Monday, April 23, 2012

Bo Xilai, China and Media Hypocrisy

The story of Chinese "princeling" Bo Xilai, his "Jackie Kennedy wife" Gu Kailai, and murdered "British businessman" Neil Heywood is a textbook case of mass media hypocrisy in covering international affairs.

Consider for example the Letter from China headlined "Corruption Nation: Why Bo Xilai Matters" in the latest New Yorker, and last week's investigative piece by Bloomberg on Gu's four sisters who "controlled a web of businesses from Beijing to Hong Kong to the Caribbean worth at least $126 million.”

In both articles, as in the general flow of news agency reporting of the matter, the focus is firmly on Chinese corruption. The cesspool  represented by Neil Heywood, who Reuters reported was "poisoned after he threatened to expose a plan by a Chinese leader’s wife to move money abroad,” remains firmly in the shadows.

Heywood was no ordinary "British businessman." He was a fixer for the global black market centered on and run from The City, London's financial center. His main job seems to have been helping corrupt Chinese officials move hot money into safe havens abroad. On the side he reported to MI6, Britain's nefarious spy agency (a link he advertised in a pathetically juvenile manner by incorporating 007 on his car license plate).

Why is China "corruption nation" and not Britain?

The New Yorker piece sins by omission; the Bloomberg article engages in active distortion. Noting the use of offshore tax havens by Gua's sisters, it says that is "not unusual: P.O. boxes in jurisdictions such as the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands can serve as the address for thousands of companies. While the majority of tax haven-based companies are set up for legitimate reasons, offshore jurisdictions have been linked to multiple frauds and corruption cases...".

The Bloomberg authors do not say what "legitimate reasons" are served by accounts and shell companies with untraceable owners in off-shore tax havens (of which there are now over 70, most of them in tiny former British colonies). I can see none; those who use tax havens want to avoid taxes, evade legal responsibility, and stash the proceeds of crime.

Illicit outflows from China are the largest of any country in the world. Sarah Freitas notes in her blog at Washington-based Global Financial Integrity that the country lost $2.74 trillion over the past decade. Partial estimates from a number of sources including the IMF and the World Bank indicate that global black market assets amount to over $30 trillion.

Assets in the trillions of dollars cannot be managed by hoods carrying around suitcases filled with high denomination currency notes. Major financial institutions are involved, and they operate in a coherent system that drains an estimated $1 trillion from developing countries every year. 

Mainstream media have been incurious about such numbers, and especially in the mechanisms used to move and manage the money. The growth of a global black market that Britain developed as its Empire dwindled in the 1960s is perhaps the most uncovered international story of our time.  

The corruption represented by that enterprise is not just victimless "white collar" crime. The global black market sustains terrorist organizations, drug traffickers, civil wars, coups against elected governments, trafficking of women and children for the sex trade, and a host of other organized criminal activities. It feeds the huge speculative "hedge funds" that have driven oil prices beyond $100 a barrel during a global recession. It kills democracies.  

To bring the current situation into political focus it is necessary to see it as a second British Empire, one that employs drug mafias and "Islamic terrorists" instead of conquering armies and rewards its primary agents -- bankers -- not with titles and tiaras but with munificent "bonuses" even as their above-ground organizations wallow in public funds to avoid bankruptcy.

Public outrage about those bonuses is often reported in the mass media, but strangely, there has never been an investigation into the rationale for them. The halfhearted excuse that the bonuses are necessary to ensure the integrity of those who deal with billion dollar flows is not valid; there are thickets of safeguard procedures and special oversight and audit arrangements to impose honesty.

As we move into a period of individual connectivity rich with democratic promise it is critically important for people everywhere to recognize that corruption at the national level is sustained by a global system run by a violent and unprincipled elite. Unless we dismantle that system the world will continue to be in a state of perennial violent disorder.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mail Ordering Accelerated Development

With more than 154,000 offices and 4.7 lakh employees (roughly half of them non-staff “Grameen Dak Sewaks”), India Post is the largest mail distribution system in the world. It is also the largest retail bank in the country, for post offices allow people to maintain savings accounts, buy life insurance, invest in mutual funds and transmit money within the country and globally. Organized in 22 state-centric “Circles” (with a 23rd serving the military), the average post office in 2010 served an area of 21.21 Sq. Km and a population of 7,176 people (5682 in rural areas, 20,346 in towns and cities). If we consider the magnitude of work done under far from optimum conditions, India Post is undoubtedly the most efficient of public sector undertakings.

Despite all those positive factors post offices are “facing a big challenge to survive” as The Hindu headlined recently (13 March 2012). In a story pegged to the opening of a new post office in Cuddalore the paper said that in the same district over the previous two years “declining turnover and rising establishment charges” had led to the closing of 10 “sub-post offices.” (Each “administrative “Circle” in the system is ordered in a hierarchy ranging from Head Post Offices to Sub Post Offices; the Grameen Dak Sewaks operate autonomously.) The reporter quoted an official of the BSNL who believed the reduced demand for postal services resulted from the growing spread of mobile telephones and computers, and stiff competition from private courier companies.

According to statistics released in response to RTI requests, the Department of Posts (part of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology now under Kapil Sibal), the number of urban post offices dipped fractionally (0.72 percent) over the last five years, while in rural India it grew at a compound rate of 0.2 percent. Most of the country’s 500,000 villages are without a post office and even among those large enough to have a Gram Panchayat 51 percent have none. Lack of budgetary resources will prevent this situation from being remedied if the system continues as currently conceived.

To see the development potential of the postal system we merely have to envisage it as the foundation of a national e-communications resource network. If every post office in the system had computers for public use and one or two staff members to guide first-time users, India could close the digital divide in a few years. If the government makes it a time-bound goal to extend the system to all villages it would kick-start a process of national change especially beneficial for the young, women, farmers/fishermen and entrepreneurs of all kinds.
 
This is not just hopeful speculation; it has been the actual experience of those who have been working to bring e-development to rural areas. On a recent visit to the hub of Pondicherry’s small network of rural “Knowledge Centres” run by the M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation I was told how members of those different groups have responded to the opportunities offered by e-knowledge centres.

Ms. Girija who is in charge of the hub at Pillaiyarkupam told me that once the young get over the initial hump of unfamiliarity, they become adept at using computers and often outdistance the foundation’s “knowledge guides” in exploring their own interests on the Web. For women, computer access is a liberating escape into networks that expand their horizons dramatically and, not incidentally, improve their capacity as care givers. Farmers and fishermen benefit not by using computers themselves but by accessing the information services available on weather forecasts, market prices and technical guidance.

The content of the advice comes from the foundation’s strategic partners that include public and private organizations. “We take the information they provide and turn them into audio messages in Tamil” Ms. Girija said. The Metrological Service provides weather forecasts, the National Agricultural Bank for Rural Development supplies information useful for farmers at the time of sowing, transplanting and harvesting, and from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University comes bulletins on market prices. The Indian National Council for Oceanographic Information Systems has information on weather and wind conditions that fishermen receive in audio or icon-based messages over mobile phones (which most of them now have). At the request of fishermen INCOIS now also provides guidance on water temperature gradients that often indicate what type of fish are likely to be available where.

Among the entrepreneurial initiatives made possible by the new connectivity is artificial insemination of cattle. Dr. A.R. Thiagarajan, a retired veterinary surgeon who is a member of the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy, has trained “about 40 to 50” young men who now receive calls from farmers whose cows are in season and race off on their motorcycles to provide a service that would once have required the cow to be transported to a government facility. “They make 400 to 500 rupees a day,” Dr. Thiagarajan said. “The farmers don’t mind paying 200 rupees per cow” he explained, for the service saves them from an often stressful trip that can take up a whole day. Also, the adrenalin rush the cows get in making the trip often makes it difficult for them to conceive.

Many other types of entrepreneurial activity will also be possible. As Aditya Dev Sood, CEO of the Centre for Knowledge Societies, a Bangalore-based consulting firm wrote in his 12-page 2001 guide on “How to Wire Rural India,” “information networks can become conduits that allow money to flow into the village through new kinds of non-discriminatory, clean and relatively unoppressive industries.” They could “also compensate for other kinds of infrastructure limitations. For example, if online work, trade, or payment were to become available for members of a village community, the poor quality of roads to and from that village becomes less of an obstacle to earnings and employment.” Also, with money flowing more easily into villages they could themselves finance and undertake the building of basic infrastructure including roads, adequate educational facilities, power generation, and water and sanitation systems.

The vision of such development has always been constrained by the issue of who will pay to start the ball rolling. For instance, in 14 years the Pondicherry network of knowledge centres has developed only 13 spokes to the hub at Pillayarkupam. Growth has been hampered by the requirement that each village centre must be “community owned:” it must receive rent-free space and have two local volunteer “knowledge guides” (trained by the foundation). For India Post to shoulder the responsibility of making that initial investment should not be too difficult if it is able to draw on the very substantial rural development funds already in state and Central budgets.

The knowledge-centre network of India Post will bring the entire country on a shared information platform. Many of the disparities between rural and urban we now take for granted will not endure. Teacher training programmes and access to the most advanced teaching techniques and materials can radically improve the quality of rural schooling. The e-facilities of public libraries throughout the country (and indeed, throughout the world) can be hooked into the system, remedying what is now a dire national shortage of libraries. Among the major near-term benefits of these developments will be a generation of eminently employable young Indians even if their formal education does not extend to college.

In extending the network of knowledge-centre post offices to all villages India Post could expand its existing programme of public-private partnerships. In fact, much of the development described above can be financed and managed through such partnerships.

The major demand for computer hardware and language-specific content from information providers will open up a range of opportunities in that regard. (Quality control will have to become a top priority for government.) Other major sectors of private business will also benefit from the surge of rural economic activity and they should be keen to provide funding for specific initiatives such as installing solar power capacity and training of maintenance personnel.

The resulting boom in economic activity can be expected to begin closing the urban-rural gap opened up by corporate globalization. It will help slow the headlong thrust of the Indian economy into greater integration with a global system that is not only caught in a major crisis that could get much worse but is environmentally unsustainable. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Missing the Point on the NCTC

All the political noise about the National Counter Terrorism Center completely misses the point.

The real danger the NCTC poses is not to India's federal structure but to its democracy and the rights and liberties of its citizens.

And the NCTC is not "proposed" as our "elite" media persist in characterizing it.

It already exists as an intelligence agency with unsupervised powers of surveillance, arrest and interrogation -- a KGB-ISI in the making.  

It was brought in under the political radar by a series of administrative steps invoking the 1967 "Unlawful Activities Prevention Act" as amended in 2004 (to extend its coverage to counter-terrorism), and 2008 (to give the NCTC operational control of counter-terrorism activities).

As Kapil Sibal told journalists last February (when he was Minister for Human Resources Development), the powers of the NCTC are "already there."

He traced the origins of the NCTC to the Inter-State Intelligence Support System created after the Kargil War to improve spy operations. Following a recommendation of the Administrative Reforms Commission the ISISS (a deeply ominous acronym if ever there was one), was converted into the NCTC.

Sibal did not attempt to explain how the drive to improve intelligence operations mutated into anti-terrorism activities and then into law enforcement.

The net result of that evolution is a secret agency without either legislative authorization or operational accountability, with vast intrusive and interrogatory powers that will certainly be subject to abusive use.

Few will take comfort from that fact that the NCTC at the Centre will be supervised by an officer "not below the rank of Joint-Secretary" and at the state level by someone "not below the rank of Secretary."


What is to stop ambitious politicians, spy masters or bureaucrats in the pay of the ├╝ber rich from misusing the NCTC for political/social surveillance and blackmail?  What is to prevent the torture of "suspects" and the coverup of extrajudicial killings? What is to prevent the emergence of an undemocratic and unconstitutional power centre under the aegis of the NCTC? What is to prevent India becoming Pakistan?

Nothing.

There are no oversight mechanisms, no appeals process for suspects/victims, no judicial much less public accountability. If a secret process of oversight and accountability does exist, it can be no more than a cozy arrangement to protect insiders.

Spokesmen for the UPA, including the Prime Minister and Home Minister have tried to make the NCTC controversy seem as if it is something that can be smoothed away by explanations and clarifications.

It would be fatal for Indian democracy to buy that argument.

We need a complete overhaul of the intelligence establishment, which now operates without legal authorization or constitutional safeguards.

The NCTC does not belong under an Act meant to maintain the country's internal security. To frame its activities within that limiting framework is to guarantee failure.

Terrorism is not a homegrown problem. Even though we have some homegrown terrorists, they are the domestic face of external enemies. Unless we keep the focus of NCTC and RAW firmly on external enemies all action within our borders will be reactive second-guessing.

The UPA government must abandon its ill advised move to create a NCTC that is bound to be subversive of our national interests. It must consult with the Opposition to bring in a piece of consensus legislation that will for the first time in Indian history provide a constitutional floor and framework for the work of our Intelligence agencies.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The ineffable charm of the British political elite

The Hindu had an op-ed reprint from The Guardian on 14 April headlined "The war on terror is corrupting all it touches."

The story was interesting, but it had little to support the headline, which should have read: "The British elite corrupts all it touches."

It noted "that MI6, the UK Secret Intelligence Service, rolled the pitch for Tony Blair's bizarre 2004 hug-in with Libya's Colonel Qhadhafi" by arranging for the kidnapping of the dictator's enemy in exile, Abdul Hakim Belhaj.

"He was seized in Bangkok, where he and his wife were en route to Britain" The Guardian story said. "It's been suggested they were "rendered" via the British colony of Diego Garcia to Tajoura jail in Tripoli. Belhaj spent six years and his wife four-and-a-half months at the tender mercies of Qhadhafi's security boss, Moussa Koussa. Belhaj's pregnant wife was taped like a mummy on a stretcher, and he was systematically tortured."

The "gift" of Moussa came with "a covering letter from MI6's Mark Allen, offering Koussa congratulations on 'the safe arrival' of the 'air cargo'." That "was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years."

The story then went on to note: "Within two weeks Qhadhafi was welcoming a fawning Blair in his famous desert tent and announcing that he would abjure terrorism and set aside his 'planned' weapons of mass destruction. The plans were spurious but the deal allowed Blair to walk tall in Washington."

The rest of the story is even more revealing about what it terms Britain's "strange relationship" with the Qhadhafi regime. "It was claimed Britain would not just deliver Belhaj but lift sanctions. Qhadhafi would welcome British Petroleum's Lord Browne, accompanied by Allen, who switched with full ministerial approval from being an MI6 officer to  a £200,000 special adviser to BP" Three years later, Allen reportedly pressed his old boss Jack Straw, "to release Libya's Lockerbie bomber." Allen was also a senior adviser to "Monitor consultancy, which helped boost Qhadhafi's world image," and he sat on the Board of the London School of Economics where one of the dictator's sons got a much publicized PhD. "The new Chairman of BP was none other than Sir Peter Sutherland, also chairman of the LSE."

Under American pressure the British government was forced to abandon its cozy friendship with Qhadhafi and take down his regime. During that process, US-based Human Rights Watch beat MI6 to the cache of secret documents left behind in Tripoli by the Qhadhafi regime, and soon the highlights of the story recounted above were reported around the world. British politicians have either denied knowledge of the matter or claimed that they cannot comment because Belhaj is suing the British government and the matter is now sub judice.

For no clear reason The Guardian tacked on a disquisition about the war on terror to the story above and gave it a completely misleading headline. The Hindu, as ever in thrall to the British world view, followed suit.

From an Indian perspective it is necessary to note the seamless relationship between BP, MI6, the LSE and senior British politicians. They are but different faces of a formidable power elite.

When Reliance Industries sells BP a hefty stake in strategically important Indian gas fields, when Cairn-Vedanta is allowed to invest heavily in sensitive border states, and an Indian company like ESSAR stands accused not only of subverting the national interest in the 2G license scam but of financing Maoists, we are not talking of "foreign investment" or "corporate policy" in any sense that economists understand.

We are talking of the British elite engaged in a game at which it has the world's best track record: cold perfidy.


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Understanding History: 4. The Future of the Past

Earlier sections of this series have dealt with the claims of colonial Europe to have a unique historical sensibility and the acceptance of that by Indian historians who have generally dismissed their own strong national historiography. This concluding section looks at why a globalizing world must reconstruct its past and how the Indian experience could be a model.

In two landmark essays on Indian history in 1912 and 1923 Rabindranath Tagore contrasted India’s peaceable diversity with homogenous Europe where “entire populations indulge in orgies of wholesale destruction unparalleled in ferocity in the history of the barbarian.”

When faced “with non-Western races in a close contact” Europeans never knew “any other solution of the problem but extermination or expulsion.”

Tagore noted that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata had recorded India’s achievement but beyond pointing to the interplay of the conservative (Brahmin) and dynamic (Kshatriya) elements within the caste system, he did not analyze how exactly India had melded its thousands of tribes into peaceful coexistence. To my knowledge, no one else has done so either.

In part the achievement was conceptual. The idea of a Universal Soul (Paramatma) provided a unifying umbrella for a wide variety of tribal beliefs and established with each of them a mutually legitimizing relationship.

On that shared spiritual foundation the Upanishad (discussion) tradition erected a structure of belief modeled on the easily observed seasonal cycles of Nature. It postulated the immortality of individual souls, all passing through many cycles of life and death in their evolution towards self-awareness and ultimately, the full enlightenment of merger with the Universal Soul.

As the individual's long passage to enlightenment occurred within the matrix of universal law (Dharma) and the moral causality of action (Karma), it emphasized individual responsibility and modulated the collectivist passions of the tribe. That allowed diverse groups to maintain their autonomy of custom and ceremony while settling into functional interdependence. The result was the caste system, a loosely hierarchical order that was essentially obedient to function, although its propagandists claimed it was divinely ordained.

A second aspect of the Indian achievement was the inspired story-telling of its two great Epics. They not only incorporated the complex teachings of the Upanishads into gripping and hugely popular stories, they spun all tribal beliefs into narratives reinforcing a core set of values.

Reworked into local storytelling traditions over many generations the Ramayana and Mahabharata shaped the common denominators of a culture that made India a nation unlike any known to the fiercely tribal nations of Europe.

The British in their efforts to maintain an always tenuous hold on India did much to subvert and poison the relations between its many groups. The caste system was a particular object of malign policy because it seemed to be the bulwark of the country’s resistance to religious conversion and manipulation. In that context it is interesting to note early 19th Century British assessments of the caste system.

Monstuart Elphinstone, who spent many years in the country, described the caste system as without rigor in his 1841 History of India. “The Brahmins claim that they alone now have preserved their lineage in its purity. The Rajputs, however, claim to be pure Kshatriyas. In the main, the Brahmin rules of life have been greatly relaxed. The castes below the Kshatriyas have now become extremely mixed and extremely numerous; a servile caste no longer exists. A man who loses caste is excluded both from all the privileges of citizenship and all the amenities of private life. As a rule, however, the recovery of caste by expiation is an easy matter.”

By the end of the century British writers were presenting the system as irretrievably rigid, ruled by iron custom set in place by the Brahmin caste to maintain its own superiority.
 
There was indeed an increase in the rigidity of the caste system in the 19th Century, but it had little to do with Brahmins: it was almost entirely the result of the first census of India (1871), which not only enumerated castes but presented them in hierarchical order.

The muddled British understanding of a complex and fluid system caused a great outcry across India but the damage could not be undone. Caste relations were embittered and subsequent British manipulations made things steadily worse. Thenceforth Indian reformers had to take in hand not only the many oppressive corruptions that had fractured caste relations over the millennia they had to wage a constant ideological battle with a Missionary-Bureaucratic combine seeking to divide and rule.

This background is important as we seek to move a swiftly globalizing world beyond the “clash of civilizations” model within which analysts working in the European tradition have conceptualized it. By further emphasizing the tribalism of religious faiths – the opposite of what traditional India achieved – they have made it virtually impossible to build a peaceful world.

In seeking to remedy this situation we must keep in mind the striking differences between the impacts of European and Indian historiography:

1. European historiography has bred unceasing war by accentuating the particularities of competing groups; far from modulating conflict the commonalities of religion have been a potent cause of violent intra-European intolerance and conflict.

2. The Indian approach to history shaped an overall understanding of the human condition that tamped down tribal hostilities and allowed widely diverse groups to coexist in peaceful interdependence.

In a world where hundreds of millions of people deride spiritual faith as delusion and billions frame their religious beliefs with missionary intolerance it will not be easy to construct a modern historiography based on the Indian model. However, the “sitting together” tradition of the Upanishads does offer a way to deal with existing differences.

It could probably be most effectively revived under the umbrella of UNESCO’s World History program. To begin with, a series of structured international discussions could bring into a common frame the different perceptions of the universe as metaphysical and our knowledge of it as phenomena; that is to say, the spiritual and the scientific.

Shorn of its usual shrill juvenile aspects, such a discussion would make clear that there is no fundamental conflict between the two approaches.

Science itself distinguishes between the particle and wave natures of phenomena (the province of chemistry and physics respectively).

Science now also takes it to be axiomatic that neither matter (particle) nor energy (wave) can be destroyed; they can only be converted into the other. This supports the concept of an indestructible soul. The existence of the genetic code further supports the idea of a unique and transmissible individuality.

Scientific acceptance of a "Big Bang" that initiated the phenomenal world and the inability to postulate what went before that “singularity" closely parallel religious views of Creation.

The similarities of Indian Spirituality and Western Science are even more pronounced if we consider that both are based on the existence of universal laws (Dharma) and inescapable causality (Karma).

The great difference between the scientific and spiritual approaches now lies in the concept of divinity: do we live in an accidental or purposeful universe?

Rather than try to resolve that issue at the outset, the new global historiography could make it a key object of study.

Other key aspects of exploration would be the dynamic relationship of many diverse fields of human endeavor. At present historians put political and economic developments within a common frame of reference; we must also bring into an interactive picture a range of other dimensions represented by literature, art, science, mathematics, the use of technology and experience of the sacred.

In such a multifaceted context events and trends will take on entirely new meanings and suggest commonalities and inter-relationships that are now hidden. Tribal consciousness will blur as such understanding grows. (Of course, elite groups that benefit from social dissension will have to be countered.)

The Indian experience suggests also that a moral perspective will emerge from a study of history: some trends will appear beneficial, others demonic in impact. And beyond that duality there is a reality unaffected by either.

The end of the Mahabharata illustrates that reality beyond human definitions by having Yudhisthira ascend to Heaven, where he finds all the evil people he battled on earth; his brothers, the virtuous Pandavas, are in Hell. It turns out to be an illusion and that is the final teaching of the Mahabharata: both Good and Evil are part of Maya, the delusive fog that cloaks the changeless Universal essence. Dispassionate awareness of that reality is the foundation of wisdom.

We can experience a modern approximation of that realization by noting the net results of the terrible period of Western colonialism and industrial civilization.

The genocides of colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, the intercontinental flows of indentured labor, the planting of settler colonies in the Americas and Africa, and the emergence of global economic and political systems, all have churned the human gene pool into an unprecedented unity.

The revolution in racial attitudes that Mahatma Gandhi initiated and Martin Luther King made global (ironically, with the color-blind help of the mass consumer market), has brought us to a world more unified in its humanity than ever before.

The poisonous nature of industrial society has focused our attention on humanity’s close and custodial relationship with Nature.

Pushed, pulled and prodded, the human species seems to have been prepared for a major evolutionary leap, a new age.

Sri Aurobindo, perhaps the greatest visionary India has produced, touched on the potential of such an age when he wrote of a “spiritual religion of humanity” as the hope of the future. He meant by that not “what is ordinarily called a universal religion, a system, a thing of creed and intellectual belief and dogma and outward rite,” but the growing realization that there is a secret Spirit, a divine Reality, in which we are all one” and “that humanity is its highest present vehicle on earth.”

That would imply that the “human race and human being are the means by which it will progressively reveal itself here … [and] a growing attempt to live out this knowledge … not merely a principle of cooperation but a deeper brotherhood, a real and an inner sense of unity and equality and a common life. There must be the realization by the individual that only in the life of his fellow men is his own life complete.”

I think that passage sets out the overall aim for a modern global historiography.