Thursday, 27 October 2011

Is development dehumanising us?

On Friday October 21 two-year-old Wang Yue, from China’s industrial heartland Guangdong, died. This in itself is hardly any news and in a country like China, as in India, where infant mortality is a daily reality, a fact we have to swallow. Now as more details are added about Wang Yue’s death, check where it touches  a chord or if there is a lump in the throat — Wang Yue was run over by a van in a Foshan market on October 13; after the driver noticed that the front wheel had gone over her, he stopped, deliberated what to do next (in China compensation for death is limited while medical costs for the injured can be ongoing) and ran the rear types over her and sped away; 18 people (including women) passed by but avoided attending to her; in between another van ran over her. All this happened while the market was in full swing. If not for a 58-year-old street cleaner, Yueyue, as Wang Yue’s parents called her, would have been left unattended for who knows how long.
The question to ask is: Has China traded its soul to keep pace with development? The answer is not an easy one but that seems to be the consensus many are arriving at, or are afraid that will soon befall the Middle Kingdom. While Internet sites are filled with discussions about this “painful heartlessness”, as one Sina Weibo user put it, a significant move is the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party last week acknowledging that China needs to build a “powerful socialist culture” and has decided that the main theme for this year’s plenum will be “cultural development”.
There are many factors that lead to this insensitiveness and while it is one thing to pass judgment sitting in a different country or in the comfort of the armchair, it is an altogether different story when put in a real situation.
Many people in China attribute this callousness to what is called the ‘Nanjing Effect’. In 2006, a man from Nanjing helped an elderly woman to the hospital after she had broken her leg. He was sued and ended up paying 40 per cent of her medical bills — all for extending a helping hand to a stranger; and this is just one of the many cases where Good Samaritans have ended up being victimised. In some Western countries, like Canada, there is a Good Samaritan Law which protects people who are not from the medical fraternity from facing liability for helping victims. In France and Germany law has it that it is the duty of every citizen to help victims.
It might be a far call for such laws to be effective in populous countries, but experts agree that a vacuum has been created in China by the Communist Party’s ‘iron fist’ policies. “No one believes in Marxism any more, Confucianism is not being revived, and Western values are not being accepted,” Bo Zhiyue, a Chinese politics expert, told Globe and Mail.
Eighteenth Century England lamented the loss of the mild pace of life and the mechanisation of man with the advent of Industrial Revolution. After Luddites attacked factories, laws were passed to protect machines. While England was the industrial powerhouse then, today, without batting an eyelid one can say that China is the vortex of industrial growth. Now China is contemplating passing laws to protect people who show traces of tenderness and kindness towards fellow humans — it’s a vicious cycle we’ve completed.
That brings us to the headline: Is development dehumanising us? If China does not address this numbing plague, it will be too late before it realises that the rapid economic and technological development it is achieving is creating soulless terracotta warriors in the hope that they will one day rise and protect society.
(This appeared in The New Indian Express on October 26 in the Mindspace)

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Afghanistan Question

In a June 2011 prime-time broadcast United States President Barack Obama announced the much anticipated troop withdrawal plan from Afghanistan. But Obama was not being completely honest when he said, “We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength…” because by then it was largely acknowledged the US Afghan policy was myopic and off target.

Afghanistan became the cynosure of popular hatred after it was said that the 9/11 terror attacks on the US were masterminded by a person sitting deep inside the Tora Bora caves. Overnight Osama bin Laden’s name became synonymous with Satan and it was the ‘duty’ of the US to hunt him down. Under President George W Bush America entered Afghanistan a little over a decade after leaving the nation in shambles after defeating the Russians. The aim was to get “justice” and to get Osama “dead or alive”, to recall Bush’s September 17, 2001 statement. This was padded up with the altruistic motive of ‘liberating’ the Afghans from the evil Taliban. On May 2 the US achieved its first objective when Osama was gunned down in his Abbottabad hideout in Pakistan. The ‘liberation’ of Afghans is still a distant dream.

Groping in the Dark

Afghanistan today is a quagmire, thanks to the ‘interests’ and ‘invasions’ by the Russians in the Eighties and by Americans after 9/11. However, the coming months and years are very crucial for Afghanistan, the region and the whole world. While Obama promised to bring back US troops from Afghanistan, what he did not promise was that in withdrawing from Afghanistan America would leave it a better place than when it went into the country a decade ago. The US has not got its act together and is literally groping in the dark desperately trying to find the way out. Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain’s Afghan envoy from 2007 to 2010, in his recent book Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign says that while the coalition’s intentions were good and there was progress in the initial years, success was prematurely declared, while in reality the bad guys had just moved back into the safe havens in the Af-Pak border and into Pakistan. 

Inglorious Exit

By the time it was realised that the war was anything but over, in order to give an honourable façade to what seems to be an inglorious exit the CIA advisors in Langley came up with the ‘good’ Taliban-‘bad’ Taliban theory. The lack of sincerity with which Washington was selling this story was enough for the world to call America’s bluff. What the US forgot was that all cats are grey in the dark.

No sooner had Obama announced the pullout than the attacks on US and NATO troops began to rise. The United Nations, in its quarterly report on Afghanistan, has stated that as of August  2011 the monthly average of attacks is around 2,100, close to 40 per cent more than what it was last year during this period. September has been one of the bloodiest months for the coalition forces. The ground situation is beginning to resemble the 2001 mayhem when coalition forces entered the country. The quality of the lives of Afghans has not dramatically improved in accordance to the money the US has poured into the country. But believe it or not, the worst part is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Islamabad Games

Washington, while going into Afghanistan, joined hands with an old ‘friend’ from the region which had helped the US oust the Russians from Afghanistan. This friend of the US, which it has often in the past pitted against India for geo-strategic reasons, is India’s neighbour to the west — Pakistan. On the outside it looked like the usual American plan — the US has mastered the art of befriending nations in the vicinity of its enemy nation, to provide aid and set up military bases. What they chose to overlook was the ties the Taliban has maintained with Pakistan’s notorious spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Lakhdar Brahimi, former special representative of the United Nations to Afghanistan and Iraq, while characterising the influence of its neighbours on Afghanistan said, “A fly cannot go in unless it stops somewhere; therefore weapons, fuel, food, money will not go to Afghanistan unless the neighbours of Afghanistan are working, are cooperating, either being themselves the origin or the transit.”

Through supporting the Taliban the ISI is creating a conducive environment for it in Afghanistan once the coalition leaves the country. Islamabad has always used Kabul as its backyard for perpetrating terror. And now it will not want to lose this advantage to a ‘liberated’, ‘developing’ Afghanistan, especially one in which India is playing a crucial role.

Last Chance

“As for the United States’ future in Afghanistan, it will be fire and hell and total defeat, God willing, as it was for their predecessors — the Soviets and, before them, the British.”

— Mohammed Omar, Taliban leader in Afghanistan

The regional powers are meeting in Istanbul in November and there is a meeting in Germany in December coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. If international forces make some serious decisions, rather than nodding to the ‘reports of progress’ and ‘plan of action’ set forth by the United States; if the nations wake up to the reality that the time for rapping Pakistan on its knuckles for the double game it is playing is over and concrete action (in the form of sanctions, listing of its terror networks, etc) needs to be taken, then there is hope for a nation which has been at the receiving end of world powers who from the time of The Great Game have been trying to ‘help’ it.

History has an uncanny way of repeating itself and it is up to the international community, especially the United States of America, to see to it that the axiom often associated with Afghanistan — the graveyard of empires — is removed.

(This was published in The New Indian Express on October 13, 2011)

Thursday, 13 October 2011

India Heading South-East

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang is in India on a four-day visit to strengthen ties and Myanmar’s President U Thein Sein will be visiting India starting Wednesday. All these are signs that the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government has moved beyond its United States fixation and has started to recognise the important role it can play in the Asia region, especially East Asia.
The visit by Sang comes at a time when Hanoi-Beijing tensions over ownership rights in the East China Sea (or East Sea for Vietnam) are mounting and Sang’s statement that India is welcome to explore hydrocarbons in the region should be seen in this light. Nevertheless, it is a positive sign that trade between the two countries is at $1.8 billion in the first half of 2011 and it is poised to increase.
India-Myanmar relations, though not the most conducive, have been picking up lately, especially after the November 2010 elections which saw a ‘civilian’ government in Yangon. With the release of 6,359 ‘prisoners of conscience’ sanctions imposed on Myanmar are likely to be lifted and India can benefit from this opening. Moreover from the point of view of energy and security good ties Myanmar will be beneficial.
It is not merely a coincidence that Vietnam and Myanmar are approaching India at a time when they are locking horns with China. No doubt, the two countries have to cosy up towards China, as their relations with India cannot be at the expense of China. But the latter’s aggressiveness has made many of its neighbours wary and it is natural that these nations, to safeguard their interests, turn to another big country. If India plays its cards rightly, it can gain in prominence as a powerhouse worthy of being looked up to by others in the region. New Delhi has long neglected East Asia and this may be the chance for it to go full throttle on its Look East policy.
(This was published in The New Indian Express as an edit on October 12, 2011)

Friday, 7 October 2011

Aakash Provides a Galaxy of Opportunity

The news media around the world had two major technology stories on Thursday. Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple, passed away at 56 after a prolonged battle with cancer. The other was the release of the cheapest tablet in the world -- Aakash. While the former cast a pall of gloom, the latter brings hope and promise. If the right moves are made, Aakash, developed by the government of India and manufactured by Datawind, a Canada-based company run by two NRIis, is set to bring about change in a big way much like the mobile phones did to communication a decade earlier.
However, Aakash has had its share of controversies. When Union minister Kapil Sibal made the announcement on July 22, 2010 that the government would be bring out an affordable tablet aiming students, the news spread like wild fire around the world. A prototype was displayed but soon it was ridiculed as a sham and rumours spread that India was pulling a fast one, that it was buying in bulk from China and passing it as its own. In July 2010 India did not have a manufacturer on board. But that was then and fourteen months later it’s a different tale.
Aakash is an Android 2.2 based 7-inch resistive touchscreen, 256MB RAM, 2GB internal storage and 366MHz processor tablet and with a price tag between `1,300 and `2,999 the industry is sitting up and taking note.
There is a lot of promise, especially in the academic sector, but the promoters of Aakash will do well not to target the entire tablet market. Every product that is well-thought and designed will have a particular audience. In this case, the HRD ministry has done the right thing in focusing at bringing technology to the common man and student community at an affordable price.
A uniqueness, and a very significant one, about the Aakash is that the government of India has collaborated in the realisation of this tablet. Rather than going in for a bulk order of a popular gadget from an overseas MNC, which is the easy way out, the Ministry of Human Resource Development put its thinking cap on and has dared to dream. Aakash is the realisation and fruit of that dream.
One thing that can be safely said at this initial stage is that the Aakash will not cause any sleepless nights for the manufacturers of high-end tablets like Apple’s iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. With its technical features and low pricing the Aakash has turned the tables in the mid and lower ranges in the tablet market.
While the euphoria hangs in the air and everyone is gung ho about India’s ‘nano’ tablet, we should be cautious of not letting this venture slip into the abyssal knot of governmental bureaucracy and red-tapism because that is exactly what will kill the future of this promising product.
This is definitely a shot in the arm for the Information Technology revolution unfolding in the country. If channelled in the right direction Aakash can help in advancing educational facilities, healthcare services and administration services, among other fields, in rural areas.
Datawind and the government should prepare itself with the next equally important leg for the success of the product – customer care and support. Given the pricing and readily available demand for tablets --- not to mention the untapped sectors of the market --- a wide network of easily accessible and efficient customer care support is very crucial. A slip over here would be unfortunate not just for the promoters but also for the hopes of a billion people resting on Aakash.
Among world technological powers India has regrettably been an underdog and while this indigenously developed tablet is not a game changer, Aakash has done the most important thing --- bring technology to the masses at affordable prices.
On a lighter note, it will be interesting to see how neighbouring China will react to Aakash. With Tianhe-1A, the fastest computer in the world, in its kitty China is miles ahead of India on the research side. The same is the case with its ability to produce knock-offs of original products --- in some cases much before the original product hits the market, as has happened with Apple’s iPhone 5. So don’t be surprised if a grey market near you starts displaying China’s answer to India’s Aakash – the Tiānkōng.