Saturday, May 14, 2016

Foxes and Swans

Foxes and Swans

A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – May 2016

The younger crowd in the Delhi diplomatic scene, with whom I played football in the late nineties and early noughties, consisted of two types – those that endured India, and those that enjoyed it. Non-footballing interactions with the former were all about heat, dirt, and misdeeds of maids and cooks. The latter were much more fun, and Andy Peale, our midfield engine room, was one of these; he drove an ambassador whose engine he tuned himself, and his son, born in Delhi, was christened Robert Arun aka Robby. We all missed him when he returned to his home in the countryside in Leicestershire in 2002, where he said he was going to do two things; write, and follow his beloved Leicester City Football Club (also called the Foxes).

You would wonder why I am remembering him now. Well, something amazing has just happened in the world of football – the Foxes have won the English Premier League. The odds on this happening at the start of the season were 5,000 to 1 – the same as those of the Loch Ness Monster being found, and of Barack Obama captaining the English cricket team. To give you a point of comparison, cricket lovers of my generation would remember a team of no-hopers, who had lost every single previous world cup match they had played in (except one to some part-timers from East Africa), and who had ‘Mr. 36 not out’ himself opening the batting, going on to win the 1983 world cup – well, the odds on them doing it were a mere 100 to 1.

As a sports lover and supporter of underdogs everywhere, I am delighted that Big Football’s caste system (described in Table 1 below) has been so emphatically breached. There are already reams written about it, so I will restrict this paper to its consequences rather than causes. Are we on the verge of tectonic shifts in the world of football, or is this a one-off that we are lucky to have been alive to witness?

Table 1: The Football Caste System
The High and Mighty
The Upstarts
The Middle
Relegation Fodder

Society’s equivalent of the upper class - big clubs, with large stadiums, a huge fan base both in the city and globally, and lots of money and trophies
Society’s equivalent of the ‘noveau rich’ - middling clubs converted via a fund infusion (usually from the Middle East or Russia) into challengers for and occasional winners of titles. Can splash the cash, but they don’t have the history

Society’s equivalent of the middle class – smaller clubs that occasionally punch above their weight and hand out a hiding to the clubs above them in the hierarchy, but are at best good for the minor trophies and a fight for some European adventure. This is a fluid group, with some of yesterday’s members are now in lower leagues.
This lot are condemned to fighting against relegation from day 1 of their respective campaigns. Some survive the drop and continue the fight for another season, and some don’t. Of those who don’t, some return and others disappear into the lower leagues
Real Madrid
Manchester United
Bayern Munich
Manchester City
Paris St. Germain
West Ham
Tottenham Hotspurs
Athletic Bilbao
Leicester City

But first, when did the pundits figure that something big was brewing? After all, some team or the other punches above its weight for a while every season, and the Foxes themselves played down their own performances until the very end.

Speaking personally, I did not pay any particular attention to the Foxes phenomenon for the first half of the season (which included striker Jamie Vardy breaking the record for goals scored in the maximum number of consecutive games), fully expecting the statistical phenomenon of ‘regression to mediocrity’ to kick in at some point. It was only when the January transfer window began (this is when big clubs pick apart small clubs by buying up their high performing players) that one got the first inkling that something was up; the Foxes did not sell anyone, and there were no rumours about its players’ moving out – they had obviously collectively told their respective agents to keep their phones switched off, a sure sign that they themselves believed that they were on the road to somewhere. The second inkling was in Manchester on 6th February, when Man City were on an upswing and its expensively assembled squad was expected to make their title intentions clear by thumping the upstarts from Leicester. To cut a long story short, the exact opposite happened! And one of the funniest moments I have seen in football was towards the end of that thumping, when the home supporters were leaving the stadium in disgust and the away fans sang a song that went ‘Is there a fire drill?” The third inkling was during what has famously been described by Sir Alex Ferguson as ‘squeaky bum time’, the stage in the season when pretenders get exposed and chokers choke – this was when the Foxes put together a string of nerve wracking 1-0 victories in the face of a relentless, valiant and ultimately futile chase by Tottenham Hotspurs.

So, is this a ‘black swan’ event? To be one, it has to meet three criteria; it has to come as a complete surprise, it has to be easily ‘rationalizable’ in hindsight, and it has to have a major effect. It obviously meets the first – let’s look at the other two.

Can it be rationalized in hindsight? I have to say that none of the causes put forward make a convincing case, either on their own or in combination (and in these two paragraphs, dear readers who are not ardent football followers, please excuse the flashing of technical details). The coach had done stints in top clubs, but was appointed only this season (he was available because he had just been sacked by the Greek national team after a loss to Faroe Islands, in itself something of an achievement). The players were either journeymen rejects or complete unknowns (they aren’t now – for example, the Foxes’ box to box midfielder’s relentless running is the source of the joke ‘two-thirds of earth is covered by water, the rest is covered by N’Golo Kante’) whose combined cost was less than what Man U had paid for their teenaged winger Anthony Martial. The scouting system that put this team together has come in for much praise (Riyad Mahrez, who has won the player of the year award, was plucked from the French second division for a song – the scout had gone to watch another player on the Foxes’s radar when he saw Mahrez), but there were bummers as well such as their record signing having to be shipped out to another club. Their playing style was the antithesis of Barcelona – it played ‘smash and grab’ football, deeply attractive to the viewer but with the least number of completed passes of the 20 teams in the league, and the second least time spent in possession of the ball. Yes, the big four did their bit to contribute to the Foxes phenomenon; defending champions Chelsea imploded, Man City got psyched by the impending arrival of Pep Guardiola, Man U are still reconciling themselves to life after Ferguson, and Arsenal played to achieve their ambition of finishing fourth, leaving only Spurs to provide a realistic challenge (and what a challenge it was – had it not been for the Foxes, we would all be celebrating their achievements this season). Several other contributing factors have been bandied about (being injury free, not having European distractions, et al) but, in sum, nothing quite explains what happened out there.

What about effects? Will the Foxes’ win shake the roots of football, and alter that entangled web of relationships between history, money, performance and trophies that prevent clubs from crossing the borders of the caste system? Will strategic truisms and footballing philosophies change, or revert back to the times before telephone number like formations, media puntas, false nines and tiki-taka? After all, the Foxes played traditional 4-4-2; two large, slow centre backs (Huth and Morgan) who sat deep and two wing backs (Fuchs and Simpson) who bombed forward, two central midfielders (Drinkwater and Kante) who combined to boss the centre of the park, two inverted wingers (the left-footed Mahrez on the right and Albrighton on the left) who provided spark on both flanks, one striker playing high speed direct to the goal football and one working off the ball. It was 11 players and a coach having the season of their lives simultaneously, and their opponents thinking they were playing against relegation fodder until it was too late. The other big leagues had no such surprises, with the same old clubs using the same old methods to occupy the same old places on the podium; Barca, Real and Atletico in La Liga, Juventus in Serie A and Bayern in the Bundesliga. So – my reading is that this is a one-off, but one that reinforces to football lovers why we love this game and gives us hope for the future (that this can happen, and we merely have to wait 5000 years for it to happen again).

What does the future hold for the Foxes? I’m not optimistic here, because football is unkind to clubs that fly close to the sun. Do too well, and two things happen. One, the big boys descend like vultures and pick the team apart. And two, the reward of playing in Europe is actually a mixed blessing – great money, and travel to exotic places, but the wear and tear of playing midweek and on weekends requires a deeper squad and a different mentality. Many teams struggle after doing well (and I remember Ipswich Town being relegated the year after they over-performed – they are now ensconced in the lower leagues. I also remember their supporters thanking the team as it went down, for the two wonderful years and the European adventure – none of them would have had it different). A good outcome for the Foxes would be crossing caste lines from relegation fodder to the middle space, and staying there.

A word here about Tottenham Hotspurs, who lost the race to the finish but whose future prospects seem considerably stronger. The Spurs have a brilliant manager, a great goalkeeper, and a golden generation who have tasted blood, so to speak, this campaign – all the necessary ingredients for great things ahead. Watch this space!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Case For War


Ajit Chaudhuri – October 2015

‘Join the Army - Travel to far-off, exotic places - Meet unusual, exciting people - And kill them’[1]

My Days in J&K: I am gallivanting around in J&K again! This time, i.e. the past year, has been different from earlier occasions in that I have travelled around freely, and at no time have I felt unsafe, insecure, or threatened. I am often reminded of earlier sojourns, when the same could not always have been said.

My first visit into J&K was back in 1995, by bus from Delhi to Leh via Manali when I entered the state after the descent down the Baralacha La pass. ‘Wow!’ I remember thinking while looking at the yellow mountainous landscape (that part of J&K is a high altitude desert). I returned on foot, journeying from Leh to Spiti on to Manali and Delhi and leaving the state via the almost 6,000 metres high Parang La pass.

I next had a series of visits between 1997 and 1999, this time while coordinating a research study in Changthang and Batalik (both in Ladakh). The latter required me to visit border areas in the days of shelling, when journeys between Dras and Kargil were done at night with lights off (there is a two km stretch of road that is in direct sight of our friendly neighbour’s artillery), a deeply unpleasant experience on those mountainous roads to the extent that I think I would prefer to have been shelled.

I saw the Kashmir valley only after the 2005 earthquake, when duty took me to Uri and Tangdhar for the next two years. My organization of the time, along with the Army, built a students’ hostel in Tangdhar (said to be the best in the state) – made possible by the 2003 ceasefire along the border that ensured no shelling. Travelling within the state, i.e. Srinagar to Tangdhar/Uri (via towns that anyone following the news would be familiar with, Baramulla, Kupwara, Sopore, et al) was not so much fun – do it in a military vehicle and face attacks by the militancy, and do it in a civilian vehicle and face long searches and make explanations every 25 km, usually with three AK-47s pointed at different body parts until one’s identity was established.

As I said, notwithstanding the drama on our news channels, it is much better today!

The benefits of long term peace and stability should be obvious to all; flowers bloom, infrastructure builds up, the wheels of the economy churn, growth, development and prosperity are ushered in, democracy flourishes, blah, blah, blah, and we can have children in the knowledge that they will not have to face the brutality of war.

The Case for War: Why then is war such an attractive option? Why is it touted so often, by the powers-that-be and the general public, even as a solution to minor problems and as a course of action to address irritants? Are people idiots, that they don’t know what war costs? Or is there something about war that is sensible, rational, and sane? This note examines the case for war, in general and in the case of the current environment in India and its immediate neighbourhood.

The economic perspective: War is a stimulant to an economy, especially in its initial moments, creating demand for all things military and revving up the defence production sector. It can become a drag as it goes on, as the warring country prints more notes to finance it (thus reducing the currency’s worth), and as the ‘guns vs. butter’ argument over the use of scarce resources slants away from food. Long wars are the luxury of the large economies, and that is why superpower-hood (defined as the ability to conduct two remote wars simultaneously) is a one country club.

The military perspective: Armies tend to like war! This is for obvious reasons; generals decide things in armies, and a) they tend not to die in war, and b) war reminds a country why it has an army in the first place (in peace, an army is a non-productive expense and therefore a burden on the exchequer). War builds an army’s profile, and helps justify its budget demands. But also, a good army needs to have a war every generation for practical reasons – generals need to have fought wars as captains and majors, when they are in the frontline, to be competent generals, and they therefore need opportunities for the current crop of captains and majors to gain the necessary experience to be the generals of tomorrow. It is in fact a little disconcerting to note that the Indian armed forces are soon going to be led by people who have no first-hand knowledge of the ‘fog of war’.

The societal perspective: Policy makers often have to deal with the problem of large numbers of useless young men – they are disruptive, they challenge status quo and they upend established power relations in society. They scare the powerful and elite, to whom policy makers are accountable. The traditional method of dealing with them was to send them off to war – this killed them in numbers, and those that came back did so respectful of structure and authority, ready to go on to a life as part of the system, lawyers, accountants, etc. This had the added advantage, from the perspective of the elite, of leaving large numbers of young women available to them. It is no surprise that most of the major wars across history took place when the warring entities were experiencing spikes in the population of young people. Long term peace leaves policy options like skilling programmes, subsidized universities, and creating jobs in sufficient numbers, to address the menace – less effective because (apart from neither culling them nor freeing up the women) these are no guarantee against them exerting their disruptive influence on society at large.

The political perspective: Politicians tend to like being seen as war-time leaders for the obvious benefits that winning a war brings to their political careers – and the option of war is particularly attractive to those whose CVs have little else to offer; who have no experience of or interest in nation building, and whose inclinations are more towards destroying institutions and systems rather than creating to them. You are thinking it – politicians like the crude, bigoted provincials in our central cabinet[2].

Most of our current masters share two more dangerous traits. One – they are semi-educated. While shrewd enough, they have limited knowledge, a zero world view, and an inability to distinguish between mythology and reality, the products of a broken education system and a reason for their inability to fill public positions that have intellectual requirements. And two, while Pakistan serves them as a convenient object of hatred, it is also their role model for India. They lack the intellectual capacity to take into account the arguments against military adventurism – that you cannot fight geography (and therefore that Pakistan will always be your neighbour, whether you like it or not), that while Pakistan may be a dump it does have a fighting army, and that nobody wins a nuclear war. That even if they ‘win’ (i.e. assuming no nukes and interventions by the US or China, all big ‘if’s), they will then have to administer the most un-administrable parts of the world (the thought of these bozos running Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA, which even the British left alone, anyone?).

To Conclude: War as a continuation of politics by other means (to quote the military strategist Carl von Clausewitz) is one thing. And war because of some fools’ ideological bindings, proclivity for groupthink, and need to compensate for the inability to do anything constructive, quite another. We are in for interesting times.

[1] Slogan on a popular anti-war T-shirt at about the time of the Falklands War.
[2] Anyone taking umbrage could see ‘India’s Great Educational Divide’, Aatish Taseer, NYT of 9th October 2015.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Half Century


A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri

‘If this were a cricket match, the crowd would be roaring’


I never really thought about life after turning 50 until I turned 50 – 50th birthday parties, to me (on the occasions that I attended them), were full of decrepit old people trying desperately to make a final attempt at having fun before moving on, and anyway I always thought I’d be dead by then. Actually, I never thought about life beyond 37 years and three-and-a-half months, because that was the next century.

My generation has lived in good times! We have heard Dylan sing, seen Maradona play, and watched India first win the World Cup! We remember Chandrashekhar bowling with Engineer behind the wickets, Wadekar at slip, Venkat at gully, Solkar at silly point and Abid Ali at forward short leg – easily the scariest thing in cricket for a batsman, especially at Eden Gardens when 90,000 people screamed ‘booowwwwlllled’ as Chandra ran in. We grew up in a highly subsidized higher education system (college fees – Rs. 15 per month, monthly DTC bus pass – Rs. 12.50), and then earned liberalized salaries. We saw the country open up to the world, and we travelled around it as a result; tales of visits to London or Paris that inspired shock and awe now attract yawns, and you have to go to Antartica or the moon (or take an all-girls trip around Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan, as my wife did) to get people envious any more. We had it easy; our grandparents were an awesome generation that fought wars, brought in independence, and built institutions solid enough to withstand the subsequent assault upon them. Our parents worked through cynical times; license raj, the Naxal movement, and the decline in the public sphere. Our children will likely grow up into a me-first globalized and Internet-connected world with many opportunities but few jobs. Yes, we have been lucky!

This paper looks at the changes in life brought upon when one turns 50. Is this the beginning of the end, when we contemplate retirement in a no-pension world? Do we pick up a liking for the opera, and for playing golf? Is this when we move up a level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, hit the ‘self-actualization’ phase, and start doing things for the community and society? I have had two years to ponder these matters, both in my own life and in those of my peers, and these ponderings form the basis of this note. I have categorized my thoughts into the important things – family, women, work, football, food and booze. Here goes!

With Family: The children grow up! In earlier times, my wife and I used to wait for them to sleep and then sit down in peace, get a whisky, and chat about the day. Now they wait for us to sleep and then sit down in peace, get on to the Internet, and do whatever it is that kids do on the Internet these days (I have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy with mine). We don’t have to drive them around anymore, but also have no idea of where they are. And I increasingly find that I have to lecture or admonish them for activities (drunkenness, disorderly or sluttish conduct, scatological utterances, inter alia) that I am in a position of little moral authority to do by virtue of my own past behaviour on these fronts, and they are well aware of this.

With Women: The pretty young things of yore have, by now, turned 40 – and you know what they say about turning 40, it’s when men rethink the value of integrity, and women of virtue. This is the area of rich pickings for the lecherous – anyone younger and you think you’re with your daughter, and as for women in your own age group, what can I say except ‘yuk’? Be warned, though, because attributes that kept you ahead earlier like the ability to fake sensitivity, and having hair on one’s head, or a GSOH (the importance of this as a turn-on for women is one of life’s abiding mysteries – can you imagine a man giving a hang for whether a woman is able to make him laugh) decrease in importance relative to good ol’ money and power.

At Work: The harsh truth is that, if you haven’t made the C-suite or its equivalent by now, you are never going to. At issue is how you adapt to it. Earlier generations accepted this, and were willing to spend the remainder of their professional lives in the rabbit warrens of middle management as their bosses got younger in the interests of stability and security. My peers, on the other hand, have been willing to make big changes at 50 – taking on new professional assignments, seeking opportunities abroad, changing from job to business and vice versa, inter alia. While these don’t always work out, the ability to start anew is an important attribute at 50.

At Football: This is where the decline is most discernible. In the 40s, when one begins to slow down, one is protected somewhat by an ability to read the game better and a fearsome reputation within one’s playing fraternity. At 50, one turns into an anachronism; the others are now 20-30 years younger and look up to you less for your playing ability and more for your still being able to ‘do it’. Is it time to shift over to golf? Not yet; you still have something important in common with the others – that deep and abiding love for the game – and there is much knowledge to be gained during post-game gossip from an age-group whose idea of fun is to go off in a group to Bangkok and get themselves a ‘hot and cold’ (figure it out yourselves) while there.

At the Table: A love for good food, as with football, does not change with age – it is just that one’s ability to do it justice tends to diminish. I, for one, continue to search for super food and great service wherever I am, and to delight when I find it in people’s homes and at simple eateries at ordinary prices. I still check as to what’s on the menu when I am invited out, eat vegetables only when I have no options, and avoid all healthy stuff. And as for booze, while the pleasures of country liquor (such as santra, gulabo and kesar kasturi) have long given way to a cold beer or a smoky single malt, I continue to derive considerable joy from the occasional tipple, and my ability to hold it continues to be questionable. I dread the day that I am forced to exercise control, count calories, and cut out these small joys from my life.

And this, ladies and gentleman, is a short description of life at the beginning of the wrong side of 50. For those of you not yet there, rest assured that it is not necessarily a milestone requiring compliance with the old Doors number ‘The End’ that also formed the music score of Apocalypse Now, that went ‘this is the end, my friend’. And for those of us who are, let’s continue to live life as it is meant to be lived; working hard and playing hard, with experiences to be savoured, places to be travelled, knowledge to be gained, battles to be fought, and hearts to be won.


Friday, July 10, 2015

A Corporate Jargon Buster


A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – July 2015


I did two things last year – I joined the corporate sector, and I shifted to Mumbai. Both were pretty big deals! I had never done time in the corporate sector and didn’t even know anyone from there. And as for Mumbai, like most Delhi-wallahs I used to find the city dirty, smelly and intimidating and avoided it to the extent possible.

It’s been OK (so far), and I have been surprised! The corporate sector has not turned out to be overflowing with alpha scumbags pushing and shoving their way to the C-suite, and it has been somewhat comforting to realize that meetings here are as long and unproductive as they were in NGOs and that my skills in being fast asleep or scoring goals in the football world cup and cavorting with supermodels while looking attentive and engaged in the discussion are as much required now as they were earlier. And as for the city, I am slowly discovering that there is more to it than Shiv Sainiks and train commuters; that amidst the high-rises are some beautiful old buildings, that its pavements are walkable and its traffic is chaotic but unaggressive, and that it has its eccentricities (for example, its famous insularity applies as much within as it does outside – for the Colaba-walla, the act of crossing Peddar Road is undertaken with the same reluctance that you and I would go to Bihar, and others use the word ‘sobo’, not particularly politely, to describe the South Mumbaikar).

Anyway – to the purpose of this note! I have noticed that I am not the first migrant from academia, development and consulting to move to the corporate sector, and I will not be the last – there are opportunities here and the salaries are good. Those of you looking to move here will need to adjust to the peculiarities of the sector; the hierarchical mode of functioning, the humungous quantum of email to be dealt with, the working lunch, et al. And one of these is the language of corporate-speak.

This note looks to identify terms and phrases that are ubiquitous here but not heard (by me) elsewhere, and thereby prepare wannabe or recent migrants for linguistic survival. It describes a selected ten from a long list detailed in the table below.


The Long List

30,000 feet
Asset light model
Back of the envelope
Blue sky
Closing the loop
CXO, C-suite
Deep dive
Long list
Messaging Corridor
Non value added activity
Quick wins
Speaking above one’s pay grade
Stretch target
White space




A Short Description of a Select Few

30,000 feet: A higher level view or perspective of a situation, seeing its larger picture and its strategic linkages rather than its details.

Bandwidth: You can’t say ‘piss off, I’m busy’ to someone who is giving you work that you can’t or don’t want to do, you say ‘I have limited bandwidth at the moment’.

Deep dive: The move from 30,000 feet to the details is a deep dive.

Granular: Your lazy minions need to get back to work and put in some rigour and detail into their presentation – you say ‘would you like to bring in some granularity?’

Hard stop: A meeting is meandering on and Real Madrid is going to play FC Barcelona in 30 minutes – you get collective agreement on a hard stop in 15.

Non value added activity: Bumming around the coffee machine, discussing last night’s match, sharing info on the shopping in the vicinity of the office and gossiping about a colleague’s wandering eye, all the useless stuff that makes life in the rabbit warren of junior management bearable, actually constitutes non value added activity.

Pushback: When the company has acquired land from tribal communities for mining or whatever against their will, and there has been an armed insurgency against this in which your executives have been kidnapped and their testicles chopped off, you don’t say ‘Boss, we are in deep shit’ to your reporting officer. You say ‘Sir, there is some pushback from the locals’.

Speaking above one’s pay-grade: This refers to a gaffe that those of us not used to hierarchical structures tend to commit in our early and stupid days in the corporate sector, when we are falsely confident of our own expertise and the openness of higher echelons within the organization to our opinions. We soon figure out that it is hara-kiri to ‘speak above one’s pay grade’.

SPOC: Not from Star Trek but an acronym for Single Point of Contact – when you are taking forward an activity that cuts across departments or divisions, you need a SPOC from each else you will be knee-deep in non-value added activity handling the coordination, for which you are unlikely to have sufficient bandwidth.

White space: I have yet to find an acceptable way to say ‘this is pure and unadulterated bullshit’ in office, or that a ‘monumental f**k up’ has happened, and this constitutes a white space in corporate jargon. Any suggestions?


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Oh! Shit!

OH! SHIT![1]

By Ajit Chaudhuri

Toilets are more important than Temples” J. Ramesh in 2012, N. Modi in 2013

One of the myths we grow up with is that Indian Muslims are dirty – they bathe less, they have unclean personal habits, and their habitations are unsanitary compared with other communities in India. Don’t deny it – many of us think it, not just those with Hindu right wing leanings. Even I remember, back in 1986 when I shared a barsati with two friends, one of us Muslim and all three non-religious, his younger brother visited for a day en route to some other destination and decided against having a bath. Two of us smirked, and the third furiously hauled his befuddled brother off into the bathroom.

It was therefore a pleasure to read an econometric paper whose findings contradict this common assumption. Now, I normally give academic papers that use structural equation modelling and multivariate analyses a wide berth, but there was something compelling about this one; the simplicity with which it was written, the sheer force of what it was saying, and the policy implications emanating from its findings. This note attempts to describe the paper ‘Sanitation and Health Externalities: Resolving the Muslim Mortality Paradox’[2].

Indian Muslims are poorer, less educated, and more backward on average than Hindus, which should contribute to them having higher child mortality rates (I will use Ms and Hs to abbreviate for the two communities respectively, and CMR is the number of children dying before their fifth birthday per 1,000 live births). And yet, the CMR for M children is 18 percent lower than for H children across socio-economic categories, a robust and consistent pattern that has been evident since the 1960s. It means, in effect, that an additional 1.7 M children per hundred survive up to age 5. This phenomenon is well documented, does not reconcile with the literature on the importance of income and education in explaining mortality differences, and has therefore been termed ‘the puzzle of the Muslim Child Mortality advantage’.

The paper uses data from three rounds of the National Health and Family Survey (1992/93, 1998/99, and 2005/06), studies mortality rates from birth history information of 310,000 children, and shows that differences in defecation practices between Ms and Hs account for the entire CMR gap.

This is because human shit is particularly dirty – it contains pathogens (bacteria and parasites, such as worms), and open defecation (I will use OD for this one) introduces these pathogens into the environment, into feet, hands, mouths and the water supply, leading to acute and chronic illnesses.

Ms are 40 percent more likely than Hs to use pit latrines or toilets, which serve to safely dispose of excreta. The reason for this is difficult to trace! It could be because of institutional features of the respective religions – the Hadith forbids OD (‘Guard against three things that produce cursing: relieving oneself in watering places, in the middle of the road, and in the shade’[3], something that any modern epidemiologist would parrot), whereas H tradition views excreta as something to be kept away from home (‘Far from his dwelling let him remove his urine and excreta’ – The Law of Manu, chapter 4, verse 151). It could also be that different sanitary practises evolved between the largely segregated H and M communities for purely secular reasons. Either way, H households are more likely to have electricity than to use a toilet, even better off H households, with assets such as motorcycles, opt for OD, and toilets constructed or paid for by the government for Hs tend to remain unused or be re-purposed. The prominence of OD among Hs is not due to affordability.

More importantly, Ms are more likely to have M neighbours who do the same. The defecation practise of a neighbourhood as a whole is far more important than that of a particular household in accounting for mortality rates, to the extent that moving from a locality where everyone ODs to one where no one does is associated with a larger difference in CMR than moving from the bottom to the top twenty percent of the population in terms of wealth. And it is defecation practise that explains the difference in CMR, not idiosyncratic religious or cultural differences between Hs and Ms; Hs living in mainly M villages have lower CMRs than Hs living among other Hs; in places where Ms and Hs have similar OD rates, they also have similar CMRs; and the M advantage reverses in the rare places where Hs have less OD rates than Ms.

The persistence of OD among Hs has been of concern for some time. MK Gandhi famously observed in 1925 that ‘sanitation is more important than independence’, and cultural scholars have associated it with the caste system, where the link between human waste and ‘polluted’ castes reinforces norms that make sanitation problems ignored even by upper caste Hs. Policy makers have recognized the problem, and there are a multitude of government schemes that encourage the building and use of toilets. Thinking politicians from both ends of the political spectrum, as can be seen from the title quote, have also joined in despite the issue not being a vote-catcher.

I hope they succeed! And yet, I remember with fondness my own defecation habits in the villages I worked in in western Rajasthan in the early 1990s, in each of which I had my designated spot and time, where the long trek with a lota[4] in hand would enable the building of pressure (or ‘vatavaran nirman’, as we called it), and where we joked about situations when a crow came and tipped the lota over (my favourite – when it happened to a person twice in a row, he washed up before defecating the third time). I also remember my time in the harsh Changthang (eastern Ladakh) winters of 1997 and 1998, when the job had to be done in -30c temperatures every morning, where the task of minimising the exposed surface area without impeding the free fall of matter was arduous, and where discussions on the most important invention of all time unanimously settled on toilet paper. Coming generations of rural extension workers will miss the opportunities that OD provides for building relationships from one of the few things in which we are all on an equal plane.

[1] Borrowed from the sign on the toilet door at the students’ accommodation ‘Citadel’ in VV Nagar, Gujarat.
[2] By Michael Geruso and Dean Spears, March 2014, available on the Internet.
[3] Mishkat-al-Masabih (a Muslim sacred text), page 76.
[4] The local term for a metal urn that is used to carry water for washing up in the aftermath.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Cruelest Month


Introduction: April, according to TS Elliot in his poem ‘The Wasteland’, is the cruellest month; it breeds lilacs out of the dead land, mixes memory with desire, stirs dull roots with spring rain, and other such things. What he misses is that it is also when another cohort of young graduates set off from the comfort of their campuses into the wild world, just as I did 30 years ago.

What can I tell these kids about the trials and tribulations ahead – the challenges they will face, and the hard choices they will have to make? Not much – the world has changed, and anyway they have to make their own journeys through life. At best, I would sound like that old codger in the film ‘The Graduate’ who extols the virtues of plastic to Dustin Hoffman.

Sadly, the nature of the ‘wannabe guru’ business is such that having nothing relevant to say is at best a minor factor in a decision to go forth and pontificate. I will therefore commemorate April by listing five (academic) papers that I wish I had read before beginning my own professional journey (instead of in my late 40s). I will, however, not exacerbate April’s cruelty by regurgitating the papers for you – instead, I will merely describe why I wish I had read them earlier. Here goes, in no particular order!

1.    Panopticism – Michel Foucault – 1977

This likening of power relations and social control mechanisms in modern institutions to a 19th century idea of a model prison gave me a creepy feeling at the bottom of my spine – it described my boarding school (not a pleasant place) almost exactly. The idea of power being diffused and ever present, in every person (including the so-called powerless), family and institution, and in every action, would have helped me make sense of some simple but incomprehensible things – like the space you occupy on a ‘charpoy’ at a village meeting being reflective of your status, like the serving order at a family dinner, and like the fact that people who have complete control over you (one’s spouse, the local drug lord, and the Prime Minister of India) being as pathetically prisoners of their circumstances as you are of yours.

An additional dimension to Foucault’s arguments comes from the Czech poet-politician Vaclav Havel’s 1978 essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’, in which he analyzes submission and dissent using the parable of the sign ‘Workers of the World Unite’ outside a vegetable store. He sees ideology as something that offers a person the illusion of identity, dignity and morality while making it easier to part with these virtues, and as a veil behind which humans can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to status quo. Required reading for anyone who has to exist among the vocally ideological – no shortage of this type in many professional spheres.

2.    The Use of Knowledge in Society – Frederick von Hayek – 1945

A common trait in my early professional life was that of seeing the devil in market principles and America – and fusing them into one. In those days of cold war politics and Keynesian ideas on the role of the state, Pepsi was as close to pederasty and paedophilia in perception as it would be in a dictionary (though it was acceptable to have Windows open on one’s computer). There was also a deep-seated belief in the nanny state, where everyone had right of access to food, childcare, education, public sector employment, and everything else, with little thought on who would pay. Today, such ideas would belong to Jurassic Park or to left-of-centre think tank bar discussions after a bottle or two have emptied, but they were dominant in the late 1980s.

The importance of Hayek’s paper is that he makes a logical case for market principles at a time when central planning and an overarching state were considered the way to go. He compares centralized decision making systems with anarchic markets in their ability to make efficient use of resources, and says that the beauty of the price system as a signalling device is that it has ‘economy of knowledge’ – individuals need to know very little in order to take the right action. The scarcity of one raw material, without an order being issued, and without more than a handful of people knowing the cause, results in many people using the material and its products more sparingly. He quotes Alfred Whitehead in saying that ‘it is a profoundly erroneous truism that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations we can perform without thinking about them.’

3.    Power: A Radical View – Steven Lukes – 1974

A common tool of analysis from the 1980s onwards was ‘participatory rural appraisal’ or PRA – going into villages for short durations in teams and conducting a series of exercises (village mapping, wealth ranking, chapatti diagrams, activity mapping, etc.) that resulted in a village plan. ‘This is what the village has decided for itself,’ was the common refrain after a PRA, ‘as per its own needs and priorities. This plan has a people’s mandate.’

Though a user of its techniques, I was never quite comfortable with the legitimacy that PRA ascribed to its planning outputs, and I did not know why – until I read up on Steven Luke’s concept of the three dimensions of power.

Creating spaces to speak on a level footing and providing information to participants, as PRA requires, addresses only Luke’s first dimension. It does not address the fact that there are hidden power equations in such spaces that constrain or enable the expression of particular viewpoints. The tenants’ expression of satisfaction in arrangements with local landlords may have less to do with their perceptions of fairness and justice and more with their wanting to continue to live and their interest in the continued virtue of their women – but no PRA will capture this second, hidden, dimension.

The greatest form of domination, according to Lukes, is ‘the power to prevent people from having grievances by shaping their perceptions so that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained and beneficial.’ This third dimension explains things that otherwise confound, such as – why do women participate in the killing of girl children, or think it is OK for their husbands to beat them? Or, why do Hindu ceremonies require Brahmins to be fed?

4.    The Logic of Power – Mancur Olsen – 2000

What is this beast called government, which the philosopher Thomas Hobbes likened to a twisted sea monster and a gatekeeper of hell in his book ‘Leviathan’ in 1651? How did it come about? Why do we need it? What would happen if it didn’t exist? Would life be ‘nasty, brutal and short’ in its absence? Though not among those who spent happy years of unemployment studying for civil service exams, I have always been fascinated by these questions.

The simplest, and most potent, explanation of government is from this essay by Olsen. He likens it to a stationary bandit, one who has acquired a monopoly over theft in a given area and whose interests thereby have changed dramatically. He will not bother to steal any more, and will demand a hafta from his victims instead. He will reduce the percentage of hafta so that his victims retain incentives to produce and trade, and may even spend some of his takings on public goods that benefit his victims, like education and health, and make them more productive. He will become the government, and the hafta tax. Government, therefore, arises because of the rational self-interest of those who can organize the greatest capacity for violence.

5.    Representation, Citizenship and the Public Domain in Democratic Decentralization – Jesse C. Ribot – 2007

Some common questions we in the NGO sector faced back in the 1990s were – who has given you the right to do what you are doing? And, who are you accountable to? That we had no answers did not trouble us – we were confident that we did ‘good’ work, for which donor agencies gave us money, and who was anybody to question our intentions anyway in a free country? I for one balked only when the international charity I worked for began to claim that it was speaking for India’s poor at various international development forums. How did an organization that was accountable to a board consisting of three old white men take on the responsibility of representing India’s 300 million plus poor? Certainly, nobody from the 300 million had a say in this.

My argument against such acts of delusion, and for a rational role for NGOs in the development space, would have been better for a reading of Ribot’s paper. Democracy requires strong institutions to pay dividends, as everyone tells us in this season of elections. Ribot is considerably more specific; he says that these institutions should be democratic, and for them to be democratic they have to be representative – accountable to people, and equipped with the power to make policy and to convert policy into practise. People should ‘belong’ to such institutions by virtue of residence and not ethnicity, religion, linguistic affinity or any other identity or interest-based identifiers. And these institutions should retain substantial powers in the public political space, where citizens feel able and entitled to influence authorities.

‘Good’ public institutions, therefore, are not merely those that do good work. They also strengthen democracy by being representative of society, by enabling citizenship, and by enhancing the public domain.