Open Letter to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya

Dear Chief Minister of West Bengal Mr. Buddhadev Bhattacharya:

I have come to learn that there is some possibility of renaming Park Street as Mother Teresa street and erecting her statue.

I think this is a very bad idea. The image of Kolkata has been forever tarnished as a result of Mother Teresa’s activities. For greater details on why this is so, I would urge you to read what some neutral observers have to say about the lady. I have a few articles on the subject and I recommend a book by a son of Kolkata — Dr Aroup Chatterjee’s “Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict” which I have reviewed here.

We in India are totally brainwashed to accept uncritically anything that is Western and white. Mother Teresa, motivated by missionary zeal, used the poverty of the poor of Kolkata to enrich her mission. While I do not deny that India has abject poverty, she used that poverty and showcased it around the world not to solve the problem but to evoke pity from affluent people so that they would contribute to the welfare of her mission, not for the welfare of the people she so ruthlessly used.

I urge you to carefully review the evidence and reconsider.

Atanu Dey

I have followed the Mother Teresa phenomenon with a sick feeling in my stomach because of a number of reasons. The primary reason for me is that she epitomizes what is the fundamental flaw that led to what we see in India around us today. The flaw is in not thinking through things, of busying ourselves with the symptoms of an ailment rather than eradicating the cause.

Mother Teresa ceaselessly championed for uncontrolled breeding. She did her best to derail any serious attempt at addressing one of the primary causes of poverty in the developing countries, namely, the growth of human populations way beyond that which can be sustained at a humane level. All she wanted was that there be sufficiently large number of abjectly poor in a place so she could gather brownie points to assure her place amongst the sainted. As she honestly put it, if there were no poor, there would not be any reason for hermission to exist. The poor, she held, were blessed because they suffer.

I feel that she should be called Teresa, the Merciless. Millions will be forced lead miserable lives because of what she has done and the institutions she supported (the Vatican, primarily) and the institutions she has created.

I expect hate mail as a result of this post. But I hope that the writer of hate mail at least read some of the articles which I have provided the links to above. My request is that you send me hate mail only after you have honestly read the articles.

The Triple Point of the World at Zero Degrees Humanity


I keep waiting for the real monsoons to show up in Mumbai. Do they have any thunder and lightening and huge downpours around here or does this anemic occasional rain showers pass for the monsoons? Thank goodness that I went to Lonavla last weekend with a bunch of guys from work. As we entered the Western Ghats, we passed through the mother of all rain storms. Waterfalls by the hundreds cascaded down the rocky cliffs at the edges of the Mumbai-Pune highway. When we reached Lonavla, the downpour had created fast-flowing rivers of the narrow roads of the busy tourist town. Being situated in a hilly area, shortly after the storm ended, the rivers vanished and the narrow streets reappeared. Continue reading

The Elephant’s Trunk

In a collection of essays called The Origin and Evolution of Intelligence (Scheibel and Schopf, eds.), Steven Picker’s article Evolutionary Biology and the Evolution of Language starts off with the assertion In Biology Uniqueness is Common and then immediately proceeds to give a stunning counterexample of that claim.

The elephant’s trunk is 6 feet long, 1 foot thick, and contains 60,000 muscles. Elephants can use their trunks to uproot trees, stack timber, or carefully place huge logs into position when recruited to build bridges. They can curl the trunk around a pencil and draw characters on letter-sized paper. With the two muscular extensions at the tip of the trunk, they can remove a thorn; pick up a pin or a dime; uncork a bottle; slide the bolt off a cage door and hide it on a ledge; or grip a cup, without breaking it, so firmly that only another elephant can pull it away. The tip is sensitive enough for a blindfolded elephant to ascertain the shape and texture of objects. In the wild, elephants use their trunks to pull up clumps of grass and tap them against their knees to knock off dirt, to shake coconuts out of palm trees, and to powder their bodies with dust. They use their trunks to probe the ground as they walk, avoiding pit-traps, and to dig wells and siphon water from them. Elephants can walk underwater on the beds of deep rivers or swim like submarines for miles, using their trunks as snorkels. They communicate through their trunks by trumpeting, humming, roaring, piping, purring, rumbling, and making a crumpling-metal sound by rapping the trunk against the ground. The trunk is lined with chemoreceptors that allow the elephant to smell a python hidden in the grass or food a mile away.

Elephants are the only living animals that possess this extraordinary organ.

If you like elephants, check out The Elephant Encyclopedia for a bunch of neat pictures. But you may ask why I am suddenly going on about elephants. This was prompted by a post on Rajesh Jain’s weblog on a dream device which combines the features of a Blackberry and iPod. To which Brian put a comment and asked whether we really need all-in-one devices. That got me to thinking about the elephant’s trunk and so this post.

To my mind, a device may have various functionalities as long as there is an underlying commonality to the supporting infrastructure that the device incorporates within itself. For instance, if the various functions require digital storage, retrieval, and decoding, then aggregating these functions on the same device that has at its core a huge amount of storage is logical. So you could combine digital diary functions with MP3 functions because they both share the same underlying hardware. Now add a communications function and you have a handheld PDA which plays MP3. Camera and picture viewer also logically follow since a PDA has to have a screen and so they are shared.

But then, an all-in-one device has the obvious disadvantage that Brian pointed out in his comment, namely, you lose the device and you are up the proverbial creek without the paddle. Well, in that case, the obvious evolution of the device is to use the device for retrival and communications alone and keep the storage function outside the device, say, on centralized servers that are unlikely to get stolen. Ultimately, if you have broadband connectivity, then you really don’t need to drag your own harddrive all over the bloody place. This has the other advantage of lower power requirements.

Indeed, most of computing could be moved to centalized servers and all you need is a retrieval device that is not complicated at all. Think about it.

Born Under a Wandering Star

As the song goes, I was born under a wanderin’ star. Lately my wandering has been confined to attending ICT for development shindigs around the country. But it gets mighty tiring. So I thought that it is about time to go see the world at large and renew my credentials as a truly homeless person. I suppose I am a gypsy at heart, a gypsy from a strange and distant land traveling on eternity road in search of … well, one can never be sure, can one?

This time I will be going round the world and plan to stop in Helsinki, Paris, London, Boston, New York, Washington, Atlanta, San Francisco Bay Area (Berkeley, San Jose, Saratoga, etc), and Seoul. I start mid-July and return to Mumbai around August 20th. The best part of my trip will be being back in California where I spent the best 20 years of my life so far, and being back in Berkeley would be the sweetest thing of all. As much as any place can be home to a homeless person, Berkeley is home to me.

I was born under a wanderin’ star
Home is made for coming from
Dreams for going to
Which with any luck
Will never come true…
Wheels are made for rolling
Mules are made to pack
I never seen a sight
That didn’t look better looking back …
Might can make you prisoner
The plains can bake you dry
Snow can burn your eyes
But only people make you cry …

That song is from an old western called Paint Your Wagon. There are three simple truths embedded in the quoted lines above. The first is about dreams coming true. See this quote about ideas and ideals for an elaboration of the notion that if you are lucky, your dreams will not come true. The second truth is that things always look better in retrospect. Time lends perspective. And finally, of all wounds, that caused by people hurt the most.

I think this one is fast running out of rhyme or reason, and I am getting all sentimental. So I should stop.

India’s Disposable Children

A couple of weeks ago, I had discussed A Matter of Rights in connection with the population problem and had concluded that post with

Does a person have a right to inflict pain and suffering on another person? If my action were to lead to immense suffering, and I plead that if you do not allow me to freely act you are impinging on some basic right I have, would you allow me that “right”? Or will you circumscribe my “right” to act as I please because otherwise it results in unnecessary pain and suffering to a human being?

Small girl with an infant
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Rural Economic Development and RISC

Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Lucas had remarked that once you start thinking about economic growth, it is hard to think of anything else. What are the causes of economic growth and how can the process be enabled is a question that has obsessively occupied some of the best minds in the world of economics and commerce.

The question takes on an unparalled urgency and importance when applied to the rural Indian economy because it presents an enormous challenge, and, consequently, presents an equally great opportunity for making a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. India’s economic development is predicated upon India’s rural development because around 700 million Indians live in rural India. An astonishing one out of every ten living humans lives in rural India.

Rapid progress in GDP growth and globalization in the last decade has primarily impacted the urban economy. While software exports, business process outsourcing, etc, have helped urban economic growth, it has done relatively little for the rural economy.

Without rural economic development, India has little chance of achieving growth rates required to become a developed nation. Furthermore, economic development is both a cause and a consequence of urbanization. Clearly, in the Indian context, urbanization through further rural to urban migration is both unsustainable and socially disruptive. Therefore urbanization of the rural population will have to be achieved in the rural areas.

Rural India is caught in what is called a development trap. Because of lack of economic opportunities, incomes are low. Therefore they are unable to pay for goods and services that would enable them to increase their incomes. This leads to low demand for goods and services. Consequently, firms don’t find it profitable to do business in rural India. This leads to the inadequate provision of infrastructure, which in turn leads to lack of economic opportunities, and so on.

It is important to recognize that human capital is the scarce resource globally. Fortunately India is lavishly endowed with immense human capital. However, physical capital is in relatively short supply in India. The challenge therefore is to use the limited capital most efficiently to break out of the poverty trap by integrating the rural economy with the urban Indian economy and indeed the global economy.

Various models for rural economic growth have been proposed and implemented. Vinod Khosla and I have proposed a model which harnesses the power of the information and communications technology (ICT) revolution to accelerate rural economic growth. The model called Rural Infrastructure & Services Commons (RISC) has the potential for achieving the multi-faceted goals of sustainable development. It uses limited resources efficiently by focusing them in specific locations that are accessible to a sufficiently large rural population, such as that of 100 villages.

RISC provides the benefits of urbanization by making available to rural populations the full set of services and amenities that are normally available in urban areas. It brings the benefits of ICT and the increased access to global markets that globalization promises.

The model recognizes that rural populations face a number of inter-related gaps, not just the celebrated digital divide. Bridging them simultaneously with a holistic solution is more likely to succeed than any partial intervention can.

The model facilitates the coordination of the investment decisions of the private sector, the public sector, NGOs, and multilateral lending institutions. To achieve its goal, the model strikes a number of balances &#151 between the local and the global, between planned infrastructure investment and market-driven service provision, between specialization and standardization. It does not require government subsidies for its continued operation, although the government does have a role in providing some critical functions such as risk alleviation, loan assistance, and enacting enabling legislation.

A typical RISC installation would provide services for about 100,000 rural people. These services, mostly but not all provided competitively by a large number of for-profit firms, will range from education, health, market making, financial intermediation, entertainment to government services, social services, etc. Since all services themselves require the infrastructural services such as power, telecommunications, water, physical plant, etc., large specialized firms will provide the infrastructure.

RISC obtains urbanization economies, which arise from the agglomeration of populations and infrastructure facilities. By installing RISCs to serve the rural populations of an entire state, economies of scale and scope are also obtained. Scale economies would be significant at each level of the model. At the infrastructure level, there are transaction costs associated with the necessary coordination between the firms providing the core infrastructural services. At the services level, the cost of the services will be inversely proportional to the quantity demanded and supplied.

A RISC provides a complete set of services and functions. Each service provider itself is a customer of other services co-located on the RISC. The banker uses the internet and postal services, and the internet service provider uses the banking and postal services, and so on. They make each other mutually viable and even possible. All these economies essentially lower the cost of service provision and, in a competitive market, makes them more affordable.

At a certain level of abstraction, the proximate causes of poverty can be seen as two gaps: the ideas gap and the objects gap. The objects gap is the lack of physical resources &#150 too little land, too little capital stock, etc &#150 that contribute to persistent poverty. The ideas gap is the lack of knowledge about how to make the best use of the resources available. Fortunately, the cost of knowledge goods has dropped precipitously due to the revolution in information and communications technologies. Bridging the ideas gap is a much easier task than ever before. RISC uses ICT intensively towards that end.

The transition from the concept to the actual implementation of the RISC model requires co-ordination of investment decision of the government and the large firms that provide the infrastructural elements. It is a non-trivial but surmountable challenge provided the political will and the vision exists among policy makers, private sector leaders, leading investors, and opinion makers.

Idol-worshipping gone haywire

This is a followup to the comments on my post on Gandhian Self-sufficiency.

It is more than a bit unfortunate that we have a tendency to immediately label any criticism of any person as a sign of disrespect. Any person whose image cannot withstand the harsh glare of honest criticism says something about the fragility of that image. The image takes on a aura of such holiness and awe that any hint of possible flaws is taken as sacrilegious. Taken to an extreme, this sort of idol-worshipping ends up with the worshippers lynching anyone daring to profane the sacred image.

For the record, I do believe that Gandhi was a giant of a man. But for all his greatness, he was still cut from the same cloth as you and I. The same human frailties, the same hopes and ambitions and fears. The difference between a Gandhi and one of us is one of size, not of substance. If we keep that in mind — not just about Gandhi but everyone — I do believe that we would have a useful working hypothesis. Those great big people are magnified images of ourselves. And that which magnifies the virtues, magnifies the flaws as well. An old Chinese saying says that the bigger the front-side, the larger the back-side. Continue reading

On Gandhian Self-sufficiency

I am somewhat familiar with the concepts of Satyagraha and non-violence that Gandhi preached and sometimes practiced. They are interesting tools and can be employed effectively in some circumstances. But, like all tools, they too can’t be employed in every case; they are not easy for mere mortals to employ even under favorable circumstances. In fact, they have severe limitations in that they are not general purpose tools but are rather special purpose tools. The interesting thing is irrespective of whether they work or not, the user gets to occupy the moral high ground.

Occupying moral high ground is well and good if that is one’s objective. But one could be very dead at the end of the day — on high ground but still dead.

Those tools elevate the user in the user’s estimation at least. But the sad fact of this world is that it does not work in those cases where you most desperately want it to work. One needs an effective tool against mass murderers more urgently than against robbers. The former could not care less whether you have an elevated opinion of your own moral standing. Hitler, for instance, would have slaughtered without compunction those who responded to his aggression with non-violence; it would have eased the realization of his megalomanical dreams of world domination. Continue reading

Seduced by ICT

Yesterday I started writing about the ICT for development meeting I was at held at ICRISAT at Hyderabad earlier this week. The usual suspects were in attendance. I had met many of them at the MS Swaminathan Policy Makers’ Conference at Chennai a few months ago. One face new to me was Prof Ken Keniston of MIT who gave an opening address.

He made five cautionary points which are worth noting. They are:

  • Do not get seduced by ICT
  • Localize, localize, localize
  • Do realistic cost projections
  • Given the complexity of systems, choose operators with extreme care
  • Be patient

The use of ICT tools for development is a no-brainer. But it is a mistake to think that a Pentium4 in every village will solve India’s developmental problems. The point one has to pay special attention to is to examine the entire set of ICT tools and then choose ones that are appropriate to the task. Information and communications technology tools are not limited to PCs and internet connections. There are many other tools such as radio (both FM and shortwave), ham radio, and TV which may be more cost effective and relevant in a given context.

Recently I came across a news item which said that they are looking at solving Mumbai’s traffic problems by making Mumbai roads “electronic intelligent roads.” I don’t have the slightest doubt that it would involve huge outlays to the tune of millions of dollars and lots of people will make lots of money up and down the line providing expertise and hardware and software for this hi-tech venture. I am also convinced that it will not make the slightest effect on the congested Mumbai roads because it is not the roads that need the intelligence but the people designing the roads that need to be intelligent.

Close to where I live in Kandivali, a suburb in North Mumbai, there is an intersection that is almost always caught in a grid-lock. The intersection is like an “H” with bi-direction flow of traffic along all the sections and it has one traffic signal at one of the points where the horizontal section meets the vertical sections. Traffic gets log-jammed around 300 meters of this intersection and it takes about a half hour to cross this bit every evening. Hundreds of autorickshaws, buses, cars, trucks, two-wheelers, and whatnots spew exhaust fumes and honk continually and people suffer. It is astonishing that the traffic people have not figured out that the simplest thing to do would be to paint some part of this intersection with the “KEEP CLEAR — DO NOT BLOCK” sections and put a couple of traffic cops to teach the people to keep off these sections. It would be a simple effective system which would cost very little compared to the enormous price that everyone pays throughout the day due to the congestion.

Instead, the Mumbai municipal corporation is investigating ways of using electronics. Why not better road markings and so on? Because there is not much money involved in a simpler but more effective system. Simpler may be better but there is not much profit in it. A blackboard, a teacher, and a dozen slates and some chalk may be simpler and better for adult education, but there is not as much profit as in putting PCs with literacy programs to teach adults how to read in rural areas.

PCs have powerful lobbies to promote their use. Chalkboards, radios, TVs, etc, don’t have that. Put it this way: the manufacturers of expensive shiny new hammers need people to be convinced that every problem is a nail and that everyone should have a shiny new expensive hammer. Never mind that sometimes a rusty screwdriver is better at a particular task than a shiny new expensive hammer.

HP, Microsoft, Intel and others of its tribe have to keep pushing their products. For impoverished people who can barely afford food, finding the most cost-effective solution is more important. But doing that involves much hard thinking and for those who make the decisions, there is not as much money in it. So the poor get saddled with expensive but ineffective solutions.

I should hasten to add that I am not a Luddite. I don’t need to be convinced of the extreme utility of computers and connectivity. Not only am I a user of these technologies, I have studied computer science and have worked for computer corporations. Some of my best friends are computer geeks (there but for the grace of god go I.) My concern is that PCs and the internet are crowding out the other more effective technologies that could help India develop.

The Amazing Ogallala Aquifer

I have been neglecting this blog because I have been traveling to places exotic. Well, maybe not all that exotic since it was just Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh. I had gone there to speak at a conference on ICT and development.

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