Sunday, November 13, 2011

“Don’t waste my time”

I found the trailer to the movie ‘In Time’ quite interesting. It offered a new and original premise based on a literal interpretation of ‘Time is Money’ and a slightly left-leaning view of what’s wrong with a scarcity based economic model. This latter point piqued my interest even more.

Of late I have been reading about the Resource Based Economy (RBE); an idea proposed by Jacque Fresco, one which does not involve money for the distribution of resources. More on that later. I am now working on a series of posts on RBE. It sure does sounds utopian but it would be immature to come to that judgement without doing further research and asking more questions. That’s what I am aiming for from that series. However, all about that later.

Here, I’ll just post my review of the flick. As I was walking out of the movie hall I wasn’t disappointed. It was an hour and a half of well paced fun with my mind being taken to RBE on quite a few occasions. Some may pick on this distraction and say that it means the movie is not engrossing enough. True; but I like keeping my mind occupied and in this case since some of the dialogues were taking me to my blog series on RBE, I was enjoying the ride.

Soon after I got home I thought I would list out the movie’s good and bad. If I don’t like a movie I would rather not write about it than dissing about it publicly. Since I enjoyed the ride in the movie hall I thought I could write a positive review of this one. Oh well, was I disappointed? Here’s my list. First, I’ll start with the basic plot.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mid-PhD Crisis

Like a madman groping in a dark room
Seek the light to burn away the gloom
I’ve lost my mind but my feelings are true
Everything I do, I offer to you.
-- No Turn Un-Stoned (Shpongle)

I am now a mid-career PhD student. That was how my advisor described me during the first departmental meeting of this academic year while introducing his research group to the incoming batch of grad students. Then, I didn’t give much thought to the term he used; mid-career. However, listening to the above lyrics and considering my PhD progress - probably anyone’s for that matter - it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that truer words have never been spoken.

But then, Jorge Cham knew it all along. Nearing 40 in my ‘lab years’, this is probably the perfect time for a mid-‘lab’ life crisis. It seems to have struck me hard. Look at what I am doing right now. I should be working on my thesis. Instead I am procrastinating, penning down my thoughts. I can’t help it. Each time I stare at the word document of my would-be thesis, I can’t help myself getting distracted. On a positive note, though, this time has been a productive blogging period for me, what, with plenty of updates over the last month or so, both here and at Interstate 42.

Newton’s third law of graduation - "For every action towards graduation there is an equal and opposite distraction".

It wasn’t always like this. I got through the inevitable post-qualifiers slump that hit me last summer, obtained some good results and published a paper before this summer began. But now, summer is gone and I have nothing to show for it. I have been coding, compiling and debugging; but I am nowhere near simulating the thermal behavior around laser heated nanoparticles. Guess it happens; it is after all a mid-PhD slump.

Things should pick up soon, if not I should force it. It is time I took Cecilia’s resolve and started working full time on my candidacy report that would later become my thesis. Before my advisor loses his patience, I have to finish the report and take my candidacy examination. But, where are the freaking results? ~Long breath~

In the meantime, I came across a friend’s facebook status - “I TA for a professor whose Erdos Number is 1. Yes No.1 and no lesser. Despite that fact the amount of respect that he gives to other minions like me is amazing! The more I see these people, the smaller I feel in this world. Who said grad school was burden, it is an enlightening experience at every step”. He is a new grad student at RPI and all I can say is ‘enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts. It won’t be long before you end up like this'.

As for the rest, take care and have a blast.

PS: Take note of Jorge Cham’s disclaimer. If you are new to PhD Comics, then remember, ‘reading this entire archive can be hazardous to your research. Proceed with caution and use only in moderation.’

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A matter of choice

One harmless decision. One more a few minutes later. Then a series of small, seemingly inconsequential choices. Nothing more. Yet, in the end the damage was done. Ah, hindsight! Things look so simple in it. Turning back, connecting the dots, a pattern emerges.

I was tired. Working away in my tiny cubicle, I had kept sleep at bay for forty hours.  No more. I had to get out, get back home. Never before had I longed so much to snuggle under my blankets. Never before had the thought of a warm bed comforted me more.

Before that, though, I had to satisfy the growing discomfort inside my stomach. I needed food. Cooking was not an option, not with my eyelids threatening to snap shut, the threat growing stronger every waking second. Thank god for the new diner just outside campus.

A collective ‘Welcome to Moe’s!’ greeting and a short queue later I was able to give my order - rice bowl with chicken and soybeans with a free pack of tortilla chips. To go; one harmless decision. After all, why take the risk of embarrassment, drooling over the table at the diner?

I got the chips in a paper bag. The cashier asked, “Do you want a bag for the rice bowl?” I shook my head in the negative. The second one, after all why waste paper? I put the bowl in the bag with the chips and headed out.

The pedestrian signal was red. “Home in ten minutes”, I thought as I waited. A minute later the signal changed and I was on my way. A little across I met a friend. He had just returned after hiking the Presidential TraverseI could have just greeted him and walked past but I wanted to ask about the hike. A simple choice.

A few minutes later we said our goodbyes and I continued my journey home. As I reached the end of the block, the intersection between 15th and Sage, the pedestrian signal was red. I looked around. Across 15th I saw another friend of mine. He hadn’t seen me. I could have waited for a few more seconds, rushed across Sage and been on my way. A seemingly harmless choice later, I was on the opposite side of 15th. We exchanged pleasantries and started discussing about possible next hikes and camping trips. Fall was approaching and the views would be simply out of the world.

As we parted our ways, after a while, I could hear my stomach grumbling. I had to rush back home. I increased my speed, my hands swinging more violently. I was just a block away from home when I heard a tear. I looked down only to see the bag give away. Unbeknownst to me leaked gravy from the bowl was gradually weakening the bag’s integrity; and, now there I was staring in distress at my dinner on the sidewalk.

I cleaned up, deposited my dinner in the nearest garbage bin and walked home. Now I had to cook something. I am too lazy to do that on a regular day. Now I was too tired to even think about standing over the oven, stirring and waiting. As I reached home I made my last decision of the day. As soon as I saw the bed weariness overcame me. I would have to sleep in an empty stomach. “How would this decision come back to bite me?", I thought as I lay in bed quickly losing consciousness.

I learnt a simple lesson from all this, one of the simple truths of life. Your choice matters, every decision counts. Everything in life may not happen for a reason, but they definitely do because of one. There are no simple choices. As chaos theory goes, even the flutter of a butterfly can wreak havoc on the opposite side of the world. Every decision, thus, has to be weighted with care.

This is true more so for an entity like a nation. The choices of each of its individuals, however small and inconsequential they may seem, matter. Collectively they form the nation’s psyche.

Next time I’ll think twice before jumping a signal, bribing the police officer to escape the fine, buying movie tickets in black, traveling in a train or a bus without buying the ticket, and misrepresenting land costs to escape property tax. Any one of these acts by a single person may be small with respect to the working machinery of a nation, but it is not inconsequential. Things add up. Collectively they contribute to India’s corrupted psyche.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The many levels of corruption

With the government having agreed to introduce the Jan Lokpal bill in the Parliament for discussion, along with other civil society versions; and Anna Hazare holding his fort lest the government stages another flip-flop, it would be reasonable to assume that sooner or later India will be having an ombudsman, rather a committee of them. It is still early to tell, however, to what extent their powers may pan out. Of course, the bill should have the tooth to monitor and fight corruption. Yet, it should maintain the sanctity of the Constitution’s basic structure lest the teeth evolve into fangs.

For the sake of this post let us assume that the basic principles of the Jan Lokpal bill (the version put forward by Team Anna) have been adhered to and the ambiguous bits have been amended as the bill is passed by both Houses.

Moving beyond, it wouldn’t be unwise to ponder about the effectiveness of a Lokpal in eliminating corruption and thus ushering India to a new level of social development. For the same purpose it is necessary to distinguish the different levels of corruption. This would have been done to death during the various meetings and debates of the different drafters of the bill(s); and may be considered again in the Parliament. However, it is always worth revisiting.

1) Corruption in state sponsored welfare schemes

Rajiv Gandhi famously estimated that only 15 cents of every dollar spent on the poor actually reached them [Source]. This figure was later revised down to 5% by commentators. The welfare schemes include poverty alleviation, employment generation schemes as well as development of urban and rural infrastructure.

Improved transparency through RTI, ability to file charges and initiate prosecution, through the Lokpal, against those who reroute part of the fund and whistleblower protection together may serve potent in ensuring maximum benefit for the target population. It would be extremely heartening if news like this became more commonplace. Even if 20% of the welfare fund is reassigned to run the Lokpal machine and other ‘feedback and monitoring’ mechanisms, 80% reaching the poor is still a better state of affairs than the fate that awaits majority of the fund currently.

2) Lobbying by private interests for public resources

Illegal mining contracts, the 2G spectrum scam and the like would fall in this category. The Lokpal, empowered to initiate prosecution in a special court, can be seen to play a role in keeping a check on vested business interests and favoritism. High-level corruption may be dealt with but society will still be held back.

Liberalization post 1991 has done wonders for many sections of the Indian population. With rapid growth and a burgeoning middle class, ideally it shouldn’t be long before its benefits percolate to every section of society. However, the marginalized are still stuck at the lower rungs of economic development and in some cases their positions have even regressed. Wouldn’t it be daft to believe that this is due to corruption alone and eliminating it would magically raise the under-privileged from the clutches of poverty? When governments along with private parties use dubious land acquisition laws [1] to violently [2] affect the lives of some sections of the population, in the name of development, it is not always illegal though questions can be raised of the ethics. This is just one example of how outdated laws still strangle society. Looking beyond the Lokpal, social and economic reforms are a must to have further and sustained socio-economic development in India.

3) Graft to escape red tape inconvenience

During the special session of the Parliament on 27th August, the leader of the opposition, Sushma Swaraj rightly pointed out that though corruption higher up the administrative chain angers the common man, it is the one that prevails in the lower bureaucracy that puts him under great distress. Delays in obtaining a passport, a ration card, a driving license or a voter ID is what affects him more than the 2G spectrum scam or the CWG scam. Thus, strong monitoring of the lower bureaucracy along with the implementation of a citizen’s charter in all government offices is of extreme importance. As mentioned in the Hindu editorial a grievance redressal system (along with a citizen’s charter) is “a progressive idea whose time has come.”

However, it is worth remembering that including the lower bureaucracy under the ambit of the Lokpal (along with the higher judiciary, elected representatives, the PM Office and other high-level bureaucrats) may result in a tremendous volume of work on the shoulders of one body. There is, thus, merit in the NCPRI argument that the CVC should be strengthened to deal with the lower bureaucracy [Source]. After all, decentralization may increase administrative efficiency.

4) Corruption for mutual benefit with no perceived third party loss

Not all corruption at the lower level is at the fault of the government servants. The common man in India today is more than willing to part with some of his hard-earned money to escape fines for parking, speeding and other traffic violations, to travel ticketless in buses and trains, to escape land and property tax, and to obtain an admission for his child in a reputed  school/college in order to go one up on his neighbor’s son/daughter. At this level corruption is of mutual benefit and, in public perception, does not directly affect a third party. It is worth remembering that it is this mentality that legitimizes corruption at all levels. After all, government servants don’t fall from the sky. No anti-corruption agency can tackle this type of corruption; after all, who is going to complain? What is required is a change in public perception and a widespread mentality of civic sense. The movement led by Anna Hazare, for all its flaws, has managed to shake some out of their stupor. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Yet, there are many who do not consider this ‘harmless’ corruption to be a danger to society and it won’t take long for those awake to go back to sleep. With a sleeping public, corruption will eventually find a way to percolate into anti-graft machineries.

One of the problems of a successful movement is that the people may end up believing that they have done enough (not unlike what Slavoj Zizek says herethough in a different context) and settle back into their old ways. This mentality should not set in. Sustained public vigilance and further structural and economic reforms are, thus, important if India has to rise considerably in the Transparency International ranking.

[1] “People who argue that the act is draconian claim that a number of projects with no public purpose attached, as in the case of SEZs, usurped land from property owners, with the help of the Land Acquisition Act, at what is claimed as, well below the market value of these properties. It is argued that, even in the case of projects that are genuinely for public purposes, there is a considerable difference between the market value of the property and the value that the land acquisition officer pays the land owners. It is also argued that the relocation and rehabilitation of land owners displaced by the actions of the act, is not followed up adequately, and that this is not covered comprehensively in the framework of the act. A notable instance of opposition to land acquisition, through the land acquisition act, is the  Nandigram violence incident.” - Wikipedia (Land Acquisition Act, 1894)

Land lost, Singur farmer said no to compensation, commits suicide -

“Over 80 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population works in the primary sector, with 45 per cent being cultivators and 37 per cent agricultural labourers. Land represents the most important source of livelihood, emotional attachment and social stability in tribal communities. The alienation of tribal land is the single most important cause of pauperisation of tribals, rendering their vulnerable economic situation more precarious.” - The weapon of empowerment, M. Hamid Ansari, Vice President of India (2010).

[2] “The Adivasis of Chhatisgarh - Victims of the Naxalite movement and Salwa Judum campaign”, Asian Center for Human Rights (2006).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Separation of powers vs. the Draft Jan Lokpall bill

Based on certain clarifications I obtained elsewhere, I am making changes to the post (highlighted in black).

According to Wikipedia, “the separation of powersoften imprecisely used interchangeably with the trias politica principle, is a model of governance of a state. Under this model, the state is divided into branches, each with separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility so that no one branch has more power than the other branches. The normal division of branches is into an executive, legislature and judiciary.”

The conferment of power in a single body leads to absolutism. “Power corrupts and absolute Power tends to corrupt absolutely” is attributed to Lord Acton. Thus, the doctrine of separation of powers is considered important as a check against tyrannical rule. The purpose is to diffuse the authority of the State to prevent absolutism and to “allocate each function to the institution BEST suited to discharge it.” [Source]

It can be argued that this doctrine is not applicable to India in its strict sense. Separation of Powers, in its pure form, can only be seen in a presidential form of democracy. So, it’s quite evident from the Constitution that India, being a parliamentary democracy, does not follow an absolute separation. Instead, the democracy functions based upon a fusion of powers. Here, a close co-ordination among the three principal organs of the State is unavoidable. “Thus, every organ of the government is required to perform all the three types of functions. Also, each organ is, in some form or the other, dependent on the other organ which checks and balances it.” An example of this can be seen in how Cabinet ministers are part of both the executive and the legislature. [Source]

However this does not mean that the doctrine is not followed at all. Various Supreme Court rulings, most notably Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Keralahave upheld that maintenance of the separation of powers is comprised in the basic structure of the constitution. In essence, the notion is that, in light of growing administrative challenges, though an organ of the State can delegate responsibilities to another, with regard to the basic constitutional functions of each of these organs the sanctity of the doctrine of separation of powers should be maintained. This keeps in mind the purpose of such a doctrine, where each function is allocated to the institution BEST suited to discharge it.

Keeping the above points in mind, I would like to highlight a few clauses in Version of 2.2 of the Jan Lokpal Bill, that seem to violate the constitution’s basic structure. I am no authority in this matter. So, please, correct me if I am wrong, and if the clauses I’ll mention in a while have been modified in the newer versions of the bill.

Proponents of the bill have said that it is important to bring the judiciary under the ambit of the Lokpal. No one is above the law. This I agree with, provided what Arvind Kejriwal says at the start of this interview is true. He mentions that the ONLY change from the current system that the bill envisions is the ability to file an FIR against any judge without prior approval of the CJI. This is important in a strong Lokpal bill. Similar points have also been made here.

It is also said that "the powers of Lokpal are limited to investigation, collection of evidence and prosecution. The Lokpal can bring a case to the court, and the judge will then decide on the basis of the presented evidence whether the person is guilty" [Source]. If this spirit was unambiguously spelt out in the bill, I believe it has all the makings of a strong yet democratic anti-corruption system.

Therein lies the problem. There seem to be a few contradictory clauses in the bill (Version 2.2). Take these instances. Again, correct me if I am wrong, and the following clauses have been modified in the newer versions of the bill.

1) Section 27.2
" proceedings or decision of the Lokpal shall be liable to be challenged, reviewed, quashed or called in question in any court of ordinary Civil Jurisdiction."

What decision is the bill talking about here? Can the Lokpal impose punishments? If so, however minor the punishment may be, this is akin to handing judicial powers to the Lokpal. That goes against the separation of powers envisioned in our Constitution.

Quasi-judicial powers akin to what policemen have (like imposing fines) and other administrative punitive measures may be handed to the Lokpal without affecting the integrity of the Constitution. This is in accordance with the 'delegated responsibility' argument. However, all the decisions of the Lokpal should be subject to judicial review in the High Courts and Supreme Court. It seems that "court of ordinary civil jurisdiction" in Section 27.2 refers to a lower court. This has to be further clarified.

2) Section 8.2
"The Lokpal, after getting such enquiries and investigations done as it deems fit, may take one or more of the following actions:
a. Close the case, if prima facie, the complaint is not made out, or
b. Initiate prosecution against public servants as well as those private entities, which are parties to the act.
c. Recommend imposition of appropriate penalties under the relevant Conduct Rules provided that if a government servant is finally convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act, the penalty of dismissal shall be recommended on such government servant.
d. Order cancellation or modification of a license or lease or permission or contract or agreement, which was the subject matter of investigation.
e. Blacklist the concerned firm or company or contractor or any other entity involved in that act of corruption."

What are (d) and (e) if not a form of punishment? Shouldn't that be the prerogative of the court? Or, does the Lokpal do this only AFTER the court has given a verdict? Or, can the court repeal this decision of the Lokpal if the accused is reprieved? (Section 27.2 (1, above) says that the court cannot quash a decision of the Lokpal).

Administrative punitive measures are fine. Executive bodies are allowed this within the Constitution, provided, they have no immunity from judicial review. Are (d) and (e) administrative punishments? That is debatable.

3) Section 8.5
"Orders made by Lokpal under sub-section (2)(c) of this section shall be binding on the government and the government shall implement it within a week of receipt of that order."

Again, if it is the court that gives the verdict, what Lokpal orders (when read in conjunction with (2)(c)) are being mentioned here?

Administrative punitive measures, again. But what exactly is meant by an administrative punitive measure should be included in the draft, in my opinion. As always, I am not competent enough to comment on matters of law and do correct me if I am wrong.

4) Section 10.2
"For the purpose of any such investigation (including the preliminary inquiry) the Lokpal shall have all the powers of a civil court while trying a suit under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 , in respect of the following matters, namely:-
(a) Summoning and enforcing the attendance of any person and examining him on oath;"

Why would a non-judicial body examine someone under OATH? Can the CBI/Police do this?

5) Section 10.3
"Any proceeding before the Lokpal shall be deemed to be a judicial proceeding with in the meaning of section 193 of the Indian Penal Code."

What does that mean?

6) Section 13A
"Special Judges under section 4 of Prevention of Corruption Act: 
(1) On an annual basis, the Lokpal shall make an assessment of the number of Special Judges required under section 4 of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 in each area and the Government shall appoint such number of Judges within three months of the receipt of such recommendation.

Provided that the Lokpal shall recommend such number of Special Judges so that trial in each case under this Act is completed within a year.

2) Before making any fresh appointments, the Government shall consult the Lokpal on the procedure to be followed in selection to ensure the integrity of the candidates selected. The Government SHALL implement such recommendations.”

Doesn’t this in essence give the Lokpal complete authority in selecting the special judges? Doesn’t that sound like an encroachment into judicial powers?

Apologies. Here, it seems like I made a mistake. Here's a part of the clause again. "the Government shall consult the Lokpal on the PROCEDURE to be followed in selection to ensure the integrity of the candidates selected". I seem to have missed this in the verbosity of the draft. So the Lokpal can only recommend the number of judges in the special court and the procedure to select them. They can't recommend judges per se. Whether this too is an encroachment into judicial autonomy or not,  is debatable.

One other thing, I don’t think it is the Government that appoints judges. According to the Constitution that is the prerogative of the President or the respective Governor. Correct me if I am wrong.

All-in-all, the bill does not clearly specify how the trials will be conducted. It is not clear if the Lokpal has absolutely no judicial powers. There are many more clauses like the above that warrant a healthy debate. This debate is essential before passing the bill and thus, the August 30th deadline is unreasonable (and undemocratic if it stifles this debate). There are some genuine concerns about the bill out there as well and, unfortunately many of these are getting lost in the posturing that these concerns are not "well-intentioned".

It is easy to dismiss all these as mere technicalities. Quoting Shashi Tharoor “we must do the right thing but we must do the thing right” [Source]. But, then again, as someone commented here, “it is not necessary to know all the technical details of the bill.” That’s half the problem with the way the movement is proceeding now.

I’ll conclude this piece by reiterating my sentiments.
Do I want a strong and independent Lokpal to fight corruption? A resounding, yes.
Do I want the toothless government version? No
Do I want the ambiguous and in some ways unconstitutional ‘civil society’ version? That’s a no, too.

What’s required is a healthy debate to introduce more clarity in the Jan Lokpal bill. Once there is an atmosphere for healthy debate, there no longer need to be the fear that the debate will go on indefinitely and necessary actions will be stalled. I still have faith in parliamentary democracy.

Thanks for your time.

PS: Of the clauses mentioned above, only point 4 remains in version 2.3 of the draft. Now that the Parliament has passed a resolution agreeing to the key demands of Anna Hazare and it is very likely that we would sooner or later have a Lokpal, here is a new post on the different levels of corruption.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Lake Placid Fiasco

I am time and today I am going to tell you a story. This is no ordinary story. This is a tale of four “great” men; four well educated, intelligent young blokes whose qualifications, put together, would place them at the top of any spectrum in the public eye. One is a post-doctoral research scholar and a respected author of scientific texts; another is a thought leader and a master in business administration; and yet another, an engineer, one whose expertise facilitates, without much ado, some of the comforts fellow human beings enjoy. This illustrious trio is accompanied by a doctoral student who aspires to be an established author of scientific and non-scientific texts. With no further introduction, I would like to take you to Troy, a beautiful Victorian town on the banks of the Hudson. Here, the protagonists are preparing for the misadventure of their lives.
(Intro style inspired by the Mahabharat series aired in Doordarshan (India) in the late 80s).

June 18th 2011
11:30 a.m.

It’s a beautiful Saturday. The Hudson sparkles in the late morning sunlight and showers downtown Troy with its warmth. Down by the banks the residents wallow in serenity, intoxicated as they are serenaded by the ebb and flow of the breeze through the leaves behind them. A little removed, up the hill, in the campus of Rensselaer the protagonists unaware of nature’s treat unfolding near the river banks decide to go somewhere; anywhere. They have been cooped up in this town for way too long.

Sid, Sandy, Raul and Kirk, [*] thus, set out for Lake Placid in Raul’s zebra striped Camaro. Lake Placid is a horseshoe shaped waterbody in the  Adirondack Mountains in northern New York. Spanning approximately 2,170 acres (8.8 km2) with an average depth of about 50 feet, Lake Placid is one of the most prominent lakes in the New England area.
[*] The names have been changed for no particular reason, and with not even one ounce of creativity.

It’s a two hour drive on I-87 North. A hassle free journey takes them to the village of Lake Placid. It’s a little after 2. It’s about time they had some lunch. Nothing fancy. Subs would have to do. Kirk gets his regular footlong tuna. Within fifteen minutes, having filled their stomachs, they head out to the lake for a strenuous kayaking experience.

Alas, they were plagued by one small problem. There was only one shop renting kayaks known to  most of the people around, and that was closed. It was nearing 3 and the protagonists were getting frustrated. They should probably have woken up earlier. They should have reached Lake Placid sooner. Would the long drive end up to be fruitless? I would have paused if I could, but then the universe would descend into chaos. However, the earth’s axial tilt was still in their favor. It’s nearing summer solstice and darkness engulfs the land no sooner than 9pm. Time was still in hand. I had given them a lifeline.

At quarter past 3 they find Eastern Mountain Sports. The protagonists head in. Yes, here EMS does rent kayaks. Kirk asks the lady behind the counter, “is there a dock nearby?” She replies, “We can set you up and you can get going from the one behind the shack.” They make no further enquiries. Raul and Kirk start off in a 12 foot regular kayak while Sid and Sandy are in the tandem. Sid hasn’t paddled before and it will take a while for him to be comfortable on water.

They head to a beach a quarter mile away. There are swimmers in lanes marked by buoys. Careful, they must be; not due the fear of hurting the swimmers but of toppling their own kayaks upon collision. Once on the beach Sandy and Kirk switch places and they head back out after a few minutes rest. They race to the diametrically opposite end of the lake roughly a mile away and hold a mid-water conference.

Sandy: Now, that didn’t seem so far.
Sid: It’s hardly deep too. Look, I can touch the bottom with this paddle.
Kirk: Come on, we are closer to the banks. What do you expect? It will be deeper further in. After all, this is Lake Placid.
Sid: I’ve heard they call this the Queen of Lakes**.
Sandy: Maybe it’s King George and his placid queen.
Raul: Ya, Lake George was huge. This looks more like a pool.
Kirk: A calm one nonetheless. Maybe this lake looks beautiful from atop the peaks. That could be the hype.
Raul: And, of course the winter olympics hoopla.
Sid: My friend was saying this lake is a must-see. Ya, right!!! Wait, did the 30-foot crocodile really live in this commode? ***
** Actually, Lake George is nicknamed the Queen of American Lakes.
*** Lake Placid is a 1999 American monster movie. Yes, it was filmed elsewhere.

They decide to paddle around till sunset. Anyway, they had paid for the kayaks and it looked like like they had most of the lake for themselves. “Where did everybody go? There were so many tourists on the streets.” These thoughts were shut out as the protagonists enjoyed the serenity that surrounded then.

At roughly half past 8 they head back to the EMS dock. Sid, Sandy and Raul return the gear and head into the shack to get their belongings. Kirk waits near the kayaks as an employee arrives for the routine inspection.

EMS Employee: So how was your day?
Kirk: It was great. Thank you.
EMS Employee: Did you carry your kayaks over to the horseshoe? It’s tougher to kayak there, you know, with the speedboats around.
Kirk: :-0

Kirk manages to hold a straight face trying very hard to hide his shock. He still catches a small glint in the employee’s eyes, the kind you get when you discover a new tale to share with your buddies; a tale of four “knowledgeable” dimwits. He heads back into the shack. “Guys, I have some bad news. This was not Lake Placid.”

Friday, June 10, 2011

Musings of a new AID volunteer

I hail from Kerala, a small bitter-gourd shaped state on the west coast of the southern Indian peninsula. Kerala is considered to be a socially well-developed state with close to 100% percent literacy [1]. The common man is well read of the world around him and also well aware of the broader political consequences of his seemingly innocuous day-to-day decisions. He understands his part in the electoral process and is well placed in demanding his right from an answerable government. Whether he acts on the power that this awareness bestows upon him is another matter altogether, but the point is that the awareness is there. This much is evident from Kerala’s social development index [2].

Coming from such a background it was difficult for me to come to terms with the idea that political awareness, or rather the lack of it, is a major problem in India. I used to believe that most Indians are politically aware, but still are so stuck in their own cocoons and day-to-day battles that they do not really care about the long term consequences of their decisions. This, I attributed to our cultural tendency to not look beyond the low hanging fruit [3]. We work hard to satiate our immediate concerns and when it comes to the  remaining even harder challenges, we give up too easy. I believed that the root of all problems in India is, thus, that of inbred human nature which cannot be changed over one lifetime [4].

And so, it wasn’t natural for me to accept that the realities were far harsher in other parts of India; there are sections of the population who would sell their votes for money, without a knowledge of what the long term consequences of their actions would be on their own lives, and without realizing how damaging bad leadership could turn out to be for the nation as a whole. 

The obvious question, then, is whether a broad awareness campaign would be the solution or not? By focusing on the fundamental concerns of creating political awareness among the larger populace and spreading democracy at the grassroots, will the people of India truly be empowered? At an immediate glance that seems to be the case.

Some wonderful work has also been done by AID in this regard in the form of the Eureka SuperKidz campaign [5] in the state of Tamil Nadu. This is an interesting model. It starts with children’s education where learning centers are set up in multiple villages which offer after school tuition focusing on results/skills based teaching. The idea, however, is to expand into adult education, livelihood training and women empowerment [6] based on the foundation set up through the SuperKidz program, once at least 1000 centers are established. This seems to be a long term solution that is scalable and reproducible across different parts of the country.

However, the question persists. Is education the panacea to all problems [7]? Think about this. One can’t blame some marginalized sections of the population selling their votes for money. When you are struggling to have a proper day’s meal, it would be arrogant of other more fortunate sections to demand that you should be ready to suffer hunger in the short term to possibly have a rosier future. When the disadvantaged marginalized sections are thus suffering from a concern of their immediate survival, it is easy and also extremely haughty of others to just dismiss them with a wave of the hand or even blame it all on education, the lack thereof. 

Then, there is also the issue of corruption, that deep-rooted malaise that plagues India’s democracy. When some corrupt state governments with passive support from the Center use dubious land acquisition laws [8] to violently [9] affect the lives of some sections of the population, in the name of development, it is difficult to ask these marginalized sections to trust democracy and follow the appropriate redressal mechanisms. How do you spread democracy at the grassroots in such a circumstance; education? There are way too many variables at act here. India is a complex nation. A one-size-fits-all solution can probably never be found.

These thoughts have been swirling around inside me for a long while now. However, it was at the AID 2011 [10] conference in Boston that the turbulent waters came to settle thus giving me a clearer picture; or, maybe not. There are still more questions than answers.

Why is there a general middle and upper class apathy towards the concerns of the marginalized? Is it because of the belief that there is a temporary price to pay for the nation’s development and as the GDP rises the effects will eventually trickle down? Or is it just willful ignorance, one where we just do not want to tackle the harder problems?  

Will sustainable development balance the growth aspirations of the nation with concerns, both environmental and those of the marginalized; or is sustainable development an oxymoron?

Is civil activism a refuge of people who covet power sans responsibility; people who want the power to influence the lives of the “downtrodden” but do not want to take ownership of their actions? If so, shouldn’t concerned people try to effect change from within the political system? Will concerned, motivated and educated people entering the system be a solution or is the political system itself corrupt beyond repair?

These are tough questions to answer. As written earlier, there is probably no one-size-fits-all solution. Hence, an attempt has to be made to answer all these questions and more, simultaneously.

[1] Kerala literacy statistics:
  1. “The Kerala Paradox”, T. Venkatraman, George Mason University (2008).
  2. How almost everyone in Kerala learned to read”, N. Raman, The Christian Science Monitor (2005).
  3. Wikipedia - Kerala.
  4. Wikipedia - Kerala Model.
  5. - Total Literacy.
[2] Kerala’s social development index:
  1. “The Kerala Paradox”, T. Venkatraman, George Mason University (2008).
  2. Wikipedia - Kerala Model.
[3] Borrowed from a comment made by Pawan (AID Boston).

[4] It is debatable whether cultural tendencies developed in a community over many years are passed over to subsequent generations genetically, but for the sake of effect I will stick to the word ‘inbred’ here.

[5] Eureka SuperKidz:

[6] Women empowerment is important for broader political awareness among the civil population. Women’s political participation is a key component of democracy.

[7] Question asked by Alisha (AID Boston) in a casual conversation.

[8] “People who argue that the act is draconian claim that a number of projects with no public purpose attached, as in the case of SEZs, usurped land from property owners, with the help of the Land Acquisition Act, at what is claimed as, well below the market value of these properties. It is argued that, even in the case of projects that are genuinely for public purposes, there is a considerable difference between the market value of the property and the value that the land acquisition officer pays the land owners. It is also argued that the relocation and rehabilitation of land owners displaced by the actions of the act, is not followed up adequately, and that this is not covered comprehensively in the framework of the act. A notable instance of opposition to land acquisition, through the land acquisition act, is the  Nandigram violence incident.” - Wikipedia (Land Acquisition Act, 1894)

Land lost, Singur farmer said no to compensation, commits suicide -

“Over 80 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population works in the primary sector, with 45 per cent being cultivators and 37 per cent agricultural labourers. Land represents the most important source of livelihood, emotional attachment and social stability in tribal communities. The alienation of tribal land is the single most important cause of pauperisation of tribals, rendering their vulnerable economic situation more precarious.” - The weapon of empowerment, M. Hamid Ansari, Vice President of India (2010).

[9] “The Adivasis of Chhatisgarh - Victims of the Naxalite movement and Salwa Judum campaign”, Asian Center for Human Rights (2006).

[10] Association for India’s Development: