Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Blog day 2005

3108 This!

(Button from Blogday).

I’ll do my duty as a good blogger and spread the word. Today is Blogday 2005, and we’re to recommend five other blogs to readers. Here are five very nice blogs which I’ve chanced upon. The first three are very new blogs.

To each Its own

Yossarian lives

Granger Gab

One of my favorite blogs, which suddenly has gone silent Baghdad burning

One of the best science blogs out there Pharyngula

Have fun on Blogday.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Gloom, and blog love

”Officials blamed Katrina for at least 68 deaths, a toll that is certain to rise.” [link]

I, like many of us here, have been following the massive destruction trail of the hurricane, Katrina, that is on a rampage in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

In spite of advance warnings (days in advance), evacuation signals, rescue teams, and major precautions, the destruction is sickening, and the most advanced economy in the world suffers just as badly.

Perhaps I’ve been much too hard on Indian rescue and relief efforts after the rains in Maharashtra, or the massive tsunami, or the “supercyclone” in Orissa a few years ago.

Katrina update: CNN's doing a great job covering the floods. The situation is bad, with hundreds feared dead, and massive looting to make things worse for the security and relief forces.


Here’s some positive stuff, to keep away the gloom.

That fine blog, Desipundit, asks us to spread some bloglove.

Desipundit is a fantastic effort, and every time a post of mine has been linked there, I’ve felt extremely honored and delighted.

It’s the must-stop-daily-blog, almost as important as the Sunday cup of spiced tea.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Blog mela nominations please!

Blog mela nominations!

Yes, the next Blogmela is going to be right here, on Balancing Life. So don’t be shy, and nominate liberally. I’m looking forward to putting this together, as I’ll get to read some posts from a number of excellent blogs that I don’t normally get time to visit.

The rules are the usual:

  1. All nominated posts should be written between (and inclusive of) Friday, 26th August, and Thursday, 1st September.

  2. Go ahead and nominate your own posts, or interesting posts you’ve found, or posts by your pet parakeet…….ideally nominate posts with an Indic theme/ relevance to India, but this is a flexible rule.

  3. I will also include posts that I come across, if they fit in to the mela.

  4. I will try to include a majority of the posts nominated (unless it doesn’t fit with the theme/flow of the mela. This will NOT be a statement on the quality of that post).

  5. Please nominate in the comments section here. If you do need to email your nominations, send them to sunil{dot}laxman{at}gmail{dot}com.

  6. Posts nominated after midnight (PST) Thursday, 1st September won’t be accepted.

  7. The mela will be up some time on Saturday.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Counting people

Most of us have many different ideas or models or beliefs of how India should develop. Most of us will agree on some things (clean water, clean air, sanitation, paved roads, electricity, schooling for all), but might differ on whether you need more or less flyovers, more or less public transport, more or less state intervention in various areas…the list is endless.

We also have different ideas on India’s population (how can this large population be made an asset to the nation? How can population growth be reduced? Do we need to reduce it, and if so, by how much? What should the government do? Do we compare ourselves with China?). Another endless list of possibilities.

People, and their worth.

Ashwin Mahesh has an excellent Op-Ed in Indiatogether. Some excerpts:

” I was reminded of this reading an article in the Indian Express earlier this summer by one of India's best-known CEOs. Coming home to Bangalore from Beijing, Nandan Nilekani despaired of the crumbling state of his hometown, and wondered if it would be too much to wish for an eight lane highway from the airport, and a special safe passage for bicycles, instead of the years-late flyovers holding us up without end. Certainly, that's doable, and knowing this is doable must make his despair all the more striking. I endure the years-late flyover he referred to daily myself, and am certain that Bangalore is years away from having a safe path for alternate commuters.

But what, really, is the problem? Is it infrastructure? Or could it be that there's something else to be answered along the way to getting there from here? The more compelling question, it seems to me, is not whether India can achieve the standards of prosperity - and accompanying comfort in public spaces - seen in the West, but whether this transformation is to be achieved by the application of technological and scientific capability, or by diligently tackling the great social and economic divides of our society…..”
(emphasis mine).

Risks and skepticism:

The risk, as we are seeing daily, is that various theories of how such progress can be attained tend to distract us from such a straightforward consideration. Such distractions are inevitable, but how we respond to them need not be. So, if the government proposes a grand housing plan with Rs 17,000 allocated for each new house, we can be skeptical enough to ask if that's really workable. If the government builds one high school for every six primary schools, we can ask ourselves if that's really going to put all the children in school up to graduation. If water is to be privatised, we can ask ourselves how those who cannot afford to pay fit into our dreams of progress…..”

Basic education:
” Decades of pursuing policies to ‘uplift’ the weaker sections have produced the world’s most illiterate democracy. This was always predictable, because the education of the poor was separated at birth from the education of the middle and upper classes. From that founding mistake, the rest of the litany was assured………….If, instead, we had set out to ask how every Indian child could be educated by a system equally accessible to all, we might have done a lot better. Indeed, the experience of most East Asian nations – whose economic gains we yearn for, but whose social policies in pursuit of those gains we rarely examine – proves just this.

Read the full piece here.

The article does make you stop and think beyond the usual dreams, and about what kind of progress India needs.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005



If you read texts of faiths other than yours, are you a heretic?

If you believe in clean air, water, and forests, and the environment are you anti-development?

If you believe in industry and growing economies, are you anti-environment?

If you believe in the freedom of other faiths, customs, languages and cultures, are you anti-national?

If you don’t believe in subsidies, handouts and trade barriers, are you a free-marketer?

If you believe in a meritocracy, are you anti-downtrodden?

If you feel the less-enfranchised should be provided all possible means to become more enfranchised, are you anti-meritocracy?

If you don’t like gas-guzzling cars and an oil-economy, are you anti-industry?

If you do not subscribe to ritual, and overt religious evangelicalism, are you godless and irreligious?

If you believe in separation of church and state, are you immoral?

If you believe in scientific fact, are you no longer allowed to pray?

If you find other cultures as fascinating as your own, do you become “against your culture”?

If you don’t wrap the flag around you, are you unpatriotic?

If you believe in economic opportunity independent of State control, are you a right-wing hawk?

If you point out what you think is a flaw in your own culture, are you a “brown sahib”?

If you aren’t part of the political-religious right, are you a communist?

If you don’t like communists, are you a socialist?

If you don’t like socialists, are you a capitalist?

If you don’t like capitalists, are you leftist?

If you don’t like leftists, do you even exist?

My old school, my alma mater, has a motto, composed over a century ago, when the world was different.

Or was it?

Nec decstrosum, nec sinistrosum

Neither to the right, nor to the left, but on straight on.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Origin of a Young God

“And the splendor of her hips can be measured
by how Śiva at last would lift them
to his lap and there, faultless, she would rest
where even the desires of other women cannot go.

A delicate line of young hair crossing
the knot of her skirt and entering her deep
navel  seemed a streak of dark light
from the blue gem centering her belt.

At her waist like an altar, curving and slender,
there were three gentle folds of the skin,
as if a woman in her youth could freshly grow
steps for the God of love to climb.

She with her eyes like dark waterlilies had full breasts
and they were of a light color, with black nipples,
and pressed so closely together not even
the fiber of a lotus could find space between them.”

That’s exactly the kind of poetry the moral police in India today (it could be the Shiv Sena, or the Bajarang Dal, or any one else) would be outraged by, and probably call a strike for (along with the burning down of a library or two). Clearly, according to them, such scandalous thought and writing is corrupting the country’s ancient culture and moral fiber.

Clearly. Except that these stanzas are taken from a translation of Kālidāsa’s magnificent Sanskrit poetic composition, Kumārasambhava (an absolutely brilliant translation by Hank Heifetz). Kālidāsa  is undoubtedly one of Sanskrit’s greatest writers, remembered to this day (perhaps 1500 or more years after his time) for his three magnificent plays, two mahākāvya’s and one khandakāvya (extended lyric), which have been translated and rewritten in scores of Indian and western languages, and told and enacted more times than can be counted. Kumārasambhava is a mahākāvya, a great poem, and has eight cantos (or sargas) definitively written by Kālidāsa (with nine more, that may or may not have been written by him). It is the poem of the events leading to the conception of Kumāra (Skanda or  Shanmukha or Kārttikeya, who fused with the Tamil Muruga), the eternal youth, and child of Śiva and Pārvati.

The eight sargas start with the birth of Umā (or Pārvati) in the lap of the lord of the Himālayas, Himvan, and moves on to the manifestation of Brahmā, the burning of the god of love, Rati’s lament, achieving the fruit of tapas, Umā to be given in marriage to Śiva, the marriage of Śiva and Pārvati, and the description of Umā’s pleasure (ending in the conception of Kumāra).

Kālidāsa’s  presentation of Śiva’s as a lover may have been criticized in India, yet Kālidāsa’s work  remains true to the Upanishads. This poem is just one among many other countless works in Sanskrit that unabashedly celebrates the erotic mysticism that was very much an overt part of Indian philosophy and literature. Where there is Kāma (love, desire) there always is Rati (sexual delight), and the two are never apart.

One absolutely outstanding aspect of Heifetz’s translation is his ability to maintain the Sanskrit meter. Classical Sanskrit poetry is written in four-line stanzas, with a definite number of syllables in each stanza. One of the most common Sanskrit meters is the Śloka, which has eight syllables in each quarter (yes, the word Śloka, does not necessarily mean a prayer, but is just a Sanskrit meter). Kumārasambhava uses eight different meters (for eight sargas) including the Śloka meter. Heifetz has incredibly managed, in his translation, to retain the feel and count of these meters. Thus, every stanza flows in a rhythm that Kālidāsa himself intended.

“There the god who can be known in eight forms
fed wood to the fire, itself a form of him,
and, for some unimaginable reason of his own, practiced
tapas, he who himself gives the fruits of it.”

This is a truly outstanding effort at translation, of an immortal poem that celebrates love, life, and our culture.

Read it, even if only to enjoy the absolutely breathtaking poetry. (ISBN 0-520-07126-3, Amazon link)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005



Snippets from conversations overheard due to an irresistible urge to be a nosey parker.

While walking home from work:
An undergraduate (freshman or sophomore) couple are talking to another couple of undergrads on the pavement. Said one of them to the others, “Would you guys like to come up to see our disgustingly filthy room? I think it’s really cool.”

Now, I understand that I’m not getting any younger, and my teenage years are a memory, but even though some of us had pretty filthy hostel rooms, we never went out of our way to invite people to view our living conditions.

Can some of this blog’s readers (who are still in college) enlighten me about such modern ideas?

At the airport.

Two portly middle-aged men are talking mostly about religion (or, more precisely, how important the church is). I couldn’t keep my ears away from the conversation. Their conversation diverges into the present war. One of them suddenly brings up high gas prices. The other remarks, “We need to use our God given renewable energy sources; the sun, the wind and water, and not rely on oil.”

Amen to that (probably the only part of their entire conversation I overheard that I agreed with).

On the bus.

White male to another white male. “These Chinese and Indians are every where. They’re taking all our jobs away.”

Oh dear!

Girl to another.

“I really love Indian food, curry and all that stuff. And naan bread.”

Says the other girl. “I think I’ve had Indian food also. I hated it. I had this stuff called Phad thai, and it was waaaaay too spicy for me!”

Duh! Phad Thai!

Work an Hour

Normally, this blog won't have such posts, but since children, basic education and socio-economic development are areas very close to my heart, here's this pitch.

Asha is in the midst of its Work an Hour campaign, that really takes off around the date of India's independence.

What is Work an hour? The concept is very simple:

"Each year volunteers from around the world come together in a show of great human spirit, to help educate underprivileged children in India. Work An Hour, or WAH, as it is popularly known, is a simple concept. We ask you to symbolically contribute one hour of your time towards the cause of children's education by donating an hour's worth of your salary or more. The event symbolically begins on July 4, the American Independence Day, reaches an apex on August 15, the Indian Independence Day, and finally culminates on September 5, which is celebrated as Teachers' Day in India.

The reason I like supporting organizations like Asha are that they are completely volunteer driven, there are no overheads (small administrative expenses are bourn by volunteers), and every penny for every project is completely accounted for. A donor knows exactly where his/her money is going.

For this year's Work an Hour projects; take a look by clicking on any name on the map, here. The complete project details, the focus of each group, a detailed site visit report and the complete financial budget (to the last rupee) is listed. And though it is Asha for Education, Asha tries to look at education in the broadest sense (it doesn't mean just literacy), since its goal is to bring about socio-economic change primarily through the medium of education. Asha is still way short of this years Work an Hour goal.

So, if you like what you see, you can do your bit. Or, if you want to get closely involved, you could toot down to a meeting of the nearest Asha chapter and see what they are up to.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Taking a walk…..

While walking to work this morning, my thoughts drifted towards my father’s maternal uncle, whom we all also called Maama, as I was thinking about the quality of news reports and the general standard of writing in a lot of Indian newspapers.

Maama was the family’s newspaperman. He was a newspaper editor in the ‘50’s, 60’s and 70’s, when editors seemed to be mighty men (or women). It seems like it was a time when (Indian) newspapers took pride in their content, their unbiased reporting, and quality writing. A time when people told their kids to read editorials to improve their English. A time when some, like the Indian Express, fearlessly went against government edict (during the Emergency). A time when the pen was still mightier than the gold. Maama was that kind of an editor; upright and forceful, and very “old school”.

In the early eighties (might have been 1984-85 or something), he moved to Bangalore, and came out of semi-retirement. The Times of India (yes, that rag) was going to launch its Bangalore edition, and Maama was to start it up. I met him for the first time then, as a little boy, awed and slightly terrified by his piercing glare (through quintessential horn-rimmed spectacles), and straight, combed-back silver hair. I still remember asking him why he had moved to Bangalore after living in northern and western India for a lifetime.

He said, “I’m going to give Bangaloreans India’s finest English newspaper”. I remember seeing my father nod while standing behind him, and then later (as we were going home) tell my sister that for anyone who grew up in Bombay, news would always remain synonymous with the “Old lady of Boribundar”, the TOI. If it was in the Times, it was good.

I met Maama for the last time some eight years or so ago, just some time before he passed away (he didn’t have to see the present state of the paper). He was in his nicest spirits and asked me what I was up to, and what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I wanted to become a good scientist and do research. I also told him that I really enjoyed writing, but didn’t know how to improve my writing skills. He asked me what I liked writing about, and I said I just enjoyed writing. About things that affected me, about things I saw, just “stuff”. I had just read “Video nights in Kathmandu”, and thought that was good “stuff”. I told Maama that, and asked him to suggest how I could improve my writing.

He just smiled and said, “you can only write in your own way.” I wasn’t satisfied, and asked him to give me some little tips. He laughed and said, “Just go take a walk, and come back, and write about what you saw.”

I was extremely dissatisfied with this suggestion. But I took a walk anyway, and looked hard for interesting incidents. I came back to his house half an hour later, sat down, thought about it, and then declared that I hadn’t seen anything worth writing about. I couldn’t see how walking would help writing.

Maama smiled at me again and told me to take another walk.

A few days later I took another walk, thinking about Maama’s words. I looked around for a while, but it was still more of the same. The same shops, the same people, the same houses and the same trees. I came back home, still dissatisfied. But I continued to take a walk along the same route in the evenings when ever I could.

As I continued to walk along the same route every day, I continued to see more of the same. There were the same “Flame of the forest (gul mohur)” trees that were green in autumn, lost their leaves in winter, and were covered in crimson-orange flowers once the fiery month of May arrived. There were the same buffaloes lounging in the street, languidly chewing cud, confident that the street was theirs (irrespective of the vehicle that wanted to go by). There was the same pack of street-dogs that howled every night and kept restless sleepers awake, and fought with each other near the trash-cans, and who all miraculously disappeared the moment dog-catchers arrived in their van, only to return phoenix-like the very next morning. There was the same tender-coconut seller on the street, selling the same coconuts, waving his sickle effortlessly to scythe through the thick green outer shell. There were the same flower-sellers in the market, with bunches of marigold, and roses, and the ever essential mallige, the fragrant jasmine. There were the same fruit sellers, with their loud voices, shouting out bargain prices, with their stacks of yellow bananas, from the delicious but tiny elakki to the giant spotted-yellow bananas that often became my dinner. There were the same shops, thronging with activity in the evenings, and empty in the afternoons. There were the same people (some short and some tall, some dark and some light, some fat and some thin, some rich and some poor, some in cars and some on foot, some miserly and some generous, some in modern clothes and some in traditional attire) who invaded these same shops. There was the same bus I boarded every morning, and there was the same conductor every day who curtly greeted me the same way, and jingled his bag of coins (Aha! But the coins changed every day, though they sounded the same). There was the same temple opposite the same bus stop, where the same priest would chant the same prayers. There was the same……..

It has taken me an awfully long time, and a lot of walks, to even begin to understand what Maama meant by telling me to take a walk. Thank you Maama!


postscript: I may not be online this weekend (through Monday), but hope to be back on Tuesday. Have a good weekend, all.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Celluloid idealism

It’s rare that you cherish or really enjoy a movie where the protagonist is some sort of supreme idealist, because invariably such movies degenerate into sermonizing sagas, or becomes unbearably soppy, or completely loose track. In Indian cinema, the movie would invariably go the "formula Bollywood" way by depicting every social evil, proclaiming a solution for it, and creating a holier-than-thou hero who also masquerades as a vigilante seeking justice. But sometimes, a movie comes a long that just stays in your mind. It becomes a "timeless classic", and worms its way into your system, as you watch “human spirit triumph”.


Red beard (Akahige) is one of Akira Kurasawa’s lesser known films. This one did not sublimely blend Shakespearean tragedy with Noh theater. It did not inspire the Star Wars saga (Hidden Fortress), or the classic “Man with no name” Eastwood westerns (Yojimbo and Sanjuro), or become the template for a dozen rip offs or “adaptations” (Seven Samurai). It does not demand your attention from the very first scene. It starts innocuously, in early 19th century Japan (still under the Shogunate), in obscure rural Japan. A young, ambitious doctor arrives at a village hospital on a brief visit, to discover that he has in fact been posted there. Kurosawa then takes his time to leisurely but meticulously develop his characters. The movie then unfolds before us, like a well-constructed novel, with a languid but beautiful sound track.

The young doctor finds that he has to work under the legendary head of the hospital, Red Beard. He is disappointed with this posting in obscure rural Japan. Influential and well educated, he dreams of being the Shogun’s personal doctor, not someone who would serve in obscurity. But working with Red Beard changes his life, as Red Beard teaches him to value compassion, and the duty of a doctor to cure, no matter what the circumstances.

But it is here that Kurosawa’s mastery shines brightest. He is effortlessly able to leave his central narrative, the tale of the young tyro and the veteran doctor, and build around the stories of some of the inmates. In each story, there is a sensitive and deep understanding of human nature. Each story makes you pause and ponder, while it begins to affect the young doctor’s feelings towards his profession and towards patients. Three mini-plots develop, the first of an insane inmate (who we discover was abused as a little girl), the second of an old, sick man, well loved by the inmates, who has his own sadness, and the third (the most beautifully portrayed) of a young girl who is rescued from a brothel (where she had been ill-treated for years) by Red Beard, and put in the care of the young doctor. While the young doctor tries to cure her, he falls sick himself, and the girl (filled with hatred for humanity) nurses him, and while doing so, heals herself, and also finds joy in helping a little kid.

Towering over this entire movie is Kurosawa’s talisman, the legendary Toshiro Mifune in his last screen appearance in a Kurosawa movie. No man ever swaggered like Mifune ever did. In this movie, his role is perhaps a third that of the young doctor (Yuzo Kayama), yet he breathes life into every scene he appears in. His presence is felt in the background in every scene. And he gets his one samurai like fight, fast, furious, and remarkable. After beating up the goons, Red Beard proceeds to treat their injuries, and you are left smiling, and wondering if you would ever meet a doctor like him. And Mifune indeed remains a samurai; single minded in his devotion to healing as Red Beard.


Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam was a veritable lesson on how to pull the viewer’s emotional strings. Dharmendra was gifted his career’s finest role (those of you who scoff at “Garam Dharam”, visit his past with movies like Anupama, Chupke Chupke, Ankhen and innumerable others). He plays Satyapriya, an individual who values lofty ideals of truth above all else; his career, family and life itself. This movie could so easily have degenerated into a soppy melodrama, but Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s skills are at the forefront. Satyapriya and his friend Naren (the inimitable Sanjeev Kumar) finish engineering college, and set out on different career paths. Sanjeev Kumar remains honest, but practical, and works hard to become successful. Dharmendra remains in his world of idealism and resolute resistance to compromise, and struggles through every step. Yet, not for a moment does he waver from adherence to truth.

In his very first job, he works for a debauch prince (this was set in the pre-independence/ early independence era). The prince desires to “own” Sharmila Tagore (the illegitimate daughter of his manager, David). Through chance occurrences, Dharmendra lands in a situation to protect Sharmila, but in a moment of weakness, wavers. The prince rapes Sharmila, and the idealistic Dharmendra then marries Sharmila.

How is this different from any other sixties flick, you ask? It is here that Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s talent in portraying human nature, and developing characters shines through. Dharmendra, though the supreme idealist, is unable to accept Sharmila or her child completely, and even through his idealism, his completely human nature shines through.

Later Naren (Sanjeev Kumar) reappears, and beautifully personifies the every-day man, one of us, who would compromise (but only so slightly) in order to move ahead in one’s career. Yet the compromise would be “practical”, never something that would weigh on one’s conscience. The contrast between the two characters is one of the movie highlights. Dharmendra is unable to accept these compromises, and the conflict is beautifully wrought out. Dharmendra eventually dies of cancer, and the film leads to its incredibly moving climax.

Ashok Kumar (Dharmendra’s father) wants Sharmila Tagore’s son to light Dharmendra’s pyre. Sharmila (who is not accepted by Ashok Kumar) in a moment of stark honesty, says that the child is not Dharmendra’s son, but is illegitimate. Satyapriya’s honesty lives on.

It is one of those touching climaxes where it is far easier to let tears flow, than hold them back.


Moving celluloid moments, where human spirit triumphs, and characters are carefully crafted, that remain etched in memory. As, I’m sure, there are movies that remain etched in yours.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Learning to aid III: choices, choices, and choices

This is the third and final post oh Ravi Kucchimanchi'’s conversations with us. The first two can be found here and here.


This was a widely free flowing discussion, where a situation was presented and we were asked for possible solutions or ways to tackle the problem. Though it was based on snippets from real life incidents, we'll assume that this is hypothetical. A simple situation of corruption being the primary obstacle to basic progress.

Now, let's take the example of a village with around 200 houses. 150 of them don't have electricity, though the village is officially "electrified". You investigate, and find out from the villagers that the only way to obtain an electricity connection would be to pay a fairly large bribe, say some 1500 rupees. This may not seem too exorbitant, but we're talking about very poor villagers, who spend about 40 rupees per month on kerosene for their lanterns. Many of them want electricity so that they can have a couple of light bulbs at home, their kids can stay back and study in the evenings, and perhaps they can afford a fan to use in the summer months. Seems very basic, but this small change means a lot to them. And they cannot afford to pay the bribe, and remain powerless (pardon the pun). The situation was thrown open to us, and we were asked for possible solutions. Here are some that were voiced.

1) Try to unite the poor villagers, and force the local authorities to provide the villagers these basic services by taking legal action against them.

Problems with this scenario: This would certainly be a long and difficult struggle. If you as an outsider were doing this, you will have to remain in this village for a long time (probably years) to see this fight through. That would be difficult for you. Secondly, the villagers might have to undergo a lot of other hardships (repercussions) if they start these demands. Thirdly, it is difficult to keep a group already with difficulties to stay united. Legal disputes and cases take a long time for resolution in court (years sometimes), and can be very expensive. Who will bear the expense for that many years? Who will ensure the implementation of the court verdict, even if it is in their favor? Much easier said than done.

2) We know that such corruption exists. But there is some validity of strength in numbers. So, couldn't the villagers unite, and then say that though they can't pay the huge bribe, they will together pool a smaller (but still large, because of scale up) amount each, and give this in bulk. Sort of like a Costco or Sam's club bulk rate pricing, a discounted rate of corruption (yes, a couple of us came up with this idea!)

Problems with this scenario: Come on, if an ethical battle is being fought, you have to take a correct stand. This would absolutely condone corruption. Additionally, it may or may not work, but will make any future in the progress next to impossible.

3) As an NGO, promote alternate energy sources, such as solar or biogas, which can be used in place of electricity.

Problems with this scenario: This one can be viable, but only in certain cases. The costs of solar lightning etc are (still) much higher than conventional electricity sources, and require a lot of funding. It is cheaper for say, solar cookers, but solar lighting is another proposition all together. With biogas etc, it's not enough to have cattle, but there should be a certain number of cattle, as well as sufficient quantities of water to spare. Again, cost factors are fairly high (to build a distribution system etc). However, some groups, like the Barefoot college have managed to solve some problems with this approach. Still, it is difficult for small groups to do this in a large number of villages. Implementation requires a huge grassroots base, which most groups donÂ’t have.

4) Look for sincere officials to help combat this problems. After all, all government officials can't be bad.

Problems with this scenario: It is absolutely true that there are good government and administrative officials, who are not corrupt and work sincerely. However, they are not the rule, and a large section of the officials are not in this category. Often, the good ones are themselves powerless given their surroundings (if say there is a good middle level official, but the immediate superior is corrupt, the good official is unable to act. Sometimes, a junior official who is corrupt might be politically or locally very powerful, and the senior official can't go against him/her). But it certainly is a good idea to find these officials, and take their help whenever possible. However, in say the situation above, this alone will not provide a solution.

5) Gather some villagers, surround (in this case) the linesman and ask him why he accepts bribes (say at a panchayat meeting). Try to publicly question him, and hope that yields results.

Problems with this scenario: Usually, the lowest official will claim that he's being paid too little. Then the villagers will clamor that this is not true, and reveal his (usually rather adequate) salary. He'll backtrack, and then say that his share of the bribe in only 50 rupees, the rest go to superiors. So he might magnanimously forfeit his share. But this gets more and more difficult as you go up the ladder (to say a senior engineer, who's cut is actually heftier). Still, there are merits in this suggestion as well.

6) How about negotiating a settlement with the officials, with a request that they at least consider requests from the poorest applicants without demanding bribes. The list would be provided to the officials by an impartial external group (say the NGO), with the guarantee that each person in the list is too poor to possibly pay the bribe. This person could the be awarded a connection. The carrot to the government officials in this case would be a guarantee not to go to the press, or press charges.

Problems with this scenario: Even if the officials agree to this (due to your constant pressure), they might take a very long time to execute this/clear the files. Additionally, would it not be unfair to the others, who, though they can possibly afford the bribe, should by right not have to pay it. Where do you draw the line? Here you are not really condoning corruption, but you are drawing some line to start your fight. However, it is a possibly viable stance.

These were just some of the ideas we discussed, and include real life situations. But do you have more ideas? Would you choose to do any of these, or come up with something different? There clearly aren't any right or wrong answers, just choices. Go on, what would you do?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Cell-phone woes

The 4th of July weekend was just a day away. Life seemed to be wonderful, and the sun was shining brightly. But fate had darker plans.

On Thursday afternoon I attempted to check my voice-mail, and dialed the numbers. The cell-phone display flickered momentarily, and died in front of my very eyes. I panicked for a moment, regained my composure, and powered up the cell-phone again. It burst into life, and relieved, I tried to check my voice-mail once again. I dialed two more numbers, and the inevitable happened. It died again. The consequences were clear.

My phone had gone bust.

There was nothing else to do but walk down to the Cingular Wireless store. I walked up, and patiently explained my problem.

The store-attendant patiently listened to me, and then pulled out my records.

”We can’t give you a replacement sir. Even though your phone is under the 1-year warranty, you are an AT&T wireless customer. So, you’ll have to call technical support and ask them to send you a replacement. We can only replace your phone here if you were originally a Cingular customer.”

I stared incongruously. Just months ago, Cingular proudly announced to the world that it had bought over AT&T wireless. We former AT&T customers received poetic cards talking about a seamless merger, and complete protection and continuation of former AT&T plans under Cingular, with superb Cingular “customer service”. I pointed out this fact to the employee, but he shrugged his shoulders and said sorry.

I accepted my fate, took the support number, and went home.

The next morning, I woke up my friend next door, and borrowed his phone to call “technical support/warranty services”. After going through a bunch of “press * now” options, I finally spoke to a human being.

I was asked my name, my social security number, my mom’s maiden name, my date of birth, my pet goldfish’s nickname, the name of the first Sith Lord, and finally, after about 15 minutes, she asked me what my problem was.

I explained my woes in excruciating detail.

The sympathetic attendant finally understood all.

”So, your phone won’t start up?”

“No, no, it starts up fine, but every time I dial a number, it shuts down”

”OK, is there any thing broken in the phone? Shake the phone and tell me if you hear a noise.”

I shook the phone like I’d never shaken before. No noise.

After more of this, I was told to open the phone, and read out every one of the 30 odd numbers that were written on the back.

Finally, she said, “we’ll send you a replacement in 2 working days”, and then said I had to listen to some important information before I hung up.

I was directed to the automated voice system, and waited, listening to it sing Cingular’s virtues for 5 minutes. I imagined the important stuff would come in the end. It said thank you and hung up, and I was left waiting.

I spent the 4th of July weekend without a phone.

Finally, the phone arrived on Tuesday. I opened the box in eager anticipation, like a kid opens a birthday present. I found only the phone (sans battery inside). So, I stuck in my old battery into the phone, and power it up. Nothing happened.

I tried again. Nothing happened.

In sheer frustration, my wife and I walked down to the Cingular store once again. I repeated my woes. The attendant looked at the replacement phone, and said ”I’m sorry, but it’s a defective piece. You need to call Cingular for a replacement. Thanks for stopping by.”


Next morning, I was at it again, calling customer service (at least my wife’s cell-phone was working). Again, I finally reached some call center (this one was not in India, they couldn’t pronounce my common Indian last name). Repeat performance, but this time in that list of questions I was asked to name the world’s largest parrot (ha! It’s the Kakapo! So there!).

Déjà vu.

In exasperation, I told them that their replacement phone was busted, and what was more, it clearly wasn’t a new piece. So, the person (who took 5 minutes to understand this simple fact) apologized and promised to send me yet another replacement.

Two days later, the replacement for the replacement arrived. It appeared to work, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Two days later, there was a flicker on the screen, and it died.
Curse them all!

I made my third phone call to Cingular, went through the merry-go-round process yet again, and this time I was promised a new phone (What were they sending me the previous two times? Granny’s antiques?). Not only did I have to put up with this, but I also had to put up with listening to that last 5 minutes of “important” automated messages THREE TIMES.

In anger, I wanted to call customer service and complain. I called, and after negotiating four automated options, I gave up. It was my destiny.

Finally, the replacement for the replacement that was a replacement for a replacement arrived. I said Hanuman Chalisa and powered it up. It worked! I did the Maori war dance, and made a successful phone call! I was actually grateful that Cingular had done what they were supposed to do.

Michael Higgins had a post in praise of competition, where he had the option of changing a provider because of bad service. But cell-phone services are a classic example of a choice between a devil or a deep blue sea. Given the scale of investments involved, the only viable cell phone service options are the large area providers. There are three, all of them equally fat and lazy. Once you sign a contract with them, you cannot change your provider, because they charge you for it. They are under no real obligation to provide good service. The next best other option is another company that’s nearly as bad.

Competition is a very good thing, but what if the system prevents it in a real sense? And how can a large company avoid a “top-down” approach? Greater questions, but methinks these are all the same problems large top-down governments have.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Learning to aid II: walking tightropes

This is the second part a set of posts, sharing Ravi Kucchimanchi’s (AID’s founder) conversations with us on a visit here. The first part can be found here.


This discussion was about how sometimes good intentions can go wrong, when the understanding of local dynamics are incomplete. The discussion was free flowing, and allowed plenty of room for us to come to our own conclusions. The discussion also reiterated the fact that villages comprise of different communities, with fragile threads holding them together.

Consider a small village (Ravi used a specific real example), which has one large well as the source of its drinking and cooking water (with say a tank or pond farther away, used for bathing and cattle). Now, all the women in the village go up to this well with their pots and carry back the water. The road leading to this well is not particularly fantastic, and this daily ordeal for the women is tough.

This village has three different communities living in it (say A, B and C, where A, B and C can be people of different religions, castes, linguistic groups or any such difference). All of them live together in peace, and use this same well for their water. Now, it so happens that the three communities live in different parts of the village, A being closest to the well, B a little farther away, and C being farthest. Also, A has the largest population, followed by B and then C.

It would make a world of difference to the people of the village if the water could reach their houses directly, instead of them trudging up to the well, drawing out the water, and carrying it back on their heads. A simple pump and pipeline could take the water from the well to their houses. Let us say a well meaning NGO decides to help out the villagers by building such a simple pipe, and providing say a single tap per household.

Now, most NGOs (at least most of the sincere and efficient ones) are cash-strapped, and try to make every cent count. The “most bang for a buck” is the unofficial motto. If the funds are limiting, an organization will often decide that it is better to help some rather than help no one at all. So a “cost-benefit” analysis is done, purely with economic and financial criteria. They find that the cost of laying pipelines to colony A is cheapest (since the distance is shortest), AND the number of people benefited is the highest here. Deciding purely on these economic criteria, and the fact that at least say 60% of the population of the village benefits, the NGO might go ahead and construct pipes to provide water only for A, with the intention that they will go back a year or two later (when there are more funds) and complete the task for B and C.

This good intention can immediately acerbate relations between A on one side, and B and C on the other, as one (A) suddenly becomes a “have” while the other two (who already have to put in more effort to reach the well in the first case) become “have-nots”.

Sometimes even this does not damage relations, and let us say B and C agree to wait a year for their pipes. Meanwhile, A, since it has tap water, dramatically increases water usage (since there is no longer a need to walk up to the well to fill buckets, careful rationing of water ends). This results in a fall in the water table in the well. In order to “solve the problem”, A could decide to go and cover the well to minimize evaporation losses. Now B and C are far worse off than they were before all this started, and this will strain relationships between communities. This situation thus has all the ingredients necessary for a communal riot.

So, the original “good intention” of the NGO (to at least provide piped water to one community) can unintentionally result in tremendous social unrest.

A corollary to this analogy is that when you create opportunities for the “have-nots” to bring them on par with the “haves”, it will not create much animosity. For example, take three other communities A, B and C in a village. A and B have water hand pumps or electricity lines, but C does NOT. In this case, if a group or an NGO decides to provide C alone with a new water hand pump, there rarely is serious animosity in the village from A and B against C. This is because A and B already have hand pumps, and what is offered to C is not something that is creating inequality, but is creating equality. You are not taking something AWAY from them.

Usually aid and NGO agencies are outsiders to the community. It becomes paramount for outsiders to be aware of these aspects and dynamics, because they are outsiders. And seemingly simple decisions can result in vastly diverse results.

postscript: The third and final part of these posts is also up, here.