Category Archives: Political

Welcome to the land of coconuts

Land in any airport in Kerala and you will be welcomed by the lush green canopy of the coconut trees. So unlike many other places, even outsiders dont face any issue in identifying the origin of the name of this beautiful stretch of land, Kerala; The land of Kera or coconuts. Malayalees are an enterprising class. Contrary to popular perception, it is not that we work hard only outside the state. Such misconceptions arise only because of the inability of others to understand the intricate way in which the Malayalee mind works. The basic thumb rule is as follows: when outside Kerala, the Malayalee works hard; when inside Kerala, he get things to work for him. It was this that led our great grandfathers to discover the potential of the coconut tree and plant them all over Kerala and even name the place as such. It is undoubtedly a wonder tree. Every bit of the tree can be put to good economic use: the nut, the husk, the wood and so on. But the best part is yet to come. You get one of the best form of natural liquor from the coconut tree called kallu. Now I guess you have got a feel of how the Malayalee mind works.

The story seems to lead to a happy ending. But there is a twist. For the benefits that you get from the coconut tree, there is one huge problem. The tree grows upto a height of 30 m on average. The nut weighs around 1.5 kg. A fully grown nut when it falls down will touch the ground at around 80 km/hr velocity. At this speed and weight, dont have any misconception, a falling nut can be your ticket to the other world. As the canopy spreads out, a radial distance of 2 metres from the trunk can be safely classified as ‘High risk zone’ and a further 1 metre can be classified as ‘Potential high risk zone’. So far I have talked only about falling nuts. If your head is fortunate enough to intercept the path of a falling coconut leaf, (this requires a footnote for the uninitiated. A falling leaf brings very pleasant imageries in our minds. But the leaf in question here is a bunch of leaves connected by a truck. It weighs some 10-15 kgs. So a falling coconut leaf is just as good as a falling tree) your loved ones will be spared of the expenses of burial. The safety hazards are so scary that this happened when Barack Obama visited India in 2010.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11684382

But still we plant it everywhere. Not just in groves and plantations but on front of and behind our houses, in front of commercial complexes and so on. Even when the economic return from the sale of the nut has come crashing down, we keep on planting. The emotional attachment is also playing its part here.To obviate the concerns on the potential risks posed by the tree, our great grandfathers created a proverb also (the intricate malayalee mind at work). ‘Thengu Chathikilla’, The coconut tree will not betray you. So you hear countless stories of how the coconut fell just inches away or the leaf coming crashing down a few seconds after the person left the place etc.

But all these beliefs and concern for the tree breaks down the moment your neighbour’s coconut tree mischievously pokes its head into your compound. The infamous hypocrisy of the Malayalee at work? Sociologists need to go deep into this. People start running from pillar to post to get the tree out of his compound. Starting from the panchayat to invoking the provisions under section 133 of CrPC, some even go upto the High court filing a writ petition. This is independent of the number of coconut tree present in his own compound. Risk to kids playing in the compound, damage to the roof tiling…The arguments and counter arguments just dont end. This is disservice to our great grandfathers who discovered a tree as great as this and even went to the extent of finding a proverb to displace possible fears.

But dont worry, the Malayalee mind has already started to work on this. We have not only identified rubber as our next big crop, but even leads the country in terms of research and better cultivars, something very rare to find in the agricultural scene of the country. Rubber meets all the conditions previously set by the coconut tree: good returns, the whole tree can be put into good use and so on without any of the safety hazards posed by the former. No falling death traps, no need of any reassuring proverbs. No wonder that coconut groves across the state is being replaced by rubber plantations. So do
not be surprised if you find the state named as ‘Rubberum’ some 100 years from now. It is just the Malayalee mind at its best.

Cost analysis of civil services preparation : Is the fees charged by coaching institutes justified

Option one: You study back home

1. General Studies

Books : Rs. 3000 – 4000

Newspapers : Rs. 250 monthly ( Total : 6000 for 2 years; you will anyway subscribe, whether you are preparing or not)

Periodicals : Rs. 650 for frontline (2 years) + Rs.900 for EPW ( one year)

Net connection : 250 per month ( Total : 6000; you will anyway subscribe, whether you are preparing or not)

Total Cost : Around 17000 ( over 2 years )

Total Extra cost : Rs. 6000 maximum (minus newspaper and net )

2. Optionals:

Books: 4-5 books for humanities optionals  ( Mostly Indian Authors). Total cost : Not more than Rs. 3000.

7-8 books for science optionals. Total cost: Not more than Rs. 5000 ( If you are not downloading pirated copies).

Total Extra cost : Rs. 14000 ( Highly liberal estimate and spend over 2 years). Use library, old books or pirated copies and you can bring that down to a few thousand rupess.

Option two : You go to Delhi to attend coaching.

1. Coaching fees :

G.S : Rs, 50,000

Optionals : Rs. 30,000 each

Total : Rs. 1,10,000 (spot payment)

2. Periodicals, newspapers, net for personal use : Rs. 13,000 over 2 years.

3. High rent and cost of living : Around 10k every month.

Total extra Cost : Around 3 Lakhs ( Conservative estimate; multiply with no.of  failed attempts, extra fee for extra coaching etc). And even after paying such huge, exorbitant costs, the quality of teaching ( as i get to know from fellow aspirants) may not always be up to the mark.

I am not yet into the service but…

Technically, I am not an IAS officer yet. I have only been recommended by the UPSC for appointment into the IAS. The Government of India has to send me an offer of appointment before I am formally inducted into the IAS. 9 months of Preliminary training awaits me before I get my first field posting as Asst. Collector (Under Training). But I was shocked to know that bribing doesnt always wait for all these formalities to end to reveal itself. Was also surprised to know the subtle forms in which it comes. Yes you have been misguided. Villains dont walk into your office with a huge suitcases loaded with cash. Bribing, small or large has its own subtle forms. I recently received a phone call from a popular civil services magazine which i didnt use and i strongly disapprove from the examination perspective. This was how it went:

Rep: We would like to take your interview for our xyz magazine.

Me : Ok. But i cannot endorse your magazine as i havent used it.

Rep : Thats ok. Its a questionnaire. Plus we are also giving you a cash award for your achievement( I later got to know from another source that the amount works out to be 5000 rupees).

Why the hell should they give me a cash award?? Every year people top the exam. I havent even used their magazine. The catch is in the questionnaire that we are asked to fill. “Apart from our magazine …… what else did you read?”, “How long have you been reading xyz magazine” were some of the questions to name a few. They also change some of our answers to suit their ends too. In the end, the interview would turn out to be an open endorsement of the magazine by us and the so called ‘cash award’ a payment for that!!

Thanks to Supreet singh IAS who had blogged about this here, i could call their bluff. Still i couldnt give him a firm ‘No’ when he called and said “I will call back in an hour”. I called back some 20 minutes later and said I would neither endorse their magazine by appearing in the interview nor accept any monetary reward from them.

He has rightly titled the post as ‘…Warning to the future toppers…’ But many in the rank list may be either too naive to know or may find it ok due to the prospect of reaching out and inspiring more people. By the time it is discovered that the interviews have been distorted and we have been made to endorse their product, it will be too late. And also the  ‘cash award’ will ensure that they dont create any problems afterwards.

It seems the training for being an upright civil servant begins even before you reach Mussourie. Firm ‘No’s’ to such invitations, felicitation events organised by shady individuals is only the beginning of a very long journey.

Book review: India Development and Participation by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze

The book cover

The amazing growth story of India in the new millennium and the countless problems that we face have spawned a cottage industry of books about the opportunities and the challenges faced by the nation. It has become very difficult to get the right book that identifies the challenges in the right perspective and suggests constructive solutions.

One way to choose is by looking at the profile of the author(s). Hence the work by the renowned economists Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, who also have a good field experience in India was an obvious choice when I came across it in a book fair. The book India: Development and Participation is one of the most comprehensive work on the challenges faced by the nation in the socio-economic front.

Citing statistics and making comparisons with other parts of the world, it talks about the challenges in education, healthcare, women emancipation, liberalisation and decentralisation. The authors expose the myth of the inclusiveness of our growth story by showing that we lag behind sub-Saharan Africa in most of the  health and nutritional indicators. The inter-state disparities is also brought into picture. Each chapter ends with a case study of the state in India that has been able to make definite progress on the subject when compared to the other states. A comparison with China, which has similar problems like us also help us in putting things in perspective.

Are we on the right track?

Even as they applaud China for its success in the socio-economic front, the authors are unambiguous in their disapproval for the authoritarian methods used by then to achieve the ends. By noting the achievements of Kerala which has better indicators than China, they call for local, community based approaches to the major issues.

The chapter on women emancipation talks about an issue that is conspicuous by its absence in other similar discourses: the problem posed by widowhood and prospective widowhood that leads to choices like male-child preference. As the life expectancy of females are higher than males and because of our patriarchal norm of large age gap between the wife and the husband, this is a very serious issue in India.

The current edition was published in 2001. Hence the statistics are old. Interested ones can dig up the latest statistics from the original source that is given under every table. Also having written in 2001, it doesn’t talk about Naxalism which has become a serious problem off late. Being a result of the socio-economic and governance problems in the rural hinterland, an additional chapter on Naxalism can be added in future editions.

Hence as a whole, this book is one of the best written books on the socio-economic challenges faced by India. Written by eminent authors with good field experience, backed by authentic statistics and put in the right perspective, the book is a must read not only for people interested in public service but for every Indian so that we are not blinded by the glitz of our ‘growth’ story and lose sight of the humongous challenges we face.

My Civil Services Interview- CSE 2010

My interview was scheduled for the afternoon session on the 4th of April 2011. After the document verification, by around 14.15 hrs, we were told that we will be interviewed by the board chaired by the UPSC member I.M.G. Khan. I was the last candidate in the list.

I entered the interview room by around 16.50 hrs. This is the transcript of the interview:

Me: May I come in, Sir?

The chairman asked me to come in. The room and the table were quite small. So I had a hard time distinguishing the chairman from the five members.

I got in wishing the chairman, lady member and the other members Good afternoon. But before I could finish the niceties, chairman was asking me to sit down. He seemed very cordial and the mood in the board was surprisingly fresh even at the end of the day. I sat down saying ‘Thank you’

Chairman: So you are Gokul?

Me: Yes sir, Gokul G.R

Ch: I will call you Gokul. Will that be fine? (smiling)

Me: Yes sir that will be fine. ( me too smiling)

Ch: Gokul, you have taken Physics as an optional. Are you going against the trend as we see a lot of engineers and science graduates taking non-science optional?

Me: Sir, physics is a subject that I have been studying form my school days. It is the most familiar subject for me and I like it. I wanted to take a subject that I would enjoy studying.

Ch (going through my bio-data): So you passed out from NITC with first class with distinction. Some chap came to a place near Calicut some time back no? Who was he?

I was confused and thought for a fraction of a second when I knew he was talking about Vasco Da Gama…

Me: Vasco Da Gama sir. It was in 1498. He landed at a place called Kappad. It is quite near to my college.

Ch: The beach has a memorial saying this is where he landed. Have you seen that?

Me: I have been to the beach twice. It is a rocky beach. But I don’t remember seeing the monument.

Ch: It’s a small monument which says ‘this is the spot where….’ (the other members nod at this)

Me: sorry sir. I don’t remember seeing the monument.

Ch: Why did he have to find a route through the sea?

Me: I don’t exactly remember the details but the land route was blocked by some reason.

Ch: No No that’s not possible. They could have found some other route.

Me: Sea route is cheaper and it also facilitates large scale trade.

Ch: Yes. Besides don’t you think it is safer? Taking the land route they would have to come through hostile territories and through bandits and hooligans. But again they face pirates in the sea route.

Me: Yes sir.

Ch: Why did the Europeans land in Kerala?

Me: They were looking for trade in spices, especially pepper.

Ch: Is spices still an important component of your state’s economy?

Me: Yes sir. Spices are still a major component of our exports.

Ch: Why is that Kerala has not been able to diversify from traditional agricultural commodities? Why is Industrial growth not strong in Kerala?

Me: There is a general lethargy within the government and people about inviting capital and setting up an investor friendly climate. We also have a very strong trade unionist culture. It definitely has positives for the society. The wage rates and working conditions are one of the best in India. But various elements have misused it and used it for personal ends at the expense of industrial growth. It was a mindset that was set in the 1970s and 1980s that is still preventing investors from investing in Kerala. But we are definitely changing. We just commissioned the vallarpadam project and signed the agreement for the Smart city project.

Ch: So you think that the situation will change? That the future is bright?

Me: The change is already happening. It has already started sir (smiling).

Ch: Tell me about this smart city.

Me: It is a PPP between the Kerala Govt. and Dubai’s Tecom to set up a Technology park which will provide the necessary infrastructure for software and electronics firms to set up office.

Ch: Where exactly is it?

Me: At Cochin. Kakanad to be exact.

The chairman nodded at the first member. Having taken Physics as an optional, his questions were only on the safety of nuclear power and nuclear reactors.

M1: In the context of the Japanese disaster, do you think we should continue our expansion plans for nuclear energy or should we stop it? How safe is nuclear energy?

Me: Nuclear energy is a dangerous technology and it can never be 100% safe. But nuclear energy is a vital energy source for the future. So stopping it is not an option. But we should put in place better safety and security systems. Even in the Japanese case, the reactors withstood the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami and the reactor stopped working also. But it was the failure of the cooling system due to the damage to the electric grid that led to the current crisis.

M1: So what all should be done?

Me: We already have better safety systems. Our reactors are PHWRs as opposed to the BWRs of Japan which are inherently safer. Besides, the newer reactors have a Passive heat removal system by which air can be used for cooling in the event of failure of active cooling systems. New reactors will also have Hydrogen capture systems to prevent the kind of explosions that occurred at Fukushima.

M1: But still you think it won’t be 100% safe?

Me: Achieving a 100% safety line would be impossible but we should put in place mechanisms and safety systems to take the safety level as near to 100% as possible. Besides the safety guidelines should be placed under an independent regulatory body outside DAE.

M1: Very recently the former chairman of the AEC said that India should not import foreign reactors. Even he is not so sure about the safety of the rectors.

Me: The foreign reactors especially Areva’a EPR 1600 has untested safety features and has been rejected by a number of nations. Also, foreign reactors will have different safety systems and we will have to be experts in each of these. We will also have to depend on foreign know-how to learn their safety features also. But our reactors have been completely designed by us. So we have a better understanding of their dynamics and can better perfect the safety systems for them. Even the former chairman has supported the use of indigenous reactors.

M1: The proposed reactor at Jaitapur is coming up in a seismically active zone. What all measures need to be taken to prevent damage due to earthquakes?

Me: Building standards need to be strictly applied. Earthquake-resistant technology need to be incorporated which building. The effect of this was seen in the recent earthquake in Japan. The 8.9 magnitude quake, which is one of the largest ever killed only 20,000 people while the 7 point magnitude quake in Haiti last year killed more than 2 lakh people.

M1: You said about smart city? What all are the criterion for selecting a place for setting up a project like this?

Me: Connectivity to major city centres, road and rail connectivity, presence of good colleges in the vicinity.

The chairman interrupted asking me whether human element is also a factor that is considered.

Me: Yes sir. Availability of prospective employees is a major factor. If a Keralite is given a choice between a job in Smart city and in Bangalore, he will choose smart city even if the salary is a bit less. Given that about 50,000 engineers pass out from Kerala every year, this will give a competitive edge for the recruiters.

The turn was passed to the second member, a lady member. Her questions were about social issues.

M2 (looking at the summary sheet): You were selected as the ‘Young Scientist’ at the National Children’s Science Congress and you were second in the Regional Mathematical Olympiad. Why have you chosen civil services after coming from a science background like this?

Me: The project that we did for the Science congress has in fact played a very important role in me choosing civil services as a career. It was a social project. It was about the nutritional status of the people in a particular rural area in my district. The project gave me a firsthand exposure to the problems in the rural areas and about the various government departments working on these issues. The results of the project painted a very grim picture about the nutritional status of the people with respect to protein and vitamin deficiency. Besides, my aptitude is in an administrative job. Civil services will offer me the variety and challenges that no other job can give. I chose engineering because of my interest in science and to keep my options open. But civil services have been my dream throughout. It was always there in the back of my mind. That was why I started my preparation at the end of my third year itself.

M2: Suppose you are posted as an SDM in your state. What will you do to improve the nutritional level of the people? Are you aware of any schemes in that regard?

Me: ICDS, PDS, NRHM etc are the schemes for improving the nutritional and health levels of the people. Most of these projects suffer from poor implementation and leakages. For e.g., in ICDS, the anganawadi workers are ill-paid and their responsibilities are quite heavy.  This has led to a lack of morale among them. I will concentrate on proper implementation of such schemes.

M2: But as an SDM you cannot make policy decisions. You can’t give them more salary. What will you do in that context?

Me: I will look for implementation of the schemes with support from the local bodies and community organisations. Involving of Panchayats can also create the political pressure for change.

M2: Kerala is called ‘God’s own country’. In what context is that name used.

Me: It is essentially a tagline coined by the tourism department for promoting tourism in Kerala. But otherwise also, Kerala can be called God’s own country (smiling).

Everyone laughed at this and the chairman interrupted asking me ‘Why is that Gokul?’

Me: The climate is good throughout the year,  people are well educated and friendly, presence of some of the most ecologically diverse areas, greenery all around……

With this, the Third member took charge. He was jovial throughout.

M3: You have taken public administration as an optional. Do you think decentralization through Panchayati raj is good?

Me: Definitely sir.

M3: Then why is it that in spite of being inserted in the constitution, it is not properly implemented in many places?

Me: Although they have been inserted in the constitution by the 73rd and 74th amendment, it is still the prerogative of the state governments to delegate powers to these bodies. In the case of Kerala, most of the powers in the 11th and 12th schedule have been delegated. Besides, 25% of the plan expenditure in budget is passed to the local bodies.

M3: So what should be done in the other states?

Me: People should be politically motivated and should demand more powers. Education can play a very important role in this.

The member said ‘Oh, you Keralite have 100% literacy’ and laughed. Everyone joined with him. I smiled and said 94% according to the provisional census figures

M3: Tourism is affecting our culture. Should we stop tourism due to that?

Me: No sir. We should not close ourselves to anyone. The tour operators act as the interface between the tourists and our people. They should be given training and orientation to properly orient foreign tourists before they land in India. The foreign tourists should be given a basic idea about the culture and society into which they are stepping in.

M3: But shouldn’t masses be educated for this to be effective. (He turned to other members and joked ‘our sanskrithi will become apasanskrithi by then)

Me: A well educated society is definitely good for developing a service industry like tourism. That should be our long term goal. But in the short term, educating the operators will help us develop tourism sustainably.

M3: A DM was recently kidnapped by the Maoists. In such a dangerous environment, do you still want to be an IAS officer?

Me: I heard about Mr. Vineel Krishna for the first time after the incident. All the reports in the newspapers were very positive about his work as a DM. In fact, he was kidnapped when he went to check a development work in a remote area without any protection. The people of his district rallied behind him. So if you are upright and do your work, you will have the support of the people and will be perfectly safe.

M3: So you think if he is honest and upright, nothing bad will happen?

Me: Yes sir.

The turn was passed to the fourth member.

M4: Did you write CAT, GRE or GATE in between?

Me: No sir. I was preparing through my final year and gave the exam right after my final exams.

M4: So you were focused. Tell me the advantages and disadvantages of Mobile communication. Advantages first: Economic advantages:

Me: Better connectivity, ability to make fast economic decisions, buying and selling goods using mobiles, advertising.

M4: Social

Me: People and families are always connected. You can call everyone at any distance at very low rates at any time.

M4: Political

Me: Campaigning, Communicating political ideas and schemes…

M4: Any disadvantages?

When I thought for a while, he said ‘it’s Ok, if you can’t think of any’.

M4: What are the uses of space technology for people?

Me: It has revolutionized communication. Weather satellites like Metsat help us in better prediction. Remote sensing satellites help us in planning. We have recently put in orbit Oceansat which observes the ocean. The information gathered by it is beneficial for the fishermen.

M4: Cyber security is a major issue now. What do you know about it and what is being done by the Indian government?

Me: It is a very dynamic area. It is a constant battle between a large number of hackers and security establishments. We need to keep ourselves updated always. DRDO is developing an operating system for use in govt. systems. The operating systems that we use now are available throughout the world and hence are more prone to hacking. We have set up cyber cells in the major police stations. The CERT-In is the body that is responsible for cyber security at the national level.

M4: Define ethics.

Me: The set of standards that we are supposed to follow in a particular realm.

M4: Can you point out some of those that you are supposed to follow. Was there any committee that made recommendations about ethics?

Me: It was a committee that was appointed in the U.K (couldn’t remember the name of Nolan committee) that gave detailed guidelines regarding ethics in public life.

M4: No Indian committees?

Me: A number of committees to look into corruption have also given similar recommendations.

M4: Can you list out a few of those standards?

Me: Honesty, integrity, leadership by example…

M4: Those are general things. Don’t you have any set of professional ethics as an engineer? Is there any Body that sets such standards?

Me: IEEE sets the standards for us. But I am not aware of any code of ethics.

M4: No Indian bodies? IETE?

Me: Sir, do you mean ISTE?

M4: No, IETE. Ok, tell me the ethics that you are supposed to follow as a communications engineer.

Me: Respect for IPRs, honesty…

M4: Ok.

The chairman took over. The interview was in its last phase.

Ch: Very recently a Bulgarian group was arrested in Delhi for robbery. What does this incident mean for India? Have we become a soft state that people from faraway places are coming for robbery?

Me: It may be a random, off the cuff incident.

Ch: No no. It was a well organized group with a lot of members.

Me: A number of foreign groups are active in a number of nations like the Italian Mafia in USA. As the economy improves…

Ch (interrupting): So you think it is a good thing!!!( and laughed…the members also joined him)

Ch: So Gokul, what will you do after getting out. Tell me the first thing that you will do on exiting this room.

Me:  Sir…..I will be removing my tie (It was a spontaneous reply)

Everyone burst into laughter at this and the chairman asked me whether candidates think they won’t be selected if they came in half sleeves without tie (Every male member in the room wore half sleeves without tie). I started with the usual answer, ‘Sir, this is one of the most important occasions for us. We respect the occasion’ when the chairman joked once again. Then I said, “Sir, frankly candidates tend to be a bit conservative in this regard”

Ch: Ok. Your interview is over. It has been nice talking to you. Thank you.

I thanked the chairman, the lady member and other members and left the room. It was 17.20 by then. The interview went for around 30-35 minutes.

The session felt more like a candid discussion rather than a strict interview. Hoping for the best!!

P.S : I was given 214/300 for this interview 🙂

Google before you Post

 

The image belongs to its owner

Scaremongering messages and status feeds has become the order of the day during times of disaster and tragedies. The latest has been the message spreading through facebook and sms saying that the nuclear reactors in tsunami stricken Japan has given away. Networking makes it easy for such messages to be spread. And more often than not, people accept it without a hesitation. Not all such fake feeds need be harmful though. I also happened to come across a note, supposedly authored by Harsha Bhogle which turned out to be fake. And also a comment attributed to Sachin (supposedly made after the Indian debacle against South Africa), ‘‎ I was still changing out of my sweaty clothes and taking a shower and was shocked to see the whole team back…’ which on googling showed up just ‘social networking sites and blogs and not any credible source by which it can be attributed to Sachin.

While the latter ones make good humour, spreading fake news as in the case of Japan creates a fear psychosis which can be counter productive in times of real need. The most distressing aspect of this phenomenon is that all this can be avoided by the simple act of googling up the relevant data. The fake Japan message had ‘BBC alert‘ in it. That makes very easy to check for authenticity. Copy paste the first few lines of the message and add BBC or go directly to their site (bbc.co.uk) and find out.

While information super highways have truly made the world flat and has made available all the information ever collected by mankind at the tip of our fingers, we seem to be satisfied by the unreferenced messages coming from strangers through the social networking sites.

Remember the last time you were reprimanded by your parent or friend for a careless comment and reminded of the need to ‘Think before you talk’. Well the basic rules remain the same for your online identity also, but with minor differences in the terminology:

So please

GOOGLE BEFORE YOU POST

The Pseudo science

Few pseudo sciences enjoy the kind of popularity and belief as astrology. Although variants of this pseudo science is practiced in many parts of the world, the Indian brand would definitely

Image courtesy the universal press syndicate

outshine its competitors in terms of acceptability. That such a belief system which believes that the fate of a person and his character is determined by the position of celestial bodies at the time of his birth baffles reason. Even naming this brand of superstition as ‘astrology’ with close resemblance to ‘astronomy’ is itself a fraud on science.

From deciding on the compatibility of the bride and the groom to fixing the date to start a journey, from deciding on financial transactions to naming a newly born, it seems all past, present and the future are decided by a few celestial bodies hanging from the sky. Genes? they don’t exist. Which force is used by the bodies to set all these? a mystic force other than the four fundamental forces. BULLSHIT.

What bothers me is not the total absurdity of the subject but how it is accepted by the public including highly educated persons and the high decibel statements made by interest groups that ‘astrology is a science’. Astrology is not only restricted to the hindu community alone. Reliance on it by members of other major communities is also on the increase.

What made me write this post is that i came across a paper prepared by Jayant Narlikar (Founder director of IUCAA) and three others on a simple statistical test on astrology. The full paper is here:

http://www.ias.ac.in/currsci/mar102009/641.pdf

Its a basic principle of statistics is that only similar entities should be compared. The team rightly chose to compare whether astrology or tossing a coin has a better statistical chance in correctly predicting a particular event. Yes you guessed the result right. The study found tossing outperformed the sacred science of astrology.

Astrology is not a personal superstition but rather its harm is extended to innocent others also. Marriages cancelled after engagements, financial deals cancelled after finalizing the agreement etc are just a few cases. Giving a scientific look to this superstition was widely pursued by the BJP govt during their 1999-2004 term as a part of their divisive hindutva agenda. They went so far as trying to include ‘Vedic astrology’ in the university syllabus.

Superstitions challenge the foundations of our knowledge base and if let free has the potential to destabilize the basic tenets of our social life. While blind faith and irrational social compulsions will keep the believers hooked to it, various interest groups will fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo.

 

 

 

Food, Inc : Warnings for India

Happened to see the academy award nominated documentary Food, Inc today. It was about how corporate farming has replaced traditional agriculture and how it affects both the people and the environment. Together with advocating changes in the system, the documentary calls for transparency to let people know what exactly they are eating. It’s completely about agriculture in the USA. But it definitely has warnings for a developing nation like India which, I feel is slowly heading towards that stage.

Compared to other developing nations and developed ones, agriculture in India is one of the least productive and income generating. We need solid changes in the way we manage the sector if we are to redeem a sector in which 58% of our population depends for sustenance. But rather than looking for strong and solid long-term steps, the shift of approach is ostensibly towards the supposed panacea of market solutions. In the process, a number of changes are happening in the agricultural sector that make the situation described in the documentary quite possible in the near future. Although the changes are very small when compared to the scale of agriculture in India, one should not miss the warning signs which clearly shows a shift towards corporate farming.

1.GM crops: Nothing in the field of agriculture has been more controversial than the introduction of GM crops. Traditional cotton breeds have been completely replaced by Bt cotton. Today India has the fourth largest area under GM crops. One may not have forgotten the sheer callous way in which the govt gave approval for Bt Brinjal. If it was not for the organised protest of farmers and civil society and the commitment of an environment minister to move from the ‘rubber stamp’ image of the ministry, we would have seen the introduction of the first GM food crop in the nation without any on field trials, studies on the effects of humans, other crops and cattle (brinjal is used as fodder) and without any laws on labeling GM crops (so that people can know they are purchasing GM crops). Besides all such environmental and ecological concerns, both the crops are patented by Monsanto. As these crops are hybrids, seeds will not germinate and farmers will have to buy new seeds for every season from the company. As it has happened in the developed world and shown in the documentary, this would lead to a complete dependence on a few seed companies.

2. FDI in multi brand retail: This has been branded as the next big thing in India. The market retail business is estimated to be $400 billion annually. More than 30 million people depend on this sector for existence. Although the debate on this issue is a very old one, the ministry of corporate affairs has recently circulated a note to other ministries calling for a fresh debate on the issue. Experience in other nations suggest that although in the initial phases, the opening up facilitated good competition, removed inefficiencies and middle men and created value for both farmers and customers, gradually consolidation occurred leading to dominance by a few majors like Wal-mart, Carrefour etc. This meant that the competition that offered choice for farmers was no longer present and they were left with only two choices: either sell it to the corporate in terms set by them or let his produce rot. This micro control by corporates on farming issues is also discussed in the beginning of the documentary.

3. Changing pattern of agricultural loans: Lack of credit through proper channels is another problem that our agricultural sector faces. But inspite of this, P. Sainath notes that agricultural loans ranging between Rs. 10-25 crores is on the rise. These are not loans given to the ‘marginal’ (defined as one with agricultural land between .01-2.5 hectres) farmers who form 80% of our farmers but to big corporates for warehouses and corporate farming.

The need to feed one of the largest population in the world and the prospective increase in the size and nature of the demand as our economy grows is mooted as the justification for all these changes. But have we reached a stage in which the only way forward is the highly subsidized, unsustainable, harmful and intensive farming as followed in the developed nations. The answer i feel is ‘Not yet’ (and very much avoidable). The reasons are:

1. Famines and hunger in India is more a result of mismanagement of food rather than lack of availability. As the supreme court had noted, food rot in our godowns even as people die of hunger. The surplues grains stored in FCI godownsis more than 65 million tonnes. This can feed almost 50% of our population for a year. An effective way to distribute this to the poor through a leakproof PDS can go a long way in addressing our shortage.

2. We lead the world in lack of productivity. The productivity per hectre for almost all major crops other than rubber is way below global average. Fresh investment in agriculture has been abysmally low since the 1980s. The 2010 budget allocated just Rs.12,ooo crore to the sector. Improvements in the fundamentals like irrigation, dissemination of proper knowledge etc can greatly improve productivity.

The documentary shows the real side of agriculture and food market in the developed world. It should act as a strong warning for us to know what to avoid as we continue on the high growth path and join the leading economies in the world. And as most of the important, long term changes are often pushed through by the governments without meaningful debates and public discussions, it is important that we keep our eyes and ears open and keep our legislators accountable for changes in this most vital sector.

The Miracle of Calcutta

Kolkata saw the worst of the communal riots before 1947 including the one on August 16, 1946, the infamous direct action day called by the Muslim League which sealed the fate on a united India. So when the date for the costliest amputation in the history of mankind was nearing, leaders feared that the flames of communal riots in Bengal would tear India apart. But Mountbatten didnt have forces to spare for Kolkata.
The whole of the Frontier force was deployed in Punjab and NWFA. When the Radcliffe line was announced, the relatively peaceful Punjab which hadnt seen any major communal clashes in the past went up in flames. As the Frontier force watched helplessly, around half a million were butchered. But Kolkata remained peaceful. Initial bursts of violence quickly died out. It was a one man army….a frail, half naked man in his late 70s, achieved through prayer meetings what battalions of armed soldiers couldn’t…..
Its said that its difficult to control a group a people, but when it becomes a mob its almost impossible. Gandhiji didnt give any elaborate talks or offer any rewards….He went into self penance of fasting and called prayer meetings. Acts as simple as that could change the mind of a murderous mob and caused them to go back. An incident of this scale would have never occurred in the history of mankind.
This might have been one of the many incidents that prompted Einstein to say, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”.

Identity politics in India

I wrote this for the college magazine. Its my views of identity politics which though highly dangerous are universal

Fear is one of the most powerful weapons to control humans. Of all the countless fears and phobias that humans are susceptible to, the most powerful are the ones that can be classified under the category ‘fear of the other’. It has its genesis from the survival instinct of humans to form groups or clans among people with similar interests. The earliest of the groups were formed for improving efficiency in hunting. The groups gave them safety in the highly hostile surroundings in which they lived then. Any potential disruption to these groupings was viewed with scepticism and later with outright hostility. Thus the sense of identity and hostility towards the other is as old as humans themselves. But we have come a long way from the hunter/gatherers we were. Moving out of Africa, the modern man moved far and out and in the process developed new traits, survival skills and looks. Only the hidden messages coded in our genetic makeup links all of us to the small group in Africa that diversified to become what we are now. From that initial identity, we created new identities: on the way we talked, the way social norms were set, the way we bowed in front of the all powerful, the way we dressed etc. These identities, some as old as humans themselves or some just a few decades old have become major rallying points for politicians to pursue their ends.

The Indian Identity

As a civilization we have never ceased to grow. Whether it be invaders or refugees fleeing persecution in far off lands, we have always made it a point absorb the good things they brought in and thus renew our cultural gene pool. The result was the creation of multifarious identities of being Indian. The question ‘what makes you an indian’ will get you answers numerous as pollens in an orchard and as varied as flowers in a garden.  So what exactly makes us Indians? Rather than answering that question, It will be easier to jot down points as to what does not completely define us as a nation.

We are not a single geographical entity. The geograpjical entity is the Indian sub-continent. But large parts of it are currently not part of our country and some others never were. Even when Burma was integrated as a part of British India in 1886, it held on to its individual identity. The Indian National Congress in its Poorna Swaraj declaration in 1929 had made it clear that Burma will not be part of free India. Afghanistan maintained its tribal identity throughout history and is still living up to its image as ‘the graveyard of empires’.

Contrary to popular belief, we have never completely come under a single administration either. The Guptas, Mauryas and the Mughals integrated and ruled over large swathes of territory that would become India later. But none of them could rule over the entire land. Large parts of south and north east India remained outside their rule. Even when India was politically unified under the raj, the British only ruled less than 60% of the land. The remaining was ruled by princes under the suzerainty of the British crown. When we won independence in 1947, we didn’t inherit a single india, but 14 provinces which were directly ruled by the British and 535 princely states. Also contrary to popular beliefs, the national movement didn’t give us a single identity either. The Indian national Congress was active in the provinces alone. Although the congress had some of the most illustrious leaders like U.N Dhebar and others coming from princely states, it was the congress policy until 1939 not to organize any mass movements in the princely states. But they took memberships from the princely states who were active in movements throughout the country. These people spread the modern ideas of freedom and equality in the princely states. The beacon of reform and freedom was carried by regional parties that were independent of the major national parties.

Given the way in which India was inherited from the british, a reorganization for admistrative convenience was one of the foremost priorities. After a lot of debates and commissions, it was decided in 1956 to reorganize the nation on linguistic basis. So can language compartmentalize us into rigid identities? We had 14 states based on 14 official languages then. But the number of languages that are in the eight schedule of the constitution now is 22. Besides these 22, there are innumerable languages spoken on regional basis. Even in areas in which the same language is spoken, the regional diversities can be mind boggling. The pace, the style and the vocabulary can be so varied that one may fail to comprehend a person from the same linguistic region but speaking a different regional variety. But on a broader scale these thousands of languages can be classified into 5 root categories.

Identity politics in India

Given these factors, identity is a fluid concept in India. There are no clear cut definitions or boundaries. Every person belongs to a minority in his own way. Still inspite of the fact that we have so many identities and inspite of the fact that theses identities are not always water tight, politics of identity have found its roots in the country and flourished, sometimes leading to disastrous consequences. Even the momentous event of the birth of free India was marred by violence and a refugee crisis that has few parallels in recorded human history.  Thousands of riots small and big has happened in our country ever since. There are even political parties thriving exclusively on the concept of a particular identity.

On close perusal it can be seen that all these political parties follow similar strategies to gain foothold. In the first stage, the identity is glorified citing examples from our rich history and our heritage. Together with this, mild skirmishes are made at other parallel identities to reinforce the supremacy of the particular identity. The next phase is the fear psychosis part when people are constantly reminded that all parallel identities pose a continuous challenge to our identity and hence must be resisted. Both the Hindu Maha Sabha(1915) and Muslim league(1906) gave possible hostile takeover by the other religion as the reason for their formation and existence. The final phase is the phase of outright hostility in which the party consolidates its base and calls for the complete extermination of the ‘other’.

Its not so difficult to find the hollowness in the arguments of the political parties. Its more so true in the case of India. But that doesn’t give us any room to lower our defenses. The fact that mass hysteria can be imposed even in a modern developed society was brutally demonstrated in the case of Nazi Germany. With further cultural assimilation and ‘flattening’ of the world, questions of identity can easily be converted into powerful weapons. The first step towards preventing identity blowing out into serious scales is to understand our unique history and accept our differences.

The diversity of the country is a constant reminder of the richness of our civilization. It is undoubtedly our greatest strength. Sixty years of democracy have taken us to a point from which regaining past glory and richness is a goal that is within our reach. In the process, our greatest strength will be the collective energies of our people. The lessons learnt from the pitfalls and blemishes should never be forgotten. India is more than the sum of its parts. We should accept and celebrate the multifarious identities that we simultaneously possess and the unique thread of being Indian running through those seemingly conflicting identities. If we can show the resolve to do this, the future is undoubtedly ours.