Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Private virtue, public vice December 17, 2006

In 1989, a much admired and powerful lady who was raising funds for her NGO, asked me what I did for a living. I told her that I worked for a company. “Oh, but what do you really do—I mean for society?” she said. I became defensive and began to recount our philanthropic activities in the districts where our factories were located. ‘Is that all!’ thundered the eminence grise. I was hurt by her dismissive attitude, and recently remembered this incident when Sonia Gandhi reminded fawning businessmen in the same imperious tone about their corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR has become a buzz word these days, and one newspaper even has a CSR reporter. But why is it that something so worthy and high-minded leaves me uneasy? I think it is because companies have no business engaging in philanthropy and businessmen should value more what they do.

“The social responsibility of business is to make a profit,” famously said Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winner who died last month. He explained that in making a profit a company creates thousands of jobs, both directly and indirectly through suppliers, distributors and retailers. It imparts valuable skills to its employees. It pays crores in taxes. It improves the lives of millions of satisfied customers with its products and services. This is an enormous service to society. If some shareholders get rich on the way, so what? Companies should focus single-mindedly on their competence, providing goods and services better than their competitors, and not get distracted by extraneous activity. A company’s social responsibility is to make profits legally, not to harm nature, and uphold the highest standards of governance.

Yet, I intensely admire individuals who engage in philanthropy. I was deeply moved by Warren Buffet’s selfless gesture when he gave away all his wealth to Bill Gates’ foundation. I agree with Andrew Carnegie that to die rich is to die disgraced. If it is immoral to spend the company’s money, it is businessmen’s duty to spend their own money on charity (from after-tax profits). It is a theft against Reliance’s shareholders if Reliance Industries builds a hospital, but it is Mukesh Ambani’s duty to do so. Hence, Tatas do their charity work through their trusts, from dividends received from Tata companies. CSR should thus be relabelled ISR, Individual Social Responsibility, and each of us ought to feel the need to give back.

This is fine in theory, but the reality is that few Indians feel the philanthropic urge, which emerges it seems at a later stage of capitalism. In order that the few sources of present funding don’t dry up, we cannot allow corporate funding to cease. We can ensure its legitimacy if companies fix rigorous criteria for giving. Corporate philanthropy must enhance company profits, strengthening the brand or promoting goodwill in the community. For example, when Citibank funds a college to train micro-finance professionals, it enhances its brand.

Glib talk about CSR reflects our prejudice against businessmen. Adam Smith wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that he didn’t much care for those who spent their lives chasing “baubles and trinkets”, but he was “immensely grateful that such creatures abounded for the whole of civilisation, and the welfare of all societies depended on people’s desire and ability to accumulate unneeded capital and show off their wealth. Indeed, it …first prompted men to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths and to invent all the sciences and arts which ennoble and embellish human life.”

Thali to plough December 3, 2006

Last week’s Mittal-Walmart deal is symbolic of an India which is changing quietly. Indians now consume less cereals and more milk, vegetables and fruit. In the past 20 years, per capita consumption of vegetables has trebled in villages and doubled in towns; milk and milk products have doubled in urban and rural areas. The share of high value foods has risen in India’s agricultural output from 32 to 44 percent from 1983 to 2003. Cereal consumption has declined even among those below the poverty line, according to the economist, Ashok Gulati’s analysis.

While we have been agonising over cotton farmers’ suicides, India has become silently the world’s second largest cotton producer, crossing the United States. NCDEX has become the world’s third largest agro-commodity exchange. The cotton revolution was made possible by the much reviled Bt cotton seed, which protects against bollworm, the dreaded pest which used to destroy half the crop. Misguided activists delayed its entry into India by 5 years.

The farm, meanwhile, has been shrinking. It is now 1.4 hectares--so small that it’s difficult to make a living. The only viable farming on small holdings is vegetables, poultry, and high value crops. But growing these is riskier. Hence, contract farming is a good idea. It transfers the risk from farmers to companies. Farmers lease their land; get employment; and a guaranteed return. The contracting company invests in better seeds, scientific practices, and raises productivity. Studies show that contracted farmers earn 30 to 100 percent higher. Punjab Agro, the government’s mediating company, has 160,000 acres under contract with 25,000 farmers. Some worry that marginal farmers will be left out, but curiously small holdings can be highly competitive because the family provides free labour.

In the long run, however, people will have to leave the farm. Too many Indians (57%) are trying to eke out a living from agriculture. Peasants have faced this dilemma in all societies: Is it better to starve on an unviable plot or become the urban proletariat in Marx’s words? Everywhere they have chosen the second alternative. This is why I favour the SEZs. With all their flaws, SEZs could create millions of jobs for unemployed farm youth in construction and other non-farm areas. I disagree with Sonia Gandhi--farmers should sell their unviable plots to SEZs in exchange for urban jobs. SEZs don’t need tax breaks; they need less red tape. They could be the tipping point for our industrial revolution (unless bureaucrats again kill SEZs at birth).

President Hu’s recent visit reminded us that China’s reforms began by privatising agriculture in 1978, and delivered even better results than our green revolution. Not only did agriculture boom, but their household responsibility system generated spectacular growth of labour intensive manufacturing in rural areas. Our green revolution achieved food self-sufficiency but didn’t make manufacturing linkages because of the Licence Raj. Unlike our first green revolution, the private sector will drive changes in the rural economy this time. This is the significance of the Mittal-Walmart deal. Politicians, farmers, activists don’t realise it, but Dalal Steet does. Hence, three mutual funds, primarily with rural portfolios, began in 2006. They comprehend that India could soon be feeding the Middle East.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The price of potatoes, November 19, 2006

I sometimes wonder why I pay Rs 10 per kilo for potatoes when the farmer receives only Rs 3. My potatoes travel some distance, I realise, from the farm to the mandi to my bania, and each person in the chain must get his cut. Still, the gap of Rs 7 seems excessive, especially when the American farmer receives Rs 4 to 5. This gap varies, of course, depending on the commodity and the season, but studies by agricultural economists show that farmers in the developed countries do get a bigger share of the consumer price because their distribution chain is shorter.

Reliance opened seven supermarkets in Hyderabad last month and my friend bought potatoes there for Rs 10 per kilo compared to Rs 18 at his bania’s shop. Another friend who works with an NGO in rural Andhra reported that farmers, who had supplied potatoes to Reliance, reported receiving higher than the mandi price. How could Reliance pay a higher price to farmers and charge a lower price to consumers? Simple--it had eliminated middlemen in the chain. Thus, we should welcome the entry of large retailers. They will bring logistics efficiencies and competition between them will lower consumer prices and raise farmers’ incomes. We shouldn’t wait too long to open this sector to foreign retailers like Walmart and Tesco lest Reliance become a monopoly.

A typical farmer harvests his crop, loads it on his bullock cart, travels30 km to the mandi, where he is forced to sell often at distress prices. Once at the mandi, he cannot return without disposing his produce. He needs the money and the trader knows it. Had he known the price before he left, he might have waited a few days. Where E chaupals have arrived farmers are happy because they get to know mandi prices via the Internet. The national commodities exchange (NCDEX) is setting up electronic tickers announcing spot and future prices in local languages at mandis and bus stands in some states. Eventually, the mobile phone will be the farmer’s best source of information. All these developments make traders unhappy.

Since his crop is perishable, the farmer needs a warehouse to enhance his staying power. NCDEX is putting up a thousand cold storages with world class grading facilities, but large retailers will also bring air-conditioned warehouses and trucks, and this will save India’s huge post harvest losses, as high as 40% for some crops. Banks ought to lend money to farmers against warehouse receipts, but the Reserve Bank refuses to allow them to hedge against future prices. This is a pity for bank loans would mitigate the farmer’s risk and improve his holding power. In fact, banks should also sell crop insurance. It is amazing that RBI should view futures trading as speculation. If the farmer knows the price of potatoes, he might plant onions instead.

Old habits of the mind die slowly. When you have been a stagnant, peasant agriculture for hundreds of years, it is difficult to grasp how Reliance, commodity exchanges, futures trading, and contract farming will quietly bring a second green revolution and liberate farmers from the clutches of the old mandi system, which is at the heart of rural political patronage. Activists oppose the entry of global retailers like Walmart on ideological grounds. Talk of farmer suicides is cheap. Politician-traders on Agricultural Marketing Committees play on these insecurities. No wonder it takes so long to reform in a democracy.

Things that matter, November 5, 2006

Lant Pritchett wakes up each morning and worries about the state of India’s government schools. Formerly an economist at Harvard and now with the World Bank, Pritchett is happy that 93 % of India’s children are now in school as the SRI survey shows. However, digging deeper into the SRI data, Pritchett finds that 53 % of all children in urban India are in private schools. In some states the ratio is much higher, but urban India overall has amongst the highest levels of private primary education in the world.

Chile privatised education in 1981, and after 25 years its private sector has achieved only 46.5 % share of enrolment. Even Holland, which has always believed in giving choice between private and public schools to its children as a matter of state policy, has only got a private school share of 68 %. This Dutch level has already been exceeded in six states of India. Whereas in Chile and Holland the government pays parents to send their children to private schools, it has happened accidentally in India because government schools have failed, and even the poor are exiting from them.

The de facto privatisation of schooling in urban India is confirmed by the government’s own District Information System for Education website, which shows that 66.9% of children in urban Maharashtra are in private schools, 66.3% in Tamilnadu, and 65.1% in U.P. to name only three of India’s largest states. This is supported by Samuel Paul’s studies on people’s satisfaction with public services. The states with the highest level of privatisation give the lowest rating to government schools. For example, only 1% of the parents in Punjab are satisfied with teachers’ behaviour in state schools.
There is nothing wrong with giving parents a choice as Holland and Chile have done. If our government were to give the money that it spends on running schools to children in the form of scholarships, competition for the scholarship money would improve many government schools. Today, the government—the centre and states together--spends on the average Rs 4000 per child per year on primary education. Headmasters confirm that a child can get a decent education for Rs 4000. Thus, money is not the problem, and we ought to test this people friendly scholarship scheme in a few cities. However, we cannot give up on a million government schools. State schools do work in other countries.
The Kremer-Murlidharan study shows that one out of four teachers is absent from our state primary schools and of those present one out of two is not teaching. Thus, the heart of the problem is teacher accountability. And this failure is even more heartbreaking given the exalted status of the teacher in our civilization for whom inspiring young minds was his dharma. Many NGOs are making heroic efforts to improve the existing system, but given powerful teachers’ unions, it is an impossible task. Hence, Lance Pritchett suggests that new teachers ought to be hired into a new professional cadre which is district based and offers incentives and promotions for good performance. It would be a Panchayati Raj institution and teachers would be accountable locally to parents instead of to bureaucrats at the state capital. The answer, thus, is not private schools alone, but to liberate government schools from the ‘anti-teacher’ grip of unions and babus. These are the things that matter in the end; thus will the poor benefit from our rising economy.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Saaf Aangan Dreams October 22, 2006

In the late seventies I lived with my family in Mexico City, where I noticed that our neighbours would wash the foot path outside their house every day. But we, being good Indians, swept our home, washed our driveway but left the pavement to the municipality. As a result, the walkway outside our neighbours’ homes sparkled proudly while ours remained dirty and sad. It didn’t take long before we felt ashamed and followed the good ways of our neighbours.
While we were learning civic virtue in Mexico, a flight lieutenant in the Indian Air Force, Madhu Sawant, had the same idea. He asked himself, what if each Indian took care of the little space outside his home, office or shop? So, when he retired he set up an NGO called “I Clean Bombay”. Redefining the charming, wistful Hindi word, aangan, to mean the space between one’s boundary wall and the middle of the street, he created the “Saaf Aangan Scheme”, which was formally adopted in 2002 by Mumbai’s municipality. The scheme allows an individual to lease the footpath outside his home from the municipality for Rs 3 per year, and makes him officially responsible for keeping it free of garbage, hawkers, and squatters.
In 2005, the NGO Council of Mumbai persuaded the municipality to convert Saaf Aangan into enforceable Rules, which provide a fine for littering of Rs 1000 on citizens and Rs 100 for house owners, and also encouraged home owners to keep litter bins on footpaths. In August 2006, the municipality decided to upgrade Saaf Aangan rules into Bye-Laws to cover hawkers, who are also responsible for keeping the surrounding space around them clean. There are 300 Nuisance Detectors to enforce the fines. “Even a paanwala can apply to the municipal ward office to lease the area around his stall,” says Sawant.

Like many Indians I despair over the filth in our public spaces. But I am embarrassed to complain as there are so many ills more pressing. In Saaf Aangan, however, we may have the makings of a big idea for our grimy towns. Its attraction is that it doesn’t depend on the state but on individual initiative. It also feeds on self-interest rather than altruism because one wants to return home to a clean doorstep. Any group of individuals in any town in India can make it happen. It helps to rope in a sensitive municipal commissioner, but that is not necessary. Before BMC got involved, 500 municipal schools and 83 police colonies were practicing Saaf Aangan. So were citizen in neighbourhoods like N. Dutta Marg in Andheri (west), which is now lined with trees and has flower beds along the boundary walls of all its 35 residential complexes. Once a few get going it doesn’t take long for neighbours to emulate as we learned in Mexico City.
Saaf Aangan should be easier to implement in smaller towns where the word spreads faster, enforcement is easier, and there is greater sense of belonging. Tanya Mahajan, a volunteer with says, “Belonging and ownership are an intrinsic part of this concept, and schools are a good place to start”. So tomorrow, when you sweep your house, why not absent-mindedly sweep the pavement in front of your door. You might create a revolution. But remember, man is the only creature on this planet who is truly dirty. And when we haven’t taken civic responsibility for two thousand years, it won’t happen overnight.

India’s mystifying rise, October 8, 2006

There were many smiling Indian faces last week. Our economy again beat forecasts and grew 8.9% in the April-June quarter. India’s economic rise bewilders Indians. No one quite understands why this noisy and chaotic democracy of a billion people has become one of the world’s fastest growing economies. This is the fourth year we are looking at around 8% growth, and this follows 22 years of very respectable 6% annual growth. With 25 years of high growth per capita income gains have been huge: from $1,178 in 1980 to $3,051 in 2005 (in ppp).

What puzzles everyone is that India is not following any of the proven paths to success. Compared to the classic Asian strategy—exporting labour-intensive, low-priced manufactured goods to the West—India’s economy is driven more by consumption than investment, domestic markets more than exports, services more than industry, and high-tech more than low-skilled manufacturing.

With consumption accounting for two thirds of GDP, ours is a people friendly model; hence, inequality has grown much less. Our Gini index is 33, compared to 41 for the United States, 45 for China, and 59 for Brazil. (In a perfectly equal society Gini is zero.) Our domestic orientation has meant that our economy is far more insulated from global downturns, and is less volatile. More importantly, thirty to forty percent of our GDP growth is due to rising productivity rather than mere increases in capital and labour. Ironically, while high end, capital intensive manufacturing is succeeding, we have failed to create a broad based industrial revolution based on low end, labour intensive manufacturing. Hence, we are not creating enough jobs. This is a real worry--how will we move our vast army of people from the rural to urban areas?

Even more perplexing is that rather than rising with the help of the state, India appears to be rising despite the state. The entrepreneur is clearly at the centre of our success story. We have highly competitive private companies now, a booming stock market, and a modern, well-disciplined financial sector. Competitiveness runs deep. More than hundred companies have a market cap of over a billion dollars. Foreign institutions have invested in over 1000 Indian companies via the stock market. Of 500 Fortune companies 125 now have R and D bases in India, and 380 have outsourced software development to India.

Our economy may baffle us but we are agreed on one thing. India is succeeding because the state is gradually stepping out of the way. The pace of reform is frustratingly slow, but incredible as it seems, every succeeding government after 1991 has persisted in reforming. And even slow reforms add up. Yet, the state has not lived to its side of the 1991 bargain. It hasn’t built enough roads; nor given us uninterrupted power and water. Government schools and health centres are rotten. The police are corrupt. In short, we don’t get the services that citizens in other countries take for granted. The Indian state is so riddled with perverse incentives that accountability is impossible. The tragedy is that there are so many in this government, supported by Left allies, who want to bring back state control and kill our growth. One of them is RBI which is itching to raise interest rates. I sympathise with Chidambaram’s poignant plea to these growth killers—“give us some political space to reform” so that the UPA might take some minimal credit for this great achievement.

Lalu is our Ronald Reagan, September 24, 2006

Train journeys have increasingly become a part of my life. My ancient mother had been ailing in an ashram on the banks of the Beas River in Punjab, and I would try to visit her as often as I could. But she was 91 and age finally caught up with her. She passed away one night after living a life that I expect was better than that of most of my countrymen.
Visiting her meant lots of journeys and before I knew it I was addicted to the railway. I can now make a reservation sitting at home on my computer, pay with a credit card, and print my own e-ticket. If I don’t have a printer they deliver it in 24 hours. It is quite wonderful when something outstanding emerges from our public sector. Soon, I will be able to track my train’s progress at home or on a screen at the railway station via a satellite system.

In the early days of the Internet I predicted that computers would only take off in India when computer prices dropped to Rs 10,000 and when you could buy a railway ticket on the Net. Well, both have happened! And so, a revolution is underway and it is likely to be more profound than the mobile phone. The minister of HRD is, of course, oblivious of this because he is too busy dividing Indians. He doesn’t realise that India’s real divide is not caste but the English language and computers. Instead of trying to bridge these he is on his own casteist power trip.

The electronic ticket has left an army of reservation clerks unhappy. My South Indian friends used to complain that they couldn’t get a ticket on the Tamil Nadu Express during holidays without a bribe. This explains why the Railway unions have opposed e-tickets for years. But e-tickets are only a small part of a genuine renaissance in the Indian Railways. The bigger story is freight. In the past no one wanted to ship goods by rail because rail freight was expensive, inefficient and corrupt. Now a modern managerial mindset has set in and all sorts of innovative public-private partnerships are underway. The private sector is investing in wagons, container trains, new railway lines, and freight terminals. Meanwhile, a booming economy, competitive freight rates, and productivity gains have transformed profitability of the Railways.

Do we give the minister, Lalu Prasad, credit for this revival? He took over when the Railways were tottering financially, and if they had sunk we would have blamed him for “Biharing the railways”. Yes, he should get credit. Lalu’s success is not in what he has done, but in what he has not. He has surrounded himself with good people—Sudhir Kumar is one of them—and he has left them alone to run the show. This was also Ronald Reagan’s secret of success. Great managers have often led from the back.

The Indian Railways sell 4.8 billion tickets a year. This works out to 4.4 journeys per Indian. We are thus a nation on the move. When we are unhappy, we just pack up and go. Caste ties loosen when people travel and this is why Bihari migrants have united and are making a bid for power in the Punjab. Internal migration is our great safety valve against regional inequality, and because of it even Bihar will catch up one day.

Don’t despair over integrity September 10, 2006

One ought to read a great book twice, at least. When I first read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace I was too young. I was only interested in the plot and the relationships between Natasha, Andrei, and Pierre. When I read it again in my forties, I was deeply moved by its moral concerns. I realised that the novel is really about the way we deceive ourselves, how we are false to others, how we oppress fellow human beings, and how we’re deeply unjust in our day to day lives. Most of this moral blindness seems man-made and avoidable. It makes one wonder if this is an intractable human condition, or can we change it?

It seems to me that ordinary human lives should not have to be so cruel and humiliating. Is it not possible to be more honest, fair, and kind in our relationships? Some of our misery is the result of the way the state treats us. Can we not reduce at least some of the grief that public officials inflict on us? It is in pursuit of these questions that I began to write this column more than ten years ago. The same questions sent me to the Mahabharata, and I tried to find answers in the epic’s elusive concept of dharma. I have concluded that we can reform our institutions, and this can change the morals and character of our people and deliver greater happiness to our society.

We are hopelessly addicted to the belief that corruption in India is caused by the crookedness of Indians. This is just not true. The truth is that India has far more red tape than other countries; red tape leads to corruption and distorts a people’s character. According to the World Bank’s “Doing Business” database, it takes 89 days to start a small business in India while it takes two days in Australia or Canada. There are more entry procedures in India; each procedure is a point of contact with an official; each contact is an opportunity to extract a bribe. Empirical studies show that burdensome entry regulations do not improve the quality of products, make work safer, or reduce pollution. They only hold back investment or force people into the informal economy. Hence, the Copenhagen Consensus of expert economists concluded in 2004 that easing start-up rules is more important for development than investing in infrastructure or health care.

In India it also takes longer to register a property, enforce a contract, and close a business. Indian managers spend more time on regulatory issues than managers in other countries. Thus, India ranks low among the 145 countries studied by the World Bank in the ease of doing business. Fortunately, reforms can quickly change country rankings. In 2005, 58 out of 145 countries cut red tape and simplified their regulations in some way. India was one of these—it improved its credit markets. Although it has been moving up since 1991, India remains a hostile business environment.

Civilized societies are less corrupt not because their character is superior but because their institutions are better at aligning the incentives of their citizens. There is nothing wrong in the character of Indians. The same Indians behave differently when they cross the immigration line at Heathrow airport. So, let us not despair about our integrity. Let’s focus on reforming our institutions, cutting red tape, and become a good place to do business. Our moral character will follow quickly. And yes, do read War and Peace, again.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

What about my mother tongue? August 27, 2006

My column on ‘Inglish’ last month brought a lot of mail. Much of it was favourable, but a few criticised me for advocating the “bizarre” idea that we should think of English as an Indian language and exploit it unabashedly to “conquer the world”. Since my critics are serious academics I don’t want to dismiss their concerns lightly. The nation’s 59th birthday has also just passed—so it is a good time to dwell on our linguistic future.
Anthropologists tell us that language is a carrier of culture and one’s first language carries one’s culture. Gauri Vishwanathan writes in the Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India that the English language came to us as an "imperial mission" of educating and civilising colonial subjects in the literature and thought of England. English speaking Indians thus became “alienated from their roots, their character degraded, and their minds colonized and incapable of innovation”. English also became an instrument of social exclusion against the low caste. Hence, many critics want English banned from our primary schools.
True, it came here on an imperial mission and got left behind by accident, but English is now a part of our history, as much as Gandhi and Nehru. Millions of Indians have been speaking English for generations and they don’t show imminent signs of losing their Indian-ness. Besides, young middle class Indians today are more confident and relaxed, and their minds are finally decolonised. They think of English as an empowering skill, like Windows, and are comfortable mixing it with their mother tongue. They “live in their own skin" as the great French-Algerian writer, Frantz Fanon, would have put it.
Professor David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, says that no one 'owns' English anymore. It is the global language and a quarter of the world's population uses it. Three-quarters of the world's people are naturally bilingual, he adds. This means that people are capable of maintaining a balance between their language of empowerment and their language of identity. Hence, major languages, like Marathi and Kannada, are in no danger of extinction (although our tribal languages are). Vernacular chauvinists, in Karnataka and elsewhere, are wrong to go against parents’ wishes who want their children to learn English in primary schools. Linguistic experts say that a person has a huge advantage if he learns a language before the age of ten. This is one of the reasons why 98 out of 100 candidates for call centre jobs get rejected. Over the next ten years 3.5 million jobs are expected to be outsourced globally, and they are likely to be lost by India because BPO experts say that India is losing its “English” advantage to other countries. China has realised that outsourcing is capable of wiping out the disease of “educated unemployment” and it has made teaching English from KG a national goal.

What is truly “bizarre” is that India, whose success in the global economy derives from its facility with English, should remain hostage to the deep insecurities of its vernacular chauvinists. They worry about borrowing English words. Imagine if Shakespeare had written his plays in pure Anglo Saxon and hadn’t borrowed wildly from Latin, Germanic and French roots! We can either be like the French or the Chinese. The French whine over globalization while the confident Chinese go out to play and win the game. I’d rather follow the Chinese. Let’s think of English as an Indian language and go and win the world.

Let our cities reflect the spirit of a new age, Outlook Magazine, August 13,2006

When I heard two weeks ago that one Sanjay Singal, chairman of Bhushan Power and Steel, had bought a one acre plot on 4 Amrita Shergill Marg in New Delhi for Rs 137 crores, I wanted to rush up to him and say to him, ‘Now that you have one of India’s most prized properties, do select a great architect to build your home. For god’s sake, let’s not have another cut-and-paste job. Your building ought to symbolise the rise of a new age in India after the reforms, and millions will remember you for having captured a great moment in our history.’ For good architecture has the amazing ability to represent the life of the times in our imagination.
This issue of Outlook is about the way “the world looks at India”, and one of the most potent ones is visual memory. A great nation or city is defined by its buildings. We remember Paris not only by the Eiffel Tower, but by the wonderful boulevard buildings of Baron Haussmann. We think of New York by the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings (although my favourite is Mies’ Seagrams building). Sydney has its exciting Opera House. Although Seattle’s signature is the Space Needle, etched in my memory is Rem Koolhaas’ public library. There is even a city which was ‘created’ by a building— Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum is rightly called the ‘miracle of Bilbao’, which put this unknown city in northeast Spain on the world map. These visuals symbols are not just symbols of man’s quest for beauty, they also reflect the spirit of an age.
It is fifteen years since the golden summer of 1991 when we lost our innocence and with it our fear of the global economy, and began our affair with the free market. It has been a remarkable period which has spawned world class companies and made us one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Time, the Economist, and Foreign Affairs recently did cover issues on this ‘rise of India’. Yet if you think about it, we don’t have a single visual image which celebrates this new age with its spirit of economic freedom and the unshackling of the energies of the Indian people, and in parenthesis, the slow decline of the old bureaucratic state.
Certainly, we do have some powerful visual reminders of our great cities. When you think of Mumbai, you think of the Gateway of India (although VT station is what I think of). Delhi has Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, India Gate, and a host of visual symbols. But these are images of our colonial and pre-colonial past. The first and last visual moment of post-Independence India was in the mid-1950s when Jawaharlal Nehru, with plenty of vision and courage, commissioned Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh. Swadeshi voices were raised even then—‘why can’t an Indian architect do it? But Nehru had little patience for petty minds with their petty complexes, and he stood firm. He may have been the victim of bad economic ideas like ‘import substitution’ but his mind was as open as Rabindranath Tagore’s when it came to the world.
The civilized merchant prince, Vikram Sarabhai, supported Nehru’s bold approach and he invited Corbusier to design a house for his family in Ahmedabad. During this fertile period in Ahmedabad, the great Louis Kahn built the campus of the Indian Institute of Management and Ray and Charles Eames were associated with the National School of Design. Thus, two geographies of contemporary India entered the history of world architecture, Chandigarh and Ahmedabad. Corbusier went on to inspire a generation of great architects—B.V. Doshi, Charles Correa, and many others.
Chandigarh is by now the memory of an age gone by. The city captured our utopian, post-Independence dreams of socialism, secularism and democracy, and more importantly our faith in the state’s ability to do good. By the seventies, however, Indira Gandhi had perverted these ideals and socialism had turned into a statist Licence Raj and democracy was almost extinguished by the Emergency. Our mood of despair finally lifted with the announcement of sweeping liberalisation in July 1991. It was as though our second independence had arrived: we were going to be free from a rapacious and domineering state. A new stage in our history had begun with a decisive shift in country’s energy to the private sector.
So now, when Infosys, Wipro or TCS puts up a new building, it should ask itself, if what goes on inside is world class, shouldn’t the outside reflect this achievement? The same responsibility devolves upon our other globally competitive companies like Bharti, Bharat Forge, Jet Airways, ICICI Bank. Come to think of it, if Sir Norman Foster could design the Hong Kong airport and Renzo Piano the Kansia airport in Osaka, why don’t we have great architects design our new airports in Delhi and Mumbai? The responsibility for ‘dreaming Chandigarhs’ has now fallen on the business class, particularly on builders like DLF, Mittals and Rahejas.
Just before Sanjay Singal bought his acre in Lutyens Delhi, Navin Jindal had paid Rs 165 crores to buy 3.8 acres on Mansingh Road. At these prices one can now afford to bring in a Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier or even I.M. Pei. A good place to start looking for a great architect is among the 27 recipients of the annual Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, but there are many more to choose from.
It is time we took our cities seriously. They have unbelievable energy; they are crowded; but they can be beautiful. The word ‘city’ is related to ‘civic’ and ‘civilization’, and the city is a place of civilization. Some Indians have a prejudice against urban towers, which is understandable for a typical glass and steel tower is aggressive, arrogant and black, and it is trying to say, ‘I am more powerful than you’. But when someone like Renzo Piano thinks of urban towers, he thinks of San Gemignano, and a ‘desire to go up, to breathe fresh air, to disappear into the sky…it is not a bad idea to go up in dense cities.’
A hundred years from now the world will remember the first quarter of the 21st century not for 9/11 as many Americans believe, but for the rise of China and India. It is as important a moment in world history as the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Kenneth Clarke reminds us: ‘A great historical episode can exist in our imagination almost entirely in the form of architecture. Very few of us have read the texts of early Egyptian literature. Yet we feel we know those infinitely remote people almost as well as our immediate ancestors, chiefly because of their sculpture and architecture.’ So, let’s return the compliment to liberalization by putting up some great buildings and make something out of our cities that will live after us.------Gurcharan Das is the author of India Unbound and other books. He was formerly CEO of Procter and Gamble India.

Monday, August 21, 2006

How to score a self-goal!, August 13, 2006

Truly, we are a wondrous land! In a country where two thirds of the children are undernourished, where 70 percent of the people cannot access safe sanitation and 65 infants die out of a thousand born, we are seriously debating the pesticide levels in a product that is probably the safest in the world from a pesticide perspective. Sadly, the controversy has created a scare in a nation which has among the lowest pesticide residues in its food chain. Indian diets contain roughly 18 percent of acceptable daily intake levels of pesticide versus Western diets which have 40 to 50 percent, according to international experts. The reason is that our diets are extensively vegetarian; and meat inherently has higher pesticide levels via the grains ingested by animals in the food chain.

If we are seriously concerned with pesticides in Indian diets, we ought to begin with tea. According to European norms (EU), tea contains 187,300 times the pesticide than water used in colas. If hypothetically our colas had exceeded allowable levels by thirty times, I could still drink 6200 glasses of cola and I would have less pesticide in my body than a cup of tea. The same goes for other foods. EU norms allow apples to have 154,120 times the pesticide than water; bananas to have 95,220 times; milk 7140 times. So, soft drinks are among the safest products we consume from the pesticide perspective. This doesn’t mean that our other foods are not safe. Nor is our food chain polluted—an unfortunate impression created by the media. It means that we do not live in an ideal world free of pests and pesticides.

I am generally a critic of our government, but in this case I give it credit. It has fixed water standards which are equal to the highest norms in the world. Since water in soft drinks conforms to these norms, it is probably safer to drink a Pepsi in Kerala than in Kentucky. The government is also now working on sugar norms and testing a protocol for finished soft drinks. In the end, governments understand that multinational companies have to maintain high standards because they have too much to lose. News travels quickly and a disaster in one country can harm a company’s image and sales around the world. Hence, the Indian government wants to do its own tests. The last time around government data showed six times lower pesticide levels than CSE’s tests.

Our state politicians have fallen into a trap. They think that by banning colas they have won cheap votes. People, however, will soon realise that they have been taken for a ride. Already the people of Kerala are questioning, how can you ban colas and allow the sale of liquor and cigarettes? Eventually, everyone has lost in this silly business. Our nation has been unfairly smeared for high pesticide in our food chain. Our exports of food products will lose the trust of international customers. Tourists will say, “If I can’t drink a safe cola, how can I eat anything in India?” Foreign investors will be reluctant to invest in a country which does not observe the rule of law in closing factories. All NGOs have got a bad name by these smear tactics. The environmental movement has been hurt. This is sad because we need a strong civil society to take on the real problems of India. Finally, media has been tarnished by its lack of application. We have truly scored a self-goal!

Monday, August 07, 2006

The difficulty of being good July 30, 2006

There is a green playing field near my house where children can usually be found playing cricket. Over the past two months, however, they have quietly switched to football. Since I love football, I stop and linger and watch, hoping to see someone score a goal. But my neighbour says he misses the cricket, and blames this change on “insidious globalization”. He is referring, of course, to last month’s World Cup, which should have been a dazzling climax to Zinedine Zidane’s glorious career, but instead it left the memory of an angry moment and exposed the tragic flaw in a hero who carried the burden of a divided nation on his shoulders. Like a tragic hero, he went not to his coronation but to his disgrace.

Zidane symbolized peace and reconciliation in a troubled France where riots had erupted last year in dozens of cities. A shy, level-headed, family man, he was proof to millions of immigrant children in France that you could be brown and Muslim and African, and still be a success in the 21st century. Like Karna in the Mahabharata, Zidane had a “mystical talent”. He had the ability to accurately control the ball with any part of his boot, to make the ball hover between his ankles, which meant that it was impossible for his opponent to read where he was going to kick the ball.

The parallel with Karna doesn’t end there. It was Zidane’s last game as it was Karna’s last battle. The French assembled their team around Zidane; the Kauravas built their strategy around Karna. Zidane changed the tournament by defeating Brazil; Karna was capable of changing the course of the Kurukshetra war. The penalty shoot-out loomed before Zidane; the fight with Arjuna hung over Karna. Just as Materazzi tried to demoralize Zidane psychologically, so did Salya, Karna’s charioteer. (Yudhishthira had extracted a promise from Salya that instead of raising Karna’s morale, like a good charioteer, he would destroy it.) Zidane had a low flash point and the Italians knew it. So, they began to wind him up from the start of the match. And he threw it all away when he turned, walked back to Materazzi, and with all that unstoppable venom, hit him.

Most of us don’t swear at strangers on the street. So, why should sportsmen behave in this disgraceful way? Australian cricketers have turned sledging into an art form. The truth is that psychological warfare is an old ploy going back to the days of the Mahabharata. A professional must learn to deal with it. When Shane Warne tried this on Brian Lara, the latter scored 275. In reacting to Materazzi, Zidane broke a golden rule of a professional. He put his feelings ahead of his team. Terry Venables, the former English coach, used to tell his players, “If they spit on your face, turn around and walk away.” Gandhi taught the same to Satyagrahis during the Quit India Movement.

When you are so admired you begin to believe you are a god. It is as though the legend becomes too much for the man. Hubris takes over, and you are ready for a fall. It is one of one of life’s cruelties that the best must also fail. Yudhishthira too had to tell a lie. The Mahabharata teaches us how difficult it is to be good in this world, which I suppose, is an apt sub-title not only for the epic but also for our life on this earth.

Inglish, it’s cool! July 16, 2006

A few years ago TV viewers in Tamil Nadu were entertained by pictures of irate children and grandchildren of Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, scolding the police in chaste English while apologetic policemen grovelled in Tamil. The scene was not remarkable except that the amused viewers had been victims of incessant sermons by the mighty minister on the evils of English, and the irony did not escape them.

Last year I wrote a long essay about two trends that are likely to determine our linguistic future. One is the rapid spread of English across India; the second is the unprecedented popularity of Hindi. The collision of the two we call Hinglish, but should, in fact, be called Inglish because it is increasingly pan-India’s street language and borrows from all vernaculars. Mixing English with our mother tongues has been going on for generations, but what is different this time around is that Inglish is both the aspirational language of the lower classes and the fashionable idiom of upper class drawing rooms. Inglish is the stylish language of Bollywood, FM radio and national advertising. Advertisers, in particular, have been surprised by the terrific resonance to slogans such as, ‘Life ho to aise’, ‘Josh machine’ and ‘Dil mange more’.

What exactly is Inglish is not easy to define, and needs more research. Is its base English or vernacular bhasha? For the upwardly mobile, I think, it is bhasha, such as what my newsboy speaks: ‘Aaj main busy hoon, kal bill milega, definitely’. Or my bania’s helper: ‘voh, mujhe avoid karti hai!’ For the classes, on the other hand, the base is definitely English, as in: ‘Hungry, kya?’ or ‘Careful yaar, voh dangerous hai!’ Zee News’ evening bulletin is more even handed with an equal number of English and Hindi words: ‘Aaj Middle East mein peace ho gai!’

In Inglish, perhaps for the first time we may have found a unifying language of the masses and the classes, acceptable to the South and the North. Its rise has parallels with Urdu, which became a naturalised subcontinental language mainly after the decline of Muslim rule. Originally the camp argot of the country’s Muslim conquerors, Urdu was forged from a combination of the conqueror’s imported Farsi and local bhasha. Just as soldiers transported it to the Deccan, so is Inglish riding the coat-tails of Outsourcing and Bollywood. It is appropriate that this should be happening to English for it is a bastard and has borrowed promiscuously from all languages. It sprang up in late 14th century England among common people when the Norman aristocracy spoke French and the clergy Latin. The first efforts to translate the Bible into English led to burnings at the stake, but in a hundred years it had produced Shakespeare. Inglish too might do the same in the 21st century!

So, is Inglish our ‘conquest of English’ to paraphrase Salman Rushdie? Or is it our journey to ‘conquer the world’ in the words of Professor David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, who predicts that Indian English will soon become the most widely spoken variant of English as a result of India’s economic rise and the sheer size of its population. ‘When 300 hundred million Indians pronounce an English word in a certain way’, he says, ‘it will be the only way to pronounce it.’ Raghuvir Sahay sums it up well: “The English taught us English to turn us into subjects/ Now we teach ourselves English to turn into masters”.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Curse of seniority July 2, 2006

Two weeks ago I was invited to a glamorous event in Manhattan celebrating the launch of a special issue of the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine titled The Rise of India to which I had also contributed. A knowledgeable and well heeled audience heard our moderator begin with Jim Rogers’ famous line that he wouldn’t invest in India because “it had the worst bureaucracy in the world”. An odd note to begin an event honouring India’s rise! It soon became apparent, however, that we must be celebrating the rise of a “private” India. A worrisome question hung over the whole evening--is India rising economically despite the state?

During our socialist days we worried about economic growth but we were proud of our world class judiciary, bureaucracy and the police. Now we are ashamed of these very institutions while we take growth for granted. The brightest human beings on the earth reside in India’s public services, but their fibre has been destroyed by the system’s inability to nurture the good and punish the bad. This is, in part, due to the insidious seniority system run by small and safe men. When a person is promoted regardless of performance he loses his will to excel. And so, what was once called the best civil service in the world has been “dumbed down”. In 1938, 81 civil servants ran the central government and a thousand ICS officers ruled undivided India of 300 million people far more efficiently because they had not succumbed to the disease of seniority.

It is also democracy’s fault. It creates the illusion that if we are equal in one respect we must be equal in every way. As citizens we are equal before the law with equal rights, but this sensible idea is subverted into a belief that if we are equal legally then we must be equal in other ways. Thus, we are shy to reward talented persons and punish non-performers. When institutions stop nurturing talent then one falls into a sick world of “rishwat and sifarish” where lakhs of cases remain pending in the courts, where drinking water doesn’t reach the poor, where electricity board engineers connive to steal power and universities promote unsuitable professors.

Great nations are built by talented persons. Anyone who has run an institution or a business knows the 80:20 rule—80 percent of the results are delivered by 20 percent of the people. Hence, smart managers reward the talented without de-motivating the rest. Talent is, of course, widely dispersed--it exists among dalits, brahmins and OBCs--and successful nations are able to spot and nurture it. Just as one wouldn’t select a World Cup football team based on reservations, so one must never bend the rules of entry into any institution. Doing so sends a wrong signal to the young, telling them, “chalta hai”. If the entry exam doesn’t evaluate talent properly then we should change the exam but not sacrifice the principle of merit.

Indian companies are becoming world class because they respect this principle. Veerappa Moily, who is now picking up the pieces after Arjun Singh, could similarly give birth to world class private universities in India if he got rid of the Licence Raj in education. What a wonderful way to expand seats! And if Manmohan Singh is serious about governance, he should attack the accursed principle of seniority. Great nations somehow manage to strike the right balance between the claims of talent and equity. Others are cursed to be mediocre.

A highway called India June 18, 2006

Homi Bhabha, the distinguished professor of English at Harvard, recently described India as a multi-lane highway. This is a happy metaphor, I think, because it captures nicely our diverse multilingual, multicultural, open society in which all are moving forward, albeit at different speeds. At the same forum Amartya Sen added that India had experienced huge gains from the economic reforms and everyone seemed to be rising. The only question is if those in the slow lane are gaining enough from the reforms. He went on to remind us about the English philosopher, David Hume’s astonishing thought--market expansion makes us aware of others’ lives and thus expands our ethical horizon.

Thanks to talented persons in the fast lane, India is now on the verge of becoming a world beater, even a champion, and this is happening after a thousand years. We ought to ensure now that those in the slow lane also get an equal start on the highway so that they too accelerate and change lanes at the right moment. Hence, I had proposed here a scholarship scheme on May 7th with a choice of any private or public school for all disadvantaged schoolchildren in India. This would promote equity without compromising merit, and it would do more for OBCs than reservations. It turns out that it will also cost exactly the same as the cabinet’s decision to recklessly expand capacity in higher education.

Arjun Singh’s proposal, however, seeks to artificially push persons from the slower to the faster lanes. This will cause accidents on the road and all the lanes will slow down. When high performers observe persons with lower marks stealing ahead by unfair means, they are bound to lose heart. Some of their competitive spirit will die. The notion of fair competition develops early in human beings. Studies by the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, show that even three year olds get offended when one child gets a bigger piece of the cake. This is why every judgment by the American Supreme Court has opposed quotas even though it was sympathetic to affirmative action.

The cabinet’s compromise to rapidly expand seats will further diminish the already low standards in most colleges. India will not be able to compete in a world that has no place for mediocrity. Since 1991, we have tried to build a world class India by focusing on growth, believing that expansion was the best tonic for lifting the poor. Suddenly, in the past two years, we are no longer interested in growing India but only in dividing it. No wonder Arjun Singh appears in a web poll among the “villains who divided India” along with Jinnah, Godse, V.P. Singh and Narendra Modi. I am not one of Midnight’s children--I was born in the silence before the storm that overtook the lives of my family during the partition. I have a sickening premonition that we are facing another division of India. Arjun Singh might sleep well, but I wake up in the night with this terrible casteist nightmare.

At the same event in Delhi, Larry Summers, the former President of Harvard University, claimed that history will remember our age by the rise of China and India. The importance of this event to world history, he said, is equal to the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. If the cabinet proposal on reservations goes through then history will only remember the rise of China. India, it will record, was too busy cutting itself up.

A question of merit 4 June 2006

In the recent debate on reservations we have heard much talk about merit. Ever since the decision by the cabinet to extend reservations to the OBC, I have been deluged by anguished email whose common refrain goes like this: Just when things were going well for India, just when we were building a competitive nation based on merit, why did this tragedy have to fall on us?
These unhappy letters, I find, have been using “merit” as though it were a fixed and absolute thing. Amartya Sen, in a book, Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, edited by Kenneth Arrow and others, points out that merit is a dependent idea and its meaning depends on how a society defines a desirable act. An act of merit in one society may not be the same in another. When Arjuna pierced the target, he performed an act of merit and was suitably rewarded at Draupadi’s svayamvara in the Mahabharata. In our contemporary society Draupadi is more likely to choose a high performer on the CAT exam who gets into IIT. Any well-functioning society rewards talented persons whose actions further their idea of a good society.
In the private sector it is relatively easier to spot merit and reward it. If an individual’s actions consistently improve the company’s profit, she gets promoted and her fellow employees think it fair. Similarly, citizens of a nation prefer to reward those who promote the common good. The reservations debate has this silver lining--it is forcing us to think about our idea of the common good. For the philosopher John Rawls, a good action is related in some way to lifting the worst off in society. For Amartya Sen, it would lessen inequality, and hence he has consistently supported reservations for Dalits. The key point is that there is no natural order of “merit” that is independent of our value system.
Before getting agitated about reservations let us reexamine our notion of a good society. On the face of it, rewarding those who combine intelligence with effort and score in CAT exams doesn’t seem unfair. For these individuals are the ones that will go on to build competitive companies, which will create thousands of jobs and help our nation compete in the world. But Lani Guinier, the famous law professor at Harvard, questions if exams like CAT are the best selectors of talent. If she is correct, then we ought to re-look at our selection exams (including civil service exams) and ensure that they not only remove a bias against the low caste but are good predictors of future performance. Since we are becoming a service economy, our exams should also select those with a bias for serving others.
One of the great achievements of independent India is that we widely condemn discrimination of any kind. We even accept compensatory measures to lift Dalits. But we also believe that great nations are built by talent; hence, we don’t envy our software millionaires--they have risen through ability and hard work. This social contract of equity and excellence does not stretch, however, to extending reservations to the OBCs. Most of them are not the oppressed. Hence, we oppose and condemn this cabinet proposal. It discriminates against the talented and will lead to a decline in standards. Although Amartya Sen and John Rawls’ ideas may be seductive, we cannot forget the nightmare we have lived from 1950 to 1990 when we tried to socially engineer our society through such Utopian ideals.

A hot summer of envy 21 May, 2006

Ever since the state election results, there has been more than the usual talk about “soaking the greedy middle class” by the emboldened Left. As it is, this government has been obsessed with redistributing poverty, and has done too little to create prosperity, which will only come through genuine reforms. Meanwhile, Arjun Singh, smelling an opportunity to become a Left immortal, has trumped his OBC coalition partners and declared a caste war. It promises to be a long hot summer of envy.

S. Narayan, the former finance secretary and economic advisor to the PM, writes that the real motive behind Arjun Singh’s move to extend reservations is envy. Having failed to improve government institutions, our babus and netas now want to control private ones. It will give them the clout to “visit, examine, ask questions and be feted by” the elite. He has a point. There are 265 universities in India, almost all of them under government control. Only about 25 of these are any good. The rest seldom produce an employable graduate. If government would focus on improving the quality of the 240 bad institutions, it would do more for the millions of OBCs than to throw them a few crumbs in the IITs and IIMs. If we rapidly increased the supply of good institutions there would be no need for reservations. But this would mean doing hard work, and it’s a lot easier to redistribute poverty.

If greed is the vice of capitalism, envy is the flaw of socialism. “From each according to ability and to each according to his need” was the rallying cry of Marxism as it set out to create a classless, egalitarian society. Socialist societies, however, turned out to be the most envious in history. “The searing heartburn of envy causes a choking feeling in the throat, squeezes the eyes out of their sockets”, says a character in Y. Olesha’s 1929 novella set in the Soviet Union, where turning in your neighbour for his perceived advantage became a way of life. Envy is felt more strongly between near equals than those widely separated in fortune. It doesn’t make sense to envy the Queen of England, does it? Envy is different from jealousy--one is jealous about what one has, but envious about what others have. The philosopher, John Rawls wrote: “A person who envies another is prepared to make both persons worse off to reduce the gap between them”. Envy was a major factor behind the killing of Pramod Mahajan.

That wonderful character in the Mahabharata, Karna, struck a great blow against the caste system when he refused to switch sides. He stood up courageously to his mother. He told her that his “real” parents were his low caste family who had brought him up and not the royal one into which he had been born. Thus, he rejected society’s claim that status arises from birth. Although Karna was against the caste system, he was not envious. He was born with great talent, which was nurtured by private sector rishis rather than CPM’s unionised time-servers. He would have supported merit and vehemently opposed reservations. He would have embraced the affirmative action proposal I made in my last column, which would promote excellence and equity. Manmohan Singh, the economist, will quickly appreciate the lesson from Karna’s story--we must expand India’s talent pool without lowering standards. Thus, he would be wiser if he listens to Karna rather his envy inspired populist colleagues.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Scholarships, not quotas May 7, 2006

When the cabinet meets to consider the proposal for raising caste reservations in institutions of higher learning from 22.5% to 49.5% it should imagine itself to be the admissions committee of one of the Indian Institutes of Technology. It has to choose whether to admit the son of a backward caste businessman from a posh South Delhi address who received low marks or the son of a poor brahmin schoolteacher in Muzaffarpur who got much higher marks. Under Arjun Singh’s proposal, the IITs will be forced to admit the privileged son of an OBC businessman and reject the high scoring schoolteacher’s son.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from this thought game. First, our innate sense of fairness accepts more easily reservations for the poor rather than for the low caste. Second, lowering admission standards for one group is unfair because it treats equals unequally and offends our idea of a just, merit based society. Third, it is unjust when beneficiaries of reservations are prosperous low caste persons, whom the Supreme Court called the ‘creamy layer’.

Why then should the government play this cruel, morally offensive joke? The reason is that there is a strong case for affirmative action, which has been made far more eloquently by the U.S. Supreme Court. While U.S. Courts has have always opposed quotas on grounds of reverse discrimination (meaning unequal treatment of equals), they have enthusiastically supported vigorous efforts to raise blacks and women on grounds of diversity and integration. Even in the recent Michigan University judgment, Justice O’Connor, wrote glowingly about the benefits of a diverse student body. The best reason for preferences (which she didn’t emphasize enough) is that a university’s role in society is to develop leaders from diverse communities. If India’s future leaders in commerce, arts and the professions come only from the 15 percent upper caste, the losers would not be the low caste alone, but the Indian people, who would have failed to create a healthy, integrated society.

The way to create leaders from the low castes is not through reservations but through scholarships, beginning in the first grade. Alas, most of our government schools, which were our greatest hope, are so rotten that there is no hope there for lifting anyone. Therefore, I would propose scholarships for 25 per cent of the seats in all private schools and colleges subject to these four conditions: one, scholarships should not be caste based, but economic. This preserves the idea that we are not for a casteist future; and it prevents the “creamy layer” from grabbing the rewards. Second, government must fully pay for these scholarships from the 2 percent education cess; it would be wrong to ask schools to bear it. Third, government must not interfere with a school’s autonomy. Finally, standards must not be allowed to fall. I would extend this scheme gradually, starting from below, thus giving institutions time to expand their facilities and the low caste to get acculturated. Enrollments for the disadvantaged would be additional; thus, merit candidates would not be deprived, as they would be with reservations.

When the cabinet meets, it might also remember how badly history treats the self-serving proponents of caste reservations. If there were glory or votes in reservations, VP Singh would have been a respected leader today, even a prime minister. And Janata Dal would have been a strong, vibrant party. Instead, both lie in the dust bin of history.

High modernism, captured April 23l 2006

We are so jaded with the India versus Bharat story that nothing surprises us anymore. Yet even a surfeited soul like me blinks with amazement at this incongruity. When people from abroad are beginning to come to India for high quality, low-cost medical care, there’s a 70 percent chance of being prescribed a harmful therapy in a government primary health centre in Delhi for a common ailment like diarrhoea. This is the finding of an extensive study by J. Das and J. Hammer. We had long known that two out of five doctors were absent in our primary health centres, but we didn’t know that doctors in these centres were less competent than in an African country like Tanzania. Hence, even the poor now depend on private solutions and India’s share of private spending in health is double that of so called “free-market USA”.

It is the same in education. While our famed Indian Institutes of Technology have become a global brand and are feted on CBS’ 60 Minutes, the poor in India are removing their kids from government primary schools and enrolling them in indifferent private schools, which are spreading in our slums and villages. It is the same dismal story with water. Private tube wells account for nearly all new irrigation capacity in India. In Delhi, with greater endowment of water than most cities in the world, citizens cope with irregular supplies by digging tube wells or buying water.

Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” He might have been describing India’s dualism. How does one explain the gap between the government’s boast about universal education, health and drinking water and the reality that even the poor are embracing private solutions? The answer lies in what James Scott, the political scientist, calls “bureaucratic high modernism”. When Nehru came to power we lived in an age when we had a touching faith in the state’s ability to solve peoples’ problems. So, we asked the state to do more and more. But we did not anticipate that politicians in India’s democracy would “capture” our bureaucracy and use the system to create jobs and rents for their friends and supporters. Hence, the state became riddled with perverse incentives with no accountability. When political supporters are rewarded with jobs of teachers and doctors then the state stops providing public services but private benefits for those who control it.

The old centralized bureaucratic state has declined in many countries. Alas, not here. Despite our failing schools we enact an education cess and throw away good money after bad. Governance could improve if we focused on outcomes—what children learn or if patients are cured. More autonomy to schools and health centres would also help. But real change will only come if we discard our faith in “bureaucratic high modernism” and admit that government’s job is to govern and not run schools and clinics. It is to ensure that high quality schools exist; it doesn’t have to teach in the classroom. Government may have to finance these schools, but the provider could be an NGO or a teacher who would compete with others. Government today spends Rs 4000 per child per year and it should give this as a scholarship to every Indian child, who could exchange it for an education at a school of his or her choice. Thus, Bharat and India would begin to converge.

A metaphor of India April 9, 2006

Raghav FM Mansoorpur l is a radio station which used to beam Bhojpuri and filmi songs, give community news and advice on all sorts of things, including AIDs and polio. Raghav Mahto, a 22 year old radio mechanic, started it three years ago. Bored with running an electronics repair shop in Gudri Bazar near Mansoorpur village in the Vaishali district of Bihar, Raghav stumbled one day on an innovative way to broadcast radio from his thatched roof shop by slinging a transmitter on a bamboo pole with a total investment of Rs 50.The do-it-yourself community station became an instant success.

Raghav was happy and popular, besieged by requests from his fans to play their favorite songs. He earned Rs 2000 a month—a nice return on his Rs 50 investment--fed his family of five and won the respect of villagers in the surrounding districts of Muzaffarpur, Vaishali and Saran within a 35 km radius of his station. "I air devotional songs at dawn and dusk”, he told BBC, and this made him more popular with women than men. Two weeks ago, on March 27, the station was closed for not possessing a license and violating the Indian Telegraphs Act. “A formal police complaint has also been lodged against Raghav”, said Sanjeev Hans, the Vaishali district magistrate. A three-member team of the union communications and IT ministry seized his equipment.

Disappointed villagers are learning to live with silence. They could tune in to AIR’s self-righteous programs, but they want to hear the chat of their community--who stole whose cow, their MLA’s broken promises, about the approaching Vaishali festival--and they want to hear it in their local dialect. And pray, what is wrong with thousands of Ragavs offering community broadcasting radio across the country? What if Raghav had started a newspaper? No problem. What if he wanted a TV news channel? No problem, again. But giving news on the radio is illegal, except by AIR.

Nothing quite dramatizes the gap between the aspirations of the Indian people and the stifling bureaucratic Indian state than the long struggle waged by our people for freedom to broadcast over radio. Kicked and dragged to break AIR’s monopoly, the government has reluctantly offered a few crumbs. A few years ago some FM stations were allowed to broadcast after paying outrageous fees. Soon they were bankrupt; the government was forced to abolish fees and agreed to share revenues with the private stations. With entry eased, 340 stations are about to begin, but they are not allowed to give news.

Raghav FM Mansoorpur l is the quintessential metaphor of a diverse and plural India. Mohandas Gandhi would have celebrated the idea of a radio listening community to unite our caste ridden, factionalised village. Community radio can initiate development, empower women and dalits, and advocate legislation from below. The government has permitted colleges to run campus radio stations, but the license process is so cumbersome that few have got going. The lesson from Raghav’s story is the need to de-licence community radio based on an “open spectrum” policy rather than licensing individual radio stations on a case-by-case basis. The only thing to ensure is transparent enforceable rules to prevent hogging of airwaves. Alas, since we do not have an enabling state, it is time for a PIL in the courts to test the twisted mind that allows one to deliver news in print and on TV but not on the radio.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

In praise of the right brain, TOI, 26 March 2006

Last year I was on the jury of the McKinsey Award for the best article in the Harvard Business Review, a monthly journal for managers. This wasn’t easy work because I was forced to read every single article in the magazine in 2005 when I would much rather have been reading a novel. Besides, I have always believed that business is more about doing and less about reflecting. I was amused to find so many of the best articles had Indian names attached to them, and I thought with a smile, India is not only producing spiritual gurus but also “business gurus”. But I am sceptical of this latter ‘guru’, and sometimes wonder if the acronym stands for someone “Good at Understanding, but Relatively Useless”.

In the December issue I came across an article called “Hiring for Smarts”, which argues that the old fashioned IQ test is still the best predictor of success at the workplace. I liked the piece, not only for its clarity and confidence but for its impressive data base. In the end I decided not to nominate it because it was counter-factual. I know too many bright people with very high IQs who have failed as managers. The reason is that they lacked the ability to implement, a far more important skill in the world of action, and more difficult to acquire than thinking ability. I have known too many companies with excellent ideas and strategies who failed because their employees did not have executional abilities.

Of course, one needs to apply intelligence in executing a plan--in priorizing tasks, for example. But I find that determination and persistence are more important in getting results. These qualities reside on the right side of the brain, whereas analytical abilities lie on the left side. Jim Collins’ study of outstanding CEOs (From Good to Great) has arrived at the same conclusion. When I was younger and went recruiting at the IIMs, I always sought persons who had willpower and resolve rather than those with sheer mind power. The irony is that our education system teaches us to think but not to get things done. You’d expect that business schools would correct this bias, but they don’t teach one to implement either.

Our brahminical bias in favour of knowledge in India creates an even bigger gap between thought and action. Many of our leaders who run the world of affairs—profit and non-profit organisations, colleges, cricket teams, hospitals—lack the same ability to deliver results. Millions of our government employees are smart, having entered via competitive exams. Yet they persistently fail to repair roads, provide drinking water in villages, get teachers to show up at primary schools, action an FIR at a police station. Perhaps, the IAS exam should also check out a bias for action.

We tend to blame ideology or democracy or our system, but the dirty secret is that Indians value ideas over accomplishment. Exceptions like Shreedharan at Delhi’s Metro or Kurien at Amul did deliver, after all, from within the system. Even Nehruvian socialism could have delivered more—it didn’t have to degenerate into “Licence Raj”. The “golden quadrilateral’ highway project made great strides when B.C. Khanduri set clear, measurable goals, monitored day to day progress, and persistently removed obstacles. He thus motivated NHAI employees, but also made them accountable. These are some of the implementation qualities of the right brain, which make ordinary people do extraordinary things.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Two weeks ago I got a call from the board member of one of the world’s largest consulting companies, who invited me to come and speak to them about why so many Indians were making it in the global knowledge economy. My distinguished caller spoke about innovations emerging from General Electric and Microsoft’s R&D centers in Bangalore; advanced avionics installed by India’s Air Force on Russian fighter aircraft that had caught the U.S. defense establishment’s attention; sophisticated research on global capital markets outsourced by Wall Street to India; finally, he rattled off a dozen Indian leaders’ names in global multinational corporations.

I was skeptical. ‘Perhaps, it’s our large population?’ I suggested. He countered with half a dozen large countries that are invisible in the knowledge economy. ‘Or maybe it’s simply knowing English?’ I said. He asked if there was something in India’s education system that might help explain India’s recent economic success.
Although India does a miserable job of educating its masses, the best in India do get a decent education. Aside from the famed Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, there are around twenty other centers of excellence in science, engineering, medicine, and even the liberal arts. Their success lies mostly in the high quality of their students, not teachers. The real victory may be with parents and their middle class insecurities. Indian parents, night after night, insist on overseeing their kids’ homework--it’s a rare mother who accepts a dinner invitation during exam season. By age 15, the young are packed off to coaching classes to prepare them for entry into the competitive colleges. Once they get in, of course, their future is made--they will be picked up by one of dozens of India’s emerging globally competitive firms, such as Reliance, Jet Airways, Infosys, Wipro, Ranbaxy, Bharat Forge, Tata Steel, Bharti, HDFC Bank and others.
The Indian middle class sends its children to private schools because government schools have failed. A national study by Harvard University faculty shows that one out of four teachers in government primary schools are absent and of those present one out of two is not teaching. As a result, even the poor have begun to pull their kids out of government schools and enrol them in indifferent private schools, which charge $1 to $3 a month in fees and are spreading rapidly in slums and villages across India. NIEPA, an official education think tank, confirms that two-thirds of the children in urban Maharashtra, U.P. and Tamil Nadu, three of India’s largest states, are now in private schools. The economist, Jean Dreze, predicts that government schools in Indian cities will soon be history.

Although teacher salaries are a third in private schools, Prof. James Tooley of the University of Newcastle found that even unrecognized schools delivered 22% points higher mean score in mathematics in his study of 918 schools in Hyderabad’s slums. A national study led by the NGO, Pratham, confirmed last month that even in villages 16% of the kids are now in private primary schools and they achieved 10% points higher scores in verbal and math. This upsets the Left establishment, which trashes these ‘mushrooming private schools’ and wants to close them down. The lower bureaucracy takes advantage of this prejudice and extracts bribes in exchange for licences, which typically average 5% of the private school’s running cost.

Private schools in India range from expensive boarding schools for the elite with large campuses to low end teaching shops in the bazaar. NIIT, a private sector company with 4000 ‘learning centres’, trained 4 million students and helped fuel India’s IT revolution in the 1990’s, and yet was not accorded recognition by the government. Ironically, even the children of government school teachers go to private schools. Members of Parliament finally recognized the state’s failure to deliver education when they pushed through parliament a legislative act a few months which would make it mandatory for private schools to reserve seats for backward castes.

Thus, Indians are solving their problems in the old fashioned way by depending on themselves and not waiting for the state. The media research firm TAM reports that educational institutions were the single largest advertiser category in print media in 2004 (up from sixth position in 2003). National Sample Surveys also confirm the rising spend on education. In 1983, only 1.2 percent of per capita expenditure went to education; this rose to 2.4% in 1993, to 2.8% in 1999 to 4.4% in 2003. In urban areas it has risen even faster, from 2.1% in 1983 to 6.3% in 2003.

As with so much about India's success story, Indians are thus finding solutions to their problems without waiting for the government. If China's success is due to its amazing (and state-funded) infrastructure, India's is largely the result of individual initiative that has given birth to globally competitive companies. If this initiative can successfully broaden access and quality to education, India could be even better positioned for the knowledge economy than its behemoth neighbor. And it’s success might be a more durable.

Gurcharan Das is the author of India Unbound (Knopf) and other books. He was earlier CEO of Procter and Gamble India.

Deeper into India’s soul March 12, 2006

How is it that so many Indians are making it in the global economy?’ This was a common refrain during President Bush’s recent visit. I looked for answers in India’s education system for a recent essay for an American magazine, and concluded that success belonged to students rather than teachers, and the real victory might lie with parents and their middle class insecurities—it’s a rare Indian mother who will step out of the house in the evening during exam season.

But education is only half the answer. The other half lies in history. ‘Western iron has probably entered deeper into India’s soul’ noted Arnold Toynbee fifty years ago. He felt India’s experience of the West was more intimate, more profound, and more painful than China, Russia, Japan, or Ottoman Turkey. His historian’s view of British colonialism was of a leisurely intermingling of two great civilizations over two centuries, which has eased India’s passage to modernity. Modern institutions thus found a comfortable home in India, and more significantly liberal thinking become a part of the Indian mind, unlike the Middle East, which also experienced colonial rule. This might explain in part why Indians move about comfortably in today’s global economy.

The British needed educated Indians to collect revenue, man the railways, guard forests, and generally run the country. The price of a ticket to these jobs was the English language. So, Indians learned English, passed exams and entered the modern Indian middle class. We became Macaulay’s bastard children, otherwise called “brown sahibs”. We berate Macaulay for cutting us off from our roots and ancient culture, but we don’t give him enough credit for creating a meritocratic middle class society. Happily, the pain of political slavery is gone, but our obsession with English and excelling at exams has stayed.

The colonial exam system merely reinforced the old Indian reverence for knowledge. This goes back three thousand years to the earliest speculations in the Rig Veda, which blossomed in the systematic reflections of the Upanishads. These experiments of the mind led to six systematic schools of philosophy and the rebellious paths of the Buddha, Mahavira, and Ajivikas. The diverse paths were an invitation to any creative spiritual entrepreneur that he could start a new yoga sect as long as he had a new idea and a talent for organization. Hence, we have a bewildering array of diverse paths to the truth. Not only does this diminish the temptation for theological narcissism—that only my religion has the answer--it also creates a bias for innovation. As there is no hierarchical church, each brahmin in his temple across India’s half a million villages thinks he is the Pope, while each self-sufficient village jealously guards its autonomy. It makes things chaotic but it also fosters an independent, enquiring mind which is so essential to success in the global knowledge economy.

Democracy in the 20th century has boosted the Indian’s irreverent temper, and after 1991 the young Indian mind is finally decolonised and unbound. Turn to any of our hundred TV channels—it’s a chattering India of Amartya Sen’s ‘argumentative Indians’. Contemporary India is filled with spiritual innovators, software princes, Dalit activists, brown sahibs and more—it’s a noisy, raucuous party, full of fun to which a billion Indians are invited, as long as you have an opinion and are aware that both spiritual space and cyber space are invisible. All of this enters into the explanation of India’s recent economic rise.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A great nation 26 February 2006

For a country that was widely regarded as 20th century’s great disappointment, it must feel good that the 21st has begun rather nicely. India is today one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and there is even talk of it becoming a great power. No doubt Mr Bush will also remind us of it this week. I must confess, however, that such talk leaves me cold.

I ask myself what is “great” about a “great power”. I learn more about India’s greatness when an old friend in New Jersey tells me that she has decided to return home to Tanjore because she cannot live without Carnatic music. Or my bania’s son says he is leaving for America because he couldn’t get admission into a good college here. He adds, “There are opportunities here for the best and for the corrupt, but anyone can make it in America.”

George Perkovich says that military might is not sufficient for greatness. America was a great power in the 1970s; yet it lost to a very poor Vietnam. Soviet Union, another great power then, stumbled against an even poorer Afghanistan. Neither are nuclear weapons essential. For then Pakistan would also be great. Hyphenating India and Pakistan diminishes us, but nuclear weapons, alas, are great equalizers. Nor is a permanent seat on the UN Security Council a measure of greatness. It would be healthier to lower its value in our self-perception because we are unlikely to get it soon.

My bania’s son is right--America is great because it is a land of opportunity. Sweden’s greatness lies in its welfare system that protects one from the cradle to the grave. Holland’s eminence lies in civil liberties. France is distinguished for its public support of culture. Norway is great because of its income distribution. Until recently, Japan’s excellence lay in job security. And England is remarkable for its sense of fairness.

I think India’s greatness lies in its self reliant and resilient people. We are able to pull ourselves up by our chappals and survive, nay, even flourish, when the state fails us at every turn. When teachers and doctors don’t show up in government primary schools and health centres, we don’t complain. We just open up cheap private schools and clinics in our slums, and get on with it. This makes us a tough and independent people. Fortunately, we are a young nation and the young Indian’s mind is now decolonised and liberated. You only had to look into Dhoni’s fearless eyes in Karachi last Sunday. But there also exists the fearful, old mindset, often among petty bureaucrats, who only know how to say “no”. Happily, they are doomed--you can tell by the way they sneeze or pare their nails.

Our democracy has released our spirits and brought us intimations of future greatness. Our economic success is more remarkable because it has been democratically produced. Our political freedoms are, of course, valuable in their own right, but they will also help sustain our coming prosperity. The shocking state of our governance, however, tells us how far we are from being a truly great nation. Moreover, we will only be able to call ourselves great when every Indian has access to a good school and a good health clinic. When our government realises that it doesn’t have to run these schools and clinics, but only to provide for them, will we achieve the Indian way to greatness.

Nasadiya Temper 12 February, 2006

The recent controversy over Islamic cartoons in Europe is once again testing the boundaries of religious tolerance. Most Hindus, of course, believe that they are tolerant and trace their broadmindedness to their many gods. Some even ask: how did our tolerant pluralism turn into the intolerance of Hindutva?

Hindu pluralism is grounded in the Rig Veda, Wendy Doniger, the Sanskrit scholar, tells us in a wonderful essay, “Many Gods, Many Paths”. It may well have originated in the charming humility of the Nasadiya verse (10.129): “[In the beginning] there was neither being nor non-being … [but] who really knows? … [for] the gods came afterwards.” This questioning attitude, adds Doniger, might also have led to the invention of a god whose name was the interrogative pronoun, ka. For the creator once asked Indra, “Who am I?” Indra replied, “Just what you said: Who.” And this is how the creator got the name, Ka or Who.

The pluralism of the Rig Veda, however, did have a monistic hue for the very substance of the universe was divine. Each god had a secondary or illusory status compared to the divine substance, yet was a powerful symbol of and a guide to the divine. Hence, many gods co-exist comfortably in a non-hierarchic pantheon. And the devotee of many, non-hierarchical gods is more likely to see the many sides of truth, and thus be more tolerant.

By the time that this unassuming outlook is enshrined in the famous “Neti, neti” (“Not this, not that”) attitude of the Upanishads, the seeds of monistic certainty have been firmly planted. It is charming the way open-minded kings in the Upanishads invite holy men of various schools to debate religious issues. But the modest openness of neti becomes a “submerged form of intellectual imperialism” when we come to Shankara. A belief in the unity of brahman and atman may lead to a belief in the unity of all persons but it does not necessarily lead to a respect for all viewpoints, as the argumentative followers of Shankara and Ramanuja will testify.

Thus, social pluralism doesn’t always follow from intellectual pluralism. The problem is that when I speak with certainty about my beliefs, I cannot help but suggest that what I believe in is superior. I secretly want you to renounce your opposing view and accept mine. Hence, all such statements are attempts at conversion. Here lies the leap from tolerance to intolerance. What stops one from trying to convert others is good manners. Fundamentalists lack these and take the further leap and threaten death.

The source of Hindutva’s intolerance, or for that matter any fundamentalist’s, is a political one and it is futile to seek answers in belief. All fundamentalists are insecure, and seem to take an excessive interest in others. They would do well to see Walt Disney’s 1942 film, Bambi. In it is a rabbit named Thumper, whose mother asks him, “Thumper, what did your father say?” Thumper replies, “If you can’t say something good about a person, don’t say anything at all.” Islamic, Hindu and Christian fundamentalists ought to consider joining Thumper’s School of Social Harmony. They might also consider following Albert Camus’ sensible advice: “To be happy one must not be too concerned with others.” The ordinary Hindu on the street, or any person anywhere, I am convinced, is tolerant in belief. She has the unassuming Nasadiya temper of the open-minded seeker in the Rig Veda, and all fundamentalists could learn something from it.

Why Rani can’t read? January 29, 2006

We are not a cooperative people, and some even accuse us of a crab’s mentality—we’d rather bring down the next guy than see the team win. So, when 20,000 volunteers from 700 institutions collaborate to test 332,971 village children in 484 districts at a breakneck pace, within a month that is a victory of sorts. It also says something about our voluntary movement. Where civil society begins to flourish democracy has taken hold, says de Tocqueville, and this is worth celebrating on this 57th birthday of our Republic.

This team effort was led by the impressive NGO, Pratham, and the result is a citizens’ report card called Annual Status of Education Report 2005. It is the first ever snapshot in our nation’s history about children’s ability to read and do arithmetic. The good news is that the old bogey about children not attending school is gone. 93.4% of village children are in school. You could argue that 1.3 crore children are not in school, which is terrible, but I prefer to celebrate the achievement. The gender gap is also happily narrowing. In 2001, 65% of the kids-out-of-school were girls; this has come down to 55%.

The bad news is that 35% of India’s rural children between ages 7 and14 cannot read a simple paragraph, something they should have learned to do in the first school year. 52% cannot read a simple story, which they should have learned by grade 2. 41% cannot either do two digit subtractions with borrowing or divide three digits by one digit. Given the atrocious state of government schools, these are not surprising results. The optimist might even argue that at least two out of three kids can read a paragraph and one in two can read a story; and 1 in 4 can subtract and 1 in 3 can divide. Children in private rural schools, who constituted 16% in the sample survey, scored 10 percentage points higher.

There are some surprises in the data on states, but overall rural India is behind by 2-3 years. This is deeply disappointing for a nation that aspires to heights. Also, we won’t know how badly off we are unless Pratham benchmarks these results with those of other countries. Curiously, the very act of testing brought the whole village together. Children wanted to be tested. Mothers wanted to know, “can my child read?” One village patriarch cynically told Pratham volunteers that they were wasting their time. But when he discovered that none of his three children could read, he practically fell off his khatiya. It was a shock to many parents and communities that that their children had been left behind.

Why Rani cannot read is because we don’t focus on outcomes. Official policy forbids primary schools to test kids as it might hurt their self-esteem. Children are automatically promoted till class 5. It does make sense not to want to create excessive anxiety of an annual external exam in the very young. However, parents, children and even teachers, do need feedback. Unless you test the child, how do you help the child to improve? How do you know if the teacher is doing her job? If the child knows when he is bowled out on the cricket pitch, why not tell him when he is bowled out in class? Instead of stopping IIM-B from going to Singapore, the Minister ought to be thinking about these questions—and why 3 out of 4 children cannot subtract.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Religious narcissism January 15, 2006

Last month I visited the ‘post-secular world’. I found myself sitting next to a group of white Americans on a train from Washington to New York, who told me blandly that I would go to hell because I believed in abortion and evolution. I had heard that Bush’s America had turned religious, but I could not imagine how much till that morning. I was their captive for three hours, and they decided to do their good deed and try to convert me to their faith.
Jurgen Habermas, one of the most influential thinkers in the West, explains religion’s return, especially in America, in Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity. He says that people have traditionally found solace in religion when threatened, and the emergence of ‘post-secular societies’ is a reaction to terrorism after 9/11. The religious values of love, community, and godliness also help to offset the global dominance of an ethic of competitiveness and acquisitiveness in the capitalist workplace. In post-reform India too, I have noticed that the young are increasingly overwhelmed by the demands of work and material success, and have begun to seek refuge in various sects of bhakti.
This fundamentalist post-secular America is so different from the one in which I grew up. During my college days in the sixties I read the great modern thinkers and I learned that reason was superior to belief (Hegel); that God diminished man’s sublimity (Feuerbach); that religion was an ‘opiate of the masses’ (Marx); and there was no ‘future of an illusion’ (Freud) because ‘God was dead’(Nietzsche). I returned to India expecting the world to gradually turn secular with the spread of modernity. But the India that I came back to was, arguably, the world’s most religious place. I worried that religion made Indians passive and accepting, and turned them away from the pressing problems of society when we needed an active and engaged citizenry in democracy to fight society’s injustices. So, I turned for inspiration to the third goal of classical Indian life, to dharma or right conduct, rather than the transcendent goal of moksha. Dharma was secular while moksha was religious.

Over time I have discovered, however, that a secular life based on the noble end of dharma cannot substitute the mesmerising power of moksha. Secularism is a noble but limited ethic—I don’t think it can replace religion. In a similar vein, Habermas explains that many of our modern ideals, such as the intrinsic worth of all human beings that underlies human rights, stem from the religious idea of the equality of all men in the eyes of God. Religious idealism and biblical justice, he reminds us, also infused the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s. Were these invaluable religious sources of morality and justice to atrophy, he is doubtful whether modern societies would be able to sustain these ideals on their own. Religion's return, however, does present an undeniable danger and risk in a post-secular world. Hence, in a recent lecture, ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’, Habermas spoke about the commendable idea of toleration, which is the foundation of modern democratic culture. He called it a two-way street. Not only must believers tolerate each others' beliefs, but also the atheism of nonbelievers. Disbelieving secularists, similarly, must value the convictions of religious citizens. Only those religions who can suspend the temptation of theological narcissism--the conviction that my religion alone provides the path to salvation--are welcome in our rapidly changing, post-secular world.

A guide to clear thinking, January 1, 2006

We live in unusual times. Who would have imagined in 1991, when communism died and our reforms began, that fourteen years later the Indian republic would become hostage to the extraordinary influence of the Left? For almost two years now, it has been instructive to observe the mind of the Indian Left. And if one compares it to the Chinese communist mind, the result is a guide to clear thinking.

Both Chinese and Indian communists claim to be compassionate, but the Chinese version of compassion is tough while the Indian is tender. The Chinese invest in roads; thus they create opportunities for private investment, which in turn generates productive and enduring jobs. India’s communists create jobs through the Employment Guarantee Act, which they claim will also create roads. If the Indian strategy is implemented brilliantly—an unhealthy assumption, but let it pass--it will put money in the pockets of the jobless, but the roads will get washed away in one monsoon. China’s strategy will give their people world class roads but not money. Both strategies are based on good intentions--Indian communists give fish to the hungry; Chinese communists teach them to fish. The tender impulse gives quick relief to the suffering; the tough impulse cures the disease.

Indian communists prefer to protect the jobs and perquisites of the lucky few (about 8 % of Indians) in the organised, unionised sector. Chinese communists care about the unlucky many who don’t have decent jobs. Indian communists stall labour reforms, defend an unviable public sector, and advocate high interest on pensions. Chinese communists work hard to build exports and create an investment friendly climate. This means, for example, that Chinese entrepreneurs can lay off workers when demand falls. Indian entrepreneurs cannot do so, and thus prefer to invest in machines rather than be saddled with workers with lifetime employment. Therefore, the Chinese are creating millions of productive, new jobs, while Indians are protecting thousands of unproductive old jobs. Chinese compassion is tough while Indian compassion is tender.

Chinese communists select potential gold medal winners for their Olympic team. India’s communists fight for Ganguly’s inclusion in our cricket team. More to the point, India’s Leftists sacrifice merit in advocating reservations in education and jobs. Hence, China will not only win gold medals at the Olympics, but it will create a society based on merit and excellence.

As we begin a new year we are fortunate to have at the helm three admirable reformers to guide our nation. They have a solid track record of economic reform grounded in tough compassion. They know, for example, that all Indians will only benefit from reforms if India creates an industrial revolution based on the export of labour intensive, low tech manufactures like toys, shoes and garments. It is the only way to broad scale prosperity. In order to achieve this goal, however, we need at the minimum labour and power reforms. But our tender hearted populists oppose these stridently. On this first day of 2006 it is the nation’s fervent hope that our reformers will find the courage to resist the opportunism of our political class which masquerades as tender compassion. So, the next time communists try to hijack a reform, our reformers should ask them, would they rather be a tender-minded, compassionate father who presents his son with a bike on his birthday or his tough-minded compassionate neighbour, who insists on the long-term kindness of teaching his son the work ethic and makes him earn the bike?