Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Economic Development after 16 May

The parties with a realistic chance of assuming power after 16 May are agreed on the need for "economic reforms" to help India industrialize rapidly.

Both BJP and the Congress have declared their intention to ramp up industrial manufacturing, which they think is the only way to create the millions of new jobs the county needs.

They ignore what has happened in China, where such "development" has created the world’s most unequal society and the worst levels of air, water and soil pollution anywhere on the planet.

I was thinking of this on a recent trip to Bangalore to attend a wedding

The ceremonies were at a temple I had never heard of, and other guests who did know of it were foggy about how to get there: our cab driver had to ask for directions repeatedly as we traveled along narrow country roads and came eventually to a small flyblown town where the temple was located.

The temple itself was a pleasant surprise, a graceful complex of grassy squares, carved rock structures and statuary, a portal to another universe, serene and ancient.

A plaque said it was a thousand years old.

After the wedding we had lunch at an establishment near the temple. The food was excellent but served with a raw lack of style. Before and after eating we washed hands at a cracked sink with a wobbly faucet. The toilets were primitive.

It occurred to me on the hour ride back to Bangalore that the temple could easily be developed into a major tourist attraction. That would create thousands of new jobs at all skill levels and transform the economy of the surrounding countryside. From that thought, it was but a step to the proposition that in a land richly endowed with natural beauty and littered with the monuments of a millennial history, such a process could be the basis for rapid, sustained and sustainable development.

A national crash programme to create world-class tourist facilities would bump up GDP faster than any campaign to make India an international manufacturing hub.

It would not require imported capital and technology or create a super-rich class: tourism is the world's largest industry but it consists mainly of small and medium enterprises. The benefits of tourism-based growth would thus be widely distributed.

Instead of fouling the natural environment and causing the proliferation of every type of cancer and lung disease, it could improve the ecosystem and the urban habitat.

Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the least developed parts of India, have the richest potential for tourism development and could vault ahead.

What will it take to implement such a programme?

The first essential is to sell the concept to the people of India as equal in importance to the freedom struggle. We cannot transform the country without everyone pitching in enthusiastically.  

The next three essentials are imaginative planning, innovative problem solving and excellent quality control, all eminently feasible. Especially so if we get a government after 16 May that is capable of concerted strong action.

How can we actually begin?

By setting up a task force to outline an overall strategic plan of action, identifying what needs doing where. Other expert groups could then carry forward progressively more detailed planning, all the way down to the recommendation of standardized templates for the new facilities to be constructed, and check-lists for cleaning up our towns and cities.The aim should be to have at the end of that process a number of specific project proposals in the form of business plans for examination by investors. Everyone involved in the process should be given strict deadlines and failure to provide quality work when expected should lead to dismissal.

To ensure success, it will be critically important to:

1. Maintain overall government oversight but contract out most of the actual work, including quality control, to private businesses, domestic and foreign.

2. Minimize corruption by establishing a policy of total transparency, with all budgetary information and analyses freely available on an official Web site. It should have links to the web sites of all private contractors, who should be required to maintain similar open access to information. An email system to distribute whistle-blower complaints to the Press and multiple levels of government should make a serious dent in corruption.

3. Mobilize and sustain public support for the programme by providing a multimedia flow of information on what is happening around the country and inviting their views on how things could be improved. An e-news service should pay free-lancers for articles on problems and progress. State and central cabinet committees should report quarterly and annually on the overall process.

4. Arrange for public-private partnerships to identify and develop human resources necessary for smooth implementation of the plan. Those with technical skill sets such as electricians and plumbers should get nationally standardized training to enable them to work at short notice in any part of the country. There should also be a common standard for the esthetic quality of their work.

In addition to the action directly related to the development of tourism, the government should move simultaneously to:

  1. Create a national Youth Internship Corps to enable college students to volunteer for work in their chosen fields and gain on-the-job training.
  2. Establish a cadre of community-level social workers to care for people living on the streets, especially, children, women and the elderly without family support. They should have the necessary institutional back-up from medical and educational institutions to function effectively.
  3. Give real estate developers tax breaks and land grants to build public shelters for the homeless and rental housing available only to those in the lowest income strata. National awards should be instituted to acknowledge good work. 
  4. Encourage and support animal lovers throughout the country to cooperate in looking after strays. The support could be through financial grants when necessary and by building/improving facilities for animal care in every community. Students in veterinary colleges should be required to work with such community activists before they can graduate.
  5. Work with entrepreneurs to make every post office a cyber café offering support for first-time computer users and students.
  6. Promote modern watershed management throughout the country. An excellent model for this already exists in the Watershed Organisation Trust, a Pune-based NGO that works in several Indian states. WOTR uses mobile phones and tablet computers to collect and organize multimedia input into a database that is used to plan and implement appropriate land and water management. The success of its efforts was evident during the recent drought in Maharashtra when the areas where WOTR worked had no shortage of water.
  7. Concentrate all energy development funding on off-grid solar energy. A model for action on this exists in Simpa Networks, a Bangalore-based company that finances renewable-energy kits for homes and recovers the cost by charging for the electricity used. The energy is free after the cost of the kit is repaid.

How can we fund all this?

The simplest way would be for the government to abolish all personal and corporate income taxes and announce an amnesty for all black money invested in interest-paying 10, 20 and 30-year Development Bonds. The bonds could be issued in series tied to the time-bound implementation of particular projects. (New taxes on immovable corporate property could make the abolition of income taxes revenue neutral.)

Foreign Policy Aspects

None of our efforts will work as planned unless the government addresses key aspects of our international and regional situation. It must: 

  1. Focus public attention on the post-independence role of Britain in creating our most serious national security problems, ranging from communal violence to terrorism and armed insurrection. There is a great deal of evidence of this dating back to partition, but successive Indian governments have felt it necessary to pretend that Britain is not involved. That reflects the strength of British corporate and media proxies in India, and it has led to a situation in which Indians have no clear idea why their society is in a growing state of crisis. Clarifying what has been happening will build the public support necessary for the steps below.  
  2. End the $60 billion trade in opium and heroin out of Afghanistan run by terrorist groups obedient to Britain’s SIS and Pakistan’s ISI. The only way to kill the trade is to change the prohibitionist drug conventions that reward drug traffickers with enormous profits. A high-level International Commission on Drug Policy declared in 2011 that the current prohibitionist approach had failed; more recently, Latin American countries at the presidential level have been pushing for change because current policies are having a devastating impact on their countries. With the UN General Assembly scheduled to undertake a comprehensive review of existing policies and practices in 2016, New Delhi should go into high gear in support of a new International Convention on Psychotropic Drugs. It should decriminalize all substance abuse and move policy towards therapeutic approaches. That would immediately knock out all profit from "illicit drugs" and pull the rug out from under the SIS-ISI-Taliban- Al Qaeda combine. 
  3. Stabilize the Rupee. The value of the Indian currency has been subject to egregious manipulation through off-shore markets, mainly Singapore and Dubai. These manipulations have helped British corporations make windfall profits, especially in the energy sector. New Delhi must make clear that those who profit from such manipulation will pay an equal price in new taxes.
  4. Enlist the support of all British corporations operating in India and Indian corporations with close ties to the British power elite (ESSAR, Reliance Industries, Cairn India and the Tata Group), to communicate a blunt message to London: unless it stops all subversive activity, there can be no normal economic relations. To spell out exactly what that means, the Law Ministry should frame a new law specifically invoking national security (and thus overriding all applicable international instruments), empowering the Indian government to confiscate and hold in escrow the profits of all British corporations doing business in India. 
  5. Help all members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to undertake their own versions of our tourism-based development.

End Note 

What happens if 16 May results in a hung parliament?

I would suggest a unity government with the proposals above as a common operating platform.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Net Neutrality & Capitalism 1:01

According to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, the chairman of the United States Federal Communications Commission has secretly proposed a new rule that will allow broadband carriers to provide a “fast lane” to those who pay for it.

The FCC has vehemently denied the reports but no one seems to believe it.

Writing in The New Yorker, Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and an expert on the topic, declared that if enacted, the rule “will profoundly change the Internet as a platform for free speech and small-scale innovation. It threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity.”

He argued that preferential treatment for some will inevitably mean degrading the service for all others. “We take it for granted that bloggers, start-ups, or nonprofits on an open Internet reach their audiences roughly the same way as everyone else. Now they won’t. They’ll be behind in the queue, watching as companies that can pay tolls to the cable companies speed ahead.”

Amidst the growing talk of the need to mobilize resistance to the rule, let me point out that even if adopted, such a discriminatory rule cannot last long.


Because capitalism in the Information Age is significantly different from what it was during earlier eras.

When English merchants first invented it in the 17th Century, capitalism was merely a means to share the risk of trade with India. The East India Company, created in 1600, was the world’s first joint-stock corporation, and it soon became the model for companies throughout Europe.

The stock markets that came into being to facilitate the buying and selling of shares in trading companies, became, in the industrial era, the means to raise the vast amounts of capital necessary to build the necessary infrastructure.

In those earlier eras, the corporate elite were solidly in charge, with no one able to question their power. They rigged the markets, exploited factory workers, enslaved plantation labour, brutalized or killed anyone who stood in the way, and suborned politicians into giving them impunity. 

In economic terms, corporations ran the only game in town; what opposition they faced could easily be snuffed out.

That is no longer true.

For one thing, the corporate elite itself is split down the middle. The big new boys on the block, Google, Facebook and Twitter, and the entire corporate ecosystem that supports them, have nothing to gain from a two-tier Internet. Their bread is richly buttered on the side of small scale enterprise and innovation.

And it’s not just that. The brick-and-mortar corporations, including online shops and banks, that see profit in a two-tier Net, will find out soon enough that it does not pay to have displeased customers crawling about cyberspace.

The real danger is that the corporate elite will find ways to censor free speech and manipulate public opinion.

The first step towards that is unquestioned mass surveillance in the name of “security.”

In the United States, the battle to limit such blanket surveillance is well under way thanks to whistle-blower Edward Snowden,

In India, with the comical watch-puppies of the corporate media supposedly looking out for our essential freedoms, we have no such luck.

If, God forbid, we get Narendra Modi as prime minister, loss of Net Neutrality will be the least of our worries.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ignorant Commentary

The weekend issue of Business Standard has a column by one Arundhuti Dasgupta that is outright ignorant.

It is a shaggy-dog take on alliances in the Mahabharata and the Odyssey, ostensibly to give perspective to the current Indian political scene. None of it makes any sense because her basic premises are wrong.  

For instance, she thinks the Pandavas had the upper hand going into the Kurukshetra war.

She does not seem to have noticed that the Mahabharata goes to great lengths to emphasize that the Pandavas are the underdogs. After 14 years of exile in deprivation and hardship they are powerless and willing to settle for just five villages of their usurped empire.

The Kauravas not only had more allies and the larger army, they had the awesome Bhisma as commander-in-chief and the invincible Drona.

Perhaps nothing illustrates Dasgupta’s ignorance of the Mahabharata more than her take on Duryodhana’s elation at getting Krishna’s army while Arjuna gets Krishna as a noncombatant charioteer.

“Without their commander the soldiers were not as effective; and Krishna provided a huge moral, tactical and psychological advantage even though he did not fight on the battlefield.”

That is not the point!

Krishna is God. Duryodhana in his egoism does not see that all the armies in the world cannot help him if Krishna is guiding the other side.

That blinding egoism defeats the Kauravas at every turn as they spiral down to defeat.

Further along in the column, Dasgupta writes: “Strategic relationships have been a critical aspect of the mythology of the subcontinent. Vishnu, for instance, who is part of the trinity and highest in the hierarchy of gods, rides on the Garuda (a mythical bird) and rests on the Ananta Nag (the world serpent). The two were strong animistic deities who were assimilated in the Vedic fold, albeit in positions lower than the main gods. Alliances with the tribal gods helped spread the Vedic way of life. They widened their influence.”

Was there no one at the Business Standard to ask Dasgupta if she has ever read the Vedas? If she had even skimmed through them, the idiocy of her statements would have been clear.

The Vedas are entirely a collection of tribal hymns (Rig), rituals (Yajur), songs (Sama) and magical spells (Atharva). There is no “Vedic fold” or “Vedic way of life,” separate from the tribal.

The Vedas (literally, “Seen”), are the only holy books of Hinduism that are “sruti,” of divine origin and thus eternal. All else, including such revered books as the Bhagavad Gita, is “smriti,” the remembered works of human origin.

Why that difference? Because tribal lore is the “seen” reality of the universe dating to the very beginnings of the human race.

The hymns to Agni (the first deity invoked in the Rig Veda), Surya, Vayu, Indra the wielder of the thunderbolt, Varuna the upholder of law, and Yama the god of death, give voice to the most elemental poetic/religious experiences of homo sapiens.

Why were the Vedas compiled? Most probably to end inter-tribal conflict by creating a common source of veneration and allowing tribes to settle into interdependent castes. There is solid genetic evidence that each caste was once a tribe.

The persons credited by tradition with putting the Vedas in order were the Saptarishis, the seven sages memorialized as the stars that point to the unmoving North Star.

Straddling the Sruti and Smriti canons is the Vedanta. That is the net wisdom of the Vedas extracted by the Upanishads (literally, “discussions”) organized by the rishis (literally, “seers”).

The teachings of the Upanishads shaped the world view and the value-system we call Hinduism. Its key element is belief in a universal immanent Spirit that a devotee can approach in any form.

Upon that basic faith rests the view that all Creation is “God’s Family,” and that life and death are an infinite continuum through which individuals progress according to their observance of the Dharma (Eternal Law/Duty) and Karma (burden of moral causality).

Two wonderful epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata, spread that grand perspective to every village in the country and far afield. Celebrated in music, song and dance, their stories told and retold in religious and secular drama, they shaped the customs, festivals and observances that have given us a common Indian culture and spirit.

The colonial British tried to fit the complexity of Hinduism into the Procrustean view of their own faith, itself the crippled child of a church created by the savage lust of Henry VIII. Not surprisingly, they could not comprehend it, and resorted to a number of self-aggrandizing theories, including the "Aryan invasion" and the Orientalist invention of Hinduism. 

Fortunately, the British are now long gone. Unfortunately, their confusions continue to haunt us through the works of Dasgupta and her ilk.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Romila Thapar and the Hindutvadis

David Davidar, formerly of Penguin India and Penguin Canada, has warmed up the fake culture war between Romila Thapar and the Hindutvadis just in time for the most divisive elections in our history.

Our "elite" English language Press has risen smartly to the bait, and there have been interviews in the TOI and DNA presenting that face-off as a real thing.

It is not real, for both sides of the debate are part of Britain's propaganda war against India.

With the Hindutvadis that is an open and shut case.

The philosophy of "Hindutva" was first enunciated by Damodar Vinayak Savarkar after he had been tortured into submission in a British prison.

It was written while he was still in prison and its political message was a HIndu version of Mohammad Ali Jinnah's "two nation" theory.

With Jinnah and Savarkar as proxies, the British then proceeded to rip Indian society apart. 

Romila Thapar is a more complex case because scholarly credentials hide her involvement in the propagandistic colonial history project.

Perhaps the best way to expose that is to compare her 1966 A History of India with its thoroughly revised and enlarged edition of 2004.

The two versions offer a fascinating contrast in their treatment of Hinduism.

The Pelican Original of 1966 had this to say about Hinduism on page 132 of Chapter 6:

Brahminism did not remain unchanged through all these centuries, nor was it impervious to the effects of Buddhism and Jainism. Some of the Vedic gods had quietly passed into oblivion and some were being reborn as new gods with additional attributes. This was the time when the Brahminical religion assumed features which today are recognized as Hinduism. To call it Hinduism at this stage is perhaps an anachronism, since the term was given currency by the Arabs in the eight century A.D, when referring to those who followed the prevailing religion of India, the worship of Shiva and Vishnu. But for the sake of convenience the religion may be described as Hinduism from this point onwards.”

In the much expanded 2004 edition, the topic of Hinduism was moved up to page 3 of Chapter 1, and Thapar expressed a completely different view.

In the course of investigating what came to be called Hinduism, together with various aspects of its belief, ritual and custom, many [British Orientalists] were baffled by a religion that was altogether different from their own. It was not monotheistic, there was no historical founder, or single sacred text, or dogma or ecclesiastical organization — and it was closely tied to caste. There was therefore an overriding need to fit it into the known moulds of familiar religions, so as to make it more accessible. Some scholars have suggested that Hinduism as it is formulated and perceived today, very differently from earlier times, was largely born out of this reformulation.

The British “reformulation,” Thapar explained, “influenced the emerging Indian middle class in its understanding of its own past. … It was believed that the Indian pattern of life was so concerned with metaphysics and the subtleties of religious belief that little attention was given to the more tangible aspects.”

That was “the genesis of the idea of the spiritual east,” a theme “firmly endorsed by a section of Indian opinion during the last hundred years” because it “was a consolation to the Indian intelligentsia for its perceived inability to counter the technical superiority of the West …. At the height of anti-colonial nationalism it acted as a salve for having been made a colony of Britain.

Thapar did not explain her dramatic shift in assessing the nature and history of Hinduism, but it is not difficult to see that in the second version she has clearly bought into the colonial theme that Hinduism does not exist, that the billion of us who call ourselves Hindu are just plain confused.

However, the explanation is obvious and can be summed up simply: 1984.

Obviously, she has been hurt and traumatized by the events of that terrible year, and the vociferous attacks of Hindutvadis on her various writings have pushed her over the edge.

It is a pity that she did not put what happened in 1984 in the larger context of Britain's merciless manipulation of the Sikhs.

But as for the rest of us, we should look on the Romila Thapar versus the Hindutvadis as a specious culture war entirely of British creation, presented at a critical time in our history by one of their most effective proxies in India, David Davidar.