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.

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P. Sainath is such a dolt. Or something.

Bitch, please. You don’t live in an “undistorted market”.

Swati pointed me to this blogpost about P. Sainath. The author takes Sainath to task for what are apparently grave errors of basic economics, basic maths, basic common sense. Or so the author of the blogpost would have you think. The blogpost goes on at length about how dumb Sainath is and condescends to point out several “Basic Econ101 lessonsthat Sainath has obviously failed to learn.

I know very little economics. I haven’t been formally educated in economics, or studied economics on my own. Nevertheless, there are some very obvious things that are wrong with the blogpost. First, Atanu Dey, the author, is an idiot. Now that the ad hominem is out of the way, you won’t see me mention the author again.

1)

“We shifted millions. . .” Who are the we? Are farmers stupid and passive? Do they have any choice in what they do? This automatic categorization of them as victims is what I call the manufacturing discontent industry. I will come back to this matter later on.

Incentives don’t count? If the government sets support prices for cash crops but none for food crops, will farmers grow cash crops or food crops? Is this not “we” shifting millions of farmers from one form of agriculture to another?

2)

But in the same breath that he talks about food prices, he also talks about the poor farmers. I don’t suppose he understands that buying and selling are two sides of the same coin. If food prices are kept low by decree, it is the same as decreeing that farmers starve. By putting an artificial lid on food prices, it discourages food producers from producing food. That restricts supply, and that increases the price of food.

Unless — radical thought! — you ensure that everybody has the right to enough food.

3)

His pet hobby horse is farmer suicides. He rattles off numbers–so many farmers killed in so many years. Again the context is missing. Yes, we understand that 250,000 farmers killing themselves is serious business. But why are they killing themselves? Because food prices are too high or too low?

“Pet hobby horse”? Insensitive much, dude? Here’s a Sainath article from 2009. I quote a bit of the article; a bit called, you know, the first paragraph:

The number of farmers who have committed suicide in India between 1997 and 2007 now stands at a staggering 182,936. Close to two-thirds of these suicides have occurred in five states (India has 28 states and seven union territories). The Big 5 – Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh– account for just about a third of the country’s population but two-thirds of farmers’ suicides. The rate at which farmers are killing themselves in these states is far higher than suicide rates among non-farmers. Farm suicides have also been rising in some other states of the country.

4)

Basic Econ101 lesson: Prices in undistorted markets reflect the supply and demand of goods. They convey essential information to producers and consumers. If prices rise, it could be due to demand increases or supply shocks, or both. Producers increase production when prices rise; consumers reduce consumption. Suppressing price information leads to foreseeable but unintended adverse outcomes.

Bitch, please. You don’t live in an “undistorted market”.

Anybody remember this, from House M.D.? —

Foreman: First year of med-school; if you hear hooves, think horses not zebras.
House: Are you in first year med-school? No.

J.B.S. Haldane, On Being the Right Size

JBS Haldane was an Indian geneticist and evolutionary biologist, and a fervent populariser of science. Yes, Indian, because he died an Indian citizen and a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute at Calcutta. I was in fact quite surprised to learn about Haldane’s Indian connection myself; I am told a friend of my father’s had the opportunity to work for Haldane. He was born a British citizen and was a professor at Cambridge and at the University College London before he left Britain for India over objections to Britain’s international policies. He saw in India “the closest approximation to the free world”, which should give those of us who think badly of this country some pause:

Perhaps one is freer to be a scoundrel in India than elsewhere. So one was in the U.S.A in the days of people like Jay Gould, when (in my opinion) there was more internal freedom in the U.S.A than there is today. The “disgusting subservience” of the others has its limits. The people of Calcutta riot, upset trams, and refuse to obey police regulations, in a manner which would have delighted Jefferson. I don’t think their activities are very efficient, but that is not the question at issue.

He was also a card-carrying Marxist, but had his reservations about whether communism would work in the real world. Which brings me to the essay from the title of this post. I was pointed to it by Prof. Mahendra Verma. The essay(text here) came up because we were talking about camber and lift and powered flight. Haldane’s essay is a joy to read, and his keen interest in, and insight into, various branches of science (the social sciences included) beyond biology is evident.

All too often, people tend to ignore the limitations that physics imposes on life. Haldane talks about the limitations that the ability of flight imposes on the animal possessing it. There is, for example, a simple physical reason that objects that fly cannot be too large: the power required to fly grows faster than the size of the object (assuming the shape of the body doesn’t change). Therefore, for instance, “An angel whose muscles developed no more power weight for weight than those of an eagle or a pigeon would require a breast projecting for about four feet to house the muscles engaged in working its wings, while to economize in weight, its legs would have to be reduced to mere stilts.”

I do have an interesting (to me) technical point to make about the section of the essay that’s about flight. In the essay, Haldane says:

It is an elementary principle of aeronautics that the minimum speed needed to keep an aeroplane of a given shape in the air varies as the square root of its length. If its linear dimensions are increased four times, it must fly twice as fast.

The amount of lift (or drag) that a body can produce in a flow is a function of the Reynolds number (a non-dimensional parameter that combines the velocity of flight, the size of the body, and the resistance from the medium). The square-of-velocity rule that Haldane implicitly assumes is only valid for large Reynolds numbers. For a bird with a wingspan of about 1 metre, flying at about 1 metre per second in air, the Reynolds number is about 100,000. This falls in the regime in which the velocity-squared rule can indeed be applied.

The drag on a sphere as a function of the Reynolds number is still a problem of active interest. At low Reynolds numbers, the drag is proportional to velocity (if you know about the Stokes drag (= 6πμrv), you know this). But the drag increases more quickly than the velocity, becoming proportional to the square of the velocity for large Reynolds numbers (which is to say large velocities, if you assume that the same body as before is being used).

The most pressing problem facing this country? Beef consumption.

Manmohan Singh recently commented on the results of a national survey by the Naandi Foundation that found that 42% of the children in this country are malnourished; he called it a national shame (that amounts to one out of every three malnourished children in the world). We’ve also recently learnt that the average Indian schoolkid fares slightly better than a Kyrgyz schoolkid at maths, science and reading. If this is news to you, it turns out you’ve just not been paying attention. The 2001 National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau report says pretty much the same thing. This was a decade ago. Yes, it’s good we’ve finally noticed, but that doesn’t make it news. The NNMB report also says that 37% of the adult population has a body-mass index (BMI) of below 18.5 – the clinical definition of chronic malnourishment. Moreover, the WHO’s definition of famine is that 40% of the population of a region be severely malnourished – Binayak Sen calls us a country living through a state of stable famine.

The above list, while shameful and depressing, isn’t even an exhaustive list of food-security related problems facing this country.

So what do you suppose the people running this country are most up in arms about? If you guessed cow-slaughter and how best to punish people who eat beef, you’re right. You may now award yourself a shameful bow. the people of Madhya Pradesh have given themselves a law banning all sale and possession of beef, with punishment that this country otherwise reserves only for its rapists and murderers. This in addition to Karnataka’s bill banning cow-slaughter which is now sure to also get the President’s assent (with presidents like these…). These laws allow police officers to raid and search premises on the suspicion that an offence may take place:

The Centre felt that raiding premises merely on the assumption that an offence is “likely” could be misused and recommended that such power be limited to cases when an offence had taken place or was taking place. The amended legislation has disregarded the recommendation.

The blatant disregard for minority opinion, civil liberty, and any trace of sense apart, this law affects the poor disproportionately – beef is the cheaper than almost any other meat. Calling this communal legislation is stating the obvious. Calling it legislating taste (a la Bill Maher) is more insightful, although it does nothing to help somebody being harassed by the local police officer for the suspicion of possession of beef.

Beef is now more contraband than a kilogram of ganja or 100 grams of hashish (punishment for possession of < 1kg ganja or < 100gms of hashish : Rs. 10,000 fine or 6 months in prison). Stash your beef away safely.

The Affirmative Action debate: A summary

I wrote about why I think affirmative action is not only an acceptable, but also a fair, way of ensuring that the underprivileged in this society get an opportunity to make their lives better. There were responses, and replies – some considered, some impulsive. I’ve attempted to summarise the arguments here.

The argument for affirmative action is straightforward to those inclined to think a certain way: some sections of society are consistently underrepresented in education and employment, when there is no reason for them to be. Hence affirmative action.

The recurring arguments against reservation seem to be these (recurring because I’ve heard these from at least three people):

1) The basis for affirmative action should not be caste, because that will only deepen the divide. Reservations should instead be based on financial means – there are a lot of poor people among the ‘upper’ castes, who one might think deserve help. I agree to some extent with this. On the other hand,  I read this in yesterday’s news: It seems a village panchayat in Rajasthan has fined three Dalit men for drinking water from a public tap.

The story has evoked outrage, and condemnations have been issued from high up atop the tree-house. On the ground, though, the Dalit men were roughed up for protesting, the sarpanch is still loose, and the police have only reluctantly registered this as an incident. It is perhaps ironic that this should happen in the same state that saw the Gujjars and the Meenas fighting, one to be called more backward than the other. Or perhaps ironic doesn’t cover the scale of the idiocy or the injustice.

2) Reservations have been in force for six decades. It has either already achieved its goals and is now just fodder for elections and political rallies, or if it hasn’t worked after sixty years of implementation, expecting it to work now is just optimism to a fault. Reservations aren’t the way to bring about lasting social change.

One hopes that better economic status will lead to better social acceptance. If this isn’t going to happen, and if Dalits are going to be treated like crap regardless of financial status, I’d rather they be able to at least earn a living.

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The test I created is still open. I want enough votes for a statistically significant result. Do take the test!

[End. Fini. Kaputski. Reservations]

I get email – revisiting Affirmative Action

I wrote about affirmative action, and why I think the principle of having reservations for marginalized sections of society is sound. My reasoning was quite simply that there is nothing that’s fundamentally different among people from different castes, that these divisions are entirely artificial, and that therefore, the fact that a certain group of people is consistently under-represented means that they have been marginalized. If this is accepted, the fair thing to do is to support this group of people till they can stand on their own feet.

Amitha, whom I pestered into reading the blog, and who told me she was against reservations, said this by email (I’ve made cosmetic changes to the language to make it more, um, ‘me‘):

“The answer, patently obvious, is that this group of people has faced undue subjugation in the past which has left them unable to compete with the general population that hasn’t faced this sort of discrimination.”

I’ve thought about this and it feels right to have reservations from this point of view.

But also, if a  generation belonging to a scheduled caste has benefited from reservation,  is well educated, and is doing well economically, then that should be a good foundation for the next generation in the same family. The younger generation of this once under-privileged class stands on par with the general populace. Don’t you think reservations should end here for this family since the newer generation obviously hasn’t been disadvantaged?

The following is most of what I said in reply:

2) My point was never that reservations should be blanket-implemented without regard for anything other than caste. Caste just seems to me to be a relatively fair parameter in today’s context (especially so in parts of North India, I must add).

3) Obviously, I’m open to the necessary bounds, limits, restrictions, and qualifications being placed on reservations. ‘Only a few generations of your family will get reservations. After that, you’re on your own.’ seems to me to be a fair argument. (Perhaps one generation isn’t enough).

4) That last point is particularly important in India, because we have a very large number of people

(a) who need help, and,

(b) to do all this on an individual case basis.

5) The best thing to happen in this regard is for the affirmative-action debate to become part of the political  discourse and public debate of the country. That, in fact, holds for pretty much everything – sunshine is the best disinfectant.

In today’s disturbing news…

I read two news reports last night that left me feeling very bad. Both have to do with politicians in India, so if you are going to read ahead, you’ve been warned.

The first story was the CWG in Delhi. For an event that I don’t agree with at all, it still pains me how badly we suck at organizing a two week ten day event. With all the money that’s been put into CWG 2010, and all the people that have been discomfited, and all sorts of liberties taken with the poor of Delhi, you’d expect some level of competence at preparations for the event. You’d be dead-in-the-shark-infested-water wrong. The CEO of the games has said on record that the games village is filthy. The main stadium for the games, the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, still isn’t ready. There are stray dogs in every part of the games village. And this:

A foot-bridge linking some parking lot to the main stadium has collapsed, injuring workers, some seriously. And apparently, the engineer in charge of the project worth 10.5 crore rupees (can you guess what the bridge should actually cost? Experiential estimates should tell you there should be a factor of about 10 involved) thinks there’s still enough time to build the thing before October 3.

With all this, perhaps the only silver lining to the commonwealth games cloud is that India will never again be asked to host anything. Ever. The poor in India’s cities can perhaps think of breathing easy. The other news report that I found unsettling has no such silver lining, however.

The Union minister of State for Defence has said the army in Kashmir is being made a scapegoat, and that the army needs the AFSP Act to protect the human rights of the soldiers. That sentence has to be read twice to be believed.

In what has to be the stupidest thing anybody’s ever said in justification of the AFSPA, the minister betrays a remarkable lack of understanding of what the situation in Kashmir is. The army is being made a scapegoat? What that should mean, unless words have been redefined since I last took note, is that somebody wants to throw stones in Kashmir, and that they would’ve thrown these stones regardless of the presence of the army; and that they’re just saying that the stone-throwing is to protest the army as an excuse. If I tried saying that to you, would you be able to keep a straight face? And the fellow spouting this nonsense is in charge of the defence of this country. Goddamn.

Says the moron of a minister:

The will to create trouble and foment trouble is still there and that is why the infiltration is still continuing and till that happens I think the security blanket (is needed) […] it is an essential instrument for forces in strife-torn areas and gives them a security blanket. You don’t want somebody thrusting human rights violations on our soldiers. So you have to give some amount of security blanket to these guys who are doing a hard job and you really don’t know in conflict places where the threat is coming from and how the terror element is going to strike.

The people who need a ‘security blanket’ aren’t the army. The people who need a security blanket are the people who get shot at by the army, people who have to fight bullets with stones. The way to not get our soldiers killed is not to give them carte blanche in Kashmir; it is to not send them to Kashmir in the first place. Oh, and that will to create and foment trouble the minister seems so set against? Its called the desire for freedom and self-determination. We used to respect and value it, once upon a time.