Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Real Butthead Commercial From Kohler

The boss at Kohler India must be a real butthead to okay an extreme British accent for the company’s “hands-free hygiene” commercial.

Doesn’t s/he know the mleccha reputation the Brits have here?

Or was the choice made with just that in mind?

Kohler’s designers must have surely noticed that shit splatters, usually, directly into the region of the toilet bowl where they’ve placed the “hands-free hygiene” spout.

Only the first person to use it after a cleaning will escape a shit douche, and that fortunate soul can expect to have his/her bottom singed with residual chlorine or acid product. 

There is also the larger philosophical question of whether a squirt of water can, in fact, clean your bottom or merely redistribute shit.

The reason hygienists advise people to lower the toilet lid before flushing is that the usual gush of water sends a spout of microscopic shit particles up to eight feet into the air.

Then there is the clincher: if you got some shit on yourself would you clean it with a squirt of water or scrub it clean with your hands?

Finally, where does Kohler come off trying to disassociate play, share, joy, and love from the genital area?

As some of my friends from Brooklyn would say, ... well, perhaps that's better left unsaid!


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A New Planning Body for India

The government has asked for suggestions from the public on how to replace the Planning Commission. Herewith my two paise-worth:
 I suggest the government replace the Planning Commission with an open-ended national roster of experts from which it can select panels of 7 to undertake specific time-bound tasks.
 The Roster should include individuals with a wide range of interests and capacities, ranging from businesspeople, lawyers and scientists to economists, political scientists and journalists. State governments should be able to nominate experts to the roster. There should also be a facility for qualified students to apply for internships.
The tasks assigned to panels should be in two generic categories:
  •  Producing background documents that set out issues with clarity;
  • Consulting stakeholders on the conclusions of the documents above and arriving at agreed recommendations for action.
The panels should have short deadlines for completion of work.
To facilitate consideration by parliamentary and assembly committees the reports should normally be published on the Web once the consultative work is done.
 The Saptarishi Program (as I suggest this effort be named in honor of the earliest guides of Indian civilization), should have a secretariat capable of fielding up to 50 or 60 7-member teams at  a time and it should issue a monthly webzine reporting on developments.
 The Prime Minister should present an annual overview and progress report in parliament.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Two Weird Incidents

 Haven’t had a creepy crawly incident in some time, so these came as a surprise.

The first was about two weeks ago, about 7:30 on a dry dark monsoon evening. I was riding my bicycle to the Magsons Superstore about a mile or so from home when, on an unlit stretch of road, a boy, about 12 or 13, grabbed the bike and hopped on to the rear carrier.

 I let out an outraged shout and told him to get off.

From my glimpse before he scurried into the darkness it was a well-dressed middle-class kid.

I told two men walking just ahead of me on the road why I had shouted and continued on my errand.

 It occurred to me that if I had not reacted loudly and instantly, the situation could have easily got out of hand: in the prevailing supercharged Indian atmosphere on sex crimes a strange boy on the back of my bicycle in the dark could be interpreted half a dozen creepy ways, and the two men ahead of me on the road were well-positioned to do just that.

 In some ways, the fact that the creeps are down to attempted character assassination is heartening, for it began four years ago with attempts at serious bodily harm; and all for just one sin (as far as I can see), writing what's on my mind!

My firsthand experience of having no ready avenue of appeal against official highhandedness has been eye-opening. It is a serious flaw in our democracy and a potent danger.

 In 2013 I tried to file a law suit, only to find the lawyers I approached had been intimidated and would not take up the case.

After that, I sent a note on the hairy things that had been happening to the Governor of the state and its Chief Secretary, but did not receive an acknowledgement from either; however, one must have acted, for the incidents stopped -- until now.       

The second recent incident did not seem creepy initially: an email from a supposedly radical American web site asking if I would do a podcast on my blog item on The Real First World War.

The owner of the website was to call me early this morning but did not.

I chalked that down to the “active call redirect” to which my phones are subject and was going about my business when, about three in the afternoon, a call came in from someone in London who said he was going to record the podcast from there.

 The American joined the conversation after a few minutes and gave every indication of not being a radical of any kind. In fact, he was politically illiterate. Even after a correction he continued to explain BRICS as “Britain, India, Russia, China, South Africa.”

 I’ve had more informed political inquisitors in chance encounters on Indian trains.

 When I broached the topic of the British Empire resuscitating itself as the money-laundering system that sustains the global criminal underground, he got cold feet very fast and declared my views not good enough for a podcast.

There wasn’t a peep from the man in London the whole time, and thinking of that led to my decision to write about the experience, just in case my voice should appear in some reconfigured manner somewhere and implicate me in unseemly matters.

Consider this an advance alibi.

 I would love to know what a quiet retirement feels like!


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Paying for Pucca Housing for all Indians & 100 Smart Cities

Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan comes across on television as the savvy voice of financial street smarts but his 11 August speech in Mumbai on “Finance and Opportunity in India” showed him to be confused and out of touch with Indian realities.

The first sign of that was his observation that because life expectancy in India was lower six decades ago “it is safe to say that most Indians born just after independence are now no more.”

 It is not safe to say that at all.

Life expectancy is an average heavily weighted by high infant mortality in developing countries; it is not a measure of the actual longevity of those who survive.

 That conceptual misstep is perhaps forgivable, but not Rajan’s explanation of why poor Indians keep re-electing corrupt politicians.

“Their “tolerance for the venal politician is because he is the crutch that helps the poor and underprivileged navigate a system that gives them so little access.”

“While the poor do not have the money to “purchase” public services that are their right, they have a vote that the politician wants. The politician does a little bit to make life a little more tolerable for his poor constituents – a government job here, an FIR registered there, a land right honoured somewhere else. For this, he gets the gratitude of his voters, and more important, their vote.”

 A footnote in the text crediting that view to an American writer in the early 20th Century underlined how vaguely it relates to India; our corrupt politicians endure not because they help the poor but because they exploit the prevailing dynamics of caste, community, illicit funding and venal mass media.

Given that broad misreading of Indian reality it is not surprising that Rajan’s argument for financial inclusion is dicey.

He believes that giving the poor money instead of public services such as subsidized food, public schools and hospitals will be “liberating,” freeing them on the one hand, from the corrupt politician, and on the other hand, allowing them to “patronize” private providers newly respectful of their financial clout.

Rajan discounted the fears of some NGOs that cash transfers will be misused and noted several other problems that might crop up. However, he ignored the most likely outcome of a cash transfer system: that as with any other public service for the poor, corrupt politicians will steal much of the money and cut deals with private providers to cheat the intended beneficiaries.

 His take on what cash transfers will achieve was rosy: they would “help the poor out of poverty and towards true political independence.” Credit and advice “to the entrepreneurial amongst the poor,” and giving households “the ability to save and insure against accidents” would free them “from the clutches of the moneylender” and “set them on the road to economic independence, thus strengthening the political freedom that good public services will bring.”

I don’t quite understand how political freedom will be strengthened by giving the poor - some 60 per cent of the Indian population - “unique biometric identifiers” linked to bank accounts into which the government makes regular transfers. In fact, such a system is likely to make the poor incapable of resisting official pressures on any issue and that could tip the country quite easily into a bureaucrat-controlled fascism.

Those concerns were accentuated by the clarity with which Rajan stated the interest of the corporate elite in the whole matter. There “should be profits at the bottom of the pyramid … the government should be willing to pay reasonable commissions punctually for benefits transfers, and bankers should be able to charge reasonable and transparent fees or interest rates for offering services to the poor.”

 It is amazing that this regressive proposal has been unveiled at a time when there is a clear alternative, the democratization of the financial sector through crowd-funding.

So far, the only action the RBI has taken on crowd-funding has been to limit participation to Internet users who have demat accounts (perhaps in a bid to protect people without experience in investing). But there is need for much more pro-active action to realize the potential of changes that will transform all economic realities and put traditional financial institutions on the path to extinction.

To see what must be done, consider a concrete situation: achieving Prime Minister Modi’s vision of housing and proper sanitation for all Indians.

Those goals cannot be met in a country as poor as ours if we rely on conventional mortgage/public financing but are well in reach with innovative crowd-funding policies and mechanisms.


 I suggest the government establish a web-based National Housing Lottery and appoint a Commission to oversee the operations of a portal segmented by region, district, city and town.

The portal would allow owners and developers to present housing units as prizes in lotteries. Each property would have a fixed number of tickets for sale, enough to reimburse the owner/builder and cover the costs of the lottery itself.

Such a system would finance a robust house building sector at no cost to the exchequer. Winners of the lottery would get housing for the price of a ticket, which should be set at no more than ten rupees each.

Those who win properties they do not want to use should be free to put them back into the lottery and get a fixed lump sum. That should ensure the continuing popularity of the lottery and also attract an international clientele: in effect, the entire world would be crowd-funding the Indian housing sector.

For the scheme to succeed, it will be essential to develop strict building standards and impose rigorous inspections for properties put up as prizes. Inspections should be left to a new business sector of small and medium enterprises operating within the framework of regulations set by the Lottery Commission. A zero tolerance policy on corruption, encouraging whistle-blowers and banning offenders from the lottery for life should help maintain high standards.

Overall, the scheme will send the national GDP growth rate into the stratosphere and provide millions of new jobs at all skill levels.

Housing & Smart Cities

The rapid buildup in housing should dovetail with the government’s proposal to build 100 “smart cities” over the next decade, with policy-makers deciding on the look, feel and nature of development to suit location-specific human and natural environments.

This does not mean massive urban planning. On the contrary, it means little more than formulating a local consensus on the aesthetics of development and providing the relevant institutional framework for growth.

What will that entail?

To answer that question it is necessary to look at the profound impact on urbanization of the ongoing IT and connectivity revolutions.

Over the last four centuries, the growth of cities was driven by the need to realize industrial economies of scale: factory production required large volumes of raw materials (brought in by road, ship or train), plentiful and cheap energy, a large enough workforce and the ancillary services necessary to sell to mass markets.

All those factors are irrelevant to the urban areas of the Information Age. Silicon Valley in the United States, one of the most important economic hubs in the world, has little in common with America’s old “rust belt” manufacturing centres. Similarly, the giant film industries of India and the United States have no need for most industrial era infrastructure. Neither does tourism, now the world's largest "industry."

In creating our 100 “smart cities,” the government might need to do no more than decide on an overall plan in areas where it will offer enhanced support and incentives to attract a range of preferred economic enterprises, including orchards, farms, flower gardens and entertainment complexes.

The detailed planning and building of the necessary infrastructure could be left to corporations, domestic and foreign, that have the necessary expertise and capacities. The government role should be to prevent corruption and ensure that contractual goals are met. (Any public finance necessary could be derived from small adjustments in the pricing of units in the housing lottery.)

Achieving clarity on where the country should develop what kind of smart city should be a high priority on the agenda of the new brains trust that is to replace the Planning Commission.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Essential Hindu

It is often said, even by Hindus, that Hinduism is "a way of life rather than a religion."

It would be far more accurate to say that Hinduism is a religion that has shaped a way of life.

In a land of great diversity it has provided a unifying framework that encapsulates the highest philosophy as well as the popular culture of folk tales and traditions.

As that unifying drive has been its primary impetus, Hinduism's powerful core beliefs have not been enunciated with clarity.

Essentially, a Hindu is one who believes that God exists as universal Truth (Dharma), manifest in human affairs as the law of causality (Karma).

All else in Hinduism is explanatory.

Our gorgeous philosophy, our wonderfully humanized universe of legend and fable, our colorful customs and rituals, our view that all living things are "God's family;" the whole amazing superstructure of our tolerant and humane culture, has been a flowering of those beliefs.

Evil exists in Hinduism not as the opposite of the Good, but as a falling away from Truth and the values required to express and safeguard it.

Bad karma is rooted in delusion; sin springs from moral confusion.

Good karma is to see the Truth clearly and live by its dictates.

As India marks on the 15th of August its release from a destructive and demeaning period, let us celebrate the core beliefs that have made a people of endless diversity a nation.

Sorry to Rain on NDTV's Gaza Parade

NDTV has been riding high on its correspondent Srinivasan Jain's widely touted "rare footage" of a Hamas crew setting up and firing a rocket into Israel from a residential area in Gaza.

His cameraman evidently filmed the whole sequence from their hotel window.

The station, the only Indian broadcaster with a crew in Gaza, has been airing boastful commercials about its "real journalism" in an obvious effort to deflate the effort of arch rival Times Now to present its constant screaming hysteria as "journalism of courage."

In that rivalry my sympathies are entirely with NDTV, for it is significantly more professional than Times Now.

However, the Hamas story would have got a failing grade in any good journalism school.

For starters, how did Jain know the crew was from Hamas?

As he did not speak to the supposed Hamas operatives, what -- or rather who -- identified them?

Did he make any effort to check with Hamas?

Could the whole thing have been a set-up?

The "rare footage" was broadcast with no mention of any of those details. 

Jain is among the best reporters on Indian television, but in the treacherous terrain of the Middle East, he should have seen the need to be far more wary.   

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Real First World War

Europe's "Great War" of 1914-1918 does not deserve to be called the "First World War." That title should go to the first real global conflict, Europe's genocidal invasion of other regions that began in the final decade of the 15th Century.

European historians have sought to downplay the ferocity, extent and significance of that earlier conflict by treating it as a diffuse historical process, but if we who were victims accept that view it disables our understanding of everything that has happened since then.

As few Indians are likely to know much about what actually happened, let me recount some salient points.  

A decade after Columbus landed on Hispaniola in 1492, its indigenous people were extinct. They had done nothing to deserve that fate; Columbus in a letter to his royal sponsors in Spain said they were “loving, uncovetous people,” with “good features and beautiful eyes,” who “neither carried weapons nor understood the use of such things.” Yet many were tortured to death in a vain attempt to get them to reveal nonexistent hoards of gold and others worked to death or driven to suicide.

Such gratuitous violence continued as Europeans extended their domains in the "New World."

 Many of the smaller tribes followed the Arawak of Hispaniola into extinction while the populations of larger groups fell by as much as 85 percent, victims not only of indiscriminate violence but of induced famines and new diseases to which they had no immunity. The spread of smallpox through blankets distributed free to Native Americans and the wanton slaughter of the great herds of bison on which the "Plains Indians" depended for food, clothing and shelter were the most outrageous cases of genocide. Estimates of the numbers killed range up to 100 million.

In South America the Conquistadores engaged in a zestful mass murder that has no equivalent to this day. Bartolomeo de las Casas (1484-1566), a Spaniard who went to the New World for fortune but was driven by the atrocities he witnessed to enter the Church, left a vivid description in Brevissima Relacion de la Destruycion de la Indias (Short Report on the Destruction of the Indies):

“One time the Indians came to meet us, and to receive us with victuals and delicate cheer, and with all entertainment, ten leagues from a great city, and being come at the place they presented us with a great quantity of fish and of bread, and other meat, together with all they could do for us to the uttermost.” The Conquistadores put them all to the sword “without any cause whatsoever,” more than “three thousand souls, which were set before us, men, women and children,” committing “great cruelties that never any man living either have or shall see the like.”

“The Christians, with their horses and swords and lances, began to slaughter and practice strange cruelty among them. They penetrated into the country and spared neither children nor the aged, no pregnant women, nor those in child labor, all of whom they ran through the body and lacerated, as though they were assaulting so many lambs herded in their sheepfold. They made bets as to who would slit a man in two, or cut off his head at one blow: or they opened up his bowels. They tore babes from their mothers' breast by the feet, and dashed their heads against the rocks. Others they seized by the shoulders and threw into the rivers, laughing and joking … They spitted the bodies of other babes, together with their mothers and all who were before them, on their swords. They made a gallows just high enough for the feet to nearly touch the ground, and by thirteens, in honor and reverence of our Redeemer and the twelve Apostles, they put wood underneath and burned the Indians alive. They wrapped the bodies of others entirely in dry straw, binding them in it and setting fire to it; and so they burned them. They cut off the hands of all they wished to take alive. They generally killed the lords and nobles in the following way. They made wooden gridirons of stakes, bound them upon them, and made a slow fire beneath: thus the victims gave up the spirit by degrees, emitting cries of despair in their torture.”

Casas, writing as the Bishop of Chiapas, estimated that just in the Caribbean his compatriots had killed some 15 million Indians, leaving “destroyed and depopulated” the large islands of Cuba, San Juan [Puerto Rico], and Jamaica, and some 30 smaller islands.

In Australia and New Zealand, the killing was less zestful but it was more comprehensive, and there was no Casas to call attention to what happened. The Anglican Church and British authorities looked the other way as settlers in Australia hunted the Aborigines like animals, poisoned their food and water, raped their women and savaged their children, all in a deliberate campaign to reduce the indigenous population. The Aborigine numbered about 750,000 at the end of the 18th Century and about 30,000 a century later; both figures are estimates for they were not included in Australian censuses until 1971. Australian policies to “protect” and “assimilate” the Aborigines continued the oppression into the second half of the 20th Century. It inflicted prison terms on adults for “crimes” ranging from “cheeky behavior” to “not working” to “calling the Hygiene Officer a big-eyed bastard.” Government officials took Infants from their parents and placed them in White families or orphanages. That “adoption” policy openly aimed at eliminating the Aborigines as a cultural group, the legal definition of genocide. In the face of mounting international criticism the government discontinued the program grudgingly in 1970; it was not until 1997 that it noted the negative impact on the victims and their families.

In New Zealand, a country larger than Britain (103,738 sq mi to 94.526 sq miles), the first British settlers in the mid 1800s found a tribal population said to be around 100,000 – almost certainly an underestimate, for the newcomers were soon engaged in a series of “Maori wars” to expropriate tribal land. By 1896 the number of Maoris was down to 42,000.

 In Africa and Asia the death tolls were far higher.

The slave trade out of Africa began with the first Portuguese explorations down the African coast in the 14th century and continued into the 19th. By the time it ended, slavers had taken an estimated 25 to 35 million Africans across the Atlantic and killed an equal number during capture and conveyance.

Within Africa too, wherever Europeans settled, they displaced and often enslaved the local population. The “Congo Free State” established by Belgium’s King Leopold II reduced the native population from an estimated 20 million to 8 million. Under the pretext of "civilizing the natives," his regime established a reign of terror, mandating wild rubber collection quotas for each village and punishing unmet targets by lopping off the arms of workers. Supervisors were required to bring in baskets of limbs to show they were implementing policy rigorously.

 In Namibia, the Germans massacred the Herero. In Kenya, the British ran the Kikuyu off the best agricultural land in the country, pushing over a million people into lasting poverty. A movement to reclaim the land in the 1950s resulted in a second displacement as the colonial regime hunted down, tortured and killed over 100,000 “Mau Mau terrorists.”

In South Africa, the British slaughtered the Zulu to get at the diamonds and gold in their land and the Boers (descendents of Dutch settlers) imposed racial segregation on the whole country in 1948, as India’s independence heralded the end of the era of European world domination. The system stayed in place until 1994.

 Asia saw the highest death tolls of the colonial era, and as K.M. Panikkar noted in Asia and Western Dominance (1959), the violence began with Vasco da Gama. On his second voyage to India he came upon an unarmed Arab vessel and, “after making the ship empty of goods" he "prohibited anyone from taking out of it any Moor" and then ordered it to be set afire. A commentator in Portugal justified that as follows: “It is true that there does exist a common right to all to navigate the seas and in Europe we recognize the rights which others hold against us; but the right does not extend beyond Europe, and therefore the Portuguese, as Lords of the Sea, are justified in confiscating the goods of all those who navigate the seas without their permission.”

That “strange and comprehensive claim,” commented Panikkar, was “one which every European nation in its turn held firmly, almost to the end of Western supremacy in Asia. The principle that the doctrines of international law did not apply outside Europe, that what would be barbarism in London or Paris is civilized conduct in Peking, and that European nations had no moral obligations in dealing with Asian peoples, was part of the accepted creed of Europe’s relations with Asia.”

 In India, the first of the "man-made famines" under British rule occurred in the decade after the 1757 fall of Nawab Siraj ud Dowlah in Bengal; it killed seven million people, a third of the population. The last famine the British created, also in Bengal, occurred in 1942-1943; it killed between 3 and 4 million. In all, the total of such deaths has been estimated at several hundred million; the Gandhian Dharampal calculated the total number of Indian deaths from all causes under British rule at 500 million. (Dharampal who died at Sevagram in Wardha in 2006, did not use his last name, Banwari; his groundbreaking work on pre-colonial and colonial India has been largely ignored by Indian historians because he had no academic background or standing.)

 China was never under colonial rule, but Britain fought two "Opium Wars" in the 19th Century to force it to import the drug. By the first decade of the 20th Century a quarter of its population was estimated to be using the drug.   

This litany of European depredations in the global South is not a mere scratching at old scars. It is, in fact, essential to understanding the "Great War" of 1914-1918. German disaffection at not having enough colonial "lebensraum" (elbow-room) was perhaps the most important factor that drove its competition with Britain into war. In that sense, it was a direct karmic consequence of the Real First World War.