All entries for April 2006

April 20, 2006

Guardians of the Indian Fortress

India Nest, 23.04.2006

Before you start some work, always ask yourself three questions - Why am I doing it, What the results might be and will I be successful. Only when you think deeply and find satisfactory answers to these questions, go ahead. What is too heavy for the strong and what place is too distant for those who put forth effort?

– Chanakya Vishnugupta

A Dream Begins

We Indians celebrate the valor of a Shivaji, a Prithviraj Chauhan or Maharana Pratap – because they fought insurmountable odds to defend what they perceived to be the just cause. Well, time to look for some heroes present in today’s India! Ever heard of the battle of Rezang La, fought on the 18th of November 1962 ? I guess not – neither did I until a few years ago. On that day the ‘C’ company of the 13 Kumaon fought against the invading Chinese army to the last man and last bullet, literally! On another front during the ’62 war, a memorial in Chushul reads, “How can a man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his Fathers and the temples of his Gods”. This is at 14,230 feet among the icy passes of the Himalayas. We might know of the battle of Longewala through the J.P.Dutta film Border (1997), or the heroics of our jawans in Kargil, but how many of us specifically know of the conditions during the time and how our brave soldiers coped with them to defend our motherland, and the individuals who spearheaded such acts of bravery? A handful, if that.

It’s not as if the armed forces are terribly media shy. It reads on a war memorial erected in the 1940s – “When you go home, tell them of us and say; for your tomorrow, we gave our today.” We wipe tears off when we hear Amitabh Bachhan in Lakshya (2004) telling a new recruit (Hrittik Roshan)- “Is desh ke sau crore insaan…jo isi vishwas ke saath sote hain, ki tum aur mai jaag rahe hain” (the 1 billion people of India sleep with the belief that the army is awake). But is that the extent of our knowledge and interest about our armed forces?

Perhaps but not quite, thanks to a group of individuals who set up a website 8 years ago that has rapidly turned into a movement before turning into a virtual institution. Today it is a movement, an organization, a passion and a community in which any one of us can participate to varying degrees, and it calls itself Bharat Rakshak (www.bharat-rakshak.com), literally meaning Defenders of India.

India, a nation of over 1 billion inhabitants, needs protectors. And what protectors we have too! From the treacherous passes haunted by snow blizzards in the Himalayas to the sand storms in the Thar Desert to the marshy lowlands of Assam, the brave airmen, sailors and jawans of the Indian Armed Forces stand resolutely to defend our borders. When it comes to valor and sacrifice for the nation, they do not cringe – they never have. But what do we know about them? The only time when we hear and forget the names of certain soldiers is when they are awarded, often posthumously, the Param Veer Chakra at Republic Day. Most of us do not even know what equipment is used by our soldiers. If we do not know about the new developments in technology or new acquisitions made by the armed forces, how will we be assured that the guardians of our frontiers are well armed for any adversaries?

And who shall guard the guardians? Roll back the film to 1996 and even the official sites of the Indian Armed Forces were still nowhere in the horizon. We did not have a readily accessible information point for the story of the Indian soldier.

This is when certain individuals decided to set up their own separate websites to fill in this void. One of the first sites on Indian defence was that of Seetal Ramesh Patel, who is based in London, and his site on the Indian space programme. Others soon followed, including R Chattopadhyay’s site on Bharatiya Vayu Sena (Indian Air Force) and Nandan Dharwadkar’s site on Bharatiya Nau Sena (Indian Navy).

A fist is stronger to contend with vis-à-vis each finger taken separately. In January 1997, Seetal proposed a merger of all the scattered efforts to create a portal dedicated to all segments of the Indian defence programme – the Consortium of Indian Military Websites (still the introductory phrase used by the website). Harshvardhan Vedak and Rakesh Koshy came forth to help with the “Army” and “Missile” sections. Originally the group mulled over the name Hind Rakshak, but later chose Bharat Rakshak (Defenders of India). This was March 1997. They then zealously set to work, despite their busy professional schedules, to complete the sections.

On July 1, 1997 Bharat Rakshak (BR) was born. During the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, the site attracted 12,000 visitors. This called for expansion of the various sections, and rising costs entailed that all the webmasters had to contribute to the development of the site. With perseverance, they managed to find a sponsor in Lancer Publishers. Following India’s nuclear blast in 1998 and the Kargil conflict in 1999, the site saw a permanent increase in traffic. BR had arrived!

With increased traffic and more detailed sections, need for more administrators became paramount. New moderators and administrators joined BR like Shivshankar Sastry, Philip Fowler, S. Subramanian, Prasenjit Medhi, Shaji Manipurath, Jagan Pillarisetti, Sachin Keshavan, Mrityunjoy Mazumdar, Nikhil Shah, D. Subramanian, Kapil Chandni, Nakul Shah and Arun Sharma. It is surprising and inspiring to see a group of individuals with full-time professional commitments dedicating so much of their time towards a national cause.

In July 1999, the BR Monitor (now replaced by Security Research Review) was launched, and it became India’s first online journal dedicated towards Indian military and strategic affairs. Initially managed by R Chattopadhyay, D. Ramanna and Matt Thundyil, the editorial team was joined by Jaideep Menon and S. Saini in 2001 and 2002 respectively.

Expanding its wings, BR launched its sister site Amar Jawan (Immortal Soldier) on Independence Day, 2000. It was the first and only website dedicated towards the personnel of the Indian Armed Forces, and which paid tribute to the fallen soldiers by maintaining an online roll of honor. All this was done by a group of enthusiastic volunteers. Subsequently, the BR bookstore was launched in August 2000, and the video store was launched in July 2002. Meanwhile, several BR members had taken up additional responsibilities as correspondents, covering various parts of India to gain access to military personnel and news regarding the sector.

Bharat-Rakshak Today

Immediately upon a visit to the BR main page, we find a collection of regularly updated news items and latest discussions going on in the forum. The forum itself has developed into a useful board for active discussion on some of the most cutting edge developments in Indian military, technological and economic spectrums, and the vast majority of the users are extremely well informed. BR maintains separate sections with a wealth of information on the army, navy, coastguard, air force, missiles, police, para-military, Special Forces and the space programme. BR also contains some information on how to join the forces. Trips down the memory lane with past editions of BR Monitor or Security Research Review, along with spine chilling narratives about the past expeditions of the armed forces can be extremely illuminating.

How can you participate?

Apart from the rather obvious motivation that BR provides to other similarly enthusiastic people who want to spread the word about something they believe in, there are a number of ways in which you can contribute to the BR movement. The most obvious place to know the basics about the armed forces is the dedicated websites BR maintains about the different wings. To test your knowledge and bounce ideas off others, you can join the interactive discussions in the forum. If you feel confident that you are knowledgeable enough about a particular topic and would like to express your ideas more constructively, there could always be an opportunity to try and get your articles published by Security Research Review, which would provide you with a wide ranging audience.

BR in the Media

Ever since 1999, BR has been in the spotlight of the media, albeit occasionally. Times Computing branded BR an “amazing site”, and recommended the various sections in an article on 14th July. BR is also highly rated in the Encyclopaedia of Britannica website. India Times described BR as a site glorifying the “awesome bravery of those who’ve laid down their lives for the motherland” on 15th August 2000. Perhaps the most resounding endorsement came in 2001 when Huma Siddiqui, working for the Financial Express, wrote that the other websites about Indian military including the official sites, “fall short in one area or another” and when it comes to “relevance in the Indian content, updating, readability and scope of content”, BR indeed exemplifies them. Anita Bora for Rediff wrote an extended article titled “Fascinated by the Forces” on BR in 2003, where she cited a US navy officer recommending BR to his colleagues during the India Fleet review. As recently as 2004, Sangeeta Cavale conducted an extensive interview with Dr. Shivshankar Sastry and published its contents in an article titled “Online celebration of the nation” with the Times of India.

Epilogue: The Final Frontier

There are two ways to live your life - one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.

– Albert Einstein

While we grapple in the depth of academic abstraction, and pride ourselves on the same, the jawans of our armed forces remain vigilant always. They do not know what the next moment holds in store for them, let alone the next week or month. Death or injury has become a part of their lives, yet not for one moment do they question their decision to join the forces. Could there be a cause nobler than to bring their story out to the mainstream, and proudly flaunt our military hardware? I think not.

At the onset of the 21st century, India is grappling with the newly found tag of an aspiring global superpower. With Bharat Rakshak, we finally find an outlet with which to brush aside our traditional skepticism towards our own achievements, and shed some lights on how the common people of India are leading its march towards its destiny, and how the next person in your building can make a difference too.


April 11, 2006

A Humble Indian's Grand Vision for India

India Nest, 16.04.06

Be the change you wish to see in the world

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

The “cradle of human civilization” that Mark Twain spoke of is no longer the India we know today. I am sure the reasons for this appear obvious. We are plagued with problems- be it in gender inequality, crushing poverty or inter-community tensions. “Bah!”, one might scoff. It’s all about looking at the glass half full instead of half empty.

After all, it isn’t everyday that The Economist declares the arrival of “India’s hour”. Glance through economic statistics, or walk across any shopping mall in a metropolis, and the resurgent India will vividly unveil herself. It is 189 years since James Mill wrote his degrading History of India, and it’s time to finally bury its ghost. Like Mill, today’s commentators who have never visited India are today in “volte-face” mode. The “Indian century” – they say – has begun.

I couldn’t agree more. In Western terminology, we are indeed “doing well”. We are firmly set on the linear socio-economic path that was firmly entrenched in the global discourse ever since that little island in North-Western Europe took the plunge (at our expense) into the Industrial Revolution. This, to our capitalist-oriented friends, is the path to unending prosperity. To our Marxist brethren, it is the road which will ultimately deliver socialism to us. But progress has started either way.

Call me a pessimist my friends, but to me India deserves better- far better. The India I want was once a civilization, not merely a Westphalian nation-state which is a bastion of a Western ideology- Marxist or Liberal. We have lost the battle of ideas- something which mentally binds us to the Empire, even if physically we may have thrown it off. Every single idea uttered in the public space today is borrowed. It is ironic that we need a Roberto Calasso to remind us of “the need for Vedic words”. Even then, we shrug our shoulders, call it outdated, and move on.

Why is the Indian urban scene looking no different from downtown London or New York? Why do sexual issues among young people resemble those in the West? Why- oh why on earth- has English acquired a superior status in the minds of the young people who cannot speak a line of their native tongue without inserting English words? Why do protests against the United States and globalization look exactly like those that are carried out in the West? Why is it “cool” (and not insane) to wear a tight leather jacket and not a payjama-kurta on a hot and sweaty summer day in Kolkata? Getting drunk and puking on the roads or starting a fight happens outside Indian nightclubs (with ingenious names emulating their Western brethren) just as much as it happens in Britain.

All our theories are dead. All our mentalities are dying. Already a foreigner can talk about India with equal competence than us, since we all use the same figures and ideologies anyway. Soon there will be nothing (read again- nothing) that is distinguishable about Indians. Thanks to fairness creams, even our skin color might not be too different to an Occidental (or that’s what we’re told in adverts anyway).

Revert to the great men and their visions, and we should see how far we’ve digressed. Here are two of my favorites. Rabindranath Tagore once said –

“We have…been dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot, choked by the dust, deafened by the noise, humbled by our own helplessness and overwhelmed by the speed “

However much we unfurl the tricolor and beat our chest during Republic Day, and get drunk on bhang during holi, that mental helplessness remains. You will find them in the most unlikely of individuals- the Hindutva ideologues. To me, the entire militant wing of Hinduism represents an Abrahamic avatar of a religion that is essentially non-essentialising, a faith that has no “other”, and a way of life that is certainly not homogeneous.

Then there was a “great man” (or I should say- the great man) who pointed out the “depth of the ditches lying in the chariot’s path”. Here is what a certain Mohandas Gandhi had to say –

“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people's houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.”

Someone might say to me- “For heaven’s sake, stop ranting about these long dead souls. What does it matter whose ideas we follow anyway? We want an iPod- the time to wheel the charka is long gone. We are patriotic. We loved Rang de Basanti, didn’t we?”

Ok, but can you tell me the meaning of the lines of Vande Mataram or Jana Gana Mana?

Enough of soul searching (still haven’t found it, by the way). What do I suggest we do about it? I don’t know. All I know is what I am going to do about it.

I will dedicate my academic life to studying Indian political philosophy, espoused classically in texts such as the Arthashastra and the Manusamhita, but also studying more recent thinkers such as Aurobindo, Gandhi and Vivekananda. What I hope to gain from this extensive study is a model of society, political economy and governance that ought to be the blueprint for a contemporary Indian society.

Yes, we will have modernity- but a modernity that we will define. I hope to generate scholarly debate in not only my field, but in others such as ancient history, Indian science, arts and religions. I seek an answer to our problems- an Indian answer. And that answer will not remain confined to an academic journal or a book that no one reads.

With that answer in my heart and mind, I shall return to India to join politics. India the nation matters not, and India the civilization matters little more. What matters to me is India the idea- an idea that will encompass the world to rid it of all its strife and miseries.

Will I be successful? As the Rig Veda said, “He who surveys…the highest heavens, he alone knows-or perhaps does not know”. (10.129)


April 03, 2006

Betting the Planet: The Sequel

Asia Times, 03.04.2006

Last August, New York Times columnist John Tierney placed a bet with Houston energy prognosticator Matthew Simmons (a leading proponent of the "peak oil" theory) about the future price movements of crude oil, with each side putting up US$5,000. The episode was regarded by many as a kind of sequel to the famous bet in the 1980s between libertarian economist Julian Simon and ecologist Paul Ehrlich, which Simon won.

Simmons had argued that "oil prices will soar into the triple digits" in the coming years. More specifically, prices would more than triple the contemporary figure of $65 a barrel by 2010, reaching "at least $200 a barrel" (in 2005 dollars). His thesis was based on the argument that the world's oil resources – most notably in the Middle East – will become increasingly scarce. Added to recent events such as Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad threatening to spike oil prices by halting exports, Simmons' prophecy has developed a common-sense appeal.

But what has actually been happening with oil prices lately? Data from the International Monetary Fund offer an interesting read. Using the average of three spot prices, the monthly figures for oil prices from September to February were (per barrel, in current dollars) $61.65, $58.18, $54.98, $56.47, $62.36, and $59.71. In other words, there has in fact been a 3.5% fall in oil prices if we were to compare the latest prices to last August.

Bear in mind that during the past six months, there has been increased violence in Iraq that has rendered its oil assets vulnerable. We have seen energy supplies in Europe being threatened by Russia's oil diplomacy in Ukraine. We have seen Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatening to disrupt oil exports to North America. The Iranian president has delivered frequent threats to cut exports to the oil markets to drive prices up. All this is not to mention the fact that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused considerable damage to oil supplies and refinery facilities in the United States and adjacent countries.

It could be argued that the reserves were adequate to avoid any supply crunch that would have raised prices, and that there was little tangible damage to oil supplies to the global market. However, knowing how speculative markets can be, it is indeed curious to see oil prices not rising to levels suggested by Simmons. How can we explain the failure of the doomsayers' predictions to pan out?

Perhaps we can take a cue from the arguments of the late Julian Simon, who suggested that constant human endeavors have ensured throughout the centuries that commodities have gradually become easier to acquire, and new techniques have continually been developed to make use of them more efficiently. In his book The Ultimate Resource, Simon even argued that a larger population is a net benefit, not a cost, because the additional people increase the pace of innovation that allows the more effective exploitation and efficient use of resources.

With respect to oil prices, there are significant factors tending to depress prices, such as the drive in many countries toward alternative sources of energy and an emphasis on greener cars and energy efficiency. Thus, though the demand for oil in China and India is indeed steeply increasing, this alone is unlikely to push the price through the ceiling.

Ehrlich, the author of The Population Bomb, The End of Affluence and other books, rejects this optimistic line of thought, and predicts a doomsday for mankind if it continues its dynamic lifestyle (as he has been doing since the 1970s). The problem with the arguments of Ehrlich and other like-minded prophets of doom is that they are asking too much of 21st-century capitalist men and women, and simultaneously ignoring their capabilities. Is it fair to ask an Indian taxi driver who earns perhaps less than $5 a day to spend more than his monthly wages to install a more energy-efficient engine or take his car for servicing more frequently?

Surely this is the larger question the governments of poorer countries must throw at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development nations – why should they be left behind on the pretext of damaging the environment when Europe and the West virtually industrialized on the corpse of their own (and the world's) environment and by stretching their empires' resources? The only long-lasting response must come from those who can afford this technology. Only if richer nations genuinely assist their poorer counterparts by providing cheap access to such technology will they be able to persuade them to be greener.

Reviewing the history of the Simon/Ehrlich wager is instructive. Simon challenged Ehrlich and other environmental scientists to a bet that the price of natural resources would go down, not up as they had been predicting, and offered to let the environmentalists pick the specific commodities and the time frame.

Ehrlich accepted the bet for $1,000 worth of copper, tin, nickel, tungsten and chromium, wagering that the price of the five would increase between 1980 and 1990. When Simon and Ehrlich checked their predictions against real price movements in 1990, Simon emerged the clear winner – indeed, the price decline of the metal-commodity basket was so steep that he would have won even without adjusting for inflation. For instance, the price of tungsten had dropped by 57% during the decade, while tin was down by 40%, and copper by 18.5% (in 1980 dollars).

What if the bet had been extended? Taking 1980 prices = 100, in 2000 copper prices were down by 48% since 1990, and although the prices rose slightly after that, in 2005 (average until the end of November for this and consequent figures) the price was still about 18% lower than in 1990, instead of rising as the pessimists had predicted. Similarly, tin prices had fallen by nearly 26% in 2005 vis-a-vis 1990, while they were down by 32% in 2000, whereas tungsten prices plummeted by nearly 48% between 1990 and 2000. Although they have subsequently risen, they are still below the 1980 mark.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has an interesting consumer-price-index tool that calculates the purchasing power of money in a given year and compares it with how much it could purchase in another year. Although this is based on US inflation rates, it does give a rough indication of what the current prices actually imply. For example, if we were to calculate crude-oil prices in 2005 dollars, then the figure for 1980 would be $85.61 a barrel and the 2005 counterpart about $55 a barrel. It needs to be kept in mind that 1970 oil prices would be even higher. Similarly, the price of rice has plummeted from $1,039 a tonne in 1980 to $288 a tonne in 2005, whereas wheat has sunk from $414.19 a tonne in 1980 to $151.34 in 2005.

I am no hardcore Simonite. I have my own reservations about whether the intentions of actors in the global market will spontaneously reach equilibrium with the demands of the global environment. I still believe that self-interest will lead to short-termism, and an awareness of the wider picture is necessary.

But Simon provokes the question of whether such awareness can only come when the machine of capitalism is leading to constant innovation and developing newer techniques to extract and use resources. His thesis on population being the ultimate resource admittedly does depend on the capability of countries to build institutions that turn consumers into producers, but it is a thought-provoking argument nonetheless.

The outcome of this latest episode in the legacy of Julian Simon – as this latest bet might prove to be – will raise important questions, and perhaps provide some answers to the lasting validity of his ideas. Certainly, we will know the answer on January 1, 2011, when either Tierney or Simmons will collect his $10,000, plus accumulated interest.

Aruni Mukherjee is based at the University of Warwick, England.


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