Wednesday, October 19, 2005

An Eminent Dalit Author and Economist

Dr. Narendra Jadhav is on a book tour, promoting the new American edition of his book called Untouchables: My Family’s Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India. I attended his book reading & signing event at the Stanford Bookstore today evening. Dr. Jadhav – a Dalit (a Mahar, a former untouchable) and a first generation learner – has a Ph.D. in economics and currently works as the Principal Advisor and Chief Economist at the Reserve Bank of India. In addition to being such an accomplished economist, he is the author of a truly extraordinary book that describes his family’s journey out of the bottom of the caste system in India. When the father Damu retired from his job, his youngest son Narendra (Dr. Jadhav) persuaded his virtually illiterate father to write down his memoirs. This eventually formed the foundation of a book, which was first published in 1993 in Marathi with the title Aamachaa Baap Aan Amhee, and which has since enjoyed unprecedented success. It has been published – with some additions – in various editions and in many languages. I have read the version called Outcaste – an English version published a couple of years back for the Indian market. Here is a review of that edition. The English version for the American market has just been published and is the reason for the current book tour.

Dr. Jadhav is an eloquent speaker and hearing him speak was a wonderful experience. Unlike typical book readings, he did not actually read from his book. He spoke for about half an hour on how the book came about, gave some background about the caste system and his ideas about it, talked about his views on Gandhi and Ambedkar, and painted a highly optimistic view of the future. After that there was a Q&A session for about half an hour. In the following paragraphs, I list some of the aspects of his talk that I found especially interesting.

I had expected that Dr. Jadhav to be in favor of globalization – economist that he is. However I was surprised at just how vehemently pro-globalization he is. I, of course, share his sentiments completely on this issue. He said that the best thing that has happened to Dalits in India has been globalization. In his opinion globalization has opened up new opportunities for vast numbers of India’s poorest sections. It has also forced companies to be more efficient and thus forced them to judge employees by ability and performance rather than caste or community, which can only benefit Dalits. He reeled off statistics showing how India’s poverty rate has declined significantly, and the economic growth rate has gone up, since the era of economic liberalization started. I have often found that activists who claim to speak for the downtrodden (Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy, Sandeep Pandey, Vandana Shiva, etc.) are of the view that globalization has been an unmitigated disaster for the world’s poor. These anti-globalizers claim that people who have benefited most from globalization in India – people from the educated urban "middle class" (like me) – have done so entirely of the expense of the poor. Of course I don’t agree with that bleak viewpoint, and there are many reasons why I think that view is incorrect. However it was good to hear from Dr. Jadhav, no less a person than the Chief Economist of the Reserve Bank of India, and a Dalit himself, that globalization, far from hurting, is actually helping the poor, at least in India. It seems that he completely rejects the anti-globalization worldview that the modern economic model, which includes the modern paradigm of development along with things like globalization, WTO, multinational corporations, etc., is fundamentally exploitative of the poor. In the anti-globalization worldview this system is so bad that it needs to be rejected in totality (rather than incrementally improved and refined), thereby justifying the strongest protests possible. Dr. Jadhav seems to think that, on the contrary, it is the traditional economic model of village-based economy that is fundamentally exploitative, at least as far as the Dalits in India are concerned, and the modern globalized economy offers them immense possibilities. It may be noted that while the anti-globalization brigade is certainly committed to the poor, none of them actually belong to the Dalit or any other downtrodden community. Much like Gandhiji, the anti-globalizers appear to have a very patronizing attitude towards those whose interests they claim to uphold.

As is to be expected – and as is fully justified – Dr. Jadhav does not seem to have a very high opinion of Gandhiji, at least as far as his dealings with Dalits are concerned. His inspiration of course is Dr. Ambedkar. Dr. Jadhav said that the word he hates more than anything else is “Harijan” – he considers it to be unbearably patronizing. In his view Gandhi never accepted the fundamental bigotry of the caste system, and sometimes even passed it off as “division of labor”. However it was not just a system of division of labor, but also a system of hierarchical division of laborers, a rigid division of people based on birth, with strict limitations on social interaction between them. In Dr. Jadhav’s view Gandhi never truly opposed the caste system. He narrated an interesting anecdote to highlight Gandhi’s prejudice. Once after a meeting with Ambedkar, Gandhi remarked to someone (Mahadev Desai, if I recall correctly) that it was difficult to believe that Dr. Ambedkar was a Dalit as he did not believe that Dalits could be so intelligent (or words to that effect). Dr. Jadhav also pointed out that Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhi had different views on almost everything, for example Gandhi urged people to go live in the villages, while Ambedkar exhorted people to go live in the cities.

As I had expected, Dr. Jadhav expressed strong support for the reservation system of affirmative action in India, while at the same time accepting that some changes are needed to improve it. His argument is that if we start with the assumption that intelligence and ability are distributed randomly in the population, one should expect to see the overall population composition reflected in the various professions, at least in broad terms. If this is not so, it reflects the fundamental unfairness of the system. And reservations are needed to counter this fundamental unfairness of the system. I broadly agree with this. However I do think that reservation quotas should be determined by an independent commision or some other competent body, but not by politicians who tend to carve out quotas for castes based on how many votes that caste can deliver in the upcoming election.

One aspect of Dr. Jadhav that I had not expected, at least to such a degree, was the extreme optimism that he expressed in India’s – and in particular the Dalit community’s – future. He has great faith in the future and in India's democratic system. He pointed out the great strides that Dalits had made in recent years, with Dalits aspiring to excel in all occupations, from art to neurosurgery.

There were a few questions on how the status of Dalits in India compare with the status of African Americans in the U.S. Other than saying – correctly in my view– that the situations were very different, Dr. Jadhav was clearly out of his element on this topic. In any case, he has never claimed to be an expert on this.

There was however one issue on which I did not agree with Dr. Jadhav. He claimed that the caste system was solely – or at least primarily – responsible for India’s backwardness. I believe that the caste system was a symptom of a much larger and much more overarching malaise in Indian society. Had there not been such a malaise, surely the caste system would have withered away much earlier. I do feel that after 1857, Indian society has finally got on the right track. The extent of change that has taken place since 1857 (and which is continuing) is breathtaking, and is cause for much pride as well as optimism.

Dr. Jadhav was interviewed by Michael Krasny on KQED radio. You can listen to the recording here. Two interesting articles on Dr. Jadhav can be found here and here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Shocking Honor Killing in Denmark

I was reading some blogs today when I came across something that is truly shocking - a photograph of a Pakistani Muslim man shooting dead his younger sister while her injured and helpless husband looks on, in an honor killing. What is even more disturbing is that this execution takes place in broad daylight in a public street in Denmark - in Denmark, that paradise of liberal European society !!! This and other incidents (such as Theo Van Gogh's killing in the Netherlands for highlighting mistreatment of women in the Islamic community), show how Muslim communities have managed to hold on to the most barbaric tribal customs even while living in the midst of the most liberal of societies. If such things can happen in places like Denmark and the Netherlands, which are so open-minded and tolerant, and where the Muslim communities are very small and have every opportunity to get a liberal education, what is the hope that the bulk of the Muslim community in India will ever give up some of its more obscurantist and anachronistic beliefs and practices, and will see itself as part of mainstream Indian society and maybe even aspire to be part of the educated "middle class" ? What is it in the Islamic ideology that promotes this type of thinking and behavior ? And is there any realistic hope of changing the mindset in Islamic communities without large scale violence ?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

On the Anti Coca Cola Movement in India

I attended a talk a few days back by Sandeep Pandey. He is the founder of Asha for Education, an organization in which I am a proud and active volunteer. Sandeep currently runs an Ashram near Varanasi in U.P. For the last few years he has become less and less involved in Asha’s basic education related activities, and has become a more strident activist, deeply involved in organizations like the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), the anti Coca Cola movement, etc. He spoke on three topics – (1) the anti-Coke movement, (2) the Right to Information (RTI) movement, primarily in Hardoi district in U.P., and (3) his Indo-Pak peace march. I am an ardent supporter of the RTI movement in India, and it was heartening to listen to Sandeep’s account of how they have succeeded in improving the level of transparency and accountability of the govt. at the Panchayat level. Regarding Sandeep’s Indo-Pak peace march I think it is a hopeful and well-intentioned but completely futile effort.

Sandeep’s talk on the anti-Coke movement gave me much to think about. I have to say that on this issue I disagree substantially with Sandeep, a person for whom I nevertheless have immense respect for having started Asha – with its emphasis on basic education – as well as for his many other activities (such as the RTI movement mentioned above).

Ostensibly the main problem is that Coke draws too much underground water at its bottling plants, thereby depleting the water resources of the local people. However I don’t think this is the real issue, because if it were so then the solution would be fairly simple: work out an arrangement whereby Coke compensates the community for the water that it utilizes, and does it in a sustainable manner, for example by requiring Coke to recharge a minimum amount of groundwater through rainwater harvesting, or requiring Coke to pay some money for the water it utilizes, etc. In other words, if the real concern was water usage, the movement would have been about how to build a better bottling plant that utilizes water in a sustainable manner, or more generally about what rules and regulations need to be developed regarding water usage by industrial units. That, however, is not the goal of the movement. Its goal is simply to shut down Coke (and Pepsi) bottling plants. The real motivation for the movement – at least as far as Sandeep Pandey is concerned – seems to be a strong dislike/distrust of multinational corporations like Coke and Pepsi, and the international trade agreements and arrangements that allow such companies to function. Thus the anti-Coke movement – as articulated by Sandeep Pandey – appears to have become part of the very vigorous anti-globalization movement, which is unfortunate because at the core there may indeed be a legitimate grievance, which is now lost in the anti-globalization rhetoric. It seems to me that the only reason that Coke and Pepsi are targetted - and not other industrial units that may well use similar amounts of water - is that these companies are very visible and fit into the anti-globalization worldview of "big bad multinationals ruining the earth".

The following are some of the specific accusations made by the anti-Coke movement, and my thoughts on those.

  1. Coke is depleting water resources. Many kinds of industrial and farming activities use substantial quantities of water. In general water usage in India – in farming, in industry, and by individuals for sanitation, recreation, etc. – is bound to increase as the population increases, and as people’s quality of life improves. Surely the answer to this is to use better technology and better water management principles in order to better utilize available resources in a sustainable manner. This should include more efficient usage of water (for example Coke should work to reduce the amount of water it needs to produce each gallon of Coke), better recycling, better irrigation techniques, etc. It should also include developing a regulatory mechanism with these goals in mind. The answer cannot be to abandon modern industries and move towards a pre-modern economy.
  2. Coke is harmful as it contains pesticides. This may be true, but this is simply because the water that Coke uses in India contains pesticides. Clearly Coke does not buy pesticides from pesticide manufacturers and pour them into Coke bottles. It uses water that is locally available and probably it does some purification of the water, in spite of which some pesticides remain. The real problem - one that needs to be tackled seriously – is the presence of pesticides in the water supply. Targeting Coke for the presence of pesticides in the water supply seems unreasonable. After all, not only Coke but all water-based drinks that use the same water source have pesticides in them – lassi, nimbu pani, etc. Does it make sense to target tea/coffee shops because pesticides, which come from the water and milk they use, are found in the tea/coffee they serve ? In many cities in India, there is quite a lot of air pollution from vehicle exhausts, etc., but does it make sense to blame window manufacturers or ceiling fan manufacturers for bringing polluted air to people ?
  3. Coke increases unemployment by taking jobs away from individuals selling lassi, nimbu pani, etc. According to Sandeep Pandey’s analysis, a Coke plant produces 250,000 liters of soda per day and employs 500 workers; meanwhile an individual producing and selling traditional drinks can make 100 liters per day, and so it takes 2,500 workers to match Coke’s 250,000 liters per day. According to this analysis, in order to employ 500 people, Coke has displaced 2,000 people. This analysis is absurd since it totally neglects the benefits of increased productivity and economic growth. Of course Coke employs far less people to produce an equivalent amount of soft drink than traditional drink makers. But this is entirely because Coke’s technology and management systems allow for much greater productivity, which is a good thing. In general Coke (and other modern soft drink makers) pays its employees higher salaries than traditional drink makers could, and it can do so because of the higher levels of productivity that it brings to the soft drink industry. On the whole, this is a good thing because workers in the soft drink industry can now earn a much better living than was possible in the traditional soft drink industry. The key question is this: is the total economic activity generated by Coke greater than that generated by the traditional soft drink makers it replaces. If the answer is yes (which I think it is), then Coke is good for the Indian economy as a whole. Economic theory says that economic growth through increased productivity will eventually lead to more (and better) employment. Of course a serious problem still remains: many individuals who lose their jobs may not be able to take advantage of the better economic opportunities that become available, and the better jobs being created may be taken by other individuals. Individuals who suffer thus must be taken care of by society since society as a whole benefits from increased productivity and better jobs. Education is critically important for such individuals to take advantage of new opportunities in a growing economy. It can be easily shown that the problem of unemployment can never be solved by artificially enforcing inefficiency. For example in the above analysis it is said that a traditional soft drink maker makes 100 liters of soft drinks per day. If the govt. were to enforce laws that no drink maker can make more than 1 liter per day, would the employment in the traditional soft drink industry increase 100-fold ? Surely not. If the solution to the unemployment problem were so simple, there would not have been any unemployed people anywhere in the world today! Consider another example: the auto industry. Say a modern car factory produces 50 cars per month per employee. A hundred years back say a car factory produced 1 car per month per employee. As per Sandeep Pandey’s flawed analysis above, one would expect the auto industry a hundred years ago to have had 50 times as many employees as the auto industry today. Obviously this is not so. On the contrary, the auto industry today employs more people than it did 100 years ago because productivity has increased and the economy has expanded.

I am not claiming that Coca Cola is an angel, or that it is driven by anything other than the profit motive. So proper regulations and oversight are necessary. But at the same time India benefits from the technology, the management and logistics expertise, as well as the new energy and ideas that Coke, Pepsi, etc. bring into the country. To quote the famous economist Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati "economics is addressed heroically to showing how man's basest instincts, not his noblest, can be harnessed through appropriate institutional design to produce public good." Civil society groups are needed to play an active "watchdog" role, and to highlight the plight of those individuals who have been negatively affected. But the anti-Coke movement's demand to shut down bottling plants and its unwillingness to negotiate with Coke go too far. It is an act of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

An Evening With Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie was in town, promoting his new book Shalimar the Clown. He was interviewed on KQED Monday morning, and in the evening I went for his book reading at a bookstore in Mountain View. Though I am not into English literature I am aware that Salman Rushdie is one of the literary giants of our day, and he was largely responsible for ushering in a new era of Indian writing in English with Midnight’s Children. I have also read his occasional columns and op-ed pieces with great interest. Rushdie's new book has got a very poor review in the New York Times. Though I've not read the new book, the story does seem somewhat artificial - a Kashmiri village girl running away with the American Ambassador! The American angle seems forced - maybe it is in the book in order to engage American audiences and connect with the American experience with terrorism. It appears that none of Rushdie's recent books display the brilliance of his earlier work. In any case, no way was I going to miss this event. Other than the fact that the bookstore was packed and I had to stand through the event, it was a very enjoyable evening - the Q&A session more so than the book reading itself. I got a copy of Midnight’s Children signed by him.

A couple of things from Salman Rushdie’s interview and his talk stood out. One was his critique of the Tony Blair government’s handling of Muslim extremism in Britain. Apparently their approach is to ally with the most orthodox elements in British Muslim society that are willing to denounce terrorism. The leader of this group is one Sir Iqbal S. While this group and its leader do indeed denounce terrorism, they also happen to follow a very conservative (medievalistic ?) form of Islam. Rushdie thinks that such people are not truly representative of British Muslim society. I got the impression that the British govt., like many non-Muslim leaders think that the more conservative (some equate conservative to authentic) Muslim leader they can get to denounce terrorism, the more weight the denunciation carries. We often see examples of this approach – statements from non-Muslim leaders like “this famous cleric has denounced terrorism” or “the Koran promotes peace”, etc. The logic is that if even a conservative cleric denounces terrorism or if the Koran itself does so, then surely the jihadists are mistaken. I find this approach to be fundamentally flawed. I think that by saying that terrorism is bad (or that women should be treated equally, etc.) because a cleric says so or because the Koran says so, we are only legitimizing the power of clerics. It is implied in our statement that if the cleric had claimed the opposite (i.e., that terrorism is acceptable), then it would be ok to blow up innocent people. Instead of trying to make use of the authority of conservative Muslims, I think we should simply tell young Muslims that terrorism is bad (or that women should be treated equally) because it is a self-evident and fundamental truth – a truth that does not require endorsement from anybody, let alone from conservative Muslims.

Another interesting topic that Rushdie talked about was the connection between repentance and forgiveness. Repentance and forgiveness are often considered to be intimately related to each other. However, as Rushdie very rightly and very insightfully pointed out, this is not so. Repentance and forgiveness are completely independent of each other. Repentance is done by the repenter while forgiveness comes from the forgiver. Often even serious repentance is not reciprocated by forgiveness, while at other times forgiveness is offered even without any corresponding repentance. Many other considerations and/or feelings go into repentance/forgiveness than just the repentance/forgiveness of the other side, for e.g., a winning personality may be enough to win forgiveness, or “if I don’t forgive my spouse, then I will be left all alone”, etc.

A recording of Salman Rushdie's interview with Michael Krasny on KQED radio can be found here.

On the Right to Information (RTI) in India

On Oct 12th the Right to Information Act 2005 comes into force in India. This act is truly impressive, and has the potential to greatly enhance transparency and reduce corruption at all levels of government in India. It gives Indians the right to access information that is held by the government (information means any material in any form including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law). This law is the result of a long struggle by public spirited individuals and organization and a desire among the public for greater transparency in government. The moving spirit behind the Right to Information movement in India has been Aruna Roy and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan. Anna Hazare in Maharashtra has also played a key role. And of course, much credit goes to the govt. as well. In Maharashtra and in Delhi, effective statewide RTI laws have been in force for a couple of years now, and have been used by citizens in uncovering government corruption and inefficiency. Despite some dilution (e.g., exclusion of central intelligence agencies, and exclusion of file notings from the purview of the law), the law does appear to be truly powerful. There is reason to be hopeful that this law will indeed uncover government corruption and inefficiency, and will lead to all round improvement in governance.

The text of the act can be found here. Here is an analysis of the law. For more about Aruna Roy and MKSS click here. Nagrik Chetna Manch in Pune and Parivartan in Delhi are NGOs that are actively using RTI. HumJanenge is a yahoo group dealing with RTI. A very informative web-page can be found here.

[Added later (Oct 14, '05). The national RTI Act. came into force on Dusshehra day 2005. There has been some disappointment that only retired bureaucrats have been appointed as central and state chief information commissioners by the govt. The law states that "eminent persons" are to be appointed to these posts. It was hoped that the govt. would appoint as CICs individuals who are largely independent of the bureaucratic machinery - retired judges for example. Apparently the govt. thinks that only retired bureaucrats meet the description of "eminent persons" as required by the RTI law. Although disappointed, RTI activists have decided not to protest too loudly for now, but to keep a watch on the CICs with an eagle eye. For this, and some other issues, read this article by Prakash Kardaley.]

[Here is another article that I wrote on RTI in India]