Monday, October 30, 2006

The ugly Indian

There was a time when I was fed the myth that almost all Americans are ignorant and blissfully unaware of the world outside America. This myth was particularly strong before I came to the States, and continued to occasionally make appearances after I came to the States, in some gatherings of desis. Sure, there remain plenty of Americans who don’t know that Sri Lanka is a country, do not know the difference between the world’s forth most widely spoken language (Hindi) and a person claiming faith to the world’s third largest religion (Hindu), or that the US is not the world’s largest country (in terms of population or land area).

But I also learnt that this ignorance is not unique to Americans, and seems to be a rather strong human trait. Many of my own friends or acquaintances in the States are Indian. Almost all of them have advanced degrees and high paying jobs in tech or science industries. And many of these people roll their eyes in horror and depreciation when some average American still doesn’t know where Iraq is. But many of them are just as guilty of similar ignorance. Here’s a smattering of questions some desis I know were clueless about.

What is thanksgiving celebrated for? (One worthy answer said “it’s some special religious thing for Americans”)
Whom did American get independence from (for the 4th of July celebrations)? (One classic answer I heard was slavery)
Why was there a civil war?
How is the president elected?

When I occasionally ask why people didn’t bother to learn about these things, they said it was because they didn’t really care and it didn’t matter much.


Postscript: Sometimes I feel the larger and brasher the society (and I include an “Indian culture” in the brash category), the less the individual feels he/she is compelled to learn about others (I could probably say the same about sub-Indian regional cultures). But people from smaller countries often feel the need to learn about the big ones. You hear about ugly Americans or Indians or Chinese or Germans or Brits. You don’t hear about ugly Lituanians. And the few Lithuanians I’ve met have uniformly been well aware of the world they live in. Doesn’t prove anything, but perhaps there is something here.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The right to information

I was fortunate to meet and chat with Arvind Kerjriwal yesterday (he is in the USA currently, visiting a number of cities, supported by various organizations like the IIT foundations and alumni associations, Asha, AID etc). Arvind, a now retired IAS officer, founded the exemplary organization Parivartan, and has tirelessly campaigned for the Right to information (RTI) act. In recognition of his work, he was awarded the Ramon Magasaysay award this year.

The RTI act has been in the news recently. But, though I had heard a lot about it (both from the news as well as from organizations I knew were using it well), it was hard for me to imagine how powerful a tool it really could be, until my meeting with Arvind yesterday. So in this post, I though I’d outline what I had learnt from him.

I was surprised to learn that the Right to Information was declared a fundamental right in 1976 by the Supreme Court, as embedded within the right to freedom of speech. That was 30 years ago. But till now, there hasn’t been any mechanism or machinery by which that right could be exerted. But the whole process gathered momentum in 1990, spearheaded by Aruna Roy. Surprisingly, (I learnt from Arvind) this act may never have come to light but for the strong support of an unlikely person, Sonia Gandhi (I still know little about her, but my own respect for her has increased thanks to his one act). And here is what the law provides. It gives all citizens in India five rights:
1) The right to ask any questions about the functioning of any government body or employee
2) The right to inspect any public document
3) The right to photocopies of any document
4) The right to inspect any public work (eg. to inspect any road work for example)
5) To ask for samples of materials used

All this (unless it falls under areas of national interest or security). Still, these are just words. How can this be implemented?

The process is surprisingly simple. All you have to do is petition the public information officier of the government office concerned. If (s)he doesn’t respond in 30 days, that person will be penalized Rs. 250 per day (and still has to respond). A second petition is made to his/her immediate boss, who has to respond within 30 days (the same rules apply). If not, the file is sent to the Information Officer (there is about one per state) who has to by law take action, and penalize the negligent officer. A remarkably efficient process.

But does this work, in the corrupt, bureaucratic system in India? Apparently it does. I’ll just give two of the many examples Arvind talked about (there are many more that you can find here). The first one was of a daily wage laborer in Delhi, Nannu. He had lost his ration card, the card that entitles India’s poorest to subsidized food every month from government supplied provision stores. Now, according to law, a person’s lost card should be replaced in 10 days. Nannu was made to run from pillar to post for some 4 months. He had no money with which to bribe officials. Finally, Parivartan helped him file an RTI petition. In that he asked what progress was made on his replacement card daily, when he would get his card, and what happened to the officers in charge of his card. Within days, the official came to meet Nannu personally, offered him tea, asked him to withdraw his petition, and gave him the ration card.

It must be remembered that a bureaucrat or government official’s power lies in secrecy. And they are terrified of any negligence being made official, or coming out in the open. So, they feel tremendously threatened by the RTI act, since they have the most to lose.

Arvind gave numerous other examples of individual citizens benefiting. However, this RTI is also a powerful tool to expose major policy decisions. He gave an example of a recent effort in Delhi to privatize water supply in the city. Apparently, this was a proposed World Bank funded effort. The proposal was on since the mid nineties in complete secrecy. However, some news leaked out in to the press, and Parivartan, as concerned citizens (who knew nothing about water, but just wanted to know what was going on) filed an RTI petition asking for the files on this process. At first there was a lot of resistance, but finally the files were made public, and the story was shocking. Apparently, the World Bank was arm twisting and almost dictating policy to the government. The process of privatization (or any government work) takes place with bids by bidding companies. There is a two layered process, where first in this case the top six companies would be selected, and then in the second round, the best among them would be selected. Here, in the first round, Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, the well known consulting firm, had a bid that came in tenth. By law, they should have been eliminated. But the world bank insisted that PWC be considered. At first the government protested, but with continuous pressure relented, and declared PWC to be selected in the top six by declaring it to be an Indian company! In the next round, again PWC fared badly, with only a 67% score, and a terrible proposal. Again the world bank pressurized the government (by asking it to remove the people who evaluated the proposal), and forced the government to declare the PWC bid as the winner. Again, the government capitulated to pressure. It wasn’t just this, but the entire process of water privatization in this proposal was rather absurd, and would have affected millions of people adversely. Bowing to public pressure (after the dealings were revealed due to the RTI petition), the government scrapped the project completely.

Clearly, this Right to Information act could be the most powerful tool we have ever had in almost 60 years of independence, and the one chance to correct corruption and inefficiency in government.

But all is not well. Something this powerful for the people will by default have opposition by those who stand to lose. And this would be both the bureaucrats that run the country (both in the civil services as well as regular government offices) as well as politicians. So, there are concerted efforts by both the government and the bureaucrats to kill the bill. There are amendments being proposed that will in effect kill the bill. To make things worse, presently all the current Information Officers appointed are former bureaucrats. The come from within the system, and hate every aspect of the bill (would a former bureaucrat punish one of his old buddies who has failed in his/her duties?). This is in spite of the fact that the Information Officer can be any “eminent citizen”. The present chief information officer is on record saying he believes in “ahinsa”, and will not prosecute negligent officers! Politicians and others involved in rackets like siphoning off money or food from ration stores to sell in the black market hate the RTI. It could kill their own golden egg laying geese. So, there is every chance that this bill might be co-opted in to the vast bureaucracy that exists in the Indian system.

And it is our duty to see that it doesn’t happen. So, make some noise, petition the president or prime minister or the leader of the opposition. Make sure that the bill survives in practice. If it does, and it functions for five years or so, gaining visibility, it will become political suicide for any party to remove it. And it will be the one tool we have never had in all these years to fight corruption and strive for transparent, efficient governance.

(All this reminds me that it is time to revisit my complete Yes minister and Yes prime minister collections).

Monday, October 23, 2006

What's your worldview?

Regular blogging will resume on this blog in a day or two.

Meanwhile, what's your worldview?

Here's mine:

And here is where some famous world leaders would probably end up:

You can take the quiz here

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ali G and science


This be my main man, Ali G, talking to some scientists, technologists and creationist.

Check it.


(Blogging will take a break until the 19th of this month. There will be lots of blogging after that).

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Plant bloodhound

It’s time for some scienceblogging again!

Before you read on, pause for a moment, and answer this question.

Can plants smell things?

I mean, think seriously. It’s a plant. How could a plant detect odors? Volatile chemicals? Sure, plants themselves could smell nice or nasty, but do they sense their own smell?

Now, think of a rather common garden weed called the dodder (a.k.a. strangleweed). If you are an enthusiastic kitchen gardener, and grow potatoes or tomatoes in your backyard, it is more than likely that this weed has at some point of time entered your garden. Its actually a sorry looking plant, with the leaves hardly visible, as it vines itself around the host plant, but it does sometimes have nice looking flowers. The dodder seedling can survive only for a short time, but in this time needs to hunt out a host, and start growing on it. This vine produces roots (or haustoria) that penetrate the host plant, and sucks out the nutrients from that poor plant.

In some fascinating work, scientists now report that this plant actually sniffs out its prey.

(image from here)

Yup, you heard that right. This plant hunts down its host by smelling it out.

Well, more or less.

The researchers designed some nice experiments, where they first traced the growth of dodder seedlings, and found that they moved towards tomato plants. Then the researchers carried out a more controlled experiment, where they put the seedlings in a special chamber with only two outlets. One lead to four real tomato plants, the other to four artificial plants. The seedling, with almost a relentless focus, grew towards the real tomato plants. Next, the researchers did the same experiment, but without any plants. In one side they kept real plant extracts, in the other, solvent alone. Guess what? The dodder grew straight towards the plant extract.

Ok, you say. Perhaps the dodder can sense any plant extract, since it parasitizes many plants. But that isn’t being really perceptive.

But guess what, this plant can differentiate between plant smells. If the experiment is carried out with the dodder seedling planted between tomato plants on one side, and wheat plants on the other side, the dodder preferentially grows towards the tomato plants. The wheat plant is an unsuitable host for the dodder, and it does not survive well on wheat. And this data shows that the way the dodder differentiates between tomato and wheat plants is by the volatile compounds they emit.

This plant practically smells out a new home.

Being a (former) biotechnologist, I couldn’t but appreciate the observation that if the dodder didn’t like growing towards the wheat plants, perhaps the volatile compound in wheat that differs from the tomato plant could possibly be used some day as a dodder-icide.

A fascinating piece of work, and it certainly has made me rethink the whole concept of plant sensory systems (after all, we have them for survival. There’s no reason to think that plants could not use something this useful). This study also raises so many questions. How do the plants detect volatile chemicals? What are the receptors that do this? Do all plants still retain this system, or do parasitic plants preferentially retain them? Such exciting times.

Now, here’s my question again.

Can plants smell things?

(You can read the full paper of this story here, or listen to an NPR broadcast here).

Monday, October 02, 2006

A desire to learn, and the great Indian school show

Saturday, the third day of the excellent South Asian Film Festival here in Seattle, had a rather interesting session. This one was dedicated to education themed films, and there were two movies, both striking in their own way.

The first was a charming little short film from Nepal, called Suk Bahadur class IV. This was about an eighty something year old gentleman, Suk Bahadur, who lives in a remote village in Nepal, who wanted to learn. He’d spent a lifetime in India, working as a driver (and drove Meena Kumari herself around, if his anecdotes are to be believed), and now came back to his birth-village up in the mountains to retire. He now wants to study and become literate, and so goes to school faithfully every day, with his little granddaughter.

You see him doing morning drills with the little kids, and then cramming lessons in classes, to come back home and do his homework (while being scolded by his seven year old granddaughter for not reading words correctly). And, like most garrulous old men, Suk Bahadur is never short of stories, or reasons why Nepal remains backward.

When the documentary maker finally shows the movie to Suk Bahadur, he only has these profound words to say;

”Main hero nahin, super-hero ban gaya. Sunil Dutt aur Ashok Kumar say bhi bada”

(I’ve become a super hero, bigger than Sunil Dutt and Ashok Kumar……doesn’t quite translate as well).


The second movie was the simply outstanding "The great Indian School show". Set in the Mahatma Gandhi High School in Nagpur, the documentary chronicles events at this school, which has installed close-circuit cameras in all classrooms, corridors, the playground and all exits.

Yes, you read that correct. 185 closed-circuit cameras at every point in school. And all cameras lead to an array of monitors placed in the principal’s office.

The principal, an unctuous Mr. Bajaj, with gold rings in all fingers, a gold bracelet adorning the wrist, and killer dark glasses (henceforth to be referred to as Pimp Daddy B) goes on to explain the rationale behind such a necessary use of resources.

He says, now with the cameras he can monitor what is happening in every corner of school. He knows if there is the slightest indiscipline. He can see what each teacher is teaching in class. If he thinks the teacher isn't teaching well, he has video proof, and can fire him/her. This technology also comes with a direct speakerphone to each classroom.

He demonstrates, by zoning in to some random class, and his voice booms across the room.

The moment the students hear HIS voice, they all stand up, and the teacher too gets up from her bench!

He then asks the teacher how many students were failing in that subject. The poor sods have to stand up (in full view of the camera), and he asks the teacher to send him the list.

“See”, he turns to tell us, “how efficient the running of the school is.” And then he beams, and I almost expect to see gold teeth.

Pimp daddy, it seems, runs a tight ship. All the teachers sing endless praises of the cameras and mikes in every room. And here are some select pearls of wisdom they come up with.

“Thanks to this, the discipline is very high in the school”, muses teacher X.

“This is a co-ed school. Both boys and girls study here. So, things might happen. Therefore, these cameras are necessary”, philosophizes another erudite lady.

“Not just in this school, but we should have this in all schools, colleges, and offices. Only then will people work properly”, chastises sycophant teacher number three.

Some students are asked what they think, and they immediately sing praises of Pimp Daddy B. Other students march down the corridor, flourishing military style salutes.

And we, the audience, watch this movie in utter and total incredulity. Now this, truly, will make India the land of great free thinkers, and a hotbed of creativity.

Mahatma Gandhi, I’m sure, would have been proud of this school.

(My post for Gandhi jayanti).