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”

Global Voices

Ethan Zuckerman invited me to join in a Global Voices Brainstorm on Tuesday 29th March at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School. It was a great opportunity for me to meet with many people associated with Global Voices:

Global Voices is an international effort to diversify the conversation taking place online by involving speakers from around the world, and developing tools, institutions and relationships to help make these voices heard.

Check out the Global Voices Manifesto when you get a chance.

Scribble, scribble, scribble

“Another damned, thick, square, book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?

– William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, upon receiving the second volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the author, 1781.

Well, what do you know!

This blog won the Best Indiblog Award. To be more specific, of those who cared to vote (around 600), this blog got around 38 percent of the votes. Thanks to each of you who considered my modest attempt worth noting. My sincere appreciation for that vote.

I admit that I am not surprised that some people actually find my writing acceptable. Nor I do not find it entirely surprising that 62 percent who voted did not vote for this blog. I don’t expect to be popular. More about that later. The topic that I concentrate on largely is not a happy one. One does not like to be reminded that one’s country is in dire straits. We see the evidence all around us if we care to just see.

Some people have criticized my point of view. I don’t like criticism. I don’t want to be told that I am wrong. But I need to be told my faults. While I like to be told that I am right, I need to be told even more where I am wrong. I am a pretty smart cookie but I am not so smart as to know all by myself where I screwed up.

Back to the topic of being popular. I think that if one is totally honest, one is not likely to be popular. Which may partly account for the fact that politicians are inveterate liars. They seek popularity and they lie. They lie because they know that people are gullible and that they can get away with transparent lies and blatant falsehoods. People would rather believe in some feel-good fiction than in hard facts.

Given the gullibility of people at large and their need to believe in happy fiction, democracy has a near-fatal flaw built into it. A person who states it like it is is going to be at a disadvantage when it comes to unpleasant truths. And most of the time, a society or an economy confronts hard facts, irrespective of how rich or powerful it is. I recall Walter Mondale telling the hard truth to Americans that taxes will have to be raised, and George Bush, the Elder, said, “Read my lips: No New Taxes.” Later, after having won, Bush went on to raise taxes like nobody’s business.

The poorer the country is, the more its politicians lie. The most adept at lieing win. They have to — because the truth is too awful to bear. Farmers are suffering? Promise them free stuff. Can the country afford it and will it actually make them better off? No and no, but do it all the same because that is what guarantees winning at elections.

India is caught in a trap. Venal politicians lie and the gullible public votes them to power because they would rather hear a pleasant lie than hear the unpalatable truth. Anyone with any sense in their heads would reject them outright but then when were the good and the holy in majority anyway? Democracy assures the rule of the venal over the gullible.

In any event, I will go on scribbling and only time will tell if I am correct in my assessment that we are doomed unless we face some rather harsh reality.

Goodnight, goodbye, and may your god go with you.

PS: I have loads of emails. Please bear with me if you have written and haven’t heard back from me yet. I am going to reply to all my emails.

The IndiBloggies 2004

The IndiBloggies 2004 voting is under way. Some well-meaning person nominated this blog in the category Best Indiblog. I kid you not. So if you are one of the half a dozen readers of these ramblings, and if you have nothing better to do, do hop on over there and vote for some of the excellent blogs listed. Vote early and vote often, as they say. I would have surely won the award if I had Bush’s team of Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney and gang to fix the votes for me. But then I don’t and so I won’t. Pity really. It would have loooked good on my resume. Not that it would have made much of a difference to my resume. It is so pathetic that only a couple of Nobel Prizes would give it sufficient credibility for me to get a decent job. But as the man replied when he was asked by the judge why he mugged his own grandmother for a dollar, and he replied, “Your honor, every buck helps”, I too say, my resume needs all the help it can get.

A Brief Biography

Atanu Dey suffers from a rather severe form of attention deficit disorder. After his bachelors in mechanical engineering, he moved to computer science and received a master’s degree. Product marketing at HP in the Silicon Valley kept him occupied briefly for six years. Then he traveled in India, US, and Europe for five years before realizing that he knew nothing about economics. So he studied economics at the University of California at Berkeley and received his PhD for his thesis on the Indian telecommunications sector. His critique of the New Telecom Policy 1999 is worth a read, even though his thesis will only appeal to hardcore economists and is guaranteed to distress socialistic Indian policy makers. Playing hooky while at UC Berkeley, he slummed at a junior university called Stanford as a Reuters Digital Vision Fellow 2001-02. Rumor has it that there he actually developed a model which he calls “Rural Infrastructure and Services Commons (RISC)” that promises to bring about the economic transformation of rural India. Someone asked him to demonstrate that claim and so he is off in India trying to implement the RISC model, leaving behind a lot of very relieved people in California where he spent nearly two decades. In his spare time (about 90% of his total time) he listens to classical music, practices Vipassana meditation, reads physics, gives lectures on Buddhism, maintains a sporadic blog, and occasionally makes sense. He plans to become a philosopher when he grows up. He would also like all to know that he is a published poet.


As one lamp lights another, nor grows less,
So nobleness enkindleth nobleness.

Those are lines from a poem (Yussouf by James Russell Lowell) that I had memorized in school many years ago. They immediately came to mind when I read about Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, or “Dr. V”, a few months ago. Reading about Dr V was empowering and I wrote Unsung Hero — Dr V in my weblog.[1] Today Karthik emailed me another article about Dr. V. Once again, there was that same feeling of being inspired, of being empowered to do what needs to be done.

Dr. V. created the Aravind Eye Hospital. I quote from the latter article:

Since opening day in 1976, Aravind has given sight to more than 1 million people in India. Dr. V. may not run a business, but it’s important to note that Aravind’s surgeons are so productive that the hospital has a gross margin of 40%, despite the fact that 70% of the patients pay nothing or close to nothing, and that the hospital does not depend on donations. Dr. V. has done it by constantly cutting costs, increasing efficiency, and building his market.

It costs Aravind about $10 to conduct a cataract operation. It costs hospitals in the United States about $1,650 to perform the same operation. Aravind keeps costs minimal by putting two or more patients in an operating room at the same time. Hospitals in the United States don’t allow more than one patient at a time in a surgery, but Aravind hasn’t experienced any problems with infections. Aravind’s doctors have created equipment that allows a surgeon to perform one 10- to 20-minute operation, then swivel around to work on the next patient — who is already in the room, prepped, ready, and waiting. Post-op patients are wheeled out, and new patients are wheeled in.

Aravind has managed to beat costs in every area of its service: The hospital’s own Aurolab, begun in 1992, pioneered the production of high-quality, low-cost intraocular lenses. Aurolab now produces 700,000 lenses per year, a quarter of which are used at Aravind. The rest are exported to countries all over the world — except to the United States. (In order for Aravind to get its lenses approved for sale in the United States, it would have to pay for an FDA study and a clinical study, which the hospital cannot afford.) Aravind even has its own guest house, and students and physicians from around the world come to teach, study, observe, practice — and boost their training.

So here I begin this journey with the proper invocations to Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles, the One with the Broken Tusk, and with thanks to Dr. V. and his vision.


[1] That UC Berkeley blog is not available any more.

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