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.
Continue reading

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”

A Letter to Abhishek

My Dear Abhishek:

You, like all newborns, are a Little Buddha.

Welcome to the world and may you have a long and happy stay here. In this letter I will try to tell you a few things that may help you along.

You are just a month old. The universe you are born into is infinitely older than you. I hope someday you would learn what the relation between you and the universe is and appreciate the unique place you occupy within it. You will spend quite a bit of time making a living, but to truly make a life, you will have to comprehend who you are in the larger scheme of things. We will talk about this at length later.

Narrowing our focus, we now move on to the world we inhabit. Our world—the earth—is almost, but not quite, as old as the universe. Also, compared to the universe, the earth is infinitely smaller. While our concerns are mainly focused on the earth, don’t forget that there is a larger universe out there. Why? It will lend perspective to whatever you do. The most important feature of the universe—and therefore all that is in it including the earth and you—is impermanence and change. This realization is the most profound that you will ever achieve. The rest is all details. Whatever you do, great or small, is of no consequence in the larger scheme of things. Relieved of the burden of having to worry about consequences, you can then focus on what is your duty without being distracted by the inconsequential. For us the big over-arching task is therefore to figure out what our duty is. Each one of us is unique and therefore our tasks are unique. The good life, not merely a good living, is guaranteed to one who is able to figure out what that unique task is. It is an infinite uncharted plain out there and you have to figure out your own path. You cannot follow anyone else’s path. Others have walked that plane but their path is not the path for you.

To figure out your path, you have to comprehend the world. To comprehend the world, you have to know it. Acquiring knowledge is hard work and it involves sifting through vast amounts of information. You will read breathless prose about how stupendously amazing amounts of information is available to you at your fingertips. That is good but don’t make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge. It is important to make that distinction to avoid fundamental costly mistakes. Remind me to explore this distinction later. That brings us to an important point: the ability to make skillful distinctions is very crucial to thinking and consequently to comprehension.

The more sophisticated a consciousness is, the more distinctions it can make, and thus be able to comprehend the complexity of the universe more acutely and comprehensively. To illustrate what I mean, an intelligence which is only able to distinguish between one and many is not as sophisticated as one that is able to use the counting numbers 1, 2, …, etc. Our ability to distinguish is directly related to our ability to learn vocabulary. In a sense, all education is about learning vocabulary. Each word stands for a concept, and each concept is made up of simpler concepts and each of these simpler concepts has a one-to-one mapping with simpler words. The hierarchy of concepts is reflected in the hierarchy of words and in a strict sense, what we know consciously about is limited by our vocabulary. As our vocabulary grows, so does our comprehension of the world. The Word is primary; all else is merely an elaboration of the Word. What is that word, you ask. Some call it the Om, others the Tao. We will explore this a little later.

You must have noticed that I keep hinting at things and do not go into details. That is because this one is only the introduction, or even the introduction to the introduction. I promise you that we will discuss at length all the points mentioned above and more as they arise. Our exploration will be bounded only by our bounded rationality and our limited comprehension of the world.

I will close this one with some words from The Desiderata: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

With a deep bow to the Buddha within you,
Atanu

The Towing of Cars

Greater Vehicle, Lesser Vehicle, no matter.
All vehicles will be towed at owners’ expense.

It all began innocently enough. Three friends meeting in Pune’s Koregoan Park quarters to have lunch and chat. We finished lunch at a roadside dhaba and walked back to Shrikant’s car parked in a quiet little street only to find that the car was missing. Scrawled on the spot next to where the car should have been was a message in chalk: “Bund Garden Road.”

We surmised that the car had been towed to the Bund Garden road transportation police office. Less than an hour ago we had parked the car in front of a bank branch at a spot that was marked “Parking for Bank Customers Only”. It was Sunday and the branch was closed. It was not a busy street and it was a convenient place to park under a bit of shade on a scorching summer afternoon. But now the car was gone. My heart sank because my laptop was on the backseat and I conjured up images of someone breaking into Shrikant’s car just to take the laptop.

We took an autorickshaw to the police station about three kilometers away. I was relieved to see that my laptop was still on the backseat of the impounded car. The constable who towed the car showed up eventually after a half hour wait. The car, he claimed, was illegally parked. Shrikant explained very patiently that there were no signs which prohibited parking the car. The constable insisted that it was parked in a no-parking zone and that there was a sign attesting as much a little ways up the road. Shrikant countered that there was no way anyone could figure out that parking in that spot was prohibited because no signs were posted along the stretch of road we passed before we parked.

What followed was a mini-drama: Shrikant was patient and conciliatory; I was indignant and angry that we were being needlessly hassled for no fault of our own; Girish was silently observing the proceeding from a distance maintaining an amused reserve that I found admirable. We had already wasted an hour and a half trying to retrieve the car. The private operator towing truck was parked close at hand and the constable was leisurely having lunch with the operators of the truck. A camaderie born out of extended mutually beneficial association was evident between the cop and the towing truck operators. They depended on each other.

The cop (whose name I eventually noted down) insisted that we had to pay a fine of Rs 250 for illegal parking. But, he said, that he would consider the case settled if Shrikant paid him Rs 100. Shrikant said that he would not pay Rs 100 but would be happy to pay the Rs 250 penalty provided the cop would come with him to the spot where the car was parked and show where the infraction was. The ultimatum from the cop: pay a Rs 100 bribe or pay Rs 250 to reclaim the car. Shrikant said he would pay not just the penalty but twice the penalty if the cop would just show him how any person could reasonably figure out that it was illegal to park at the spot we had parked at.

The cop figured that we were tough customers and would not be intimidated into paying the bribe. So he escalated the case to his superior, an officer who was in the little two-room dilapidated police post. We entered the office to find the officer in his undershirt asleep on a cot in the backroom. He heard the dispute and concluded that we either pay Rs 250 or we don’t get the car back. I told him in no uncertain terms that this was extortion.

To cut a long three hour story short, Shrikant paid the fine of Rs 250 and then insisted that the cops return with us to the spot where the car was towed from and show us where the sign was. He would pay double the fine if the cops proved that we were at fault. There was a sign about 20 meters ahead of the parking spot which said “No Parking 100 meters ßà”. It was small, nailed to a tree, aligned parallel to the road, and could not be seen unless viewed directly across from the road.

The sign had to be there for the whole scheme to work. It was part of the trap. They merely show up and tow any car parked there by mistake and extract a bribe. I asked the owner of a cigarette kiosk across the road how often the cops show up to tow cars from this spot. He said about half a dozen times most days.

One of the cops finally admitted that it was not our fault but neither was it their fault. The fault, he concluded, was the Pune municipal corporation’s for improper signage. Shrikant cornered the guy. Do you have any children? Do you teach them to be good or do you teach them to be dishonest? How do you sleep at night? The guy squirmed uneasily. He was not entirely devoid of a moral sense, although he was clearly not willing or unable to reason. He said that since we had paid the fine, we had admitted to our crime.

Later in the evening we were recounting this to a friend, Sunil. He said, “You guys should never have argued with the cops. You had no idea what you were up against. The cops are ruthless and could have cooked up some story and thrown you in a lockup. In the end it would be their word against yours. They would have claimed that you were attacking them.”

That was almost exactly what our confrontation was headed towards, I said. At one point, the inspector, who had bothered to get out of his cot and put on a shirt to come out, claimed that I had used abusive words towards the constable and threatened to throw me into jail. There was nothing any of us could have done. The cops knew that they had the authority and the means to really give us a bad day. In fact, they depended on this power to extract bribes from their hapless victims, the very people they are supposedly hired to protect. It was protection money they demanded and they got regularly.

Cops have figured in local news recently. Stories of rape and violence by cops is common enough for the cartoonist RK Laxman to pen a strip in which a mother cautions her young daughter to be careful out in the streets because there are cops around.

Sunil claimed that Asians are the most corrupt in the world. As a businessman, he recounted half a dozen stories of harassment by various officials of government agencies that he has to deal with, from excise departments to income tax to customs. Nitin, another businessman friend, added his own stories to the litany of woes that business people appear to take for granted and as cost of doing business in India.

Anecdotal evidence at best but it lends credibility to the findings of agencies that rate Indiaas one of the most corrupt economies of the world. (See India, the World’s Largest Kleptocracy on this blog.) It is disheartening to hear how pervasive corruption is in India. An industrialist recently recounted his encounter with an official from the state-owned power company. The official offered to fix the industrialist’s power bill because “he was paying too much for electricity.” The industrialist finally had to bribe the official to not tamper with the bill. The bribe was needed because of the fear the official could have disrupted the power supply to the manufacturing unit out of spite. It reminded me of the caution that joggers in NY’s Central Park were given: carry some cash just in case you are mugged because if you don’t want to get caught with no money—it could enrage the mugger.

Corruption is a corrosive force that attacks the moral, commercial, and ethical fabric of the society. Its perceived pervasiveness perpetuates it and sanctions it in a perverse positive feedback loop. Everybody knows that corruption exists. It is common knowledge: not only do you know, you also know that everyone else knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows, and so on. You know that the guy at the top takes in millions in bribes. You justify your little bit of dishonesty by noting that the really rich get away with it and so why should you not take a bit just to make ends meet.

Take the lowly cop whom we encountered. He probably is paid around $100. He is merely trying to make ends meet and provide for his family. His illegal towing is an adaptation to a system which is materially poor. His victims also adapt and pay the extortion because they cannot afford to fight the cop. Neither the crook (the cop in this instance) nor the victim can afford the luxury of a moral stance. Locked within a dysfunctional system, we are playing a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma game of full information. We are not born inherently flawed; we merely adapt to the system we are born into and which we appear to be powerless to alter. Our apparent moral turpitude is not so much nature induced as a rational response to a structural feature of the environment we live in. We are players in a Thomas Hardyesque fatal drama where the script is seemingly unalterable.

Shrikant asked me on the way back from the police encounter if ever the low quality of our public service will ever improve. It is an important question that we need to answer for ourselves. Like always, whenever I am confronted with a problem, my instinct is to seek the underlying causes that give rise to the symptom which we perceive as the problem. What are the structural features of our society that make corruption so integral to it? Why and when did it arise? If we fully understand its genesis—both in human nature and in the social system that humans create—perhaps then we may have a handle on a possible solution.

I believe that corruption is a rational response to a materially poor system. Material poverty is necessary but not sufficient for corruption to take root. Corruption, in turn, makes the possibility of escape from material poverty more difficult. In its most general formulation, material poverty arises from an imbalance between the resources available to a population and the size of the population.

I will investigate this a bit more in coming days.