the following was published with some edits at: 

here’s the original as submitted:

Hinduphobia: Intolerance, racial and religious

Rajeev Srinivasan on bias and prejudice in the West

I was in the San Francisco Bay Area last week. So far as I can tell, the #BlackLivesMatter  protests over police brutality in the shooting of teenaged Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have run their course, and we are back to business as usual. In the meantime, of course, President Barack Obama has made two rather unfortunate speeches alleging religious discrimination in India. Given American moralizing, this is par for the course — but two incidents suggested that the emperor is the one without clothes.

One could make the case that there is considerable phobia against non-Christians in the US, and on occasion this has led to violence. Of course, there is much racial discrimination as well. Blacks have long complained about the “driving while black” syndrome, whereby a random black driver is far more likely to be stopped and questioned by police than a white: they are in effect guilty until proved innocent.

On the other hand, in a recent book, “Ghettoside”, LA Times reporter Jill Leovy shows how rampant crime against blacks goes unpunished, as the police don’t care to investigate adequately. I’d like to ask the sanctimonious POTUS, “Wouldn’t Martin Luther King be shocked that happens to blacks?” It appears “Mississippi Burning” is relevant even today, fifty years after civil rights marchers Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney were murdered by bigots.

Racial prejudice by police affects browns as well, as in the sad case of Sureshbhai Patel, a 57-year-old Indian grandfather visiting his developmentally-challenged, 17 month old grandchild . Patel was slammed to the pavement by a white policeman, paralyzing him. His crime? “Walking while brown': all he did was walk in the neighborhood where his son lives in Alabama. A neighbor complained that a “black man in his 30s was walking in driveways, peering into garages”.

Patel does not speak English: he told the policemen who drove up: “No English. Indian”. Since he hadn’t committed any crime, he was not alarmed when the three officers accosted him. In the startling dashboard video from the police cruiser, you see a young white cop questioning Patel, and then slamming him face first into the sidewalk: Patel is thrown like a rag doll, and the unarmed, non-threatening man is seen slumping into the ground, and then he is handled roughly by the cops, which quite likely exacerbated his spinal injuries.

I do hope the Patel family sues the hell out of the state of Alabama, and I hope the Hindu American Foundation and other community organizations are helping with legal aid and monetary support. For, there is reason to believe that it is religious and racial bias that led to the incident: in other words, a hate crime. There is no reason to suffer that silently.

There is some history of Hindus (and Sikhs) being brutalized by the American State. There was Khem Singh, an elderly Sikh priest who was starved to death in a California prison . There was Charanjit Singh Aujla, a liquor-store owner shot to death by plainclothes police. There was an Indian-origin Fijian man, Maya Nand, who died of untreated diabetes in immigration prison . In effect, these were judicial murders. And two or three years ago, a number of Indian students in the US were murdered.

Apparently Americans, especially the Christian fundamentalist or redneck varieties, view Indians, especially the non-Abrahamic variety, as sub-human, with few human rights. Although on average I concede that the US is quite good to its Indian-origin immigrants, every one of us has tales of racial and/or religious bigotry directed at us. My personal stories include the epithet “dothead” thrown at me, and a voice shouting “We don’t want any Indians” when I was being shown around an apartment complex, both in New Jersey.

I do accept that there is racism in India, too: alas, our own Northeasterners find casual insults and even violence directed at them quite often. And I am sure that black African students in India face all sorts of problems. But at the very least, Indians are not hypocritical, going around pontificating, unlike Americans.

It is not only in America, but also in Australia: there was a lot of violence against Indian students there a couple of years ago. Why is this? I think Indians are hit with a double whammy: bias against brown people, and bias against Hindus (and I include Sikhs and Jains under that heading for the sake of making this argument).

For, when I went to Italy a couple of years ago, I noticed the animosity against the Roma or Gypsy folks in that country (and I am told this is replicated all over Europe). I found old Roma women prostate, begging on the streets of Rome. Recently, I read that Italians have been dumping garbage on Roma encampments; France has expelled some of its Roma. As is widely known, the Roma are migrants who went westward perhaps a thousand years ago from India.

Culturally Judeo-Christian Westerners (even if they are atheists) undoubtedly have picked up the typical prejudices that fundamentalist Christians have about Hindus. You know, the usual “caste, cows and curry” stories, as well as the “caste = race” libel, both assiduously propagated by Indian-origin leftists in the West as well.

It is much easier for Westerners to deal with Muslims because of their common Abrahamic heritage. I find this comes out in odd, small, but telling ways: Westerners gravitate to Indian Muslims rather than Indian Hindus. I was watching the old film ‘Gravity’ on a flight, and there was an Indian-accented person in the film (of course, he was the first to die, as is usually the case with non-whites), and his name was Sharif! Similarly, I was watching a TV program called ‘Silicon Valley’, and there is a subcontinental there, and he is a Pakistani Muslim named Danish, though the valley probably has ten times more Indian Hindus. In “A Passage to India” as well as “Slumdog Millionaire”, if I remember right, the sympathetic characters are Muslims.

That’s not to say that Muslims don’t face discrimination; it’s just that they are more “people like us” than Hindus. The other recent incident was of three Muslims shot dead in a university town, and the first reaction was this was a hate crime, although there was some talk of ongoing animosity over parking space. The hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter began to trend. And it is true, Muslim lives do matter. (But these were white (Arab or Turkish?) Muslims, so they did not face racial prejudice, only religious bias at worst.)

But how come #HinduLivesMatter didn’t start trending in the unfortunate case of Sureshbhai Patel? Do Hindu lives actually not matter? Perhaps they don’t matter even in the subcontinent, as the media and intelligentsia have devalued Hindu lives (Muslim and Christian lives do matter, though: think Graham Staines and Ishrat Jehan and compare them to Rajbala, beaten to death by a Delhi Congress government for the crime of attending a Yogi Ramdev yoga camp. Rajbala who, did you say?)

Jews have a lot to teach Hindus. Once upon a time, Jewish lives didn’t matter: Kristallnacht, Warsaw Ghetto, Buchenwald, Auschwitz etc. (I was at UNESCO in Paris, and there is an arresting exhibition there about the Shoah and death camps and the way ordinary Jews were rounded up, stripped, robbed and shot into mass graves). Having Israel as a strong State that would stand up for the rights of Jews made a big difference. Unfortunately, anti-Jewish sentiment is making a major comeback in Europe — which goes to show, prejudices die hard. I saw a telling headline in a French magazine (“What does it mean to be Jewish in France?”). I suspect the answer is: “Live in fear”. Oh, let us note that, if I remember right, Hinduism is not even recognized as a religion in France, Italy etc., while Judaism is.

The other lot group that has escaped from the prejudices long held against them are East Asians. This obviously has to do with the prosperity of Japan, Korea, and now China. The fact that China aggressively exposes western hypocrisy may also be a reason why they get some respect: for instance, whenever there is talk of human rights, China produces long lists of abuses in the US, whereupon the latter shut up. On the other hand, India has never stood up against that ragtag bunch of religious bigots known grandiosely as the US Council on International Religious Freedom, whose single-point agenda is the conversion industry.

The Indian Government needs to act strongly to protect its citizens’ rights when abroad. What India did in the case of Devyani Khobragade is salutary. A lot of noise was made, and unreciprocated privileges US diplomats enjoyed were taken away. The then US Ambassador essentially got fired.

At this point with the Sureshbhai Patel case, the US Ambassador, ironically an Indian-origin person, should be called on the carpet and given an earful. There is no reason to be meek when the rights of your citizens are trodden on. Just as China does, India should form a “Commission on Racial and Religious Freedom”, and document the terrible crimes in America. I was reminded of the effects of meekness when reading an article in the Financial Times on Ukraine. It quotes Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian Wars about the Melians, who petitioned attacking Athenians for clemency:

“You know as well as we do that right… is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Exactly. Unless India is strong, or at least projects the impression that it is strong, the West will walk all over it.

I was sceptical of Obama’s ability during his India trip to avoid the malignant influence of USCIRF , and so it turned out to be. Despite all the talk of trade and defense and containing China, and nuclear reactors and all that good stuff, at some basic level, the Christian abhorrence of the old religions comes to the fore: for them, it is “Pagan, convert or die!” Not all that different from ISIS, alas, except that ISIS is more direct in its bigotry, unlike the al-taqiya wielding missionary who, like a boa-constrictor, digests culture, land and people. This is how it was when Cortes and Pizarro devastated Latin America, and so it is now in India.

1700 words, feb 16

this piece of mine was published on 10th jan by firstpost at

sorry for a few typos! was sleepy.

a rather badly-edited version of the following appeared on at

i was particularly annoyed they took out the graphic, which i think is dramatic, and came from ye olde harvarde, which india’s leftists are left breathless by (yeah, even rahul attended some classes there).

here’s the original text i sent them


India’s Foreign Policy moves mostly deft, but Putin visit a damp squib

Rajeev Srinivasan considers this a missed opportunity to engage an old friend in need

The Narendra Modi administration has been generally successful in its foreign policy outreach, in effect announcing that India has arrived and is ready to be punch its weight, and it has raised India’s profile quite substantially. A survey from Harvard University put Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a close second to Xi Jinping , which is impressive considering the general awe China invokes in the west, and the fact that Xi has been the darling of such NATO mouthpieces as The Economist, which  recently gushed about Xi’s leadership.

national leaders 2014

So far so good. The reaching out to neighbors like Bhutan and Nepal, the camaraderie with Japan and Australia, even the US visit (and the return visit planned for the near future) all show a new-found sense of confidence. There was a systematic reaching out in what looked like a series of concentric circles: subcontinent first, Japan, the US, Asia and Australia — all of them showed a willingness to put national interests first. The Modi government deserves an A for its first six months in the field of foreign relations.

But the visit of Vladimir Putin for the 15th India-Russia summit, I felt, was seriously underutilized by India.  It could have been a major opportunity to ruthlessly drive hard bargains with Russia, and given its current troubles such as sanctions and a collapsing ruble, it is likely that India could have got some attractive pricing, for instance as the Chinese did: they got a steal on some hydrocarbon deals.

In the event, a slew of agreements was signed regarding oil and gas, LNG, and space. It was agreed that bilateral trade, currently a measly $10 billion a year, will go up to $30 billion a year by 2025. 12 nuclear  plants are to be built in 20 years, with increasing local content, taking off from Koodankulam. There are MoUs for oil and gas exploration in India’s offshore exclusive economic zone.

There was, however, almost no press coverage of the Putin visit, in marked contrast to the huge amount of newsprint spent and oceans of ink spilt on an earlier visit by Chinese strongman Xi Jinping.  Part of this can be explained by the media’s apparently congenital passion for all things Chinese. Similarly I expect an orgy of news coverage when Obama comes to India in January. But the fact that the visit of the head of a major power, a member of the UN Security Council, got so little visibility was a little odd. Perhaps there was also an element of reluctance on Putin’s part too: he did not make a visit to Koodankulam, nor did he address the joint session of Parliament, although both were suggested to him.

This is a little alarming. Why is Putin so reticent? Why is he so reluctant to play to the crowds? Is the long Indo-Russian alliance unraveling now? That is a disturbing idea.

In addition, Russia is cozying up to China in ways that are not helpful for India. Worse, it is now selling Pakistan military hardware, including a big consignment of helicopters, which may well be pure economics, but ends up hurting India in a geostrategic way. This may simply be Russia looking to diversity its market, just as India is looking to diversify its arms purchases to several suppliers, while maintaining Russia as its biggest. Sensible business decisions: no sole-sourcing, no single customer.

Despite this, the many possibilities that were not explored were a huge missed opportunity. For, Russia is going through a manufactured crisis, thanks to the Americans. It has been evident for some time that the Obama administration has a dim view of three major players on the world stage, named Vladimir Putin, Shinzo Abe, and Narendra Modi. The trio have been subjected to withering attacks.

There have  been concerted and apparently orchestrated attacks on all three, quite likely for the simple reason that they are not toeing the NATO line. Putin has been vilified and painted as a monster for some time, and now with Crimea and the Ukraine affair, he is presented as the devil incarnate.

Abe has been unfairly hounded over his visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which to a casual observer seems no more sinister than America’s Arlington National Cemetery. I am sure that if Yasukuni has war criminals (according to Americans), then it is likely that Arlington has some too (according to, say, Cambodians, or Vietnamese).

The dehumanization of Modi by what appears to be a coterie around Hillary Clinton, a putative Democratic candidate to succeed Obama in 2016, does not need to be retold.

The case of Russia is particularly instructive for India as well, although the treatment of Shinzo Abe, formally speaking an American ally, is not without its lessons: it boils down to the question of whether the US is a dependable ally. But it is in Putin’s case that American mischief is most evident. In a nutshell, NATO underestimated Russia’s resolve to maintain its sphere of influence, and now NATO will try hard to make Russia pay for that error. Error by NATO, punishment for Russia!

The attempts to turn Georgia earlier and Ukraine recently into outposts of NATO influence was an unnecessary provocation with ill intent. The possibility that the Russians would not take this kindly was also known ahead of time: they have been known to be a little touchy. Just ask Napoleon, or the Germans.

Putin demonstrated this without any room for doubt when he sent troops into Georgia a few years ago. In particular, when Crimea, which was territory given away by Russia to Ukraine, was in contention, it was quite evident that he would do whatever it took to protect his national interest.

Thus the slew of self-righteous fulminations and sanctions are just so much theater, and have more to do with NATO’s coveting Ukraine than with anything Russia has done. Besides, the big plunge in oil prices over the last few weeks has been a power-play aimed at Russia’s biggest export, oil, and thus at pushing Russia into economic collapse, as was done to the Soviet Union at the end of the 1990s.

All this means Russia needs friends. Instead of stepping into the breach as a white knight, to Russia’s eternal gratitude (or at least better pricing), India has held back. Perhaps this is because of irritants like the ever-escalating costs of Sukhois or the erstwhile Admiral Gorshkov. But India needs Russia for its counter-string-of-pearls to contain the rampaging Chinese: Vietnam, Japan, et al are not enough.

Second, India had the opportunity to wrap up some long-term forward contracts on oil and LNG at the current rock-bottom prices, and using rupees instead of hard currency, given Russia’s dire straits – a bit like the deals Iran, also sanctioned, was willing to do.

Given all this, I’d say this has been a surprising mis-step in the generally smooth, even laudable, conduct of foreign policy by the NDA government. The fact that India didn’t take full advantage of an old ally, now fallen on hard times, is a pretty bad instance of realpolitik conspicuous by its absence. Nevertheless, compared to the vacuum of the last ten years, India’s foreign policy has improved by leaps and bounds in 2014.

December 30, 2014 1230 words

a slightly edited version of the following was published by firstpost on oct 24th at

Sabarimala as metaphor: apartheid against Hindus by a malign State

Rajeev Srinivasan on what a visit by the PM might do for the temple

The hill abode of Sri Ayyappan in the Western Ghats has become one of the most-visited temples in India, and it is in the list of places where the most places converge in the world (Source: The Economist, 2013). Unfortunately, it is also a testament large gatherings of people economist 2013

to the incompetence and uncaringness of the Indian State, because pilgrims suffer greatly if they wish to visit.

Therefore I am delighted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi may visit the shrine this year, according to G Ananthakrishnan (“Sabarimala on PM radar”, in the Telegraph, as it may force the authorities to improve the critically deficient infrastructure that they could easily upgrade, but won’t. It is also a metaphor for what appears to be active official hostility to Hinduism and to Hindu pilgrims.

I know because I just went to Sabarimala for Deepavali. I have done the pilgrimage five or six times over many years, and can testify first-hand as to how it has deteriorated over time. My very first pilgrimage was when I was 17, and at that time there were no permanent settlements on the summit of the hill, where the shrine is. People only went there during the season (November to January) and for a few days at the beginning of every Malayalam month.

The main difference is the number of pilgrims visiting, which has grown exponentially, as it is an attractive, albeit difficult, trip, and the worship of Ayyappa has grown dramatically in the southern states. Then, I walked alone up the hill through rough paths, and I encountered only a handful of people who were going down the hill. When I went to the summit, I could pray for as long as I wanted in front of the deity’s tiny abode.

Yesterday, there were thousands of pilgrims at the summit, and I encountered hundreds returning down the arduous climb. During the season the numbers swell to hundreds of thousands of black-clad visitors, as the total number over the truncated period comes to over 30 million (which is the entire population of Kerala, to give some perspective).

Unfortunately, this tsunami of pilgrims has overwhelmed the carrying capacity of the area, and it makes the strenuous climb far more difficult than it needs to be. For, from the Pamba river staging area where vehicles park, it is a vertiginous climb up a few thousand feet through dense tropical forest to the small plateau where the shrine is. It is hard on the feet (we climbed barefoot up the granite and concrete path), on the heart (every year a few people have cardiac arrest), and on your system in general (there are only a dozen or so toilets on this path).

Once you get up to the plateau, things don’t get any better. Often, in peak-season, you have to wait for up to 10-12 hours in line in concrete sheds with corrugated-iron sheeting as roofs, which gets stiflingly hot on sunny days. Accommodation availability is utterly minimal: many sleep in these very sheds. Toilets, bathrooms, a clean play to sleep, decent food to eat, medical care – all are scarce.

The amount of plastic trash around the place is startling: bottles, bags. There are feral pigs – yes, wild pigs with mean-looking fangs – rooting in the food waste and human waste, and they add their droppings to the mess of mud and paper and flowers and plastic.

And there have been several stampedes in the past, which obviously is a problem of poor organization and crowd management. (Tirupati, with an equally large number of pilgrims, has figured out crowd control; there is no reason why this cannot be attempted in Sabarimala too.)

This is no way to run a holy place. Nor any way to treat the poor pilgrims who come from far away. I once met a barefoot pilgrim who was a Sri Lankan-origin investment banker in London, but many are ordinary folks from villages in interior Karnataka or Andhra. They come, black-clad and bearded after 41 days of penance, carrying on their heads the twin coconuts filled with ghee that they will use for ablutions. These are the believers, that vast and invisible substratum of India that Dharampal once mentioned: they follow ancient practices of pilgrimage to holy spots, ignoring the cities and other distractions. This is eternal India, sanatana dharma.

You get a glimpse of this true India when you finally reach the sanctum with your aching and weary body, your only thoughts those about Ayyappa. Strangely, when you try to get your micro-second glimpse of the presiding deity before you are shoved forward by the press of those behind you, you tend to forget all the hassles.

Because it is a point of singular power, and it has been so for millennia: historian Lokesh Chandra notes that it was once a temple to both Shiva and the Avalokiteswara Padmapani (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) simultaneously, as described by the Buddhist monk  Hsuen Tsang (XuenXang) who visited some 1,400 years ago and considered it already an ancient temple. See my old article on its history here .

The criminal neglect of the temple is mostly due to State hostility and partly to sheer incompetence. Kerala alternatively has Communist-led and Congress-led governments, which for practical purposes means a Communist/Muslim coalition or a Christian/Muslim coalition. The Hindu vote is fragmented and divided, to the extent that the BJP is yet to have a single MP from the state, although O Rajagopal almost unseated Shashi Tharoor in Trivandrum last May. Modi appeals to the OBC Ezhavas (the mainstay of the Communists) and to the SC Pulayas; and this may lead to some electoral realignments, and that is surely part of his calculations.

There is a monstrous entity called the ‘Devaswom Board’ that controls all Hindu temples (and note please: only Hindu temples, as Christian and Muslim places of worship are entirely free of control or even audit or tax. I read a ruling by an Income Tax appellate court that Hinduism is a way of life, not a religion, and therefore Hindu temples are not tax-exempt!)

In fact, in an allegedly secular State, there should be separation of ‘church’ and ‘State’, that is, the government should not interfere in religion. That is true for Christians and Muslims: the State leaves them alone to do whatever they want with their churches and mosques. But in the case of Hindus, the government expropriates whatever Hindu temples have. The Devaswom Board is a violation of the constitutional principles of equality before the law and freedom of religion.

This is the principal reason Hindu temples are in trouble in Kerala, as the Devaswom Board, with atheists and Communists often as board members, acts as a mechanism to commingle the revenues of temples with government revenue. In other words, the Devaswom Board, and thus the Kerala government, steal the money that pilgrims donate to Sabarimala (and other large temples like Guruvayur). No more than 5% of this is spent on upkeep and maintenance and infrastructure development in the big temples, the rest is swallowed by the state treasury.

Many of the smaller temples under Devaswom control are closing because there is no money spent on them at all (I read a report quoting the Travancore Manual that were some 10,000 temples in Travancore a hundred years ago; while today there are fewer than 1,500). This verges on extinction.

Temples are torn down for ‘development’. For instance, the 1,800 year-old Parthasarathy temple in Aranmula is slated for severe downgrading for an unnecessary airport project there which is basically a land-grab. Dozens of temples were torn down to create Cochin’s airport. In the 1950’s, a planter tried to burn down the Sabarimala shrine to grab the forest land around it.

All this is simply abominable.

A visit by the Prime Minister should shine the spotlight on this unsavory aspect of what is quite simply apartheid against Hindus. In addition, he will see first-hand how his idea of a swachh bharat has a long way to go: unlike most temples in Kerala, where the abundance of water, and related habits, ensure cleanliness, poor Sabarimala is the epitome of unsanitary conditions.

The PM’s visit should create an awareness of the problems faced, and perhaps it will lead to the dissolution of the Devaswom Board, just as that other white elephant the Planning Commission was disbanded. That would be not a day too soon. Kerala’s temples deserve the right to manage themselves without busybodies from government interfering in them.

If the PM were to visit during the season, the difficulty in ensuring security will mean disruption for pilgrims, especially if he were to make the full trek up and down the hill, which, he, as a physically fit individual should be able to do, unlike all other PMs so far. Still, that would be a small price to pay for the possible improvements it might bring.

1500 words, 22 October 2014

a significantly edited version of the following was published by rediff on 17 oct 2014 at

they edited out the details of the two older letters i referred to (‘witzel letter’ and ‘binayak letter’) but the rest of it, an analysis of NREGA, is intact. but i had fun with the older letters!

The brave 28 economists saving India from apocalypse

Rajeev Srinivasan on the absurdity of a bunch of economists supporting a wildly irrational policy

There is a last-ditch effort to force India to save one of the most ridiculous legacies of the UPA government, its National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). It makes no sense because it doesn’t do skill development, routinely transfers public funds into private hands, and creates hard-to-break dependencies. But most of all, I liked the letter-writing campaign in its support.

I was amused to hear that 28 “eminent economists” had written a letter  to Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling him, in effect, that the heavens would fall if NREGA were to be touched. I was reminded of two similar letters: one from 47 “scholars” (the “Witzel letter”) supporting an obscure pedagogue in a California lawsuit, and another from 40 “Nobel prize winners” in support of Binayak Sen, accused of treason, and of aiding and abetting terrorists.

The trouble with all these letters is a logical fallacy of “appeal to authority”. It’s as though by waving these people’s credentials about, the proponents can cow down and browbeat into submission even the legitimate concerns of any opponent. But, in fact, the named people may a) not be authorities at all, b) may not be authorities in the subject matter under discussion, c) may have no idea about the proposition and simply signed off under pressure from a zealous proponent.

I found this quite true in the Witzel letter case. At issue was the startlingly negative depiction of Hinduism in textbooks used by California schools, and a group of Hindu parents had sued the school board to fix it. Opposing the case, Harvard University Sankritist Michael Witzel got, as he claimed, “47 world experts on Ancient India, reflecting mainstream opinion”, to sign his letter opposing the parents’ petition.

So far, so good. One would assume that Witzel got world experts on Ancient India to agree with him. But then I found out that, among the signers of the petition (I wrote the following in an article at the time, in 2006, and masked full names to avoid embarrassing people publicly, but I do have their full names and university affiliations):

  1. SP is a PhD in Urban Transportation
  2. RK is a physicist
  3. GGF teaches Roman history and ancient warfare
  4. SS is an economist
  5. AV teaches Central Asian Linguistics, Japanese and Korean
  6. HB teaches post-colonial studies
  7. DR teaches Indo-European linguistics
  8. WB teaches African Studies and Philosophy
  9. DS teaches linguistics
  10. SZ teaches linguistics
  11. JK is a retired professor of anthropology
  12. AK is a PhD in Indo-Iranian linguistics
  13. PD teaches linguistics
  14. RR teaches sociology
  15. RT is a Marxist historian, but she doesn’t know Sanskrit or Tamil, the classical languages of India
  16. Kalpana Desai of the Mumbai Museum Indus Valley Heritage Center, who one would assume knows ancient Indian history, retracted her signature from the Witzel petition

Kalpana Desai dropped out, and that made it 46. Those listed above cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered scholars in the area of Ancient India, and were just included in the list because, I assume, Witzel could bully them. I also pointed out the absurdity, similarly, of Physics Nobelist William Shockley asserting that blacks were genetically inferior, for which he was practically booed out of academia for not having any idea of the discipline of genetics.

In a similar vein, the “Binayak letter” was co-signed by 40 Nobel laureates, as follows :

The signatories: Peter Agre, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2003; Kenneth J. Arrow, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, 1972; Richard Axel, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2004; David Baltimore, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1975; Martin Chalfie, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2008; Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1997; Robert Curl, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1996; Johann Deisenhofer, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1988; Richard R. Ernst, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1991, and Edmond H. Fischer, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1992;

Walter Gilbert, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1980; Roy J. Glauber, Nobel Prize in Physics, 2005; Paul Greengard, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2000; David J. Gross, Nobel Prize in Physics, 2004; Roger Guillemin, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1977; Dudley Herschbach, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1986; Antony Hewish, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1974, and H. Robert Horvitz, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2002;

François Jacob, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1965; Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, 2002; Eric R. Kandel, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2000; Lawrence R. Klein, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, 1980; Roger D. Kornberg, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2006, and Sir Harold W. Kroto, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1996;

Finn E. Kydland, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, 2004; Yuan T. Lee, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1986; Rita Levi-Montalcini, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1986; Roderick MacKinnon, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2003; Sir James Mirrlees, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, 1996; Joseph E. Murray, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1990; Douglas D. Osheroff, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1996, and John C. Polanyi, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1986;

Ramakrishnan, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2009; Sir Richard Roberts, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1993; Jens C. Skou, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1998; Jack Steinberger, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1988; Sir John Sulston, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2002; Charles H. Townes, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1964; Klaus von Klitzing, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1985, and Torsten N. Wiesel, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1981.

And exactly what did all these non-Indians with expertise in physics or medicine or something know about the situation on the ground, where Communist terrorists – including their leader, Narayan Sanyal, in his 70s, whom Binayak Sen, a pediatrician, had met dozens of times, surely not for medical reasons – have been massacring tribals , blowing up policemen , and other such democratic and peace-loving activities?

In exactly the same vein, the brave 28 economists are attempting an “appeal to authority” based not on their knowledge of development economics on the ground in India, but merely on their degrees, academic positions, or some such. I have not done a background check on them, but I suspect most of them are from the JNU stable of extreme-left economic thinking, and therefore their neutrality is suspect. These are people who gained from the status quo ante, and they would like to preserve it.

I also wonder if they see themselves like the brave 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, or the boy-with-his-finger-in-the-dyke of Dutch mythology, or King Canute, who ordered the waves to recede. In any case, these people are attempting to stop what they consider an implacable foe, right-wing economic policies.

Is there any merit to the position that NREGA is doing a very valuable service to the nation? Did NREGA in fact accomplish what it set out to do? And what exactly DID it set out to do? I had the frightening experience of listening to a lecture a year ago by Mihir Shah, a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, who apparently was the ‘father’ of NREGA. (I note in passing this was the second-most scary lecture I have ever been to, the scariest being one by former IAS officer Harsh Mander, he of the purple prose and vivid imagination.)

In the Mihir Shah lecture (he was predictably a JNU/Center for Development Studies, Trivandrum product), the main point he stressed was how much money had been spent on NREGA. He said, and I counted him saying it three times, “There’s unlimited funds for NREGA”. From this I gathered that the intent of NREGA was to spend large amounts of taxpayer money. In that, it definitely succeeded. Absolutely staggering amounts of money have been spent: if I remember correctly, over 2.3 trillion rupees, which is of the order of magnitude of $40 billion over several years (or 0.35% of GDP per year).

That is the amount of money spent by the taxpayer. Most of that would have been siphoned off by intermediaries, although the economists’ letter asserts that “corruption has steadily declined over time”, without any evidence. Rajiv Gandhi famously said that only 15% of any government spending actually reached the intended recipient; that was many years ago, and given the ingenuity of bureaucrats and politicians, it is likely that only 10% now reaches the recipient. That is, NREGA has been a windfall of $36 billion to middlemen, and in particular, Congress Party cadres.

This is a very large transfer of taxpayer monies to private hands. Of course, the UPA government was a past master at this, and it is the same thing it deployed in another absurd policy, Right to Education, which in effect transfers public money to the management of schools run by certain religious groups, and not others.

One of the big problems with entitlement spending is that it distorts incentive structures. Whatever monies reaches the recipients creates in them the expectation that the mai-baap sarkar will hereafter look after them: it becomes a right, that these funds will forever flow to them with no effort on their part. If the government attempts to cut down on social welfare programs, or to induce people to put in some work in return for the dole, there will be social unrest, and it will be political suicide. Thus these cargo-cult activities will be in effect in perpetuity, beggaring the treasury.

The pernicious effects of give-away programs have long been documented in the US and Europe, where “welfare queens” have been targeted for condemnation. It is a fact that periodically, in times of great stress, it is necessary to create make-work schemes so that the poor will have a cash income to purchase scarce goods. This has been done periodically by Indian kings when famine occurred (which, thanks to El Nino, is about every 12 years or so when the monsoon fails). But to make that dole a pillar of the government’s policies does not make sense.

So if Mihir Shah and other worthies saw NREGA as a program to create a crushing burden on the State, they have succeeded. I asked him what the benefit had been for all the funds spent on NREGA. His answer was illuminating: that so many women and SC and ST had been employed by NREGA. The same argument is put forward by ministry officials in

But I consider that to be a red herring. The real question is: “How many people have been skilled up and thus able to escape from needing to be in NREGA?” The true success of a program like NREGA would lie in its own irrelevance, that is, people no longer need it as a crutch. NREGA should enable them to climb out of poverty and stand on their own two feet.

But this is expressly forbidden by NREGA rules. Skill development, which is what India needs more than anything else if it is to become a global contender in manufacturing, appears to be outside the purview of NREGA, which is expressly meant for unskilled laborers. While working with a committee on skill development, I found out this startling fact:  you cannot use NREGA funds to train people to get off the dole! What I gather is that you need a specific exemption to be able to do so!

That means the idea behind NREGA is to create a pool of unskilled workers and keep them unskilled in perpetuity, while the usual suspects merrily create armies of phantom employees and other clever mechanisms to cash in on the loot. I have seen this in action: in Kerala, you find that instead of the 1-2 people you actually need for a particular job such as clearing the underbrush along roads, usually 5-6 people show up, which of course ends up in highly inflated estimates of work done.

Besides, there is another pernicious effect, perhaps an instance of the law of unintended consequences. Migrant labor has been a major part of the success of agriculture in the past couple of decades, as poor Gangetic Plain laborers went to places like Punjab to harvest crops. This pool of labor is now absent, as they have been absorbed into make-work schemes in their home states; this probably is a big issue for farmers in Punjab, Andhra/Telangana, and other places with agricultural production.

The prognosis from this is not good, and agriculture, if it is economically not sensible, can vanish overnight. I speak from experience in Kerala. When I was a child, the state was full of productive paddy fields; now, almost all of them lie fallow, because labor costs became unaffordable. That is exactly what farmers elsewhere will do, and I believe they are doing so already: leaving land uncultivated because they cannot find, or cannot afford, the labor necessary. Agriculture, even in developed countries, has some element of labor – my former home, California, depends heavily on its Mexican farm workers.

Thus, from several perspectives on utility and results (but admittedly not on its efficacy in being a black hole for money), NREGA is an absolute disaster. The brave 28 economists tilting against its natural death are like Don Quixote on his nag Rosinante charging the windmills – blissfully unaware of reality; and they ought to be ignored. Indeed, as Jagdish Bhagwati once said, “India’s curse has been its brilliant economists”. With these experts, those in the Planning Commission, and Raj Krishna, whose sole claim to fame was in inventing the racist term “Hindu rate of growth”, it is hard to disagree with Bhagwati.

2250 words, 16 October 2014

Byline: Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant. His earlier columns can be found here

the following was published by firstpost at on oct 14

In retrospect: What did Chinese strongman Xi’s visit to India accomplish?

Rajeev Srinivasan believes the atmospherics were the win for India, as there was no substance

Now that the dust has settled on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s whirlwind foreign policy activities in September, and the protests in Hong Kong have petered out, this is a good time to sit back and analyze what Xi Jinping’s visit to India has left behind as a legacy. There have been a number of quasi-imperial visits by Chinese strongmen in the last few years, and it is my contention that this one was qualitatively different, mostly because of the shadow-boxing and symbolism in the background.

I am reminded of an old fable: a king had a favorite vidushaka, whom he sent to the court of the emperor, whom he owed fealty to. At the emperor’s court, the vidushaka curtseyed, and said: “The new moon, my king, sends his salutations to you, dear emperor, the full moon”. The emperor was pleased, but the king wasn’t. Until the jester reminded him that the full moon would be waning, while the new moon would be waxing. Something along those lines applies to Xi and Modi

To take an inventory of how things stand today, Modi has returned from a fairly good visit to the US, which enhanced his credentials as a global statesman. He has, at least for the moment, demonstrated to the Pakistanis firing across the border that if they do not behave, there will be pain applied to their bottoms, and that their all-weather sugar daddies China and the US will not lift a little finger to help them. He is enjoying his honeymoon period, and the economy is looking up a wee bit.

Xi, on the other hand, has had a rough few weeks. The Hong Kong uprising, while ultimately infructuous, suggests that there are many young people who resent the heavy-handed police state he runs. Yes, even in the prosperous mainland cities, there must be underground activists. Besides, the economy is slowing, and people are once again talking about the probabilities of a soft landing (medium), a bursting of the real estate bubble (high) and a banking crisis (high).

It is true that time and again, the Cassandras have been proven wrong, and the Chinese have pulled rabbits out of the hat. But there are a few indicators that, this time around, suggest strongly that things may be souring in China. One is the precipitous fall in the price of oil (despite war clouds in the Middle East): it is down to around $92/barrel for Brent crude as I write, which is a four-year low. The other is the fall in the price of iron ore, at a five-year low of around $90/metric ton.

Since commodity prices have been pushed up by Chinese demand, these are indirect signals suggesting a slowdown in the Chinese economy. According to Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal  (“Hong Kong pops the China bubble”, Oct 6), the ‘China dream’ is a hoax, as he cites the elites trying to get out, including by buying EB-5 US green cards that cost a cool $1 million each. The Financial Times is running a series showing the dramatic growth of Chinese investment, and migration (using expensive ‘golden visas’) into Europe. Do these people know something the rest of us don’t?

So, in some sense, Xi stands slightly diminished compared to the time of the Modi-Xi meeting, and Modi stands slightly elevated. So far, so good, but what about their actual encounter itself?

I think it was full of jousting and probing, as each man tried to figure out how far the other could be pushed, and they used tried and tested methods of insulting each other diplomatically.

First, there was the tremendous significance of a visit by a Chinese strongman to India without a visit to Pakistan on the same trip to hyphenate the two and to keep India confined to the subcontinent (aka the meaningless ‘South Asia’, a neologism peddled most vigorously by China itself, to damage India’s historical brand).

When Li Peng or Jiang Zemin arrived in India years ago, they carefully hyphenated. This time with Xi too, the intent was to make it a SAARC trip, with visits to the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka included. Relatively late in the game, the Pakistan visit was dropped. The ostensible reason was disquiet and demonstrations in that country pitting Nawaz Sharif against Imran Khan. Fair enough.

However, my hope is that the PM or the National Security Advisor put in a discreet word that Xi was not welcome in India if he insisted on going to Pakistan as well. I earnestly hope that this will be something India will continue to demand of all would-be hyphenators: please don’t bother to come if you are planning a trip to Pakistan alongside. Obama, in particular, please note.

If this was conveyed to Xi, and his people were persuaded to accept it, that would be a major climbdown by the Chinese: for after all, it is China that has nurtured Pakistan. Their investment in supplying weapons is force-multiplied by Pakistani jihadis, and this keeps India corralled and pinned down in a ‘South Asia’ ghetto: precisely what China wants. That would be Round 1 to Modi.

Second, it was a bit odd that the Xi tour had its first stop in Ahmedabad. Yes, I have heard the usual rationalizations about how this was because Modi wanted to show off his work in cleaning up Ahmedabad. I think there was a different agenda. Previous Chinese strongmen swept into Delhi like visiting emperors: there was much kowtowing by the Indians. The Chinese guy would have thought to himself: “Yes! Veni, vidi, vici! All’s well with the world!”.

But here was Modi telling Xi something to the effect that he was no emperor, and Modi was no fawning vassal. The Chinese, who are exquisitely tuned to “loss of face”, surely got this, but had to run with it and pretend that it was great fun that Xi was being shunted off to an obscure provincial capital instead of the imperial darbar in Delhi.

Third, there was the little Vietnam kerfuffle. A day before Xi arrived in India, India’s president and foreign minister were in Vietnam signing friendship declarations, and most significantly, a deal to continue to collaborate on oil exploration in the South China Sea waters claimed by Vietnam, where China had intruded with an oil rig, to general annoyance in Vietnam. (In fact, I believe India should go further and lease part of the huge Cam Ranh Bay naval base – that would enable India’s navy to increase its blue-water reach.)

Anyway, this was a direct affront to Xi. One reason was tit for tat. In 1979, AB Vajpayee, then India’s foreign minister, visited Beijing on an official visit. The Chinese chose that very day to invade Vietnam, which was a subtle way of humiliating Vajpayee. Not that it did the Chinese any good: they were routed by the battle-hardened Vietnamese.

But that loss of face continued to rankle India. The Chinese got the point: tit for tat; and India will continue to engage Vietnam regardless of Chinese bluster. Vietnam, in addition to commercial linkages, should form part of India’s alliance to contain China – a sort of reverse string-of-pearls. Two can play at this time. Xi understood that Modi was not averse to geopolitical games.

Fourth, the saber-rattling and intrusions by the Chinese PLA on the Ladakh border were a continuation of their incursions over the last few years. I read somewhere that this was a part of Mao’s “Operations Manual” for the PLA: pin-pricks intended to keep the neighbor on tenterhooks whenever the Big Man was to visit. Certainly, it got plenty of attention.

Unfortunately for Xi, it got the wrong kind of attention. In a departure from the norm under Manmohan Singh (who preferred to think of this as mere ‘acne’ on the face of the ‘beautiful relationship’ with China, as per his foreign minister), Modi decided to stand put. This led to a tense eyeball-to-eyeball face-off, with no clear winner. In the end, however, the Chinese withdrew. That would be Round 2 to Modi.

Later, there were recriminations when Xi returned, and it was put about in the media that ‘rogue’ PLA generals had caused Xi to ‘lose face’ when he was in India. Of course, Xi would never himself had done anything as rude as this. Well, that is pretty good disinformation. According to The Economist, which frequently does hagiographies of Xi, he is the most in-command strongman in China since Mao, and nobody even breathes the wrong way without Xi’s permission. It is highly likely that Xi ordered the incursion to size up Modi, to see whether there was any substance behind Modi’s nationalistic rhetoric. Yes, Xi, there is.

So all this was atmospherics and shadow-boxing. I think both sides left the parleys satisfied that their experiments had created enough data, to be analyzed. And India got the better of it. The usual Chinese tactic of pushing until there is resistance had met resistance; whereupon they retreated.

Onto substantive stuff: alas, absolutely nothing happened. The stapled visas for Arunachalis remains. The lack of support for India’s UN Security Council seat remains (of course it is a bitter irony that Nehru gave away that seat when it was offered, suggesting it be given to China! Yes, I can quote chapter and verse in Nehru’s Collected Writings in case you want a reference).

What of the alleged $200 billion in Chinese investment that, according to leftist media cheerleaders, would dwarf Japan’s promised $35 billion? Well, the answer is that there is going to be practically no Chinese investment. There were some noises about bullet trains (China has successfully expropriated IPR from Mitsubishi and Siemens and are now competitive in world markets), special economic zones, etc. However, China’s FDI in India at the moment is a pathetic $400 million, which is less than in Belgium! Let us look at this through realpolitik: why would the Chinese be dumb enough to teach Indians how to become their own competition in manufacturing, which is all India wants from them?

Oh yes, there was some talk about opening up another path to Kailash-Mansarovar for Indian pilgrims. Why? That would bring in tourist money to that part of Tibet, enriching Chinese tax coffers.

Thus the Xi visit as a whole can be summed up briefly: it was a test to see how far they could push Modi; once they saw that he was a tough customer, the Chinese decided to follow Plan B, palavering, rather than their usual Plan A, lebensraum-seeking, which translates roughly to: “What’s ours is ours; what’s yours is negotiable”.

1800 words, 13 October 2014

the following appeared on on oct 13, 2014 at

economist top 3 nations in GDP oct 2014isro women celebrate mangalyan sep 2014

The Nobel Peace Prize: was there more than meets the eye to Kailash Satyarthi’s selection?

Rajeev Srinivasan

Let me be quite up-front about a few things. One, I confess I had only vaguely heard about Kailash Satyarthi before the Nobel Peace Prize 2014 came looking for him. Two, I am as delighted as anyone else that global recognition has come to an Indian who’s involved in a good cause. Three, I do believe the issue of preventing child labor is as good a cause as it gets, especially as in dangerous occupations, and worse, in pedophilia.

Nevertheless, I have a few concerns about the award of the Nobel Prize to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousufzai. First is the implied, and articulated, hyphenation between the two. Second is the overtly political nature of the prize. Third is the over-broad nature of assumptions made about what constitutes child labor. Fourth is the root cause of child labor and how to ameliorate it.

First, it has been a foregone conclusion that Malala Yousufzai would sooner or later get the Nobel Peace Prize, for her exceptional courage in the face of the oppression of women and girl-children in Pakistan. But how the prize committee suddenly chanced upon Kailash Satyarthi and decided to co-anoint him and to make a broad generalization about child labor and child protection is a bit mysterious.

It almost sounds as though the committee wanted to recognize Malala, and for good measure (two-for-one) decided to throw in a somewhat obscure Indian activist too. Not to diminish Satyarthi, but there is a decided feeling of “let’s now force-fit an Indian into this, so we can have some fearful symmetry”). For, there is a vast gulf between the concerns the two deal with. To say they both deal with children is banal; you might as well say they both deal with people: for gender is the big divide.

Perhaps the prize committee is ignorant of the fact that, despite the geographical proximity of India and Pakistan, the two countries are like chalk and cheese: we have almost nothing in common with each other. There is a western tendency to lump India with Pakistan (a hyphenation of India-Pakistan-equal-equal which annoys Indians because India is seven times larger, has ambitions to be one of the G3 of global powers, and is not a theocratic failing state and a military dictatorship as Pakistan is).

This hyphenation is about as absurd as hyphenating, say Cuba with the United States just because of geography.

Furthermore, the issues Kailash and Malala deal with are vastly different. Kailash Satyarthi has been working on the exploitation of children as domestic servants, in hazardous professions, in pedophilia, and in other ways robbing them of their childhood, their education, their health and their sense of self.

This, unfortunately, is a problem of poverty. Child labor happens everywhere where people have a hand-to-mouth existence, and in particular because an extra pair of hands in the field or the factory is economically rational because the marginal cost of feeding that extra mouth is minimal. It has nothing per se to do with India, or Hinduism for that matter.

On the other hand, what Malala was fighting against is a purely Islamic issue: the devaluation of women and girl-children. Her home area in Pakistan had come under the sway of fundamentalist and patriarchal Muslim clerics of the Taliban, who decreed that women, as per their interpretation of their religion, needed to be cloistered, and denied education.

In fact, this is a peculiarly Muslim problem, and there is no point in obfuscating it. Consider the women of Saudi Arabia who are not allowed to drive, or to work except in all-woman environments. Consider the endemic female genital mutilation in some Muslim cultures. Consider the Christian schoolgirls abducted as sex-slaves by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Consider the 4,000 Yazidi girls and women continually gang-raped by ISIS in Iraq.  Womens’ rights of various kinds are a problem in Muslim societies.

While it is true that there are many issues of exploitation of women in India, there is little justification for that based on religion, and Indian women are increasingly visible in all walks of life. One of the delightful photographs about Mangalyaan showed very traditional-looking, middle-aged, middle-class women aerospace engineers in mission control whooping it up! Now that is about as male a domain as it gets – rocket engineers; I don’t remember seeing photos of many women in NASA control rooms.

However, the Nobel committee’s citation explicitly hyphenated the two countries. This is a gross error of extrapolation, and is unfair to India. They said, and I quote, that the committee “regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”

Why are they bothered about the nationalities or religions of the two? So far as I know, when they offered the Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, they did not say how wonderful it was that “a Jew and a Buddhist”, formerly bitter adversaries as “an American and a Vietnamese” had worked together for a peace deal. When Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were honored by another Peace Prize, they were never “a Muslim and two Jews” of warring “Palestine and Israel”.

Why, then, this special treatment for “Hindus and Muslims” and “Indians and Pakistanis”? This raises several questions – is the West attempting to interfere yet again in the Indian subcontinent? Especially as Malala called for both Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi to attend her prize ceremony? This could well be child-like and genuine on her part, but geopolitically, it is yet another, in the ad nauseam series of interventions that the West have made in the subcontinent, much to our detriment.

One clue is in the personalities in the Nobel Peace Prize committee. The chairman of the committee used to be the president, it turns out, of Socialist International, which is a worldwide grouping of far-left ideological groupings. No wonder it has made some baffling selections, such as Barack Obama (2009) and the European Union (2012), not to mention M Teresa (1979) and Henry Kissinger (1973). The Peace Prize has become overtly political, and it has deteriorated into geopolitical point-scoring rather than honoring a genuine achiever.

Furthermore, there are severe ethnocentric assumptions about exactly what constitutes ‘child labor’. Apparently, American children delivering newspapers or washing cars or mowing lawns or slinging burgers at McDonald’s doesn’t count as child labor. But an Indian child, son of a farmer, who helps his father while learning the craft of farming, is being forced into child labor? So there is ‘good’ child labor and ‘bad’ child labor? Is that like the ‘good Taliban’ and the ‘bad Taliban’?

It is not appropriate to use Western norms to judge what Indians might do. Western norms are not universal, as much as the West and their sepoys in the mainstream media (and other brown sahebs/sahebas) might claim they are. For instance, the transmission of a craft has traditionally been from parent to child. Traditionally, all craftsmen have passed on their craft using apprenticeships.

I accept that there are many egregious and illegal practices that go on in India regarding children. Some children are abducted, maimed and turned into beggars. Some are forced to be domestic servants or equivalent in restaurants, hotels and homes. Others work in dangerous jobs such as rag-pickers sifting through mounds of rubbish. Yet others have been forced into child prostitution. It is entirely laudable when Kailash Satyarthi and others focus on these terrible practices.

The problem is when blanket bans are imposed. For instance, on the face of it, the ‘Rugmark’ certification that no child labor went into carpets sounds like a good idea. But then what of weavers who are passing on their skills to their children? Are they violating some law? The issue of weavers is particularly galling based on historical wrongs, as we shall see in a minute.

It turns out that sometimes the imposition of a ban leads to even worse abuse. When children are forced out of work by ‘Rugmark’ and over-zealous inspectors, then the only avenue open to some of them becomes prostitution. Let us note in passing that the biggest customers for child prostitution and child pornography tend to be Westerners. Frying pan into the fire for the children?

There is a broad sociological question: given that Indians are among the most attentive and affectionate parents in the world, why on earth would they allow their children to be exploited? Survey after survey shows that Indian parents will sacrifice to great extents for their children. A recent example was Rural Postal Life Insurance. Even extremely poor people were willing to put aside their pitiful savings into life insurance if it helped ensure that their children would get an education even if they themselves died.

Why on earth would such parents – and perhaps this is an example of Indian exceptionalism in a world where increasingly the State is supposed to provide for children and later for elderly parents – condemn their children to a life of unfulfilled promise by forcing them into child labor? The only answer is poverty. As much as Kailash Satyarthi might disagree, poverty causes child labor (although I accept the reverse may also be true). I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to that effect, first hand observations in Kerala.

When I was a child and teenager, we used to have in our modest middle-class home an occasional live-in maid who herself was a teenager. Several of these girls were sent to live with us by their indigent parents, because they figured the girls would get to go to school, and get sufficient food. Interestingly some of them were from recently-converted SC families: they even retained their Hindu names, but went to church. And apparently the church lost interest in them as soon as they converted, so they were back in penury.

I am not sure if these girls considered themselves exploited. But the fact is that there are no such girls any more in Kerala. A perennial complaint housewives have is the lack of maids. The maids I see these days are all middle-aged, and no live-in service, thank you: they come for a couple of hours each day, and get paid fairly well on a per-hour basis. What has changed is that prosperity has come to Kerala, in the form of overseas remittances. As poverty disappeared, so did child labor.

Thus child labor is a symptom of an underlying disease: underdevelopment. Therefore the solution to it is development. To focus on child labor, a symptom, is to do premature optimization, which leads to unforeseen (and usually negative) consequences to the system. Granted, development doesn’t come overnight, but if you recognize poverty as the issue, it’s better to work on that.

And where did the poverty come from? Ironically, on the very same day as the Nobel was announced, The Economist magazine was kind enough to publish the following chart showing how the world’s top three economies fared in the past 2,000 years.

I have seen variants of this data from the economic historian Angus Maddison, and the sum and substance of it is that India was the world’s biggest economy throughout the history that Westerners recognize (not surprisingly, it is the Christian Era). Yes, the biggest, all the way from 1 CE  until 1700 CE except for a single blip when the Chinese overtook them in 1600 (possibly because the Muslim invasion had damaged India’s competence somewhat, especially because of lots of wars.)

In 1700, India was once again the biggest economy, but then look at what happened to it: the Battle of Plassey took place in 1757, and enabled Britain’s conquest of Bengal. India’s GDP plunged, and by 1900 it had disappeared altogether from the top 3, to be replaced by Britain! In fact, Britain, 2% of world GDP in 1700 and India, 27%, virtually swapped places. Thus, it was the Christian invasion that totally impoverished India, far more than the Muslims. Colonial looters destroyed India’s industrial capability and forced it to regress into a raw material supplier and a market into which they could dump goods. A simple reckoning suggests that they extracted $10 trillion from India, at current exchange rates.

In 1700, the world’s biggest centers of industry were four river deltas: the Brahmaputra and Kaveri in India, and the Pearl River and the Yangtze in China, which, together accounted for some 20% of global output in manufactured goods. In India, a large part of it was in high-quality textiles and other light manufacturing. The case of Dacca muslin is especially poignant.

The city of Dacca, the source of the finest fabric in the world, declined precipitously after the British systematically destroyed the weavers: legend has it that they cut off their thumbs. Perhaps more prosaically, the British forced Indians to buy Lancashire mill cloth made of Indian cotton, with a ruinous transfer price, extracting usurious profits and degrading the hitherto prosperous weavers from skilled artisans into unskilled labor, from which they have not recovered even now, three centuries later.

Thus, it is reasonable for Indians to feel a little queasy when that very same industry, weaving, is targeted by the very same imperial forces bent on maintaining their dominance. India lost its onetime stranglehold on fabric – just look at the plethora of Indian words (seersucker, paisley, chintz, calico, cashmere, madras) related to it – and has yet to recover.

Thus, while I am glad that Kailash Satyarthi has won an important prize, I cannot but feel that there is something slightly cynical and calculating about the way the prize was awarded and that it is not intended to help India at all.

2280 words, 12 Oct 2014


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