this was published on jul 27, 2015 at

they edited it slightly, but the changes they made (took out a little about sonia and msm) don’t make much difference.

this was published by firstpost on jul 18, 2015 at

reposting it here for archival purposes.

this piece is in the swarajya print edition of july 2015

this piece was published with some edits at on jul 11, 2015

here’s my original content i submitted:

The importance of being Amartya Sen

Rajeev Srinivasan

One could rationalize, even justify, the recent outburst of the economist Amartya Sen against the Prime Minister by considering the circumstances. Here Sen is, around 81, at a point in most men’s lives when the enfant terrible routine is beginning to pall a bit. His favorite political party and ideology, which he has defended tooth and nail even when they did absurd things, are in the doldrums, with no immediate prospects of a return.

His sinecure in a nascent university, which he has run as a private fiefdom, appointing cronies at fat salaries, is coming to an end. The Indian Council of Historical Research, which he had latched on t, despite having no formal training or any scholarly credentials in the subject, is now detoxifying itself and ejecting his fellow-travelers. He is at risk of being a has-been, as his brand of extreme leftism is not even getting traction in much of the media (with notable exceptions).

And he, unfortunately, has a new book to plug, The Country of First Boys.

What would any thinking man do? That’s right, create a controversy to some visibility and some free press coverage. And that’s exactly what he’s proceeded to do. And here’s the result from Google Trends: instant, free publicity. Hey, presto, book sales will climb, too! And you thought the old man didn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve?

The fact of the matter is that Amartya Sen richly deserves the bashing he’s getting these days, for he has ruined Nalanda University, apart from many his other sins. An amount of Rs. 2700 crore was committed to the re-creation of Nalanda, and going by Sen’s own admission, as quoted by Minhaz Merchant they have spent Rs. 46 crore so far.

What do they have to show for this expenditure of Rs. 46 crore? A handful of students, a few faculty, and an absurd Soviet-style building that looks like a cowshed. It is among the most undistinguished, unimaginative, architecturally nihilistic university buildings I have ever seen, and looks brutally Orwellian. This is not what Nalanda, once a splendid international university, and an alleged cornerstone of India’s celebration of its heritage as the hub of Asian education, deserves: any government primary school looks better than this. It is a metaphor for the disdain with which Sen treated the whole Nalanda project.

It was also interesting to see the reactions of his acolytes. I retweeted, in all innocence, a tweet that said that Rs. 2700 crore had been wasted. In response to that I was trolled by a famous journalist, who studied economics at the Stanford of the East Coast of the US, who abused me and told me my facts was wrong. I pointed out that even the Rs. 9 crore spent last year, or the Rs. 46 crores spent cumulatively, would mean that most of it had been wasted, because the building as it stands could be constructed for no more than Rs. 2 crore. Thereupon, said journalist abused me some more.

I must admit to a slight prejudice against economists, despite having good friends like Atanu Dey in that profession. A lot of that prejudice comes from seeing what economists have done to India. Jagdish Bhagwati once said, “India’s curse is its brilliant economists”. Yes, they thought they could control and direct all economic activity because they, being superhuman, knew better. This was the vanity of the Five Year Plans and the License Raj. It was the absurdity of farm-labor minimum wages, which have wiped out rice cultivation and other agriculture in Kerala. It was the bigotry of one Raj Krishna, an economist whose sole claim to fame is that he coined the racist, derogatory, and untrue phrase “Hindu rate of growth”.

It was reflected in the horrifying speech I once heard from an ex-Planning Commission member, apparently the “father of NREGA”, explaining how wonderful it was. I took detailed notes, and was appalled to hear him say three times that “there were unlimited funds” for the project. That was the second most terrifying speech I ever heard in my life – no wonder this country is so messed up. (The most terrifying speech I ever heard was given by an ex-IAS officer prone to making up stuff at the drop of a hat and then pontificating about them in the most purple of prose. And believe me, I have heard some scary people at Stanford, especially the Hoover Institution, but this took the cake.)

So I am generously nervous about economists, but with Amartya Sen, I think it was my bullshit detector that lighted up when I first encountered his “Kerala model”. It purports to explain the fact that Kerala, a relatively poor area, has a quality of life that’s almost as good as that of the US despite its per capita GDP being a fraction of the latter’s. The facile explanation is that Marxist policies of land distribution have been responsible for the state’s remarkable indices of health, longevity and women’s emancipation.

Now, being a native, I have a fair idea of what happened, especially as we have long family chronicles, and my mother was a professor of history. There is a simple explanation for Kerala’s high development rates: it was become of three M’s – maharajahs, matriliny, and a monk. Nothing to do with Marxists. Nope, wrong M.

It has little to do with leftism. Those like me on the ground would give much more credit to the benign maharajas of Travancore, who spent their money on the welfare of their subjects, spending on schools, hospitals, and infrastructure rather than on their own vanity (and their humility was because they ruled as regents for the deity, Lord Anantha Padmanabha). And this was long before the modern era.

Further, there was the beneficial effect of matriarchy and matriliny among the main Hindu jatis, which led to the economic independence of women. Finally there was the remarkable effect of the monk, Sree Narayana Guru, on the downtrodden jatis of Kerala, whose message of egalitarianism and self-improvement struck a chord, from the 1880s to the 1930s. Thus, three ‘M’s.

And that led to the biggest ‘M’ of all: money-orders. There is really no mysterious “Kerala model”: it is a classic money-order economy. As there are few employment opportunities at home, Kerala residents have made a bee-line for greener pastures, and have sent large remittances back home, first from clerical jobs in the metros, or army jobs; later from Singapore, Malaya, Africa, Europe and the US; and a veritable flood from the Persian Gulf region.

If this is “model” is Amartya Sen’s main claim to fame, it is a bit of a smoke-and-mirrors, and has no predictive value whatsoever. This feeling was strengthened when I read of an incident at a conference where Sen pontificated about the efficacy of the ‘barefoot doctors’ in Mao’s China. After the lecture, a diffident old Chinese man in the audience stood up and said this was total hogwash. The audience was aghast at his impertinence, until the little old man revealed that he had been Mao’s personal physician. It is not recorded how the Great Man (Sen, that is) reacted.

Amartya Sen is a very clever man. He wouldn’t have become a global expert if he wasn’t. However, he may be even better at schmoozing than at his research. He has been magnificent at attaching himself (and pals like Jean Dreze) to the mammaries of the welfare state, and milking it utterly dry. So much so that he has now come to believe that he has an entitlement to a lifetime job the head of Nalanda, where he was like a bull in a china shop, insulting former President A P J Abdul Kalam and the historian Lokesh Chandra.

I am sorry to be the one to tell Sen the facts of life: he doesn’t have a lifetime sinecure there. Sen is a typical hard-left relic from an era of dirigiste state control. When even the Chinese have moved on to some sort of market economics, Sen is a dinosaur, who has survived only on the kindness of his leftie friends, who allowed him to leverage the prestige of his Nobel prize to wreak havoc. That he pushes hard-Left ideas, while accepting the largesse of the West, and while being married into one of the richest families in the world, the Rothschilds, would give cognitive dissonance to a normal person, but apparently not to Sen.

Entertainingly enough, Sen also became an amateur pontificator on history. I believe he declared at an ICHR event that Indian Hindus could hardly claim any merit in their historical leaders: after all, the greatest emperors had been, according to him, non-Hindus: Akbar and Asoka. Which just goes to show that Sen is either ignorant (he has evidently never heard of Krishna Deva Raya or Rajendra Chola) or is a villain (who deliberately downplays them just because they were Hindus).

There is an old axiom that Nobel prize winners in one discipline should not dabble in another discipline. I am reminded of the sad case of William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, and a Nobel laureate in Physics. In his later life, he made a laughing-stock of himself by espousing what appear to be cockamamie stories about the inferiority of black people. Sen is doing something similar.

I started writing this feeling sorry for Sen in his old age. But on second thoughts, thinking of the damage he has done, when he could have applied his energies to improving India’s competitiveness and rebuilding his heritage, I am no longer sorry for him. It’s about time he exited stage left.

1600 words, 10 July 2015


this piece was published by swarajyamag on jul 11 at

this was posted by swarajyamag on jul 1, 2015 at with some minor edits.

here’s my original submitted content:

Innovation Nation: The value of traditional and civilizational knowledge

Rajeev Srinivasan

After the signal success of #InternationalYogaDay, it would be hard for us to underestimate the true value created by knowledge inherent in society. The value can be both tangible and intangible. The tangible value comes from the fact that yoga is now a global, multi-billion dollar ‘industry’ especially in its purely physical hatha yoga form. The intangible value comes in the soft power that yoga gives to India. Thus, even from a strict definition of being something that has market value or widespread acceptance, yoga is clearly an innovation.

Yoga is just one example. A week after Yoga Day, there was the International Sanskrit Conference. Once again this is an artifact of demonstrably Indian origin, as are some other civilizational assets such as Ayurveda, as well as much early mathematics, for instance the so-called Pythagoras Theorem which was explicated in the Sulbasutras several centuries before Pythagoras himself.

The question, then, is what is India’s claim on these civilizational artifacts? Do they belong to India in a manner that India can (or should) monetize? Are there other artifacts that are based on traditional knowledge that India needs to assert its ownership over, and perhaps demand royalties from others? Is it possible for a nation, rather than individuals or corporations, to own intellectual property?

These are complicated questions, especially as new challenges come to the forefront in these days of rapid changes. I just read an article (“India’s unlikely savior from climate change: the dwarf cow”, Hindustan Times, June 30) on the value of genetic traits of heat resistance as climate change may make certain dominant cattle breeds vulnerable. The specific topic was that of a species of dwarf cows, endemic to Kerala, known as the Vechur cow, which are a breed that is fast losing out as imported hybrids based on Jersey and other foreign breeds.

Incidentally, in this context, the traditional Indian Zebu bull, has been exported to the West, which is now using this breed widely, in what some consider an example of biopiracy: the Western Bramah bull is a mix of several Indian varieties. There are also allegations that Indian genetic variants of rice – of which we have had many – have been looted, pirated and expropriated by others during Green Revolution days. This also leads to the fraught area of Genetically Modified crops, which is a major issue of contention between developed and developing countries.

Another possible claim comes from recognition of a Geographic Indication, a product that can be claimed as local to a specific area, and thus in essence an instance of local genius, such as Champagne, which is only applicable to sparkling wine from that area of France. Darjeeling tea, or the Aranmula mirror (a metal mirror polished to high levels of reflectivity using mud from the paddy fields of the area) are examples from India that have benefited from geographical appellations.

Similarly, Indian traditional designs, for instance in Kancheepuram or Banaras fabrics, are valuable assets; but, not knowing that they are monetizable, the creators of these assets often just give them away. Perhaps the most important area where India is not getting full value is in copyrights, where creations such as books, music, films, dance, etc. are often not compensated fairly for the use of their creations by others. In fact, violation of Indian copyright is absolutely endemic, and is a major problem for creators and authors.

Safeguarding intellectual creations

There are interesting, and hard, questions behind the whole issue of intellectual property. First of all, what is the role of the inventor, and, in related manner, of the State? Is it the duty of the State to encourage inventors by giving them protection to their inventions as private property? On the other hand, isn’t it the responsibility of the State to make these inventions available to the public at large so that they may all benefit?

There is also another wretched question, which nobody has a clear, unambiguous answer to: will innovation increase if there are strong intellectual property rights? The evidence about this is quite unclear, although one would think, a priori, that if there are strongly protected IPRs, there would be an explosion of innovation. But scholars have not been able to show strong correlation between the two.

There are intriguing examples of the way that appropriating value has given rise to a slew of invention. The most striking example, of course, is Silicon Valley, which has made many of its inventors, as well as its design experts (consider Apple) immensely rich. Another, historical example, is in Britain. It may not be sheer coincidence that, in the immediate aftermath of the loot from Bengal showing up as ‘venture capital’, there was an explosion in invention (Battle of Plassey 1757, spinning jenny 1764, steam engine 1778), leading to their Industrial Revolution, and subsequently, world domination.

Can traditional knowledge, including yoga and Ayurveda, be protected? For that matter, can traditional cultural artifacts, such as Koodiyattam or Yakshagana? There is the entire category of Traditional Knowledge Systems, including Traditional Expressions of Culture, that is intended for the express purpose of supporting traditions, that may, in the case of Indian and many other developing nations, be in jeopardy of disappearing under the onslaught of ‘modern’, ie. Western, substitutes.

The Indian government has created a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, with the intent of preserving, textually, many of these traditions. One of the peculiarities of the current global system of IPR is the reliance on written references, otherwise known as ‘prior art’. Typically, if one can demonstrate that something has been documented for long, it cannot be patented or copyrighted or otherwise claimed by a fresh claimant. This was the context of the patents on turmeric and neem, which were overturned on appeal based on clear prior art.

A classic work of such prior art is the Hortus Malabaricus, a 12-volume encyclopaedia of the medicinal plants of the Western Ghats, first printed in Latin around 1700. Written originally in Malayalam, Sanskrit and Konkani/Devanagari by vaidyas Itty Achuthan Kollat, Ranga Bhat, Vinayaka Pandit and Appu Bhat based mostly on the palm-leaf manuscripts of the Kollat family of physicians, it is a tour-de-force of traditional knowledge. Sadly, equally impressive palm-leaf manuscripts that are centuries old are rotting away or being eaten by termites every day. At the very least, digitizing and decoding this will add to the immense knowledge that India invented or discovered.

1077 words, 30 June 2015