An anti-corruption herd…


Times like this, when Arnab Goswami (who is the self-proclaimed modern messiah of great journalism), is trying very hard to prove that the ‘anti-corruption‘ movement in India is now going international – leave me rather astounded. And frankly, I’m not astounded at anything new. People love causes. Wearing pretty T-shirts with snazzy ‘anna’ slogans, a couple of afternoons out in the sun, the excitement of ‘hey I’m being arrested’ can all be very exciting. Also very juvenile – but never mind that.

Here’s the real question, does more litigation/the enactment of more laws solve corruption?  The best question is however this; is corruption even a problem? Of course, this is a terrible question to be asking. It surely means that I must be corrupt, support corruption or at any rate be unwilling to do my bit to ‘root-out’ the unforgivable sin of corruption. I’m going to go out on a limb and say yup, all of those things are true.

Here’s why: Of course I am corrupt, like every other Indian I have been part of a system that has forced me to, against my wishes (nobody likes to part with money, nothing to do with nobility), to pay a bribe in order to get the job done. Of course its wrong and it doesn’t matter that if I hadn’t paid the bribe, I wouldn’t have gotten a passport.  I do support corruption, in that —  my understanding of it being a ‘problem’ is completely different. Am I unwilling to do my bit to ‘root out’ corruption, yes absolutely – because the movement is ill-conceived.

To begin with ‘corruption’ is not a problem, its a symptom of a larger problem. By waging war against a symptom, one isn’t really sorting anything out – the disease you see, is still around. In this case, the disease is poorly-designed incentives.

As Nitin Pai eloquently writes (and thankfully relieves me of explaining the theory behind incentives):

The idea of a ‘Jan Lok Pal’ is flawed and profoundly misunderstands the causes and solutions of corruption in India. It seeks to create another chunk of Government, more processes and rules, to solve a problem that, in part, exists because of too many chunks of Government, too many processes and rules.

If the ‘Jan Lok Pal’ presides over the same system that has corrupted civil servants, politicians, anti-corruption watchdogs, judges, media, civil society groups and ordinary citizens, why should we expect that the ombudsman will be incorruptible? Because the person is handpicked by unelected, unaccountable ‘civil society’ members? Those who propose that Nobel Laureates (of Indian origin, not even of Indian citizenship) and Ramon Magsaysay Award winners should be among those who pick the Great Ombudsman of India — who is both policeman and judge — insult the hundreds of millions of ordinary Indian voters who regularly exercise their right to franchise. For they are demanding that the Scandinavian grandees in the Nobel Committee and the Filipino members of the Magsaysay foundation should have an indirect role in selecting an all-powerful Indian official.

The argument that people should be involved in drafting legislation is fine, even if it misses the point that the Government is not a foreign entity but a representative of the people. It is entirely another thing to demand that the legislation drafted by an self-appointed, unaccountable and unrepresentative set of people be passed at the threat of blackmail. If we must have representatives of the people involved in law-making, we are better off if they are the elected ones, however flawed, as opposed to self-appointed ones, whatever prizes the latter might have won.

The ‘Jan Lok Pal’ will become another logjammed, politicised and ultimately corrupt institution, for the passionate masses who demand new institutions have a poor record of protecting the existing institutions. Where were the holders of candles, wearers of Gandhi topis and hunger-strikers when the offices of the Chief Election Commissioner, the Central Vigilance Commissioner and even the President of the Republic were handed out to persons with dubious credentials? If you didn’t come out to protest the perversion of these institutions, why are you somehow more likely to turn up to protest when a dubious person is sought to be made the ‘Jan Lok Pal’?

But this is us. Given this reality, the solution for corruption and malgovernance should be one that does not rely on the notoriously apathetic middle classes to come out on the streets. The solution is to take away the powers of discretion, the powers of rent-seeking from the Government and restore it back to the people. This is the idea of economic freedom. Societies with greater economic freedom have lower corruption. I have long argued that we are in this mess because we have been denied Reforms 2.0.

How can we have Reforms 2.0 if “those politicians” are unwilling to implement them? The answer is simple: By voting. Economic reforms are not on anyone’s political agenda because those who are most likely to benefit from them do not vote, and do not vote strategically

So here’s the solution; don’t keep adding layers upon layers of legislation!!

Legislation fails catastrophically (what lawyers like to dismiss as implementation problems) when it doesn’t account for incentives. India is known for fantastic legislation and implementation failure. However, implementation failure, like other forms of market failure, are signalling devices. They’re telling you something. They’re saying, for example, systems where clerks are under-paid sustain systems where bribes need to be paid. Systems where accountability is not structurally built-in allows for large-scale corruption…

In the meantime, if you are pro-Anna – consider this. What should you be supporting? Well-designed policy or one man holding a government to ransom?  For further reading consider reading: Why the Lok Pal is a bad idea.

When Mallika Sarabhai says that  “we live in the most exciting times for democratic India, at least in the last two decades”,  I wonder what she is referring to?  The fact that so many Indians think turning out in hippy t-shirts singing songs is the equivalent of a movement, or that the stalwarts of this ‘movement’ consider it to be truly ‘mass’ given that all of India has internet connectivity (sic), or the fact  that India’s need for heroes (read Anna) has grown so much that we should consider this the greatest signl of a fantastically dynamic democracy.

How to be illogically ‘Activist’


Hey, I have nothing against activism or activists. Activists are a great part of civil society and democracy – they’re what keeps the system going, but still, when someone has an opinion; it irks me that they don’t think it all the way through.

Sample some writing by two such activist types.

The first is an open letter to Amitabh Bacchan written by Mallika Sarabhai about his endorsement of Gujarat, the second is a review of ‘My Name is Khan’ by Jawed Naqvi. Take a look at the article by clicking on the link and I’ve reproduced Mallika’s letter below:

Greetings from a Gujarati.

You are indeed a fine actor. You are an intelligent man and a shrewd businessman. But should I believe in your endorsements?

Let’s take a brief look at what you proclaim you believe in (albeit for huge sums of money). BPL, ICICI, Parker and Luxor pens, Maruti Versa, Cadbury chocolates. Nerolac paints. Dabur, Emami, Eveready, Sahara City Homes, D’damas, Binani Cement and Reliance.

And now Gujarat .

I wonder how you decide what to endorse. Is your house built with Binani Cement? Do you really like Cadbury’s chocolates or do you have to resort to Dabar’s hajmola (whose efficacy you have earlier checked) after eating them?

And having endorsed two pens, one very upmarket and one rather down, which one do you use? Have you, except perhaps for the shooting of the ad, ever driven or been driven in a Versa? Do you know whether the Nerolac paint in your home (you do use it don’t you?) has lead in it that can poison you slowly as it does so many people? Or are the decisions entirely monetary?

It has been reported that no direct fee will be paid to you for being my Brand Ambassador. So, with no monetary decision to guide you, how did you decide to say yes? Did you check on the state of the State? I doubt it, for the decision and the announcement came from one single meeting. And I somehow doubt that you have been following the news on Gujarat closely.

So, as a Gujarati, permit me to introduce my State to you.

Everyone knows of our vibrancy, of the billions and trillions pouring into our State through the two yearly jamborees called Vibrant Gujarat. But did you know that by the government’s own admission no more than 23% of these have actually moved beyond the MOU stage? That while huge subsidies are being granted to our richest business houses, over 75000 small and medium businesses have shut down rendering one million more people jobless?

You know of Gujarat ’s fast paced growth and the FDI pouring in, you have no doubt seen pictures of the Czars of the business world lining up to pour money to develop us. To develop whom? Did you know that our poor are getting poorer? That while the all India reduction in poverty between ’93 and 2005 is 8.5%, in Gujarat it is a mere 2.8%? That we have entire farmer families committing suicide, not just the male head of the household?

You have heard of how some mealy mouthed NGO types have been blocking the progress of the Narmada project, how the government has prevailed, and water is pouring down every thirsty mouth and every bit of thirsty land. But did you know that in the 49 years since it was started, and in spite of the Rs.29,000 crores spent on it, only 29% of the work is complete?

That the construction is so poor (lots of sand added to the you- know- which cement perhaps) that over the last 9 years there have been 308 breaches, ruining lakhs of farmers whose fields were flooded, ruining the poorest salt farmers whose salt was washed away? That whereas in 1999, 4743 of Gujarat ’s villages were without drinking water, within two years that figure had gone up to 11,390 villages ? (I can not even begin to project those figures for today – but do know that the figure has gone up dramatically rather than down.)

With our CM, hailed as the CEO of Gujarat, we have once again achieved number one status – in indebtedness. In 2001 the State debt was Rs.14000 crores. This was before the State became a multinational company. Today it stands at Rs.1,05,000 crores. And to service this debt we pay a whopping Rs7000 crores a year, 25% of our annual budget.

Meanwhile our spending on education is down, no new public hospitals for the poor are being built, fishermen are going a begging as the seas turn turgid with effluents, more mothers die at birth per thousand than in the rest of India , and our general performance on the Human Development Index is nearly the first – from the bottom. One rape a day, 17 cases of violence against women, and , over the last ten years, 8802 suicides and 18152 “accidental “ deaths of women are officially reported. You can imagine the real figures.

You have said that you are our Ambassador because we have Somnath and Gandhi. Somnath was built for people. Gandhiji was a man of the people. Do the people of this State matter to you? If they do, perhaps your decision will be different. I hope you will read this letter and decide.

In warmth and friendship,

Mallika

So let’s begin with Mallika’s letter.

Amitabh Bacchan is a well known actor, he endorses a range of products on television. I’m not going to contest the list – but here is the rub, Mallika asks – should she (and also the people of Gujarat) believe in his endorsements? I have a problem with the framing of this question.

Does the fact that Amitabh Bacchan endorses a bunch of products also mean that he has to believe in them? Let me explain. Acting is a trade, a business – models do commercials for money and so does Amitabh Bacchan. Unless you truly believe that Amitabh Bacchan also did every single film of his because he ‘subscribed’ to everything his character/role said/did on screen; this strikes me a ridiculous argument.

An advertisement is an advertisement; yes the media has great power to influence and all that; but does endorsing a product automatically translate into belief? (I’m not getting into the Nerolac question – lead poisoning, citation?)

Next, Amitabh Bacchan said he would endorse the ‘Gujarat campaign’ without any money, so? If Amitabh Bacchan felt that he wants to endorse Gujarat because of Somnath and Gandhi (note, not Modi) and without money; is there a problem with that intention?

Mallika also points out Gujarat is in a state of  indebtedness, this advertisement would have influenced tourism and income (positively) – strange then, that the rant is about Gujarat’s problems and the attack is on a minor effort to help. Most interestingly, if anyone has taken note of Amitabh Bacchan’s political inclinations – whatever they might be, they are certainly not Modiwards at any rate.

And while on the subject of endorsement, why not also attack Kiran Bedi for endorsing Fair and Lovely, surely that was a more upfront endorsement for colour-based discrimination by a woman icon of this county. Or is it that – Amitabh Bacchan supporting Gujarat’s tourism is a larger issue than fairness creams? Or maybe Kiran Bedi’s was an endorsement and Amitabh Bacchan’s was a carefully orchestrated mind game of support to Modi? I don’t about you – but to me this is far-fetched.

Mallika says Amitabh wanted a tax-free screening in Gujarat, a Rajyasabha seat for his wife, and free land for a film city. We don’t know the source of this information. Even if Amitabh wanted a tax free screening of Paa in Gujarat, so what? A lot of film stars request similar things from a bunch of CMs, is this any worse? Paa was a decent film. I don’t know about the other two claims, aside of the fact that it is hearsay. I have a problem with the wording and argumentation of this letter.

Moving on to Jawed Naqvi’s review of My Name Is Khan. MNIK is not a great film, it is barely a good film. The second half is longer than it should be  and stretches beyond imagination. The Khan has overacted and Kojol isn’t convincing. I’ve seen the film. However, MNIK is not a pro-saffron brigade film. That is my problem with Jawed Naqvi’s take on MNIK.

Second, Narendra Modi’s politics is not only about stereotypes. In fact, stereotypes are quite the secondary theme of his politics. The closest thing to stereotypes in Modi’s politics is xenophobia – a fear of the ‘Other’; which is a theme that MNIK manages to address fairly well. Modi’s politics is hate politics, it is an anti-minority stand that functions through many ways and stereotypes are one of those ways, certainly not the only way.

Thirdly, in the film – Khan does not let the FBI catch a bunch of angry muslims who were protesting Modi and Bush. He catches sight of a bunch of Islamist extremists.  I want to know – if you feel angry about the plight of Muslims in Gujarat, Palestinians or Kashmiri’s should you be plotting to blow up Americans or Hindus in India? Is that the answer?

Surely, Mr. Naqvi recognizes that as they are Modis so there are mullahs. Opposing Modi doesn’t mean you should not oppose a mullah.

Mr. Jawed’s next problem is oversimplification. Khan’s mother (in the film) tells him there are two types of people; good and bad. Yes there are. This has nothing to do with autism. This holds true for normal people too. In bad times, it is what people do with their anger (and shades of grey) that make them do good or bad things. You could be angry about Palestine and take up arms or you could join a peace movement. Go ahead – classify. Good or Bad?

Indeed it is nonsense that MNIK suggests that outrage against Palestine and the Gujarat pogrom is shared only by Muslims. The fact that the movie brings the journey of one Rizwan Khan to the media (in the movie) implies that the message “of peace and that all Muslims are not terrorists” goes out to those who watch television in general – unless in Mr. Naqvi’s world only Muslims watch television.

Why Mrs. Khan asks Naqvi – why not? All over India and the world many women out of choice adopt their husband’s last names. There is no indication in the movie, that Mandira (Kajol) does this out of anything but choice. If the argument is that women should not have to change their names, that is a valid argument for another day. A lot of much married women don’t change names and many do because they’d like to, or because tradition says so and they haven’t actively had a problem with that.

The problem with the Naqvi point of view is that it berates a brave film. A long, not very great – but still brave film.

It was in India that the screening of Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace was banned. Take a look at the progress – Karan Johar (a mainstream  family-drama film making director) makes a film about religious profiling.  I think that is great news. Just as Obama becoming president – sure Obama hasn’t done as much as he could about de-nuking the world and Karan didn’t make a perfect film. Does that mean we should turn away from the progress? I don’t think so.

Oh um eh….I wear a bra…


By now you know all about this, but just in case you don’t, here is a link you could read. If you, however, do not like links and don’t look up things on the net that you read about – then here is a summary:

There is a meme going around Facebook. A lot of women, (me included) received an e-mail (forwarded), from other girl friends we know — suggesting that we change our status messages to a one word colour that reflects the bra we’re currently wearing.

Why? Because it might be a fun, silly, puzzling-to-men thing to do and also raise awareness about breast cancer along the way. How? One version of the story is that smart men will track down the mail and see that breast cancer figures in the mail – another version is that the mail originated from a breast cancer awareness organization.

A lot of my friends (and apparently a lot of women) did as the e-mail suggested. I counted twenty plus colourful status messages ranging from fawn, pink, white to multi-coloured. Mine said “black” for the record. A while later I started seeing e-mails going back and forth; several which objected to this entire exercise. I like summarizing things – so in summary there were two kinds of responses a) Don’t–  this is stupid/embarrassing etc, and b) Don’t do this – I’m worried this trivializes the entire breast cancer cause.

I’m terribly worried by the latter. This opinion is both stupid, embarrassing and frankly many times worse than ‘trivializing’. Here is why:

1. It is stupid because it betrays a fear about discussing a ‘private matter’. There is nothing really private about a bra colour. In any sense. Men are privy to the vast variety of leopard prints on bras in some of the biggest malls in this country. They are also privy to the cheap, and equally designer, replicas in road side shops. Besides, nobody forced anyone into sharing the colour of their bra. What is so troublesome about seeing a bra colour openly shared? Nothing.

What is troublesome, to these sorts of people, is that so many women spontaneously shared their bra colours (I have no doubt many lied – but a fair share must have been genuine too; at any rate the truthful or fictitious nature of the color is quite irrelevant) and GASP many of them were ‘committed’ or even ‘married’. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think this is quite close to being stupid.

2. Let’s talk about embarrassment. Clearly women who voluntarily shared this information were quite unashamed. If they were embarrassed they probably would never have done it. These women also already knew about breast cancer and felt obligated (morally) to pass the information on. We’ll discuss if Facebook memes are necessarily the best mechanism to do this, in a bit.

Now, I can’t see, why I (or anyone else) should be embarrassed about passing information about breast cancer. As a matter of fact – I would feel very embarrassed if I didn’t. Clearly embarrassment goes a long way. To my mind, if people could be embarrassed into reading (which does not automatically translate into knowing/remembering or internalizing) about breast cancer, let there be more embarrassment.

3. Trivializing the issue. This the big one. This is where all the activists and gender warriors stand up wag their fingers at you. “This is all very well… but won’t men just guffaw silently about bra colours and boobs and not really give breast cancer the concern it deserves? Besides, breast cancer is a serious issue – not a joke about bras and colours, right? Wrong. Wrong because there is a huge framing problem going on here. It is poor logic. If I say I am against capital punishment is that the same thing as me saying that I believe ‘all crime should go unpunished’?

Will men silently guffaw? Sure. Many will, some definitely will. But that is not the point. Let’s go back to the question I asked in point number 2. Are Facebook memes a good way to spread awareness? Depends of how you define the objective. The objective, I think, of the meme was to raise awareness about the existence of breast cancer. Awareness is, to me,  planting a thought. Waving a word in someone’s face. If I scream “BOOBS” and get three men to pay attention and manage to say three lines about breast cancer after – what is the likely outcome?

One scenario is – the man derives some happiness from the word ‘boobs’ and moves on. Scenario 2 – The man remembers about the boobs but also about breast cancer. He has a busy day – but when he casually surfs the net, he looks it up. Maybe he has daughters who he discusses the issue with, maybe he asks his partner.

Scenario 3 – Maybe the chap does nothing other than repeat this “silly story” to another guy, who then tells some other guy…. information spreads. One of those guys is from scenario 2.

So we have a lot of lousy and different outcomes – but some positive ones too. Are the positive outcomes worth it? You decide. What are the losses? Some guys, who wouldn’t have cared either way, still don’t – they occupy the same spot on the indifference curve. Some guys act as carriers of the message. Positive outcome. Some guys, who might not have cared, (if not for the meme) actually read about it. Positive Outcome. Is the breast cancer cause doing any worse than it was in the absence of the meme? You pick.

I also said that response two (the accusation  of trivializing) does some damage. How?

One of the best things about the internet is that information is easily accessible. It doesn’t cost me more than two clicks to read about breast cancer – right now. This is the magic of hyper linked documents. The power of a social media tool (like Facebook) and a meme on it, is that it, adds personal credibility. I get a message from a friend, I read it. Even if it is a meme. Then there is the hope to leverage huge numbers. Most critically – the internet is fun.

In school, I hated statistical classes, because the information was in boring histograms and I had to draw to scale on printed graph paper. There was no undo button if I made a mistake. The cost of drawing that graph and making an error was astronomically high in that context. I had to use an eraser and hope that all the rubbing wouldn’t tear my graph paper. In college, I discovered infographics, beautiful non-histogram ways to understand statistical data. And I could create my own (on excel back then) and make as many mistakes as I wanted – because I could ‘undo’. How did I start enjoying a subject I hated? It was made fun.

Surely, there can be no better way to attract attention to a deserving cause, than by making ‘awareness’ fun? If someone wanted to get people to look up ‘breast cancer’, by mentioning coloured bras because it is fun, how is that a bad outcome?

Here is a real bad outcome – by diluting the enthusiasm to share important information and getting minds to look up ‘breast cancer’ – you’re actually hurting the cause. Time and time again I meet people in the social sector – who like occupying the high ground by using this word ‘trivialize’.

Here is how to trivialize a genuinely good idea —

The internet using population has quick and easy access to information. The meme architect has a hook that catches the eye, a free mechanism to do the networking and a social media tool to add credibility — and what do you do? You worry about bad outcomes because you think people will misunderstand.Worse still, you air those views.

Some timid people out there, who would have liked to be a part of this information chain, have now opted out because your raised doubts. In the words of Steven E Landsburg — you have polluted the communal stream of information that had clear positive spillover effects. If you don’t like Economics — this means there are now fewer people to influence more people. Now that is a bad outcome.

I would not worry so much about people’s understanding. People are genuinely rational. Also, despite my description of men, many are not as awful as one likes to believe and are happy to learn and even help.

So what colour is your bra? 🙂

PS: This is not to say that there aren’t better ways to raise awareness. Neither am I saying that different questions and issues cannot be raised. Cultural sensibilities, prices, attitudes, aspirations and a bunch of other things are extraordinarily important. I’m not entirely sure if breast cancer is a women’s issue alone or if getting men involved is enough.

The point is – you can’t attack an attempt to raise awareness by saying “you aren’t saying all there is to be said on the subject”. Of course not. If the bra meme gets people interested in breast cancer – the internet is a great place to learn, about the weightier and by no means inconsequential issues, in this arena — and breastcancer.org is an excellent place to begin.

Monopolizing TED


This post is an opinion. It is important that I state this upfront given the probability that its likely to be taken badly. This post is an opinion. Re-Stated. Opinion. Period.

Lately, I’ve become a big fan of saying things ‘upfront’ along with becoming a fan of ‘staying in the loop’, ‘re-defining impact’, ‘being on the same page’ and the like, but all that is a story for a different day.

TEDIndia is happening. TED has been ‘happening’, in a better way – for longer. Years ago, when TED found me – I spent several days downloading mp4 (s) to my Ipod. Qualitatively, what made the videos/talks different, was the fact that they celebrated the ‘small fry’, voices that haven’t been heard before.

Now take a look at the TEDIndia’s speakers list.

If you work with development in India – almost all those names are familiar to you. Where are the new ideas? Where is the innovation? A huge percentage of the potential speakers represent the ‘social enterprise’ space, there are also the ‘microfinance guys’, the ‘development economists’ and all then some more.

Some of these guys have done great work in the past. They’ve shaped the development space into what it currently is. They’ve also run out of ideas. Not to mention the ‘legendary-ness” of Usha Uthup.

Clearly, many of these people are established ‘greats’ with good reason. They’re excellent speakers and ,yes, maybe those of in this niche ‘development’ sector do know them – but this is about Global Recognition (with G and R in CAPITALS).

I beg to differ – clearly this is about fund raising and hobnobbing. Nothing wrong with that, just state it upfront.

So here’s my quibble — the idea was for TED bring ‘inspired’ thinking to the rest of us. On this front, TEDIndia – well you’ve failed me.

PS: This post, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that boss(es) are also on the speakers list. 😛

Edutainment?


A friend who works with ‘Education’ (as we in the third sector often like to put it) once told me ” In India its difficult enough to obtain an education without having to worry about its quality too”.

I like to believe in the potential of private enterprise to do do wonders for education, professor James Tooley’s new book – the beautiful tree, does a great job of pointing how this might be plausible with primary education.

I’m also a long seasoned advocate of the Friedman argument that the Government has no business being in business. In India there is no business quite as complicated (both on the regulatory scenario front and on the potential impact front) as the business of higher education.

The argument against the utility of certification and regulatory roadblocks to offering and receiving higher education more common sense than anything else.

Sadly though, when one takes sides one often (and I am guilty of this in more ways than one) — one forgets to account for the losers in the short-run. Take the ICFAI mess in the cities of Hyderabad and Jaipur for instance.

So what can you do, as a student – while the rest of us sit and pontificate about the merits and demerits of who should be in the business of education or who shouldn’t?

Take a look at this article which suggests that students’ check the following four things before committing a good year or more of their lives to an ‘institution’ –

a. Is the Institution awarding the degree, either a valid University or Deemed to be University? If yes, is it operating within its authorized jurisdiction?

b. Does the course/ programme have the approval of the relevant professional council?

c. Does the institution have valid accreditation?

d. Is the institution awarding the degree a member of the Association of Indian Universities?

I recommend everyone who is contemplating any sort of higher education (in India) read this piece thouroughly!

As the author points out towards the end:

“…it is important that students know the regulatory environment in the field of higher education in India. Knowing the legal requirements and taking reasonable care in these matters can help the youth of this country avoid losing money and precious years to well marketed, money-oriented educational business empires. It is certainly better to be careful than to be sorry!”

Because


There was a point in my life when I was a fan of ’causes’. Not the Facebook app.

Friends would remember me as someone of strong opinions, strong ideals… as someone convinced of themselves. Wholly. Fully given to a set of beliefs and someone who always wore the same lens through which she saw the world.

Now I’m a different person – I ask why, how, do those numbers stack up?

A couple of years ago when an activist organization sent me an e-mail about the ‘evil’ of big corporations — I would do pass it around to everyone I knew and all those who happened to be on my contact list by accident.

Today I chanced upon another one of those e-mails (usually deleted these days without even a glance) and it caused me to ponder just how sensationalist and non-rigourous it was and consequently how sensationalist and non-rigourous by extension I must have been. 

There is nothing very surprising about this in itself. People grow up. Intelligence arrives as do wisdom teeth.

This particular mail I got had to do with the formerly christened Swine Flu now — now known by its more austere name the H1N1 virus.  This e-mail originated from a group of ‘concerned citizens’, whose sworn mission is to oppose large corporate entities they regularly blame for damaginf the environment, perpetuating hunger in the third world, sustaining child soldiers and now also causing Swine Flu. 

If you are like me, you already smell a rat, or a pig — as the case might be. To be anti-corporate entities for economic reasons, labour rights and so on is understandable. But to connect them to Swine Flue is an example of hijacking am event to strengthen the case of cause without any established causality.

Sample these statements from the e-mail I received – wait, forge the statements, here is the title “The Truth About Swine Flu”; did you know there was a lie involved? I didn’t. Insinuation number 1.                                                                    

Now to the statements — No-one yet knows whether swine flu will become a global pandemic, but it is becoming clear where it came from – most likely a giant pig factory farm run by an American multinational corporation in Veracruz, Mexico.” Notice, GIANT AMERICAN MULTINATIONAL CORPORATION —  advocacy communications at its best.

“These factory farms are disgusting and dangerous, and they’re rapidly multiplying.” – Incidentally, bolds are all as they are in the e-mail. Notice, DISGUSTING and DANGEROUS – also rapidly multiplying; here is my question – links, footnotes, data?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) must investigate and develop regulations for these farms to protect global health.” Global health of course, is merely a function of regulating pig farms. Snort. 

“Big agrobusiness will try to obstruct and scuttle any attempts at reform” , ahem, substantiate?! 

If we reach 200,000 signatures we will deliver it to the WHO in Geneva with a herd of cardboard pigs. For every 1000 petition signatures we will add a pig to the herd” (italics my own) – This is how seriosuly we want to take global health and swine flu – not policy, not a serious study of what ‘regulations’ might work – but cardboard pigs, sure. Bring ’em on!

“Smithfield itself has already been fined $12.6m and is currently under another federal investigation in the US for toxic environmental damage from pig excrement lakes.”…a combination of increased global meat consumption and a powerful industry motivated by profit…”, and yet because there is a market for pork apparently there isn’t enough regulation! Snort. 

Swine Flu, let me state, is something that calls for serious research and action. However, what it does not call for, is hijacking of its intrinsic importance by an anti-profit, anti-corporations bandwagon that does little else than hollar about regulations and practise strategic communication games to get ints finger on the world’s issues-pie. 

Sheesh.

Bad Evenings and Worse Mornings!


Two days ago I was in Bangalore giving an interview. One of the many questions I was asked was about relocation , I was also asked if I liked my ‘hometown’ Chennai. I remember answering in the affirmative; sure Chennai has terribly hot climate and it could be a little boring at times, but on the whole its safe and has the sea and well I generally like it. After today I think I like Chennai much less.

This evening my mom and I went in search of the i-pill, of course had I been a little less ignorant I wouldn’t have tried despite the circumstances. So this is what we did; we called our regular medical store and were told the i-pill was unavailable, so we then enquired about Norlevo, Pill 72, Ovral G and several other varieties of the ‘morning-after’ pill and found they were unavailable too. About an hour later we had set out on a walk, enquired at six different medical stores and came to naught, so we unhappily drew the conclusion that the ‘morning after’ was simply unavailable.

This struck me as absurd, Chennai – touted as the ‘medical capital’ of India had no medicines of a particular variety?, that was not all nor the the scariest part. In attempt to fill the gap, qualified chemists kept trying to convince me that ‘Mifepristone‘ a MTP Pill available usually only on prescription was the same thing. The fact is, Mifepristone is used in conjunction with other abortive pills (an abortificant) to induce an abortion below five weeks of pregnancy and is positively dangerous if taken in the place of an emergency contraceptive pill, ‘Levonorgestrel’, on the other hand, is used as part of combination oral contraceptive pill and in high doses can be used to prevent pregnancy after unprotected intercourse. Unintended consequences in a situation of information asymmetry and really nasty plausible outcomes playing out.

Apparently sometime in 2006, Tamil Nadu’s state Directorate of Drug Control (DDC) decided to take all ‘pills’ of the ‘morning after’ variety of the shelves. The provocation? Apparently the Chennai-based ‘Responsible Parents Forum’ and ‘Satvika Samuga Sevakar Sangam’ felt that the drug induces abortion (and is not a contraceptive); therefore its sale without prescription is illegal, additionally the two protesting groups claimed that there was no public debate before it was included in the Schedule M of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act (DCA), 1940 which makes the drug available over the counter.

I’m not sure whether I should be shocked about how regressive people can be or stand in awe of the stupidity involved. To begin with ’emergency contraceptive pills’ are not the same thing as abortive pills, the text of any ‘morning after pill’ explains that they are ineffective once ‘implantation’ has taken place in the womb or in other words once fertilization has happened, which is why they are termed levonorgestrel-based ECs! Abortive pills on the other hand are designed to work after this fertilization has taken place, the methods then are very different.

Chemical analysis and indeed any minimum degree of bio-chemistry knowledge easily proves that any ‘morning after’ pill contains Levonorgestrel and not Mifepristone (which is what is being sold as replacement, GASP!) as suggested by the hair-brained protesters. What is interesting is that the TN DDC has the right to seize ‘drugs; of a particular kind only if they do not adhere to prescribed standards, or are mis-branded, adulterated or spurious, I really wonder which one of these conditions apply to the ‘mornign after’? As far as is known, in the case of emergency contraceptives such as the ‘morning after’ the dosage is 0.75 mg (recommended by the Drug Controller of India) and sold as a Schedule M drug under a ready licence!

Even more absurd is this quotation from one of the women by name of Ajeetha (sigh!) who was at the forefront of the protests, she says: “the text is objectionable and promotes ‘free sex’. Words such as ‘..when one becomes careless, or things get out of control‘, It takes away responsibility from the act of sexual intercourse. And the branding (Mis-take) is also not so subtle insinuation that pre-marital sex is alright…”.

One of the biggest things to learn about patriarchy is that women themselves are the biggest perpetrators of it! Its been a long time since I have seen or heard of a more vivid example than this. Its fascinating how regressive laws can become in a country that is supposed to be swaggering down the road to development.

Consider capital punishment for rape, in India capital punishment is given in the ‘rarest of rare instances’ for the ‘most heinous of crimes’ which are often such crimes that render their victims in some sense ‘irreparable’. For a moment lets forget the argument that most people who have studied ‘law and economics’ draw – which suggests that at the margin the cost of committing rape+murder for a rapist becomes zero if capital punishment is announced for rapists thereby creating an incentive to additionally rape and kill their victims in fear of evidence coming out for a harsher punishment and so…

But consider this, is this the message we want to give out in society about our women? Ought rape to be a crime that makes no women live a normal life again? Ought we to attach such stigma to a woman who has been ‘raped’ to make her feel that the most ‘heinous and irrepairable’ damage has been done to her? Is chastity all there is to woman? Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying rape is OK, I’m asking if we really want to make women believe that their chastity being lost is something that should make them feel guilty life-long? But I digress.

One thing that is obvious is this, the SS Co. (which sounds dangerously RSS like) and the ‘Responsible Parents Forum’ probably consists of the most irresponsible bunch of people ever known- people who oppose freedom of choice, liberty in action and the access to technology all together. A formidable coalition of fools who believe that Chennai streets are better overrun with teenage mothers and scared teenage fathers, with dustbins littered with unwanted infants and people with closeted minds who will silently engage in marital rape while the law turns a blind eye and proclaims all is fine.

Never mind that Chennai has one of the highest incidence of AIDS in the country, never mind that domestic violence is spiralling in Tamil Nadu and never mind that the un-natural separation between growing girls and boys in this academic ‘temple’ of the south causes more and more roadblocks to conjugal bliss. After all who will ever find out?, we will keep sweeping it under the carpet as long the vermilion stays bright and the sacred threads sparkle along our broad backs!

The tragedy is that its been nearly two years since emergency contraception has been available freely in Chennai, and I am yet to hear of a protest! Tragically Chennai is the same place where the global campaign for microbicides (a form of contraception) began and is still head-quartered. What happened to science and reason or is it only prejudice that matters now?

Stern Stuff, eh?


Chennai is all set to host Sir Nicholas Stern and his team for a discussion on what is what is known (in)famously in the climate change circles as the Stern Review.

The Stern Review (for the uninitiated) is a 700 page long document on climate change, global warming and the like. Released on October 30th 2006 (the October Revolution, which was neither in October nor much more than a Bolshevik coup), the Stern Review was undertaken for the British government by former World Bank chief economist.

The Stern Review discusses at length the impact of global warming and climate change on the world economy. A leading member of the Stern Review will speak at the Clive Dupleix Hall, Taj Coromandel from ten in the morning on Friday, the 23rd.

The report suggests in its conclusion (the only human- readable part) that a 1% of the world GDP would be required in investment every year to tackle carbon emissions failing which the loss in pure GDP terms would be somewhere between 15-20% of the global GDP. Upfront I guess, this is great news for environmentalists, there is much evidence though that the Stern Review is really nothing much more than an alarmist publicity stunt.

The Stern Review has received much praise and criticism (rightly so). A more momentous environmental milestone though that most people don’t talk about also took place on the 30th of October, 2006. The Copenhagen Consensus Centre headed by Bjorn Lomborg ( a statistician by profession and of Skeptical Environmentalist fame, a book I highly recommend to anyone who seriously intends to do anything about the environment) held a session with United Nations ambassadors from twenty four nations “representing fifty four percent of the world’s population”. These nations, were both developed and developing, large and small.

Lomborg asked them a single question, “If you had an extra $50 billion to be put to good use, what problems should be solved first?” The question was meant to reflect national priorities. Unhappily, for the blissfully unaware Sir Stern, mitigating climate change was nowhere close to the top five or even the top ten national priorities. I could easily suggest that this was because climate change by definition is something that requires international and transnational cooperation. And yet, you and I both know that this argument is flawed. If climate change was really bothering people, action would be happening.

The ambassadors in question unanimously agreed that “diseases, sanitation and water, malnutrition and education,” ought to be addressed first. Most ambassadors agreed that getting this baseline right also meant that mankind at large would be better equipped to deal with climate change at a later stage.

The Stern Review is problematic on several fronts which I will eventually discuss, what is more upsetting though is how this so called ‘green-agenda’ is being pushed forward aggressively and lapped by the media at that. I study and work with Public Policy, the vast majority of my teachers unfortunately derive their opinions from newspapers. And why not? Newspapers supposedly report facts, the opinions are therefore theirs, right? Not so.

Of the several classes I attend, one has to do with ‘Environmental Policy’. This class is taught by a beautiful woman who has an empty mind. She started out as a student of Economics, moved on to what she undoubtedly thinks is Philosophy (her lectures abound in references to a return to Wilderness, Deep Ecology, feeling for the Earth and of course Buddhist Ethics), then went to America and joined the Audubon Society dancing around camp fires with indigenous Americans.

My problem is not with Deep Ecologists, the Audubon Society or indeed with American Indians. My problem is with the perception of environmentalism. My problem is that all these collectives represent but one side of the story. For every developed and so called overtly consumerist nation there has also been an environmentally disastrous and state regulated USSR, China and so on. The point is that while Deep Ecology addresses an environmental gap in the more affluent nations where perhaps ‘returning to the land’ is a culturally important value, this is not global. In India for example, environmental problems are livelihood and human rights problems first. At any rate, this is a discussion for another day.

This particular woman, has been, like several other environmentalists brainwashed into guilt. She persistently talks about equity and believes that economic growth is evil. She will only talk about redistributions, but doesn’t see the argument about increasing the size of the economic pie. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti ‘green’; as a matter of fact I think the environment is a vector of several very valuable and scarce resources.

I’m merely suggesting that perhaps E.F Schumacher’s most valuable contribution did not lie in his questioning why mankind cannot live within a GNP many times in size now than it was for older civilizations, but instead in how to live within our means– through appropriate technology, something only an economist or otherwise solution driven mind could arrive at.

The value of Buddhist ethics similarly lies in their ethic of environmental conservation not in ‘connections with the soil’, and the value of the Sierra Club in its land acquisitions for environmental preservation. These are valuable lessons, and they are about strategy and method not about feelings, though I concede that feelings are a powerful means to action which brings me back to the Stern Review.

Among the many things wrong with the Stern Review, let me begin with the global GDP and the 1% figure which made the headlines. Current estimates of the global GDP stand at about $45 trillion. One percent of that figure is some $450 billion every year. Mind you, we’re talking about catastrophically bad weather at the very least a century away. The Stern Review suggests that at this cost Green House Gas (GHG) emissions could be stabilized. One way to look at this, or at least the Stern way to look at this figure is to say that four hundred and fifty billion dollars isn’t very much for the world. I disagree.

Any investment is undertaken at some cost, this cost is popularly known as opportunity cost. What could the opportunity cost of four hundred and fifty billion dollars be? Health, poverty, peace? The operating principle which prompts the hideous suggestion of spending this money on a phenomenon that doesn’t have any scientific consensus at all is what is popularly called the precautionary principle. You and I call this erring on the side of caution. What I want to know is this, should governments actually decide policy on a precautionary basis? Should our governments spend billions on developing anti-alien defense systems, because we suspect an inter-galactic attack?

Like all climate scientists, the Stern Review scientists based their report on climate projections and models. Much of climate prediction is itself circumspect. Weather and climate are complex, non-linear systems that do not conform. Predicting their patterns beyond a few months with any degree of accuracy is a mathematical joke. Our meteorological departments can’t get fishing weather forecasts right beyond a couple of hours let alone predict climate change and its effects a century down the line. The fault does not lie in the system, or in the maths–but in the fundamental understanding of chaos theory, unpredictability and in assuming variables to be static when they really are quite the opposite!

To understand this better; the Stern Review combines worst case climate model predictions with worst case economic model predictions, which is whence the predictable disaster arrives. The economic analysis is based upon what is called the A2 storyline. The IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios describes a series of plausible ‘worlds’ of which A2 is one.

The A2 storyline is a world wherein relatively slow economic growth dominates, IPCC puts the figure around 2%. The world is a pretty dismal place with global economic self sufficiency (economic self sufficiency is suicide), continued population growth, and close to no technological growth. Call it a Malthusian nightmare. From this picture, we are to expect that by 2100 global per-capita GDP would rise by a paltry sum of $ 16,000 making the global GDP $243 trillion dollars. The population would be close to 15 billion and income would be inequitably distributed.

This is one scenario, and I might add rather improbable, if one were to remember Paul Ehrlich’s bet or indeed wonder why what Malthus predicted never came to pass. There are other ‘worlds’, the A1 scenario of the IPCC which is far more happy and indeed plausible discusses strong economic growth, trade in a globalised world, the population stabilizing and indeed outstanding technological progress which we have seen in the last century.

Contrast the A1 scenario GDP with the dismal picture, the projected GDP stands at $550 billion with a per capita income of $80,000 for the same time span. I am often amused in the class I discussed above– because I have to tackle an activist who takes every shot to call me ‘anti-people’, only ‘growth-oriented’, ‘right-wing’ and indeed everything short of evil, as though my horns are visible!

I’m assuming though that any reasonable person would want to avoid the A2 scenario and therefore would logically realize that the best way to deal with climate change and a shrinking natural resource base is to create greater capacity for future generations. In that vein, it is surely obvious that best policies are those that encourage economic growth. Here’s another weltanschauung– with wealth future generations can make and use better technology to deal with climate change, if it happens! I’m suggesting, that it makes for good policy to move from slow growth to high growth even if you are green, red, blue or indeed any other political color!

Economists concerned with the environment like Sir Nicholas Stern consistently talk about the poor in South Asia, especially Bangladesh. Its funny how the only thing in recent times to have made a difference to the average poor Bangladeshi is entrepreneurship and the availability of credit capital through from micro-finance, but I will let that pass. Let’s assume that Sir Stern gets to raise energy prices through a carbon tax, what is the immediate impact? An economic growth slowdown, by a trifle let’s say about 1%. How would a 1% fall in the growth rate of a third world nation like Bangladesh matter?

Bangladesh’s growth rate is about 6% per year, so if this were to become 5% for say the next half century till carbon levels stabilize what would the GDP growth difference be? The math is really easy. At 5%, after fifty years Bangladesh’s economy will grow by $575 billion, at 6% it would be close to a $1 trillion. Its the trivial little 1% that makes the huge difference. Now let me ask you, what are Bangladesh’s or indeed any third world country’s most pressing problems? Is it really how “a warming world will cause rising sea levels to flood much of that country”? If the concern is really over flooding, I wonder how a whole host of Scandinavian countries including the Dutch actually manage to keep their low lying countries out of flooding with a GDP of just 500 billion dollars!

Actually, maybe I’m being a tad unfair. Sir Stern is a very competent economist and has pointed out several times in the Stern Review that raising the price of energy produced from fossil fuels could very well produce net economic benefits. Look at this as some form of competition, new technology and a huge market demand for low carbon alternatives. The point is that, here too the idea of opportunity cost still stands. As I write (and in some sense the very fact that the Stern Review ever took place implies that), there is a gradual progression to cleaner fuel.

Therefore choosing to make energy costlier through taxes doesn’t change much except maybe saving some time. In the mean time- human beings everywhere are losing money they could’ve otherwise spent on food, water, sanitation, education, housing etc. In other words we’d be taking away social primary goods and subsistence provisions for climate change a hundred years down the line! The Rockefeller University here, has an excellent write-up on energy and de-carbonisation that discusses some of the issues surrounding energy consumption, much more eloquently and on much firmer ground than I can.

Pondering upon Bangladesh, improving people’s lives involves boosting economic productivity and that definitely does not include a 1% growth rate sacrifice for climate change! The Stern Review is insane on several other counts, and not just unethical. Amongst other things —

1. Stern wants the world to pay close to four hundred and fifty billion dollars every year to mitigate climate change on the basis of a phenomenon which has no scientific consensus concerning its causes. Contrast that with the Kyoto commitment of a hundred and fifty billion dollars per year which is failing.

2. The Stern Review suggests that unless something is done about it, global warming will destroy anywhere between 5% to 20% of the world’s economy. Incidentally, economical losses we can blame on “climate change” in the present are equal to zero within acceptable error margins.

3. The Stern Review advocates among other things a form of pigouvian taxation. The important thing about a pigouvian tax is to remember that it is not a the levying of a punitive tax to make people change their behavior. It precludes incentives, although in the long run it might serve as an disincentive.

All that a pigouvian tax does is insist that the costs currently external to the price and market are included within them. The problem is that green taxes on driving and flying have a marginal impact, which is the point. Pigouvian taxation is not meant to stop people doing something or to price them out of an activity. It is simply to make them pay the full costs of what they do.

It is undiluted nonsense then to talk about raising taxes or prices to stop people from flying, for example. No such thing happens, all that happens is that the carbon costs of a flight is exactly what determines the tax rate. There are lots of practical problems with this sort of taxation, the most obvious one is also the hardest to overcome. How is a government supposed to set correct figures for carbon based taxation? Recall what Hayek said, it is impossible for a government to possess such vast amounts of symmetrical information.

One part of this problem is to use estimated costs of Co2 emissions, and these do exist. Eminent environmental economist and incidentally one of the loudest critics of the Stern Review Nordhaus estimates one tonne of Co2 at $2.50, the Stern Review estimate stands at a whopping $85!

At Nordhaus’s estimate incidentally in every country airline passenger duty is already too high. At the Stern Review’s estimate, it’s about half what it should be. There are all sorts of problems with the Stern number, to begin with it is larger by leaps and bounds when compared to similar estimates of the same tonne of carbon emissions.

Now, if people were to be taxed purely upon the CO2 externalities (for fuel, for instance) prices should drop. Of course, we are not taxed purely and solely on that one externality. Theoretically a green tax would also include additional charges for, particulates, congestion, noise and so on.

I’m however, still willing to bet that a pure green tax will be lower than present rates of taxation at least on fuel and transportation. Here’s why, when you pay a flight surcharge, you pay for what the airline gets charged by the government for operating in license costs, regulation, land and so on… you also pay for the service. A pure green tax is, therefore, cheaper but impossible. So much for prices changing behavior.

The assumption behind the green tax idea is simply that we tax the rich more. The rich fly, so airline taxes are huge. Take a look at Indian airports, throughout the city parking rates for cars are either nominal or nil.

At the airport you can choose to pay 120 Rs, for an hour of premium parking or 60 Rs for regular parking. Now that is a hefty user charge. User charges are good things, but not when differentially implemented to tax the rich. It doesn’t work. Consider this, almost every passenger, budget airline or not, carries luggage in India and so comes to the airport in a car or a taxi. All equity is lost.

4. Let’s go back to the IPCC scenarios for a bit. Why is it that the projected savings from a 15 billion people and a global GDP of $ 243 trillion plus a savings rate of 20% is a better idea than other worlds? Something makes me think the reason is simple. The Stern Review chose the lowest future wealth because the discounting make current expenditure look good. To understand what I mean, we need to look at the discounting debate on the Stern Review.

I can’t really explain discounting, the Wikipedia link should be able to do that just fine. Either way the basic idea is that one adjudicates if investments are worthwhile depending upon the discount rate used to evaluate them. It is generally accepted that if the opportunity cost of the investment is its consumption then the appropriate discount rate is what is called the social rate of time preference, if you don’t understand this you can take a look at this.

Now, this depends on a bunch of things;

1. Should society prefer current consumption to deferred consumption because current consumption is now? Several economists argue that this element ought to be set at 0. This is somewhat technical, anyhow what it implies is that Rs 100 of consumption is worth Rs 100 whenever it occurs regardless of time.

2. The other important question concerns the uncertainty about whether future generations will actually gain from the judicious use of resources now. Now this is a question of judgment. Personally I believe this is negligible, because better technology will ensure higher returns to future generations from lesser physical amounts of natural resource. Stern puts this element at 0.1, which by all estimates is rather high.

3. Then there is the question of who gets the Rs 100 to consume. I believe, Rs. 100 is worth more to someone who is poor rather than to someone who is rich. Either way, a parameter to express this value judgment is required. This parameter, which can vary, is then used to project the likely growth of consumption over time. The point of this entire exercise is to see whether an increase in consumption in the future is worth giving up consumption now for, even if those future people are richer, which I believe will necessarily be so.

At this point, there are two things we should remember about discount rates. Future generations will consume at a higher rate and states will plausibly become more welfareist and want to discriminate in the favor of the poor. Either will mean a higher discount rate.

Now, if one were to actually apply this notion to climate change and global warming it suggests that if (and I do) we believe in redistribution, we should definitely give to the poor now than redistribute the rich of future generations! In his brilliant paper, Sir Partha Dasgupta, argues precisely this: The Stern value of the parameter in question implies that we should redistribute from the presently poor sections to those who will be undoubtedly richer in the future, at the very least in relative terms.

If you ask me, I cannot think of a more unethical stance to take!

So what then you can ask me, at the end of this long tirade, can be done about climate change? Well, if you ask me, perhaps the best thing we can do about climate change and global warming is nothing at all. The Stern Review says that baseline economic growth will be twelve times as high by 2200 and I think that is enough. If we’re really concerned about equity, which is the sustainable development tune these days, there is nothing much to do except to make sure that the poor get a bigger slice of the pie, which will happen only when the size of the pie grows. Let capitalism reign, extend globalization and let there be enough and more capacity to generate wealth for everyone.

What makes me uncomfortable and keeps me up well past mid-night writing this is the fact that the climate change debate is no longer a discussion between the global warming skeptics and global warming scientists. It is between an honest reading of data and between alarmists who are all too clearly driven by a political if not economic agenda. I’ll end with this: The Stern Review is a “misguided” and “alarming” piece of research that has “no foundations in either science or economics”- OPEC.

PS. Download and watch The Great Global Warming Swindle, from YouTube or Google Video, amazing watch. There’s a torrent available here too, good quality video- from TorrentSpy so make sure you use an anti-virus after you download.

The documentary is fun, some factual errors but makes for a fantastic intro, especially for a virgin climate change skeptic !! 😀 Happy Watching, pip pip!

For more on Global Warming read NCPA’s policy digest here.

 

The Political Noose


This is what it has come to… three bits of luggage, a new town every now and then and me plodding along. Like the chap who wears a rosary and tucks a bottle of whisky under his tunic, or the girl who bats her eyelashes and pockets money, the communist who sold out or like the unfinished apple now turning a deep shade of brown.

I tend to think in metaphors these days. One of the most powerful metaphors is of course hangman. When I think about it what does a hung man represent? To you, to me and to the Indian democracy?  Imagine; a hung man against a hinged door. I see democracy unhinged.  

Take Afzal for example. Here, in India we have the right wing that believes Afzal should be hung.The left believes he shouldn’t mercifully– the tragedy with the left in this country though is that they never take a strong stand when they should. The left remains entirely ambivalent on whether capital punishment is acceptable or not.

It clarifies that it is not being soft in the context of terrorists– hanging Afzal is merely inappropriate because it would stall the peace process in Kashmir. Indeed it would, but here’s what the real question is: If it didn’t would it be OK to hang a man? Is revenge really what a criminal justice system is built on?

Pause for a moment. For the sake of argument let me say the moral questions surrounding capital punishment are irrelevant, what about outcomes? What would Afzal’s hanging mean for India and Indian politics? As far as I can tell hanging Afzal would turn India into a wee bit more of a police run state, kill whatever little democratic dissent this country still has, undermine the peace process in Kashmir and of course give strength to the saffron bandwagon.

Look at the facts for a moment. While the attack on Parliament (several people believe the attack was orchestrated) was one of the most vicious attacks on Indian democracy it did not quite succeed. Ideally any investigation that followed ought to have been stringent and transparent to say the least. That is not quite what happened though. It is public knowledge that the police created most of its evidence, elicited confessions through torture and lied for most part through this particular investigation.

The three people who claimed responsibility for the attack– Ghazi Baba, Masood Ahzar and Tariq Ahmad were not investigated, confused with the Afghanistan hijackers and amazingly because all the five attackers were shot we have no clue they really were. Afzal was made to incriminate himself in the national media at a media conference which a senor police official later denied under oath in court.

 What happened was that two of the three accused (Sandhu and Geelani) were acquitted.  Afzal, said the supreme court, had no evidence that pointed to him belonging to any terrorist outfit. Interesting then that a man acquitted under POTA due to lack of evidence should suddenly have to pay the price all over again.

These are the facts, then there is perspective. Law tells me that death sentence is an option only in the rarest of rare cases. I have two questions: What makes an attack on the parliament so sacrosanct that it merits the death penalty, especially without adequate evidence against the accused, without the accused even being allowed access to a lawyer during interrogation? Secondly, why does Afzal’s crime (if at all) deserve death penalty when corrupt officialdom deserves pardon or worse still– overlooking?

The sad fact is that the rising ‘Nationalism’ in the Indian citizenry is what the court feels it must pay attention to. Consider this: When Afzal a poor man who could not hire a lawyer asked for a lawyer, he was refused by all four arguably because they were scared that they would suddenly become ‘anti-national’.  When Ram Jethmalani offered his counsel, Hindutva forces ransacked his office– the nationalism-democracy trade-off playing itself out. But wait, India is not all that undemocratic and the justice system isn’t all that despicable. So  on July 12, 2002 the judge in question appointed a junior lawyer as his amicus curiae and gave Afzal the right to cross examine the witnesses.

Writing a blog entry about Afzal is of course far far easier than practising criminal law without training (read Afzal’s letter to the AIDC and to his supreme court lawyer). In this country, members of the media who always do it right and several other proud citizens of India– think that hanging Afzal without giving him the right to defend himself is the vindication of nationalism and the preservation of the human rights of others in the nation. They wish to tell us, that it is fair to ignore Afzal’s story, his history and that of of the Kashmiri people.

How long before the authority in India understands the lessons that Gandhi left for us decades ago? How long until they open their eyes and see that state sanctioned murder is the last thing that will cause flowers to bloom in Kashmir instead of rivers of blood.

As Nandita Haksar said: “The fight for Mohammad Afzal’s life is a fight for all that is good and meaningful in Indian democracy; the cry for revenge and his death represents the dehumanized and authoritarian aspects of the Indian State and civil society.

Update: Please do sign the petition against Afzal’s Death Sentence.

The Eletist Enterprise


Couple of days ago I was called to participate in a discussion on reservations. Reservation in general, is a subject that causes much argument and such. By virtue of this it is particularly important to maintain what I like to call a semblance of objectivity. There were several things that made me particularly unhappy that afternoon. Importantly my stand on reservations or anyone else’s for that matter turns out to be irrelevant with regard to this.

To engage in meaningful conversation one first must make a commitment to intellectual honesty. This implies a) Knowing the facts 2) Not choosing to adopt a stance merely because everyone else has 3) Understanding that not all things are subjective and that some objective truths and objective rights and wrongs exist.

Now this discussion that I was a part of consisted of what was called the enlightened ‘youth’ of today. They were aspiring civil servants, aspiring lawyers, aspiring public policy makers and so on. Then there was a moderator. That man perhaps requires a line or two more for a description. Soap box orator, art of living guru, management guru and throw a couple of other fake disciplines in for good measure.

Here is what I heard at the discussion:

1) Reservation is bad because my dad, mom, sister, friend and NDTV say so. What facts do you have to back it up? “Hey, I’m well informed I have Wikipedia”!

2) Forward castes don’t have quotas… Ever heard of the management quota?

3) Alternatives? Silence.

4) Backward castes are not really discriminated against in India. Hallelujah!

5) Only we deserve the IITs and the IIMs and such…. hmmm, self interest.

Wait a minute, didn’t I say a couple of posts ago that I was anti-reservation too. Nope. I said I was anti-reservation the way it is enacted now. There is a subtle difference. Somehow in the whole discussion nobody seem to question the budgetary priorities of the country, nobody seemed to ask how we can create incentives in primary education for the so called ‘lower-classes’.

To top it all, the moderater in question was apalled when I said “dalit” and a friend said “shudra”. This discussion was so elite that we were supposed to thrash out solutions in twenty minutes to misplaced reservation outcomes without mentioning castes.

Pause for a minute and think why. To my mind it is because these words are now the new ‘un-unmentionables’ just like untouchables. Linguistic discrimination however is a powerful method of exploitation– take a look at how “Harijan” is now a casteist abuse.     

There are several reasons why this kind of thing is problematic. The top reason is this: What if these people get through the IAS or become policy makers? Where does India go then?