Let Us Not Suspend Disbelief

Every year since our ‘tryst with destiny’, a person has stood on the pedestal of Red Fort and exhorted us to embark on the path of ‘nation-building’. Every few years, we see, or rather imagine, the dawn of a ‘New India’ – one where there is freedom from involuntary dependence, not just ‘independence’.

This year was no different. 200 kms from the capital, in Gorakhpur, a cruel tragedy unfolded, as it does every year. Newton would have felt insulted to see the inertia of bodies, stillness of momentum, lack of actions and abundance of reactions. Neglect of public health and sanitation weighed heavily on the strings of flags as they unfurled pompously. There are laws to punish denigration of flags and disrespect of anthems. Alas, babies are too lightweight to seek vengeance. Will our nation building have enough oxygen and vaccines next year? Let us believe what we must!

Further down the much worshipped banks of our filthy river, lives and livelihoods have been lost to floods, which are more regular than good monsoons. It is claimed that there is insufficient funds for relief operations and rehabilitation. Well, let’s just say – priorities matter. Fleets of helicopters took politicians over the flooded areas, ‘surveying’ – a euphemism for looking down – on the disruption. Once, the scene of havoc appearing in the window of the chopper had to photoshopped, just to make sure that people, not the affected but the unaffected, know that their leader was there. Perhaps, certain ‘reshaping’ of political expressions are needed when aired publicly, like the once demanded by Prasar Bharti as a condition for airing the speech of a chief minister. Is our notion of ‘nation building’ is too narrow in its considerations? Let us believe what we must!

A regulator suspends trading of some ‘suspected’ companies on stock exchanges and the financial press goes berserk. They find it an ‘ill-considered’ move by an ‘overzealous’ regulator, intruding without being given an opportunity to explain the innocence on the part of companies. The same press was all cheerful and exuberant when a few months ago, the currency supply of the country was left in tatters ‘at the stroke of the midnight hour’. The intrusive nature of the change was only scantily acknowledge, if only apologetically so. The depressive effects are still visible in remote villages. When decisions of ‘nation building’ are examined, will we be equally touchy in our assessment of its microaggressions and of it macro-objectives? Lets us believe what we must!

We are perhaps like the inebriate, looking for the lost keys under the streetlight because that is where all the light it. The effect is such that we don’t see occasional, now regular, flares that happen outside the narrow radius of that streetlight. We are inebriated by a pied piper, that controls not just the confines of the streetlight, and hence our vision, but also whether we will ultimately, however untimely, find those lost keys – keys to the chains that still confine us into self-assigned silos. We are too invested in the belief that we are independent. Let us believe what we must!

More importantly, let us not suspend disbelief.

Origins of Indifference

Recently, I was selected by a think tank for a research internship in public policy. I was hoping to be placed in New Delhi and I had told my parents just that. But they placed me in Patna. I instantly felt a little sad about being placed in a small city. My parents were even more concerned about what kind of a company was I working in that I would be placed in Patna!

But I practically grew up in Patna and had lived there for eleven years. So, I was shameful at my hypocrital feelings. And my pitiful sorrow wasn’t just about doing my internship in an obviously unrecognized organization. It was much more visceral.


After moving to college in Mumbai I have visited Patna every holiday – how come I didn’t want to work there? Was my affection for the place limited to it being a part of my memory? Did I really think that the city wouldn’t provide me with opportunities to prove myself in the work that I would do?


And the response from my parents and my relatives was also the same. It seems enigmatic that I would do my internship here. Even some people who I have met right here in Patna feel equally surprised. They ask me questions like – “Why didn’t you do ‘something’ in Mumbai itself, it’s a big place?” or “What type of internship did you get in a place like Patna?” And these things have stayed on my mind throughout my stay here.



                                                                          

In mid – June,  I was travelling on a battery-operated rickshaw back home from the office. We were passing by a big conference hall, been built by the state government, when the driver said to me, “Nitish (Chief Minister of Bihar) is wasting money on all these halls in Patna? Of what use is this to the farmers. He should be doing other things. You see Modi (Prime Minister of India) is doing so much for our country.”


“There was a farmer’s conference just a few days ago in this place where Nitish listened to lots of farmers’ grievances”, I said to him.


“But he is not like Modi”, he replied.


“Well, what has Modi done for you? Tell me”, I asked him.


“He is going to so many foreign countries. Our image is getting stronger in the world. He is bringing GST”, he said glancing at me.


“Will you pay taxes by GST?” I asked.


“Of course, not”, he said as he spit outside by the road, something not quite contributing to Swaccha Bharat.


“So, what exactly has he done for you which has improved your life?” I asked him. He put up an awkward smile and we just kept silent the rest of the journey. My intention was not to praise Nitish or criticize Modi. I was trying to get to why he saw this spending on a conference hall as a waste of money and not the foreign trips. I will not delve into either.


However, I was struck by this unusual ‘farsightedness’ that I found in his words. And it is a theme that is quite common in the northern plains of India – the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. At tea stalls and in restaurants, you’ll come across people talking about some big event in a distant place, very skeptical, or unaware, of the local developments because it is not as flashy.



                                                                    

I will focus on Bihar here. The state contributes about 10 % of the IIT and civil service population every year. If you take a walk in the evening along Boring Road in Patna, you will find a sea of students coming out of or going into coaching institutions. Similarly, there are coaching hubs in Gaya, Muzaffarpur, Bhagalpur etc. That students are going to elite institutions is a good thing.


But where is Bihar? The per capita income of Bihar in 2015-16 was only 35 % ( Rs. 37000) of the national per capita income. There are islands of tall buildings in towns and a few in villages surrounded by slums of abject poverty. It is quite common to find a child or two comes to come to you begging as you step out of the rickshaw or your car. There are huge waste dumps in scattered across places – open and unrestricted – to the mercy of rag-pickers and the irregular pickup trucks. There are large number of flyovers that will take you from one place to another, but the sea that they shed indifferently is often unseen. Is that also a purpose of these flyovers?

                                                                     

Walking under one such bridge, I found a row of vehicles – small and big parked in the aisle of the road. In between batches of these cars are people lying on mats, some cooking food by burning waste paper and few chunks of coal, some selling edibles like corn, fish. Earlier, the fish market used to be on the roadside to the inconvenience of shops and shoppers, whose entry would get blocked. Now since they is in the middle under the bridge, the flying-over vehicles don’t get annoyed while the shoppers swipe away comfortably.


I am tempted to think that the revulsion that I felt when I was first informed about my internship in Patna was due to this unhygienic surroundings here. But I do not go to these places every day. Where I have to go regularly is a decent place, no worse than some pocket of Andheri. So, I would be disingenuous to reason that I felt unhappy because of the lack of cleanliness in Patna.



                                                                       

My family wants me compete for UPSC and I too think it would be a good place to work for the betterment of the country. I do sometimes feel like trying it out. But sometimes I feel like I should open a low-fee school in my village and teach students there. That would be more useful to the place where I come from because not a single good school has opened there in the last fifteen years, while temples have proliferated. But the privileged elite in me overlooks that idea more often.


And so I think. The people who do become civil servants, do they contribute? Of course they do.They keep the system running. Some even bring about changes in the way things happen, help the society. But what legacy do they leave – not an institutional one but an individual one, on the minds of young children in places where news of their success spreads like fire? When a young entrant into civil service from a small village from Bihar, it is so glorious to the village community that people arrive at railway stations to welcome the twenty-something newly-minted to-be-civil servant with garland and sweets. I have heard numerous such stories in the last few years. It becomes the stuff of the news where reporters talk to villagers about these. But nothing really changes thereafter – until a year later when somebody else qualifies.


However, these toppers become false role models for many parents and students – a symbol of guaranteed job and a presumably stable career – least equipped to change anything. We talk about our national brain drain so often. So many brilliant Indian minds fly off to America, Europe and elsewhere. We find these stories of high paying foreign placements from ours and other colleges every year – flashed across our newspapers and television screens, and yes our social media notifications. What we do not hear is the inter-state brain drain which has had significant impacts on various states, particularly the poor ones like Bihar. The stream of engineers, doctors and civil servants that are constantly advertised in media, how long will this stream flow? Or will it dry out ?



                                                           

Metro cities have something about them that is magnetic, in a deliberate sort of way. You might be imagining their loud bars, their cascading traffic, their callous culture, their poor-rich dichotomy, and their screen stuck eyeballs…As deliberate as these things might be, a very subtle but deliberate change has also evolved, that is, we depict cities in such positive light that our places of origin appear to be less so, especially if it is not a city.


In Mumbai, I have found a good many Bihari drivers and workers, settled with their families in the outskirts of the city – deprived of the local familiarity. When I ask them why they migrate, the answer is usually to do with economic conditions. Many say that life is difficult away from their community in their native place and it feels good when they visit. And that they hope that they will return permanently someday but know that they may never.


And I think maybe I am this way too. Maybe I prefer to bask in the adulation of being an IITian (or a civil servant) to my village neighbors, a little uncomfortable to tell them about my internship in Patna – they equally surprised to hear about it – both conveniently refusing to negotiate the dust and sweat of the village in order to improve its conditions, even though it has been the source of money for my education up to the present day.

Humanity

We focus too much on the good nature of people –  kindness, loyalty, reverence etc. We often coax ourselves into not looking at our darker side – our vanities – if you will. 

Doesn’t that make humanity too? 

Imagine 

Just imagine walking down a quiet street,  late on a windy night,  with the thinnest piece of clothing you can possibly imagine. 

Now, what do you feel?  

On books and reading

Three years ago, all my reading appetite meant was a few stories in my school English Literature syllabus. I hated Literature of any sort. 

But slowly it changed. When I got into college, I found myself vacant with a lot of time. I had not bought a laptop then. That’s when I started reading. I’m not quite sure what made me do that.

It was a good beginning. But I was slow, not in reading. I was slow with finishing the books I started. There would always be something else easier to do then open a book. Like watching a movie or TV series. Or sleeping. I’d postpone reading forever.

Last summer, I tried to change that a little bit. During the vacations, I started writing this blogs and a few pieces for an educational website. I realized that books helped a lot in writing. I’d always have something to share. 

I also realized that having a few goals, not necessarily strict ones, helped. I’d know how to space out my reading time to finish a book in time. Sometimes it’d be done early, sometimes late. But the deviation was quite even on both sides. 

I also felt that my surroundings often determined my propensity to read. If I had a TV or a laptop or a phone to operate, I’d seldom read. If my book was kept in some shelf where it would be find it, I’d rather check my Facebook notifications. There were pseudo – obstacles to access to reading. 

Carrying a book wherever I went – trains, cabs, lectures etc. helped to increase the access to the book I was reading. I started to reading multiple books simultaneously, from different genres. I’d read in short cycles of, say, 30 minutes to finish a chapter I’d start or to read a certain number of pages. 

I’d even watch movies or interviews of the author pertaining to the book. Those gave me a different perspective of the writer’s mind, how he/she thought of a plot different than I did. I’d read other pieces penned by them on the web. It felt like a big boost to my understanding of the book and of the author.

I’d talk more about the books I was reading. I even did my seminar on a topic related to a book, The Empire of All Maladies, I was reading at the time. I did another of my assignment on  Women’s Movement in India, relating to a book on the topic. 

Many books are challenging book they question my biases, my narrative of events but they are the most interesting. Books have helped me think about topics that I’d never have thought of, in ways couldn’t have otherwise. 

Last year I read 39 books. This year I plan to take it to 50+. I hope I get there.Edit

Is ‘economic growth’ really progressive? 

On 12th December 2015, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was adopted by the representatives of 195 nations at the 21st Conference of Parties of the UNFCC in Paris. With this, there is an explicit recognition among countries about the dangers of global warming. But this has brought up a new mantra of reducing carbon emissions – nuclear reactors. Surely nuclear power does not cause greenhouse effect but does it mean it is safe? Of course, not.

Radiations from nuclear power plants are the most potent source of environmental pollution, both actively and passively.  They are not the ‘peaceful sources of atomic energy’ that energy experts and politicians would have us believe. The unique hazards to life that they pose can never figure in any cost-benefit analysis or environmental impact assessment. It seems to me that we have defined the terms ‘green’ and ‘ecological’ so narrowly in terms of carbon emissions that we have lost sight of other sources of disaster. Do we want COfree air which is laden with radioactive particles?

In the mid-1950s, there was a wave of incessant use of insecticides that swept major parts of agricultural fields. In the human drive to eliminate all annoying insects and pests, harmless or not, we blindly used toxic chemicals like DDT, dieldrin, heptachlor. Surely, it eradicated all weeds. But what followed was swathes of barren fields, ponds devoid of fishes, trees without humming bees and diseases humans had never seen. Would we prefer no insects if that meant no flora and fauna?

Recently, healthcare has become the center of attention in all major countries. With aging populations in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, Japan and poverty in Asia, governments – conservative and progressive alike – have been forced to think about this issue. But what we have seen, without any basic ambiguity, is that all governments have prioritized the provision of health insurance to their citizens. Does health insurance guarantee quality healthcare?

With the boom of internet and social media, the dynamics of news has changed drastically. Today, the news is not about educating the public. It is about advertisement and sensationalism. It is about catchy phrases that can get eyeballs raised. Recently, when it was revealed that Fox News commentator Bill O’rielly settled lawsuits of sexual harassment at extravagant sums of money, it was widely reported that advertisers were pulling out of his shows. What was missed widely is that his viewership has soared simultaneously? Are advertisers the metric of a news broadcast?

President Trump recently ordered a missile attack on Syria. While he has been largely lampooned by the media for his unpresidential behavior, most of the establishment foreign policy and national security experts lauded this decision of his. One MSNBC anchor even described it as ‘beautiful’ alluding to the Leonard Cohen lyric – “I am guided by the beauty of weapons”. The irony on Trump’s desire to ban the entry of refugees from this region was apparently set aside. Do missile attacks do any good for the people of Syria?

The five questions are the sort of ‘uneconomic’ questions that we never find answers to in public discourse. And those who raise them are deemed as ‘Luddites’ by the establishment of the times. But a thread weaves subtly through these questions. Nuclear power, pesticides, health insurance, news, and weapons – these become industries over time generating ‘growth’ and ‘economic activity’. They become, in some cases, the defined solutions by elite economists, or in other cases, they become part of our vocabulary. We accept their immediate ‘utility’ without considering their long-term consequences.

And to question this ‘elitist economism’ is considered regressive. And such concerns can be found in ‘progress’ that we think we have made. The 2008 Financial crisis was emblematic of this. The explosion of derivatives market and sizes of banks made them a liability for the population. The human element of banking has been lost on our ‘economized’ selves. Similarly, scientific developments in genetic engineering pose ‘uneconomic’ questions that we have avoided till now.

We have accepted the economic morality of industries for much of our times. People do not matter in these considerations, what matters is GDP growth of industry and hence the economy. In such a society, industries capture the attention of the public much before it has time to address the concerns that come with its tempting products. And when we get some clarity about them, we are too late to rein in the adverse effects of their ‘economic’ activity because such actions then become a perceived political liability. Then, our tail wags our way forward, on an uncertain road to nowhere. We move, but is that progress?

Buyer’s Remorse! 

About a month  ago, I ordered a mobile phone on Amazon. As is always the case, buyer’s remorse set in quickly. But I had the option of not accepting the delivery because I had not paid for it online. I kept on thinking as to why that phone – Was it because I genuinely ‘liked’ it, or my friends ‘liked’ it? Was it because I had heard that it was a ‘cool’ gadget to have? Was it because its particluar functions would be useful to me? – I wasn’t sure.

In the time that the delivery was on the way, I constantly struggled with my decision. Just I struggle when I go to buy a T-shirt or jeans or any other thing that is available in variety. I just cannot pick one and get away.

By the way, I did pay for that phone!