Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Apple and the art of business

By Sreeram Chaulia

Since the ailing Steve Jobs announced his retirement from the chief executive position at Apple Inc last week, tributes have poured in to a giant of a business leader whose personality rivaled few others in corporate history.

Hailed as a genius who steered Apple from a down-in-the-dumps crisis in 1996 to the world's most valuable company (this year briefly surpassing ExxonMobil), Jobs' life imparts a message that individuals can make all the difference even in a complex and diversified global economy.

Of all the stunning insights Jobs has bequeathed, the basic one is that entrepreneurship is an art, rather than a science to be learnt through formal education or training. A college dropout like Microsoft's founder Bill Gates and Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg, Jobs read the pulse of consumers like no other business titan of our times, and did so in an uncanny and instinctive fashion without meticulous market surveys, focus group discussions, or commissioned research reports.

One quote that epitomizes Jobs is his response to a journalist when asked how thoroughly he had analyzed market moods and tastes before introducing the iPad tablet computer: "None. It's not the consumers' job to know what they want."

This arrogant statement upends the mythology of capitalism, wherein the "consumer is the king" and corporations compete to serve this master by peddling choices. Jobs' scintillating career demonstrates that the marketplace is essentially a creation and a construction of wants and desires, not an invention to satisfy consumers' own preferences.

Apple, now valued at over US$300 billion, is at the apex of designing new gadgets whose need is not necessarily felt by people ex ante, but which nevertheless become indispensable for millions of buyers after getting launched.

"Coolness" - an ineffable quality - separated Apple from its direct competitors as well as peers in other industries. From the day the Macintosh arrived in 1984 until the latest iterations of the iPhones, iPods and iPads, Jobs imbued in his production stable a magical touch that made their outputs objects of mass desire.

In assessing which model of an electronic device would "click" and emote with the consuming public, Jobs must have performed mental and psychological role plays wherein he became the market, and the market became him. If business leadership is about divining the market and its future shape beforehand, Jobs was a natural at it.

Apart from design cachets in Apple devices, which were premised on gut feelings about American and global popular culture and psyche, Jobs deployed daring marketing tricks, such as keeping the supply of new products scarce and limited and whetting the appetite of customers until they became ravenously hungry. Such a teasing marketing strategy was risky, as impatient consumers could have jumped ship and plumped for an alternative tablet computer or smart phone that was readily available without the agonizing wait.

But apart from technical know-how about logistics and supply chains, Jobs had the supreme artful confidence of a maestro to execute this approach, knowing that the hungry would salivate and wait for the "real thing" rather than substitutes that lacked the X-factor of Apple.

Apple probably has the lone distinction of counterfeits not only its specific products but of its entire stores and retail outlets, as seen in China this year. Even the recognizable facade of the Apple store was fabricated in numerous locations by conmen in just one area - Kunming - until the government clamped down. It shows that a strategy of setting up far fewer sales points than is actually warranted by the mushrooming consumer demand pays off (provided competitors lack your charisma and pulling power).

The way Apple entered and then cracked the Chinese market - which had hitherto been a wild goose chase for several Western technology firms - is worthy of business school case studies. Where literally every other starry eyed international technological firm had beaten a sullen retreat, Apple went into China with its colossal global reputation and tapped into the rising disposable purses of the world's second largest economy. Jobs, the demystifying business guru, silenced market analysts who used to highlight China's cultural peculiarities and how Western multinationals lacked the local discretionary knowledge to woo the Chinese buyer.

As the ultimate capitalist of our times, one who rivals the industrial-age Henry Ford in ambition and vision, Jobs' reading of the Chinese market revealed that culture and local idiosyncrasies can be overcome through global consciousness and integration into a seamless "world market" that defies nationalism and parochialism. With every buyer, including the upwardly mobile Chinese one, glued into the same materialistic dreams, globalization takes on a new universalizing force with companies like Apple at its nerve center.

Chrystia Freeland of Reuters has written about the "Apple economy" as a distinctive phenomenon that globalizes employment and life chances instead of confining them to workers within countries where corporations are headquartered. With the bulk its buyers, manufacturers, salespersons and assemblers coming from outside the United States, Apple under Jobs was the ultimate symbol of a new era in economic organization of the planet. Local identities remain entrenched in some spheres, but ever less so in the high-technology domain, where the likes of Jobs have rendered the nation-state a defunct unit of analysis.

Steve Jobs was like an orchestra conductor who had the command to sway the audience the way he wanted them. He was not an average soap opera producer who went by "what the people like to see". Similar to the great auteur Alfred Hitchcock, who confessed to "enjoying playing the audience like a piano", Jobs delighted in deciding what form and content daily-use technology should take, and the masses lapped up his confections.

Few business leaders can deny that they nurse inner urges to take the market to a different plane, beyond staying profitable within the existing parameters. The premature departure of Jobs (he is only 57-years-old) from active stewardship of the most admired company for innovation is an opportunity to examine what it takes for one individual to remake her or his profession or field. It is a moment to reflect on how the part can transform the whole through unconventional boldness and inspired imaginativeness.

Reminiscing about a low point in 1985, when he was forced to quit as CEO of Apple, a company he had co-founded in 1976, Jobs talked about "the lightness of being a beginner again". Each of us, regardless of the station of life, has a chance to become a "beginner again", unlearn received wisdom and think fresh. Jobs' take-home legacy is a lesson that creativity is within reach if the mind is attuned.

Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the first ever B Raman Fellow for Geopolitical Analysis at the Takshashila Institution. He is the author of the recent book, International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (I.B. Tauris, London)

This Jan Lokpal bill would increase the possibilities of the penetration of international capital in India - Arundhati Roy

In an exclusive interview, writer Arundhati Roy said there are serious concerns about the Jan Lokpal Bill, corporate funding, NGOs and even the role of the media.

Sagarika Ghose: Hello and welcome to the CNN-IBN special. The Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement has thrown up multiple voices. Many have been supportive of the movement, but there have been some who have been sceptical and raised doubts about the movement as well. One of these sceptical voices is writer Arundhati Roy who now joins us. Thanks very much indeed for joining us. In your article in 'The Hindu' published on August 21, entitled 'I'd rather not be Anna', you've raised many doubts about the Anna Hazare campaign. Now that the movement is over and the crowds have come and we've seen the massive size of those crowds, do you continue to be sceptical? And if so, why?

Arundhati Roy: Well, it's interesting that everybody seems to have gone away happy and everybody is claiming a massive victory. I'm kind of happy too, relieved I would say, mostly because I'm extremely glad that the Jan Lokpal Bill didn't go through Parliament in its current form. Yes, I continue to be sceptical for a whole number of reasons. Primary among them is the legislation itself, which I think is a pretty dangerous piece of work. So what you had was this very general mobilisation about corruption, using people's anger, very real and valid anger against the system to push through this very specific legislation or to attempt to push through this very specific piece of legislation which is very, very regressive according to me. But my scepticism ranges through a whole host of issues which has to do with history, politics, culture, symbolism, all of it made me extremely uncomfortable. I also thought that it had the potential to turn from something inclusive of what was being marketed and touted and being inclusive to something very divisive and dangerous. So I'm quite happy that it's over for now.

Sagarika Ghose: Just to come back to your article. You said that Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia have received $ 400,000 from the Ford foundation. That was one of the reasons that you were sceptical about this movement. Why did you make it a point to put in the fact that Arvind Kejriwal is funded by the Ford foundation.

Arundhati Roy: Just in order to point to the fact, a short article can just indicate the fact that it is in some way an NGO driven movement by Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal, Sisodia, all these people run NGOs. Three of the core members are Magsaysay award winners which are endowed by Ford foundation and Feller. I wanted to point to the fact that what is it about these NGOs funded by World Bank and Bank of Ford, why are they participating in sort of mediating what public policy should be? I actually went to the World Bank site recently and found that the World Bank runs 600 anti-corruption programmes just in places like Africa. Why is the World Bank interested in anti-corruption? I looked at five of the major points they made and I thought it was remarkable if you let me read them out:

1) Increasing political accountability
2) Strengthening civil society participation
3) Creating a competitive private sector
4) Instituting restraints on power
5) Improving public sector management

So, it explained to me why in the World Bank, Ford foundation, these people are all involved in increasing the penetration of international capital and so it explains why at a time when we are also worried about corruption, the major parts of what corruption meant in terms of corporate corruption, in terms of how NGOs and corporations are taking over the traditional functions of the government, but that whole thing was left out, but this is copy book World Bank agenda. They may not have meant it, but that's what's going on and it worries me a lot. Certainly Anna Hazare was picked up and propped up a sort of saint of the masses, but he wasn't driving the movement, he wasn't the brains behind the movement. I think this is something very pertinent that we really need to worry about.

Sagarika Ghose: So you don't see this as a genuine people's movement. You see it as a movement led by rich NGOs, funded by the World Bank to make India more welcoming of international capital?

Arundhati Roy: Well, I mean they are not funded by the World Bank, the Ford foundation is a separate thing. But just that I wouldn't have been this uncomfortable if I saw it as a movement that took into account the anger from the 2G Scam, from the Bellary mining, from CWG and then said 'Let's take a good look at who is corrupt, what are the forces behind it', but no, this fits in to a certain kind of template altogether and that worries me. It's not that I'm saying they are corrupt or anything, but I just find it worrying. It's not the same thing as the Narmada movement, it's the same thing as a people's movement that's risen from the bottom. It's very much something that, surely lots of people joined it, all of them were not BJP, all of them were not middle-class, many of them came to a sort of reality show that was orchestrated by even a very campaigning media, but what was this bill about? This bill was very, very worrying to me.

Sagarika Ghose: We'll come to the bill in just a bit but before that I want to bring in another controversial statement in your article which has sparked a great deal of controversy among even your old associates Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhushan, where you said, 'Both the Maoists and Jan Lokpal Movement have one thing in common, they both seek the overthrow of the Indian state.' Why do you believe that the movement for the Jan Lokpal Bill is similar to the Maoist movement in seeking the overthrow of the Indian state?

Arundhati Roy: Well, let's separate the movement from the bill, as I said that I don't even believe that most people knew exactly what the provisions of the bill were, those who were part of the movement, very few in the media and on the ground. But if you study that bill carefully, you see the creation of a parallel oligarchy. You see that the Jan Lokpal itself, the ten people, the bench plus the chairman, they are selected by a pool of very elite people and they are elite people, I mean if you look at one of the phases which says the search committee, the committee which is going to shortlist the names of the people who will be chosen for the Jan Lokpal will shortlist from eminent individuals of such class of people whom they deem fit. So you create this panel from this pool, and then you have a bureaucracy which has policing powers, the power to tap your phones, the power to prosecute, the power to transfer, the power to judge, the power to do things which are really, and from the Prime Minister down to the bottom, it's really like a parallel power, which has lost the accountability, whatever little accountability a representative government might have, but I'm not one of those who is critiquing it from the point of view of say someone like Aruna Roy, who has a less draconian version of the bill, I'm talking about it from a different point of view altogether of firstly, the fact that we need to define what do we mean by corruption, and then what does it mean to those who are disempowered and disenfranchised to get two oligarchies instead of one raiding over them.

Sagarika Ghose: So do you believe that the leaders of this movement were misleading the crowds who came for the protest because they were not there simply as an anti-corruption movement, they were there to campaign for the Jan Lokpal Bill and if people knew what the Jan Lokpal Bill was all about, in your opinion, setting up this huge bureaucratic monster, many of those people might well have not come for the movement, so do you feel that the leaders were misleading the people?

Arundhati Roy: I can't say that they were deliberately misleading people because of course, that bill on the net, if anybody wanted to read it could read it. So I can't say that. But I think that the anger about corruption became so widespread and generalised that nobody looked at what, there was a sort of dissonance between the specific legislation and the anger that was bringing people there. So, you have a situation in which you have this powerful oligarchy with the powers of prosecution surveillance, policing. In the bill there's a small section which says budget, and the budget is 0.25 per cent of the Government of India's revenues, that works out to something like Rs 2000 crore. There's no break up, nobody is saying how many people will be employed, how are they going to be chosen so that they are not corrupt, you know, it's a sketch, it's a pretty terrifying sketch. It's not even a realised piece of legislation. I think that, in a way the best thing that could have happened has happened that you have the bill and you have other versions of the bill and you have the time to now look at it and see whatever, I just want to keep saying that I'm not, my position in all this is not to say we need policing and better law. I'm a person who's asking and has asked for many years for fundamental questions about injustice, which is why I keep saying let's talk about what we mean by corruption.

Sagarika Ghose: And you believe that the reason why this movement is misconceived is because it's centered around this Jan Lokpal Bill?

Arundhati Roy: Yes, not just that, I think centrally, that I was saying earlier, can we discuss what we mean by corruption. Is it just financial irregularity or is it the currency of social transaction in a very unequal society? So if you can give me 2 minutes, I'll tell you what I mean. For example, corruption, some people, poor people in villages have to pay bribes to get their ration cards, to get their NREGA dues from very powerful vested interests. Then you a middleclass, you have honest businessmen who cannot run an honest business because of all sorts of reasons, they are out there angry. You have a middleclass which actually bribes to buy itself scarce favours and on the top you have the corporations, the politicians looting millions and mines and so on. But you also have a huge number of people who are outside the legal framework because they don't have pattas, they live in slums, they don't have legal housing, they are selling their wares on redis, so they are illegal and in an anti-corruption law, an anti-corruption law is naturally sort of pinned to an accepted legality. So you can talk about the rule of law when all your laws are designed to perpetuate the inequality that exists in Indian society. If you're not going to question that, I'm really not someone who is that interested in the debate then.

Sagarika Ghose: So fundamentally it's about service delivery to the poorest of the poor, it's about ensuring justice to the poorest of the poor, without that a whole bureaucratic infrastructure is meaningless?

Arundhati Roy: Well Yes, but you know as I said in my article, supposing you're selling your samosas on a 'rehdi' (cart) in a city where only malls are legal, then you pay the local policemen, are you going to have to now pay to the Lokpal too? You know corruption is a very complicated issue.

Sagarika Ghose: But what about the provisions for the lower bureaucracy. The lower bureaucracy is going to be brought into the Lokpal, they're going to have a state level Lokayukta, so there is an attempt within the Lokpal Bill to go right down to the level of the poorest of the poor and then you can police even those functionaries who deal with the very poor. So don't you have hope that there, at least, it could be regularised because of this bill?

Arundhati Roy: I think that part of the bill will be interesting, I think it's very complicated because the troubles that are besetting our country today are not going to be solved by policing and by complaint booths alone. But, at the lower level, I think we have to come up with something where you can assure people that you're not going to set up another bureaucracy which is going to be equally corrupt. When you have one brother in BJP, one brother in Congress, one brother in police, one brother in Lokpal, I would like to see how that's going to be managed, this law is very sketchy about that.

Sagarika Ghose: But just to come back to the movement again, don't you think that the political class has become corrupt and has become venal and you have a movement like this it does function as a wake up call?

Arundhati Roy: To some extent yes, but I think by focusing on the political class and leaving out the corporations, the media that they own, the NGOs that are taking over, governmental functions like health, you know corporates are now dealing with what government used to deal with. Why are they left out? So I think a much more comprehensive view would have made me comfortable even though I keep saying that for me the real issue is what is it that has created a society in which 830 million people live on less than Rs 20 a day and you have more people and all of the poor countries of Africa put together.

Sagarika Ghose: So basically what you're saying is that laws are not the way to tackle corruption and to tackle injustice. It's not through laws, it's not through legal means, we have to do it through much more decentralisation of power, much more outreach at the lowest level?

Arundhati Roy: I think first you have to question the structure. You see if there is a structural inequality happening, and you are not questioning that, and you're in fact fighting for laws that make that structural inequality more official, we have a problem. To give an example, I was just on the Chhattisgarh-Andhra Pradesh border where the refugees from Operation Greenhunt have come out and underneath. So for them the issue is not whether Tata gave a bribe on his mining or Vedanta didn't give a bribe in his mining. The problem is that there is a huge problem in terms of how the mineral and water and forest wealth of India is being privatised, is being looted, even if it were non corrupt, there is a problem. So that's why we're just not coolly talking about Dantewada, there are many a places I mean what's happening in Posco, in Kalinganagar . So this is not battles against corruption. There's something very, very serious going on. None of these issues were raised or even alluded to somehow.

Sagarika Ghose: So basically what you're saying is that it is not the battle against corruption which is the primary battle, it's the battle for justice that has to be the primary battle in India. Just to come back to the point about the law, many have said that this is a process of pre-legislative consultation, that all over the world now civil society groups, I know you don't like that word, are co-operating with the government in law making and a movement like this institutionalises that, institutionalises civil society groups coming into the law making process. Doesn't that make you hopeful about this movement?

Arundhati Roy: In principal, yes, but when a movement like this which has been constructed in the way that it has, you can talk about, sort of calls itself the people or civil society and says that it's representing all of civil society. I would say there's a problem there and it depends on the law. So right now I think the good thing that has happened is that the Jan Lokpal Bill which probably has some provisions that will make it into the final law, is one of the many bills that will be debated. So, yes, that's a good thing. But if it had just gone through in this way, I wouldn't be saying yes, that's a good thing.

Sagarika Ghose: Let's talk about the media. You've been very critical about the media and the way the media, particularly broadcast media has covered this movement, do you believe that if the media had not given it this kind of time, this movement simply wouldn't have taken off? Do you believe that it's a media manufactured movement?

Arundhati Roy: Well, I'm not going to say that's entirely media manufactured. I think that was one of the big factors in it. There was also mobilisation from the BJP and the RSS, which they've admitted to. I think the media, I don't know when before campaigned for something in this way where every other kind of news was pushed out and for ten days, you had only this news. In this nation of one billion people, the media didn't find anything else to report and it campaigned, not everybody, but certainly certain major television channels campaigned and said they were campaigning, they said, 'We're the channel through whom Anna speaks to the people and so on. Now firstly to me that's a form of corruption in the first place where presumably, a broadcast licence as a news channel has to do with reporting news, not campaigning. But even if you are campaigning and the only reason that everybody was reporting it was TRP ratings, then why not just settle for pornography or sadomasochism or whatever gives good TRP ratings. How can news channels just abandon every other piece of news and just concentrate on this for 10 days? You know how much of spot ad costs on TV, what kind of a price would you put on this? Why was it doing this? Per se if media campaigns had to do with social justice, if the media spent 10 days campaigning on why more than a lakh farmers have committed suicide in this country, I'd be glad because I would say okay, this is the job of the media. It is like the old saying - to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

Sagarika Ghose: But don't you think one man taking on the might of the government is a big story and don't you think that that deserves to be covered?

Arundhati Roy: No, I don't. For all the sorts of reasons that I've said, it was one man trying to push through a regressive piece of legislation.

Sagarika Ghose: Let's come to the role of the RSS which you have also eluded to. You've spoken about the role of aggressive nationalism or Vande Mataram being chanted, of the RSS saying that we're involved in this particular movement, but then your old associates Prashant Bhushan and Medha Patkar are in this movement as well. Is it fair to completely dub this movement as an RSS Hindu right wing movement?

Arundhati Roy: I haven't done that though some people have. But I think it's an interesting question to talk about symbolism and this movement. For example, what is the history of Vande Mataram? Vande Mataram first occurred in this book by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in 1882, it became a part of a sort of war cry at the time of partition of Bengal and since then, since in 1937 Tagore said it's a very unsuitable national anthem, very divisive, it's got a long communal history. So what does it mean when huge crowds are chanting that? When you take up the national flag, when you're fighting colonialism, it means one thing. When you're a supposedly free nation that national flag is always about exclusion and not inclusion. You took up that flag and the state was paralysed. A state which is not scared of slaughtering people in the dark, suddenly was paralysed. You talk about the fact that it was a non violent movement, yes, because the police were disarmed. They just were too scared to do anything. You had Bharat Mata's photo first and then it was replaced by Gandhi. You had people who were openly part of the Manovadi Krantikari Aandolan there. So you have this cocktail of very dangerous things going on, you had other kinds of symbolism. Imagine Gandhi going to a private hospital after his fast. A private hospital that symbolises the withdrawal of the state from healthcare for the poor. A private hospital where the doctors charge a lakh every time they inhale and exhale. The symbolisms were dangerous and if this movement had not ended in this way, it could have turned extremely dangerous. What you had was a lot of people, I'm not going to say they were only RSS, I'm not going to say they were only middle-class, I'm not going to say they were only urban. But yes, they were largely more well off than most people who have been struggling on the streets and facing bullets in this country for a long time. But in some odd way the victims and the perpetrators of corruption of the recipients of the fruits of modern development, they were all there together. There were contradictions that could not have been held together for much longer without them just tearing apart.

Sagarika Ghose: But weren't you impressed by the sheer size of the crowd? Weren't you impressed by the spontaneity of the crowd? The fact that people came out, they voiced their anger, they voiced their protest, surely it can't just all be boxed into one shade of opinion.

Arundhati Roy: Should I tell you something Sagarika? I have seen much larger crowds in Kashmir. I have seen much larger crowds even in Delhi. Nobody reported them. They were then only called 'traffic jam bana diya inhone'. I was not impressed by the size of the crowds apart from the fact that I'm not that kind of a person. I'm sure there were larger crowds chanting for the demolition of the Babri Masjid, would that be fine by us? It's not about numbers.

Sagarika Ghose: Is that how you see this movement? You see it as a kind of Ram Janmabhoomi Part 2?

Arundhati Roy: No, not at all. I've said what I feel. That would be stupid for me to say. But I see it as something potentially quite worrying, quite dangerous. So I think we all need to go back and think a lot about what was going on there and not come to easy conclusions and easy condemnations, I think we really need to think about what was going on there, how it was caused, how it happened, what are the good things, what are the bad things, some serious thinking. But certainly I'm not the kind of person who just goes and gets impressed by a crowd regardless of what it's saying, regardless of what it's chanting, regardless of what it's asking for.

Sagarika Ghose: But what about the persona of Anna Hazare? Many would say that he evoked a certain different era, he evoked the era of the freedom struggle, he is a simple Gandhian, he does lead a very austere life, he lives in a small room behind a temple and his persona of what he is evokes a certain moral power perhaps which is needed in an India which is facing a moral crisis.

Arundhati Roy: I think Anna Hazare was a sort of empty vessel in which you could pour whatever meaning you wanted to pour in, unlike someone like Gandhi who was very much his own man on the stage of the world. Anna Hazare certainly is his own man in his village, but here he was not in charge of what was going on. That was very evident. As for who he is and what his affiliations and antecedents have been, again I'm worried.

Sagarika Ghose: Why are you worried?

Arundhati Roy: Some of things that one has read and found out about, his attitude towards Harijans, that every village must have one 'chamaar' and one 'sunaar' and one 'kumhaar', that's gandhian in some ways, you know Gandhi had this very complicated and very problematic attitude to the caste system, anyone who knows about the debates between Gandhi and Ambedkar will tell you that. But what I'm saying is eventually we live in a very complicated society. You have a strong left edition which doesn't know what to do with the caste system. You have the Gandhians who are also very odd about the caste system. You have our deeply frightening communal politics, you have this whole new era of new liberalism and the penetration of international capital. This movement just did not know the beginning of its morals. It could have ended badly because nobody really, you know, you choose something like corruption, it's a pot into which everyone can piss, anti-left, pro-left, right, I mean, I was in Hyderabad, Jagan Mohan Reddy who was at that time being raided by the CBI was one of his great supporters. Naveen Patnaik…

Sagarika Ghose: But isn't that its strength? It's an inclusive agenda. Anti-corruption movement brings people in.

Arundhati Roy: It's a meaningless thing when you have highly corrupt corporations funding an anti-corruption movement, what does this mean? And trying to set up an oligarchy which actually neatens the messy business of democracy and representative democracy however bad it is. Certainly it's a comment on the fact that our country suffering from a failure of representative democracy, people don't believe that their politicians really represent them anymore, there isn't a single democratic institution that is accessible to ordinary people. So what you have is a solution which isn't going to address the problem.

Sagarika Ghose: So a corporate funded movement which seeks to lessen the power of the democratic state and seeks to reduce the power of the democratic state?

Arundhati Roy: I would say that this bill would increase the possibilities of the penetration of international capital which has led to a huge crisis in the first place in this country.

Sagarika Ghose: Just on a different note, what do you think of the fast-unto-death? Many have criticised it as a 'Brahamastra' which shouldn't be easily deployed in political agitations, Gandhi used it only as a last resort. What is your view of the hunger strike or the fast-unto-death?

Arundhati Roy: Look the whole world is full of people who are killing themselves, who are threatening to kill themselves in different ways. From a suicide bomber to the people who are immolating themselves on Telangana and all that. Frankly, I'm not one of those people who's going to stand and give a lecture about the constitutionality of resistance because I'm not that person. For me it's about what are you doing it for. That's my real question - what are you doing it for? Who are you doing it for? And why are you doing it? Other than that I think I personally believe that there are things going on in this world that you really need to stand up and resist in whatever way you can. But I'm not interested in a fast-unto-death for the Jan Lokpal Bill frankly.

Sagarika Ghose: So what is your solution then. How would you fight corruption?

Arundhati Roy: Sagarika, I'm telling you that corruption is not my big issue right now. I'm not a reformist person who will tell you how to cleanse the Indian state. I'm going on and on in all the 10 years that I've written about nuclear powers, about nuclear bombs, about big dams, about this particular model of development, about displacement, about land acquisition, about mining, about privatisation, these are the things I want to talk about. I'm not the doctor to tell the Indian state how to improve itself.

Sagarika Ghose: So corruption really does not concern you in that sense?

Arundhati Roy: No, it does, but not in this narrow way. I'm concerned about the absolutely disgusting inequality in the society that we live in.

Sagarika Ghose: And this movement has done nothing to touch that. What precedents has it set for protest movements in the future? Do you think this movement has set a precedent for protest movements in the future?

Arundhati Roy: For protest movements of the powerful, protests movements where the media is on your side, protests movements where the government is scared of you, protest movements where the police disarm themselves, how many movements are there going to be like that? I don't know. While you're talking about this, the army is getting ready to move into Central India to fight the poorest people in this country, and I can tell you they are not disarmed. So, I don't know what lessons you can draw from a protest movement that has privileges that no other protest movement I've ever known has had.

Sagarika Ghose: Just to re-emphasise the point about Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhushan, these are old time associates of yours in activism. They are deeply involved in this particular movement. How do you react to them being involved in this movement of which, you're so critical?

Arundhati Roy: With some dismay because Prashant is a very close friend of mine and I respect Medha a lot, but I think that their credibility has been cashed in on in some ways, but I feel bad that they are part of it.

Sagarika Ghose: You have voiced fears in your article as well that in some ways, this movement and this bill is an attempt to diminish the powers of the democratic government and to reduce the discretionary powers of the democratic government. So you feel that this is a corporate funded exercise to reduce the powers of the democratically elected government?

Arundhati Roy: Well not corporate funded, but there's a sort of IMF World Bank way of looking at it, fuelling this whole path because if you remember in the early 90s when they began on this path of liberalisation and privatisation. The government itself kept saying, 'Oh, we're so corrupt. We need a systemic change, we can't not be corrupt,' and that systemic change was privatisation. When privatisation has shown itself to be more corrupt than, I mean the levels of corruption have jumped so high, the solution is not systemic. It's either moral or it's more privatisation, more reforms. People are calling for the second round of reforms for the removal of the discretionary powers of the government. So I think that's a very interesting that you're not looking at it structurally, you're looking at it morally and you're trying to push whatever few controls there are or took the way once again for the penetration of international capital.

Sagarika Ghose: But people like Nandan Nilekani have argued this movement and this bill could stop reforms actually. It could actually put an end to the reforms process by instituting this big bureaucratic infrastructure - this inspector raj. But you don't go along with that. You believe that this is a way of taking the reforms agenda forward.

Arundhati Roy: I think it depends on who captures that bureaucracy. That's why I'm worried about this combination of sort of Ford funded NGO world and the RSS and that sort of world coming together in a kind of crossroads. Those two things are very frightening because you create a bureaucracy which can then be controlled, which has Rs 2000 crore or whatever, 0.25 per cent of the revenues of the Government of India at its disposal, policing powers, all of this. So it's a way of side-stepping the messy business of democracy.

Sagarika Ghose: That's interesting the combination of Ford funded NGOs, rich NGOs and the Hindu mass organisations. That's the combination that you see here and that's what makes you uneasy.

Arundhati Roy: yes, and when you look at the World Bank agenda, it's 600 anti-corruption plans and projects and what it says, what it believes, then it just becomes as clear as day what's going on here.

Sagarika Ghose: And what is going on, just to push you on that one?

Arundhati Roy: What I said, that you stop concentrating on the corruption of government officers when you know of governments, politicians, and leaving out the huge corporate world, the media, the NGOs who have taken over traditional government functions of electricity, water, mining, health, all of that. Why concentrate on this and not on that? I think that's a very, very big problem.

Sagarika Ghose: So it was a protest movement of the entitled and the protest movement of the privileged. Arundhati Roy thanks very much indeed for joining us.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Why you won't find the meaning of life

By Spengler

Much as I admire the late Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who turned his horrific experience at Auschwitz into clinical insights, the notion of "man's search for meaning" seems inadequate. Just what about man qualifies him to search for meaning, whatever that might be?

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht warned us against the practice in The Threepenny Opera:
Ja, renne nach dem Gluck
Doch renne nicht zu sehr
Denn alle rennen nach dem Gluck
Das Gluck lauft hinterher.

(Sure, run after happiness, but don't run too hard, because while everybody's running after happiness, it moseys along somewhere behind them).

Brecht (1898-1956) was the kind of character who gave Nihilism a bad name, to be sure, but he had a point. There is something perverse in searching for the meaning of life. It implies that we don't like our lives and want to discover something different. If we don't like living to begin with, we are in deep trouble.

Danish philosopher, theologian and religious author Soren Kierkegaard portrayed his Knight of Faith as the sort of fellow who enjoyed a pot roast on Sunday afternoon. If that sort of thing doesn't satisfy us (feel free to substitute something else than eating), just what is it that we had in mind?

People have a good reason to look at life cross-eyed, because it contains a glaring flaw - that we are going to die, and we probably will become old and sick and frail before we do so. All the bric-a-brac we accumulate during our lifetimes will accrue to other people, if it doesn't go right into the trash, and all the little touches of self-improvement we added to our personality will disappear - the golf stance, the macrame skills, the ability to play the ukulele and the familiarity with the filmography of Sam Pekinpah.

These examples trivialize the problem, of course. If we search in earnest for the meaning of life, then we might make heroic efforts to invent our own identity. That is the great pastime of the past century's intellectuals. Jean-Paul Sartre, the sage and eventual self-caricature of Existentialism, instructed us that man's existence precedes his essence, and therefore can invent his own essence more or less as he pleases. That was a silly argument, but enormously influential.

Sartre reacted to the advice of Martin Heidegger (the German existentialist from whom Jean-Paul Sartre cribbed most of his metaphysics). Heidegger told us that our "being" really was being-unto-death, for our life would end, and therefore is shaped by how we deal with the certainty of death. (Franz Kafka put the same thing better: "The meaning of life is that it ends.") Heidegger (1889-1976) thought that to be "authentic" mean to submerge ourselves into the specific conditions of our time, which for him meant joining the Nazi party. That didn't work out too well, and after the war it became every existentialist for himself. Everyone had the chance to invent his own identity according to taste.

Few of us actually read Sartre (and most of us who do regret it), and even fewer read the impenetrable Heidegger, whom I have tried to make more accessible by glossing his thought in Ebonics (The secret that Leo Strauss never revealed, Asia Times Online, May 13, 2003.) But most of us remain the intellectual slaves of 20th century existentialism notwithstanding. We want to invent our own identities, which implies doing something unique.

This has had cataclysmic consequences in the arts. To be special, an artist must create a unique style, which means that there will be as many styles as artists. It used to be that artists were trained within a culture, so that thousands of artists and musicians painted church altar pieces and composed music for Sunday services for the edification of ordinary church-goers.

Out of such cultures came one or two artists like Raphael or Bach. Today's serious artists write for a miniscule coterie of aficionados in order to validate their own self-invention, and get university jobs if they are lucky, inflicting the same sort of misery on their students. By the time they reach middle age, most artists of this ilk come to understand that they have not found the meaning of life. In fact, they don't even like what they are doing, but as they lack professional credentials to do anything else, they keep doing it.

The high art of the Renaissance or Baroque, centered in the churches or the serious theater, has disappeared. Ordinary people can't be expected to learn a new style every time they encounter the work of a new artist (neither can critics, but they pretend to). The sort of art that appeals to a general audience has retreated into popular culture. That is not the worst sort of outcome. One of my teachers observes that the classical style of composition never will disappear, because the movies need it; it is the only sort of music that can tell a story.

Most people who make heroic efforts at originality learn eventually that they are destined for no such thing. If they are lucky, they content themselves with Kierkegaard's pot roast on Sunday afternoon and other small joys, for example tenure at a university. But no destiny is more depressing than that of the artist who truly manages to invent a new style and achieve recognition for it.

He recalls the rex Nemorensis, the priest of Diana at Nemi who according to Ovid won his office by murdering his predecessor, and will in turn be murdered by his eventual successor. The inventor of a truly new style has cut himself off from the past, and will in turn be cut off from the future by the next entrant who invents a unique and individual style.

The only thing worse than searching in vain for the meaning of life within the terms of the 20th century is to find it, for it can only be a meaning understood by the searcher alone, who by virtue of the discovery is cut off from future as well as past. That is why our image of the artist is a young rebel rather than an elderly sage. If our rebel artists cannot manage to die young, they do the next best thing, namely disappear from public view, like J D Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. The aging rebel is in the position of Diana's priest who sleeps with sword in hand and one eye open, awaiting the challenger who will do to him what he did to the last fellow to hold the job.

Most of us have no ambitions to become the next Jackson Pollack or Damien Hirst. Instead of Heidegger's being-unto-death, we acknowledge being-unto-cosmetic surgery, along with exercise, Botox and anti-oxidants. We attempt to stay young indefinitely. Michael Jackson, I argued in a July 2009 obituary, became a national hero because more than any other American he devoted his life to the goal of remaining an adolescent. His body lies moldering in the grave (in fact, it was moldering long before it reached the grave) but his spirit soars above an America that proposes to deal with the problem of mortality by fleeing from it. (See Blame Michael Jackson Asia Times Online, July 14, 2009.)

A recent book by the sociologist Eric Kaufmann (Will the Religious Inherit the Earth?) makes the now-common observation that secular people have stopped having children. As a secular writer, he bewails this turn of events, but concedes that it has occurred for a reason: "The weakest link in the secular account of human nature is that it fails to account for people's powerful desire to seek immortality for themselves and their loved ones."

Traditional society had to confront infant mortality as well as death by hunger, disease and war. That shouldn't be too troubling, however: "We may not be able to duck death completely, but it becomes so infrequent that we can easily forget about it."

That is a Freudian slip for the record books. Contrary to what Professor Kaufmann seems to be saying, the mortality rate for human beings remains at 100%, where it always was. But that is not how we think about it. We understand the concept of death, just not as it might apply to us.

If we set out to invent our own identities, then by definition we must abominate the identities of our parents and our teachers. Our children, should we trouble to bring any into the world, also will abominate ours. If self-invention is the path to the meaning of life, it makes the messy job of bearing and raising children a superfluous burden, for we can raise our children by no other means than to teach them contempt for us, both by instruction, and by the example of set in showing contempt to our own parents.

That is why humanity has found no other way to perpetuate itself than by the continuity of tradition. A life that is worthwhile is one that is worthwhile in all its phases, from youth to old age. Of what use are the elderly? In a viable culture they are the transmitters of the accumulated wisdom of the generations. We will take the trouble to have children of our own only when we anticipate that they will respect us in our declining years, not merely because they tolerate us, but because we will have something yet to offer to the young.

In that case, we do not discover the meaning of life. We accept it, rather, as it is handed down to us. Tradition by itself is no guarantee of cultural viability. Half of the world's 6,700 languages today are spoken by small tribes in New Guinea, whose rate of extinction is frightful. Traditions perfected over centuries of isolated existence in Neolithic society can disappear in a few years in the clash with modernity. But there are some traditions in the West that have survived for millennia and have every hope of enduring for millennia still.

For those of you who still are searching for the meaning of life, the sooner you figure out that the search itself is the problem, the better off you will be. Since the Epic of Gilgamesh in the third millennium BC, our search has not been for meaning, but for immortality. And as the gods told Gilgamesh, you can't find immortality by looking for it. Better to find a recipe for pot roast.

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. View comments on this article in Spengler's Expat Bar forum.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist

Academic publishers charge vast fees to access research paid for by us. Down with the knowledge monopoly racketeers
  • College Students Library
    'Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets.' Photograph: Peter M Fisher/Corbis
    Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the western world? Whose monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist? You won't guess the answer in a month of Sundays. While there are plenty of candidates, my vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but – wait for it – to academic publishers. Theirs might sound like a fusty and insignificant sector. It is anything but. Of all corporate scams, the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities. Everyone claims to agree that people should be encouraged to understand science and other academic research. Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a "keep out" sign on the gates. You might resent Murdoch's paywall policy, in which he charges £1 for 24 hours of access to the Times and Sunday Times. But at least in that period you can read and download as many articles as you like. Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier's journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That'll be $31.50. Daniel Pudles illo Illustration by Daniel Pudles Of course, you could go into the library (if it still exists). But they too have been hit by cosmic fees. The average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is $3,792. Some journals cost $10,000 a year or more to stock. The most expensive I've seen, Elsevier's Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, is $20,930. Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets, which means they have had to reduce the number of books they buy. Journal fees account for a significant component of universities' costs, which are being passed to their students. Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose. The returns are astronomical: in the past financial year, for example, Elsevier's operating profit margin was 36% (£724m on revenues of £2bn). They result from a stranglehold on the market. Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, who have bought up many of their competitors, now publish 42% of journal articles. More importantly, universities are locked into buying their products. Academic papers are published in only one place, and they have to be read by researchers trying to keep up with their subject. Demand is inelastic and competition non-existent, because different journals can't publish the same material. In many cases the publishers oblige the libraries to buy a large package of journals, whether or not they want them all. Perhaps it's not surprising that one of the biggest crooks ever to have preyed upon the people of this country – Robert Maxwell – made much of his money through academic publishing. The publishers claim that they have to charge these fees as a result of the costs of production and distribution, and that they add value (in Springer's words) because they "develop journal brands and maintain and improve the digital infrastructure which has revolutionised scientific communication in the past 15 years". But an analysis by Deutsche Bank reaches different conclusions. "We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process … if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn't be available." Far from assisting the dissemination of research, the big publishers impede it, as their long turnaround times can delay the release of findings by a year or more. What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning. It's bad enough for academics, it's worse for the laity. I refer readers to peer-reviewed papers, on the principle that claims should be followed to their sources. The readers tell me that they can't afford to judge for themselves whether or not I have represented the research fairly. Independent researchers who try to inform themselves about important scientific issues have to fork out thousands. This is a tax on education, a stifling of the public mind. It appears to contravene the universal declaration of human rights, which says that "everyone has the right freely to … share in scientific advancement and its benefits". Open-access publishing, despite its promise, and some excellent resources such as the Public Library of Science and the physics database, has failed to displace the monopolists. In 1998 the Economist, surveying the opportunities offered by electronic publishing, predicted that "the days of 40% profit margins may soon be as dead as Robert Maxwell". But in 2010 Elsevier's operating profit margins were the same (36%) as they were in 1998. The reason is that the big publishers have rounded up the journals with the highest academic impact factors, in which publication is essential for researchers trying to secure grants and advance their careers. You can start reading open-access journals, but you can't stop reading the closed ones. Government bodies, with a few exceptions, have failed to confront them. The National Institutes of Health in the US oblige anyone taking their grants to put their papers in an open-access archive. But Research Councils UK, whose statement on public access is a masterpiece of meaningless waffle, relies on "the assumption that publishers will maintain the spirit of their current policies". You bet they will. In the short term, governments should refer the academic publishers to their competition watchdogs, and insist that all papers arising from publicly funded research are placed in a free public database. In the longer term, they should work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating – along the lines proposed by Björn Brembs of Berlin's Freie Universität – a single global archive of academic literature and data. Peer-review would be overseen by an independent body. It could be funded by the library budgets which are currently being diverted into the hands of privateers. The knowledge monopoly is as unwarranted and anachronistic as the corn laws. Let's throw off these parasitic overlords and liberate the research that belongs to us. • A fully referenced version of this article can be found on George Monbiot's website. On Twitter, @georgemonbiot

Sunday, 28 August 2011

August 27: The saddest day for Parliament

Today is probably the saddest day for Indian Parliament.

The Lokpal bill approved by Parliament now accommodates Anna Hazare’s main demands with a little tailoring. Interestingly, the House thumped its assent. Its vocal chords seemed to have been silenced at the most decisive moment. They had taken to fists. In retrospect that makes sense; Parliament had been silenced by People.

For 12 days the Anna’s fasting frame had hung over Parliament like Damocles’ sword. It is ironic that in a largely foodless country, what power a man who can forgo it wield. Perhaps such self-inflicted gastronomic torture raises the atavistic fears of the Famine, a national archetype that is never too far from our subconscious.

Close to 790 members in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha represent the billion odd population of India. They are there because we believe in exercising our franchise every five years, or whenever we are asked to. Unlike in the West, where institutions of democracy are in place, we put everything into our election, which is why Parliament here should be totally true to its people.

According to the speeches made in the House today, this is not the first time a Lokpal bill was sought to be introduced in Parliament. Apparently, we have done it some eight times before. For over 40 years then the bill had been doing the rounds. The question is why?

Because, Indian Parliament is a failure. One of the more eloquent tributes to its emasculated status came from Lalu Prasad Yadav in the second half of the day’s speeches. Perhaps he has himself to blame for the state of affairs he was lamenting?

Or may be not. Corruption is at the heart of Indian ethos. We bribe Gods, sanitation workers, peons and loan officers. We bribe RTO officials, passport officers and traffic constables. We believe if we don’t bribe, the job will not be attended to as a “special case.” And if it’s not a special case, it will never get done anyway. We can’t be blamed either. The system runs on our willingness to bribe. And the officialdom’s eagerness to take. Perhaps this is the legacy of a starvation economy, where for all supplementary income is the main thing.

Certainly, it is not as if corruption is part of the system; it is that the system is a part of the corruption. You take corruption out of it, and the whole establishments will just crash. If the cash for votes scam is any indication, Parliament is very much a part of it.

Which is why Parliament has been so dilatory with the Lokpal bill. It resorted to procrastination to protect itself. If Anna Hazare had not starved himself on a high stage in the Ramleela grounds, so TV cameras can watch him waste away to Bollywood music, the Lokpal bill--for what it is worth, and it is not much, because you can’t bring a law to make your genetic pool more ethical-- would still be a piece of paper to soak the tea spilled on a table in the Central Hall.

At the end of it all, the bill still might serve as a mop.

Philosophically the bill believes corruption as an unethical practice involving public money. It says nothing of corporate corruption, which is a horror story all by itself. The grand narrative of India’s overnight corporate miracles owes a great deal to efficacies of graft. Corporates directly, or indirectly through their lobbies, buy and sell favours that range from land to licences to whole portions of rivers and forests. The new development model that India swears by, the one of Public Private Participation (PPP) where the line between Corporate profits and government responsibility is fluid at best and nonexistent at worst is in fact tailor made for export-quality corruption.

It is difficult to believe that a simple legislation even if is improvised to accommodate corporate corruption will change all that. No law can change our genetic disposition. To be ethical is an existential choice. I am personally skeptical of Anna and his movement because the fashionable families from Defence Colonies and Greater Kailashes who frequent the Ramleela grounds between parties and PVRs are a suspect lot: how many of them for example treat their maids well? How many beat up their wives and wouldn’t mind a rape now and then just to add a little excitement to their scented lives? How many will resist a dowry deal for their sons?

That an unelected body of people-- inchoate in their  articulation, self delusional in their idealism—has risen to act as a kind of corrective to the highest law making body in this country is tragic news. The people have lost faith in their Parliament. Clearly, parties across the ideological spectrum have forfeited their right to call themselves representatives of the people. Left, Right or Centre, their function has been whittled down to reluctant approvers of what an amorphous mass aspires for: respect. And it has come at the expense of a Parliament that is blind to the reason why it came into being.

Hazare ke Khwaishen aisi ki har Khwaish ho-hum nikale// Bahut nikale unke demands phir bhi kam nikale

Corruption And Its Discontents
By Niranjan Ramakrishnan
26 August, 2011
Hazare ke Khwaishen aisi ki har Khwaish ho-hum nikale
Bahut nikale unke demands phir bhi kam nikale
(with apologies to Mirza Ghalib)
Judging from the New York Times and the Washington Post, urban India is abuzz with the idea of banishing corruption. Photographs of peaceful marchers filling a giant overpass have made front-page news. Anna Hazare, whose arrest and fast have ignited the stir in cities all across India and amongst Indian groups abroad, is now a well-known figure. The fast, meetings, and protests are being billed as nothing less than a second Freedom Movement.

That last accreditation is in perfect pitch with an intelligentsia cut adrift from any sense of proportion, as befitting one that till only the other day was capable of considering Manmohan Singh a more significant reformer than Mahatma Gandhi.

Amid all the din it is easy to forget the lofty purpose of the Second Freedom Movement. It is for the appointment of an ombudsman and a subsidiary bureaucracy to oversee allegations of corruption amongst government officials. One may just as soon label a demand for Web access to one's income tax records as the second Declaration of Independence.

Owing perhaps to his experiences as a lawyer, Gandhi did not view some new law as the panacea to every social, economic or political problem. He pinned a lot more importance on the renewal of the human being. Gandhi believed that the quality of any country ultimately depends on the quality of its people. His abhorrence of legal cleverness as a means to fixing human problems is best illustrated by EF Schumacher in his classic, Small Is Beautiful,
" Gandhi used to talk disparagingly of 'dreaming of systems so perfect that no-one will need to be good'. "

That corruption is the scourge of daily existence in India as in few other countries may be entirely true. Ordinary people in everyday life have to pay bribes all the way from getting a driver's license to obtaining a housing permit. Certainly many of these are paid to government officials, big and small. The same government officials have to bribe others in their capacity as applicants. Corruption is many things to many people.

What Anna Hazare and his acolytes seem to forget is that corruption is not limited to the government. They also appear to believe that the appointment of eminent Indians to some overseeing council would somehow ensure moral chastity. If credentials alone, or even a personal reputation for incorruptibility, were such strong safeguards, the administration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should be a showcase for civics textbooks on model governance. Instead, it is considered the fount of malpractice and graft on a gargantuan scale, with many reckoning it presides over the most corrupt dispensation in independent India's history.

Neither the protesters nor the government want to address the issue of corruption in India in its deeper essence. Is it an obscenity only when a government official receives a bribe? What about corruption of the conscience? For instance, is it corruption when someone can build a 60 story skyscraper for a personal residence in a country where millions of children go to bed malnourished? Gandhi again,
"Every palace that one sees in India is a demonstration, not of her riches, but of the insolence of power that riches give to the few, who owe them to the miserably requited labours of the millions of the paupers of India."

Even though there seems to be a palpable correlation between the size and scope of scams in India and Manmohan Singh's neoliberal initiatives starting in the early 90s, Anna Hazare and his wise counselors don’t seem to want to see it. And amidst all his ineptitude in dealing with this latest crisis, practically the first words out of the Prime Minister’s mouth were to caution that it would be wrong to connect corruption with economic liberalization.

As veteran journalist Alexander Cockburn is fond of saying, "never believe anything until it is officially denied".

In 1991, Manmohan Singh, finance Minister in a minority government, kicked off a 'liberalization' program laying the foundation for a two decade neoliberal spree. It has turned some 250 million Indian citizens into celebrated ‘consumers’, but distorted any measure of what Professor Amartya Sen would call ‘social choice'. In this new order, what is good for consumerism and high living is alone good for India, whatever its cost by way of farmer suicides, uprooting of entire villages, pollution of the water table, or handing over of India's agricultural future to the GMO boys at Monsanto and elsewhere. The lone measure of success in this Eastern Wild-West is something called growth rate; the ethos it has spawned would both amaze and gratify Gordon "Greed Is Good" Gecko.

Gandhi's diagnosis and cure for India's corruption epidemic would probably involve a lot more pain and sacrifice than a few marches. He might point out that in a milieu where leaders openly promote moneymaking as the most important virtue, and an elite esteems itself by the extent of its ostentation, corruption would only find a conducive habitat. He would reject recourse to some bill, not for some technical shortcomings, but perhaps saying that reliance on such measures would "diminish the moral height" of Indians, just as his khadi movement urged Indians to boycott foreign cloth and adopt the rougher and costlier homespun, instead of a fast outside the Viceroy’s palace pleading for a ban on English mill imports.

The fervid and often uncivil jousting between "civil society" on the one side and the gentleman Prime Minister’s cabinet on the other, poring over fine points of an anticorruption bill while taking care never to mention the 800 pound gorilla parked in the middle of the room, reminded me of something I had read long ago.
“One of the greatest of the Bengali novelists of the 20th century, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, has summed up the underlying principle of Hindu behavior in a neat, if cynical, epigram. He makes a woman who had a low-caste paramour boast that although she lived 20 years with him she had not for a single day allowed him to enter her kitchen.”
-- Nirad Chaudhuri, Autobiography of an Unknown Indian
Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living in the United States. He can be reached at

British Tourism

You have all seen images of the injured Malaysian tourist being robbed by British citizens.
This tourist is in an NHS hospital having recovered his consciousness. His hospital bed is now visited by predatory finance staff from the hospital demanding that he produce instant cash or he will be deported.
So do you see a similarity between this story and the following one? Please comment

Friday, 26 August 2011

Top Ten Jokes at Edinburgh Fringe This Year

The top 10 festival funnies were judged to be:

1) Nick Helm: "I needed a password eight characters long so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves."

2) Tim Vine: "Crime in multi-storey car parks. That is wrong on so many different levels."

3) Hannibal Buress: "People say 'I'm taking it one day at a time'. You know what? So is everybody. That's how time works."

4) Tim Key: "Drive-Thru McDonalds was more expensive than I thought... once you've hired the car..."

5) Matt Kirshen: "I was playing chess with my friend and he said, 'Let's make this interesting'. So we stopped playing chess."

6) Sarah Millican: "My mother told me, you don't have to put anything in your mouth you don't want to. Then she made me eat broccoli, which felt like double standards."

7) Alan Sharp: "I was in a band which we called The Prevention, because we hoped people would say we were better than The Cure."

8) Mark Watson: "Someone asked me recently - what would I rather give up, food or sex. Neither! I'm not falling for that one again, wife."

9) Andrew Lawrence: "I admire these phone hackers. I think they have a lot of patience. I can't even be bothered to check my OWN voicemails."

10) DeAnne Smith: "My friend died doing what he loved ... Heroin."

Thursday, 25 August 2011

UK TOURISTS BEWARE – Cambridge Hospital Staff Demand Instant Money from Sick and Ailing Indian Tourist

Cambridge Hospital Staff Demand Instant Money from Sick and Ailing Indian Tourist

The UK likes to portray itself as a friendly and inviting place for tourists. Its visa regime informs tourists who possess medical insurance that in case of an emergency they will receive adequate medical treatment without any need to pay the money upfront. But this is not true in reality as the following story illustrates.

VM, aged 73, is an Indian tourist visiting her family in Cambridge UK since June 2011. On Thursday 18 Aug she was admitted to Cambridge's famous Addenbrooke's hospital for an emergency illness and she received good medical care. Her medical insurers contacted the hospital on Friday 19 August in order to confirm her medical insurance cover and to guarantee payment. Yet on Tuesday 23 August and Wednesday 24 August VM received a rude shock in her hospital bed. Staff from the finance department beseiged her sick bed and demanded that she sign a carte blanche document agreeing to pay any/all charges the NHS may levy for her treatment. When it was pointed out that her insurance company was willing to offer a payment guarantee for her treatment they refused to listen and threatened to deport the tourist.

This issue becomes even more important as London prepares to invite tourists for the 2012 Olympic games. As the following article shows, NHS hospitals have made it a policy to use such high handed behaviour to extort cash from patients in their ailing beds.

In short if this behaviour is allowed to continue, if a luckless tourist finds himself in an NHS hospital s/he will not only have to hope to get better soon in a foreign land, but also try to figure out how to arrange large amounts of cash to fob of the finance staff of these hospitals.

You have been warned, visit the UK only if you or your relatives have large amounts of instant cash. Else you and your relatives will be in peril should you have a medical emergency as NHS hospitals fail to honour the legal commitment made when you obtained your visa.


Foreigners asked to produce cash in their hospital beds in crackdown on 'health tourists'

Last updated at 17:54 30 April 2008

A hospital is pioneering a "get tough" attitude on health tourists - by throwing them out of hospital before their treatment is complete unless they pay up.
It means that foreigners who travel to Britain to get free care on the NHS will now be asked to produce cash or a credit card at their hospital bed.
The new approach has already saved the West Middlesex University Hospital in Isleworth up to £700,000 a year. Its proximity to Heathrow Airport makes it a particular target for immigrants.
If all hospitals did the same, the NHS could recoup tens of millions of pounds a year from health tourists.
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West Middlessex University Hospital Crackdown: West Middlessex University Hospital is getting tough on illegal 'health tourists'
Andy Finlay, the hospital manager in charge of collecting the money at the Middlesex trust, said patients had to pay up-front - or face being discharged within 48 hours.
"We will discharge a patient before they are well," he insisted.
"We will discharge a patient when they are stable, when we have provided what we have to provide - the minimum benchmark.
"Generally, within the first 48 hours after admission they will be given a price on how much, roughly, their treatment is going to cost.
"If I'm interviewing an inpatient I will be at that patient's bedside and I will ask them there and then for a visa, MasterCard, debit card, or cash. We don't take cheques."
Under the current system, anyone who needs emergency care, such as for a heart attack or accident and emergency treatment after an accident, does not have to pay.
But patients not eligible for free care who attempt to use the NHS for ongoing care or treatment that is not immediately necessary have to pay.
These so-called health tourists normally receive a bill on departure from hospital - but only an estimated 30 per cent of the money is recovered.
Under the pilot scheme, they will be asked to pay at their hospital bed for non-emergency care, or told to leave.
However, they would only be discharged after three consultants have agreed their condition is stable.
In the case of a heart attack victim, NHS patients would normally stay in hospital for 10 days. But anyone not eligible for free care could be asked to leave after 48 hours if they are judged stable.
Most patients told to leave did so willingly, Mr Finlay added - but not all of them.
"I've had two death threats, I've been held up against a wall, I've been grabbed round the throat, I've been manhandled by relatives - verbal abuse is almost day-to-day," he said.
"You have to have a very thick skin."
Last year, a secret Government report based on figures from 12 NHS trusts suggested that the bill for treating health tourists was at least £62million a year.
This did not include the cost of treating foreigners entitled to free healthcare, such as asylum seekers and students.
Health tourists not entitled to free treatment include pregnant women who arrive on holiday visas and give birth here.
Many foreign HIV sufferers also target UK hospitals for treatment, the study from 2005 revealed.
In the case of an HIV patient, a clinical decision would be made as to whether emergency care was needed.
At the time the figures were revealed, Conservative MP Ben Wallace said hospitals appeared to be pursuing a "don't ask, don't charge and don't chase policy".
Cash-strapped hospitals are being pushed further into debt because they are failing to claim the millions owed to them by those abusing the system.
As well as the West Middlesex University Hospital, the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and the Luton and Dunstable NHS Foundation Trust have been chosen to take part in the pilot scheme because their catchment areas contain both a "major point of entry to the UK" and a large proportion of asylum seekers.
Mr Finlay said his methods had received an enthusiastic response from across Whitehall - and saved the trust between £600,000 and £700,000-a-year.
"They think it is a fantastic idea, a solution to a relatively new problem," he said.
"It is up to the Department of Health to see how brave they will be to use innovative ways to tackle health tourism."
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "It is important that those who are not entitled to NHS services pay for any they receive.
"The Government is currently reviewing access to primary and secondary care for all foreign nationals.
"In doing this we must take into account the implications of any such decisions on the key preventative and public health responsibilities of the NHS.
"We always treat people and do not charge them for emergency treatment, but the thinking behind the pilot schemes is that the NHS is there first and foremost for people who live here."

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Rape victims must have flawless pasts to get justice


Sexual predators often choose their victims with care, selecting girls and women who are 'vulnerable' and likely to make less convincing witnesses

Joan Smith in The Independent Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The surprising thing about the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the alleged sexual assault of a hotel chambermaid isn't that all charges have been dropped. It's that he was arrested and charged in the first place, given how unlikely it was that he would be convicted. Even if DSK hadn't been one of the world's most powerful, well-known men, the chances of his being found guilty and going to prison were always low, as they are for most men who find themselves accused of rape or sexual assault.

"Rapists who end up being convicted in a court of law must regard themselves as exceptionally unlucky," Professor Joanna Bourke of Birkbeck College argued in her magisterial book Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present. "Rape in this country [the US] is surprisingly easy to get away with," a special report for CBS News concluded in 2009.

Nationwide figures for the US are hard to track down but an analysis of Department of Justice statistics by two of the country's leading sexual assault experts in 2009 found that conviction rates hadn't improved since the 1970s; their study suggested that only two per cent of rapes reported to police in the US ended in a defendant being sent to jail. Across a number of countries, a rising number of reported rapes has not led to a corresponding increase in convictions.

There is no mystery about this. The hunt for the ideal rape victim is never-ending but fruitless, for the simple reason that it requires unimpeachable conduct on the part of the victim in every area of her life, past and present. Women who have been drinking, who know their alleged attacker or who've ever told a lie to a public official, even in an unrelated matter, are not victims prosecutors want to put before juries. Bourke makes a similar point in her book: "Jurors, defence counsel and judges not only expect a much higher level of resistance than required by law, they also require a greater degree of consistency in rape testimonies than they require from victims of other violent crimes."

Indeed what's fascinating about the case, which comes down to the word of the former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) against that of an immigrant from West Africa, is that in the beginning prosecutors clearly believed her story about a violent sexual assault. Strauss-Kahn's semen on Nafissatou Diallo's uniform and the carpet of his suite proved beyond doubt that a sexual encounter had taken place, while medical evidence and Diallo's evident distress appeared to support her claim that it wasn't consensual.
So confident was the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance, that he proceeded to charge Strauss-Kahn, turning him into one of the world's most high-profile defendants. Even on Monday, when Vance asked a judge to dismiss the charges, he used an ambiguous formulation to explain his change of heart: "The nature and number of the complainant's falsehoods leave us unable to credit her version of events beyond a reasonable doubt, whatever the truth may be about the encounter between the complainant and the defendant." [my italics]

This is an absolutely classic outcome, signalling not the vindication of the defendant but the prosecution's judgement that the accuser would not make a good witness. "Dismissal does not mean he is innocent, simply that the district attorney doesn't believe the case can go to trial," observed a French lawyer, Pierre Hourcade.
Vance's own words suggest that his decision was based not on Diallo's account of the alleged assault, which contains only minor discrepancies about her behaviour immediately after her encounter with DSK, but lies she told when she arrived from Guinea and claimed asylum in the US. Such behaviour is not uncommon when would-be immigrants are trying to improve their chances of being allowed to stay; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch MP, resigned from parliament five years ago after admitting that she lied on her application for asylum in the Netherlands. Ali later moved to the US where her views are treated with respect and she is regarded as a trenchant critic of radical Islam.

If Diallo's persuasive account of a violent sexual assault is to be dismissed because she lied to get into the US, the implications for other immigrants are alarming. Are prosecutors really saying that anyone who has lied on an asylum application cannot be considered a credible witness in an unrelated matter, no matter how many years later and regardless of forensic evidence supporting their claims? This is surely setting the bar too high, as well as sending a message that some potential victims cannot expect the protection of the law. It's well known that sexual predators often choose their victims with care, selecting girls and women who are "vulnerable" in some way – black, poor, working-class – and likely to make less convincing witnesses.

In the case of DSK, there is also a nagging question of double standards. Some of his more excitable supporters in France have already floated the idea that he could resume pursuit of his ambition to become the Socialist party's candidate in the presidential election, as though he has emerged from this affair with a spotless reputation. But fairness demands that his past conduct should also be examined with equally rigorous standards, and the picture that's emerged is far from edifying.

The French writer Tristane Banon has given a graphic account of what she claims was an attempt by Strauss-Kahn to rape her when she went to interview him in 2003; her mother, Anne Mansouret (a Socialist politician and colleague of Strauss-Kahn) claims that he "took me with the vulgarity of a soldier" during a consensual encounter three years earlier. It is possible that the former IMF boss is the victim of a truly dreadful coincidence, becoming the victim of slander by women who don't know each other on two continents. But it is also possible he is a sexual predator who targets women who are reluctant to report him or unlikely to make a good impression on a jury. The cards have always been stacked in favour of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but we still don't know for certain that Nafissatou Diallo wasn't the victim of a serious sexual assault.