Enough already of not being filthy rich for me

Dateline May 4th, 2005, Kolkata: The Slimes Times of India reported that IIT entrance test set for overhaul:

The IIT-Joint Entrance Exam may soon be easier to crack. The Union HRD [Human Resource Development] ministry feels the examination is too tough, causes immense stress to candidates, and needs to be toned down immediately.

The ministry has formed a committee … to modify the IIT-JEE pattern.

Clever, isn’t it? In related news, another ministry has expressed concern about the fact that hunger is a problem to some few hundred million people and something needs to be done immediately about it. So a committee is being formed which will revise the daily caloric requirement from the current approximately 2000 Kcals per day to about 1000 Kcals. This would reduce the number of hungry people by about 80 percent.
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Me Write Pretty Some Day — Part 2

{A continuation of my previous post Me write pretty some day.}

My obsession with fully comprehending a problem before attempting to solve it springs from a simple personal trait: I am unbelievably lazy. How to get something done with the least effort is my constant obsession. My motto is work as little as possible to get only those things done that cannot be avoided. So of course I have to identify a minimal set of things that are unavoidable and then figure out the most efficient way of getting them done. Easily enough stated, my creed is not easy to follow. Sometimes I misidentify the set of things that need to done, and sometimes even after properly identifying the set, my method is imperfect. But by and large, I do get by and have managed to keep body and soul together—with a little help from my friends, of course.

Though I have a tendency to avoid unpleasant truths, I could not evade the conclusion that something was radically wrong with India. Even while I was in engineering school, I was aware of the poverty around me and figured out that being born poor was like getting a very poor outcome in a random draw. I went to a good school because I was lucky to be born to middle-class professional parents; the cleaning lady’s kid would never see the insides of a school and would probably end up with a much poorer life through no fault of his. Having had good schooling, I was able to study computer science at one of India’s premier institutions (IIT Kanpur) and was even paid to do so. Who paid for my education? The unlucky kids from poor families who got dealt a lousy hand in life’s random draw.

The IITs are a portal to the US. I ended up at Rutgers University to do a PhD in computer science. But grad student life sucks compared to that of a yuppie in the Silicon Valley and I quit within a short time with another master’s degree to work for HP. California lies pretty much at the other extreme of the world from India, both geographically and economically. With a population of about three percent of India’s population, its economy was double the size of India’s. Why was California so rich and why was India so poor? I had sufficient time to ponder that question. What distinguished the two? What was the reason for the totally different ways of living: the thoughtless affluence of the few compared to the grinding dehumanizing poverty of the many? I came up with the hypothesis that per capita resource availability had something to do with it. The cause of India’s poverty, it appeared to me, was due to an imbalance between resources and people. As a first approximation to the statement of what India’s basic problem was it was not too bad.

In northern California living is easy and my work at HP was a breeze. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about India’s problems. I soon realized that economics informs that fundamental question: Why is India poor? I liked the way economists thought (Thomas Schelling was one of the first economists I read) and I wanted to be one so that I could either justify or reject my hypothesis. A PhD in resource economics would do very well, I thought. And since the University of California at Berkeley was just up the road from me, I pestered the admissions committee sufficiently that they admitted me against their best judgment about allowing in someone with not a single economics course in their background. In case you are wondering, they liked having me there and I made lots of friends and even though I changed topics three times, each of my advisors was unhappy to see me go.

Enough of this biographical aside for now.

In all my readings about India, one thing that struck me was that no one appeared to ask the more fundamental questions such as:

  • What is wrong?
  • Where did we screw up?
  • Why did we screw up where we did?
  • How can we avoid such screw-ups?

It appeared to me that those at the decision making level in India did not have any clue about what was wrong, and they had even less than a clue about what to do about it. Even to an average seventh-grade student it is clear that problems have causes and exhibit symptoms. By examining the symptoms, one can figure out the causes of the problem. And by addressing the causes of the problem, the problem can be solved and thus bring about the removal of the symptoms.

The problem in India was that most people were not even very clearly perceiving the symptoms (poverty, illiteracy, corruption, overcrowding, etc.) to say nothing of understanding the problem and eventually solving it. The decision makers, especially, were evidently living in a separate universe which bore little relation to the universe the great unwashed masses inhabited. The government made plans that applied to their parallel universe and I don’t think they were the least astonished when their schemes did not work in the real universe. They were not astonished because they told themselves that their plans had worked marvelously and so they made even more of those idiotic plans.

Like individuals, countries also get hands dealt to them from a random draw. In one, you get leaders who are superhuman, and the country prospers; in another, you get puny unimaginative egomaniacs and the country ends up with malnourished children and illiterate adults. Can something be done to change the effects of the luck of that draw? I think there is.

For now, let me close with a quote from John Kenneth Galbraith (A Journey Through Economic Time, (1994)):

Ignorance, stupidity, in great affairs of state is not something that is commonly cited. A certain political and historical correctlness requires us to assign some measure of purpose, of rationality, even where, all to obviously, it does not exist. Nonetheless one cannot look with detachment on the Great War (and also its aftermath) without thought as to the mental insularity and defectiveness of those involved and responsible.

Happy Birthday, Dear Gautama the Buddha

Buddha Purnima is a good time to remind ourselves of the Buddhas that walked the earth. According to tradition, the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha was born during the full moon in the month of May, attained enlightenment on the same day in the 35th year of his life, and died on this day when he was about 80 years of age.

In India the day goes largely unnoticed. My conjecture is that because Buddha Purnima is not celebrated in the West with the traditional gusto accorded to Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Santa Clause (the fat man is an event all by himself), Halloween, and other such secular holidays, Indians don’t have a clue that this day is of any importance. One of these years, when Buddha Purnima is added to the list of events enthusiastically promoted by the commercial interest of the West, the innate desire to ape the West will add Buddha Purnima to the current list of celebrations observed by Indians. I hope the American marketers wake up and smell the incense and promote Buddha Day soon so that it will no longer go unnoticed by Indians.

The Bodhisattva Vows:

However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them.
However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them.
However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them.
However incomparable enlightenment is, I vow to attain it.

May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Here is something that I had written last year on The Birth Anniversary of the Buddha.

The World is Mad (followup)

In response to my mentioning Thomas Friedman in my post The World is Mad, Prashant Kothari posted a comment and included an article from the NY Press titled Flathead. He did not warn me to fasten my seat-belt before reading the article and I ended up rolling on the floor laughing my head off. I was tickled but also felt envy: wish I could write like that. Continue reading

Me Write Pretty Some Day

Time has come for a bit of stock-taking. I have been writing this web log for a while now and it is time to examine what motivates it and what justifies its existence. Until the motives are clearly understood, it is likely to be misunderstood, as some have done after a superficial reading of some items in this blog.

First, a tip of the hat to Rajesh Jain for insisting that I write a blog specifically dealing with Indian economic development and growth. I already had a personal blog Life is a Random Draw at UC Berkeley; but this one was to be more focused on issues economic and developmental. I have neglected my personal blog almost entirely since I moved from California to Mumbai in September of 2003 and started this blog. One of these days, once I get my act together, I will resume my personal blog.

While this blog has been moderately successful (it won the Best Indibloggies Award in 2005) and has a modest readership, I don’t believe that I have been successful in my objective. I will try to express my objective here. My basic objective is to provoke thought about India’s development and economic growth. That objective is motivated by my desire for India to progress materially and spiritually beyond where it is today. That immediately implies that I somehow do not approve of what India is. I see India as an extremely overpopulated desperately poor massively corrupt largely illiterate insanely over-regulated country of over a billion people. I use no commas in there to stress my belief that all those characteristics are not disjoint and are mutually dependent: overpopulation, poverty, corruption, illiteracy, insane regulations are inter-related and mutually reinforcing.

I cringe with distaste in having to describe the land of my ancestors in such unflattering terms. I wish it were otherwise. But how will it be otherwise? That is precisely what I am trying to understand: What should India be? The answer to that question is not immediately obvious as some may insist. We have to ponder that and have a reasonable answer to where our destination is before we start on our journey. And to properly plot our course, we have to have a reasonable idea of where we are to begin with.

Therefore the questions we need to grapple with are: Where are we? Why are we here? How did we get here? Next, where should we be going? Is there a reasonable chance that we can get there? If so, how should we get there? Only then should we begin the journey.

Why all this pondering and thinking, you may ask. Why not just do something? Because I take the Buddha’s admonition very seriously: First Do No Harm; Then Try To Do Good. Or, from a Zen perspective: Don’t Just Do Something; Sit There.

We need to understand something before we intervene. Otherwise we may make a bad situation worse. Or even make a perfectly good situation bad, as illustrated by one of my favorite sayings “Let me save you from drowning, said the monkey to the fish, and put it up on a tree.”

Akira Kurosawa recounted in one documentary on his life that when he was a small boy, his slightly older brother took him to see the death and destruction that occurred in wartime Tokyo. Akira could not bear to see the dead and wanted to turn away. His brother told him, “Akira, you must see this so that you can work towards preventing this sort of thing from happening.” (I am paraphrasing.) Akira later realized that his brother was probably more scared than he was and it was an act of courage on his brother’s part.

So my first objective is to look frankly and as dispassionately as I can at what India is today and then describe it as best as I can. Look, here is India with all its ills. We have to face that reality and acknowledge it without shying away. Only then we may be moved to say that we don’t like it and gather sufficient resolve “to break this sorry scheme and remold it closer to our hearts’ desire.”

To see what is wrong with India and write about it is not pretty. Me write pretty some day but I cannot yet. For me are denied the pleasures of writing how India is unbound for an adoring readership. Even if I wanted, I probably could not write in glowing terms how India is an IT superpower. I am not gifted with a golden pen that I will be able to describe how India is shining. And for that, I am run the risk of being labeled an “India-hater.”

In the next bit, I will justify my obsession with fully knowing and acknowledging what is wrong with India. Understanding the problem is the first step; the next is to figure out the genesis of the problem; the next is to eradicate the root cause of the problem. In the next bits I will give a brief outline of what I think the methodological error that are made in problem solving, which is that people try to mask symptoms instead of addressing the underlying causes.

Until then, goodnight, goodbye, and may your god go with you.

Post Script: Part 2 of “Me Write Pretty Some Day”