An Entirely Avoidable Great Tragedy

I am outraged. Yes, I not so much saddened as I am outraged.

It is a great tragedy. So many lives needlessly wasted. So many children dead, so many more with little hope of a decent human existence. Millions homeless without proper water, food, healthcare and education. Entirely preventable because we have the technology and the resources to avoid all this suffering and death. In the end it comes down to human frailty–greed, short-sightedness, ignorance, the lust for power.

And then there was an incident on Sunday when an earthquake unleashed a tsunami in the Indian Ocean and killed about 50 thousand, give or take 10 thousand. It is getting a lot of press and appeals for help on the internet are beginning to rival the pedelers of Viagra in the volume of email and the urgency of their appeal.
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Hopelessly Disorganized Immensely Selfish Mobs?

What do we want in India? If foreigners want these things, we want them twenty times more. Because…in spite of our boasted ancestry of sages, compared to many other races, I must tell you that we are weak, very weak. First of all is our physical weakness. That physical weakness is the cause of at least one-third of our miseries. We are lazy, we cannot work; we cannot combine, we do not love each other; we are intensely selfish, not three of us can come together without hating each other, without being jealous of each other. That is the state in which we are — hopelessly disorganized mobs, immensely selfish, fighting each other for centuries as to whether a certain mark is to be put on our forehead this way or that way, writing volumes and volumes upon such momentous questions as to whether the look of a man spoils my food or not! This we have been doing for the past few centuries. We cannot expect anything high from a race whose whole brain energy has been occupied in such wonderfully beautiful problems and researches!

And are we not ashamed of ourselves? Ay, sometimes we are; but though we think these things frivolous, we cannot give them up. We speak of many things parrot-like, but never do them; speaking and not doing has become a habit with us. What is the cause of that? Physical weakness. This sort of weak brain is not able to do anything; we must strengthen it.

First of all, our young men must be strong… You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger. You will understand the mighty genius and the mighty strength of Krishna better with a little strong blood in you. You will understand the Upanishads better and the glory of the Atman when your body stands firm upon your feet, and you feel yourselves as men.

I am deliberately leaving the quote above anonymous. Who is this guy who speaks of Indians being weaklings, physically and mentally? This passage was pointed out to me by a visiting friend. (The book is in my library and like scores of others sitting there, I have all sorts of good intentions about reading them but never seem to find the time.)

Gratuitous fault-finding is silly. Looking unflinchingly at reality, on the other hand, is absolutely required if you want to have any hope of solving the problem. This I believe is the first mistake that we make in India. The Mera Bharat Mahan attitude will ensure continued poverty and irrelevancy.

We are an underdeveloped poverty-ridden over-populated nation of over a billion people. Does anyone ever ask the question: Why is India the way it is? No. If we cannot ask this question because the answers may be unpleasant, I don’t see much hope for India. If we do not ask this question and answer it honestly, we may continue to blunder as we have done at least since independence 57 years ago under the flawed policies of the Nehruvian socialism and cargo-cult democracy.

When was the last time you ever heard of a conference where serious people with lots of knowledge and understanding got together to examine that question? Here is a suggestion for the movers and shakers of the great nation of India: commission a series of lectures by accomplished sociologists, economists, historians, philosophers, etc, which will examine the causes of India’s failures and what can be done to fix them. That lecture series can form a good counterpoint to the over-optimistic, rose-colored glasses-wearing, rocket-weilding India-superpower shouting, pyramid-power cult-worshipping, internet-surfing digital village hyping craziness so much in vogue.

PS: So who do you think is the author of the opening extended quote? Fabulous prizes for the correct answer. Please don’t cheat by using google.

Choosing between WCs and PCs

Conferences can be terribly boring affairs. But for real tedium, you cannot beat a conference on ICT and development. So it was with a great deal of trepidation that I ended up in Bhopal a few days ago to attend one. All I had to look forward to was an endless series of talks on how ICT will totally transform everything and finally deliver the holy grail of development to the billions who are pathetically underdeveloped.
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Re-inventing Education — Part 2 (The Imperatives of Technology)

To think of technology as know-how is immensely useful. At its core, technology is knowledge. The artifacts of technology are essentially embodied-knowledge. Some of this technology is very sophisticated and we call it “hi-tech”. Examples of technological artifacts with embodied knowledge abound such as nuclear bombs, computers, DVD players, cell phones, shoes that make irritating squeaky noises and light up, digital cameras, jet planes, drugs that help people have fun, spam and spyware, laser guided cruise missiles, satellites, search engines, triple heart-pass surgeries, and nanotechnology. Continue reading “Re-inventing Education — Part 2 (The Imperatives of Technology)”

Comparing India and China

Rajesh’s blog has an item on Amartya Sen on India and China. Of late Indians have been forced to accept unfavorable comparisons between India and China. And with good reason. But Indians find some grounds — often flimsy — to tilt the comparison in India’s favor. Sen writes:

While India has much to learn from China about economic policy and also about health care, India’s experience with public communication and democracy could still be instructive for China…With stunning success, China has become a leader of the world economy, and from this India—like many other countries—has been learning a great deal, particularly in recent years. But the achievements of democratic participation in India, including Kerala, suggest that China, for its part, may also have something to learn from India.

Let me first address the point about public communications. India does have freedom of press. You can print and publish all sorts of things, including criticism of the government and its policies. What good that freedom does in a nation of illiterates is open to debate. If only 10 percent of the population has access to books, magazines and newspapers, freedom of the press is a good idea in theory but has little practical implications. What would have had practical implications is the freedom of radio and (later on) the freedom of TV. Even illiterates can comprehend the spoken word and see video content. In the Indian context, free public communications implies freedom not just of the press but also of radio and TV. But with cynical aforethought, the Indian government did not allow the population that freedom.

I say cynical aforethought because I believe that the move was calculated to keep the population uninformed and therefore under control. Given that the population was severely handicapped informationally, the much celebrated “democracy” amounted to a sham because if one does not know what the government was up to, a vote does not amount to much. Bihar has had democracy for over 57 years. The result of that “democracy” is a government by crooks and incompetents. The outcome is not surprising given that literacy in Bihar is extremely low.

I put forth the hypothesis that India will continue to neglect making the population 100 percent literate because it will empower the population sufficiently and bring an end to the sham democracy. Those who are in power today fear 100 percent literacy because they fear losing their immunity.

What the Chinese have demonstrated is the simple fact that economic policies matter. Before 1978, China operated on a different set and was as poor — if not poorer — as India. Around ’78, they came to their senses and changed many of their policies. Twenty-five years later, they are a giant that cannot be messed around with. India’s economic policies — mostly attributable to Nehru and his progenies — have doomed India to what it is today. A balance of payment crisis forced India to change some of the policies but in general it was too little (and I pray that it is not too late.) Indian policy makers appear to be particularly impervious to reason. The two most important challenges that India faces are not being addressed. They are: the population and broad-based primary and secondary education.

Re-inventing Education in a Brave New IT World

He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils for time is the greatest innovator.

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Last week I presented a paper on ICT and education at a conference in Bhopal organized by the All India Society for Electronics and Computer Technology. In the paper I explored the opportunity the current state of the art of information technologies (IT) provides for re-inventing education. Continue reading “Re-inventing Education in a Brave New IT World”

On Being Ruled by Toads

When I was growing up in Nagpur, I had a friend who used to proclaim “India is ruled by toads” whenever we discussed India’s politicians. Being called a toad was the worst insult we could come up with. He later joined the Indian Police Service, worked in Mumbai as a Deputy Commissioner of Police, and was killed in the line of duty. He was one of the most decent human beings I have ever had the good fortune to know.

What brought all this to mind was an item about misbehaving politicians that reader “Ad” pointed out.

About a dozen Maharashtra ministers, 30 legislators and many top bureaucrats prevented a Nagpur-bound Jet Airways flight from taking off from Mumbai airport on Monday. Reason: the aircraft’s air-conditioner was not working.

Only one of the two airconditioning systems was functioning, it appears. It is a temporary inconvenience definitely not life-threatening. The crew is allowed to operate the flight because it meets the “Minimum Equipment List”. In any event, once the aircraft is in flight, one airconditioner is sufficient. This was explained to them but they “trooped into the cockpit” and one even tried to open an exit while the plane was in taxiing.

An aircraft delayed by a couple of hours and about a hundred passengers inconvenienced is not a really big deal. Or is it? Think about the fact that aircrafts are used throughout the day. The delay of the flight ripples through the system and all subsequent flights involving that aircraft are delayed. Thousands of people are directly affected. Many more multiples are indirectly affected. When a passenger arrives about 2 hours late, perhaps a meeting is missed, or a connection to another flight is missed. The initial disturbance has second and third order effects.

The politicians of India see themselves as the kings and they regard the citizens as their subjects and the country as their fiefdom. These people place themselves above the law. They are a law unto themselves. They are not answerable to anyone, except to their overlords who are the party chiefs. They go around in cars with red flashing lights on the top. When they travel on roads, seeing the red lights, police clear the streets. The citizens wait for these red-light-on-top cars to pass by. “The toads rush by”, as my friend would have said.

India is as I have maintained before a cargo-cult democracy. Centuries of being ruled by foreigners creates a culture of servility and powerlessness that is hard to overcome. In a strict sense, Indians deserve to be ruled by toads because they “elect” to be ruled by toads. Being ruled by toads has the ripple effect that finally culminates in an abjectly poor country that is euphemistically referred to as a “developing economy.”

Comment: Sonal Vaidya writes:

Reading your post “On Being Ruled by Toads” I wonder what do you think should happen to change the situation? Will India be always exploited by the corrupt power mongers? May be a revolution is a solution.

Raj Waghray writes:

What is worse is that these old senile toads(?) are now talking out of turn outside India and that too on issues as critical as our security.

Natwar’s N-speak Baffles New Delhi

India’s Picture-perfect Bureaucracy

These days the domestic airlines have evidently been instructed by powers up on high (so to speak) to warn the passengers that aerial photography of Indian territory is prohibited. Together with the usual instruction on how to fasten a seat belt (is it possible that someone who is able to navigate through the complex process of waking up in the morning and being able to tie his or her shoelaces cannot fathom the intricacies of how to fasten a seat belt?) and what to do in case of an emergency water landing (totally unsurvivable, if one were to be honest about it), they now are required to tell you that photography is prohibited.

Who, I always wonder, makes these rules? And why? Are these rules made so as to make criminals of ordinary people who may have a camera on hand and decide to take a picture of an interesting view from the air? Who can I ask the questions that arise from this sort of mindless stupidity? One may object to that characterization and say that it is for “national security” reasons. Waittaminit, mister. People who wish to bomb the nation to smithereens don’t have to board a commercial flight to get a good digital shot of the lay of the land. There are more sources on the web for that than you can click a mouse on. Take a look at this shot of the Taj Mahal. That is a one-meter resolution satellite image. (Click and hold over the “+” sign in the image to zoom — totally fascinating.) No one with the average camera can come anywhere close. So what is the whole point in preventing an occasional innocuous picture from the air?

There is something very peculiar about this anti-picture fetish that I notice in India. A few years ago I was outside a little run-down structure at Kushinagar near Gorakhpur in UP where the Buddha died about 2500 years. The place was deserted except for three novice monks who were chanting their evening prayers. I took a picture and immediately the lone security guy walks up and shows me the beaten-up sign which said that photography was prohibited. Why? And who makes these stupid rules and laws?

Democracy has been defined as government of, by, and for the people. By that definition at least, India is definitely not a democracy because what we have in India is government by faceless bureaucrats and corrupt politicians. Nameless unidentified unaccountable unreachable people in some vast bureaucratic machinery decide what the average citizen can and cannot do. The lack of accountability is pervasive. It stretches from the lowliest municipal commissioner to the secretary of the numerous central government ministries. Citizens are powerless and cannot question the decisions of these omni-potent idiots that guide the ship of state.

There is a partial remedy, of course. Each rule or law should have a name attached to it so that one knows who the responsible idiot is for the existence of yet one more silly idea. Perhaps it would shame these people into putting some thought into the matter before making another asinine rule. But perhaps I am too optimistic in this. These people must have hides thicker than rhinos’ skins and it would not make the slightest bit of difference.

Deva! Deva!

Ripping-off Foreign Tourists

During a recent visit to Hyderabad on work, I took some time off on a Sunday to visit the Golconda Fort which dates from the 13th century and is located on the western outskirts of the city. Like most tourist places that I have visited in India, the place is in ruins. It appears to be standard operating procedure that maintenance of these so-called ‘heritage sites’ is pathetic. But then one may argue that India is a poor country and cannot afford to keep these places clean. Perhaps so. But would it really kill the visitors to take their trash with them instead of littering the grounds with their plastic wrappers?
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