Category Archives: Kumarappa

Melkote: again!

We had been to Melkote again, but on a different mission, to discuss ways and means to rejuvenate Hosa Jeevana Dhari. For a brief introduction of the place and its people, see here. HJD had been embroiled in some internal issues and had reduced its activities to a minimal level. Now, the Koulagi family is back at the helm, and hope to do interesting things here again.

The meet was attended by around 10 people, all very experienced and focused to make life more tolerable for those that society ignores or worse, no longer tolerates. The agenda was this: HJD, started in the ’70s with a firm commitment to Sarvodaya, is now facing far stronger historical and social forces that define development and progress today. What can be its role in such a situation ?

The opening statements by everyone were concerned with issues of quantitative vs. qualitative work. Should the scale of the solution be large, or is it important to do something small, but in a more focused way was an issue which was grappled with, and a consensus was reached on the latter, given both the dominance of the present mainstream thinking as well as logistical difficulties. Considering that there are crises in all aspects of society – education, healthcare, agriculture, governance, equity, so on – Hosa Jeevana Dhari should literally try and show a hosa jeevana dhari (new way of life).

Another issue that concerned most present was the lack of examples for the younger generation to follow. If anyone reading this points toward Mukesh Ambani or Ratan Tata, please kill him (on rare occasions, her) on my behalf. Lack of role models both at home and outside at school/anywhere is making the idiot box more influential than it should be. A lack of a world view in children seems to be resulting in adults who are taught to pander their own whims without viewing their behavior from a broader perspective. For example, a liberal society today essentially means one with an unfettered market, without any qualifications or justifications. It is, therefore it is good. The moral implications are largely ignored. This is usually the case with philosophies which are administered by a clique of ‘high priests’, with a great incentive to keep people uncritical and ignorant.

HJD has had a long association with (organic) farming, and the agrarian crisis, reasons and experiences on the ground were discussed. Since it is well known that ideas have a greater chance of percolating when there is great change in society,  the participants saw the present situation as a premonition to times where alternatives will be actively sought for. Therefore, exemplars in HJD for a way of life that rests on principles radically different from the present modernity will serve the society well. All agreed that at present, intervention at a large scale is not possible, but ‘keeping the flame alive’ is what is essential. If someone comes looking for solutions, how confidently can HJD propose alternatives ? The answer lies in conviction and commitment to do the necessary groundwork to be able to propose realisitic, replicable and extant solutions, rather than just normative proposals with no material existence. The Gandhian allusion to ‘oceanic circles’ was used here (who used it in a different way), to visualise an exemplary HJD influencing melkote, and so on like ripples in the water.

Active propagation of the message of a sustainable life – one that is equitable, gender sensitive, harmonious with nature – was another aspect of the discussion. Many suggestions, including weekend workshops for urbanites, especially children and youth, Audio/Video material, books were put forward. Ideas about awareness campaigns among farmers were also thrown about. Many related their own experiences in the field, relating the difficulties they faced, and the opinion of the farmer or the urbanite which makes the present situation both difficult to change and difficult to sustain. People change their ways if they see a need for it and it helps them better their life.

Summarizing, one cannot but admit there is a crisis: people have been reduced to ‘essentially greedy’ individuals by our present system of economic organization, nature has become ‘capital’, life has boiled down to a chase for satisfying wants without any other purpose. Like one of the participants mentioned, until the European enlightenment, all civilizations had some purpose to life. Afterward, Evolution tells us that we are the product of years of random mutations of genes with no actual purpose, Bertrand Russell calls us bunch of atoms. Neither has ever been able to explain humans in their entirety, and the ‘high priest’ syndrome makes the people accept doctrines such as these uncritically.

Undoubtedly, there is a better way of looking at life. To know who we are and where we should go, we should always know where we came from. One can do worse than look at the thoughts of Gandhi and Kumarappa towards this end. Western notions of progress has lead to the highest rates of divorce and suicide in the so-called developed nations, and probably the highest density of god(con?)-men. Somehow, satisfying material wants ad infinitum does not seem to work. People somehow seem to want meaning/purpose, which modernity is not gracious with. To understand and translate and preserve for posterity alternative visions of what a civilization should be like is what HJD aims to do. To essentially create mentors and be one to society in a time when it is needed most. One wishes good luck and godspeed.

Melkote: Reflections – 2

Onto more people.

The scary-looking person in the photo is Dr. Deepak Malghan, who is currently writing an intellectual biography of J. C. Kumarappa, and was another speaker in the workshop. He isn’t as scary in real life, though his English is. Deepak’s specialty is giving a clear picture of things from a theoretical context, and he does it very well.

Deepak Malghan

The talk was called ‘Science, State, Market, Society and Ecology’ or something like that. His focus was on two main things: what science and technology in India is doing, and problems of linked to a poor definition of progress and development. The first part was more interesting, will elaborate.

Modern India can be said to stand on three pillars: State, Market and Society. The problem with science and technology in India seems to be that their main focus is either the State or the Market. The State angle is pretty clear: our former President has published only two scientific papers in his entire career, and the people praise him as a scientist. This is due to his being the head of DRDO, trying to make India self sufficient in methods to kill people (a deterrent, of course). One way progress is measured is by the amount of advanced weaponry a country has, which is directly a State interest.

The market angle is even more apparent: our best minds working to solve problems which will make sharper videos, clearer sound, ubiquitous connectivity, long lasting mobile phones etc., etc., Most of these are things are bought and sold in Western countries, and many proudly admit that their product ‘will touch the Indian market in only another 3-4 years’. A market trend may be indicative of people’s choice, but the crucial point is that it is the people’s choice weighed by the amount of money they have. Thus, more people work on making mobile phones into computers than making computers into catalysts for development. You will find almost 24-hour electricity in Bangalore where the big people have generators anyways than in a village during crucial examination times simply because Bangalore pays more rupees per kilowatt.

This is the centenary year of IISc and apparently there was a committee that was setup to research the Institute’s history and find the technologies that it had delivered to the Indian people. The result: zero (or very close to it). Being a publicly funded institution, this is not only shameful, but immoral. Deepak went to state that US universities are accountable to the societies that they are in, and actually solve problems faced in the society, unlike our boys in the IISc or IITs (less the mention of IIMs, the better). No audited reports of IISc are ever published, (unlike say, UC Berkeley) and insiders know what a farce auditing is. Now, if the premier institutions funded by taxpayer’s money cannot help solve problems that we face, then who are they accountable to ?

An extempore in the evening was by Prakash, an activist from Dakshina Kannada who happened to drop by. He looked at the issue from the lowest empirical view, saying that he was unable to see how the present trends of development can be stopped or even wether they should be stopped. His view that media is generating desires in a phenomenally large amount of people which aggregatively generate a tremendous force pushing development. Castes, Classes and Genders who were suppressed have suddenly found liberalization to work in their advantage. His question was: Once you give freedom to a people, how can you tell them not to do things ? How can you tell a girl kept down by athoritative parents not to elope ? How can you tell a Dalit boy not to wear fake Adidas and Ray-Bans ? How can you tell farmers not to buy fridges, bikes and other things they see on TV ? To Prakash, all critiques of development which do not take into consideration such issues are of little relevance.

I countered this thesis by raising the question of duties. All the points that he had raised were about rights, duties never figured even once anywhere. Forget about duties, what about consequences ? DDT may kill malaria bearing mosquitoes, but does a farmer know what it does to his environment and eventually to himself ? Would a person who has such knowledge use DDT ? As I have always maintained, India started on the development path without ever providing its citizens with the cultural skills to benefit most. As a result, most have suffered at the hands of a few. However one may criticize the development paradigm that the West put forth, it is a fact that the average life expectancy, income, social security there is far superior to anything here. The West had an advantage of a smaller population. If to reach similar Quality of Life as in the West we have to consume as much as they do, we will need a few more earths. Prakash’s views showed how dangerous it can be if one does not stop and look at the bigger picture once in a while.

Hosa Jeevana Dhari

This is the place where we stayed, and we got to see quite a few beautiful birds, including the rare to sight and beautiful Scarlet Minivet , Paradise Flycatcher, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher among others. Nice place to sit and reflect, and has been quite and experience.

Melkote: Reflections – 1

The students of our course in ICT4D and others from the MSW(Master’s in Social Work) had been for a 1.5 day workshop on Development in Melkote, near Mysore. An extremely beautiful place, we were situated in a place called Hosa Jeevana Dhari, which is one of the last remaining places where the ‘Sarvodaya‘ principle of Gandhi is being kept alive. It was run by a Gandhian named Surendra Kaulagi, and now by his son Santhosh Kaulagi. Surendra was a close associate of Jayaprakash Narayan and one of few surviving people who has actually interacted with J. C. Kumarappa.

Surendra Kaulagi and Ashok Rao

Surendra Kaulagi and Ashok Rao

Ashok Rao (to the right) is the professor and head of the ICT4D program we study in. The program started with Ashok Rao introducing the issue, which is the need to deliberate on the much maligned word called ‘development’ which causes chills to run down the spines of tribals and the underprivileged classes, and discuss alternate sustainable paths. Unlike the IIM workshop, this one actually managed to answer some of the questions posed on the first day.

The starting talk, which Kaulagi delivered, talked about the two paradigms which are in front of us today: one is Manmohanomics and the other Kumarappa’s view of the same subject. No one disagrees with the fact that mainstream development which is represented by Manmohan Singh today is unsustainable, if nothing atleast because it is over-reliant on natural resources (there is also the issue of what individuals contribute to this, but that is for later). Nature is seen as something to be exploited for human welfare. Kumarappa proposed a radically different view, which placed nature at the centre of all development, and which allowed people who were closest to nature (agriculturists and the like) to live in dignity without having to bow down to the dictates of an insensitive market.

Kumarappa’s and Gandhi’s vision were ridiculed and eventually replaced by Western ideologies like socialism and liberalism, but Kaulagi mentioned that neither Gandhi nor Kumarappa were shakeable in their vision, and always maintained until the end that this was the correct way to get things done. The main take-away for me from this talk was the answer to the following question: why did Gandhi and Kumarappa hold so firm to what they believed in ? Did not J. S. Mill state that we don’t know the entire truth, and therefore should not impose our beliefs elsewhere? Kaulagi mentioned that this steadfastness comes from an intimate understanding of the empirical facts: Gandhi and Kumarappa had spent many a year roaming about India to understand it from a ‘earthworm view’, so to speak. Kaulagi is a living example of such a breed, and holds those views with clarity that a professor from Columbia had to make clear for the academic world, that too from India: Be an example while holding on steadfastly to your principles.

But if you notice, there is hardly any part of our academia or education which stresses the importance of this perspective. Professors of development would never have spent years understanding people by interacting with them, nor does our education make us understand things by making us do things with our hands. Development occurs with people stating facts and figures and surveys, not stating what the people who are the eventual ‘beneficiaries’ think or know or care about. In fact, there is an entire legion of academicians who think that they can athoritatively speak about subjects, especially those as sensitive as development without ever being close to their objects of study, and interacting with them only as statistics (Planning Commission and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, anyone ?).

This kind of ‘study’ can be justified when we look at people in terms of compartments: material and normative. The material well-being can hardly have much correlation with the normative space. However, if we are convinced that development in material well-being (however that may happen) is most important and forget that people also require a certain set of values (especially considering that we are social in nature) to live a good life, then we can do Manmohanomics without much ado. If we are to widen our epistemic scope, then things look different. If we say that human welfare is intimately related to money and more of it means better, then Bangalore is a shining example of perfect development. If we say that people need more than material well-being to lead a good life, then Timbaktu is a better example.

The values that economics holds is still the utilitarian type, which is extremely different from what other people hold. Therefore, when the fundamental reasons for material well-being ( fulfillment of higher needs) are different, it can hardly be the case that one can hold with conviction to his/her values when all initiatives seem to mysteriously not work as planned. It is like teaching programming to someone who wants to learn MS-Office because you are a passionate programmer. All your efforts at making your students excellent programmers will fail, and you begin to wonder whether programming is for everyone. If you had bothered to spend some time with your students, then you would have understood that they hold music and dance or something else more dear than learning C and C++.

People in academia shape policy by their grandiose pronouncements on society and individuals. Therefore, it is imperative that they spend enough time in the right places to gain the conviction that their approach and views are correct, rather than vacillating knowing that the only thing you know are numbers.

The cheapest car on earth and other thoughts

The Nano is generating such hype, that one can only wait and watch how Tata is going to make it into a success. Quite interestingly, the Tata share prices seem to have dropped after the launch, and this reflects the really difficult proposition that the Tatas have conjured up for themselves, in terms of finances. While the rationale behind such a car eludes me, (there is quite a gap between the premium segment bike prices and the Nano), some of the design decisions which went into the car just to squeeze pennies are highly disturbing. Hollow tubes, adhesives, ball bearings, there are quite a few places where ‘optimization’ has been done. Price is a factor, undoubtedly, but is it the only one ? This seems more like a ‘use and throw (very fast)’ product, with planned obsolescence being used in not-very-subtle ways. Sourcing components for such a product is going to be a very aggressive endeavour, and may run into the kinds of issues Wal-Mart has run into. The World is Flat has a section which is practically a hagiography of Wal-Mart, showing how they do everything possible to cut prices, and ‘benefit’ the consumer. Oh, they are running into some problems, but they’ll do good, seems to be the opinion of the Great Friedman. The problems range from using slave labor, environmental issues, sexual harassment, but oh, these are not that important when compared to the fact that the consumer gets a cheaper product. Thankfully, not everyone is as stupid as the ‘consumer’.

Predatory practices which benefit one section of people at the expense of another are not anything new. They used to go under the mask of colonialism before, the label has changed to supply chain management now. While supply chain management by itself is not degenerate, companies like Wal-Mart tend to push it to such an extent as to forget that the purpose is to make things efficient in terms of money and not ethics. Was reading an essay by J. C. Kumarappa, called ‘Clive to Keynes’, which is a description of the various frauds that the British perpetrated on the Indian taxpayers from 1800’s onward. This shows how British practices ‘evolved’ from barefaced looting by Clive to more subtle embezzlement and mismanagement during Keynes’ time. In all the cases, the main idea is to deliberately ignore certain facts to ensure that something else is optimized. Even in supply chain management, if someone can source parts at 1$ when the prevailing price is 1.50$, one is happy to have ‘optimized’ the chain, but what gets ignored is, really, hard to ignore.

Like the previously referenced wikipedia entry on obsolescence notes, competitive markets tend to make more durable products, using higher grade materials rather than oligopolies or monopolies, which can indulge in what literally amounts to fraud. Only a Tata or a Wal-Mart can do what they are doing and get away with it. Hopefully, your next visit to Metro or Big Bazaar is more informed than your previous ones :)