Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is intelligence overrated?

“Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people think they think; and ninety-five percent of the people would rather die than think.” George Bernard Shaw, the famous British playwright once made a sweeping indictment of how much we utilize our mental faculties.

In an era of high stakes testing in India today where children are preparing for IIT-JEE and AIIMS from 6th grade, sacrificing many pleasures of growing up with levity, it is a good time to ask the question, “What do we understand about intelligence and is the way we know it overrated?”

Indeed, when two dozen prominent intelligence theorists were asked to define intelligence in the late 1990s; they gave two dozen somewhat different definitions. Several current theorists argue that there are many different “intelligences” (systems of abilities), only a few of which can be captured by standard psychometric tests.

Obvious examples include creativity, wisdom, practical sense, and social sensitivity. Others emphasize the role of culture, both in establishing different conceptions of intelligence and in influencing the acquisition of intellectual skills.

Robert Sternberg’s (1985) triarchic theory proposes fundamental aspects of intelligence – analytic, creative, and practical – of which only the first is measured to any significant extent by mainstream tests. His investigations suggest the need for balance between analytic intelligence, on one hand, and creative and practical intelligence on the other.

He argues that our traditional tests tend to test for analytic intelligence, in which problems have been formulated and clearly defined by other people. Whereas, practical problems require problem recognition, formulation and are more likely to be poorly defined.

In addition, analytical problems that all of us get trained for in tests and at schools/universities come with all the information needed to solve them and usually having a single right answer. Practical problems in contrast at workplace and in life require information seeking and have various acceptable solutions.

Patricia Greenfield (1997) found for example, that children in Mayan cultures were puzzled when they were not allowed to collaborate with parents or others on test questions. What we consider universal mode of testing, is not so much across all cultures.

Not all cultures value equally the kinds of expertise measured by conventional IQ tests. In a study comparing Latino, Asian, and Anglo subcultures in California, for example, they found that Latino parents valued social kinds of expertise as more important to intelligence than did Asian and Anglo parents, who more valued cognitive kinds of expertise (Okagaki & Sternberg, 1993). Cognitive expertise matters in school and in life, but so does social expertise. 

Infact, most of us who have been at workplaces long enough would argue that intelligence is not necessarily a predictor of job success. To state the obvious, personality traits like conscientiousness and emotional stability have proven to have strong correlation with intrinsic and extrinsic job success in a meta analyses of empirical studies between personality traits and job performance.

So, what narrow mindsets might our children grow up with if they detach from literature and social sciences as early as 6th grade? Maybe, GB Shaw was right. We need to redefine what intelligence and thinking means. Maybe, we valued practical, creative and social intelligence as well. What use is our analytical intelligence and our degrees, if we cannot think and engage with the practical problems of our society?

What have you chosen to think - Is intelligence overrated?

A story of our times: The Paradox of choice

Noted Psychologist Barry Schwartz highlights the paradox of choice of our times. He cites that modernity has provided an explosion of choice in two different respects. First, in areas of life in which people have always had choice, the number of options available to them have exploded. Second, in areas of life in which there was little or no choice, significant options have now appeared.

Consider this example from the U.S from a large super market store – 165 varieties of “juice drinks”, 360 types of shampoos, 275 varieties of cereals! A typical American supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. More than 20,000 items hit the shelf every new year. It is safe to assume that we in India are getting there and our hyper markets would have items surely in the order of magnitude of thousands.
In areas where our parents had little choice for e.g. like mobile communications, insurance and medical care, choice has grown to significant proportions.

We have more choice, and presumably more freedom and autonomy, and self-determination, than ever before. You would assume that this increased choice must improve well-being. This is, in fact, the standard line among social scientists who study choice.They argue that increased choice makes the society better off. Those who want them will benefit, and those who don’t always have the choice of ignoring. Though this seems logically compelling, it is empirically not true as proved by many studies.

What assessments of well-being suggest is that close social relations are the main determinant of happiness. There seems to be this underlying transition at work in our cities as well. We are slowing moving from the personalized mom-and-pop store in which the bhaiyya or chacha/chachi or didi always knew what your family wanted. And they would invariably keep you posted about the best offers up for grabs. Choice was much simpler. You picked your core items and any indecision on the margin, you had some reliable to seek information from a person you trusted.

Contrast that with our hyper markets. Sure they provide you a wonderful shopping experience for your family. The hyper malls have got bigger, swankier and all encompassing. They also offer you cheap shopping days or bumper bonanzas on all items from salt to software. But do we really know what we want amidst the plethora of choices the super markets offer us? During my levers experience, it was found that a super market shopper took on average 5 seconds to make a shopping choice. Think about it for a second, do we really flip the product and care to read the nutrition or other bylines at the back of the packaging in 5 seconds?

If we were unsure, are we really confident of getting trustworthy advice? What is in it for an electronic executive to give you the best deal when he/she is unlikely to have repeated exchange with you once again?       In our quest for the best option, we are more likely to be prone to regret. We are more likely to discover someone in our network who made a better choice. With nobody personal to blame, we shoulder the blame for the choices we make. In a world of increased choice, we have engineered ourselves more emotional instability or if I dare say, neuroticism.

Many centuries after Buddha and a few decades after Gandhiji, the messages they left us with are becoming even more relevant. A fulfilling life is one of moderation – filled with simple living and higher order thinking. Anyone listening?

The hypocrisy of geopolitics

Remi Kanazi, an acclaimed poet, editor and activist was quoted as saying, “A million dead Iraqis is collateral damage. A smashed window is terrorism. -- Love, the West”.  It is hard to discount it as poetic exaggeration in light of the evidence which exists in favor of the statement.

In an academic study done by Einsensee and Stornberg in 2007 on how much influential media was in inducing bias in the U.S. relief to natural disasters over the last 5 decades, they show that newsworthy disasters are crowded out by other news unless a certain threshold death ratio is met. For example, the death ratio between a volcano and drought is 1:2395. It means that the US network news covered one volcano death for every 2395 deaths through a drought. All of us know well enough where the drought prone areas in the world are in the last five decades. Also, the death ratio of coverage between Europe and Africa was 1:45. Once again, a single European death was considered newsworthy whereas it required at least 45 African to die to make it to the network news and catch U.S media’s attention.

Iraq war was clearly a case of the imperial overreach that former US senator William Fulbright once called the “arrogance of power”. After 10 years, 1 trillion $ of expenditure, the US leaves behind an Iraq that is neither democratic or secure. Sadly enough, it has come at the cost of several civilian lives. In an attempt to justify its investment and pursuit of democratic order in the Middle East, U.S showed more path dependence to a bad decision than sensitivity to loss of human lives in Iraq. Whereas the sensitivity to terrorism post 9/11 through its home security processes and procedures cannot be understated.

While it is understandable that the U.S government will go any extent to protect the lives of its own citizens and the sovereignty of its state, it is disheartening that it does not reciprocate the same fundamental value on foreign soil. That is clearly at the core of Remi’s heartburn.

It is not just Iraq that has highlighted U.S or West’s hypocrisy in the way it has pursued geopolitics. To cite another example, the end of war in Sri Lanka against the Tamil Tigers by the army was met with little of the celebratory tone that had marked some of the reporting of the death of Muammar Qadaffi in October 2011. While there was immediate condemnation of tactics used the Sri Lankan army and cries for war-crimes enquiries, there is little condemnation of the last phase of conduct in Libya, by the same governments of human-rights watchdogs.

It doesn’t require a political science or international affairs degree to see clearly the contradiction in West’s position arising because of its direct involvement in Libya versus its direct condemnation of local state endorsed war in Sri Lanka. Even in the case of Libya, it is not hard to forget the years of cozying up the same countries had done with Libya for its natural resources.

Many such examples highlight that there are different standards which apply when you take on a superpower. What causes a lot of heart burn for liberal voices like Remi who articulate the sentiments of their people is that super powers and their allies seek to assert their standards and values as universal.

It has to be pointed out that the hypocrisy of the Western superpowers is far from absolute and there have been many times where they have been willing to face the mirror. For example, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary at the time, eventually took responsibility for American mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, calling it “inconsistent with the values of our nation”.

However, such candid reflection is few and far between. Certainly not enough to silence the voice of those whose lives have been intervened by a war endorsed by a coalition of super power and its allies.

A human life is worth the same level of rights, dignity and compassion irrespective of the identity of nation state. It is time that the world raises to this obvious moral order. And it is time that the West showed us the lead.

P for positive and politics

YES, you read that right. ‘Politics’ can go together with the word ‘positive’ instead of its infamous cousin ‘perverse’. Politics can after all be and must be a noble endeavor. It is not an argument based on bubble headed idealism. It is also not an argument based on a few counterfactual case studies. So, I will not remind you on why politics was central to the creation of the idea of ‘India’ itself. I will also not remind you that politics during emergencies rose from the profane or mundane to rediscover the spirit of India.

Instead, let me make a case for why it is a moral imperative that each one of us engages in politics. Politics by definition is managing society’s infinite needs with limited resources through a process of representation, dialogue, discussion and debate. Therefore, by definition it involves participation of an individual in the ordering and running of his/her life and a collective spirit of community.

 Jayaprakash Narayan(JP), architect of the Sarvodaya and Sampoorna Kranthi movements, in an essay on reconstruction of Indian polity said, “The heart of the problem is to create the ‘spirit of community’, without which the whole body politic would be without life and soul. This is a task of moral regeneration to be brought about by example, service, sacrifice and love.”

He ends the essay with an evocative plea, “The task also is one of social engineering. It is a task of dedication; of creation; of self-discovery. It is a task that defines India’s destiny. It spells a challenge to India’s sons and daughters. Will they accept the challenge?”

 It is a plea and question which continues to haunt me on a daily basis. As a leader at school who led the assemblies, I mindlessly repeated the words of our nation’s pledge. Little did I reflect or ask myself deeply what it meant when I promised that all Indians are my brothers and sisters. Nor did it sink in beyond the scope of my social science exams, why I should be proud of our rich and varied cultural heritage. Least of all, I did not know what it meant to pledge my devotion to my country and my people. And why my happiness must lie only in their prosperity and well-being.

It shames me immensely to think that what I am today has been by a lucky turn of a coin. I could have been the 9 out of 10 children who never graduate out of high school. Much before that, I could have been that 1 out of 2 kids who are malnourished. Even worse, I could easily have not had a living chance like almost half a million children who die for avoidable reasons. It is only by pure luck that I have come this far in our country and I am grateful for that.

But I feel sinful that 65 years after independence, a child’s destiny is still not determined by the content of his/her character but by virtue of his/her birth. If you are still not convinced, imagine being a Dalit Muslim girl for a moment. The odds against your survival and social mobility are close to insurmountable. If have you seen such suffering in person before, I am sure you must have gone back home and cried. That is indeed the right response. Inspite of my two years work in a low income community with TeachforIndia as a fellow, I still get shaken up. For those of you who get angry, it is also the right response. I am angry and impatient about the status quo every single day.

But it is just NOT enough. Our tears and anger are only self-fulfilling. Our charity and volunteerism might be a tiny value adding on the margin and sometimes inconsequential as well. I believe like JP that we need a moral regeneration. It does entail sacrifice. It might entail fruitless years of service and love. But more importantly for me, it means staying true to the pledge I took. It means being engaged in politics and believing that it can be a noble endeavor. That in my pursuit of self-discovery through dedication to public service I will contribute to India’s tryst with destiny.

I will end by quoting sociologist Max Weber from his seminal essay ‘Politics as a vocation’, “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.”

It surely spells a challenge to India’s fortunate sons and daughters. Are we ready to accept it?

The raging bull called unemployement

The troubles just keep mounting for Spain. After GDP growth shrank in the first quarter of 2012, it formally pushed Spain into recession for the second time in two years.  Another 366,000 lost their jobs, increasing the tally to 5.6 million, unemployment rate reached close to 25%. Spain along with rest of Europe and the US are discovering that economy after all comes first. Though the linkage between economic conditions and social unrest is complex, even the first world citizens are no less tolerant or immune to shocks in economy. Some of the protests in Spain unlike Occupy movements have been more violent in nature. Why is unemployment such a key determinant of peace and well-being?

Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother and former Attorney General in an often quoted speech said that, “GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”

While it is hard to disagree with the eloquence of such rhetoric, Spain is another pointer as to why GDP growth is after all the foundational basis upon which we seek things in life which are worthwhile. Yes, GDP does not measure the joy of our children’s play. But having almost 1 out every 4 young graduate unemployed reverses the private returns to pursuing education, making neither the pursuit nor use of such an education of whatever quality worthwhile. Yes, GDP growth does not capture the virtues of our poetry, marriages, social intelligence and public officials. Sadly, when you can’t be productively engaged and feed yourselves, let alone your family, there is no wisdom or courage in pursuing beauty instead of the beastly.  It is hard not to side with angry protestors in the age of increasing austerity in Spain.

A recent paper by Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth of Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra presents data to validate such a theory. They put together chaotic episodes in Europe between 1919 and 2009 – a mix of protests, strikes, assassinations and attempted revolution – and in fact find a strong correlation between fiscal austerity and social unrest. Episodes of social unrest occur twice as often when spending cuts reach 5% of GDP.

Protests induced by austerity attract far more participants than demonstrations sparked by other causes. Think climate change for example. In 2010 the International Labour Organisation warned that high levels of joblessness and of youth unemployment especially, were likely to trigger above-normal levels of social unrest. Other research also points to strong correlation between income inequality and social instability.

A bit more growth and bit less austerity is after all not a bad recipe. A study at University of Sussex which examined inequality and unrest in India found that redistribution can improve social stability. That may well be the underlying message that Spain’s unemployed youth are giving the government through their protests.
I would certainly not judge the compassion nor the devotion of Spain’s youth towards their country which national income accounts do fail to measure until GDP growth first becomes a valid and worthwhile measure in Spain. To expect anything less than concerned protest from their unemployed is akin to expecting the raging bull not to chase the red flagged matador!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The art of lobbying_4th estate: How gullible are you?

“Not a single person from the two villages has committed suicide”
A newspaper story in India three and half years ago, presented a success story of genetically modified seeds. This was a time when the debate was raging about the merits of the new technology. Interesting enough, the article got republished 9 months back in the same newspaper word to word.

As P Sainath, argues in detail in an opinion article on May 10th 2012 that the true story is shockingly different. Take for example, the truth that there have been 14 suicides as revealed by the villages to the Parliamentary committee.  The original newspaper article claims a benefit of additional earnings of almost Rs.20,000 per acre. The reality of a farmer’s gross income according to him is Rs.1400 per acre.           
The articles fall broadly in the category of a market driven print media phenomena called “paid news”.  The euphemisms for such covert lobbying by the print media are “consumer connect initiative” or “marketing feature”.

The taped conversations of lobbyist Niira Radia published by Outlook and Open in December 2010 made us confront the new reality of a happy nexus between the 3 pillars, 4th estate and business. These transcripts — which involved conversations between Niira and a range of renowned and commonly respected journalists and editors like Prabhu Chawla, Vir Sanghvi, Barkha Dutt, Senthil Chengalvarayan, MK Venu, Navika Kumar, Ganapathy Subramaniam et al — ridiculed the common person’s naiveté. Even the most discerning readers (if I can include myself here) were shocked to realize that they were gullible after all.

Elsewhere, Mcmillan and Zoido(2004) in an academic paper  present a case on how Fujimori’s government in Peru appropriated about US$ 600 million(~300 crores) and were able to do this by restraining the whistleblowers through a bribe economy. The police chief ran the secret economy methodically buying out judges, opposition politicians and the media. While these parts of the findings are not surprising, what is interesting is that the price of loyalty was differential. The politicians averaged $300k per month(~ 1.5 crore) and judges $250k per month(~1.25 crore), the media buy out cost over $3 million per month(~15 crore).

Why was the media so expensive to buy out relative to politicians and judges? It is a power balance which hangs delicately between the private interests of politicians/businessmen and the public reputation, information dissemination power of media outlets. The day the agreement falls apart, the media in a free press country has all the power to bring down a political or business empire. Murdoch family discovered the taste of their own medicine when News of World had to be pulled out of publication because of the vigor with which the other media outlets went after them for the telephone hacking scadal.

The closed door economy has created a new job market for ‘professional lobbyists’ in India. It is a disconcerting trend and we seem to be destined following the route of the US where lobbyists exert a lot of political and media influence.

Max Weber, the German sociologist is nuanced in his articulation of power dynamics. “The modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination. It has been successful in seeking to monopolize the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory. To this end the state has combined the material means of organization in the hands of its leaders, and it has expropriated all autonomous functionaries of estates who formerly controlled these means in their own right.”

It is disturbing to note that his words are even more relevant today. The day when the state completely expropriates the autonomous function of 4th estate, as is already happening in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh with political parties owning the media, lobbying might be a null and void profession. It is all going to be brazen and naked. The only question then is if there will be kernel of truth left amidst all the noise and will readers like us be discerning enough to see through the gullibility trap?

Will Satyameva Jayate(Truth alone triumph)? 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A teacher who couldn't live up to his own values - I

The first value out of the five we tried practiced(first imposed by me and later  in "Happy Harvard Class" was Happiness, in that Happiness must be our ultimate goal.
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. ~ Theodore

It is this mindset that Theodore articulates which has been extremely hard to cultivate. It has made me unhappy at times. My close friend Yin Chen says that it is not as perfect as you hope or even as bad you fear. She is right. I struggled to moderate between the extremes of idealism and cynicism during the last one year.

15 things you should give up to be happy  What is coincidental is that this article shows up on the same day I am contemplating the topic. It is as if the Universe has conspired to save me a reflection. A lot of things in the article speak to my inability to let go. 

It was so easy being a benevolent dictator with a group of children and having a commons which revolved around practice of such values. Having the responsibility of being a role model to scrupulous but malleable children was a powerful motivator during the two years at TeachforIndia. Being out on my own with distant images of them and being a peer in a student community has been a different equation. There is no pretence of trying to be a role model for your classmates and doing it for myself for self fulfilling reasons has never come naturally to me.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What is the price of freedom?

“Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty” said Thomas Jefferson.

The case of Chinese blind activist Chen Guangcheng from Linyi, Shandong province, who in a daring night time escape to Beijing sought refuge in the US embassy, is proving to be a symbolic clash between the US constitutional value of liberty and China’s value of absolute state control.

One might ask on why this is such a critical matter for China. After teaching himself basic law, Chen exposed officials who forced women to have abortions in order to reach their family planning targets.

As he began to throw light on these problems, Linyi officials abducted him and placed him under house arrest. After being under arrest for a year for “disrupting traffic and damaging property” he was put back under house arrest with almost 100 guards around his home in village.

Chen has been the most prominent of the’ human rights’ activists in China trying to nudge the country towards a system of ‘rule of law’. His protracted and brutal suppression of human rights has been a ready reference for foreign governments to point out to the weakness in China’s current system of governance.

His midnight run to the US Embassy in Beijing is proving to be a test for the Chinese leadership in Beijing to restore the primacy of the government. While for the US diplomatic leadership, including Hillary Clinton and Obama administration this has so far been a walk on the eggshells.

Chen has requested the US government to let him and his family leave for the US. “I want to come to the US to rest. I have not had a rest in 10 years,” Chen was quoted as saying to a US congressional hearing.  Meanwhile, during her parallel talks in Beijing, Clinton pressed China on human rights but avoided mention of Chen, focusing on North Korea and Iran.

The reactions to the episode have been diverse and across the full range of spectrum.  “Chen Guangcheng has become a tool and pawn for American politicians to blacken China,” the Beijing Daily said.  But the official news agency, Xinhua and the Communist party paper, the People’s Daily, have joined the chorus and suggested to some extent that there is no consensus among Chinese leaders on how to handle the issue.

The US media on the other hand has been quick to involve the Presidential candidates into the issue. Mitt Romney lost no time in criticizing the Obama administration and calling the episode a “dark day for freedom” .Abby Huntsman Livingston, daughter of the former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, who worked at the Beijing embassy for a year, criticized both the candidates for how they handled the sensitive diplomatic issue.

It is hard to predict where this is heading. The only other obvious instance of a dissident being granted custody by a foreign diplomatic mission in Communist China is the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, after the Tiananmen protests.

However, global power dynamics have evolved since 1989 and China not only has far more international leverage because of its economic and strategic might but also is extremely sensitive to international opinion than two decades ago.

It is a zero sum game in which the Chinese government would hardly want to come out as having lost out.  Everyone is rightly concerned for Chen and his family’s safety.  Let’s hope that liberty does not come with a high price for our friends across the border.  

Who told you that Politics is not personal?

“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective” said Max Weber in his seminal essay ‘Politics as a vocation’. The run up to the US Presidential elections 2012 have by most stretches of imagination pushed the frontiers of civility in politics.

I was relieved at the end of what were by most observations fairly caustic Republican primaries, though some rue that the entertainment has come to an end! Just when everyone was hoping for a civil debate between Barack Obama and almost certain Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the US President’s White House correspondent’s dinner speech has sparked off a new debate.

While many US commentators have played down the speech as a classic of the genre for an occasion keeping up with the tradition over the last few decades, there were moments in the speech which raised not only my eyebrows but even the First Lady’s!

Consider this - “What’s the difference between a hockey mom (earlier reference made to Sarah Palin) and a pit bull?” “A pit bull is delicious”. Many more jokes followed on Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and others.
Democrats I would believe certainly thought President Obama’s speech was just the right mix of self-deprecating humor and shots directed at Republicans. Republicans almost certainly thought the speech was too arrogant, illuminating what they believe to be their judgment of the President.

It might well be the American normative brand of sarcastic and self-deprecating humor. But for a neutral observer like me, engaging in personal garbs has I believe, diverted the attention from the core issues of the US. For young children growing up in the US who still believe in public service as the highest calling, such uncivil engagement might make them more averse to the profession and their notions of it being a noble endeavor for advancing human development.

While sensitive issues like health care, education loans, social security, energy security, foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran are going to be hotly debated over the next five months before the November election, economy and income inequality is the issue which will almost surely be determining the next US President. The quicker the debates reorient themselves away from the personal to the professional, the better it is surely for everyone.

Finally to quote Max Weber once again “Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics”

It would be interesting to see if the US President can repeat history by running an inspired campaign. Everyone surely needs a message of hope and optimism rather than a debasing one from both the contenders for the world’s most powerful position. I wish that both of them rise to the occasion and the US citizens exercise the wisdom for the better one! The world awaits…

Doing the right thing when nobody is watching

Muralidhar Devdas Amte, fondly called Baba Amte, was born in a wealthy family and educated to be an advocate in Warora.  When the sweepers of Warora challenged him to clean the gutters, he did so facing his worst fears. But the same Baba who was named ‘Abhay Sadhak’, the fearless student by Gandhiji, quivered in fright when he saw the living corpse of Tulshiram, no fingers, no clothes, with maggots all over. He went on to say, “I took up leprosy work not to help anyone, but to overcome that fear in my life. That it worked out good for others was a by-product. But the fact is I did it to overcome fear.”

Baba Amte’s life is a paragon of excellence in social service. A guiding light for those seeking purity of life filled with empathy and compassion. But more importantly, his life story brings to fore the moral courage that is very rarely found and highlighted in our world which is inundated with success stories in business, entertainment, sports and politics.

The story of CNN Hero of the year 2010, Anuradha Koirala, whose group ‘Maiti Nepal’ has rescued more than 12,000 women and girls from sex slavery, immediately reminded me of Baba Amte. Her life is also a shining example of moral courage and mental fortitude. It is commendable that CNN has taken the initiative to identify and honor such acts of selfless social service. In a world where success is mostly measured by monetary and positional achievement and leadership is lionized in fields like business, sports and politics it is indeed heartening to see recognition of leaders like Anuradha, who are working tirelessly and anonymously for social change.

The two stories of exceptional public service also raise fundamental questions on what is DNA of exceptional leadership and at what level should young Indians bring about change in their societies?

I have always struggled to articulate my own theory of leadership. What does it mean to be a leader? Is it measured on scales of success in your professional field? Is it measured by your standing on the leadership competency models in your organization? How do we then calibrate the leadership of all the freedom fighters whose virtues of service and sacrifice hardly fit into the consulting models?

After much thought and reflection of the stories of Baba Amte and Anuradha Koirala, I would define leadership as having a strong sense of integrity to do the right thing with no personal attachment to the end result. There is no dearth of avoidable suffering and unfulfilled potential in the world around us. But very few of us possess the rare virtue, the moral courage to be true to the feeling which calls us to act in the service of those suffering and lacking opportunities to fulfill their potential.

Secondly, to everyone out there like me wondering about the nature of impact you want to make – micro or macro, take time to reflect on the life stories of Baba Amte and Anuradha Koirala. Our life will not be evaluated by the bank balances or the press coverage we accumulate. Instead, it will be evaluated by the power of eulogy written for you by those nameless and voiceless brothers and sisters you have served through your work.

I will end by quoting Baba Amte himself on his search for truth,
 “I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see;
  I sought my god, but my god eluded me;
 And then I sought my sisters and brothers, and in then I found all three”            
And I am asking myself the question, “Do I have the moral courage to stand up and act for others?”

Standing your ground

According to latest statistics reported by SNEHA, a 24-hour suicide helpline in India, 2300 children under the age of 14 took their lives last year. For most of us in India, we grow insensitive to death numbers over a period of time. As long as the numbers don’t personally affect us, they do not have time to occupy our mind space.

Let’s pause for a moment here. Take a moment and write down the list of all your closest friends from memory. Friends with whom you have shared some of the precious moments of your life and those who make life worthwhile. My list with a lot of concessions on what I consider ‘precious’ and ‘worthwhile’ makes it to double digits. Now imagine that number multiplied by 200 times. Depressing this might sound, but imagine losing 200 times of what you considered valuable in life for a suffering which was easily avoidable. Not for lack of access to physical health treatment but for lack of sensitivity and empathy amongst all of us. How do you know then if you or your close friends are being victimized?

Bullying in my mind is the exercise of power by the more powerful in subtle or explicit ways which leads to loss of status, voice or self-esteem for the less powerful. The victims could be children, girls and women, minority groups or even subordinates. It could happen in any of our institutions – family, schools, colleges, workplaces and social organizations. 

The first step to developing self-awareness about whether you are being bullied is to understand what your rights as a free individual are. Children are much more vulnerable compared to adults because of the fact that they are far more gullible and less knowledgeable about their own rights. Therefore, I will focus on children and how they should identify bullying. Also, having been a teacher in primary school, I felt very strongly about any such transgressions. Though, it is less an issue in my judgment when the children are younger than when they grow into their adolescence, it is nevertheless important to teach the mindsets of equality and empathy very early.

The first and foremost thing to develop as a child is the skill of reflection. An ability to articulate your thoughts, feelings, emotions and ideas in whatever language or form you are most comfortable in.  It could be even through performing and non performing arts. If you are being bullied, it is important to understand that you DO NOT have a problem. For this to happen, it is important to understand your underlying thoughts, feelings and emotions.

If someone around you is making you feel bad or low about yourselves, making you cry, or in the worst case scenario physically abusing you, DO NOT accept the status quo. It is easier to recognize the emotional and physical trauma but more difficult to understand the psychological. In the case of first two, immediately stand up for your own rights. If you are still being overpowered, seek help immediately from people you trust - close friends, family or higher authorities. In the last case, you need to communicate your emotions and feelings through words, pictures or actions to trustworthy people. Feel free to ask their opinions on whether they think what you experienced constitutes bullying. 

Over a period of time as you reflect more and continuously get feedback on managing your emotions, you update your beliefs about what constitutes bullying and how to handle it.  You also grow confident about protecting others whom you think are going through phases you had been through. You will also being doing a world of good to those bullying by making them recognize their mistakes early. To err is definitely human, but to silently accept it is doing injustice to yourself and the other person as well.

So, stand up. BE brave and BE free. Because, you deserve to BE. 

UN in Syria: Shooting for the stars

Coming from India and being born in the 80’s generation, I take freedom, liberty and democracy for granted. I often forget that I stand on the shoulders of giants for whom sacrifice was a way of life and ‘Swaraj’, a birth right they fought courageously until death for.  Not until you read about Syria’s accounts in the daily newspapers, you realize the worth of your own freedom in a democratic nation like India.

Hearing gory narratives of Syrian people, for the lack of a better word, being butchered by state’s army for the last three months is chilling to the core. The Syrian inhabitants have been growing in conviction that state cannot impose itself against the popular will.  But, the outside world to its shame has not shown such resolve. Dr. Martin Luther King famously remarked, “The silence of a few good men is more dangerous than the brutality of bad men”.  It then raises the question of why the status quo prevails.

Division has taken over international cooperation at a time it was needed the most. As the crisis deepens, those urging armed force are invoking both the tragedy of inaction in Rwanda and Bosnia in the early 1990’s, and the last year’s decisive international intervention which led to triumph in Libya as cases to make their point.

A vote on February 4th, in the UN security council, condemning Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, and calling him on to cede powers to his deputy, was defeated however thanks to vetoes from Russia and China. For Mr. Assad, this was his license to kill many more innocent civilian opponents. But many would argue if the international community needs to infringe on nation’s sovereignty? If yes, what are the criteria for such an intervention?

Under the responsibility to protect (R2P) principles that the UN General Assembly unanimously endorsed in 2005, coercive military action to stop atrocities should be contemplated only when peaceful means – from diplomatic persuasion to sanctions and threats of criminal prosecution fail to deliver. Clearly, by any metric of judgment, the situation in Syria has reached that threshold.  With 9000 people already killed over the last 3 months and still rising, type and scale of harm to civilians prima facie calls for use of minimal military force in short duration, high intensity and right scale. 

However, it is easier said than done. One of the constraints of doing so is estimating the balance of consequences of international intervention: will military intervention do more harm than good? Will it scale the nascent civil war into a full-blown one? Sectarian differences in Syria are sharp and this seems to be the reason for lack of confidence of international community in the democratic and human-rights credentials of the opposition.  And, with the Arab league divided over the issue, any Western military imposition can prove to be inflammatory in the wider Islamic world.

The people of Syria clearly deserve better. Despite the UNSC belated endorsement of UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s peacemaking mission in Syria recently, there is skepticism about Bashar al-Assad’s cooperation. With all military options proving to be infeasible at this point of time, the UN is relying on Mr. Kofi Annan’s diplomatic skills to deliver a deal with the Syrian government. As an eternal optimist, I am holding on to my last straw of hope. As the quotable line goes, “I like the night. Without the dark, we’d never see the stars”. I pray for a day in Syria when the smoke screen clears in the dark, and children can see the stars and wake up to a new sunrise. Let’s all hope for Syria’s tryst with destiny because that is what most of the international community seems to be holding on to right now.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Is India's romance with communism over?

An year ago, India’s red states, West Bengal and Kerala voted the communists out of power after a historical tenure in the government. Many people raised the inevitable question: Is India’s romance with communism over? How is it relevant in the post-liberalization era and the world’s largest spiritually oriented nation? Let us examine the history and growth of Communism in India before we evaluate the relevance of the movement today.
The roots of the communist movement in India go back to 1920’s when Communist Party of India was founded as an alternative to the existing Congress led anti-imperialist movement. The movement was driven by angst against the economic injustice of the propertied classes of both Britain and India. The “revolt” was not against the imperialism of the British but against the capitalist system in practice.
Victor Hugo once famously remarked that no force could stop an idea whose time has come. In many ways, Communism feels like an idea whose time never really came in India. Communism in India as it was practiced and offered to the people was never in sync with the socio-cultural norms of the majority. In trying to bring about radical change through a revolutionary zeal, the idea missed the opportunity of changing things at the margin.  I cite two specific ideological errors made by the movement which I think explain the reason for its failures in India.
National identity: No real national spirit existed among a group of peasants, landowners and middle class proletariat who combined for socio-economic reasons. The fact that it failed to create a new national identity and unite the masses like Gandhiji and other Congress leaders did during the pre-Independence era was one of main weaknesses in its institutional structure. Not addressing the caste and religion issues through continuous dialogue was one of the biggest mistakes of the communist movement during this time. Imposing their caste and religion free ideology on the masses instead only further alienated them.
Means of revolution: The means of violence chosen by Communist movement was easy to be negated by the militarily powerful British opposition. Gandhiji's method, by contrast, was to slowly pick apart at the government's view of liberalism and tackle the issues on the margin. This proved to be highly effective because the colonial state found it more frustrating to battle a morally forceful yet peaceful movement. I would hence argue that this movement managed to damage the government more effectively than the violent and disorganized methods of the CPI.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Marxist roots only persisted in two of India’s most literate states of Kerala and West Bengal where people’s aspirations matched with the ideologies of the Left. However, the last year’s state election debacles of CPI and CPI (M) in both these states point to a trend of the movement losing public support even in these states. But it needs to be pointed out that the unruly offshoots of Naxalism and Maoism still dominate a third of our districts in India. After the Dantewada massacre where 76 jawans of the central paramilitary were surrounded and butchered in cold blood by well-armed Naxalites, the little romanticism public intellectuals and larger public had for such extremist ideologies seem to have evaporated. Our internal security as rightly pointed out by our Prime Minister is our greatest threat and needs to be dealt with utmost urgency and seriousness. In looking back at the history of communist movement and its loss to Gandhiji’s Satyagraha, Government and civil society will do well to pursue its own truth through a rigorous and community based development agenda in these affected districts. In a country like India, it would be hard and foolish to pronounce a judgment on the end of communist movement. But, by choosing to be not in sync with the socio-cultural and economic norms of the larger society, the communists are being clearly overpowered in the battleground of ideas.

Why am I optimistic about change?

Imagine that you placed two gold coins on the first square of a chess board. If you kept doubling the number of gold coins for each and every square, how many coins do you think will be there on the last square (64th)?
18000000000000000000 (18 followed by 18 zeroes)

Can you imagine that number in your head? I mean we can all visualize 2 birds, 5 trees, 10 buildings, a few hundred people, even a few lakhs and crores of money(Our politicians seem to have the acumen to deal in many more zeroes than us citizens though!).

Malcolm Gladwell articulates this cognitive principle of 'Tipping Point' brilliantly through a lot of social examples. His main idea in the book is how little unprecedented things can actually create a social movement and the factors which lead to that critical mass for the movement to explode. To further break it down, human mind does not have the cognitive ability to comprehend geometric progressions or in other words, big socially impactful movements (read World Wars, computer, internet etc.)

There are a few other mathematical theories to highlight the same principle (Long Tail, Butterfly effect etc.) but I will focus on one which really appealed to me - The Black Swan theory
The Black Swan Theory or Theory of Black Swan Events is a metaphor that encapsulates the concept that some events happen and taken all us by surprise, like the name used to represent it. It is very rare that we come across a Black Swan in our lifetime. The legend goes that the English did not believe such a thing existed till they came across one. Therefore, it is only in hindsight do we come to terms with the fact of the event.

The theory was developed by
Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain three concepts:
·         The tail events which are extremely rare and highly improbable but not impossible. There exists a small probability of occurrence of such events in sciences and social sciences which happen to shape new frontiers.

·         Given the low probability of occurrence of such events, usually less odds than 1 in a million, it is difficult to use mathematical models to predict them.

·         Because of the nature of rarity and uncertainty of such events, the psychological biases human minds have towards low occurrence-high impact events.
Black Swan Events were characterized in his book The Black Swan. Taleb regards almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments as "black swans"—undirected and unpredicted. He cites the examples of World Wars, personal computer, Internet, 9/11 to prove his point.

Therefore, there are three major takeaways from a Black Swan event. First, that nothing in the past can potentially anticipate the possibility of its occurrence. It is clearly outside the realm of regular expectations and an outlier on a probability distribution. Second, most black swan events carry an extreme impact on society. Third, in spite of our inability to predict such events, human mind tends to find causal links to such an event in hindsight. The author argues that almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives can be explained through these events.

In my opinion, this is how change and social movements happen. We must surely reason on a daily basis. We must definitely plan for the uncertain future. We must ardently strive to achieve our planned goals. But we cannot predict our Black Swan moments. Life is purely probabilistic. And, at the tail of such a probability distribution is a black swan event waiting to happen in our life time. Therefore, we must believe at some level that high impact change is possible. It might not be around the corner and predictable, but there is some mathematical argument to believing the impossible is probable as well.

So ask yourselves, what is the ‘Black Swan’ moment that you can ‘probably’ dream of? What can you do to tip the scales of change in India? 

Where is the high moral ground?

The article on the book ‘Nanma Niranjavare Swasthi’ by Sister Mary in First Post is heart wrenching, disappointing and serious all at the same time. The fact that it evokes such diverse and mixed reactions is indicative of the sensitivity and complexity of the topic. Instead of giving a quick emotional response, I decided to delayer the three reactions. The views expressed are certainly personal but I do think they are reflective of the generation I belong to and it’s frustrations with the religion that our parents taught us to practice.
Firstly, the personal narrative of Sister Mary shook me up to the core. One, for the personal trials and tribulations she had to go through in spite of choosing the high noble path of service. And, also by the fact that her marginalization was compounded by her being female.  I can only barely empathize how it must have been to go through all that she did and yet manage to have the courage to stand up to her ideals. For living the message of service in the most pristine way possible despite the obstacles life had offered to her, I personally hold her in high respect and draw inspiration from her commitment.
However, abstracting to what the story symbolizes at an institutional and society level, it leaves me with disappointment. The story is a reflection of how church as an institution and more generally religious institutions, no longer stand on the pedestal of human excellence or the pursuit of it. In fact, this story reflects the slow but dangerous degradation of integrity of these institutions and our society as a whole. In the garb of high moral ground and a life of core values and service, these institutions in majority are turning out as platforms for debauchery and power exertion by men. Coming from a scientific and rational background, I would question the idea of celibacy and chaste life that most religions impose on their priests, nuns and monks. Especially, in the context of our modern social norms in which our films and all other forms of entertainment are becoming salacious by the day. It surely requires the highest degree of moral probity to not to yield to temptations of such messages. Either they have must stricter codes on how to uphold and practice the values they preach to their unsuspecting believers or these religious institutions need to question, innovate and think of adapting themselves to the changing societal norms. Values as they say are caught and not taught.
Lastly, the article raises serious questions about the role of religion and religious institutions in our society. To paraphrase Swami Vivekananda’s idea of religion, he said that if you can have the body of a Muslim, heart of a Christian and soul of a Hindu, you have reached the pinnacle of human life. What he meant was if you can practice austerity that Islam preaches, if you can serve others like Jesus did and if you can reflect within deeply like Gita says, you don’t need the crutches of religion to live in an uncertain world and pursue the highest truth. I hope that the story will make all of us question our own scientific temper and reasoning mind. What do we need religion for in life? Can we distill the teachings of all religions and practice them in an individual way? Can we question the lives of gurus, nuns and priests who use religion to manipulate unsuspecting people? More importantly, can we as a society or an aspiring modern society develop scientific temper and search for the fundamental truths through evidence, reason and debate?        

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Article on Higher education for YouthkiAwaaz

Our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said, “A University stands for humanism, for tolerance, for progress, for adventure of ideas and for the search of truth.  It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives.”

Cleary, a knowledge society cannot be built and an IT revolution cannot be sustained without strengthening institutions of higher learning. Let us examine where we stand at this moment and what must urgently be done.

The race we have forgotten to run – a number diagnosis
Though the contribution of higher education to development, whether private or public returns is well established and quite significant, India, like many other developing countries, has not paid adequate attention to it.   Allocations for higher education have reduced from 25% in the 4th Five-year plan (1969-74) period to hardly 7-8% in the Ninth Five year plan(1997-2002).

India and China had the same gross tertiary enrollment ratio around 10% in the late 2000’s. While China has managed to break away and grow at 15% every year, we have fallen behind by growing at 7%. The gross tertiary enrollment ratio has reached 15%, according to MHRD’s statistics on Higher and Technical education (2009-10).

International evidence shows that economically advanced countries with universalized secondary education that provide a fair degree of access to higher education have a gross enrolment ratio ranging from 40% to 90%. The converse is also true. No country with a low enrolment ratio of 10% to 15% can be an advanced country – economically, politically or socially.

In summary, higher education is clearly a race we have forgotten to run or chosen not to run.

The leap we never make in India – reports, committees and commissions to policy action
The Yashpal committee report (2009) on the topic of ‘Renovation and rejuvenation of Higher education in India’ is very instructive in understanding the challenges of the higher education sector. It also provides a logical agenda for action to recover the lost distance and the grand idea of a University. 

To summarize the report in a few hundred words would be gross injustice to the rigor of the analysis and to the complexity of the problem.  The challenges of social relevance of our Universities, architecture of learning to promote academic excellence and revamping current administrative and regulatory structures to deliver the public good of higher education are deep and multifold.

The agenda for action outlined is equally complex and challenging to carry out even for the most capable administration. Take for example, creating the all-encompassing National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER), a constitutional body to replace the existing regulatory bodies including the UGC, AICTE, NCTE and DCE and appropriate law for the commission’s functioning.

Instead of getting into the details of the report, I will instead focus on the political follow up of the report. India’s problem of policy action has never been ignorance. We have had significant thought leadership and intellectual capital working on the problem at the macro level, be it through National Knowledge Commission and this report to cite a few examples.

However, it is disheartening to note that India does not have a dedicated Minister for Human Resource Development. It highlights the urgency and focus with which our government has tackled the problem. Our past governments on both sides of the political divide have been equally lax in their vision.

In all debates which ‘3 idiots’ movie prompted on our higher education system, none of the focus was on the big gap in enrollment numbers we have chosen to neglect or on the course of political and administrative action we have taken for the last six decades. Instead, in narrowing the discourse just to culture of learning in IITs and IIMs, we have showed an elitist bias in our understanding of the problem.

To truly start to move towards delivering the ideals of higher education, a system based on core values of academic excellence, social relevance and spiritual vitality, we first urgently need to inject accountability into our political discourse.  A simple demand of a dedicated Central Minister to start with, to represent the 85% children of our country who cannot crash the barriers of higher education.

Debut as a public writer - Youth ki Awaaz article on TFI journey

“How does one become a butterfly?” he asked
“You must want to fly so much that you give up being a caterpillar.”

Metaphorically, this is the same question I started with on my TeachforIndia (TFI) journey as a fellow in 2009. What is my depth of drive to serve people?  I always had deep reverence and admiration for Gandhiji, as how much one single man could do for millions of spiritually starved people just by changing himself. I hoped that such an intense journey of personal transformation will lead to discovery of my inner self – my self actualization need and my drivers for it.

During January 2011, I was running a Writer’s workshops based on central themes of the Lion King story in my classroom.  Our big goal for the year was to plan, perform and organize the Musical for the story. My kids were into the story at a factual and sequential level in Reader’s workshops since September 2010.  Wanting to take it up high on Bloom’s cognitive development level, I hit on this idea on integrating it in to writing as well. As is the process, you need to model the way of writing on the topic to the kids. Also, being 10 year olds, I realized that I really needed to delayer the emotion to the basic level so that it made a deep connect with all of them. In the process, I realized the distance I have covered on the journey of personal transformation during the course of fellowship. The themes that we wrote on were -

“I was put to shame when…” (SHAME)
I was a 16 year old caterpillar, who couldn’t take the possible ignominy of not cracking the IIT- JEE test and ran away from hostel for one full week on the streets. Now, the butterfly can make itself vulnerable in front it its kids by sharing any story of my life in intricate details, just like little Simba got over shame in the end of the story!

“I fear about...” (FEAR)
From fearing about being judged in public like Simba, I have shed my cover and inhibitions as I found my purpose being a teacher in front of my children.

“My responsibilities in the Circle of Life are...”  (RESPONSIBILITY)
From being self driven, I am now driven to make the TFI vision of ‘one day all children will have an excellent education’ a reality by 2060. It has given my dreams new wings.

“I want to serve….” (SERVICE)
I truly feel that I want to serve now, not out of self righteousness but because I believe that my happiness and liberation is bound up with the underprivileged children of this country.

“I am attached…” (ATTACHMENT)
From being a product of the rat race system, I am no longer attached to the fruits of my action and only focus on working positively. I have found my objective equilibrium with the world.

It is with this rooted deep desire to do something for the country which is purposeful, passionate and impactful, I reflected deeply about the root cause of our governance failures and my possible contribution to it. I have grown to believe that answer to bad politics is good politics. Power when combined with passion, purpose and integrity can fastrack wellbeing of people. One of the fundamental questions I asked myself was, “What does it take for a young person with idealism, intellect, integrity and Indian as his/her only identity to win an Indian election in the current scheme of things?”

It has been 65 years since we have realized our dream of political independence. However, we have yet to realize our economic, democratic and spiritual independence.

Any other field or profession in India has success stories of people who have beaten heavy odds to be successful. My goal is to show that we can crash barriers to entry in the field of politics in India as well. Irrespective of identity and position in society, a patriotic and spirited individual must be able to qualify to win and rise in our system of democracy. My mission is to demonstrate that it is possible and hopefully in the process institutionalize it through the Indian School of Democracy.

Studying at Harvard Kennedy School for the last one year has made me realize the importance of India’s urgent need for a public policy school which not only develops the discerning intellect of a student but builds empathy and integrity through community experiences. William Faulkner, an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Mississippi, would say “to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi”. I can vouch to that wisdom from my limited experience of two years in the Wadgaonsheri community in Pune at TFI.

I still do not have all the answers to the big question but believe in the direction which my ideas are leading me. Hopefully, going back to my roots after my study, understanding some of the towns and villages of India in all its hues and sounds, listening long and deeply enough to people and serving them in my own means might open up the necessary opportunities.
There is much to feel skeptical about the rationality of my logic and the audacity of my dream. To them I will politely quote Robert Kennedy, who paraphrased George Bernand Shaw’s, “Some men see things are they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?

And on that day when I finally get to fly, you will know me and the fact that I have given up being a caterpillar!