A Man of Practical Genius

Visiting Singapore is both an exhilarating and a depressing experience for me. To observe the transformation of a mosquito-infested swamp full of poor people into a vibrant developed nation of prosperous people in a brief span of 40 years is exhilarating. Comparing Singapore to India from an Indian’s perspective is depressing: how did we–given all the advantages we had in 1950 compared to Singapore–squander it all and end up being a poor misgoverned over-populated country? That is the depressing bit.
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The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme

In a land where reportedly every generalization is trivially true, one generalization holds non-trivially and with overwhelming force. It is this: Indian governments are pro-poor. Every policy that any government ever espouses, fundamentally it always is pro-poor, irrespective of any minor variations such as pro-market or pro-planning or pro-industrialization or pro-globalization or pro-self sufficiency or whathaveyou.

My claim is that this pro-poor policy is not mere rhetoric. The policy works and how. I argue that all other policies have not yielded their expected results but the pro-poor policies have delivered as could be reasonably expected.

Pro-industrialization policies are expected to lead to an increase in industrialization. If India ever had such policies, they have had only marginal success because India is arguably not an industrial economy. Pro-poor policies are expected to promote the number of the poor, and there has been a monotonic increase in the number of poor in India.

The percentage of people below the poverty line is estimated to be around 25. That is, India has about 250 million people who are so unimaginably poor that they can’t cross the poverty line that is set way below what can be considered necessary for a human existence. Around 33 million were added to that role in 2001-02 alone For comparison, that is more than the entire population of Canada in 2001 (30 million).

Let’s put the number of the abjectly poor in perspective. Consider the number of people below the poverty line at the time of India’s independence. We had about 350 million people then. Assuming that 50 percent of them were below the poverty line then, there were 175 million abjectly poor people then. Now, about 57 years later, we have 250 million abjectly poor people. There has been an increase of 75 million in the ranks of the abjectly poor in the nearly six decades of pro-poor policies..

India’s pro-poor policies have succeeded in increasing the number of poor in the past and while past performance is not a guarantee of future results, the most probable outcome of current pro-poor policies can be expected to lead to increase in the number of the poor. The “Employment Guarantee Scheme” (introduced by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill) is pro-poor and the result will be as before.
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Don’t Drive Like My Brother

“Don’t drive like my brother” is usually the last bit of advice that “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers” give to their around 2 million listeners of their weekly National Public Radio show Car Talk on 370 radio stations.

I used to listen to them religiously. They are funny and irreverent and clever and poked as much fun at the callers as they did at themselves. In the closing credits, they acknowledged the research done by Paul Murky of Murky Research and thanked their law firm Dewey, Cheetham, and Howe. They would also thank random people such as their adopted son from Sweden, Bjorn A. Payne Diaz, or their airline reservation manager, Will Price Randomly. (See this for a complete list of credits.)

I was pleasantly surprised when I recently learnt that Tom and Ray Magliozzi (Click and Clack) were the speakers at MIT’s Commencement Exercises in June 1999. Here is part of a MIT news item on the event.

They received tongue-in-cheek letters from MIT President Charles M. Vest explaining that both the United Nations and the President of the United States had “really spiffy flags” that came in handy to “cheer up a drab corner of the campus.”

So, not to be outdone, the Magliozzi brothers created a flag. Their flag — purple, red and black on a white background — is 4-by-6, emblazoned with the slogan Non Impediti Ratione Cogitatonis (Unencumbered by the Thought Process) surrounding a seal showing the fins, taillights and bumper of a 1959 Cadillac, complete with a raccon tail on the trunk. They say it memorializes the rear end of Tom’s recently deceased 1963 Dodge Dart. The flag flew on the podium alongside the US and state flags.

In their rambling, hour-long address, the brothers occasionally jockeyed for position at the podium, yelled “Stop it!” and “Behave!” at each other and laughed harder than almost anyone in the audience at their own jokes. Their speech was accompanied by hand-made graphs on posterboard that showed the relationship between happiness levels for “left brain vs. right brain” individuals.

Although each brother seemed loath to give the other the last word, Ray finally managed with: “Have fun, enjoy the ride and don’t drive like my brother.”

The address is a must read. I read it because it was delivered at what C&C said “is the world’s foremost institute of technology on Massachusetts Avenue” but I guarantee that you will not have wasted your time for having read it as well.

Netaji’s Ghost: The Freedom Struggle

Didn’t know much about history, Indian or otherwise when I was in school. I went to a missionary school and I recall reading about English history (King Arthur comes to mind) and a bit about Indian history (Chattrapati Shivaji figured along with all sorts of Mughal emperors) but there was no attempt at communicating what I call a sense of history or instilling a spirit of inquiry about the history of India. My school did alright when it come to science and mathematics, but failed dismally in the social sciences.
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From Francois Gautier

Dear friends,

As you know one of the biggest problems today is that Indian journalists are not always proud of their own culture and roots and as result tend to have a very negative outlook on India, which in turn influences western correspondents posted in India. It is therefore very important that we train a new generation of Indian journalists. It is for this purpose that we have started a new school of journalism in Bangalore called the Sri Sri Center for Media studies. There, we teach the best of journalistic knowledge, both print and electronic, along with classes (which I take myself) on Indian history, the ideal of true journalism and a little bit coaching in pranayama and meditation these two ancient Indian sciences which impart a good and intuitive mind.
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Gordon’s New Zealand

A couple of weeks ago, I went with my friend and colleague Shrikant Patil to New Zealand to understand the New Zealand schooling system.

I loved New Zealand for a number of reasons — its natural beauty and what the people have been able to do with the natural resources of that country. It is a prosperous and egalitarian nation of friendly people with a great sense of humor. (See “Even Hell has its Standards“.)

Gordon Dryden was our friend, philosopher, teacher and guide. I think I can do worse than point you to The World of New Zealand According to Gordon Dryden.

Raural Development

I have been associated with India Rural Development Fund (IRDF) from its very inception many years ago. IRDF was started by my friend Uday Kumar when we were both working for HP in the Valley and it does a remarkable job of providing primary education to many villages in Andhra Pradesh.

Since I am listed on the “About Us” page of the IRDF website, I do occassionally get emails from various agencies working in rural areas. I got one today which I think is too good to keep to myself. Here it is — for the record — the email with the subject heading “Raural Development.”

sir,
first of all my heads off to u and ur team.
i shall take this opportunity to introduce myself,
i m a citizen of village thaura, block rewsa.
sir, v villagers wana do some innovative task for the development of our village for this v need ur guidence. v have some good projects which v wana excute through our gram panchayat.
sir v also wana meet u personally to explore areas of our interest.
it wil b our pleasure if r given a chance and i shall promise on behalf of ourt villagers that if v given a chance v shall leave no stone broken.
thanking u,
anticipating ur kind cooperation as always.

[name]
village thaura
block rewsa
distt sitapur.

The image of headless people and unbroken stones is priceless.