Subhabrata’s Weblog

December 17, 2009

Why is no one talking about the population problem in the climate debates?

Filed under: Current Affairs, Opinion, Politics — Tags: , , , — genomewarrior @ 10:29 pm

All through this past week, I have been following the COP-15 negotiations towards addressing climate change. Climategate or no climategate, the data on the human contribution towards earth’s degradation (not just in terms of climatic abnormalities, or global warming but also increasing levels of toxic waste generation and pollution of the earth is various ways) almost conclusively attributes the current trends of environmental degradation to human activities. In the case of what is now referred to as “Climate Change”, i.e., global changes in weather patterns, increases in average annual temperatures etc, there seems to be clear evidence that human activities have significant contribution, if not being the sole contributor. So while all the governments of the world talk and negotiate for an acceptable climate pact that would balance economic needs of countries with mitigation of climate change effects, there seems to be precious little discussion on one factor that might be the real key to addressing the problem of anthropogenic climate change – population control.

Here is why I believe that controlling global human population is the key to saving the planet. Most of our population growth has taken place over the last 100-150 years. Current world population stands at 6.7 billion people with an average global density of 116 people per square mile. Even though population growth rates have stabilized over the past 50 years or so, the global population will still grow to about 9-10 billion by 2050. With this kind of crowding, I wonder how long the planet will be able to sustain the human race. Considering the self correcting nature of our planetary system, one would be smart to consider a Malthusian catastrophe of gargantuan proportions in the near future.


Figure: Global population from 10,000 BC to 2000 AD (Source: Wikipedia)

Consider this, the number of recorded epidemics in Asia stands at 31, with 12 having taken place over a period starting from the Black Death of China in 1334 to the 1994 Plague of Surat. The rest of the epidemics have happened in the last 10 years. Compare that to sparsely populated Australia, where the last major epidemic apart from the current swine flu happened in 1867 ( While I am interpreting this data rather simplistically (since there are many economic and social factors that influence epidemics), there is still an interesting trend here that intrigues me, the Asian boom in Epidemics coincides with the rise of the Tiger Economies, growth in the average earnings of a significant proportion of this region’s population providing them with increased access to better education, nutrition and healthcare. This region also happens to be one of the most densely populated region in the world. While still faulty in details, the reasoning here is simple. The denser a region’s population, the easier it is for an infectious disease to spread. Increased density and local over-population would also cause increased agricultural activity pushing farm animals into closer proximity to humans, thereby increasing the risk of infections jumping from animals to humans and then spreading through a population. After all, it makes evolutionary sense for an infectious agent to jump hosts when the density of the alternate host is higher and has a larger geographical spread than the main host. Besides, the physiologies of the current host and the alternate host aren’t that different, so the jump wouldn’t entail a total reworking of the infectious agent’s genome.

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Figure: Global population distribution (Source: Wikipedia)

Over population has other ills besides the increased risk of a lethal epidemic. Major resource crunches already plague cities all over India. Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai have a perennial water shortage problem. The Yamuna has already dried to a level where the government is now sanctioning building projects on the river-bed. The Gangetic plains of Northern India are some of the most densely populated areas in the country, and this population pressure has already wrecked havoc with the river. Even with improved agricultural technologies, India and other overpopulated countries like it face the glaring problem of massive food shortages. Water shortage is a global problem that is set to overtake us in the near future. This is especially worrisome for a country like India that depends so much on annual rainfalls for its agricultural water. The burgeoning population has to have its needs met, and the industry is happy to oblige by damming rivers everywhere, cutting down and digging up forests for mining and industry. The pace of urbanization is fast reaching unsustainable levels in this country. The effects are all too evident around us, rural poverty – as the attention shifts towards the cities and their economic activity, shortage of resources in areas around the growing cities (Delhi gets its power mostly from hydro-electric projects in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), massive levels of pollution of all kinds and so on.

Over-population induced resource shortages are also the reason for conflicts among various social, economic, religious classes. More severe the shortages, the more virulent the conflicts become. The rise of identity based politics, I believe has its roots in this shortage of resources, that in-turn leads to the mass anger which is the fodder of all such movements. The religious and cultural chauvinism of the RSS and its ilk, and the effectiveness of grass-roots level Maoist movements lies in this mass anger and sense of unfair deprivation. When there is a competition for limited resources, there are bound to be winners and losers. It is in that competition, that the seeds of social injustice and social discord lie. India and China are both examples of societies polarized by this competition for resources. And as the pressure of population on the land grows in the coming years, this conflict will only get worse, till it becomes impossible for civil society and the state machinery to control the social unrest, and the fabric of civil society crumbles.

So, coming back to climate change and the state of the environment, any talk of reduction of emissions and controlling pollution is meaningless for countries like India and China when their governments have pressing social obligations to fulfill. They need to keep their economies growing till it includes at least a majority of their populations. Right now they are nowhere near that goal. The story is the same with other developing countries, except that they are worse off economically. For the climate endeavor to be meaningful, the problem has to be addressed with a systems perspective, and that involves addressing issues like global population control. Social and religious considerations aside, the world needs a concerted effort for controlling global population growth rates through an international program of birth control and population redistribution. Along with that, a shift in focus from “economic progress” to “progress in quality of life” is needed.

As world leaders meet in Copenhagen today for a final push at a climate agreement, I hope they have this in mind when they prepare their document – The biggest problem with the world is not how much we pollute (although that too IS a major headache), the biggest problem with the world, is how many of us are there. Otherwise, pretty soon, they won’t need to. Like all self-correcting complex systems, our planet will cause the relevant changes to bring itself to a stable equilibrium, while we will remain mute, helpless spectators to the process.

Edit (December 21st 2009): Just finished reading David J.C. MacKay’s book “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air“. It is a must read for anyone interested in climate change, sustainable energy and the economics of the global dialog on mitigation of the effects of climate change. I think, I now better understand the various involved parties’ differing views on this subject, why the talks nearly collapsed in between, and why the “compromise accord” brokered by Barack Obama is probably an eye-wash. If one looks carefully at MacKay’s numbers (and the whole book, thankfully, is all about the numbers), one gets a clear idea of two things.

1. The cost of alternative “sustainable” energy is too high even for a lot of developed countries to afford. They don’t come anywhere near the fossil fuels in terms of energy density and costs.

2. The ultimate cost of shifting to alternatives, even partially, is dependent on a country’s population.

There are other points too that are evident in the book, namely, the climate problem is basically a problem of energy, that nuclear power might be a good idea for the short- to medium term, the environmental cost of a number of alternatives (like Hydro-electric power) is high, and that a huge proportion of South Asia’s carbon footprint is on account of Western consumption.

So, the only way climate change can be seriously tackled is by the West to change its life-style and by the Asian countries to undertake serious population control measures. Apart from these, countries like India CAN work to reduce carbon emissions for the short term by legislating fuel efficiency in transport, investing more in public transport, giving incentives for energy conservation where-ever possible. A little policy innovation and political will is required here. At the same time, a sustained program of population control and re-distribution should be undertaken to ease the burden on currently over-populated areas across East Asia.


April 27, 2009

An interesting experiment in public engagement

Filed under: Current Affairs, Local Affairs, Opinion — Tags: , , , — genomewarrior @ 2:37 am

Although I have lived in Kanpur for long enough to be officially considered a “Kanpurite”, I have rarely ventured beyond the IIT Campus-Rave-Naveen Market-Assorted Restaurants-Railway Station circuit. This is primarily because of my dislike for the general condition of the city. Kanpur is without doubt one of the most polluted and chaotic cities I have ever lived in in India. So my interaction with the city and its people has generally been limited to the scenes passing by outside the car window, or those brief rides on the “Vikrams” from the IIT campus to the city which invariably left me tired, irritable and generally sick. Over the years I have maintained a “healthy” distance from Kanpur and have not allowed it to leave any lasting impressions on my psyche, preferring to hold on tenaciously to the fond memories of the OTHER Indian cities I have lived, studied and worked in.

After nearly eight years, I am now becoming convinced that my disdain for Kanpur may not have been such a good idea. After all, barring Kolkata, this is the city I have spent the most time in, the city where I made friends for life. No matter how hard I try it is impossible to NOT look back and feel that I have done some injustice to it. So now, as my time here comes to an end and I prepare to leave this place for good, I have decided to make up for lost time and try to get to know Kanpur a little better. To try and take more interest in what is going on outside the campus.

Recently, I made a discovery that managed to convince me that maybe all is not lost with this city. I came to know that the District Magistrate of Kanpur City, Mr Anil Sagar has created an official blog of the district administration of Kanpur. Like all IAS officers, Mr. Sagar is an articulate man and so his blog makes interesting reading, but more importantly, I was impressed by the idea behind the initiative and the response his blog has been getting from users. Although the DM meets the public everyday at his office, we all know that it is not always possible to simply drop by and generally talk to the man. We also know that it is difficult to voice opinions on administration policies face-to-face. The online route, although not a replacement for personal physical interaction, does provide a great platform to tap public opinion from a literate segment of society. I am also impressed by the fact that Mr. Sagar takes time to personally respond to comments by the readers of his blog.

In the long run, whether this strategy will work or not, or whether the initiative will be imitated by others remains to be seen. Its success depends on lots of factors not the least of which is the Honorable DM’s own seriousness and personal drive in pursuing the suggestions of his readers. As traffic on his blog increases, he might think about setting up a team to manage it and sift through increasing “noise”  for suggestions of real value. On my part, I congratulate the Magistrate on his innovative thinking and his obvious desire to do a good job, and wish him all the best in his efforts to reach out to more people more effectively in carrying out his duties. Hopefully, over the years people like me would find it increasingly difficult to NOT like Kanpur.

April 19, 2009

Shoes: The latest weapon in a journalist’s arsenal?

Filed under: Current Affairs, News, Opinion, Politics — genomewarrior @ 5:53 am

We all sniggered and grinned when Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi threw his shoe at the then US President George Bush during his press conference in Baghdad last year. A lot of the people who watched the video on Youtube thought Bush got what he deserved. After all, he was the architect of Iraq’s current misfortunes, the man who pushed America into a needless, and mutually devastating conflict. Lost in the cacophony of jubilation and support for Mr. Zaidi from the Iraqi people and Mr. Bush’s critics in the west, and indignation from more “patriotic” of the Americans at the act of national insult perpetrated on a sitting president of the United States of America was a more fundamental question. That same question also seems to have been lost in the controversy generated recently when Mr. Zaidi’s feat was repeated in India by Mr. Jarnail Singh, a journalist with the Hindi daily Dainik Jagran. Mr Singh was angry at the CBI’s clean chit to Jagdish Tytler in the anti-Sikh riots that raged in the country in 1984 following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

The issues that drove the two journalists to act like they did, and the collective anger that they represent is understandable. The US occupation of Iraq has been a disaster. The high handed tactics in dealing with extremists, the ignorance about the Middle East of those who were making policies back in Washington, the people’s realization that the reasons for attacking Iraq were fabricated by the US, all contributed to the seething anger within Iraqi society against the Americans. Mr. Zaidi was simply a representative of that anger. So was Mr. Jarnail Singh. The merciless killing of Sikhs during nation-wide riots following the assassination of the Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi on October 31st 1984. Delhi saw some of worst riots of that period. In all, more than 3,500 Sikhs were killed in 3 days of rioting. 25 years later, justice is still elusive. The people who orchestrated the riots are roaming free. The 13 convictions in this case have been of people who were simply carrying out orders from above. Those who planned and co-ordinated the carnage are still to be brought to justice. The anger and frustration of the people, particularly the Sikhs is understandable and justified. Mr Tytler, considered to be one of masterminds of the riots in Delhi, and whose involvement was strongly indicated in the findings of the Nanavati Commission’s investigation of the riots, has been given a clean chit by the CBI. His party has allowed him to file his nomination for this year’s Lok Sabha elections. People have every right to ask why the Congress has allowed him to fight elections this year, and whether the Congress-led government had influenced the CBI in exonerating Mr. Tytler from responsibility in the riots. Mr Jarnail Singh did just that. He was given a standard reply denying the Government’s involvement in the investigation and told that the CBI’s report was for the court to accept or reject. Mr. Singh was also asked not to argue on this point further. It was then that he probably got frustrated and flung his shoe at the Home Minister Mr. P. Chidambaram. The resulting media and political storm has taken a rather predictable course. Most sections of the media, the Sikh organizations and the Congress party’s opponents in this year’s elections justify the act and hail it as a symbolic protest against the Government’s apparent bid to cover up the matter and protect the influential politicians who organized the 1984 riots. The BJP has jumped on this opportunity to score political points on this issue while the Congress has been forced on the back foot and is reported to be reconsidering the nominations of Tytler as well as Sajjan Singh.

The question that sticks out in my mind about this whole issue, however has nothing to do with the history and the circumstances behind the way the journalists decided to vent their anger. My problem has to do with journalistic ethics. There are three “official” pillars of the Indian democracy, the Judiciary, the Executive and the Legislature. Though not mentioned specifically in any Social Science textbook, the Press forms the fourth pillar. A free, vibrant press is essential to the very existence of a modern democracy. Fortunately, in India, the press enjoys a relatively (though not nearly enough) high degree of freedom. We have a vibrant journalistic tradition that by and large takes its job seriously. Journalists in this country enjoy a range of privileges that other citizens do not have. The Press Card entitles the holder access to people and places that normally are not accessible to other citizens. In all this, there is an implicit trust that the holder of a Press Card will conduct himself/herself as befitting a member of the Fourth Estate.  And what conduct befits a member of the Fourth Estate? For starters, the realization that a journalist’s job is to convey information to people as faithfully and clearly as possible. A journalist may have opinions about issues, and he/she should convey those opinions through his/her medium. Secondly, a journalist’s pen (or keyboard, or microphone as the case may be) is his/her only weapon. If a journalist has a strong opinion about an issue, he is entitled to use only his pen as a weapon. Throwing shoes at people is not a brave act, it is the result of bad judgment. It is irresponsible behavior. There can be no justification no matter how grave the provocation for such an act on the part of a journalist. The freedoms enjoyed by the press in this country also comes with its set of responsibilities that journalists need to recognize and unprofessional behavior condemned or censured where ever possible. I feel that Mr Jarnail Singh, and his supporters in the press have set a bad example in terms of journalistic ethics.

Contrast this with the conduct acceptable in a private citizen. The recent incident where a slipper was thrown at Mr. L.K. Advani by a former BJP worker in Katni is not as grave from a purely ethical viewpoint. The perpetrator, Mr Pawas Agrawal, a former district president of the BJP was a private citizen who did not enjoy the privileges afforded by the Press Card, he had a political grudge that he wanted to settle and he used the only means he could think of to vent his frustration and get some media attention in the process. He was probably inspired by Mr Singh’s action, but we do not know that. The point I have been trying to make in this article is: Ours is not a just society. It is not a completely free society either. It is the journalist’s job to educate the people about what is going on around us, to act as a mirror in which we see our collective failures and triumphs. A journalist’s only weapon is, and should always be his writing. Let the bomb/shoe/rotten egg/tomato be left for the more crass elements of society.

February 24, 2009

The Definition of Happiness

Filed under: Musings — Tags: — genomewarrior @ 5:24 am

I would like to define “happiness” as the state of being in equilibrium, at peace with one’s surroundings. A state of non-conflict with one’s environment, both material as well as psychological. The really happy person has no conflicts with either his own self, or with his environment, his house, his furniture, his society etc.

By this definition, happy people are probably the rarest humans in the world. And they’re probably populating the mental asylums or remote HImalayan caves, or monasteries, having spent years working hard to attain that state of sustained equilibrium, or having disconnected themselves with reality. All the rest of us are doomed to experiencing fleeting moments of that state of peace, while the majority of our lives are spent trying our best to get to that next happy fix. Our lives are a series of “happy” moments interspersed by rather long periods of gloomy existence, states of non-equilibrium, conflict, strife, doomed to finding the final equilibrium only in our deaths. The people among us who appear the happiest are those who learn to hold on to those fleeting moments of happiness for as long as they can and treasure their memories as vividly as they can for as long as possible.

Interestingly, all progress is the result of “unhappiness”.  Only those who are truly in a state of conflict with their environment strive to attain equilibrium, or peace, either by changing themselves, or by altering their surroundings. Perpetual disequilibrium, perpetual strife is the driver of human progress. The illusion of the perfect state is what keeps us going. In other words, I’d rather be unhappy and moving than be happy and stagnant.

My philosophy for the day.

February 5, 2009

Religion and Democracy

Filed under: Uncategorized — genomewarrior @ 2:44 am

A country founded on the basis of religion, any kind of religion, cannot be a true democracy, and a democracy is the only political system that is sustainable. The form can evolve, but the basic philosophy cannot change. Religion (here, even political ideologies are considered religion) defeats the purpose of a democracy by excluding a chunk of the population from a political process simply on the basis of whether they subscribe to an ideology or not. No country that is based on such beliefs can call itself a democracy. And no such country can sustain itself.

December 5, 2008

Mumbai Attacks: A Rejoinder

Filed under: Current Affairs, News, Opinion, Politics, Rant — genomewarrior @ 4:13 pm

Knee jerk reactions are always counterproductive in the long run. Reactions based on an incomplete understanding of the all aspects of an issue are worse. Knee jerk reactions based on an incomplete understanding of all aspects of an issue are positively devastating. Why am I ranting about knee-jerks? Well, because there is a high chance that the public’s reaction to the Mumbai attacks will force the administration to take measures that might be counterproductive in the long run and at the same time be impossible to remedy once the damage is done.

Incidents like the Mumbai attacks are tragic. By their very nature, they shock people out of their comfort zones and force them t face possibilities that they never really thought about. When people are in a state of shock they take steps that are not necessarily the best steps to take, in hindsight. It is almost automatic for the people of this country, and especially the people of Mumbai to feel outraged and angry. But angry at what? The terrorists? The Government? Pakistan? We seem to be angry at all of those. The terrorists, who are nameless and faceless individuals for us, terrifying in their very anonymity are the first to be blamed. Who made them that way? We don’t want to know. Who created conditions for these people to act the way they did? We have no idea. How can we tackle terrorism unless we know who we’re really fighting and why are they our enemies in the first place? The Government’s failure in intelligence is evident, but that is not directly the failure of this particular Government or party. This systemic failure is the result of a long process of piecemeal policy – solving the immediate problem without taking a systems perspective, in other words a “reductionist approach” to problem solving. The failure to realize that terrorism is a global phenomenon and this country with its inherent fractures in terms of  regional, cultural and most importantly, economic disparities is an excellent candidate for breeding internal strife. We have an older and far more damaging history of terrorism than the US. I have already discussed Pakistan’s situation in an earlier post (here). In short, from a purely commonsensical viewpoint, one can easily rule out the involvement of the Pakistani Government in these attacks without ruling out the possibility of the terrorists having trained in that country. We can all safely agree that their Government has an uphill task in taking control of the country.

Why am I trying to absolve all those perceived by the public as culprits in the Mumbai attacks? I am not. All I am trying to say is that these people and Institutions are actually helpless in preventing a situation like this from occurring due to a set of circumstances whose origins predates them. Demanding from them “some action” with the kind of urgency that is evident in the media and the public is likely to force them into taking shallow decisions just to ease the immediate tension in the public. What are these immediate action demands?

Tougher anti-terror laws

We already had a draconian anti-terror law – POTA. Post 9/11 the US government and most governments in the west had draconian anti-terror laws. Did that help to reduce terrorism? No, it just made the terrorists hate the Americans more! Their reaction to the 9/11 attacks has resulted in the financial mess that they are in now. All because a group of overzealous right-wingers decided to act tough on the “enemy”. So they created the horrors of Guantanamo and Abu Gharib, made a mockery of civil liberties that made America the destination of choice for free thinking men and women from all over the world, destroyed habeus corpus and basically gave the Government powers that would put a banana republic to shame! Tougher laws don’t prevent terror attacks. Plain, rustic commonsense will tell you that people who are willing to die for a cause will be expected to care two hoots for anti-terror laws. And at what price? Are we willing to sacrifice what ever small liberties we have in this country for the sake of a false sese of safety? All this while it is clearly evident that one cannot legislate terrorism out of the country? We all have to ask ourselves this question before we press the Government for “action”.

Tough stance with respect to Pakistan

We have to realize, we’re not the US. We can’t bomb the hell out of a sovereign nation on flimsy pretexts. It would completely undo the years of economic and social progress that this country has worked so hard for. A display of maturity from both the Government as well as the public is in order in this most tensed of situations. Finger pointing at each other at the slightest pretext is a national habit we both have to over come if we are to solve our mutual, as well as our specific problems.

Down with politicians!

Again, after the fact, there is a tendency to try and find scapegoats. Politicians make excellent scapegoats in situations like these. We all love to hate our politicians, forgetting that we are responsible for putting them where they are in the first place. A democracy does not have the moral right to damn its political class not only because it is the public’s vote that brings the politicians to power, but also a politician’s conduct is a mirror of the prevailing mores of a society. If the political class is rotten, it basically means that the society itself is rotten. So instead of criticizing the politician, let us all take time out of our busy schedules for some soul-searching. There should be more scrutiny of the political class by the media and the public. We should make the politicians more accountable, not by criticizing them when something bad happens, but by taking a more active part in the political process of the country, by educating ourselves on a daily basis, about the policies and activities of the government. The people’s active participation in the political process is the only way the rot can be stemmed. We stand to loose this country if we don’t clean up our collective acts!

The way ahead?

The immediate reaction of the public to the Mumbai attacks should be to recognize that the immediate reaction is not really the best reaction to the incident. Instead of succumbing to mass hysteria and forcing the Government to make the same kind of mistakes it, and others in its position elsewhere have made, is not going to help anyone. The public should put pressure on the Government to have an broad based anti-terror policy that is well thoughtout and publicly debated. The Government should NOT be allowed to enact draconian anti-terror laws that can (and have been in the past) be misused by vested interests. We should, under no circumstances, compromise on our rights and freedoms. Only a sustained participation of the polity in the collective scrutiny and control of the elected Government will hep us get ot the the seemingly helpless morass we are now in. I hope we don’t end up repeating the same old mistakes we have always made this time. Or very soon, we might not have a country to fight for.

December 3, 2008

Who killed the Indian University?

Filed under: Current Affairs, Opinion, Rant — Tags: , , , , — genomewarrior @ 9:47 am

I was discussing with a friend of mine the other day about the impact of the IIT system on tertiary education in India. My contention was that the IIT system has caused the death of universities in India. He, ofcourse hotly contested the point. According to him, the IITs were a great idea at the time of independence, and have contributed immensely to the growth and development of the country. So I thought a little more about it, and the result of that thinking is the post below.

Now lets see if the Indian Institutes of Technology/Management/Information Technology/Fashion Technology/Drama/Design/what-have-you are really needed in this country and whether they have done more harm than good, as I think they have. It all started with the Indian Institutes of Technology. A result of a young socialist India’s admiration of the Soviet model of education. In fact, the first IIT was established at Kharagpur with help from the Government of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1951. Other IITs followed, Mumbai in 1958, Kanpur and Chennai in 1961, and Delhi in 1963. Currently there are 13 Indian Institutes of Technology in various states in the country all covered under the Institutes of Technology Act of 1961 that declare these Institutions as Institutes of National Importance. The stated need for setting up the IIT system was to produce the scientists and engineers that a newly independent India needed for its development. It seems interesting that the decision makers deemed it necessary to create Institutes of National Importance like the IITs to impart education that could easily have been imparted simply by upgrading the existing universities to the status of Institutions of National Importance. The psychology behind the building of big Institutions with lofty ideals and huge amounts of public money as symbols of national pride is a distinguishing feature of socialist societies. Take the example of Mao Tse Tung’s destruction of the city of Beijing to build huge factories inside the city – his personal idea of, and a tribute to a worker’s paradise. In our case, we destroyed the University system by our own idea of socialized education. To really understand the basic evil of the Soviet system of higher education we have to realize that their society was based on collective ownership. The State owned everything, including your life. You individual growth and development as a person was essentially anti-state. An individual was simply a cog in the State machinery, everyone had his place in the society. You were not supposed to “think” as an individual, you were supposed to “do”. This led to their creation of highly specialized schools and universities dedicated to narrow disciplines — Institute of Mathematics, Institute of Genetics, Institute of Physical Research, the Medical Academies, and the list goes on and on. A highly centralized government controlled system put in place with the sole purpose of creating higly efficient workers for the country. This practice, of course created technically competent people, who were experts in their field of work — the Russian mathematicians and physicists for example, but did that system work? Were these people anything more than well programmed robots who were not good at anything but what they were trained for? I would be interested to know the real statistics. But their immediate success in the Soviet society was visible to everyone. They had great scientists, excellent engineers, efficient workers, but no philosophers, no independent artists, or film makers, or writers. But the quality of their engineers was probably what impressed Jawaharlal Nehru the most. He, after all had the responsibility of bringing India up to speed on development and infrastructure post independence. So the idea of setting up a series of engineering schools must have sounded good to him, and he went ahead and built the first series of IITs – Kharagpur, Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur and Madras. There is no doubt that at the time of Independence there was an urgent need for skilled technical manpower in order for India to build itself, and there was a very real need for the Government to focus on technical education. There is also no doubt about the fact that, given the stringent selection criteria, the IITs got the best students in the country who after graduation went on to lead successful professional lives. Given the socialist bent of mind, our leaders, possibly forgetting the original thoughts that went into the setting up of IITs started establishing other specialized Institutes and the Indian Institutes of Management, National Institute of Design, National Institute of Fashion Technology followed over the years. In parallel, the University system of this country went from bad to worse. Bad management, lack of funds, archaic rules, politics, all contributed to the rot. This asymmetry also led to an asymmetric perception of college education among the media and the public in general. In a country and at a time when good jobs were few, not getting into an IIT meant you were a failure even before you started.

From the Universities’ standpoint, the problems were compounded by the fact that in addition to the policy of establishing specialized undergraduate schools the Government also set up specialized research Institutes directly under the control of funding agencies. So we had the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, The Department of Atomic Energy, The Department of Biotechnology, The Department of Science and Technology, all funding agencies under various ministries running a bunch of their own Institutes specializing in narrow research domains. One would agree that there are research problems that need coordinated effort of many people, and substantial financial inputs. Setting up small Institutes dedicated to specific questions of importance is in itself not a bad idea. So where is the problem? The problem lies in the fact that these institutes are not connected to universities. They are far better funded than university departments, and thus have excellent research facilities, but the scientists who work there are not required to teach. Most of them being situated away from universities, their scientists and students have limited interaction with people from other disciplines. There is little exchange of ideas and views in the free flowing manner that is at the heart of innovative research. The result? Our entire scientific establishment is engaged in a “me too” research program where the really radical and original ideas come from the west and we simply fill in the gaps. The lack of innovation in science is evident in the example of the use of Zebrafish as a genetic model system for biological research. Zebrafish, a native of the Ganges needed George Streisinger of the University of Oregon to be studied in detail and be used as a genetic model. Our experience with research on medicinal plants is another example. In the humanities, we need a William Dalrymple to teach us about the history of the Deccan, or Delhi. There are many economic and social factors involved this sad sate of affairs, but one of the most prominent of these factors is the utter lack of a vibrant univerisity system fostering unfettered interaction and exchange of ideas among people of widely disparate interests and expertise. All this affects another important part of the higher education system of the country – Graduate School. We are creating more PhDs than any other country in the world with the possible exception of China, but are our PhDs really worth the title of “Doctor of Philosophy”? I am not sure. Are our research institutes producing loads of doctorates who are nothing but highly trained technicians or are we producing leaders and thinkers who can cross boundaries of discipline and think creatively? I think our policy makers need to ask this question to themselves.

So what is the result of this long policy of specialization and fragmentation? Our leaders would have us believe that our country is progressing and India is shining because we have a huge pool of English speaking individuals who can program a computer and run a PCR reaction. What they will not admit even to themselves is that all this lopsided development comes at a price. In mundane terms, this preference for quantity over quality has led to a huge workforce trained in a specific skill set and completely dependent on a certain set of industries in order to remain employed. In a deeper sense, this has led to the slow, but definite dilution of the cultural and intellectual vibrancy of the country. We seem to be well on the path to becoming a country of unthinking automatons who do as they are told, trapped in our own little intellectual boxes. We seem to have forgotten our own historical contribution to higher education by way of inventing the model of multidisciplinary university system with Taxila. The path of higher education chosen at the infancy of the Indian republic has without doubt helped India reach a position of strength in the world. But everything has to evolve, what may have been relevant earlier may loose its relevance with time as society advances. For the country to really move forward, there is a need to rethink and reform the higher education system. We need to bring the University back! Unfortunately the government seems to think otherwise. They have gone ahead and established a bunch of more IITs taking the total to 13 (and 6 more planned). And as if that was not enough, they have started a chain of Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research! It seems we did not have enough university departments good enough to teach basic sciences to undergraduates. As I have mentioned earlier, specialized institutes, a misplaced and misguided priority in the first place, has now largely lost relevance in today’s society where people with new and “unconventional” combination of skill sets are often the drivers of progress. This country needs well rounded individuals who, while being trained in a particular discipline, are at the same time aware of their society and open to exchange of ideas.

In my “ideal” education and research policy, I would first increase funding to Universities and at the same time bring about changes in their academic and administrative structure. Over time, the universities will be run by academics who are also proven administrators. I would expect these institutions to be run in a democratic fashion with no interference from outside. Ultimately, funding to universities will be based on their performance. The Indian Institutes of technology will  be upgraded to the level of central universities and be treated as such. National laboratories and Institutes will be attached to universities with scientists having the option to teach if they so wish. I would ofcourse encourage researchers to teach undergraduates, which would mean that the academic staff of the universities will be of two kinds — research scientists, who choose not to teach in the class room but take graduate students for research work, and faculty, who choose to teach along with doing their research. The latter will ofcourse be more difficult but I would wish to make it more rewarding too. I would encourage private sector participation in higher education and research with tax benefits to corporates and private individuals who choose to support academic research in purely non-applied fields like history, philosophy, art or the basic sciences. Setting up of private universities will be encouraged subject to their satisfying stringent criteria (I will talk about higher education as an industry sector in a later post) to ensure quality. The idea is to turn universities into centers of knowledge rather than just degree granting bodies, places where knowledge is not only disseminated, but also generated, where students and teachers alike benefit from their mutual interactions without boundaries or restrictions. Universities in my “ideal” society will be as sensitive to social change as they will be drivers of that change.

It is high time the policy makers stopped and did a serious analysis of the higher education and research system in this country. The whole system needs to be reformed if we want to graduate (no pun intended) from being a “developing country” to being a “developed country” in the real sense of the term.

December 2, 2008

Mumbai Terror Attacks – A Layman’s Analysis

Filed under: Current Affairs, News, Politics — Tags: , , — genomewarrior @ 3:28 am

So I start my blog. And sadly, my first posting is about a most unfortunate incident. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Like everyone else seems to be doing, let me post my own take on the whole thing.

I am not sure if the terrorists really planned the operation the way it actually unfolded. It would be such a waste of effort to just kill a few hundred people and then die yourselves. The more interesting alternative would be to rig a high profile, high value, but extremely soft target like the Taj or Oberoi with explosives, take a few hundred hostages and prolong the media circus to maximum effect while you negotiate with the Government for whatever demands you may choose to talk about. If spectacular killing was the motive, they could have let the explosives go after some time into the siege. They did not. The terrorists, it would seem were not prepared to make martyrs of themselves on this mission. Instead they ended up in a gunfight with the security forces in all the positions they intended to take. The police, barring the initial confusion did seem to act on time to prevent the complete takeover of the hotels.

The intelligence failures to anticipate the attack, the initial police confusion, the fact that a handful of terrorists held back the nation’s most elite commandos for more than 60 hours (presumably because, in addition to the presence of civilians, the commandos it seems did not have the plans of the hotel and hence were hamstrung in their efforts to search the terrorists out) will be discussed and dissected at length in the media and in government circles for quite some time now. But once the dust settles down and the city starts to heal like it always does, one would like to go over the entire episode and wonder whether we’ll ever learn.

Mumbai’s vulnerability and the need for a rapid response protocol:

Mumbai is a high risk city, the risk is built into it actually. It is the country’s financial capital, mostly concentrated on a small island, with some of the highest population densities in the world and great social and economic disparity in the population. Mumbai as a system is bound to undergo periodic catastrophes at regular intervals. The political scenario in India and the world simply adds to an already toxic mixture. Considering this, and the fact that Mumbai has faced such incidents (with more devastating results) in the past, it is unfortunate the the State and Central Governments still have not come up with a rapid reaction system for the city. The fact that there seemed to be delays and a complete absence of coherence in the police reaction to the event is obvious when one looks at the news reports. The political establishment also became paralyzed during the initial hours of the incident. This, in itself does not question the competence of the police force or the administration in any way. It just shows what happens when one does not have a reaction plan that is automatic. The force and the administration has to train for years to get it working like clockwork in the event of a terrorist attack or any other calamity. The fact that after so many such incidents – riots, bomb blasts, floods, Mumbai still does not have a rapid reaction system in place is the most tragic aspect of the entire incident. The Indian Prime Minister’s announcement that a new anti-terrorist force will be set up sounds good, but in itself is not the solution. What is required is an systemic reform of public services in India’s cities so that all parts of the administration can react in a co-ordinated manner to any kind of catastrophic event, be it a bomb blast, a terrorist attack or a natural calamity. The key aspect of these reforms would be increased communication and co-ordination between different branches of the administration like the police services, the hospitals, the political establishment, press, and citizens. There would be clear guidelines regarding the specific roles for each component of the society. The role of the press is critical in all this, they should be given complete freedom to cover events like these, but at the same time the press itself should be responsible in reporting news. The system should also be flexible enough so that it can adapt to different kinds of events without freezing up.

The role of the electronic media and the need for more responsible behaviour:

I have already spoken of the role of the press in such situations. Let me elaborate a bit more on that point. The television media gave blanket coverage to the entire incident in Mumbai with cameras rolling 24 hours throughout the operation. The airwaves were flooded with images of the burning Taj Mahal hotel. I even saw senior journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai reporting live from the scene. Now all that is good, but does it help? Did the media act professionally? Was the coverage meant to inform the people or was it meant to sensationalize the incident? I think, the media coverage added more confusion and misinformation. The coverage was skewed, it was jingoistic and absolutely unprofessional. Rajdeep would have done better to stay in the studio and co-ordinate with field reporters. His job as a senior journalist should have been to synthesize and analyze the fragmented inputs from the reporters on the ground and present them to the public in a balanced manner. It was the same sad situation in all news channels. If one wanted a sober reporting of what was going on in Mumbai, one needed to turn to BBC or CNN or MSNBC which were taking the feeds from the Indian networks but whose analysis and style of reporting was much more balanced. While in this country we had senior reporters hyperventilating on camera with a range of histrionics that would have done a Hindi movie mother proud. If you can’t handle your emotions, you should not be a journalist. Period! On top of being shabby in its quality, the reporting was amazingly skewed. We never knew about the the people who died in CST, or the Cama Hospital. The jingoism was ridiculous to say the least, Taj Mahal hotel is a landmark, but so is CST (I would think that CST Station represented the idea of Mumbai more than the Taj), the attacks were less devastating than the 1992-1993 riots or the subsequent bomb blasts, yet the press decided to call it the 9/11 of India and hype it far beyond its real impact. The role of the press in these situations should be to inform. They are not here to “sell” news. The press enjoys enormous freedom in this country, but with enormous freedom comes enormous responsibility. Freedom of the press is an amazing thing, and we in India should be proud of the fact that we have such a vibrant press. However, the television media in this country is in a depressingly bad shape. Not a single news channel is is worth the name. It is so bad that its sickening. The television media in India is characterized by garish sets,  loud music, a complete lack of presentation skills in the presenters, absolutely no respect for language, total incomprehension about issues, no homework on the part of the journalists covering incidents, overall incompetence and complete lack of judgment regarding what is and what is not news. This will have to change. The press has to be more responsible in choosing its reporters. Media companies should get their reporters trained properly before allowing them on air. They should realize that they are not here to sell news, their job is the disseminate news. They are not here to entertain, they are here to inform. Journalists have to take their positions seriously, be more honest in reporting.

The political fallout and the need for pragmatism:

The political fallout of the incident is already obvious. We have already started flogging our traditional goat – Pakistan. We have already started talking about strengthening our anti-terror laws. And we have already replaced our Home Minister. The finger pointing at Pakistan is obvious – we have a rather unfortunate history with them, their civil society tacitly supports extremists, their government has sponsored terrorism against India and the country has been a training ground for Islamist terrorists operating all over the world. The question is, in the present context, was the Government of Pakistan responsible for the terror attacks in Mumbai? In order to address this question, we need to ask whether they had a motive. Pakistan has recently come out of years of dictatorial rule, its economy is in pretty bad shape, their co-operation with the USA in their war on terror means that the Government is diverting a significant proportion of its national economy in an armed struggle against insurgents along its northern border with Afghanistan. The lowering of military deployment on its border with India, the result of years of negotiations and confidence building measures was a much needed respite to its already strained armed forces, letting them concentrate on one front instead of two. The democratic government of a nuclear Pakistan needs desperately to earn global legitimacy and trust if it wants to progress as a coherent national entity. In today’s trade based society, Pakistan is better off with a prosperous and secure India (and vice-versa), than in a state of tension with it. Both sides have been working very hard towards that goal. this incident would of course put a break on the rate of normalization of ties between the two countries, to the detriment of both as well as to the cause of peace a stability in the region. Given the information coming out of preliminary investigations even as the events unfolded in Mumbai, it seem would seem as though the terrorists were trained in Pakistan and came from there. If that is true, even if the Pakistan government may not have known about it or supported it in any way, they have a moral responsibility to assume. A sovereign country that lets its territory be used for activities against the sovereignty of another country morally looses its own right to sovereignty. In the case of Pakistan, the elected government is new and has a big task to undo years of anti-India sentiments in both its population as well as in its military and civilian administration. The offer to send an ISI officer to co-operate in the investigation is a good first step, but not nearly enough. They have to do more to rebuild the fragile trust that had taken years to build in the first place. They should seriously consider measures like extraditions of known terrorists based and operating from their territory, military action to dismantle terror camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and elsewhere, toning down anti-India sentiments in its media, to name a few. India should undertake complementary measures here. The most important thing to be done now, is not to let this incident stop the progress of normalization of ties with Pakistan. If that happens, as it looks to be happening, the terrorists would have gained at least one of their objectives. The governments of India and Pakistan should be firm at this time not against each other, but against the forces within their own countries that want to derail the peace process between the two countries. The Indian Prime Minister’s decision to tighten anti-terror laws has be taken seriously. Given the tense situation in the country and the fact that a lot of people want the government to act (they have no idea as to the nature of the action though), it is likely that any policy measure the government takes might be of the knee-jerk kind. We already had a draconian anti-terror law in this country. That did not really help in cutting down terrorism, it only led to human rights violations. One only has to look at 8 years of George Bush’s administration the US to understand the effects of knee-jerk policy. I am afraid that we will be seeing something of that sort (except the lets-go-and-bomb-the-hell-out-of-a-sovereign-nation part) in this country in the coming months, including the possible curtailment of civil rights of ordinary citizens. I fervently hope I am proven wrong.

Final words:

Ultimately, terrorism is a global phenomenon, and all sides in this conflict have very real reasons for being angry, whether we choose to see the other’s point or not. Conflict is an integral part of human nature and all one can do is change the nature of conflict. All efforts to suppress the conflict itself will be counterproductive. We cannot stop people from having opinions, we can only provide systems where tention and pressure can be released without causing too much damage to the society as a whole.  We need farsightedness and pragmatism on the part of the government and a systems approach towards anti-terror policy in order to have a chance at lasting peace, or atleast a minimization of damage due to terrorist acts.  Question is, are we up to the task?

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