Thursday, June 25

A chance to change

Nandita Sengupta makes a good argument about the futility of scrapping Class X examinations. I agree with her on the need for greater and better options after Class X. But scrapping the "traumatic" examinations could perhaps be conducive to it.

Simply because we are good at maths and science, or that it helps make more money, does not mean that everyone should be an engineer or a doctor. There could be other applications of these skills (e.g. the neglected pure sciences) that are equally important to the overall well being of the society. Not to forget the importance of Arts and Humanities that are unfortunately looked down upon due to poor monetary returns. In fact, compartmentalizing students at Class XI into Arts, Science and Commerce with very little chance of moving around needs rethinking. I think that Class XI and XII should expose students to all three (and more) areas and let them dabble with varied courses and combinations to their liking before they make up their minds. It would give them time to explore their interests, mature from teenagers to young adults and make better career decisions. It might even help increase respect for the social sciences and humanities.

Anyone who has been through the Class X to XI transition process knows that Class XI choices are mostly dictated by parents. The standard argument being that the kids are too young to know what's good for them anyways. If the choice is postponed to voting age (18 yrs) with a chance to know what they are getting into, the chances of voluntary decisions might increase.

Our education system (from pre-kg to PhD) needs rethinking and adapting to changing needs. And Sibal's plans are ambitious. At the very least he is talking about the right things, instead of catering to caste politics like his predecessor. Even if he succeeds in changing a couple of things, or getting the Right to Education bill implemented, he would have done a big service. And maybe he will.

Look at me!

This is exactly how North Korea's behavior seems. As world attention shifts towards Tehran, Pyongyang's threats to nuke US territory get bigger, and fancier. Maybe they should consider having elections with more than one candidate per constituency to get everyone to look at them.

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Wednesday, June 24

Truck jala, bill ghatava!

I understand outrage against expensive electricity. But how does that demand torching down a truck?

Friday, June 12

Creating false equivalencies

Charles Krauthammer in this Washington Post piece criticizes Obama for "hovering above mere mortals" and "distorting history for political effect." While I agree that maybe Obama could have indulged in little less self-flagellation, considering the intended purpose of the speech it is not impossible to imagine why those words were chosen.

The problem I have is with Krauthammer's comments upon Obama juxtaposing U.S. sponsored government overthrow in Iran, and Iran's role in violence against the U.S.

"A CIA rent-a-mob in a coup 56 years ago does not balance the hostage-takings, throat-slittings, terror bombings and wanton slaughters perpetrated for 30 years by a thug regime in Tehran (and its surrogates) that our own State Department calls the world's "most active state sponsor of terrorism." "

For one, I doubt if Obama was trying to call it even. Secondly the "thug regime" that came into being in Iran and perpetuated the violence was in ways enabled by the U.S. coup against the democratically elected leadership of Mosaddegh. Just as the Taliban problem in Afghanistan had to do with U.S. supporting the Mujaheddin to fight the Soviets. It can reasonably be argued that had Mosaddegh been allowed to rule, Iran would have been a favorably different country. So it definitely does not balance things out.

*Disclaimer: I do not condone or support terrorist activities, whether sponsored by Iran or any other country.

Monday, June 8

Musharraf's Spiegel interview

Did he really say that!?! Pervez Musharraf disclosed in an interview that the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) and the terrorists who bombed the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 are connected. That is a huge admission for someone who was at the helm of affairs in Pakistan for a long time. In the Spiegel interview he bashes India and the United States for Pakistan's problems all through history.

Though not surprising, it is definitely telling that Musharraf thinks "nothing can happen to Pakistan as long as the armed forces are intact and strong. Anyone who wants to weaken and destabilize Pakistan just has to weaken the army and our intelligence service, ISI..."No one would deny that the defense mechanism is a crucial aspect in the well-being of any country, but over and above that are strong functional political institutions. (China is a strong and stable country not simply because of its military but because of a strong functioning political system.) Pakistan has been in a perpetual state of crisis since its creation due to the military dominated governments. They had no interest in laying down strong foundations for democracy or other form of civil government. Pakistan's geopolitical importance particularly during the Cold War meant that foreign governments did everything they could to ensure a well-trained and -equipped army, rather than a stable government.

And so ultimately Pakistan mastered the art of exhorting billions in aid money, without any results to show for it. The country is still destabilized and its economy in shambles. It is no surprise that when asked about how they spent the money received over the last eight years, Musharraf replied, "But why do you care about that? Why, for heaven's sake, should I tell you how we spent the money? ... I also told the Americans that it has nothing to do with them. We are not obligated to give out any details. Maybe I should have said at the time: Ok, you want us to support you, give us $20 billion a year and don't ask what we are doing with it." One could think of it as a business transaction, payment for services provided. But in that cases the vendor is expected to deliver. I see a daylight bribery.

Musharraf does tell us that some of the money was a reimbursement for past services. And how it is not possible to segregate the spendings as those on "war on terror" only, because material bought with that money travels with the moving army divisions to the Easter (Indian) border too. In effect the money is being spent to secure its Eastern border and fight India. Of course it is no surprise that he considers that India should not be left out if one is serious about combating terrorism. Read together Musharraf is saying that Pakistan spent all the aid money fighting the "war on terror" against Afghanistan and India. No surprises there.

Wednesday, June 3

Capturing climate change

Another talk on climate change but with some of the most beautiful pictures of its devastating effects.

Look out for more about the movie at website

Tuesday, June 2

Cleaning up our act

This piece in NYT asks a question that almost very Indian has asked in some form; "why do governments that cannot manage the basics of public hygiene think that they can micro-manage an economy?" Edward Glaeser then proceeds to talk about India and Mumbai's urban development and water works management in particular.

For years I have wondered why our local governments fail to provide basic water and sewer systems, and maintain minimum levels of public hygiene. When my local municipal corporator turned a nala/open toilet into a beautiful jogging park people were immensely surprised and relieved. It transformed some 4 kms of the nala into a stink free, hygienic, serene, aesthetically appealing area. At the same time he also arranged for toilets to be build for those that were now deprived of their space. It was not an innovative undertaking but it was essential for the health of the neighborhood. That there must have been political and monetary payoff is another issue.

One reason for this apathy (I was told) for public hygiene is that we as a society lack a culture of public hygiene. And sometimes when I visit predominately South Asian neighborhoods in the US, or places like Devon Avenue (Chicago) I want to believe it. These places are so unclean you wonder if you are in the same city that has clean roads two blocks away. And I am sure this has nothing to do with discrimination on part of the local authorities. While in India you will find cleanliness fanatics whose houses are spotless, they couldn't care less about the buildings they live in. The same people are so disgusted by the garbage accumulating in their neighborhood that they will fling their garbage bags from a distance, whether it lands inside the bins or not is not their business. Even schools and hospitals cannot maintain clean restrooms. Spitting is a national pass-time that I have still to understand. Even temples make you cringe. With all the sovla/suddhikaran ideas ingrained in Hindu rituals, why is the God's house so dirty? How is that permissible?

I understand that public hygiene and water and sewer maintenance costs a lot of money. And many local governments are perpetually cash strapped. Yet it is not impossible to promote cleanliness and enforce existing laws and policies strictly. Most of the road cleaners can be seen chatting early morning when a lot of work still remains to be done. And then as the traffic increases they have a valid reason to not do their job efficiently. One can walk miles before finding a garbage bin on the road, and people consider this a valid excuse for disposing off their waste anywhere. Public toilets are feasting grounds for diseases. Pet owners do not own the shit, leaving it for people to step on and clean. The list can go on and on.

At the end of the day no matter how many malls we build or how much our average income increases, if the State cannot maintain basic public hygiene it has failed in more than one ways. Of course unless we develop a basic civic sense and responsibility for keeping our neighborhoods clean, no State action can ever be sufficient. There are sufficient decently clean people in India it is just a matter of applying the same principles to public life.