on to narrate some of the more ridiculous:

Forty miles out of Nagpur, at a clearing in a teak forest, I came across an R.S.S.-run laboratory devoted to showcasing the multifarious benefits of cow urine. Most of the cows were out grazing, but there were a few calves in a large shed that, according to the lab's supervisor, had been ''rescued'' recently from nearby Muslim butchers. In one room, its whitewashed walls spattered with saffron-hued posters of Lord Rama, devout young Hindus stood before test tubes and beakers full of cow urine, distilling the holy liquid to get rid of the foul-smelling ammonia and make it drinkable. In another room, tribal women in garishly colored saris sat on the floor before a small hill of white powder -- dental powder made from cow urine.

The nearest, and probably unwilling, consumers of the various products made from cow urine were the poor tribal students in the primary school next to the lab, one of 13,000 educational institutions run by Hindu nationalists.

Mishra's previous article on the subject is available here. It was a review of this (pdf file) Human Rights Watch report on Gujarat and is very well written.

While on the subject, the short condemnation penned by Amitav Ghosh is still one of the most powerful indictment on the subject of Gujarat that I have read so far.

January 31, 2003

Lieven's on Bennett's Pakistan book

Check out Anatol Lieven's review of 'Pakistan: Eye of the storm'. I thought Lieven is overly sympathetic to Pakistan's junta and its policies (I cringed when I read "Kargil operation brilliantly executed by the Pakistani Army"), but he did bring up a few excellent points including the fact that Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal alliance won only 11% of the vote in last Oct. and that they could win so much power only because ANP and PPP did not work together.

January 30, 2003

My new write-up in Satya Circle

My new article, Deconstructing Hindu Extremism is up in Satya Circle.

I think as people we do very little self-examination. We tend to avert our eyes from the uncomfortable realities that do not conform to our world view. It is just so much easier to conform and let it all slide away.

An increasing percentage of people in India have an affluent lifestyle in the metros. The money cushions them from the violence and the disparities. Of course, the widespread upheavals that shake the country from time to time (e.g. the partition in 1947, the anti-Sikh riot of 1984, the violence against the Kashmiri pandits in the late eighties, the riot in Gujarat last year) etc.) don’t distinguish between the rich and the poor or the powerful and the weak. But the English speaking upwardly mobile of the metros are to a large extent shielded from the biases and the glass ceilings that affect the rest of the society.

Unfortunately, this section of the society is not as much a vehicle for change as one might think. Too many have a shallow fascination with the Western society, but have no appreciation for the values of independent thinking and egalitarianism that made the West great in the first place. Many tend to retain the prejudices.

In the rest of India, we seem to be getting the worst of all worlds; the economic disparities remind me of the South American countries like Argentina where the division between rich and poor is deep and permanent and the increasing religious divisiveness is akin to that of central European countries like erstwhile Yugoslavia where historic animosities tore the country apart. It is possible that I am being unduly alarmist, but I don't feel terribly hopeful about India right now. The political and social infrastructure of the country is badly in need of some healing.

The article is obviously an opinion piece and I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

December 31, 2002

1971 war & US foreign policy

Sajit Gandhi posted an electronic briefing book titled The Tilt: The U.S. and the South Asian Crisis of 1971 in the National Security Archives. There is some fascinating stuff in there for people from my part of the world. I hope to get down to posting my thoughts on the subject after I go through it.

It reminds me of a casual dinner conversation I had some months back with a senior Indian administration officer who was travelling through US. He had a meeting with the powers that be in the US defence ministry. They were pushing him to say that India will side with US in the event of a conflict with China. They were mostly kidding around. But this was right after China grounded the US spy aircraft. So there was also underlying tension. This guy refused to committ himself. He joked. "You guys would go away whenever the latest crisis is over. But we would have to continue to live with our giant neighbour". He was wise. 9/11 happened and now both China and Pakistan are close partners of US again.

December 2, 2002

My new article in Satya Circle

My new article 'Fighting AIDS in India' is now up in Satya Circle.

In that article, I argued that we need to make an all out effort at prevention since treatment is so prohibitively expensive for most Indians that it is almost unattainable. Since I sent in that article, NYT published a Bill Clinton op-ed that eloquently argued for investment in treatment of AIDS in developing countries.

The Dec. 1 posts in Metafilter have all sorts of links & discussions on AIDS. Link and think has a directory of weblogs participating in observance of world AIDS day.

Keith Bradsher goes to India

Keith Bradsher wrote a front page story in Nov 29, NYT (print edition) called 'India slips far behind China: Once its close economic rival'.

I found the title misleading, the story underresearched and sensationalistic. The story deals mostly with the huge gap in shoe exports between China and India. If you simply read the headline, you would go away with a very different impression about what it is about. I tend to agree that China is very far ahead of India in its economic and military power. However. Bradsher's story in no way demonstrates that.

Also, the story's underlying assumption that it is the state of the art infrastructure in Chinese factories that is defeating Indian export is misleading.

China today is an exporting juggernaut and its cheap exports are way way ahead of the rest of the world. e.g. 16% of all imports in Japan come from China (see "How long can prices go? China's cheap exports worry the west' in Dec. 2nd issue of BusinessWeek). However, its strength in exports are built on incredibly cheap labour (in some instances slave labour) and not on automation as Bradsher will have us believe. Also, extrapolating that stregth in export and the health of Guangdong economy into the overall health of China's economy without first demonstrating how that extrapolation is valid is disappointing, to put it mildly.

I also found the way the article ended ( i.e. the Guptas would rather build hospitals than expand their manufacturing operation) forced and simplistic. I wouldn't have been so agitated if it were not the front page of NYT!

keith Bradsher made his name as the Detroit bureau chief of NYT taking broadsides against SUVs. He seems to write well and interestingly (from the little that I have read on the web), but tends to be sensationalistic and partisan. He acquired a reputation in Detroit for presenting only those facts that support his theories and choosing not to present the whole story. I have not read his book. But he seems to be doing a fair amount of reporting on India. So I guess we'll get to read more of him.

October 22, 2002

My article in Satyacircle

Satyacircle published my op-ed 'The Jammu and Kashmir Dispute: At the crossroads' yesterday. Please check it out!

I'll also be writing a monthly column for Satya Circle from next month.

September 29, 2002

Hitchen's on Mother Teresa

Christopher Hitchen's views on Mother Teresa has been highly controversial. I have not read his arguments against Mother Teresa before now. He raises some very thought provoking questions.

Incidentally, Hitchens is quitting 'The Nation'. The general opinion among lefties seem to be 'good riddance'! (all links via Mefi).

September 10, 2002

Benevolent Dictatorship is an oxymoron

I had a big argument with some friends a few days back. All of us who were arguing are Indians.All except me felt that a benevolent military dictatorship is the way out of the current political morass that India finds itself. I have heard this viewpoint many time amongst the well educated, well off and otherwise conscientious people from India. And every time if shocks me out of my usual stupor. Show me one country were a dictatorship is/was a success (except probably Singapore and Turkey to a lesser extent. Both of these are much smaller countries and very different entities), where a military rule has not ended in tragedy or a disaster. Most third world countries are struggling with the same issues that India has been and most have made a royal mess of it. But the countries that have veered towards dictatorship have lost a great deal more than those that have kept their faith in representational modes of government. I also don't consider China a success. 50 years back, Soviet Union was also considered a great success by its fans outside USSR.

June 24, 2002

Kitsch

I can't but think that Noah Bruce makes some valid points about the India-Pakistan conflict (via Popculturejunkmail). But I also felt that Alex Perry's story on Vajpayee is not really far out (most people from India apparently hated it). So it is possible I need a reality check. But if Advani really starts running the show, all bets are off. He is a lot more of a hardliner than the babalog of New Delhi would like to believe.

Suman Palit has an absolutely hilarious parody of a test review meeting in his weblog. He is obviously having a rather painful time of it!

This old article in Saitirewire is also very funny. What is really unfunny is that corporate corruption is now so generic.

June 19, 2002

What are we doing in Central Asia?

It is tragic that the only choices that the central Asian and middle eastern countries seem to have, lie either with Islamic fundamentalism or benevolent (or not so benevolent) dictatorships. While the eastern European countries managed to (largely) liberate themselves and are making a painful migration to market economy, the Muslim majority central Asian countries couldn’t escape. They are mostly saddled with recycled communists from the USSR era. These guys are as uncomfortable with Islamic fundamentalism as are the democratic entities. The logic of the war on terrorism dictated that US cozy up to those thugs. Now it seems that India is following suit. Central Asia has fond memories of India from the Indira Gandhi days when India was close to USSR and the only romantic fare undiluted by ideological messages that they were allowed to have was of the Indian variety. Hindi movies were a big export. It seems that we are looking to cement those friendships.

India Today (June 17, 2002) mentioned:

“India gifted two Mi-8 helicopters to Tajikistan and sealed a defense pact with Dushanbe. It also signed a defense MOU on 3rd with Kazakhstan, which makes the Illyush heavy lift military aircraft. Uzbekistan and Kyrghystan have agreed to share information on terrorism in the region. India is also …helping US remove nuclear debris from the region.”

I suppose its a strategic necessity. But the idea of a closer alliance with these countries makes me vaguely uncomfortable. We seem to have forgotten that we had also befriended the Najibullah regime in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation period and paid a huge price for the next so many years after that regime was overturned. All the Afghan Mujahed factions have been hostile to us.

Most of the Central Asian regimes have no legitimacy. USA can get away with an opportunistic policy simply because they are muscular enough to get away with it. It is hard to prosper in the current economic environment with an antagonistic attitude to USA. Unfortunately, the same is not true for India. Also, the human rights abuses would get worse if no one makes any noise about it.

US foreign policy team is pandering to the massive egos of the current crop of Indian politicians to get them to toe the party line. And India is playing up to it. Consider this.

“There is a great responsibility that comes with being in the Superpower Club. India is about to join the world on that Superpower stage, and I hope she can restraint herself and act very responsibly.”

- Richard Armitage (Deputy. Secretary of state)

Can we get any more ridiculous?

June 1, 2002

Depressing stuff

I hope I am not being gullible in finding relief in Musharraf's statement. Folks back home are unstressed. Thanks to years of abuse of public trust by the politicians, Indians have gotten inured to the rhetoric. While I am not a fan of BJP, I have more faith on the humanity of Vajpayee's defence team than of Musharraf's. India also has overwhelming superiority in conventional forces. I don't really know whether a structured nuclear command structure exists inside Pakistan. If India escalates beyond a certain point, the temptation to do to lasting damage to India can be very high amongst some sections in Pakistan. So, Musharraf's statement is a huge relief, though I don't know to what extent one should trust the General.

I read depressing news all weekend. I read the incredibly sad story (by Bruce Feldman) of a fifteen year old prodigy whose life was pretty much destroyed by the college football team, apathetic college authorities and clueless parents (via metafilter). It is when I read stuff like this; I feel that in a lot of ways people in India are much, much better off. I read this devastating indictment of Robert Mugabe's reign in Zimbabwe (via Lakefx) by Philip Gourevitch. I urge you to read it even if it churns your stomach. The world needs to know what is going on out there. I have also started reading Robert Kaplan's 'Soldiers of God'. The first chapter is called 'Walking through a minefield' and is depressing as hell.

I need some cheerful news!

May 27, 2002

Our nuclear neighbour

Vinod Mehta is the Editor of Outlook magazine in India. He has a string of successful newspaper launches behind him and is one of the more sober writers in South Asia. 'Let Us Defy Uncle Sam' is a rather unlikely op-ed from him. If he is thirsting for first strike by India, things must be really on thin ice out there. He did admit that the Pakistani junta is crazy enough to threaten a nuclear first strike, but didn't address the issue. Neither are Indian politicians taking the noises being made by Pakistan very seriously. This story in Atlantic monthly is a frightening reminder that some people out there may have gone over the edge. What is scarier is that out esteemed leaders (no dearth of whackos on our side either) seem to have no clue.

The tragedy in South Asia is a tragedy of leadership. India has a relatively open society and more stable democratic institutions that have withstood the passage of time with much less damage. But something seems to have gone wrong with Pakistan. I don’t think everyone in Pakistan is an Islamic fanatic. I was rereading an old interview of Asma Jahangir. She appeared to be a lot more sane than most of our politicians. But unfortunately, she is not representative of the Pakistani polity. These comments by Michael Schaffer captures my unease:

"In 50 years of independence, Pakistan has come up with no new heroes. OK, there's a stadium that's been renamed after an officer who died in the disastrous mini-war with India a few years back, but if you look at the rupee bills, you see only one face: Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder. And I can't think of anyone else who might make it. The only other icon that seems to resonate, ultimately, is the giant rock that finds itself in traffic circles around the country: a scale model of the mountain under which Pakistan carried out its test nuclear explosion.".

These guys have invested way too much of their emotional selves on the conflict with India.

February 28, 2002

Famine in Afghanistan

There is a massive food crisis waiting to explode in Northern Afghanistan. (Details here). It appears that the food from the donar countries is not reaching the remote parts. The climate, the terrible transport infrastructure and unimaginable levels of corruption - all probably share the blame.

On a more cheerful note: this photo essay (via mefi) takes a humourous look at the rebirth of television/movie industry in Afghanistan.

Some of the exiled are returning home to rebuild the country.

The cynic in me knows that there is a long way to go for Afghanistan before they have anything resembling a humane society. I wish them best.

February 6, 2002

Enron in India

A devastating story in this week's Outlook on how the ecosystem in Dhabol (India) and the people's traditional livelihoods that depended on it got destroyed by the establishment of the Enron factory there. They also have a story that hints at larger scale corruption and complicity between Enron and three successive Maharstrata state governments.

I have always been an advocate of massive foreign investments in industrial development to bootstrap weaker economies. But I also know that most third world countries have irredeemably corrupt governments. Most politicians anywhere dont think beyond their prospects for the next elections. I read stories like that of Dhabol and despair. How do you kickstart an economy, solve infrastuctural issues without fucking up things on a gigantic scale as it happens way too often?

January 13, 2002

The bloody history of Afganistan

As a kid growing up India, we had a far gentler picture of Afganistan in our minds. As a child, I read Tagore's short story 'Kabuliwala'. Its an heartrending story of an Afghan streetvendor who saw reflection of his daughter growing up in far off Kabul in a Bengali child who befriended him in Calcutta. When slightly older, I read Syed Mujtaba Ali's 'Dese Bideshe' - an account of his stay as a teacher in Afganistan. It painted a picture of the hospitality and large heartedness of the Afghan people. Ali had to get out in a hurry when a palace coup started in Kabul. But that didn't detract from his love of Afganistan. As I grew older, I heard about the ravages that the Soviets were wrecking there, I saw the photogaphs that captured the desolate beauty of the barren deserts of Afganistan. But the the image that stayed in my mind was painted in words by Bruce Chatwin in his introduction to Byron's 'Road to Oxiana' (the last passage. It was later reproduced in 'What Am I doing here'). It was very evocative. I wanted to travel in Afganistan.

The stories that are emerging from Afganistan are very different from the Afganistan that I imagined as a child. There is pederasty and its social acceptance , there was systematic state sponsored torture , there is images coming out of the misery of children. The other day, someone posted a link about the the massacre on the retreat from Kabul, Afghanistan (1842,the Anglo-Afghan war) in Mefi. The poem in the beginning of it captured the horror:

"When you're wounded and left,
On Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out,
To cut up your remains,
Just roll on your rifle,
And blow out your brains,
And go to your Gawd,
Like a soldier."

-Rudyard Kipling

The picture that I get now is of a people that have always been cruel, a people that are now so accepting of the excesses of feudalism, that no one would even try to change things anymore. In that sense it is similar to what is happening in Bihar (India). Only Bihar seems civilized by comparison. So much for remontic notions.

But I still want to travel in the Hindu kush mountains......

December 28, 2001

My take on Kashmir conflict

My contribution to the public discourse on the Kashmir conflict in Metafilter.
......I can't believe that I spent so much time trying to explain my position on Mefi. I need to go back to functional reading.