Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mutable histories on crumbling edifices

Archival narratives were authored, and even tempered to insert specific affects by both the colonial government and later by the nation-state.

Monuments are cast in stone, but not their histories as multiple appropriations in time and space generate diverse narratives of their mute existence. Red Fort has lived through it like none other. From the seat of the Mughal Empire in 17th century to the nucleus of armed rebellion against the British in 19th, it has had its share of history before emerging as the ultimate symbol of a nation-state in the 20th century. In tracing contested history of five monuments in capital Delhi – Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Purana Qila, Qutab Complex and Rasul Numa Dargah – Mrinalini Rajagopalan brings fascinating accounts of their unexpected uses and ideological appropriations by state and non-state actors. 

Each of the five monuments had a brush with the unexpected in the course of their archaeological existence: the Red Fort got turned into a place for rebellion, and resurgence; the Jama Masjid served as a place for self assertion during the pre-independence period; the Purana Qila was considered to rest on the mythic city of the Indraprastha; the Qutab complex has had its share of religious skirmishes; and the little-known sufi shrine of Hazrat Rasul Numa was saved by locals from expropriation by the British. The basic contention of this eloquent study is that each of these monuments exists in the space between archive and affect, lending credence to the notion that the monuments are culturally mutable objects far from being symbols of their specific pasts. In this context, the inheritance of the past is rarely seamless and secular.

Drawing detailed portraits of each of the five monuments, Rajagopalan examines how archival narratives were authored and even tempered to insert specific affects by both the colonial government and later by the nation-state. Interestingly, while the colonial government sought to erase reminiscences of the humiliating losses suffered during 1857 rebellion from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the Indian government did not remove Nicholson statue, the British soldier who had crushed the rebels, as a reminder of our own weakness to serve as a good historical lesson. These affects reflect differing interests and varying motivations toward the same monument.  

Building Histories captures the archaeological history of the five monuments and the institutional preservation that began with the establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861, which was given additional impetus by the enactment of the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act by Lord Curzon in 1904. As a distinct departure from its past history of looting, pilferage and destruction of historic structures, the colonial government had an image makeover post-1857 as it started protecting monuments on behalf of its subjects. Could it be an institutionalized atonement for a previous history that included destruction and vandalism of country’s cultural heritage? 

The book is more than an archaeological treatise on the five monuments, as it raises question on what historical lexicon may suffice to accommodate many voices and affects that continually make and remake these structures. Mrinalini Rajgopalan, an assistant professor in History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, opines that Delhi’s rich Islamic structures are deeply vexing to those who seek to reclaim India as a geography defined solely by Hindu culture and history. The November 2001 abortive attempt for reclaiming the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in the Qutab complex as a Hindu temple is a case in point. Such parochial reframing of nation and history has been frequently played out on the monuments in the capital city. 

Each monument may be a bearer of specific truths regarding the past, and yet it remains vulnerable to multiple interpretations as the text that sets the regime of truth changes hands over time. No surprise, therefore, that prevailing anxieties between state and non-state actors builds new narratives to justify the imagined past. The creative appropriation of the medieval ruins of the Qila Rai Pithora in south Delhi in 2010, as the remnants of an ancient Hindu empire of Prithviraj Chauhan, has been a way to contain the history and interpretation of the monument. However, there is more to the Qila that is located at the entrance to Delhi, and which has been witness to many ups and downs of the history of India.  

Rajgopalan examines such contestations to argue that since the past could not be retrieved by the contemporary observer, there is a need for each of the monuments to remain a sacred and immutable relic of the past. What worries her is the continuing seduction to redefine the archival past in a bid to avenge past Islamic domination.  

Building Histories narrates extraordinary stories of the each of the five monuments – many of them previously unknown – in making a strong case for pulling archival histories out from the influence of popular emotions. Within the archival representations and affective appropriations of the monuments, the book echoes the need for more nuanced history of architectural objects. 

Building Histories
by Mrinalini Rajagopalan
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London
Extent: 244, Price: Rs. 3,857   

First published in The Hindustan Times online on Nov 11, 2017

Friday, November 10, 2017

The cultural sociology of sanitation

Swachh Bharat will remain a work in progress unless the cultural sociology of open defecation gets addressed.

Amidst the Swachh Bharat hype of ridding the country from the scourge of open defecation, the ground reality of transformation remains shrouded in statistics. The notion that lack of toilets force people to literally shame themselves in the public has not stood the test of time since toilet building program began over four decades ago. Despite claims to the contrary, open defecation is declining sufficiently slowly, suggesting instead that the day of reckoning is unlikely to match the deadline set by the government. The massive loo-building program needs to flush the notion that a toilet built ensures its usage. 

Why it is that access to toilet does not inspire people to avoid having a field day? Is the state’s idea of a toilet different from peoples’ perception of sanitation? Are social and cultural notions so deeply entrenched that the masses fail to draw a distinction between purity and pollution? And, why sanitation prejudice runs so deep in peoples psyche that they belittle any attempt by the state at correcting the ‘dirty picture’? 

In delving into the stinking subject Where India Goes comes out clean with new insights on why toilet has remained an incomplete solution to poor sanitation, as it neither relates to more poverty nor to less education. If that were not to be the case, neighboring Bangladesh would have been eons away in achieving total sanitation. Instead, the poverty-stricken neighbor is close to attaining total sanitation coverage. No surprise, therefore, India continues to top the global open defecation ranking, becoming a unique country where people walk a short distance away from home to squat and relieve themselves. And, it has come to stay as a typical Indian syndrome. 

Clearly, one size doesn’t fit all as the toilet alone has not been the solution to the prevailing social ill. Should it be otherwise, a great many people who could afford it would have built one and those who already own one would have used it? A socially iniquitous society neither takes subsidized uniform design of a toilet kindly nor does it take any pride in emptying a latrine pit.  Such behaviour presents the real challenge that the policymakers have so far continued to ignore. Else, the current pace of building ‘a toilet a second’ would have attached greater significance to addressing the ecosystem of behavioral change. Ironically, less than 1 per cent of current total toilet construction budget has been set aside for this purpose! 

The researcher duo of Diane Coffey and Dean Spears have put together an important and timely book, with an easy to read narrative, which argues that caste factor is the biggest stumbling block for open defecation to be overcome anytime soon. Drawing heavily from field studies and data analysis, the authors contend that the power of the state over open defecation is limited because it not only lacks the human resources needed for behavioral change but also because the social forces against it are strong. Seeking collective action from a fragmented society is an altogether different ball game that the state has yet to start playing.

There isn’t an easy solution in sight though, and neither have the authors suggested a prescription. Far from it, the University of Texas researchers working under the aegis of non-profit Research Institute for Compassionate Economics have located the pieces that need to be pieced together to solve the sanitation puzzle. To begin with, it will make sense for the government to reflect on its website the number of actual toilet users against the numbers of toilets built. Such a shift will usher a sense of accountability, and a tool for assessing change and measuring impact. Because, the goal is to eradicate open defecation with toilets as the brick-mortar means of achieving it.   

Having missed the deadline of eradicating open defecation a fewer times in the past, there is little to counter Coffey and Spears’ prediction for its repeat yet again. Let the government not shy away from accepting limited impact of its drive because plan to find reasons for rejection of affordable toilets have yet to be drawn. Creating options in toilet designs to accommodate peoples’ beliefs, including the convenience of mechanical emptying of pits, should be taken up in right earnest. Unless the targeted approach is replaced with an action and research initiative, location-specific challenges will continue to limit impact.  

Where India Goes is a timely reminder on what has not worked, and a list of actions that could spur change. It is a book for planners who are guided by their political masters to meet targets, but are forced to hit the ground while running for achieving the over-ambitious goals. Without addressing the cultural sociology of open defecation, the political rhetoric of Swachh Bharat will remain a work in progress. A critical policy shift cannot be left to the politics of toilet building alone. 

Where India Goes
by Diane Coffey & Dean Spears
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 271, Price: Rs 250

This review was first published in The Hindustan Times dated Nov 11, 2017.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The rise without a fall?

By creating an assured market of committed consumers; Baba Ramdev has capitalized on consumer desire by marketing tradition as a product of modern convenience.   

Chance opportunities and trivial advantages can make a lot of initial difference to any initiative. It can even convert unobtrusive action into potential business opportunity. That is what explains the prodigious journey of Baba Ramdev, from a small time yoga guru to a big time business brand. Everything seemed to have worked in his favor, from his unstinted faith in the curative powers of yoga to his innate desire for promoting collective good, as he packaged healthcare and spirituality into a marketable product worth over Rs. 10,000 crore. Its phenomenal rise has turned out to be the most disruptive force in the consumer market.  

How could a yoga guru derail the bandwagon of established consumer brands? How has the detached guru become a phenomenon in the world of profit? More by default than design, the breath control exercises were positioned as a quick fix antidote to the fast-moving-consumer-ailments like diabetes, obesity, and blood pressure that helped the yoga guru build a vast following of middle income constituency straddled with mounting medical bills. The healing crusade was bound to prosper as the thirty minute breath control exercises enlivened the hopes of those who sought healthcare without frequenting the doctors. 

What began as an instinctive move to demystify age-old yogic practices ended up capturing the collective psyche of health conscious people across the country! The evidence-based real-life stories beamed through television spurred demand for its cheap ayurvedic formulations. Television indeed created a springboard for the high-profile yoga guru to build a huge spiritual enterprise. Control over airwaves connected him to the world of marketing and finance, the new links created political economies that support and sustain such enterprises. The remarkable journey of the yoga guru is as exceptional as the enterprise he has created. 

The Baba Ramdev Phenomenon captures the incredible journey of a school drop-out Ram Kishen becoming the irresistible Yoga Guru Ramdev. With a current strength of 10 lakh active followers, brand Patanjali aims to clock sales of Rs 40,000 crore by 2018-19, and reach an imposing figure of Rs 100,000 crore by 2020. Given that the entire packaged consumer products market in the country is an estimated Rs 3.2 lakh crore a year, and that brand Patanjali sales have more than doubled each year, garnering a significant share of the market may not be improbable for India’s buzziest brand. Operating at 10 per cent profit margin, as opposed to 20 per cent for most other brands, brand Patanjali is out to invert the consumer product market anytime soon. 

Other than astute upmanship and smart business acumen, what may have worked in favor of brand Patanjali that other leading brands find it hard to emulate? Three aspects are worth taking note: first, much before launching its ayurvedic and herbal products Baba Ramdev had created an assured market of committed consumers; second, it capitalized on consumer desire by marketing tradition as a product of modern convenience; and third, by courting controversies frequently Baba Ramdev has continued to remain in the mind space of his followers.    

Easy to read, Kaushik Deka provides a racy journalistic narrative on the early life of the yoga guru, and his subsequent rise, rise and rise as a brand that is usurping a lion’s share of the packaged consumer products market. That it is doing so to end the hegemony of multinational companies has evoked feelings of national pride among its loyalists. Having risen from grassroots with hands on experience, both Baba Ramdev and his associate Acharya Balkrishana are trained to engage in the entire production process, and therefore offer their moral and spiritual responsibility for every product produced by Patanjali. This lends additional credibility for their products in the market.  However, the book leaves you seeking more behind yogi’s demeanor.  

With market for herbal and ayurvedic products growing, and competition in the packaged consumer products becoming cut-throat, it will be interesting to see how long can Patanjali hold its place in the market on the strength of its emotional nationalistic appeal. That Baba Ramdev has successful created a niche for brand Patanjali in the social and political landscape of the country is one part of the story, how far can yogic practices continue to backstop its growing business model is another story worth pursuing? Interesting would be to see if brand Ramdev can defy the dictum ‘what goes up must come down’?

The Baba Ramdev Phenomenon
by Kaushik Deka
Rupa Publications, New Delhi
Extent: 184, Price: Rs 295

This review was first published in The Hindustan Times, Oct 21, 2017. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

The divisive power of the virtual world

It is tragic how social media, in addition to creating consumer comfort of some sorts, is acting as a psychological primer for nurturing hate towards others.

Has internet got more power than people to undermine or divide democracy? The way in which media has gone ‘social’ in creating echo-chambers of like-minded voices; the chance for such an upturn may not be remote. Conversely, the world of algorithm is fuelling efficiency in the way we make choices and connect only with those whom we like. Why would then like-mindedness be such a threat when in effect it strengthens identity and solidifies views? Cass Sunstein, the celebrated author who proposed Nudge hypothesis for fresh thinking on managing health, wealth and happiness, lets the pigeon out of his thinking hat to suggest that hidden behind the purportedly consumer comfort is a subtle transformation which acts as a psychological primer for nurturing hate towards others.

As social media increases people’s ability to hear echoes of their own voices and social media technologies help them conform to their limited choices, people are pushed into excessive self-insulation that leads them to believe in falsehoods. Self-insulation does offer a degree of comfort though, and possibly a way of life too. But creation of a limited argument pool based on constricted viewpoints ends up undermining the ability to be engaged citizens. As these self-insulated groups continue to churn limited ideas, falsehoods are inevitable outputs which eventually contribute to a politics of suspicion, distrust, and even hatred. A vote in favor of ‘Brexit’ could not have been possible any other way, opines Sunstein.

Social media has come handy for politicians to create political polarization effects, Donald Trump used it effectively and so did Narendra Modi in their respective election campaigns. Curiously, it is now clear that the ‘likes’ on Facebook and the ‘followers’ on Twitter are not the best measure of popularity. The numbers don’t really add up, but do show the use of social media in engineering political polarization among electorates. However, the bottom-line is that the followers create a virtual constituency that adds a wide range of arguments in their leader’s favor, and often shift to a more extreme position against those opposing it. Trolling is the logical next step, built over the cesspool of guarded opinions.

Drawing from research in the fields of behavioral science and social psychology, Sunstein unfolds the implications of the subtle but powerful phenomenon of polarization. The trouble is that much before people get to know it, they are sucked into the prison of their ‘like’ group. Little is realized that such group identity not only undermines individual freedom, but has implications for democracy at large. After all, democracy needs proactive voices and not ‘inert’ citizens who have been silenced into submission for holding divergent views.  One of the most pressing obligations of a citizenry, according to Sunstein, is to ensure that ‘deliberative forces prevail over the arbitrary.’ In dissent lies the strength of democracy.

Sunstein actual experience of working in the Obama administration, however, was to the contrary as his Facebook page was filled with views that fitted with the interests of the administration. This was bound to be so as Facebook’s algorithms construct a picture of who you are, and what interests you. With social media becoming central to peoples’ search for news, however, their worldview is becoming restricted with a liberal dose of fake news finding a place of legitimacy. It is a threatening fact of life in the networked sphere. It is this change during the last ten years that prompted Sunstein to address the dangers that the internet poses for politics following his previous two books, in 2001 and 2.0 in 2007.

Invoking Amartya Sen’s remarkable finding that there has never been a famine in a system with a democratic press and free elections as a metaphor, #Republic suggests that freedom of expression is central to social well-being precisely because of the pressure that it places on the governments. If we value freedom, we must value the free exchange of ideas. It not only demands a law of free expression but also a culture of free expression, wherein people listen to what their fellow citizens have to say. Sunstein doesn’t acknowledge social media as enemy but provokes the readers to seek out diversity in order to fulfill the promise of ‘e pluribus unum’– out of the many, one.

To doubt if danger of polarization will ever materialize is to ignore the writing on the wall. At this time when false news is guiding predominant media discourse, and when outrage by cyber-polarized communities against dissent has taken a toll on unsuspecting lives, there could be nothing more close to truth than what Sunstein has propounded. If we do not fight against the closing-down of our minds to critical thinking, a deeply divided democracy fueled by hate will be our destiny. The risks of the ongoing evolution of social media are too difficult to ignore.

Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
by Cass R. Sunstein
Princeton University Press, Oxford
Extent: 310, Price: $29.95

This review was first published in wekend BLink of the BusinessLine on Dec 01, 2017

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The knowledge economy at the grassroots

...the natives are so full of ingenuity that they make any new thing by pattern how hard so ever it seems to be done....

Rarely do these young men get noticed by pilgrims who throng the holy city of Haridwar for taking a dip in icy waters of the Ganga, and offer their obeisance by throwing coins in it. What is salvation for some is sheer survival for the others. Holding a transparent glass pane and standing through the day in water, these men search for coins that lie at the bottom of the flowing river. By pressing the glass pane against the turbulent flow the coins lying at the bottom get clearly located. Fluid dynamics they would not have even heard of but they know the value of the idea that has eased their lives. Ask them, and they won’t even know who has been behind this innovation.

This is one amongst innumerable innovations that abound in everyday living of a largely impoverished society in India. From handy tips to improvised tools and from enhanced techniques to adaptive practices, there is a rich repository of innovations on offer. Think of the multiple variants of ‘scare crow’ to protect mature crops or the ‘belled rat’ that drives away others of its species. Even the buttermilk churning washing machine and the motorcycle-cum- tractor have been locally evolved, to make life easier for million others. What fuels innovative desire in ordinary people, and why are such innovations gifted anonymously to the society at large?

There could be many explanations for this. Simply put, improvisation is the mother of survival and a lost opportunity remains an unforgiveable waste. Resource constraint is viewed as a challenge by the poor, firing imagination in the most ordinary of minds. As a result, people do not succumb to the constraints but transcend them by improvising on inputs and reducing costs. An English traveler during the Mughal period had recorded that ‘the natives are so full of ingenuity that they make any new thing by pattern how hard so ever it seems to be done.’ It will suffice to say that an Indian is inherently an entrepreneur and willingly a devotee, nurturing a DNA of innovation for the larger good of the society.

Yet, in the welter of contradictions it may be risky to paint a nation of people with a single brush. By default people are innovative but they are spaced by socio-cultural differences, and thrive in diverse ecosystems of challenges and opportunities. Few ecosystems mould some of them into entrepreneurs, while a large number is left unattended on the margins. In his quarter century of efforts at documenting and celebrating informal knowledge produced at the grassroots, Anil Gupta displays a seriousness of purpose in fostering voluntarism to scout innovations from the grassroots. Else, the double-decker root bridge from Meghalaya, an efficient brick kiln from Andhra Pradesh, an innovative tree climber from Kashmir, and the bamboo windmill for water lifting from Gujarat would not have earned social recognition.

Grassroots Innovation chronicles the personal journey of the author in building an institutional architecture that has ensured respect, recognition and rewards for unsung innovators spread across the country. Each of the more than 200,000 ideas, innovations and knowledge practices have been registered at the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), set up by the Government of India. Out of the registered innovations, NIF has filed for more than 730 patents and about two dozen plant variety protection applications on behalf of the grassroots innovators.

What began as a voluntary effort through the Honey Bee Network has grown vertically; the process of translating an innovation into a good or service that creates value for the inventor through the payment it may receive from the potential customers has been set in motion. Though the process has been carefully designed, it seems these are still early days for the entire value chain to be fully operational. Part of the problem rests in keeping the cost and also the supply chain of these easy-to-use innovations frugal. One may baulk at this characterization but it does throw up a challenge more for the promoter of innovation, than the innovator himself. After all, grassroots innovators have rarely been inventing products or processes for the market.

The overtly interpretive acrobatics by the author in lending philosophical perspective to the social capital of grassroots innovations has reduced an interesting narrative into an exercise in theorizing the sociology of innovative culture. It raises more questions than what the author had set out to address. If the resource constraints give wings of imagination to the impoverished for being innovative, will connecting them to the marketplace of opportunity not curtail their inherent freedom of expression? What is the relationship between the idea of freedom at the grassroots and the rational for institutionalizing marketable perfection out of it? In the end, are the high ideals of an innovative culture need to be tagged to a monetary value outside the society that nurtures it? It could be anybody’s guess if creating a marketable opportunity for grassroots innovations can nurture the backend ecosystem to continue generating useful ideas.    

Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots had scored brownie points in using some of these innovations in challenging a system of education that nurtures clones of a kind. In contrast, Anil Gupta’s Grassroots Innovation struggles to bring clarity between thoughts and reality. Yet, it gives a tour d’Horizon of the enriching world of grassroots innovations. Part illuminating and part preachy, the lengthy narrative can be tough going for readers unfamiliar with the subject. It nonetheless throws light on some unusual questions on and about the mainstream knowledge economy.

Grassroots Innovation
by Anil Gupta
Penguin Books, New Delhi
Extent: 381, Price Rs. 599

This was first published in the Hindu BusinessLine weekend magazine Blink on Sept 23, 2017. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Sorry for giving you the trouble!

Staying with the Trouble may not be easy, but staying out of it is even more daunting as it amounts to denouncing the world in the expectation of an ideal world.

Trouble is what everyone avoids getting into, and yet it clings and endures. Be it small or big, transient or lasting, personal or social, local or global, there is one for each one (and at times more) at any given point in time as there isn’t any easy escape from it. Come to think of it, we are all tasked with making trouble as well as to settle troubled waters. It is said that without trouble there wouldn’t be any glory either. With most of us living in troubling, disturbing and torrid times, what sort of salvific future can we expect out of it?

Staying with the Trouble may not be easy, but staying out of it is even more daunting as it amounts to denouncing the world in the expectation of an ideal world. But is there an ideal world? Conversely, the world at large is metaphorically rooted in a bony pelvis (cover picture) that metamorphoses into a butterfly through a skeletal vertebral column that has fleshed appendages on the sides. Complicated as it is, the image is indeed transformational reflection of dying and living, that is equally disturbing and reassuring. It seems to be conveying that only through troubles can man becomes both adult and mature. As a feminist scientist with extraordinary credentials, Donna Haraway creates Chthulucene, a simple word aimed at replacing anthropocene (human influence on the planet) and capitalocene (influence of capital on humans), as a kind of timeplace for learning to stay with the trouble by taking responsibility to wipe it out too.  

As human numbers are almost certain to reach more than 11 billion by 2010, with 9 billion of those added over 150 years from 1950 to 2100, the dominant discourse oscillates between two troublesome extremes on account of impact of rising numbers on the planetary processes e.g., climate change. If there are those who are optimistic that technology will fix all troubles, then there are others who wonder if there is any sense in trying to make anything better. Haraway considers those who have answers to the present urgencies and those who don’t as equally dangerous, and uses the concept of Chthulucene to cut through human exceptionalism and the utilitarian individualism of classical political economies where possible pasts, presents, and futures can co-exist. In discussing our problematic relationship with the natural world, the author proposes the flattening of interspecies hierarchy to cultivate response-ability.

The Chthulucene is proposed as an idea of non-hierarchical multi-species world of thinking and working together. Haraway uses the spider’s web as a metaphor for a vision of the world in which there is no hierarchy between humans and nonhuman animals, where instead all lives are interwoven to guide us to possibilities of coexistence within environmental disturbance. The spider tentacles, which means ‘to feel’, help them feel attachments and detachments, and are both open and knotted at the same time. At the core of the thesis is the idea of individuality that the book challenges, and instead demands sympoiesis, making together, rather than autopoiesis, self-making. It is in new ideas and new ways of thinking, wherein lie possible solution to the old ideas that are failing as evidenced by the inequities and mania of our resource extracting economies.

Using a curious mix of cultures and mythologies, the book seeks to identify and cultivate capacity of specific bodies and places to respond to world’s urgencies with each other at the core. What finally matters is what ideas we use to think other ideas. “I am not interested in restoration, but in more modest possibilities of recuperation, and getting on together”, stresses Haraway, whose idea of rejection of rigid boundaries in A Cyborg Manifesto, separating ‘human’ from ‘animal’ and ‘human’ from "machine’, had rattled contemporary thinking when it was first published in 1984.  As a distinguished professor in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Haraway dares to propose a process of living and dying together as an utmost urgency with the natural system on the verge of environmental break down.

The book investigates the work of interdisciplinary artists and scientists who are inventing new ways of working together, and with other species. Take the case of the pigeons, treasured kin or despised pests, which were engaged in an experiment to collect and distribute information about air quality conditions to the general public? Such gathering of data helps generate ‘imaginative action’ to enhance collective thinking to address complexities. These are not easy solutions but an array of possibilities. Staying with the Trouble is a work in progress on ideas which are aimed at developing new sensitivities and means to fostering collective response-ability. 

One reason some of the ideas seem esoteric has to do with our collective failure to view beyond the horizon. Having gone through a workshop on Narration Speculative, wherein the participants were tasked to fabulate a baby’s journey through five generations, the author could sense the melting of predicted events (ice-cap melting, sea-level rise, and species extinctions) on a piece of paper. Once through it, Haraway came out convinced to give a call ‘make kin, not babies’ in order to invoke and practice a deep responsibility to all earthlings. If we are interested in taking care of the earth then there is no way other species can be denied their right to environmental justice? Haraway thinks that we could be truly prochild of we practice kinship with other critters, as opposed to the crazy pronatalist but actually antichild world in which we live. 

Staying with the Trouble is a tough book to read, as it has long and convoluted paragraphs. It is somewhat confusing as it brings multidisciplinary aspects within a single narration. It is a work of scholarship nonetheless, one that models the world on the strength of generative ideas to avoid despair in the face of ecological destruction.

Staying with the Trouble
by Donna J Haraway
Duke University Press, Durham
Extent: 312, Price: US$26.95

This review was first published in Blink
, weekly supplement of the Hindu BusinessLine, on Aug 19, 2017.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Unfinished assault on poverty

Aid-triggered economic reforms have accelerated growth but not without widening income inequality and increasing environmental distress.

The sheer mention of the World Bank evokes mixed reflections, from an unbridled aid agency that is in the business of fighting poverty to a financial trap that twists borrower’s economic sovereignty. It has further been charged for pushing developing countries into ‘perpetual debt’ by promoting the agenda of the ‘multi-national corporations’. Despite such mixed reactions, the 1946 Bretton Woods Conference created Bank has expanded its near-universal engagement with as many as 188 countries as its members. Yet, there is little doubt that in its seven decades of consistent lending for worldwide reconstruction and development the Bank has not been able to reach its goal of making poverty history. Curiously, why then has India continued to seek assistance from the World Bank?

Simply put, the World Bank needs India as much as India needs it. It may not be an exaggeration as India has been the greatest success story that the World Bank has been able to showcase on the impact of its aid. A cumulative aid of US$ 100 billion, which is less than 1 per cent of GDP, has helped the country cut its poverty rate to 22 per cent from a high of over 50 per cent three decades ago. The flip side of the story, however, is that aid-triggered economic reforms have accelerated growth but not without widening income inequality and increasing environmental distress. As poverty is deeply rooted in many social and structural factors, it is argued that financial aid and technical expertise can only have limited impact. 

That being the case, what future a developing country should see in continuing its association with the global lending agency? In his comprehensive assessment of the political economy of World Bank lending, Nagesh Prabhu argues in favor of this institution that in addition to being dedicated to poverty reduction can create fiscal cushion to counter global market failures. Having made economic reforms a politically durable currency, how far can external aid help in pulling ‘other India’ out from the throes of unending farm distress remains an open-ended question?  

Reflective Shadows is as much a primer on the birth, formation, and functioning of the apex bank as an objective reflections on its lending instruments and policy. Being its founding member, India and the Bank have grown up facing different challenges at different times. While holding reservations on Bank’s criticism of the government’s over-emphasis on public sector during the first decade to opening-up the economy for attaining better ranking on Bank’s ‘ease of doing business’ index six decades later, India has come full circle in creating appropriate institutional and policy instruments to not only make the aid work but to attract foreign direct investment to keep the economy reasonably oiled as well. The World Bank influence seems evident! 

While there is little doubt that the Bank’s funding has made development possible in several sectors of the economy, how much poverty alleviation has indeed taken place on account of this aid remains inconclusive. But the fact of matter is that in the process India has graduated out from concessional lending from the International Development Association (IDA), one of the five institutions that constitute the World Bank Group, signaling its arrival as a global economic power. While the present government doesn’t seem much concerned about cut in this concessional aid, the author wonders how the country will tackle yawing gaps in infrastructure and institutional constraints to achieve faster growth and poverty reduction. 

Prabhu is somewhat contrived in his assessment on the country’s handling of its new economic status in the light of its pending development challenges. Aren’t there other lending windows to tap into, including the New Development Bank funded by BRICS? It would be interesting, however, to see how the Bank reinvents itself to remain relevant amidst growing competition. Despite the possible decline in lending in the future, the Bank’s accumulated knowledge is likely to come handy in providing software support on project management, technological innovations and institutional reforms. In addition, the Bank has its task cut out in assisting lagging states, some of whom are bigger than many African countries. For the Bank which has always sold ideas, and not just loans, each fresh challenge opens a new window of opportunity.

Reflective Shadows takes a sympathetic view of the World Bank, despite the presence of conflicting views on the impact of external aid on economy and poverty. While at a macro level aid does help bring about significant economic change, at the micro level it is considered to benefit the wealthy elite at the cost of the poor. No wonder, the impact of World Bank lending has been ‘somewhat mixed’, with almost equal number of hits and misses.. That sustained lending has led lagging states to embrace good governance with public accountability is the essential take home from the voluminous book, which is a valuable addition to literature on the unending role of the World Bank in fighting global poverty.

Reflective Shadows 
by Nagesh Prabhu
Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Extent: 584, Price: Rs 995.

Firs published in The Hindustan Times, dated August 05, 2017. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The rock upon which history rests

The abode of Samba in film Sholay (see picture) is nothing but the rock formation on which the country stands, formed some 3.5 billion years ago.

This rock formation is 3.5 billion years old.
Indica is an audacious undertaking, an exploratory journey in search of geological footprints in the evolution of the landmass called India. Trapped within these footprints are fascinating details about the interplay of forces that shaped nature and its products, fueling a renewed sense of appreciation in dead rocks and inert sands. For movie buffs, the abode of Samba in film Sholay is nothing but a massive rock till one learns that it is the rock formation on which the country stands, formed some 3.5 billion years ago. And, the wriggling creature of the size of a fingernail just beneath the upper few millimeters of sand on the Marina beach in Chennai is the cause for all of us having a backbone, although this small creature has remained unchanged since it first came to life 530 million years ago and remains the common ancestor of all organisms with backbones. 

Indica is packed with amazing revelations that take the reader back in time, but with a string connecting the spectacular past with our rather questionable present. One would be awestruck that the imposing Vivekananda Memorial resting on the ancient charnockites rock formation at Kanyakumari is actually the place where, some 180 million years ago, India, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, East Antarctica and Australia were joined together at what is called the ‘Gondwana junction’. And till that time dinosaurs had freely roamed the entire landscape, from Gujarat in the east to Tamil Nadu in the south. 

In his search to capture the grand story of the formation of India, Pranay Lal leaves the reader bedazzled with details about why rocks in one place are different from those elsewhere, why forest diversity is distinct across regions, and why majority of peninsular rivers flow west to east. As one treads through the picture-littered pages of this journey, one realizes that there is more to everything than that meets the eye. No surprise, therefore, that the book makes a compelling case for revisiting many such places that one may have visited without getting a deeper sense of their outward appearances, as also for their contemporary relevance.  

Revisiting Jaisalmer in Rajasthan would top the list to see those magical bowls made of ‘Habur stone’ that cuddle milk without addition of any culture, and to get a first-hand feel of the so-called stones which are instead microbe-rich fossilized remains of shelled creatures which inhabited the crescent-shaped beach that once was this desert town. But this was 120 million years ago, when Greater India was a large island, and in place of the towering mountain range there was sea shore that had extended from Rajasthan in the west to Manipur in the east. The excitement of witnessing the magical properties of the fossiliferous limestone of Habur notwithstanding, the challenge today is to protect this geological treasure from indiscriminate mining.     

It goes to the credit of Pranay Lal for digging out essential lessons in contemporariness from the country’s rich natural history. It is for this reason that one should visit the 30-foot statue of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, reclining peacefully beside a pool in the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. More than the statue, it is the green cover on the pool that holds special message. The top few inches of water is dominated by cyanobacteria, the oxygen producing bacteria that made complex life possible over several millennia. The fact that these bacteria produce 60 per cent of the world’s oxygen even today are reason enough for us to protect all ponds and lakes such that more of such bacteria thrive, making Vishnu rest in peace. 

Spread over eleven chapters, Indica concludes the 4 billion years long journey of the planet with the arrival of Homo sapiens on the banks of the Indus. But it took another 50,000 years before the first human civilization arose along its banks. From then on, humans have only tried to lay control over nature and natural processes. That is indeed so, but in the story of evolution none of the living beings, including humans, have had any clear destiny or direction. Had natural processes not wiped out our competitors and predators, none of us and our ancestors would have been there. After all, humans are the most recent entrant in the evolutionary scene.

Eloquently written and profusely illustrated, the book offers a multi-disciplinary narrative on India’s deep natural history. The enthusiasm with which the author has shared his two decades of tireless pursuit can make a lay person connect with it as easily as a discerning reader. The easy-to-read text offers a lucid and accessible account of the complex science of evolution that is as much insightful as gripping. Indica has the potential to trigger renewed interest in geology and paleontology, the subjects that have long lost their sheen due to overt specialization. Pranay Lal has succeeded in demystifying the complexities of natural science much like what legendary David Attenborough did with his Life on Earth book series. Indica rightfully deserves a place on each book shelf. 

Indica: A deep natural history of the Indian subcontinent
by Pranay Lal
Penguin/Allen Lane, New Delhi
Extent: 468, Price: Rs 999 

First published in BLink, weekend supplement of BusinessLine on June 3, 2017  

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why rivers are where they are?

The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming.

Its global prevalence notwithstanding, the state of water in nature reflects our inadequate understanding of its intricate flow dynamics. Despite abundance, its access eludes millions of living beings and the consequent stress on the ecosystem of which it is an integral part is only growing. That currently more than one billion people lack access to clean water and in near future the global demand for water will be twice as much are numerical manifestations of a deep crises. With nothing that can substitute this life nurturing fluid, the soul-stirring lyrics ‘i’ll give you answers to the questions you have yet to ask.’ from the album ‘where the river flows’ offer sound advice to ask right questions for getting past the prevailing hydrological muddle.

Sean Fleming may have listened to this album or the lyrics may have intuitively echoed to him in his quest for seeking interconnectedness between disparate disciplines to get answers to some unusual questions about and on rivers. Intriguing and exciting as these may sound, questions like ‘why rivers are where they are’ and ‘how do rivers remember’ propose exciting new ways of understanding varying levels of causality and complexity of the system and how these interact with one another. Plate tectonics may have carved a river’s course, but its meandering flow is an aggregate of multiple factors, from the changing climate overhead to the dynamic geomorphology underneath. The sum total is that rivers have manifest identity in sky, land and us.  

All rivers are alike in a broader sense, but have varied meandering curves, diverse aquatic fauna, and distinct morphological features. Unraveling this distinctiveness and the (unknown) variables that contribute to it are the challenges that confront hydrologists. Existing watershed models don’t provide all the answers and the modelers themselves don’t rate the results too high in getting a sophisticated description of river hydrology. Part of the problem, in the words of Belgian Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, rests on our innate desire to reduce systems into sub-systems which only helps in learning more about less. Such an approach doesn’t do much good to our understanding of river hydrology; as the challenge rests on addressing uncertainty in an array of environmental factors that contribute to stream flow and the aquifer beneath it. Rivers are at the center of human civilization, and warrant compassionate understanding of their existence in time and space

Where the River Flows offers a paradigm shift in understanding the rivers. It calls for a radical shift outside of the disciplinary box, as rivers are but a reflection of profound interrelationships between landscapes, ecosystems, and societies. Fractal mathematics alongside chaos and information theory can be applied to generate a new set of data on the overall pattern created by the river system and the resultant decision-support system. As anthropogenic impacts like climate change accelerate democratically across the world, there is a need for as much finer details (will my farm get rain next week) as about big picture (will river topple its banks this coming season) of how the system works as a whole. This would be critical in understanding the common but differentiated pattern rivers generate under varying geo-morphological settings. 

But a counter narrative has kept pace as science struggles to get a better sense of river hydrology. Sustained tempering of rivers on account of damming, diversion and contamination continues to throw formidable challenges in sustaining healthy stream flows for human welfare and the environment. Be it the Mississippi, Ganges or Yangtze, the story of river degradation threatens to off balance the dynamic equilibrium between ever-increasing human populations and their relentless aspiration to stay adequately watered. The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming. While every drop of water pumped out from the Colorado river is used at least 17 times, which may sound like a good news, its net impact on the Gulf of California has grossly disrupted the hydrological cycle as river water hasn’t reached the delta since 1960.  

Fleming’s scientific reflections on rivers emerge in the backdrop of such contrasting realities. Calling for an entirely new way of viewing the natural environment, he suggests processing of vast and complex information to reconceptualize the natural environment for recognizing problems differently, and in many cases identify altogether new problems. But can reams of hard data, quantitative modeling techniques, and classical statistical approaches get a better sense of a system that is not only dynamic but a living entity too?  Not without reason had Heraclitus said that ‘you can’t step twice into the same river’, highlighting that river is in a continuous flux. As the need for more accurate, precise, and consistent forecast move center stage in our dealings with the rivers, the need for factoring the cultural perspectives of riverine societies must get the desired emphasis. All it needs is sharpening scientific skills to convert human observations into quantifiable information. After all, there is a reason for humans to have evolved along the rivers!
Where The River Flows
by Sean Fleming
Princeton University Press, Oxford
Extent: 204, Price: $26.95  

This review was first published in Current Science, July 10, 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017

Did Athens make Socrates, or Kolkata made Tagore?

Geniuses could be the fruits of culture that encourages ingenuity, what is honored in a country will be cultivated there.

When celebrated artist Sardar Sobha Singh, known for his alluring Sohni Mahiwal portrait, politely turned down the government’s offer of relocating his studio from the sleepy but picturesque mountain village in the Kangra valley to the country’s best-planned city of Chandigarh, not many could believe that his studio window overlooking the majestic Shivalik mountains could be the reason. That he believed in the power of a place, and drew inspiration from it, was left unsaid then.

The Geography of Genius has revoked the unsaid by provoking queries: Does a place nurture a genius? Do places, like humans, have dispositions, likes and dislikes? Are places alive? Was Socrates Athens’s making or Tagore Kolkata’s creation? Intriguing are such improbabilities, though without any conclusive answers. But for Eric Weiner, the study of a place and its unique circumstances can explain why certain places serve as a superpower of ideas for genius to flourish. Travelling to Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Kolkata, Vienna and Silicon Valley, the author exposes himself to a buffet of intellectual possibilities that offer interesting insights on how nature and nurture might have synergised genius.

Guided by an African proverb which propounds that it takes a village to raise a child but a city to raise a genius, Weiner conducted psychological autopsy on the entire society in cities that produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and interesting ideas. If Athens produced the likes of Socrates and Aristotle, Florence nurtured Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Called ‘the Athens of the North’, Edinburgh had once watched Arthur Conan Doyle, Adam Smith and David Hume walk down its odorous streets. And, the chaos of Kolkata produced a diverse crop of genius including Tagore, Vivekanand, and Jagadish Chandra Bose.

These cities may have little in common; however, Weiner applies historiometrics to pull out some noticeable trends. In each of these cities, life was publicly exposed to a variety of chaotic stimulations. The agora of Athens, the streets of Edinburgh, the piazzas of Florence, and the street life of Kolkata offered a certain roughness, and even ugliness, required for being creative. But what has ugliness and chaos got to do with genius? Creative people not only search for ways to contain chaos, but periodically crave for it too. The yearning for chaos is known to have a neurological basis, more evident among genius minds. Beethoven’s notoriously messy desk and Einstein’s messy love life are important examples. Whether chaos acts as a trigger, or is integral to genius socialisation remains obscure.

It goes without saying that creative genius flourish in specific places at specific times. Setting out to discover why this is so, Weiner recreates the past by delving into the lives of key characters and the cultural undulations they went through. Laced with wit and humor, the narrative is packed with deft field reporting and sound sociological analysis. Along the way, he learned that creativity is contagious, and genius begets more genius in a social space. No wonder, in Athens it was the symposia with its diluted wine; in Edinburgh, the club created a place for verbal jousting; and, in Vienna, the coffee shop served as the idea incubator.

The Geography of Genius is a curious mix of travelogue, history and anthropology that is suitably peppered with interesting tit-bits to enliven the narrative. Geniuses are known to spend a lot less time with furrowed brows like the rest of us. Mozart, for example, was quite ribald in his letter writing, complaining to a friend, “Oh, my ass burns like fire!” Aristotle believed that consuming too much wine made you fall on your face, and too much beer landed you on your back. So, the Greeks always dilute their wine — two parts wine to five parts water. While wine may somehow relate to Athenian genius, why Greeks wore no underwear remains a mischievous mystery.

Despite the rich tapestry of information on creative ecosystems, Weiner offers no clues on why and how geniuses are formed. It isn’t easy though, as there can be as many arguments to establish it as the counter-arguments to demolish it. Geniuses are not factory-made, after all, to have a common pattern, as creativity doesn’t happen “in here” or “out there” but in the spaces in between. It is a relationship, argues Weiner, which unfolds at the intersection of person and place. One needs to slow down at such intersection to pay attention.

Geniuses could be the fruits of culture that encourages ingenuity. What is honored in a country will be cultivated there. Athens honored wisdom and got Socrates; Vienna valued music and got Mozart. These are happy accidents in time and space, and any attempt to clone such things can be futile. But The Geography of Genius offers as much fun as insightful reading.

First published in BLink, weekend supplement of BusinessLine, on April 29, 2017.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Human nature at its worst

Colonialism emerged out of the opportunistic churning and the resultant sharing of power between the opposing forces.

By discovering the sea route to India for trade and commerce, Vasco da Gama had inadvertently laid the foundation of what would become the Raj three centuries later. That this foundation was to be laid not on the land but at sea exposes lack of imagination on the part of the mighty Mughals, who left the coast vulnerable to petty skirmishes among traders and sea pirates. In hindsight, a protected coastline could have delivered an altogether different nation-state to this landscape. But that was not to be, as history had other design to it. 

Popular history may have painted Vasco da Gama as a noble seaman; while in reality he had only pursued the Portuguese interests in ruling trade over second half of the world as divided by the Pope – the western half for the Spanish and the eastern hemisphere for the Portuguese. Embedded within this directive was to establish contact with what were believed to be the Empires of Christian in the east. Consequently, when accosted by coastal settlements that ‘what brought you here’ the cruise members would conveniently respond ‘Christian and Spices’. The motive was loud and clear. With a long history of conflict with Islam, the newly opened trade route had equal intention of establishing Christian supremacy. With powerful navy at their disposal, the Portuguese inflicted mass casualties on dissenters and forced the gullible into conversion from Goa to Cochin. Francis Xavier was the chief architect who not only supervised mass conversions in Goa but converted over 10,000 villagers in southern Malabar. Trade and conversion had sailed in unholy alliance.      

A known Indian chronicler, Roy Moxham transports readers back to those times when Portuguese were engaged in fierce encounters with the Dutch, English and French in getting strong foothold for plundering the riches from India. Based on published memoirs and eyewitness accounts, The Theft of India highlights the terrible sufferings inflicted on Indians by the European powers during the tumultuous three centuries of coastal onslaught. Caught in the crossfire between invading traders, the local rulers were often trapped between the devil and the deep sea. Often working at cross purposes, limited resistance by the Marathas and the Zamorins could only delay the inevitable to a point. Colonialism, it seems, emerged out of this opportunistic churning and resultant sharing of power between the opposing forces. 

A 19th century painting of  Vasco Da Gama  paying homage to
the Zamorin of Calicut for opening up direct trade
between Europe and India, 1498.
The question worth asking is whether it could have gone the other way. It could have, had the ten-month seize of Goa in 1570 been successful under the united Muslim rulers. Buoyed by this victory, however, the Portuguese fortified their factories, enforced a monopoly on spices trade, and had built large garrisons. But all this was set to change with the arrival of the Dutch and the British, who scrambled for the same resources that the Portuguese were trying to monopolize. With deceit, corruption, forgery and brute force being the leitmotif of the marauding traders, human nature was at its worst in the pursuit of wealth. Part of how they dealt with each other had to do with the ongoing wars between their respective countries. 

Moxham research labels each of the European traders deft in creating windows of opportunity by drawing agreements with local traders/rulers, and then betraying them at another opportune moment. Afterall, they had come to India for swindling resources and not for building relationships. The Theft of India is loaded with anecdotal accounts of political intrigue, ruthless genocide and mindless plunder. In a way, it is reflective of the times the world was passing through. Life was nasty and brutish; loyalties were worth trading for survival.

The English were the late to arrive on the scene but were quick to violate the decree that the East India Company would insist on trade, and not attempt colonization or conquest. Robert Clive, who arrived as a clerk in the company in 1744, was to rewrite the script a decade later. Not only did he acquire large shares in the company, Clive saw opportunity in capitalizing on the political void created following the decline of both the Marathas and the Mughals. In the thirteen years since the Battle of Plassey huge sums of money were transported to Britain. The shocking fact, however, is that the first thirteen years of the British rule did  more damage to the people of India than by all the other European invaders of the centuries before. The Bengal famine was the worst manifestation of this plunder. 

Moxham paints painful picture of the organized loot that the Indians had to go through. The pain it inflicted on local population was beyond the realm of imagination. Several hundreds were put to sword, and millions had starved to death. The life under the Mughals may not have been rosy, but at least the Mughal spoils were generally retained in India. 

The rest, as Moxham concludes, is history!

The Theft of India
by Roy Moxham
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 252, Price: Rs 399 

This review was first published in The Hindustan Times dated April 15, 2017.  

Monday, March 27, 2017

Character as currency

One can feign ignorance but being consumers of industrialized products we are but an integral part of the destructive resource extraction that is anything but organized violence...

Only after living without money for three years and having established his nonviolent credentials could Mark Boyle gather courage to engage with Gandhi over the everydayness of violence in our lives. Having discovered the virtue of non-monetary relationships with people and nature, his contention is that monetary valuation is a form of violence that puts nature into tin cans for easy commercialization. Isn’t the economic paradigm of progress premised on the conversion of our physical, cultural and spiritual commons into cash? Even the materials that make up the human body have been monetized, net worth of what goes in the making of the heart, the hands, the eyes and other limbs has been estimated a measly $56 only. It may be a hard-to-digest perspective but it serves the cause of hidden violence unleashed by the pharmaceutical companies, turning sickness into big business. And, this is one of the several expressions of slow violence in our daily lives. 

Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi offers a nuanced understanding of violence, that is indirect but real. But this book is not for those who, according to Boyle, cherish their belongings over a sense of belonging, and whose empathy for nature is packaged into weekend getaways. Neither is it for those who get afflicted by ‘the Avatar effect’, the wave of depression and suicidal feelings that followed the release of the movie Avatar as people longed for the ecologically bountiful and diverse moon of the fictional Pandora. It is for those who consider the worth of nature greater than the tin cans, and who are ready to resist violence to forge a rich and meaningful lives for ourselves. 

Consumerism has separated us from the consequences of our actions, creating the delusional sense of separation – in both time and space – designed into our culture that we remain blinkered to the violence of our civilized lives. One can feign ignorance but being consumers of industrialized products we are but an integral part of the destructive resource extraction that is anything but organized violence on the entire biotic community. The influence of industrialism is so subtle that seeking aspirational lifestyles, aspirational sex and aspirational homes has become the leitmotif of human existence, with cost of development externalized beyond the modern-day gated living. Violence is manifest in the degree of separation between us and what we consume.  

Boyle’s arguments are both experiential and philosophical, pulled out from three years of life lived without the trappings and security of money. Chronicling his moneyless life in The Moneyless Manifesto, the author had argued why the transition beyond monetary economics has become the zeitgeist of the Occupy generation. While the first year of moneyless living was tough, subsequent years were reportedly more content, healthier, and at peace. But if such were the experience of surviving on a ‘gift economy’ what made him to re-enter the monetary world? ‘To share my lessons and to establish projects that would enable others to loosen the grip that money has on their lives,’ he wrote.

Quest for money, more money, makes humans behave like rats, literally. Carl Sagan had long remarked that crowding humans into cities to earn more money would lead to more outbreaks of street violence, child abuse, maternal mortality, gang rape, psychosis, alienation, disorientation, and rootlessness. Years later, ethologist John B. Calhoun had found similar symptoms among rats when they were crowded in a cage. All this is not unexpected in the name of ‘progress’ – itself a linear construct – wherein what finally endures is indignity, inhumanity and humiliation in the pursuit of contentment, which by definition remains unattainable. In his thought-provoking and insightful exposition, Boyle challenges us to do things that make us less violent. 

If you think you have found your own ethical response and have started to fill your kettle with ‘green’ products, then this is precisely what the author detests us from doing. In reality, these minutely small changes, which green capitalists have conned us into believing makes a big difference, are akin to a rapist taking a moment to put on a fairly traded condom before continuing to sexually assault a woman. It may make the utterly brutal act marginally ethical, but doesn’t transform the act of violence any bit! It is for this reason that Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi avoids being prescriptive, and instead provokes the reader to tread beyond the urbane convenience of reduce, reuse and recycle by embarking into a world in which three R’s of radical reformism are: resist, revolt and rewild. 

Unless the wolf returns to the park, the wild will not reverberate with all living forms. The extermination of the wolf from the Yellowstone National Park in the USA has turned the wilderness into a parched landscape devoured by the high population of red deer. Introducing the wolf 70 years after it had been exterminated brought the park back to life, creating a dramatic upsurge in biodiversity and the health of the land. Boyle argues that there will always be comfortable people who would want to eradicate the wolf from the ecological and political terrains. The task before us is to ensure the constant presence of wolf, waiting for us to enter realms in which we have no right to go without respect for what is there already!

Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi
by Mark Boyle
New Society Publishers, Canada
Extent: 230, Price: $19.95   

This review was first published in HinduBusinessLine BLink on March 25, 2017

Thursday, March 16, 2017

History as a moving procession

Chandni Chowk may have been subsumed under the great metropolis of the modern capital city but it has held onto its charm.

True to her words, Swapna Liddle kept aside theoretical arguments in weaving a chronological narrative of the last three and a half centuries of the lived-in history of Chandni Chowk. Far from being a museum of the bygone era, its unchanged by-lanes have kept alive its distinct culture of adapting to changing times without losing its contemporary relevance. History may be the most cruel of all goddesses, but Chandni Chowk has seen history as a moving procession. It has been part of the making and re-making of the city during its glorious and inglorious journey.    

First part of the book reads like a heritage walk wherein the author guides the reader into the making of the Red Fort and the walled city, much of it during the politically stable period under the reigns of both Shahjahan and Aurangzeb. The aura of royal power, which ascended on Delhi on April 18, 1648, only added to the spiritual significance that the banks of river Yamuna enjoyed. By alighting from the boat at the Nigambodh ghat, Shahjahan had drawn upon the spiritual power that the populace associated with the site. This spot on the bank of the river is considered to be blessed by Vishnu, where knowledge of the Vedas could be gained simply by taking a dip. Ironically, it is now known for the city’s biggest cremation ground.  

The second half of the book captures the history as it unfolds following the tumultuous years during 19th and early 20th century, following the decline of the Mughals till the emergence of an independent India. It is intriguing how the city held on to its cultural vitality during this period, developing an education system based on an indigenous language alongside its long-standing literary tradition. This was the age of Ghalib, Momin, Zauq and the Emperor Bahadurshah Zafar/ Their poetry worked as the literary balm for the aching souls and the severed bodies. Though there were only 137,977 people living within the city walls during the mid-nineteenth century, cultural amalgamation was reflected in people taking part in each other’s festivals and celebrations. The city had emerged as a cohesive group for diverse religions. 

History is often written from either of the two perspectives - mysticism or cynicism – the history that lies somewhat outside history or the one that the historian draws meaning into. But Swapna Liddle has viewed history of Chandni Chowk as a constructive outlook over the past, reporting the events based on facts and drawing conclusions based on objectivity. Consequently, the narrative records the past with historical accuracy. One can only concur with William Dalrymple that it is a much needed introduction to the history of the Old City of Delhi.  

The history of Chandni Chowk has known many turning points, where each quest for succession to the throne was borne out of intrigue and violence. The city may have been mute witness to the victor and the vanquished, but the people within its walls rarely resisted their resentment against injustice by its rulers. Noticeable is their angst that spewed out on the streets when Prince Dara Shukoh, heir apparent and Aurangzeb’s elder brother, was publicly paraded and insulted. What followed was a public outcry, stones and dirt was pelted on the procession led by Jiwan Khan who had treacherously captured Dara to hand him over to the Emperor.       

Despite his half century rule over the empire, Aurangzeb was strongly despised by the people. There is a deep repugnance for the manner in which he conducted himself during his long rule even today. Although that part of history cannot be dispensed him, surely his name can be from existing historical memorabilia. It may not be out of place to mention that the road bearing the name Aurangzeb was wiped out from the city. However, the same city acknowledged the contribution of Dara Shikoh recently by naming a street after him. After all, he was the one who drew parallels between Sufism and Vedanta, and had translated the Upanishads into Persian. 

Chandni Chowk makes for an absorbing reading. It may have been subsumed under the great metropolis of the modern capital city but it has held onto its charm. It continues to be one of the biggest trading hubs; its narrow lanes continue to provide interesting insights on its glorious past. There is something mysteriously attractive about the place; its history seemingly still thrives in its narrow streets. Swapna Liddle only adds historical flavor to the unending fascination for this old city. 

Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi
by Swapna Liddle
Speaking Tiger, New Delhi
Extent: 176, Price: Rs 399 

First published in Deccan Herald dated Feb 26, 2017. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Objects of political desire

Big dams are political objects which have transformed water into a contested resource.

Big dams epitomize development all over the world. The first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, called these gigantic structures “temples of modern India” and the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie hailed big dams as “treasure troves of wealth”. Over 50,000 big dams have been built worldwide ever since the Hoover dam transformed the free-flowing Colorado river into an energy powerhouse. In recent years, however, large dams have come under scrutiny because of social disruptions, cultural dislocation and ecological concerns. Many of these concerns were captured by the World Commission on Dams in 2000.

And yet, these engineering monoliths continue to fascinate several countries including India and China, who persist with dam-building despite these being the cause for lingering water-sharing disputes between riparian states and countries. While a great deal is known about the social and ecological costs of modern dams, the political dimensions of dam-building have remained largely obscure. Water may seem innocuous, but dams have transformed it into a contested resource through acquisition, diversion and control. And it has seemingly been done on purpose. Geographer Christopher Sneddon traces the 20th-century history of dam-building to conclude that “dams have been exceptionally thick with politics”.

Concrete Revolution offers a comprehensive analysis of the motives behind the proliferation of dam-building in the context of former US President Harry Truman’s ‘Four Point Program’ of international development. Technical assistance for dam-building was the primary disguise for staving off the presumed global expansion of communism. What this also did was enhance the capacity of American business interests to increase their global influence and investment opportunities; dam-building as bargaining chip. The global economic crises being experienced in the US at that time was a critical factor in promoting the role of the federal government in massive public works schemes in as many as 100 countries. Without the economic recession in play, this may not have been feasible.

Presenting snapshots of the US Bureau of Reclamation’s early forays into big dam development across several countries, Sneddon makes a compelling argument in favor of dams as political objects rather than instruments of impartial science. It suited the developing world no less, as dam-driven water resource development traveled geographically without offending radically different ideological and cultural contexts. Notable is the manner in which the concrete revolution integrated construction technologies with techno-political networks. The broader constellation of power and influence triggered the so-called ‘political intelligibility’ whereby large dams and river basin development were perceived as a universal ‘fix’ for water resources development across the world.

It is hard not to concur with Sneddon, whose incisive analysis provides fresh insights on understanding the assemblage of networks that maintain and produce large dams. So effective are these networks in promoting large dams that techno-political proponents of hydropower development perceive ecological disruptions as an unfortunate trade-off against the ‘greater good’ of economic development. No wonder, therefore, that the impact of dams on humans and ecosystems are largely ignored by decision makers.

Sneddon takes a step further to suggest that the assemblages of networks that produce and maintain large dams are not only undemocratic but rarely allow any discussions on alternatives to dams. Loaded as this assertion might be, the fact that the governments have overlooked social and ecological disruptions caused by dam-building clearly justifies it. Even the Bureau of Reclamation had sensed this dichotomy. Backed by information on the less-than-desirable impacts of large dams, the Bureau’s assistant commissioner Gilbert Stamm had proclaimed: “We haven’t learned how to apply our vast technical advances to meet the basic values and desires of people.” This statement was made in 1969 by which time the Bureau’s interest in dam-building had started waning, but elsewhere in the world interest in dam-building persists.

Concrete Revolution offers an authoritative inquiry on large dams, and presents analytical insights on the processes and actors involved in nurturing the techno-political networks. But the book leaves the discerning reader to dig deeper to understand the local and national political ecologies and political economies that continue to stick to dam building as a panacea to fill the developmental void. Part of the problem is that governments in developing countries have yet to imagine a ‘world without dams’, whereas river restoration and dam removal has started to gain prominence in the developed world. However, there now exists a mature global movement focused on problematising the economic rationales and socio-ecological effects of large dams.

Concrete Revolution is a bold and ambitious undertaking, which challenges the monopoly of dam-building ideology with in-depth theoretical insights as well as revelations shocking enough to trigger social transformation. More than a scholarly book on large dams, Sneddon has put together an impressive treatise on understanding the undercurrents of the geopolitics of development. It makes for compulsive reading.

Concrete Revolution
by Christopher Sneddon
University of Chicago Press, USA
Extent: 270, Price: $45

This review was first published in Hindu BusinessLine on Feb 25, 2017, and a shorter version of this review was published in Current Science in its issue dated Feb 10, 2017 .