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 deliberately 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.

India Said, Pakistan Said

11 Jul

The 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 credible 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 GIS systems, like finding shops near the place you are, etc. However, it remains opaque to me why we are using satellites to beam this information when we can easily embed RFID/or similar chips on road signs for pennies. Road signs need to move from the ‘dumb’ painted visual boards era to electronic tag era, where signs beam out information on a set frequency (or answer when queried) to which a variety of devices may be tuned in.

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

Possibilities are endless. And we must start now.

In India, Reforms Don’t Reach the Rural Areas

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 the 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 the 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 important things like health and access to jobs, it is critical that India invest more money in literacy programs. But where to invest? Brij Kothari believes that literacy can be increased by providing Same Language Subtitling (SLS)—subtitling the lyrics of popular song-based television programs like Chitramala in the same language as the audio. Initial tests of 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 watch a bunch of it.

Counterpoint
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.

What Does It Mean for India to have South Asian States on the Failed States Index?

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 north-west, continued sectarian violence in Karachi, and the continued rule of the West’s favorite military ruler—General Pervez Musharraf. All these factors were enough to cause Pakistan to 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.

It seems that India’s neighborhood is getting very unstable. Burma, Bangladesh, and Nepal are consecutively placed at 18, 19, and 20 respectively. If the data from the current year were to be included, I believe Nepal would likely 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 the 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 a massive flow of immigrants from the country. But India’s case is a bit different. For instance, Nepal’s resurgent Maoist movement may find support in the beleaguered northeast areas of India and the impoverished villages around Himalayan region. And this may cause unrest in India. Prolonged problems in Bangladesh may set off an even wider wave of immigrants looking for security and economic opportunity in India. There is already widespread anger against Bangladeshi immigrants in parts of North-east and any increase in immigration is likely to set off violent demonstrations.

While the 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.

Piracy—the Real Mantra Behind Indian Success

9 May

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran an opinion piece yesterday arguing that India is “rapidly evolving into Asia’s innovation center” and “leaving China in the dust” because of its famed intellectual property regime.

Not only is the claim patently bogus, but the opposite—that the Indian innovation is surviving primarily through piracy—is very likely true. It is, of course, clear that the authors of the article have never ventured to Palika Bazaar or Nehru Place in Delhi or the countless other entities that use and sell pirated materials in India. Nor have the authors ever read an Indian science book, for all they will find are hasty copies of works by foreign authors on poor paper. Nor have they ever been to an Indian store in the US. For they won’t be able to spot a rightfully purchased Bollywood movie at these stores.

Yes, India has a wonderful copyright law. At least so the gentlemen would like us to believe. However, it is rarely enforced. The article points out that in 1994 the copyright act was amended to explain the rights of holder and penalties for infringement. “In 1994, the Indian Copyright Act was amended to clearly explain the rights of a copyright holder and the penalties for infringement of copyrighted software.” Nowhere does the article mention that the act itself was rewritten to make it tougher. The only effect of the law, which the article mentions has been called one of the “toughest in the world” (without quoting sources), was to create this handbook.

Since the implementation of a copyright law that was “one of the toughest in the world,” a government study on copyright piracy in India done in 1999 concludes, “The total value of pirated copyright products sold in India during 1996-97 was about Rs. 1,833 crores which formed 20% of the legal market. Segment wise, the piracy rate is found to be the highest in computer software (44%) and lowest in cinematographic works (5%).”

Let me finish by focusing on how piracy has helped India innovate. Without the countless street level computer training centers which mostly rely upon pirated software, there wouldn’t have been an IT revolution in the country. Without the lax patent laws on Pharmaceuticals, which patented only the way in which a medication is produced and not the mix of ingredients itself, there would have been no Indian success story in Pharmaceuticals. Without the cheap knock-off science books that are abundant for poor Indian students, there wouldn’t have been the countless educated Indians with a high level of understanding of fundamentals of science.

Moving on to the authors’ contention that India is leaving behind China in the dust. The authors use the following line to support such an exaggerated claim, “The number of Indian patent applications filed has increased 400% over the past 15 years.”

Aah, the wonders of statistics.

Let’s put the numbers in perspective. “According to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO), the number of international patent applications from Japan, Republic of Korea, and China, has risen by 162%, 200%, and 212%, respectively, since 2000. These growth rates reflect the rapidly growing technological strength in northeast Asia.” More instructively, China in 2004 filed for 1,705 patents while India filed for 689. [PDF – WIPO statistics]. One more comment about China. Chinese economy (and innovation) with annualized growth rates of upwards of 9% and with high tech stalwarts like Lenovo is flourishing. Any comments as to leaving China in the dust aren’t just wrong, but also dumb or dishonest.

Lastly, I would like to address the question of why this poorly researched article trumpeting fake achievements and rationale for India’s success has made it to the Wall Street Journal. My guess is that this is a deliberate piece, produced after much deliberation with the businesses. It comes as no surprise that one of the authors of the article, Mr. Wilder is a lawyer representing the euphemistically named IP lobbying Association called the “Association for Competitive Technology.”

Ditty for Bush

6 Dec

Seldom has a country reached such levels of obsequiousness that Pakistan reached when officials chose to include a rhyming poem titled, The Leader, praising George W Bush in its English-language course book for 16 year-olds. The poem spells out George W Bush in addition to coming up with lines like – “Strong in his faith, refreshingly real” and “Bracing for war, but praying for peace”.

Patient and steady with all he must bear,
Ready to meet every challenge with care,
Easy in manner, yet solid as steel,
Strong in his faith, refreshingly real
Isn’t afraid to propose what is bold,
Doesn’t conform to the usual mould,
Eyes that have foresight, for hindsight won’t do,
Never backs down when he sees what is true,
Tells it all straight, and means it all too.

Going forward and knowing he’s right,
Even when doubted for why he would fight,
Over and over he makes his case clear,
Reaching to touch the ones who won’t hear.
Growing in strength he won’t be unnerved,
Ever assuring he’ll stand by his word.

Wanting the world to join his firm stand,

Bracing for war, but praying for peace,
Using his power so evil will cease,
So much a leader and worthy of trust,
Here stands a man who will do what he must.

Highway to India

5 Dec

Amy Waldman recently wrote a series of articles about the socio-cultural impact of highways and the burgeoning number of cars.

Here are the links:

The articles include interactive features with audio commentary and slideshows. While the photographs are well shot, Waldman’s hurried narration leaves much to be desired.

Brief comments and caveats: Waldman puts far too much emphasis on the posited transformative cultural power of both the highways and the increasing number of cars. And she repeatedly paints “old India” in stereotypical terms like, “the land of dharma”, etc.

The Art of Reading

27 Nov

The value of reading is constrained by how one chooses to read aside from what one chooses to read.

Reading is anti-evolutionary. Neither our brains nor our eyes were designed to excitedly decipher small symbols printed on a paper. But then reading is much more than deciphering symbols. Words provide wonderful abstract worlds in which we can embody the characters that are described in the book. But to live with them, in them and empathize with them, we need to spend time with them and nurture them carefully in our minds. A character in a novel is truly subjective (it is often left deliberately open to manipulation). The emotions, the pitch of the scream, rationality of action and the sinister atmosphere are all amplified or mellowed, tampered with or abandoned in our minds. The true pleasure of reading lies in reading slowly to go over the nuances and the phraseology. Of course, not all novelists and all passages invite this cohabitation. In fact, some novelists will go out of their way to create atmospheric dread that pushes you away from the analysis but then you are living through the temporary paralysis of emotions that comes when environment overwhelms you. But then you need to pause and introspect for that is when you can empathize with the character.

Reading slowly can help one introspect and come to a better understanding of oneself and the world around us. If one chooses to look at a novel merely as a teleological progression towards the resolution of some quibble, then it merely becomes a tool for entertainment.

Perhaps a more important virtue, as compared to reading slowly, is reading critically. A novelist imposes his or her worldview on you and you need to be able to critically think through the points that s/he makes, and separate out the chaff from the wheat.

The Lost Art

Today, reading slowly is a lost art. Leisurely reading a passage and then mulling over its contents seems archaic. Doubtless, pointless drivel camouflaged as writing has taken much away from the pleasure (and motivation) for reading slowly. The other obvious villain is the television with its increasingly crazed editing. Once upon a time, a shot lasted 90 seconds. Now it lasts for less than 6 seconds on average. The reader today needs a more action-packed story that relentlessly moves across scenes, countries, and emotions—all in a hurried progression to the end. So not only are novelists concocting stories that encourage hurried reading, readers are actually reading books the same way as they watch telenovelas or sitcoms—mindlessly.

Let me end with a caveat. I am not saying that speed reading is necessarily bad. In fact, there is good reason to believe that it is a very important tool for academics and few other people who need to consume a lot of information in a very limited amount of time.