Friday, August 18, 2017

Sorry for giving you the trouble!

Staying with the Trouble may not be easy, but staying out of it is even more daunting as it amounts to denouncing the world in the expectation of an ideal world.

Trouble is what everyone avoids getting into, and yet it clings and endures. Be it small or big, transient or lasting, personal or social, local or global, there is one for each one (and at times more) at any given point in time as there isn’t any easy escape from it. Come to think of it, we are all tasked with making trouble as well as to settle troubled waters. It is said that without trouble there wouldn’t be any glory either. With most of us living in troubling, disturbing and torrid times, what sort of salvific future can we expect out of it?

Staying with the Trouble may not be easy, but staying out of it is even more daunting as it amounts to denouncing the world in the expectation of an ideal world. But is there an ideal world? Conversely, the world at large is metaphorically rooted in a bony pelvis (cover picture) that metamorphoses into a butterfly through a skeletal vertebral column that has fleshed appendages on the sides. Complicated as it is, the image is indeed transformational reflection of dying and living, that is equally disturbing and reassuring. It seems to be conveying that only through troubles can man becomes both adult and mature. As a feminist scientist with extraordinary credentials, Donna Haraway creates Chthulucene, a simple word aimed at replacing anthropocene (human influence on the planet) and capitalocene (influence of capital on humans), as a kind of timeplace for learning to stay with the trouble by taking responsibility to wipe it out too.  

As human numbers are almost certain to reach more than 11 billion by 2010, with 9 billion of those added over 150 years from 1950 to 2100, the dominant discourse oscillates between two troublesome extremes on account of impact of rising numbers on the planetary processes e.g., climate change. If there are those who are optimistic that technology will fix all troubles, then there are others who wonder if there is any sense in trying to make anything better. Haraway considers those who have answers to the present urgencies and those who don’t as equally dangerous, and uses the concept of Chthulucene to cut through human exceptionalism and the utilitarian individualism of classical political economies where possible pasts, presents, and futures can co-exist. In discussing our problematic relationship with the natural world, the author proposes the flattening of interspecies hierarchy to cultivate response-ability.

The Chthulucene is proposed as an idea of non-hierarchical multi-species world of thinking and working together. Haraway uses the spider’s web as a metaphor for a vision of the world in which there is no hierarchy between humans and nonhuman animals, where instead all lives are interwoven to guide us to possibilities of coexistence within environmental disturbance. The spider tentacles, which means ‘to feel’, help them feel attachments and detachments, and are both open and knotted at the same time. At the core of the thesis is the idea of individuality that the book challenges, and instead demands sympoiesis, making together, rather than autopoiesis, self-making. It is in new ideas and new ways of thinking, wherein lie possible solution to the old ideas that are failing as evidenced by the inequities and mania of our resource extracting economies.

Using a curious mix of cultures and mythologies, the book seeks to identify and cultivate capacity of specific bodies and places to respond to world’s urgencies with each other at the core. What finally matters is what ideas we use to think other ideas. “I am not interested in restoration, but in more modest possibilities of recuperation, and getting on together”, stresses Haraway, whose idea of rejection of rigid boundaries in A Cyborg Manifesto, separating ‘human’ from ‘animal’ and ‘human’ from "machine’, had rattled contemporary thinking when it was first published in 1984.  As a distinguished professor in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Haraway dares to propose a process of living and dying together as an utmost urgency with the natural system on the verge of environmental break down.

The book investigates the work of interdisciplinary artists and scientists who are inventing new ways of working together, and with other species. Take the case of the pigeons, treasured kin or despised pests, which were engaged in an experiment to collect and distribute information about air quality conditions to the general public? Such gathering of data helps generate ‘imaginative action’ to enhance collective thinking to address complexities. These are not easy solutions but an array of possibilities. Staying with the Trouble is a work in progress on ideas which are aimed at developing new sensitivities and means to fostering collective response-ability. 

One reason some of the ideas seem esoteric has to do with our collective failure to view beyond the horizon. Having gone through a workshop on Narration Speculative, wherein the participants were tasked to fabulate a baby’s journey through five generations, the author could sense the melting of predicted events (ice-cap melting, sea-level rise, and species extinctions) on a piece of paper. Once through it, Haraway came out convinced to give a call ‘make kin, not babies’ in order to invoke and practice a deep responsibility to all earthlings. If we are interested in taking care of the earth then there is no way other species can be denied their right to environmental justice? Haraway thinks that we could be truly prochild of we practice kinship with other critters, as opposed to the crazy pronatalist but actually antichild world in which we live. 

Staying with the Trouble is a tough book to read, as it has long and convoluted paragraphs. It is somewhat confusing as it brings multidisciplinary aspects within a single narration. It is a work of scholarship nonetheless, one that models the world on the strength of generative ideas to avoid despair in the face of ecological destruction.

Staying with the Trouble
by Donna J Haraway
Duke University Press, Durham
Extent: 312, Price: US$26.95

This review was first published in Blink
, weekly supplement of the Hindu BusinessLine, on Aug 19, 2017.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Unfinished assault on poverty

Aid-triggered economic reforms have accelerated growth but not without widening income inequality and increasing environmental distress.

The sheer mention of the World Bank evokes mixed reflections, from an unbridled aid agency that is in the business of fighting poverty to a financial trap that twists borrower’s economic sovereignty. It has further been charged for pushing developing countries into ‘perpetual debt’ by promoting the agenda of the ‘multi-national corporations’. Despite such mixed reactions, the 1946 Bretton Woods Conference created Bank has expanded its near-universal engagement with as many as 188 countries as its members. Yet, there is little doubt that in its seven decades of consistent lending for worldwide reconstruction and development the Bank has not been able to reach its goal of making poverty history. Curiously, why then has India continued to seek assistance from the World Bank?

Simply put, the World Bank needs India as much as India needs it. It may not be an exaggeration as India has been the greatest success story that the World Bank has been able to showcase on the impact of its aid. A cumulative aid of US$ 100 billion, which is less than 1 per cent of GDP, has helped the country cut its poverty rate to 22 per cent from a high of over 50 per cent three decades ago. The flip side of the story, however, is that aid-triggered economic reforms have accelerated growth but not without widening income inequality and increasing environmental distress. As poverty is deeply rooted in many social and structural factors, it is argued that financial aid and technical expertise can only have limited impact. 

That being the case, what future a developing country should see in continuing its association with the global lending agency? In his comprehensive assessment of the political economy of World Bank lending, Nagesh Prabhu argues in favor of this institution that in addition to being dedicated to poverty reduction can create fiscal cushion to counter global market failures. Having made economic reforms a politically durable currency, how far can external aid help in pulling ‘other India’ out from the throes of unending farm distress remains an open-ended question?  

Reflective Shadows is as much a primer on the birth, formation, and functioning of the apex bank as an objective reflections on its lending instruments and policy. Being its founding member, India and the Bank have grown up facing different challenges at different times. While holding reservations on Bank’s criticism of the government’s over-emphasis on public sector during the first decade to opening-up the economy for attaining better ranking on Bank’s ‘ease of doing business’ index six decades later, India has come full circle in creating appropriate institutional and policy instruments to not only make the aid work but to attract foreign direct investment to keep the economy reasonably oiled as well. The World Bank influence seems evident! 

While there is little doubt that the Bank’s funding has made development possible in several sectors of the economy, how much poverty alleviation has indeed taken place on account of this aid remains inconclusive. But the fact of matter is that in the process India has graduated out from concessional lending from the International Development Association (IDA), one of the five institutions that constitute the World Bank Group, signaling its arrival as a global economic power. While the present government doesn’t seem much concerned about cut in this concessional aid, the author wonders how the country will tackle yawing gaps in infrastructure and institutional constraints to achieve faster growth and poverty reduction. 

Prabhu is somewhat contrived in his assessment on the country’s handling of its new economic status in the light of its pending development challenges. Aren’t there other lending windows to tap into, including the New Development Bank funded by BRICS? It would be interesting, however, to see how the Bank reinvents itself to remain relevant amidst growing competition. Despite the possible decline in lending in the future, the Bank’s accumulated knowledge is likely to come handy in providing software support on project management, technological innovations and institutional reforms. In addition, the Bank has its task cut out in assisting lagging states, some of whom are bigger than many African countries. For the Bank which has always sold ideas, and not just loans, each fresh challenge opens a new window of opportunity.

Reflective Shadows takes a sympathetic view of the World Bank, despite the presence of conflicting views on the impact of external aid on economy and poverty. While at a macro level aid does help bring about significant economic change, at the micro level it is considered to benefit the wealthy elite at the cost of the poor. No wonder, the impact of World Bank lending has been ‘somewhat mixed’, with almost equal number of hits and misses.. That sustained lending has led lagging states to embrace good governance with public accountability is the essential take home from the voluminous book, which is a valuable addition to literature on the unending role of the World Bank in fighting global poverty.

Reflective Shadows 
by Nagesh Prabhu
Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Extent: 584, Price: Rs 995.

Firs published in The Hindustan Times, dated August 05, 2017. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The rock upon which history rests

The abode of Samba in film Sholay (see picture) is nothing but the rock formation on which the country stands, formed some 3.5 billion years ago.

This rock formation is 3.5 billion years old.
Indica is an audacious undertaking, an exploratory journey in search of geological footprints in the evolution of the landmass called India. Trapped within these footprints are fascinating details about the interplay of forces that shaped nature and its products, fueling a renewed sense of appreciation in dead rocks and inert sands. For movie buffs, the abode of Samba in film Sholay is nothing but a massive rock till one learns that it is the rock formation on which the country stands, formed some 3.5 billion years ago. And, the wriggling creature of the size of a fingernail just beneath the upper few millimeters of sand on the Marina beach in Chennai is the cause for all of us having a backbone, although this small creature has remained unchanged since it first came to life 530 million years ago and remains the common ancestor of all organisms with backbones. 

Indica is packed with amazing revelations that take the reader back in time, but with a string connecting the spectacular past with our rather questionable present. One would be awestruck that the imposing Vivekananda Memorial resting on the ancient charnockites rock formation at Kanyakumari is actually the place where, some 180 million years ago, India, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, East Antarctica and Australia were joined together at what is called the ‘Gondwana junction’. And till that time dinosaurs had freely roamed the entire landscape, from Gujarat in the east to Tamil Nadu in the south. 

In his search to capture the grand story of the formation of India, Pranay Lal leaves the reader bedazzled with details about why rocks in one place are different from those elsewhere, why forest diversity is distinct across regions, and why majority of peninsular rivers flow west to east. As one treads through the picture-littered pages of this journey, one realizes that there is more to everything than that meets the eye. No surprise, therefore, that the book makes a compelling case for revisiting many such places that one may have visited without getting a deeper sense of their outward appearances, as also for their contemporary relevance.  

Revisiting Jaisalmer in Rajasthan would top the list to see those magical bowls made of ‘Habur stone’ that cuddle milk without addition of any culture, and to get a first-hand feel of the so-called stones which are instead microbe-rich fossilized remains of shelled creatures which inhabited the crescent-shaped beach that once was this desert town. But this was 120 million years ago, when Greater India was a large island, and in place of the towering mountain range there was sea shore that had extended from Rajasthan in the west to Manipur in the east. The excitement of witnessing the magical properties of the fossiliferous limestone of Habur notwithstanding, the challenge today is to protect this geological treasure from indiscriminate mining.     

It goes to the credit of Pranay Lal for digging out essential lessons in contemporariness from the country’s rich natural history. It is for this reason that one should visit the 30-foot statue of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, reclining peacefully beside a pool in the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. More than the statue, it is the green cover on the pool that holds special message. The top few inches of water is dominated by cyanobacteria, the oxygen producing bacteria that made complex life possible over several millennia. The fact that these bacteria produce 60 per cent of the world’s oxygen even today are reason enough for us to protect all ponds and lakes such that more of such bacteria thrive, making Vishnu rest in peace. 

Spread over eleven chapters, Indica concludes the 4 billion years long journey of the planet with the arrival of Homo sapiens on the banks of the Indus. But it took another 50,000 years before the first human civilization arose along its banks. From then on, humans have only tried to lay control over nature and natural processes. That is indeed so, but in the story of evolution none of the living beings, including humans, have had any clear destiny or direction. Had natural processes not wiped out our competitors and predators, none of us and our ancestors would have been there. After all, humans are the most recent entrant in the evolutionary scene.

Eloquently written and profusely illustrated, the book offers a multi-disciplinary narrative on India’s deep natural history. The enthusiasm with which the author has shared his two decades of tireless pursuit can make a lay person connect with it as easily as a discerning reader. The easy-to-read text offers a lucid and accessible account of the complex science of evolution that is as much insightful as gripping. Indica has the potential to trigger renewed interest in geology and paleontology, the subjects that have long lost their sheen due to overt specialization. Pranay Lal has succeeded in demystifying the complexities of natural science much like what legendary David Attenborough did with his Life on Earth book series. Indica rightfully deserves a place on each book shelf. 

Indica: A deep natural history of the Indian subcontinent
by Pranay Lal
Penguin/Allen Lane, New Delhi
Extent: 468, Price: Rs 999 

First published in BLink, weekend supplement of BusinessLine on June 3, 2017  

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why rivers are where they are?

The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming.

Its global prevalence notwithstanding, the state of water in nature reflects our inadequate understanding of its intricate flow dynamics. Despite abundance, its access eludes millions of living beings and the consequent stress on the ecosystem of which it is an integral part is only growing. That currently more than one billion people lack access to clean water and in near future the global demand for water will be twice as much are numerical manifestations of a deep crises. With nothing that can substitute this life nurturing fluid, the soul-stirring lyrics ‘i’ll give you answers to the questions you have yet to ask.’ from the album ‘where the river flows’ offer sound advice to ask right questions for getting past the prevailing hydrological muddle.

Sean Fleming may have listened to this album or the lyrics may have intuitively echoed to him in his quest for seeking interconnectedness between disparate disciplines to get answers to some unusual questions about and on rivers. Intriguing and exciting as these may sound, questions like ‘why rivers are where they are’ and ‘how do rivers remember’ propose exciting new ways of understanding varying levels of causality and complexity of the system and how these interact with one another. Plate tectonics may have carved a river’s course, but its meandering flow is an aggregate of multiple factors, from the changing climate overhead to the dynamic geomorphology underneath. The sum total is that rivers have manifest identity in sky, land and us.  

All rivers are alike in a broader sense, but have varied meandering curves, diverse aquatic fauna, and distinct morphological features. Unraveling this distinctiveness and the (unknown) variables that contribute to it are the challenges that confront hydrologists. Existing watershed models don’t provide all the answers and the modelers themselves don’t rate the results too high in getting a sophisticated description of river hydrology. Part of the problem, in the words of Belgian Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, rests on our innate desire to reduce systems into sub-systems which only helps in learning more about less. Such an approach doesn’t do much good to our understanding of river hydrology; as the challenge rests on addressing uncertainty in an array of environmental factors that contribute to stream flow and the aquifer beneath it. Rivers are at the center of human civilization, and warrant compassionate understanding of their existence in time and space

Where the River Flows offers a paradigm shift in understanding the rivers. It calls for a radical shift outside of the disciplinary box, as rivers are but a reflection of profound interrelationships between landscapes, ecosystems, and societies. Fractal mathematics alongside chaos and information theory can be applied to generate a new set of data on the overall pattern created by the river system and the resultant decision-support system. As anthropogenic impacts like climate change accelerate democratically across the world, there is a need for as much finer details (will my farm get rain next week) as about big picture (will river topple its banks this coming season) of how the system works as a whole. This would be critical in understanding the common but differentiated pattern rivers generate under varying geo-morphological settings. 

But a counter narrative has kept pace as science struggles to get a better sense of river hydrology. Sustained tempering of rivers on account of damming, diversion and contamination continues to throw formidable challenges in sustaining healthy stream flows for human welfare and the environment. Be it the Mississippi, Ganges or Yangtze, the story of river degradation threatens to off balance the dynamic equilibrium between ever-increasing human populations and their relentless aspiration to stay adequately watered. The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming. While every drop of water pumped out from the Colorado river is used at least 17 times, which may sound like a good news, its net impact on the Gulf of California has grossly disrupted the hydrological cycle as river water hasn’t reached the delta since 1960.  

Fleming’s scientific reflections on rivers emerge in the backdrop of such contrasting realities. Calling for an entirely new way of viewing the natural environment, he suggests processing of vast and complex information to reconceptualize the natural environment for recognizing problems differently, and in many cases identify altogether new problems. But can reams of hard data, quantitative modeling techniques, and classical statistical approaches get a better sense of a system that is not only dynamic but a living entity too?  Not without reason had Heraclitus said that ‘you can’t step twice into the same river’, highlighting that river is in a continuous flux. As the need for more accurate, precise, and consistent forecast move center stage in our dealings with the rivers, the need for factoring the cultural perspectives of riverine societies must get the desired emphasis. All it needs is sharpening scientific skills to convert human observations into quantifiable information. After all, there is a reason for humans to have evolved along the rivers!
    
Where The River Flows
by Sean Fleming
Princeton University Press, Oxford
Extent: 204, Price: $26.95  

This review was first published in Current Science, July 10, 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017

Did Athens make Socrates, or Kolkata made Tagore?

Geniuses could be the fruits of culture that encourages ingenuity, what is honored in a country will be cultivated there.

When celebrated artist Sardar Sobha Singh, known for his alluring Sohni Mahiwal portrait, politely turned down the government’s offer of relocating his studio from the sleepy but picturesque mountain village in the Kangra valley to the country’s best-planned city of Chandigarh, not many could believe that his studio window overlooking the majestic Shivalik mountains could be the reason. That he believed in the power of a place, and drew inspiration from it, was left unsaid then.

The Geography of Genius has revoked the unsaid by provoking queries: Does a place nurture a genius? Do places, like humans, have dispositions, likes and dislikes? Are places alive? Was Socrates Athens’s making or Tagore Kolkata’s creation? Intriguing are such improbabilities, though without any conclusive answers. But for Eric Weiner, the study of a place and its unique circumstances can explain why certain places serve as a superpower of ideas for genius to flourish. Travelling to Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Kolkata, Vienna and Silicon Valley, the author exposes himself to a buffet of intellectual possibilities that offer interesting insights on how nature and nurture might have synergised genius.

Guided by an African proverb which propounds that it takes a village to raise a child but a city to raise a genius, Weiner conducted psychological autopsy on the entire society in cities that produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and interesting ideas. If Athens produced the likes of Socrates and Aristotle, Florence nurtured Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Called ‘the Athens of the North’, Edinburgh had once watched Arthur Conan Doyle, Adam Smith and David Hume walk down its odorous streets. And, the chaos of Kolkata produced a diverse crop of genius including Tagore, Vivekanand, and Jagadish Chandra Bose.

These cities may have little in common; however, Weiner applies historiometrics to pull out some noticeable trends. In each of these cities, life was publicly exposed to a variety of chaotic stimulations. The agora of Athens, the streets of Edinburgh, the piazzas of Florence, and the street life of Kolkata offered a certain roughness, and even ugliness, required for being creative. But what has ugliness and chaos got to do with genius? Creative people not only search for ways to contain chaos, but periodically crave for it too. The yearning for chaos is known to have a neurological basis, more evident among genius minds. Beethoven’s notoriously messy desk and Einstein’s messy love life are important examples. Whether chaos acts as a trigger, or is integral to genius socialisation remains obscure.

It goes without saying that creative genius flourish in specific places at specific times. Setting out to discover why this is so, Weiner recreates the past by delving into the lives of key characters and the cultural undulations they went through. Laced with wit and humor, the narrative is packed with deft field reporting and sound sociological analysis. Along the way, he learned that creativity is contagious, and genius begets more genius in a social space. No wonder, in Athens it was the symposia with its diluted wine; in Edinburgh, the club created a place for verbal jousting; and, in Vienna, the coffee shop served as the idea incubator.

The Geography of Genius is a curious mix of travelogue, history and anthropology that is suitably peppered with interesting tit-bits to enliven the narrative. Geniuses are known to spend a lot less time with furrowed brows like the rest of us. Mozart, for example, was quite ribald in his letter writing, complaining to a friend, “Oh, my ass burns like fire!” Aristotle believed that consuming too much wine made you fall on your face, and too much beer landed you on your back. So, the Greeks always dilute their wine — two parts wine to five parts water. While wine may somehow relate to Athenian genius, why Greeks wore no underwear remains a mischievous mystery.

Despite the rich tapestry of information on creative ecosystems, Weiner offers no clues on why and how geniuses are formed. It isn’t easy though, as there can be as many arguments to establish it as the counter-arguments to demolish it. Geniuses are not factory-made, after all, to have a common pattern, as creativity doesn’t happen “in here” or “out there” but in the spaces in between. It is a relationship, argues Weiner, which unfolds at the intersection of person and place. One needs to slow down at such intersection to pay attention.

Geniuses could be the fruits of culture that encourages ingenuity. What is honored in a country will be cultivated there. Athens honored wisdom and got Socrates; Vienna valued music and got Mozart. These are happy accidents in time and space, and any attempt to clone such things can be futile. But The Geography of Genius offers as much fun as insightful reading.

First published in BLink, weekend supplement of BusinessLine, on April 29, 2017.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Human nature at its worst

Colonialism emerged out of the opportunistic churning and the resultant sharing of power between the opposing forces.

By discovering the sea route to India for trade and commerce, Vasco da Gama had inadvertently laid the foundation of what would become the Raj three centuries later. That this foundation was to be laid not on the land but at sea exposes lack of imagination on the part of the mighty Mughals, who left the coast vulnerable to petty skirmishes among traders and sea pirates. In hindsight, a protected coastline could have delivered an altogether different nation-state to this landscape. But that was not to be, as history had other design to it. 

Popular history may have painted Vasco da Gama as a noble seaman; while in reality he had only pursued the Portuguese interests in ruling trade over second half of the world as divided by the Pope – the western half for the Spanish and the eastern hemisphere for the Portuguese. Embedded within this directive was to establish contact with what were believed to be the Empires of Christian in the east. Consequently, when accosted by coastal settlements that ‘what brought you here’ the cruise members would conveniently respond ‘Christian and Spices’. The motive was loud and clear. With a long history of conflict with Islam, the newly opened trade route had equal intention of establishing Christian supremacy. With powerful navy at their disposal, the Portuguese inflicted mass casualties on dissenters and forced the gullible into conversion from Goa to Cochin. Francis Xavier was the chief architect who not only supervised mass conversions in Goa but converted over 10,000 villagers in southern Malabar. Trade and conversion had sailed in unholy alliance.      

A known Indian chronicler, Roy Moxham transports readers back to those times when Portuguese were engaged in fierce encounters with the Dutch, English and French in getting strong foothold for plundering the riches from India. Based on published memoirs and eyewitness accounts, The Theft of India highlights the terrible sufferings inflicted on Indians by the European powers during the tumultuous three centuries of coastal onslaught. Caught in the crossfire between invading traders, the local rulers were often trapped between the devil and the deep sea. Often working at cross purposes, limited resistance by the Marathas and the Zamorins could only delay the inevitable to a point. Colonialism, it seems, emerged out of this opportunistic churning and resultant sharing of power between the opposing forces. 


A 19th century painting of  Vasco Da Gama  paying homage to
the Zamorin of Calicut for opening up direct trade
between Europe and India, 1498.
The question worth asking is whether it could have gone the other way. It could have, had the ten-month seize of Goa in 1570 been successful under the united Muslim rulers. Buoyed by this victory, however, the Portuguese fortified their factories, enforced a monopoly on spices trade, and had built large garrisons. But all this was set to change with the arrival of the Dutch and the British, who scrambled for the same resources that the Portuguese were trying to monopolize. With deceit, corruption, forgery and brute force being the leitmotif of the marauding traders, human nature was at its worst in the pursuit of wealth. Part of how they dealt with each other had to do with the ongoing wars between their respective countries. 

Moxham research labels each of the European traders deft in creating windows of opportunity by drawing agreements with local traders/rulers, and then betraying them at another opportune moment. Afterall, they had come to India for swindling resources and not for building relationships. The Theft of India is loaded with anecdotal accounts of political intrigue, ruthless genocide and mindless plunder. In a way, it is reflective of the times the world was passing through. Life was nasty and brutish; loyalties were worth trading for survival.

The English were the late to arrive on the scene but were quick to violate the decree that the East India Company would insist on trade, and not attempt colonization or conquest. Robert Clive, who arrived as a clerk in the company in 1744, was to rewrite the script a decade later. Not only did he acquire large shares in the company, Clive saw opportunity in capitalizing on the political void created following the decline of both the Marathas and the Mughals. In the thirteen years since the Battle of Plassey huge sums of money were transported to Britain. The shocking fact, however, is that the first thirteen years of the British rule did  more damage to the people of India than by all the other European invaders of the centuries before. The Bengal famine was the worst manifestation of this plunder. 

Moxham paints painful picture of the organized loot that the Indians had to go through. The pain it inflicted on local population was beyond the realm of imagination. Several hundreds were put to sword, and millions had starved to death. The life under the Mughals may not have been rosy, but at least the Mughal spoils were generally retained in India. 

The rest, as Moxham concludes, is history!

The Theft of India
by Roy Moxham
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 252, Price: Rs 399 

This review was first published in The Hindustan Times dated April 15, 2017.  

Monday, March 27, 2017

Character as currency

One can feign ignorance but being consumers of industrialized products we are but an integral part of the destructive resource extraction that is anything but organized violence...

Only after living without money for three years and having established his nonviolent credentials could Mark Boyle gather courage to engage with Gandhi over the everydayness of violence in our lives. Having discovered the virtue of non-monetary relationships with people and nature, his contention is that monetary valuation is a form of violence that puts nature into tin cans for easy commercialization. Isn’t the economic paradigm of progress premised on the conversion of our physical, cultural and spiritual commons into cash? Even the materials that make up the human body have been monetized, net worth of what goes in the making of the heart, the hands, the eyes and other limbs has been estimated a measly $56 only. It may be a hard-to-digest perspective but it serves the cause of hidden violence unleashed by the pharmaceutical companies, turning sickness into big business. And, this is one of the several expressions of slow violence in our daily lives. 

Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi offers a nuanced understanding of violence, that is indirect but real. But this book is not for those who, according to Boyle, cherish their belongings over a sense of belonging, and whose empathy for nature is packaged into weekend getaways. Neither is it for those who get afflicted by ‘the Avatar effect’, the wave of depression and suicidal feelings that followed the release of the movie Avatar as people longed for the ecologically bountiful and diverse moon of the fictional Pandora. It is for those who consider the worth of nature greater than the tin cans, and who are ready to resist violence to forge a rich and meaningful lives for ourselves. 

Consumerism has separated us from the consequences of our actions, creating the delusional sense of separation – in both time and space – designed into our culture that we remain blinkered to the violence of our civilized lives. One can feign ignorance but being consumers of industrialized products we are but an integral part of the destructive resource extraction that is anything but organized violence on the entire biotic community. The influence of industrialism is so subtle that seeking aspirational lifestyles, aspirational sex and aspirational homes has become the leitmotif of human existence, with cost of development externalized beyond the modern-day gated living. Violence is manifest in the degree of separation between us and what we consume.  

Boyle’s arguments are both experiential and philosophical, pulled out from three years of life lived without the trappings and security of money. Chronicling his moneyless life in The Moneyless Manifesto, the author had argued why the transition beyond monetary economics has become the zeitgeist of the Occupy generation. While the first year of moneyless living was tough, subsequent years were reportedly more content, healthier, and at peace. But if such were the experience of surviving on a ‘gift economy’ what made him to re-enter the monetary world? ‘To share my lessons and to establish projects that would enable others to loosen the grip that money has on their lives,’ he wrote.

Quest for money, more money, makes humans behave like rats, literally. Carl Sagan had long remarked that crowding humans into cities to earn more money would lead to more outbreaks of street violence, child abuse, maternal mortality, gang rape, psychosis, alienation, disorientation, and rootlessness. Years later, ethologist John B. Calhoun had found similar symptoms among rats when they were crowded in a cage. All this is not unexpected in the name of ‘progress’ – itself a linear construct – wherein what finally endures is indignity, inhumanity and humiliation in the pursuit of contentment, which by definition remains unattainable. In his thought-provoking and insightful exposition, Boyle challenges us to do things that make us less violent. 

If you think you have found your own ethical response and have started to fill your kettle with ‘green’ products, then this is precisely what the author detests us from doing. In reality, these minutely small changes, which green capitalists have conned us into believing makes a big difference, are akin to a rapist taking a moment to put on a fairly traded condom before continuing to sexually assault a woman. It may make the utterly brutal act marginally ethical, but doesn’t transform the act of violence any bit! It is for this reason that Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi avoids being prescriptive, and instead provokes the reader to tread beyond the urbane convenience of reduce, reuse and recycle by embarking into a world in which three R’s of radical reformism are: resist, revolt and rewild. 

Unless the wolf returns to the park, the wild will not reverberate with all living forms. The extermination of the wolf from the Yellowstone National Park in the USA has turned the wilderness into a parched landscape devoured by the high population of red deer. Introducing the wolf 70 years after it had been exterminated brought the park back to life, creating a dramatic upsurge in biodiversity and the health of the land. Boyle argues that there will always be comfortable people who would want to eradicate the wolf from the ecological and political terrains. The task before us is to ensure the constant presence of wolf, waiting for us to enter realms in which we have no right to go without respect for what is there already!

Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi
by Mark Boyle
New Society Publishers, Canada
Extent: 230, Price: $19.95   

This review was first published in HinduBusinessLine BLink on March 25, 2017

Thursday, March 16, 2017

History as a moving procession

Chandni Chowk may have been subsumed under the great metropolis of the modern capital city but it has held onto its charm.

True to her words, Swapna Liddle kept aside theoretical arguments in weaving a chronological narrative of the last three and a half centuries of the lived-in history of Chandni Chowk. Far from being a museum of the bygone era, its unchanged by-lanes have kept alive its distinct culture of adapting to changing times without losing its contemporary relevance. History may be the most cruel of all goddesses, but Chandni Chowk has seen history as a moving procession. It has been part of the making and re-making of the city during its glorious and inglorious journey.    

First part of the book reads like a heritage walk wherein the author guides the reader into the making of the Red Fort and the walled city, much of it during the politically stable period under the reigns of both Shahjahan and Aurangzeb. The aura of royal power, which ascended on Delhi on April 18, 1648, only added to the spiritual significance that the banks of river Yamuna enjoyed. By alighting from the boat at the Nigambodh ghat, Shahjahan had drawn upon the spiritual power that the populace associated with the site. This spot on the bank of the river is considered to be blessed by Vishnu, where knowledge of the Vedas could be gained simply by taking a dip. Ironically, it is now known for the city’s biggest cremation ground.  

The second half of the book captures the history as it unfolds following the tumultuous years during 19th and early 20th century, following the decline of the Mughals till the emergence of an independent India. It is intriguing how the city held on to its cultural vitality during this period, developing an education system based on an indigenous language alongside its long-standing literary tradition. This was the age of Ghalib, Momin, Zauq and the Emperor Bahadurshah Zafar/ Their poetry worked as the literary balm for the aching souls and the severed bodies. Though there were only 137,977 people living within the city walls during the mid-nineteenth century, cultural amalgamation was reflected in people taking part in each other’s festivals and celebrations. The city had emerged as a cohesive group for diverse religions. 

History is often written from either of the two perspectives - mysticism or cynicism – the history that lies somewhat outside history or the one that the historian draws meaning into. But Swapna Liddle has viewed history of Chandni Chowk as a constructive outlook over the past, reporting the events based on facts and drawing conclusions based on objectivity. Consequently, the narrative records the past with historical accuracy. One can only concur with William Dalrymple that it is a much needed introduction to the history of the Old City of Delhi.  

The history of Chandni Chowk has known many turning points, where each quest for succession to the throne was borne out of intrigue and violence. The city may have been mute witness to the victor and the vanquished, but the people within its walls rarely resisted their resentment against injustice by its rulers. Noticeable is their angst that spewed out on the streets when Prince Dara Shukoh, heir apparent and Aurangzeb’s elder brother, was publicly paraded and insulted. What followed was a public outcry, stones and dirt was pelted on the procession led by Jiwan Khan who had treacherously captured Dara to hand him over to the Emperor.       

Despite his half century rule over the empire, Aurangzeb was strongly despised by the people. There is a deep repugnance for the manner in which he conducted himself during his long rule even today. Although that part of history cannot be dispensed him, surely his name can be from existing historical memorabilia. It may not be out of place to mention that the road bearing the name Aurangzeb was wiped out from the city. However, the same city acknowledged the contribution of Dara Shikoh recently by naming a street after him. After all, he was the one who drew parallels between Sufism and Vedanta, and had translated the Upanishads into Persian. 

Chandni Chowk makes for an absorbing reading. It may have been subsumed under the great metropolis of the modern capital city but it has held onto its charm. It continues to be one of the biggest trading hubs; its narrow lanes continue to provide interesting insights on its glorious past. There is something mysteriously attractive about the place; its history seemingly still thrives in its narrow streets. Swapna Liddle only adds historical flavor to the unending fascination for this old city. 

Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi
by Swapna Liddle
Speaking Tiger, New Delhi
Extent: 176, Price: Rs 399 

First published in Deccan Herald dated Feb 26, 2017. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Objects of political desire

Big dams are political objects which have transformed water into a contested resource.

Big dams epitomize development all over the world. The first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, called these gigantic structures “temples of modern India” and the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie hailed big dams as “treasure troves of wealth”. Over 50,000 big dams have been built worldwide ever since the Hoover dam transformed the free-flowing Colorado river into an energy powerhouse. In recent years, however, large dams have come under scrutiny because of social disruptions, cultural dislocation and ecological concerns. Many of these concerns were captured by the World Commission on Dams in 2000.

And yet, these engineering monoliths continue to fascinate several countries including India and China, who persist with dam-building despite these being the cause for lingering water-sharing disputes between riparian states and countries. While a great deal is known about the social and ecological costs of modern dams, the political dimensions of dam-building have remained largely obscure. Water may seem innocuous, but dams have transformed it into a contested resource through acquisition, diversion and control. And it has seemingly been done on purpose. Geographer Christopher Sneddon traces the 20th-century history of dam-building to conclude that “dams have been exceptionally thick with politics”.

Concrete Revolution offers a comprehensive analysis of the motives behind the proliferation of dam-building in the context of former US President Harry Truman’s ‘Four Point Program’ of international development. Technical assistance for dam-building was the primary disguise for staving off the presumed global expansion of communism. What this also did was enhance the capacity of American business interests to increase their global influence and investment opportunities; dam-building as bargaining chip. The global economic crises being experienced in the US at that time was a critical factor in promoting the role of the federal government in massive public works schemes in as many as 100 countries. Without the economic recession in play, this may not have been feasible.

Presenting snapshots of the US Bureau of Reclamation’s early forays into big dam development across several countries, Sneddon makes a compelling argument in favor of dams as political objects rather than instruments of impartial science. It suited the developing world no less, as dam-driven water resource development traveled geographically without offending radically different ideological and cultural contexts. Notable is the manner in which the concrete revolution integrated construction technologies with techno-political networks. The broader constellation of power and influence triggered the so-called ‘political intelligibility’ whereby large dams and river basin development were perceived as a universal ‘fix’ for water resources development across the world.

It is hard not to concur with Sneddon, whose incisive analysis provides fresh insights on understanding the assemblage of networks that maintain and produce large dams. So effective are these networks in promoting large dams that techno-political proponents of hydropower development perceive ecological disruptions as an unfortunate trade-off against the ‘greater good’ of economic development. No wonder, therefore, that the impact of dams on humans and ecosystems are largely ignored by decision makers.

Sneddon takes a step further to suggest that the assemblages of networks that produce and maintain large dams are not only undemocratic but rarely allow any discussions on alternatives to dams. Loaded as this assertion might be, the fact that the governments have overlooked social and ecological disruptions caused by dam-building clearly justifies it. Even the Bureau of Reclamation had sensed this dichotomy. Backed by information on the less-than-desirable impacts of large dams, the Bureau’s assistant commissioner Gilbert Stamm had proclaimed: “We haven’t learned how to apply our vast technical advances to meet the basic values and desires of people.” This statement was made in 1969 by which time the Bureau’s interest in dam-building had started waning, but elsewhere in the world interest in dam-building persists.

Concrete Revolution offers an authoritative inquiry on large dams, and presents analytical insights on the processes and actors involved in nurturing the techno-political networks. But the book leaves the discerning reader to dig deeper to understand the local and national political ecologies and political economies that continue to stick to dam building as a panacea to fill the developmental void. Part of the problem is that governments in developing countries have yet to imagine a ‘world without dams’, whereas river restoration and dam removal has started to gain prominence in the developed world. However, there now exists a mature global movement focused on problematising the economic rationales and socio-ecological effects of large dams.

Concrete Revolution is a bold and ambitious undertaking, which challenges the monopoly of dam-building ideology with in-depth theoretical insights as well as revelations shocking enough to trigger social transformation. More than a scholarly book on large dams, Sneddon has put together an impressive treatise on understanding the undercurrents of the geopolitics of development. It makes for compulsive reading.

Concrete Revolution
by Christopher Sneddon
University of Chicago Press, USA
Extent: 270, Price: $45

This review was first published in Hindu BusinessLine on Feb 25, 2017, and a shorter version of this review was published in Current Science in its issue dated Feb 10, 2017 .

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Fixing the climate puzzle?

The trouble with prevailing emission reduction approaches is that even if these are put to use the global temperature will continue to rise, nullifying impact of such interventions at the global scale.

That the Earth is getting warmer slowly but surely and that there isn’t much the global climate negotiations have been able to achieve thus far, geo-engineering the planet to put a plug on rising temperature is beginning to gain serious currency. Despite its social, moral, technical and political pitfalls, discussions on creating stratospheric veil(s) to reduce influx of solar radiations has been projected as one of the most potent  options for slowing down the process of global warming.  

The Planet Remade
by Oliver Morton
Granta, London. Extent 428, Price £ 20
This concept is borne out of the harsh realization that there is not enough being done to cut down the global carbon emissions yet. Having risen from the pre-industrial levels of 280 parts per million to a high of 400 parts per million today and with projections that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will double before the turn of the present century, options before the mankind are limited by the extent of its current technological prowess. Further, neither is our obsession with coal-fired power plants waning anytime soon nor are carbon-neutral technological options on offer as yet. Solar, wind and nuclear are possible decarbonizing substitutes but their scaling up poses a formidable challenge. Should the world decide to replace coal-based plants with nuclear power, it would need to build one large nuclear power plant per week for next two decades. And, if we were to think about solar instead, it would mean installing solar panels at the present rate for next fifteen decades. 

On top of it, the trouble with prevailing emission reduction approaches is that even if these are put to use the global temperature will continue to rise, nullifying any potential impact of such interventions at the global scale. It is here that Plan B of mimicking large volcanic eruptions, which inject huge quantities of sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere, has been brought into consideration. Reference is made to the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo eruptions of June 1991 in the context of geo-engineering, which caused the average global surface air temperature to cool by about 0.5% between 1991 and 1992. What nature can do, mankind can do better! ‘Using the slowed warming as a breathing space in which to deploy more and better zero-emission technologies would be a good strategy,’ argues accomplished science writer Oliver Morton. Since the planet has been remade, is being remade, and will be remade in future, what stops science to take nature into its own realm?

It is a vexed question that cannot be clearly answered till the working of the earthsystem is understood in its entirety. That the natural system is anything but linear is at the root of getting a sense of geo-engineering predicament in affecting desired effect. Even the veil produced by Pinatubo has not been well understood, in terms of the total volume of volcanic dust it spewed into the atmosphere, the composition and size of different particles, and the interaction between them in space. Yet, Morton, after whom Asteroid 10716 has been named, examines the issue from diverse cultural and scientific perspectives in suggesting that geo-engineering be given more anticipatory consideration such that its impacts and implications are better understood.  

The Planet Remade is an authoritative take on the issue, backed by evidence on manipulating various natural cycles (viz., nitrogen, carbon and sulphur) as a precursor to taking a calculated risk with geo-engineering. To affect such a change at the planetary scale would warrant a governance mechanism that takes into account the geographical specificity of the unintended effects. Those who fear that geo-engineering will do more harm than good feel it on the ground that the atmosphere matters differently to people located in vulnerable areas like the shores and the deserts. Further, that the most powerful countries have the vested interest in manipulating the atmosphere in their favor. 

Morton is a stylish writer who organizes the text on a technical subject with such finesse that it makes for engaging reading. He presents multiple dimensions of the issue for an informed public debate. That geo-engineering solutions are likely to persist in the global policy arena; there is no choice but to take them seriously at all levels. Far from taking a position on whether or not geo-engineering is the solution, the author instead questions if ‘climate change’ itself is a problem in the first place. It is a complex relationship between the industrialized civilization and the earthsystem that is shaping up the formation of imagined catastrophes. The challenge and task is to use technology to convert the doomsday prediction to unabashed utopias.  It calls for a world order wherein people take care of the sky instead of taking control of the sky. 

Can Science Fix Climate Change?
 by Mike Hulme
Polity, UK. Extent 158, Price $12.95
Engineering the world’s climate by using global temperature as the control variable cannot secure the intended benefits.

Mike Hulme, a professor of Climate and Culture at London’s King’s College, holds no two opinions that the proposals to use stratospheric aerosols to cool the planet is inherently flawed and deeply undesirable, if not dangerous. Engineering the world’s climate by using global temperature as the control variable cannot secure the intended benefits for humans and the things that matter to them. Hulme’s argument is that the environmental, political, and psychological costs of designing global climate through aerosol injections overwhelmingly outweigh any assumed benefits.

Research studies show that it may not be possible to stabilize the climate in all regions simultaneously as regional diversity in the response to different levels of aerosol injection could make geo-engineering a difficult proposition. Hulme evaluates an array of geo-engineering technologies including orbital mirrors, ocean fertilization, carbon capture, and urban whitewashing in his assessment, and concludes that none of it is technically feasible to be up scaled at the planetary level. Add to it is the fact that the computer simulation models are far from accurate to determine possible risks of geo-engineering at a scale. There are limits to human knowledge afterall; our species is a product of evolution, not its author or controller.    

This slim volume argues that human-induced climate change is not the sort of problem that lends itself to technological end-of-pipe solutions. Instead, climate change is a ‘wicked problem’ and would need to be approached differently. Hulme suggests ‘climate pragmatism’ for reframing the problem of climate change: first, by decoupling the energy question from it and second, by recognizing that there are many different ways that alter the functioning of the atmosphere. Viewing the singular problem of climate change through the lens of climate pragmatism can lead the world to a three-pronged strategy: first, enhance social resilience to meteorological extremes; second, reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants other than carbon dioxide as well, and third, meet the growing demand for energy in the world cheaply, reliably and sustainably. By suggesting climate pragmatism as an approach, the author seeks to advance human welfare and human development for fixing the climate change. 

Review of The Planet Remade was first published in Deccan Herald, and Can Science Fix Climate Change review first appeared on AnthemEnviroExpertReviews.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The making of a global villain

While repeating itself, history does leave foot-marks of discerning patterns often ignored by the forces that coerce, invade, or conquer other societies.

There are no laws in history, and nor is history merely a string of facts. While repeating itself, history does leave footmarks of discerning patterns often ignored by the forces that coerce, invade, or conquer other societies. No wonder, each war surprises the invader as the society being attacked responds in unexpected ways. Clearly, power over people stretches beyond technological prowess and territorial control. The scars of humiliation it inflicts on the invaded societies resurface in unimaginable forms, often shocking the invader. Borne out of such pattern is the unexpected rise of the dreadful killers who have been indoctrinated to fight for the creation of an Islamic State. 

The Pulitzer Prize winning author Joby Warrick traces the roots of the leader who was a petty criminal in his early days in Jordon’s al-Jafr prison. Were it not for a general amnesty given to more than twenty-five hundred prisoners following the demise of King Hussein in 1999, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi would not have gained notoriety as the dreaded founding father of what is now known as the Islamic State or the ISIS. Returning home in 1993 after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, Zarqawi had found a sense of purpose in confronting the perceived enemies of Islam, first in Jordon which had an uneasy alliance with the religious fundamentalists and later in Iraq where jihadist were at the receiving end of the powers that be.   

Black Flags offers a gripping narrative on a jihadist movement that emerged out from a concoction of political instability, sectarian conflict and armed intrusion in the middle east, and seeks to establish a caliphate whose zone of influence is projected to cover vast swathe of land across Northern Africa, Southern Europe and West Asia. Though prepared to start small, Zarqawi viewed himself as a modern incarnation of Nur ad-Din Zengi, the 12th Century warrior-prince, who had destroyed the imperialist forces in establishing a single sultanate extending from southern Turkey to the Nile River. By erroneously anointing him as the high priest of terrorism in 2003, identifying him as a link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, the US had only served Zarqawi’s cause by launching his career as one of the century’s great terrorist. 

Zarqawi didn’t let the US down, unleashing a reign of terror with his signature act of beheading the American hostage Nick Berg in 2004. The images he posted in the cyber space made him an icon and hero to many thousands of young men and women who saw him as avenging the Muslim nation for centuries of perceived humiliations and defeats. At one time, hard-core jihadist had streamed into Iraq at a rate of 100 to 150 a month to join ‘the sheikh of the slaughterers’. So persisting has been his charisma that years after Zarqawi’s death in the US air strike in 2006, support has continued to pour in from as many as 86 countries in support of the cause. As much a blow by blow account of the unleashed savagery, Black Flags is a study of the multiple-personality disorder afflicting this terrorist mastermind. 

Could deep personal insecurities and shattering religious guilt lead an ordinary convict on an arduous journey of death and destruction? Could the combination of American jets and the Arab jails be the fertile grounds for the jihadist to germinate? Could it be the strategic failure of the ruling elites and the invading forces that helped raise the black banners of violent dissent? Using his reporting skills, Warrick creates a revealing portrait of the man and his enduring legacy. In doing so, he draws heavily on Zarqawi’s personal immediacy with three important persons: Basel al-Sabha, the doctor who had treated Zarqawi in prison; Abu Haytham, the Jordan’s intelligence service officer who had trailed Zarqawi in his early years; and Nada Bakos, a young CIA officer who was the agency’s top expert on Zarqawi.  

There are many what-if moments in the absorbing thriller that lends credence to the widespread impression that by corralling Islamist radicals and ordinary Iraqis in the lawless desert pen, US officials have inadvertently created a ‘jihadi university’ that allows the Islamist ideas to pass from one generation of fighters to the next.  Had it not been for the US invasion of Iraq, the Islamic State’s current butcher, Dr. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would likely to have lived out his years as a college professor. Instead, he joined the ‘jihadi university’ to keep Zarqawi’s black flags fluttering with a current monetary worth of over half a billion dollars. 

While many believe that the idea of the Islamic state has as much chance of survival as an ice cream cone in the desert, Baghdadi instead believes that raising the caliphate’s ancient banner would make righteous Muslims fall into line. Will they or will they not, the world is at the cross-roads of its most defining moment in history.   

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS
by Joby Warrick
Bantam Books, London
Extent: 344, Price: Rs 699 

This review was first published in Deccan Herald on November 27, 2016.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Is cash a monetary curse?

A tax regime is incompatible with peoples’ perception of living in a truly democratic society, posing a challenge to balance an individual’s right to privacy with society’s need to enforce regulations!

Cash has undoubtedly proven a curse, irrespective of its color, for those who have been queuing up at the bank counters following the recent currency demonetization in India. The unprecedented cash crunch has made many wonder if cashless is the better way to the future? It may indeed be but despite the proliferation of alternate payment mechanisms – plastic currency and electronic cash transfer – unprecedented amount of paper currency is floating around worldwide. Most people like cash, holding Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead words ‘Money is coined liberty.’

If going paperless was the best option, developed economies would have phased out paper currency several years ago. Instead, citizens across both developed and developing economies have yet to give up fascination for cash-in-hand. In contrast to per capita holding of $4,200 in the US, average Indian holds an equivalent of $171 in cash. Half of this cash remains unaccounted for, beyond the purview of regular tax reporting. No surprise, therefore, that even the US looses $500 billion annually by way of tax evasion despite a well-developed tax regime.

Since information on the ‘underground economy’ remains obscure, efforts to dig it out have not been successful either. Across the world as a percentage of GDP the underground economy continues to garner a significant share. If it is a low of 7.1 per cent in the US, it is as high as 17.9 per cent in Belgium. Worldwide, underground economy averages 14 percent of GDP. Even a country like Sweden, which has witnessed a dramatic drop in cash usage, has not been able to cut down on its underground economy from the present 15 per cent of its GDP. Underground economy has remained an unresolved global phenomenon.

Making a case for going cashless to address the malaise, Harvard University Professor Kenneth Rogoff argues that there is need to have a hard look at its implications before taking a plunge. While maintaining privacy of paper currency in small transactions is critical for a large population, phasing out large-denomination notes can pave the way towards a cashless society in future. For this reason, the European Central Bank has stopped printing the 500-euro note.

To reduce mountains of cash floating all around, many European countries including Germany and Belgium have proposed a cap on the size of retail cash payments. But they have learnt that tax evasion is a much larger issue since 25 percent or more of all cash never gets tendered in any tax swoop. Is going cashless the answer? It may indeed be unless it gets demonstrated at a scale. Rogoff wonders if smaller advanced economies like Japan, whose currency is not used internationally, would take a lead in going cashless! Regulatory challenges would need to be addressed upfront before pulling paper currency out from circulation, though.

While governments’ aim is to recover tax, people tend to avoid falling into the tax-trap. Since the general notion is that ‘big fish’ evade tax nets, even law-abiding citizens see opportunity in evading paying tax. Come to think of it, no one wants to live in a society where rules are rigidly enforced. At a socio-psychological level, however, a tax regime is incompatible with peoples’ perception of living in a truly democratic society. Therefore, the mounting challenge is to balance an individual’s right to privacy with society’s need to enforce its laws and regulations.

Rogoff is seized of the prevailing fascination for cash, and yet makes a convincing case for advanced economies to start phasing out paper currency. Though the world is still far from creating a cashless regime, the fact that cash fuels crime and corruption is at the core of the argument. It is, however, another matter that crime syndicates often circumvent the legal economy, and corruption has ways of reinventing itself because it predates paper currency.        

Putting cashless system into operation poses formidable challenges. The Curse of Cash takes a hard look at multiple implications of phasing out currency notes. How can something as antiquated as paper currency really matter when the total value of all financial assets dwarfs the total value of cash? After all, paper currency is but a zero-interest rate bond. Therefore phasing out paper currency, or charging negative interest rates on cash, remains an emotionally charged issue. On top, will the central banks surrender their monopoly over cash supplies without missing out on their key role to deliver growth and financial stability?

Phasing out paper currency may seem the simplest approach to clearing the path for tax regime to account for every penny in circulation, but the task is to first bring informal economy under the purview of the formal system. Further, any plan to drastically scale back the use of cash needs to provide heavily subsidized, basic debit card accounts for low-income individuals belonging to the informal economy. Raising challenging questions, this book provides thoughtful insights on a subject that is likely to engage monetary policy arena for time to come.

The Curse of Cash 
by Kenneth S. Rogoff
Princeton University Press, UK
Extent: 283. Price: US$17.49

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Behind the curves

With gender stereotyping deeply embedded in our society, women’s self-esteem is traditionally assumed to be determined by how they perceive themselves in the eyes of others.

It may be an adult mind’s preoccupation and a voyeuristic notion that ‘women take more time to dress because they have to slow down on curves’, but for Cambridge University’s reproductive biologist David Bainbridge, the female curve is a work of evolution and biology. Women are the only females in the animal kingdom to have curvaceous bodies. Were it not so, the modern society’s obsession with the female form would not have adorned billboards, magazine covers and museum artefacts.

Being curvaceous adds to women’s public image and societal performance, and a heavy price is often paid to keep the curves in desired shape. With gender stereotyping deeply embedded in our society, women’s self-esteem is traditionally assumed to be determined by how they perceive themselves in the eyes of others.

In an entertaining analysis, superimposing cutting-edge behavioural science over evolutionary biology, Bainbridge lays the foundation of ‘curvology’, which has yet to gain recognition as an exact science. Yet, he draws some compelling inferences. Why are women locked in a prison of self-surveillance, enchained by the idea that they must view their bodies as others view them? Why do women experience body-dissatisfaction as reflected in their innate desire to alter their curves? Not only gender psychology but women’s biology conspires against them, argues Bainbridge, which keeps their body shape and body image under consistent change. Trapped in this biological reality, women often feel torn between the body they live in and the body they must aspire for. After all, physical attractiveness determines women’s social dominance.

Opinions are likely to be divided on this matter, as not every woman will subscribe to such analogy. However, studies indicate that some 60 per cent women experience increased body-dissatisfaction — and are ever-eager to reshape their curves. Added to this is the most confusing question: Why do some women volunteer to suffer bouts of starvation to have a specific body weight and shape? Curvology provides multiple insights to this conundrum: how the female form evolved, how human mind views it, and how the world at large influences the body-mind dichotomy.

The female body is a biological marvel. Even after evolving over several million years, the woman’s body has yet to gain a definitive shape as it keeps reconstructing. Research indicates that not only girls accumulate fat twice as fast as boys; averaging 27 per cent adipose tissue compared to 14 per cent in boys, they continue to keep it unevenly distributed across distinct storage spots in the body. That this is done to negotiate specific requirements during puberty, reproduction and post-natal period is evident, but it isn’t yet clear why these storage spots become curvaceous hotspots for the probing eyes.

It is here that the author enters a contentious territory. Says he, “Male visual fixation on female form seems to have contributed to evolution of curves, meaning thereby that sexual selection has worked hands-in-glove with natural selection.” It may sound politically incorrect but Darwin too had found that his theory of natural selection was inadequate to explain the reason for peacocks to carry the inordinate weight of feathers on their tails. He had thus stumbled upon the idea of sexual selection, which posits that despite outweighed disadvantage, colourful feathers provided an advantage in the competition for mates.

Loaded with complex and unnerving facts, Curvology is a study of one of the most complex species on this planet. We seem to know enough about women, and yet remain adequately ignorant. For instance, why do the breasts of women remain swollen throughout whereas in other mammals, like chimpanzees and gorillas, the mammary glands only swell with pregnancy?

Some of this trivia cries out for further explanation. While an unsubstantiated case for male desire sculpting women’s bodies has been made, it is surprising that, for women, it does not seem to matter as much. Surveys indicate that women apply their cosmetic war-paint to impress other women, and not men. Some feminist writers have even argued that society’s body-chauvinism is the woman’s own creation. Yet, there cannot be two opinions that the age-old power of female body shape continues to be stronger than ever before.

The book leaves the reader craving for more: why women love and hate those curves, desire them and reject them, feel valued and devalued because of them? At the end, it is clear that there is no perfect female body shape, except the one that doesn’t exist.

Curvology
by David Bainbridge
Portobello Books, UK
Extent: 227, Price: £9.99 

This review was first published in the Hindu BusinessLine on Nov 12, 2016.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Ways of Healing in India

For a country that spends less than 4% of its GDP on healthcare, even war-torn Afghanistan spends 8%, its financially-constrained healthcare system has left millions of people to fend for their own healthy survival.

‘India is everything they say it is,’ and still, ‘has nothing’. Its billion plus population may have only one medical doctor per 100,000, but there are varied prescriptions for disease prevention and control to choose from.  From folk, spiritual, herbal or ritual approaches to ayurveda, yoga, siddha, homeopathy and naturopathy techniques, there is one for every pocket and faith. How people get treated is as much a reflection of their social and economic status as their unstinted faith in the chosen system of health care. Why people are drawn to such alternatives is the leading question Aarthi Prasad, whose maternal grandfather was an Ayurvedic doctor and secretary to the Chopra Committee set up shortly after Independence in 1946-48 to chart the way forward for Indian healthcare, seeks to explore the many faces of medicine in her journey across modern India. 

For a country that spends less than 4% of its GDP on healthcare, even war-torn Afghanistan spends 8%, its financially-constrained healthcare system has left millions of people to fend for their own healthy survival. It is quite simply economic folly for a country to sacrifice its people, and leave them vulnerable to exploitation by quacks and fake doctors who dispense medicines, antibiotics and steroids in a grossly unregulated health sector. Reports of people dying at the hands of such untrained practitioners with dubious qualifications are a common occurrence. On the other extreme, there are social entrepreneurs who have seized the situation to create modules of effective healthcare delivery for the poor that the state and many overseas governments have begun to emulate. That there exists a range of possibilities amidst the healthcare gloom, other than just increasing the number of trained medical doctors, is the central message emanating from In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room.   

In eight well-written chapters, Prasad takes the reader through the maze of health care challenges that are being confronted on a daily basis by a range of health innovators. From a traditional healer who knows the medicinal value of every plant he finds to a group of women who are working together to address mental illness in country’s mega-slum, and from an asthma healer who prescribes swallowing a live fish to a group of doctors who are taking community health system to tribal living in remote jungle, the author treks the length and breadth of the country to provide a unique perspective on health and survival in one of the most fascinating country in the world. The author, however, concludes that capturing the breadth and diversity of the practice of medicine in India is immense in its scope, as the provision of generating such knowledge dates back to several millennia in the country.

But can such good Samaritan efforts be enough to transform the inadequately resourced and underfunded state health sector? Nagging as the question may be, the answer lies in the realization that ‘people have to be the actors and advocates in order to make a difference’. Each of the health innovators featured in the book are optimistic about connecting with right people to influence government resources in the right direction. Though adoption of learning from non-state actors’ initiatives is often frustratingly slow, the trickle-down effect is being observed in few isolated cases. Drs Abhay and Rani Bang’s community-care initiative, called SEARCH, in the jungle of naxalite-infested Gadchiroli in Maharashtra caught the attention of the Indian government only after it was taken up in Nepal, Bangladesh, Malawi, Zambia and Ethiopia. 

The message that comes across from the initiative is loud and clear: reduce unnecessary pressure on the beleaguered health infrastructure albeit government hospitals and take health-care instead to the people by targeting areas that have least of such facilities. Else, reaching out to nearly 800 million people with poor access to healthcare, given that India’s doctor-patient ration is 1:2000, will remain a distant dream. Nothing could be more evident than the plight of 700,000 people confined within 535 acres in world’s second largest slum Dharavi in Mumbai, which is home to a random assortment of skin, mental and venereal diseases. 

What’s more, learnt Prasad, while sick men are taken to a hospital, woman in the same situation is just given a dose of simple painkillers and allowed to suffer in the most inhospitable slum dwelling. Gender discrimination is shocking feature of life in slums, wife-beating, abandonment and divorce are common. Were it not for the timely counseling by the dedicated team of SNEHA, an initiative set-up by social psychology Nayreen Daruwala, women would have been bereft of much needed psychological therapy which is often reserved for upward mobile urban population.

With a PhD in molecular genetics and an interdisciplinary research engagement at London’s University College, Prasad delves into the technological divide afflicting country’s health sector to reveal how a strategic merging the traditional with the modern system of medicine can help credible healthcare reach out to the culturally and economically diverse population of the country. The pluralist culture of medicine is both a bane and boon, she argues. It is, however, another matter that it has taken decades for the government to harness synergy between different systems of medicine. The Chopra Committee had long recommended ‘synthesis of Indian and western medicines is not only possible but practicable’, but at that time modern medicine was considered the basis for development in the new India. 

It took nearly six decades before the government could create the Ministry of AYUSH, which covers the practice of Ayurveda, Yoga, Siddha, Unani, Homeopathy and Naturopathy, to bring these practices in the mainstream of health care in the country that has long practiced all these form in one way or the other. Need it be said in a country where, according to the World Health Organization, seventy per cent of the population still accesses traditional treatments. And, it is no less revealing that AYUSH hospitals now offer 62,000 beds backed an army of 785,000 health workers. Without doubt, traditional medicine could be most desirable add-on to modern medicine in reaching out to teeming millions with affordable health care.

Full of interesting revelations and intriguing insights, In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room captures the sound bites from the by-lanes of healthcare have-nots. It is country where unflinching faith in magic and medicine flows in an unholy alliance, leading to unsubstantiated assertions like: ‘I prayed to goddess and my wife was cured of TB’. While the cause-effect relationship of such claim may concern a doctor, it matters least to the person whose wife eventually got cured. Such cultural diversity beseeches a system of medicine that is as close to the skin as it is to the soul of its people. 

Aarthi Prasad deserves credit for bringing selected stories from the country’s vast healthcare landscape to life. The writing is superb; the non-fiction story telling format doesn’t miss out on the minutest of details. A reader can’t escape the disgusting stench as the author wades through the filthy water in slums of Dharavi and nor can one miss the exquisite ambiance of the up-market cosmetic surgery clinic as the author engages in discussion on the emerging market of plastic surgery in the country. The author rightly concludes that the challenges and solutions to the health of this great nation are not as diaphanous as it may seem. It calls for a pluralistic understanding of the society and its people. 

In The Bonesetters’s Waiting Room
by Aarthi Prasad
Hachette. New Delhi, 2016
Extent 214 pp, Price: Rs 499 

First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, Sept-Nov 2016