Monday, January 16, 2017

Can we build powerful "Institutions"

The recent developments on Jallikkattu indicate a few items.

Though a majority of Tamils and traditionalists support Jallikkattu, they have been ineffective in pushing their agenda.  We got to this point because of the following reasons.

There are instances, in which the animals were in fact tortured.  Whatever the supporters claim as love and respect to the animal, there is no denying we cannot enforce controls.  If twisting the tail of the bull or spraying chilli powder on its face are considered as fouls, we do not have documented rules anywhere nor do we have officials appointed by a competent authority to enforce it like a qualified / trained football referee.

In the absence of such an authority , an institution like PETA can take it to another institution like the courts and get a ban on it. (I'm not getting into their intentions as it deviates from the subject.)

PETA has enough people think about the course of action, work towards it by appointing spokespersons, lobbying with politicians, appointment of lawyers etc.

On the side of the supporters of Jallikkattu, there is no organized activity towards defending it.  The lawyers arguing the case were unknown till a small group of businessmen brought in Subramanyam Swami.  Other activities like protests, social media frothing and petitions are just jokes.

A few years ago,   Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) created by the government of India fought a legal case against patents issued to the medicinal use of turmeric.  CSIR, with its people working towards the common goal, organizing their work and substantiating their case with proper documentation were critical in the success.  In the absence of such institutions it is difficult to win such cases.

More and more traditional knowledge, activity and structures would come under pressure from institutions that may want to misuse, ban or destroy them.  Well, even individuals can do it as we had seen in the turmeric patent case.  There is nothing patriotic or unpatriotic about it.  In the turmeric case, the patent was obtained by two scientists of Indian origin.  In the Jallikkattu case, a sitting Prime Minister supported the ban along with scores of Indians who had no in-depth knowledge of it.

Without proper institutions we will have uncontrolled response.   A culture of thousands of years of continuous history has enough intellectual property and customs that are vulnerable now.   We don't even know what we need to protect.  Let me attempt to list a few.

  • Temple properties like land, jewelry can be usurped as source of unused wealth
  • Temple structures may be closed for access for lack of safety
  • Worship methods like animal sacrifice may be banned as cruelty  (TN government did try it once and promptly withdrew as popular sentiment was against it.  Nothing like that would control the Supreme Court.)
  • Congregation like Mahamaham or Kumbh Mela may be restricted as unsafe, unhealthy assembly of millions in a small area
  • Teaching of Carnatic or Hindustani music may be patented

Well, I'm stretching it a bit, but you get the idea.

It is clear that we are not prepared for it.  But history also tells us that we haven't built great "institutions" in the modern terminology.  To me, the prototype for a great institution is Christianity.  It has its ideologies, foot soldiers wed to the ideology, a clear organization structure, plan for expansion by time, geography with well defined roles and responsibilities.  It has survived for close to two millenniums.  Every institution from the west worth its salt has borrowed heavily from Christianity.

In India, there are a few organizations like the defense forces that can be considered as well defined institutions.  However, there are business houses that consider themselves as institutions - like the Tatas.  Business houses have profit as the primary motive that can ensure building and strengthening of the institution.  To some extent, Tata exhibit a certain value system - like social responsibility, employee welfare etc that can be treaty as worthy of an institution.

Some of our political parties and organizations like RSS may qualify as institutions.   But they do lack the coherence required for a successful organization in India.  I'd credit it to Gandhi for converting a simple political group called Congress to be a powerful institution across the country.   The current state of the party is a good example of how well we take care of such institutions.  Other political parties aren't in any better shape.

It is high time we create formal, legal institutions with proper structure to protect the traditions.  Sadly, they can't be not-for-profit as an organization can not survive just on contributions.  At the very least, they can be legally recognized firms funded by various self interest groups like the lobbying firms in the US.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Courtesy Crisis

Remember the essay "On Saying Please" by A.G.Gardiner.   I think we had this essay in our 12th grade English and is worth remembering. For those who didn't have this in the syllabus or forgot, please take a few minutes to read it.  It is a nicely written piece on saying please.  Discourtesy exhibited about a hundred years ago in Britain, made A G Gardiner write that essay.  

It has grown to an enormous proportion, here in India that it is obvious to a visitor, who has a balanced opinion of this country.  Watch this video of Tarek Fatah - a Canadian Journalist and broadcaster in which he describes the growing affluence and discourtesy in India.

I do not think we are a very courteous society that includes your truly.  On top of it, there is an inherent hierarchy that gives everyone an impression that they are above ... a few.  No, no, I'm not going to attribute this to the caste or varnas.  Give the power to a few downtrodden and oppressed and see how they behave.  Discourtesy and hierarchy are secular in this country.

I remember there was a buzzer at my father's desk in his office.  He was a manager for a bank's branch in a remote village in Andra Pradeh.  The buzzer was part of the office furniture.  My father found it to be discourteous to call a colleague using that buzzer.  I had never seen him using the buzzer and am sure his colleagues would agree.  He preferred to sit with the rest of the staff in the main area.  The point is, the system thinks it is ok to be discourteous if you are the boss.  Babus (read - anyone with a guaranteed government job) believe they are a notch above the rest that even a bus conductor in a state run bus can be disrespectful to the passengers.

A few decades ago there were a few like my father who believed otherwise and their numbers are dwindling rapidly.

The development all around has raised the economic status of a few people that they can differentiate themselves as superior.  Since they think they are superior, they exhibit their true colors.  Enjoy the following video - starting from 3 minutes 20 seconds.

Also the service sector is expanding.  There is probably more people serving the middle class as unorganized labour than those in organized sectors.  Some of the jobs that are integral to our daily life didn't exist or employed very few, decades ago.  There are security guards, drivers, housekeepers, caregivers, gardeners, salesmen, delivery boys for milk, food, newspaper, courier and what not.  With so many people at our service, we can feel privileged.  To earn their respect, respect them.  To make it a bit easy for them, please be a bit courteous to them - even if they are not perfect.

Monday, March 2, 2015

India needs a new affirmative action system

Like most forward community students, I detested the reservation system until I got to hear a different perspective from a hardcore RSS member.  He was my brother's friend.  It was so refreshing to hear it from another forward community member.  It goes as follows:

"We, as forward community members have ways of figuring out our future, even if we don't score well.  The community supports you in finding out the right opportunities in other domains and geographies.  A member of the scheduled caste or a tribe doesn't have the privilege.  It takes generations of education and economic well being to ensure success, for someone belonging to the underprivileged communities.  As privileged members of the society, we have a responsibility towards the less privileged."

It altered my views on reservation for ever.  I didn't do well in education, but that didn't stop me from getting ahead in skills or career.  Had it been someone from scheduled castes, such a lackluster performance would have resulted in abrupt end to education with no hope of a better life compared to the earlier generation.  So, that justified reservation on caste lines.

The complaint against reservation is, it is benefiting those who are already benefited.  This may be true to some extent.  So far, no political party had the courage to face this head on.  There isn't even an acceptance that the current system of reservation may have flaws in it.  I hope the current government has the strength and integrity to accept it.

The policy on reservation is sixty five years old.  There have been patch work to include castes in every state, alter the percentage and so on.  There has been no review on its effectiveness.  The country's demographics have changed and are continuously changing.  If we do not have a system that is open for review and correction, we will risk leaving a sizable chunk of our population in poverty and under-development.

The only major complaint about the current reservation is that is along caste lines and ignores economic conditions.  There are these criteria that impact sections of society from progressing.  Some of them are:
  • Family Conditions: A family that has no educated members will be less serious to support the younger ones in education.  Tamil Nadu government did something to address this, 25 years ago.  My wife benefited from that action as she was the first one to go to college in her family. But for that, she'd have been forced to a dull course and may also be the end of her education. Now, she's a Ph.D, educating a few hundred engineers every year.
  • Regional Backwardness:  Two students with identical marks but from different regions are to be treated differently.  For example, all other things being equal, the student from a backward region like the Chattisgarh or Bihar will have to work harder than one from Mumbai to stay in competition.
  • Caste:  We can't just wish away castes in this country, but can reduce its impact in policy decisions by keeping it as one of the factors to be considered.
  • Religion:  Yes, religion too is a factor for the backwardness.  This will help in preventing a section of population going to religious schools to stay away from the mainstream.
  • Economic Status:  Visible factor in the current opposition to reservation.
  • There are other factors like family background.  For example, a farmer's child must be given a preference over a government servant in an agriculture course.  This may be limited to a few domains like medicine, agriculture, gemmology where the entire family may be in the field. 
Considering the advances in technologies and the government's capability in pushing massive programs like Jan Dhan, it shouldn't be too difficult to build a system towards a new affirmative action system.

Every applicant should be able to register in such a system with his/her details that covers the above items. Each of these factors could be given a weightage and the total score could be made available to the institutions that conduct admissions.  These weightage can be revised year on year by a constitutional authority.

Over 15-20 years, we should be able to alter the society for the better.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why do intellectuals hate "Hindu"

Hate may be a very strong word.  But we see, historians, social scientists, learned journalists and analysts getting uncomfortable with the term "Hindu".  Here is a pseudo scientific, pseudo spiritual explanation for it.

Before we proceed with the intellectuals, we need to understand a few fundamentals.

1.  Mind:  What I mean by mind is that the little program that keeps running in our heads from a very young age.  This mind continuously learns, by organizing every piece of information it gets.  When any piece of information is encountered, the mind tries to match it with what is already there.  If the new piece matches an existing information or extends it without a conflict, the mind accepts it and add it to the existing information.   Let's say a child is used to seeing cats and if he happens to see a tiger, his mind extends the cat to include the information about the tiger.  If the new item is conflicting with existing information, it may add it to an exception bucket.  When more similar exceptions are collected, they are moved to the main storage.  A child which is used to seeing terrestrial animals may find the first bird it sees as an exception.  Exposure to more birds will make the information about birds as normal as terrestrial animals.  If the exceptional information is not reinforced with more such exceptions, the exception loses its importance and isn't considered for subsequent processing.

Over a period, the mind gains its strength with more learning and second hand information, a side effect of which is creation of opinions.  A cow as it gives milk, is good.  A cat that steals milk is bad.  These opinions give rise to ideologies - including religions.  

The mind works around any information that doesn't fit in the mind's way of working.  Zen Buddhists contemplate on paradoxical questions to silence the mind.  If the mind can't find answers by the way it learns, accepts and rejects information, it goes silent. 

2.  Hindu:  The term is fairly new - just a few hundred years old.  The term was originally used by those from the west to refer to the people of this region.  If religion is defined as a collection of diktats, issued by a prophet, Hinduism isn't a religion.  The people, who are referred as "Hindus", had diktats, that were very local and had no prophet as an authorized signatory.  So, Hinduism is not a religion.  Is it a culture or a set of values?  Does anyone have a well defined answer?  I don't.  Every custom, every definition of God and even the absence of God, every mode of worship, every mode of relating to a God is so flexible.   In effect, it is not an ideology that can be understood, but is a magnificent organism that continuously evolves itself. Any attempt to define it would be just as accurate a blind man describing an elephant.  

An expert on various ideologies can compare two ideologies, can judge impartially with one as good and the other as bad, as long as the ideologies are well defined.  Semitic religions fit in these category of ideologies.  Hinduism doesn't fit in such definition.

For an intellectual, even if he manages to identify a part of this magnificent organism, he knows his knowledge is only partial.  He knows that there exists a lot more aspects of this organism, that it would be impossible for him to understand it in his lifetime. It is impossible to classify it as good or bad, for every good that he can see, there would be something bad about it and vice versa.

For an intellectual, his mind is his strength.  He identifies himself with his mastery of information.  The term "Hindu", challenges the mind and knows that the mind can't comprehend Hindu completely.  This organism by its very existence undermines the intellectual's strength and identity.  No wonder the intellectual would be uncomfortable with such a monster.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Whose Blood?

Translation of writer Jeyamohan's speech in Bloomington Tamil Sangam on 22-Aug-2009

Dear friends,

There was this inspiring novel Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist.  Many renowned writers worldwide were inspired by it  The story goes like this.

"Jesus is brought to Mount Golgotha to crucify.  The crowd teases and throws stones at Jesus.  Pilate is responsible for carrying out the punishment to Jesus. 

But Pilate knows that Jesus was righteous. He asks the crowd on why should a righteous man be killed.  He requests them to let go of Jesus.  But they insist on killing Jesus.

There were already three criminals waiting to be crucified.  Barabbas is one of them.  Pilate claims that he has the right to release one of the four.  He offers to free Jesus if the crowd agrees.  The people demand that Barabbas be freed instead of Jesus and Jesus be killed.  Barabbas gets released and surrenders Jesus to their will saying "I am innocent of this man's blood."

Freed Barabbas looks at the frail man responsible for his freedom and his sorrowful eyes.  He realizes that Jesus is sorry for the crowd.  He watches the Romans crucifying Jesus.

Later Barabbas returns to his ways of robbery and killing.  He feels guilty of the life got in return for the life of a righteous man.  He wanders, has a change of heart and becomes a Christian. He gets crucified for being a Christian.  Barabbas dies having paid the debt of his life."

Friends, when I was in school, I had a teacher by name Thangiaya Nadar.  He once said, 'My father knew ways to elongate and shrink time and narrated his childhood.  His father was a farmer.  Every day he used to go to the fields with his father and younger brother.  They would take turns to work on the patch.  The father would speed up the time, by going first.  He would do all he can before sending the kids for their turns.  But when he eats, he would slow down time.  He would be eating so slow that even the younger boy would have finished with his food.  The younger boy would have had four refills of gruel before the father eats one.  "He made us who we are now.  He worked for thirty hours a day.  Our growth was built on his sweat and blood.  We are indebted to our father for all that we have got", said Thangaiya Nadar with tears in his eyes.

Friends, have you ever wondered whose blood and sweat brought us here?  Have we thought about who gave their lives for us to live here?

For most of us, the first educated person in the family must have been our fathers.  Our grandfathers would have toiled in fields and starved.  We are here because of them.

During my childhood, I have seen a scarcity of food.  After the planting of the crops in June and July, people used to roam around to dig out tubers.  Rice, even gruel was a rarity then.    That was our nation - a nation that was swindled by foreigners and ravaged by great famines.  A nation no one wanted to invest in.

Our forefathers worked hard, saved every penny for the next generation.  They carried their next generations on their shoulders.

After coming here, I heard a few comments about the family system of our people.  They said that the family binds and constrains people and members of the family poke their noses in others' matters.  They compare the family structure of our country with the one here.  They said people are happy here without the burden of a family.  Maybe so.  This is the life that people here have created.  But the lives that we had created had helped us raise up after great falls.  It had saved us from multiple failures.

Our families have made us who we are. Often we see cases of entire families starving for one member's education.  The system believed in one-for-all and all-for-one.  And it is a time-tested system, tested over thousands of years.  If you are thinking of an alternate, I request you to look at our history.

I request you to see our values, see them in the right perspective.  See how these values have contributed to our history.  Think about how these values turn a starving nation to be an economic powerhouse in just 50 years.

These are the values that we must pass on to our children. If we don't, the losses are high.    They are there for us to see.  About three hundred years ago, our people - Tamils, Indians emigrated to other countries as refugees or slaves.  How are they?  They have lost their heritage and values.  In effect, they are scattered all over the world with no identity and are incapable of any achievement in any field.  They are the most significant warnings for us.

I see a number of our people, who are first-generation American Tamils, trying to bring up their children as Americans.  I saw a lot of Indian teens.  Their parents have managed to create an inferior picture of India to them.  Everyday conversations center around degrading India and Indians.  Isn't it true that children may look down upon their own parents as they do with India?

The child thinks himself as an American.  Does the nature change by just association?  Will he be an American? Blacks who are here for three hundred years are still Africans.  Jews living in the US for over hundred years are Jews.  Indians will always be Indians.  These children will learn it one day.  When they learn it, what happens to them without an identity?  How will they conquer their sense of inferiority?  What will they achieve if they spend every living moment to establish their non-Indianness?

Every society needs confidence in its structure, its values.  It may even brag about its greatness.  But rejecting itself would be suicidal.  Why is it so?

Do we give the best of Indianness to our children?  What opinion will the young mind create if we share the cheap cinema, TV programs and comedy show that we enjoy?  If we are ignorant of the greatness of Indian cultures and their success,  how can we give it to the next generation?

How can you create anything but a sense of inferiority with our poor taste of entertainment?  There are world-class writers and researchers in every language in India.  Most of you don't even know their names.  All that we see are cheap entertainers, speakers who lie and politicians.  What impression can we create with such a lot?

Let's first learn to be proud of ourselves.  Let us learn our heritage and its achievements.  Let us learn to preserve the best of our cultures.  Let us leave the best to our children.  Let us make them proud of themselves.

I would like to end with an event in the life of the Tamil writer Rangarajan (Sujatha).  He narrates how his father was responsible for his life.  The father was in death bed.  The frail old man was confidence personified when he was young.  The writer wonders if it was the man who tested his confidence by walking on the wall of Mettur dam.  The father never accepted anything from his son.  When the father realizes it, he asks his son to get him a shirt.

Ranga sat beside his father, held his hand and asked.  "What can I do to repay everything that you did for me?"  The father replied - "Do that to your son.  That would do.".

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Organizations killing natural trust

"She's good.", said my wife. The "She" was our domestic help. Having noticed that we are running out of stock of vegetables, she stocked it up without waiting for our order or confirmation.
As I was about leave for work, I saw the helper entering the house. "You had bought vegetables yesterday. How much did you pay?", I reached out to my wallet. "I'll get it later from Madam. You must be getting late." Without waiting for my acknowledgement, she got on to the work.
Happens to us all the time. The flower vendor usually delivers flowers for the advance we had paid. Someone remembers the account - either us or the vendor. Even if both forget, the transactions go on month on month.
I'm digressing. Yes, it was getting late for me. Got a meeting to discuss the compensatory time-off for engineers who come over the weekends for conducting interviews.
"There is a small issue here. The extra time they log is against interviews and the compensatory off we give may be used against the actual work time - affecting the engineering tasks that are assigned to them.", said the engineering team manager.
"So?" I asked.
"We can't give compensatory off for the time spent on interviews." said the manager.
"And so, we have no one to do the interviews", said the recruitment manager.
"Has anyone of your engineers used the compensatory off during critical project schedule?" I asked.
"Do you think any of your engineers would do so in future?"
"Then what is the problem. Why don't you trust your people and give them what they want?"
"Boss, you have a habit of simplifying every issue. It is not as simple as that..." started another executive.
I agree. I think it is very simple, People can simply trust each other. That's why life goes on. Small vendors could give credit without a security, People with less income could trust others irrespective of their income. When we think that we are part of an organization - an organization creates an "us-vs-them" attitude that simply discards this trust factor. Wouldn't it be great if organizations - big or small - government or otherwise trust individuals?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Jan Dhan Yojana

I come across people in different economic strata.  The ones that are relevant for this topic are the lower income group - consisting of street vendors, maid servants, gardeners, auto rickshaw drivers etc.  The ones I come across are fairly responsible, want to save some money, create assets as they age to support them in older age and so on.  Banks - that too nationalized ones do not figure in their idea of savings.  They park their money in gold, often buying at unreliable places, losing some money in the jewelry making charges and other expenses.  And they pledge it with pawn brokers losing either the jewel or money as interest.  To summarize, they haven't proven their savings potential to reasonable lenders like banks.

I think Jan Dhan Yojana is a good attempt for financial inclusiveness and expects some amount of fiscal responsibility.  I haven't seen a positive comment about it in popular media so far.  The Tamil magazine Kalki, in its editorial says it is the same as the Loan Melas of Indira Gandhi days and manages to quote an unknown Chief Minister from Bihar - of all the places.

Here is my understanding of the program (quoted from - even if it not the government authorized site, it appears to be correct).
  • Every person opening an account under this scheme will be getting a new zero balance account. This account is a special account and hence you would not be required to keep a minimum balance in your account.
  • The second benefit that one will be gaining is a life cover insurance which every account holder under this scheme is liable to it. Every account holder will get a life cover of worth Rs. 30,000.
  • Every account holder will be given a new RuPay debit card. This debit card comes along with a special accidental cover of 1 lakh rupees. Under this scheme by the PM of India there are two kinds of debit card that is named as the RuPay card and the RuPay kisaan card designed especially for the farmers.
  • After a period of 6 months the people opening an account under this scheme will be eligible for taking an overdraft of five thousand. Thus this will allow the common man of India to take a credit of five thousand rupees from the government of India. His can only be done if the account holder keeps the account active for a period of 6 months.
  • Later under this scheme some areas will also get a pension scheme for the elderlies.
  • Under this scheme the government of India is changing the face of India as many more ATMs are planned to be built as more number of debit card users are being made. It is a step of taking bank to every village.
  • The few changing steps include the evolution of mobile banking. Under this scheme the mobile banking will be available on Symbian phones as well. This facility was only available for smart phone users.
  • The credit amount of 5000 will be increased to 15,000 once the repayment of the loan is done on time. This will be a great help for the people of India to prosper as the money will be available for them
The liability of banks is very limited and it clearly encourages the low income group to save.  So far, our systems are built on distrust with enormous documentation, leading to workarounds and corruption.  Jan Dhan Yojana lets people cross the simple hurdle of opening the bank account.  After that, their action, that of saving money builds that trust - not a piece of paper.  Banks will have confidence with these account holders to offer them loans.

What can we - the middle class - do to contribute to this?

Start paying salaries to the maid servants, security guards, gardeners etc through their bank accounts.  Better still, pay about 10% of the salary through their bank accounts and rest as cash.  Pay it through online banking and send a message to their mobile (oh yes - they do have at least one) about the credit.  This will go a long way in helping them save and be part of the growth.