Saturday, 29 November 2014

Important Health Warning

As many as 8 lakh international students, including about 96,000 Indian students, are at a huge disadvantage in the USA for no health insurance will pay more than 80 percent of their medical bills—that too after a one-time deductible of $500 (Rs 30,000) on first visit to a clinic.

Dushyant Kumar, a student at the University of Illinois in the U.S., was having bouts of intermittent spasms in his stomach but a visit to the university hospital made him double up in pain on learning about staggering amount of money he would have to spend on medical tests. As an international student, Kumar said, “Despite having student health insurance cover, I was supposed to shell out $600 (Rs 36,000) for only an ultrasound.” 
Healthcare remains a concern for Indian students as well as citizens of the U.S. While U.S. citizens have health insurance cover that would pay a substantial portion of their medical bills, as many as 8 lakh international students, including about 96,000 Indian students, are at a huge disadvantage for no health insurance will pay more than 80 percent of their medical bills—that too after a one-time deductible of $500 (Rs 30,000) on first visit to a clinic. 

Procedures such as an ultrasound or a CT scan cost upward of $1000 (Rs 60,000) in the U.S, which essentially means an international student first pays $500 (Rs 30,000) one-time deductible and another $100 (Rs 6,000) as 20 percent of the total cost he is supposed to shoulder. All this after he pays a huge sum for being insured for the year.

Mounting healthcare cost is a bane on a society that has over 5,500 hospitals and 8 lakh doctors to cater to a population of about 31 crore. Sample this—a woman delivering a kid, and that too without complications, will pay about $30,000 (Rs 18 lakh). 

Unlike in India, where purchasing medical insurance is still not in vogue due to a variety of reasons, few in the U.S. can afford the spiralling costs of healthcare without medical insurance whose monthly premium jacks up the expenditure for a family of four by several hundred dollars each month, with a sizeable chunk of the population—totalling over 2 crore—remaining uninsured. This is in sharp contrast to the fact that the U.S. spends over 10 percent of its Gross Domestic Produce (GDP) on healthcare, making it one of the few nations to do so, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The recently instituted Patient Protection and the Affordable Care Act (PPACA), better known as Obama Care—a derisive reference by President Barak Obama’s trenchant opponents—aims at lowering the uninsured rate and making insurance more affordable for all. However, its real achievement lies in having insurance providers include pre-existing conditions of those seeking insurance cover—a feature that was, until recently, non-existent. Also, the Act makes it mandatory for companies having more than 100 employees to provide them with insurance cover, irrespective of their race, gender and orientation. 

However, it does not change the ground realities for international students, who will still pay 20 percent of their medical bills, and the over 80 lakh illegal immigrants in the country for whom there will be no insurance cover. They would have to fend for themselves, their only solace being their inclusion in emergency care. Vocal support for this Act pales into insignificance in Republican bastions such as Tennessee and Mississippi, where its mere mention triggers angry rebuttals and baleful predictions. “It would make the monthly premium significantly go up,” said Paul Sanderson, a Tennessee-based insurance agent. Also, the one-time deductible that a person pays on first visit to a doctor would increase, he warned. 

But those are not the only issues plaguing the healthcare industry. Getting to see a doctor on time and paying medical bills are hurdles most people face, bringing to the fore broader issues of healthcare and its reform for a country that boasts of cutting-edge technology and state-of-the-art research. Li Chang (name changed), a teacher of library science, landed at the JFK Airport in New York, USA, ill at ease with the weather after visiting her sister in Canada. Suffering acute lung infection, she rang up a doctor for an early appointment to control the bouts of coughing and fits of wheezing as she doubled in distress. “The doctor gave me a date one month down the line, forcing me to fight on—unaided and alone,” Chang said.

Buying a medical insurance is not a guarantee that all will be well. Doctors refusing to treat patients having insurance policies of certain companies, a variety of alternative forms of medicine, including Ayurveda and Homoeopathy, not being included despite recognition from the federal government, many emergency-room doctors not under the ambit of insurance companies and being termed “out-of-network” doctors, and thus having to be paid by patients over and above the hospital bill, have left many with no option but to mortgage their property. Oftentimes, and funnily, though, a person will have to enquire about both the hospital and the doctor he will most likely seek an appointment with being on the right side of his insurance provider. There have been incidents of a doctor not being registered by an insurance provider despite the hospital he was working with being registered with it.

Adding to the woes of the sick is “drive-by doctoring” where patients have had to pay consultants and assistants to doctors, too, at times out of their own pockets after their insurers refused to pay them. These assistants are called in at the discretion of the doctor, often with questionable motives in doing so. This translates into specialists being called in—and increasing the medical bills—when even a resident or a nurse can handle the situation in the emergency room. Sometimes doctors split the profit with such assistants or consultants, experts said.

The politics of the system too has a role to play in the way things are moving in the healthcare industry. With upbeat Republicans gaining control of the Senate, Obama supporters fear that the government-initiated reforms in the health sector may be halted by the Republicans who do not support the health policies of the U.S. government.

Misjudging universities

Pervez Hoodbhoy in The Daen

THE headlines earlier this week were celebratory: a Pakistani university has been included in the “500 Best Global Universities” by the US News and World Report. Although Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad occupied only the 496th place — well below 10 other universities from neighbouring India and Iran — this is welcome news. Have we actually zoomed up and away from the rock-bottom standards of our higher education?
Sadly, the flawed methodology used by the Report means that this happy conclusion cannot be affirmed or denied. If used to assess universities in the United States and Europe the approach, though controversial, has some degree of validity. But, applied to developing countries like Pakistan, Iran, and India, it can lead to absurd conclusions.
Take, for example, the inclusion of QAU but the absence of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) from the top 500 list. QAU is a rather ordinary Pakistani public-sector university where I have taught for 41 years, and where I still continue to teach voluntarily. I have much affection for it. LUMS, on the other hand, is a private university for Pakistan’s pampered super-elite with much greater resources, financial and intellectual. I do not have the same positive feelings for LUMS, where my two years of teaching ended mysteriously and unpleasantly. So, whereas I wish it were the other way around, honesty compels me to say that LUMS is superior as a university to QAU. Those familiar with both institutions will surely agree.

The rot can be stemmed if the HEC and PCST agree to reverse policies that incentivise corruption.

Just what have the Report’s editors been smoking? According to its website, the Report judges a university by the quantity of research produced. More precisely, 65pc of the grade comes from counting the number of PhDs produced, papers published, and citations earned. Another 25pc is for an (undefined and undefinable) “research reputation”, while the remaining 10pc is for “international collaborations”. This recipe is not unreasonable. After all, publishing research articles in good journals and counting citations is important in assessing individual and institutional academic achievement. Having PhD students undoubtedly helps generate a culture of research.
But there’s a catch. Social scientists call it Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” This law is nearly as ironclad as one of physics. A corollary: robust systems may suffer some distortion but weaker ones can be willfully deformed and massively manipulated by prevailing local interests.
Pakistan’s academic system is, as everyone agrees, far from robust. An estimated 40pc of students cheat in matriculation, intermediate, and college examinations. Teachers are no more ethical than shopkeepers, policemen, politicians, judges, and generals. Because of policies that reward authors of research articles and PhD supervisors with cash and promotions, our universities have turned into factories producing junk papers and PhDs. Publishing papers is now a well-developed art form that combines outright plagiarism, faking data, showcasing trivia, repeating old papers, and using fly-by-night journals. With apologies to the few genuine students and their supervisors, the fact is that PhDs are awarded to all and sundry.
From many grotesque examples, I will repeat one that I had argued out fruitlessly for many months with Dr Javed Leghari, who became the Higher Education Commission (HEC) chairman following Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, the principal architect of the numbers game.
This concerned a physics PhD thesis that was guided by an “HEC meritorious professor” at Balochistan University, co-supervised by the then vice-chancellor of Quaid-i-Azam University, Dr Masoom Yasinzai. The thesis title was A quantitative study on chromotherapy. The text contained equations that apparently bestowed respectability. Together with several notable Pakistani physicists, I saw this as nonsense. But months of effort failed to convince Dr Leghari, who refused to reveal the names of the referees.
As a last-ditch effort, I sent a copy to two distinguished physicists who I knew for many years. One was the physics Nobel Prize (1979) winner, Steven Weinberg, and the other was the physics Nobel Prize (1988) winner, Jack Steinberger.
Weinberg wrote a point by point criticism which ended up saying: “I am appalled by what I have seen. The thesis shows a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of physics. This thesis is not only unworthy of a PhD, it is positively dangerous, since it might lead patients with severe illnesses to rely on ‘chromotherapy’ rather than on scientific medicine. I find it difficult to understand how this thesis could have earned its author any academic degree.”
Steinberger was equally negative: “a reasonable physics department should not have accepted anything like this work … Following world news this past decade, I have been very unhappy about the Pakistani political instability and social problems, but I had imagined that its cultural level was better than what I now see.”
This rot can be stemmed if the HEC and Pakistan Council for Science & Technology agree to reverse policies that incentivise corruption. This will not be easy. Resisting pressures from greedy beneficiaries of the present system will require enormous moral strength, especially now that the Report has demonstrated the rewards for wholesale publishing.
My last meeting with the current HEC chairman, Dr Mukhtar Ahmad, was a surprisingly pleasant one. He expressed concern at the decay within and seemed receptive to the following suggestion: “Let the HEC require that an author of a research paper, for which he or she desires official credit, to give a video-recorded presentation before the institution’s faculty. This would be archived for free access on the HEC website.”
All necessary technologies needed to implement the above are already in place. The benefits would be two-fold. First, any piece of genuinely important research would become widely known. Second, fake research and corrupt practices would be readily spotted.
Many months have passed since our meeting. Although my emails requesting signs of progress remain unanswered, I remain hopeful that the honourable chairman’s reply is somewhere out there in cyberspace.
The writer teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The No. 1 cause of divorce may not be what you think

by Kevin A. Thompson in  Deseret News

I’m convinced the No. 1 cause of divorce is not adultery,financial problems or irreconcilable difference. Those are most often symptoms of a deeper problem.
While these problems might be real, I believe there is a bigger issue.
The most common issue I see with couples who are struggling in marriage is a lack of intentional investment in their marriage.
While it’s a fair debate of which comes first — did someone lose interest so they lost intention, or did someone lose intention so they lost interest — either way there is a key idea:
We can influence our feelings by intentionally investing in our marriage.
As I’ve written before, our affections often grow toward our investments. Wherever we put our time, money and energy also ends up receiving our passion, interest and affection.
Think about what this means for a marriage: You will generally feel for your spouse to the extent in which you invest in your spouse.
Your feelings are often far less about them and far more about what effort you have put into your marriage.
Obviously there are exceptions. Some people have made bad choices in whom they married, or the spouse has made a bad choice in whom they have become, but most of the time, we love our spouse to the extent that we invest in our spouse. (See "Marry a Partner, Not a Child.")
Consider what this means: If your feelings of love are waning, they can be recovered. With some effort, intention and energy, love can grow.
Every week I interact with marriages that are suffering. I am often like a triage nurse who observes the couple, makes an initial determination of the seriousness of their illness and then gets them with the right specialist so the expert can assist them with the issue. As the couple leaves our initial interaction, I almost always give them the same assignment: On the way home, retell the stories of your first date, how you fell in love, what first attracted you to the other, what you love the most about each other and what your dreams are of a future together. (See "Change Your Marriage Today.")
This assignment serves the purpose of unearthing long-buried feelings and memories. Just by recounting the stories, a couple is more likely to feel love for their spouse.
With a little intention, our emotions can drastically change.
Here are five things we can do every day that will reconnect us with our spouse:
1. Pray about the specifics of your spouse’s day.Not only will this remind you of the work of God in your life, but it will also require you to know the specifics of your spouse’s day and will make you wonder how their day turned out.
2. Always kiss goodbye and hello. This is a physical and emotional connection which serves as a reminder of the union between a husband and wife. Make it such a habit that even if you kiss, leave and return, you kiss again.
3. Call, text or email at least once a day to check in. You can update one another on how the day is going. You can discuss any needs for the evening and make sure everyone is on the same page regarding the schedule for the night.
4. Have at least five minutes of uninterrupted conversation. Whether it be first thing in the morning or the last thing at night, relationships demand conversation. Turn off the television, put down the phone and talk. This might be more difficult with young children, but find a way to make it happen. Remember, if you were having an affair, you find the time to engage in that affair no matter how busy you are, so make the time for your spouse.
5. Hug for at least 30 seconds. Before you leave for work or after you come home or as you go to bed, have an extended physical embrace which reminds your body, soul and mind of your deep connection with this other person. Studies have shown that hugging reduces blood pressure, but it also connects you with the person you hug. Physical touch must be more than just intimacy. By truly embracing every day, each partner will feel more valued and loved.
If your marriage requires anything, it requires intention. To the extent that both spouses are intentional about keeping the marriage healthy, the marriage will thrive. Apathy will slowly erode a marriage, but intention will cause it to continually grow.

Journal accepts bogus paper requesting removal from mailing list

Australian computer scientist Dr Peter Vamplew submitted emphatically titled paper to ‘predatory’ journal and ‘nearly fell off chair’ when it was accepted
 Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List research paper
The paper, essentially consisting of just seven words, was originally written by American researchers David Mazières and Eddie Kohle in 2005. Photograph: Supplied

An open-access “predatory” academic journal has accepted a bogus research paper submitted by an Australian computer scientist titled Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List.
The paper, originally written by American researchers David Mazières and Eddie Kohle in 2005, consisted of the title’s seven words repeated over and over again. It also featured helpful diagrams.
Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List diagram
Dr Peter Vamplew, a lecturer and researcher in computer science at Federation University in Victoria, submitted the paper to the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology earlier this year after receiving dozens of unsolicited emails from the publication and other journals of dubious repute.
“There’s been this move to open-access publishing which has often meant essentially a user-pays system,” Vamplew said. “So you pay to have the paper published and it’s available to the public for free.”
An academic librarian at the University of Colorado, Jeffrey Beall, told Nature magazine last year that up to 10% of open-access journals were exploiting the model by charging a fee to proofread, peer-review and edit a research paper without actually carrying out the work.
“They’re predatory journals, preying on young, inexperienced researchers who unwittingly don’t realise they’re of questionable quality,” Vamplew said.
Vamplew said he submitted the paper expecting the journal’s editors would “read it, ignore it, and at best take me off their mailing list”.
Weeks later he received good news: “It was accepted for publication. I pretty much fell off my chair.”
In line with the highest academic standards, Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List had been subjected to rigorous, anonymous peer review.
“They told me to add some more recent references and do a bit of reformatting,” he said.
“But otherwise they said its suitability for the journal was excellent.”
Vamplew was required to pay a $150 fee to have the paper published, but he declined.
The scheme has earned Vamplew some online recognition, but sadly his main aim remains unfulfilled.
“They still haven’t taken me off their mailing list,” he said.
The editors of the journal have been contacted for comment.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Mumbai - On the verge of an implosion

Bachi Karkaria in The Guardian
It used to be India’s urban showpiece. Today, its sceptre and crown have fallen down and, in a phase of cynical destruction masquerading as “development”, Mumbai has become a metaphor for urban blight. 
Consider these statistics. Rubbish could be its Mount Vesuvius. Some 7,000 metric tonnes of refuse is spewed out each day. Dumping grounds are choked, yet there is no government-mandated separation or recycling.
Around 7.5 million commuters cram themselves into local trains every day and the fledgling metro and monorail are unlikely to make a perceptible difference in the near future.
There are 700,000 cars on the road and the authorities indirectly encourage private vehicle ownership by adding flyovers and expressways, instead of building or speeding up mass rapid transit systems. Private vehicle numbers have grown by 57% in the past eight years, compared with a 23% increase in public buses.
There are around 700,000 cars on the road Mumbai causing untold congestion, air and noise pollution. Their number has grown by 57% over the past eight years.
There are around 700,000 cars on the roads of Mumbai causing untold congestion, air and noise pollution. Their number has grown by 57% over the past eight years. Photograph: Rafiq Maqbool/AP
Toxic nitric oxide and nitrogen oxide levels stand at 252 microgrammes per cubic metre (mcg/m3) more than three times the safe limit of 80 mcg/m3. Protests against sound pollution fall on deaf ears.
There’s less than 0.03 acres of open space per 1,000 people. The global norm is four; London has a profligate 12.
There are 12.7 million people jammed into the 480 sq km that comprise today’s Greater Mumbai, that’s 20,680 people per sq km. We are the world’s eighth most-populated city – and dying to prove it.
As a consequence, every sixth Mumbaikar lives in a slum. The premium on land was exacerbated by the Rent Control Act of 1947, which wasn’t amended till 1999. Too little, too late. Real estate prices are unreal. It’s cheaper to buy a flat in Manhattan than in Malabar Hill, and you can be sure that shoddy materials will shortchange you in Mumbai.
Considering that housing is the city’s biggest shortfall, it’s ironic that unbridled construction is indisputably its biggest problem. Many villains have been blamed for Mumbai’s descent into urban hell, from mafia dons to impoverished migrants, but for the past three decades the main culprit is the “politician-builder nexus”
In 2005, the entire city was held hostage for three days. On 26 July, suburban Mumbai was lashed by 668 mm of rain in just 12 hours. Unwarned commuters and children in school buses were left high, but not dry, as roads and railway tracks disappeared. Slums and BMWs went under the deluge without discernment for their economic standing. It may have been the country’s financial capital, but in the photographs that followed, swaggering Mumbai didn’t look much different from a monsoon-marooned Bihar village.
For this humbling disaster, the finger pointed at that same culprit: the developer and his facilitator, the politician. There was nowhere for the rainwater to go. For decades the concrete army had been allowed to commandeer all open spaces, and illegal encroachments had done the rest. Public parks, verdant hills, salt-pans, school compounds, private garden plots, beaches, mangroves – nothing was spared.
The built environment in Mumbai had increased fourfold since 1925 – and at its fastest rate over the past 30 years – all at the cost of green cover and wetlands.
Around 7.5 million commuters cram themselves into local trains every day.
Around 7.5 million commuters cram themselves into local trains every day.Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images
The 2005 deluge brought to light the little-known fact that Mumbai had a river. The Mithi had been reduced to little more than a turgid drain, bubbling with the putrefactions of one of Asia’s largest slums, Dharavi. Why blame its desperate inhabitants when the authorities had built an airport runway and much of the swanky new business district of the Bandra Kurla complex over it?
The traumatising flood was a flash-point. Citizens rose against all the civic atrocities heaped upon them. Why must they suffer such acute and chronic brutalising when Mumbai was the biggest contributor to the national economy? It accounts for 33% of income-tax, 20% of central excise collections, 6.16% of GDP (the largest single contribution in India), 25% of industrial output, 40% of foreign trade and 70% of capital transactions.
Activists demanded it should be administered separately under a chief executive-like head, instead of politicians who siphoned off its wealth to their rural constituencies. The municipal commissioner should be answerable to the elected corporate leaders not, illogically, to the state chief minister. But all this sound and fury receded with the flood waters, and it was soon business as usual.
The unequal war between profiteering and civic wisdom was in unabashed evidence some 20 years before this great flood. An eagerly anticipated shot in the arm turned into a wound that still festers. The cotton mills, on which Mumbai’s original fame and fortunes were built, had been killed off by the prolonged strike of 1982 (and chronic neglect by their owners).
After nearly a decade of legal wrangling, especially over the laid-off workers’ dues, it was decided to redevelop the defunct land – an eye-popping 600 acres in prime south and central Bombay. Recreational spaces, public housing and private enterprise were each to get a one-third share of the total area.
The twenty-seven storey personal residence of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani is named after a Antilia, a mythical island in the Atlantic. It has three helicopter pads, underground parking for 160 cars and requires some 600 staff to run.
The 27-storey personal residence of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani is named after Antilia, a mythical island in the Atlantic. It has three helicopter pads, underground parking for 160 cars and requires some 600 staff to run. Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty
But in 1991, the relevant Development Control rule 58 was unilaterally changed by the chief minister, making only “open” land in the mills eligible for the division. This left the lion’s share to the owners, their builder accomplices and, naturally, the obliging politicians. The city got a mere fifth of its desperately needed windfall.
Instead of the imaginative, integrated development plan drawn up by Charles Correa, the renowned Mumbai-based architect, the former mill-hub of Lalbaug-Parel is a soulless cram of skyscrapers, mall-to-mall carpeting and snarled traffic clashing with the tenements housing the dispossessed worker families.
The opportunity for Mumbai’s redemption was obscenely squandered. The greedy, selfish “development” has worsened, instead of alleviating, its two biggest headaches: housing and traffic.
Now, a new phoenix is projected to rise from the 800 acres of decrepit dockland along the city’s eastern shoreline, again in the prime south. Will the city finally get its life-saving leisure space and affordable housing? Or will it be one more land-grab hastening its death by “development”?
Mumbai waits with more cynicism than hope.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Arundhati Roy: goddess of big ideas

Arundhati Roy’s fans have been waiting for a follow-up to her Booker-prize winning debut novel since 1997. Meanwhile she has thrown herself into political activism – raising hackles among India’s growing bourgeoisie with fierce polemics against capitalism. A second novel is promised – but will she ever get it finished?
Arundhati Roy: 'Most of what I've written is to do with being in solidarity with resistance movement
Arundhati Roy: ‘Most of what I’ve written is to do with being in solidarity with resistance movements.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer
Like India and Walt Whitman, Arundhati Roy contains multitudes. She is, however, far from large. Small, delicately boned, a beguiling mixture of piercing dark eyes and bright easy smile, she is a warm presence. She turns 53 tomorrow and the grey tint to her curls lends depth to a still strikingly youthful face. Looking at her, it’s not hard to detect the author of the richly empathetic The God of Small Things, her debut, Booker-prize winning novel about family life in Kerala, that John Updike described as a “massive interlocking structure of fine, intensely felt details”.
That was 17 years ago and photos from that period show a captivating figure, at once shy and fiercely proud, wary and utterly self-possessed. The book was a huge international hit and the publishing world readied itself to cash in on a phenomenal new talent, galvanised by the fact that so photogenic an author would be a dream to market.
But the follow-up novel didn’t arrive. Instead Roy directed her considerable energies towards political activism, most especially in India where, despite her success, she has remained. It was a path that has led her to express solidarity with groups – such as Kashmiri separatists and Maoist guerrillas – that are seen by many Indians, with some reason, as terrorists. As a result Roy has become a controversial figure, an outspoken heroine in certain radical quarters, but loathed by large sections of Indian society, not least Hindu nationalists.
She has also become a prolific essayist and polemicist. She currently has two extended, book-length essays out. One, entitled The Doctor and the Saint, is an examination of caste, a subject she explored in The God of Small Things, and it forms the long introduction to a new edition of BR Ambedkar’s classic work The Annihilation of Caste. Roy’s essay traces the difficult relationship between Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. She portrays the neglected Ambedkar – born an “untouchable” – as the true hero of India’s poor, while Gandhi is controversially depicted as a self-dramatising defender of the status quo.
The other essay is called Capitalism: A Ghost Story. It’s written in a very different style from The Doctor and the Saint, which, for all its contentious opinions, is a carefully constructed argument. By contrast Capitalism reads like an extended rant, strident, intemperate, conspiratorial, and relentlessly one-eyed in its outlook. The shrill prose is hard to reconcile with the softly spoken middle-aged woman sitting opposite me in the Soho offices of her publishers.
Roy attends a protest in New Delhi, March 2006.
New Delhi, March 2006: Roy attends a protest at the government’s lack of support for hundreds of women whose farmer husbands committed suicide because of failed crops. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Her basic argument is that the reforms that liberated India’s economy in the early 1990s and thrust it into the global marketplace may have created a vibrant new middle class, but have been devastating for the country’s poor. She writes of the “800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us [the 300 million members of the middle class]”.
The poor in India are of course not a recent creation. It’s been said that India’s historic problem was the redistribution of poverty, whereas now the issue is the redistribution of wealth. As Roy makes clear, there are vast and intolerable inequalities in today’s India. But the implication of her words is that to make 300 million Indians richer, 800 million Indians have become poorer in real, rather than relative, terms. As she doesn’t supply any supporting evidence for this claim in the book, I ask her if that’s what she means.
“What happens,” she says, “is that statistically people keep playing games with the poverty line. It’s not that people get richer or poorer but they keep moving the line up and down redefining what poorer means.”
She then goes on to say that you only have to visit the suffering villages of India to see the terrible plight of the poor, in particular the mass suicides of farmers whose land has been destroyed by mineral exploitation and industrialisation. This may be true, but has the rapid growth in India’s middle class caused the poor to become poorer?
She continues talking about access to water, the drying up of land etc, until I push her once again on what seems to me a crucial matter of fact. “Well, I think so,” she says finally. “For example, just things like food grain intake has actually reduced.”
This is true, though there are various arguments put forward to explain the drop, including the increase in the consumption of other foods. But there is also compelling evidence to suggest that, while India has become a much wealthier country over the last couple of decades, a hefty percentage of its population continues to experience low employment, malnutrition and other major social deprivations. It’s just that Roy never really gets to grip with the evidence.
She prefers a scattergun approach in which she attacks everything from philanthropy and the “hegemony of the United States” to NGOs funded by Coca-Cola. You could easily get the idea, for example, that arms dealing was a function of capitalism – yet there is no mention of Russia (the biggest arms exporter) or China (the third biggest). Similarly she quotes Pablo Neruda’s poem attacking the Standard Oil Company but makes no mention that he was an unabashed cheerleader for Stalinism when he wrote it. When I ask her about the omission she says she’s written about Stalinism in another essay and doesn’t want to keep repeating herself.
It’s the sort of screed that will bring head-nodding agreement from her core anti-capitalist audience, but it will do little, or at least not enough, to persuade those who genuinely want to know whether or not the new India, for all its many flaws, is an improvement on the old.
Roy is kissed by supporters in 2002 after being released from Tihar Jail in New Delhi. She had been jailed during a campaign against a new dam.
Roy is kissed by supporters in 2002 after being released from Tihar Jail in New Delhi. She had been jailed during a campaign against a new dam. Photograph: MANISH SWARUP/AP
She’s used to this sort of criticism, and her answer is that it’s not a subject that she can be dispassionate about. Dry, academic analysis doesn’t alter the conditions of the poor, so someone needs to raise the temperature, invoke some much-needed shame and outrage.
But her detractors argue that Roy’s posturings do nothing to help the poor either. Her fellow novelist and essayist Aatish Taseer wrote in 2011 in the online cultural magazine the Nervous Breakdown: “I don’t think she’s a friend of the poor at all. She would like to doom them to a permanent state of picturesque poverty… The people who get her into the streets [ie in protest] are the new middle classes. This class, still among the most fragile in India, people who have newly emerged from the most dire conditions, are despicable to her. She mocks their clothes; their trouble with English; she hates their ambitions.”
Indeed Roy writes of the “aggressive, acquisitive ambition” of the middle class in Capitalism. Is Taseer on to something?
“Well look,” she replies, unflustered, “obviously mine is a very definite point of view and there are many people who disagree with me vehemently. The only thing I will say is that I’m not a lone operator. Most of what I’ve written is to do with being in solidarity with many resistance movements. I’m not at the front of it. I’m not preaching to the poor what they should be thinking. I’m learning from their arguments.”
Naturally Roy’s wealth exposes her to accusations of hypocrisy. She lives alone in the exclusive Jor Bagh district of New Delhi in a large apartment. Aren’t the acquisitively ambitious simply seeking to gain the material comforts she has in abundance?
“I don’t come from a privileged background, I just happened to write a book that sold a lot. My mother was literally dying. She had nothing. She left her drunk husband. She started a school. I left home at 16, I lived on the streets. I had nothing. Then I wrote a book. I lived for a long time, yes, with a man who had privileged parents but then that had nothing to do with me.”
This seems like a slightly romantic summary of her early life. She was born Suzanna Arundhati Roy in north-east India to a Syrian Christian, Mary, who is still alive. Her father, a Bengali Hindu, was an alcoholic who managed a tea plantation. The marriage ended when Roy was two years old. Her mother took her and her older brother to Tamil Nadu and then to Kerala, where her mother, who suffered from asthma, set up an independent school.
Roy was sent to boarding school where she gained a reputation as an indefatigable debater. From there she went to secretarial college, which she quit at 16, moving to Delhi to study at the architectural school. She lived with her boyfriend at the time in a slum, then after a spell in Goa, worked for the National Institute of Urban Affairs, where she met her husband, Pradip Krishen, a widowed former history professor and Oxford graduate from a wealthy background.
The couple made several documentaries and films together, in the first of which Roy played the female lead. But eventually she became dispirited with the elitist film world and spent more time writing, leading eventually to the publication of The God of Small Things in 1997. It was a literary sensation that went on to sell more than 6m copies worldwide.
In a vital sense, as Roy says, her background and material circumstances, whatever they are, should not be the means to assess her ideas. “I’ve never understood the logic that if you’re privileged you should take the point of view of the privileged and argue for more privilege.”
Yet in Capitalism she writes of being compromised by connections with the corrupting worlds of corporations: “But which of us sinners was going to cast off the first stone? Not me, who lives off royalties from corporate publishing houses.”
What does that mean? She breaks out into a big smile. “Yeah, I’ve also thought about that. I was just thinking, living off royalties from corporate publishing houses? In fact those corporate publishing houses are making money off me, and giving me 5%!”
She laughs at herself and says that perhaps she got that wrong. “The thing is no one is pure. I am certainly not a pure saint who lives in a loincloth and eats goat’s cheese and doesn’t have sex and says ‘I’m poor’”, she says in an obvious dig at Gandhi. “It’s crap.”
Moreover, she is no armchair revolutionary, cooped up in the safe confines of her apartment. She does go to dangerous places and she does make powerful enemies: Hindu nationalists, dam builders, mineral extractors, large corporations and the Indian military. And despite a great many threats, she is not easily intimidated.
But danger runs both ways. The picture Roy paints of India is of a vast military occupation, a colonial suppression enacted by the Indian state on its own people. She speaks of hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in secessionist Kashmir and the vicious paramilitary operations in central India against the Maoist or “Naxalite” guerrillas.
In Walking with the Comrades, her book about joining up with the Maoists, she wrote about a Congress politician called Mahendra Karma, whom she said was responsible for orchestrating a campaign of murder, rapes and displacement in the Bastar region. In May 2013 Maoist guerrillas killed Karma, stabbing him 78 times, and 24 other people, including 11 other Congress members, in a truly gruesome attack on a convoy. When asked to comment immediately after the assault, Roy refused to speak.
Incidents such as these have prompted the charge that she is a dilettante, a literary tourist who can beat a retreat whenever it suits her. If that’s true then it’s also a fact that India’s democracy is riven by nepotism and corruption and violence and it suits many who are getting rich to look the other way. The statements Roy makes are often provocative, naive and arguably counterproductive, but the presiding nationalistic silence is perhaps more worthy of condemnation.
And the issue on which India has learned to be most tight-lipped is that of caste. It’s a subject on which Roy has always been refreshingly vocal, quick to remind those who might wish to forget of the immovable social structure that underpins Indian society. InThe Doctor and the Saint she returns to the theme but this time she sets it against two different visions of reform: Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s.
Roy portrays Gandhi as 'a backward-looking egomaniac'.
Roy portrays Gandhi as ‘a backward-looking egomaniac’. Photograph: REX/REX
Gandhi wanted to abolish the designation of “Untouchables”, the lowest caste that is today referred to as Dalit. But Ambedkar wanted to get rid of the caste system in its entirety. Although she had always been suspicious of the Gandhi cult, she was largely ignorant of the dispute between Ambedkar and Gandhi before a publisher asked her to write an introduction to The Annihilation of Caste.
“I thought I’d just write three pages of politeness and give it to him,” she says. “Then I started to read and I was shocked by what I was reading and it turned into a huge thing.”
Gandhi emerges as a backward-looking egomaniac who had to be dragged into modernity by the more ambitious and radical Ambedkar. The respected historian Ramachandra Guha, who is in the middle of a two-part biography of Gandhi, has taken Roy to task for “selectively quoting Gandhi out of context [so] that she can paint him as a slow-moving reactionary”.
Guha, whose earlier work looked at forestry in northern India, has clashed with Roy before over her environmental advocacy, which he described as “self-indulgent” and “self-contradictory”. “Ms Roy’s tendency to exaggerate and simplify, her Manichean view of the world, and her shrill, hectoring tone, have given a bad name to environmental analysis,” he wrote back in 2000.
She dismissed his criticism back then as “smug”. She says that she’s quoted Gandhi from 1893 to 1948, “across his adult life. Of course every quote has to be selective. I can’t quote the whole nine volumes.” She says that “it’s dishonest to suggest that Gandhi was an incrementalist or a man of his times”. And in any case, she adds, Guha is a Brahmin, the caste that is at the top of the social hierarchy – if you like, the ruling class.
It has been argued by some that it’s unfettered capitalism that has done most to undermine caste in India, but Roy notes that only a tiny percentage of marriages are cross-caste. She writes that the only way caste can be annihilated is if “those who call themselves revolutionary develop a radical critique of Brahminism”. I quote her a statement from a well-known Indian writer and ask her to guess who it is. The author speaks of his Brahmin identity as being crucial in giving him a sense of “dignity” and through it the ambition not to settle for “some badly paid government job”.
She puts her hands over her face and says “Pankaj?”
Pankaj Mishra, who is now based in London, has built a formidable reputation as radical critic of imperialism, ever vigilant to the incidence of western racism both on a geopolitical and personal level. He was also the first publisher to champion The God of Small Things, when he worked for HarperCollins in India, and thus a longstanding friend of Roy’s. Is he on the revolutionary side of the argument?
“On this one, I don’t think so,” she says. “There are a lot of critiques about many Brahmins who at some point do want to mention that they are Brahmins. The issue is a very vexed one. Look at all the major politburo members, including the Maoists, they are usually Brahmins.”
You sense that one of the reasons Arundhati was drawn to reappraise Gandhi is the consensus he enjoys as an embodiment of decency and tolerance. She has recently caused a stir for downplaying another widely admired figure, Malala Yousafzai. After she gave a TV interview in which she suggested Malala was a pawn in game of global politics, the Pakistan writer Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote an article asking why it was that Malala bothered many on the left, citing Roy as an example.
The success of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel peace prize winner, has been downplayed by Roy.
Even Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel peace prize winner, has been the subject of criticism from Roy.Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
“I have no doubt she did something wonderful,” she says. “But that was not the point I was trying to make.” She says she wanted to draw attention to the fact that Dalit women are similarly mistreated in India but are never heard about. But that doesn’t make Malala a puppet. She stood up against male oppression. Isn’t that an unambiguously good thing?
“I don’t think you can isolate Malala and say ‘Oh this is wonderful.’” Why not? “I don’t think this world of prizes and awards is an innocent world. It is loaded and it’s precious to suggest it’s not.” She thinks Malala’s Nobel peace prize was an extension of the politically corrupt process that awarded one to Obama, whom she characterises as a warmonger, adding, “I’m not trying to take anything away from Malala.”
But of course she is.
I admire her willingness to confront sacred cows, but can’t help thinking that she sees dark conspiracies where sometimes nobler intentions lie. And in her rush to embrace the oppressed, she can blur the lines between victim and perpetrator.
Enough of the politics. What about fiction? There have been rumours going back to 2007 that she is writing a novel.
“I have been working on it for quite a few years,” she acknowledges. “If those characters are still hanging around in my house, swinging their legs and smoking their cigarette butts, they’re not going to go away, so there must be something there.”
Yet she says she put the novel aside to write The Doctor and the Saint. Writing non-fiction is for her a tense and urgent business. She has to get it out. “It’s like the body doesn’t have room for its organs,” she says, and reading her non-fiction one can see what she means.
She is a different person altogether when writing fiction, which she says she’s able to relax into. “I don’t mean because it’s easy to write but I trust its rhythms and I don’t have to get it out there. There’s no urgency. It’s like cooking, it takes its time. I rather like the idea of just living inside it and not coming out of it.”
That’s an idea that will torment all those millions who have been waiting so many years for her second novel. It may also trouble those critics of her polemical work who hope that she’ll return to fiction at the earliest opportunity. But if there is one thing that is certain about the multifaceted Roy, she will continue to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it.