Sep 182014
 

My column for DNA last week

Land Scam. Gas Scam. Spectrum Scam. Water Scam. Coal Scam. Forest Scam. Stamp Paper scam. CWG scam.

Whatever the scam be, at the centre of it, is the ownership, control and distribution of scarce resources and scarcity. And this should hardly be surprising, because most of history has been the quest to conquer and control these scarce resources. Those who control them dominate history; those who fail to control them do not even make it to the footnotes. The more scarce the resource, and the more key it is to the future of a land or an economy, the more likely are people to use tactics that are neither legal nor honourable to usurp that resource and keep everyone away from its bounty. In a different era, might is right would have been the way of establishing control on scarce resources – wars over land, cattle, slaves, cotton, spices, colonies have been fought for less.

However, the 21st century is, allegedly, a more civilised era than centuries past, and humanity has evolved less bloody methods of allocating resources:
a) It could be individual entities that control the resource and therefore control its exploitation and distribution
b) It could be groups or cartels bidding for a resource to exploit and distribute it at a price decided by it
c) It could be the State controlling the resource, its exploitation and distribution
d) It could be a combination of these.

There are four primary reasons why there is scarcity:

  • If there is very little natural occurrence of a resource – for example gold or diamonds are scarce because they don’t occur naturally in great quantities – then optimum allocation is achieved via pricing;
  • If a naturally occurring resource is very tightly controlled – for example marijuana and opium, grow freely in nature but are heavily controlled by most governments – in such a case you use the law to ensure scarcity – because the system believes that it is for ‘greater good’ of humanity;
  • If manmade products, like stamp paper or guns, are very tightly controlled, the former from the perspective of who is the supplier, and the latter form the point of view of both who makes them and who buys them
  • There are too many people consuming that resource – oil would not be a scarce resource if very few people owned vehicles or needed energy.

In each of these cases, scarcity impacts price and availability. There is a premium to be made in bucking the system and creating an underground, illegal, or not so legal route in dealing with these things. if you looked at the 2G scam, it was companies who tried to change the rules so that they were one of the few who took control over a scarce rescource – spectrum; if you look at the Adarsh scam, it was that land is at a premium, especially in South Mumbai, and flats are scarce; and so on. In each case it may be a good idea to understand what is the scarce resource to understand the direction of greed.

At the core of all the scams that we have been witnessing are three very critical, and interlinked, issues:
* Who owns these scarce resources? The ownership of these resources is somewhat ambiguous. Although theoretically, the citizens of India should own all the natural resources that exist within her boundaries, the practise is quite different; the people have very little to say on the allocation of resources or the priority of its use. The Government of India leases out the right to exploit these resources to various corporations – either public holdings or private enterprises – who are supposed to use their expertise to harness these resources for the greater good of society, while still making a profit. The enterprises more or less run these licenses as though they were owners.

* How do you allocate scarce resources? The resources in question – be it land or spectrum, be it drinking water or forest land, be it oil or gas are scarce. Its use by one set of people means less is available for other sets of people. Most of these are not renewable – you can no more grow more spectrum than you can create more petroleum deposits. Are these resources that are nature’s bounty to be split up equally and equitably amongst the people, or do you wait for the market to allocate. And, if the market allocates, how much does the state charge; and finally

* Who benefits the most from the exploitation of the resources – is it, we the people? Is it the corporations? Is it the government?

* And, how do you define profits or measure benefit? Will there be more equitable distribution of resources, so that more people benefit from it? Or should it be measured in terms of the extraordinary profits earned by select few from exploiting scarcity?

It is in this context that we need to look at two of the most important decisions on natural resources that will be taken this month. The first will be the Supreme Court’s decision on the coal scam, and later in the month will be the Government’s decision on the KG basin gas pricing issue. Both are vital in their own way, because both will impact the right of Indians to have affordable energy.

At the core of both lie two simple questions – who owns the natural resources of the nation, and who decides how they should be allocated. Is it the Government who decides what is ‘greater good’ of the nation at large and do all other agendas, including the corporate agenda, get subsumed by this greater good?; or does the government get out of the business of allocation and allow business to choose the most optimum path – even if this optimum path means price fixing cartels, that maximise profits for a few, and a highly improbable trickledown for the rest?

If we assume that the Government needs to act on behalf of the people of the country, and this includes ensuring that the economically and socially marginalised have equitable access to scarce resources; then the decision before the Government is simple. It is also the single most honourable thing to in a situation like this. Cancel all the licenses and start afresh. Let the Supreme Court judgement be the start of a new, transparent and people friendly era of resource allocation that puts the interests of India and Indians above all other interests.

The Supreme Court has declared all the coal licenses to be illegal. There were 218 such licenses allocated of which only 40 are operational, and 6 more are expected to be operational in the near future. While the media and lawyers can debate whether this is judicial overreach or not, the fact remains that the verdict is the best thing that happened to the people of India and its government.

For the Government this is a judiciary sent opportunity to clean up energy production. For coal, they can start with a clean slate and allocate on the basis of the priorities of 2014. They will need to bite the bullet for this, because those who currently own the licenses are powerful industrialists with tremendous clout. And, once they bite the bullet and manage the fallout – maybe the government should have another look at the KG Basin Gas allocations, before they look at pricing. Or maybe the SC can.

Sep 082014
 

My column in the dna, last week

 

There are milestones and there are millstones. The former help you in terms of direction, the latter become a weight around your neck dragging you down. Often, the same event is both. And, a 100-day target, in a cranky democratic republic like ours, definitely counts as being both. However, given that this Government, like the last one, has given itself a 100-day target to showcase its achievements, and since their opponents are using the same to ask ‘what achievements’ — it is only natural that the rest of us (including the media) looks at the 100-day milestone. A word of caution here — it is too early to judge achievements, that will take at least a year, if not more. However, what can be looked at, and evaluated, are broad policy outlines.

The Good 100 days 

Focus on sanitation: The single most neglected area in India, sanitation, has been brought out from the shadows that it has lurked in, to the forefront of conversation. Given that more homes in India have TV sets than toilets, and given that the lack of toilets and adequate sanitation lead to a variety of issues from diseases to sexual assaults, the Narendra Modi-led government in general, and Modi in particular, have done a good job in getting this talked about. What would be good is if, in addition to building toilets, there is a certain emphasis on training people to use toilets (as opposed to the world outside), and understanding basic hygiene.

Make sons accountable: For this columnist, the single most interesting portion of thePrime Minister’s Independence Day speech was him saying “Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but has any parent ever dared to ask their son where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are?” This was in the context of the growing violence against women – especially sexual violence. The focus on personal and parental responsibility was timely. In a society where it is the woman who has to bear the brunt of rape — both as an act of sexual violence, and in its aftermath of being judged by society — this was a welcome statement.

Calling off talks with Pakistan: While it is important to talk to Pakistan, it is equally important that the powers in Pakistan understand that they cannot arbitrarily break all norms of civilised behaviour, all rules of bilateral understanding, and still expect that India behaves as though nothing untoward has taken place. It is essential that the message that India is displeased is conveyed, and calling off the talks is a good way of getting the message across.

Scrapping the Empowered Group of Ministers: One would assume that a minister is empowered to take decisions. Therefore, to have an empowered group of ministers to take the same decisions that an individual minister is supposed to make is inexplicable. Why would you need a group to take a decision that a single individual would make? The Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the EGoM, hopefully, would mean greater ownership and accountability for individual ministers, as well as hurrying up the decision-making process.

The not-so-good 100 days
Scrapping the Gadgil report on the Western Ghats
: While development is vital for India, it cannot be at the expense of our natural heritage. This is something that we hold in trust for future generations, and we cannot destroy it in the name of development. It is imperative that the Narendra Modi government reconsiders its decision on not just scrapping the Gadgil report, but also the way fragile ecosystems are conserved. While there will be tremendous corporate pressure on the government, it needs to remember that if the ecological balance is disturbed, no one will make profits. China is paying the price of its development sans ecological perspective, India need not do the same. Being environment friendly, acting at one with nature, is as much a part of our civilisational ethos as language or ‘culture’.

Governmental silence: The Government of India is not just the government of its supporters but of all the people of India. While the party may feel persecuted by, real or imagined, left-liberal domination of the media, it still needs to communicate. Reading ministry press releases is neither interesting nor illuminative. The government’s silence looks less like strategy and more like petulance. In fact, often it appears about as communicative as UPA II. So advice to the government and ministers is — stop sulking, and start communicating. And no, Twitter and Facebook accounts are not enough. Your communication needs to be more inclusive and interactive.
Part-time defence minister: We have Pakistan to the west; China to the north; and the armed forces of India with rapidly aging equipment. There are issues of recruitments, corruption, infrastructure and more plaguing the armed forces. One would think it required someone who gives full time attention to these, rather than someone who juggles another ministry, especially one as taxing as Finance.

Price rise: It is hurting. When staple food becomes a luxury, when basic vegetables become unaffordable, and when the response is the same as the earlier government, then you have a problem on your hands. This government has no more been able to put a lid on inflation, than the previous government had. And, it’s method of communicating this has been as effective as the last government.

The current Government of India looks more decisive than the previous one. It has made the correct noises on a whole range of issues from Indian manufacturing to boosting tourism, from health care to education, from smart cities to cleaning up rivers. But, right now these are just words. To be able to evaluate the impact of these, these policies need to be implemented and progress needs to be monitored over a substantial time frame. For now, all that can be said is that it is a good start. But, unless the aam janta gets to see very rapid changes and benefits, their disenchantment will be equally rapid.

Sep 012014
 

My column in the DNA, last fortnight

Forty five years ago, the United States of America, did the unthinkable — it put a man, actually two men, on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went into the history books as the first human beings to walk on the surface of earth’s only natural satellite. The lines that Armstrong says on stepping on to the lunar surface “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, is part of textbooks around the world. While there was great euphoria on this momentous scientific and technological achievement, the benefits from this, apart from national pride, were seen in the following decades. The investment in putting a man on the moon went beyond the material and the technological. It had a multiplier effect in scientific research, energy sources, food technologies and in many more fields. The impact on society was gradual; it wasn’t seen that pervasively in the decade that followed, but the Eighties and the Nineties reaped the benefits of this endeavour. From a communication perspective, the advances in satellite communication and miniaturised integrated circuits that were a by-product of the research into space exploration, transformed the world. Television, computers, mobile phones, and a host of other gadgets, that we don’t even think about, are the distant descendents of the investment into space exploration. The world, in the words of the famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan: “human family exists under conditions of a global village. We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums”.

Twenty five years ago, in 1989, a British theoretical physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, working in CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, came up with an innovative way of getting computers in CERN to talk to one another, and thereby allow the various scientists working on different projects to share information. His work led to the creation of the Hyper Text Markup Language, known more popularly by its abbreviation HTML. It allowed people to cross link content, and direct users to different pieces of content sitting on different machines. This simple and elegant way of connecting content led to the birth of the World  Wide Web and the Internet revolution that we are living through. When it started, in 1991, there were fewer than 500 servers that were connected. Today, there is no point counting, because by the time you have finished counting the number of servers, a large number would have been added. HTML revolutionised the world of information publishing and sharing. Suddenly everyone could be a publisher, a distributor, a commentator. Like the printing press almost 500 years earlier, the World Wide Web changed the way in which people saw the world. Suddenly, you realised that your views or issues, your fetishes or hobbies were not in any way unique —  there were others like you elsewhere in the world. If the moon landings and satellite communication had made humanity a ‘global village’ – the World Wide Web made it even smaller.

On September 4, the most ubiquitous web brand ever, Google, turns a sweet 16. Two young men, Larry Page and Sergey Brin looked at all the content on the web, and the existing ways of searching for information and decided that it was not good enough. The algorithms that they created for searching, classifying and organising content made using the web a lot more easy, and a lot more accessible. If HTML changed the way we create and share content, Google changed the way we searched and consumed it. There are those of us who remember a world before Google. We used Hotmail for email, Alta Vista for search, Netscape and Internet Explorer as browsers – all that has changed with the advent of Google.

If you really strip away the jargon and the technology from these three landmark events — in essence what they have done is made the world a smaller place, and made people very cognisant of the fact that the differences between the peoples of the world, in different nations, of different languages and traditions is actually not so great. We all bleed when we are cut, grieve when we lose near and dear ones, are inclined to help others (even random strangers), laugh at almost the same things, dance to almost similar beats and so on. Also, what is seen is that the desire for freedom and democratisation, the need to aspire and achieve is universal. What divides us is far less than what unites us.

It is, therefore, not surprising that there has been a backlash against this sense of being a ‘global family’ with shared ideals and values from those who were the traditional custodians of power – those who held the power over life and death of populations — extreme forms of religion, patriarchy and defenders of ‘cultural purity’. These are people who, until a few decades ago, were obeyed without question. Today, they are, mostly, ignored. When we see the backlash of regressive elements — be it the khaps in Haryana, or the mullahs who are asked for opinions, be it former Pope of the Catholic Church or the most extreme of all reactions the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) – what they are railing against is that loss in absolute power over the lives of the people they controlled not so long ago. Cultural purity, religious purity, way of life et al are just excuses for wanting absolute power.

Most of the world is slowly moving towards the idea of a global village – people are escaping their shackles and aspiring for the better things in life, including not being restricted in their aspirations. The medievalists who want to drag people back into their cordoned off ghettos are trying their level best to hold on to their crumbling power base, that has been reeling under the onslaught of science and technology, through violence. Like others before them, who stood in the way of aspirations of people, these medievalists too will turn into a footnote in history.

Aug 082014
 

My column in yesterday’s DNA

All events take place from the point of view of the observer. With every observer, the perspective is different; the angle with which they see an event is clouded by where they stand — both physically and philosophically. Take something as simple as the eating of meat, in general, or beef or pork, in particular. For many western cultures, both are part of a sumptuous meal. For Hindus eating of beef is a sin as the cow is considered holy; for Muslims and Jews the eating of pork is considered a definite no – the pig is considered impure. For others, especially staunch vegetarians of the PETA variety, the eating of any meat is morally indefensible and if they had their way it would also be a crime. None of these groups is wrong — their views are formed by their beliefs. And it would be fair to say that in this particular case — the eating of meat — there are many truths, and each one of them is equally valid. For most issues in the world today the maxim that there are many, equally valid truths, can be said to hold true. And, nowhere is this more apt than looking at the issues in Gaza and the plight of the Palestinians caught in the crossfire between Israel and Hamas.

The first valid truth is that the situation in Gaza is untenable. We have all seen deeply disturbing visuals of children dead; of old people left to die; of homes that are totally bombed out; of the consistent stories of horror and terror of a civilian population that is unable to live a life approaching normalcy. We have been exposed to photographs and videos of devastated hospitals, of schools that have been blasted out of existence, of homes that no longer exist. More than anything else that makes one cringe, is the look of emptiness and the expressions bereft of hope that is plastered on the faces of the survivors. Do the people of Gaza have the right to live a life without fear, without the terror and horror that we have been seeing (and they have been experiencing)? The answer is definitely a ‘yes’.

The second, equally valid, truth is that Israel has the right to exist and thrive. Its people and population have the right to live without fearing another genocide. The Jews, through history, have been persecuted and the culmination of this was the concentration camps set up by the Nazis. The land promised to them in the aftermath of World War I, only became a reality after more than 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Israel is the only homeland for the Jews. Associated with this truth, is the fact that Israel is in a neighbourhood where her neighbours want her destroyed and annihilated. Does Israel have the right to protect its people and territories and ensure that terrorists don’t harm it — most definitely yes.

The third truth is also about Israel and its treatment of the people who live in the occupied territories. The fact remains that those inhabitants are treated pretty much the same way as any occupier treats a conquered land. People are blockaded, jobs are difficult to find, education is scarce, civic amenities a distant vision and most importantly, civil rights a myth and the basic human dignity of those who live in the occupied territories is eroded on a daily basis. And this is even before the current targeting and indiscriminate killing of civilians. Would this lead to a rise in anger against the occupiers? Most definitely, yes.

The fourth equally valid truth is that Hamas that controls the Gaza strip wants to control all of Israel. It has refused, consistently, to recognise the State of Israel. In fact, its charter has consistently refused to recognise the two-state formula whereby there would be two states — the State of Israel and the State of Palestine that coexist in relative peace. The leaders of Hamas have called, repeatedly, for the destruction of Israel and its people. Furthermore, it has repeatedly used its own people as human shields in its ongoing war against Israel.

The fifth truth is that Palestine itself — split between the West Bank and the Gaza strip — is amidst a tug-of-war between the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, that controls the West Bank, and the more militant Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip. While Fatah is relatively more amenable to peace, Hamas is not. It is difficult to have peace when one side will only be satisfied by the utter destruction and annihilation of the other.

There is one more truth here and that is the issues here can, most optimistically, be defined as being complicated. If you had to do a timeline of the conflict it can go back to early history of humanity. From that period till now, the history of the region has been bloody and brutal.

The past cannot be solved. It exists. The future is what can be redrawn. The question is, therefore, quite simple, sans all the collected rhetoric of the last three millennia — peace or war? Coexistence or mutually assured destruction? The way forward is not to assign blame — if we go down that path there is no end to it. Rather, the way forward is to find a solution, for the future.

The world needs to stop taking sides and work towards a unified goal. Peace and coexistence are possible, only if there is no war for a few generations. If the people of Europe, who have traditionally fought each other throughout history; if the people of India, whose kings have fought battles with each other through history can live with their past and work together for a better tomorrow, more or less accepting multiple forms of diversity, there is no reason why the people in Israel and Palestine cannot. The people deserve a chance.

Jul 062014
 

An edited version of this appeared in the DNA last week

 

What differentiates our species from the rest of the animal kingdom is, not just the use of words, sentences, grammar and syntax for communication, but also the way these are linked to other aspects of our civilizations – society, culture, religion, science, technology, history, literature, poetry and basic expression.  Most of us see our identity expressed less in terms of religion or even caste, and more in terms of language and linguistic grouping and mother tongue. One of the questions that vex anthropologists, historians and those involved in the study of evolution of humanity is the appearance of language. They haven’t quite been pinpoint what caused early humans to replace grunts with language, neither have they been able to work out what made different people communicate with each other differently. Or in other words, why didn’t humanity evolve a single language, and what caused so many different groupings of people to communicate with each other in different ways. The 2013 survey of Ethnalogue, a web site that catalogues the languages of the world, declared that there were 7016 languages and dialects. In the case of India, Ethnalogue has this entry “The number of individual languages listed for India is 461. Of these, 447 are living and 14 are extinct. Of the living languages, 63 are institutional, 130 are developing, 187 are vigorous, 54 are in trouble, and 13 are dying.”

When we talk about languages in India, it is more than a way to communicate or to be understood – it encompasses an entire gamut of socio-cultural-religious facets and for many Indians, our linguistic culture, heritage, pride and identity is as important as a broader national identity. However, despite our obvious pride and love our linguistic heritage, we are a deeply pragmatic people – we have no issues in migrating from our roots, our linguistic base to new areas for trade, commerce or jobs – in the process learning new languages, adapting to somewhat new culture and building new traditions, without letting of our old ones.

The Government of India, through the decades, has had a rather fuzzy policy towards languages. While the stated intent has been to respect all languages and consider Hindi for official use, the reality is that no concrete steps have been taken to implement this. And, rightly so.  Any attempt to adopt one language as being more important than any other will have repercussions at the state level. And the reason for this is neither linguistic pride nor culture, nor is it fondness for the language or its literature – it is a rather more real reasons and that is employment. If one Indian language, let us say for example Hindi, became the predominant language of official use – it would give those people whose mother tongue is Hindi an advantage over those whose mother tongue is not Hindi. And this has economic implications on the lives and livelihood of those who wish to work for the government, the administration, bureaucracy or any government department.  English has become the defacto link language – not just because it offers upward mobility, but also because it does not give any state or linguistic grouping within India an unfair advantage when it comes to competing for jobs. On the other hand, those who insist on the imposition of a state or a central language for official use, do so less out of pride and joy in their language, and more out of ensuring that those who are part of their core support group have an advantage while it comes to employment.

Indonesia faced a similar conundrum when it achieved independence. With a 100 plus languages what should be the link language. They didn’t pick Dutch (the language of the colonisers), they didn’t pick the most spoken language in the Nation, rather they picked the least spoken language in the country and made it the link language. The idea was that if the most spoken language was picked, it would give an unfair advantage to the people who spoke the language, and cause resentment and divides in the fledgling nation.  Pakistan at independence, rather than picking one of the languages native to its geography – Sindhi, Punjabi, Pushtu or even Bangla – went and adopted a language native to India – and more specifically to UP and Bihar – Urdu as the national language. The result was that migrants from India had an unfair advantage in terms of Government jobs, leading to resentment from other linguistic groupings. The genesis of the Bangladesh liberation movement had its roots in the resentment against the imposition of Urdu and the pride that the East Pakistanis had in their language and culture.

When it comes to language as a means communication – the Government of India needs to be language agnostic. It shouldn’t be an either English or Hindi scenario –rather they need to put out their communication in all official state languages, so that the maximum number of people have the ability to read it.  Furthermore, Parliament itself needs to move away from a 2 language formula and empower parliamentarians to speak in the language of their choice. Use translators effectively to translate the proceedings into other languages. If the purpose of language is communication, and the purpose of communication is to be understood, then we need to allow people to communicate in the language they know best. When it comes to language as culture, the Government can, at best support it – but it is up to people to learn languages, not the government to ensure that it is learnt.  What the government can do, is to use its direct control on education to make language learning fun. They need to ensure that children don’t dread language classes.  Language education needs to be less about rules of grammar, and conjugation of verbs and more about basic communication skills and storytelling. Many of us relate more to the language in films and television than is taught in schools and colleges.  Which is probably why Bollywood and Hindi television have been far more successful in spreading language than any state run scheme. Maybe the Government can take a leaf out of this book.