this article appeared on firstpost at on may 26th, 2015.

this was published on 20 may 2015 at:

here’s the original copy which was slightly edited:

Modi in China, Mongolia and South Korea

Rajeev Srinivasan

As I write this, Prime Minister Modi is wrapping up his visits to East Asia with a tour of South Korea. Of course, the most important was to China, but it is the least likely to bear immediate fruit.

The best thing that could be said about the landmark visit by Prime Minister Modi to China was that there were no major mishaps, although not a whole lot was accomplished, either. Notably, for the first time in many years, there was no incursion by Chinese troops into India as is customary when Indian leaders visit (and as happened when their strongman Xi Jinping visited India in 2014). This has several implications, the most obvious being that China does these provocations deliberately, to ratchet up tension and present faits accompli.

The second implication is that the Chinese side feels that it has done enough to trouble Modi by announcing a $46 billion plan to build a railway and an oil/gas pipeline from Xinjiang in Chinese-occupied Xinjiang, through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit/Baltistan all the way to Pakistan-occupied Balochistan’s Gwadar port. This is another leg in the encirclement of India via the “Maritime Silk Road” (nee “String of Pearls”).

The third implication is that China, despite its pretensions of lofty disdain (upeksha), actually does worry about the strategic potential of India. This could be because it now sees in Modi the kind of leadership a Lee Kuan Yew or their own Deng Xiao-Ping gave to their countries, and thus concede that India could follow in their footsteps. The other reason is that India has an implicit threat for China: although now not committed to the US, India could well become an American ally to contain China in Asia.

If all this feels like Kremlinology, that’s because it is. The Chinese are so inscrutable that reading the tea leaves about what Beijing says and does is a full-time job. But the fact is that China is treating Modi a lot differently than they have treated Manmohan Singh and others in the recent past.

That has good reason, too. In the 1980s, China was only a minor player on the world stage (think North Korea but bigger) with a low per-capita income, and highly exploited peasants. It is in the last 10 to 15 years that China has pulled ahead of India with a manufacturing boom. I don’t have the data with me now, but there’s some evidence to believe India is following China’s high-growth path, although it cannot also be a factory for the world sucking in jobs from elsewhere. India is about 10-15 years behind China, and they will remain ahead, but not necessarily by that much, if India plays its cards right and gains the 10%+ GDP rate growth China managed.

There was talk of China investing $20 billion in India through projects including high-speed rail and so on. Some of the euphoric pre-trip expectations have to be toned down, because except from some areas like special-economic zones and the like, China has no reason to share its manufacturing competence with India.  India will have to acquire it from a number of sources, including the West, as well as through integrating itself into supply chains in South East Asia as well as in China.

In electronics and telecom handsets, India has a grave problem. It is forecast that by 2020, the India market for these will be about $400 billion, out of which imports will account for $300 billion, bigger than the bill for crude oil and gas. At the moment, if I am not mistaken, not a single handset is being built in India (after the Nokia plant was mothballed). This gap needs to be filled by local manufacturing, and that should be part of the hard bargain Modi has struck with his hosts.

Another key area of weakness for India is in Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients, or APIs. A pharma industry insider told me that if the Chinese withhold their APIs, the Indian generics industry would go out of business in a matter of months. I am reminded of the salutary case of rare earths and Japan: one fine day, China simply refused to ship these metals, reducing much of the Japanese electronics industry to begging for supply. APIs are a key vulnerability that India needs to mitigate through a second source, preferably home-grown.

The other aspect is that trade between India and China is heavily skewed in the latter’s favor, for India exports mostly commodities like iron ore, and China exports value-added manufactured goods; the net trade is almost $40 billion in China’s favor, and it needs to be reversed. It’s not clear how that’s going to happen, unless India ends up erecting trade barriers to prevent dumping; or, more positively, India starts building highly-engineered, innovative products that the Chinese need.

Overall, though, it is much more likely that the South Koreans (who have promised to invest $10 billion) and have major success stories to show in India (Hyundai, LG, Samsung) will be much better bets for India on the economic side. This is partly because the Chinese model of investment, while lavish in pursuit of political objectives (Brazil $10+ billion, Venezuela $50 billion, now Pakistan $46 billion) all show Chinese willingness to throw money around and get to dominate the projects, by bringing in Chinese nationals (including convicts). This will not work in India.

South Korea is a much more promising economic prospect for India. It has lessons for India: its success stories are built around chaebol, large conglomerates which are similar to India’s big business houses. Their expertise in electronics, steel, shipbuilding, automobiles and infrastructure can be beneficial to India; and India’s software expertise, iron ore, design and frugal innovation skills can be a good match. Besides, an aging and rich Korea may find, just like Japan, that India offers complementarities; the market success of their chaebols is also encouraging.

On the political front, the border talks didn’t move an inch, mostly because it suits China to leave the issue ambiguous so that they can make fresh claims as they wish. On the issue of stapled visas for Arunachalis, there was no Chinese willingness to act in good faith and refrain from offering paper visa. Well, India could and should reciprocate by issuing stapled visas for residents of Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Macau, simply as quid pro quo. That will send a message. Incidentally, the e-visas for Chinese tourists is a red herring: it is not ‘visa-on-arrival’, but just a mechanism whereby they don’t have to go to Indian consulates physically. The checking of bona fides will happen before they embark.

India doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage with China as it continues to build up its Silk Road links to Europe both by land and by sea. The Maritime Silk Road is essentially “string of pearls 2.0” in that it does tighten a noose around India. However, I am beginning to wonder if the strangling of India is a fringe-benefit for China, not a prime goal, which is to protect its oil and gas supplies. An article in Business Insider suggests that oil-and-gas self-sufficiency is the prime motivator.

The major leverage India has is two-fold: the implicit threat that it will throw in its lot with the Americans, and its soft power.

India is playing its cards right by engaging with the Americans and their allies such as Australia and Japan, and other interested parties in the South China Sea, such as Vietnam. The American ‘pivot to Asia’ can hurt the Chinese, and India can be a major factor in that. The growing Japanese impatience with its pacifist Constitution, and its possible emergence as a strong military power, will draw Japan and India together. Indo-Vietnamese ties (for once, India sold someone arms: naval vessels and the BrahMos missile are part of the package negotiated) should lead to a stronger Indian presence in the South China Sea, perhaps with naval facilities at Haiphong and Cam Ranh Bay, which would worry the Chinese.

On the soft power side, there is some evidence that the spiritual vacuum caused by the Communist takeover is now diminishing, and could be a potent force. The extraordinary lengths the Chinese government has gone to in crushing Falun Gong is an example. Thus the ancient Buddhist ties could well be leveraged by India. I read interviews with several ordinary Chinese, and most of them believe India is the land of Buddhism; and historically India was the only country China looked up, as a teacher.

The tales of Chinese monks who came to India as pilgrims and students at Nalanda are still powerful. Fa-Hien and Hsiuen Tsang wrote voluminous travelogues: the latter even went to Sabarimala, and, in historian Lokesh Chandra’s telling, noted that the deity there was worshipped simultaneously as Siva and the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara Padmapani. There was of course, also Bodhidharma, the monk who took kalai payat to a monastery in China, from which their martial arts and possibly their acupressure are derived.

It is this soft power that the PM used in his visit to Mongolia. In some sense, his emphasis on Buddhist memes is ‘counter-containment’, according to Brahma Chellaney. The allure of Buddhism, and the siren song of democracy, are both powerful; by extoling them on China’s doorstep, Modi was declaring his intent to use them. I suspect that before long, we’ll be seeing Indian cultural centers (I suggest the names of Bodhidharma or Nagarjuna for the centers) imparting Sanskrit, yoga and Ayurveda to Mongolia and China.

To summarize, the South Korea visit may yield quick dividends for ‘Make in India’; the Mongolia visit is a trial balloon to assert India’s soft power; and the China visit, as I might have predicted, yielded practically nothing, but was yet another step in the long-run shadow boxing that we can expect with them.

1650 words, May 19, 2015

this was published on may 19th at:

it was slightly edited. here is my original copy:

Modi@1: all that did not happen. The ‘no’s have it

Rajeev Srinivasan

Many commentators have already discussed threadbare all the positives and the negatives in the first year of the Narendra Modi administration, and so I’d like to concentrate on the ‘no’ issues – that is, the things that did not happen. It looks like there were bad things that didn’t take place, and there were good things that didn’t take place – sort of the like the ‘good Taliban’ and the ‘bad Taliban’, a fine distinction that the US A, somewhat bafflingly, makes.

So what are the “good ‘no’s”? In no particular order:

  1. No riots. If you were to believe certain parties such as a group at the University of California, Berkeley, serious riots would follow the ascent of ‘right-wing fascists’ [sic] – see my earlier column with a pointer to the impugned group that wants to ‘study’ riots, whereas I wondered if their charter was to ‘induce’ riots
  2. No scams. There were none. No Bofors, no Commonwealth Games, no spectrum auction scam. The 3G spectrum auction and the coal re-auction produced many billions for the exchequer
  3. No pogroms against Christians or Muslims, despite much exaggerated breast-beating by the mainstream media, and many examples of anti-Hindu bigotry
  4. No full-page ads celebrating the birthdays or death days of certain dynasts. The fact that they were absent shows the ads in previous years were a colossal waste of public money, and were not paid for by political parties, but by the taxpayer
  5. No caving in to bullying by foreign powers. It was used to be a nightmare that whenever a foreign VIP visiting India, or the Indian PM visited some other country, India would give things away, for instance Siachen was perpetually on the verge of being given away
  6. No incursions into Indian territory when the PM visited China. While it true that when China’s Xi visited India, they swarmed over the Line of Actual Control, quite strangely, they didn’t do anything when PM Modi went the China. This curious event, so like “the dog in the night time” was brought to my attention by Dr Mohan Malik of the University of Hawaii. As in the Sherlock Holmes case where the dog did nothing, Chinese inaction means that, despite the studied indifference towards India that they affect, they do care about relations with India
  7. No dossier drama with Pakistan over 26/11. No point pushing papers at them
  8. No turning the other cheek to Pakistan. When they got naughty with shelling across the Line of Control, withering counter fire with mortars quelled them pretty quickly
  9. No India-Pakistan equal-equal visits by foreign visitors who clubbed both in the same itinerary. Obama, Xi, Putin, Abe, Stephen Harper of Canada, Tony Abbott of Australia: not one of them went to India and then to Pakistan. This shows the hyphenation is fraying a bit
  10. No gratuitous funding of dubious Western causes, unlike $10 billion commitment to the EU for unknown reasons. The only $10 billion committed was to the BRICS Bank
  11. No shamefacedness when the US Trade Representative or the USCIRF brought out one-sided reports that clearly pushed US interests, not justice, peace, or the pursuit of happiness
  12. No massive purchases of American nuclear plants, despite the hoopla during Obama’s visit
  13. No large-scale exports of thorium-bearing beach sands from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, as happened under the UPA
  14. No shameful treatment of refugees seeking residence. Hindus fleeing persecution in Pakistan were given asylum. I hope Yazidis fleeing genocide will also be similarly helped
  15. No apologies for dismissing vested interests, such as the heavily partisan advisory board of the Indian History Review
  16. No removal of inconvenient state governments using Section 356. I’m sure it’s awfully tempting to use this against the very trying Arvind Kejriwal (Nehru couldn’t resist the temptation in his day)
  17. No dramatic fall in the Rupee, which escaped from the “Fragile Five” moniker. While it’s true that the rupee did fall, it did so much less than others
  18. No dithering (or grandstanding) in crisis situations, as in Uttarkhand floods. Quick, decisive action in Nepal and Yemen, for instance
  19. No subsidies for diesel. This is short-term pain for long-term gain, getting India off the treadmill of competitive subsidies

On the other hand, there were some bad ‘no’s as well:

  1. No jailing of high-profile offenders including politicians despite plenty of evidence
  2. No publishing of religious demography of Census 2011
  3. No publishing of Bhagat/Henderson-Brooks report on India-China war 1952
  4. No actual identification and clawing back of black money held abroad
  5. No tejovadham and exemplary punishment for certain anti-national journalists, who deserve to be jailed for life for tax evasion, lobbying for foreign forces, and sheer cussedness; though a couple of villains did lose their jobs
  6. No examples were made of babus who defeat the good intentions of the government with typical “Yes, Minister” (as in the British TV series) subversion
  7. No dramatic changes to the welfare state, as in no shooting of NREGA in the head to put it out of its misery
  8. No banning of the execrable lit-fests and other gatherings of shifty people with itchy finger(tip)s
  9. No dropping of a neutron bomb on Jawaharlal Nehru University, despite provocation
  10. No detoxification of textbooks that have addled generations of students, and made them into coolies for either the West or China
  11. No dilution of the apartheid laws that make Hindu temples subject to government interference, while Christian, Muslim places of worship are immune from the same
  12. No repeal of retrospective taxation and related ‘tax terrorism’
  13. No significant efforts to alleviate looming issue of water stress

Well, it’s good to have these bad ‘no’s. Something to do in the PM’s second year in office.

970 words, May 18, 2015

this was published on may 19th at:

this was posted on 14 may 2015 at

i attempt to show the links between innovation and IPR and manufacturing, taking a historical perspective and india’s core competence into account.

obvious homage to “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”, though Mr. Modi is not naive.

this was published with some editing on 14 may 2015 at

here’s my submitted content:

Mr. Modi goes to Beijing

Rajeev Srinivasan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting China. This is a fact. Some scholars, including the trenchant Brahma Chellaney, wonder: “Why is Modi going to China?” It is a fair question, for it is increasingly clear, if it wasn’t already, that China views India as a nuisance which is to be curtailed, contained, kept confined to a ‘South Asia’ sandbox, and generally used as a colonial subject, from which raw materials can be extracted, and on which manufactured junk can be dumped.

There has been a pattern to Chinese interactions in the Communist era with India: mouth platitudes and pretend fraternity as sister civilizations; humiliate in public and cause ‘loss of face’; relentlessly advance its interests by creating facts on the ground. The old Samuel Huntington cliché of the clash of civilizations has substantial application in the Sino-Indian faceoff: here are two civilizations with radically different world-views, in inevitable conflict with each other.

It’s just that India doesn’t know, or its mandarins pretend not to know, that it is in China’s gunsights.

Things were not so bad when there was a large buffer state, Tibet, separating the two. Those who talk of how India and China never went to war for 3,000 years should realize that the two were always separated by the Himalayas and the forbidding high-altitude Tibetan plateau. It is only after India stood by and allowed China to swallow Tibet that there are problems between the two.

As a pessimist, I do not believe it is possible for there to ever be peace between the two, given their divergent world views. While India has always believed in a vague sort of live-and-let-live (well, except rarely when someone like Rajendra Chola set out circa 1017 CE with a large fleet) with its neighbors, China has almost always been an imperial nation looking for lebensraum. When empires collapsed, China was chaotic.

Someone once made a telling comparison in nautical terms: China is like a sleek racing boat; India like a flat-bottomed, ungaily boat. In good times, that is to say in imperial times, China speeds ahead and India limps along. But when there are squalls, India may take on a lot of water, but it won’t sink; China is likely to capsize.

Today, the Chinese empire is at its historic peak: it has never had so much territory. With its Pakistan plans, the Han Chinese empire will, for the first time, extend into the subcontinent, all the way to Balochistan’s Gwadar port. On the other side, it is claiming, on very dubious grounds, the entire South China Sea. Given the increasing power of its gunboats and submarines, China is likely to be able to project its power far away, again pretty much for the first time in history.

There is, in fact, a Chinese challenge, much like Le defi Americain, the seminal work by Jacques Servan-Schreiber that identified for blasé Europeans the rise of America. Being so close to China, India will be one of the biggest recipients of the fallout from this rise, which is as much military as it is commercial and trade oriented.

The Americans have unwittingly set in motion through the Nixon outreach a chain reaction that almost certainly will, at some point, lead to their ceding hegemony in Asia to China (if they have not already done so in private). Indeed, it is beginning to appear as though, despite the much-ballyhooed ‘pivot to Asia’, and the supposed Security Quadrilateral involving Australia, Japan and India to contain China, the US has quietly begun to pack up and move on. It has reached, in 2014, the equivalent of what happened to the British in 1914: the realization that they couldn’t afford imperial overstretch.

I expect that the American security and nuclear umbrella that has protected some of its allies in Southeast Asia and East Asia to be slowly withdrawn. That would leave these countries helpless in the face of Chinese aggression; which is why, for instance, the Japanese have begun to unwind their American-imposed, pacifist Constitution. In a short while, I expect Japan to re-militarize openly. They have to, or else the Chinese may explode a nuclear bomb over Japan (or, more likely, get their friends the North Koreans to do so), which would fry every bit of electronics with an Electro-Magnetic Pulse, bringing the country absolutely to its knees. The threat of this happening is good enough to extract all sorts of concessions from the Japanese, starting with the Senkakus.

Besides, there is a crying demographic need: there are 90 million ‘excess men’ in China (and some 60 million in India) from female infanticide. It is quite likely that both countries (and Pakistan with a slightly smaller number) will have to go war to just kill them off. That’s ruthless, but probably the only sensible thing to do . Given bellicose, nuclear armed China and Pakistan, India has to prepare for war: mealy-mouthed pacifism will mean a quick surrender.

PM Modi, despite his earlier, cordial dealings with the Chinese, has to keep these unpleasant possibilities in mind. They gave him a taste of this during Xi’s visit to India: there was an unprovoked and fairly massive invasion by Chinese troops, intended to put Modi off-balance. This is par for the course: we remember how Atal Behari Vajpayee was humiliated by them invading Vietnam when he was visiting as foreign minister.

The big China-Pakistan corridor plan was announced in April, and that itself is a fait accompli for Modi to deal with. I fully expect other pressure to be applied: for instance, the latest Chinese proposal that India should collaborate with them in Indian Ocean drilling for oil. On the other hand, China protested vociferously when India and Vietnam agreed to drill in Vietnam’s territorial waters, which China claims as its own.

To begin with, PM Modi showed that he was different from his submissive predecessor, Manmohan Singh. He invited the Tibetan government in exile to his inauguration. In Japan, he spoke about Chinese expansionism. With Obama, he made a joint statement with a surprisingly pointed reference to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Since then, however, the PM seems to have gone the Manmohan way, which, he is no doubt aware, merely emboldens adventurism on the part of the Chinese. There is also a significant element of theater in China’s interactions: I was struck by this when I went to the SEA Aquarium in Singapore. There is a full-scale model of the ships allegedly sailed by Zheng He into the Indian Ocean – which I imagine will be the basis of dubious Chinese claims all over the Indian Ocean soon, despite the fact that it was probably a fairly small group of limp ships. In their telling, this was the imperial Chinese Navy in action. It is sad to note that India has not at all emphasized the real example of Rajendra Chola’s fleet, which sailed clear across the ocean and defeated the maritme Srivijaya Empire in distant Sumatra: it may have been the biggest fleet in history till the time of steam ships.

Another example: despite all their saber-rattling, the Chinese army has not been battle-tested in the recent past, except in 1979 when they invaded Vietnam. They were humiliated, and beat a hasty retreat. Chinese military might may be a paper tiger , although it is premature for India to provoke them, until it has built up its own sadly-neglected strength on the ground and on the high seas.

Sun-Tzu has provided inspiration to Chinese diplomacy; similarly Chankaya should to India’s. In addition to the traditional chatur-upayas of sama, dana, bheda, danda, I learned recently that there are three more: maya, upeksha, indrajala, ie deceit, equanimity, and sleight-of-hand. The Chinese are particularly good at maya and indrajala, and it is necessary to respond in kind. They will appreciate it.

There are several things Modi might do to indicate that he is no pushover. One is to bring up the Tibet issue. Tibet is the problem, not Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese have a very tenuous historical claim to Tibet, because that was an independent state throughout most of its history. The Chinese have a revanchist claim which is not really valid, and there is no reason India should sing that tune. In light of the fact that a new Dalai Lama will need to be selected when the current HH the Dalai Lama passes away, and the arcane rules about oracles and the signs of the succession that need to be followed, India can make it clear that we do not intend to acquiesce to their cultural genocide.

A second approach would be to emphasize cultural and religious issues, specifically Buddhism and Hindu practices such as yoga and meditation. There is a spiritual vacuum in China, and India has been respected by many average Chinese as the Holy Land of Buddhism. In fact, among all foreign countries, India is the only one that the Chinese ever respected (although today’s Chinese are astonishingly racist about brown skins). There should be a way of taking advantage of this, perhaps by setting up a few Nagarjuna Centers (named after the renowned Buddhist monk) where the study of Indic ideas and Sanskrit can be encouraged, and pilgrim circuits encouraged.

A third approach would be to lecture China about the human rights of its minorities, especially Tibetans and Uighurs. While this is not going to endear Modi to the Chinese establishment, it is also a veiled threat that India could do covert things that would not be pleasant for China. In any case, I anticipate some fallout from China’s ambitious plans in Pakistan: significant incursions of Islamic fundamentalism into Xinjiang, and clashes over the pork-guzzling habits of Chinese workers who will be domiciled in Pakistan. Indian can do some subtle propaganda about the violation of Islamic rights. This story, about Uighur imams being forced to literally dance to the Chinese tune, may not sit well with Muslims anywhere: and this is in addition to restrictions on beards and on religious fasting.

Fourth, the PM should make it clear that India will continue to build up its strength on the Tibetan frontier. Nitin Gokhale, a defense analyst, has a piece that analyzes how, even though India has neglected to build up infrastructure for a long time, things are beginning to pick up.

Finally, the PM should make it clear that tampering with the Brahmaputra’s flow, as the Chinese are considering in Tibet, would be viewed as the moral equivalent of an act of war. I once heard a previous National Security Advisor speak on the topic, and he pooh-poohed the idea that this was a major concern. However, I believe it is. The downstream riparian states on the Mekong have been severely affected by Chinese dam-building activities, and so would India if the Brahmaputre were dammed.

There are other irritants too. A recent massacre of Indian policemen by a Naga separatist group was quite likely orchestrated by Chinese intelligence, which has been active in these insurgencies. At least in private, Modi should make it clear that there will be consequences to such bad behavior, though admittedly, I am not sure what we can do to impose pain on the Chinese in return, other than instigate the Uighurs and Tibetans. There must be ways that India’s spooks are aware of.

There is a certain asymmetry between the two countries, both economically and militarily, but let us remember that it was not so long ago that they were even worse off than us. In fact, in 1962, their army was starving, and had it not been for an ill-considered decision to not use the Indian Air Force, and other strategic idiocies as outlined in the Henderson-Brooks/Bhagat report, India may well have won the war. I wrote about this scenario some years ago in “What If India Had Won The 1962 War Against China” . It was a failure in leadership.

PM Modi has to ensure that there is not another failure in leadership the next time there is a Chinese threat, and he should make it clear to the Chinese that there will not be. If Indians can only be set free from the nightmare red tape, India may well follow in China’s path of economic growth and there will be a G3 by 2050, with India on par with the US and China. There is no need to feel diffident. The trick is to play China’s make-believe right back at them; any sign of weakness will be pounced on and exploited.

2000 words, May 13, 2015

this was published by firstpost with fairly substantial edits at

here is my original copy:

The Nepal Earthquake and what we can each do

Rajeev Srinivasan

The terrible loss of life and property in Nepal is a cataclysm for which mere words are insufficient. The TV images and the twitter pictures I saw are beyond terrible: thousands known to be dead and injured; World Heritage sites of priceless antiquity reduced to rubble; children orphaned, families torn apart. It will take years for the area to recover, and it is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Words fail me; and at this time, it is only the mother tongue that can convey the utter tragedy, not English. I am reminded again of the great poet Kumaran Asan in Veena Poovu (The Fallen Flower), an elegy in Malayalam. He wrote:

Kanney madanguka! Karinjum alinjum aasu

Mannakum ee malar vismrtam aakum ippol.

Enneetuka aarkum ithu than gathi; saadhyam enthu

Kanneerinal? Avani vazhvu kinavu kashtam!

Withdraw, mine eye! Scorched and withered

This flower will become dust, unremembered.

Truly; this fate awaits all; what can mere

Tears do? The world lives on dreams, alas!

I wrote about the same poem when the Great Gujarat Earthquake hit in 2001 (“What the thunder said” ): for I find earthquakes particularly menacing. For most other natural disasters, you get warnings – you know a volcano is going to blow up, or a cyclone is going to hit land, for example – but a quake comes unannounced. It is true that animals often behave strangely, for they might be sensitive to changes in magnetic or electric fields; but I don’t know that there were any such warnings in Nepal 2015. Although experts have been warning of the Big One for years (see this astonishingly prescient January column by @kundadixit ‘Preparing to be prepared’ I don’t think enough precautions were taken.

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years, and I have encountered my share of quakes, large and small, and I used to carry around an ‘earthquake kit’ in my car, with water, canned food, medicines, blankets, a flashlight, batteries, a radio, and a little money, just in case I was stranded. I should be used to quakes, but I am not: they still terrify the daylights out of me. In an atavistic sort of way, I can’t help thinking there’s an element of divine retribution, for they show men at their most powerless against the fury of nature.

Nevertheless, things are changing. The big difference I found between Gujarat 2001 and Nepal 2015 is the immediate communication, mostly on twitter, about what was happening on the ground, in many places. I knew immediately about the extent of the damage, with before-and-after photographs of heritage buildings and structures reduced to a pile of stones, first-hand reports from people on the ground. As I wrote this, there was a report of a second 5.4 level quake happening: I thought it was an aftershock, but I was corrected on twitter that it was a full-fledged quake following up on the huge 7.9 temblor of yesterday.

Twitteratti also gave us instant information about what various groups were doing. It was astonishing how quickly the Indian government swung into action. The quake happened around noon, shortly thereafter was a cabinet meeting; within three or four hours, a team of National Disaster Relief Fund personnel left on an Indian Air Force cargo plane with several tons of supplies and medical equipment, as soon as Kathmandu airport was declared open for restricted landings.

There were a number of sorties flown by lumbering Air Force cargo planes C-17s, C-130s, IL-76s, bringing personnel and up to twenty tons of supplies, including full-fledged field hospitals and engineering supplies, and also evacuating Indians from the affected areas. Hospitals sent teams of disaster-trained doctors. Indian Railways dispatched trains with 100,000 liters of water each. The power ministry deputed crews of technicians to fix downed power lines. The foreign affairs ministry set up hotlines for information. BSNL started charging local-call rates for international calls to Nepal.

It was a display of competence, as well as (combat)-readiness on the part of the Indian nation. It was a statement that India has arrived. Combined with the rescue efforts in Jammu and Kashmir a while ago, and the spectacular evacuation from Yemen a week or so ago, this shows India has the capacity to successfully organize large-scale efforts, if only the leadership is in place. We have suspected this in the past when a flawless Kumbha Mela is held, and 7 million people converge on a tiny area without mishap. But now it seems that the Modi government has enough leaders and bureaucrats who can take charge, and deliver on even large-scale international missions.

This newfound sense of purpose, as well as a can-do attitude, bode well for the nation’s future. The missing ingredient has been a ‘strategic intent’, as the capacity to deliver has always been there, but we never had the confidence we could deliver. For instance, it was with exactly the same infrastructure and people that the UPA government flubbed the Uttarkhand rescue effort in 2013. It is said that trucks loaded with supplies waited for days until a suitable photo-op could be found with a Nehru dynast flagging them off.

Laudably, the Israeli government also sent a team of experts, with search-and-rescue specialists. I may have missed it, but I didn’t hear much about Chinese support (even though they are overlords of neighboring Tibet), or indeed, much from anywhere else, including the US. But then for India, Nepal is special. They are our own, and Gurkhas have shed their blood honorably in every war India has been involved in. We owe them for their steadfastedness, and for India to help them is nothing but repayment of a debt. The Indian Army, I read, was allowing its soldiers to call Nepal free of charge.

I have only known two Gurkhas well; and I feel bad for them, living down south, far from their homes. One was a youngster of 17 working as a security man in the office tower where I worked in Bangalore. He told me his goal was to get into the Indian Army, and he was waiting until he was old enough. A sweet kid, he had fun at my expense: my office was on the 10th floor, and when there was no electricity, which was often, I’d have to huff and puff up all those stairs; he would race up ahead of me, light and lithe like a cat. The other Gurkha is a middle-aged guy who is the alleged security on our street, although I have never seen him to anything more violent than banging his lathi on the tarmac. Good people, these pahadis, not like us shrewd and cynical plainspeople.

And that is now a problem for them: their very innocence. For Christian missionaries are flocking, as is their ambulance-chasing wont, to Nepal, to exploit the tragedy to convert people. This is something that we all knew, but thanks to their triumphalist gloating on twitter, it was possible to hear right from the horse’s mouth about their ill-intent. Here is a small sample of their tweets, storified by @vamsee9002, about their uncontainable glee . It is abominable, and these are monsters. Their countries should be ashamed of them.

Fortunately, there were others willing to provide unselfish service. As many as 20,000 volunteers of the RSS traveled to Nepal, as always first on the ground along with the Indian Army. Baba Ramdev was already in Nepal, and he tweeted that there were 30,000 of his volunteers in all parts of Nepal who would work on search and rescue. Sikh groups in Amritsar and Delhi are sending 25,000 packaged meals every day. Incidentally, I may have missed it, but I didn’t hear anything about Greenpeace or the Ford Foundation being on the ground, helping.

So what can all of us do, we who tweet comfortably from our homes? The best thing is to give. Datta, as in the Upanishadic story that T S Eliot quoted in his Waste Land. Datta, give. Give as much as you can afford. If possible, give one day’s salary. I personally have donated what I can afford, because this a human catastrophe of extraordinary proportions, and we each have to think this might happen to us as well. Yes, my beloved Kerala could one day be hit with a calamity of this magnitude, and by a universal law of natural justice, what I gave to others will be given back to me when I need it. It is my duty, our duty, to give to those less fortunate than ourselves, especially when they are our close kin, brothers and sisters in dharma.

Who would I suggest you donate to? First, the Prime Minister’s fund, at their website . Today, I believe the money we donate will in fact go to the deserving, rather than into the pockets of the corrupt as in years past. Second, the RSS and related organizations. Here is the account information provided by Sewa International, their disaster relief group.

Account details:

      For Foreign Donations-

      Sewa International

      Account No.-   10080533326

      Jhandewala Extn Branch(Delhi)

      State Bank of India

      Branch Code-             9371

      Swift Code-     SBININBB550 

      IFS Code – SBIN0009371  


  Account details:

        For Local Donations-

        Sewa International 

        Account No.-   10080533304

        Jhandewala Extn Branch(Delhi)

        State Bank of India

        Branch Code  –         9371

        Swift Code-     SBININBB550 

        IFS Code – SBIN0009371

In this time of need, #IstandwithNepal, and I ask you to do the same.

1560 words, April 26, 2015