a slightly edited version of the following was published by firstpost on oct 24th at http://www.firstpost.com/india/sabarimala-metaphor-case-state-apartheid-hindu-shrine-1770403.html

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”, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1141021/jsp/nation/story_18948149.jsp) 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 http://www.rediff.com/news/dec/31rajeev.htm .

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 http://www.rediff.com/business/column/why-it-is-time-to-scrap-nrega/20141017.htm?sc_cid=twshare

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 http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/full-text-of-leading-economists-letter-to-pm-modi-on-nrega-606483  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 http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/nobel-laureates-rally-behind-binayak-sen/article1170207.ece :

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 http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/maoists-kill-two-abducted-tribal-leaders/article6004863.ece , blowing up policemen http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-26524542 , 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 http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/tdKbJga16hmXmKs42zHeuK/MGNREGA-A-tale-of-rural-revival.html

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 http://www.firstpost.com/world/chinas-prez-xis-visit-why-modi-and-india-came-out-on-top-1755417.html 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 indiafacts.org on oct 13, 2014 at http://www.indiafacts.co.in/nobel-peace-prize-meets-eye-kailash-satyarthis-selection/#.VDtoUfmSySp

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

a somewhat edited version of the following was published by rediff.com on 10th october at http://www.rediff.com/news/column/the-humble-chaiwallah-is-forcing-his-way-into-exclusive-clubs/20141010.htm

here is my original, somewhat more contentious, copy. they took out a few of the good bits 🙂

Narendra Modi’s US trip showed that a global statesman is born

Rajeev Srinivasan on the symbolism of the Modi visit to the US

There were two audiences for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his visit to the United States: one, the Obama administration, and two, the American, and indeed global, public. It was a foregone conclusion that nothing would happen with the US government: I wrote elsewhere http://www.firstpost.com/india/dont-buy-the-hype-modis-us-visit-will-be-all-show-and-of-little-substance-1733399.html that Modi could expect absolutely no progress given the general hostility of the Obama administration, and the fact that is was preoccupied by Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine.

On the other hand, Modi’s outreach to Indian Americans, US politicians, US industry, and a global audience in general, went off well. His public events at Madison Square Garden and in Central Park were both well-received by all, except, strangely, the mainstream US newspapers. It was a successful coming-out party, and the fact that a politician was able to attract rock-star-style adulation was remarked on with appreciation.

The best indicator of the public impact was that major TV personalities – in particular Jon Stewart of The Daily Show – parodied Modi, going so far as to compare him to the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, and lampoon his studied Americana, “May the force be with you!”. Apparently he did make quite an impact.

The fact that Modi wrote an op-ed in the The Wall Street Journal and co-wrote another with Obama in The Washington Post was interesting, although not unprecedented: it showed that even mainstream media was keen on hearing what he had to say. Or it could be that he had hired a good PR agency.

Not surprisingly, the only people who insisted on downplaying Modi’s visit were the influential, allegedly “liberal” mainstream Western print media such as the New York Times, Boston Globe, UK’s The Guardian and The Economist. Not one of them ran a front-story on Modi’s Madison Square Garden extravaganza.

The Economist weekly ran a foul, tasteless piece by its former Mumbai stringer, who apparently had learned the wrong lessons from the leftist, fawning crowd he hung out with in India. He tried to be funny and ended up nasty: he referred to Modi as a “pain-in-the-ass” and later retracted it and apologized. Well, a mean and grumpy semi-apology – you can judge for yourselves at http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2014/09/india-america-and-political-theatre :

Editor’s note: The second sentence of this blog post was changed on September 29th to make clear that The Economist does not consider Mr Modi to be a “pain in the ass”; that epithet is merely how we imagined an uninformed New Yorker might feel about someone who causes a traffic jam.

This magazine is exhibiting chronic foot-in-mouth disease: for, during the campaign, they ostentatiously endorsed Rahul Gandhi (although nobody had asked them for their views). They ended up making abjectly craven mea culpas when incensed Indians slammed them, and their favorite was wiped out. No doubt that rankles. Apparently they don’t feel like they’re being given the respect they are accustomed to; plus their Atlanticist world-view is under threat.

As for The New York Times, the neglect was on top of another, rude, plainly racist and graceless taunt post-Mangalyaan in the form of a cartoon, reminding one of the colonial-era “No dogs and Indians allowed”:

nytimes mangalyaan

But the cartoon was surprisingly prescient, although not in the insulting way The New York Times intended: the humble-chaiwallah is indeed forcing his way into of exclusive Western clubs. In keeping with now-routine tactics, The New York Times also apologized (the following image thanks to a tweet by Raju Narisetti @raju of NewsCorp). So the modus operandi is: insult, and if there is pushback, offer a pro-forma apology. Shoot-and-scoot.


There should be some reason for the fretfulness of the Western media power-brokers. And I think I know what it is: Narendra Modi was announcing that a new global leader has arrived. That, perhaps. was his principal reason for going to New York, as he should have no love lost for a country that had lied about him, offended him, and rooted for his defeat in the elections. “There’s a new kid in town”, as The Eagles once sang. But, as they also said, fame is fleeting, and I am sure the PM is aware of that – which is why he’s a man in a hurry.

At the moment, though, I’d be so bold as to say that Narendra Modi is the most important statesman in the world, and the American politicians who met him seem to have recognized this. In a world that is fast running out of statesmen, Modi has just shown that he could well be a world leader, not just an Asian or regional leader.

Compare Modi to other world leaders, and you’ll see that not one of them is as inspiring as he is.

  • America’s Obama, whose popularity ratings are at about 40% and falling, and whose interventions from Obamacare to Syria and ISIS are all under fire.
  • The British PM, whose name I can’t even remember, and whose country almost fell apart just two weeks ago.
  • France’s Hollande, whose party just lost its majority in the Upper House.
  • Putin of Russia, severely maligned, is of course persona non grata in the West over Ukraine.
  • Xi of China, facing an economic slowdown and serious disturbances in Tibet, Xinjiang and now Hong Kong, which he will of course put down with an iron hand.
  • Abe of Japan, struggling to get his moribund economy off the rocks and fend off the rampaging Chinese.

Compare them to Modi, with his overwhelming mandate, and upbeat confidence about India’s future potential. Clearly Modi trumps every one of his peers in the perception sweepstakes: he makes them nishprabha in comparison.

This is the reason that the Western MSM is so reluctant to embrace Modi (of course, apart from just plain old-fashioned racism): Modi is a symbol of Asia Rising; and, for the first time in decades, a non-white has the potential to be the most compelling global leader. He is a product of the end of Atlanticism, and the rise of the Indo-Pacific. Plus, Modi is a far cry from the easily-dismissed, naïve Non-Aligned Movement and its strutting Nassers, Titos, Sukarnos and Nehrus: this is a thoroughly modern leader, and a nationalist, not a feckless internationalist.

And Modi is in fact a Great Communicator. His seductively simple goals of “Make in India” and prosperity for all are easy to get enthused about, especially when Modi delivers them in style in Hindi. I would not be surprised if quite a few MNC bosses calculate that Modi’s “democracy, demography and demand” scenario is not all that farfetched. He might get some of the FDI he is asking for, especially if he focuses on engineering-heavy sectors: the success of ‘frugal innovation’ in the cases of the Tata Nano and Mangalyaan indicates a core competency.

At the United Nations too, Modi cut a statesmanlike figure, discussing global issues such as terrorism, UN reforms, climate change, the war against ISIS, and so forth, and dismissing Pakistan’s peevish mention of Kashmir the previous day. He elevated himself above piss-ant regional tensions that normally bedevil Indian prime ministers, and showed himself as a global thinker.

But Modi epitomizes the old saw: “Think global, act local”. Fittingly, he follows in the footsteps of another Gujarati, Mohandas Gandhi, who said: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any”. He demonstrated as much by sticking to his Navaratri fast and his warm-water diet, in an assertion of his Indian heritage.

This is anathema to the powers-that-be in the West, who are used to bribing or bullying or otherwise browbeating emerging-market leaders into submission. A star is born. They don’t like it one bit, but they can lump it, and they will have to deal with him.

1300 words, 6 October 2014

a slightly edited version of the following appeared on firstbiz on sep 29, 2014 at http://firstbiz.firstpost.com/economy/modis-make-india-can-woo-us-investors-frugal-innovation-jugaad-102334.html

What should be the target sectors for “Make in India”?

Rajeev Srinivasan wonders which are the most appropriate sectors for making in india

The new initiative “Make in India” appears to be a coherent approach to increasing the quantity and quality of manufacturing operations in India, which would also employ large numbers. The timing of the announcement was fortuitous, because it came on the heels of the Mangalyaan triumph, which clearly gives a boost to the idea of India as an engineering and science titan.

In addition there was also the context of Xi Jinping’s visit to India and Narendra Modi’s visit to the US, which book-ended the “Make in India” announcement. If indeed India is going to be a power in manufacturing, it may well be time to revisit the idea of a ‘triad’. To paraphrase Keniichi Ohmae, former head of McKinsey Japan, who articulated the triad idea in the first place, it may make sense to collaborate on future manufactured goods as follows:

  • Product definition, finance and marketing: US
  • Engineering value add, IPR and software: India
  • Manufacturing and hardware: China

This division of labor would fit in well with the theory of comparative advantage as articulated by David Ricardo a few centuries ago. Each country does what it does best, and then they trade with each other. That is intuitively the most cost-efficient and sensible way to do things, assuming trade and transport costs are relatively low.

Thus, a clearly defined and focused “make” is likely to be more successful in India than a broad-based manufacturing thrust. I suggest that we focus on “frugal engineering” and “frugal innovation”, where there are case studies. The fortuitous coincidence of the Mangalyaan success, as well as earlier triumphs such as the Tata Nano (from an engineering sense, not the marketing failure), and Arvind Eye Care’s impressive ability to offer eye surgery at 1/100th of world prices, are examples of engineering value addition, or frugal engineering.

This has to be distinguished from jugaad, the use of ingenuity to overcome obstacles. Since the Indian system of a ‘hybrid model’ after independence appears designed to thwart anyone foolish enough to attempt entrepreneurship, jugaad has become a way of life. Unfortunately, jugaad is not replicable, not scalable, not industrial-strength, and has no quality metrics. In fact jugaad is the enemy of true innovation. What India can offer is frugal innovation.

This is what India can offer to differentiate itself from, say, China. The latter has built up insurmountable leads in logistics and supply chains, and perhaps even in technology (acquired by force as a condition for doing business there or simply stolen). Their infrastructure is years ahead of India’s, and flexible labor laws make it much easier to ramp up or ramp down production. In other words, India cannot and should not even attempt to follow China’s path in manufacturing directly, but focus on segments where it can win.

I say this even though some analysts have pointed out the surprising fact that India seems to be tracking China with a 13-year differential (after all China did begin to open up its economy 13 years earlier: 1978 vs. 1991). Here is a tweet to that effect:

ian bremmer ‏@ianbremmer  Sep 16

India‘s growth looks surprisingly like China‘s, only 13 years behind. pic.twitter.com/w4d1SPbe2E

The simple fact of the matter is that there is no room for two Chinas in manufacturing: India *has* to do something different, something it has competitive advantage in. And what might that be? Historically, India has had a core competence in a few areas:

  • IPR development

o   Eg. Madhava’s infinite series for trigonometric functions, Bhaskara’s algebra, Panini’s grammar

  • Small-scale high-engineering content goods

o   Eg. wootz, a nano-carbon steel, which was in high demand for making swords

  • Agriculture

o   Eg. high yielding rice variants and heat-resistant livestock

  • Traditional Knowledge Systems

o   Eg. ayurveda

Therefore these are some areas where India can offer differentiation from a manufacturing giant like China. So the point is that “Make in India” needs to prioritize. There are 25 priority sectors identified by the government, but they are a mixture of areas of competitive advantage and areas in which India needs to grow:

  1. Automobiles
  2. Automobile components
  3. Aviation
  4. Biotechnology
  5. Chemicals
  6. Construction
  7. Defense Manufacturing
  8. Electrical Machinery
  9. Electronic Systems
  10. Food Processing
  11. IT and BPM
  12. Leather
  13. Media and Entertainment
  14. Mining
  15. Oil and Gas
  16. Pharmaceuticals
  17. Ports
  18. Railways
  19. Renewable Energy
  20. Roads and Highways
  21. Space
  22. Textiles and Garments
  23. Thermal Power
  24. Tourism and Hospitality
  25. Wellness

Clearly there are several sectors (eg. space, leather in which India already has an advantage; others India wishes to attract investors in. One major task is skill development, at several levels:

  • Technicians for mass manufacturing

o   The German model  of technical/vocation schools is a good one

  • Engineers and Business Managers

o   Incubation and Acceleration facilities, venture funding, entrepreneurship training

  • R&D research scientists and IPR generation

o   We need to build high quality research universities

Unfortunately, the level of skills available in India is poor. For a businessman seeking to invest in India, as the PM said, the concerns include the safety of his capital, the ability to produce products, and the ability to find a large market to sell to. The first can be handled by government policy, and the third is evident with the ‘demographic dividend.’ The important gap may well be the skill development area. Without the right human resources, investors may not come.

Finally, there is the question as to whether India can replicate China’s manufacturing-led growth at all. For one thing, the rise of 3D printing and similar technologies may reduce the lure of contract manufacturing in large volumes. Will this lead to 100 million jobs, anyway? And what about the intense environmental degradation, ground-water contamination, air pollution, heavy metals, and other such that now blight many parts of China? Do we want our land the same way?

To conclude, while the general environment for business should certainly be improved, and priority sectors identified, there are some low-hanging fruit where India has competitive advantage, or it has significant positive feedback loops for country. Here is my short list of where we should ask others to “make in India”:

  • Software, as there is some critical mass of skills
  • Medical devices , as frugally engineered devices can help in public health and epidemiology
  • Traditional Knowledge Systems including Ayurveda, which are key to wellness and where we have enormous stores of under-utilized IPR.

1100 words, 28 September 2014

a slightly edited version of this was published at http://www.firstpost.com/india/dont-buy-the-hype-modis-us-visit-will-be-all-show-and-of-little-substance-1733399.html on 29 sep 2014 just before the PM’s US visit

The Modi trip to America is going to be an anticlimax

Rajeev Srinivasan is skeptical about actual benefits from the PM’s visit to the US

Many people, especially Indian-origin residents, are thrilled with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US, especially given the theatrics of the earlier visa denial. But, atmospherics aside, should we expect much from this trip? As I write this, the PM has already landed in the US to an excited welcome by Non-Resident Indians in New York. He has delivered his address to the United Nations General Assembly. But right on cue, there has been a ‘summons’ issued against him by some fringe group; apparently the law does not permit such against a visiting Head of State, but the intent is to poison Indo-US relations.

This has been a busy month diplomatically for the Indian government with Japan, Australia, China and finally the US on the radar. Fittingly, perhaps, that may well be the eventual order of importance of these visits. Japan was the beginning of a possible civilizational alliance. Australia changed its mind on uranium supplies to India.

But the Chinese visit, as could be expected from India’s principal enemy, was notable for pomp and circumstance, but nothing of any substance, although there was plenty of atmospherics and theatrics. I am afraid Narendra Modi’s visit to the US will similarly produce nothing whatsoever of value.

There are several reasons for this. First and foremost is that the Obama administration is fundamentally hostile to India, not to mention that President Obama himself appears more or less a lame-duck embroiled in large problems abroad, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. The record shows that Obama does not take India seriously, and now that he has several crises on his hands, he is likely not to have any time at all for an India-America rapprochement. India is a long-term play, and all American presidents, and Obama in particular, are short-term thinkers.

In the long run, the US certainly needs a counterpoint to an increasingly aggressive China that’s running riot in Asia, and preparing to push the US out. India can play a useful role in containing China, along with Japan, Vietnam, Australia and Russia. But, in the short run, beset by urgent problems such as ISIS and the self-inflicted Ukraine, Obama has no bandwidth for Modi.

Second, the US is in what appears to be systemic decline. Despite continuing to be by far the biggest economy in the world, with its military power the greatest in history, both in absolute and in relative terms, it appears impotent. Its allies are also troubled: witness the almost-collapse of the UK just last week, as they escaped partition by the skin of their teeth.

Third, even if the US were still in the business of helping other countries grow, as it allegedly  was in the days of the Marshall Plan, it cannot afford to create another competitor. The meteoric rise of China as a manufacturing power has hurt America’s competitive position. If we believe some of the comparative data, India is following a trajectory that mirrors China’s, only 13 years behind, and with strong leadership it may well become a new manufacturing power, and realpolitik suggests this is not in America’s best interests.

There is only one possible silver lining to this cloud: that American businesses may recognize the benefit from working with India, partly because of the demographic dividend will lead to affluent consumers of their wares in India. Partly because they should realize that more of their human resources can come from Indians as the education system there improves. And partly because the new manufacturing initiative (“Make in India”) may benefit them.

Of course, it may also happen that businessmen, as before, will demand that low-hanging fruit: that India should open itself up on terms are advantageous to them (“fair trade” in the jargon), in areas such as insurance. There will be no concomitant offers to help India in terms of its demands, for example, in the area of visas and freer access to the US market for its services. There is no point in doing this. Quid pro quo is a must.

The hostility of Democratic Party administrations in the US towards India is legendary, even though for some reason Indians are convinced that this is not so: perhaps all those pictures of John Kennedy and Jawaharlal Nehru strolling in the Rose Garden in the White House are the culprit. But it was evident even in UPA days – Obama flattered Manmohan Singh by giving him some crumbs (“the first formal dinner for a foreign head of state”) while generally treating India like something the cat dragged in. Meaningless pomp; no substance.

Obama will host a private dinner with Modi and there will be many other opportunities for discussion, but he will not get away with the usual trick of giving flowery speeches and massaging Indian egos, while studiously avoiding any real deliverables. Modi is likely to pin him down on facts, of which the lofty and airy Obama has few: his strong suit is platitudes.

There are a number of areas in which it would be helpful to build up ties, as Ashley J Tellis notes in “Kick-starting the US-Indian Strategic Partnership” from the Carnegie Endowment. He listed “cybersecurity and homeland security, defense, education, public health and human capital growth, energy and the environment, infrastructure and urban development, and civilian space and nuclear cooperation”. All mutually beneficial; so near, yet so far.

The virulent ostracism of Narendra Modi as a person was official US policy for quite a few years, although in fairness, it did begin before Obama’s time. Behind this was a motley crew of the usual suspects: Christian fundamentalists who want to have a free run in India for their conversion machines, Indian communists in the US who hate anything Hindu with a passion, and pan-national Muslim interests, especially those funded and sustained by Pakistan’s ISI.

The US Commission on Internal Religious Freedom (USCIRF), despite the name and purported objective, is apparently an official mechanism for bible-thumping fundamentalists in the US to push their agendas. Their hatred for Hindus is legendary (except for the Hindus that they manage to convert by monetary inducement and other fraud, of course). A recent tweet from the USCIRF, quoting its sepoys in India, is proof of malafide intent:


Hindu Nationalist Group Seeking to Cleanse Christian Presence From #India Is Not Unlike ISIS, Watchdog Group Warns http://bit.ly/1AqCYSh 

It boggles the mind that such naked hatred – not to mention an utter lie — emanates from the US administration. In fact, it is the USICRF that is comparable to the ISIS: a bunch of fundamentalists. A tweet from David Cohen, a former US administration official and a friend of India, captures it nicely:

David B. Cohen ‏@DavidBCohen1  Sep 21

“Watchdog” group likens BJP to ISIS, proving they’ve no moral compass. Moral equivalence is not moral, nor is @USCIRF http://bit.ly/1AqCYSh 

Let us note that Narendra Modi is the only person who was ever refused a US visa under obscure provisions related to the USCIRF. No, not Chinese doing genocide in Tibet, not Taliban or Pakistanis doing genocide in Balochistan, not even the terrorists of ISIS driving Yazidi to extinction. Only Modi got the treatemnet: so there is clearly motivation behind it, and almost certainly related to the Christian conversion industry.

Furthermore, there was an expose by Madhav Nalapat in The Sunday Guardian about the previous US ambassador, Nancy Powell and her role, and also Hillary Clinton’s malign role, in the hounding of Modi for several years. (Hilariously, now Powell has been appointed as Obama’s point person on Ebola: apparently Obama felt that since Powell dealt with pestilential India she’d be good with Ebola!)

There was also the stunning report by KP Nayar in The Telegraph which implies that Barak Obama believes that as someone whose father was a Muslim, it is impossible for him to be on good terms with Modi! If true, this puts paid to any possible chemistry between the two men: they will be going through the motions, much as Modi and Chinese strongman Xi did.

Modi’s erstwhile ‘untouchability’ was also the result of an unremitting campaign of calumny by Indian-origin communists in the US, members of entities such as FOIL (Forum of Indian Leftists) and a clutch of related entities such as CAG (Coalition Against Genocide). Most of them have a single-point agenda: be anti-India, and, especially, anti-Hindu. These people are motivated by their monotheistic quasi-religion, and possibly by Chinese funding.

Indian communists are a peculiar lot. Those with long memories remember that they supported China in the 1962 war. In Bengal, they demonstrated their ability to impoverish an entire state. In the so-called Naxalite areas of that state, they set up a nihilist, Stalinist State. They have no interest in Indian development, nor in India-US rapprochement. Or even in the territorial integrity of India.

Then there are the entities waging a virtual war on India, often with funding from the ISI, as in the celebrated Faigate case, wherein a Kashmiri-American was found to be channeling Pakistani money to various turncoats and fellow-travelers.

All of these are sure to gravitate to various black-flag-waving, chanting demonstrations that will be exaggerated in the Indian media: just like Indian MSM were the only ones showing Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif’s speech live and its entirety, including its lies and exaggerations. Prime Minister Modi would be well advised to ignore all this, as it is sound and fury signifying nothing.

To counter this contrived negativity, staunch NRI supporters of Narendra Modi are organizing some unusual events – unheard of when politicians visit – such as a 20,000 person meeting (I almost said ‘show’) in Madison Square Garden, one of New York City’s big arenas. It is usually rock music shows that are held there! In many ways, this is a declaration by Indian-Americans that they believe in his leadership, and that they will be his unofficial ambassadors.

Presumably, this, as well as the stunning success of Mangalyaan, will motivate American businessmen to pay attention to India. In the past it was American businesses, eyeing the vast revenues they thought they could get from China, that lobbied for and pushed through many China-friendly policies; and if sufficiently motivated, they may do the same for India.

To a certain extent, Modi’s “Make in India” program will inherently appeal to US private sector investors in manufacturing, but only to an extent.  What would appeal more to them would be, of course, the market and the supposed demographic dividend, but most of all, it would be frugal engineering and frugal innovation. The well-timed triumph of the Mangalyaan mission at a cost of a tenth of the NASA mission could well be a trigger. I do hope this gets enough airplay.

But beyond that, the personalities, preoccupations and politics of the current US administration militate against a strategic convergence of views of the type that seemed possible a decade ago. We will have to wait until Obama leaves in 2016; if Hillary Clinton is the next US President, a grand India-US partnership cannot happen until the next Republican is in power. Till then, we will remain “Estranged Democracies” as the book by Dennis Kux put it.

The fact of the matter is that the Indian national interest would be well-served by playing the US and China off against each other; or ever better, by projecting India as a new and upcoming pole in a G3, or a tripolar world. This, naturally, is not something Americans would be keen on. Thus, the fundamental divergence of interests will ensure that, even with the best of intentions, little of value will emerge from this visit. Modi with his stirring oratory will be a nice counterpoint to the aloof and distant Obama. That dichotomy may well epitomize Narendra Modi’s maiden, and triumphant, US trip as Prime Minister.

2000 words, 27 sep 2014

a slightly edited version of the following was published by firstpost.com at http://www.firstpost.com/sports/nice-guys-sarita-devis-protest-sign-indians-coming-age-1742025.html on oct 4, 2014

Sarita Devi’s search for justice and Indian self-assertion

Rajeev Srinivasan on the symbolism of the protest in Seoul

The fact that Sarita Devi committed a major faux pas by refusing to accept a boxing bronze medal at the Asiad is just about the best thing that could have happened to Indian sports. That she did this at the risk of potentially career-ending sanctions shows her courage and her pride in her hard-won athleticism: may her tribe increase!

The allegation that Indian officials were nowhere to be seen, neither supporting her nor funding her appeal, is a good signal to start house-cleaning in the sports sector.

First, speaking about Sarita Devi, it is fitting that she made her protest around Gandhi Jayanti. For, what she was protesting can be compared to what the young Gandhi underwent when he was thrown out of a railway carriage in South Africa. She was protesting injustice, in her own way, just as Gandhi did in his.

In the end, no doubt under duress, she did apologize unconditionally to the boxing body http://www.firstpost.com/sports/i-apologised-because-i-did-not-want-any-other-indian-boxer-to-suffer-sarita-devi-1741703.html , but she had made her point abundantly clear.

Sarita can also be compared to Rosa Parks, the  elderly black woman in the American South, who refused to give up her seat to a white man, and triggered the entire Civil Rights movement there, leading to Brown v. Board of Education and de-segregation.

A man or woman standing up for justice is a sight for sore eyes. In 1968, two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, did a ‘black power’ salute from the winners’ podium at the Mexico Olympics. Nobody has done, after that, anything as dramatic as Sarita Devi refusing to wear the bronze medal and instead handing it over to the silver-medal winner, a South Korean, who apparently was the beneficiary of judges’ prejudice.

But why did she do this? Was Sarita showing poor sportsmanship? No, I believe Sarita Devi was a sore loser because she had gone to Seoul to win, and she knew she could, and that she deserved to win that semifinal bout, because she had performed well. I love this: a sore loser! So much better than what Indians have been under the Nehruvian dispensation: sporting losers!

Indians took to heart the aphorism that “It is not winning that matters, it’s participation.” In fact, Indians are the only people who, unthinkingly, swallow this utter tripe: and it is garbage. Perhaps it was necessary at a time when Indians were no good at any sport, but that’s not so true any more, at least at the Asian level.

Every other country sends its athletes to the Olympics and Asiad to win, not to be part of the scenery. In India, on the other hand, the Stalinists have used the Olympics and Asiad and so forth as opportunities for officials and their families to get trips to exotic locations at taxpayer expense. Naturally, they don’t care if the athletes win or lose: they will get the free trips anyway. This has to stop. The number of officials has to be pared to the bone, and there should also be a clause about performance and there should be clear accountability.

On the contrary, stories are rife about the ill-treatment of athletes by officials. Former track great P T Usha recounted how she and her trainees (including, if I remember right, Tintu Luca, who anchored this weeks’ winning 4×400 relay team) were humiliated and in tears after officials refused them even basic amenities at a meet. That is just one story. So there’s something rotten in India’s sports bureaucracy. For instance, politicians vie to get in on the more lucrative sports councils, and it becomes yet another avenue for corruption.

There has also been a cloud over the Indian Olympic Association for some time. It was suspended in December 2012 by the International Olympic Committee for irregularity in their elections, and only re-instated in February 2014. If I remember right, the Boxing Federation was also censured and suspended. So the mischief is widespread.

Unfortunately, there have been sporting scandals all over the place, and the image we have of sports as a clean thing is not quite true. Remember the great cyclist Lance Armstrong, exposed for taking drugs, and match fixing in football and cricket. There is a big, ongoing scandal about the award of the next football World Cup to Qatar despite its appalling human rights record.

Boxing may be particularly dubious, because the judges’ decision is final, and as Sarita Devi experienced, there’s no appeal and no questioning of their decision. And I am sure Sarita will, poor thing, be subjected to severe sanctions. But the fact that she stood up and protested will remain a highlight of these games.

Sarita Devi’s protest may be coinciding with the coming of age of Indians, and their self-assertion. No more Mr. Nice Guys – we are here to win, not just to participate. Perhaps this self-confidence will spill over into other sectors as well: and that would be a very good thing.

850 words, 3 October 2014