Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Struggle for Gujarat’s soul November 18, 2007

Not long ago we thought of Gujarat as the land of non-violent Mahatma Gandhi and hard working merchants. That picture has grown more complicated. Gujarat has emerged as an Asian tiger—the fastest growing Indian state with the lowest levels of unemployment, the most investor friendly, with the shortest red tape and least petty corruption. It is hailed by migrants from Bihar and MP as a land of opportunity.

Gujarat, however, is also the Indian state which hosted a genocide under broad daylight in 2002. Those who presided over the killings were elected to power. Their complicity has now been confirmed by the recent Tehelka exposé. The political class, however, has greeted the exposé with silence. Ashish Khetan, author of the report, must feel a bit like Draupadi in the assembly of the nobles at Hastinapur, when no one, not even Bhishma, stopped her from being disrobed. For five years we have heard charges and counter-charges in Gujarat.

Next month Gujarat’s voters will have to decide. Should they reward Narendra Modi for a genuine economic miracle that is lifting so many out of poverty? Or should they draw a line, as India’s voters did after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, and roundly punish him for the terrible communal violence of 2002? A new book by an eminent American philosopher helps one understand Gujarat’s dilemma.

Martha Nussbaum’s, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, & India’s Future (Permanent Black) argues that the post 9/11 world is not some mythic “clash between civilizations” (as Samuel Huntington has argued) between a violent Islam and peaceful democracies in America, Europe, and India. It is a clash within the mind of each one of us--each human being--as we oscillate between self-protective aggression and our ability to live with others. Nussbaum points out that there are two sorts of human beings, and they can be found in all nations. The first (and I think the majority) are self-confident, and like Mahatma Gandhi, they do not fear differences. They respect those who are dissimilar and are happy to let them flourish; self-assured in the robustness of their own way of life.

The second, however, are like another Gujarati, Narendra Modi, who fear religious and ethnic differences and the idea of a plural society. They believe that minorities are a deep threat to order and safety, and are anxious to control them. Congress’ politics of appeasing minorities has given space to the second type to rise in India’s democratic politics. The memory of Ghazni is also strong in Gujarat, and even Mahatma Gandhi’s example has been unable to erase it. Why don’t we condemn Godhra’s massacre in the same breath, they ask rightly? Yet, the second group’s ethos is so un-Indian in our astonishingly diverse society.

What is at stake in the upcoming Gujarat election is thus a clash inside each citizen’s imagination, and it comes down to how we view other human beings. Politics makes one adopt polarized positions. The reality is that Gujarat is both prosperous and genocidal. One wants Gujarat to flourish but also to be decent. Nazi Germany was very efficient. The choice in the end is easy—vote out Modi! For a person who has just climbed out of poverty, however, it may not be so easy. Ideally, one should throw out the rascals but keep their good policies, but one can’t trust Congress to do that. Gujarat, like India, is in the midst of a hundred flowerings. Some of these have turned out to be noxious and the only way out in a democracy is to remove the toxic ones at the polls.

Let biotech crops bloom November 4, 2007

Let’s begin this Sunday morning with a statement of unimpeachable reliability: India has doubled its production of cotton in the past five years. It crossed the United States last year to become the world’s second largest producer and is expected to overtake China in 2009 to become world’s number one. India’s cotton revolution is the subject of constant discussion at global agricultural forums, but in India almost no one has heard of it. Our media talks only about the suicides of cotton farmers. This is because environmental activists have been spreading disinformation and misleading the public.

Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize winner, who invented the dwarf varieties of wheat and helped create India’s first green revolution, predicted that science would also drive India’s second green revolution. He is turning out to be right. Biotech (Bt) or transgenic cotton is the miracle seed that resists bollworm—an insect which used to destroy a third to half of our cotton crop each year. By planting Bt cotton farmers have successfully fought the insect and delivered the highest production and exports in India’s history. Production has risen from 158 to 279 lakh bales per year from 2002 to 2006. Net income per farmer has increased by Rs 17,500 per hectare for India’s 23 lakh cotton farmers. From an importer, India has become the third largest exporting nation.

Borlaug wrote in some agony in 2002 that “the approval [of Bt cotton] has been a long, slow, painful process, effectively delayed…by the lobbying of Vandana Shiva and her crowd. Now that the door has been opened for the use of transgenic biotechnology on one crop, I hope it will soon be approved for other crops. As an enthusiastic friend of India, I have been dismayed to see it lagging behind in the approval of transgenic crops while China forges ahead”. His worst fears have come true. Five years have passed since Bt cotton’s approval. Nothing has since been approved. Farmers are anxiously waiting for biotech soya, rice, corn that are flourishing in other countries. Bt mustard was tested to death here and the inventor left India in disgust after 7 years.

The scandal is that government approval takes 18 months in China and 6 years in India. The reason is that transgenic seeds are an invention of private sector science and both government and activists distrust private seed companies. Environmentalists are hostile to these seeds on ideological grounds and delay each trial by taking the government to court. Each time they lose in court (because their case is flimsy) but policy makers and babus get scared and insist on more trials. Ministers are apathetic because there are no photo opportunities for inventions of the private sector. Thus, our second green revolution is delayed. Misguided activists, timid bureaucrats, and apathetic politicians are all conspiring to rob our farmers’ future.

It was bold leadership of C. Subramanium and Lal Bahadur Shastri that created our first green revolution in the 1960s. Had India waited for endless field trials and deliberate delays by environmentalists, it would not have happened. Fortunately, this government has vastly improved its regulatory capability in biotechnology. Now is the time for Manmohan Singh to proudly proclaim our farmers’ achievement in cotton and fast track the approval process for other miracle seeds, especially those tolerant to drought and ideally suited for our rain fed, non-irrigated areas like Vidarbha. He should tell Babus to follow China’s sensible approach and stop reinventing the wheel. Finally, he must also tell off activists (who are called eco-terrorists in some countries) to stop disseminating disinformation and diverting attention from science to suicides.

Dirty hands 21 October, 2007

When Robert Fullenwider compared politicians to garbage collectors, he did not have the former prime minister of India, Deve Gowda, and his ‘kumara’ in mind. He only meant that we should expect both vocations to stink. On October 3, 2007, however, the stench of Karnataka’s politics made even the most putrid muck smell sweet. On that day Deve Gowda’s son refused to vacate the chief minister’s seat after enjoying power for 20 months and reneged on the commitment to transfer power to its BJP ally. Newspaper headlines screamed ‘betrayal’ and then forgot about it.

My friends in Karnataka tell me that they were not surprised. Deve Gowda has a reputation for betraying friends. Before Yediyurappa, he betrayed Dharam Singh, and prior to that Bangarappa. Earlier he ditched Ramakrishna Hegde to become the astonishing candidate for prime minister. My friends said, ‘what were the BJP fools thinking when they made the deal!’ Deve Gowda remembered suddenly that the BJP was ‘communal’. With this act of treachery he joined the august company of Charan Singh and Devi Lal, who also forced untimely elections on innocent citizens.

How do Karnataka’s proud citizens feel about this act of betrayal? Citizens are vulnerable and they place trust in their rulers. When this trust is betrayed, psychologists tell us that citizens feel angry and in extreme cases suffer from ‘political betrayal trauma’. This happens, for example, when a person is wrongly arrested by the state or a soldier is sent to fight in an unjust war. When a trusted leader, a former prime minister, behaves immorally, the betrayal can be as devastating as a spouse’s infidelity.

Lest the children of my Kanadiga friends grow up thinking that this is how grownups should behave—break promises and betray friends--I want to remind them of Karna in the Mahabharata. When Karna discovers his real mother and realises that he is on the wrong side in the war, he refuses to switch sides. He has given his word to Duryodhana and he must be loyal to his commitment. He adds that one’s identity is not determined by birth but by upbringing (a nice thing to remember in these casteist times). Thus, he does not exchange his adopted, low born parents for genetic royal ones. His own charioteer, Shalya, on the other hand, is in Deve Gowda’s mould, and has no problem in betraying Karna.

Ever since Sartre’s play, Dirty Hands, we have got used to thinking that our politicians are exempt from the moral rules that apply to us in private life. The vocation of politics requires one to have ‘dirty hands’ for public figures must fulfill an impartial role, which authorizes them to use violence forbidden to individuals. If I stick a gun to a rich man to collect Rs 20,000 from his pocket, I am guilty of robbery. But when P Chidambaram collects Rs 20,000 from me to improve schools, it is an education cess. Thomas Nagel, the philosopher, makes this point forcefully. Is this why the world forgave President Truman, with dirty hands, for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima?

A fresher feeling of betrayal is what many Indians will feel if the Indo-US nuclear treaty is aborted. Worried over Pakistan’s military alliance with China, they will consider the national interest betrayed for political expediency, not only by the Congress but also by the BJP (the party that achieved the initial rapprochement with America). Perhaps it is true--politicians must have dirty hands. But unlike Deve Gowda, Manmohan Singh was supposed to have hands as clean as Mahatma Gandhi’s. Hence, the sorrow will be greater.

My Chak De! moment October 7, 2007

To get to the playing field where children play in our neighborhood, you must turn right at the market and then take a sharp left. A bhuttawali sits at the corner. Go past her another fifty metres and you can’t miss it, especially in the evening when the occasional roar of ‘Chak De’ will announce that someone has just scored a boundary. The Hindi film, ‘Chak De India’ with Shah Rukh Khan, has given us a new slogan that at once unites us and captures the exuberant mood of a confident, young India. Amrita Shah put it nicely, ‘Part exhortation, part exaltation—it has just amount of zing and energy to work in a stadium or on the street’.

Our sports teams have also won in recent months and returned the compliment. Vijay Santhanam, is right when he says, ‘Vishwanathan Anand’s becoming the undisputed world champion of chess is a bigger Chak De moment for India than either winning the 20/20 Cricket World Cup or the Asia Hockey Cup. Chess is played in 166 countries; field hockey is played in 61; cricket in less than 20. But my proudest Chak De moment came last Tuesday when our local 14 year old hero, Arjun, whose cricket bat rains sixes like Yuvraj Singh’s, did an amazing thing. He offered to give up his place on the team to a young urchin who had been hanging around for weeks, drooling to play and no one would let him. Arjun’s was an act of unbelievable kindness from one 14 year old to another. At one go, he washed away some of the stain of mean hearted Dronacharya’s against Eklavya in the Mahabharata.

Arjun’s act is a lesson for another reason for the millions of young Indians caught in today’s rat race where only money matters. I enjoyed the cliffhangers in South Africa as much as anyone, but I was offended by the vulgar display of public cash rewards and the Porche afterwards. Although the pursuit of success is hard wired in our genes, I do wish that higher status would attach to being kind and considerate, to compassionate acts like Arjun’s. I have no problem with money. Unlike our hypocritical socialists, I do not rail against the culture of consumerism. Competition, Hesiod pointed out long ago, is built into our natures, and it calls for real victory and real defeat.

This is where a liberal education comes in handy for it allows one to cope better with the rat race. The education systems of some nations do a better job of inculcating values that produce Arjuns. When English teenagers were asked, ‘Are most of your classmates kind and helpful?’ only 43% said ‘yes’, according to Richard Layard of the London School of Economics. On the other hand, 75% of Scandinavian children said ‘Yes’.

I think our neighborhood hero was given the wrong name by his mother. She should have called him Yudhisthira, not Arjuna. Recall, great souled Yudhishthira, tormented and embattled, refuses to enter heaven at the end of the epic. He insists that an unclean, stray dog, who had been following him, is admitted into heaven as well. It turns out to have been a test, and Yudhishthira and his ethical goal of anrsamsya or compassion, are paid the highest compliment. He is told, ‘Great king, you weep with all the creatures!’ I wonder why no Indian mother calls her son, Yudhishthira. There are millions of Arjuns. It is not because it is difficult to pronounce. The fact is that Arjuna is a winner in the self-defeating kshatriya rat race of life. We prefer winners to goodness.


All about my mother 23 September 2007

One night in 1987 a biochemist from New Zealand, Allan Wilson, and his American colleague Rebecca Cann were examining a so-far ignored part of human DNA at the University of California, Berkeley, and they made the astonishing discovery that all human beings have the same parents. This DNA in our bodies remains intact through the generations and is passed on from mother to daughter, but also leaves behind traces of the changes or mutations. When these scientists examined this DNA component in the family tree of each of the continents of the earth, they could trace it back to one woman who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

The Nobel Prize winner, James Watson proclaimed, ‘she was the great-great-great….grand-mother of us all’. Obviously, she was not the only woman alive at that time: she was just the luckiest because her children survived to populate the world, while the lines of the descendants of other women became extinct. One of her three lines, which carry the cells of her daughters, is called Manju because scientists believe that this line evolved in India

When I read this in Nayan Chanda’s lively new book, Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, & Warriors Shaped Globalization, I exclaimed excitedly, ‘I have found my mother!’ This thrilling history of globalization describes how human beings have been moving and connecting ever since we evolved from the apes. Chanda goes on to explain that in 2000, the Italian geneticist, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Peter Underhill found that our father had also come from Africa. They proved this in a study of the Y chromosome which determines the male sex. Our ancestors left Africa only fifty thousand years ago and we can track their genomic journey as they crossed many Ram Setu-like land bridges that are now submerged in the sea. The most famous of these connected Russia with Alaska and explains why American Indians have Asian features. Our migrant ancestors tended to settle down in a region, and hence geneticists can trace the Y chromosome to that region.

If an enterprising Indian reader of this column has his DNA examined he will find that it contains M52 Y-chromosome which dominates on our subcontinent. Nayan Chanda did that. He ordered a kit from National Geographic, dutifully swabbed DNA from his cheeks, and mailed off the vials labeled with a serial number. A few weeks later he logged in his serial number on their website, and discovered that indeed he was from India. But he also found that he had left behind ancestors in Ethiopia, Middle East and Central Asia and other places. ‘It was like finding my family passport with stamps of the countries my ancestors passed through’, he writes.

This is because migrations came in successive waves and hence Wilson’s team has found that all human beings have multiple origins. We are all time-walkers out of Africa and can now trace our ancestors around the world. We are mongrels, and this evidence has finally destroyed the ugly theory of distinct races. Some of us are white, others are black because we have had to adapt to different climates; the Chinese have narrow eyes because their ancestors had to protect them from the blinding sunlight of the snowy Arctic lands. It is quite wonderful I think how science has confirmed the splendid aphorism of the Panchatantra: ‘Vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ or ‘the whole world is a family’. I try to remember this when I get angry with the U.S. for invading Iraq, or upset with Prakash Karat for obstructing the nuclear treaty, or enraged by foreign Islamists for bombing our trains.

Our Achilles heel 9 September 2007

A friend of mine, who hikes frequently in the Himalayas, showed me a solar torch the other day which gives light for seven hours before you need to recharge it in the sun. It has a hook for hanging and can light up a small room. My friend uses it for camping. But what a boon, I thought, for our 250,000 villages without electricity and the millions of school children who can’t do homework at night and village women who fear walking after dark. I googled the maker of the torch and discovered an inspiring story about how to be both a good and an effective human being.

Mark Bent, an American, worked for 20 years in Africa and saw the waste behind government aid programs. He came home and invented what he calls the BoGo solar torch. BoGo means ‘Buy One, Give One’. When you buy one flashlight for Rs 1000, Mark gives one at half price to NGOs in Africa, who give it to villagers at a nominal price. Mark makes the torches in China to keep costs low. The story is remarkable not because Mark is a ‘do-gooder’ but because he has found an innovative and sustainable way to profit from the rich and benefit the poor. Rich campers bring light to African villagers. I hope some NGO in India will google Mark and begin distributing these torches here.

Now, why couldn’t one of our boys or girls invent and market this lamp? The answer, of course, is our education system which stifles all creativity through rote learning. It was modeled on the British system, but the British have moved on and reformed theirs, partly under American inspiration. But our kids are still stuck in a world of cramming and coaching classes. The disease lies in the lack of autonomy. The ministry of HRD and its children, University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) have a stranglehold. A college cannot decide what courses to teach, what fees to charge and what salaries to pay its professors. How could creativity emerge from this servitude? Creating new universities, as the PM proposes, is not the answer unless you give them autonomy.

Forget creativity, Indian companies are frightened by the shortage of basic skills which is currently driving up salaries unhealthily. Of the 400,000 new engineers that graduate each year, roughly 100,000 have the skills to enter the job market. It is tragic that 420,000 students strive for 6000 IIT and IIM seats annually. The answer, of course, is to increase the supply of good colleges. As it is, we lose 160,000 students to foreign universities and parents pay $3 billion in fees and costs. Indian ‘edupreneurs’ and foreign universities have repeatedly tried to start high quality campuses but the HRD ministry’s ‘license raj’ drives them away. AICTE even wants to close down the prestigious, private Indian School of Business which offers a better education than an IIM. The draft foreign universities bill doesn’t provide autonomy either and ensures that no decent foreign university will enter India.

Our education system is our Achilles heel and we will not spawn Mark Bents until we do a 1991 on HRD and unbind India’s education. Meanwhile, I console myself in knowing that there are individuals like my friend, N.S. Raghavan, who is using part of his Infosys fortune to incubate entrepreneurs at the IIM Bangalore. He will make a difference and modest breakthroughs like Mark Bent’s will contribute more to human happiness than either the massive aid programs of governments or the soul killing mediocrity of our universities.