Our Unlucky Children

This is the 48th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last weekend, I went through the typical routine of watching a film and then doing a week’s worth of shopping. First I watched the beautiful Taare Zameen Par. Then I spent an hour inside the nearest hypermarket.

The amount of choice inside the hypermart was staggering. I counted more than 30 kinds of cheese, 60 kinds of biscuits, 50 types of papad, and quite as much variety across soaps, soft drinks, farsaan, cooking oil, pickles and so on. I needed shampoo, and I walked past two shelves of it before finding something for “normal hair.”

Some people complain that there is too much choice on offer, but I find the variety wonderful. It caters to individual taste. For example, there is shampoo available for people with “dry, rough, sensitized hair”, “dry or damaged hair”, and “weak, fragile, difficult to grow long hair”. To those of us who do not fall into these categories, these might seem excessive, but clearly they exist because they sell —and fulfil someone’s needs.

Isn’t it wonderful how the free market does this? Instead of shoving one or two types of each product down people’s throats, it effectively treats us as individuals. Entrepreneurs, seeking to find market niches to make a profit, end up empowering us as consumers. Without knowing anything about me, the market caters to my personal needs to a degree my grandparents would have found unbelievable.

Watching Taare Zameen Par, however, reminded me that in the area where it matters most, our children don’t have the same choices open to them.

Aamir Khan’s film is about a dyslexic boy let down by his school. His teachers do not recognize what makes him different and treat him as if he is stupid, shattering his self-esteem. Then Khan comes in as a sensitive teacher and turns things around.

This only happens in films, of course, and most kids in that situation would not be so lucky. They would be able to buy potato chips in the precise flavour they might desire—“classic salted”, “sour cream and onion” or 40 others—but would be denied of an education tailored to their needs.

This is not just something that applies to dyslexic kids. All children are unique. Some are better at languages than in math, some have short attentions spans, some have high learning curves, and so on and on. And yet, when it comes to education, they are treated as if their needs and abilities are identical.

This rigidity applies not just to schools but also to higher education. “Arts”, “science” and “commerce” are segregated streams, and a young man who wishes to study both physics and 19th century English literature would have a problem doing so.

You might argue that when it comes to education, it is logistically impossible to cater to individual needs. After all, schools and colleges have limited resources, and a teacher-student ratio can only go so far. Individual attention seems an impossible pipe dream.

I would argue, though, that our failure to imagine a way forward does not mean that none exists. All successful innovations work precisely because no one thought of them before, and they fulfil a need somewhere. If we give entrepreneurs the scope to innovate, they will find solutions. The problem with our education system is that the government has a stranglehold on it, and severely restricts private participation.

For example, it takes 14 licences from four authorities to open a private school in New Delhi, which could take years. There are all kinds of bizarre parameters schools have to fulfil to open a school—such as playgrounds of a specified size—and, most absurdly, they aren’t allowed to operate for a profit. They get around this by opening trusts and suchlike, which restrict their scope for further investment.

When will our government learn that the profit motive is a good thing? It spurs innovation and benefits fellow human beings, for that is the only way to make a profit.

Besides these entry barriers, there are other restrictions on what these schools must work towards. If they are not affiliated to a government-approved board with a government-approved syllabus, such as ICSE or CBSE, their students are going to find it hard to get into government-approved colleges down the line. Everything has to be government-approved, which stifles innovation.

I can barely imagine what products my hypermart would contain if all the industries that produced them were run by the government as education in India is. There would be fewer product categories, virtually no choice within those categories, and everything would be more expensive. Thanks to competition and relatively free markets, that is not the case.

When it comes to trivial things such as potato chips and garlic sev, we have been empowered with choice. When it comes to something as important as education, we have not. Isn’t that a disgrace?

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Also read: My piece on school choice in India, Fund Schooling, Not Schools.

My thanks to the members of the Satin e-group for their inputs on this piece.

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

Some Saxy Resolutions

This is the 47th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

It is January 3, and I have already broken my New Year’s resolution. Don’t ask. So, I decided to find out from some of the notable people in our country what their New Year’s resolutions were.

First I called up Sonia Gandhi. “My New Year’s resolution is to learn more Hindi,” she told me.

“Hindi?” I asked. “But your Hindi is just fine, Soniaji.”

“No, we lost the Gujarat elections because of my Hindi,” she said. “You see, while campaigning in Gujarat, I wanted to tell the people of Gujarat that we would develop Gujarat better than Narendra Modi. So, I asked one of my minions how one says that in Hindi. My minion said, say ‘Narendra Modi maut ka saudagar hai.’ So, I said that, and see what happened.”

“What happened to the minion?”

“Don’t ask.”

Next I rang up Manmohan Singh. “What’s your New Year’s resolution, sir?”

There was a moment of silence. Then he said, in a sad voice: “I’ll have to check.”

After this, I dropped in to meet Prakash Karat. His answer:

“My New Year’s resolution is to oppose whatever the UPA does.”

“But why’re you supporting their government then?” I asked. “Why don’t you just withdraw support?”

Karat sighed. “This is the problem with you neoliberal, consumerist, imperialist bourgeois, call-centre pigs,” he said. “If I withdraw support, there will be mid-term elections, after which we may not be in a position to damage the country. I don’t want that, and neither does Beiji… I mean, neither does Brinda.”

“You don’t have to call me names, you know.”

“I head the politburo, not the polite-bureau. Now run along before Buddha’s party workers saunter along and I set them on you.”

I ran along, and called up Narendra Modi. “Sir, I wanted to ask, what is your New Year’s resolution?”

“If you find a cockroach in your kitchen,” he asked, “you tell me, what should be done to the cockroach?”

“Kill it, kill it.”

“Well, that is it. Do I have to take Sonia Gandhi’s permission to do that?”

I needed a break from politicians. One fellow called me names, another was eyeing my cockroaches, what’s a columnist to do? I called Rakhi Sawant.

“Amitji, in this New Year, I will be more saxy.”

“Rakhiji, you are already very saxy,” I replied.

“Are you making fun of me? I did not say saxy. I said saxy.”

“I know, saxy.”

“Not saxy. Saxy!”

Arre, saxy, na?”

“Not saxy! Saxy! Abhishek, cum here, yeh mera mazaak uda raha hai!”

Then she burst out crying and I hung up. Next target, Javed Akhtar.

“Sir, what is your New Year’s resolution,” I asked.

“I will be the judge on a reality show,” he told me.

“But sir,” I remarked, “you have already done that many times this year.”

“No Amit, you do not understand me. You need to do more riyaaz of asking questions. You see, I want to be the judge of a reality show for judges of reality shows. In the show, the judges of reality shows will be contestants, and I will be their judge.”

“And what will you judge them on?”

“I will judge them on how well they can lecture contestants,” he said. “They should be able to burst into monologues about women’s liberation or secularism without any reason for it. Someone sings a random song, they should deliver a lecture on male chauvinism. Someone dances, they should preach about the values of the new generation. I want to create many Javed Akhtars to make this world a better place. Run along now.”

I ran along, and bumped into Pratibha Patil. “Pratibha tai,” I asked, “What are your New Year’s resolutions this year?”

“I have decided that 2008 will be a different year for me than 2007,” she said.

“How’s that?”

“Well, in 2007, everyone made fun of me for speaking to spirits, and my comments about burkas and compulsory sterilization and so on. Even you did, naughty boy. So, this year, I have decided to become more like my popular predecessor, APJ Abdul Kalam. I will emulate certain carefully selected aspects of his persona.”

“Such as what?”

“Well, I’ll start with the hairstyle.”

I ran along. Then I thought I’ll make just one final query for the day, and hope something interesting came out of it. I dropped in at Abhishek Bachchan’s house. As Ash bhabhi made tea, I asked the small b:

“Abhishek, dude, I’m writing a column about New Year’s resolutions, and I wanted to know what yours was.”

He looked at me with red eyes. “I will find that tree,” he said, “and I will kill him.”

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

The Expanding Circle

This is the 46th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Would you put a man in a cage? Last week, the blogger Hari Balasubramanian wrote a post about how, in 1906, “Ota Benga, a pygmy from the Belgian Congo, found himself sharing a cage with an orang-utan at the Bronx Zoo as part of a tableau intended to illustrate the stages of evolution.” Benga had filed teeth that came from “a tradition of cosmetic dentistry followed by his people,” but his captors mistook that for “a sign of cannibalism.” They duly “scattered bones in the cage.”

Having related Benga’s tale, Balasubramanian asked:

“The outrage we feel today about this scarcely believable story from just over a century ago is an indication of just how much sensibilities have changed. But to me the key issue is not what happened to Ota Benga; rather, it is this: What is it that most of us do not condemn today and are complicit with that will in 2107 seem utterly outrageous?”

One way to answer such a question is to look at whether there is a trend to how we have changed in the past, and try to imagine what will happen if that trend continues into the future. I am usually sceptical of alleged trends, but there is one that makes sense to me: the expanding circle.

This idea of “the expanding circle” was first written about by the Irish historian WEH Lecky in his 1869 book, A History of European Morals. Lecky wrote that the number of people we consider worthy of our moral consideration has expanded through history like a circle. “At one time,” he explained, “the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.”

In other words, more and more people moved from the category called The Other into the category called Us. Over the last three centuries, women have been empowered, slavery has been abolished, people of other races and sexual orientation have been treated as equals, and so on. Some, such as the philosopher Peter Singer, even ask for this circle to be expanded to include animals. But all this is in the Western world.

While the philosophers of the West might look at the expanding circle as a fait accompli, the circle simply hasn’t expanded much in large parts of the world. Take the Congo, for example. Much as we feel outraged by Benga being locked up in a cage, the events of 1906 pale before what is happening in the Congo today. An Associated Press (AP) report from 2003 informed us that pygmy activists from Congo had approached the United Nations alleging that they were being eaten. The AP report said:

“Army, rebel and tribal fighters— some believing the pygmies are less than human or that eating the flesh would give them magic power—have been pursuing the pygmies in the dense jungles, killing them and eating their flesh, the activists said at a news conference yesterday.”

The Economist recently wrote that for “six groups of pygmies for whom data exist, two have a life expectancy of 24 years and the other four about 16 years.” Benga, who never ended up as food, lived into his 30s.

In many parts of the world, the “moral circle” hasn’t yet expanded enough to include women in it. Nothing demonstrates this better than the recent Qatif rape case in Saudi Arabia, in which the victim of a gang rape was sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes for daring to be alone with a man who was not her husband. The Saudi king commuted the sentence after an international outcry, saying, according to Reuters, that the rape was “discipline” enough to make sure that the victim would “learn the lesson”.

In India, too, the circle has a long way to go. In much of the country, women are still treated as second-class citizens, female foetuses are routinely selected for abortion and homosexuality is effectively criminalized by the Indian Penal Code. And then there’s caste and class and religion. Identity politics, which thrives on keeping the circle from expanding, dominates our political landscape.

And yet, I am hopeful that the 21st century will see billions of circles expanding around the world. The force that I believe will make this possible is a much-maligned one: globalization. As the world opens up and everything becomes interconnected, the barriers between cultures and societies will crumble. As we become dependent on others for our prosperity, we will stop seeing them as The Other. Trade will melt barriers—though for that, barriers of trade have to melt first.

In 2107, I believe, people will feel outraged that in 2007, governments across the world stopped us from trading with each other, without restraint, to mutual benefit. It will appear bizarre and morally wrong. But that is a subject for another column, and I’ll sign off here wishing you a great 2008.

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I’d earlier blogged about Hari’s post here. The AP and Reuters stories were brought to my notice by Nitin Pai.

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

Let’s Rethink Doping

This is the 45th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell once wrote. There seems to be plenty of recent evidence to back that up. Former US senator George Mitchell recently released a report on performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball (MLB) that revealed that 78 past and current players had used banned substances. Last week, Marion Jones was stripped of the five medals she won in the 2000 Olympics, following a confession that she had taken steroids at the time. Earlier this year, the Tour de France was beset by controversy, with Michael Rasmussen withdrawn by his team while he was leading the race on allegations of doping, and pre-race favourite Alexander Vinokourov busted for an illegal blood transfusion.

You could look at the glass half empty and bemoan the fact that doping seems to be so widespread in sport. You could look at it half full and feel glad that the cheats are finally being caught. I believe that we’re looking at the wrong glass.

In my view, doping in sport will be an issue no one bothers about in a couple of decades time.

There are two reasons why I believe this. One, it will soon become impossible to catch dopers. Indeed, despite these recent busts, they are already ahead of the curve. Two, using performance-enhancing drugs will no longer seem an ethical problem. Indeed, we’ll wonder what the fuss was all about, and why we ever went around quoting Orwell on fair play.

Before you berate me for my heresy, let me explain.

At a practical level, the science of catching dopers hasn’t kept pace with the science of doping. Consider the recent controversies. Jones wasn’t caught in testing—her guilt was uncovered by investigative work done on the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, an American company that administered sophisticated performance-enhancing treatment to an array of sporting stars. These included Jones and various MLB and National Football League stars, most of whom never actually tested positive.

Another huge doping scandal of recent times was Operación Puerto, which revolved around a doctor named Eufemiano Fuentes, who ran systematic doping services for some of the biggest names in cycling, as well as for a few tennis and football players. Most of these men never tested positive in competition either, and would not have been caught if the good doctor hadn’t been busted.

These controversies demonstrate that dopers are more sophisticated than those set to catch dopers, and only the unlucky actually get caught in testing. I see every reason that this will remain the case—after all, with the kind of money available for sportspeople at the highest level of the game, all the incentives are aligned that way. Indeed, in some sports such as cycling, not doping may well be an entry barrier at the highest levels of the sport.

Also, doping is fast progressing beyond designer steroids and suchlike. In the July 2004 cover story of Scientific American, H Lee Sweeney described the next frontier of performance enhancement in sport—gene doping. Gene therapies that are now at the cutting-edge of medicine, Sweeney wrote, could be used by sportspeople to enhance their strength or stamina —and, crucially, would be undetectable by blood or urine testing.

And now to ethics. The main ethical argument against doping is that it distorts the level playing field that sportsmen begin with. But does that level playing field exist in the first place?

Most top sportsmen, especially in sports that place a premium on strength or endurance, are born with biological qualities that normal people don’t possess. For example, Lance Armstrong’s heart is one-third larger than normal, and his aerobic capacity twice that of the average person. It gives him an advantage over a cyclist with a normal body, which hardly makes for a level playing field. That’s the story in almost every sport.

Here’s my question: if the accident of birth gives some of us certain biological advantages, is it wrong to recreate some of those same advantages using science? Why leave to chance what science can replicate?

In fact, don’t we already do this? We take protein supplements to enhance our muscles and do altitude training to increase our count of red blood cells—then why is it ethically wrong to achieve the same ends using other means? Indeed, wouldn’t taking performance-enhancing treatment actually level the playing field in terms of physical endowments, and allow more scope for a player’s skill and character to express themselves?

One of the great triumphs of our species has come from using science to enhance the quality of our lives— average lifespans rose by about 30 years in the 20th century in most developing countries. This did not affect our humanity, but gave it greater scope to express itself. Why should it be any different in sport?

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Update (December 22): I’ve responded to some of the arguments raised against this column in my post, More Thoughts On Doping.

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I’d written a more comprehensive piece on this subject three years ago, in my pre-India Uncut days: Towards a posthuman sport, or a better world? The last para there sums up how I still feel on the subject.

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

Nadiraji Wants Your Money

This is the 44th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

A few days ago, the respected theatre artist Nadira Babbar spoke to the newspaper DNA about the state of theatre in Mumbai. She felt that there weren’t enough good auditoriums in the city. “My appeal to the government is to build small, simple auditoriums with basic infrastructure,” she said. “I am seriously thinking of meeting the chief minister and put before him certain stark realities of the state of theatre. Some of my proposals are to subsidize the rates of the halls. Secondly, it would be of great help if they subsidize the rates of placing advertisements in newspapers; not only for the theatre events, but also for other cultural events.”

Most of us would sympathize with her. The arts are essential to a civilized society, and deserve our support. And there are many neglected areas of it, besides theatre, where an infusion of funds would help. Traditional folk arts are dying out, literature in regional languages gets a raw deal, and so on. So, naturally, many of us turn to the state.

But should we?

We appeal for government spending much as children appeal to their parents. “Dad, I’m thinking of taking guitar classes, it costs X.” Or “Mom, I want to learn Bharatanatyam, the fees are Y.” And Mom and Dad evaluate if it’s good for us and fork out the money.

But parents spend their own money, money honestly earned. It’s not so simple when it comes to the government.

The money that our government spends does not come from the skies. It is taken, forcibly, from millions of ordinary citizens in this country. Those include not just you and I, who are effectively slaves of the government for three or four months of every year, depending on what percentage of our income our total taxes come to. They also include my maidservant, your building chaprasi and the girl who sells flowers at the Haji Ali traffic signal, all of whom contribute to the government coffers when they purchase a bar of soap or a chappal.

I’m not taking the extreme view that the government should not tax us. We need a government to protect our rights, and for a handful of essential purposes. For these, taxes are a necessary evil. But we should question its use beyond these necessities, for taxes come at a high cost.

The French writer Frédéric Bastiat had once asked, “Does the right of the legislator extend to abridging the wages of the artisan, for the sake of adding to the profits of the artist?”

Let me paraphrase that question in the context of Mrs Babbar: “Does the right of the legislator extend to abridging the wages of my maidservant, your building chaprasi and the girl who sells flowers at the Haji Ali traffic signal, for the sake of adding to the profits of the theatre groups of Mumbai?”

Ah, I can already hear the protests. “But theatre is a worthy cause, and deserves to be promoted,” the howls come. Indeed, but my maid may find uses for her money that she thinks are worthier. Her tax burden—and ours— could be eased considerably if the government stopped taking from Peter to give to Paul. And even if you insist on parting her from that money, it could be argued that the government itself could do worthier things with it. After all, tens of millions of people in India still lack access to clean drinking water.

I am reminded here of something the American Congressman Ron Paul once suggested. Paul was the sole dissenting vote when the US Congress voted to give the Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks, and also voted against giving it to Mother Teresa and the Pope. His point was not that they did not deserve it. He simply saw no reason why the taxpayer should cough up the $30,000 each medal is estimated to cost. Instead, he proposed that every member of Congress who supported the award pay $100 from his or her own pocket towards the cost of the medal.

Similarly, I suggest that those who support all sorts of worthy causes should consider funding it themselves instead of demanding it of me, my maid or your chaprasi. It is easy to ask for other people’s money to be spent to support causes you support—but is it moral? Also, such short cuts to nobility are often hypocritical—if everybody who supported government funding for Mumbai theatre actually went and watched some plays, my guess is that there would be no need for a subsidy.

There are all kinds of good causes in this world that deserve our support, and we should not hesitate to support them if we feel strongly about it. But we should be careful of what we ask from the government, for it involves other people’s money. Instead, we should put our own money where our mouth is, and have the self-respect to refrain from demanding other people’s dosh.

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

And my occasional series: Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25. Also see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

Punish Rioters, Not Writers

This is the 43rd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

A friend of mine, Mint contributor Salil Tripathi, recently drew my attention to a wonderful poem by Amit Chaudhuri. The poem, called The Writers, was based around “constantly mishearing ‘rioting’ as ‘writing’ on the BBC”. It began: “There has been writing for 10 days now/unabated. People are anxious, fed up.” And so on. You get the drift.

Chaudhuri’s poem felt especially apt given the events of the last couple of weeks. In this time, our cops and politicians have forgotten the difference between rioters and writers. Rioters came out in Kolkata to protest a writer’s words. It was the writer who then had to run around, evading accusing eyes and fingers. Eventually, it was the writer who apologized for her words—the rioters haven’t yet apologized for their actions. Indeed, it could be argued that the rioters have won—as they do every time.

This isn’t just about Taslima Nasreen and Islam. Three states in India banned the recent film, Aaja Nachle, because members of a particular community felt insulted by a line in one of its songs. (“Bole mochi bhi khud ko sonar hai.” Go figure.) On Tuesday, BBC reported that “a local Sikh leader” in “northern UP” filed a case against Anil Ambani because sardarji jokes were circulated on mobile phones using the Reliance network. The report didn’t mention the law involved, but I’m guessing it was Section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code, which makes it a crime to “outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.

A few months ago, a gentleman filed a case using Section 295(a) against Ravi Shastri because his religious sentiments were offended by Shastri’s statement that he enjoyed eating beef. In March this year, the Mumbai Police arrested the publisher of The Santa and Banta Jokebook for hurting Sikh sentiments. In April, a case was filed against Liz Hurley and Arun Nayar for having a Hindu wedding that allegedly “malign(ed) the spiritual sanctity of Hinduism and Indian mythology”.

In May, some BJP goons barged into the Fine Arts Faculty at Vadodara because some paintings displayed there by a student had offended them. They manhandled the artist, abused faculty members and other students, and then the police came in to restore normalcy. They arrested the artist.

Ironically, it is the BJP, whose protest at M.F. Husain’s work forced the painter to leave the country, which is defending Nasreen’s right to free speech now. That is politics, and quite what you’d expect. On the one hand, the BJP will stand up for anyone who offends Islam, but will jump on anyone who might offend them. On the other hand, we have pseudo-liberals who defend those attacked by the BJP, but not those who offend Islam.

The concept of free speech has become a political tool, not a principle to fight for, as groups across India take offence randomly to show their clout and rally their supporters. Worryingly, such competitive intolerance, as blogger Nitin Pai once termed it, seems to find support in civil society.

Outlook magazine recently carried an interview of Nasreen where she was asked accusatory questions that reflect a common viewpoint. “(F)reedom of expression at what cost? Does it give you the right to hurt religious sentiments? It is a fact of life, isn’t it, when you choose to write about a subject such as religion, you are going to raise hackles?” It was as if the writer was responsible for the violence caused by the rioters. It was like a rape victim being accused of wearing provocative clothes.

Similarly, Karan Thapar, perhaps being deliberately provocative in an interview with Arundhati Roy, asked her if it was acceptable for Nasreen to offend “beliefs which for tens of millions of Indians, maybe for hundreds of millions, are sacred”. His question implied that the these beliefs were so flimsy that they could be shaken by one woman’s words. Should true believers take offence with Thapar then?

A mature democracy ignores the wail of the mob and protects the rights of the individual. America’s First Amendment set the benchmark. Christopher Hitchens stays out of jail despite describing the author of the Ten Commandments as “a mad despot”, and Richard Dawkins is unmolested on book tours after calling the God of the Old Testament “a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”. Giving offence is not a crime in the US, or free speech would becomes subject to politics, and thereby meaningless.

And yet, in India, politicians run to the courts or the government like schoolkids running to their teacher after recess shouting, “Teacher, Teacher, Chintiya called me Motoo. I’m offended.” Really, what is wrong with us? We haven’t just let Nasreen down recently, we’ve let ourselves down as well. In India, it now seems that the sword is mightier than the pen.

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Also read: Don’t Insult Pasta.

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

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Update: Nitin Pai explains why supporting free speech is not just a matter of principle, but a practical necessity.

The Origin of Human Rights

This is the 42nd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the 42nd installment of Thinking it Through, and over the last 41 weeks, I have often bored my readers with talk of “rights” and “freedoms” and so on. Such talk is everywhere—politicians love to speak of rights to display their compassion, and of freedom to display their liberalism. Often, though, these terms are dreadfully misused, and hide double standards that none of our politicians are exempt from. With a humble ponderousness alert, allow me to explain my notion of the basis of human rights.

In my view of the world, the most basic right of all is one that we are born with: the right to self-ownership. All legitimate human rights emerge from this. If we own ourselves, we obviously have the right to life, and to live as we please. Our thoughts and speech belong to us—thus, the right to free speech. Our labour, and the fruits of our labour, belong to us—thus, all property rights. And so on.

All these rights are contingent on our respecting the rights of others— they have no meaning otherwise. For example, my right to free speech entitles me to express myself as I please only when it does not involve an infringement on someone else’s right. If Mint refuses to publish this column, I cannot accuse it of censorship—my right to free speech ends where Mint’s right to property begins. On my own blog, and in a public space, I don’t have to worry about this.

Our politicians, and many commentators, display double standards when it comes to protecting our rights. They would agree that a person’s life is his own property, and that taking it away from him—i.e., murder—is wrong. Equally, they would agree that his labour belongs only to him, and to deny him of it amounts to slavery. But they don’t extend that logic to other human rights that have the same moral basis.

For example, if it is wrong to deny me of my labour, why does it become okay to take away some of the fruits of my labour? If the government marched us off to work for it for four months of every year, most of us would protest and call it slavery. If one-third of our income is taxed, it amounts to the same thing. But we don’t protest. Indeed, if murder and rape and slavery are wrong, then what about import duty and censorship and taxes? The same principle sits at the heart of all these matters—the right to self-ownership. Any politician who defends free speech but opposes free markets, or vice versa, is being philosophically inconsistent.

There is, of course, a utilitarian justification for limited taxes. Our whole framework of rights stands for nothing in the real world if there is no one to protect them. That, many classical liberals like me would say, is the only real justification of government. We accept the taxes necessary for this as a necessary evil. But while the government cannot carry out this basic function properly—the rule of law is effectively absent or at best arbitrary for most poor people in India—it spends most of our taxes on other, wasteful things. Furthermore, it places huge restrictions on our freedoms—and, thus, infringes our rights.

The kind of rights I have described, the ones which arise from the right to self-ownership, are known to philosophers as negative rights. To respect them, others simply have to refrain from infringing them. But politicians have also come up with another class of rights known as positive rights. These require action from others.

For example, people speak of a right to education, or to health care, or to a livelihood. These are all desirable things, but there is no philosophical basis to describing them as rights. Indeed, positive rights directly clash with negative rights, and require their infringement. After all, how can a government provide education or medicines to some people without taking away the property of others via taxes? Redistributing property like this amounts to infringing the rights of some people to fulfil the needs or desires of others. I am not arguing that our government should not fund education or health care, but talking of it in terms of “rights” is shallow and meaningless.

Of course, we do not always make policy in the real world by referring to philosophy and first principles. Often, we look at consequences. And here we find the greatest triumph for the system of negative rights that I have just described. History stands testament to the link between freedom and progress: the countries that wipe out poverty the quickest have been the ones that have guaranteed economic freedom to their people. Social freedoms are equally important to enable a country’s citizens to express their potential to its greatest extent. Human progress is directly proportional to the respect shown to all the human rights that emerge from the fundamental right to self-ownership.

Politicians who ignore all evidence for this assertion are free to do so, of course. I would not dream of infringing on their right to self-delusion.

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

Beating Terrorism

This is the 41st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

US President George W Bush never ceases to amuse. In a recent interview with ABC Television, he explained that while he wanted democracy in Pakistan, he thought highly of General Pervez Musharraf. According to a report by Voice of America, Bush said: “[Musharraf] has…advanced democracy in Pakistan. He has said he will take off his uniform. He has said there will be elections. Today he released prisoners. And so far I have found him to be a man of his word.”

Right. Bush, of course, had praised Vladimir Putin three years ago as “a strong leader who cares deeply about the people of his country”, and in different circumstances, had Eye-Raq been an ally of the US when he took power, might even have praised Saddam Hussain’s commitment to civil rights. It is clear that the fuel that drives the Bush administration is self-delusion—and nowhere is this stronger than on the issue of terrorism.

The defining challenge of Bush’s administration, after 9/11, has been to battle terrorism. The logical approach towards doing that would be two-pronged: One, figure out what the immediate terrorist threats are and try to eliminate them. Two, understand what causes terrorism to begin with, and tackle those root causes. The US embraced the first part of that solution, correctly heading to Afghanistan to try and wipe out the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But it messed up the second part completely.

What causes terrorism? Earlier this month, I reviewed a book for Lounge, the Saturday magazine of Mint, which addressed exactly that issue. In What Makes a Terrorist, Princeton economist Alan B Krueger decided to put preconceived notions about terrorism to the test. Various experts speak about how poverty, lack of education and cultural differences—“they hate our freedoms and our way of life”—are the reasons why young people take to terrorism. The Bush administration has, at different times, advanced all of these reasons. Krueger examined them and found them wanting.

Krueger looked at biographical data of terrorists across the world, and found that they tended to be richer and better educated than the people around them. This seems counterintuitive—isn’t it true, after all, that poverty leads to crime? Krueger granted that, but pointed out that the average terrorist is different from the average criminal, and the difference is all about motivation. The average criminal may be driven by material reasons, but the average terrorist takes up arms as a means of political expression.

Krueger compared terrorism to the act of voting. Voters in much of the world tend to be wealthier and better educated than non-voters—this may not be true in India, for various unrelated reasons—and “care about influencing the outcome and consider themselves sufficiently well-informed to want to express their opinions”. Krueger concluded: “Most terrorists are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for. Instead, they are people who care so deeply and fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.”

The natural conclusion from this is that terrorism is most likely to germinate when other forms of political expression are denied. Krueger’s data supports this, revealing that terrorists tend to come from countries that share “the suppression of civil liberties and political rights, including freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble, and democratic rights”.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Taliban and Al Qaeda thrived in lawless Afghanistan. But it should also stand to reason for the US to be wary of allies such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Both are undemocratic countries where civil rights are suppressed—ideal conditions, as Krueger’s study indicates, for terrorism. Most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan is full of extremist groups, many of which remain engaged in activities against India.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the US had no choice but to seek Musharraf’s help, and to support him in turn. But they should have recognized that in the long run, supporting a dictator would work against them, as the oppressive conditions that would result would lead to more terrorists being created. The US pays lip service to democracy in Pakistan, but its actions indicate that it doesn’t really care about it as long as Mush keeps helping out Bush.

The US has long had a history of getting in bed with dictators and madmen for short-term gains while ignoring the long-term cost. (Remember Saddam and Osama?) When it comes to its modern allies, it should realize that fighting the disease is as important as quelling the symptom. If the US tolerates and props up oppressive regimes such as General Musharraf’s, the War Against Terror will be hollow, incomplete and deeply ironic.

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

The Horror of Nandigram

This is the 40th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Reading the newspaper has been a depressing experience over the last few days. The headlines are dominated by events at Nandigram, where bombs are going off, land mines are exploding, the police is powerless and lawlessness reigns. West Bengal’s governor, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, has described it as a war zone. To many of us far from there, it must seem like a remote insurgency that does not affect us all. But it does—and we cannot truly be a free society if we turn our back upon it.

The problem at Nandigram began with eminent domain. Eminent domain is an instrument used by governments to take land from private citizens for public use. For example, if a road needs to be built, and the proposed route goes through private property, the government acquires the land at whatever price it determines. It does not need the buyer’s consent for this, which many would say is surely wrong—but when it involves public infrastructure, most people shrug it away as a necessary evil.

In the American constitution, eminent domain is allowed only for projects of “public use”. When the Indian Constitution was written, this was changed to “public purpose”, which is more open to interpretation. But the right to property was a fundamental right, which meant that owners of private property had legal recourse if they were being gypped. Our early governments and legislatures, socialist and fond of redistribution, chipped away at it, but the courts defended it. Then, with the 44th Amendment in 1978, it was changed from a fundamental right to a mere legal right. That’s a euphemism—effectively, it had been abolished.

The West Bengal government then carried out a programme of land reforms known as Operation Barga. But instead of transferring property rights from landowners to tillers, itself a dubious act, it left the property title with the landowner, and gave the tillers permanent tenancy rights and a revenue share of the proceeds from the land, as well as first right of refusal if the landowner wished to sell. Some did deals with landowners, getting ownership over a portion of the land in return for their tenancy rights over the rest. Others remained bargadars, as they are called.

Cut to the 21st century. The government decided to set up special economic zones (SEZs) across India, where companies would get benefits that would attract investment, such as exemption from some of the foolish restrictions on business that exist in the rest of the country. That sounds worthy, but the governments involved set about acquiring this land through eminent domain laws. Obviously the farmers whose land was acquired were upset. Firstly, many of them did not want to sell. Secondly, it was not even for a project of public use, like a road or a power project, which at least have a weak rationalization. It was for rich private corporations.

Eminent domain was not the only issue here. Many of the affected farmers in Nandigram and Singur, the sites of two such proposed SEZs, were bargadars, who were facing a breach of contract by the government on the promises made to them. All in all, there was enough justified fury in Nandigram for opportunistic political forces to move in and stoke the fires, on which the CPM threw kerosene with its barbarism.

It is shocking that defenders of such theft try to justify it by invoking free markets and capitalism. True free markets depend on the sanctity of property rights. What Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government has been up to is cronyism of the worst kind, colluding with big companies at the expense of the common man. Ignorant journalists describe him as free-market-friendly, which is ludicrous. His disregard for property rights makes him as totalitarian as the orthodox Communists who criticize him for moving away from their faith.

India’s politicians down the years have been no better. The farmers thrust into the fire now have been in the frying pan for 60 years. They are not allowed to sell their land for non-agricultural purposes, which has prevented industrial development in rural areas. (The companies operating in these SEZs could then have negotiated for the land on their own.) The restrictions placed on private enterprise have prevented the manufacturing boom that would have given our farmers more choices. They are trapped in their profession—60% of India lives off the agriculture sector, compared with around 5% for developed countries. This is unsustainable, as farmer suicides across India demonstrate.

With Nandigram, things have gone too far. For 60 years we have denied our farmers alternative sources of employment. Now, we have tried to take their farms away. When they have protested, we have reacted with brutality. The British, when they ruled us, were accused of nothing worse. What is the value of our independence then?

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My thanks to Shruti Rajagopalan and Ravikiran Rao for their useful inputs. To read in more detail about how the right to property was eroded in India, check out Shruti’s Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal Asia, Indian Property Wrongs.

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

Why Children Labour

This is the 39th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

If blouses were people, there is one variety of blouse that would feel rather ashamed of its origins right now. Last week, the clothing company Gap pulled a smock blouse for children from its stores because it was found to have been made by young children in India. The press called it names such as the ‘child labour top’, and the hapless thing is now being exterminated. A Gap spokesman announced that child labour was “completely unacceptable”, and that they would prevent a recurrence.

The resulting international outrage gave children’s rights groups the boost they needed to push forward a series of raids over the last few days. Child workers were rescued from seedy bylanes in Delhi, where they were hard at work in small, cramped rooms. The Observer  wrote that according to the UN, “Child labour contributes an estimated 20% of India’s gross national product with 55 million children aged from five to 14 employed across the business and domestic sectors.”

Working children are all around us: at the office canteen, the Udupi restaurant, the neighbourhood grocer’s, the traffic signal. It is so ubiquitous that most of us don’t even notice it when we shout, “Chhotu, ek chai la.” Nobody in his right mind can condone it—there are few thefts as appalling as that of someone’s childhood.

For the sake of these children, I have a request to make to the activists and journalists behind all these recent exposés: six months from now, in May 2008, do a follow-up on all these kids who have been ‘rescued’ and tell us how they’re doing. Are they going to school? Are they having a normal, happy childhood? Indeed, tell us in just one word: are they better off?

My guess is that most of the kids will be employed in similar jobs—or worse. There are studies to back my fears. Oxfam once reported on a situation in Bangladesh where international outrage forced factories to lay off 30,000 child workers. Many of those kids starved to death; many became prostitutes. A 1995 Unicef study described how an international boycott of carpets made in Nepal using child labour led to between 5,000 and 7,000 Nepali girls turning to prostitution because a better option was now denied to them.

It is common sense that if these kids could have a better life, their parents would make sure they got it. Parents in poor countries are no different from parents in rich ones. They want their children to be free from the cares of the world, to go to school, to not have to worry about their next meal. Like all other parents, they must be tormented by the thought of their child having to sweat it out for a living. Why do they make their child work then? Because poverty leaves them with no other choice.

In a 1997 paper titled The Economics of Child Labor, Kaushik Basu and Pham Hoang Van showed that “child labour as a mass phenomenon occurs not because of parental selfishness but because of the parents’ concern for the household’s survival”. Basu and Van set out the Luxury Axiom: “A family will send the children to the labour market only if the family’s income from non-child-labour sources drops very low.” This is why, they stated, “the children of the non-poor seldom work even in very poor countries… In other words, children’s leisure or, more precisely, non-work is a luxury good in the household’s consumption in the sense that a poor household cannot afford to consume this good, but it does so as soon as the household income rises sufficiently.”

There have been a slew of studies in recent years that support Basu and Van’s findings, such as a 2004 paper by Eric Edmonds, Does Child Labor Decline with Improving Economic Status? (Yes.) A 1997 study by Alan Krueger even put a figure to it, stating that child labour ceases to be seen in an economy when it reaches an average income of $5,000. A 2005 study by Edmonds and Nina Pavcnik described child labour as a symptom of poverty, and not a cause.

Shutting down a sweatshop here or there may make us feel compassionate, but it amounts, almost literally, to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The families concerned remain so poor that the kids need to find work. The Indian state has proved incapable of providing education or feeding them, and by legislating against child labour, merely drives it underground and provides a revenue stream for hafta-grabbing officials.

In a small percentage of cases involving child labour, coercion is used. That is unambiguously wrong, and should obviously be prosecuted. But most working kids in India are bonded not by physical force, but by economic circumstance. The solution to this is something that I keep harping on in this column—the government must stop restraining the only force that can lift millions of parents out of poverty: private enterprise and free markets. There is no other long-term way to fix this terrible problem.

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My thanks to the fellers in the Satin egroup for their inputs, particularly Neha for pointing me towards a couple of useful studies. Some of the studies I wanted to go through aren’t available for free online, so thanks to Yazad and Gaurav for using their institutional contacts to get them for me. Here is some interesting reading on the subject, in case you’re interested:

Child Labor (pdf file)—Eric Edmonds
Trade and Child Labour—Eric Edmonds and Nina Pavcnik
Child Labor or Child Prostitution?—Thomas DeGregori
The Factory System of the Early Nineteenth Century—William H Hutt
Kathie Lee’s Children—William Anderson
Child Labour (Global Ethics Consortium)— Don Berkich
Good for the Goose, Bad for the Gander—Peter T Leeson and Joshua Hall

Research Changes Ideas About Children and Work—Virginia Postrel

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.