Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The science of power

I had searched for a good analysis and study of the Arthashastra, and recently found and read Roger Boesche’s excellent analysis The first great political realist: Kautilya and his Arthashastra. The book is crisply written, and analyzes Kautilya’s Arthashastra, while trying to understand it’s author, the legendary Kautilya (or Chanakya).

Boesche approaches Kautilya after a thorough understanding of western political thought, from Plato, Aristotle and Thucydides through Machiavelli. And in his opinion, without the slightest doubt Kautilya was the first great political realist.

I first read Machiavelli’s “The prince” some seven years or so ago, and was chilled by his pragmatic approach towards obtaining and securing power. But if this were to be a canine world, Machiavelli would be a friendly Labrador puppy compared to Kautilya the fierce Rottweiler.

A bulk of Indian philosophical thought drifted towards Dharma or Kama, or the attainment of moksha. But Kautilya would have none of that, and wrote the 15 book Arthashastra. Shastra (science), and Artha, a word which means “object, purpose, end and aim”. Kautilya’s Arthashastra relentlessly pursues one Artha; achieving complete power. Power was a science, not an art. In this he remains committed to absolute “realism”, indifferent to dogma, morality or religion. Kautilya, as chancellor to Chandragupta Maurya, was instrumental in creating one of the largest and most powerful empires of the ancient world, immediately after Alexander the Great’s death.

Power was political, economic and military. Any two without the third resulted in incomplete power. And in this quest for power, dogma and customs were powerful tools to achieve it, but “If a royal edict conflicts with law or custom, edict shall prevail”.

His goal remained to enable the king to achieve complete power. And perhaps it is because he did not have any ambition to rule himself that he was able to consistently remain focussed to this goal, devoid of morality or justification. In his opinion, the king had to be disciplined and hard working (sleeping only 4 hours a night). A king should never allow an “undisciplined son” to rule, since that could cost him his kingdom. And a king had to avoid anger and lust, because a kingdom was at stake. To Kautilya, the king was an omnipotent father figure, who’s only goal should be to become a “Chakravarti”, and rule the “world” (he did of course believe that the only world that was worth conquering was only the Indian subcontinent. This dream of his was completed under Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka, who ruled from the borders of Persia to Bengal, and from the Himalayas down to the Andhra and Tamil lands, who though not conquered (due to Ashoka’s discovery of Dhamma), accepted him as “Chakravarti”).

To achieve this, Kautilya advocated an elaborate spy state. A king should never have a single councilor, but three. One would be too powerful, two could plot together to overthrow him, but three would keep each other in check (the Romans tried this later, with “Triumvirates”). Every minister needed to be constantly tested; with piety (by spreading rumors of an immoral king), or material gain, or lust, or fear. And his schemes to counter disloyalty were chilling. For example, if a minister was becoming powerful, Kautilya advocated that his son be incited against the minister, and be encouraged to kill his own father (out of loyalty to the king). Once this was done, the son had to be put to death under the charge of patricide (to prevent any chance of remorse, or revenge against the king in the future). Or alternatively, he suggested that the minister be told that the queen loved him, and then have him put to death instantly the moment he came close to the queen’s quarters. Kautilya believed in an elaborate bureaucracy of spies, and even listed 40 different ways of embezzlement and ways to catch an embezzler. He suggested that alcohol be freely available in the kingdom, but only in alehouses owned by the state, with bartenders as spies detecting public opinion. Arrests on suspicion were permissible, and torture permitted if the circumstances demanded it. The ends justified the means.

The state always had primacy, even over religion. It was essential that the state used religion to gain political power (by building temples and gaining goodwill, and controlling revenue and priest appointments there. Or by spreading superstition that the king was the representative of God, and opposing him would result in a thousand rebirths). He very strongly discouraged all active citizenship. Large gatherings and community celebrations could result in sharing of opinions, which could result in a threat to the king, and so needed to be banned.

Kautilya advocated a socialist monarchy, with a centralized economy, and fortified treasuries as the most important buildings in a kingdom (not palaces). The treasury after all was key to the army. Without a prosperous economy, there would be no army, and Kautilya clearly recognized that (unlike most early political thinkers, who thought little of economic details). Kautilya clearly felt that the king had to be just in his rule, so advocated varying land and income taxes (according to productivity and ability to pay), and large credit schemes (but with the ruler as the creditor). He encouraged trade and traders (by even allowing them to own land) but disliked trader guilds. He regarded the people as the most important army of all. He recognized that the sudras (fourth and bottom in the caste hierarchy) were a powerful tool to achieve political power, and so considered them “full Aryans”, and strongly advocated their serving in the army (as opposed to tradition of Kshatriyas alone fighting), and granting them many rights of citizens. The dharmasutras advocated an army of Kshatriyas, with Brahmin or Vaishya conscripts in time of need. Kautilya was openly scornful of that, saying that enemy troops would “win over Brahmin troops by mere prostration”. But he loved the strength and large numbers of shudras. In his socialist monarchy, Kautilya advocated large rewards to the army and to the bureaucracy.

His most chilling appraisal comes with foreign policy. Here, he was an unabashed expansionist (in the name of Dharmic rule) with no moral obligations. All neighbors were enemies and the enemy’s enemy was a friend. So, if countries were in a line, countries 1, 3, 5, 7 could be friends, as could 2, 4, 6. But countries 1, 2, and 3 could NEVER be friends. This status would change as soon as country 1 conquered country 2. From that very instant country 3 (a friend) would be the new enemy. A king had to prepare for war with the plan to conquer. Spies would be used extensively in the enemy camp, working on frightened, greedy, enraged or proud members of that society, while spies would remain in one’s own army, to ensure that there was no chance of a coup against the king. Kautilya was also perhaps the first to recognize three types of warfare. Open war, concealed (guerilla) war, and a third, a silent war, where the king would talk smilingly of peace and brotherhood, while using spies and assassins to destroy the opponent. And if a king lost a war, he should shrewdly regain his kingdom, using bribery and women to create quarrels in the enemy camp. Treaties were to be observed only when the king was himself weak.

Kautilya was one mean s.o.b, but was supremely perceptive, and human nature has changed little. So much of this remains familiar to most of us, directly or indirectly. And it’s clear that the hard right or the extreme left really speak the same language (socialists, communists, neo-cons, ultra-nationalists all seem to have borrowed incomplete bits from the Arthashastra). After reading Boesche’s excellent analysis, it seems obvious that politicians and students of politics, irrespective of their leanings, should read the Arthashastra. Or should they?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

55 again

The world was a difficult place. A mucus filled water world, shrouded in icy darkness. Perhaps it was all due to global warming. But the sun at noon would penetrate the darkness, and on clear nights, the stars would be beautiful.

There wasn’t much of a world for a frog in a well.


He’d been told to avoid the white man. Since they arrived his world had changed. Their rifles never missed, even from a 100 yards. He shouldn’t have strayed from his own, and approached the fort. But it was too late now. He had to die.


“We thank you lord for this thanksgiving turkey….”

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The badshaah of cool

”Jaan ki baazi jo lagate hain,
Unhe kehte hain janbaaz.”

In the mood for some classic kitsch, that’s so bad it’s fantastic, I revisited Janbaaz a few days ago. And I was reminded of something I always knew. No one in Bollywood ever spouted Urdu dialogues better than Dilip Kumar. No one ever brooded better than Amitabh Bachchan. No one was more “chocolatey” than Rajesh Khanna. No one was whackier than Shammi Kapoor.

But the undisputed daddy of Cool (at least till the ‘80’s) remained Feroz Khan

(No, Fardeen Khan is not Cool, though Feroz Khan is his daddy. He inherited his mother’s genes. Wearing shades doesn’t make you cool.)

It’s not about the acting abilities. Feroz Khan had none. It’s about the swagger. Toshiro Mifune had it. Clint Eastwood has it. Raj Kumar (yes, Jaani) had oodles of it.

Feroz Khan had it (and I daresay, still does).

Dharmatma or Qurbani or Janbaaz, or (especially?) Yalgaar would have been relegated to the trash-bin but for Cool Khan, lead actor, director, editor and producer. The art of transforming trash to pulp-classics was never more perfected in Hindi cinema. B-grade cinema became blockbuster.

The plot, just like the acting, was a completely negotiable entity. Every Bollywood cliché would be thrown in, and masaala mastered. Brothers, loyalty, friendship, patriarchs, feudal societies, Sufism and betrayal would co-exist perfectly with color, style, fashion, “modern” lifestyles, lots of “eye candy” and extravaganza, as if it were all normal. Dimple Kapadia or Zeenat Aman would look like a million bucks (I’m strictly imagining a million bucks here), and be dressed for the ramp, even while roughing it out in a “jungle”, boiling coffee. The villains would remain larger than life. When they gambled, they would only deal in “lakhs” (in the early eighties, that was a lot of money), never “hazaroon”. Their crime of choice would be dealing drugs (“smack” and cocaine), and never just petty “smuggling” (the traditional crime of the 70’s and 80’s). They would be pure comic-book evil. The music would sizzle, and the title-soundtrack would relentlessly pursue you, even after the movie (think “Janbaaz, Janbaaz”, or “Qurbani, Qurbani, Qurbani”…..).

Thoroughbred horses would race into the sunset. It would be ok (no, anything else would be abnormal in Khan’s movies) for the hero to sleep with the heroine, before marriage, and then visit a dargah or a temple in devotion. And thugs in suits would toss hand grenades with a flourish. Quick-draw Feroz would shoot, and always hit his mark (a la Eastwood), with time to spare. And he’d never have to chase or leap at a fleeing villain. A casual walk up to, and a stylishly thrown punch would suffice. Meanwhile, in the heat of action, with thugs falling to Khan’s bullets like ninepins, the villain’s goons (following hallowed tradition) will always have time to attempt molesting the heroine (always failing, of course).

But we, the gaping audience, wouldn’t care and would eagerly lap up this kitsch. We’d wait for the Feroz Khan twist in the end, when some one would always die (and it would not necessarily be the jilted lover), or fail in love. We’d be dazzled by the motorbikes and cars and thoroughbreds, that would adorn the screen for just the right amount of time. Khan popularized the item number, even before the very concept existed.

Spaghetti western and James Bond would meet. There would always be other “stars” in the movie. It could be heart-throb Vinod Khanna, or jumping-jack Jeetendra, or 80’s and 90’s hit-machine Anil Kapoor, or gangsta Sanjay Dutt.

But it wouldn’t matter. Feroz Khan would remain ubercool, and the movie would remain his. The badshaah of cool would walk away in to the sunset.

Afterthought: Why did Dilip Tahil always act in gawdawful roles where he (a) gets beaten to a pulp by the hero, (b) died, (c) was mocked by the heroine or (d) all of the above?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Everything Scientific Vol. V

Here it is again, your favorite roundup of some of the latest fascinating breakthroughs of Everything Scientific.

Life on another world?

Saturn’s giant moon, Titan (perhaps the largest in the solar system, and at least as big as earth) has fascinated many astronomers. In a fascinating research article, researchers McKay and Smith investigate the amount of energy released when various hydrocarbons (acetylene, ethane and some organic solids) are consumed with atmospheric hydrogen. They find that there will be sufficient energy for organisms, like the methanogenic bacteria found on earth, to live just fine. However, organics don’t dissolve too well in methane (so won’t in the sea of methane), but Life can get around this by using catalysts to accelerate biochemical reactions in spite of the low temperatures, and find was to overcome the solubility issue.

So now I guess one of us has to head out to Titan and see if there really is life there.

Evolution in Mexico

Mexico remains a predominantly Catholic country. It’s also a poor country, strongly influenced by the US of A. In a superb article in Science, Antonio Lazcano discusses the teaching of evolution in Mexico. Here’s a snippet.

“I am always amused when I am asked by my American colleagues about the problems and pressures they imagine I face in Mexico because of my interest in life's beginnings. However, pressure to include creationism in public pedagogical and research settings has been primarily a phenomenon in the United States. Only twice during my 30 years of teaching about evolutionary biology and research into the origins of life, have I encountered religious-based opposition to my work. In both cases, it came from evangelical zealots from the United States preaching in Mexico. One of the little recognized U.S. imports into Mexico is a small flow of creationists, who, through religion, are trying to impose their fundamentalist beliefs and hinder the teaching of Darwinian evolution in all levels of schooling…………………. It helps here that in Latin America most Catholics tend to read the Old Testament not as the literal truth, but as a depiction of the ways in which divine creation may have taken place. It is thus possible to be a Catholic Bible-reader, or more generally a believer in the supernatural origin of life, without being a card-carrying creationist who has to reject Darwinian evolution in order to maintain logical consistency within a framework of fundamentalist Christian premises.”

Well worth a read (Science, Vol. 310. no. 5749, pp. 787 – 789).
Picture credit.

Warm and dry……and dead

Climates are undoubtedly changing (though it’s getting warmer in some places, and cooler in some others). It’s intuitive and obvious that large-scale drought is going to lead to loss of vegetation. But the response of large regional forests to warmer droughts is not too well understood.

In this excellent paper, researchers look at the effect of the recent drought (2000-2003) in Western North America on pinon trees. There was a rapid regional loss of pinon trees here. But it was not due to the heat alone. In dry weather, bark beetles rapidly proliferate, and they grew rapidly in this drought, destroying many overstory trees. Similar such droughts are going to cause major local climate changes, by affecting the vegetation, and therefore soil erosion, near-ground solar radiation, local temperatures, ground water levels, produce (in this case, pine nuts, which are a source of food for birds, mammals and are eaten by people as well). This kind of interrelationships between species are often forgotten by us, since we are “distant” from our environments. But it does affect us all, air-conditioning or not. (PNAS, October 18, 2005,vol. 102, no. 42, 15144-15148).

European origins

One of the keys to tracing the origin of Europe’s population is how farming spread across Europe. Archeological evidence shows that farming came to Greece and south-eastern Europe through the near east, and spread across. The LBK people are believed to be the first farmers known to occupy Europe, originating in Hungary or thereabouts, and spreading across the continent. But did the farmers themselves move across the continent in a large-scale migration, or was it just cultural diffusion? These are two hotly contested theories.

Some of this answer was found in the genes of LBK skeletons that have been unearthed. We all know of the X and Y chromosomes. Now, the Y chromosomes are inherited by males, without change. On the other hand, there is also something called mitochondrial DNA, and this is transmitted down through women. Recent studies with LBK mitochondrial DNA clearly show that the LBK mitochondrial DNA is predominantly different from the mitochondrial DNA of most modern Europeans. This is clearly a little bit of evidence in support of the cultural diffusion model. But earlier Y chromosome results show almost the opposite (the Y chromosome data show predominantly LBK types!). It seems more likely now that colonizing LBK men married local hunter-gatherer women, and it does seem like it was a mixture of both cultural diffusion and large-scale migration. (Science 11 November 2005: 1016-1018).

Burn green

Fossil fuels are becoming pricier, remain polluting, damage the environment during extraction, and their reserves are slowly depleting. However, biodiesel is an available cleaner-burning fuel, and is made by transesterification of common vegetable oils, and is a perfectly renewable resource. The only problem is that their catalysts are very expensive, are not “green” in any way, and consume a lot of energy. Some researchers (unsurprisingly Japanese) seem to have come up with a possible solution. They synthesize catalysts made from simple and commonly available sugars and is made out of sulphonated amorphous carbon. Making things super-nice is the fact that these catalysts are recyclable (or is that a corollary of the definition of catalyst) and is more efficient than other solid catalysts so far tested. (Nature 438, 178, 10 November 2005)



Finally, for a bit of fun, I’ll leave you with a scan of one of the earliest superman comics (by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, 1939), explaining the science behind the man of steel’s amazing powers (open image in new window for bigger image).

Looks like evolution wasn't a bad word in 1939.

That’s all for this edition of Everything Scientific.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Evergreen fall

It's a popular misconception that the US Pacific Northwest does not have a "fall". That's because most of the trees here are evergreens (cedars and firs being the most common), and so don't have leaves changing color. But there are plenty of pockets of fall, where the colors are quite wonderful, and contrast well with evergreens around them. Fall lasts from mid-late September all through October.

Here's a small photoblog of fall in various stages, taken over the past couple of months.

That is a picture of one of the most well known bike trails around, the 60 mile odd Burkegilman trail, when fall was just beginning.

Here's a contrast of the evergreens, with some fall color on a tree.

This picture is one of my favorites, with the ivy turning red, some trees in fall color, and the evergreens around.

The ground beneath my feet.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Language and culture

A couple of times a year, I act as facilitator at study-abroad programs here, where I talk to students traveling to India for a few quarters in a study-abroad program. These students come from various majors, and go to different cities in India with different subjects or areas of study in mind.

In my last counseling session, I met a rather interesting student.

He was Chinese-American, but was deeply interested in Indic studies, especially Indian languages. He told me of some of his experiences.

He first wanted to study Tamil (Tamizh), and get a better understanding of Tamil Classical literature, ideas and philosophy (he’s of course a philosophy major). He was fascinated by what little he had read about early Sangam literature (200 BC-300 AD), and wanted to learn the language itself.

So, he went down to India, and spent time in Madurai (Madurai Kamraj University), then Trichi, and then three months in Chennai. And he struggled. There were no programs that allowed him to enter at an interested novice level, and allow him to learn. Nor were there useful resource centers or libraries for him to access information. The professors he met were largely unhelpful. And there aren’t any good translations or commentaries in English of the Silappadikaram and other such Tamil classics. He was surprised, and extremely disappointed His quest for this knowledge was largely futile, but he wondered why if he could so easily learn any European language, or Chinese, or even Tibetian classics, was it so hard for Indian languages. And why weren’t there good university systems in place to enable that learning or research? I clearly had no answers.

His present effort (this time) is to go to Jaipur, and study Hindi, and medieval Rajasthani literature. He’s apparently had a little more success in finding a good teaching, study and resource center, and I hope his quest is successful. But he’s not being too optimistic this time, and hopes to at least have a good time traveling (he’s a smart kid, and now pretends to be Assamese to avoid paying the ridiculous “foreign tourist” fees at various tourist places, since he knows some broken Hindi).

But this made me think of a deeper issue. In Tamil Nadu, the “Tamil” revival movement (and the Dravida movement) dominates the political scene. For over 40 years, the state has been ruled by one Tamil party or the other. They shout hoarse about Tamil being denied it’s classical rights and pride of place. But if someone wants to come in and learn Tamil, there’s hardly any place he or she can go to, and there’s mighty little these so called champions of Tamil have done for Tamil language or culture (except shout hoarse that if girls wear jeans or if girls and boys talk, it’s ruining Tamil culture. Sorry, I couldn’t help that dig). If it is to study Tamil classics, it’s even harder. To the best of my knowledge, there are no dedicated centers for research and study on this area of priceless history. There are no dedicated university departments, or endowed chairs in universities for academics to pursue this research (if there are some, I haven’t found them). The few language departments have no incentive to teach, publish or research this area.

I’ve found this true for almost any major Indic language (Sanskrit’s priceless legacy at least has a few study centers of excellence).

Contrast this to the situation here, far away in the States. Some of them have outstanding programs in Indian languages, and carry out excellent research. They publish not only in scholarly journals, but also publish high-quality books available in various bookstores and almost all libraries. The University of Washington library has complete sections on Indian books, with shelves after shelves lined with books in Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and many other languages, ranging from reprints of classics, to commentaries and translations (in English). When the movie Pinjar released, not only did I find and read the Hindi original, but I also found (in the library search, as related books) other books in Indian languages, related to partition.

It is one thing to shout hoarse about culture or language. But there does need to be incentives and resources to enable this education or research. And even at a basic level, for just spoken or written language, when it’s so easy to learn French or German (which is fantastic, I think) in India, shouldn’t it be the same for vernaculars?

Or shouldn’t that be the case?

postscript: Also read Vikrum’s excellent post on Orientalists, here. Incidentally, this is the 101th post on Balancinglife. That’s more blogging than I ever thought I’d do.

postscript 2: Vikrum "responds" to this post, with another excellent post, here. Bang on.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The corridor to hell

The second part of conversations with Michael Mazgaonkar (the first part, rural innovations, can be found here)..

In addition to their technology innovations, Michael and Swati actively drive the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti which works on environmental issues. They work with other groups in raising awareness, trying to work with the government. In addition, they inform people of their rights and try to ensure that unchecked misuse and abuse does not happen in the name of development.

Now, the region from Ahmedabad to Vapi in Gujarat is called the “Golden corridor”, and is Gujarat’s industrial hub. Though productive, with many industries, almost every single pollution control or environmental law has been flouted here, and now the effects are being felt, and these effects are very, very harsh. Polluted Places (A Blacksmith institute project) describes the (almost unbelievable) amounts of pollution in this region.

Scores of industries illegally dump toxic waste by the Damaganga river. This flows in to the river, polluting the water source, as well as seeps in to the soil, and contaminates the aquifer itself. Michale and co tested the pH (a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of water) in various water sources, and found the pH as low as 3 in one region, and 11.5 in another. To bring things in to context, the natural pH of water (neutral) is just below seven. A pH of 3 makes it as acidic as dilute hydrochloric acid, and a pH of 11.5 that of calcium hydroxide (imagine drinking whitewash). An effluent plant in the region callously discharged untreated water (green, thick and foaming) passing it off as treated water. This plant was going to be funded by the World Bank, but Michael took photographic, videographic and scientific evidence to the officials, who first dismissed it, then incredulously found out that it was all true.

A more publicized case was that of Hema chemicals, a small chemical manufacturer. This company was found to have illegally dumped 300 tons of chromium waste (yes, 300 tons) by water sources, severely contaminating it. It took a very, very long time (faced with typical government apathy) to even counter this problem. In Michael’s own words:

·Over fifteen letters addressed to Pollution Control Board between 30th August '99 and 28th Aug '01 drew blank responses.
·After constant following up by PSS with GPCB they ordered discontinuance of power supply to the company on 3rd August '01 but it was not executed.
·PSS, through letters dated 7th August, 8th August '01 and 16th Aug '01 to GPCB pointed out that the company would use all means to circumvent execution of the order to discontinue its power connection.
·The order dated 3rd Aug '01 for disconnecting power supply was executed only on 17th Aug '01 but the company continued its operations using its private diesel generators.
·The company managed to pull strings in the corridors of power and managed to get its power supply restored on 18th Aug '01.
·GPCB was forced to act only after political interference in the matter was exposed through newspapers.

The government pretends that the problem does not exist, and their stand is to:

·disregard the fact that 70 % of its groundwater is not potable,
·to hide that there are illegal hazardous waste dumpsites on private, government lands, and river banks as well,
·be oblivious to the fact that major rivers including Sabarmati, Mahi, Narmada, Kolak, Par, Damanganga severely polluted,
·remain blind to the clear and present health threat to communities in the vicinity of industrial estates due to pollution,....

Hema was a small chemical company. A mega company like Aventis was caught red-handed dumping toxic waste illegally (in drums which still contained the company name). There isn’t even talk of taking action against them. In some areas, water from 100 feet deep can be pumped out. It appears clear. Leave it in the open, and it turns yellow, then brown, in 20 minutes.
In some downstream villages, cancer rates have gone up to over 1% of the population (compared to average rates of 0.05 to 0.2% (hotspot rate)). Still, the water continues to be used to grow food, and feed livestock. Most people are aware of these problems, but are unwilling to compel the industries to conform to law or basic safety standards, because they fear a loss of their jobs and livelihood. But as time goes by, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the consequences.
According to Indian law, companies are supposed to hold public hearings, there is a channel to petition, and violations of laws can be taken to court. However, there is now an effort underway, not unlike some of the recent proposals of the Bush administration, to do away with all pollution control laws, and to allow industries to voluntarily adopt non-polluting technology or to clean up. The proposal also takes away the right to a public hearing, or any mandatory disclosures of the industry.
Michael and Swati, with other groups in India, are trying to raise public awareness of this issue, as well as make them aware of their rights, and the consequences.
I have seen pretty bad cases of industrial pollution, but these specific numbers, callousness for the law (with encouragement from the government, in some guise of “development”) and degree of impact affected me deeply.
I also have another question. Many people support allowing industry to voluntarily act. However, here we see that in spite of regulations and (a distant) risk of prosecution, industry remains utterly callous to any such efforts. How then do people believe that industry will voluntarily adopt measures that benefit the locality and their own employees?
A developing country needs to learn from the mistakes made elsewhere. These problems of massive pollution have been faced by industrial Europe, and the United States, and many regions solved these problems the hard way. The technology to prevent these problems exist, and the laws and safety standards also do. Should not a developing country leapfrog towards such technology, rather than cripple itself first, and then heal itself?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Engineering innovations for rural India

I spent a wonderful evening listening to and talking to Michael Mazgaonkar today. Michael is an electrical engineer by training. About 15 years ago, he (with his wife and colleague Swati Desai) went and started living in a Bhill village (Juna Mozda) in the Narmada region of Gujarat, and never left. Since then, they have been working with the villagers on environmental, adivasi, watershed, and technology issues for rural areas. This is the first post (of two) about his conversations with us.

The technologist in me couldn’t resist the technological innovations they are enabling in the village, so this post is about technology. The next one will discuss some of the (horrifying) environmental issues of the area.

A major effort of theirs has been on alternative energy. This village (like many others) is without electricity. Now any energy researcher will agree that energy is best managed locally (due to large energy losses in long distance transmission), and given India’s inefficient system, even if electricity comes to this village, it’s likely to be inefficient. But they have made substantial innovations in this area, focusing on local resources, and inculcating abilities in the locals.

A first innovation (which he brought along with him) is a torch. Now, typical torch bulbs are moderately expensive, use a lot of energy (batteries), and burn out quickly. Michael and his local friends (tribals, mostly illiterate) innovated around this. They designed a torch (with the case made out of wood and cloth) using four super-bright LEDs (light emitting diodes). These are (surprisingly) remarkably bright, and use next to no energy (so batteries last 10 times longer). Their lifespans are also thousands of hours. Pretty handy in a dark village!

Another nice innovation was a pedal power generator. They made one of these for the village school. Of course, the concept is simple. The pedals (of a bicycle) charge batteries, which light up the school. All it takes are twenty children, each pedaling for just five minutes a day, to charge the batteries to light up two schoolrooms for five hours daily.

But the most ambitious project was an electricity-generating windmill (which they set up quite recently). The windmill is a10 feet in diameter, 1200-watt creature, which generates 1.3 kWHr of electricity (for 8 months in a year, when the winds are strong). This cost Rs. 76,000 (less than $2000), and was a first prototype, using fiberglass panels. Future windmills will be fashioned locally, using local wood (Teak, which is termite resistant, hard, and extremely durable). This windmill charges batteries in a battery bank. Villagers use these batteries to light up their houses (each battery allows 4 lights in each house), and pay a small fee for this. In just a couple of months, fifteen houses have started using this (and numbers grow by the week, in the village of ~45 houses). To prevent excess discharging of the battery, they innovated a low voltage discharger (to cut off supply when the battery charge runs low). Here’s a WMV clip about their windmill.

Another technological innovation is more mundane. Michael and Swati helped create a womens’ cooperative, where the women process and sell organic dal (lentils; both thoor and channa dal) in cities like Baroda. Now, the dal is traditionally split by a hand-splitter, slow and laborious. Electric or motorized ones of course are expensive. They innovated and improved a hand-ground mill that splits dal about 10 times faster than the traditional mill (at a rate comparable to the electric one), that’s saving a tremendous amount of time and energy for the women.

Another effort of Mozda (for the public domain) is to design Scheffler reflectors for use primarily to sterilize and dispose biological waste in hospitals in the greater area. Now, these reflectors are widely used in mega-temples like Tirupathi, Shiridi or Mount Abu to cook food for thousands of devotees daily. It’s perfectly suited to be modified to autoclave medical waste (usually sloppily done in hospitals in India, often due to erratic electricity supply). Their innovation meets World Health Organization standards. They are now also working on a needle crusher to get rid of hospital sharps.

And all of Michael’s co-innovators are the local tribals.

Someone in the small audience asked Michael if he worked with universities and students on these projects. A definitive yes was the answer. But then he added that most universities and students wanted something cool and flashy (that would be publishable or will result in a thesis) but weren’t interested in making something already known doable at a low cost. They wanted innovations to make things cost $5, not innovations that would cost $150.

I (like many of us) was an engineering student in India too. Sadly, I can’t remember any of us doing any useful projects of this kind. More power to useful technology, that can be adapted for local needs, and more power to innovators like Michael.

Here is an article about Mozda in the Indian Express.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Always the bridesmaid

(I wrote this piece a week before the India-Sri Lanka series started)

Team sports traditionally have had a little bit of place for everyone. There will remain individuals who rise above the team; there will be the over achieving “superstar”, there will be the niche specialist, and then there will always be “bridesmaids”, players who are a part of all the action, always there, but rarely center stage.

Indian cricket, with all its hysterical following, hasn’t been the exception either. In every team there have always been individuals who were essential for the team’s smooth functioning, but who always remained in the shadow. Pataudi and Jaisimha were stars, and even Farookh Engineer had his following, as Bapu Nadkarni trudged in to bowl quietly (returning with remarkable figures like 35-28-7-1). When Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Venkat and Prasanna mesmerized batsmen with their guile, Eknath Solkar quietly continued to take stunning catches, standing three feet away from the feet of those very batsmen.

1983 almost became the year of the bridesmaid. True, the Indian team had Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, but it really belonged to those who crave for that one moment under the spotlight. Balwinder Sandhu, Roger Binny and Madan Lal trotted in to bowl faster than they ran, while Mohinder Amarnath stunned batsmen by running in faster than he bowled, and all of them picked up bagfuls of wickets. Yashpal Sharma and Sandeep Patil enjoyed every moment of their few days of fame. And then, months after the cup was lifted, they drifted back in to their lives of honest obscurity (even Mohinder Amarnath did, even though he was a fine batsman).

Then something started happening. Perhaps it was the more prominent role media started playing in Indian cricket. The bridesmaid started becoming rare, and (dare I say it), less essential. The teams of the ‘80’s seemed to only be comprised of individual stars. Shastri, Kapil, Gavaskar, Vengsarkar, Sidhu, Prabhakar, Azar, even More, they all seemed to grow in to larger than life personalities, and the team became centered around them. Clearly, a team with too many centers wasn’t going to perform too well, so though their personal records swelled, while the team drifted in to obscurity. There were some patches of bridesmaid excellence though, with Srikkanth (who is remembered more for his erratic batting, but was an excellent team-player), Maninder Singh, or Chetan Sharma (who unfortunately is remembered only for gifting Miandad with a “six-ball” in that last over at Sharjah). Somehow, they held the team together.

In Azar’s time, the transformation in to a team of under-achieving superstars was complete. Every player had a king-sized ego, or a king-sized personality. It was perhaps the sorriest time in Indian cricket. There was one bright spot though. One player remained the faithful bridesmaid though, performing beyond expectations. Robin Singh, that amiable Trinidadian who made Chennai his permanent home, was called in to the Indian team when he was in his early thirties, and gave it every little bit of effort he had. Time and again, he would walk out when India were batting terribly, with six wickets down, and start a rescue act with Ajay Jadeja (who’s fame perhaps got into his head). Every time the ball was tossed to him, he’d run in to bowl his military medium pace uncomplainingly. When younger players like Kumble, Srinath or Ganguly would make a mess of the simplest fielding efforts, and leave the field with spotless uniforms, there would be Robin Singh, with frayed elbows as early as the fifth over of the game, throwing his aged body to stop every ball from passing. While his colleagues would make millions endorsing everything from credit cards and soft drinks to cars and motorcycles, all he ever got to endorse was “Bigfun” chewing gum. But his indomitable spirit would remind us that cricket always had room for the big-hearted, who played for the team.

The Indian team of the 21st century though is the team of the super-star, who sometimes does perform in a team unit. That was a transformation Ganguly (of 4 years ago) brought about. Superstars performed to potential, but played for a team, and that produced results. But the strain of keeping a team of superstars together has begun to show. Now every one of the eleven players is a bonafide superstar. Players like Kaif or Yuvraj Singh (who average just barely in the thirties) have played over one hundred ODI’s each, with barely a test record, and would have been bridesmaids fifteen years ago. But they are not. The media goes in to a frenzy even when they play. Kaif, after a few promising innings was compared to that incomparable finisher, Michael Bevan (with nearly seven-thousand runs at an average of over fifty). Yuvraj endorses just about any thing that can be endorsed. Harbajan Singh continues to flatter only to deceive. Ajit Agarkar might make it in to the bridesmaid category, but he started off towards superstardom (rushing to fifty quick wickets in ODIs), but squandered that start by continuing to perform erratically. Parthiv Patel, in his few moments of mediocrity, hogged his share of interview columns.

People forget that bridesmaids are essential for a smooth wedding. They hold it together, gluing the little bits. They act as bridges. They divert some of the attention. They take care of little things. They keep smiling, and lift spirits.

Perhaps the Indian team could do with more bridesmaids today. Yet perhaps all is not lost. Rahul Dravid has been the quintessential bridesmaid, though he might well be the best test batsman India has ever produced. He’s finally become a bride…….perhaps he can recreate a team ethic and make the wedding proceedings work smoothly.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The difficulty of being good

The excellent South Asia Center at the Henry M.Jackson School of International studies here at the University of Washington has an annual Exchange program, where a distinguished public figure from India would spend an entire quarter in campus as Visiting Scholar, co-teaching a course, and giving some lectures. This year’s visiting scholar was the affable Gurucharan Das, man of many talents, author and superb columnist. He gave his keynote lecture last week, and I tooted down to witness the proceedings, and left after having listened to an excellent lecture.

Smiling, unassuming, poised and articulate, Gurucharan Das spoke on a rather philosophical note, titling his lecture “The difficulty of being good”. He drew on his own rich background in philosophy (after all, he majored in Philosophy at Harvard, and along with Bruce Lee, is the only other person I know who succeeded in his chosen non-philosophical profession with a degree in philosophy!). The lecture discussed governance failure and corporate social responsibility, using the Mahabharata as backdrop, to draw analogies from, and explore sensitivity to Dharma.

“What is the point of doing good, if there are no rewards?” was a question asked to Gurucharan by a social worker somewhere in India. From this question, he takes us to the forest, where Pandavas are in exile, and Draupadi sees that all those who compromise with Dharma prosper, while they (and Yudishtra in particular, who never waives from the path of Dharma) suffer. What does Dharma allow? Did Dharma allow Yudishtra to give Draupadi away after he gave himself away in the game of dice?

We came back to modern India. The economy is growing, the population growth rate has dropped substantially, and there is a steady (though slow) decline in poverty. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s all happening in spite of terrible governance. As examples, we see huge teacher absenteeism in government schools, negligent government doctors, police not functioning, and businesses not transparent. Can behavior based on Dharma lead to economic harmony? Or, as Draupadi declared, “Power is all that matters.”

Coming back to the absent teachers (the specific example constantly explored), there is an over 25% absentee rate in India, and half of those present do not teach. So, 2/3 of ALL government schoolteachers don’t do anything. Even in neighboring Bangladesh, there is only a 14% absentee rate. This abysmal negligence results in very low educational standards and literacy rates, and the poor are forced to enroll their children in more expensive private schools. What’s funny is that government school teachers are quite highly paid (starting salary of Rs. 8500, with perks), while private school teachers usually earn from Rs 2000-5000 (having worked with many of those, I’m more comfortable with these numbers), yet these private teachers deliver higher performance standards (though they may not be spectacular), because they are accountable. In a few states, there were efforts to confront this problem. For example, in MP, Digvijay Singh tried to make teachers more accountable, by making them answerable to the panchayat or local parent associations (who could deduct their salary if they were absent). Guess what, teachers are all-powerful during elections (they are held in rural school classrooms, with teachers supervising). According to Digvijay Singh, his move (extremely unpopular with teachers) resulted in the powerful teachers union working against him, and influencing elections (all held in their classrooms).

Gurucharan Das went on to describe how, in the various education reform meetings (filled with politicians and bureaucrats) there is extensive discussion on resources or targets. But there has never been a discussion on teachers. Now, India spends nearly 4% of its GDP on education. This puts us right in the middle bracket of spending for education. But our performance remains at the bottom of the barrel.

Back to the Mahabharata, during the game of dice, Vidura, who also constantly upheld Dharma, pleads with the blind king. He says, “To save a family, sacrifice an individual. To save a village, sacrifice a family, and to save a country, sacrifice a village”. His words are not heeded, and he walks out of the assembly in rage. Vidura looks at Dharma using a simple cost vs. benefits analysis, and it sums up the greater good. But to Yudishtra, this is unacceptable. He upholds Dharma (as he tells Draupadi) because he must, and because Adharma leads to damnation, and because he sees Dharma as a ship. If people are not good, social order will collapse, and the rules for cooperation will no longer exist.

Back to corporate India, and Dhirubhai Ambani’s story. On one side, it was the glorious rags to riches story. On the other, it is a tale of deceit and manipulation, and the license raj. It has undoubtedly benefited millions of people (almost 8% of India’s taxes are collected from Reliance industries). Yet laws were broken with impunity. In Yudishtra’s words, ends cannot justify means. This brought Das to the topic of corporate social responsibility, and how corporations had excellent internal governance standards and codes, but little mattered to them when dealing with the greater economy.

So with teachers or with corporations, the problem is the same. Can a sense of duty be given to any of these? Plato and Aristotle believed that virtue could be taught. Reform of schools or corporations or greater government is all our work.

While concluding Gurucharan Das mused again, “What is the point of it all, the point of being good? Being good will result in greater rewards by themselves.”