Pramod Biligiri's Blog

Random Musings

The India Growth Story
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Sadly, numbers like 7.8 or 9.1% are what many of us recall when we hear the above phrase. There has been so much growth in the political economy over the last couple of years that I can scarcely believe the amount of good news I'm seeing in newspapers everyday (bar the performance of Team India) !

Karnataka has been particularly lucky. We threw out a corrupt and stubborn Chief Minister with a classic application of checks-and-balances. I hope this sets a precedent, and we continue to sack more CM's, ministers and officials for far less. The nepotism at these levels has to be brought down by several orders of magnitude and that will require many such dismissals until the polity becomes progressively less tainted. For example, the new Lok Ayukta ought to be already working on a report on the current CM with the intention of ousting him in a year or two. Ditto for the Ministers.

The most significant piece of news in this whole saga is how the new CM got selected: via secret ballot among the 121 BJP MLA's. That's a paradigm shift, in my opinion.

The mining mafia is on its way to becoming history. Detailed reports and documentaries are finally being made on all that transpired. Though we haven't dragged the accused in front of a televised parliamentary committee and thrown pies at them, I'm confident justice will be done. Speaking of which, I was delighted by the news report of how the former IT Minister in the IT capital (Katta Subramanya Naidu) and close pal of the deposed CM is now lodged in a jail.

India's habitual blunders regarding "Land Acquisition" are being addressed. Jairam Ramesh the brave Environment Minister is now at the helm of Rural Development. One of his first acts was to redraft the Land Acquisition bill and put it up for public comments. Though our government continues to believe in outlandish ideas like eminent domain, it's reassuring to see that all those farmers who were robbed by the State in UP, Orissa, MH, Bengal etc did not fight in vain. Karnataka fares well again, with the government quickly deciding to drop land acquisition in Gadag district, for....POSCO, of all companies. Some farmers in Pune were not so lucky last week. When their government decides to build a pipeline, this video shows how it goes about it. Looks like a scene from Aamir Khan's Lagaan.

Narendra Modi's Godhra woes never end. His government is in a major scuffle with errant cops who are either genuine whistleblowers or are selling doctored tapes. We'll have to wait and see.

Coming to the biggest story of all, the well-intentioned but misguided Anna Hazare and friends have hogged the headlines in the lead up to August 15th. The leader of our own Tea Party is kicking off a fast instead of sinking teabags, and the government is trying hard to avoid a fiasco. For once, Independence Day is seeing a rise of anti-government sentiments instead of jingoism. Reminds me of a Thomas Jefferson quote, "When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty". I'm starting to feel that our government is getting fearful of the people. Heck, they can't even cut a few trees anymore without civil society coming down on them like a pile of bricks.

I believe that the kind of political transformations we are seeing now constitute the real "growth story" of India. There are systemic changes afoot that will make the GDP numbers of the last two decades look a like a footnote in the overall scheme of things. Even from a purely market oriented perspective, there is only so much the government can do to boost a large, complex economy like ours, apart from largely getting out of the way. In the immediate future, we are going to gain much more by reform of the functioning of government itself than any particular policy on Telecom, or Oil, or Natural Gas.

The next time someone compares India to the West, and speaks about FDI and "2nd Generation Reforms" in the same breath, show them this video and ask if that's what they mean by the phrase.

The biggest downside is that the government (both Centre and State) still doesn't grasp the concept of protecting civil liberties. Aarakshan has been banned in UP, AP and Punjab because ostensibly the govt. can't maintain law and order. Meanwhile, we will be wasting an awful lot of money monitoring Facebook, Twitter for no practical benefit. These and so many other issues still demand a spirit of resistance and I hope Indians continue to show it.

P.S: If you want the regular spiel about how India is a poor, backward country with various failing schemes like NREGS, PDS, NRHM, JNNURM, RTE and so on, Harsh Mander and friends have a full page spread in the Hindu.

Rethinking India
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(Loong post :D)

I've been mulling over my own conception of "India" for many months, esp. after some extensive travels last year. The recent "Anna Hazare" protests - and don't just dismiss them, eh! - actually increased my belief that I'm thinking on the right lines. Let me explain..

There was a time when my perception of the nation hinged majorly on signs of economic progress. Easiest to keep track are GDP growth, inflation, poverty, malnutrition, literacy. Or [insert your favourite economic/social indicator here]. On the micro level, you always know if your quality of life is improving, whether public services and physical infrastructure are up to the mark.

But to me all these visible changes never added up to an overall narrative. India is so unequal that a nationwide statistic tells nothing. And coming to my own experience, I couldn't generalize based on Bangalore as the city is going through a unique phase. I even questioned if a coherent vision of India is feasible. Perhaps it's a fluke of a nation-state? Am I looking for patterns in essentially independent, random phenomena?

Luckily I've begun to see some answers, some "axes of thought" I should say, along which it makes sense to comprehend India across time and space. To stay free from sentiment or bias, approach this piece not as any "citizen", but as a disinterested observer, or an alien looking upon the earth. Currently I'm only writing from intuition. I haven't bothered to match it with existing/established ideas. You can help me out.

The biggest material "effect" of India is that it has made it possible for such a large number of humans to live and work freely anywhere in its territory, without artificial restrictions. This has contributed more to their welfare than the sum of all government works and welfare schemes. I'm not saying our government had to struggle hard to achieve this! But at least we're not saddled with China's bizarre registration system, called Hukou. Considering India has about 20% of the world's population (and so does China), this is a remarkable feat for humanity in general. A side effect of this is that India's urban centres are noted for being crowded and polluted. For example, Bangalore's population has increased by 47% in the last 10 years. It now has more people than Greater London. Nevertheless, not just Bangalore, but many of India's cities will continue to grow bigger and they'll continue to be open to any of its billion people. "Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.."

(An aside: Isn't it weird that our domestic movement of commercial goods is actually hampered by tariffs and regulations, whereas people can move about freely?)

Which brings me to the next point about India: Politics. Of late I have realized India is not much of a politicised country at all! That sounds counterintuitive? I'll take Wikipedia's definition: "..a process by which groups of people make collective decisions". Obviously, the major collective decision that we make is the choice of a representative. But firstly, politics is also about the process. By which I mean various pressure groups acting upon each other, conflict between classes, claims and counterclaims, ideological debates, powerful lobbies and so on. This is easy to discern in the West. Many Western countries have ideologically defined parties (at least in name!). The media is full of "right-wing" or "left-wing" opinions, there is enough paranoia to go around (and then some), thinktanks exist to buttress your favourite viewpoint, and election campaigns are prolonged. You get the feeling that many people have a point of view and make an effort to express it.

In India, elections largely revolve around the candidate's personality or lineage (and yet we don't have televised debates). It is hard to discern any ideology or stance. Most dreadfully, candidates are elected on the basis of their "execution" ability, with great allowance for corruption too. Thus the legislature tries to make up for the failures of the civic administration by arbitrary promises - TVs, sarees, mixers etc. No one (including myself) is sure of the difference between central, state and local governments. Even if their intentions are noble, you get spooky men like Narendra Modi. Or Karnataka's present bunch of robber barons who will pave the roads as long as they can line their pockets.

I must emphasize I'm not being negative! In fact, the situation has vastly improved. If you look back at earlier decades, there was a shocking lack of politicization. Bad decisions would get perpetuated for decades. The media was too staid and uptight. Corruption was highly structural and probably more widespread but less visible. Our history textbooks focus excessively on the freedom struggle and make it seem like it was the pinnacle of possible political activism. Does that mean that soon afterwards everyone went back to being lethargic and apathetic?

Nope. In short, India is beginning to approach the cacophony of noises, political views that characterise a democracy. The current lack of an ideological atmosphere is also shown by the fact that few of our major papers or news channels can be easily associated with a political leaning. It's slightly better online, but I look forward to the day an aam aadmi can listen to an Internet Hindu ranting on the radio while driving to work.

Secondly, our politics hadn't transcended elections. Voting once in 5 years can only do so much. And this sentiment is gathering steam rapidly. The public reaction to the spate of corruption scandals in the Centre has begun to put systemic pressure on our governance structures. People are demanding a more responsive legislature, administration and judiciary. How long can our judiciary continue to take summer holidays? From a democracy centred around elections, India is moving towards democracy as "governance by discussion", as Amartya Sen calls it.

My next broad theme about India is the nature of power. Partly due to being a libertarian, to me the most important aspect in social/political relationships is the distribution of power. In general if people have equal and as little power over each other, the better it is. This has been slowly playing out in India (and of course world over). These power relationships get encoded into legal do-s and don't-s. I won't belabour the point that any Indian (rich/capitalist/landlord etc) now has less absolute control over the life of the poor/labourer/peasant compared to the past. And this won't change.

This power dynamic was always heavily skewed by the very existence of an all-powerful, unaccountable State. Monarchies are thankfully dead. But the nascent nation-state tends to centralise authority within a small circle. In India we've seen powerful Central and State ministers perpetuate a "culture of arbitrariness" as P Sainath termed it. So even as the average person felt helpess to effect or resist any change, anyone remotely associated with government wielded power well above the rule of law, largely operated in the dark, and of course abused it.

Therefore I feel that the Right To Information act constitutes our most important piece of legislation in a looong time. Unlike a top down scheme like NREGA or JNNURM, the RTI enables every Indian anywhere to question what any official body is doing. Hardly a week passes by without the papers reporting some application of the RTI act that uncovered a governmental wrongdoing. This is changing the dynamic of power unlike anything before it. Now the interesting thing is that the RTI Act had far less popular resonance than the current Lokpal bill, even though it is more significant!

I believe this indicates that Indians are becoming more acutely aware of the power imbalance between government and the people. The "Jan" Lokpal bill is just one reflex action. If an RTI Act had been conceived in the current atmosphere it would have taken wings!

Now to tie this whole essay together: What I'm seeing in India is the peaceful existence of a billion people, with an audacious promise of basic freedoms. In an environment of rapid urbanisation and a powerful State, this is creating an increasingly political civil society that is attempting to fix the power imbalance and information asymmetry w.r.t government. Our democracy has now decisively moved beyond 5-year election cycles. Our (mostly) free media functions as a powerful catalyst. And none of these changes are reversible.

Note that I studiously avoided the usual bijli-sadak-pani-illiteracy-poverty-famine themes. I believe political rights should take precedence over economic entitlements. And frankly, without the level of political mobilisation we're seeing, our "infrastructure" problems can't be solved in a meaningful, humane manner (Can you say Jaitapur?). So the way to analyse India may not be as a Third World country having the luxury of democracy. In fact I won't be surprised if we bring in election primaries before we tar our highways :)

Why I dislike religion
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I almost never discuss religion in my blog but I thought I should note down my thoughts on it beyond stating that I am atheist. I'm usually preoccupied with issues of governance and society. General discourse on these topics rarely intersects with religious ideas. But whenever it does (say political Islam, cow slaughter or abortion), it strengthens my dislike of religion.

I understand religion is not a monolithic entity. What is called religion by a pundit of the canonical texts differs from that of a Naga sadhu in Kumbh Mela differs from that of an orthodox middle-class auntie. Religion is not alone in defying definition. You'll never get two people to agree on their definition of government either! But yet we all agree that government exists, and so does religion. And like obscenity, we know it when we see it. Being so, I can only criticise based on whatever I see religion as. Take offense only when appropriate.

Firstly, any belief that the principles by which the world of humans operates are controlled (to whatever extent) by a masculine, singular supernatural entity, i.e., God, falls by the wayside as one navigates the vagaries of life, career, family and most importantly, Bangalore traffic. Even if you attempt to hold on to more sophisticated ideas of the soul like the theories of Atman in Hinduism, you never get to see the proof of it or experience it yourself. Why a trans-generational soul-like concept should have moral implications is also not clear. As to religious explanations for various physical and biological phenomena I have one word: Please.

Secondly, in its social and political manifestations, religion both helps and harms humanity. There is an admirable amount of altruism, tolerance and affirmation of values that contribute to human welfare. But since man is a political animal, there is an equally long history of abuse and cruelty by some of these institutions.

One problem underlying both these aspects is the suboptimal way in which religious ideas have been evolving, for many centuries now I guess. Which is in stark contrast to another topic: Science. Again I almost never discuss science here (and I'm not particularly interested or good at it), but I am a very strong believer in the scientific method (sorry, the Wikipedia page was verbose). While the general principle of hypothesize-test-publish seems like commonsense, when this is rigorously applied in an institutionalized manner by 1000's of people in many countries over hundreds of years, I have only one word for it: See?

Going beyond the steps themselves, the institutionalization also creates a system of checks and balances, codes of conduct and critical histories. This can prevent abuse. This is similar to the role of various institutions in a liberal democracy. Religious organizations don't have anything approaching this (again, remember they're not a monolith).

Which is not to say science proceeds straight as an arrow. A brief acquaintance with the history of science and the lives of its famous exponents will reveal many follies and foibles. Results in social sciences and esp. economics are still looked at with suspicion and don't get the same respect as their counterparts in the "hard" sciences. When you are aware that a better theory could come along any time, a degree of humility is natural.

Thus if you are immersed in liberal democratic or scientific discourse, you are used to certain assumptions and methodologies. And you scratch your head really hard when someone tries to derive important precepts from a book of verse written in Arabic, Hebrew or Sanskrit eons ago. And any claim that they cannot be translated into layman or widely understood is insulting and self-serving. One measure of vitality is the amount of new disciplines spawned (i.e., new subjects opening up for study) and combinations of disciplines (i.e, new ways of synthesizing knowledge). Religion fails spectacularly at this.

There's a third aspect of religion, which is neither the sheer intellectualization of the first nor the social orientation of the second. Religion can be learnt and lived in the confines of the domestic and the personal. A convenient and hereditary assortment of ideas and rituals which come out of hibernation at specific seasons and functions - a kind of familial glue. I have two words for this: Mostly Harmless :) Harmless because it doesn't impact people beyond immediate family. "Mostly" because it might still gag the spirit of enquiry.

I myself look at religion in an extremely piecemeal fashion. While I disdain most of its artifacts and activities, I find parts of it intellectually and aesthetically appealing. Even organized religion has lessons for modern governance and probably served a useful/powerful purpose at some point. There are people who see a need to actively fight religion as it is an alternative and regressive power structure. I am not so convinced about that. I see more glaring problems in secular institutions as they are (Hm, I ought to think more about this).

At an extreme, I tend to "un-define" religion. That is, during the course of human history, certain ideas were studied, discussed and written about. They had moral, social and political implications (and vice-versa). Now you are free to choose from them what you like, and frame a narrative that best fits your world view. Thus it's perfectly possible to situate religious events and ideas historically, chart their evolution inside the course of the overall life of humanity - say astrology within astronomy, temples within engineering, mantras within literature, philosophy within the epics and so on - without agreeing to the wholesale appropriation, monopolization and categorization of these artifacts/activities by your friendly neighbourhood priest, big mutts or the BJP. This is similar to how I don't allow the notion of government or the nation-state frame my understanding of free speech, free trade or other liberal values.
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The mine routes of Bellary
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The potholes on National Highway 13 woke me up even in the comfy AC sleeper bus. And when the driver stopped for a break, I got down and could see long lines of trucks outside. I was about 2 hours from Hospet town in Bellary district.

Bellary map


Throughout my stay in Hampi I was acutely aware that I was close to the heart of the biggest and most outrageous scam in independent India - that of illegal mining in parts of Bellary. Reports like these in Frontline, Tehelka and Sunday Indian had impressed upon me the scale of what's going on here.

So on Day 3 I decided to visit Sandur, which is the nearest town to the actual mines situated at Obulapuram and around. I was advised not to take the direct road from Hospet to Sandur as it is bad. So I boarded a bus towards Bellary and got down at Toranagallu. This is a picturesque drive with forested hills and boulders on either side of the road. You'll run into countless trucks and the road is again potholed.



From there you catch a tempo traveller or jeep to reach Sandur. This 1.5 hour drive is where much of the action is. A large stretch of it is a narrow, dusty road but lorries loaded with iron ore will be going past in both directions with amazing frequency. There are hills all around, the Tunghabhadra river flows to one side and there's a small reservoir too. The below video captures many lorries.



Check out the state of the road in this video:



You'll feel sorry for people living along this route. Apart from the road becoming dangerous, the dust has already caused respiratory problems. The plants on the side of the road have a thin layer of red dust. I've uploaded more pics in this Picasa album and there's one more video. Incidentally a Hospet auto driver told me that lorry traffic has drastically reduced after the ban on ore export. Otherwise it would be jammed for hours on end.

Sandur itself is a small town with not much to do. On that day the local politicos were celebrating "Valmiki Jayanthi" which is a newly declared State government holiday to please members of that caste (similar to Basava Jayanthi and Kanaka Jayanthi announced last year).



It's remarkable that even as Bangalore is being feted worldwide and its intelligentsia is attuned to the foremost democratic countries in the world, all of this is happening one night's journey away (and it was not even on Youtube until today!). In any case, if you're in the Karnataka region I highly recommend the journey from Toranagallu to Sandur - and beyond, if you are adventurous. You can see history being made.

Good Indian magazines
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(Warning: Link laden post)

A few months ago I was pleasantly surprised to see a large no. of new Indian political magazines on news stands. I thought I'll see if there's any I like. I stay away from The Week, India Today and Outlook because they are very metro centric, just chatter about intrigue in political parties or sensationalise a non-issue. Currently there are 3 magazines which I think are worth checking out frequently.

1) Tehelka (link) - This magazine got a reputation for investigative journalism early on, and was nearly destroyed by the BJP's revenge mission. But it has bounced back and is a slick package of news and opinion. They also do real reportage, namely going into remote towns and villages to do detailed coverage. They also take on corporates. Some examples:
- This piece on a proposed nuclear park in Maharashtra is slightly rantish but still valid.
- Their coverage of the Naxal issue is great.
- A thermometer factory at Kodaikanal is the source of pollution
- Their coverage of Kashmir has been great too. A surgeon's account of a typical riot day. Or more recently, their cover story Listen to the Stones.
- Their shorter pieces are equally good. I think they follow the Economist style guide or something. You'll also find familiar names like Krish Ashok doing the lighter pieces.

2) Caravan (link) - Another genre of news reporting I like is narrative journalism. The one that runs into many pages, reads like a novella and remains in your mind for months. I've seen innumerable such pieces in the NYT and Guardian (like this, this, this, this or this). Indian newspapers don't try this form. Caravan is a magazine that has explicitly taken up this task. Their piece about Bihar called The Great Leap Forward is a great example. The recent cover is about India in Afghanistan, again beautiful.

3) Open Magazine (link) - I have only tried this a bit but it's very readable. This is more of a culture and urban lifestyle mag with stories like The fading away of parents or The MBA writer. They do some political reportage also.

By the way, I saw an ad in today's Hindu saying Outlook has come out with a special edition for their 15th anniversary, and it's all about the state of media in India. I bought the issue and read the whole thing end-to-end. It's unputdownable!
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A couple of days at Hampi
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First off, I am surprised that I hadn't visited Hampi earlier. It is probably the best place of historical interest that Karnataka has to offer! I don't think even Mysore compares to the vast ruins of 16th century Vijayanagar empire. It's also very well maintained.

On the first day I took the help of a govt. appointed tour guide. We went around on a TVS XL (Rs.150 per day) and covered whatever is accessible by road. On the 2nd day I finished the rest by a combination of walk and bicycle (Rs.40).

There are numerous temples, and palatial complexes. Also bazaar streets where gold and diamonds were reportedly sold. The Vijayangar empire reigned from 14th to 16th century, reaching its peak in 1509 when Krishnadevaraya ruled and disintegrating a couple of generations after him, due to attacks from the neighbouring Bahamani sultans. The temples have suffered serious damage and palaces destroyed due to these attacks.

Of historical interest
- I was surprised to see so many references to Portuguese and Arab traders in the sculptures. This should have been before Vasco Da Gama's time, so the land route through Central Asia played a major role. Arabian horses were in great demand. A Portueguese traveller named Domingo Paes is frequently cited. Need to read up on him.

- This was a main battleground for Hindu vs Muslim rulers and you can see the remnants of that. Even now the Vijayanagar empire is invoked in popular culture as a great period for Hindu religion. It is probably a pilgrimage spot for Hindutva types. I myself don't believe religious beliefs had much to do with those conflicts. My guide was telling me the Muslim kings ransacked the capital for 6 months after the conquest!

- This had to be a very rich kingdom to be able to build all that. And the bazaars were supposed to sell gold and diamonds in the open market. They were known to export spices also. An economic history of that period would be interesting.

Virupapura Gaddi (island): Another reason to visit Hampi is this small and peaceful island which is full of tourist resorts. Foreign travellers come and take up residence here for days on end. I had lunch at one such place and all around were cottages. I spotted one firang lying in a hammock strumming a guitar. On the roads you will find more of these people driving around in two wheelers and generally relaxing. It's like a cheap man's Goa.

Hampi is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the Archaeological Survey of India has made great effort to preserve it. Major excavations and research have happened even in the last few decades. But a silly thing is the differential entry fee for foreigners and Indians (10:1 ratio) for the non-free sites. On one side the ticket advertises Incredible !ndia, the Indians profess to believe in an emerging India, and here we're embarrassing India. I see 2 ways out of this: The next generation of ASI bureaucrats will realize this is socially unacceptable a la child marriage and wife-beating and change the policy. Alternatively, since nationalism is all the rage nowadays, we will create a National Council of Something Something that will allot more funding to nationally important sites and get rid of this pettiness.

Temple towns conjure visions of unearthly hours, long queues, loud loudspeakers, dress codes, small South Indian eateries and overall full gaji-biji. Hampi is nothing of the sort. I had good Italian and Chinese food on both days, including omelettes and delicious dessert. This grainy video is from a restaurant which is literally a stone's throw away from Virupaksha temple and is full of foreigners and serves a range of cuisines. And I mean literally.

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Why the CWG games are a success
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As I watched the ad riddled DD telecast of the opening ceremony, I pondered at what the moment could have been but wasn't. It could have been a big fillip to Indian nationalism within the country and a rise in India's stature outside of it. But all I could think of was "The emperor has no clothes".

Which is exactly why the CWG games are a success. Because our news channels have done a splendid job in creating a prolonged and collective sense of disgust and disappointment by sustained, sensational coverage. An NYT piece picks up this sentiment: "The litany of problems plaguing the games — collapsed footbridges, filthy dorms, cartoonish corruption — have not only made headlines around the world. They have left Indians to wonder why a country so promising in so many regards is incapable of organizing a signature event when the eyes of the world are focused on it."

I won't dwell more on that because it's just another predictable government failure. What's more interesting is that the media has found it so profitable to make our government a global spectacle. As that article calls it, "India’s hyperactive media have gleefully documented the infighting". While we've always had good media freedom, the fact that there's now a large, elite audience lapping up sustained government bashing is encouraging. The last time I felt that the media had such a big impact on our thinking was the Bombay terror attacks.

For an extreme counter example, contrast how China's govt. handled criticism during the Beijing Olympics. From an '08 editorial in NYT: "China has jailed critics, denied visas and threatened news organizations that negative coverage could jeopardize their chance to cover the Games.". And this after China had reportedly displaced 1.5 million people for the games!

While it's true that the more ghastly aspects of the CWG haven't made it to prime time, the middle class in Delhi should have suffered enough that it's possible that the city is forever finished as a venue for international sporting extravaganzas. A new generation of Indians has absorbed the idea - the hard way - that events like these are not a bed of roses. Our future governments will be extremely wary of taking on such endeavours because the media could slaughter them. What's not to like? :)

Delhi Darbar
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There's understandably a lot of outrage at how the Commonwealth Games have been mismanaged by the government bodies. But this feeling has been mostly about corruption, incompetence, cleanliness etc. There's another class of cruelties related to the Games that should have elicited quick condemnation, much earlier.

For example, for many months now the Delhi government has been rounding up thousands of beggars, hawkers and deporting them so that visitors esp. foreigners are not disturbed. A Frontline article provides good info about that. Indeed there are laws against begging on the streets, but the current drive is linked too closely to the Games so it's unsettling. The relevant Minister has been found saying, We Indians are used to beggars. Westerners are not. So, we must make the city free of them. Many slums have been demolished. It is good to see property rights being enforced but the Games themselves violate that idea in many ways.

That Frontline piece refers to a study done by a land rights related think tank. I went through parts of that very well written report and have shared it on Google docs. Below is page 77 from the same (click to enlarge):



Schools have been ordered to close during the period of the Games. Students at Delhi University hostel have been evicted to make way for Games related delegates so they've Youtubed a good discussion program about the various negatives of the Games. The numerous construction projects and now traffic restrictions will no doubt take a toll on quality of life in the city. The Hindustan Times warns Delhi-ites, "for the next one month, try not to get married, don't visit family and friends, do not shift or renovate your house and if possible, don't fall sick. In other words, either stay home during the Games or if possible, go on a long vacation."

Back in '06 the Delhi govt. had signed MoU's with some quasi-governmental power generation/distribution companies with explicit guarantees just for the Games. Of which, NTPC - the official power partner - has been able to ramp up. A huge chunk of power was expected from greenfield power plants of Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC, govt-owned), but this has not come through partly because of land acquisition problems: Andal project in Bengal follows the usual villagers-protest police-firing Mamta-Bannerjee theme. Koderma plant got stalled due to land owners not consenting. (Thankfully no violence). I don't know how the rest have fared.

Still, I see a newspaper report that there will be blatant diversion of power from UP, Bengal towards the Games by all involved parties in violation of laws and wonders if the Electricity Regulatory Commission will sue the Delhi government.

Philosophically too, there's nothing to commend the Games. If we think it's sensible or feasible for government to spend thousands of crores for a sporting extravaganza we're bound to be disappointed in many ways. It's almost an adage that such events are mired in corruption. If further proof is necessary, that report I've shared has a wealth of historical data.

To me the most frightening part is how so many people believe that the Games have something to do with their emotional connection to the idea of India and wish for its success from a patriotic standpoint. The Twitterverse and incessant media coverage only reinforce that sentiment. This is not entirely unexpected. Even during the 2008 Beijing Olympics many youth took offense at criticism of Chinese government's handling of the games (which was probably a 100 times worse than anything our govt. can conceive of!).

Normally I give a pass to older folks on this issue, because their idea of India differs in many ways. But if you are in your 20's or 30's and nurture any nationalist feeling about the current Commonwealth Games, you ought to exorcise that ghost. Hopefully next time around more Indians will rise up and protest if India even considers bidding for such an event!

P.S: My similar post on the '08 Olympics.

The Rediscovery of India by Meghnad Desai - 4
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Chapter 2 - The English Turn (contd.)

Battle of Plassey, 1757 (contd.)

I have now jumped off Desai's book itself and spent time reading his references and other books about 18th Century Bengal (btw this term included Bihar, Orissa). At the end of this post I've listed them all.

The lead up to Plassey begins with Siraj-ud-Daulah's grandfather - Alivardi Khan - who ruled from 1740 to '56. (He chose his grandson to succeed him). Though he was formally a subordinate of the Mughal emperor, he asserted a lot of autonomy. He assumed more control over revenue submitted to Delhi. This was a reflection of the overall decline of Mughal power.

Initially he was tolerant of the flourishing business of the Company. The officials of the Company were indulging in private trade also, taking the help of leading merchants from Bengal, with none of the duties going to Delhi. There were 2 main areas for private trade: One was the intra-Asian trade, from which the Company had formally stepped back in 1680, but was continued vigorously by its employees and Indian collaborators. This consisted of sending goods between Indian ports itself, like from Calcutta to Surat and other places en route; from Calcutta to China (tea?, opium), from Calcutta to ports in the Arabian peninsula. I read somewhere that a lot of silver from Persia ended up as payment in Bengal at this time. And much of this silver had been first looted from Delhi itself by the Persian king Nadir Shah!

Each Company employee was given some personal cargo space on ships that plied from India to Europe. This was the other mechanism by which the private trade was carried out. Indeed the lure of this "pocket" money was a big incentive for many Englishmen to join the Company's postings here. In a famous book called "Robert Clive of India" (which I was lucky to find because Anant suggested we meet Sidharth and Haas at Blossom, to which I'd never been!) by historian/author Nirad Chaudhari, he describes how a lower middle class boy became supremely rich due to his Indian adventures. This book is also good for its description of the politico-economic situation at the time.

Here I must mention a great book, by Nirad C's son/historian K N Chaudhari. His book[4] is the go-to guide for economic/statistical studies of this era. He has applied computer based analysis and Systems thinking to great effect. He is also a rock climber, musician, wine-taster and photographer!

Among the native merchants, the most prominent is Jagat Seth (which was in fact a title given to his family) whose financial activities extended from Surat to Delhi and Bengal. He is often described as the Rothschild of India. I shall paste a big excerpt from [2]:

"The great house of Jagat Seth, bankers to the government, was virtually a partner with the Nawabs in the management of the Bengal revenues. When the Jagat Seths fled from the Marathas in 1742, the chief kadi was sent to persuade them to come back to Murshidabad,'their presence being as necessary to the government as to merchants'. The house received a large part of the revenue, made payments on behalf of the government and financed the operations of the major zamindars. Part of the imperial tribute was remitted by the Jagat Seths drawing bills on their Delhi agents. The Jagat Seths were great political figures. In the view of a French observer, they had helped to bring Alivardi Khan to power, had 'conducted almost all his business' and had been 'the main mover in all the revolutions in Bengal'... For such great services there was a price to be paid. A large commission was presumably deducted from the Bengal revenues. They insisted on control over the Nawab's mint and on a monopoly over the coining of bullion, again for a handsome profit"

Around this time, other major centres where similar economic patterns were playing out were Surat, Bombay and Madras (Need to read up on them).

Towards the end of his tenure, Alivardi Khan was attacked repeatedly by Marathas and some other, minor, kingdoms. Again this shows the weakness of the Mughals. Every source I've read describes the Maratha invasions as horrific, brutal, cruel etc etc. Just the rumour of their coming would cause entire villages to flee. Nirad C's book is very explicit. I shall paste another excerpt from [2]:

" The horrors committed by the 'Bargis', as the Maratha raiders were called, left a deep mark on the traditions of the people of Bengal. They were grimly commemorated in poetry. According to the Maharashtra Purana:
'They shouted over and over again, 'Give us money', and when they got no money they filled peoples' nostrils with water, and some they seized and drowned in tanks, and many died of suffocation. In this way they did all man- ner of foul and evil deeds. When they demanded money and it was not given to hem, they would put the man to death. Those who had money gave it, those who had none were killed.'"

Alivardi Khan ceded Orissa, parts of Bihar and had to pay a tribute to the Marathas. So he turned upon the rich Bengali-English businessmen for money. [2] to the rescue:

"For the time being at least, all restraint in making fiscal demands was abandoned. Zamindars, office holders, bankers, merchants and the European Companies were all harried ruthlessly. The head of the Jagat Seths commented in 1744:' "At present there is no government; they fear neither God nor the King but seem determined to force money from everybody; I have suffered greatly by them". The Raja of Burdwan was said to have been forced to yield Rs. 10,000,000. Europeans reported well-authenticated stories of merchants being kidnapped, tortured and robbed by the Nawab's agents. The English East India Company was told to hand over Rs. 2,500,000, which, the Nawab suggested, it might recover from the rich inhabitants of Calcutta. In the end the English escaped with paying only Rs. 350,000.".

This had turned many of Bengal's elite against Alivardi. Matters were compounded when his grandson Siraj ascended. He has been described as a rash ruler who further alienated them and also insulted the Jagat Seth. Upon accession he extracted huge sums from the French and the Dutch. He bristled at the English fortifications in Calcutta and demolished them. Historians are still debating the rationality of his extreme actions. But in any case, his attacks on the English resulted in retaliation under Robert Clive with help from Mir Jaffar, Jagat Seth etc. And he was overthrown in 1757.

Now, that is my highly simplified summary of the battle of Plassey :)

--
References:
1. The House of Jagat Seth (I couldn't find this anywhere)
2. Bengal: The British Bridgehead, P J Marshall (great book by a top imperial historian, link)
3. Robert Clive of India, by Nirad C Chaudhary (link)
4. The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company: 1660-1760 By K. N. Chaudhuri (link)
5. Cambridge Economic History of India (link)
6. The new Cambridge History of India (link)
7. Colonial cities: essays on urbanism in a colonial context (link)
8. Smuggling as subversion: colonialism, Indian merchants, and the politics of opium (link)
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The Rediscovery of India by Meghnad Desai - 3
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Chapter 2 - The English Turn (contd.)

In the book Desai briskly covers the battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764), and the subsequent collection of land revenue in Bengal by the British (which is one long, saad story).

He closes the chapter with a lengthy section on the attempted impeachment of Governor General Warren Hastings. This is clearly a case of historians settling scores with each other, as he says nationalist historians cite the charges against Hastings as an indicator of how bad his regime was when it actually was not. Whatever :)

Battle of Plassey (1757)
Militarily the battle is not so interesting since it was a big betrayal that sealed the loser's fate. Siraj-ud-Daula was the Moghul emperor's Nawab in Bengal. Mir Jaffar, his Chief of Army Staff (high treason, eh?) was looking to depose him. He had the backing of a large number of merchants.

As Desai says, "behind Mir Jaffar was the emerging commercial class - the traders and the bankers who had prospered during the last 150 years off exports matched by imports of silver and gold. Jagat Seth, for instance, had an international banking network which made him a powerful man. The old Nawab had been respectful..the new Nawab was haughty and arrogant".

(That only makes sense as a childrens' bed time story)

He says the defeat at Plassey is regarded by many Indian (esp. Marxist) historians as a major event, an epic confrontation between the forces of feudalism and capitalism where capitalism won. He quotes one of them called Biplab Dasgupta: It was "the improbable takeover of a country as big as India, by a mere trading company". Desai argues that Plassey was none of that. It was a localized affair. In fact the English got inducted into it only because Mir Jaffar used them as a tool to enthrone himself.

Plassey in more detail
Digging deeper, I see that 18th Century India is much more complex, confusing and controversial than I thought. While nationalist historians have stressed the Company's intention to dominate, English historians say that this business enterprise was just unwillingly drawn into local political intrigue.

Dipping into the Oxford History book, there's this essay which offers better insight, "Reassesments of the role of the British in the first half of the 18th century have risen primarily from what is called 'private' trade. The Company's trade might be set into a relatively static pattern, but the trade of the Company was only a small part of British activities in Asia; there was a dynamic private sector as well."

As he explains in that essay (which you ought to read), many employees of the Company, along with their official work, conducted their own "side-business" which was very lucrative personally. Under the Mughal emperor the Company had been granted exemption from all customs duties. Now these individuals used that as a loophole to avoid paying taxes for their extra-curricular activities also. (Elsewhere it has been called insider trading).

Remember that the overall business picture was extremely positive at this time. For my future reference I will note down this important para from earlier in that essay:

"At the beginning of the 18th century about 90% of the Company's cargoes were obtained from India. In Western India the English operated out of the great Mughal port of Surat and from their own settlement granted to the Crown by the Portuguese at Bombay. The cargoes consisted mainly of the cotton textiles of the province of Gujarat. Pepper obtained from settlements on the south-west coast was also shipped from Bombay. Madras, held outright on a grant from a local chief, was the major English settlement on the south-east or Coromandel coast. Coromandel textiles were in high demand in Europe early in he 18th Century.

"In Bengal, Calcutta, a town largely founded by the English, was growing very rapidly indeed. On the strength of grants from the local ruler, the English had built a fort and exercised authority over the town. Bengal was a rich province, producing silk and cotton cloth for export in great quantities. Early in the 18th century it became the major source of British textile exports. From the 1720s shipments through Calcutta usually amounted to at least half of the Indian cargoes (emphasis mine). To purchase their textiles, the Company's agents set up factories in several inland weaving centres, accessible from Calcutta along Bengal's river system."

(Note that above description is w.r.t to the Company's official trade and not private trade)
Since this "private trade" was carried on by individual employees of the Company, they had to rely on capital from native merchants/bankers - who were able to use the Englishmen as fronts/shell companies to gain the tax benefit. This resulted in many strong relationships between the local merchant class and Company employees. The essay admits there is not enough quantitative evidence to estimate its impact, but the phenomenal growth of Calcutta is a pointer. "Calcutta totally eclipsed its rivals in Bengal during the first half of the 18th century. Its growth was meteoric as Indian merchants, artisans and labouring people moved into the area under British jurisdiction in large numbers."

The lines that follow remind me of SEZs:
"The dissemination of wealth among their subjects through dealings with Europeans was of course welcome, but if that wealth lay beyond the reach of the ruler within what amounted to a foreign enclave, if that enclave was growing very rapidly, and if some of the Europeans within that enclave seemed to be extending their range of activities, the challenge to the ruler's authority was unmistakeable. Calcutta in particular constituted such a challenge to the rulers of Bengal."

What was actually being traded in this private trade? How did the frictions play out? I shall have to resume some other time.

(This narrative relies too much on the Moghul tax exemption firman. Need to check if other factors were in play.)
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