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Varnam | In the Reading List: Pope And Mussolini

Mon, 02/03/2014 - 18:57

So far it was believed that the Catholic Church was against fascism during the 20s and 30s, when Mussolini came to power in Italy.  Newly revealed documents state otherwise. NPR had an interview with David Kertzer, the author of the new book  The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europeand here are some interesting points from the transcript.

On the pope’s interest in allying with Mussolini

The popes had seen the Italian government as enemies, basically. They had rejected the notion of the separation of church and state, they had lost their privileged position in society, and they had always called that system illegitimate. Pius XI at least began to see the possibility that Mussolini might be the person sent by God — the man of providence — as he would later refer to him … who would reverse all of that, who would end the separation of church and state, restore many of the prerogatives of the church and at the same time, as the Pope was very worried about the rising socialist movement … saw Mussolini as the man who was the best bet, perhaps, to prevent a socialist takeover of Italy.

On what the church got out of this alliance

The church got financial benefits, considerable payments by the state to the Catholic clergy. … They got, for example, as the fascists were forming fascist youth groups, which millions of youth in Italy were a part of in those years, the church was given chaplains to all the local chapters of the fascist youth groups so that they were able to influence the youth, which was very important to them. They also got as part of the Concordat, the fascist imposition of teaching religion in elementary schools, which was one of the first things Mussolini did to ingratiate himself when he came to power — to extend that to secondary schools as well so that all the school children in Italy were taught Catholic religion in their school.

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RQ | Gas credits and trading

Mon, 02/03/2014 - 16:07

So last week the government took a decision to increase the number of subsidized gas cylinders per family from nine to twelve per year. People say it is a move aimed at the elections, but it doesn’t impress me. It doesn’t impress me because it doesn’t affect me.

We are a family of two (wife and I), and have a subsidized gas connection. We cook at home daily, but since it’s just the two of us and we’re a “DINK” (double income, no kids) family, we don’t end up using all that much of gas. We use the cylinders strictly for cooking purposes only (not for heating water or running our car), and in the last three years or so when we’ve lived together we’ve averaged about three cylinders a year.

Given that we use only three cylinders a year I’m pissed off that the government has increased the subsidy from nine to twelve cylinders a year! Earlier, subsidy for six cylinders that I was getting was going waste, and now subsidy for nine cylinders is going waste! I don’t like it.

The only statistics that are out about the number of gas cylinders people use is that 90% of the population uses 9 cylinders or less a year, and 97% of the population uses 12 cylinders or less (numbers from a TV debate on the topic I watched last week). What we don’t know is the average number of cylinders consumed by a household with subsidized connection.

Given that I’m not availing of most of my subsidy, I should be allowed to trade in my subsidy for something else – subsidy on petrol maybe? If a family that belongs to the 3% that uses more than 12 cylinders a year, we should be able to strike a deal so that some of my unused subsidy can be channeled to give that family additional subsidy! This is just like carbon credit trading happens – where carbon efficient companies can sell pollution rights to companies that emit more CO2.

If you realize, what I’m getting at is that I don’t want to be “punished” (in terms of lesser subsidy) because I use less gas than the average Indian household. I want the same subsidy, too, so what if I use less gas? Perhaps the subsidy can be given in the form of an unconditional cash transfer?

While on the topic, it is absurd that LPG and all other rations are at the household level, and not individual level. We use only 3 cylinders a year because we are a family of two. Why should we get the same amount of subsidy as (let’s say) a family of twelve? Given that soon we will have universal coverage under UID, the LPG subsidy regime can be modified as follows.

Each individual (from a newborn baby to an adult) will be eligible for two subsidized LPG cylinders a year. For every LPG connection you have, multiple Aadhaar numbers will be attached – this is the list of “dependents” on that particular connection, and the total subsidy is the number of Aadhaars attached times two. Notice that the reason we have the present subsidy regime is that the Aadhaar is a necessary condition for moving to a per capita subsidy regime! Just goes to show how public services can be completely reformed once Aadhaar gets implemented.

Acorn | Good ideas, not just honest people

Sun, 02/02/2014 - 17:46

The politics of populism or misplaced notions of polity?

An interview with Sunday Guardian‘s Atul Dev on the Aam Aadmi Party’s government’s actions in Delhi.

The AAP’s dharna against the Delhi Police officers was termed unconstitutional by many. What is your view regarding this?

(Nitin Pai). Anyone going on a dharna is adopting non-constitutional methods. As Ambedkar says, there is no place for non-constitutional methods when constitutional methods are available. For a chief minister to go on a dharna is doubly disturbing because an official sworn to uphold the constitution is resorting to non-constitutional methods. It sets a bad example — if everyone who feels dissatisfied with the “system” decides to adopt non-constitutional methods, what is the yardstick by which society decides what to do? We will end up with the law of the jungle, and the strong will prevail over the weak.

Q. How do you react to Arvind Kejriwal being labelled an anarchist, and if you agree, how will it affect the political atmosphere of Delhi?

A. Mr Kejriwal might or might not be an anarchist, but the methods he adopted legitimise people breaking rules and due processes, based on their own assessment of right and wrong. This is a formula for anarchy, as in a diverse country like India, almost everyone has a grievance, almost everyone believes that his cause is right and almost everyone believes that they’ve waited too long for justice.

Q. Many wrote off Arvind Kejriwal as the Lokpal movement came to close. What do you think were the major factors responsible for him coming to power?

A. There is clearly a wide-open governance gap because the UPA government almost entirely lost the plot, and was unable to even persuade people that there is a coherent government in charge. There are also underlying factors: urbanisation, sizeable middle class, instruments like RTI and social media created the conditions for urban India to begin to find its political footing. These factors, plus some clever old-style populist political promises helped Mr Kejriwal win.

Q. AAP has made it clear that it would be contensting Lok Sabha elections, but the party’s stance on a lot of big issues like nuclear power remains vague and unaddressed. Are issues like foreign policy not people’s concern?

A. AAP does not seem to have a coherent policy agenda. As it moves from being an activist movement to a political party, it will realise the need to be coherent and consistent. It is no longer tenable to say foreign policy does not concern ordinary people — how many visas the US issues, what happens to the surplus militants fighting in Afghanistan, what happens to Sri Lankan Tamils, Bangladeshi Hindus and Tibetans across our borders affects us materially and emotionally. Indeed for a country like India that is highly dependent on energy imports, foreign policy matters for things like keeping the lights on and how much we pay for the fuel to run our vehicles. It is another matter that AAP’s leadership is not overly concerned about these matters.

Q. How important is it for them to chalk out an ideology for the party?

A. A party ideology itself is not important — the issue is whether their policy agenda is based on sound economic reasoning or folksy rhetoric. Right now, I can’t see any serious economic reasoning.

Q. With some of their well-intentioned policies, AAP seems to be making the same mistakes that UPA1 did — channeling tax payers money in freebies — would you term this symptomatic of populism?

A. It is very easy to play to the gallery. Sustaining efficient public services — which is what AAP’s urban constituents want — requires clear-headed economic reasoning. AAP’s actions are currently more fulfilling of wishlists than any attempt to put in place sustainable governance frameworks. The problem is that making scarce resources “free” increases their overconsumption and is effectively a reallocation of national resources to a select minority. “Free” water disproportionately favours the people who have water connections, “Free” electricity favours those who have electricity connections. So not only are we depleting scarce natural resources, we are transferring national wealth to those who are not the neediest in society. It makes public services unsustainable, and in the end, everyone suffers the consequences. The rich can cope, the middle class will suffer, but the poor will suffer the most. Seen from this perspective, these measures are not “populist”, they are “anti-people”.

Q. During both the Lokpal movement and the short time that AAP has spent in office, statements that are not in line with the party’s vague ideology kept creeping out. Do you think the party is a bit too autonomous for its own good?

A. It’s a good thing for party members and MLAs to differ from each other. Our system does not demand that everyone toe the party line. Ministers, though, have to reflect the cabinet’s position, which is the official government position.

Q. Do you think that AAP has been victimised by over analysis and early assessment by the media?

A. There is a certain fairness to the disproportionate scrutiny of AAP and the Kejriwal government in New Delhi. The media are only judging them on the basis of their own claims to be extraordinary and different from the current lot. AAP enjoys favourable media coverage when they make grand claims, so the party shouldn’t complain when people hold them to those standards. So too for early assessment: if AAP had promised quick results then it is not unfair to judge them by their own standards.

In my view, AAP’s claims and promises are unrealistic both in timeframes and in their ability to achieve the governance outcomes that we all desire. We are in a phase of democratic experiment and it is important that the public learns that good intentions and honest people are insufficient to deliver good governance. Good ideas and good reasoning are necessary too. That way, in the next round, people can demand both righteous people and sound policy ideas.

Q. What do you think is the biggest challenge that lies ahead for the party?

A. AAP’s biggest challenge is to move from being a rabble-rousing activist group to a proper political party that is interested in strengthening the Indian republic.

Q. How important is it for AAP to alter the atmosphere of political cynicism that it bred during Lokpal movement, and how can they do it?

A. AAP has already transformed the cynicism of the Jan Lokpal movement into positive enthusiasm for the democratic process. They shouldn’t undermine this by going on dharnas and dissing the constitutional setup. Cynicism pushes the richer and better educated voters away from the democratic system — they have a certain amount of choice to provide for themselves even if public services fail. They can also migrate. Their secession leaves the system weaker and with a weaker impetus for change. That’s why it’s important for all civic leaders to address the cynicism by showing how good people can make the constitutional setup work as intended. As Ambedkar noted, “if we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact…(we must) hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives.”

Nitin Pai is the director and co-founder of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think-tank and public policy school.[Sunday Guardian]

The Filter Coffee | Urdunama: Jaish-e-Mohammed

Thu, 01/30/2014 - 02:03

Pakistan’s Dawn reported on January 27 that Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of the terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, held a rally in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, where he criticized India of “killing Kashmiri Muslims” and warned India of “dreaded revenge” for its execution of Afzal Guru.   This was Masood Azhar’s first public rally in years after Pakistan ostensibly banned Jaish-e-Mohammed, first  after the 2001 attacks on the Indian Parliament and subsequently after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

However, while this may have been his first major public rally since 2008, Masood Azhar appears to have been reactivated as far back as at least 2011, per a report in the Islam Times.  Masood Azhar’s return to his headquarters in Bahawalpur and  the resumption of terror training camps had the blessings of the Pakistani establishment.

Azhar’s resurfacing should give pause to those who believe that Pakistan, after the recent transitions in political and military leadership and very public debates on terrorist groups targeting the state, was any closer to reining in its terrorist assets targeting India.  Exerpts of the September 2011 article in the Islam Times follow:

When India, in December 2008 declared Maulana Masood Azhar, Dawood Ibrahim and Hafiz Saeed as wanted men, Pakistan was forced to ban the Jaish-e-Mohammed.  Under pressure from Islamabad, Masood Azhar moved out of his Model Town headquarters in Bahawalpur –where hundreds of fighters were being trained — and relocated to South Waziristan.

Islam Times’ military source now reports that Masood Azhar has returned his Bahawalpur headquarters and resumed the training of militants there.  Masood Azhar also openly operates madrasas where hundreds of children are being instructed in new interpretations of Islam.

According to our source, Masood Azhar is constructing bunkers and tunnels similar to those that existed  in the madrasas of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafza before they are destroyed by Pakistani military action in 2007.   Masood Azhar has been granted permission by the Pakistani establishment to resume his activities in Bahawalpur.

Masood Azhar’s associate Rashid Rauf escaped while under trail in Pakistan and ended up in Europe.  After flying to London in August 2007, he was involved in a failed attempt to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight.  It is alleged that Rashid Rauf was killed in a drone attack in North Waziristan in November 2008.

Pakistan’s senior security officers indicate that Jaish-e-Mohammed has ties with al-Qaeeda, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network and is working with these outfits to target kaafirs (presumably U.S. and NATO troops) along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.  After being released by India (as part of a swap for hostages aboard a hijacked IC-814 flight) in 1999, Masood Azhar organized a rally in Karachi with over 10,000 participants and declared that Muslims will not rest until India and the U.S. were dismembered and destroyed.

When the trajectory of talks between India and Pakistan slowed in 2007, Jaish-e-Mohammed lauched many successful attacks in “Occupied Kashmir” under the leadership of Mufti Abdul Rauf, Masood Azhar’s younger brother.  Mufti Abdul Rauf was subsequently also given facilities in Rawalpindi to train terrorist organizations from South Punjab.

Jaish-e-Mohammed has the support of many prominent Deoband organizations in Pakistan, including Jamia Binori’s Mufti Nizamuddin and Sipah-e-Sahaba’s Yusuf Ludhianvi.  British intelligence agencies investigating the 2005 terrorist attack in London indicate that two of the suicide bombers were known associates of Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Faisalabad trainer Osama Nazir.  [اسلام ٹائمز]

Acorn | What causes corruption and erosion of moral values?

Wed, 01/29/2014 - 13:31

Ans: The abridgement of economic freedom

An illustration showing how government interference in economic activity increases corruption, crime and leads to the moral degradation of society. Although the chart only refers to bans, it also applies to lesser interventions like price caps, price floors, excessive tariffs, quotas, reservations and so on. The difference is one of degree.

The Broad Mind | Case for a federal foreign policy?

Tue, 01/28/2014 - 02:52

Even in the current pro-federalism debate, one area has been strictly reserved for the central government: foreign policy. However, in a diverse country like India we are selling ourselves short by not taking advantage of our states’ ability to directly engage with the world at large. Obviously, New Delhi is the only competent authority when it comes to opening consulates, embassies, visas or in signing treaties. But the central government does much more and states can play a constructive role.

For example, the new ministry of overseas Indians is perhaps an ideal one to be devolved. Kerala or Punjab government could engage the Malayalis or Punjabis abroad a lot better than a one-size-fits-all attitude that a Delhi based ministry takes. Or take public diplomacy as another opportunity: central government will tie itself in knots trying to figure an equivalent of the Confucius centres that the Chinese have created all over the world. It is far better for West Bengal government to open Tagore centres, UP or Rajasthan opening Sufi centres without raising political opposition and also allowing multiple good ideas to compete. It also allows us to customise our engagement approach, for example Yoga in the west, Vipasana in the east may work better and Middle-East or Central Asia would prefer Bollywood over exercise.

Goa recently hosted Lusofonia games that involves 12 countries including Brazil and it is a good example of how we have missed the opportunity to be part of the even larger francophone club of 58 countries via Pondicherry. Conceiving Nalanda University with the support of other (Buddhist) Asian countries is an isolated and poorly executed example of a state trying to engage the world. It is entirely likely that the project could get dumped by a successor government since there is no institutional support at the state level for foreign engagement.

Nitin Pai has already argued for making states a stakeholder in neighbourhood policy. India’s neighbourhood policy is already being heavily influenced by border states such as Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. These have been more in the form of virtual veto rights on New Delhi’s negotiations or public posturing for demands. Lack of a formal mechanism to take into account state concerns will miss pro-active opportunities that may exist. An example is Bihar’s annual woe of floods in the Kosi river that need a dam in Nepal. If the MEA’s Nepal department has a representative from (a possible) Bihar foreign affairs office, maybe that will become a more proactive concern. Perhaps Nicobaris will have better idea of engagement opportunities with Indonesia than a distant New Delhi. West Bengal maybe more interested in reopening the Kolkota-Yangon trade route and accelerate such an initiative.

Many policies in the 50s were (rightly) created by a nation unsure of itself and even its abilities to stay together. In 2014, we can now be a little bold and try the unconventional by encouraging each state to have a Foreign Engagement (to distinguish it from External Affairs) department. Involving these as consultative partners for relevant departments or committees in MEA will help and having them engage the world directly will give the much needed boost that our skeletal foreign service needs. We should also not under-appreciate the focus looking outwards gives by making internal disputes look petty in comparison.

Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based tech entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. You can follow his tweets on @saurabhchandra

Sumpolites | The Graveyards of Balochistan

Mon, 01/27/2014 - 17:25

On the 71st day of the #VBMPLongMarch, provincial authorities in the Khuzdar district of Balochistan unearthed 3 mass graves with more than 100 decomposed bodies of men and women, suspected to be victims of the Pakistan army. Locals have said that more graves exist and the count of their dead is far more than the media can officially report.  The kill and dump policy followed by the Pakistani government has claimed more than 161 people in 2013 and the mass grave unearthed seems to be one of the many graves around the region. The VBMP long march has over 20 families who have covered so far a distance of 1340 Km from Quetta to Islamabad via Karachi, a distance of over 2,090 kms. Every part of their journey to bring justice for the over 18,300 missing have been riddled with more mutilated bodies, warnings from ISI and very little coverage. The complete media blackout over the region means very little news is coming out of the Balochistan, and the news that does make it to the national papers is relegated to a corner of the media that few rarely see. The presence of one of two violent elements within the province is being used to justify actions that threaten and entire population to damnation and seeks to repress every last woman and child. The mass murders, mutilations, abductions, censures and enforced silence have made a province known for its ethnic diversity and secular environment has given the province the dubious title of being the victim of one of the worst cases of human rights violation that no one knows about.

The discovery of mass graves has to be considered as a very violation of human rights and Pakistan has to be taken to task for this grievous crime. The silence in the Indian media and the International media is abhorrent. Numerous sources from within Balochistan have repeatedly appealed to various international agencies and people to pay attention to the crises in the Province. 160+ bullet ridden bodies, more than 3 mass graves and the absolute lack of living conditions exasperated by natural disasters is reason enough for the UN, EU and the US to start paying attention.

Pakistan has indulged in the most repugnant of exercises to repress a community of people looking to exert their rights to a land and to its resources that were traditionally their own. For India and the west to maintain this shroud of silence and let Pakistan continue this genocide against its own citizens is inexcusable. Balochistan needs attention now.

Acorn | Three thoughts for the Republic

Sun, 01/26/2014 - 12:21

The importance of thinking clearly

For quiet contemplation on Republic Day:

Why our problem is not spiritual, but social; why the rights-based development model is immoral; and why redistribution is theft.

On a related note: Republic, democracy and the difference between the two.

The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on Republic Day 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

and on Independence Day 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

The Filter Coffee | Quickpost: Thoughts on Republic Day

Sun, 01/26/2014 - 11:54

What constitutes the most sacred duty of the government and citizens in a republic?

The meteoric rise of the Aam Admi Party in Delhi tells us that democracy is alive and well in India.  AAP rode on the wave of an anti-corruption sentiment and vanquished a hitherto well-entrenched Congress party from the seat of power in Delhi.  However, the party’s use of methods bordering on political vigilantism to address the legitimate concerns of the electorate tells us that while India the democracy is thriving, India the republic is hurting.

In the congress of developing nations, India distinguishes itself for its sustained commitment to pluralistic, democratic traditions.  At the same time however, the use of unconstitutional methods for seeking social, economic and political justice continues to be accepted.  The degree to which these methods are employed differentiates an unhealthy republic from a healthy one.

Many of us are familiar with B.R. Ambedkar’s concluding speech on the floor of the Constituent Assembly on achieving social and economic justice through methods provided by the Constitution of the land.  For any healthy, functioning republic, adherence to these methods is not just important, but essential.   The responsibility to ensure the adherence of constitutional methods, then, becomes the duty of both the government and citizens.

Indeed, as Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the American Republic, explained in a letter in the Federalist Papers, it constitutes the “most sacred duty,” and is the greatest source of security to the republic:

If it were to be asked, What is the most sacred duty and the greatest source of security in a Republic? The answer would be, An inviolable respect for the Constitution and Laws — the first growing out of the last. It is by this, in a great degree, that the rich and the powerful are to be restrained from enterprises against the common liberty — operated upon by the influence of a general sentiment by their interest in the principle, and by the obstacles which the habit it produces erects against innovation and encroachment. It is by this in a still greater degree, that caballers, intriguers and demagogues, are prevented from climbing on the shoulders of faction to the tempting seats of usurpation and tyranny.

Were it not that it might require too long a discussion, it would not be difficult to demonstrate that a large and well organized Republic can scarcely lose its liberty from any other cause than that of anarchy, to which a contempt of the laws is the high road.

But without entering into so wide a field it is sufficient to present to your view a more simple and a more obvious truth, which is this:  that a sacred respect for the constitutional law is the vital principle the sustaining energy of a free government.

[Alexander Hamilton, Letter No. III in the American Daily Advertiser, August 28, 1794]

Let us hope this serves as food for thought as India celebrates its 65th Republic Day today.


Catalyst | Openness in Space – more bang for the buck

Fri, 01/24/2014 - 20:40

India can get more value out of its earth observation satellite programmes if ISRO embraces a culture of openness.

Praveen Bose in Business Standard reported yesterday that a second Indo-French climate observation satellite is being planned between ISRO and CNES (National Space Agency of France).

India and France jointly launched the satellite Megha-Tropiques in 2011 to study tropical weather and climate. Equipped to profile radiation, humidity, atmospheric water content and more, the satellite passes over a huge swathe of tropical atmosphere every day and uses four different sensors and sounders to collect data. With a planned life of five years, the two nations are now contemplating a second satellite that would serve as a replacement starting in about 2016. This replacement will be essential as a lot of value from climate data comes when it can be generated for longer periods that capture interannual and decadal climate variations.

Megha-Tropiques is neither the only nor the first such tropical climate monitoring satellite. NASA and JAXA’s (Japan’s space agency) Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) has been running since 1997, and its replacement, the core Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) is set to be launched in February 2014. These are apart from a host of other Earth Observation satellites from around the world that tell us a lot about how complex earth systems work.

By all accounts, the sensory systems on Megha-Tropiques is of comparable quality and technology to NASA’s climate missions. But Megha-Tropiques takes a big hit in research impact because of the closed nature of the data it generates. While NASA has a high commitment to open access and open data, Indian satellite missions remain opaque and closed. For example, the TRMM website contains various rainfall-related datasets, products and visualisations that are open not just for principal investigators at NASA and partner organisations, but also open to any researcher in the world. Megha-Tropiques on the other hand has a website built by the French that provides a bunch of technical information and stops there.

Tropical climate science is a public good – where everyone is benefited by making the data and knowledge public. The good news is that the planned Indo-French satellite will contribute to the GPM network by complementing the data collected by NASA and JAXA’s core mission. Unlike the standalone Megha-Tropiques, the second climate mission is more integrated into a global effort. However, data sharing policies for the proposed satellite still looks opaque:

The data products are made available to the principle investigators of international announcement of opportunity for validation activities, according to ISRO. As the first of Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) constellation of eight satellites, Megha-Tropiques data would contribute to the global scientific community to study and understand the dynamics of climate system, ISRO added.
[Full Article – Business Standard, January 23, 2014]

While deigning to open up the data to select international researchers for validation, there is a lot of value lost because of the lack of a more public audience and use of the data. This is a standard feature of most national Indian research activities, from ISRO to the Indian Meteorological Department. Data access is restricted to a select few who have a monopoly or oligopoly over publishing research papers.

There are three broad reasons one can decipher for this lack of openness. First, government agencies have had a historical mandate of serving their parent department or ministry, and not the public. Some of this stems from colonial establishment of many government agencies, which were designed to serve a more extractive state under British rule.

Second, the lack of openness often stems from an insecurity of government-funded researchers. Many fear that they may not be able to complete globally if the information they had access to was made public. Government agencies do provide workarounds for other research institutions to access their data, but this if of a form and style that has huge search costs and transaction costs. Also, what ought to have been a public good ends up getting shared through a patronage network.

Third, there is a fear of commercial use and resale of the data. This is extremely shortsighted and is misguided about the idea of private profit. What matters with climate and other information is how it can be used to derive maximum societal benefit. This benefit can arise from both government use of that data (like with say the IMD) and with private use of the same, say in the form of weather channels using publicly generated data to send out public alerts. Private agencies should also be allowed to legitimately sell publicly produced data where they add sufficient value. While there may always be unscrupulous companies that repackage public data and try to con people into paying for it, the solution to this is more openness and not less.

ISRO has a chance at being a leader in overturning decades of government policy of keeping taxpayer-funded data open to only a select few. It has already made a beginning with projects like Bhuvan. The proposed new climate satellite can lead the way in a new approach to research and data sharing. It can even begin with simple things like making the byzantine MOSDAC data sharing website more user-friendly.

2013 was the year that ISRO realised the value of proactively engaging the Indian public, including using social media. With luck, 2014 can be the year that ISRO embraces openness and open access to data.

Related posts:
  1. India from space
  2. In Business Standard: Running the space marathon
  3. In Pragati: From Open Data to a Culture of Openness

RQ | Comparing inflation across states

Thu, 01/23/2014 - 20:00

Have you ever wondered which states see higher inflation in a particular period? For possibly the first time ever the government has released data on consumer price indices in various states in india via its open data platform (there are a lot of interesting data sets on that platform. Do check it out if you haven’t already). There is also another interesting data set on the same platform which gives the price indices of various commodities over the last ten years.

Coming back to consumer price inflation across states, let us first look at which states saw the highest and lowest Year-on-year inflation (year on year inflation is calculated by comparing prices in a particular month to the corresponding month of the previous year. This helps remove any distortions caused due to seasonality) in November 2013, the last month for which the data is available.


In November 2013, by far the highest inflation was seen in Tripura. Manipur, interestingly, is at the other end of the spectrum. Now, the problem with the above graphic is that it could be hard to search for a particular state, and see if there are any patterns to which states have higher inflation compared to others.

In order to examine if inflation varies by region, we draw a choropleth. In the below map, the more red a state has been coloured, the higher its inflation is, the greener a state is, the lower is its inflation. Middling states are coloured yellow.


Offered without further comment.

RQ | Reforming Bangalore’s Public Transport Network

Thu, 01/23/2014 - 15:35

This is based on a twitter rant on the same subject a few weeks back.

Bangalore’s public transport network has traditionally followed a hub-and-spoke model, with three hubs – Kempegowda Bus Station (aka “Majestic”), KR Market and Shivajinagar. It can be modeled, however, as a two-hub system, for Majestic and Market are quite close to each other and thus quite well-connected. It was probably not originally meant to be that way – for bus number 1 (not sure it still exists) ran from Jayanagar 4th Block to Yeshwantpur – basically from the south to the north-west corner of the city. Of course, it passed through Market.

Over time, however, the bus system has moved to an increasingly hub-and-spoke model. The BMTC (Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation) did one exercise a few years back, trying to rationalize routes (it was partly due to an effort led by Ashwin Mahesh of Mapunity). However, while adding useful additions such as the ring routes (the “big circle” and the “chikka (small) circle” routes) and one or two “trunk routes” (that run right across town), what this revised template does is to further increase the primacy of the hubs. For example, the much talked about Big 10 routes are essentially arterial routes running from a point in the middle of town to some place along one of the highways leading out of Bangalore (they are not strictly hub routes, though, since some of them stop a short distance from a major hub).

The increase in primacy of hubs combined with metro construction (the two metro lines will criss-cross each othe at – you guessed it – Majestic!) has completely overwhelmed the hubs. It is impossible (unless you sacrifice copious amounts of time) to change buses at Majestic now, for the amount of time it takes for a bus to get into majestic and for a bus to get out of majestic is too high a transaction cost.

Moreover, changing buses at a terminus is not efficient, given the waiting times involved and the extra transaction costs of getting out of the terminus. What works better is changing buses at an intermediate stop. To use an anecdote, for two years (1998-2000) I traveled to school in Indiranagar (east Bangalore) from my home in Jayanagar (south Bangalore). I would take a bus going to Shivajinagar (Jayanagar-Shivajinagar is well connected – being a hub route) and get off at Richmond circle, from where I would take a bus from Majestic to Indiranagar (again a hub route, so well served). I could change buses while standing at the same bus stop (made things easier), and the frequency of buses on the two hub routes meant I would get to school easily (again the traffic in the 1990s was nothing compared to what it is now). I had the option of changing buses at a hub, but eschewed it due to transaction costs.

Coming back, what we need in Bangalore is to reformat the bus network in a way that mimics the patterns in which people travel. Right now the assumption of the BMTC seems to be that they should connect every area to a major hub, and then let people take it from there. What they do not take into account is that 1. traffic has grown much worse and 2. People put a higher value on their time nowadays, because of which the transaction cost of the old hub-and-spoke model is way too high. What they need to do instead is to design the network based on people flows.

The first step of such reform is to understand the patterns in which Bangalore moves. One way to do this would be via smart ticketing. A few years back buses in Bangalore started introducing smart ticketing machines, and your ticket would be a printout. However, that didn’t take off. If that can be reintroduced (in all buses) and coupled with destination based ticketing rather than leg based ticketing (for example, if I’m going from Jayanagar to Indiranagar via Richmond Circle I get on to the bus in Jayanagar and buy a ticket to Indiranagar directly. The same ticket allows me to travel on any bus between Richmond Circle and Indiranagar. This introduces complexity but can be done). This will give the BMTC information in terms of the routes on which people actually travel. And once that happens, an effort can be made to reformat the bus network.

Sumpolites | The Viral Threat – Polio and National Security

Wed, 01/22/2014 - 14:05

The statistics keep shifting, the upward tick of numbers painting a grim picture. In 2013, 91 new cases of Polio were reported in Pakistan, an increase from 58 in 2012. 290,000 children, mostly in Waziristan and North Western Regions are held back from being vaccinated for religious reasons, and more than 7 million kids will be left in the lurch as vaccination programs are cancelled yet again due to violence. Pakistan is now one of the three remaining countries (Afghanistan and Nigeria) to be declared as Polio endemic. The worrying statistics however does not stop Pakistan from doing precious little to ensure that its children grow up without the fear of being crippled by a viral disease that is 100% preventable.

The increasing number of attacks against polio workers, 37 killed since 2012, have dissuaded the UN and other health organizations from sending in the man power required to persuade and vaccinate children. Workers face a number of hurdles including inaccessibility to areas, delayed or no payment of salary, hostile tribes threatening violence and spreading false rumors about the ill effects of vaccination and an increasingly violent city environment with little or no protection. Despite pleas from health supervisors and volunteers, the government has not increased security for the health workers in high risk areas, and has steadfastly refused aid and vaccinations to thousands of children claiming lack of accessibility and threat to life.

Ayesha Bibi, a Lady Health Supervisor in the northwestern city of Peshawar, argues that the level of security provided by the government is severely inadequate in the country’s high-risk areas. “There have been numerous killings and the girls are very scared. Volunteers have dropped out of the campaign and even the policemen are afraid,” she said. Ayesha told stories of changing cars and license plates to avoid Taliban monitoring but claims that she continues to receive death threats.

The danger comes from the risk that Pakistan poses to other countries in the region including India. The high level of internal displacement, terrorist activities, sleeper cells in the Middle East originating from Pakistan and people traveling from Pakistan to other countries can become carriers of the virus. Polio virus originating from Pakistan has been found in Egypt, Israel and has crippled 13 Syrian children last year. Syria had been Polio free since 1999, Israel since 1988 and Egypt since 2004.

The endemic nature of the virus in both Pakistan and Afghanistan should be of serious concern to India. WHO has only recently declared the country to be free of the virus for the past 3 years. The Indian government has also taken steps to ensure that people who travel into the country from countries where the virus is endemic are to be given immunization before crossing the border.

The greater threat,however, will come from people who use dubious means to cross into the country. The issue has to be considered very seriously and regarded as a national security issue. We have people from Nigeria and from Pakistan using unorthodox means to get into the country. Refugees from Afghanistan have settled into camps in Delhi. Even a single carrier of the virus can put millions of kids in the country at risk again.

India cannot be lackadaisical about the idea of Polio making a resurgence in the country. Our broken healthcare system, our despicable sanitation infrastructure and the prevalence of suspicion against any form of vaccination in large pockets of the country makes it hard enough to ensure that our kids remain disease free. Extra steps need to be taken to ensure that our health care workers remain vigilant and open to the possibility of a resurgence. The government also needs to bring up the issue at the international level to force countries like Pakistan into action and to get their governments to ensure that aid workers and health workers are given the security they deserve. The risks that country’s like Pakistan pose to its neighbors due to its own internal failures has increased many times over and the world needs to pay more attention.

Varnam | The Conversion of Pocahontas

Tue, 01/21/2014 - 18:23

Baptism of Pocahontas by John Gadsby Chapman (1840)

The Virginia Company was chartered by James I in 1606 for settling in North America and one of the goals mentioned in the charter was the following:

We, greatly commending, and graciously accepting of, their Desires for the Furtherance of so noble a Work, which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of his Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government: DO, by these our Letters Patents, graciously accept of, and agree to, their humble and well-intended Desires;[The First Charter of Virginia; April 10, 1606]

In the Terrence Malick movie, The New World (2005), which portrays the arrival of Virginia Company people in America, the conversion goal is downplayed and the English are portrayed as people who had come to trade. In the Disney movie Pocahontas(1995) which is based the same voyage, the intentions of the invaders are not diluted. They sing:

What can you expect From filthy little heathens?

Their whole disgusting race is like a curse

Their skin’s a hellish red

They’re only good when dead

They’re vermin, as I said

And worse

[Savages (Part 1)]

There were few reasons why the English wanted to come to North America and convert the heathens. By the 17th century, the Spanish becoming fabulously wealthy through imperialism and were converting the natives to Catholicism. As I wrote in a previous post

But with the discovery of the Americas, the Spaniards ended up with a mother-lode of wealth. The image on the side shows a 1553 CE map of the city of Potosí in Bolivia. This was one of the sites of a major silver mine which the Spaniards reached after they had done looting the native coffers. Between 1560 and 1685 CE, Spanish America sent between 25,000 to 35, 000 tons of silver to Spain and in the century following that the amount doubled. In fact around 85% of the world’s silver supplies came from the Americas. This was extracted from 30 such mines.To compare it to modern times, it was like Saudi Arabia discovering oil.[Impact of the Columbian Exchange on the world]

Every European power was into imperial expansion at that time and the English were the late comers. They first resorted to piracy, but their activities were called privateering and was sanctioned by the crown. Soon they decided to capture new territories and dig for gold themselves as well get some converts as Protestants.

The initial settlement in Jamestown did not go very well; a previous settlement in Roanoke had vanished without trace.  They had to face harsh winters without food and eventually had to resort to cannibalism.  The Jamestown colony was surrounded by 15,000 native Americans under the leadership of the Powhatan tribe who followed a matrilineal system, like the Nairs and some sort of agreement had to be reached with them for food.

An incident from that voyage, which is famous even now is the affair between Pocahontas and Captain James Smith. According to the popular narrative, Smith was about to be executed by the Powhatan tribe, based on an order by Pocahontas’ father. As they were about to strike, Pocahantas threw herself on James Smith and he is spared. In the Disney version, they settle in a dugout canoe and sing, while a talking raccoon fawns.

According to a discussion in BBC’s In Our Time, this incident never happened. Pocahontas, who lived nearby, visited the colony often and her age at that time was around 10 which makes it unlikely that she threw herself to save a 30 year old Smith. Also, in a narrative written by James Smith in 1608, this incident is never mentioned. In another version written in 1624, seven years after Pocahontas died, this incident appears. Not just that, in his voyages, there seems to be a pattern; James Smith is saved by maidens three other times as well.

Portrait engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616

Even though that tale was doubtful, even a movie made a decade back, never cast any doubt on it. One reason could be that the affair between a Native American and a White settler makes for a powerful national narrative in which the imperialism gets a smooth human face. From the Captain Smith and Princess Pocahontas (1805) by John Davis to The Indian Princess by James Barker in 1808 to Pocahontas; or, The Settlers of Virginia (1830) by GW Custis to the modern day movies, this narrative has been repeated again and again without any care for historical accuracy.

Once James Smith went back to England and Pocahontas was on her way to her husband’s house, she was kidnapped by the English under Captain Samuel Argall. The Virginia Company  had instructed their men to kidnap children of leaders so that they could be instructed in Christianity. During her captivity in Virginia, the 15 year old was converted and took the name Rebecca.   This was a big coup for the company and she was taken to London as a sample of one who was eager to receive the gospel. London did not suit her well; she caught one of the numerous diseases and died at the age of 21.

Related posts:

  1. Cannibalism at Jamestown Recently there was an article in the Smithsonian about evidence of cannibalism in Jamestown. Settlers at Virginia’s Jamestown Colony resorted to cannibalism to survive the harsh winter of 1609, dismembering...
  2. Mexican Silver in England In a previous post I had explained how the Spaniards ended up with a mother lode of wealth when they conquered the Americas. They were able to mine silver from...
  3. The Conversion Agenda “It was Brahma himself who kidnapped Sita. Since Brahma, Vishnu and Shiv were themselves the victims of lust, it is a sin to consider them as gods.” (page 39) “When...
  4. Impact of the Columbian Exchange on the world The above picture shows a world map created by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 CE. If you look towards the left of the map, you will see a...
  5. Book Review: Timeline This is a story of time travel. An American company discovers a way to travel through a worm hole into 1357 France. They send an archelogist back in time, who...

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Pratyaya | The appeal of AAP’s anarchy

Mon, 01/20/2014 - 22:57

Although leading us to anarchy, why is Kejriwal still getting so much public support for his actions?

Arvind Kejriwal has outsmarted many of the political analysts, not just once but on many occasions. From winning significant number of seats in Delhi assembly elections to the manner in which he held referendums to take the support of Congress to form government, he has found ways which are resonating with the people.  Critics (including myself) thought that Arvind Kejriwal will quickly realise that governance is a complex process and that the formation of government will be the beginning of disillusionment for the public. But so far, he is not only maintaining the same level of association and trust with the public at large, he is actually strengthening it by day.

However, what is good for the political prospects of Aam Admi Party (AAP) may not necessarily be good for the future of our country. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Aam Admi Party (AAP) members are experts in activism and they have already shown us their capacity to destabilise the status quo. AAP is however living in disillusionment that disorder can be the new public order.  The party should realise that hatred for other political parties, coupled with your own good intentions, is not enough to fix all the issues; unless these good intentions are backed by institution building. While I agree that AAP should be given sometime to settle in their new avatar, their decisions so far portray as if governance is all about unrestrained populism and collecting problems through many call centers.  Now they can add vigilantism to the list.

The methods employed by Kejriwal are fraught with great risks. Today he may succeed in his dharna and get some police personnel suspended but what if he comes with another demand tomorrow? Should the union government given in to all his blackmail? Instead of following constitutional means, he is actually incentivising dissent. It may be a good show of public strength as long as dissent and disruption works in his favour but what if teacher unions, doctors, police go on a strike against Delhi government until their demands are met? With what moral authority can the AAP government handle these future problems which every government is likely to face at some point of time.

There are many people who quote Ambedkar’s Grammar of Anarchy speech to explain why Kejriwal’s methods might lead to anarchy:

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

But why is Kejriwal still getting so much support for his actions? I think many people who quote from Ambedkar’s speech on constitutional methods conveniently ignore the rest of his warnings and reflections, which I think are equally important. For instance, in the same speech he says:

These are my reflections about the tasks that lie ahead of us. They may not be very pleasant to some. But there can be no gainsaying that political power in this country has too long been the monopoly of a few and the many are only beasts of burden, but also beasts of prey. This monopoly has not merely deprived them of their chance of betterment, it has sapped them of what may be called the significance of life. These down-trodden classes are tired of being governed. They are impatient to govern themselves. This urge for self-realisation in the down-trodden classes must not be allowed to devolve into a class struggle or class war. It would lead to a division of the House. That would indeed be a day of disaster. For, as has been well said by Abraham Lincoln, a House divided against itself cannot stand very long. Therefore the sooner room is made for the realisation of their aspiration, the better for the few, the better for the country, the better for the maintenance for its independence and the better for the continuance of its democratic structure. This can only be done by the establishment of equality and fraternity in all spheres of life. That is why I have laid so much stresses on them.[emphasis mine]

I think we have failed to reflect on the reflections of Ambedkar for too long. Instead of cursing the people for being impatient, perhaps we should be thankful that they have tolerated the burden of “being governed” for 60 years. In India, we have some of the most non-responsive public systems, whether it be public education, public health, public-transport, police or other government offices. For too long democracy has indeed been about once-in-a-five-year voting contest with power shifting from one non-responsive government to the other.

While I completely disagree and protest against the methods employed by Kejriwal to bring change, I think it is equally important to realise that people are impatient for new kind of institutional arrangement: an arrangement which is responsive and ensures that the presence of a government can make a difference to their daily lives. We must recognise these demands for new order and as Ambedkar had said in the same speech:

let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path and which induce people to prefer Government for the people to Government by the people, nor to be weak in our initiative to remove them. That is the only way to serve the country. I know of no better.

To incentivse the use of constitutional means, we should remove the evils Ambedkar warned us about. Otherwise, this disorder is likely to continue. And we will continue to inch towards anarchy. The AAP way.


Catalyst | Warfare in ancient India and high school football

Mon, 01/20/2014 - 16:44

I’ve spent the last week reading KA Nilakanta Sastri’s magnum opus, the History of South India, that spans from prehistory to the fall of the Vijayanagar empire. Among the many insights and curious facts that the book reveals, it throws some light on military prowess of kingdoms and empires over the ages.

By the 13th century, warfare in South India was internally competitive but had lost the edge to armies from the north of the Vindhyas. This was certainly not the case earlier – notable examples of southern victories include the Chalukya Pulakeshi II defeating Harshavardhana of Kannauj in the 7th century and Chola Rajendra I conquering up to the Ganges in the 11th century. Southern armies were no longer competitive after the formation of the Delhi sultanate.

The Khilji and Tughlak sultanates from Delhi began making inroads south of the Vindhyas starting in the latter half of the 13th century. One finds that the southern kingdoms did not offer a whole lot of resistance immediately. Allaudin Khilji’s famous slave general, Malik Kafur raided deep into the Deccan and Tamil heartlands, and they are referred to repeatedly as daring. they caught almost everyone off-guard. For example, kings like the Hoysala Veera Ballala III appear to have capitulated almost immediately, instead of putting up a fight. Ballala was busy trying to sort out affairs in Tamil country while Kafur came marching up to his capital Dwarasamudra (present day Halebeedu near Hassan, Karnataka). On full reading, it appears that extended supply lines, the limited objectives of the initial incursions and an increasingly hostile Hindu populace were the major reasons why Kafur and his successors did not fare better. Nothing that can be pinned to a competitive armed force.

This reminded me a little of the way a few of us played football (soccer) while in high school and later. A few of us friends played regularly with each other on a basketball court and the games were fun and competitive, and continued that way for years. But if we had to play with other groups, or play on a full-size football field, the game suffered immensely. While we were enjoying the sport within our little group, we were not even remotely competitive against anyone good outsiders.

Warfare in south India appears to have become equally stultified – there were known kingdoms, empires and fiefdoms spread across the land whose relative power varied with time. But by and large there was a code of the conduct for warfare. For one thing, temples were rarely destroyed. They were deprived of their wealth at best, and the priestly class were rarely harmed. For another, governance and civilian life continued without too much change. Caste groups, village leaders and corporate guilds provided much of the governance (iniquitous as it might have been) – from dispute resolution and policing to developmental works like irrigation and road building. The entry of new forces changed this status quo irrevocably.

Even if you were to discount the earlier example of Malik Kafur as having the advantage of surprise, the story remains the same even a century later. While Harihara and Bukka Raya of Vijayanagara were rapidly consolidating their hold on regions south of the Krishna river in the 14th century, they barely met with any success in military engagements with the rival Bahmani sultanate. If anything, only the incessant in-fighting and intrigue between various ruling muslim factions in the Deccan appears to have blunted the impact of their victories against Vijayanagara. It is only by the time of Krishnadeva Raya in the early 16th century that Vijayanagara starts winning large scale victories on the Northern border of their empire that were not quickly reversed.

Clothing of Bisnagar (Vijayanagar), a Dutch engraving by Cornelius Hazart, 1667.

Krishnadeva Raya managed to achieve this only by creating a more martial state, fostering a competitive military culture with games and contests of physical feats, as well as a modernisation of the army with gunpowder technology and horses via the Portuguese, and other sweeping changes.

North Indian powers were equally blind to events outside the subcontinent, as noted by historian KM Panikkar in a speech in 1961, ‘Before the enemies reach Panipat‘. They probably paid for it a lot more. South Indian states paid for this blindness to people outside the basketball court less frequently, but this deserves no excuse. Perhaps a key failure was in not looking for military technology through oceanic trade routes and restricting trade largely to luxury items and commodities. The only major defence import via the seas was the horse – and it is quite telling that south Indian armies never developed the ability to care for horses well, with many of them dying regularly of disease. Not even the Vijayanagara empire managed to change that. For Arab and Persian traders, south India remained a happy export destination for horses, with an ever-present demand.

Religious taboos on sea voyages likely resulted in a complete lack of parity in trading ability, and it is little wonder that maritime powers from Europe conquered India from the south. With the exception of the Cholas, Indian powers never had a blue water navy. One can only imagine the possibilities if an Indian power had developed a blue water navy after the invention of gunpowder.

Though India sort of has a blue water navy in the 21st century, we should really be asking ourselves – have we really left the basketball court?

Related posts:
  1. What right to whose water?

The Filter Coffee | Stepping up on Afghanistan

Sun, 01/19/2014 - 18:08

India must use its good offices to ensure that the U.S. and Afghanistan sign a bilateral security agreement.

If the world was in need of a preview of things to come in a post-2014 Afghanistan, it got one on Friday.  A Taliban attack on a popular Lebanese restaurant in Kabul claimed 21 lives. Those killed included the International Monetary Fund’s chief for Afghanistan, a senior political official at the UN and a British candidate in the upcoming elections for the European parliament.

The insurgency in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of many of its citizens as well as those of NATO’s security forces.  But as the New York Times notes, attacks against foreign soft targets have been relatively less frequent.  The Kabul Hotel Inter-Continental was attacked in 2011; U.S. and Indian embassies have been hit in Kabul and in other parts of Afghanistan.  The more recent attacks have involved operations with the use of suicide bombers to breach perimeter security followed by commando-style assaults with the use of RPGs and assault rifles.

The Taliban have historically relied on suicide attacks against Western military targets, but the use of commando-style assaults in and around Kabul may point to a collaboration with Pakistan-sponsored groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, loosely referred to as the “Kabul Attack Network.”

The goal, ultimately, is to weaken the will of the West to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.  The U.S. and NATO winding down operations in Afghanistan will undoubtedly create a perilous security situation in that country.  Afghan president Hamid Karzai has refused to enter into a status of forces agreement with the U.S., even as the Afghan National Army remains ill-equipped to deal with a raging insurgency coupled with terrorist assaults on the capital.

Mr. Karzai is throwing caution to the wind by tying the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) to the U.S. facilitating “peace talks” with the Taliban.  He may get neither.  The U.S.’s ability to facilitate a negotiation with the Taliban remains in question, particularly when the Taliban and their sponsors in Pakistan have been working towards the goal of ensuring a total exit of U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan all along.  Mr. Karzai, whose presidency ends in April 2014, may have little to lose, but the burdens of his action or inaction will be borne by Afghanistan’s future governments.

Meanwhile, anyone in New Delhi still under the delusion that events in Afghanistan have no bearing on the security of India would do well to reach for their history books.  It is precisely the sort of Pakistan-supported, Taliban-operated environment that could prevail in a post-2014 Afghanistan that allowed for India’s surrender of Maulana Masood Azhar (who was languishing in an Indian jail) in Kandahar in exchange for passengers hijacked onboard IC-814 in 1999.

As a result of our capitulation, Azhar returned to Pakistan to regroup members of the terrorist group Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and formed the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in 2000.  A year later, JeM attacked the Indian parliament, killing 12 civilians.  Our members of parliament, rather miraculously, escaped unharmed.

A similar situation may present itself when the U.S. departs Afghanistan.  Although many of us have called for India to deploy hard power in Afghanistan, or at least play a more active role in training and supplying weapons to Afghan security forces, New Delhi has chosen to only limit its involvement to economy and institution-building.  Laudable endeavors undoubtedly, but insufficient to ensure the security of India and her interests in that country.

India has already rebuffed Mr. Karzai’s request for weaponry during his December 2013 visit.  But if India is disinclined to deploy hard power in Afghanistan, it must, at the very least, ensure that a U.S. security presence remains in the country to prevent it from being engulfed in yet another civil war that could render twelve years of development and progress to naught.

Indeed, India is most uniquely positioned — as a friend to both the U.S. and Afghanistan — to use its good offices to ensure that a version of the BSA agreeable to both Afghanistan and the U.S. is signed.  Almost every other country is viewed with suspicion by either DC or Kabul.  Last week, U.S. Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan visited India to discuss the furture of Afghanistan.  U.S. intelligence officials also met an Indian delegation led by Joint Intelligence Chief Ajit Lal to urge India’s influence with Mr. Karzai to conclude the BSA.

There is no doubt that India is in the midst of domestic political upheaval.  The economy is sagging and political stewardship is found wanting in almost every aspect of governance.  However, facilitating a status of forces agreement between Afghanistan and the U.S. must become a national security priority for India.

A U.S.-Afghanistan BSA cannot prevent attacks such as the one this past Friday, but it may stave off a total collapse of the state to the Taliban.  Ultimately, it is simply not in India’s interests to see Afghanistan relapse into the laboratory of terrorism that it once was under Pakistan’s influence. (And on a separate note, New Delhi’s assistance in facilitating a BSA could also demonstrate that both India and the U.S. are committed to putting the very unseemly squabble over Devyani Khobragade behind them).

RQ | Drivers in India

Fri, 01/17/2014 - 15:18

One of the recent data sets in is the number of driving licenses issued in different states of India until March 2012. Based on that, it is interesting to see which states have more drivers. The first chart here shows the proportion of population of each state that has a driving license (states for which data is unavailable have been left out). Note that this proportion is an overestimate since the number of licenses given includes people who have subsequently died, and thus not been counted in the state’s population as of 2011. Nevertheless, as a relative measure, this is useful:


Notice that the highest numbers are in Goa, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, all of them among the more prosperous states. States at the bottom include Assam, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir. The latter two are extremely hilly, thus discouraging driving. Nevertheless it would be an interesting correlation between proportion of drivers in a state and its per capita GSDP. Which is what we do next:


We see that apart from Delhi (where presumably a large portion of the population gets its licenses from other states?) and Sikkim (a hilly area where not too many are expected to drive), there is a strong correlation between the proportion of drivers and the per capita GSDP!

Finally, what proportion of drivers in each state are women? The following graph shows that:


Manipur, where over 30% of licenses have been handed out to women, stands way ahead of other states. The other state that stands out is Andhra Pradesh, where a measly 1.5% of driving licenses belong to women. Contrast this with neighbouring states such as Odisha (12%), Karnataka (15%) and Tamil Nadu (8%)!

Catalyst | Old tricks, New Year

Fri, 01/17/2014 - 15:12

The Indian ministry of defence continues to route capital allocations for revenue expenses.

Manu Pubby reports in the Indian Express earlier this week that the Indian ministry of defence may divert about Rs. 6,500 crore from the capital budget of the armed forces towards revenue expenses.

While the ministry has spent over 80 percent of the capital budget of Rs. 86,740 crore allotted this financial year for purchase of new equipment, it is seeing a shortfall in revenue expenditure from the estimated Rs. 1.2 lakh crore.

Sources say that the shortfall is mainly due to unexpected rise in fuel costs that led to rationalisation of equipment usage and exercises this year. As the armed forces are one of the largest consumers of fossil fuel, the hike in global prices coupled with exchange rate variation resulted in a huge hike in government expenditure. Also, the government announced new measures this financial year for increased pensions that put an additional burden on expenditure.

[Full article: Budget hike turned down, MoD to juggle capital funds, Indian Express, January 12, 2014]

On the face of it, this makes a lot of sense – the fall of the rupee a few months ago hurt both the public and private sectors in India significantly and coupled with the global fuel prices it served as a shock that the country is recovering from.

However, this is not the first year that revenue expenses have eaten into the defence modernisation (capital) budget. As I’d written in Pragati last September, this has been routinely happening, especially in the army budget.

Full Infographic: Understanding India’s Defence Spending

The defence ministry should not be having recurring difficulty in accurately estimating its revenue expenses for the year, especially salaries, pensions and fuel. Also, the demand for grants that most ministries submit to the finance ministry are usually 5-10 percent higher than allocations they end up receiving for the budget. The army’s low capital-to-revenue cannot further be weakened every year. And going for perilously expensive ventures like the proposed mountain strike corps which can worsen the situation.

With the defence of the realm at stake, we need better defence planning that is more robust in estimating spending.

Related posts:
  1. In Pragati: Understanding India’s Defence Spending
  2. The Centralisation of Public Expenditure
  3. In Business Standard: Running the space marathon

The Broad Mind | The Arctic and the impact of non-conventional oil on the OPEC

Wed, 01/15/2014 - 20:26

By Adarsh Mathew

Whenever the Arctic does become accessible, the region will throw up a potentially disruptive development in the energy markets with far-reaching implications.

OPEC’s traditional stranglehold over the world’s oil resources has eroded over the past few years. Part of it can be attributed to improved technology resulting in engines that are more efficient, along with the community’s desire to wean themselves off of oil. But a large chunk of this must be attributed to the discovery of other avenues of oil and energy. Brazil’s advanced deep-water drilling activities have provided the market with an alternate option to the parsimonious OPEC. Advancements in off-shore drilling and improvements in shale rock hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – have altered the erstwhile inelastic energy market.

The rise of shale and bitumen

The accelerating growth of shale and other such alternate options have been interesting to observe. Conventional gas drilling deals with rock structures which are porous, allowing the gas to flow freely to the surface after drilling. Shale rock houses gas in a low permeability structure and is located at deep levels, thus restricting their easy flow to the surface. The process used to tap into this involves forcing a highly pressurised chemical mix through land fissures, and rupturing these shale rock formations, releasing the gas. Oil sands – a now booming industry in Canada – contain bitumen, which is a viscous petroleum deposit. It’s mined and chemically treated with a caustic soda mix to release bitumen from the original slurry. Both of these are fairly disruptive processes, and require extensive capital investment, resulting in higher per-barrel costs compared to the extraction of conventional oil.

In spite of the higher production costs involved, shale and bitumen have gained market acceptance. Rising oil prices, coupled with instability in the Middle East and huge advancements in extraction technologies have aided this. Ironically, it’s the high prices set by the OPEC that make shale and bitumen economically viable. They provide a reliable short-term avenue for North America’s energy demands. It also allows consumers to mitigate the variable production policies of the OPEC cartel – albeit to a small extent – while allowing them the romanticized notion of self-sufficiency.

Role of Arctic reserves

The Arctic provides a further alternative to both these sources. With the US Geological Survey estimating in 2007 that almost of a quarter of the world’s untapped and undiscovered sources may lie in the Arctic, companies and governments have begun eyeing the far north as a long-term solution to their energy needs. Large resources coupled with geographical proximity makes it a lucrative option. Also, the influx of Arctic oil will serve to further weaken the OPEC’s oil-pricing regime.

Oil exploration and extraction in the Arctic is a project fraught with difficulties, risks, and a history of expensive failures. Royal Dutch Shell has put its Arctic exploration plans on hold, after spending close to USD 5 bn on a pilot project off Alaska with no results. Russia’s Shtokman oil field has been in the pipeline for over 30 years, and yet there has been no meaningful production on the facility till date. Harsh conditions and unpredictable weather pattern and ice movements are some of the problems faced by companies. But more importantly, setting up an oil rig here is difficult and perilous, with traditional off-shore drilling methods proving to be insufficient for the Arctic seabed.

Experts have also raised questions about the high lead times and transportation challenges that come along with Arctic exploration. The high costs of Arctic operations surely should scare away investors. In spite of this, there is tempered enthusiasm for Arctic exploration, and Russia is leading the way. With reports emerging about the long-term viability and environmental impact of shale fields, countries will turn to the Arctic eventually. This will only be aided by advancements in off-shore drilling and further melting of the Arctic landscape, allowing greater access to the area’s resources. Canada, Norway, and the US have commissioned projects for icebreakers to keep up with Russia’s fleet, and a revival of Arctic forces is on the cards for all these countries. Just like shale, the Arctic will be a viable alternative to oil from the Middle-East, a valuable risk diversification tool against any instability in the region.

Sustained, meaningful production in the Arctic might be some ways off, but if current rates of melting persist, the region should be just about ready by the time production from shale fields plateau and begin to decline. And there’s enough incentive to do so too. Russia – whose dominance in the energy market has been hit by the shale boom – has a large claim in the Arctic. They have several projects already underway, and have acknowledged the Arctic being a cornerstone of their strategic future. Putin’s grand strategy for Russia’s revival on the global stage will be funded by revenues from the oil industry, and the success of Arctic resource exploitation is integral to this plan. Canada aims to augment its growing shale and bitumen industry with off-shore Arctic drilling. Norway’s Statoil is already a partner in Gazprom’s Shtokman project, and has enlisted China as a partner for exploration in the Barents Sea. Realising the potential of the region, interested parties are trying to form partnerships with existing players to develop capabilities to try and tap into the region’s vast resources in the future, when nature allows them. All of this indicates to the evolution of a counter-balance to the OPEC’s oil pricing mechanism.

What do these developments mean for India? Geopolitical implications aside, this might result in a period of great flux for India’s energy security objectives. It is projected that as the US turns internally for its energy demands, India and China will be the OPEC’s biggest customers. With large populations and growing energy-guzzling economies, any increase in global demand will be fuelled by these two players. And thus, by extension, their dependence on the cartel. But the influx of oil from the Arctic will serve to disrupt these calculations. While India and China will look to explore their respective shale reserves, they should also work to establish mutually beneficial agreements with Arctic governments and oil companies, by leveraging their position on the Arctic Council. China has already announced a China-Nordic Research Centre in Shanghai along with Norway, Denmark, and four other Nordic nations. China also has significant leverage over Rosneft and Gazprom, ensuring its future presence in their Far East exploration projects. Japan – another big consumer of Middle East oil – has been eyeing the Arctic, both for the resources the region holds, and the new shipping options it presents. India has yet to make any meaningful move to establish or preserve its interests in the Arctic.

Predictions over when the Arctic will be completely ice-free vary significantly – some say 2020, some say 2050. But whenever the Arctic does become accessible, the region will throw up a potentially disruptive development in the energy markets with far-reaching implications. An oil rush seems inevitable, and interested parties are already moving in to ensure a piece of the resource pie for themselves. Here’s to hoping that this disruptive development doesn’t upend the whole system.

Adarsh Mathew is an intern at the Takshashila Institution and a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.