Saturday, March 31, 2007

"The" scam of the century?

Subroto Roy in the The Statesman claims that a huge scam is in the making:

The scheme involves private companies “borrowing” India’s foreign exchange reserves from the RBI, allegedly for the purpose of “infrastructure” creation ~ in collaboration with the American bank Citigroup, the American financial business, Blackstone Group, and possibly the American corporate giant, GE Capital too. Chidambaram took the unprecedented step of naming Parekh as well as Citigroup and Blackstone in the text of his Budget speech.

He then goes on to show how a similar Wall Street scam has defrauded the Central Banks of Poland, Malaysia, Portugal and Yugoslavia, and this is what is coming to India. Roy also tells us that he worked for a Wall Street firm founded by the same people who orchestrated this act, and he resigned when he was asked to develop contacts in India.
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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

War against Malaria: GM as Ammo?

In the war between man and mosquito, malaria claims 2.7 million lives every year. In the scenario where anti malaria drugs become resistant (read outwitted) with unfailing regularity, two different groups of scientists, one working at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore and the other at Imperial College, London, seem to have transformed the rules of the fight between us and them. They claim that malaria can be fought by releasing into the environment genetically modified mosquitoes that are resistant to the malaria infection. In time, they would wipe out the malaria causing mosquitoes. (Using mosquitoes, to defeat mosquitoes –that had to come from the human brain, didn’t it?) To me, this discovery seems exciting as it seemed to take us out of the vicious cycle of using a drug to treat a disease and then have it become ineffective over a period of time precisely because it is being used. Also, the implication that we could stop using the chemical sprays and the innocuous looking mosquito repellents is worth some optimism. More importantly, once the environment is safer, we do not have to worry about issues like whether a particular drug reaches the underprivileged groups or not. There is also a modicum of thrill — did the researchers ever see that horror flick, Mimic and wonder? But this one is not just silver screen matter but serious science-speak.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the work of the research team at Johns Hopkins vindicates the concept that engineering mosquitoes with cheap lab techniques can help control the killer disease. The idea is that genetically modified mosquitoes can survive in the wild and ultimately completely replace the anopheles mosquito that carries the infection. These enhanced mosquitoes release a protein called SM1 which blocks the malaria parasite from reaching the salivary glands of the mosquitoes which is how the disease is spread in the first place. When the wild and lab designed mosquitoes were fed on Plasmodium infected blood, they showed higher rate of survival.

The actual release of the mosquito into the environment is at least a few years away. Even then, there are some doubts as the experiments have been conducted on mice and with the anopheles stephensi, and not anopheles gambaei which is the main killer in Africa. But my main concern is what environmentalist groups will have to say about replacing a “natural” strain of mosquitoes with a genetically engineered species with red eyes or red testicles. There are serious ecological issues in wiping out traditional mosquitoes that cannot be glossed over. As Jonathan Matthews, editor of GMwatch e-magazine has said, ‘Whatever the initial advantages of GM mosquitoes, their evolutionary sustainability in the longer term is simply an unknown, and this could have a devastating effect on the food chain’ … ‘such a major human intervention could have worryingly unpredictable consequences.’ Conceptually, the unpredictability can be dealt with but strategically, the process itself will be ridden with problems since it involves the release of hundreds and thousands of genetically manufactured mosquitoes into the environment.

Within these polemics and as the GM mosquito is being readied for the wild, localized research continues with great gusto. Undoubtedly dogged by more funding problems than a Johns Hopkins or Imperial College, a group of scientists in India based in IISC, Bangalore, have demonstrated that ‘curcumin’, a component derived from turmeric, in combination with other substances could be developed into a inexpensive, low-toxicity malaria drug. Another group of scientists in Madagascar have isolated a novel compound, tazopsine, from Strychnopsis thouarsii, a plant species found in Madagascar. The characteristics of this compound makes it less likely to become drug resistant.

So war it is – the artillery has been brought out to annihilate the mosquitoes. This lab generated mosquitoes, with their red and green eyes certainly sound like space aliens and stuff of horror films, but I am all for them, if they can garner human victory in the war with the anopheles. I will sleep peacefully sans the hum of the mosquito, sans the toxic fumes of mosquito repellants and gratified to know that the Calcutta chromosome is truly only the stuff of fiction. But most importantly, I will stand by most things that can actually stem the killing of a child every 30 seconds in sub Saharan Africa even if it means denying the ancestors of the ubiquitous mosquito their rightful place under the sun.
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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Crony Capitalism in India? Take II

During his keynote address at the Steel Summit 2007 organised by the Ministry of Steel and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), our Prime Minister made some interesting observations:

A comment has been made recently that most of our business leaders who have become billionaires seem to be operating in either relatively protected business environments, in oligopolistic or monopolistic markets or are dealing in scarce resources. If this observation is true then someone could say that we are promoting crony capitalism. That certainly should not be the case. (full speech available at
Now, what exactly is crony capitalism? It is somewhat more complex than corruption, although that distinction is often not made. Let us start with none less than Gary Becker and Richard Posner:

Crony capitalism is a system where companies with close connections to the government gain economic power not by competing better, but by using the government to get favored and protected positions. These favors include monopolies over telecommunications, exclusive licenses to import different goods, and other sizeable economic advantages. Some cronyism is found in all countries, but Mexico and other Latin countries have often taken the influence of political connections to extremes.

Of course, much of the discourse on crony capitalism is associated with Asia (in particular in the wake of the Asian crisis) and Latin America. Paul Krugman has been one of the few US economists to talk about cronyism in the US. In 2003 he wrote in an NYT column entitled Who's Sordid Now?

Cronyism is an important factor in our Iraqi debacle. It's not just that reconstruction is much more expensive than it should be. The really important thing is that cronyism is warping policy: by treating contracts as prizes to be handed to their friends, administration officials are delaying Iraq's recovery, with potentially catastrophic consequences. ... It's rarely mentioned nowadays, but at the time of the Marshall Plan, Americans were very concerned about profiteering in the name of patriotism.. Iraq's reconstruction, by contrast, remains firmly under White House control. And this is an administration of, by and for crony capitalists.

While at the wake of the Asian crisis everyone was keen to show how the Korean miracle was really no miracle at all and the crisis was really an effect of the cronyism that went unnoticed until then, one critical question about the so-called "cronyism" went unanswered. It was raised by Alice Amsden in her pioneering work: why is that in South Korea, an extremely tight nexus between the state and business could bring about such tremendous increase in growth rates whereas everywhere else it has only resulted in the enrichment of a few at the cost of national development? Authors have offered many different answers. Amsden's own answer was that the South Korean state was able to get businesses to contribute to national development in exchange for the favours it granted them. Nothing as given for "free". I have argued in my book, Indian capitalism worked quite differently from Japanese of South Korean or Taiwanes capitalism. In these miracle economies, the focus of the state was on macro-economic growth and businesses were forces to operate in sectors, and with prices and costs where macro-economic growth would be maximized. The emphasis was not on corporate profits, but on maximizing revenue and productivity and capacity utilization. This focus away from profits and on growth was the most important thing the state could extract from business in exchange of all the resources it supplied. In India, and in most parts of the world, the state simply supplied subdized resources to its corporations and the corporations did what was in their interest: increase profits by whatever means possible, in most cases through practices through cartels, creating barriers to new competition and price manipulation. In East Asia, innovation and maximization of productivity were the only means to corporate growth (the data comparing profits in India and East Asia are quite illuminating, the methodological problems of comparing profitability not withstanding). Of course, the brunt of this was born by East Asian workers, who gain much by way of income, but lost a lot by way of rights and political freedoms.

In India, the state focused on creating many procedural and bureaucratic controls on business, which could all be bypassed if you were large enough a player but became insurmountable barriers for the small entrepreneur. This did little to create a synergy between corporate growth and profitability, macro-economic growth, productivity and innovation.

Globalization was supposed to cure these ills, by having the state withdraw from its regulatory role. Really, did it? Well, if Manmohan Singh is asking that question, then surely I cannot be blamed for being skeptical.
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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Immigrant experience on celluloid: The Namesake

Mira Nair is an all time favourite film director of mine - but Namesake, which I just watched, turned out to be more than just another good film. I found many layers of meaning in the film which for me went well beyond only the immigrant story of a journey, loss, identity etc. What was special for me was the artistic use of Bengali language, script, idioms, Kolkata, music, ethos and culture. I found echos of Ritwik Ghatak's cinema that Mira Nair has herself acknowledged. The music was not Rabindra Sangeet - which I feel would be very easy to fall back on but would not have an universal appeal beyond Bengalis - but bhatiali, baul gaan, modern Bengali songs and Hindustani Classical. The two deaths in the film - the scene where Gogol shaves off his hair in America after his father's death and then when along with his mother and sister performs the last rites at the banks of River Ganga in Kolkata at Babughat - are experiences that many of us have been faced with. Again the recurring image of the idol of Goddess Saraswati being immersed in the river is symbolic and has shades of Ghatak. All in all the film is well made, poignant and will reach out to all immigrant individuals and communities and all Bengalis in a very special way. And of course, not to forget the reference to Fulton fish market - which I'm sure will strike a chord with Bongs around the world.

It's a coincidence perhaps that earlier last week I was at a seminar organised by the British High Commsion at Chandigarh on illegal migration to UK from Punjab and the need to curb this trend and saw another film on the topic of immigration - another side of it. Delhi based film director and producer Savyasaachi Jain's documentary Shores Far Away was one of the highlights of the seminar. This film also deals with immigration - the dark and ugly side of it. The director talks about the thousands of Indians who are smuggled across Indian borders to Europe every year. He goes into the heartland of Punjab - villages near Jallandhar - from where most of the illegal immigrants hail. The route is fraught with danger, they face hardships on the way and are often duped by unsrupulous agents - and yet they keep going in search of what they feel is a better life. The directors speaks to many of these illegal immigrants in Hamburg, Vienna, London, Birmingham and other places. He interviews families in villages of Punjab who are waiting for many years hoping their loved ones will come back, but have no information about their whereabouts. On the way to Europe many of immigrants freeze to death, get killed or face imprisonment. Some of those interviewed actually speak on camera about their hardships and try to send a message back home to young people not to follow in their footsteps. This film is very intense too and all the more disturbing because it's all true. In many villages of Punjab, immigrating - even illegally without papers - is very much a way of life. Some months ago, Naseeruddin Shah's directorial debut film Yun hota to kya hota too had dealt with the humane aspects of immigration. That was yet another sensitive potrayal of the subject!!!
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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Shashi Tharoor on the "Cricket Problem"

Tharoor in today's New York Times:

Ever since the development of baseball, the ubiquitous and simplified version of the sport, Americans have been lost to the more demanding challenges — and pleasures — of cricket. Because baseball is to cricket as simple addition is to calculus — the basic moves may be similar, but the former is easier, quicker, more straightforward than the latter, and requires a much shorter attention span. And so baseball has captured the American imagination in a way that leaves no room for its adult cousin.
Tharoor ends the piece in utter condemnation of the American disinterest in cricket, a condemnation with which I can easily sympathize.

In the last twelve years that I have lived in North America, I have routinely failed to convince North Americans as how baseball is very similar to, but less than, cricket. Perhaps because I was doing what Tharoor does here too: express utter impatience and disenchantment with their fascination for what appears to me to be a rather monotonous and simple sport when a much more exciting alternative was available. In fact, I could not even convince anyone that there are similarities between the two. Then finally I decided to try something with my 6 year old when I went to watch him play baseball one day. He had hit what his coach called "an amazing hit" - and I told him if he were playing cricket, that would be six runs all at once.. and he immediately said he wanted me to take him to India to play cricket so he could hit a six. And we had an exciting conversation (my only exciting conversation about cricket in North America) about how one could hit six sixes in a row and people who did that set world records. Although we have not taken him to India to learn cricket, a curiosity remains alive in his mind to this day. In the odd occassion that I go to watch him play, he would often ask what his hits would score if he were playing cricket. Perhaps we should write off the adults and start with the little ones?
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The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal

In Bhopal, the campaign for justice for the victims of the gas tragedy is celebrating a victory. After 15 days of hunger strike and active campaigning, the Government of Madhya Pradesh has agreed "to implement key demands to improve life for the survivors of the Union Carbide gas leak and ongoing water poisoning". Two of the leading figures in this campaign are Goldman Environmental Prize winners Rashida Bee and Champa Devi ( in the photo above, immediately after the government's announcement). Of course the campaign goes on, for as it stands now, compensation received by the survivors averages 6.2¢ per day. Read here what that compensation is worth. A potent driving force behind this movement are the Students for Bhopal who have mobilized strong local and international support for the campaign. Read more!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Getting to the root of the retention problem in IT

Why is retention such a problem in IT? Those of us who just watch it from outside trying to make sense of the glitter and the gold would really like to know. As a CIO, admittedly plagued by the phenomenon of retention, writes anonymously in a post today:

I am responsible for IT operations in the "happening region" of Asia which has shown exponential growth rate in the last few years....As someone with IT technical background, I have to admit that we often see things either as one or zero, black or white. But I have realized one important component of IT which is "heartware" or people, in addition to hardware and software.
He mentions the five criteria for retention identified by Development Dimensions International (DDI): leadership, meaningful work, organization, people and development. He then goes on to assess himself "humbly" along these criteria, but does offer any more meaningful insights as to the retention problem.

My own hunch is that the main culprit is the second one in the list above, namely, the lack of meaningful work. I would even venture to say that, barring the obsession in the eighties about Japanese productivity, our corporate gurus have paid inadequate attention to the link between retention, productivity and meaning of work. The current obsession lies with cost-cutting and deal-making, (oh and I forgot - carving a socially conscious image) as opposed to innovation at the shop floor. This is a peculiar contradiction that charactizes the IT sector. On the one hand, the industry is driven by innovation; on the other, the profit strategies of large IT corporations remain tied to the under-utilization of a large pool of skilled labour force who must perform routine tasks that is hardly meaningful to them.

Of course, these are simply my observations from the outside. I would love to hear from you..

BTW, our CIO ends in a rather philosphical tone
: Whatever meaning people find in their relationships, work, in their own unique experience of living -- that is real. Everything else is an illusion.
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World Cup Cricket 2007: Where is the excitement?

Watching World Cup Cricket in England is a sober experience – a stark contrast to watching World Cup football. Just six months ago, there was so much verve and enthusiasm in the air -- England flags everywhere, pubs revamping themselves for the big event, cheerleading songs being composed and all kinds of football memorabilia flooding the malls. The English football fans, known for their mercurial temperament, if not thronging Germany, were shouting themselves hoarse at home. So even though England’s victory in World Cup football is almost a sepia moment now, English fans made their presence felt everywhere; Wayne Rooney’s health update was on every television channel. The television commentary, self referential to the point of being jingoistic, almost had you believe that England was poised to win the championship.
The same excitement and energy is missing now and the silence is almost deafening.

That is a pity since, World Cup Cricket, 2007, thus far has all the ingredients of a thriller – set in beautiful sea side locations it has already seen death, maritime adventures and the dethroning of the giants by the greenhorns. Inside the playing arena, the outcomes are undecided, with only New Zealand, Australia and West Indies making it into the Super eights as yet. Records have been broken and re-made including the highest score ever made by a batting side in a World Cup match and brilliant catches have been held. All this in a week which the pundits had predicted was going to be rather dull. In fact, there were nasty whispers that the ICC had unnecessarily prolonged the World Cup to fill their coffers. But the exit of big teams has certainly vindicated the much maligned cricket administrators.

I would like to think that the ripple effect began with Herschelle Gibbs; after practically ‘dropping’ the World Cup in 1999 he did a Gary Sobers by hitting six 6s in an over. India’s loss to Bangladesh created quite a stir, and then the zealous fans went on rampage in Dhoni’s house. Bangladesh and Ireland outmaneuvered India and Pakistan respectively. Perhaps the most tragic and chilling incident is Bob Woolmer’s death which the Jamaican police are now treating as ‘suspicious.’ Following Pakistan’s ouster from the World Cup, the coach was found unconscious in his hotel room. Andrew Flintoff’s drunken revelry has earned him a match expulsion and a few headlines. Luckily for England, they got past Canada, without Flintoff, recording their first win in two games. India has recorded the highest score ever in a World Cup match with 413 runs. We hope that this feather in their caps comes not in vain for the boys in blue.

Things may accelerate if England go through to the Super Eights. At this moment, however,any involvement in the game is simply not visible, neither in shopping arcades nor in sports pubs. Cricket news has to share the spotlight with F.A. cup. Television channels are doing their bit, telecasting all matches; the panel of commentators with the exception of erstwhile golden boy, David Gower and Bob Willis, (whom you will not recognize as the maverick fast bowler who had the Indian openers quaking) lacks star element. But it is the lack of participation of the vox populi that surprises and disappoints. Ironic, since England it was who carried the game everywhere and re-wrote national boundaries and pastimes. In the subcontinent, for example, cricket is the stuff of popular imagination and mass hysteria. So, while effigies of unsuccessful players and captains are being burnt and whole nations are on emotional overdrive, English cricket fans seem to have buried themselves. As I drive past Reading County Cricket club, I hope that they are sitting in the recesses of the lounge somewhere, watching their team play, ready to accept defeat or victory with a stiff upper lip. It is an English saying, isn’t it, may the best man win! So for World Cup 2007, may the best team win.
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Monday, March 19, 2007

Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Indo-American factor

Note: A different version of this story first appeared in The Economic Times and is also posted on Clinton's campaign blog

Senator Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign received a shot in the arm this weekend with a dinner hosted by her husband President Bill Clinton where about a million dollars were raked in. The dinner at a Manhattan hotel had 1000 of New York state's rich and famous people and the biggest names in politics as well attending. While the event was the first joint campaign appearance of both the Clintons in the New York area since Hillary Clinton announced her presidential campaign in January, it also highlights the significant Indian-American factor in her Presidential bid.

From Indian Americans entrepreneurs to Bollywood stars - everyone is ready to pitch in for Hillary Clinton. She has already roped in New York-based hotelier Sant Chatwal as co-chair of her recently formed presidential exploratory committee to run for the 2008 White House race. Mr Chatwal was among the organisers of the Manhattan fund-raiser.

Some of the other well-known supporters of the Clintons include Atlanta based Hotelier and banker Mike Patel and Vin Gupta, the founder and CEO of Omaha based InfoUSA – both of whom are likely to become big fund raisers for Senator Clinton's campaign. Besides, the Indian diamond merchants in Manhattan are also known to be largely Democratic Party supporters and are likely to support Hillary. President Bill Clinton also has on his own team former aides from his White House days such as Satish Narayanan – who works for the Clinton Foundation now.

Mr Chatwal is creating an organisation called Indian Americans for Hillary 2008. "We are working on two milestone events this year for fund raising which will be attended by Senator Clinton. In June-July 2007, we plan a high end private Indian American event which will have Democratic supporters from across America attending it. While this is definitely a first for an US Presidential campaign, we also plan a Bollywood gala with top stars from Mumbai in August 2007 to raise funds for the campaign," he said. And with a view to add muscle to the campaign, he will also be deploying his newly acquired Falcon private jet for Senator Clinton's use. "Senator Clinton is the only candidate to have continuously contributed to upholding the improvement of US-India relations and championing for the Indian-American community within the US," he feels. So the 2008 US Presidential race looks all set to have a more prominent role for Indians in the US.
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Saturday, March 17, 2007

West Bengal: The X-ternal Factor

What is happening in Bengal today is a matter of grave concern. But without going into whether it is bad politics or bad economics or historical baggage – just yet, I want to highlight the Prabasi or non-resident Bengali angle. Read an article which had reactions from many Bengalis in North America who expressed shock at the events in Nandigram and the human rights violations and police atrocities. What was interesting was that the reactions came in mostly from academicians and professors and a few doctors. I did not yet see any reaction from the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs – some of whom have invested in Bengal lately and become stakeholders in the state. Also have not so far seen anything from some of the best known Bengalis overseas – Rajat Gupta & Purnendu Chatterjee – who are among modern Bengal’s best known brand ambassadors. The decision of the West Bengal government to put on hold all Special Economic Zones (SEZ) will also, in fact, affect the Salim group which has a partnership with a prominent non-resident Bengali. Waiting to hear from the Prabashis about what they feel about SEZs vs human rights… has anyone seen anything from Amartya Sen on this issue yet? Read more!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Arresting Prospects: South Asians in NYPD

Doctors, academicians, business professionals, perhaps even astronauts. These are the images which are generally conjured up when Indian-Americans are discussed. Sometimes, when traveling across New York for example, we are also made aware of South Asian taxi drivers. But Desi police officers ? Yes, there are reportedly more than 1,100 persons of South Asian origin serving on the New York Police Department, including at least five women.

Many of these Desi police officers were born in America and perhaps grew up watching TV police programs which attracted them to law enforcement as a career. Less typically, there is Officer Paramjit Kaur Gakhal, 38 and a mother of two, who came to America from Punjab with her husband at the age of 21. She had worked as a bank teller, nursing aide and sales representative before joining the NYPD. There is even a married couple, Sgt. Karena Patel and Sgt. Surinda Patel. It was Karena who first became a police officer, to be followed a year later by Surinda, who gave up a six-figure position in the apparel industry to join his wife in the NYPD.

An aggressive recruitment drive by the NYPD, one of the nation's most ethnically diverse police forces, has resulted in increasing numbers of South Asians joining the force. In addition to the prospects of adventure and the glamor of the uniform, the salaries, perks and retirement benefits are actually quite competitive with other careers and serve to counter the dangers of patrolling the streets of New York. Recruits are on full pay from the first day of training, and after five years are entitled to a base salary of $60,000 p.a. plus overtime, night pay, generous vacation allowances and other benefits. With promotion and length of service, total earnings can climb well into six figures. A retirement option is available at half pay after 20 years of service. The overall financial package is certainly a viable option as compared to the median annual household income of $61,322 enjoyed by Indian Americans (national US average $42,000 p.a.)

The highest ranking Desi on the New York police force is Captain Jagdeshwar Jaskaran. During his 14 years of service, Capt. Jaskaran has gathered over 35 medals and citations. He plays down the dangers of the job and is quoted as saying "..90 to 95 percent of police officers go through their entire careers not using a gun.." In spite of the Captain's nonchalance, some might say those are fairly dangerous odds, considering that an accountant (for example) would expect to go through 100% of his career without resorting to firearms !

The South Asians of the New York police have now formed the NYPD Desi Society as a platform for their points of view and expect to exert increasing influence for their group, working hard to disprove the Gilbert & Sullivan dictum that "..a policeman's lot is NOT a happy one ..."
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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

E Pluribus Unum

Where in the world can one see a commercial establishment proclaiming : "Yes ! We speak Spanish, Hindi, Farsi, Greek, Hungarian, Tagalog, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese " ? In an advertisement for a Toyota dealership in Sunnyvale, California - that's where.

The claim speaks volumes for the diversity which is now sweeping across North America. That employees of a business here should represent polyglot ethnic groups is not by itself an unusual phenomenon, but the fact that their linguistic ability should be used as a unique selling point is an indication of the buying power now represented by these various groups. Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the small town of Sunnyvale is an indicator for the rest of the United States, where the Anglo-Saxon presence is forecast to become a minority within one generation.

The Founding Fathers of the United States did indeed acknowledge diversity when they composed the national motto which (translated from the Latin) means "Out of many - one". But their limited notion of diversity was represented on the original design of the Great Seal of the Nation by six symbols - the rose (England), thistle (Scotland), harp (Ireland), fleur-de-lis (France), lion (Holland), and an imperial two-headed eagle (Germany), representing - in their words - "...the Countries from which these States have been peopled..."

They might not be surprised today to see Spanish-speaking people as a significant presence, or even Greeks or Hungarians, but one wonders what their reaction would be to Hindi, Farsi, Tagalog, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese vying for equal billing ?
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Monday, March 12, 2007

Indian BPOs being "bullied": A surprise?

From today's Economic Times

CALL it the return of imperialism or new colonialism. Indian BPOs are being arm-twisted by their foreign clients into signing irrationally harsh contracts which have zero termination notice periods or notice periods as short as 30 days. Modus operandi: if you won’t accept your rival will.
Should we be surprised? This has indeed been the modus operandi for a long time, and indeed the main driving force behind the 'new' industrial strategies premised on the progressive dismantling of regulation. Initially this affected workers in sectors such as textiles, and slowly has spread and continues to spread to other industries. Interestingly, the various objections to such dismantling had been voiced by many social actors in the Global South, but were summarily dismissed by both their own governments and international institutions. Competitive deregulation was then the panacea for all developmental ills, and threat was exactly the one mentioned above: if you cannot provide the deregulated structure we seek, your rival will. However, when the 'race' got to the point where those deregulated structures began to attract jobs which once belonged to the middle classes in the West, "race to the bottom' emerged as an important part of the global discourse. The tide then turned quite dramatically: with a rising demand that labour and environmental standards must be reimposed on Southern countries, else we (the West or the North) must refuse to do business with them.

The truth is that both the North and South are harmed by the dismantling of regulation if it are not carefully planned. While the dismantling of some regulation is beneficial, some forms of regulation may indeed be necessary to guarantee certain social and economic rights. Neither are the "North" and "South" monoliths, their interests are neither completely compatible, nor thorouhgly irreconcilable. Finally, the choice between "development" and "deregulation" is indeed a false one.
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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Mira Dattagupta : An Amazing Life

I had the good fortune to know Mira Dattagupta as a very close family member. She was a rationalist, a brilliant mathematician, a dedicated social worker, a feminist, a humanist and so much more. She had served as a Lecturer of Mathematics and principal of the women's section of Surendra Nath College, Calcutta. I believe that she is among the first role models that women in independent India had. This is an article I wrote for a collection of essays, memoirs and articles that was published as a book last year on the occasion of her 100th birthday by my father Mira Dattagupta: Ekti Jibon,( (Mira Dattagupta: A life), Publisher & Editor: Rabindra Dattagupta, Kolkata, September 2006.

Can you imagine a world without computers, internet, TV and cell phones? I actually can. It was the world of my grandparents home at 434, Jodhpur Park - where I spent many happy months with amma & dadu my grandparents, and bhaloamma, my grandaunt. There were no computers and no virtual world in those days. And Bhaloamma was not even Dadu's real sister, but his cousin. But they were all real people and everything that I got from them - the whole gamut of knowledge, love, affection, memories, stories and wonderful times together - will sustain me through my life. Even though this is really an essay about Bhaloamma, I cant help thinking about all three of them together with each of them standing tall as the three pillars of our very own world at Jodhpur Park. Moving on to Bhaloamma - she was a powerhouse despite her deceptive slight frame. In fact, she was plagued by various physical maladies too, but her indomitable spirit carried her through all kinds of difficulties.

I do remember for instance, an occasion when she had accompanied me to an eye specialist for a check-up. WHile we were waiting for my turn, she had an attack of palpitations. Bhaloamma was unfazed, she clutched at a vein in her throat - a treatment which a doctor friend had shown her many years ago - till her heartbeats returned to normal. When I went in for my check up, she was very much with me. Bhaloamma knew everything, from the best places to buy clothes, fish or a special sandesh to the difficult bus routes, the good schools and colleges, politics, history, current affairs, names of obscure relatives and of course, mathematics. When she returned from a trip to Germany for a conference during the International Women's Year, Bhaloamma got my sister Deborani and me our very first box of foreign chocolates. I still remember how we treasured it and every night took our pick from the delicious assortment. We had all heard the family folklore about Bhaloamma and how she had secured 2nd position and silver medal for her graduation at the Calcutta University in maths despite not sitting for one full paper. And I didn't even need to see her silver medal to be convinced about her mathemetical knowledge. When she had coached me in maths for a few weeks her sharp and clear headed lessons had helped me score 100% - the only time ever in my life. While for me, it was like achieving an impossible target, for her it was a challenge to teach me maths after my poor marks in an exam caused a lot of anxiety both for me and my parents. I've had other maths tutors too, but none as competent or as compassionate and sensitive as her.

But it was not just maths, history too was Bhaloamma's forte. India's Independence was for her a very personal chapter as an young woman who had become deeply involved in the freedom struggle. We've got insights into that part of our history both generally contemporary and her impressions of various political leaders, many of whom she knew personally to events which changed the course of the nation's tryst with destiny to intensely personal where she had to prove her commitment to her political organsation by spending a night in the same room with a male colleague. Besides maths and history the other subject that I associate with Bhaloamma is of course education.
She had long been the principal of the women's section of Surendra Nath College and a teacher there. There were a large number of her former students who kept coming over to our house to meet her, chat, discuss their career plans, problems at work or just pay their respects and say thank you.

Yes, that was Bhaloamma, when she was around the house was always a hub of visitors and friends..Dadu and amma had their visitors too - but it was through Bhaloamma that we met the most interesting people from different walks of life. From two young girls who had grown up in an orphanage that was founded by her to senior political leaders, intellectuals, college professors - there was always a stream of visitors at Jodhpur Park. Our lives were filled with human warmth and lots of real people. In fact, some of Bhaloamma's friends were very close to us and became close family. Dhiren dadu was not just her very close friend, but a member of our family too. A Bolshevik supporter, he was the first truly left intellectual that I have met. He gave me my first Kafka - AMerica - a book I've always treasured and which opened up a brave new world for me. I recently gave it to my sister Deborani - not just as a memento from Dhiren Dadu - but also because I felt it would in many ways echo her own expereinces and adventures in that country.Dhiren Dadu had travelled widely across Europe and he was fluent in both English and French. ANd what was most remarkable was his relationship with Bhaloamma. We've heard from Amma that in their youth, family opposition and the fact that Bhaloamma was dusky which made her an unsuitable bride had come in the way of their marriage. However, I've not come across a more mature and sensitive friendship between two individuals since I saw them together. Their frienship brought both our families together and helped us forge deep and lifelong bonds.In fact, whether it was friendship or all her other involements - bhaloamma was comletely selfless. She always put everyone else before herself. From constant attention to any one who was ill to helping with college admissions, Bhaloamma was always by your side. SHe was a rationalist, a brilliant academician, a dedicated social worker, a feminist, a humanist and so much more. But all this didn't take away from her being a deeply religious person too, and that's the common ground between her and my amma. In fact, sometimes, I felt that Bhaloamma's deep involvement with everything that formed part of her some started with an from an intrinsic involvement with people. SHe cared for people and that's how she made a big difference in the many lives that she touched and very often improved. She was always reaching out to people.In our own cloistered, small world's today when privacy is the mantra - I feel there are many lessons to learn from someone like her who was such a modern being and yet so much dedicated to the service of people all around her. That world didn't stop with immediate family or friends and I remember her telling me about how an young woman who had landed up at a police station in Kolkata after running loco from home had actually asked to see Bhaloamma - a local MLA in those days. That was many years ago, in the 1950s perhaps. It was late at night, but Bhaloamma went to the local police station and convinnced the young lady to go back home and talk things over with her parents. A lesson for so many of living in our clositered selfish, busy and private worlds.

And it was very apt that when I was filling my form for my higher secondary exams, Bhaloamma blessed me and also asked me to convey her blessings to my friends Simonti, Ananya and Bhavani for our exams. "I know that you'll all come out with flying colours she had said." That was one of the last things she told me. She became seriously unwell and passed away soon after. Incidentally, all my three friends have done very well in academics and are on the quest for knowledge in their own different ways. As for me, I consider myself blessed having known her and spent so much of time with her.
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Saturday, March 10, 2007

One of India's most prominent women jurists

FOR one of India's most prominent women jurists, life has been more about living out her destiny than cracking glass ceilings . Retired Supreme Court judge Justice Ruma Pal - who as a young girl enjoyed solving crosswords - found herself enrolling for the law course at the Nagpur University College of Law quite by accident, during a vacation with her brother after graduating from Santiniketan's Vishwa Bharati University with a major in philosophy. Later, it was her dream of travelling and working her way around Europe that took her to Vienna. In fact, she was hitch hiking around the Continent when news of being accepted for admission at Oxford University's prestigious Bachelor of Civil Law reached her through an Indian diplomatic mission.

After debating on the relevance of Women's Day, I'm doing a reverse swing. ET had a special edition on March 8 which had three guest editors - HSBC India CEO Naina Lal Kidwai, Biocon CMD Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Britannia CEO Vinita Bali. Here's the link to an article I did that day.
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Friday, March 09, 2007

Ethiopia "doing better" than Asia?

Here you have India growing almost 10%, supposedly gaining on China and providing one of history’s greatest investment stories. And yet, Indians figured even worse in the (UNICEF) report than Ethiopia and on a par with Eritrea and Burkina Faso in the area of malnutrition. "Where even Ethiopia is doing better than Asia", the Economic Times, March 3, 2007
When I stumbled on to this headline in the Economic Times, I decided to dig out some more data from the UNICEF database comparing India, China, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Burkina Faso. While I am somewhat uncomfortable in using countries as "benchmarks" of disaster (and Africa seems to be a frequent victim of this act), it seems quite worthwile to examine how India looks in terms of the comparisons mentioned in the article. Take a look: it is every bit as bad as the article suggests, and even worse. In addition, levels of inequality are the highest in China, but quite comparable in India and Ethiopia. India has the highest percentage of its under-five suffering from severe-to-moderate malnutrition (about 47 percent), the highest percentage suffering from severe malnutrition, and so on.

And there is no redress in sight. In today's Hindu, Jean Dreze tells us that the budget allocation for the Integrated Child development scheme (ICDS) in 2007-08 has not increased at all: it remains the same as a proportion of GDP. Accordingly, the Government of India will be spending less than Rs.5,000 crore for its 160 million children under six. By contrast it will spend Rs.96,000 crore on defence. see Empty Stomachs and the Union Budget

Yes, increased allocations would certainly help. But what is at stake here is not simply a matter of fiscal allocations. At stake here is the overall vision of development itself. Very popular now are the ideas of "inclusive growth", "the bottom of the pyramind", "the triple bottom line" and their likes. Inclusive growth is of course a simple empty uttering of a master politician. The others are motivated by the belief that the the vast numbers of the poor must be protrayed as an economic opportunity. In fact, I see all around this infectious new economism" everything must be protrayed as profitable. (Most blatant is perhaps the discussion around female foeticide. As part of its Women's day collection, the Times of India suggests that the girl child must be made an economically attractive option if foeticide was to stop).

Paintings victims of injustice as a market or an asset? Children suffering from malnutrition as potential consumers of packaged babyfood? Perhaps baby food manufacturers can lobby Chidambaram for an increased allocation towards child health to be spent on babyfood? That would be "inclusive growth" in the best possible way: the growth of these children would include the growth of babyfood manufacturers, global and Indians. The government will finance a food distribution scheme for the "severely malnourished", by taking away from another public service. In the mean time, either nothing will change for the parents of the "moderately malnourished", or they will slip into the severe category. (Recall that 46 percent - i.e. almost half of under-fives suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition, according to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-III of the Government of India).
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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Women's Day

Why do women still need a day? Perhaps just like Valentine's's just an occasion for branding & marketing. On my way back from Kolkata to Delhi a no-frills airlines wished me Happy Women's Day on the baggage tag. Of course, the airports were full of aggressive Indians of the male species, who jostled and pushed me and other women around and jumped the queues everytime. In fact, each day, in India, should be declared a politeness day. Read more!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Redefining "Brahmin" in the USA

Ever since Oliver Wendell Holmes published his article "The Brahmin Caste of New England" in 1860, the term "Brahmin" in the United States has usually been understood to mean the Boston Brahmins. This elite group claimed descent from the families constituting the Masachusetts establishment who originally settled New England, and are described in a poem of the period

So this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God

(Boston Toast by John Collins Bossidy)

Now, nearly 150 years after Oliver Wendell Holmes thus christened the elite of New England, Asian Indians are staking their own claim to perpetuating an elite hereditary class in a country that otherwise aspires to classlessness and intergenerational mobility.

This comes at a time when the mantra of equality of opportunity is wearing thin in the United States. The composition of the meritocracy of the 21st Century, to be determined by access to higher education, is increasingly consolidating within its existing ranks as the cost of that education continues to escalate. It is no coincidence that 90% of the students in the elite American Universities come from the top 50% of the income spectrum.

In this process, Asian Indians in America now occupy pole position in the race to establish a new power group. With annual household incomes higher than the white majority and spending more on their children's education than the national median, they already count 60% of their number as graduates (another statistic well above the average for other ethnic groups). They are set on a course to consolidate their privileges still further as their children, after graduation, usually follow the more lucrative and socially prized professions.Their numbers will be strengthened by new students from India, most of whom have historically remained behind after graduating. There were 70,000+ of students from India enrolled in American universities at last count, and their numbers are forecast to grow by 20% over the next five years.

We are surely witnessing the emergence of a new upper caste in America, grouped by ethnicity in a way not seen since the 19th Century. Unlike the 19th Century Boston Brahmins though, the flourishing Indian elite class will not be localised like the Boston Brahmins, but spread out throughout the entire country. Business, Law, Medicine, Engineering and Financial Services will be the areas of activity in which they will excel, giving them a prominent voice in their local communities.

Asian Indians have already made sure that when the word "Indian" is spoken in America, everybody understands that these are not the same people that Columbus named when he set eyes on the inhabitants of the new land. The question remains whether they will also exercise their growing wealth and position to exercise a positive influence the society around them. Their 19th Century New England predecessors did so to great effect by creating academic institutions like the Ivy League universities, and the ideologies of the Boston Brahmins continue to be associated with the most progressive policies. If the new Indian "Brahmins" achieve anything resembling the same effect wherever they are concentrated around America, it may soon be accepted that not all the Brahmins in America are the ones that Holmes observed in Boston. The Indian Americans of the 21st Century may well justify Holmes's own words " and then a seedling apple, or a seedling pear, springs from a nameless ancestry and grows to be the pride of all the gardens in the land."

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

"The technical gadget that Americans are most in need of"

"THE TECHNICAL gadget that Americans are most in need of, it's been said, is a hearing aid. Too many of them are prone to lecture, hector, and otherwise pressure much of the rest of the world, in the far from touching belief that the American way is the only way" writes Professor Ramesh Thakur in today's Hindu. Professor Thakur, as many of you may know, is the Vice-Rector of the United Nations University (UNU) in Japan. The article reflects on the lack of interest of mainstream US media to give space to opinion from other parts of the world. He proposes a very interesting idea that might be able to address this problem:

why do the major newspapers (of India or the South) not organise a reciprocal exchange of columns — we will publish as many of your articles per month as you take of ours? Or do we share the westerners' implicit belief that what they have to say on any and every topic is important for the whole world to know; but what we have to say about our own affairs may perhaps be worth considering, but otherwise we should know our place and stay there?
I hope some editors take this up! However, there is an even deeper problem with respect to the mainstream media outlets in the West, especially Canada and North America. These societies have large disaporic populations, especially first generation immigrants who maintain strong linkages with their countries of origin. How many of these members of Canadian and American societies are visible in the media? With their own voices and perspectives? Their inclusion occurs along two trajectories. Either they are there simply as exihibits of diversity and multiculturalism. Or, their presence is in particular "enclaves" as in BBC's Asian Network or the various "ethnic" channels on television. Sure, they fulfil a need for those communities and provide a great (and ever explanding) market. But this is not a substitute for a fully inclusive and representative media in highly diverse and cosmopolitan societies. I wonder how we could solve this one..

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Water and the Indian woman

Initially when Water was released, I was inundated with all sorts of questions about whether it represents Indian reality. Then when it did not the Oscars the other night, I got another set of queries and opinions. Then finally, last night when I was interviewed for a television show on the theme of Indian women, I appear to have made surprised some people by not talking about Water. I, for one, was happy that the host did not raise it, as were some others who watched. While in my opinion Water is in fact a rather poor representation of the Indian reality, it is not fully clear to me what its appeal is to the global public. There is of course some appeal in watching cinematized tales of victims of "tradition" or other structures of oppression (such as "Born into Brothels", although this was considerably less cinematized than Water). But I suspect that for the majority, it is simply a matter of discovery. "I had no idea" is a common refrain I have heard.

The phenomenon is not as well known as the issue of dowry deaths, bride burning or foeticide. I think this is what has attracted most attention, and this is where I think the film is rather problematic in its depiction of reality. It appears to be frozen in time; its static quality leaves viewers with the sense that this reality has not changed between the time at which the film is set and contemporary India. What is worse, the film never mentions that this practice is prevalent only amongst Hindus, and not amongst all Indians, and not even amongst all Hindus. If the purpose is to create awareness about the plight of India's Hindu widows, a much more complex tale needs to be told. My intention is not to minimize the significance of the suffering in question, but to ask for a less passive and static portrayal of Indian women, not only in films but all media coverage.

Interestingly, the media continues to focus either on Bollywood, or political elites (such as Indira Gandhi) or at the other extreme on the hapless women who are being burnt and ill-treated. No wonder it appears as an impossible contradiction.

Interestingly, the media continues to focus either on Bollywood, or on elites or at the other extreme on the hapless women who are being burnt and ill-treated. No wonder it appears as an impossible contradiction to the global public.

Instead, how about we turn our gaze to a large number of South Asian women who are active agents of political change? Why are their stories not told? Some of my heroines are: Rashida Bee, Teejan bai, Kamla, Aruna Roy, Girija Devi, SEWA, Muktaran Mai (Pakistan), and Jahanara Begum (Bangladesh), Mahashweta Devi, and many many others.

Who are yours?
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A Third Canada?

Every time I hear the words "French" Canada and "English" Canada, I wonder about the Canada I live in. Let us call it the Third Canada. Obviously not a geographical territory, this Third Canada is distinguished only by its lack of distinctiveness. It exists both within the other two Canadas and outside them. Its inhabitants, while diverse, share some common characteristics. Many of them are "visible" minorities, though not exclusively so. They are "visible", and yet obviously not distinct enough, culturally or linguistically. They can speak neither English nor French "well enough"; their degrees have little value in the Canadian workplace; they cannot play hockey, cannot stand the winter and hate to shovel; their children love this country and would never want to "go back". I have heard this Canada's voice only rarely in the conversation about national unity, if at all.

While the demand for increased autonomy and decentralized governance are undoubtedly desirable social objectives, I find it difficult to see how in today's Canada, the claims of one minority, based on "cultural distinctivenss" can be prioritized (I am referring to the recent resolution passed by the Canadian parliament which recognize the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada)."

There is much more at stake here than the slippery slope of increasing claims for autonomy from competing minority interests. Two questions are at issue: the justification behind the quest for autonomy; and the relationship of the decentralized, autonomous structures to the "nation" - or the broader collective - in which they are embedded. This in turn begs the question as to what constitutes that collective.

To me, a collective such as the nation is defined most fundamentally by the understanding of social justice on which it is premised. One can think of a number of such understandings of justice, but let me mention two. I draw upon the work of Iris Young, well-known critical philosopher of our times. The first is a distributive paradigm which defines social justice as the 'morally proper distribution of social benefits and burdens among society's members'. This paradigm is most concerned with the distribution of wealth, income and other material resources, but often also extends to non-material social goods such as rights, opportunity, and power. Indeed, the precise goal of the distributive model is to accommodate political demands within existing sets of social relations as manifest in property rights, gender relations, division of labor and cultural norms.

By contrast, one can think of a transformative model of social justice, that is, an understanding of social justice where existing social relations can be altered beyond what is possible through a simple redistribution of rights and resources. Of course, in practice, the transformation of existing social relations may often start with a redistributive process. The point of the transformative perspective is not to make such redistributive the ultimate goal of social change, but to take it as an initial point in a continuum of progressive social change.

Historically, while liberal models have focused on distribution amongst individuals, now there are fairly well-developed liberal theories about group rights, which speak specifically to the question of "identity". Identity in this framework is understood as a set of attributes which distinguish one social group from another (such as culture or ethnicity). A distributive model distributes rights amongst group according to such attributes. All claims to group rights (such as autonomy) must be exclusionary: it must exclude those who do not possess certain attributes.

A transformative notion of justice can not value or devalue, a priori, such particular claims, but will require that we examine the social structures and the underlying nature of the social relationships from which such claims emanate. In this case, this will require that we examine the nature of the Canadian multicultural model: not only as an ideal as its proponents insist, but as a lived reality shared by all Canadians. That many Canadians experience multiculturalism as a universalization of norms associated with one or two cultures is not simply a failure of implementation. It indicates the troubled (if not impossible) co-existence of multiculturalism with unequal treatment Canadians in political and economic processes. Such inequality can not be addressed simply through the redistribution of rights, so long as rights are conceived simply as 'possessions' rather than as rules which indicate how people must relate to one another, not as isolated individuals, but as members of a collective who share not only an ideal of social justice but also a similar lived experience of that ideal. In this framework, identity ceases to be related to specific attributes, but instead, becomes relational and dynamic, able to express social priorities as they evolve.

I think it is critical that we seek to deepen Canadian democratic structures to reflect the concerns of justice and equity, rather than continuing on the path of 'identity', 'distinctiveness' and 'culture'. The political capital from the latter may well have been exhausted.

This was first published on
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