Friday, 18 September 2015

Of News and Other Stuff 5-Delhi Sultanate Special

  1. Every time I feel sick of Delhi, I discover some new nugget of history about the city which makes me love it all over again. Did you know that Siri Fort was Alauddin Khalji’s capital? According to legend (which would probably explain some of our bloodlust) the word Siri is derived from the ‘sir’ (head) of the Mongols who Khalji defeated. Either he built it on the lands where the heads of the poor sods lay or decorated the palace with the decapitated heads. Maybe it's just me with the bloodlust.
  2. Feroze Shah Tughlaq was probably the first ruler of India (or at least Delhi) to have a Public Works Department. (This could be a defence when the Municipal Corporation decides to rename the Feroze Shah Road).
  3. You can blame our current leaders for trying to name and rename every road, airport and scheme after its own cultural ideologues (BJP) or friends and family members of the Nehru-Gandhi clan (Congress), but they are still better than Alexander, who went around naming multiple cities after himself.
  4. In contrast to most rulers who liked to take on pompous titles and names (think Shah Jahan or Vikramaditya), we had a Rajput ruler called Sadharan. Yeah. His son was the ruler of Gujarat in the late 14th Century and his daughter was married to Feroze Shah Tughlaq. Other than that, he was sadharan.
  5. Our middle school history texts do not emphasize enough on Razia Sultan. Not only did she head the Delhi Sultanate for three years, her father (Iltutmish) nominated her as successor, in preference to her many brothers. All other historical female figures I have heard about till now (including the daughter of Chandragupta II, Chand Bibi or even Rani Laxmibai) became famous for what they did, after and because their male relatives had died. [Note to self: Do a post on the women in Indian history].
  6. The Delhi government wants to cut down on school text book chapters to lower the burden on kids (possibly because they can quickly mug up the rest and pass exams with flying colours). One of the chapters they plan to can is on Jan Sangharsh (Public Struggles) in the 10th standard Civics textbook because they feel that children will learn that protests against the government and anarchy is a way to achieve social justice.
  7. Talking about lack of self-awareness, does the Sangh Parivar know that the first ban on the RSS, in 1948, was imposed by Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, whose legacy they’re trying to appropriate?
  8. In an edit in the Hindu, the writer recounts an ex diplomat saying that at one time, India had a choice between either pursuing real power by becoming nuclear capable or ‘illusory’ power by becoming a permanent member in the UN Security Council.  Even though we no longer face that choice, shouldn’t we be a little more circumspect in chasing UNSC membership? Given our foreign policy of getting along with everyone, from Saudi Arabia to Iran and from North Korea to the US, permanent membership could end up being a crown of thorns.
  9. Does the US Fed consider the feelings of others when backtracking on interest rate hikes? Does it stop to think about the painstaking work of the economists of the World Bank and IMF who conduct detailed surveys of analysts and track the economy fervently, in the hopes of getting their predictions right? Or all the writers of Financial Stability Reports who base their assessment of risks on the predictions of the IMF and World Bank? Or poor Raghu Rajan who will now face more pressure than ever on cutting rates in India? Or all the op-ed writers who had their articles ready on the impact of this move on India? Really.
  10. Pronab Sen, the Chairman of the National Statistical Commission and earlier Surjit Bhalla, explained why the GDP growth rate for Q1 of FY 2016 was lower than expected but with very different conclusions.  Essentially, they explain that the 7% figure was a result of an IMF imposed idiosyncrasy. GDP (at market prices) is the sum of Gross Value Added (or GDP at factor cost) and Net Indirect taxes. The IMF requires that the growth in the Net Indirect Tax in the quarterly estimates be taken as the growth in the nominal figure divided by the change in tax base (that is the nominal growth in manufacturing, services and exports). Hence if there are any increases in the tax rate or tax compliance, they get counted as an increase in the price. This means that there was an over-estimation of inflation in the last period. Since real growth of GDP is calculated by subtracting the inflation rate from the nominal GDP growth rate, the CSO subtracted more than what was ‘actual’ inflation, and thus got a real GDP growth rate that was lower than expected.
  • Sen used this to argue that the deflation scare is misplaced (and though he does not say it, possibly just scare-mongering by the Govt. to get the RBI to cut rates). The Chief Economic Advisor is assuming, or at least leading others to believe, that a fall in prices (as reflected by a negative WPI growth for consecutively 10 months now) means deflation. In reality, a deflation would be a cause for worry only if it reflected slowing domestic demand. This has not happened, as the explanation about the calculation shows. Instead the fall in the WPI has been due to falling global prices.
  • Bhalla says that even though growth rates are higher than what the data suggest, they ‘feel’ low, because the messianic BJP government has used the gains from the lower fuel prices to decrease deficits and inflation (hmm…). Now the RBI should cut rates so that the growth based on GDP feels high (hmm…again).
  • K M Chandrashekhar, an ex-bureaucrat, gives his own example and that of his buddies in the banking sector to claim that people are risk averse at the moment and so a rate cut on its own might not help (not to say he is wrong). To his credit, he doesn’t write with the brash confidence that comes easily to some of our economists who want their feelings to be the basis of economic policy (not to say that their hunches are wrong either). 

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Of News and Other Stuff-4

  1. Last week, the Indian Express published Gopal Krishna Gandhi’s reasonable and well-mannered defence of the Mahatma against the charges of being a racist and colonial sympathiser. It was refreshing to read him on the same day as Tony Joseph’s invective against Surjit Bhalla, part of a continuous back and forth between the two on the question of Christian conversions. Nobody is complaining about a debate, the problem is when columnists adopt the kind of tone, which should only be the prerogative of the anonymous Twitter troll.
  2. An interviewee in the Hindu had sensible suggestions on how to counter online hate speech. She says that pre-censorship or deletion of the offending pages is respectively undesirable and ineffective, and what is required is to change the terms of the discourse through ‘counter-speech’. She cites the example of ‘Flower Speech’ practised by a group of Buddhist monks in Myanmar to counter the alarming instances of online and off-line hate speeches against Muslims. In India I think it has been successful partly in discussions on rape. In spite of all the ‘Humanists’ on twitter who bemoan rape laws and 498A, there is now remarkable levels of outrage when a Mulayam Singh or Abu Azmi decides to air his opinion. 
  3. Christine Lagarde (the IMF Chief) opined that it is important to get women into the workforce to ensure higher economic growth-another striking example of the hyper-instrumentalism Pratap Bhanu Mehta highlighted. 
  4. Can 3 D printers make manufacturing and construction jobs redundant?
  5. Apart from the novelty of reading phrases like ‘India-occupied Kashmir’ and ‘Azad Kashmir’ used un-ironically, it is reassuring to see sane voices on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, decrying the respective ‘victory’ celebrations in the 1965 war. Not just because it is tasteless to celebrate something that led to massive loss of lives, but also because of the tiny factual detail of there being NO victory, for either side.
  6. Purists be damned, even the Government of India is not averse to using some Hinglish (Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana) in its relentless pursuit of interesting (if slightly inexact) scheme names. In this case, HRIDAY.
  7. Awkward name apart, it is a great initiative to spruce up some of our ancient cities, by improving last mile connectivity to heritage sites, bringing in elements of urban planning, increasing tourism, and hence expanding livelihood opportunities and economic growth. Some help will also be forthcoming from the Rs. 100 cr grant for infrastructure development under the Ministry of Tourism’s PRASAD (Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive) scheme. I am going to let the last one go without comment.
  8. But schemes hardly ensure citizen awareness. In Baghpat (UP), villagers have enthusiastically encroached on a ‘protected’ site of the Indus Valley Civilisation, to expand agriculture and build memorials for important men of the village. Who needs the ISIS when a passive ASI can facilitate the job? 
  9. That said, agriculture is probably still better use of heritage sites than for expansion of residential facilities. I am of course referring to the plans for freeing up Lutyen’s Delhi for private use.  Yet even in this case, the land-use-for-more-productive-purposes versus-preservation-of-heritage debate does not have any easy answers. On one hand, pretty much the only thing going for Delhi anymore is that limited area where you can walk safely on wide tree-lined footpaths, where the fumes of the passing traffic will not give you bronchitis, and the old-worldly homes are easy on the eye (as against the soul-less multi storeyed buildings or the box like DDA structures in the rest of the city). On the other hand, the rest of Delhi is choked for space. And the augmentation of the government coffers will certainly be welcome. Yet, it seems somehow unfair that people most able to afford homes in the area would be those who are least affected by the congestion problem, that is, the super-rich. Then again, I am not sure that disproportionate advantages to a certain group has ever stopped a policy from going through. (Or that, it is even desirable for that to happen).

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Of News and Other Stuff-3

  1. Popular literature is to blame for the fact that schoolkids don’t completely get the importance of Ashoka. Brainwashed by the trite ‘moral of the story’, it seems natural to them (it certainly did to me), that a cruel king realises the folly of his ways and reforms. Even literature targeted at young adults suffers from this handicap. Read how Dumbledore goes on and on about Voldemort being evil because he messed with the powerful magic, that of ‘love’, to know what I am talking about.
  2. This not to discount the inherent innocence of children. But I suspect that today’s kids, with generally greater access to information, and exposure to violence specifically, may be able to appreciate Ashoka better.
  3. Promise this is the last you will hear of Ashoka here.
  4. Talking of belabouring a point, if I hear of the ‘shared values of democracy’ one more time, I will blow a fuse. Democracy is not a value, it is a political system. And it is not just a feature of the usual suspects (US, UK, Australia) but also ostensibly, countries like Pakistan, Myanmar and Russia.
  5. Hindu’s headline writer, why is it so noteworthy that India is a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region?  I am sure you have never heard this, but learn from ToI.
  6. Pratap Bhanu Mehta had an interesting op-ed in the IE last week about how adopting the ‘development’ plank in politics (as opposed to caste, religion) has its own pitfalls. One among them is the ‘hyper-instrumentalism’ of institutions-nowhere clearer than in education. Nobody seems interested in who the professors and what their specialisations are-the focus is mostly on the ‘average package’ that the placement cell of the college can net for its students (not even on the job profile offered). This would be acceptable for professional courses, but somebody should be worried about how prevalent this is in academic courses at the PG level as well. More emphasis on the quality of education being dispensed at the UG level (so people realise the intrinsic worth of a good degree than just its signalling effect in the job market) would probably help ameliorate this.
  7. That’s not the same as standardisation of syllabus across the board. I think DU’s bane is the resort to hiring new ad-hoc teachers every semester. Most of them don’t have a stake in knowing the subject they are teaching better because they are likely to land in a different college, teaching a completely different course within a span of a few months. And they (wisely) don’t completely bank on the temporary job either, simultaneously juggling demanding PhD courses or RAships.
  8. Also, the NET exam is a joke. If you are trying to set a benchmark of basic minimum, at least ensure that the minimum reflects subject knowledge/ teaching aptitude/ analytical and critical thinking skills. Rather than the ability for uncanny guesswork.
  9. Unemployedness does a lot for your ability to dispense gyan. I finally understand the adda culture in Kolkata.
  10. May be the sanghis are on to something when they eulogise the glorious past. Did you know that tam-brahms (shorthand for abstention now) were wine and meat consumers in around the beginning of the Common Era?
  11. Since I am now too old to celebrate the very auspicious, very vegetarian festival of Janmashtami, I marked the occasion by listening to this song.  For your viewing pleasure-