Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Ravana mode of development – IX

Gandhi emphatically rejected modern ideas of instrumental rationality and alone among Indian politicians rejected the external trappings of power. He eschewed security all his life even when a bomb was thrown at him 10 days before his eventual assassination, refusing to be intimidated by 'a mere bomb' and once said that being surrounded by security was 'living death'. The 'effeminate' Gandhi seems to have been far more courageous than today's 'masculine' politicians who measure their power and prestige by the number of gun-toting commandos around them.

Over the last couple of decades, the privileged have opted out of many public services. So for eg., many use courier services, use expensive private hospitals instead of government hospitals, stay in exclusive residential communities with private security guards,etc. The public services are poor so it is natural that those who can afford it will use the private alternative. But the rich and the poor leading increasingly separate lives creates a long-term problem that is difficult to solve. I realized this only a couple of years ago when I read Justice by Michael Sandel where he writes:
This has two bad effects, one fiscal, the other civic. First, public services deteriorate, as those who no longer use those services become less willing to support them with their taxes. Second, public institutions such as schools, parks, playgrounds, and community centres cease to be places where people from different walks of life encounter one another. Institutions that once gathered people together and served as informal schools of civic virtue become few and far between. The hollowing out of the public realm makes it difficult to cultivate the solidarity and sense of community on which democratic citizenship depends.
Granted that there have been significant achievements since independence, not least of which is the maintenance of democracy (however flawed) for the most part despite the diversity of religions, languages and cultures. A fifth of India lives well (which includes me) and a fifth of India is bigger than most countries in the world. But the mode of development has ended up creating what Amartya Sen called ‘islands of California amid oceans of sub-Saharan Africa’. The majority of the people will always remain enslaved – this ’development’ can only be in this fashion.  Much is made of  GDP growth in terms of which India has been ranked at or near the top for many years but in terms of per capita GDP, India remains one of the poorest countries in the world. And in term of broad social indices, India’s performance is not flattering at all.

Although India has much higher per capita income than Bangladesh, the latter fares better in certain social indices like life expectancy, infant mortality, enhanced immunization rates, etc. In the United Nations’ Human Development Report, India ranks much lower than Sri Lanka which got Independence more or less at the same time as us. The primary health and primary education systems are in a sorry state and the police are corrupt, inefficient and are oftentimes incredibly brutal. Atrocities against Dalits continue despite there being stringent laws against it.  Exiling the poor  from our conscience and consciousness is not going to solve the problem.

Gandhi preferred slow and steady changes brought about by patient, gritty work which had greater permanence rather than spectacular, short-term changes which were superficial. He knew that social change was difficult so he never tried to look too far ahead. He liked to say: “The distant scene I do not care to see, one step enough for me.” What happens today is exactly the opposite. I heard someone from NITI Aayog say that we should regularly 'disrupt' the system to create a 'better' system. The technology driven GST was rammed through even though millions of people have never used a computer. But the 'big bang reforms' grab headlines, the slow and steady moves don't.

An economy involves millions of transactions of different types. To reduce all of them into one indicative number results in losing all the qualitative information. Quality is much more difficult to deal with than quantity. If GDP has increased, it doesn't tell you who has benefited, whether the growth has been disruptive etc. Crowing about GDP without analyzing the social effects is self-defeating. As Gandhi once said, a nation's wealth cannot be estimated by 'the quantity of cash' it processes. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Antifragile:
As to growth in GDP, it can be obtained very easily by loading future generations with debt - and the future economy may collapse upon the need to repay such debt. GDP growth, like cholesterol, seems to be a Procrustean bed reduction that has been used to game systems. So just as, for a plane that has a high risk of crashing, the notion of "speed" is irrelevant, since we know it may not get to its destination, economic growth with fragilities is not to be called growth, something that has not yet been understood by governments. Indeed, growth was very modest, less than 1% per head, throughout the golden years surrounding the Industrial Revolution, the period that propelled Europe into domination. But low as it was, it was robust growth - unlike the current fools' race of states shooting for growth like teenage drivers infatuated with speed. 
One BJP spokesman said, 'Statistics don't lie.' On the contrary, if you want to sound sophisticated while lying, use statistics. Per capita GDP is an average figure and like all averages, conceal more than they reveal. They are used by politicians like a drunkard uses a lamppost – more for support than for illumination. An Oxfam report showed that the richest 1% held 58% of all the wealth in India. Such a skewed distribution makes averages meaningless. This is illustrated by the joke that when Bill Gates enters an old-age home, all inmates are millionaires on average.

Farmers have committed suicide when monsoons have been good and when they have been bad. The rate of farmer suicides is much higher in Maharashtra which is one of the richer states than in poorer states like Bihar or Jharkhand. There have been farmer suicides in Punjab which has high farm productivity. If you rely on statistics to tell you about the reality on the ground, you are likely to be misled.  I heard that nowhere in the world is agriculture profitable without state subsidies. If this is true, then there is something foolish about a system whose end result is to make it unprofitable to produce items that are essential for life and profitable to produce items that are not essential for life.

In an essay called Reinventing Gandhi (part of the essay collection Debating Gandhi), Shiv Visvanathan writes, 'Modern professionalism is the perspective of an abstract mind that handles equations, files, and formulae as disembodied entities.' During his trial for sedition in 1922, Gandhi made a famous speech in which he said regarding the fondness of colonial officials for quoting statistics to show how much they have benefited Indians, 'No sophistry, no jugglery in figures, can explain away the evidence that the skeletons in many villages present to the naked eye.' If someone makes a similar statement today, it won't sound strange. He later on makes another observation which, after removing the colonial references, would sound apt today:
The greatest misfortune is that Englishmen and their Indian associates in the administration of the country do not know that they are engaged in the crime I have attempted to describe. I am satisfied that many English and Indian officials honestly believe that they are administering one of the best systems devised in the world and that India is making steady though slow progress. They do not know that a subtle but effective system of terrorism and an organized display of force on the one hand, and the deprivation of all powers of retaliation or self-defence on the other, have emasculated the people and induced in them the habit of simulation. 
I heard Ashis Nandy say that you can be casual when choosing your friends but you should be careful when choosing your enemies. This is because, if you become too obsessed with your enemy, you eventually come to resemble him. The idea is conveyed by the title of one of his books: 'The Intimate Enemy'. In this sense, the colonialism that began after August 1947 is more dangerous than the earlier period of colonialism. The structures of governance, the relationship of the people with the State, etc., are as they were in colonial times. It was an eventuality that Gandhi had warned about in Hind Swaraj and is playing itself out faithfully.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Ravana mode of development – VIII

I keep hearing from people from large cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, etc., that there are more roads and flyovers but traffic jams are the same or worse. This is to be expected because of a  concept called induced demand, which is an economist's jargon for when increasing the supply of something (like roads) makes people want that thing even more. New roads will create new drivers, resulting in the intensity of traffic staying the same. As long as driving on the roads remains easy and cheap, people will use it more. Even with more and better public transport, if more roads are built, traffic congestion doesn’t ease.

What’s interesting is that the effect works in reverse too. Whenever some city proposes taking lanes away from a road, residents scream that they’re going to create  huge traffic jams. But nothing truly terrible happens. The amount of traffic on the road simply re-adjusts and overall congestion doesn’t really increase. Cities like Paris, San Fransisco and Seoul have tried it. Traffic didn’t get worse and many other things, including pollution, got better. Some people take public transport, some people drive less and a new equilibrium is reached whose conditions are not very different from that of the old equilibrium.

A lot of effort is made for promoting 'spiritual tourism' by beautifying and improving facilities at pilgrimage sites. But improving accessibility to and conveniences at holy places reduces their sanctity. Gandhi saw the problem over a century ago when he said in Hind Swaraj, 'The holy places of India have become unholy. Formerly, people went to these places with very great difficulty. Generally, therefore, only the real devotees visited such places. Nowadays rogues visit them in order to practise their roguery.' (It is to be noted that while calling himself a true Hindu, Gandhi never visited temples for praying in his adult life nor did he construct any temples in his ashrams.)

I heard about a program called 'transforming India' organized by Niti Aayog which would no doubt have come up with rosy projections about the distant future. In  The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the penchant for making long-term projections came about because of MS Excel. Earlier, people had to make tedious calculations manually so they did not make projections beyond a year or two. Now they can just pull the table to the right and you get 10 year projections in a second. The more into the future you predict, the less they will conform to reality. As a quote variously attributed to Yogi Berra, Neils Bohr or Mark Twain says, 'It's Hard To make predictions, especially about the future.' The easier you make some things, the more hot air you get.

A similar problem happens due to cashless transactions. The easier you make it to pay, the more the tendency to make impulse purchases and you end up buying things you don't really need - good news for manufactures, not such good news for consumers (although it is marketed as being beneficial to the latter). Moreover, encouraging use of credit cards makes you more indebted making you more dependent on your job and thereby making you a 'better' slave. Making it easy to write and publish ends up producing what a school-teacher told me was 'a diarrhoea of words and a constipation of thought'. (What was that,once again? I haven't changed, is it? Hmm.) Again, Gandhi saw this when he wrote in Hind Swaraj, ‘Formerly, only a few men wrote valuable books. Now, anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people's minds.’

There is a naive faith that technology will solve all problems, that machines will give objective, unbiased outputs. This contention ignores the biases of the persons making the algorithms thus making their moral delusions institutionalized. By overvaluing algorithms, we can easily undervalue people and the non-human living world. In The Black Box Society, Frank Pasquale says about such ‘black boxes’ (complex automated calculation algorithms of which MS Excel is only one tool), ‘…attraction of the black box isn’t hard to understand. It promotes “automation bias,” an assumption that a machine- driven, software- enabled system is going to offer better results than human judgment. And when the stakes are high enough, automation bias can degenerate into wishful thinking or worse: opportunistic misuse of models to validate sharp business practises.’   Gandhi was very much aware of how concentration of power in the hands of experts perpetuates existing indignities and sought to resist it.

The problem with making things easy is also seen in the educational system. (I had written about this earlier.) Making question papers easy and correction lenient only encourages mediocrity. Any conscientious teacher knows that these are not the mechanical exercises they are sought to be made into and that a certain amount of subjectivity is required. As John Dryden wrote, 'errors, like straws, upon the surface flow; / He who would search for pearls must dive below.' One can understand why such changes are made - try to eliminate bias and favouritism. It again brings to mind why Gandhi was dismissive of the idea of trying to make institutions so perfect that they would obviate the need for the individual to be good. Systems are just external manifestations of a person's inner convictions.

Ogden Nash said, ‘The cow is of the bovine ilk;/  One end is moo, the other, milk.‘ In India, it is a bit more than that. Whenever there is some controversy over beef eating, RSS/BJP will say that Gandhi also wanted to protect the cow thereby implying that their actions are in tune with Gandh's thinking. Gandhi has made objectionable statements on certain issues but it is always better to check what exactly he said and how his views changed over time. (All 100 volumes of 'The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi' are online.) As Georg Christoph Lichtenberg said, 'The most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth.'

He was not an admirer of consistency and said so a few times. He said in 1930, 'I ...endorse Emerson's saying that 'Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.'' Young India in 1931: 'Seeming consistency may really be sheer obstinacy.' Sept 1939: 'At the time of writing I never think of what I have said before. My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result has been that I have grown from truth to truth". He would have liked the remark of Keynes who, when accused of having made a U-turn about something, said: ’When I find that I’ve been mistaken I change my mind: what do you do?’

Gandhi said on January 17, 1933, 'My language is aphoristic, it lacks precision. It is therefore open to several interpretations.' Take, for example, his speech on cow protection in Bettiah about Oct. 9, 1917, (as per the Collected Works),  when he was invited to lay the foundation-stone of a cow-shed. He began by saying, ‘ For the Hindus, this is sacred work. Protection of the cow is a primary duty for every Indian.’ But then, he went on to criticize how it was being done which was leading to riots and loss of property. Then he says:

Those who want to stop others from sinning must be free from sin themselves. Hindu society has been inflicting terrible cruelty on the cow and her progeny. The present condition of our cows is a direct proof of this. My heart bleeds when I see thousands of bullocks with no blood and flesh on them, their bones plainly visible beneath their skin, ill-nourished and made to carry excessive burdens, while the driver twists their tails and goads them on. I shudder when I see all this and ask myself how we can say anything to our Muslim friends so long as we do not refrain from such terrible violence...