Sunday, May 20, 2018

Apasmara and the Loss of Recollection

Representation of Siva as Nataraja, or the 'God of Dance', is supposed to be the acme of classical Indian sculpture. 

Having seen it hundreds of times, in temples, museums, and even government offices (there is fine specimen in the North Block), I have always been drawn to the its face. Composed and serene while engaged in callisthenics in a ring of fire, he seems rather cool about the little fellow getting squashed underfoot. 

As children we had always been told that this was the demon of ignorance being trampled underfoot, and that the dance itself represented the three cyclic states of the cosmos - creation (srishti), preservation (sthithi) and destruction (samhara). All this highbrow symbolism has been beyond my comprehension, and I could only marvel at the sheer dedication, effort and patience that had gone into making each of these amazing Chola bronzes.

Today, my own veil of ignorance was lifted a bit - thanks to a tweet from @ARaganathan72 that let me to a remarkable article in the Swarajya magazine - "Nataraja and Epilepsy: An Interpretation of the Cosmic Dancer".

The author, Anand Venkatraman is a neuro-surgeon, no less, at the Harvard University. His focus is on the little guy getting trampled by the Cosmic Dancer and who goes by names such as Apasmara and Muyalaka. AV goes into the etymology of 'Apasmara', translates it from Sanskrit as "Loss of Recollection". Apasmara is also the term for epilepsy which is one among the  eight 'Mahagada' or dreadful diseases in Ayurveda texts.

Pointing to the fact that the Aztecs and the ancient Greeks considered epilepsy a sacred disease, AV highlights the link between epilepsy and memory:
"Memory is what links our existence from second to second. Memory provides us with a sense of continuity, a perception of an enduring self, and gives meaning to what would otherwise be seemingly random events."
Inside our brains, epileptic fits emerge from the Temporal Lobes where memories are encoded, and the Hippocampus which is "ground zero for the intersection of mind and brain, of the environment and the organism, as memories are etched into its structure like a DVD"

So the Nataraja reminds us to overcome our epileptic fits of forgetfulness, to reach out to the inner conciousness that unites us with the whole cosmos.

If 'Apasmara' has such a deep meaning, I now wonder what 'Muyalaka' means...also, why is the little demon doggedly holding on to a little snake?? 

- Swaraj Article - "Nataraja and Epilepsy: An Interpretation of the Cosmic Dancer" -
- On Apasmara / Muyalaka -

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Apathy Towards Water

When we moved to NOIDA a few years ago, among the various bills we paid came one from the Jal Nigam or Water Authority. Annual charges for water supply was Rs. 1800 or just Rs. 150/month. This was a flat charge since no meters had been installed. 

This seemed rather odd especially when the other essential utility service - electricity - was carefully metered, with digital bills coming in every month based on a minimum base charge.

Thanks to this apathy towards water nobody cares about the volume of water that overflows and goes down the drain everyday. Water overflowing from the storage tanks in fact had a nuisance value only because it caused seepage from the terrace. This problem was solved, not by getting residents to install 'ball-cocks' to prevent overflows, but by fitting pipes that funneled overflowing water down into the drains. Cheap solutions for cheap resources.

The quality of the water is, of course, questionable. Despite government claims of supplying a mix of river water (Ganga 80%) and groundwater (20%), it comes so loaded with salts and impurities that every household has to either install Reverse Osmosis (RO) machines, or buy water cannisters of RO water for Rs.25 each.

Summer months in North India are characterised by squalls - dust-storms driven by sharp winds that, at times, tear through at over 120 km/hour. It uproots trees and homes, and this season, has caused over a 100 deaths in Uttar Pradesh alone. One such squall knocked out my solar-panels, and one of the water-overflow pipes on the terrace.

Curious to know how much of the overflowing water was disappearing unseen down the drains, I set a bucket under the broken pipe and did a quick calculation. Water overflowing from a set of four tanks was filling up a 15L bucket in just 3 minutes. Extrapolate this to eight sets of tanks receiving municipal supply for at least four hours everyday to 12 residential towers with eight sets of tanks each, and you have a staggering 115,200 liters of water being wasted every day. So, in just one residential colony with a mere 192 houses in Noida, is wasting no less than 42 million liters of water every year!

The optimistic or pragmatic way of looking at this rather grim situation is that barely-treated water is going down the drain to ultimately recharge groundwater aquifers. 

Yet, one cannot help worrying about amount of energy, manpower and other resources that are being deployed to supply water for bathing, washing clothes - and filling the drains of Uttar Pradesh!


Friday, May 18, 2018

Paz on India

It is interesing to view India through the eyes of Octavio Paz. 

A few days back, a tweet got me searching for the book "In Light of India" at the Dayal Singh Public Library. I had not heard of the book so when went across and mentioned the name of the author to Pankaj, the ever helpful librarian, looked as though I had reminded him of a childhood memory. And when he pulled out the book from a corner bookshelf, I understood why. The last time anybody had borrowed the book was in 1997 - more than 20 years ago!

The book itself is a monograph of memories from 1954, the time when Paz was posted to India as a young diplomat. As can be expected, he reflects on the prevailing attitudes and biases of the time: an admiration for Nehru and the "secular" Congress party, and wariness towards the "Hindu nationalist" BJP; a sense of bewilderment over the cacophony of colors, smells that greet a visitor, and the diverse set of people who called themselves citizens of a newly minted republic. One has come to expect such reactions from visiting foreigners but Paz turns out to be slightly different.

Unlike the typical Western view of India what you get here is a unique view of a South American poet and traveller. India's caste system, for instance, is a puzzle he tries to decipher - how did it manage to survive two millennia of foreign invasions and proseletizing? 
"Castes... are not only cooperatives, such as ours, but also solidarity groups, genuine fraternities...this fabric of religious, economic, political, territorial, linguistic, and familial relations gives the castes their extraordinary solidity... Hinduism does not convert individuals; it absorbs communities and tribes, their gods and rites."

Paz notes the strong influence of Mesoamerica in India's cuisine - the word "chili" is of Nahuatl origin for the plant originally came from the Americas...- Another Mexican import "Chico-zapote" is called Chiku is North India and Sapota in the South!

He dives deep into classical Indian poetry and is amazed to find in Vidyakara's anthology of poetry, erotic poems written by Dharmakirti, a Buddhist philosopher and logician who lived in the 7th century.

Yet, Octavio Paz has his failings. The clarity with which he looks at India clouds up when he compares the influence of 'Western Civilization' on Latin America. In his view, the Spanish conquistadors did a great thing by uniting the various tribes in South America, and weaning them away from cycles of war and blood-sacrifice, and introducing to them a new religion in which "sacrifice of a god who became man and spilled his blood to redeem the world". Not a word about the massacre of the Mayans, Zapotecs, Aztecs and Teotihuacanians, or the systematic destruction of a unique civilization, its unique art and architecture, or of the shiploads of gold and silver looted and taken away to enrich Europe! 

If the world is a kaliedoscope, the designs and patterns seen by Paz are unique, but his book leaves you feeling a bit shortchanged, of expecting a real South American perspective, and finding instead, merely another European dressed in a poncho.


- GoodReads -

Friday, May 04, 2018

Pulp vs. Recycled Paper

"Did you notice?" A friend asked me recently, "We have reduced the number of pages in our newspaper". I had noticed not such thing.

Two newspapers get tossed on our balcony every morning and I had certainly felt that either of them was any lighter. The cost-cutting measure apparently had come about because the cost of newsprint had shot up 35 percent in the recent months.

This too had escaped my attention. What could possibly be the reasons for such a significant hike? A quick search on the net throws up the following facts:

  • In 2016, the gobal demand for newsprint stood at nearly 24 mmT of which 10.6 mmT came from Asia.
  • Yet, in terms of quality and value, US has always been the top market with the highest per-capita consumption of 200kg/year (India - just 13kgs)
  • The global newsprint industry has been on a steady decline despite big-ticket mergers (eg. AbitibiBoWater Inc.) due to a steady decline in demand from the US market, which is declining 10%+ YoY.
  • Decline in global demand, combined with fluctuations in cost of energy and transportation costs has resulted in the prices fluctuating from $320/T (2002) to over $1000/T. At present the prices hover around $770/T.
  • Considering the fact that newsprint costs account for 55-65% o the total cost of producing a newspaper the future does indeed look gloomy for the newspaper industry.
However, the demand for newsprint in India has been rising steadily, thanks to increasing literacy rates and incomes. Yet the global sellers are not exactly rushing in because we are not yet willing to pay the rates they have been getting from USA and Western Europe. 

Also more recently, China, one of the major suppliers of newsprint decided to import pulp instead of waste-paper as a raw material for the the newsprint industry. While this move led to a fall in the prices of imported waste-paper, Indian mills have not been able to use them because all these years, thanks to the print-media lobby, zero-duty on newsprint imports had driven many Indian papermills out of business! 

One thing however remains unclear: If India is consuming about 2 mmT of newsprint every year, why is it not being recycled? Is the process way too expensive or does it go elsewhere? The going rate for used newspapers being collected by the local "Raddi-wala" is Rs.10/kg or Rs.10,000/T whereas newsprint is being imported at about $760/T (INR 50,000/T).

It seems only 20% of waste-paper in India is recycled, compared to over Germany's 73 %, Japan 60 %, Western Europe 56 % , the US 49% and Italy 42%. So much so that we imported USD 1 billion worth waste-paper for our mills in 2011. Surely there is a case for more efficient recovery and recycling in India?


* 2016 - Global demand for Newsprint -

* 2018, March 18, The Print -

* 2018, 12 March, Mint -

* 2018, Feb - India Paper consumption -
- The domestic market / consumption of paper is over 16 million tonnes per annum (TPA), with over 2 million TPA being imported.

* 2018, Jan - BS - Rising costs of paper -

* Newsprint import policy -
- List of scheduled newsprint manufacturers/importers -

* 2018 - Care Ratings -
- India consumes about 18 mmT of paper every year which is about 4% o the global market

* 2015, FE - Wealth from Waste -

* Newsprint -

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Mucous Cyst Rx

"Its just a local trauma..."
"No, its a bacterial wart! be careful, it infectious...certainly needs a surgery and biopsy..."
"Oh, just a simple mucous cyst!"

Two months, four doctors and three hospitals and many thousand rupees later, we have gained a few insights into the way in which our medical system works. It give you a glimpse of how private medical care is designed to make a mountain out of a molehill, to scare and fleece the gullible.

Two months ago, our son Aki got a cut on his upper lip which, instead of healing, developed into an eruption. Flesh etruded out of the cut which bled profusely from time to time. One day it would seem to be healing with a black scab but return to a a fleshy, bleeding nodule the very next. About 10 days after it showed no signs of healing, we took him to a doctor at the nearby Jaypee Hosptital. The pediatrician said it was just a "local trauma" and prescribed a  an anti-inflamatory syrup.

Aki found the syrup tasty but it nothing to reduce the eruption, or the bleeding. So off we went for a second opinion, to pediatrician at Patparganj, one strongly recommended by doctor-friends. The clinic was crowded and, from the number of vaccine adverts on the walls, quite popular with pharma companies as well. The doctor here came through a fair, honest, consciencious physician. "This looks like a wart", he said, "It needs to be surgically is just an Out Patient (OP) procedure in any government hospital, but given the crowds, you won't be seen unless you know somebody personally. If you go to any private hosptial, make sure you get the estimates clearly, in writing, before you get the child admitted". He also graciously returned - to our amazement - his consultancy fees (INR500) because, in his words, "I only advised you to go elsewhere." 

Next stop, Max Hospital. Here we got to meet our first pediatric surgeon. One look at Aki's lip, and he declared that it was "mucous cyst". Pulling our a couple of blank sheets, he explained in detail how it developed. "Sometimes, the process of healing ends up blocking the flow of mucus cells...and instead of keeping the lip surface moist, they end up discharging mucus under the skin. This develops into a cyst which ruptures and bleeds easily." Surgery, apparently, was the only way to get the cyst removed.

How much would surgery cost? Well, the answer depends on whether or not you have a mediclaim insurance cover. If you do, then it would cost about INR 25,000 if you got it done at Max Hospital. The cost of booking an operation theatre, anaesthesia specialists and a days' stay at the hospital, we were told, made a relatively simple procedure expensive. 

Would this be defenitely covered under mediclaim? Guys at the billing office were not so sure. "Lets see", they said, "We will submit all the papers and then know in a couple of days". Not quite reassuring.

So now we went for fourth opinion with a surgeon at Kailash Hospital, Noida. The diagnosis at Max was reconfirmed. This certainly was a mucus cyst that needed to be 'surgically excised, or cauterized'. The cost was a couple of thousands less but, given the crowds at this hospital, nobody wanted to an operation date, or the insurance coverage.

Back at Jaypee Hospital, the feedback from the billing office was the same. The procedure would cost not less than INR 25,000, which included no less than INR 8000 for 'micellaneous consumables'! The cost of the biopsy, of course, would be extra.

Since none of the pediatric surgeons said that it was emergency procedure, we thought about it for a couple of days, checked with other hospital, and settled for a surgery at Felix Hospital. This was the only place were we met a pediatric surgeon who inspired confidence in us with his surgery-as-last-resort approach. This was the also only hospital that had an OT readily available, did not insist on conning insurance companies and came up with surgery cost estimates at INR 5500. The only down side at this hospital was that they charged thrice the amount for consultancy fees for pediatric surgeons, compared to far more reputed hospitals. 

Anyway, sometimes when all is not so well also ends well. A supposedly common medical condition was misdiagnosed, received inflated cost estimates for the surgery, and was finally sorted out for one-fifth the estimates. One thing is clear, the nexus between private private, medical insurance companies, and TPAs is designed to fleece patients - especially those who may not have the luxury of time to seek a fair deal.


- Oral mucocele -

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Young India - Unsatisfied, Unscrupulous, Unstoppable

"Where you stand depends on where you sit" - Mile's Law

Over the past two weeks I have come across two views on where India is headed, both seem to contradict each other but at the same time, pointing to a common direction while reiterating Mile's Law.

The first was an Explained session organised by the Indian Express at New Delhi where Manish Sabharwal, the chairman of TeamLease spoke of great business opportunities in the India, while the second one was book by Snigdha Poonam titled, "Dreamers".

Sabharwal was amazingly optimistic and eloquent on the direction in which India was headed. Where most liberals saw clouds of doom and gloom, he saw opportunties etched in the sliver linings. Sample these facts and figures -

- Good Times Ahead: 50% of India's labor force is engaged in agriculture which contributes just 13% of GDP, while 0.7% of the workforce is into ITES which contributes 9% of GDP! With more than 600 international companies setting up captive IT centres in India, the workforce of 3.5 million in ITES is set to double over the next 10 years.
- "Cascading Regime Change": We are already seeing the synergystic impact of recent reforms (GST + RERA + DeMo). Before GST there were only 7 million enterprises registered for indirect tax. Now there are 10.5 million -- a 50% increase in just eight months!

Sabharwal's optimism as the leader of one of the largest employers in India contrasted with that of the journalist Snigdha Poonam who saw the great mismatch between aspirations of millions of young Indians, and harsh ground realities.

If you saw a pop-up on your screen warning you of an IRS investigation in USA or a virus in your laptop/PC/mobile, chances are that you are about to be scammed by an Indian. It seems there are hundreds of call centers in the obscure byelanes of urban India, using desperate job-seekers to con the most vulnerable people across the world --  elderly pensioners, single mothers struggling to make ends meet and all those who are already intimidated by technology.
According to Poonam: "Like it or not, young India is what it is - unsatisfied, unscrupulous, unstoppable. Few young Indians had a clear sense of right and wrong: fewer gave a damn about it. 
The idea of personal benefit over public good isn't owned by them, however. It is at the core of India's value system. Sure, some young Indians will cheat their way to their dreams, but they don't see how they are different from anyone in the news - politicians, businessmen, celebreties..."
Sabharwal's TeamLease claims to have hired someone for every 5 minutes in the last few years and provided employment to more than 1.2 million since 2002. And yet, he also admits that his hiring funnel is very narrow - out of every hundred applicants, less than 5 are hired, trained and placed in various companies.

So there you are - the desperation and angst Poonam sees in the 95 who got rejected is quite different from the optimism of those who did. The way you look at the future depends completely on where you stand.


* Explained by Indian Express -

* Reviews:

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Aadhaar - Biometric Mismatch

Last week I found myself in a bit of a fix while trying to book a ride back home late at night.
Standing on a lonely roadside waiting for a confirmation on my Uber ride, I found that I no money to pay for it - there was no cash in my pocket, and my e-wallet account balance was below the minimum INR 350.

My account with Uber is linked to PayTM, a popular e-wallet platform in India. Uber gave me two options for topping up - through my credit-card or directly through PayTM. The latter had been an easier process but this hit a wall with the message which said that my account was not yet KYC compliant.

Know Your Customer (KYC) is now compulsary for all e-wallet accounts as per the new rules set by the central bank. Introduced with the objective of reducing misuse and money-laundering, KYC requires submission of id proof -  details of Passport, Tax PAN or the Adhaar universial id number.  I was under the impression that Adhaar was the fastest way of fulfilling KYC norms. I had done it earlier for my bank accounts and for a JIO mobile connection. It had taken just a few minutes to get an online confirmation.

However, the process was quite different for the PayTM. As soon as I sent my 16-digit number, I got a message saying that a PayTM representative come an meet me personally for a confirmation. A confirmation? Why is additional confirmation needed when, according to UIDAI's own procedures, the number could be used to confirm my identity with their central database? Anyway, since there was no hope of completing the KYC standing by the roadside at night, I went back to Uber and transferred some money to my PayTM account using my credit card.

A few days later, and after a series of SMSs, a representative of PayTM's "partner" turned up at my door with portable fingerprint scanner plugged into his mobile phone. He passed me his mobile and told me to type in my Adhaar number. Soon I got a message on my mobile with a code and a URL with the message - "By providing this code to our agent, you agree to become a full KYC customer of PayTM Payments Bank and confirm acceptance." You have no time to check the fine-print so the agent gets his code.

After this, a mouse-like device is used to scan my thumb-prints. One by one, the scanner moves from my thumb, to the pointer and index, until all 10 fingerprints are covered. For each and every scan he gets a message (from where? UIDAI?) saying that all the authentications had failed!

The look of amazement on my face prompted the agent to console me - "Aise hota reha hai...fingerprint badal jaate hei" (This keeps happening, fingerprints change over time). WTF?? I had heard about farm workers losing their fingerprints to hard labour but my fingers were anything but callused, or even unclean!

How can UIDAI authentications fail in urban areas? A quick internet search reveals that mine is not an isolated case. While authentication failures have been quite common on rural areas - due to incorrectly captured fingerprints, poor internet connectivity or a change in biometric details because of old age or wear and tear - it is now increasingly common in urban areas as well.

The Adhaar UID is no doubt backed by the laws of probablity and complex algorithms but this experience has placed me firmly in the ranks of the Adhaar skeptics. Failing to get an Uber taxi ride due to an Adhaar biometric failure hardly makes a difference to me, but to think that millions depends on this flawed system for their rations is just unexcusable.

Other Unanswered Questions:

* Now that the private sub-contractor to PayTM has all my fingerprints scanned and saved, what are the chances of misuse?


* Scroll on KYC problems -
* How to link PayTM with Adhaar -
* Fingerprint authentication failure -
* Medianama rebuttal to N.Nilekani's claims -