Archive for category Politics

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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Mining Twitter for insight on Delhi Elections

We have been pushing hard on the Data Journalism front- here is some work we did recently.

So, with the Delhi assembly elections weeks away, we decided to dip a barometer into the social media world to gauge the political chatter.

We looked at re-tweets — a re-tweet is seen as an endorsement.

And we chose what you can call the twitterati — people who make an effort to be heard on Twitter; many are journalists and in that sense their influence may be disproportionate to their numbers.

We looked only at re-tweets from the Twitter ID of these personalities — such as Congress politicians (digvijaya_28, JhaSanjay, priyankac19, PMOIndia), Bharatiya Janata Party politicians (RajnathSingh, SushmaSwaraj, narendramodi, nitingadkari, VijayGoel), Aam Aadmi Party members (sanjayazadsln, ArvindKejriwal, AapYogendra, thekiranbedi), and high-profile journalists (KanchanGupta, swapan55, minhazmerchant, madhukishwar, sardesairajdeep, BDUTT, sagarikaghose, vikramchandra, AmolSharmaWsj, SachinKalbag, madversity, rahulkanwal).

We focused on re-tweets about topics that matter to Delhi-ites — such as elections, law and order, power cuts, women’s safety, corruption, inflation, unemployment, Lokpal, ordinance, Batla House, onions, Delhi, rapes,  electricity, prices, cost, traffic, water, shortage, scarcity.

As you can see from re-tweets for six days ending October 30, the Delhi twitterati have overwhelmingly endorsed stuff from BJP and Aam Admi sources.

The official Congress sources and even the Prime Minister’s Office are soft voices, barely audible on these Delhi-centric topics.

You can see a close-up of this here

In the coming days we will show you who the most active re-tweeters are for each party and what topics excite them to re-tweet to most.

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The Third Voice

First appeared the Business Standard

The comment that our normally mild-mannered and scholarly prime minister was reported to have made in an interview with Science magazine, that “There are NGOs [non-governmental organisations], often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces…”, continued to ring in my head for several months. Was there more to NGOs than I had thought so far – at best, an independent third voice in India, bringing specialised expertise to areas such as health care and environment; at worst, idealists clamouring for a way the world ought to be rather than what it was?

I stayed in this stage of puzzlement for a few months till I encountered an article by Professor Nimruji Jammulamadaka of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, in The Critical Review, a scholarly journal devoted to politics and society. The article, “The Needs of the Needy or the Needs of the Donors?”, takes a close look at 5,000 NGOs operating in about a thousand mandals, or administrative divisions, in Andhra Pradesh and running close to 2,000 projects. The focus of her investigation was to establish what factors – or independent variables – explained the number of NGOs in each mandal. In other words, if some mandals had more NGOs than others, what factors explained this. Her first finding was that NGOs begot NGOs – that is, if a mandal already had NGOs operating in the area, there was a greater chance of more NGOs being formed there. Her second finding was that the more extensive the activities of Christian missions in a mandal, the greater the chance of finding other NGOs there. Her third finding was that the easier the availability of funding (mostly from international sources) for some mandals, the greater the chance of NGOs being founded there – the Naxal-prone areas of Andhra Pradesh, for example, do not attract much funding and, thus, have far fewer NGOs. All these findings lead Professor Jammulamadaka to the question in her title: do NGOs get created and sustained to cater to the needs of the needy, or do they exist to cater to the needs of their donors?

A marker of the Indian NGO world is the transnational links that these organisations have forged that offer them increased leverage and autonomy, thereby allowing them to enter into conflicts with governments. But this has its hazards as well, says William Fisher of Harvard in his article titled “Doing Good? The Politics and Antipolitics of NGO Practices” (Annual Review of Anthropology). By depending on this kind of international funding, constituencies become “customers” and members become “clients”. This process of co-option of NGOs by development agencies, he says, is by now so advanced that NGOs may be destined to become little more than the frontmen for such interests.

The classic definition of an NGO is that it is a non-profit, voluntary citizens’ group, driven by people who share a common interest, perform a variety of service and humanitarian functions, and who bring citizens’ concerns to governments’ attention. In this sense, an NGO is merely an organisation form that “civil society” takes, a third voice, distinct from government and business, and includes a range of “intermediary institutions” – professional associations, religious groups and citizen advocacy organisations – that give voice to various sectors of society and, when done right, enrich public participation. But as someone pointed out, this could also include the Ku Klux Klan.

As I reflected on this insight, a sudden and more worrying thought struck me. Is it possible that these large numbers of NGOs (remember that Professor Jammulamadaka’s study had found 5,000 NGOs in just one state, Andhra Pradesh) act as a platform for what Leela Fernandes, professor of political science at Rutgers University, in her book, India’s New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform, calls the “New Middle Class” – an increasingly assertive group that “began to engage in a form of backlash protest politics against a democratic political field that they perceived as having been captured by previously marginalised social groups”. This newly assertive group, she says, is largely made up of the English-educated urban professionals. Are NGOs in India, then, merely a voice for this group?

A Reader Comment by email

I read your article in the Business Standard “ The Third Voice “, and I think the findings from the papers you quoted are entirely not true or have been arrived at by insufficient research or what we say “ convenient research “. There are 1.2 million NGO’s in the country and only 30,000 of them receive foreign funds . The Prime Minister’s office had retracted the statement after his report was published in Science. The author or the journalist who interviewed the Prime Minister Mr Pallav Bagla had indicated that the PM had only stated it in the context of the nuclear plant at Kudankalam. However the agitation continues there and no foreign funds have been detected. The real issue is that civil society reflects and voices the problems of the people and many such activists have spent years in the rural areas with a vision to transform India. I for one, am an engineer from BITS pilani and have worked for 30 years in rural India for elderly who are neglected by their own children.

I am attached a soft copy of my book on civil society which will help you  understand the good work being done in the sector across India even in Naxal areas. When we worked in Chandrapur, Maharashtra even the Naxals never touched us or harassed us. However media is not or never interested in writing on such work and will only cover the negative stories of civil society.
I hope you will write a piece more positive on the work being done by the sector . The bulk of the sector works with out foreign money ( 90 % of the NGO’s do not receive foreign funds or from mission organisations).
Best regards, Mathew

Mathew Cherian, Chief Executive, HelpAge India


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The battle about Big Data

In many forums in the world one can hear the call of bugles and the rattle of drums as a new set of battles loom- battles about who owns what data and for what purpose.

According to the scholars Martin Hilbert and Priscila López writing in the February 2011 issue of Science magazine, up until the year 2000, much of the world’s data was stored in “analog” formats and on paper ( reports, books, newspapers and magazines) and film (x-rays, photo negatives, movies, TV programmes). That year marked a turning point when the world switched to storing stuff in digital form on PC and server hard disks, memory cards and the internal storage of cameras, mobile phones and camcorders. Since this shift, they say, the amount of data captured and stored has increased exponentially.With this torrent of data, or Big Data, have come battles about who holds this Big Data, for what purpose and whose benefit.
The value of data is contextual. A nurse encountering a baby with high temperature will conclude that the baby is unwell and requires care; she is using data in a rules-based way. If the number of babies being brought in with elevated temperatures suddenly increases, hospital administrators may temporarily allocate more nurses to the paediatric department. This is a tactical use of data. At the Health policy level of state or country what is of value are broad patterns in data across hospitals or across years.

Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite of the Australian National University in Canberra, warn of an emerging era of “Information Feudalism”. They say that in Europe in the Dark Ages, the period after the fall of the Roman Empire, the established patterns of order and security broke down and small landholders unable to protect themselves against the attacks of brigands and barbaric tribes offered their land and services to more powerful neigbours who they thought would protect them. Land and liberty was thus swapped for physical security. Thus was feudalism born. Feudal lords gained enormous wealth and power and the social subordination and services of the majority, the peasant serfs. The Russian novel, “The Brothers Karamazov” dramatizes the power of these feudal lords. A peasant mother is forced to watch her young son being torn apart by a pack of hunting hounds because her boy had accidentally injured the paw of the master’s favourite hound.

Drahos and Braithwaite provocatively suggest that business people who are pushing for ever tighter copyright and patent laws through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) are the modern day equivalent of feudal lords. If in the medieval era power lay in the hands of those who controlled land, in our present era, the source of power lies in the control of information and data.  They warn against the emergence of Information Feudalism because of the transfer of knowledge assets from the intellectual commons into the hands of media conglomerates and life sciences corporations rather than individual scientist and authors. This, they argue, has the effect of raising the level of “private monopolistic power to dangerous global heights, at a time when states, which have been weakened by the forces of globalization, have less capacity to protect their citizens from the consequence of the exercise of this power”. It was the loss of Rome’s capacity to protect its cizens that provided the conditions for the emergence of feudalism.

There is an inherent clash of interests between businesses push to make profits from data and citizens need to protect their privacy and the national need for security policy makers must balance these competing interests. They can do this by ensuring that the underlying legislation on copyright and patents reflect this need for balance and that there is an adequate investment in the information and communication infrastructure. Most of all ensure that there is an incentive for sharing data for the greater good.

There are constructive ways to use Big Data available with public agencies. New York City, for example, has made 350 data sets from 40 different public agencies under its control available to the public via application programming interfaces (APIs). Citizen programmers are using their imagination and free time to create free Apps that citizens can download onto their mobile phones and tablets. The “Water-on-the-Go” App, for example, helps users find the various locations in the New York City where clean tap water is available at a token cost for thirsty citizens. This free app supported a city government initiative to encourage citizens to drink water in preference to soft drinks (a typical can of which contains 150 calories, the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar) and reduce the use of plastic bottles. For examples of other imaginative apps that work off public data:


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Decoding India’s Corruption Wars

A shorter version of this appeared in the Business Standard

Nowadays, I find my mind turning to memories of a granduncle. He was over six feet tall, had a booming voice and by the time I was ten was already in his 70’s and retired from the British Raj government as a head constable of police. He went for his evening walk carrying a lathi-like stick and had an imposing presence; I could imagine him quelling prospective independence ‘agitators’ with just a look in their direction Of an evening he would turn into our gate, seat himself on our verandah, take a sip of  tea, lean back on his chair and declare, “This country is so corrupt! It is going to the dogs!” This was usually followed by a passionate recounting of the latest misdemeanour in the municipal corporation of Cannanore, that little town in Kerala where I grew up. My mother, who no doubt had heard this diatribe before, would continue knitting scarcely offering a comment. 

        You can see why my mind, nowadays, wanders to thoughts of my early childhood and of my retired granduncle. Judges, ministers, members of parliament, civil servants, businessmen, NGOs, investigative agencies, sports bodies, media personalities, all hurl accusations of corruption at each other. Everyone seems to be saying what my grand uncle used to tell us fifty years ago: “This country is so corrupt; it is going to the dogs!” 

        Maybe it is time we turn to Mark Granovetter, the Stanford University sociologist, who in his book, The Social Construction of Corruption, points out that cries of corruption often hide power struggles and that groups with conflicting interests will present standards that label their own  behaviour as appropriate and label behaviour that benefits competing groups as illegitimate or ‘corrupt’.

         One such social group that is in the thick of today’s corruption wars and  labelling exercises is one  that  Leela Fernandez of the University of Minnesota calls the New Middle Class. This group, she says, in her book, India’s New Middle Class, Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform is not merely  defined by   income  or occupation or even caste. It  descends from the groups in India that embraced English-language education  and found employment in the colonial state in the modern professions such as  medicine, law,  the military and the civil service and has dominated Indian public life because of the cultural capital it possesses. This  cultural capital is then maintained  by their privileged access to the few good quality English medium schools that exist in India today and as a consequence to  those few high quality higher education institutions that act as gatekeepers to jobs in the higher civil service,  in public and private sector management, and professional jobs in the media, financial services,  law, medicine and teaching. 

        This cosy arrangement is being threatened, starting from the mid-1960’s, as democracy in India deepens.  

        The Congress party, from its founding in 1885 till well into the Independence era, maintained its power by enlisting a combination of the English-educated middle class and well-to-do landowners. The English-educated middle class through their cultural capital maintained a monopoly of the civic discourse and controlled the definition of the public interest and the land-owners brought with them the control of the patron networks they commanded in rural India as described by Lloyd and Suzanne Rudolph in their 1967 book, The Modernity of Tradition.

        The first blow was struck when social reform movements in the South in the 1920’s dismantled the vertical structure the land-owners controlled. The rise of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu and the Communist Party of India in Kerala were early examples where small peasant and artisan groups adopted English education and learnt how to compete for political office. 

The next blow was struck when land reforms in the 1960s broke up large estates   all over India. Small peasants and artisans, who were the beneficiaries of this land reform, quickly acquired the economic capital first and then learnt to use their numbers in the electoral lists to convert this to political capital. Marguerite Robinson’s Local Politics, the Law of the Fishes describes this for Andhra Pradesh; Oliver Mendelsohn’s The Transformation of Authority in Rural India, describes this for Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan; Jan Bremen’s Footloose Labour, for Gujarat.

        Lucia Michelutti of the London School of Economics sees this as a deepening of Indian democracy. ‘New idioms about respectability and authority are developing on the ground’, she says in her 2008 book, The Vernacularisation of Indian Democracy. In her interviews in Mathura, UP, many respondents expressed admiration for leaders with a ‘goonda look’, a strong muscular physique, a leather jacket even in 45 degree heat, sunglasses, a powerful motorbike, all used to convey a cool, successful image and says that such ‘goonda’ qualities and skills are considered attractive characteristics and almost a necessity for a leader who operates in contemporary urban North India’. 

        She describes how poverty, illiteracy, a disregard for law and order and political violence co-exists with a commitment to the idea of democracy among the poor in North India.  Democracy has been vernacularized!

        The New Middle Class has retaliated by waging a subtle war to label elected representatives and politicians as corrupt. The battle ground for this war is the English-language print and TV media which reaches a miniscule 25 million people in India while  the vast Indian language print media with 170 million readers and the Indian language television with 300 million viewers remain largely unconcerned. However this tiny English-language media audience supports, nearly Rs 10,000 crores , or 50% of all advertising revenue. Winning the hearts and minds of this audience is crucial for media owners.

         NGOs,  the praetorian guard of the New Middle Class, is at the forefront of such labelling exercises. The current NGO demand for a Lok Pal,   uses the corruption platform , but its real goal is to give the New Middle Class leverage over elected representatives of the people. In an earlier move, NGOs pressurized the Election Commission to require candidates for electoral office to file affidavits listing  ‘criminal charges’  against them. Most  ‘charges’ are for things like  ‘unlawful assembly’ but this move has not only  created an incentive in the rough and tumble Indian electoral scene for political rivals to trump up ‘charges’ against each other but also   label politicians as criminal and corrupt. This is  unfair because  a person is innocent unless proven guilty. Affidavits ought to be necessary only if charges against a candidate have been proven in court.

        Much of the discourse about corruption in modern India is framed by the work of the Santhanam Commission of the early 1960s and two key institutions that we have today for preventing and investigating corruption, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) were created based on this Commission’s recommendation.

        ‘Corruption can exist only if there is someone willing to corrupt and capable of corrupting,’ said Santhanam. ‘We regret to say that both this willingness and capacity to corrupt is found in large measure in the industrial and commercial classes.’

        For Santhanam, the villains were the ‘industrial and commercial classes’ from who the newly created public enterprises had to be protected.

        This is the reason why it proposed a Central Vigilance Commission supervising an army of Vigilance Officers posted in all public and quasi-public undertakings. It also proposed a Central Bureau of Investigation to look into such cases. All of the prejudices and hopes of 1960s India are embedded in these words of the Santhanam Commission demonizing ‘the industrial and commercial classes’ and in the architecture of the recommendations. It is no surprise then that the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, FICCI, refused to provide testimony before the Santhanam Commission. FICCI represented, after all, the very ‘industrial and commercial classes” that the Commission inveighed against.

        The Santhanam Commission constructed corruption as essentially arising from the depredations of the ‘industrial and commercial classes’. The modus operandi of these classes, it felt, was one of subverting the working of the newly created State enterprises. Viewing the same issues in today’s light we are more likely to attribute this form of corruption as arising from the License Raj and excessive domination of the economy by the State. We may merely propose that the License Raj be abolished.

        The Committee added two more elements to its construction of corruption that haunt us to this day.

        The first element was how the term ‘public servant’ was defined. The Indian definition is very different from the definition in advanced industrial economies. In those economies, ‘public servants’ are only those civil servants who are directly employed by the State. In India it was defined very widely and includes ‘any person required performing a public duty’ and ‘public duty’ is defined equally broadly: Essentially any duty that ‘the public at large has an interest in.’ 

This includes obvious government functionaries like ministers of the central and state governments and bureaucrats and sarpanches in villages. It also includes judges in courts, employees of nationalized banks and insurance companies, officers of railways and state transport corporations, teachers in schools and colleges that accept any modicum of government financial support. 

        This wide definition today includes possibly 25 million people, making the task of vigilance and anti-corruption immense.

        The second element was that it has constructed corruption as a criminal offence instead of a combination of criminal and civil offences. Criminal offences are much more difficult to prove in court because the standards of proof for them are much higher. For example, to secure a criminal conviction for corruption, investigators have to actually trap public servants in the act of receiving money. 

        On top of this, Indian courts, consistent with our view of a democratic polity, have prescribed elaborate safeguards for ‘trapping’ public servants in the act of receiving bribes. The end result, because of these and related reasons, is that corruption charges take years, if ever, to be proven. And even if criminal charges are proven, there is no easy way to make a corrupt public servant give up the fruits of his ill-gotten gain because present Indian law makes it difficult to attach property that is bought with proceeds of a corrupt act and held in the names of close relatives, (so-called ‘benami’ transactions). 

        One of the foremost ‘labellers’ of corruption in our time is Transparency International. This Berlin-based non-governmental organization publishes a widely followed annual ranking of countries that it calls The Corruption Perception Index. The 2010 edition puts Denmark at the top, i.e., the least corrupt country in the world and puts Somalia at the bottom of the 178 countries ranked, as the most corrupt country in the world.

        India is at 87, roughly in the middle, behind our sibling rival, China, at 78. Mexico is at 98, behind us and so is Argentina at 105. The higher echelons of the list are usually occupied by small European countries like Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Netherlands and by small island nations like Hong Kong and Singapore. Germany, at 15 leads the larger nations ahead of UK at 20 and the United States at 22.

        Egypt, where the ruling Mubarak clan has been recently driven out of office amidst allegations of massive corruption is at about the same level as India.

Switzerland, a country that is usually implicated in most corruption scandals is at a lofty 8th rank, raising the first eyebrow about what exactly is being measured by this index.

        Transparency International’s Index, is in essence, an opinion poll of mostly Western businessmen though, in recent years, respondents in target countries have also been included. Respondents are asked questions such as , “Do you trust the government?” and “Is corruption a big problem in your country?”, questions which sound perfectly fine, until we realize that the word ‘corruption’ packs into itself a wide range of meanings and feelings of dissatisfaction which may have little to do with financial wrongdoing per se.

        The origin of Transparency International and much of the international brouhaha about corruption harks  back to the Watergate scandals of the mid-1970’s in the United States. Congressional investigators, tracing the flow of illegal campaign contributions,  stumbled on the fact  that as many as 400 American companies had resorted to a range of questionable payments including bribery of high foreign officials, making ‘facilitating payments’ to them  and even payments to get favourable tax treatment. In the climate of moral outrage of that time, the US congress enacted, in 1977, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prescribing strict criminal and financial penalties for such actions by US companies. 

        This remained the only law trying to deal with transnational corruption till US companies began protesting that this law put US companies at a competitive disadvantage against their European competitors who were not only free to pay bribes to foreign officials but could also claim income tax deductions for such payments!

        Intense pressure from US exporters led the OECD, a group of advanced economic countries, to adopt similar legislation criminalizing the bribery of foreign officials and removing tax deductions of these bribes.

        Transparency International was born out of these events. US AID was a generous early financier for the organization and during the period of intense lobbying by US firms to get OECD to adopt and ratify the ant-corruption convention, contributed a fourth of TI’s budget. According to Julie Bajollee of the French Corruption Research Network, Shell, the giant British oil company was another early financier and supported both the TI international secretariat in Berlin as well as its chapters in Bangladesh and Columbia and so have KPMG and Price Waterhouse, the big international accounting firms financed many country chapters.

        The CBI is frequently drawn into these battles but, as we have pointed out,  imperfections in Indian anti-corruption laws  makes it difficult for the CBI to convict  even  10%  of the people they bring charges against.  The CBI tries to compensate for this by staging photo-ops that show them  escorting away prominent personalities  misleading the public and labelling the people being led away as already guilty of corruption whereas what the CBI is doing is only seeking information about a possible crime. CBI and the media must be mandated to refer to all such people not as ‘accused’ but merely as ‘persons of interest’, as they increasingly do in the United States. 

        The judiciary is invoked from time to time by all combatants to referee their disputes but as Madhav Godbole, a former Home Secretary, points out in his recent book, The Judiciary and Governance in India, there are 16 million criminal cases pending in court and  proposals for speeding things up such as  increasing the number of working days in high courts from the present 210 per year to 260 are  opposed by Bar Associations.

        As democracy deepens, dramatic power shifts will continue to happen in Indian society and the Middle Class needs to accept that all such power shifts may not be in their favour. The Indian Middle Class sowed the wind of democracy and is now reaping its whirlwind.

        On a recent visit to Cannanore, that little town in Kerala where I was born, I strolled down one morning to the stretch of sand by the sea where tombstones of the town’s grandees stand cheek by jowl. I stood for a moment before my granduncle’s, and wondered how he would have responded if I had told him that his distress at corruption nearly fifty years ago was merely the sense of loss of a British Raj police head-constable regretting the passing of an era.


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Tom Friedman Visits

Tom Friedman came by Feb 15th to Bombay to meet a few of us.

He says people tell him: we get it, the world is flat, now what do we do?
His answer is coming in The World is Flat version 2.0 but, in brief, his answer is “Education!”

He believes that talent shortage is becoming an issue for India’s infotech industry; the industry is bumping its head at the limits of Business Process Outsourcing and must get ready for Knowledge Process Outsourcing. For this you need young people who will ask Why.The Indian IT industry is too full of people who ask How.

The problem that the Indian IT industry has is that companies are forced to run their own training school because government is doing such a poor quality job of running the public education system.

He believes that so long as the US economy grows at 3% + outsourcing will not be a political issue. You will need a huge recession for it to come back as an issue. The American public is starting to understand the benefits to the US economy of outsourcing.

On the nuclear proliferation issue,he believes that if Iran goes nuclear, Saudi Arabi and Egypt will immediately follow. Only India, China and Russia can stop Iran.India and China must be stakeholders in the post-Cold War world. Both are prospering today because of the post- Cold War peace. India and China cannot be free-riders in this.


Al Gore Comes By

Former Vice President of the US, Al Gore came by ( on Feb 11th) to Bombay for breakfast with a few of us and had some interesting comments.

The world used to be inspired when the US spoke of values but is surprised, he said, when the US acts in its self interest.

Many Americans feel, he says,that they have wandered into an alternative universe where there is little intelligent political discussion in the media. This change in America, he believes happened when political dialogue in media moved from the printed word to 30 second TV. People, through out the world do not have access to reason-based dialogue; TV is too image based.

I asked him at this point whether this could be due to any reason other than the deliberatecussedness of US media owners and executives. For example the way the business models of media companies are organized they are dependant on competing for mass viewership with the winner of this competition getting most of the advertising revenue and such mass audiences in TV are not particularly enthralled by deep debate at the end of a hrad working day- all eloquently described by Naom Chomsky in his book The Manufacturing of Consent.He agreed with me that this could be a strong possible reason and added quickly that other than this he is not a great fan of Chomsky. Unfortunately there was not enough time to pursue this comment.

Nowadays he travels the world, he says, evangelizing the enivoronmental cause: 50% of the world population is dependant on the Himalyas- the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Iravati are all dependant on the Himalayas and global warming threatens this.

Nuclear energy will only be a niche source of electric power: nuclear plants take very long to build, civilian programs can easily shift to military ones and anyway there is as a shortage of uranium which makes nuclear programs dependant on breeder programs and this makes weapon production much easier. The solution to electric power needs , he believes, lies in small de-centralized power sources.

I came away feeling that I had met a true idealist



I pushed myself awake. It was still dark outside. I could feel the chill of a December Calcutta morning. I glanced at my room-mate huddled on his bed with his blanket wrapped tightly over his head. I stumbled over my mud-caked football boots in the dark and I hoped the clattering sound would not disturb my room mate. I switched on my desk lamp and settled down to read the MIT economist Paul Samuelson’s chapter on price elasticity of demand, when the shot rang out.

The sound was so loud that my room-mate jumped out from under blanket.

“Thats gunfire”, he said.

We ran out to investigate. In the middle of the football field was a body and at its edge we could see a group of young men running away.

“Lets go see what’s happening”, I said

When we got to the body, there was an absolute stillness to it. We were management students not medical students. We had no idea whether the body had life in it or what we ought to do to save it. We didnt have long to worry; a police jeep came screaming to the middle of the football field.

“Go back to your hostel rooms,” said the policeman. “Dont get involved in these Naxalite incidents. You will have to come to court as witnesses many times a month. It will be a waste of your time.”

I trudged back to my IIM room and Samuelson’s Economics.

It was 1971, Calcutta was burning and there was revolution in the air. Talented young men and women were abandoning their education at Calcutta University fired by Charu Majumdar’s exhortation to bring social justice. The Indian economy had collapsed in the wake of the first oil price hike. Nehru’s and India’s independence era hopes had evaporated with the failure of the 2nd Five Year Plan and the border wars with China and Pakistan.

Soon afterward, the Indian Army moved into Bengal, mowed down the young idealists and locked up in jail whoever survived that brutal onslaught. The country collectively heaved a sigh of relief- social justice could wait for the future, what was important right then was preservation of social order. I left all such issues behind, graduating from IIM Calcutta, taking a flight to Bombay, setting out on a course that would lead to my joining two other young men in founding Rediffusion. Bringing a revolution to Indian industry seemed a more practical bet.

IIM Calcutta too, like other management institutions, has left such troubling concerns far behind. Social revolutions are decidedly unfashionable in this era of globalization. And what better proof do we need that the choices we made are right and that the system works than the astounding starting salaries of IIM graduates? If the likes of Goldman Sachs , who surely know what they are doing, are prepared to pay Rupees twenty lacs a year or more for a freshly minted IIM graduate, surely we must be doing a great job running these institutions.

However, management institutes, unlike medical and engineering ones, have the suffer the annual embarrassing reality check of rankings issued by business newspapers and magazines in India and abroad. In this era where all our eyes are turned towards international success, the methodology used for ranking by the Financial Times London is instructive. While it does assign the single highest weight age (40%) to the starting salaries commanded by the MBA’s a school produces, substantial weight age (20% each) is placed on factors such as quality of thought leadership by the faculty and diversity – the number of women and international presence at the faculty, student and board levels. And in the Financial Times list last year, no Indian management institute figured.

The success of the IIMs (for that matter higher education institutions in medicine, engineering and the social sciences in India) is predicated as much on the highly selective entrance process- less than 1% of applicants make it into these institutions- as on the value that is added during the students tenure at these institutions.

The true driver of the value added by educational institutions like the IIMs is the thought leadership they provide.The objective measure of thought leadership is the number of research articles published in high quality international management journals. Such high quality research is normally the outcome of consulting assignments with real life businesses. And both such linkages with industry and research output are woefully inadequate at present at present.

Management science works off the theoretical foundations laid by its more mature cousins: economics, psychology, sociology, mathematics. Where it adds value is by creating ‘theories’ schema that operating managers can use in their daily work; instead of looking at each problem as a new one and using trial and error, such theories save time and effort. And since such theories often tend to be specific to economic and social situations its not as easy as prescribing Harvard Business School cases to Indian management students.

Today, ensconced in their secure world, do IIMs hear the distant but troubling social and economic gunfire of battles Indian companies fight? WTO intellectual property battles, the fight to build a world scale services industry, the battle to make Indian manufacturing competitive

Do they have the luxury of merely observing these battles from the safe confines of academia?

( This was published in India Today some time ago)

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The Informalization of some parts of the Indian Economy

The Communist Party (Marxists) and their Left Front partners have won every election in Bengal since 1977- an unbroken period of 29 years. All the more surprising when you consider that on human development indices like Life Expectancy at Birth or percent below the poverty line Bengal is at just about the Indian average and in the ranking of Indian states by per capita income has actually declined.

Why do people in Bengal vote back into power a party which has done so little for them?

An intriguing answer comes from Abhirup Sarkar of the Indian Statistical Institute writing in this week’s Economic and Political Weekly.

The answer , he says, lies in the “informalization” of the Bengal economy. Unregistered enterprises now account for 60% of all manufacture versus 30% in the ’80′s and a large proportion of the population is in ‘marginal’ occupations like street hawkers, shopkeepers’ employees, autorickshaw drivers, marginal farmers and often live on encroached government or railway land. They live in complete insecurity and find the formal legal system too costly or beyond their reach- the only protection they have is the Marxist party. In return they give the party their support.

Sarkar call this frightening situation a ‘political society’ and this society is what keeps the CPM in power.

You can read the full article: “The Political Economy of Bengal: A Puzzle and a Hypothesis” at

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RedMoon in Beijing: Untying the Knot

No sooner had I settled on my stool at the Redmoon Bar in Beijing when the bartender, seeing that I was by myself, put into my hand a copy of City Weekend Beijing Magazine with this on its cover: ”Untying the Knot: 1.6 million Chinese couples called it quits last year- why? Money, Power and Pretty Young Things!”

The divorce rate is very low in China, the writer reassures us (its gone from 0.07% to 0.21% in the last ten years), yet talk about it is in the air. “Chinese Style Divorce”, a 22-episode TV serial was last season’s most popular show; a book withe the same name sold 100,000 copies in its first print run and the words ‘ Chinese Style Divorce’ was the most requested word on Boxun’s Search Engine in 2004.

Wealthy and powerful men,have begun flaunting their riches by adopting a practice known as ‘baoernai’, the taking of a second wife. If you are a woman born in the 1960′s , if you get divorced, you are a loser, he quotes a woman divorce lawyer as saying.

But the tide may turn soon, says the author- some 30-40 million men, known as guanggun or ‘bare branches’ may find it tough to find wives by 2020. The Chinese predilection for boys ( he doesnt say how this ‘predilection’ is acted upon) has already resulted in there being only 100 girls for every 130 boys.

The Chinese apppear to be taking all this in their national stride and quote a saying: ‘Men turn bad once they get rich, women only get rich when they turn bad’.


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