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?

Less than a fifty percent chance


Some of us aren't academically inclined. We trudge through degrees and professional qualifications only because we don't have fortunes to back up our fancies. Some of us are (by birth and no fault of our own) Brahmins. For those of us who are both, this is bad news.
I will never apply to an IIM or a IIT anyway, but I might apply to Delhi University (incidentally the description of DU as a 'premiere' institution, tickles me no end) and probably will to JMI. So since I am am but an average student I have even lesser of a chance now.

The same article tells me that institutions like St. Stephens will probably pick their way around the reservation rigmarole because they are minority institutions. Anyone who has ever attempted to get through Stephens will tell you that the cut-offs are anyway unreasonable.

So the point is this– If I am a Brahmin (and I don't want to get a fake OBC certificate) and I am an average student, I therefore in all likelihood land up nowhere. The government in effect is telling me that I have no business being an average student. I can only imagine that the government believes that fifty percents are an insult to the intellectual history of the Brahminical classes.

So now here is my choice. Study at a below average institution and don't get as recognised a degree and therefore land up with a second rate job. Or I apply abroad–  get a partial scholarship (because I am not a dunderhead), find out that loans are meant for the rich and then give up. I suppose the latter seems the happiest. 

I do not discrimate on the basis of caste, at least not consciously. As a matter of fact, all that I want to be able to get a reasonable education, without having to be outstandingly brilliant. Most people would agree, that the Mandal Commission has been an absolute failure. Why, pray tell me, can we not to move to a more equitable form of reformative measure?

Something on your mind?


Like several others I have exams in less than two weeks. Some are easy and others are simply too awful to attempt a description of the horror I feel when I think of them. I therefore, at 05:00 a.m ought to be either asleep in preparation for a brand new day closer to exams, or be studying. Definitely not blogging. Like a friend just put it– "The only think you should be worrying about is padhai".

Anyhow, the reason I'm online is because after wading through scores of pages both online and offline I'm simply overwhelmed with the vast amount literature that I am supposed to know of. Yet another friend told me that the best way to "tame the monster called exams", is to survey previous question papers and then swot at common topics. While the idea is rather brilliant (and apparently time-tested), I find it rather upsetting. My notion of studying involves understanding concepts. That, however shall not help me pass my exams.

So I was surfing to find software that will help me study and I found this. Now mind maps and concept maps have been around for a long time. The basic idea is to put down a central theme and then link all related material to it– forming a sort of graphical presentation of information that is easily comprehensible to graphical/visual/spatial learners like me.

Any huge bit of information is better assimilated in small chunks and the most vital bit is how one bit of information is connected with the other. FreeMind is freeware, a fast and easy download. The learning curve isn't too hard and you'll find it indispensable pretty soon just like I do now. Save the maps as graphics and take print outs then learn. Or simply learn from the comfort of your PC. Its the best compromise between learning the way it should be and between learning in terms of test taking performance. Check out the graphic on the top, I created that within two minutes of my first you– now close your eyes and imagine the possibilities.

In fact FreeMind is good for a whole host of things, including bookmarking resources (on your computer and the net or the intranet for that matter), writing essays, putting together scraps of information and even stimulating your brain into finding connections between concepts you haven't thought of.

Happy studying then.

Praying to the the trees


‘Environmentalism’ is a social phenomenon in a category of its own. Consider what happened to me today. My friend’s college makes social service mandatory for students– this implies devoting forty hours of her time in a term to some predefined, accepted and ratified ’cause’ as it were.I am one of those who feels little social obligations and hence I found the whole provision absurd. The friend in question requested me come along with her to help her through the remaining six hours left. So I did. She and I went to to volunteer time at a play school.

The little kids were celebrating ‘Earth Day’. Cute. Despicable. They went about with black plastic garbage bags, the ugly one’s that infest the Delhi middle class households including mine, collecting litter. Of course they had to be hygienic so they were wearing the McDonald’s style plastic gloves as well. They were chanting the environmental song.

I watched and helped them. I was then invited to be a part of the ‘esteemed panel’ that discussed the need to recycle. Speakers droned on and on about saving the environment and such– but what amused me was the ratio of the littler collected to the litter created by the whole ‘save the Earth’ exercise. There was more plastic, several more cartons, more paper and many more chocolate wrappers flying around than before. This is the tragedy of recycling. One of the many of ‘environmentalism’. The litter created is always in excess, the costs are always more and somehow people refuse to see it.

Recycling does sometimes makes sense-for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. The politics of the Basel convention and indigenous waste managements set-ups in nations prove sufficiently that recycling offers short-term benefits to a few groups with vested interests. Take Germany for example, recycling has been a consistent lobbying issue for politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations and waste-handling corporations.

What happens in the process? Diversion of funds from genuine social and environmental problems. Yet, ‘recycling’ remains one of the favourite words of the environmental religion as it were. In our schools and universities we have embraced recycling as though it is the ultimate transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption. We’re not just reusing our garbage we’re begging for forgiveness and atoning for our sins of excess!

But there is a deeper reason for my horror. It is this: There’s no reason to make recycling a moral imperative. Mandatory recycling is bad for posterity. Read Steven E Landsburg’s article on the ‘religion of environmentalism’. While I am an environmentalist in some sense, it is not my religion. I am intersted in environmental problems, more interested in environmental solutions and least interested in indoctrination.

I have definitive reasons like several non-environmentalists to distrust the notion of ‘recycling’. First up is the fact that pure, clean and complete recycling is impossible. Recycling is a difficult, expensive and a hazardous practice. Take recycling plastics for instance– the process of recycling plastics releases toxic dioxin gases in huge quantities. Perur, a district of Chennai is choking under dioxins– incidentally it has three plastic recycle plants.

There is one thing I need to state before I begin to justify what I have just written. The idea of recycling is in fact great. If we could actually transform waste into products that are useful that is. The trouble is that the idea of recycling like many others is woefully subject to the law of unintended consequences. ” The Law of Unintended Consequences holds that almost all human actions have at least one unintended consequence. In other words, each cause has more than one effect including unforeseen effects.”

The process by which materials are collected and used as “raw” materials for new products. There are three distinct steps in recycling: 1. Materials are source-separated and collected. 2. Materials are processed and manufactured into new products. 3. Consumers purchase the goods made with reprocessed materials. On first sight this seems like a remarkably easy and good idea to follow and implement. A little green bin on your chip packet, chapters on recycling in your text books and the local garbage guy agreeing to segregate trash- great right?

Maybe not. The question is do the benefits of recycling outweigh the ease of disposing of waste materials in landfills? Selam, a small district in Tamil Nadu has implemented garbage segregation and trash recycling vigorously for the last decade.

The do-gooder in this case was an organisation named EXNORA. The EXNORA bunch at that point was a collection of local students who took up environmentalism when it was a fad. Today, after a decade of recycling Selam has contracted garbage disposal to a Swedish company much to the joy and relief of the localites. Why?

Weren’t their roads cleaner, the air less polluted and hadn’t they gained ecologically? Not quite.
Collection costs have make recycling a bad bargain for many localities because the costs often exceed the prices that the recyclables bring on the open market. Operating additional trucks to pick up segregated recyclables has caused EXNORA operations to increasingly go unfunded. What’s worse is that these trucks (and the in-depth localised reach of the recycle programme) has increased toxic diesel emissions, killing any environmental gains.

Of course economics are not the only consideration. Let’s look at paper. We want to save the trees right? We don’t want oaks, redwoods or the sal and the sandalwood disappearing right? Sure. But is recycling helping you do that? No. Most paper, doesn’t come from from the sal or the oak. As a matter of fact paper comes from what we call pulpwood. No actual timber is used to make paper.

Pulpwood comes from easily grown and cultivated forests of pine, shea and eucalyptus. These are not endangered. On the contrary, they are too many. They are ‘weeds’ in the natural forest and steal resources from unspoiled forests by competing ferociously for soil, sunlight, water, and minerals. So when we use them or cultivate them in separate enclosures, we protect them and other trees. These trees are fundamentally a renewable resource.

Is recycling paper more economical? No. Manufacturing paper from trees is a relatively straightforward process. You get pulpwood, use some chemicals and process it into paper. What about recycled paper? To recycle used paper as the definition from wikepedia says- there are several steps involved. “Paper must be collected, cleaned, shredded and treated chemically before it can then be turned into a paper that is generally of lesser quality than the original whence it came.”

Now here is what we never learnt in school about recycling. The treatment of paper to be turned into more paper actually used four times as much chemical than making new paper. Now because it has more steps and more chemicals – manufacturing paper is far far more expensive than making new paper.

You can contradict me on that point. Most people find recycled paper much cheaper than new paper. However there is a reason. The reason is a distortion in price, the cost is lower to the consumer because the government subsidizes its production. The unpaid additional costs are passed on to the taxpayer who happens to be you.

What about the ‘green house effect’? Unfortunately here too high school education fails us. Had we studied botany a tad more,we would know that trees don’t actually mitigate the green house effect. Like all other living creatures trees have a life span and an old-age. A young tree that’s growing does a beautiful job of turning carbon dioxide into oxygen.

 However you will notice that after the tree gets older it reached a stage of balance, they decay (leaves start falling) and when they decay they produce CO2. In effect what happens is that the amount of CO2 consumed by the tree equals the amount of CO being released by the decaying portion of it. Yet, we insist on keeping old trees!

I’m not saying that we should deforest. Merely that the solution to excess paper manufacture is not recycling but is e-offices. Most people would say that landfills are still terrible because they don’t for example allow the bio-matter in them to break down and decay.

But dumping chemically manufactured paper doesn’t decay any faster than plastic anyway in a landfill!

Bottomline: recycled paper costs more to produce, causes higher tax rates, increases chemical pollution, doesn’t save forests and has no effect on the green house phenomenon.

Informal recycling has existed in India for years and most of that is perfectly fine. Why? Because it keeps the scale in check. Recycling is not meant to be a mass phenomenon. Let’s look at India’s landfills. Landfill prices have decreased over the past several years, the reason is obvious.

As the environmental movement grows so does the demand for landfills, there is more demand and greater supply (more companies operating), so we now have more landfills but the law of diminishing returns tells us that just because there are more landfills it doesn’t mean there is more to waste or that consumption goes up. That amounts to less trash and more landfills–prices go down.

The cheaper the landfill, the harder it is to make a profit with recycling, this is a problem. Why? Because it means less incentives for environmental sustainability, since recycling is touted as a ‘environmental practice’. Perhaps we need better prices for recycled goods.

The economic issues surrounding recycling are at least quantifiable. The health and environmental benefits of recycling, including energy conservation, toxic emissions reductions, and preservation of resources are at best ambiguous. Advocates of recycling argue that the intangible benefits offer the most compelling case for recycling, I beg to differ.

Ultimately, over regulation and giving into a ‘popular’ policy, causes greater environmental costs than anything else.

Across the border – Part 1


So where was I? I was at Lahore. For the geographically challenged Lahore is (لاەور) is in the Eastern province of Punjab, which is to the west of India and just fifty minutes by flight from Delhi. Like most Indian cities, Lahore is a river side city built around Ravi.

On first sight Lahore reminds one of Delhi startlingly. What with billboards, lights and brown people and the short flight– I thought it was as good as flying to Chennai or Bombay. I am told that Lahore has close to nine million people and is the second largest city in Pakistan next to Karachi. Most people speak a curious cross version of Punjabi, Pashtu and Urdu which sounds remotely like Hindi and mostly like a flow of poetry.

Lahore is full of Mughal architecture and thousands of years of history. Take a look at my photographs of the city and its places here. I had gone to Lahore to participate in LUMUN ’05, a Model United Nations Conference held by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) for a week. The conference began after this and this. The first day was rather interesting, especially since this was my first ever MUN.

MUNs are I must confess on hindsight are an exercise in diplomacy and protocol. It has its virtues in that, one learns about how the United Nations actually makes its decisions. For most part, however, it is disappointing. Why? It is disappointing to know that a body like the UN makes its decisions in a process that lends its representatives 45 sec to express their point of view. The idea that one individual can represent all that their nation and people want, desire or believe is bad enough– without limiting speech to a mere 45 seconds.

The second trouble is with the idea of diplomacy. Yes, diplomacy is vital to negotiations but not so much so that nations use to it to avoid taking a stance on issues. More often that not, speaking out is what brings about reform. Despite this, I still managed to get a special mention for outstanding diplomacy!

I was representing Belgium on the UNDP committee. Belgium is a rather obscure nation with a neutral point of view on most things. Its hard to get embroiled in controversy when you represent such a nation. Apparently that is not true for me. Our committee voted to discuss disaster management in a crisis situation where Belgium, France, USA and Canada decided not provide monetary aid to Earthquake stricken India!

One part of me is inclined to think that this was deliberate for the following reasons: 1) I am an Indian 2) I was representing Belgium and 3) It put me in a pretty pickle mostly because I was a tad too undiplomatic and radical for the UN as my committe director later told me.

In the end we managed to pass a rather hilarious resolution that made it incumbent upon developed nations to give monetary aid to developing nations . The resolution was signed only by developing nations and passed!

I spend most days at the conference drafting working papers, fighting to stay awake after a mere half-hour’s sleep the previous nights and passing motions for entertainment now and then.

Pakistan Diaries II


I spent most of the morning stuffing clothes, socks and bunches of paper on Belgium’s free trade status in to my suitcase. Somewhere mid-way I also washed clothes, dried them and yelled at the maid. Later that afternoon I took an auto to meet my co-delegates to Pakistan. We stuffed ourselves in a blue Indica– one on top of the other and arrived at the airport ten minutes past scheduled check-in.

 

Going to Pakistan is pretty exciting. Customs officials scrutinizing baggage, the millions of stamps… Except that when you get to Lahore you feel like the overdone ‘International Experience’ was well just to another part of India. Exactly fifty minutes after we boarded the flight, captain announced our arrival to Lahore. So we landed. Then there were several lines to stand in and broad smiles at the airport from officials who were extremely nice to us. The airport was warm, but the flight had been cold so we all rushed to the loo. 🙂

We were then bundled into a rather rickety bus, by the people who came to receive us. Lahore from the Bus at about nine in the night is well… Like Delhi. Or at least the good parts. Wide roads, lights, huge billboards; but I must admit with a definitive intellectual air to it. We arrived at Lahore University of Management Sciences. The campus is like three IITs put together. Its beautiful. The infrastructure is devastating to a Delhi University student. Three computer Labs with at least a hundred working computers each! 😀 Dinner was yumm…! Chicken et al…

We spent most of the evening wandering through campus freezing our butts off… But it was fun. The came the not-so-pleasant bit when we sat up and wrote our papers for the conference in the LUMS library (which, by the way is huge and has a cartloads of amazing journals on just about everything– bound in red leather with gold lettering) and the computer labs till the wee hours of the morning.

That’s how yesterday melted into today.

Sigh


I just quit as the Debating Society president of college (after two long years) after a huge scene in front of my teachers. There are reasons (logical ones) which tell me that this is on the whole not really a terrible thing. For one this means I will have more time to study and pay attention to my future. Its bad because well…. It was ugly.I just learnt how difficult authority can be. I don’t mean my teachers. I’m talking about this woman who managed to steal credit for all my work. At one point she was a friend of mine. That was till I decided she could responsibly handle running the debating society set-up. I slowly got relegated to the outside. My opinion suddenly didn’t count. I suddenly wasn’t asked about decisions or things. And by some quirk of what I was still being blamed for everything that went wrong.

The tragedy is that this whole scenario isn’t new. This is the way it always works. This is what happens when you give people the power, they abuse it. Never mind who is losing out– even if it is the institution. Even if you are failing a legacy.

I feel no grief. The pain is but transient. Its just hard to watch something you’ve built crumble before your eyes.

Words


The most used letter in the English language is E. Ever counted the frequency of letters in a set of scrabble or literatti? People start losing when all the ‘E’s vanish. E’s are the stuff of the easiest of words, the simplest of pronouns and the commonest of usage… read shE, hE, mE….Ernest Vincent Wright’s 1939 novel Gadsby is written without the second vowel. One of the best known E-less works is Georges Perec’s French novel, La Disparition….

For some reason I find an E-less existence less than satisfactory and almost scary. Not too long ago I was wondering about the power of words. There is a sanctity to them. To every letter, every word and to the sequence that forms a clear, unambiguous meaning. What if I could not read or write? Would my perception of the world differ? Would my existence be less complete?

On language Idiots…


Back in Delhi I teach English at a foreign language institute. My job is funnier than it is frustrating. One of the first things I teach my students is to read sentences completely and subsequently (this is important) tell them to try and comprehend what they mean.A popular management institute that I have blogged much about in the past apparently does not believe in teaching its students the way I do. That they cannot tell sarcasm from normal speech is not as surprising to me as is the way they assume and presume and then proceed to extrapolate. One of these, went far enough to lie.

PS: In other news– The much discussed IP does not directly belong to IIPM. But take a look at this:

Net Range: 216.109.64.0216.109.95.255 belongs to ‘Savvis’ probably a company a web space or server provider IN the US and 216.109.76.15 is one of their servers… Guess who owns it ? ‘Delhi Net’ and on there website it says it is a part of ‘allindianet’. Incidentally, ‘ iipm.edu‘ is hosted at http://thewebhostingpeople.com/, which too, happens to be part of the ‘allindianetwork’. The comment  in question also came from the same net range. Co-incidence? I think not.

No I will not post the full e-mail header. Why? Because I intent to preserve my head and sanity– considering I have been threatened both in the e-mail and in subsequent comments I have received. I think that is only fair.

I am not a software techie and I am definitely female.

I did not, have not and will not apologize to IIPM.

Thanks to all of you continue to support free speech. To those of you who have left nasty comments and started new blogs- the reason I even I bother with you guys is because I still believe in free speech.