Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Living by "Indian Tradiion"

Arun Shourie told an audience in Coimbatore last Friday that Indians must “know, understand and live according to” Indian tradition. Speaking at a seminar on scientific and cultural perspectives on India, he expanded on the theme as if it were a purely academic matter: knowing Aryabhatta’s work, understanding the mantras of pundits, and studying Hinduism at the university level.

 I’m afraid he missed the point.

 We’ve been so colonially brainwashed, even a scholar like Shourie seems to have lost sight of the fact that the essence of our tradition does not lie in understanding the Word of the Shastras but in our resonance to their Spirit. Hundreds of millions of Indians, most of them uneducated, do know, understand and live by that Spirit. Those who do not, as Shourie unwittingly exemplified, are our urban sophisticates.

 How can I make such an assertion without benefit of survey or study? Because it is a truth that can be deduced from the fact that despite a burden of elite corruption that has no parallel outside China, India continues to be a stable and largely honest country, with its fundamental instincts and affections still guided by the best in our traditions.

And what are the “best” of our traditions?

The philosophical essence lies in the first verse of the Ishopanishad: “God the Ruler pervades all there is in this Universe. Therefore renounce and dedicate all to Him, enjoying or using the portion that may fall to your lot, without coveting what belongs to others.”

Conceptually, the best of our traditions lie in the great idea of Universal Law, Dharma, applied to human life in terms of the moral causality of action, Karma.

Most uneducated Indians live by these fundamentals of our tradition, evincing their faith in personal gods and goddesses, but as the Gita says, bowing ultimately to the Universal Self.

In contrast, the educated classes, especially those who people the realms of power and commerce, have been completely unmoored from the sheet anchor of tradition. The wealthy curled darlings of our nation who now disgrace Tihar jail with their presence, obviously do not believe in Dharma or Karma. Two generations after independence, they seem to be blind even to the large lesson hammered in so mercilessly during colonial rule: that the well-being and safety of our country depend on the integrity of its leaders.

It would be instructive to have them face an inquisitorial television camera on these large issues.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Clueless UN Debate

The United Nations is engaged in its annual "General Debate" in New York. It is the opening ritual of the gathering of the organization's 193 members, meant to map the world's problems and set the context for the work to be done in the next three months.

In theory, a "Report on the Work of the Organization" from the Secretary-General is meant to give focus and substance to the talk. That does not happen, for the Report has for decades been a scissors and paste job reflecting the morally challenged world view of weak-kneed UN bureaucrats.

As a result, the debate is a collection of national speeches, each centred on the concerns of the ruling elite, without coherence or focus. Attempts to give it focus by setting a "theme" for the debate ("mediation" this year), have been ineffective. The only focusing factor is media coverage by the major news agencies, all Western except for Xinhua, which caters to the global underdog with its own special blend of propaganda and (mis)information.

For the rest, the media, represented at the UN by some 600 correspondents (some more notional than real), report what they are paid for; that is to say, they report mainly for national outlets with very narrow interests.

Not surprisingly, the net result is a "debate" out of Bizzaro World, providing a fractured, incoherent view of a deeply troubled time.

In keeping with tradition, the debate began this year with speeches by Brazil (represented for the first time by a woman, newly elected President Dilma Rousseff), and the United States in the person of President Barack Obama, one sounding the keynotes for the underprivileged majority of the world's countries, the other the view of the most powerful member State.

The global media majors focused on one element in the US speech, Washington's refusal to back a bid by the Palestinian Observer Delegation to upgrade its membership to that of full statehood. They genuflected disbelievingly in the direction of Brazil's call for Security Council reform.

The coverage of the Palestine item was entirely without meaningful background. Not a single major spent any time on what the Palestine issue is really about, how it was manufactured, and the uses to which it has been put. It was as if they were covering a football game. Who ran the ball, who kicked in the goals. Except, of course, there are no goals in this endlessly futile game.

Not that the major interventions on the subject provided any historical perspective. Nicolas Sarkozy of France offered to host a time-bound negotiating process to resolve the problem of statehood without spending a second on the deeply negative French/British role in the region. Britain's David Cameron was similarly lacking in hindsight.

On another aspect of Britain's manipulative record in the region, he credited the UN (i.e. Britain and France), for avoiding a "Srebrenica" in Libya. He forgot to mention that Mouammar Gadhafi was a British proxy, replacing "King Idriss" who its Secret Intelligence Service had earlier placed on the throne of Libya.

In general, the debate was soporific.

Manmohan Singh made a pitch for international cooperation to face the current spate of global economic problems. It had as much impact as Antigua and Barbuda calling for compensation for the slave trade out of Africa.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

India Needs its Own Google

Ever since I moved back to India after several decades in the United States, I've had a growing sense that Google discriminates against its clientele here.

Just as it worked with the Chinese government to censor the availability of information to the unfortunate citizens of that country, I think we are getting a screened access to the Worldwide Web. I doubt if this is at the request of the Indian government, so the conclusion is unavoidable that the corporation is doing this on its own, or at the request of some other power structure to which it is obedient.

After my last post predicting the current economic crisis, my searches have been even further circumscribed. Most links I click on in my gmail simply refuse to open. A curt message box tells me Internet Explorer has aborted the attempt to open the site.

If India is to maintain its political independence and freedom of action, it is essential that its citizens have untrammeled access to information. We should follow the Chinese example and set up our own search engine.

P.S. After posting this item I noticed that the "Google Buzz" icon that used to appear along with the Twitter and Facebook buttons at the end of each post had disappeared. Talk about information management!  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What the Stats Foretell

Okay children hold on tight, for the global economic rollercoaster will soon go off a cliff.

Here’s why.

There’s been a sharp slowdown in manufacturing in all the major economies, and it’s tied to slackening exports.

Most of the economies of the Eurozone are contracting. Germany is just a hairsbreadth away from joining the rest. The United States had zero jobs growth in August. Japan, reeling from the tsunami and nuclear disaster, is facing continued slow growth. The Canadian economy shrank 0.4 per cent in the last quarter.

Of the BRIC economies, Brazil and Russia are heavily dependent on commodity exports, which will plunge with the continued drop in manufacturing. The good news/bad news is that oil and gold prices will drop like stones.

China’s dependence on export-led growth will boomerang into an export-led depression. Signs of sharp contraction are already evident: car sales have slipped dramatically in the last few months and are projected to fall 45 per cent by 2013.

Analysts say the cause of this synchronous global slowdown is the end of the growth generated by the enormous economic stimulus packages after the 2008 crisis. As all countries are in debt up to their eyeballs, there’s no hope of anything like the last round of deficit financing. It remains to be seen if other major economies will follow the United States in its stimulus package disguised as a jobs programme.

Overall, we are looking at a scenario last seen when falling exports triggered the Great Depression of the 1930s. The sequence has a fatal internal logic: as export markets fall, corporations cut back on production, throwing millions of people out of work, thereby shrinking domestic demand and setting off further cuts in manufacturing and employment in a continuing vicious cycle.

Of course, if there is a default by any of Europe’s heavily indebted countries the crisis could develop far more rapidly. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde warned last week that the European financial system is on the verge of collapse. To avoid it, European countries will have to inject capital into their ever more shaky banks, but that seems unlikely.

What about India?

The funny thing is, while the exports of the rest of the world have been taking a nosedive, Indian exporters have been racking up staggering rates of growth ranging up to 84 per cent. There is widespread suspicion that this does not reflect real exports, only black money flooding back to take advantage of the only major economy that shows continued signs of vitality.

Can nothing be done to forestall the coming gut wrenching period?

A great deal, especially by community activists; but the corporate Powers-that-be will probably not allow things to get out of their control. Traditionally, they have maintained control by starting up conflicts to disrupt cooperative efforts at change. In Europe during the 1930s, that involved funding the rise of fascist parties under Hitler and Mussolini. It is sobering to remember that the world economy fully recovered from the Great Depression only because of the massive military expenditures of World War II.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Getting a Grip on Terrorism

I've just watched New Delhi chief honcho Sheila Dixit in an infuriating television interview about the bombing of the High Court in her city yesterday, less than four months after it was last hit.

She maintained throughout a cold distance from what had happened, making the right noises but seemingly not in the least perturbed. It was as if she had no personal responsibility for the death of 12 people and the physical mangling of many others.

Why were the CCTV cameras ordered after the May bombing not in place? An enquiry was under way. She really had nothing to say. The interviewer, Rahul Kanwal of Headlines Today said the delay was being blamed by the CPWD on the Delhi Police revising their original request for 32 cameras, asking for 49 instead. The CPWD had cancelled the tender issued for the purchase of 32, putting back the acquisition process by months. "That is criminal!" he declared.

She was unfazed.   

Asked if heads would roll, she said they would -- if an investigation showed that anyone was at fault!

With 12 dead and nearly 80 injured because of a basic failure of security, what does she need to prove  that indeed, people were at fault? Including, of course, herself.

Home Minister Chidambaram made his usual anodyne statement, as did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Neither made any real sense. We've all been around this track once too many times. Their failures can no longer be explained away, or even explained.

That goes for the television channels too. They are so enamoured of "Big Fight" discussions and promoting their own political agendas (including 24/7 coverage of Anna Hazare) that they have forgotten that their basic job is to be our society's nervous system. It's up to them to keep track of action on the anti-terrorism front. The CCTV camera story should have been top news as it happened -- not after the bombing.

So what can we do to turn things around?

Here are my proposals:

  1. A CCTV Czar: The Prime Minister should appoint a cabinet-level Minister whose only job will be to ensure that all our cities and important facilities (sea and air ports, hospitals, factories, bridges, dams etc) are under adequate surveillance. To avoid delay because of procurement red tape he should be authorized to work with private businesses to get the cameras installed, submitting the bills to government for reimbursement. His office should maintain a web site showing progress and allowing feedback from the public on what is happening or not happening on the ground.
  2. Every newspaper and television channel should establish beat coverage on the installation of CCTV cameras in its own area. It should be as regular as the weather report, and include the functional status of the installed equipment. The people responsible for the system should be regularly interviewed, and any problems aired without delay.
  3. Chambers of Commerce & Industry at the central, state and city level should appoint a coordinator on CCTV installation and functionality. They should fund training programmes to ensure enough trained staff for local and nearby systems.
  4. The programme should aim to cover all major cities and facilities within six months, and have a comprehensive national system in place within a year.
If another terrorist attack should occur either in Mumbai or Delhi, there should be a pre-designated list of officials to be immediately suspended, to be fired after the requisite investigation.


Friday, September 2, 2011

Punishing With Death

N. Ram, the supposed-to-be-retired Editor in Chief of The Hindu, has vented his feelings against the “barbarity and ‘unspeakable wrongness’ of capital punishment” by reproducing on the op-ed page of his newspaper a long extract from the famous George Orwell account of the execution by hanging of an Indian in colonial Burma. It is done, he explains, “in the context of the scheduled execution” of the three men convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

I wonder when Ram will be moved to notice that the Communist Party leadership of China, which his newspaper treats with kid gloves, executes so many people it does so in vans, expediting punishment and facilitating body disposal. The crimes for which China executes people include financial fraud, forging value-added tax receipts, “teaching criminal methods,” smuggling, and theft, both ordinary and of “ancient human remains or fossils of vertebrates.”

Accepting bribes is also a crime punishable with death. Among those who fell foul of that rule recently are Zhang Chunjiang, former Vice Chairman of China Mobile, one of the country’s largest companies, and Li Hua, Chairman and General Manager of its Sichuan Division. Their executions will be delayed for two years, during which, they will be given a chance to inform on others – and win life imprisonment instead of death. Government officials whose corruption has “extremely serious” impact have no such leeway; they are killed immediately after sentence is passed.

 Enthusiasts of Team Anna should know that it originally proposed that India too execute high-level officials engaged in corruption.

The severity of punishment, of course, has little impact on corruption. In China, despite its draconian punishments, corruption is so rampant now it has become cultural. A recent Wall Street Journal blog item on China reported a six-year-old girl's interaction with a television journalist who asked what she wanted to become when she grew up:

“When I grow up I want to be an official” she replied.

 “What kind of official?” asked the interviewer.

“A corrupt official because corrupt officials have a lot of things” she said.