Thursday, July 17, 2014

Chetan Bhagat, West Asia and the limits of Technocratism

I have been questioned on why I mocked Chetan Bhagat in this tweet. I have been giving several responses, but decided to compile a few of them to highlight my views and the reasons I chose to mock a certain tweet of his on the Israel-Palestine issue, which Mr. Bhagat described as out of context since it was part of a set of three. Perhaps not worth quibbling too much but a few points are in order.

My comment in the tweet was NOT ABOUT IITs but about misplaced priorities and imagined excellences in the social and public discourses.
IITs and IIMs, as far as I know, are not schools that teach politics or international affairs. Brains are required to learn any subject, and not all brains or not all schools are good enough to substitute each other. I am a master's in political science, and I don't think I can comment on bridges or factory equipment -- a civil engineer or a mechanical engineer may be better at that. An IITan will do fine for these subjects, thank you. I should expect C Bags to comment on why the Mumbai Metro got delayed, with his knowledge of engineering and management.
Someone compared with this politicians protesting on the same subject and questioned their legitimacy vis-a-vis Bhagat who studied in "the best of institutions".
It is important to differentiate between politicians who speak out of constituency concerns (Any vote bank leader) and others who are qualified (such as Jaswant Singh, Shashi Tharoor etc). Same goes for commentators. A pulpish writer taking positions on international conflicts based on casual knowledge is decidedly questionable. As an individual, he can voice his views. "It's complicated" when the person in question acquires questionable social legitimacy because he studied in a particular place or because he wrote a love story that went to Bollywood! People who have spent decades looking at this with a shade or two deeper perspective reserve their right to make the occasional caustic remark on such.
My quibble is on what defines the "best of institutions" -- The Bhatkande Music School is also "best of institutions" in its chosen field. IIT is about engineering. IIM is about management. There are excellent universities that teach social sciences, humanities, politics etc. So I compare within the category.
The aura built around Bhagat, which is a composite creature, has layers that invited my comment. His being an IIT+IIM pedigree is part of the general Indian middle class image or aura built around him.
You would rarely find a humanities major venturing to comment on serious engineering matters, with or without preambles. His comment shows the trivialisation of humanities and the faux aura built around "technocrats" that needs to be challenged. This is just my two-cent attempt. IITs are engineering schools. It is time to see them for what they are.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Boats to ferry votes in India's backwaters

FEATURE-Boats to ferry votes in India's backwaters.

By Narayanan Madhavan

(c) 1998 Reuters Limited

ALAPPUZHA, India, Feb 19 (Reuters) - A tourist brochure calls it the "Venice of the East". Locals call it Kuttanad -- which loosely translates as "the netherlands".

When the state of Kerala votes in India's general elections on February 28, officials will carry ballot boxes on boats around this unique corner of India as the state's backwaters participate in the world's biggest democratic exercise.

Boat travel is already de rigueur for political activists in the region, where some small islands have just one house each.

"The boat is a part of their daily routine," V.R. Padmanabhan, the chief of the district of Alappuzha, told Reuters of the people of Kuttanad, which lies one metre (three feet) below sea level on the Arabian Sea coast.

"It is considered an extension of their physical body."

About three-quarters of the 100,000 voters in the low-lying region live in villages that can be reached only by boat.

"In certain areas we have to go to small islands in the middle of the backwaters. Women officers are exempted from going there," Padmanabhan said.


There are six polling centres in Kuttanad, which falls in the constituency of Alappuzha

Despite the difficulties of transport, local residents take their right to vote seriously. Alappuzha recorded a 75 percent voter turnout in the last elections in 1996.

Spices from the hilly areas of the state come laden in large boats to the backwaters from where they go to the port city of Cochin, which now has an international pepper exchange.

The green waters, lush paddy fields, coconut tree and swaying fishing boats made of coconut wood have made the landscape a magnet for tourists.

Fishermen and farmers in cotton sarongs work in the lazy afternoon sun as the sound of motorboat engines mixes sleepily with the breeze.


But despite the idyllic setting, the region has plenty of political issues to address in the election, India's second in as many years. Voting in all but two constituencies are spread between February 16 and March 7.

Kerala state authorities have tried to develop Kuttanad as a holiday destination marked by rented houseboats and herbal body massages.

But its citizens say a more pressing priority is clean drinking water, which, despite the excess of water all around, is scarce. Health care facilities are also in short supply.

In fact, government efforts to boost tourism and agriculture have even exacerbated some of the region's problems, many residents say.

Villagers are used to drinking water from upland rivers in the region except during the monsoon season, when sea waters enter the area.

But local villagers say the tourist houseboats pollute their waters with plastic garbage and human excrement.

"As a result we get diarrhoea and itches," said rice farmer Scaria Joseph.

"Houseboats come and anchor at night near our villages. They do all sorts of things and we get diseases," says Puduveedu Sugunanandan. "We can't drink this water any more."


Officials say the use of pesticides to boost paddy crops has contributed to the water contamination. District authorities in Alappuzha send 10 boats carrying 3,000 litres of drinking water daily to the region, but its citizens say the water does not reach everybody.

"Drinking water is a major problem, especially in Kuttanad," admitted C.S. Sujatha, the Alappuzha candidate for the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which rules Kerala state.

The state government was trying to bring clean river water to the region, but needed funds and time, Sujatha said.

"The pumping capacity does not exist. We need a proper system to bring drinking water, whereas people think it is simply a matter of building pipelines," she added.

As for health care, authorities send doctors and mobile clinics to the villages, but regular medical help is not easy to establish.

"Doctors are reluctant to work in Kuttanad," Sujatha said.

The area's uniqueness has been a draw for tourists, but Sujatha said this uniqueness also brought with it peculiar problems which were not easy to solve.

($1 = 38.7 rupees)