Category Archives: liberalisation

Why don’t we thank?

A month or so ago, when I was riding a scooter around the country side, a woman and her mother waiting near what seemed to be a bus stop stopped me and asked if I could drop the woman to another village on the same road (close to KRS, for those around Mysore). Apparently the bus service in that particular route was not the best, and I, a stranger, seemed to be the only option left to them. Loading a jackfruit, some coconuts and other things you would normally carry back from your mother’s home after a visit, we reached her village. After getting off, I received a smile and a ‘barteera’, roughly translating to ‘see you around’. Thanks, though implied, was never vocalized.

On the other hand, just a few hours before this took place, I was at Melkote with a few American students who were here on an academic tour. The scooter apparently is a very quaint thing to sit behind, when all you see is cars back home, and so one of them asked me to drive her around. The number of ‘Thank you soooo much’s that were showered upon me for a 5 minute joy ride was quite intimidating, to say the least. One wonders whether it would not be appropriate to give a kidney or something along with the joy ride for that amount of thankfulness.

If one thinks about it, at least in the places around south Karnataka, to hear thanks in any language is a rare occurrence. The Kannada equivalent, Dhanyavaada is something I have very rarely heard, and then mostly from the mouth of foreigners who have been reading up on some ‘Learn Kannada’ type of book. If any person asks me how to thank people in Kannada, I tell them to say ‘thanks’. Dhanyavaada is simply not common currency enough around here. In fact, it is not uncommon to see old village ladies saying ‘thanks’ (with a strong Kannada accent), maybe hearing it from their grandchildren, rather than Dhanyavaada. One can go on to claim that it has sarcastic undertones whenever it is used. On the other end of the spectrum, Americans and those who regularly converse with them, like BPO employees, tend to use the ‘Thank you soooo much’ as though it were the commonest thing to do. In fact, it is the easiest way to identify an Indian working in the BPO or hospitality sector. It is intimidating at first, after which it simply grates on the ear, especially the dragged ‘soooo’. I am not used to this level of vocalization of thanks at all and it seems very artificial to me at least.

The only people who seem to use the Kannada equivalent are those who consider themselves ‘cultured’ and for whom speaking anything other than ‘pure’ Kannada is unthinkable. This is however a conscious decision and has nothing to do with everyday language. Even here, the very fact that they are using Dhanyavaada shows they are not thinking in native terms. A native speaker might throw in a blessing or two, but never an explicit thanks. If anyone is very strongly thankful, they might use tumba upakaara aaytu, which translates roughly to ‘It has been a great help’, which is just stating the obvious rather than anything else.

It does not just stop at thanking others. In newspaper supplements, you very often see articles asking husbands, wives and parents to explicitly appreciate their wives, husbands and children respectively. Apparently that is also not something very common around here. To make people ‘feel appreciated’ is also a mantra among the managers and HR crowd of corporate India.

It doesn’t seem immediately clear why this came about, but it is hard to let go without a few conjectures. Normally, thanks is directed toward individuals, which implies both parties must concede that there is a very strong individual identity. In a land where people are addressed as X’s son Y or X-halli (village) Y, that is not the case. Also, it is not easy for a person who considers himself superior to the other to thank the other person. The only valid transaction would be for inferiors to act servile and for superiors to look superior and bless them. This would be not just among social classes or castes, but also between elders and the young.

However, more important than the above reasons is the fact that thanking is valid when the other person is not obliged to help, it is not her duty to do so. A society that places strong emphasis on freedoms or equivalently, rights would consider it important to thank anyone for anything. A society arranged along the lines of reciprocal duties (which in India is subsumed under the overarching Dharma) would not see any reason to thank others. After all, it is their duty. You can bless someone for doing their duty correctly, but it is hard to thank them. Thus, it is when a family becomes a collection of individuals with no overarching sense of duty toward the other that it becomes important to make everyone ‘feel appreciated’. That this is the case in any corporation is a foregone conclusion.

That India is transitioning from a duties-based society to a rights based one can be easily seen not only from this example but from everything around us, from advertisements to legal rulings. But a society which is not used to change will pass through a long intermediate phase in which there exist old ladies who know only one English word – Thanks.

Should we be worried about the (your favorite word here) Sene?

One has to stop watching NDTV news. They were among the most vocal in their campaign against the ‘Talibanization’ of Mangalore and almost suddenly went quiet and now are most vocal about Slumdog Millionaire, what with Anil Kapoor being their special correspondent and all. If they complain about ‘rightists’ stoking emotional fires in India for political purposes, they seem to be doing the same for commercial purposes. Now that we have appropriated an English film as our own and celebrating it, however grudgingly, everything else seems to go into the background.

But yes, the Rama Sene has almost completely gone off the TV/media radar for the moment, until they do something else  (someone else seems to have taken over the baton in Bangalore).  The media seems to have given them what they wanted: their two minutes in the limelight to show that they have ‘arrived’. The media showed, in its typical sensationalist form, an India that we are embarrassed of and would like to wish away. Talking to people not from the middle class in buses and trains, one gets a feeling that they are not as opposed to it as we would like them to be.

Social delinquency is not as rare as one might imagine it to be. India has always been deeply divided on the questions of caste, class, gender and religion. Things always seem to be simmering below, and sporadic outbursts are a public manifestation of these issues. It is not as if the Sene members woke up one day and decided to beat up people.

But the million dollar question is : Can this cause widespread social change ? If it is, then all minorities and women in India are in for some trouble. In answering this, we must first realise that all nationalist movements (be they Indian nationalism, Hindu, Kannada, whatever) have always been urban phenomena. The members of the Congress were upper middle class professionals and businessmen, Kannada Rakshana Vedike has most of its rallies in Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities, and Mangalore has been simmering for some time now, on questions of conversion and culture, BJP’s main voter base has always been in the cities. So, nothing in the scale at which the Taliban operated can be achieved, all the more so since violence cannot be made mainstream without a organised militia (which no *-Sene has, but the Sangh Parivar does, but not comparable in scale to the Police or the Army).

This means that making a Nationalist agenda on whatever grounds cannot be widely accepted if it does not have the blessings of mainstream political parties. The Hindu Renaissance that the BJP claims to be spearheading has taken years of organization, building of cadres ( both with legal sanction (RSS) and otherwise (Bajrang Dal, et al) ). Even with such an organized machinery, their coming into power can be blamed on the Congress Party’s incapacity to produce good leaders. No other nationalist organization, neither the Rama Sene or the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike have such firm ideological grounding or discipline. Also, militant actions make it easy for the State to deal with such organizations, and this makes it necessary for them to toe the line and reduce violent actions ( Anyone remember large scale violence by the KRV recently ?).

The BJP itself has had troubles implementing its agenda at a national level due to the fractured results that the Indian polity returns. Coalitions are hardly the ideal ground for pushing hardline policies. Then, it is unlikely that smaller, less organized movements can have much impact. They can capture the public imagination for some time, but the combination of existing rival interests (KRV has already broken into two factions, so has the Shiv Sena) and short term public memory makes it difficult to build on such gains.

Will conflicts based on caste, culture, religion go away anytime soon ? No. Will they be the major talking point of any political party ? Not anytime soon. Should we be worried about *-Sene ? In their present form, No.

The real ‘engines’ of growth

One notices a funny dichotomy when one flits through publications catered toward different sections of society, like India Together and The Times of India (if one can actually call it a ‘news’ paper anymore). One set seems to tell us that everything is going to hell and the other seems to paint an extremely optimistic picture of the whole thing we call liberalisation. Since people usually buy that which they relate to, it follows that both pictures are true: the excruciating poverty and the sleek new capitalism.

Society can never be comprised of watertight compartments. It is more likely to contain personalities who occupy the continuum between the two extremes. Take Bangalore, my favorite example. The slums are a picture of scarcity whereas the IT SEZs are a picture of excess. It is highly unlikely that the lower strata of society will gladly give their scarce resources to a population that already has too much. Someone must be doing it, for a price, of course.

Usually, the technological artifacts of an age represent its zeitgeist. The F-1 car is to me one such symbol of this era. It has all the striking features of our society:

  • High performance
  • Very high levels of organization (in terms of car design)
  • High dependence of the whole on every single part (heard somewhere that the car won’t even start if all components are not working properly)
  • Requirement of relatively ideal conditions (very wide, flat tracks, almost fricitionless profile, specialised tyres, etc ., )

The current financial crisis can be compared to a car crash due to failure to adhere to ideal conditions. Something fails, which brings down everything else. If you read any material on supply-chain management, you’ll understand what I mean. This is why Chinese melamine finds its way to the breakfast tables of half the globe. In comparison, the society of a century ago was like a Kinetic Luna – not very complicated, low performance (in terms of economic output), easily maintained by the owner herself (assuming minimal savviness), and useful in potholed roads.

With such stringent requirements, most modern corporates are willing to pay a high price to ensure that they get the resources they need. It is only when ideal conditions are created will it perform at desired levels. The march of the corporation in India has unfortunately turned into a zero sum game which is also unsustainable, quite like running a Ferrari in Chickpet. You have to break things down to give it room, and make sure nothing comes up later. For the Ferrari owner, life is good, but not for the person whose house was pulled down.

Thus, it is not quite the IT czars who are spearheading ‘growth’ in India or anywhere else, but the people who break things to make way for them. In an era of ever rising populations and decreasing resources, the industrial society requires resource allocation which is quite disproportionate to the number of people it represents.

A few examples are in order. Take the case of land in and around Bangalore. Scare resource, no doubt. But if one saw the number of IT parks coming up before this financial screw-up, one could easily think otherwise. This article (watch the embedded video!) describes the land mafia in Bangalore and the important players, including Muthappa Rai, who was interviewed for the article. It is an open secret that if you need 10 acres for building swanky townships or glass-enclosed IT greenhouses, you go to the mafia, not the government. Pratically everyone in Bangalore, especially in extension areas, lives on illegally occupied land, which later the BBMP is forced to regularise. Those who lose out on land are farmers and who lose out jobs are unskilled locals (due to huge migration), and hence arise organisations like the Kannada Rakshana Vedike which are kept in check by the police. The mafia to disenfranchise, and the police to keep it that way. Neat idea.

Water is probably hitting Bangalore more than any other resource, and the trenches are occupied by the private water tanker operators. Like the article shows, a single operator may deliver 50 – 60 loads of water a day, each of roughly 20,000 liter capacity. This adds up to mind-boggling numbers, and this was more than a year ago. I have myself seen Leela Palace getting atleast 10 – 15 tankers of water at 5 AM in the morning. And the website says:

Ensconced in 9 acres of tranquility that includes an azure lagoon, The Leela Palace mirrors the lushness of the Garden City. Harking back to the royal heritage of the Vijaynagar Dynasty, our hotel earns it name by showcasing gold leaf domes, ornate ceiling and grand arches.

They have a freaking lagoon!! This issue is becoming global. This set of pictures shows what can be, and is not very reassuring. Also, years of industrial farming is taking a toll on land and water, with desertification of erstwhile farmlands becoming a major issue. Farmland drops, food is scarce, starvation and conflict are inevitable.

The recent flare-up in Maharastra has also to do with appropriation of jobs (which are getting scarce nowadays!) by Biharis in the Railways. The fact that railway ministers for the past 12 years have been from Bihar may have something to do with this. The actions of the MNS may not be justified, but the resentment unfortunately is.

Another gory example is that of coltan, used extensively for manufacture of computer chips. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of it is available in Congo, which has a war going on to secure these resources, destroying everything in its path. Like this article says:

More profitable than gold or diamonds, and more easy to extract, is the rare substance, colombo tantalite, known as coltan, an essential ingredient for microchips and cell phones. Found almost exclusively in eastern Congo, it can bring in a whopping $400 per kilo in the international market, giving rebel factions and neighboring governments a financial reason to keep the war going indefinitely. Only when the Congolese conflict caused a temporary suspension of coltan mining did the western world feel the reverberations of a war it had all but forgotten: Sony was forced to delay the launch of its popular Play Station 2.

My My. The poor rich kids must have found it intolerable without their PS-2s.

The unfortunate reality is that we have designed a system where comfort and excellence is almost always at the expense of the powerless and weak. There are very few daily activities that we can perform without directly or indirectly grabbing something from someone else. It of course comes packaged in hygenic tetra-paks, but the people driving our ‘development’ be it the State, the crime lords or those who exploit nature are getting their hands dirty enough for all of us. The world is going nuts, as it has been from a long time, but never before has the resource crunch affected us like now. Blame the population problem or WalMart, it is high time we learn to live within our (material, not financial) means.

Yup, word limit reached.

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.

How ‘liberalised’ we really are.

Yesterday’sDeccan Herald carried an interesting article about the Finance Minister pleading with states to reduce or return taxes put on exporters. The argument goes something like this:

Stating that exports are under some stress due to the rapid appreciationof the rupee against the weak dollar, Mr Chidambaram said, the Centre has announced major relief packages and we are hopeful that these will bring some measure of relief to exporters.

“The central government rebates or refunds every tax that is payable or paid and if attributable to goods and services that are exported. I submit that state government should do the same,” Mr Chidambaram pointed out.

Now, the question of being a “liberalised” economy and what it implies. Simply means bringing down all barriers to movement of goods and capital across country borders. Under ideal situations, this is supposed to work for the ‘good of all’. Never mind ideal situations may never be achieved. A few implicit assumptions that I see in this model are:

  • All people share want similar things.
  • All markets are of the same type.
  • All can judge their self interest.
  • Everybody has a chance.

Of all the assumptions, the last one is probably the craziest. Anyways, since the time of the liberalisation in India (which, Khilnani says, was forced down India’s throat) the main line of rhetoric from all spectra of the political scene has been of removing corruption, transparency, efficiency, installing a meritocracy and so on. The Government is simply a hindrance, the smaller, leaner (and definitely meaner!) State is what is being aimed for. But as Amartya Sen notes (regretfully almost), India never had the social infrastructure which would enable every to grow in a liberalising economy. The pains of transition are being meticulously documented by a large body of academics and activists, for a posterity that may not see an India that is as divided as it is now.

The main issue of the schism that has opened, especially with regards to governance, is well articulated in this video of Solomon Benjamin, an independent researcher from Bangalore. Every system of governance has implicit or explicit normative principles, which help to differentiate between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, or (more importantly from a governance point of view) ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’. With Bangalore being claimed for its own by the IT sector, who want to have a say in the ways the city is governed (BATF being a prime example), a large shift has taken place in the concentration of power towards promoting a singular, ‘globalized’ view of the city. Since the corporates are obviously being managed better than the State, it ‘makes sense’ to imbibe ideas and governing principles from the ‘highly qualified’ MBA’s.

The reason why I brought up the previous point in a post about how liberalised we are is simply to show the image being portrayed of corporations being meritocratic, efficient and transparent entities, which manage to shun politics and do things in a streamlined, process-oriented manner. The news article that I linked to puts a big question mark on these assumptions. While all these are probably very true within any corporate, I fail to see how it applies without. A corporation manufactures a strictly controlled environment with controlled behavior expected of its members. Rather than shunning politics, it sets up a power structure which makes it possible to work with the adjectives listed above.

Coming finally to the question of how liberalised we are, a liberalised economy would imply that the market is the sole judge, jury and executioner. From the viewpoint of large corporates, not necessarily in IT, let us examine how true this is. First is the question of land. Sprawling campuses amounting to hundreds of acres are quite frankly not affordable or viable to companies like Infosys at market rates. It is the government that through arms like KIADB buys land at sub-market rates and transfers it to the corporation. If Infosys ever goes into the red, it can sell a few of its campuses and easily recover! The market is ignored here. Similarly, the SEZs provide innumerable tax holidays which are again a blatant distortion of the market prices. This implies that it is not that Infy and Wipro are competing on intrinsic efficiency, but by deliberate and substantial support from the Government. This is not a capitalistic model, but at best a market socialism. The amount of subsidies are said to amount to 100,000 crores, which is far bigger than the amount for the National Rural Employment Guarantee program, which is being decried as a handout. The best part comes when the dollar appreciates: there is again huge lobbying to return taxes back to help them cope up! What kind of meritocratic, transparent or efficient model of business this is, I can hardly imagine. The BIAL not only got invaluable land at agricultural prices, but wants no competitor around, and wants to charge a fee for passengers who use the airport!

The call for liberalisation, from this angle seems sheer hogwash and definitely does not apply to everyone, especially those who are its flagbearers. It applies to small shopkeepers, ‘illegal’ manufacturers, ‘pirates’, hawkers ‘violating’ zoning regulations and rest of us, sheep-consumers. Better to know what is happening than to stay in a euphoric mood about what India is becoming.