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Daughter of the Blue Hills, by Gita Abraham 326 Pages, published in 2020 by Notion Press

Not often do you encounter a novel written in English by an Indian author that uses authentic Indian characters and imagery as this book does.
Divya, the protagonist, is a 20-something medical doctor, with an MD from Vellore Medical College.

The action is set in Coonoor, “…a hill station in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu…known for its tea estates in the surrounding Nilgiri hills. Sim’s Park is a sprawling public garden with plants like rhododendrons, roses, and eucalyptus trees”, to quote Wikipedia. “blue Hills”, the title is a translation if “Nilgiri Hills”. As the narrator in the book points out, “Modern India has not made much headway into Coonoor’s amiable cocoon…houses still retained names such as Rosemary…The Gables…evoked an era that the rest of India has left behind”.

This tussle drama is set in Two-Tree House, “a house with a portico”, bought by Divya’s maternal grandfather from a British planter. Divya ran it “just as if her mother was there, no furniture was moved, no menu changed.”
blue hills
Dr Nandakumar, also a medical doctor and Divya’s father, has his clinic, plays golf, spends his free time in the Coonoor Club playing Bridge or Rummy, and whose wife, Divya’s mother, the ethereal and aristocratic Anasuya, has recently died.
Mohan Srinivasan an IIT Electrical Engineer with a PhD from a US university, son of Divya’s mother’s friend, and for who Divya has an eye on but towards who, Divya being a traditional Indian girl , in spite of her advanced education, dare not express any emotion.
Sarala Masilamani, the “Matron”, in Divya’s father’s clinic (‘the strict efficient nurse who ran Dr Nandakumar’s consulting room like a military camp”), who stirred in Dr Nandakumar passions he assumed had long since died.

This calm atmosphere suddenly changes by a sequence of events. First, Dr Nandakumar, Divya’s father, announces his desire to marry the matron, the matron changes her dress from her uniform and cap to expensive saris and box-heeled sandals. Then Divya’s pet dog Roxy mysteriously disappears.

The reader is left on tenterhooks…will Divya manage to work her way through these threats to her existence and well-being?

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Indians’ love for things Foreign …is this a virus more dangerous than Covid-19?

How often have I seen a situation, for example that of having to choose a professor for an a higher educational institution, or a senior manager for business organization when people around me urgently advise me to pick the candidate who has an foreign degree or foreign work experience. When I ask them, why, they look back at me with a puzzled look, as if I have raised a question about something that is so self-evident.

When the decision in question is about choosing “just another” professor or manager, it could be rationally justified as an attempt to provide a cultural mix that can only be for the good. But when it is for the head of an Indian Institute of Management or the head of a policy making national institution and I again raise the question why, again I get greeted with that puzzled look.
Its not that the persons so enamored with a foreign degree or foreign work experience are run-of-the-mill folks: I have seen current or former Secretaries to government or Managing Directors of successful businesses show those inclination for things foreign.

Some professional disciplines appear to be more prone to it than others: the economics profession seems to be more prone to it than others. Roles like the Reserve Bank of India Governors, or Economic Advisors to State or Central Governments must brandish a foreign degree/work experience (the current RBI Governor is an unusual exception to this hallowed rule). Its almost as if, after half-a-century of Independence and investment in higher education we just cannot seem to believe that our Universities cannot produce an Economic thinker good enough.

I have seen this personally most acutely in the choice of Directors of the Indian Institutes of Managements. Even if there are excellent and proven India-based internal candidates, the push from other Board members if to find a person who is currently a Professor in a foreign (often American university). And this push is irresistibly strong when the Chairman of the IIM in question which is looking for a Director has had no prior education at an IIM or IIT but is otherwise a successful business executive.

I can by now predict what happens when such an Non-Resident Indian candidate is chosen: he or she is by then in the final stages of their career often with a mere half-a-dozen years to go for retirement in their ,for example, American university and does not want, under any circumstance to jeopardize their retirement benefits from that university. Secondly, the families are firmly settled in America and cannot relocate to India. All this results in the chosen Director performing as a Guest Artist- visiting their Indian campus occasionally.
Again, its not this Guest Artiste role that causes the damage. Such visiting NRI Directors don’t have the time to make the 5-10 year emotional commitment to create any truly innovative Research Centre or a revolutionary Curriculum change.

I have seen otherwise great IIMs flounder for a decade after such an NRI Guest Artist Director choice.

And at the policy-making level, such Policy-Making-Guest Artistes during their tenure in India propagate the Western Fashion of the day being it the ideology of Socialism-Public-Sector-Primacy in the 1950-1970 period or the Low-Interest- Rates-Shareholder-Value-Maximization in the current era.

And at a more macro level, I have found something disturbing about Indian who pine to go to college abroad. Some of this passion for going abroad is part of being just practical: because entry into the top Indian post-grad institutions like the IIMs or the IITs or Medical Colleges (to name a few institution types) is extremely competitive. So, if your parents are well-to-do, all you need to get into a Harvard or Harvard-like prestigious educational institution is to ask your dad to write a fat cheque for your admission. The Pulitzer Prize winning 2005 book, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates by Daniel Golden spells out how this is done extensively.
The fervent desire to go abroad after an IIM or IIT degree is driven partly by a deeply held belief in some Indian families and communities that life abroad will be both fairer and materially more rewarding for them. And considering that practically all large Indian businesses are run by families it has become practically a iron-clad rule that they will be educated abroad and come back to run their family businesses. And since this foreign education stint is most often in the Arts and Commerce field, they return back to India with the entrenched belief that all technology-based innovation in business is best left to the West. Their role is to manage business through contacts and relationships.

All this has created a nation-wide culture that any kind of India-based innovation and thinking is not something that Indians can do. All intellectual creation is best left to the West. This complete distrust in any India-based innovation is rampant even among the current senior Civil Servants.
Is all this because of the several hundred years of British colonialization? Is that put a virus inside us Indians that leads to a distrust of things Indian particularly in matters of science and technology? This is clearly a virus more dangerous and more long-lasting than COVID-19, so, should we launch an equally vigorous struggle to eliminate this virus?
ajitb@rediffmail.com

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Discovering things about my little dog

Just the other day, on the way back from a weekend trip to Varanasi, my first trip there, we were idly glancing at the books in the airport bookstall there, when my eyes lit on a book that has made me question many assumptions in my life.

But, first the context. I have always been a dog lover. Shortly after setting up home in Mumbai, I adopted a dachshund. Like many obsessive dog lovers, I was the one who took him for walks morning and night, fed him, bathed him, and of course had him sleep on the same bed as us.

jilljill

my little dog


When he died a decade later, I had a beagle. A decade of cuddling and petting him, he passed on, and it was time for Churchill, a basset hound (named so because he had jowls like his namesake statesman).

After another decade, when Churchill passed on, we did something revolutionary: We adopted a pye-dog, a pariah dog, which we found wandering around the village near our weekend home in Alibag, across the bay of Bombay where we live.

These dogs are called ‘pye’ or ‘pie’ or even ‘pariah’ because they have no discernible breed; it is surmised that they are the result of unplanned cross-breeding between various ‘pure’-bred dogs.

This dog, a female pup, which we named JillJill, however, had some odd qualities.

First, it would not touch meat, but loved fish, unlike our earlier three dogs who seemed to live just for their twice-a-day meat portions.

Second, it was obsessively suspicious of anyone ringing our doorbell, unlike our earlier three well-bred dogs who welcomed all visitors to our home, ‘including robbers’ I groused in my mind.

Third, JillJill would attack viciously anyone who came close to me when I was sitting reading a book or having a drink. We and our fellow dog lovers put all this down to a possibly uncared-for puppyhood.

Finally, the string-like tail it had when it first arrived at our home, within weeks blossomed into a thick fan-like one, something like what some pure-bred dogs have. We then surmised that JillJill must have somewhere in its ancestry, a cross between its pye-dog ancestors and some well-bred bushy-tailed dog.

All of the above surmises so deeply ingrained in my belief structure must be the reason why I was thunderstruck when I opened The Book of Indian Dogs by S Theodore Baskaran at the Varanasi airport last weekend.

There, in the opening pages, was a picture of a dog who looked exactly like JillJill and which I learned was a ‘Bakharwal’, which were commonly bred and used by pastoral folks such as Gujjars to guard their cattle. Apparently, it was a pure Indian dog breed, not a bastardisation of a foreign ‘pure’ breed.

Book of Indian Dogs

Was JillJill’s antipathy to mutton and beef part of a centuries-old antipathy bred into her because sheep and cattle where what her ancestors reared and were employed to protect?

As I stood there at the Varanasi airport, transfixed, devouring that book, shattering one assumption that I had after the other, I learned that the origin of the domesticated dog was not, as I and my dog lover friends has assumed, from Europe.

DNA studies of 5,000 dogs from 38 countries done by scientists at Cornell University now place the origin of the domestic dog as Central Asia and more specifically in the area between Mongolia and Nepal. Terracotta figurines of dogs with collars have been found at Mohenjodaro, thus dating the domestic dog in India at 3500-1700 BC!

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Goa: Beyond the sun, beaches, food and feni

When I started reading Vatsala Mendonca’s book, The Shadow of the Palm Tree, the first thought that struck me was God! I thought Goa was only about than sun, sand pork vindaloo and feni; I had no idea that behind the charming, ever smiling Goan faces, there is so much complexity and history!

Take for example the palm tree, that ubiquitous object that we find all along the west coast of India. In Vatsala Mendonca’s Goa, they are not merely trees with long stems with a frond of leaves on top. Their gentle swaying in the sea breeze soothes the characters, they know that the ancient Egyptian god Huh was shown always with a palm in his hands, for the Greeks it was a symbol of Apollo, the Romans rewarded their heroes with palms, the Hindu’s wrote their scriptures on treated palm leaves and Mohammed built his home out of palms and a palm tree is planted to commemorate the birth of each son.

book cover

At one level this novel is an account of Abreau family, a wealthy, land-owning family in Goa and traces its evolution, from the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in the early part of the 16th century to the take-over by India in the 1960′s.

Salvador Abreau and his wife Dona Teresa and have five children. As is the practice in well-to-do Goan Christian families, according to the author, one son Luis follows his father’s profession of law, another, Miguel, becomes a priest and third, Joseph, a medical doctor, and Anne, the daughter is left for marriage. Salvador himself is a lawyer who spends his days practicing law in court and his evenings drinking feni and writing poetry. Then there is Salvador’s sister, Tia Rosa, whose dream of a home and family of her own did not work out and so continues living in the Abreau home “loveless yet desperately yearning for love”.

The Abreau family acquires its wealth by participating in the African slave trade; the European attempt to capitalize on the lands they acquired in North and South America had created an almost unending demand for African slaves. In a similar fashion, ships sailed from Goa to Mozambique carrying spices and hardwoods and returned with shiploads of African slaves.

At another level this novel shares a point of view with Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel ‘Sula’ in seeking explanations of a character’s behaviour not as is usually done in fiction in society, psychological make up, or the socio-economic background of the character but in the complex legacy of racial heritage, slavery and patriarchy.

Still another level at which this book operates is that of Latin American novelists which its foremost exponent, Gabriel Marquez, described in his Nobel Acceptance Speech as invoking “a sense of the incorruptible superiority of fate and the inhuman, inexorable ravages of history.” Thus, major historical events like Goa’s involvement with the African Slave Trade are alluded to but in the Latin American literary tradition are seen through their effects on the lives of characters rather than being described; destino is what is invoked to explain events.

The destino of the Abreau family is traced back to the founder Tomas Abreau and his role in kidnapping Immaculada, a beautiful young “negra” in a raid on a Mozambique village and bringing her to Goa. Though Immaculada and her descendants continue to serve in the Abreau family, “destino” ensures that no woman of the Abreau family through the generations is happy.

The novel’s pivot point is when Dona Teresa, the mother of Miguel, Luis, Joseph and Anne, throws herself in to a well and drowns. Each chapter of the book is in the voice of each of these children trying to make sense of this event.

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How the Web Lost its Innocence… …and how we can win it back

It all started in 1989 with an inter-office memo describing in very humble words a “… way to link and access information of various kinds … in which the user can browse at will. [through] a single user-interface to large classes of information (reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line help…”. That was Tim Berners Lee, an Englishman and his colleague,  R. Cailliau, working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research located just outside Geneva. After describing some of the technical aspects it proposed its ends with the goal “to provide the software for the above free of charge to anyone”.

Starting from this universalistic desire to make all sorts of information available for free to all comers, how did we end up in a disconcerting world dominated by five American companies that New York Times recently called “The Frightful Five” and who are alleged to be complicit in providing the tools to fix the election of the current American President, Donald Trump and for British voters shocking vote for Brexit, Britain’s exit from European Union? And a world, where the European Union has just brought into effect very strict rules and hefty financial penalties for wrong use of data relating to European Union residents. And a world where the Right to be Forgotten is beginning to be seen as a fundamental human right!

Social networks, originally conceived as places were like-minded people could gather and chat about either arcane subjects like programming languages or societal injustices or merely flirt are suddenly being viewed with suspicion. Will my opinions on societal injustices or who I flirted with be used against me in some other context? Will data about products I expressed an interest in on a shopping site or how often I opened and read a free newsletter be used against me somewhere else?

Being an early follower of the World Wide Web and its innocent and egalitarian goals, I nowadays find myself drifting into a reverie like some of us do when childhood memories of loving parents and happy schoolmates come back. I then pinch myself awake and ask myself are all the bad things being said about the Web and its players just another example of NeoLuddism ( in case you have forgotten your high school history, the Luddites were a radical group of English textile workers and weavers who in the early 19th century destroyed textile machinery as a form of protest against The Industrial Revolution)? In that sense, are the protests against possible misuse of user data an attempt to “destroy the machinery” of the Information Revolution?

Or is it a surrogate protest against the worldwide dominance of five American companies against whom the only form of protection appears to be to close your borders against them as China has done? Just “protectionism” to help your national players?

Even the question about how these five American companies came to achieve such dominance is not easy to get a consensus about. One common strand of thought points to the deep links both technical and financial with the American Government. To start with, the Internet was built at the instance and full financial support of the US Department of Defence. That same entity, unlike other countries’ Defence Departments does a very good job of posing challenging technical problems and funding the solutions for these problems provides an indirect support to these American tech companies. There is an excellent and scholarly account of this in Sussex University professor Mariana Mazzucato’s book ,The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, which makes the point that it is the US Department of Defence, not venture capitalists and tech visionaries, that have given US tech companies the elixir. She uses the iPhone as an example to show how practically every element of the technology in his beloved device is an outcome of such defence projects: the multi-touch screen, the GPS system, the microprocessor, the memory device, cell phone technology and, most of all, the internet itself. The basic learning here is to see, in India, for example, how our own Defence establishment can similarly stimulate technology and product development.

What is worth really worrying about is that in this frenzy of anxiety about “Data Protection”, “Privacy”, “The Frightful Five” and so on, we need to focus our policy making effort to get the best of the web for our ordinary citizens. For example help India’s kirana shops who provide 50% of employment in India (particularly for young Indians dropping out of school at Class 10 for economic reasons) use the internet to increase their service quality and profitability (not silently watch them being destroyed by Private Equity-funded price-subsidized ecommerce players), help our kaali-peeli taxi drivers/owners grow ( not silently watch them being destroyed by Private Equity-funded price-subsidized taxi players), help our courts brings down their years-long waiting list (not silently watch the legal industry profit at the cost of citizens by repeated postponement of hearings), and perhaps, most of all, create a domestically owned large enough number of early-stage Venture Equity funds ( not be a slave to foreign owned ones who will fund only models which have worked in their home countries).

These are the just some of the many ways that exist for returning the Web to its original egalitarian goals in India.

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Does the literature Nobel to Bob Dylan mean changing times?

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind

The announcement last week that the American pop singer Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature has raised many eyebrows in the literary world. Is this event an acknowledgement that the word “literature”, which till now, has meant “written works”, especially those considered of “superior or lasting artistic merit”, no longer need be “written” but can also be sung? Or is it an acknowledgement that the printed word no longer reigns? Or even that a felicity in writing is no longer the defining point of learnedness?

I remember clearly the day I heard Dylan for the first time. It was 1964, I was in my final year at school in my home town, Cannanore, a small town in the Malabar coast of Kerala, my ears peeled to the music from Radio Ceylon coming out of a Murphy Radio nearly as big as a present-day refrigerator (transistor radios were a few years away). Radio Ceylon, at that time was the only source of international music and news from outside our little nook of India (television was also a few years into the future). Why was I so attentive to the sounds coming out? It was a miraculous time for music and movies with musicians and film makers in a frenzy of creativity and the world seemingly on the precipice of change like it had never been before. In India, for one, “Midnight’s Children”, people like me born right after Independence and in free India, were coming of age and graduating out of high school. In the United States, Martin Luther King had that year electrified the world with his “I have a Dream” speech, triggering the civil rights movement that would in time lead to a fairer world from African-Americans. Cinema was entering its golden age, with films like Lawrence of Arabia, Psycho and closer home, Mughul-e-Azam, Barsaat ki Raat and Bandini. The world would not be the same place again! We were living in revolutionary times!

Dylan’s music was the voice of those times with songs like, The times they are a changing (“There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’, It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls”), A Hard Rain is a-gonna fall ( “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken, I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children”), music no longer was sung in praise of the gods or by moonstruck lovers- real social issues were brought in and it was electrifying.

Ever since Johannes Gutenberg, in 1450, invented movable type, a method of casting this type on to a mould, and thus made inexpensive printing possible, the printed book has been a powerful instrument in shaping the world. Gutenberg’s first “hit” with his new process invention was, of course, the Bible and it is believed that the Protestant Reformation might not have been possible without the inexpensively printed Bible; religion no longer was just a prerogative of churches and priests; thanks to the possession of the Bible, every household could reach out to god directly.

Is Dylan’s Noble Prize yet another signal that of what David J. Gunkel, the American academic see as signalling that the times we live in as “the late age of the text” and a period of transition from print to electronic culture? Or merely a long overdue acknowledgement that popular music (of the 1960’s particularly) has had greater poetic values than poetry itself: for instance:

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly

Before they’re forever banned?

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Dylan, when interviewed about the meaning of the song had this to say: “There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind – and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some …But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know . . . and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.”

If this isn’t poetry, what is?

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How to build world-dominating businesses

A few days ago I found myself sitting at the longest table I have ever seen in my life listening to a discussion on what are the technologies that will be influential: what jobs will these jobs create, what jobs will they destroy in the coming fifteen years. One side of this long table was filled by people working for NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India)and my side of the table had a dozen or so people like me: entrepreneurs as well as executives from large Indian business groups, people heading think tanks and management consulting companies. Towards the fag end of this multi-hour meeting of give and take, Dr Arvind Panagariya, the Columbia University economics professor and current head of NITI Aayog raised a question: “What does it take India to produce companies like Google and Microsoft? While there was not enough time to debate this question that day, this question has been ringing in my head since then.

I guess what the question really meant was what does it take for India to produce world dominating companies, companies that operate in the Information Age (and not smoke stack, mining or real estate businesses), companies which compete on the basis of the sophisticated technologies they employ to make their products easy to use as opposed to companies that compete on the basis of the cheapness of labour employed by them.

I think the first port of call to start finding an answer to this apparently innocuous but in reality complicated question is to go to the internet (yes, to Google, where else :-)) and locate a scholarly paper using the key words, “Brin”, “Page”, “Page rank”. When you have done downloading it, ignore all the tech stuff and merely look at the two dozen words on the first page where the authors thank people who made the 1998 paper possible: “The research described here was conducted as part of the Stanford Integrated Digital Library Project, supported by the National Science Foundation…Funding for this cooperative agreement is also provided by DARPA and NASA”.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page are of course the founders of Google, the paper you just glanced at is the paper which proposes the technology Brin and Page used to build the Google search engine. Wait, look at a little closer at the acknowledgements: Stanford University already had a project trying to make sense of the newly emerging internet as far back as 1998 when the rest of the world barely had heard of the internet. And finally, look at the source of funding: “DARPA” stands for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency- note how American defence interests and university research funding and creation of companies like Google are so intimately inter-twined.

So, one way of rephrasing the NITI Aayog question is why is it that in India universities do not initiate visionary projects that anticipate future technologies like the Stanford Digital Library project. A related question, why doesn’t Indian defence establishment (DRDO?) not pose research questions to our universities and back it with funding like the American Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency? While I will, in a moment, answer the India question, for those who want to decode how such intimacy and confluence of interest has happened between Defence interests and American universities like Stanford, there is no better place to start than Rebecca Lowen’s 1997 book, Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford. Professor Lowen’s (she teaches at Stanford) thesis is that university administrators faced with financial pressures and seeing the flush-with-funds American defence sector during the Cold War remade the American University into “cold war universities”, “recipients of Defence Department patronage and close relationships to private industrial concerns, many of which were developing war-related technologies”.

A related line of enquiry reveals the hand of the US Defence Department behind that device which practically all those present that day across the large conference must have had in their pockets: The Apple iPhone. I wish I had distributed copies that day of Professor Mariana Mazzucato’s book about the hidden hand of the American State behind the iPhone: The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths.  In this book she points out that in the United States, it is a myth the myth that it is the dynamism of the private sector that drives innovation, she shows that the private sector only finds the courage to invest after an entrepreneurial state has made the high-risk investments. She points out that every technology that makes the iPhone so ‘smart’ was government funded: its touch-screen display, the voice-activated Siri, the Geographic Positioning System and related map data which detects your location and gives you helpful directions, not to mention the internet itself, the microprocessor that drives it, as well the cellular technology which makes all mobile phones possible.

The secret to transforming what could have been a heavy hand of government that stifles all initiatives lies in the processes that DARPA follows, says Professor Mazzucato. “It facilitates workshops for researchers to gather and share ideas while also learning of the paths identified as ‘dead ends’ by others. DARPA officers engage in business and technological brokering—linking university researchers to entrepreneurs interested in starting a new firm; connecting start-up firms with venture capitalists; finding a larger company to commercialise the technology; or assisting in procuring a government contract to support the commercialisation process. DARPA funding is provided to a mix of university-based researchers, start-up firms, established firms and industry consortia”. So, the answer to the question, how to create world- conquering companies may be this: how to make the Indian State become more entrepreneurial.

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Impending Broadband Wars in India

…and what combatants must keep in mind

While we in India are busy fighting over the rights and responsibilities of moving from the subsistence agricultural existence to the industrial era (“land bill”) or over how the profits from digging up coal and lighting up more brick-kilns and coal-fired boilers will be divided (“coal bill”), there is a similar yet different battle going on in the United States. It is a battle that is similar to the land and coal battles in India in the sense that this battle in the US is also about who gets what rights in exploiting a public resource. Yet, it is different in that it is not about rights in the Industrial Age (those issues were settled in the US in the 1930’s) but about rights in the Information Age.

The issue at stake in the US is whether broadband service providers are “common carriers” or whether they are not. Promoters of the view that they are common carriers shout from the rooftops that if the US government does not declare that broadband service providers are common carriers, freedom of expression will be lost forever. The coalition that is on this side are organizations such as Free Press, Public Knowledge, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Common Cause.

Opposing them are telecom providers such as Verizon, AT&T and all of the cable TV industry who make the case that they are not “common carriers” and thus can charge different rates to different channels they carry and that if such differentially priced deals are not allowed, broadband service providers would no longer have the financial incentive to build networks or invest in innovation.

Why does the term “common carrier” carry such incendiary connotations? A common carrier is a person or company that offers services to transport goods or people for the general public under license or authority provided by a regulatory body. A common carrier differs from a “contract carrier” or a “private carrier” in that they transport goods for only a certain number of customers and that can refuse to transport goods for anyone else. Public airlines, railroads, bus lines, taxicab companies are examples of common carriers.

Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor argues that no authority should be able to decide what kind of information is and isn’t allowed on the Internet. Wu has documented in his book, now considered a classic, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires how the great information empires of the 20th century have followed a clear and distinctive pattern: after the initial free competition that follows a major technological innovation one corporate power or another emerges that takes control of the new medium and operated what Wu calls “the master switch”. He describes those decisive moments when a medium opens or closes in the history of phones, radio, television, movies and the Internet. All of these businesses are susceptible to the cycle of initial open-ness and then closure and monopoly because all depend on networks, whether they’re composed of cables in the ground or movie theaters around the country. Once a company starts building such a network it will eventually gain control over it and begin moving towards being a monopoly, closes the network to others and all innovation ceases.

Let me paraphrase Tim Wu’s concerns using an Indian context: If broadband service providers, largely telecom companies such as Vodaphone, Airtel, BSNL and increasingly cable operators, start to strike deals with companies such as Star TV or NDTV or Times Now, (or for that matter Google or Twitter) to carry their channels in preference to others because of financial deals that they make with these channels the battle will no longer be about who has a better product but about who can make the better deal. Another example is Toyota or Honda striking a deal with the Bombay Municipal Corporation that Marine Drive in Bombay would be accessible only to their brand of cars. If such deals were allowed, the basis of competition in the car industry would change. Car makers would, instead of trying to make the best product, make deals with highway operators.

“What we’re ultimately asking”, says Wu, “is a question that Adam Smith struggled with. Is there something special about “carriers” and infrastructure—roads, canals, electric grids, trains, the Internet—that mandates special treatment? Since about the 17th century, there’s been a strong sense that basic transport networks should serve the public interest without discrimination. This might be because so much depends on them: They catalyze entire industries…”

On February 26, 2015, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC),the regulator in the US and the rough equivalent of our TRAI, ruled that broadband providers are “common carriers”. So, Round One in this battle has gone against the telecom companies who provide broadband services, but you can be sure that more litigation will follow.

Do we need to worry about such things here in India? The World Bank’s index of how widespread is high speed broadband access in a country says that for 100 people in India only 1 has access to high speed broadband compared to 14 per hundred Chinese, 10 per hundred Brazilians and 29 per hundred Americans, so it would appear that we have quite a few years before we need to worry about such issues. But, on the other hand, the direction of technological development in the world is overwhelmingly pointing to imminent breakthroughs that will make high end services such as education and healthcare more affordable by using high speed broadband such services, so is it worth considering declaring, as the US has done, our broadband carriers as “common carriers”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hail the Invisible Hand of the State

The current debate in India about how to trigger a quantum jump in industrial manufacturing activity and thus create large scale employment is largely centered on ways to reduce the role of the State- in allotting land, in environmental clearances, in firing workmen and so on. Yet, the case studies of two industries which came from origins even smaller than where manufacturing is today and have become international success stories, the Indian pharma industry and the Indian information technology services industry, proves the opposite point. Neither would have come to their current stellar role in the Indian economy without the active but largely invisible hand of the Indian State.

The Indian pharma industry has grown from minuscule revenues in the late 1960’s to a world player with an annual revenue of $ 40 billion (of which $ 15bn is in exports) and an activity base of 20,000+ manufacturing units employing over 29 million people. The case of the software services industry is even more striking; it employed just 8,500 people in 1990 and had a revenue of a mere $165m (tiny Ireland had a $185 million software industry at that time). Today its size is $118 billion with $100 billion as exports. The people directly employed in the industry is reported as exceeding 2 million with another 7 million employed indirectly. Both these industries have also created multiplier effects in sectors such as housing construction, transport services, and household goods as young chemists and programmers set up homes and bought cars and home appliances.

What was the magic? Unfortunately, finding the key to these success stories is like that old tale of the blind men of “Hindoostan,” who, when asked to describe an elephant, said that it was like a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan, or rope, depending upon which part of the elephant each touched.

Proponents of the “market economy” will say that the success of these two industries is an example of what energetic Indian entrepreneurs can achieve when the government of India steps aside. Reinforcing this view is India’s business press, which frequently features stories about software and pharma industry millionaires. Proponents of ‘“globalization,” such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in his book The World Is Flat, credit globalization: increased world trade that spreads prosperity around the world. Proponents of “privatization” say that decades of public sector efforts in these industries (Electronics Corporation of India in the case of IT and Hindustan Antibiotics are often quoted as examples) came to nothing until the private sector was “allowed” to participate. To them, this is proof that the government needs to privatize many other industries as well. And of course there are those that say that the State’s only role should be to provide zero-income tax on export incomes, government-sponsored software parks and export zones.

But actual case studies of these two industries tell another story. The rise of the Indian software services industry can be traced back to two mega projects sponsored by the government of India: the computerization of public sector banks and Indian Railways. These two projects, apart from providing an impetus to the startup and growth of hundreds of software development companies, also had another dimension. Far sighted government policymakers like Dr Seshagiri of what was then called the Department of Electronics, the forerunner to the current Ministry of IT, insisted that these applications be built using such technologies as the Unix Operating System and Relational Database systems; the world was then getting ready for a paradigm change that would unleash an insatiable wave of demand for computer programmers well versed in these specific technologies as the world shifted from mainframe computers to client server computers. Thanks to the Banking and Railway projects, Indian companies had a ready stock of thousands of software programmers well-versed in these new technologies who could be immediately deployed on assignments abroad.

The rise of India’s pharmaceutical industry is based on similar visionary moves by the Indian State. In 1970, the government introduced a new Patents Act reforming the 1911, which excluded pharmaceuticals and agrochemical products from eligibility for patents. Patents on molecules, which are products of chemical reactions or on mere admixtures and the like were made non-patentable in India. Only the method of making the product was patentable. This resulted in the Indian pharmaceutical industry developing considerable expertise in reverse engineering of drugs that are patentable as products throughout the industrialized world but not patentable in India.

You need to peer really hard to detect this kind of invisible hand of the State. Professor Marianna Mazzucato, Professor of Science and Technology at the University of Sussex and the author of The Entrepreneurial State – Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths did just this and uncovered the role of the American State behind what is generally seen as the ultimate artifact of entrepreneurial vision, the Apple iPhone. “What actually makes the iPhone a smartphone, instead of a stupid phone?” she asks in a recent TED talk. And answers that it is the Internet, the Global Positioning System (GPS), which detects your geographic location, the touchscreen display which makes it also a really easy-to-use phone. She points out that “the very smart, revolutionary bits about the iPhone, are… all government-funded. ….the Internet was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States. The GPS was funded by the [US] military’s Navstar program…the touchscreen display was funded by two public grants by the CIA and the US National Science Foundation”, and in the American pharmaceutical industry, “a full 75 percent of the new molecular entities with priority rating are actually funded in boring, Kafkian [US government] public sector labs”.

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Coming to India and Making

This is my analysis of the Indian government’s call to all to come to India and manufacture

When the talk turns to finding jobs for India’s young millions, “manufacturing” is invoked- if only India could manage to build a strong manufacturing sector just as our sibling rival China has done, all our job creation worries would disappear.

But it is perhaps also true that the word “manufacturing” evokes a vision of mindless, repetitive work on an assembly line first caricatured in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, poor Charlie plodding away at a relentlessly moving assembly line watched over by a distrusting supervisor.

Thus it is no wonder that solutions proposed for the “manufacturing problem” in India oversimplifies the issue: change labour laws that makes firing of workers easier than it is at present, make land available cheap (preferably free), declare tax holidays and so on. But there is some evidence from scholars who know a thing or two about manufacturing that most of this may be wishful thinking and the real solutions may lie elsewhere. Success in manufacturing is not just about being cheap- cheap labour, cheap land, cheap power and low/no taxes

Prof Suzzanne Berger of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who co-chaired the blue ribbon Production in the Innovation Economy Commission setup to study this problem for the American economy (yes, they too yearn for more manufacturing jobs) points out that German manufacturing workers are paid 66 percent higher wages than American workers but Germany has $20 billion a month trade surplus in manufacturing whereas the United States for the same month under study, October 2012, had a $14 billion trade deficit. So, even in America, low wages are not the key to manufacturing success. She casts a similar skeptical eye on the popular explanations for China’s rise in manufacturing, most famously symbolized by Foxconn whose factory in Shenzen, China, makes all the iPhones, IPads and other state-of-the art Apple products that we all love. Analyses of Chinese growth, she says, emphasize low wage labour, foreign direct investors bringing capital and manufacturing export experience from Taiwan, Hong Kong and the West, cheap land, cheap loans and a protected and undervalued currency. She says the key to the success of Chinese manufacturers is that they excel at all forms of innovation that incorporate, enable and rapidly deliver products and solutions at the technological frontier even though they do not themselves initiate these technological innovations. An Apple manager, quoted in the New York Times explaining why they make iPhones, iPads and iPods in China says, “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little different? It will take three hours.” It is, she says, the ecosystem that provides the competitive advantage to Chinese manufacturers.

n reality, all “manufacturing” and all manufacturers are not the same. One dimension to see the difference is by the degree of R&D intensity, as a recent study in the European Union did. At the lowest technological edge are units that make furniture, clothing and tobacco products. At the next higher level are units that basic metals, rubber and fabricated metal products. Above them are the car makers and the makers of medical equipment. At the highest technological level are those who make pharmaceutical, computer and optical products. What is needed to nurture and grow each of these types of manufacturing is different.

Unknown to many in India, a Japanese academic, Professor Shoji Shiba, has been working for the past decade to transform Indian manufacturing. He has been trying to sensitize Indian managers and policy makers that success in manufacturing depends mastering how to reduce the time to market from the moment you conceive of a new product or a new feature in an old product, how to reduce frequent interruptions in production and so on. Thinking back over his work, he says the key to solving the Indian manufacturing puzzle is to change the widely held Indian understanding of manufacturing in the limited sense of “production”. This he calls the “small m” mindset. Manufacturing success depends on mastering several related aspects: design, research and development, sales and supply chain. Truly great manufacturing managers also need to understand issues like environmental change, societal change as well as technological change. His clarion call is to change the ‘small m’ mindset among Indian managers and policy makers to ‘BIG M’. Encouraged by people like Sarita Nagpal of CII, industrialists like Surinder Kapur and Jamshed Godrej and Dr Krishnamurthy, Professor Shiba has been driving a management education programme called the Visionary Leaders in Manufacturing in line with its goal of training a new generation of visionary leaders in Indian manufacturing. Students who join this programme spend their first three terms at IIM Calcutta, the next two terms at IIT Kanpur and IIT Madras respectively and return to IIM Calcutta for the final term.

It was William Blake who in his 1804 poem used the term “satanic mills” to describe the factories of the first Industrial Revolution that were springing up around him and thus encouraged many to view factories and factory work as grim and uncreative. May be it is time we left that antiquated notion about manufacturing behind us.

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