Friday, November 25, 2011

India is not the only country with problems!

I recently visited two countries in Europe - United Kingdom and Switzerland. While in Switzerland, we did all the touristy things, but in the UK, we were guests - our hosts were delightful company throughout, with very well brought-up and articulate children, with sharp minds of their own. 
My host, Sanjay and I took a brief day trip to Brighton. He informed me that Brighton was the gay capital of the UK, so just the two of us walking down the main street of this town would not raise any eyebrows, "even if we held hands", he added, tongue firmly in cheek! 
We saw some "homeless" persons - who were dressed in jeans, shirts and a cap, fairly well dressed, I thought, by Indian standards, but were kneeling on the pavement and begging for alms. What surprised me was that they were selling a magazine that is supposedly brought out by the homeless in Brighton and nearby areas, in which the advertisements and cover price go to fund some of the homeless. Sanjay told me that the homeless are not necessarily the dregs of society - indeed, he pointed out that in his office, there was one employee who was officially "homeless" - after a messy divorce, he had to leave the marital home, and he defaulted on credit card debt because of the alimony burden. It seems that homeless is a misnomer - they are entitled to, and get dormitory-style accommodation (in some cases, heated!). 
In a country that counts itself as one of the richest, this was a glimpse of what they called poverty. Definitely, this was relative poverty, and not the grinding, Rs.32 per day consumption level kind of poverty we encounter in India. While there, I read in the newspapers how many people entitled under the UK laws to accommodation based on their family size would be registered for these benefits in  the UK as well as in some other rich socialist country like Norway. They enjoy homes in both countries; and either use one as their vacation home, or surreptitiously rent out the house to other immigrants who have difficulty proving that their stay in the UK was legitimate. Many such persons are employed in so-called  "Indian" restaurants, which are actually Bangladeshi or Pakistani owned and operated.  This is corruption India-style; the equivalent of our CGS quarters that are supposedly allotted to Central Government employees at various levels. Many of them have their own homes, and prefer to "rent out" or illegally sublet the premises allocated to them, enjoying income that escapes the tax net altogether.
I now understood that the UK had its share of problems. And these problems were being exacerbated by many of the home mortgages that had slowly slid "underwater" in recent years. I was so surprised at evidence of homelessness in such a cold country that I did not capture it on camera.  
Then, in Switzerland, everything was almost picture-postcard-perfect. So beautiful, in fact, that we tired of clicking photographs of the landscapes everywhere.
Except for the fact that the Swiss haven't been able to rein in their rebellious graffitti artists who spray-painted and defaced public property almost everywhere. 
In a few places, we found that the authorities had spray-painted in white over this graffitti, but it still left the wall looking shabby.
I thought to myself, at least Switzerland seems to be wealthy enough to have homes for all their people. Then, I was proved wrong. I came across a "homeless body", or a "hobo" as they are often derogatorily referred to. Except that this guy looked like he must have starred in a Wild West movie. He carried his luggage around everywhere, and sat (and probably also slept) on bus terminal benches when he tired of walking around.  
This photograph was taken in a town called Bulle, in a bus terminal when we were returning from Nestle's Cailler chocolate factory in Broc.  
As I returned to India, I thought of when our country will reach a level where poverty and disrespect for public property is reduced to a level that one has to take photographs to record evidence that it exists. I knew it would be decades before it happened, but I am hopeful of good things happening. 

  • I am proud of the fact that we Indians have come to accept the reliability of Electronic Voting Machines, something that even the US and the UK have yet to adopt. 
  • I have especially great confidence in the UID initiative being led by Nandan Nilekani - it will become the largest biometric identification database in the world very soon, if it hasn't already become. 
  • India's banking industry is the strongest in the world today, and I can withdraw money from my account free of charge from any ATM or branch of any bank - something that even the developed world cannot boast of. 
  • Some time back, I had blogged on the wonderful experience I had in replacing my lost passport. I am sure this is an experience that thousands like me have had.  
  • Besides, the reduction in corruption that may result from a strong Jan Lokpal bill and an increasing pride that Indians will have in their country, that will lead them to eventually banish the scourge of absolute poverty. 
  • This very pride will also ensure that public property is well maintained. Have you noticed that the speakers and LCD televisions in Mumbai's new local trains have survived for well over a year without being stolen or damaged? 

We are learning, I dare hope, to preserve public property. India is on the move, not-withstanding the troubles that seem to be filling the papers nowadays. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hit by Randomness

Being very logical and conservative, I believed completely in Nassim Nicholas Taleb's idea that events with very high impact but very, very low probability occur far more often than one thinks probable. 

The accuracy of this belief came home to me yesterday evening quite forcefully. For a few days, the normally diligent maid who comes in to clean my office did not turn up. Phone calls to her mobile number remained unanswered. A slight concern remained at the back of my mind, but I did nothing about it. This maid, who has been with me two years would even phone in to say she'd be late.  I ascribed it to the fact that she leads a very challenging and exhausting life, and may be unwell. She lives in rental accommodation with her mother and her son, who is doing very well in school (as a single mother, she is justifiably proud of that). She is still fighting in Court for maintenance against her husband who has abandoned them both. She works in a few places doing cleaning work from around 6:30 am, and then works in a company in Crawford Market till 8:30 pm and returns home close to 10 pm. 

Then, yesterday I heard from her brother, who lives nearby but separately. She had met with a freak accident that has changed her life completely. An act of random irresponsibility leading to a devastating black swan impact on this hard-working lady. Hit by randomness, as Taleb would put it. Bad luck, as most Indians would. Either way, it is entirely senseless and inexplicable. 

It will be some time before she can pick up the threads of her life. Her brother's intention was to ask if I would be good enough to wait for her to get well enough and come back to her job. I assured him that I would wait. She has taken a rain check on my offer for financial help. Need to go and meet her - will do that tomorrow.  

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Is the West afraid of democracy?

In recent times, governments in both, the US and Europe have shown that this could indeed be true!
We now look at a few examples in recent years, of the West running scared of true democracy.
  • Hamas was democratically elected as the governing party in a free and fair election which the US itself had approved of holding. Since that victory, neither Israel nor the US have recognized the Hamas government as a legitimately elected government in Gaza and the West Bank. All its talk of exporting democracy to justify ousting despots has been shown to be hollow and self-serving.
  • The US also took an inordinately long time before ditching its long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, and throwing their lot with a spontaneous non-violent democratic uprising in Egypt.
  • The current move to scuttle Palestine's application to be recognized as a country and admitted to full membership of the UN via a US veto in the Security Council is another example of the US running scared of democracy in action. The vote in UNESCO, where the US has no veto, shows what would happen if true democracy were allowed to prevail. 107 countries voted for admitting Palestine as a member of UNESCO while 14 countries (basically the US, Israel and like-minded countries) voted against.
  • Poland, Czechoslovakia, among several countries, wanted a referendum (the most democratic method, where every citizen can participate in the decision) to decide on the Lisbon Treaty (proposing constitutional change in the EU). However, they were all prevailed upon to not hold the referendum; instead, elected representatives alone ratified it.
  • Ireland, however, held a referendum and the proposal to join the EU was defeated. A year later, another referendum was forced to be held in Ireland on the same question when enough votes swung in favour of the Lisbon Treaty. That decision was hailed as a resounding endorsement of the Lisbon Treaty. This is a new kind of democracy where you repeatedly ask the same question, till you get the answer you want.
  • The most recent case is when the Greek PM, George Papandreou proposed that the rescue package cobbled together by Germany and a few other EU countries be voted on by the people of Greece (referendum). It had the effect of a hungry cat among a flock of alarmed pigeons. Why should the prospects of a Greek referendum trouble the richer countries?
  • Because Greece as a country is any way in a soup, whether they agree to the rescue package, or don't. It is has a choice of entering 8-ft deep water, or 25-ft deep water. The real rescue package is not for Greece, but for the banks in the developed countries that are holding Greek government bonds that have fallen steeply in value. For them, it s the difference between accessing EU's rescue funds to rescue them from the fallout of poor investment decisions and not getting that access, and bearing the entire loss themselves. With the backdrop of Occupy Wall Street campaign, and the widespread anger against bankers, a referendum would almost certainly return a resounding “NO” to the EU package.
  • So it is not a surprise that Papandreou was prevailed upon to abandon his idea of a referendum. It continues the long saga of the democracies fearing democracy.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Mother Teresa of Somalia

Picture this: Somalia: the longest-running failed state, a country at war with itself for over a decade. Now picture this: Dr Hawa Abdi, a lady, a gynecologist, imbued with a spirit of service that has made her daughters into converts to her cause. She and her two daughters now run what has grown from a single room to a 400-bed hospital. These bed are always full, but in the hospital campus stay 90,000 displaced people who also need medical help or a shelter from the violence and madness outside the camp. Her hospital has become one of Somalia's largest relief camps.
In May, 2010, she was abducted and held at gunpoint for being a woman and running the camp, but the womenfolk in the camp nearly 75,000 are women or children) – through sheer numbers, and aided by a flood of approbation from the world over, they forced Dr Abdi's release. Dr Abdi, however, was made of sterner stuff – she insisted that the leader of those who abducted her apologise in writing for her abduction and vandalisation of the hospital.
Currently, Somalians are reeling under a famine, and all she can provide is drinking water, and a rent-free place to stay. While the majority of those in the camp are women and children, men are allowed to stay with two conditions (the first applies to all in the camp):
  • those staying in the camp do not talk about family or clan (the reason why Somalia is so deeply divided), and
  • they do not beat their wives. Any wife-beater is locked up in an empty storeroom.
Just 5 doctors (including Dr Abdi and her two daughters) and 16 nurses at the camp conduct 20 surgeries every day and treat 300-400 patients every single day, seven days a week; AND manage the camp. Truly deserving candidate for the Nobel Prize. Hope that she is nominated soon – the prize money will help her foundation and Somalia greatly.