Monday, October 19, 2009

Diwali, part 2

More and more lights. And fireworks, so the air gets cloudy.
Rangoli to welcome Lakshmi, goddess of wealth.
Decorations would not be complete without flowers.
Our Punjabi neighbors have had parties every night for almost a week now -- complete with BBQ, seemingly unlimited fireworks, dinners every night, and even picnics on their lawn, where they eat, drink and play games. Last night the men played cards too. It is a big night for gambling as well.
Last year, Amartya was scared, but this year he kept wanting to buy more and more firecrackers.
Some of the smaller fireworks sales centers -- all the same "Standard" company though.

But even more than the food, and the colors, is the noise. Below I'm posting some video clips where you can't see much, but should get a sense of the noise all around.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Deepavali/Diwali 2009, part 1

While the state government here in Karnataka is hoping that folks will devote some of their money to help victims of floods in the Northern, poorest, part of the state, and everyone says that firecracker sales are well below normal, there is no shortage around us. The government has also been trying to emphasize safety, and many are encouraging "greener" celebrations. Here is a government-sponsored billboard (or "hoarding" as they call it here):
A couple of things to note: it is laughable that they say no crackers between 10 and 6. Amartya was up past midnight last night, I heard the Tamilians bursting them in the 5 a.m. range, and I fully expect to hear them all through the night tonight. Another is the name itself: in the north it is Diwali, but here in the south it is Deepavali. Oddly enough, diwali/diwala means something like "bankrupt" in Kannada here in Karnataka. So here it is Deepavali, although the general term is Diwali. This is yet another example of the complexity of this place, and the contradictions found in such a large country with multiple languages. And then, of course, here is the matter of exactly what we are celebrating. In the north it is the return of Rama and the end of the fiscal year, all over it is the welcoming of lakshmi goddess of wealth, and in general (as in almost all Indian religious festivals) the victory of good over evil.
Our North Indian neighbors started three nights ago. For Tamilians (like Sub's family), the revelry starts early in the morning, with family members taking an oil bath (not really a bath, but an application of oil to keep the skin soft), wearing new clothes and bursting firecrackers before dawn. As our neighbor Viru says, "today's the big day!" here in the south.
Before you can burst firecrackers, however, you must buy them, so here are some shots of that process. These stands are all around town, although the big ones here are set up on the Bangalore Palace Grounds, often used for other large exhibitions and sales (along with cultural events like music concerts and religious gatherings.
Everything seems to be "Standard" here in Bangalore, although some of the boxes say "made with Chinese technology," "no child labour used," and some European ISO 9001 certification.
Sheds have been set up to house and merchandise and provide a store-like atmosphere. Approaching where we bought them.
Here in labor-abundant India, there are many many assistants to help you buy your crackers. Here they have orange t-shirts on.There seem to be unlimited types, and you can buy either single boxes or multipacks.
Products in India have prices printed on them ("MRP") but that represents the maximum that can be charged (maximum retail price) whereas they can be discounted. Given the floods, and concerns about the economy, it is a slow year, so 70% discounts off the MRP seems to be the market price. One would expect that this discount will increase even more if large quantities remain past Sunday night. Below is part of the check out process. In India this inevitably includes multiple people and multiple steps, and this place is no different. The blue plastic bin is where we placed our goods, and now they have to write down each individual piece, with the fully MRP listed, to then take the 70% discount. Then one of these guys takes the receipt with our money to the big boss, who holds the money.The money man.The general discount sign seen around town this year.
Traditional Diwali involves lighting of lamps called diyas. We generally use candles, as it is easier for me than oil.
Modern (and wealthy) India has embraced strings of lights, so that houses are decorated like US houses are at Christmas time. The shot below is the most decorated house in our neighborhood -- non-Indians to boot.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scenes from Delhi

I spent a few days in Delhi last week, mainly in meetings, but got a little time to watch (and hear) subway construction (some in the middle of the night outside my hotel window) as well as go for a walk in Chandni Chowk where I hadn't been in years and years.

Metro contruction.
How can India think about smart grids?
It is amazing that this place doesn't go up in flames.
Lots of people, and trading, and traffic.
I wonder if there are scenes like this in China.
Another day at the metro construction.

Various articles on India

The New York Times Magazine had a good but depressing piece on "India's Malnutrition Dilemma" contrasting India with China (and even Brazil) in its lack of progress confronting its huge malnutrition challenge:
While India’s per capita gross domestic product grew fourfold between 1992 and 2006 (the last period for which there are accurate statistics), the percentage of children age 3 and under who are underweight declined only to 46 percent from 52 nationally, and actually increased in some states.
This is clearly an area where India will need to make huge strides if it wants to grown into the economic powerhouse it has the potential to be. And then, of course, this needs to be accompanied by attention to primary education. Until then ....

Another disturbing article, "Riches to Rags: Ten Rich Brats Become Slum Dwellers for a New Reality Show" from October 11's Business Standard is equally disturbing, explaining about a new reality TV show taking some rich kids and plopping them into a Mumbai slum to watch them try to survive. Half of the budget for the show (supposedly 5 crore rupees, which is a little above a million dollars) will go for marketing it!

On a completely different front, an ongoing controversy in the academic front here concerns the pay for IIT and IIM faculty. These are the state-run gems in the higher education system here. Many articles in the newspapers have covered various efforts, including hunger strikes, by some faculty members to increase salaries. One recent article in the Business Standard on October 10 (right next to a great piece by Paul Krugman (reprinted from the NYT) called "Educating America" talking about how America's success stemmed from mass public education, and that the current Great Recession induced cuts threaten to weaken it even further than insufficient attention) entitled "He who pays: The recent controversy over faculty pay at the IITs and IIMs suggests that they need to radically reorient themselves as academic institutions" -- despite an overall point that I don't think is valid -- mentions some useful pieces of data:
“You can’t charge young people full fees,” explains Ajit Rangnekar, dean of Indian School of Business, the Hyderabad-based B-school promoted by Wharton, Kellogg and London Business School. At the IITs, for instance, the government pays a subsidy of about Rs 200,000 per student per year. ...

For the most part, the IITs and IIMs have stuck to their original mandate of creating a highly qualified technical and managerial manpower base in India. As a result, they continue to admit the cream of India’s high school system through highly competitive entrance exam and turn out highly qualified graduates who break new records in starting salaries each year.

The question, though, is whether fulfilling this function alone is sufficient to meet the requirements of Indian corporations that now compete on a global scale.
So now, let's talk about this a little. While most students can't pay the whole fees when they start, doesn't there seem to be a problem when the students' salaries are astronomical after they receive a highly subsidized education with no quid pro quo. Why not provide loans to students to pay for school that get repaid once they earn their mega-rupees or mega-dollars, but write off the loans for those who work in needed professions (school-teachers, even professors of IITs!) that earn less but provide some sort of social service. A wild idea, I know, but something will need to dramatically restructure the financing of the education sector here given the huge demand and woefully inadequate supply. Okay, a topic for a different day (or week!).

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Trip to the Netherlands

Spending a week in the Netherlands was a nice break. Here are some shots:

India's need for more people

Yes, the title is a bit facetious, but I think this applies in the foreign policy bureaucracy field. This is something about which I've been hesitant to write, but lately a few things have emerged in the press that make it too hard to stay quiet.

For example, an article entitled "Too few good men" by AK Bhattacharya in the Business Standard on September 29 took India to task for its poor representation at the recent G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh. It contrasts the other delegations, especially the Chinese, with their teams of officials in different rooms, with the Indian group,

There was only one joint secretary-level official from the finance ministry who was shuttling from one room to the other, providing inputs and suggestions to the various meetings that were concurrently going on at the conference centre at Pittsburgh.

In addition to the quantity of officials, there is the question of their bureaucratic home, and scope.

In India, the finance ministry’s international co-operation division is preoccupied largely with the affairs of the World Bank and the IMF. The same team that deals with the World Bank and the IMF is now working on India’s interaction with G-20. There is clearly a need for building and expanding a team in the finance ministry that should handle India’s relations with the World Bank, IMF and G-20.

In fact, there is now need for greater co-ordination and co-operation between the ministry of external affairs and the finance ministry.

Then there was the question of media interaction:

Minister Manmohan Singh had gone to Pittsburgh, taking along with him a delegation of media representatives. By his own account, he had a “productive” meeting with other G-20 leaders. But apart from one press conference by the prime minister at the end of the meeting, the Indian government had not organised even one media briefing on how India dealt with the economic issues that came up for discussion at Pittsburgh.

Yes, there was a briefing from the National Security Advisor. Another briefing came from the Special Envoy of the PM on climate change. But was G-20 about security or about climate change? Or was it about global economic issues? The PM’s team had his Sherpa, Planning Commission Deputy Chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and Finance Secretary Ashok Chawla. Did the PM’s team make full use of them and the media delegation present at Pittsburgh? The fact is that none of them came for a briefing. In sharp contrast, all other important member countries were briefing their own media representatives about what their leaders said and how they made significant contributions to the debate at G-20.

India stood out for its shortage of people and ideas on information dissemination.

I quote so extensively from this article as it points out something I saw often in Washington. While the Chinese embassy sends someone -- generally a low level diplomat -- to almost every think tank seminar around town on any and all topics, it was very hard to ever run into an Indian diplomat -- even on India-related talks.

If India wants to play a role in world affairs, it will need a dramatic transformation of its foreign service and representation around the world. More officers need to be hired, they need to be trained, the Foreign Ministry needs to coordinate with other ministries, and on an on. But such change doesn't seem to be on the horizon.

There is an excellent academic piece on this issue, written by Council on Foreign Relations senior scholar Daniel Markey, published in Asia Policy, entitled "Developing India's Foreign Policy "Software"" that compares India with other nations around the world. India does not fare well. He has a great chart ("Figure 1") that contrasts India's 669 diplomats with 1,197 in Brazil, and 487 for tiny Singapore, although comparing with China is hard because it doesn't separate figures for diplomats. But one Indian diplomat in Washington told me that the Chinese had more diplomats in Washington than India had around the world. That would seem about right given their dramatic new building -- one day I'll write about the construction process that I got to observe on a daily basis -- as well as their current construction of more and better housing facilities for the Chinese posted to Washington.

India needs to decide that it wants to play a role internationally, and then needs to staff (and prepare) its delegations to achieve its goals. Diplomats heading off to the next set of meetings (the climate change negotiations) should go with briefing books and computers full of data, computer models, and intelligence about India's possible negotiating space, as well as likely positions and data of its negotiating partners. Simply showing up in beautiful clothes, speaking lovely and enchanting English, and making dramatic gestures won't cut it.