Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Weekend With Madhu Kishwar


Madhu Kishwar, founder of Manushi, an eminent Indian social activist, and a truly extraordinary person was in the San Francisco Bay Area a few days ago. I had the opportunity to attend a talk that she gave at Stanford, and also have more informal discussions with her over a lunch and a dinner. It was a wonderful experience.

I have long been an admirer of Ms. Kishwar’s work and I’ve been reading her essays for many years. Now that I have met her in person, I can say that she is also a very warm and friendly human being.

I first came to know of Ms. Kishwar when, some ten years or so ago, I read some of her writing on Indian women’s issues. I found her observations deeply insightful, nuanced and profound. As far as I am concerned, Ms. Kishwar’s series of essays (here is one) on dowry and related issues is some of the best writing I have ever come across on Indian women’s issues. Here is a quote from her.
It has become politically fashionable to attribute all forms of violence and discrimination against women, including female infanticide and female foeticide to the economic burden of dowry that a daughter is said to represent.

Dowry requirements are used as another excuse for considering daughters a burden. The anti-dowry movement, by limiting itself to the constant repetition of ‘dowry abolition’ as a panacea for women’s empowerment and as the primary strategy for ending their oppression, has only helped give further legitimacy to the conventional belief that daughters are an economic liability.

We need to combat the culture of disinheritance if we wish to effectively combat the growing hold of dowry culture.
Though, in my opinion, some of Ms. Kishwar’s best work has been on women’s issues, she has also worked on and written about a myriad other social issues - on communal violence, on Kashmir, on governance, on globalization, on farm policy, on stifling laws and regulations, and so on. On most of these issues I have found her views to be sensible, and in many cases, very close to my own point of view (rather, I found that my own views were close to hers). I fondly recall an incident from a couple of years ago. I had written an article severely critical of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (the NBA, the movement opposed to building a dam across the Narmada River). My article was drawing quite a lot of flak from various NBA supporters. As luck would have it, just around that time, Ms. Kishwar came out with her own article criticizing the NBA, which largely validated my own stance.

This is not to say that I agree with Ms. Kishwar on everything. Ms. Kishwar is an unabashed admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. I don’t quite agree with her on this. I greatly admire Gandhi’s non-violence, his humanity, his leadership of the Indian independence movement, and the dignity and self-respect he engendered among so many Indians. However, I have serious reservations about Gandhi’s rejection of modernity and his denunciation of the scientific-technological world-view (for my views on Gandhi, see this). Ms. Kishwar also appears to hold the view that pre-modern pre-British India was a land of milk-and-honey, a land of all-round prosperity and contentment, conceptually very similar to Gandhi’s views expressed in Hind Swaraj. I disagree. I see pre-modern pre-British India as a civilization in precipitous decline, one that had lost its vitality and capacity for internal renewal. I agree with author V.S. Naipaul, who says, “the Indian system [in 1857] ... has come to the end of its possibilities, ... that the India that will come into being at the end of the period of British rule will be better educated, more creative and full of possibility than the India of a century before”.

On the whole, it appears that while I have some disagreements with Ms. Kishwar on how we interpret the past, I agree with her on almost everything she has to say about the present.

In recent years Ms. Kishwar has been working with people who make a living in the informal sector in Delhi, people such as cycle-rickshaw pullers, hawkers, vendors, etc. The talk she gave in Stanford was on this topic.

Consider the case of cycle-rickshaws in Delhi. The law holds that no person shall be allowed to ply a cyle-rickshaw unless he himself is the licensed owner of the rickshaw, and also stipulates that no person shall be granted more than one such license. However, most rickshaw-pullers in Delhi are newly arrived migrants from villages, who have neither the money, nor the desire to buy a rickshaw outright. Most rickshaw owners are themselves enterprising ex-rickshaw-pullers who, through dint of hard work over the years, have come to own a fleet of rickshaws. As a result, almost all the rickshaws on Delhi’s streets are “illegal”. So rickshaw pullers and owners, who are after all providing a legitimate service for which there is a legitimate demand, are forced to pay all kinds of bribes to various officials, just in order to carry on with their livelihoods.

Ms. Kishwar asks a question: suppose similarly restrictive laws were applicable to say cars or aircraft? Suppose, the law stipulated that a person can drive a car or pilot an aircraft only if he owns the vehicle, would it make sense? Why should cycle-rickshaws be treated so differently? We all applaud the business success of, say, Jet Airways when they grow their fleet and expand their network. A migrant from a village who comes pennyless to Delhi, becomes a rickshaw puller, and then grows his business to a fleet of rickshaws, is no less entrepreneurial than the executives at Jet Airways. But far from receiving accolades for building a successful business and creating job opportunities, this entrepreneur is hounded by the police and city administrators and is forced to shoulder the huge cost of predatory bribes.

Similarly irrational and restrictive laws apply to most other businesses in the informal economy. In recent years, Ms. Kishwar and Manushi have been involved in a pilot project in a hawker market in Delhi (read Ms. Kishwar’s article about it here). This project aims to demonstrate what can be achieved by legalizing the status of street vendors. On one hand this effort has been has been an enormous success. The hawkers have been very cooperative and, together with Manushi, they have indeed converted the area into a clean, attractive, and well-functioning marketplace. On the other hand, this very success has caused problems. Legalization has meant that corrupt officials and the local mafia have not been able to extort money; and the transformation of a slum-like area into a well-developed market has meant that the market value of each stall has gone up tremendously, making the stalls targets of the mafia. The hawkers and Manushi activists have been subjected to continuous harassment and threats of violence. Eventually, after a series of life-threatening attacks on Manushi activists and Ms. Kishwar herself, she is now forced to live with round-the-clock police security.

Ms Kishwar’s work with rickshaw-pullers, hawkers, etc., is driven by the foundational belief that poverty is an unnatural condition for human beings, and given half a chance, the poor will be able to overcome poverty themselves through their own enterprise and hard work. In other words, Ms. Kishwar believes that the key to fighting poverty lies in unleashing the talents and energies of the poor that have been kept suppressed by a web of stifling laws and regulations. It was rather inspiring to hear Ms. Kishwar declare that there is an entrepreneur in every human being - all that is needed is a chance to succeed. Asked what she thoughts would happen to hawkers and street vendors in India if multinationals like Wal-Mart enter the scene, Ms. Kishwar replied that she was not worried. She is of the opinion that as long as there is a level playing field (i.e., if hawkers/vendors don’t have pay a huge overhead in the form of bribes, etc.) they will be able to compete effectively with Wal-Mart, or at least will find niches where they will be able to thrive.

Ms. Kishwar is a strong proponent of economic liberalization for the poor. As we are all aware, liberalization of the Indian economy has given a massive boost to the corporate sector and many Indian companies have now become globally competitive. Ms. Kishwar points out, however, that liberalization has never reached the poor. In the informal sector, which employs the vast majority of the Indian population, the License Raj still rules, accompanied by rampant corruption. This stifles initiative and enterprise, and perpetuates poverty.

One particularly fascinating aspect that I have noticed in Ms. Kishwar’s positions on various issues is her propensity to take a nuanced and independent stand, while taking practical matters into consideration, rather than a stark black-or-white ideologically extreme stand. This is a quality that is unfortunately increasingly uncommon in today’s world. Consider, for example, the issue of multinationals coming to India. There is a strong pro-multinational business lobby that says that multinationals are the best thing that ever happened. At the other extreme there are strongly anti-multinational groups, such as the World Social Forum, who say that multinationals and corporates are the source of all the world’s evil. Ms. Kishwar takes the nuanced view that multinationals are not the solution to all our problems, nor the source of all evil; but economic liberalization, which allows multinationals to operate, is good for all, and should be extended to the poor. So independent is Ms. Kishwar in her thinking that she states that she refuses to subscribe to any ‘isms’; so much so that she is well known for her essay “why I do not call myself a feminist”.

Unfortunately, in today’s world of 20-second TV soundbites, thoughtful and nuanced voices such as Ms. Kishwar’s tend to be crowded out by ideologically extreme black-or-white views on most issues.

An Appeal

After being in publication for many years, and after having carved out a special niche for itself, Manushi has now ceased publication because of lack of funds. Plans are afoot to restart publication of Manushi. I, as well as some others, who met Ms. Kishwar during her stay in the U.S. have offered to help out. If you can help Manushi - either financially or otherwise - please do so.

[Addeed Later] Please sign this petition in support of Ms. Kishwar and Manushi's fight to secure rights for street vendors in India.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Can a Coal Power Plant Ever be Good?

Note: I wrote this essay for the Breakthrough Institute Blog. This first appeared here. The Breakthrough Institute, founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is a progressive think tank focusing on environmental issues.


Recently, plans for a new "Ultra Mega" 4,000MW coal fired power plant in India has come in for much criticism from environmentalists. Writing on Grist.org, environmentalist Nathan Wyeth has called this a "monument to a failed approach". According to him,
Investing in coal generation and plugging it into an unreliable grid (rather than building renewables close to consumers or fixing the grid) has the effect of - get ready for this - spurring the construction of small-scale fossil fuel generation on the other end, which is ... incredibly dirty.
In my opinion, Wyeth's analysis is flawed. It does not take into consideration how, and for what purpose, small-scale fossil fuel generation is widely used in India. Let me give you a real-life example.

The company I work for has a software development center in Pune, India, which I occasionally visit. It is a large modern office building, in many ways better than our office here in Silicon Valley, California. However, there is one problem: power cuts. In order to deal with these, our company has installed back-up diesel generators - generators powerful enough to operate the air-conditioning system, the elevators, the lights, the computers, etc. While I was there, power cuts would occur approximately every other day for a couple of hours. The diesel generators would immediately swing into action, providing uninterrupted electric supply, but also spewing out huge quantities of thick black smoke into the city air.

This is surely the worst possible way to generate electricity. It is much worse than a large modern coal power plant, not only in terms of CO2 but even in terms of sheer "pollution" - the odor, the particulate emission, etc. As in my company, the most common reason for installing small-scale diesel generators in India is the need to have a back-up power supply. These diesel generators are expensive to operate, and are used only when absolutely necessary. How long they operate (and how much dirty emissions they produce) therefore corresponds directly to the deficit between the electricity demand and the (grid) supply. If a new power plant - even a coal fired one - can reduce the usage of these small-scale power generators, it will likely reduce carbon emissions overall for a given electricity demand.

Of course, the problems with the electricity grid in India are part of a larger problem of underdeveloped infrastructure - something we take for granted here in the U.S. Governance and administration at local levels have failed to provide adequate utilities and public services, such as electricity distribution, water, maintenance of roads and public transport, etc. There is certainly a very real need for investments in improving the electricity grid in India. However, it would be foolish to take the position that India should not build any new electricity generation capacity until all the flaws in the electricity grid are completely ironed out.

Whatever problems there are in the electricity grid, these problems are equally applicable to some forms renewable energy as well. Wind power is making headway in India, and one of the world's largest wind power companies, Suzlon Energy, is an Indian one. But wind power also needs the grid to deliver electricity to consumers since wind farms tend to be located far from population centers.

The grid losses that Wyeth cites are not as bad as they appear at first glance. True, the statistics on grid losses in India are staggering. However, it is not that all this electricity is somehow vanishing into thin air. The bulk of these losses come from people actually utilizing the electricity and not paying for it. Sometimes, this is done by unscrupulous individuals. However, in many cases, this "lost" electricity is put to perfectly good use. For example, many people living in shanty-towns in India do not have formal electricity connections. Local politicians eager to keep voters happy sometimes arrange for informal electricity connections. This electricity is counted as a "loss" in all the statistics, but is actually put to good use. No doubt, this is far from an ideal arrangement, and cannot substitute for proper commercial arrangements - but it goes to show that not all grid losses should be seen as equally wasteful.

Moving forward, it is clear that the Indian electricity grid needs to be dramatically improved. What is also clear that with a growing population and a growing economy, the legitimate demand for electricity is going to grow by leaps and bounds, and all that new electricity generation capacity has to come from somewhere. The question is: what technologies should be used? I would rank energy generation technologies in order of preference as follows:

1. Renewables (wind, solar, etc.)
2. Clean non-renewables (nuclear)
3. Moderately dirty but efficient fossil fuel power plants (e.g., coal-fired plants like the Tata Ultra Mega plant)
4. Small scale inefficient and extremely dirty generators powered by diesel or other fossil fuels.

Ideally I would like all electricity to be generated by renewables (who wouldn't?). But as we all know, this is not commercially viable today. Insofar as a coal-fired power plant replaces forms of power generation that are far dirtier, like diesel generators, and make electricity available to people without electricity, a relatively efficient coal-fired power plant, such as the Tata Ultra Mega plant, should be seen as a good thing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Maybe Horses Will Fly - Developing Countries and Global Warming

Note: I wrote this essay for the Breakthrough Institute Blog. This first appeared here. The Breakthrough Institute, founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is a progressive think tank focusing on environmental issues.

Last week, the New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin blogged about the World Bank's decision to finance a major new coal fired power plant in India. Revkin ended his blog with a question: "Is all of this bad? If you're one of many climate scientists foreseeing calamity, yes. If you're a village kid in rural India looking for a light to read by, no."

In response, the famed environmental writer Bill McKibben asked his own question:

"The really interesting question, to follow on the last sentence of the story, is: what if you're an Indian kid looking for a light to read by-and also living near the rising ocean, or vulnerable to the the range expansion of dengue-bearing mosquitoes, or dependent on suddenly-in-question monsoonal rains."

McKibben may think he knows better but I think the answer for that village kid would probably be the same. Take the electricity and the light to read by and worry about malaria and monsoonal rains later. To get some idea of the problems facing people in rural India, just consider the following:

1. In India, the literacy rate is only 64%. The female literacy rate is even lower. In half the households in rural India, there is not a single female member above the age of 15 who can read or write.

2. Out of a population of one billion, more than 300 million Indians live on less than a dollar a day.

3. In India, some 400,000 children under the age of five die each year from diarrhoea caused by easily preventable factors such as poor hygiene and unsafe drinking water.

4. Indian society continues to be plagued by extreme forms of discrimination and exploitation based on the traditional caste system. There are many millions (estimates range from 40 million to 100 million) of bonded laborers (slaves) in India today, mainly belonging to the lowest castes, the Dalits.

5. There still exists widespread discrimination against women in India. Economist Amartya Sen estimates that in the developing world, due to the preference for sons over daughters, and due to the sheer neglect of women and girls, some 100 million women are simply missing.

In this scenario, how can one seriously suggest that the village kid in India should give up her hopes of prosperity, education, and health care today, in order to prevent rising ocean levels many years down the road? What would Americans do in the same situation? Or Europeans? Or human beings anywhere?

There are some very good reasons why people in rural India should first worry about their basic human necessities today, rather than about the long term effects of global warming.

First, if you and your family don't have access to such things as clean water and basic health care, neither you, nor your children, nor your grandchildren may even be around long enough to witness tomorrow, making the future rise or fall of the world's oceans a moot point.

Second, the life of an educated, healthy and modestly prosperous person living in tomorrow's globally-warmed world of higher ocean levels may well be better than the poverty stricken life of an Indian villager in the pre-global-warming world. In other words, even if the most dire predictions about global warming come true, some of the poorest people in the world may still be better off tomorrow if they are able to enjoy some of the fruits of development, such as education, health care, electricity, etc.

Third, and most important, maybe horses will fly. Let me tell you an Indian story about the Mughal Emperor Akbar and his witty minister, Birbal. One day, for some reason, Akbar became very angry with Birbal, and ordered that he be beheaded. Birbal pleaded for his life, but to no avail. Then Birbal hit upon an idea. He promised Akbar, that if he was spared for a year, he would make Akbar's favorite horse fly. Akbar relented, and let Birbal live. When a friend asked Birbal how he planned to make the horse fly, Birbal replied, "anything can happen in a year; Akbar can die; the horse can die; and who knows, maybe the horse will fly." In a slightly different context, what this means is that, first and foremost, human beings need to achieve a certain minimum level of material well-being and sense of security. And once this is achieved, who knows what wonders can happen. If the billions of impoverished people in the developing world can get widespread access to education, health care, and job opportunities, who knows what the unleashing of their talent and energy can achieve. Having met their basic needs, maybe they will start thinking about the environment. Maybe new ideas will burst forth. Maybe new and better energy technologies will be adopted, which will not only address global warming, but also ensure a minimum standard of living for all people everywhere. Maybe horses will fly.

As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger put it in the book Breakthrough, "the satisfaction of the material needs of food and water and shelter is not an obstacle to but rather the precondition for the modern appreciation of the nonhuman world".