Conversions And Caste

When I read about conversions till now, I always thought it justifiable that people should escape from the caste system into caste-free religions like Christianity or Islam. It has become clear that that was a delusion. Over the last few weeks or so people have been writing in to The Hindu's Letters to the editor section, listing the mechanisms by which caste is perpetuated, with great eagerness. Separate streets, separate burial grounds, separate seating at church, separate car festivals, no inter-marriages, no inter-dining even. Having read nothing about how muslim dalits fare in terms of discrimination, one does not know if the situation is similar there. But this is depressing enough.

The US and Us

From the BBC, via Juan Cole:
The global view of the United States’ role in world affairs has significantly deteriorated over the last year according to a BBC World Service poll of more than 26,000 people across 25 different countries.
Some of the sharpest drops in positive ratings over the last year came from four countries that have tended to be quite positive about the United States. Poland’s positive ratings dropped 24 points from 62 percent a year ago to 38 percent. The Philippines dropped 13 points from a very high 85 percent to a still-high 72 percent. India fell from 44 percent to 30 percent. Indonesia plunged 19 points—40 percent to 21 percent positive—perhaps due to the waning of the positive effect of the American aid to Indonesian tsunami victims.
And relatedly, from The Hindu:
EAST ASIAN countries, bracing for economic cooperation, are slowly relegating the United States to the margins of the region. The current eclipse of the U.S. in East Asia is far more evident behind the scenes than in the public domain.

Yet Japan and Australia, allies of the U.S., are privy to its latest marginalisation by the East Asia Summit (EAS). On January 24, Japanese Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma asserted that U.S. President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003 was "wrong." And, Japan, which recently pulled out its troops sent to Iraq on a non-combat mission, could not be bound by his latest moves.


Money Can't Buy Me Democracy

With apologies to The Beatles. Read this.
As a result of the rampant truancy, the Speaker is contemplating "fining members $400 for every missed session" and replacing absentees. But... there's a problem. "For the proposals to be put in place, a majority of members in Parliament have to be present to pass them."
That's what a trillion dollars buy.



Hope it wins the best foreign film oscar. That should give Mira Nair enough recognition and backing to make the next Munnabhai film.


Caught the last few minutes of a segment by Sagarika on CNN-IBN in which she was equating secularism with how many people attend/celebrate religious festivals of faiths other than their own. She also said something like: "we" have wrongly come to equate secularism with atheism, before summarizing with a healthy dose of generalizations. Thing is, she always seems to be making a plausible point, but with a small nut loose somewhere. Funny.


I'm mystified by this Sidhu decision. This report from The Telegraph tells it better than others as to what the it means for him:
The relief to Sidhu removed the legal hurdle to the former cricketer’s renomination from the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat.

Had the conviction not been stayed, the three-year jail term imposed by Punjab and Haryana High Court would have kept Sidhu out of the fray.

Moments after the Supreme Court ruling came today — two days before the deadline to file nominations — BJP president Rajnath Singh announced Sidhu’s candidature from Amritsar.

The significance of the stay goes far beyond the candidature of a cricketer-turned-politician known for his machine-gun mouth. This is the first case in 57 years where a conviction has been stayed till the apex court rules on an appeal against a lower court verdict.

Usually, when an appeal is admitted, the Supreme Court stays the execution of the sentence — the punishment — not the conviction itself.

That means the accused need not go to prison till the apex court rules on the appeal. Legally, however, the accused remains a convict and the law that debars candidates apply to them.

Those who have to serve over two years cannot fight elections for six years after release from jail. However, if conviction comes after the election, the House membership can be retained till the expiry of the term or the final decision on the appeal that has to be filed in three months.

So this first-in-57 years decision just so that he could contest? What if the conviction is upheld in the SC? Sidhu resigned after being docked for 3 years - that is the 'high standard'? Since when did Soren become the yardstick for political morals?



The eruptions have subsided. As if nothing happened at all.

On Policemen Being Attacked

Increasingly people don't seem to be too afraid of attacking policemen. From DH:
The policemen tried to enter the building. Out came the ladies, who threw chilli powder at the men in khaki.

Undeterred, the police began climbing the stairs only to be attacked by some youngsters with choppers. Central Crime Branch inspector Nanjundegowda was injured in the act. Later, a few more policemen trooped in and the boys were taken into custody and weapons seized. But none of the women were touched.
Is it desperation or a belief that they will be bailed out by their political sponsors?

A Picture Is Worth ...

From DH:
Such a soothing, peaceful sight. Like little babies. But what do these guys do at night if not sleep?



DH hits the nail on its head:
The sudden violence that has engulfed parts of Bangalore since Friday — and had got completely out of control by Sunday — clearly demonstrates the havoc jobless politicians can cause when the police fail in their duty to nip the trouble in the bud.
Why on earth do theese jobless politicians think it is ok to endanger life and property?


College Admissions

A recent editorial in TOI (well, I was forced to - away from home, TOI was one of the two newspapers available). It's about the lack of consistency of some academics who want more autonomy for universities, yet want quotas to be set by government.
The admission of students and the appointment of teachers are two of the basic processes through which the university maintains its identity and continuity as an institution. These are complex and delicate processes whose successful operation requires the adoption of good rules and the exercise of sound academic judgment.

Nothing could be more detrimental to the health and well-being of the university as an institution of teaching and research than to whittle down its freedom to exercise academic judgment on the ground that such judgment is bound to be arbitrary, subjective, and socially biased.
Now something I had read sometime ago and was meaning to post about for sometime. It's about the admission process of Ivy League universities in the US - it doesn't get higher than those,does it? I had heard about admissions requiring good references and essays written by the candidates and concluded that, well, they don't just concentrate on academics but on a well-rounded personality. Then I read the thing I mentioned above (link here) and realised the real reason. The blogger is discussing a review of a book. It turns out it was all due to the need to keep Jews out in the 1920s (no, these are not conspiracy theories):
Have you ever wondered why that process places so much emphasis on sports, extracurriculars, personality, “leadership,” “character,” and suchlike, as opposed to the more obvious intellectual criteria? The answer, it turns out, is that in the early 1920’s, Harvard and Co. had to find some way to limit the number of Jewish admits:
By 1922, [Jews] made up more than a fifth of Harvard’s freshman class. The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president in the nineteen-twenties, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school … Finally, Lowell — and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton — realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit. Karabel argues that it was at this moment that the history and nature of the Ivy League took a significant turn.
Gladwell writes that from that point forward,
The admissions office at Harvard became much more interested in the details of an applicant’s personal life. Lowell told his admissions officers to elicit information about the “character” of candidates from “persons who know the applicants well,” and so the letter of reference became mandatory. Harvard started asking applicants to provide a photograph. Candidates had to write personal essays, demonstrating their aptitude for leadership, and list their extracurricular activities … The personal interview became a key component of admissions in order, Karabel writes, “to ensure that ‘undesirables’ were identified and to assess important but subtle indicators of background and breeding such as speech, dress, deportment and physical appearance.”
Well, that was in the 1920s you say. Things can't be the same now. It turns out things aren't different. A quote from an Economist article by the same the blogger, a year later:
Mr Golden shows that elite universities do everything in their power to admit the children of privilege. If they cannot get them in through the front door by relaxing their standards, then they smuggle them in through the back. No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra “hook”, from rich or alumni parents to “sporting prowess”. The number of whites who benefit from this affirmative action is far greater than the number of blacks…

Most people think of black football and basketball stars when they hear about “sports scholarships”. But there are also sports scholarships for rich white students who play preppie sports such as fencing, squash, sailing, riding, golf and, of course, lacrosse. The University of Virginia even has scholarships for polo-players, relatively few of whom come from the inner cities…

What is one to make of [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist, who opposes affirmative action for minorities while practising it for his own son?

Two groups of people overwhelmingly bear the burden of these policies — Asian-Americans and poor whites. Asian-Americans are the “new Jews”, held to higher standards (they need to score at least 50 points higher than non-Asians even to be in the game) and frequently stigmatised for their “characters” (Harvard evaluators persistently rated Asian-Americans below whites on “personal qualities”). When the University of California, Berkeley briefly considered introducing means-based affirmative action, it rejected the idea on the ground that “using poverty yields a lot of poor white kids and poor Asian kids”.
Re-read this excerpt from TOI again:
Nothing could be more detrimental to the health and well-being of the university as an institution of teaching and research than to whittle down its freedom to exercise academic judgment on the ground that such judgment is bound to be arbitrary, subjective, and socially biased.
We may be not as far gone down the "success" lane as the US, but that doesn't mean we won't get there.

Do read the New Yorker article mentioned above. I don't know about you, but I'd never thought of the Ivy League colleges as being in the "luxury brand-management" business.

An Idea

Mr Narayana Murthy:
Just one example is if all exporters paid their taxes, and if we were to go and tell Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram to constitute a fund that will be used to provide breakfast and lunch to 35 million schoolchildren at Rs. 10 a meal, and if the Government were to make a matching grant, we would have Rs. 32,000 crore to bring more children to school.



Adding to the list:

11. Your (i.e., India's) time is now
12. A pulsating dynamic new India
13. An India that does not follow but an India that leads.
14. An India ready to embrace the right to an increased voice

Thank you Mr Brown for uttering all of those in a single concise paragraph. Now please tell us your tongue was not in your cheek as you spoke.


Fools Rush In

Dear TOI,
You are not my representative. I voted for my representative in the last general elections. I don't remember his name, but it was not you. Thus you cannot claim this:
As your representatives, we will carry civil society’s torch of change to key figures in government, Opposition and others in office.
And I don't even want you to be my representative. You're sloppy. Take this stupid cartoon for example, from the 15th January, Bangalore edition. It's Dubyaman and Mr Jug Suraiya himself:

Though you take pains not to mention their relative ages here, there was only a three year difference between them. So, no, the fact that you came up with a dumb pun involving two words "father" and "daddy" does not allow you to use it in this context. Here's what sugar daddy means (from the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, no less: straight from the horse's mouth):
A wealthy, usually older man who gives expensive gifts to someone much younger in return for companionship or sexual favors. For example, The aspiring young actress and the sugar daddy are a classic combination in Hollywood. The sugar in this term alludes to the sweetening role of the gifts, and daddy to the age difference between the pair. [Early 1900s]
And I'm still waiting for the Gangsta movie from Mira Nair.

I too know a nice idiom: bugger off. A bit rude I'm sure, but it goes well with this sentence: stop calling yourself my representative.

Warm Regards,
Yours truly.


New Year Top Ten List

The year is still young. So here is my top ten list, of things I wish I never have to read or hear again. And then it will be too soon.

1. Someone or something representing the face of New India
2. Brave New India
3. Resurgent India
4. India Poised
5. India Rising / Shining / Flying / Emerging / Soaring / Sitting / Nodding off
6. India set to take/reclaim its rightful place "on the international stage"/"in the comity of nations"
7. GenX - specifically with reference to India's younger generation - and it's great new attitude
8. Taking-off - as in "Indian economy is on the verge of taking -off"
9. Has arrived - as in "India has arrived on the financial scene"
10. Superpower/giant - as in "India is an emerging superpower / giant"

Media people, stop it. My ears ache.

Poised For What?

So, TOI has ensured that we are all aware that India is poised. But the question is: poised for what? With this simple question in mind, I searched on Google, knowing fully well that Google does not disappoint. I can now safely say what it is that India is poised for. These are the first two pages I got:

So, folks, hope you're all ready for the pharmaceutical boom.


Land Scams

As we digest the daily news about Singur, Nandigram, and SEZs, we couldn't go too wrong reading what Ramesh Ramanathan had to say sometime ago:
I wrote an article in this publication a few weeks ago that was critical of SEZs. Among the responses were a surprising number from professionals in the corporate sector – those who were involved in working on SEZs. And their sentiments were deeply disturbing: without exception, the common refrain was that the SEZ idea was a runaway train, and that it was using the singular, concentrated force of greed and self-interest to rip open the land market in the country. An executive from one of the big four consulting firms told me, “I advise my clients on succeeding in being a part of these SEZs, but I am selling my soul.” Another lawyer said, “Unfortunately, it’s the biggest money-making opportunity we have ever seen.” A senior IT industry executive said, “I agree that it’s a land scam, and it shouldn’t be happening. But we ourselves are bidding for them, because we can’t be left behind. I have my shareholders’ interests to protect – they would tell me, ‘You want to be Gandhi, don’t do it on our money.’”

I consider myself a middle-of-the-road person: I believe in the potential of the market, but also in an affirmative state that regulates the market vigorously and transparently. I recognise that public policy choices are not black-or-white, and need to balance various views, while always keeping the citizens’ and the nation’s interests in mind. But for the life of me, I cannot figure out the compelling argument for SEZs in India . Their stated benefits are debatable. On the promise of job creation, five lakh jobs is too trivial a target for the incentives being provided – close to 50,000 hectares of subsidised and clean-title land, leaving aside the tax-breaks....
And also what an economist had to say in general about governments taking land from Peter to give to Paul:
There is a general view that where there are large externalities — urban renewal programmes, for instance — there may be grounds for government to try and buy land and help renew a city or part of a city. But the dangers of doing this when there is a single firm without externalities are enormous. This is because the government often uses the right of eminent domain with compensation below market price.
In general, there is a price at which people would sell their land. The reason these firms ask the government to do it is because they don't want to pay that market price. So once you get into that mindset, it becomes a very dangerous precedent.
You have a problem when land is fragmented, or there are land market inefficiencies, and difficulties in getting clear title. Markets might be so poorly developed that businesses can't acquire land and that becomes an impediment to development. Of course, the right answer is to solve the problem of the land market and not to solve it for this particular person by taking over that particular piece of property!
Of course, as the interviewer in the above interview asks, it is a paradox that the same industrialists who want less and less of government interference when they want to sell, go to the very same government to acquire land.

Oil And US

An editorial appeared in The Hindu speculating as to what would happen next after Saddam's execution. It was very clear : After Saddam it will be oil. It predicted:
Now that Saddam Hussein is gone, in the coming weeks and months one can look to see events that will help consolidate oil security for the U.S. Even at the cost of Iraq's balkanisation.
Now we hear:
Iraq's massive oil reserves, the third-largest in the world, are about to be thrown open for large-scale exploitation by Western oil companies under a controversial law which is expected to come before the Iraqi parliament within days.

The US government has been involved in drawing up the law, a draft of which has been seen by The Independent on Sunday. It would give big oil companies such as BP, Shell and Exxon 30-year contracts to extract Iraqi crude and allow the first large-scale operation of foreign oil interests in the country since the industry was nationalised in 1972.

Meanwhile, people continue to draw parallels between what Saddam did and what the US/UK are doing in Iraq today:
If Saddam could be held criminally accountable for torture despite the absence of any written order, any honest court would not think twice before convicting Mr. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld for what went on in Abu Ghraib.
Of course, what Bush has done is far worse in scale. So I would like to think: after Saddam, one gone, one more to go.


Tharoor's Readers' Answers

Shashi Tharoor is flooded with responses to his question which I'd written about here. Some that I agreed with:
Dr. Masthi says with feeling: "If we cannot retain our doctors, the whole notion of merit in education has no value for people like me who are paying a very high tax to subsidise their education in the hope that they will give back something to the community which sponsored them". He would rather have an average student joining a medical college and staying on to serve India than a bright student who goes abroad, "because ultimately in medicine it is experience and commitment which makes a doctor good".
An NRI blogger named "Seeji" (Dr. C.G. Prasanna) lists "[the] minimal number of post-graduate seats not catering to the thousands of [medical] graduates, illogical reservation system, a very low pay package compared to other professions" amongst the reasons why doctors emigrate. Seeji asks: "How justified it is to blame doctors alone when even IITians and IIM guys have studied with the same taxpayers' money?" But he proposes the passage of a law that would bind graduates to work in India for a specified number of years. "That should be applied to doctors as well as engineers", he suggests.
They should start working on that law.

Those who support doctors who emigrate after getting subsidized education mainly cite low pay, bad facilities, discomfort, and safety (from angry kith and kin). I like the crib about low pay, bad facilities, discomfort - coming from people who have obtained crucial degrees paying next to nothing. Another doctor argues that 98% of subsidy is for treating patients. Well, the patients do provide living laboratories for the students to learn their profession unless I'm mistaken.

Update: Of course, I have nothing against people emigrating, including Indians emigrating to other countries. They have the brains, and the skills to succeed in other places and all the more power to them. But not on taxpayer money.