Some thoughts on living in India and Sri Lanka

Per capita GDP is a bad measure of human development.


I started writing again on the blog about a month ago, after a hiatus of almost a year. Many things happened while I was away, not the least interesting of which was my voyage to the middle of the Bay of Bengal and my trip through Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a wonderful country in many ways, and the week or so I spent there was thoroughly enjoyable. I wrote the following while I was in Sri Lanka, circa December 15, 2013, and sent it to a few people I thought might be interested. I haven’t attempted to edit the essay from then.


Some thoughts on living in India and Sri Lanka

I guess most of you know about this, but the supreme court of India judgement on section 377 was handed down a few days ago. The supreme court reversed the stance of the Delhi high court that 377 has to be struck down because what happens in private between consenting adults cannot be punishable. Sri Lanka is very similar to India when it comes to how it deals with homosexuality. There is no gay-marriage, no civil unions. And, says wikipedia, there is a Sri Lankan law (like 377 a relic from the colonial age) that prohibits “grossly indecent” behaviour, something that’s conveniently left undefined (again, just like 377’s language of “against nature”).

What you may not know about the case is that nobody has ever been convicted under either the Sri Lankan law or the Indian law that make homosexuality punishable… Which is what makes the supreme court’s decision that much more frustrating. The court is seemingly saying that no matter how obviously unconstitutional a law in the (seriously outdated) book is, they will not strike it down, asking instead that Parliament pass a law amending section 377.

Jurisprudence comes in a spectrum, I guess, and there’s a case to be made against judicial activism (to wit: it interferes with the separation of powers). But judicial activism isn’t what we’re talking about here. Unless the supreme court of India professes to believing that every section of the IPC written in 1860 is magically compatible with the Indian constitution (i.e. that the Indian constitution is somehow magically backward-compatible with every section of the IPC), some parts of the IPC are going to be unconstitutional and it’s somebody’s job to clean up the mess. Shouldn’t it be the courts–the interpreters of the constitution–that do the striking down of decrepit laws when such laws are brought to their notice? Not that the supreme court is consistent in the matter of whether judicial activism is good or bad, by the way. In the 2G spectrum case, the court not only annulled what the government had done, but basically wrote procedure for an arm of the executive (saying public auction is the way to go, or else).

The mention of Sri Lanka comes from this: I’ve been in Colombo for less than three days now (a day and a half before I left for the ship, and today since the afternoon after I got back). I’d heard very good things about Sri Lanka before I came here. I also knew that Sri Lanka outranks India and the rest of the South Asia region by far when it comes to human development, even though Sri Lanka only has two-thirds the per-capita GDP of India.

The HDI shows on the streets of Colombo, I don’t think I’m being (very) obtuse in saying.

I went out drinking with friends from the ship tonight. Bars in Colombo are open until 12:30, clubs until 2:30am. There were no signs of the crowd thinning when we left the bar at close to midnight. The woman in the group says she didn’t feel a creepy stare because she was drinking or smoking or out past a ‘respectable’ time, I guess because she was by no means the only woman around. We went around midnight to a pier next to the bar. We again saw men and women of assorted ages at the pier, and no cops asking them why they were there. I took a bus (several of which run even past midnight) to my hostel from the bar. The cops were in their posts on the highway the bus takes checking for drunk driving, a vastly better use of police manpower than accosting people on the beach. I’ve also noticed that cars on Colombo’s streets stop for pedestrians instead of threatening to run them down (and everybody obeys traffic signals, which to somebody from Hyderabad means more than you think).

In summation, then, two points. First the obvious preach to the choir:

Colombo isn’t a cesspool of vice for allowing it’s bars to be open past 11. Or for allowing its women the freedom to do what they want. Or for making its policemen do what they’re meant to do.

Secondly, all this has still not meant that Sri Lanka’s “section 377” is struck down. a) The gift of colonialism just keeps on giving. b) Popular opinion can change this in a hurry, one hopes, given how quickly progress has happened in the US recently. (Obvious caveat: the US was dealing with gay marriage rights, not gay existence rights.)

PS: The highest contribution to India’s HDI is from health, apparently. Which to anybody who knows what government healthcare in India looks like would be funny if it weren’t tragic. Our education index is well below our already pitiful overall HDI; Sri Lanka’s education index is on par with its overall HDI.

Modi is India’s Reagan. Apparently.

…and for some reason, people think this is a compliment.

I haven’t written about the elections. They’re happening, and we’re polarised enough as a polity that nothing I have to say will change anybody’s mind about anything. But yesterday’s The Hindu op-ed page contains an article that I thought I’d say something about. I don’t think the article itself is insightful or original, but what it represents perhaps is.

First, about the article’s thesis that Modi is India’s Reagan, and (implicitly) that this is somehow reason for people to vote for Modi (or Modi’s model of development).

Reagan was a B-film actor who became governor of California and then the US president. Modi was an organiser for the RSS before he became the chief minister of Gujarat. Reagan was considered sunny and optimistic, even by his opponents (it’s morning in America, and all that). Modi is sullen and diffident at times, and a rabble-rousing demagogue at others. Very little similarity there, I think.

Where there does seem to be similarity is in the size of the respective personas in relation to what these men actually achieved. And, more importantly, in their policies. Reagan enjoys de facto sainthood, despite being the president whose tenure saw the enactment of game-changing financial legislation that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008. Reagan was also the president who cut taxes on the rich while the middle class barely made any gains and poverty rose.  He started the restriction of the social welfare programmes that is now entrenched in US politics (think ‘no tax increase, ever’, or ‘Obamacare means death panels’).

And yet the hagiography surrounding Reagan–e.g. David Cohen’s article which prompted this whole blogpost–would suggest a very different picture.

Modi’s rise to stardom, if not sainthood, has been similar. Modi’s Gujarat has made great concessions to large businesses, and fared poorly in social indicators. And, just like Reagan, the hype about Gujarat is larger than life.

Reagan was opposed to the civil rights and voting rights laws protecting black Americans from discrimination. He was anti-abortion, and insisted on prayer in schools. Modi’s BJP wants to permanently criminalise homosexuality, and return India to its Hindu roots (we’ll say nothing right now about whether those things are in fact the same thing).

Like I said above, the David Cohen’s article isn’t very interesting; it’s the same ‘Reagan was called racist by elitists’ tripe. What is interesting is that such and article is now possible in mainstream news. Marx and Engels called for a global order of the proletariat; what we seem to have here is a global order of the rich and their minions.

Freedom of speech, Kamal Haasan, Ashis Nandy

The freedom to say what you think is always under threat. There will always be people who would give up freedom for temporary security (for ten points, complete the saying this sentence alludes to). Two stories interest me from the last week or so.

Kamal Haasan has made some movie that talks about fundamentalist Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan. And the good people of Chennai are up in arms because it hurts their sentiments. Or something. The Madras High Court, true to form, has thrown free speech under the bus, and then reversed direction a few times to make sure free speech is well and truly dead. The backlash on the streets, such as it was, against this movie may or may not have had something to do with things other than hurt sentiments, but the court’s ruling itself presumably had no reason other than that, I guess, free speech can go to hell.

Kamal Haasan insists, indeed pleads, that the movie has nothing at all derogatory about muslims. It is a movie that deals with terrorism, and specifically with al Qaeda. Not mentioning the religion and ideology of the terrorists would be silly. Demands that the movie be banned because it does mention the religion of the terrorist are insane and should be laughed out of any self-respecting democracy. Instead we have the honourable high court of Madras to save us. From something.

The other story is that of Ashis Nandy and his comments at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Depending on whom you ask, Nandy’s statements were the nuanced and humane insight, into a problem that’s millennia old, of an intellectual giant. [People saying this include Yogendra Yadav, here; Harsh Sethi, here; Shiv Vishwanathan, here]. Or the comments were the mad rambling of an upper-caste loon who has made a career of “repackaging elite prejudice as counter-intuitive insight and paradoxical wisdom.” [People saying this include S. Anand, here; The Round Table, here; and K. Satyanarayana, here].

Nandy is one of India’s foremost sociologists and is no stranger to controversy. He was the first person to call Narendra Modi an archetypal fascist. He has also come under some flak of late for supporting, with caveats, the RSS’ statement that rapes happen in India, not in Bharat. At the Jaipur Literary Festival, Ashis Nandy was asked something about corruption and responded with a statement about how corruption is more complicated than what you might think at first blush. And all hell has apparently broken loose.

…which is good! Nandy is an academic making an argument about the dynamics of caste and corruption. Nothing he says is going to change anything for the oppressed Dalit. In fact, people who do work for the emancipation of Dalits in this country are precisely the people who disagree vehemently with Nandy. However, what S. Anand does say is that whatever else may be true about the 70 year old Nandy, he does not deserve to be hounded by the police or go to jail.

There is a law in India that criminalises the (verbal) abuse of Dalits. The purpose of the law, the spirit in which the law was written, is to stop the systematic disenfranchisement of Dalits, not to shut down academic debate. Whatever you think about Nandy’s understanding of corruption and caste, whether or not you think he was being disingenuous or merely trying to be provocative, jailing academics for academic (in every sense of the word) opinions about their field of study has no part in a democracy. None.

My own opinion of what Nandy said a) doesn’t matter — I am no expert on caste or corruption in India, but b) will be the subject of my next blog post; for what, after all, is the point of having a blog if one won’t pontificate once in a while?

Democracy and the internet

The internet in India is like a nuclear warhead that’s missing the fissile Uranium.

Elections at IITM were interesting. Candidates weren’t allowed to spend their own money. Candidates weren’t allowed to use their own media. Institute-sponsored “soapbox”es were conducted and places for campaigning were designated. And we aren’t talking about puppet-positions here. Elected representatives were given, under some adult supervision, a reasonable amount of power to conduct business. These elections, such as they were, were publicly financed — the administration (you might call it the government) paid for the elections in entirety.

Pretty much everybody not bought and paid for by the Corporation agrees that elections should be publicly financed. Public financing ensures that candidates take elections seriously and that people with money don’t run away with everything. Public financing doesn’t necessarily have to look like the elections at IITM. Not every candidate has to get the same amount of money for example. What is important is that every voter and every vote gets the same amount of importance.

Is there a reason this shouldn’t work for the country as a whole? Ravikanth asked a few of us this question.

While we don’t really (free airtime on Doordarshan and All-India Radio is given to every political party, apparently… like anybody even watches DD anymore) have publicly financed elections in this country, we do have campaign-spending limits. But these are limits applied on the candidate, and not the party. The most recent iteration of the campaign finance laws in India also make it easy for people and corporations to donate legally to candidates and parties. The problem is, however, that even if contributions are legal, they’re still only capped at 5% of the profits of the company. Which is a huge amount of money and an incredible amount of influence to put into the hands of the people running mega corporations. And all this is without even considering how much ‘black’ money runs elections.

Can we fix this? If the state sponsored every election expense, parties would no longer need their own money to win elections. Which means they wouldn’t need to seek out donors. Which means they wouldn’t need to do backhanded favours for the donors after they come to power. At least in theory, state-financed elections would fix the mess we are in.

I started this post alluding to IITM’s elections being ‘state’-financed. However, IITM is not India. Insofar as attitudes towards sexuality or morality are concerned, perhaps. But otherwise not.

The average IITian is literate; the literacy rate in the country as a whole hangs at around 75%. The average IITian has access to the internet and everything that entails.* In fact, voting at IITM is done online. For the country as a whole, though, the numbers for internet usage are depressing.

This last detail is something that could truly have made a difference. Nobody doubts the power of the internet to rouse or mobilise people. We’ve seen real-life examples in the last year. And it might still happen in this country too. After all, India has seen a mobile telephony revolution. We have the cheapest telephone-calls in the world. And while China still beats us in the number of telephone users, the speed at which mobile access has grown in India is staggering. (If you’re counting, China has a billion telephone users. We have about 900 million.)

Here’s hoping.

[Edit: 19.01.2013: * Aashish Gupta points out that voting at IITM is done at a booth where you login to a computer connected to a central server, which isn’t all that different from the EVMs that are used in India’s elections. I agree. But it is true that at IITM you could read about a candidate for election — manifestos, propaganda, CVs — online.]

Dented and Painted

On Christmas day, fifteen of us went trekking at Ananthagiri, a clutch of low hills with some farms and some ponds, about 70 km from TIFR-Hyderabad. On our way down the steepest terrain I have done this sort of thing on, we had to crouch down under the thick shrubbery. At the bottom was a quiet little pond with its assorted birds. By the time we made it down to the pond, all of us had scratches and cuts, and even some bruises. Mine were relatively minor and healed needing nothing more than cold cream. I am, I suppose, dented and painted.

The gang-rape of a 23 year old student in Delhi has shaken up middle-class India. The brutal nature of the assault on this woman and the man who was with her in the Delhi bus seems to have woken up residents of Delhi to the fact that this society is misogynistic and unsafe for women. The Delhi gang-rape isn’t the only horrifying thing that we as a society have seen — not even just since the Delhi incident: see this, this, this (18 women get raped every day in Delhi, say statistics). One can only wonder why we don’t see mass-protests against rape and police inaction — or even active sabotage — more often.

It is hard not to notice that the people protesting the lack of safety for women seem focused — barring some sane voiceson tougher punishment and more policing than on changing the conditions that led to this tragedy in the first place. Raziman points out that this baying for blood is society attempting to wash its hands off any responsibility to actually change for the better. People have asked why this rape gets the attention of “the nation” while many other incidents get brushed aside, their victims left to fend for themselves, if not actually persecuted by the State’s official machinery.

It is against this backdrop that I first read about Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of India’s president, making the remarks that gave this blogpost its title. I remember glossing over the details and deciding that he had simply made a poor choice of words in trying to express the sentiment that we need structural change in this society’s treatment of women.

At the breakfast table yesterday, Sriram Ramaswamy brought up Mukherjee’s comments and the fact that even his own sister has condemned him for making them. He asked us if we know what ‘dented and painted’ means. I confessed to not having thought about it too much. He had; he had also seen Arnab Goswami give Mukherjee the full Monty.

A car that has had a minor bump and has to have its body reshaped – by the sheet-metal body getting its kinks hammered out and re-painted to cover up the bump and the body-work – is what is colloquially called ‘dented-and-painted’.

Calling women protesting an unsafe society ‘dented and painted’ isn’t just a poor choice of words. It is symptomatic of the same malady that makes our society such a dangerous place for a woman to live: the same backwardness that mandates that a two-finger test  be performed on a rape-victim to ascertain whether she is “habituated to sex”, the same misogyny that led members of parliament in 2010 to reaffirm that marital rape will not be punished.

Mukherjee says that he was a student once and that he knows what a good student “should be”: no student who is so morally loose as to go to a discotheque has the right to also hold a candle-lit vigil against rape. And anybody who does, presumably, is only doing this so that she may continue her lifestyle of getting dented and painted.

UPDATE, 29/12/2012: I wrote this last night and posted it this morning. I have learnt, since, that the woman who was gang-raped in Delhi has died from her injuries in a Singapore hospital.

Nuclear safety and the people of Koodankulam

Edited 12/9/2012 after being first posted.

Events at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu have reached a crisis. The people of Koodankulam want the nuclear reactor gone. The government wants the nuclear reactor commissioned. And India’s police forces remain brutish, using teargas and firing at people protesting the nuclear power plant.

The protests at Koodankulam are happening because India’s track record at protecting the safety of its citizens is abysmal. To stick to nuclear waste, we would do well to remember that radioactive waste from the Uranium mines of Jadugoda has affected more than 50,000 people. These are government-owned mines.

The safety situation at the mines is equally dismaying. The company dumps waste from the mines in open fields and transports uranium ore in uncovered dumpers. Just about a decade ago, say villagers, the playgrounds for children and grazing areas were near the three tailing ponds. The company even supplied mine tailings as construction material to the villagers . In December 2006, a pipe burst spilling radioactive waste. There was no warning system in place. The authorities took about nine hours to respond. People recall several similar incidents.

The protests are led by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy(PMANE). Their supporters include people like Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy, who says

“I stand in complete solidarity with the villagers of Idinthakarai who are resisting the fuel loading of the Koodankulam nuclear reactor. I happened to be in Japan in March 2011 when the earthquake damaged the Fukushima reactor. After the disaster, almost every country that uses nuclear energy declared that it would change its policy. Every country, except India. Our Government has shown itself incapable of even being able to dispose day to day garbage, leave alone industrial effluent or urban sewage. How does it dare to say that it knows how to deal with nuclear waste? And that nuclear reactors in India are safe? We know how the Government has colluded with Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals) to ensure that the victims of the Bhopal Gas Leak will never get justice. But no amount of compensation can ever right a nuclear disaster. I do believe that what is being done in Koodankulam in the name of Development is a crime.”

— Arundhati Roy

The people at Dianuke have a list of problems with the Koodankulam nuclear plant:

4)      More specifically, the NPCIL does not have adequate water backup, in the event that emergency cooling of the reactor or spent fuel pool is required. It has simply “promised” to construct one, but there is no clear time frame or accountability on this promise.

5)      The NPCIL does not have adequate power backup in the event of a station blackout. It has again “promised” to procure a mobile Diesel Generator set, but only in the “long run.”

9)      Dummies Guide to Safety: Leaving aside these technical issues, there is simple “dummy” guide to safety. The Government has signed a secret “liability” agreement with Russia completely indemnifying the Russian company in the event of an accident. The Government has refused to disclose the clauses of this agreement, in response to RTI requests, court petitions, and parliamentary questions. If the reactor is so safe, and there is no chance of a disaster, why is such great care required to protect the interests of the Russian company in the event of an accident? And if an accident is indeed possible, then why is the Government willing to privilege a foreign company over its own people?

As I understand it, what is being said above is that the Russian company that is going to build the nuclear plant — not operate it, but build it — is not going to be held liable for a nuclear accident at the plant. The operator of the nuclear plant, of course, is the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, a government-run agency.  Internationally accepted practice is that the nuclear suppliers and the builders of the plant are not held accountable; the operator is. The nuclear liability act in India says something similar. Except that the nuclear operator in our case is the government itself via the NPCIL.

With their lives at stake except for the feeble guarantees of the government that the nuclear plant is safe (something the government still says about Jaduguda’s Uranium mines), and with the track record of the Indian state and its protection of citizens, can we really be surprised that the people of Koodankulam want no part of the nuclear power plant?

The main argument for nuclear power is that it is cleaner and more sustainable than conventional sources of electricity. That is if one ignores all the risks people are worried about. Is nuclear power necessary in order to meet India’s energy demands? Germany, one of the countries that gave up nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, has an immense solar-power programme. They were able to show that a third to a fourth of their country could be run on solar power alone. India has its own heroes. Gram Power, an organisation working in rural Rajasthan has electrified an entire village that no longer depends on the government for electricity. This electricity is entirely provided by solar banks, but the founders of Gram Power say that they are capable of using any alternative energy source.

Cartoons, corruption, sedition

What the cartoons are is representative of the Indian middle-class, such as it is, and whatever anger the middle-class has against politicians, and bureaucrats, and ‘corruption’. This is the definition of political satire. And the state locking the cartoonist up for the crime of satirising the people running the state is the definition of totalitarianism.

You may have read about Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist from Kanpur, was the latest victim of India’s ban-fetish. Trivedi, to boot, faces life in jail for sedition under a British era law whose existence, more than anything he did, calls into question India’s democratic credentials.

Trivedi is also the founder of ‘Save your Voice‘, a movement for freedom against internet censorship.

His website was blocked last year for hosting ‘objectionable content’ — a term so vague and vacuous that only the Indian government can use it without flinching. He moved all his cartoons to the Blogspot blog after this.

Below are two of the cartoons he has been arrested for. There’s more of the kind on his blog.

Now, the cartoons may not be to your taste. They may not be respectful of the powers that are. I don’t even think they are particularly good. (Or all that subtle.) They paint the black and white picture of corruption that Anna Hazare and company are so fond of. What the cartoons are is representative of the Indian middle-class, such as it is, and whatever anger the middle-class has against politicians, and bureaucrats, and ‘corruption’. This is the definition of political satire. And the state locking the cartoonist up for the crime of satirising the people running the state is the definition of totalitarianism.