Why India needs school vouchers

This piece of mine was published on January 15, 2007 as an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia. (Subscriber link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

On India’s Republic Day, January 26, the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society will launch a campaign for school choice. It’s an apt day for the event. While India’s constitution guarantees universal and free education, the government has utterly failed that mission. It’s time to encourage the private sector to step in.

Public primary education in India is in dire straits. According to a 2006 study by Pratham, a nongovernmental organization, more than half the children who join school in the first grade drop out before reaching eighth grade. A study conducted the prior year by the same organization found that 35% of school-going children surveyed between the ages of seven to 14 failed a reading test involving a simple paragraph; 41% of them couldn’t subtract or divide properly.

Little wonder that private schools are sprouting up like wildfire to fill the gap. Often illegal, these schools don’t just serve the rich and middle classes, but the poor as well. And the quality of education these schools provide is often higher than in their public counterparts. A 1999 government report titled the “Public Report on Basic Education in India” found that private schools across rural parts of North India were vastly superior to public schools in terms of facilities and learning environment. On surprise visits during school days, the researchers found only 53% of the accredited public schools actively engaged in teaching.

The Centre for Civil Society’s campaign aims to enable more parents to send their children to private schools by promoting school vouchers. (Currently, India doesn’t boast any school voucher schemes, though a few are in the works.) Inspired by Milton Friedman, vouchers enable parents to enroll their child in a school of their choice. Variations on the idea include tuition reimbursement and direct cash transfers. In each scheme, the principle is the same: empowering parents with choice to increase competition among educational institutes and engender better quality education.

Much more could be done. Currently, India’s private sector is actively discouraged from setting up educational institutes. To offer state-approved degrees, a school must meet a number of parameters, including government-trained teachers, large playgrounds, and other onerous requirements. Above all — inanely — private schools cannot operate for a profit. Entrepreneurs evade these hurdles through innovative financial structures such as trusts, but the necessity of this kind of manipulation scares away many would-be entrepreneurs. According to a 2001 CCS study, it takes 14 different licenses from four different authorities to open a private school in New Delhi – a task that, if done legally, could take years.

India’s parents aren’t waiting for a government fix. A 2005 study by education specialists James Tooley and Pauline Dixon showed that 65% of schoolchildren in Hyderabad’s slums attend private unaided schools—for which their parents had to pay—rather than a free government alternative. In a similar finding, an October 2006 survey by CCS showed that 14% of households in Delhi earning less than 5,000 rupees ($113) per month opted to send their children to a private school.

It is a common canard that the cost of education is higher in private schools than in public schools. Numerous studies have shown that private schools use capital as much as twice as efficiently as their public sector peers. Why? When competition is absent, waste ensues. Voucher schemes, put simply, allow public money to be put to better use.

As in any society, education is the foundation of future economic success. The Centre for Civil Society’s campaign for school choice may be a nascent effort, but it’s of critical importance to the India of today — and of tomorrow.

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Further resources: Do check out Pratham’s comprehensive reports, ASER 2005 and ASER 2006. Tooley and Dixon’s landmark report is summarised and available in full here. Andrew Coulson’s paper, How Markets Affect Quality  (pdf link), is an excellent resource on the subject. You can read about the PROBE Report here, and buy it here and here. Mayank Wadhwa’s CCS paper on the licenses required to start a private school in Delhi is here, and the findings of the latest CCS survey are summarised here.

My thanks to Gautam Bastian and Shruti Rajagopalan for sharing their valuable insights with me on school choice, and directing me to many useful resources. Gargantuan gratitude grunts gregariously.

Fighting against censorship

A version of this piece by me was published on October 3, 2006 in the Wall Street Journal as “India’s Censorship Craze.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

American pop icon Paris Hilton corrupts Indian minds. That, at least, is the fear held by mandarins of Indian culture. So they’ve barred television channels in India from airing Ms. Hilton’s new music video, “Stars Are Blind,” in yet another example of the censorship fever sweeping the country.

Movie channels in Mumbai were recently blocked because they purportedly showed adult content. That’s despite the fact these channels routinely edit out all nudity and sex. And it’s only a few months since the film version of “The Da Vinci Code” was banned in several states after Christian groups protested.

In such a climate, nothing is too trivial to escape the target of aspiring censors. One Mumbai-based crusader for tighter controls on Indian television, Pratibha Naithani, has even called for an investigation into “violence on cartoon channels.” Why stop at violence? Perhaps Ms. Naithani hasn’t noticed yet, but in addition to routinely knocking things over, Tom and Jerry also frolic in the nude.

Such extreme examples are a reaction to the foreign cultural influences that have flooded in since India began opening up its previously closed economy to the outside world in 1991. That produced a predictable backlash from traditionalists whose sense of identity, and even their political base, is threatened by foreign influence. They seek refuge in arguing that India’s religion, culture and traditions need protecting from the forces of globalization.

Unlike the U.S., the Indian constitution provides little protection against censorship. Although it professes to give all citizens “the right to freedom of speech and expression,” that is qualified by so many exceptions as to make any protection almost meaningless. These include “the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

Naturally, it falls upon government bureaucrats to decide what falls within these exceptions. And the problem is that India has long had a climate where it’s considered perfectly acceptable for the state to meddle in what its citizens can watch, and listen to. In 1968, for instance, “abbreviated skirts” and scenes “suggestive of soliciting” were enough to send “A Tale of Four Cities,” a documentary by KA Abbas partly set in Mumbai’s red-light districts, all the way to the Supreme Court. India’s top judicial body duly upheld its ban , setting a precedent for censorship that is still cited today. It ruled that films had to be scrutinized more carefully than other media because “a person reading a book or other writing [or] hearing a speech or viewing a painting or sculpture is not so deeply stirred as by seeing a motion picture.” In the view of the court, thus,  Indians were like putty in the hands of these powerful media, incapable of making their own decisions or using their own discretion.

Such paternalism was quite in synch with the Fabian Socialism that India had adopted. The state was supreme in all matters, and whatever freedom it allowed its citizens—“subjects” would be as apt a term—was at its discretion. In India, we call it a mai-baap sarkar, which literally means “mother-father government,” indicating the all-encompassing authority of the state. Initially, most Indians took this for granted, and did not protest too much. The freedom that mattered to them in the early years of independence was political freedom, which was their source of national pride.

But, in recent years, things have begun to change. The economic growth triggered by India’s opening up has created a much larger middle class. And the intellectual influences that have poured in from elsewhere in the world have made this middle class more alive to the need to fight for freedom of expression.

That means the recent trend toward increased censorship has not gone without a fight. Where once censorship was taken for granted, it is now debated, and the army of news channels that have recently opened shop regularly feature debates on the subject. Online petitions protesting censorship are common, an early example being one four years ago in support of “War and Peace,” a documentary by Anand Patwardhan that was initially banned for criticizing India’s 1998 nuclear tests. Earlier this year, government instructions to ban a handful of (mostly innocuous) Web sites without giving any reasons provoked widespread outrage, especially after local Internet providers overreacted and mistakenly extended the ban to cover a large number of other sites. Bloggers across India filed applications under the Right to Information Act in an effort to discover the reasons for the ban, and some now plan to go to court to continue the battle for freedom of speech.

Such voices are still few, and these protests not yet loud enough to counter the regressive forces that routinely stifle freedom of expression in India. But they are growing, and offer hope for India’s future.

You can check out Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, which deals with freedom of speech, here. Article 19 (1) (a) states the principle of freedom of speech, but Article 19 (2) lays out the caveats to it. The history of how 19 (2) came about after 19 (1) (a) was written is quite fascinating, and was covered in an essay by Vikram Raghavan in a book titled “Reflections on Free Speech and Broadcasting in India” (OUP 2006; I don’t have the book, but Vikram was kind enough to email me his essay a year ago). Raghavan wrote about the KA Abbas case in his piece as well, and Anand Krishnamoorthi also had an excellent post on that subject.

Empowerment, not slavery

A version of this piece by me was first published on November 8, 2005 in the Wall Street Journal as “Self-Delusion.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog.

Organized slavery ended decades ago, but to go by the criticism of some leftist commentators in India, one would imagine that it is alive and flourishing in the world’s largest democracy.

Recently it has become especially fashionable to hit out at call centers, or business processing outsourcing (BPO) units as they are officially known. A study published by an institute that comes under India’s Labor Ministry compared conditions in Indian BPO outfits with those of “Roman slave ships.” Chetan Bhagat, the author of a new book set in one such unit, “One Night @ The Call Center,” recently claimed that call centers are “corroding a generation.” It is common, almost clichéd, to hear call-center workers referred to as “cyber-coolies.”

All this criticism is terribly misguided. Contrary to being a form of economic imperialism, as its critics claim, India’s BPO industry is an indication of what is possible for a country to achieve with free markets. India’s call centers make use of one of its comparative advantages—cheap, English-speaking labor. More importantly, it empowers the estimated 350,000 people who work in this industry, instead of “stripping them of their dignity,” as a common canard goes.

The people who work in these call centers—indeed, in any company in India—do so out of choice, not coercion. They make that choice on the basis of the options available to them, options which are now far wider than they were a decade ago. When this writer was in college in the early 1990s, it was next to impossible for a young graduate to get a job on the basis of his degree alone.

Today, a working knowledge of English suffices. In the socialist decades after independence a middle-class man could save up enough to buy a house and a car only when he was in his 30s, or even 40s. Today, young people in their 20s can do so. Many of them use their time in the BPO industry to better their lives substantially. Some support families, others save up to go abroad for further education. Some simply make money, a goal apparently anathema to grizzled socialists.

Why, then, the criticism? One of the natural consequences of socialism is that a few stand in judgment of many, and make their choices for them. As India has moved away from the Fabian socialism it embraced on achieving independence in 1947, more and more people have been empowered by an ever-widening array of choices. Socialists in India have seen the Soviet Union collapse, the Berlin Wall fall, and India begin to liberalize. Their beliefs have traditionally been strengthened by what behavioral psychologists call the confirmation bias – accepting only the evidence that seems to support their worldview. Alas, such evidence has been vastly diminished in the last two decades. So they resort to reflexively lashing out at anything related to free markets.

India’s leftist “intellectuals,” and those who aspire to fill their shoes, view the world through a utopia-tinted lens, a utopia that is entirely their own construction. When they examine their own policies, they do so on the basis of the ideal world they are meant to result in, and not the mess they create in the real world. And when they criticize the choices people make in the real world, they do so on the basis of the choices they would have in this utopian socialist paradise.

These “intellectuals” do not condescend just to BPO workers, but to all those Indians whose aspirations are not aligned with theirs and who, typically, have more choices available to them because of free markets. To them, shopping malls are bad because they turn people into consumerist buying machines. They disparage the large number of television channels as being filled with Western junk, ludicrously proclaiming that the one state-owned channel India had two decades ago was better. They do not accept that increased choices are a sign of progress, and condemn the way other people choose to live their lives, insulting them by denigrating their choices.

But times are changing, and such self-righteousness is increasingly being exposed for the self-delusion that it is.

The kidnapping of India

A version of my piece below was first published onOctober 5, 2005, in the Asian Wall Street Journal (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog

Imagine this scenario: someone kidnaps a child and, for decades, maims and exploits him. Then, in a sudden revelation, we learn that the kidnapper was once under the pay of a branch of the mafia that is now defunct. There is instant outrage, and everyone condemns the crime. “How could you have taken money from the mafia?” they ask.

This is, more or less, what happened this weekend when LK Advani, the leader of India’s opposition, demanded a “public enquiry” into “the biggest scandal of independent India.” He was referring to the recent revelations, in a newly released biography by a well-known former KGB operative, that much of the Indian government had been bought by the KGB in the 1970s.

“The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB and the World”, by former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, details an institutionalized corruption in India that the agency used to its advantage superbly. The book describes how the KGB paid bribes and retainers to members of India’s Left parties, as well as the ruling Congress party.

According to the book, politicians were by no means the only ones on the take, and the KGB had a number of newspapers and a press agency on its payroll in the early 1970s. But of course, it is the details about senior government officials that titillate. Many ministers in the government of Indira Gandhi, who ruled from 1966 to 1984, were under its pay, and suitcases full of banknotes would be sent to Mrs. Gandhi’s house to fund the Congress. The entire Indian establishment, it would seem, was up for sale.

The Left parties, predictably and amusingly, have denounced the book as a CIA conspiracy, while the Congress has maintained what Mr. Advani terms a “guilty silence.” Mr. Advani’s outrage, though, is misdirected. “The biggest scandal of independent India” is not the money that the Indian establishment under. Mrs. Gandhi may have taken from the KGB, but the inspiration it took from the Soviet way of doing things, and the pernicious ideas it borrowed, which condemned millions of Indians to a poverty that still persists, and vastly increased the powers of an already oppressive state.

Many of those policies are still in place – indeed, remained in place even when Mr. Advani’s party was in power – and India, like the kidnap victim of our earlier analogy, is still struggling to break free.

The Fabian Socialism that India embraced under Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and Mrs. Gandhi’s father, and the statist direction he took the country in could be put down to an ideological mistake that many of his generation made. But under his daughter the state became a conscious tool of oppression. Her government used ideology merely as rhetoric, and concentrated solely on accumulating power at the expense of the freedom of citizens.

Economic freedom was the first casualty. In 1969, Mrs. Gandhi nationalized all the big banks in the country. Gradually, this was followed by a series of draconian bills designed to suffocate private enterprise. The Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (1973) restricted foreign investment and imposed currency controls. The Industrial Disputes Act (amended by Mrs. Gandhi in 1976 and 1982) prevented companies with more than 100 workers from laying them off without government permission, thus distorting labor markets and providing a disincentive to industrial expansion.

The Urban Land Ceiling Act (1976) distorted land markets in urban areas, exacerbating the growth of slums. Mrs. Gandhi also reserved certain industries for small-scale companies, denying larger companies from benefiting from economies of scale, and pegging back labor-intensive manufacturing and preventing an export boom.

Mrs. Gandhi admired not just the economic policies of the Soviet Union, but clearly shared that empire’s disdain for democracy and political freedom. In 1975, after a judge found her guilty of election fraud in 1971 and ruled that she give up her seat in parliament, she declared a “state of emergency.” Articles 352 to 360 of the Indian constitution specify that when the country is faced with external or internal threats, the government can impose a state of emergency and assume what are, in effect, totalitarian powers.

The Emergency, as it is popularly known, lasted 19 months. Civil rights effectively ceased to exist, and people who opposed Mrs. Gandhi, including politicians and journalists, were summarily thrown into jail. It was a Stalinesque era. Mrs. Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay, became notorious for his rampant behavior, bordering on the criminal and similar to that displayed years later by Saddam Hussein’s elder son, Uday. Among Mr. Gandhi’s pet schemes was a misguided family planning program under which thousands of young men were forcibly made to undergo vasectomies.

Mrs. Gandhi revoked the emergency in 1977, called for general elections, and was voted out of power. That was a tactical error, not a change of heart, and it came about partly because of self-deception. She truly believed that she enjoyed popular support, a perception partly based on the reports of intelligence agencies, who naturally told her what she wanted to hear. But the people of India have a short memory and little in terms of choice (and, some would argue, discretion). Mrs. Gandhi did come back to power in the next elections in 1979, using the ironic slogan, “Elect a Government that Works.”

It is tragic that Mrs. Gandhi is still evoked as a hero by members of her own party, and that her policies, which continue to cripple India, still find support. The liberalization of 1991, forced as it was by a balance-of-payments crisis, was partial and half-hearted. The License Raj that Mrs. Gandhi expanded with such autocratic zeal remains largely in place, as do most of the parliamentary Acts that shackled enterprise. Indeed, it is ironic that Sonia Gandhi, her daughter-in-law and heir to the Congress – not so much a party any more as a family heirloom – is commonly lauded as resembling Mrs. Gandhi. This is praise?

The strenuous denials of the KGB payouts and the furor over them repeat the same mistake that the Indian people have made for half a century now – of giving importance to intent over outcome. It makes no earthly difference now whether or not the KGB paid off the establishment in those terrible years. What matters is what the government of the time did, not why it did those things, and the molehill of intent is irrelevant besides the mountain of action. That mountain is in the public domain: the gradual stripping down, layer by layer, of personal and economic freedom. Most of that freedom has still not been restored, and the people of India just don’t seem to care. Even when it affects their own lives so intimately, economics is boring, a spy thriller is much more fun.

Good intentions, bad ideas

A version of my piece below was first published on September 15, 2005 in the Asian Wall Street Journal (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions—and nobody knows that better than India’s poor. There can be no better intention than removing poverty but, for more than half a century, a well-intentioned and bloated state has only perpetuated it with misguided policies and regulations. And New Delhi still hasn’t learned from these mistakes. The Indian government is soon to embark on perhaps the grandest waste of taxpayers’ money yet: the Rural Employment Guarantee Bill.

The REGB, recently passed in parliament with unanimous support across political parties, is supposed to provide 100 days of work in a year to every rural household across the country that wants it. This is expected to cost Rs. 40,000 crore (around US$ 9.1 billion), which amounts to 1.3% of GDP. And by some estimates, costs may reach four times that figure. The bill is in line with the rhetoric of the Congress-led coalition government, which came into power last year disdaining the liberalization policies of the preceding BJP government, and promising to introduce “reforms with a human face.”

The problem is that there is no evidence that the Indian Government is capable of properly implementing any social welfare plan. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi remarked in 1987 that only 15% of the money spent by the government actually reached its rightful recipient. The rest was wastage. Similar distribution schemes—such as the Public Distribution System and the 1976 Employment Guarantee Scheme in the state of Maharashtra—fell victim to inefficiency and corruption, and have all failed to achieve their stated objectives.

These failures have much to do with the the vast Indian bureaucracy, which is designed in such a way that inefficiency is inevitable, and corruption likely. Bimal Jalan, a former governor of India’s central bank, put it succinctly recently when he pointed out that “the most important problem in governance and administration of projects or schemes launched with great hopes is the involvement of a large number of agencies and ministries in decision-making and implementation. It is also common experience that these multiple agencies do not work in unison to resolve any administrative issue.”

Whatever money does make it through all the confused bureaucracy is prone to being siphoned away at the end of the line, where local distribution is meant to take place. The recently passed Right to Information Act, a welcome move that is supposed to increase transparency by forcing the government to make its paperwork available to anyone who wants to see it, can only be of limited help. Most of the country does not even know about it, or would not dare to use it against an oppressive local government.

The REGB will also have economic consequences. Labor markets could be distorted at local levels if the wages paid by the scheme are more than the local rate decided by the market. If the government runs short of funds and makes drafts on private savings held by banks, interest rates could go up. Then there’s the obvious fact that the money spent on this scheme could certainly be put to better use somewhere else. New Delhi could use it to build much-needed infrastructure like roads, ports and power installations, enabling greater participation in the economy and generating more sustainable employment.

The key to generating employment lies in less government intervention, not more. The government needs to reform India’s archaic labor laws, whose inflexibility hampers industrial growth as well as employment. In a variety of repressive ways, firms are not allowed to enter into free contracting, and cannot manage their workforces according to market conditions. In theory, labor laws are supposed to protect workers from being fired, but in practice such laws discourage industrial units from being set up, and hamper entrepreneurship and industrial expansion. The effect is that employment is far lower than it would have been in a free market.

India also needs to shut down its “License Raj,”—the oppressive web of regulations that acts as a massive disincentive to entrepreneurs and businessmen. It is no coincidence that India ranks 118th on the Heritage Foundation Economic Freedom Index, and 127th on the UNDP Human Development Index. Economic freedom and development go hand in hand, and India could have done as well in manufacturing as it has in services had its entrepreneurs been given the freedom to set up businesses without having to apply for myriad licenses, bribe numerous officials, and sometimes spend years in the process. Increased entrepreneurship and industrial growth would have been far more effective than the REGB in generating long-lasting employment.

India’s 58 years since independence have been ones of lost opportunity, with a waste of human capital and millions of lives lost to needless poverty. Successive Indian governments have made all the right noises about reducing poverty, and then followed all the wrong policies. Sadly, the REGB looks like more of the same.

When it pours

A shorter version of my piece below was published on August 5, 2005, in the Asian Wall Street Journal. It was also posted on India Uncut.

One moment you are connected to the world in a global hub of the worldwide village; the next, the lights go off, the phone networks cease to function, and the water rises outside, creeping up on cars and first-floor apartments like an insidious idea. What does it take to shut down South Asia’s financial capital, Bombay? A few hours of rain, that’s all.

On July 26, Bombay received 944 millimeters of rainfall, the highest ever-recorded in India, and more than the average for a season in the city. (London gets less in a year.) The city ceased to function. Power and telecommunications went dead in parts of the city, the airport shut down and trains stopped running. Traffic came to a halt, as if the vehicles on the street were stuck to it. The water rose as high as 15 feet in some suburbs, and the highways looked like rivers from where the poor wet crow flies. People across the city were rendered immobile and incommunicado, as a modern city was shut down by an ancient element: water.

Water is to Bombay what Kryptonite is to Superman. Normally this is a city where nothing stops. It swirls with movement, seemingly chaotic but always purposeful, and even in the late hours of the night, when the rest of Indian sleeps, Bombay buzzes with activity, connected to the rest of the world, bearing the fortunes of India. Unless it rains heavily.

Every year Bombay is badly hit on at least a couple of days during the monsoons, as the city shuts down because of too much rain. Weather forecasts rarely give enough notice, and a more accurate warning is the crying of street dogs. As rain lashes down and the water level rises, they keep moving along the streets in search of higher ground. When there is none to be found, and they cannot escape the water, they start crying. They do not do this in packs, mostly, and it is not as conspicuous as wolves wailing at the wind. So it is often lost amid the many other noises of a busy city.

Then, across the city, as if souls are leaving bodies at the scene of a mass suicide, drivers abandon their cars. The water is often knee-deep by now, and traffic has stopped moving. Trains stop plying, buses empty out, and commuters across the city begin wading through water to get home.

It is no picnic. The water is dark-brown and muddy, straight from the sewer. It is effectively Bombay’s drainage system come overground. Bits of garbage float on the water, as do plastic bags of all colors: red, green, yellow, pink. Even India’s debris is colorful. And the water swirls sometimes, enough to whip the sandals of your feet so that you are forced to walk barefoot. You could roll your pants up, but the water can reach your armpits, and there’s only so far that a trouser can go.

Many people remain where they are. In their schools or offices, where they might spend a hungry night, with restaurants either partly submerged or unable, for obvious reasons, to deliver. Expecting mothers who need to deliver are unable to reach nursing homes, or if they are already there, their husbands cannot make it. Some commuters stay in their cars, hungry and, as the water rises around them, thirsty. (This year some people died like this as their autolock systems prevented them from leaving their cars, and they suffocated in their underwater vehicles.) Waiting can be dangerous, and that is what drives so many to walk.

A walk home could mean 30 kilometers of trudging through the dirtiest obstacle course on the planet. Some of my friends once walked from the southern edge of the city to a northern suburb, a trek that took them more than eight hours. At one place, the water was chest high, and one of them needed to relieve himself. He did not bother to unzip. “What would have been the point of that?” he asked me later.

The conditions can be brutal, but the people are not. Bombay is a city known for its relentless pace, but if you slow down to take it in, you find that people can be very kind to you. Like the autorickshaw-driver who dropped a schoolgirl home after she spent 11 hours in his vehicle, and refused to take money for his efforts. Like the people everywhere who allow you to use their mobile phones to call home, or to take a sip of their water, even though it is now an incredibly precious commodity in this time of its excess. Like the men who pulled me out of a manhole that almost sucked me in when I was wading through thigh-deep water. Indeed, like all the people who stand around manholes in waist-deep water so that no one steps into them accidentally, and the families that cook food all day and then wade out to distribute it.

A combination of factors combined to make this year worse than most other years. To begin with, it rained much more: so much more that buildings across the street looked like ghostly images, and one could not be certain if they really were there. Secondly, the sea was at high tide. When that is so, it rushes into those parts of the drainage system that have an outlet into the sea, and the rainwater doesn’t seep away fast enough. And the water down below mixes with the water on top.

But partly to blame was Bombay itself. The garbage disposal systems of the city are inadequate. Construction is growing in the northern suburbs of the city faster than the infrastructure can keep up. Environmentalists claimed that the reclamation of parts of the Mithi river, near some of the worst-affected suburbs, caused it to overflow when the cloudburst took place. And, most importantly, there was clearly no disaster management plan in place for such a situation.

The result was that more than 150,000 people were trapped in the railway stations alone, as the metallic monsters that bear six million people every day lay inertly on the water like dead, floating earthworms. Slums and shanty townships were also badly affected, with some houses simply being washed away – addresses wiped out – and others being submerged. There was a landslide in parts of Mumbai, and many people died in a stampede caused by rumors of a tsunami.

Television channels showed pictures of the city from above, cityscapes turning into seascapes, with rescue workers on inflatable boats picking up lone swimmers. They ran scrolls at the bottom of the screen with messages like “Ramesh Shah, call home soon, parents worried,” as if Ramesh Shah was anywhere near a television set or a phone that worked.

The rain ceased, temporarily, after a day, but began again last weekend. Some suburbs remained flooded in the interim, and did not get power and water supply for a week. Where the water receded, the streets piled up with massive amounts of rotting garbage, onto which crows descended and stray dogs lingered. I came across the carcass of a buffalo lying in the middle of the road, which for some mysterious reason was wearing a helmet. As many as 1,500 dead cattle punctuated the streets of Bombay, and the city government refused to clear them up, saying that it was the owners’ responsibility.

It would all take time to clear up, but eventually the city would function again, and everyone would feel proud of living in such an important city. And the dogs, those that were left and were now dry, would stop crying. Until next year

Beautiful scatty minds

The piece below by me was published in the issue of Tehelka dated 30/07/05, in a slightly shorter form. It was also posted on India Uncut.

A couple of years ago, a tabloid in one of India’s metros called in a consultant to help them make the newspaper more reader-friendly. “Keep stories short,” he advised. Shorter stories, snappy paragraphs, simple sentences; suck the reader in and spit him out before he gets bored. This is the age of the short-attention span, and we see it all around us.

It’s there in the journalism. Tabloids keep their stories brief. Agency copy often consists entirely of one-sentence paragraphs: news for dummies. Magazines have found that the pages that readers turn to most are the snippetty ones, that don’t make demands on the reader’s time – like the last page of India Today, or the second- and third-last of Outlook. One of the reasons that blogs are gaining in popularity along the world, in fact, is that they cater to the short-attention span: the most popular typically have brief, pithy posts that efficiently encapsulate the subject they’re on about.

We see this also in the way we consume music. Soon, all music will be sold in the form of digital downloads, which is convenient because most people prefer to buy songs rather than albums, preferring to listen to a familiar song they like over and over rather than explore an artist’s oeuvre. It’s all a-la-carte now, and concept albums might soon be the dinosaurs of music. Television channels have also recognised this: MTV India found years ago that their maximum-TRP shows were their so-called vignettes, the two-to-three minute snippets that viewers can consume easily, like MTV Bakra and Filmi Fundas. We are hungry for the easily digestible. Ten-course meals? Sorry, no time, could you summarise please?

Television, in fact, is often blamed as a cause and not a symptom of this. Camille Paglia recently wrote: “The jump and jitter of U.S. commercial television have demonstrably reduced attention span in the young. The Web too, with its addictive unfurling of hypertext, encourages restless acceleration.” But when we talk of attention spans, are we referring to the amount of time we choose to spend on any one thing, or the amount of time we are able to spend on it. Paglia infers that it is the latter; I am not so sure.

Consider that over the last century, there has been a drastic jump in the IQs of humans, across races and gender. There has also been a tremendous increase in productivity, and advances in science and the arts – if we consider new art forms like cinema and popular music. And while every generation moans about “how good things were in our time”, every generation equally, if grudgingly, admits that kids today are smarter than they used to be. Our children will, in most cases, end up more accomplished than us. If short-attention spans are on the increase, and if that is a bad thing, why have we kept moving ahead as a species, and at such a rapid rate?

Scholars like to point to how cases of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the medical term for the disease that people with chronic short-attention-span problems have, are on the increase. But there are two reasons for this: one, reporting and diagnosis of the disease have increased, not the disease itself; and two, Americans have tended, in the last couple of decades, towards excessive pharmacology, treating even minor deviances from normal behaviour as medical conditions. If a kid doesn’t pay attention in class, it’s because kids sometimes are like that, and medication isn’t necessarily the solution. Are we going to medicate kids next because they don’t listen to their parents, or men because their eyes rove, or women because they like to shop?

In short, what I am postulating is this: the genuine medical condition of ADD is not necessarily on the rise, and that most of us who have short attentions spans have them because of a lifestyle that we have to adopt to navigate the modern world efficiently.

The world is full of more information than ever before. Sensory information, intellectual information, information about information. Close your eyes for a second and imagine that you‘ve been taken back in a time machine to 1900. Now think of all the things that you can do to entertain yourself: books you can read (if you’re part of the elite that does), movies you can watch (ha), music you can listen to (live concerts or bathroom singing?), and so on. You get the picture (or not). Today, on the other hand, we are constantly in the middle of a sensory overload.

This is not just true in the case of entertainment, but in every facet of our lives. In this information age, no matter what job we hold, we deal with far more information, from many more sources, and we need to cope with all of this in order to deal with it effectively. The only way to handle it is in a modular way: break up what we have to do into discrete slices and handle them one by one.

In a typical half-hour of leisure, for example, you could have a watch-Coldplay-video module, dash-off-an-email module, fix-up-a-meeting-with-friends-at-Barista-by-SMS module, read-a-post-or-two-at-India-Uncut module and make-coffee-in-microwave-cause-it’s-quicker module. (If you’re a man, these modules would probably be sequential, because men can’t multi-task.) You might find all these activities desirable, and the only way to fit them all in would be to have a short attention span – even if you wouldn’t consciously choose to be that way.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Blink”, wrote about how humans tend to do “thin-slicing”, often making decisions by focussing on a few important variables, and moving on. For example, you switch on MTV, new video is playing. Do you like the song? Your decision is quick: you don’t listen to the song carefully, but quickly, without even being aware of it, evaluate it almost instantly: the kind of melody, the tempo of the song, the voice of the singer, and many other variables you may not even be aware of. (You may not like songs in a minor key, for example, because they depress you.) Don’t like the sound of it? Switch channel. Total time taken: three seconds. Short attention span? If you insist. Impractical? No.

Practicality is the crux of the matter. In the times that we live in, with the lives that we lead, we can no longer devote the kind of time to single activities that we could have 100 years ago. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Because there is much more around us, we can take in much more in shorter bursts, and if we learn to do it well, our lives can be richer as a result. Short attentions spans, apart from those that are chronic and part of genuine ADD, are actually necessary in our times.

If it helps us navigate the chaotic world around us, it also deprives us of older pleasures. Because we don’t have all the time in the world, because we cannot fix too much of our attention on one thing, we want instant gratification. An art critic told me recently of how the manner in which she views art has changed. Earlier, she would linger in front of a painting and give her mind time to absorb all that it could be about. Now, she wants instant gratification. What is this about, in one sentence please? Ok, good. Move on.

This lack of patience on our part is great for marketers. We don’t take the time to explore new things, so we don’t acquire new tastes. We revel in the familiar, which helps music companies and film producers dish out mainstream entertainment that is based on formulae. A rehashing of the familiar demands less effort from us, and is easily digestible; thus, audiences lap it up.

We no longer have the time, and some of us might even have lost the ability, to immerse ourselves in something. Opera, classical music (Indian and Western), classical dance, ballet, all demand immersion, one reason why they are all in danger, in same cases, like opera in the UK, needing state subsidies to survive.

Of course, there is another side to this. Kids today do read Harry Potter books, after all, which are considerably more demanding than Dr Seuss. And could there be anything more demanding than some modern videogames, which are played patiently over months, and even years? It could be argued, thus, that the immersive abilities of young people today, their attention spans, haven’t changed – merely their tastes have. The jury’s out on that, and it’s young, and quite smart. And in a hurry.

The myth of India’s liberalization

The piece below by me was published on June 16, 2005 as an Op-Ed in the Asian Wall Street Journal, titled “India’s Far From Free Markets” (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is due to visit Washington in a few weeks, and editorialists and commentators have already started writing about the emerging economic power of India. New Delhi’s decision to start liberalizing its economy in 1991 is touted as a seminal event in India’s history, the moment when it threw off the shackles of Fabian socialism and embraced free markets. It is the stuff of myth—and to a large extent, it is exactly that.

While part of India has benefited from being opened up to foreign products and influences, most of the country is still denied access to free markets and all the advantages they bring. India opened its markets in 1991 not because there was a political will to open the economy, but because of a balance-of-payments crisis that left it with few options. The liberalization was half-hearted and limited to a few sectors, and nowhere near as broad as it needed to be.

One would have expected India’s growth to be driven by labor-intensive manufacturing but, almost by default, it instead came in the poorly licensed area of services exports. The manufacturing sector, ideally placed in terms of labor and raw material to compete with China, never took off. India’s restrictive labor laws, a remnant of the socialist infrastructure that India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, put in place in the 1950s and 1960s, were politically impossible to reform. It remains excruciatingly difficult for most Indians to start a business or set up shop in India’s cities.

This is painstakingly illustrated in “Law, Liberty and Livelihood”, a new book edited by Parth Shah and Naveen Mandava of the Center for Civil Society in New Delhi, which documents the obstacles in the way of any Indian who wishes to start a business in one of India’s big cities. Messrs. Shah and Mandava write: “Entrepreneurs can expect to go through 11 steps to launch a business over 89 days on average, at a cost equal to 49.5% of gross national income per capita.” Contrast the figure of 89 days with two days for Australia, eight for Singapore and 24 for neighboring Pakistan.

But often, even this figure is just a notional one, and entrepreneurs find it next to impossible to get a legal permit to start a business at all. Street hawkers and shop owners in the cities often cannot get a license at all. (Even those who do have to comply with draconian regulations that offer so much discretion to the authorities that corruption is inevitable.) They survive by paying regular bribes to municipal authorities and policemen, which are generally fixed in such a way by this informal market that they can barely survive on what they earn, and cannot expand their business or build their savings. They are trapped in a cycle of enforced illegality and systematic extortion by authorities, which results in a tragic wastage of capital. It serves as a disincentive to entrepreneurship, as well as to urbanization, the driving force of growing economies.

Another disincentive to urbanization is how hard it is for poor people to get legal accommodation in the big cities. In Bombay, for example, an urban land ceiling act and a rent-control act make it virtually impossible for poor migrants to rent or buy homes, and they are forced into extralegal housing. The vast shantytowns of Bombay—one of them, Dharavi, is the biggest slum in Asia—hold, by some estimates, more than $2 billion of dead capital. For most of the migrants who live in these slums, India hasn’t changed since 1991. As that phrase from India’s pop culture goes, “same difference.”

India’s policymakers are aware of these anomalies, but it is an acute irony in India that any proposal to reform the bureaucracy has to first wind its way through the bureaucracy. Arun Shourie, a former disinvestment minister and a respected journalist, wrote in his recent book “Governance” that, “proposals for reforming [the] system are adopted from time to time, and decrees go out to implement the measures ‘in a time-bound manner.’ But in every case, the proposal is put through—some would say, it has to be put through—the same mill.”

It is in the nature of bureaucracies, Mr. Shourie points out, to endlessly iterate. He charts how the apparently simple task of framing a model tender document took the government more than 13 years, as drafts of it circulated between different committees and ministries. Anything even slightly more complicated, and with pockets of political opposition to it, like economic reforms, becomes almost impossible to implement. Dismantling state controls is only possible if there is political will and a popular consensus. None of these exist. On the contrary, there is a popular belief that the economic inequalities in India are caused or exacerbated by free markets.

The socialist left, a natural proponent of such views, believes that free markets are the problem and not the solution. India’s communist parties have blocked labor reform, opposed foreign investment and prevented privatization of public-sector units. They naturally have a vested interest in the “license-permit-quota raj,” as the web of statist controls is called. On all these issues they are supported, surprise surprise, by the religious right.

The Hindu right wing, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and collectively known as the Sangh Parivar, also fears globalization. Its sustenance comes from identity politics, the impact of which is diluted by the opening up of the cultural mindspace to “foreign influences.” If people are busy chasing prosperity and gaining Western liberal values, they will naturally have less time to focus on “the Hindu identity,” and suchlike. Rabble rousers need the masses to be disaffected.

In between the socialist left and the religious right is the Congress, a party which occupies the center of the political space almost by default. Its position on issues is always malleable, and although it is currently the party of government, it leads a coalition that depends on the left for survival. The pace of reforms has not increased since it came to power last year, and is not likely to do so anytime soon. While the world focuses on the metaphorical bright lights of Bangalore, most of the country—indeed, much of Bangalore itself, which has been plagued by power and infrastructure problems recently—remains in darkness.

The dialect of a cricket writer

This article of mine was first published on April 17, 2005 in the Indian Express as “Windbag and the willow”. This was also posted on Indian Uncut, and was shaped by the blogging I did on it all through March 2005.

THE next time you watch a cricket match, listen to the phrases that pop into your head with every piece of action. Have you heard these words before? I don’t know about you, but I am assailed by familiar phrases and sentences when I watch cricket, and I recoil each time one pops into my head. I am a cricket journalist, and it is my job to describe every game of cricket that I write about in a fresh manner, to give the reader a clear picture of what happened. And yet, that is so difficult.

Cricket writing, and commentary, has a dialect of its own which consists of lazy shorthands, cliches that do not evoke what happened in the field of play, but regurgitate banal expressions that dull our mind. It is difficult to escape this dialect, to write outside it, because we have been exposed to it repeatedly over the decades, and we reflexively think in this dialect whenever we watch cricket.

Here are some of the common forms that it takes. One, there are the descriptions of play, or of a situation. These could consist of dead metaphors, like the batsmen being ‘‘on a leather hunt’’, ‘‘using the long handle’’ and ‘‘taking the bull by the horns’’, as the match ‘‘teeters on a knife’s edge’’, as the bowlers ‘‘feel the heat’’. They could be phrases that were innovative when first used in this context, but now evoke nothing, such as when we talk of batsmen ‘‘taking control of the situation’’ or ‘‘tearing apart’’ the bowling or ‘‘seizing the initiative’’, as bowlers try to ‘‘tempt the batsmen into indiscretion’’ and ‘‘snatch the momentum’’.

They could be common descriptions, such as of a man who plays a ‘‘captain’s innings’’ or another whose ‘‘feet are stuck to the crease’’, as the ‘‘the game meanders towards a draw’’. And then there’s the hyperbole: ‘‘it’s all happening here’’, the ball ‘‘sped to the boundary like a tracer bullet’’, and ‘‘when he hits it, it stays hit’’.

Two, there are the aphorisms. ‘‘Form is temporary, class is permanent,’’ they say, adding, ‘‘When you’re in form, make it count.’’ After every bad decision someone is sure to write, ‘‘It all evens out in the end.’’ (That is not just a cliche, but also false.) And every twist in a match is sure to be accompanied by talk of ‘‘glorious uncertainties of the game’’.

Three, there are the adjectives. Certain cricketing nouns always seem to go with particular adjectives, which is why we talk of ‘‘fiery spells’’, ‘‘elegant cover-drives’’, ‘‘crisp driving’’, ‘‘lionhearted spinners’’, ‘‘gritty customers’’ (also a dead metaphor), ‘‘needless run-outs’’ (which run-out isn’t?), and ‘‘metronomic accuracy’’.  These are objectionable not because they are inaccurate, but because they do not convey the particulars of a circumstance. Michael Vaughan, Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Yasir Hameed all play ‘‘elegant cover-drives’’ that are different from each other, and it becomes the duty of the cricket writer to convey that difference.

What shocks me as a reader, and saddens me as a writer, is how in many Indian publications mastery of this dialect is considered a virtue. And television has actually sanctified it. For celebrities-turned-commentators, in fact, who have received no training in writing or commentary, the easiest way to cope is to pick up such shorthand. And if you learn the dialect, you are at least never at loss for something to say, for every situation evokes a basket of cliches to choose from. Perhaps this is an art in itself, if an ignoble one, but it does the game, and its followers, a disservice.

Regardless of whether we are writers, and regardless of the context of cricket, the language we use reveals the way we think. Are our ways of thinking fresh? George Orwell, in his famous essay ‘‘Politics and the English Language’’, wrote: ‘‘Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.’’

Replace ‘‘political regeneration’’ with ‘‘the enjoyment of cricket’’ and that sentiment still holds. And that is why I get angry when people say that cricket is a dying sport. The game is not dying for faults of its own, but we are killing it with the ways in which we think about it, and speak about it.

Cricket is full of dramas, epiphanies, epic passages of play that reveal and celebrate the qualities that make us human. It is we who refuse to see cricket the way it is, and reduce it to banality.

Blogs—The New Journalism

The piece below by me appeared on January 19, 2005 in the Indian Express as “The world according to me”. That headline wasn’t mine, though. I’d also posted it on India Uncut.

Towards the end of December, just after the tsunami struck, I told a journalist friend of mine that I was planning to travel through coastal Tamil Nadu to report on the aftermath of the disaster. “Ah, excellent,” he said, “Which publication you going to write for?”

“I’m not going to write for any publication,” I replied. “I’m going to blog.” He looked at me incredulously.

“Blog” was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2004, but I bristle at how they have defined the term, and how most people still think of it: as “an online personal journal”. Blogs may have began, in the late 1990s, in that manner, but they have evolved into a powerful new form of journalism, that offers journalists the scope to do things that they cannot do in other media, and that draws discerning readers for just this reason.

I experienced this when I blogged on my journey through Tamil Nadu on my blog, India Uncut. [These posts are now archived at my sub-blog, India Uncut – The Tsunami Posts.] My normal quota of 800 pageviews a day – pretty good for a month-old blog – shot up to over 13,000 a day when I began reporting from the coast, and my 10 days of reporting from there got me over 100,000 pageviews, thus demonstrating the power of word-of-mouth on the internet. And the efficacy of this new form of journalism.

Here are some of the ways in which blogs stand out from other journalistic media:

One, a blogger has flexibility of space. In a magazine or a newspaper, a journalist is constrained by length – he can’t write too much and, in instances where he might want to share a vignette or a telling observation, he can’t write too little. On a blog, that isn’t an issue.

Two, a blog can contain multitudes. Whenever I write about something or someone, I can insert hyperlinks in my text that allow the reader to go deeper into whatever it is I’m talking about. For example, an obituary of MS Subbulakshmi in print allows you to read just what one writer has written, but an obituary on a blog can link the reader to pieces that expand upon different strands of her life. It can link you to audio clips of her singing, to pictures of her online, to profiles written on her, all without breaking the narrative flow of the text. As a reader, I feel empowered by that. A print journalist can tell you about a journey, but a blogger can take you on one.

Three, a blog has immediacy. When I reported on things that I saw in Tamil Nadu, I did not have to file a despatch to some editor somewhere with a time-lag of hours before it appeared. I could post it on my blog as soon as I finished writing it, from where other bloggers linked to it, and quoted from it, around the world, well before the next news cycle began. Even television reporters do not have such freedom – and video-blogs might well be the next wave.

Four, a blogger has the option to adopt a much more personal tone than a journalist can. Most print publications have a house style which journalists have to adhere to, but on a blog, he can express himself as he wishes, which, in turn, increases the degree of familiarity that readers feel towards him.

Five, blogs are often interactive. An article in print is a journalist talking to a reader. A post on a blog, on the other hand, can be the starting point of a discussion. Discussions on sites that have comments enabled, like AnarCapLib and The Examined Life, are often intelligent, informative and enlightening, with the readers adding enormous value to what the blogger has to say. Everybody learns, and grows, in the process.

I find it odd that so many of the news stories on blogs in 2004 focussed on a “Blogs v Big Media” storyline, which makes for an interesting peg, but is misleading. I don’t think that there is a conflict between blogs and any other journalistic medium. Just as TV did not kill print, blogging is no threat to either print or TV. On the contrary, it enhances both the breadth and depth of the coverage that journalism provides and, as one-day cricket did to Test cricket, it might introduce new skills and values to the older forms of journalism. That can only be good for the reader, and that is all that matters.