Annan finds his voice as end of term nears

26 Jul

Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently seems to have found his voice. His not-so-oblique statement calling Israeli air strike that led to the death of four UN peace keepers “apparently deliberate” was probably one of the most blunt statement of his tenure. Of course the evidence is damning,

“17 Israeli bombs fell within one kilometer, or .6 miles, of the post during the day, the initial U.N. investigation found. In addition, 12 Israeli artillery rounds landed within 150 meters of the post, four of them hitting it directly.”

[ Washington Post]

But then again Annan has shied away from ascribing ulterior motives to America’s favorite ally in the past. The thing that appears to have changed is the fact that now Annan is near the end of his second term and finally free of renomination worries.

Annan over the past five years has led a largely neutered UN. In fact post 9/11, UN has seemed like an organization sitting outside the door with a hang dog expression waiting for the master to finish up his job inside and come outside and pet it.

Now apparently trying to make the most of his position in the last few days, Annan has taken upon himself to issue a verbal rebukes about the many annoyances of leading a largely pointless organization with little credibility. Annan has chosen to vent his feelings through the media in almost a school boy fashion complaining to anybody who will hear.

Truth is that he squandered away his decade at the UN when he could have accomplished something more than aside from being America’s lapdog.

What now: After the bomb blasts

12 Jul

Nearly 200 people lost their lives in the serial bomb blasts in India’s financial capital of Mumbai. The number is insignificant in a country of a billion, but deliberate planned massacres have this cruel meaninglessness to them that rile up the hearts of even the stoics.

The immediate Indian response to the blasts has been muted as the government has refused to pin down the attack on Pakistan supported (or at least based) militant groups before corroborating evidence documenting such comes to the fore, against the norm. The response has been markedly different from the theatrical over-the-top response of the BJP led government, which deployed troops at the border after the attack on the Indian parliament.

The muted response comes amidst strong pressure on Indian government to take ’strong measures’. While a casual observer may take this to be a sign of pussyfooting, there is a pragmatic rationale behind toning down the response – the elbow room that India has when it comes to Pakistan is very limited given that outright conventional war is not an option and that hostile rhetoric will only play into the hands of right-wing elements in Pakistan. The argument in more abstract terms can be understood as follows – Negotiation without leverage is a failed enterprise; and any efforts to create leverage through hostile rhetoric are likely to backfire.

Pakistan government’s negotiating stance is likely to be governed by the fact that working with India to dismantle terrorist infrastructure is likely to be reasonably costly, given it is likely to be destabilizing in the short term, and politically costly given efforts are going to seen as towing the line of India. For Indian government, incentives to use this “opportunity” to address some of the issues at the root of the conflict – if not terrorist attacks – is likely to be non-existent given the following – any latent or explicit demands made by people conducting terrorist attacks are automatically seen as lacking legitimacy, sources and explanations of terrorism are seen to be external, and any attempt to deal with demands of terrorists is likely to provoke a backlash.

What is clear is that problem understood thus is likely to thwart dealing with issues that are likely to be rewarding in the longer-term. Both Pakistan and India would clearly benefit from not hiding behind temporary exigencies, and dealing with problems head on. In the long term Pakistan would benefit from tackling the terrorist infrastructure, though it may lose some leverage in Kashmir, which is probably fine. Similarly, India would likely gain by addressing Kashmir which will likely strengthen the hands of moderates in Pakistan. Political entrepreneurship can do much to reframe the problem. After all, considerable entrepreneurship (pandering) is behind the current understanding of the problem as a zero-sum game.

He said, She said

11 Jul

New York Times in its article on Mumbai blasts and Kashmir Grenade attacks, ended the story with the following, “New Delhi has continued to accuse Pakistan of training, arming and funding the militants. Islamabad insists it only offers the rebels diplomatic and moral support.”

It is amazing to see that a simple relatively incontestable fact that Islamabad arms and trains militants is hedged by words like “accuses” and the ‘accusation’ followed by a rebuttal by Pakistani Government. There is absolutely no doubt – and this comes from reports from numerous non-partisan experts and numerous stories from Pakistani, BBC and other creditable international journalists that Pakistan engages in all of these practices. This form of equivocation which borders on he said/she said kind of journalism in which even the most basic facts are shown as contestable do a great disservice.

‘Objectivity’ doesn’t imply (and certainly doesn’t demand) equivocation, or getting government hacks on either side to comment on issues. Compare this instance to how reporting is done say on 9/11, where the press doesn’t go out of its way to highlight ludicrous claims made by the opposition. And rightly so.

From satellites to streets

11 Jul

There has been a tremendous growth in Satellite guided navigation systems and secondary applications relying on these “GIS” systems like finding shops near the place you are etc. However, it remains opaque to me as to why we are using satellites to beam in this information when we can easily embed RFID/or similar chips on road signs for pennies. The road signage needs to move from the ‘dumb’ painted visual boards era to electronic tag era, where signs beam out information on a set frequency to which a variety of devices may be tuned in.

Indeed it would be wonderful to have “rich” devices, connected to the Internet, where we can leave our comments, just like messageboards, or blogs. This will remove the need for expensive satellite signal reception boxes or the cost of maintaining satellites. The concept is of course not limited to road signage and can include any and everything from shops to homes to chips informing the car where the curbs are so that it stays within lane.

Possibilities are endless and we must start now.

Iraqi losses remain uncounted

9 Jul

Andrew J. Bacevich asks in his Washington Post article, “What’s an Iraqi’s Life Worth?, and finds that it is not much. He believes that this lack of respect of Iraqi deaths may be the key reason why the Americans are losing the war in Iraq. And I agree. Here’s an excerpt from the article –

“Through the war’s first three years, any Iraqi venturing too close to an American convoy or checkpoint was likely to come under fire. Thousands of these “escalation of force” episodes occurred. Now, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, has begun to recognize the hidden cost of such an approach. “People who were on the fence or supported us” in the past “have in fact decided to strike out against us,” he recently acknowledged.

….”You have to understand the Arab mind,” one company commander told the New York Times, displaying all the self-assurance of Douglas MacArthur discoursing on Orientals in 1945. “The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face.” Far from representing the views of a few underlings, such notions penetrated into the upper echelons of the American command. In their book “Cobra II,” Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor offer this ugly comment from a senior officer: “The only thing these sand niggers understand is force and I’m about to introduce them to it.”

Such crass language, redolent with racist, ethnocentric connotations, speaks volumes. These characterizations, like the use of “gooks” during the Vietnam War, dehumanize the Iraqis and in doing so tacitly permit the otherwise impermissible. Thus, Abu Ghraib and Haditha — and too many regretted deaths, such as that of Nahiba Husayif Jassim.”

On India: reforms don’t reach rural heartland

6 Jul

Pankaj Mishra, writing for the New York Times, takes on the myth of “New India” –

“Recent accounts of the alleged rise of India barely mention the fact that the country’s $728 per capita gross domestic product is just slightly higher than that of sub-Saharan Africa and that, as the 2005 United Nations Human Development Report puts it, even if it sustains its current high growth rates, India will not catch up with high-income countries until 2106.

Nor is India rising very fast on the report’s Human Development index, where it ranks 127, just two rungs above Myanmar and more than 70 below Cuba and Mexico. Despite a recent reduction in poverty levels, nearly 380 million Indians still live on less than a dollar a day.

Malnutrition affects half of all children in India, and there is little sign that they are being helped by the country’s market reforms, which have focused on creating private wealth rather than expanding access to health care and education. Despite the country’s growing economy, 2.5 million Indian children die annually, accounting for one out of every five child deaths worldwide; and facilities for primary education have collapsed in large parts of the country (the official literacy rate of 61 percent includes many who can barely write their names). In the countryside, where 70 percent of India’s population lives, the government has reported that about 100,000 farmers committed suicide between 1993 and 2003. ”

A related article in BBC talks about how the recent economic growth in India and China has meant little reprieve for those living in the rural areas.

What does it mean to be literate in India?

3 Jul

A country hailed internationally for its engineers is also home to about a third of world’s illiterates (UNESCO, 2000).

Indian government defines literacy as the ability to read and write, which is similar to UNICEF’s definition. The 2001 census put India’s literacy rate at 65.4%, leaving over 250 million (counting only people older than 7) people who can’t read and write. The female literacy levels were worse. “In 1991, less than 40 percent of the 330 million women aged 7 and over were literate, which means [then] there are over 200 million illiterate women in India.”

While these figures are bad enough, the picture looks distinctly worse when one surveys the literacy attainment of people classified as literate.

“A recent study by ORG-CSR (2003) conducted in rural villages across five states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Gujarat – confirms the low skill attainment levels of many literates in India. To share some key findings on reading, print awareness, writing, and functional aspects of ability with the written word in Hindi: 68.2% perceived themselves to be literate.

  1. Based on their reading of an extremely simple paragraph from textbooks at 2nd to 3rd grade level, the field surveyors classified the sample as: 12% who can read with ease, 36.3% who made mistakes or read with a range of reading difficulties, and 51.7% who could not read at all.
  2. Faced with a square block of Hindi text printed centered on a square piece of paper with no other graphical indicators of beginning, ending, or page orientation, 37.4% could not hold the printed matter in the proper orientation for reading. After this was shown (or known), 42.5% could not point to the end of text. Half the sample could not move their finger to delineate the left to right direction of print and a nearly equal proportion could not move from the end of one line to the beginning
    of the next line immediately below.
  3. Only 37.5% could write their full name correctly, 15.1% could write it partially or with mistakes, and 47.4% could not write it at all.
  4. Reading the bus board, one of the most common encounters with print in village life, was, by their own admission, not possible for 51.9%. Self-reports on other functional aspects inform us that 56% could not read a newspaper, 54.8% could not read letters, and 56.7% could not write a letter themselves.

….

“A nation’s literacy rate is determined, to a great degree, by the definition of literacy and the method used to measure it. Countries struggling to achieve higher rates often tend to lower definitional bars, which then makes progress that much easier. India is no exception, and this raises simple but unanswered questions. How many of India’s literate people — literate according to the Census — can read the headlines of a newspaper?

If a demonstrated “ability to decode the simplest of passages were operationalized” as the definition of literacy, not necessarily with understanding, then only 10-15% would be fully literate.”

Source: Brij Kothari and others

In short, there are near half a billion people who cannot decode simple passages. Given the importance of literacy in improving health to access to jobs, it is critical that India invest more money in literacy programs. But how to invest? Brij Kothari believes that the problem can be alleviated by providing Same Language Subtitling (SLS) – subtitling the lyrics of song-based television programs (e.g., music videos), in the same language as the audio- with popular regional language programming like Chitramala. Initial tests for SLS in Gujarat have been successful. The novel approach to increasing literacy leverages the fact that a lot of Indians have access to television and like elsewhere, they watch a bunch of it.

Counter Point
Voice technologies such as speech recognition, text to speech, and auto correction make the ability to write and read the written word increasingly optional. Thus, one way to move forward is to make such technologies more widely available. Another way would be to make essential information more broadly available in a non-textual format. Until now, these ideas have been considered as fallback options. But to continue to think of them as that would be a mistake. They may simply reflect the future of humanity.

p.s. An article on inequality in achievement in maths in India: India Shining, Bharat Drowning: Comparing Two Indian States to the Worldwide Distribution in Mathematics Achievement (pdf) by Jishnu Das et al.

On Delhi: Vignettes from a short visit

5 Jun

My flight landed on a humid and somewhat benign May morning in Delhi. On entering the Delhi airport, I marveled at how much the airport had improved since my last trip to Delhi two and a half years ago. The airport was still not even close to the standards of an airport in a country like Peru, or Jordan, or Costa Rica, but still the turnaround was there to be admired.

Indira Gandhi International Airport, as the Delhi Airport is named, still operates out of a puny single terminal building – which is odd for a country with so many development pretensions. Condition of India’s infrastructure is best put in perspective through the following – there are a total of 333 airports in India, including small airports handling only private jets, as compared 14,857 airports in the US (CIA Factbook, est. 2004). These facts may raise an eyebrow among the cognoscenti brought up solely on the uniformly gleaming newspaper reports announcing India’s emergence as a new economic superpower.

Of course, not all the excitement about the ‘economic miracle’ is bogus – fortunately.  Outside the airport, the roads leading to the center of the city are broad and well paved, exhibiting none of the shoddy tar-deficient loose gravel construction that has ailed Indian road construction for the past half century. The roads are flanked on either side by stunted trees sitting in oversized steel cages. In a arid climate like Delhi, and under constant threat of being marauded by cows (hence the steel cages), it is hard to expect healthy trees minus enclosures, yet they make for a sad spectacle. Poor impoverished children, so memorably captured by the firangi (Western) tourists, remain in spite of the repeated demolition drives to eliminate jhuggis (poor hutments) (and other such deportation schemes) that have moved the poor to the outskirts of Delhi.

Mall Culture

Ansal Plaza, a prominent mall in Delhi, carries a perfume showroom that seems to have been transplanted from the US. The air conditioned mall also has an escalator, once an unimaginable luxury. I still remember an episode from the time when I was probably about 10 and we had gone to attend a reception at a five-star hotel. We parked our Chetak a couple of kilometers away and took a taxi to go to the hotel. And there in the hotel I first lay my eyes on an escalator, which I rode repeatedly albeit timorously. The point is that escalators were potent symbols of luxury and I don’t remember seeing any escalators while growing up. Anyways, I clambered on to the escalator and entered a department store that had a sort of a haphazard but American department store like decor. One thing that set the mall apart was the sheer number of people in the shop. It is likely that the number seemed greater because the mall was significantly smaller in scale – perhaps not ambition – than typical a American mall. The other significant difference in Indian malls is the legions of well trained and polite sales staff. And thankfully, there were not there right behind you making your life unbearable  – as one may have expected- but close enough around to be easily available if you needed help.

Delhi Metro

Delhi Metro is a landmark achievement for which Delhi Government and others associated with the project deserve unreserved accolades. It is a first world subway system built in record time, even by Western standards. The subway cars appear to be of much higher quality than used on the Boston (and much less the New York) subway. The cars are quieter primarily because – the path is straighter, better carriages lock noise much more efficiently, and use of overhead electrical cables rather than the screechy ‘third-rail’. Traveling on the Delhi Metro brought a sense of déjà vu – It reminded me of a time when I was in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and I had taken the Calcutta metro when it had just started. There was a police guard checking to see if people didn’t step over the line and the general over staffing that coincided with the inauguration of the system. A similar air of daintiness surrounds the current Delhi Metro. After all this is a first-world shiny subway system in a desperately poor city. People act coy around the gleaming subway but I am sure that five years from now the train system would come to resemble the rat infested dilapidated system that our railways is. It will still work and be on time but the AC would occasionally stop and there would be desperate overcrowding and the seats would be dirty. In all it would be “broken in”. However, it remains an impressive achievement. One last aspect of traveling on the Delhi metro – get ready for passing through a ramshackled metal detector system that probably doesn’t work and a friendly pat down by a policeman.

In Memoriam

Delhi, the city where my parents grew up in and I grew up in, is vanishing behind the mindless facade of humdrum commercialization and sprawl. Delhi was never a beautiful city, at least not in my lifetime. Jamuna was always dirty and houses were built to occupy every square inch of land. It was an impoverished city with a tough detached spirit that came from the number of Punjabi refugees that settled in Delhi after partition.

Narrow streets in a city give it its charm and intimacy but the forever widening sprawl of Delhi roads is destroying the feel of a city. Shabby jhuggis have been replaced by faceless parks that look out of place, and construction workers wear orange jackets like elsewhere in the first world, and rich kids now go to air conditioned schools. All of that has come at a cost. But this is a resurgent city, proud in the money it makes, proud in its metro and its flyovers, and buoyed by the economic and social upturn. To Delhi, my home.

Addendum:

The part of Delhi I thankfully missed! New York Times article on the Disneyesque Akshardham complex.

On London: Vignettes from my visit to London

1 Jun

London, the heart of the old empire. The city made infamous by Dickens. A city that sprawls and meanders shackled by its building laws. But where o where is thy charm?

I went to London expecting a charming European city with a laid back appeal but found it to be a bustling megapolis in its last stages of shedding its soul. Yes there are numerous green areas and yes there are few skyscrapers but yet it seems as if the soul of the city has been taken away by the avenging horde of tourists who stock its every corner, the corporatization of its stores and streets and the hustle and bustle that does stop for the history that envelopes it.

The first thing I noticed when I reached London is how little it is different from US. The feel of London is almost like being in some uncertain city in US. The second thing I noticed, and much more shocking, was the preponderance of the closed circuit cameras. This looks like a city under siege with a Closed Circuit camera hanging from every roof, every gate and every passageway. I felt like I was under constant surveillance.

Travel

Public Transportation system in London is pretty darn good. Given that a lot of it is more than a century old, it is amazing how well the underground subway network works. The buses are super-efficient double deckers that make your head spin if you sit on the upper deck but extraordinary remarkable efficiency and convenience.

Food

London is dotted with hip sandwich shops – predominantly EAT and Pret a Manger. Both look snazzy and hip and the food is good. What I really enjoyed in London is getting those Chutney and Cheese sandwiches – sweet onion chutney that goes fabulously well with the dull taste of cheese.

South Asian States on The Failed States Index: What it Means for India

9 May

A joint survey by Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace on ‘Failed States’ was unveiled recently. The “Failed States Index” puts Pakistan at number nine, or in other words Pakistan is seen as the ninth most likely country to fail.

The survey, which is based on “data from more than 11,000 publicly available sources collected from July to December 2005” and tracks 12 socio-economic and political factors, puts Pakistan one rank above Afghanistan. That is reason enough to doubt the results of the survey.

2005 was a traumatic year for Pakistan with insurgency gaining ground in the west, a massive earthquake that destroyed parts of its north-west, continued sectarian violence in Karachi and of course the continuing rule of the West’s favorite military ruler – General Pervez Musharaff. All these factors were enough to make Pakistan lose ground from its relatively safe 34th position last year, to the shaky 9th this year. The report itself counts the earthquake as the chief reason for the decline.

India’s neighborhood it seems is getting very unstable. Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal are consecutively placed at number 18, 19 and 20 respectively on the scale. If the data from the current year was to be included, I believe Nepal would surely make it to the top 10. Sri Lanka of course is simmering again and is likely to lose ground from its current ranking of 25.

The surrounding instability in the neighborhood may affect India critically if one or more countries see a prolonged conflagration. Let me refine this hypothesis a bit – there is encouraging evidence that a country can withstand chaos in the neighborhood. Take for example South Africa, which borders Zimbabwe and has seen massive flow of immigrants from the country. On the other hand, Nepal’s resurgent Maoist movement may find support in the beleaguered northeast areas on India and the impoverished villages around Himalayan region. Similarly any problems in Bangladesh may set off an even wider wave of immigrants looking for security and economic opportunity in India. There is already wide-spread anger against Bangladeshi immigrants in part of North-east and any spurt in immigration is likely to set off violent demonstrations.

While prognosis for long-term stability in South Asia seems bad, things aren’t particularly hot for East Asia either. Among the other countries that saw a precipitous ‘rise’ in the rankings over the past year include China, which on the basis of its “87,000” peasant strikes lost 10 points to clock in at 57th.