Friday, December 12, 2008

Making Bangles, Saving Energy

This was a visit of many firsts – my first visit to the ‘Glass Capital’ of India - Firozabad; my introduction to the process of bangle-making and the first time I have actually seen the results of a energy research project that benefits thousands of people.

Until a few years ago, Firozabad used to be enveloped in a cloud of smoke coming from thousands of coal-fired furnaces. The fact that the city was a mere 40km from the yellowing marbles of the Taj Mahal in Agra, earned it a lot of attention from environmental activists.

In 1994, the Supreme Court imposed restrictions on four major sources of pollution within the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) – automobiles in Agra city, the Mathura Oil Refinery, the Foundries in Agra, and the Glass industry in Firozabad. They were given a deadline and told to either shut down, switch to cleaner fuels or to move out of the 10,400 TTZ.

Among the hundreds of glass factories in Firozabad agonizing over the SC order, Islam Khan was the first to open the doors of his factory, Express Glass Works (EGW), to researchers seeking to help the industry switch from coal to gas fired furnaces. It was a tough decision – on one hand was the cost of displacing people associated with EGW for over three generations, and other the other, was the economic imperatives -- a coal furnace costs less than Rs. 200,000; for a 30% reduction in energy consumption, he had to install a facility that cost Rs. 3000,000! Clearly, this defied business logic, so Khan had to be persuaded with generous subsidies from SDC and promises of international technical support through TERI.

When the gas furnace was finally ready, one huge problem still remained – EGW was famous for its blood-red “Lal Anju” bangles. Somehow the clean-fuel technology had robbed the factory of its USP. TERI tried to solve the problem by bringing in Indian and international experts but nothing worked. Ultimately, Islam Khan had to use his own ingenuity and skills to bring about a consistent, deep red into his bangles.

Today the factory is veritable beehive of activity. More than a hundred workers go about their work – feeding the ovens with sand, caustic soda and other chemicals; scooping out ladles of glowing, molten glass; adding strips of color and softening them again for the ustads who transfer fine threads of glass on to a rotating shaft, resulting in long glass springs which are then split using diamond tipped cutters.

Ultimately what exits the factory gates are the “spilt” bangles. These are then sent to smaller shops where they are fused, glazed and polished in smaller ovens (paka-bhattis) before going out to the retail outlets.

Thanks to the Supreme Court directive, more than 40 units in Firozabad have now switched to the cleaner, gas-fired furnaces. The workers continue to work in difficult conditions but at least they are able to retain their jobs in a city where the air is lot cleaner than it used to be.

The main furnace

Steady hands that turn molten glass into bangle spirals

Splitting the spirals
References & Links:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Mumbai Terror - A Week Later

Last week was a nightmare.

As soon as we heard of the assault, we were making desperate calls to check on our friends & relatives in Mumbai, one of whom was a senior manager at the Taj. When we finally got through to him, he was cursing himself for leaving office at 8:30PM. And for the rest of the sleepless night he kept getting desperate calls from friends trapped in the hotel, many of whom were later randomly shooting the corridors and kitchens.

The TV channels have squeezed this tragedy for what it was worth. Now it is disheartening to see print media too go down an all too familiar road - projecting the Mumbai terror-attack on the global canvas and looking for dramatic, quick solutions - bombing raids on the "known camps" in Pakistan, following the dubious US-Israeli model of chasing mirages - a strategy that is only guaranteed to create more suicide bombers.

My guess is that if the Jehadi's are smart enough to plan and execute such an operation, they also know how to lie low until we finish our predictable debates, sack our scapegoats and settle down once again into our usual, pathetic complacency.

If any of the 10 jehadis (or their friends / families) had been at the receiving end in Kashmir (81-90) or Gujarat ('02) , perhaps I could have empathized with their rage and fury. But by all accounts, they just seem to be a bunch of brainwashed kids from the "land of the pure", seeking martyrdom by slaughtering innocents.

Its unfair to rob them of their dreams. Without any further delay, our covert ops guys ought to speedily home-deliver martyrdom to the jehadis, focusing first on the ideologues and rabble-rousers who would not dream of putting themselves in harms way. The kids may yet want to keep Bollywood as an alternate career option. Aerial bombing is best avoided - its a blunt, messy tool - especially across international borders.

Given that this been a spectacular success for the mad mullas, we can be sure that video clippings from Mumbai will be used to train, inspire the martyrs-in-waiting. At least five more jehadis of the same batch must be chilling out somewhere waiting for further instructions from Karachi. So, in the days to come, I am hoping that the IB-RAW spooks will pull up their socks and that the state govts will finally implement the long-overdue police reforms leading up to better trained, better armedpolicemen on the streets within the next few weeks / months.

I'm praying this beleaguered govt doesn't act in haste. We need them to prepare for a marathon and i fear they might be aiming just for a100m dash to the next elections. I'm praying that public anger does not evaporate as it usually does and that something good will come out of this mess.

Afterthoughts -- Worth Reading :

Death Of A Salesman And Other Elite Ironies - Tarun Tejpal, Tehelka - 13 Dec., 2008

"For years, it has been evident that we are a society being systematically hollowed out by inequality, corruption, bigotry and lack of justice. The planks of public discourse have increasingly been divisive, widening the faultlines of caste, language, religion, class, community and region. As the elite of the most complex society in the world, we have failed to see that we are ratcheted into an intricate framework, full of causal links, where one wrong word begets another, one horrific event leads to another. Where one man’s misery will eventually trigger another’s..."

The chatteranti
Shekhar Gupta, Indian Express
, Dec 06, 2008

"...Since TV chat shows, SMS and chain emails have become the main forum of our domestic debate and political discourse among the upper crust, it is safe to go by the evidence of what you see and read there. Any number of illiterate emails and SMSes now float around, not merely cursing politicians, but spreading utter falsehoods about the Constitution and laws...."

The rampaging elephant
Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times, Dec 06, 2008

"When the attacks began, I applauded the anger. It did make a difference. Nobody ever loses his job in India because of failure. But such was the public rage that three heads promptly rolled: the Union Home Minister, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and the Deputy Chief Minister...But now the anger is so diffused and so unconstructive that I doubt if it will achieve anything more. So, what went wrong? Why did we suddenly lose our focus and start striking out wildly in all directions?.."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Delhi Half Marathon 2008

Remember the joy of running?

The catch line was nice -- TV advts and endearing images of children running out of classrooms and splashing on a beach, no doubt contributed to the record turnout at the Delhi Half Marathon and the Great Delhi Run 2008.

I got hooked too. For the first time since I broke my leg in a cross-country race, I was persuaded to go beyond my regular morning jog, to join the throng that participated in the race last Sunday.

Ever since my NCC days I've had a love-hate equation with the lonely sport of distance running. I hate getting up in the morning - especially in winters. The very thought of stepping into my shorts on a cold, dark, foggy morning gives me the shivers. Within minutes of stepping outdoors my face feels like a numb mask; my fingers hurt and the ears feel like they're going to drop off.

But once your body gets into the rhythm of running all the pain seems to get subsumed in the rhythm of thumping feet and steady breathing, until you break in to the final sprint and your heart feels like its going to just burst out of your chest... and then that glorious, weightless feeling when you cross the finish line!

It was great to experience again the camaraderie of those crossed the finish line. The organizers had done a fine job of making it an event to remember but I do wish there were more serious runners around. It was quite obvious that most of the alleged 28,000 participants had no intention of even trying to run. They jogged a few hundred meters, made a great show of grabbing the water bottles from the side-stalls, waved to the cheer girls and bhangra dancers along the way and then ambled about joking and chatting with their friends, gleefully taking short-cuts and blocking the roads for the runners who were struggling to complete the race.

All this was such a contrast to the African runners - thin, wiry, superhuman figures who seemed to be just floating over the roads with their long, graceful strides! Deriba Merga finished the 21km race in a mind-boggling 59 minutes 15 seconds, long-long before most runners had reached the halfway point!

My ranking is not even worth mentioning; my legs still hurt but it feels great to have participated.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hairy Lymantriids

Yet another visitor on our balcony, speedily identified by Shaku -

That is certainly a Lymantriid caterpillar - the id features are the tufts of hair on its back. Usually there are 4 tufts - but I could clearly see only 3 in this picture - thats maybe because the head is bent downwards, or the 1st tuft may have fallen off also - they are defensive in function. I think it belongs to the genus Orgyia (and species pseudotsugata).

Interestingly this caterpillar finds mention in Arundhati Roy's book, God Of Small Things. Pappachi the Imperial Entomologist discovers "a new species of lymantriid with unusually dense dorsal tufts" but its mis-classification leaves him disappointed.

References / Links:

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sunday Excerpts

The Op-ed columns in the Sunday Express make for disconcerting reading. This week all three stalwarts turned their guns on India's weakness in the face of ongoing economic turmoil. Here are some interesting numbers and arguments -

The Turning of the Wheel - 'Out of my Mind' - Meghnad Desai

Nehruvian Socialism: It should be said that Nehru only nationalized two firms - Imperial Bank of India, which became the State Bank, and life insurance, to create LIC. The economy grew 45% in 10 years in the fifties. It was his daughter who nationalized banks and tried to take over trade in food grains. As growth collapsed and inflation increased, she nationalized even more until Emergency had to be invoked to protest (Indira) Gandhi Socialism.

Whoever wins the next election will concede the demand for job protection and large uneconomic subsidies to sustain the protected jobs. For a spoiled middle class which enjoys $50billion of petrol subsidies, Socialism means even larger subsidies on jobs, to sustain low EMIs and for higher education in elite institutions.

TAVLEEN SINGH - Still a Land of Starving Millions

Global Hunger Index reported last week that more than 200 million Indians live in hunger and that 47% of Indian children are malnourished. Conditions in parts of Madhya Pradesh are as bad as Ethiopia and Chad and our infant mortality rate is worse than war-ravaged Eritrea. Despite our economy growing at 8% annually since 2002, three-quarters of our population lives on Rs. 25 a day.

These are sickening figures but Indian newspapers hate poverty so the report was virtually ignored here...

SUDHEENDRA KULKARNI - Importing a 'Made-in-America' crisis

$ 10.3 trillion denotes the outstanding pubic debt of the United States of America as of 17 October 2008. Just three years ago, at the end of 2005, it was $7.9 trillion, which itself was about nine times its 1980s level. The National Debt Clock at NY Times Square recently ran out of spaces.

America's gross debt amounts to 70% of the country's GDP this year.

Four-fifths of US borrowings are from foreign institutions and governments, including Government of India, which as invested in dollar-denominated debt instruments issued by the US Treasury.

(US has been fighting wars in foreign lands using borrowed money)

  • In US economy interest rates are kept artificially low for a prolonged period of time, citizens were first addicted to consumerism and then the culture of 'living the good life' by borrowing.
  • Americans spend $800 billion more than they earned. An average American family owns 13 credit cards, and 40% of them have a balance.
  • US Household debt grew from $ 7 trilion in 2001 to $14 trillion in 2008.

An entire industry of financial jugglery came into being to translate greed into profits. An this non-productive industry of 'financial products', and not the real industry of making physical products became America's primary business. Manufacturing today accounts for only 12% of USA's GDP.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Krugman's Mahajanapadas'

This year’s Nobel Prize for Economics has gone to Paul Krugman. I’ve read some of his political commentaries but until this announcement came in, I never knew that he was better known for his work as an original thinker in the field of economics.

This week, the Indian Express published a couple of articles on the Krugman’s work that got me interested in learning more about the award citation – “ for his analysis of trade patterns and locations of economic activity”. The first one was an op-ed piece by Bibek Debroy, linking his work tantalizingly to Indian history, and the second one by Karna Basu, praising Krugman for ‘clarifying complexity’.

First, Debroy. In “Krugman and the Indus”, he begins with a grand sweep of urbanization in ancient India and highlights two major events –the Indus-Ghaggar-Hakra civilization (5500 – 1300 BCE) and the birth of the 16 Mahajanapadas in the pre-Maurya, pre-Gupta period (~ 500 BCE). What are the forces that led to the creation and dissolution of these republics that perhaps had better urban planning, better municipal councils and systems for sewerage, drainage and sanitation, than most cities in ‘modern’ India?

Debroy’s article draws you in with its title and leaves you feeling marooned. Karna Basu, on the other hand, gives you a better perspective of Krugman’s contribution. But you are likely to find the most straightforward explanation in a PDF document at the Swedish Academy’s website.

International trade has a direct impact on billions of people. The dynamics of this have been traditionally explained by Ricardo’s (1800’s) ‘theory of comparative advantage’ and then extended by Heckster & Ohlin (1920’s) who looked at trade in terms of access to factors of production – some countries have relatively abundant labor but a scarcity of money, whereas some countries have lots of money but fewer workers. As a result some countries export industrial products and import agricultural products and vice versa.

This was a neat theory but failed to explain why trade keeps on increasing between identical countries. Krugman covered this by stating the seemingly obvious – consumers like to have choices. Given a choice, folks in Germany, Sweden and Japan would like to have the option of buying a BMW, a Saab or a Toyota.

But what about the cost of transporting a BMW to Japan? This is a topic covered under “Economic Geography”, which deals not only with what goods are produced where, but also with the distribution of capital and labor across countries / regions. Krugman reasoned that the real wages of labor are higher in countries with a larger population. Better economies of scale allow firms to produce a wider range of goods at lower prices, and this, in turn, encourages more people to migrate to urban areas seeking better wages and more choices. So it seems the location of cities and firms is a trade-off between economies of scale and transportation costs.

But I still have not understood how this allegedly path-breaking theory links up with the location of cities in ancient India. I have this sneaking feeling that this was Debroy's ruse to get more people interested in economic theories. He got me hooked for sure.

References / Links:
  • An Absolute Advantage - Karna Basu, Indian Express, 15 Oct., 2008
  • Krugman and the Indus - Bibek Debroy, IE, 15 Oct., 2008
  • International Trade & Economic Geography - The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The 16 Mahajanapada's ('Great Kingdoms' / Republics) of Ancient India:

1. Varanasi (Kashi)
2. Ayodhya
3. Sravasti
4. Saketa (Koshala - Northern Uttar Pradesh)
5. Rajagriha (Magadha -- modern Bihar)
6. Vaishali (Vriji -- Northern Bengal)
7. Kaushambi (Vatsa -- Modern Madhya Pradesh)
8. Indraprasta (Area around modern Delhi)
9. Hastinapura (Kuru)
10. Adhichatra (Panchala - modern Uttaranchal)
11. Mathura (Surasena)
12. Podana (Ashmaka -- modern Maharashtra)
13. Ujjain (Avanti)
14. Purushapura (Modern Peshawar, Pakistan)
15. Taxashila (Gandhara -- modern Khandahar, Afghanistan)
16. Rajapura (Kamboja -- modern Afghanistan)

This list is just one of the many disputed lists. The confirmed ones are highlighted in bold.

Monday, October 13, 2008


Delhi has been swarming with this insect for the past week. At night, enormous clouds of them collect around mercury-vapor lamps (white light), leaving the yellow sodium-vapor lamps almost bare.

Usually we see an explosion of insect population after the first rains. But the last time it rained was two months ago and with the onset of winter, the air is now dry and dusty. In such conditions it is rather unusual to see huge swarms of insects enveloping the streetlights.

These are not the usual winged termites that flap around clumsily until they get rid of their wings, or become lizard feed. They are much smaller(~3mm), brownish in color, built like condensed houseflies with a strong preference for white incandescent lights. They are usually zipping around blindly, entering open mouths (bland), eyes (no sting) and when at rest, they prefer to dangle up-side-down.

What could this be? Shaku was unsure, " looks like one of the Heteroptera belonging to the leafhopper or plant hopper group (like cicadellids or fulgorids) sorry I cant be more precise, but I need a closer look..."

The answer came, rather surprisingly, from a front-pages of Hindustan Times (24th Oct., 2008). An article by Satyan Mohapatra, "Mutant Insects Over Delhi", claimed that this was the Brown Plant Hopper.

It quoted Dr. T.P.Rajendran (ADG-Plant Protection, IARI), "This year untimely rains began a chain reaction that led the Hopper population to explode...the rains caused an increase in pest population, which made the farmers use increasing amounts to insecticides like Carbaryl, which ended up killing off all the natural predators of the Hopper like spiders and frogs."

Apparently a mutant strain developed resistance to carbaryl, and the insect population exploded. They were having a great time until the farmers of Rhotak and Panipat harvested the rice crop. Suddenly, they had nothing else to do but to ride the next breeze to Delhi.

Will we now see an explosion of spider and lizard population in the weeks to come?

Reference / Links:
  • Mutant insects over Delhi, Satyen Mohapatra, Hindustan Times, 24th October 2008

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Blue Kerosene and the Black Market

An article in the Sunday Express caught my attention – “Tamper-proof kerosene: there is proof it can be tampered”. In this piece, Amitav Ranjan explains how the allegedly hi-tech, tamper-proof blue dye being used to color kerosene meant for the Public Distribution System (PDS) is being “cleaned” by using the most commonplace of substances – clay - before being used to adulterate petrol and diesel sold in the open markets. The dye is being imported from Authentix, a British Company, at the cost of Rs. 150 Crores per year.

India consumes 9.35 million tonnes of kerosene in 2007-2008, entirely sold through the PDS at a heavily subsidized price of Rs. 9.09 per liter. Its low administered price is a great incentive for the dealers who divert large volumes to mix it in petrol priced at Rs. 50.56 or in diesel sold at Rs. 34.80.

A study by NCAER (2006) showed 38.6% of kerosene diverted for other use. Another study by ASSOCHAM (2006) says that the government spends Rs. 15,000 Cr. in subsidizing Kerosene and that the illegal diversions were costing it Rs.5700 Cr. (per annum?)

In India, a vast chasm exists policy formulation and implementation. To make things worse, the willingness of our decision makers to bridge this chasm seems inversely proportional to number of people affected by it. Nothing exemplifies this better than the country's Public Distribution System (PDS).

Instituted during the 1940's as a response to war-time shortages, PDS was meant to be a conduit for distributing essential food-grains, edible oil and fuel to the poorest sections of the society.

Has it worked? – Proponents of the PDS system claim that after it was buttressed by the creation of Food Corporation of India and the Agricultural Prices Commission in 1965, it has become India’s de facto National Food Security System. They claim that the ‘minimum support price’ instituted by APC, along with the nation-wide distribution system has been successful in “preventing any more famines in India”.

Many others are unanimously and vehemently against wasting public money on a system that leaks like a sieve. Studies bear out that the PDS system is most ineffective in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, where the level of rural poverty is among the highest in the country. In the words of a former IAS officer, Mr. M.G. Devasagayam, "…policies are shaped by central politicians and senior civil servants who are not well aware of the practical and political difficulties at the local level resulting from their policies."

Perhaps Mr. Devasagayam is being careful when he blames the central politicians and the senior bureaucrats. Local politicians and junior bureaucrats certainly know what is actually happening on the ground - the PDS system has become a valuable source of political patronage and party funds. Who would want to kill the goose that lays golden eggs?

References & Links:

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Crash of Titans: Making Sense of a Financial Carnage

The current crisis in the international financial markets reminds me of a quiet sunny morning in December 2004. We were driving down NH-47 in Kerala and, as we neared Kollam, there seemed to be anxious people crowding everywhere - ambulances and police jeeps wailed to and fro; vehicles going with their headlights on in broad daylight. When we stopped to ask what happened, somebody simply said, "കടല്‍ കയറി" (the sea climbed out).

It seemed such a strange reason because we could still see the sea glinting in the evening sunshine, looking as peaceful as ever. Only when we reached home and turned on the TV did we realize the magnitude of the disaster. This was a Tsunami, a monster that sprang out of an earthquake 4000 km away, off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. It had killed about 20,000 people in India alone.

The recent disasters on Wall Street may not kill so many people directly but its impact is just as catastrophic. America's fourth largest investment bank, Lehman Brothers, has filed the biggest bankruptcy petition known to mankind. Just how big? - $ 613 billion. - more than three times the current annual budget of Government of India. About 30,000 people are expected to lose their jobs globally (at least 2,500 in India).

World largest insurer American International Groups (AIG) is going hat in hand to US Fed., JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, for a $85 billion lifeline. Meryl Lynch has been bailed out by Bank of America.

Things may look sunny & peaceful in India but that is perhaps because Indian firms have not disclosed client-specific details.

How will this drama unfold? Prof. Prof. Martin Feldstein of Harvard University, puts it this way -
"Declining house prices are key to the financial crisis and outlook for the economy, because mortgage-backed securities, and the derivatives based on them, are the primary assets that are weakening financial institutions. Until those prices stabilize, these securities cannot be valued with any confidence."
Now that's quite a mouthful. Its easier to chew if you take the key words separately -

Mortgage-Backed Securities

This is the crux of the problem. Thanks to cheap credit and inflated expectations, millions of not-so-credit-worthy Americans were able to buy their own houses during the early 1990's. Banks gave them home-loans (mortgages) at special discounted rates (Sub-Prime Lending). These were "no recourse" loans, so if the home-owner defaulted the creditors could take the house but not other property or income to make up any unpaid balance.

When the home-owners started defaulting on their installment (EMI) payments, the banks had already packaged and "sold" their loan portfolio as bonds & derivatives to institutions that were ultimately owned by financial giants like LehmanBros.

People who could not pay their EMI's simply abandoned neighborhoods and cities. In Monero Valley, 60 km east of Los Angeles, about 2 million people have moved away.

Derivatives & Principal Transactions

Traditionally, financial firms were advisers and intermediaries to institutional investors (insurance cos., pension funds, mutual funds) but, over the years, they themselves got involved in "Principal Transactions" - using partners' or shareholders' money to bet on stocks, bonds and other securities.

LehmanBros' own shareholder investment was only $23 billion (2007) but it relied heavily on borrowed money ("leverage") worth almost $700 billion! So the leverage ratio here was 30 to 1 ($700/$23). Fannie May and Freddie mac, America's biggest mortgage lenders had a leverage ratio of 60 to 1!

Robert Samuelson explains the game nicely in Newsweek -

"Leverage can create huge windfalls. Suppose you buy a stock for $100. It goes to $110. You made 10 per cent, a decent return. Now suppose you borrowed $90 of the $100. If the price rises to $101, you've made 10 per cent on your $10 investment, (Technically, the price has to exceed $101 slightly to cover interest payments.). If it goes to $110, you've doubled your money. Wow."

So, in this maze of dubious bonds and baseless derivatives, nobody really knows who is holding the lemons. Thanks to this uncertainty and broken trust, few want to lend, and fewer are willing to borrow. House prices have crashed, reducing household wealth and consumer spending. Employment and salaries have come down; higher prices of food and energy have worsened matters.

American institutions are trying to prevent a complete paralysis by injecting the patient with billions worth of tax rebates and bail outs. Will it work? Everybody is watching very carefully.


References / Links:

* The Economist - "The end of the dream?" Aug 14th 2008 MORENO VALLEY
* "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble" - Martin Feldstein, Professor of Economics at Harvard University
* "Risky Business" - Robert L. Samuelson, Newsweek
* Wall Street transforms U.S. presidential race - P. Sainath, The Hindu, Monday, Sep 29, 2008
* What else could $700 billion buy? - Nancy Benac, AP / Star News Online Sep. 30, 2008


Addendum, 15 Jul., 2010

Here is another illustration of Derivatives Game from the book "The Dignity of a Nation" by the Japanese mathematician, Fujiwara Masahiko:

Originally derivates acted as a risk hedge. they were a means of avoiding the risk associated with things like product prices, interest rates, and exchange rates, whose future movements were unclear. Recently, however, derivatives have started to be used for speculative purposes.

Let us say, for example, that Mr. A thinks that the stock of Company B, currently worth 1,000 yen, will be higher in three months time. Mr. A only pocesses cash resources of 3 million yen, but by making use of derivatives, he just needs to put down that 3 million yen as margin money and he can buy the right to acquire 100,000 shares of B company at the current 1,000 yen price in three months time. With a margin payment of a measly 3 million yen, Mr. A has thus bought the right to purchase 100 million yen's worth of shares.

Let us say that the shares rose as Mr. A anticipated and hit 1,500 yen. A has the right to buy 150 million yen's worth of shares for 100 million, he has made a profit of 50 million minus 3 million yen. If the share price goes down and Mr. A does not exercise his right, he gets off with a loss of his margin deposit of 3 million yen.

Conversely, let us imagine taht Mr. A thinks that the shares of Company B will fall in value. In this instance, Mr. A can use the same margin payment of 3 million to sell the right to purchase 100,000 shares (worth 100 million yen) at the same 1,000 yen price as now in three months time. But the seller, in return for getting the margin payment of 3 million yen, cannot run away from the deal. If the share falls as Mr. A anticipates, the buyer will abandon his right with the result that Mr. A pockets the 3 million yen as profit. If, however, the share price rises from 1,000 to 1,500 yen, the privious scenario is reversed. Mr. A has to procure shares at the current value of 150 million yen and sell them at the agreed price of 100  million yen, making a loss of 50 million yen minus 3 million yen.

...With derivatives, what you are buying and selling is a right. Since this creates no immediate profit or loss, derivatives are not recorded on the balance sheet, with the result that large-size companies can go unexopectedly bankrupt.

Life On A Balcony

This year we barely got a taste of the fierce Delhi summer. Every time the mercury crossed the 40s, rain clouds would appear out of nowhere, and leave the city drenched, hot and sultry. It has been wonderful for the plants and trees, though.

Potted plants on our balcony never had it so good. Four months of regular rainfall has made us all feel like green thumbs. But the lush greenery has also attracted many guests, many of whom I have been unable to identify.

On top of the list is this caterpillar that appears only on one our two palms. Eggs are tiny (1 mm diam.), red hat like structures that break open to release red grubs that promptly cut out rectangular bits of the leaf to make themselves at home. A few days, and a few half-eaten leaves later, they reach this size (5 cm) and thread some leaves together to make a pupa.

I have never seen the creature that flies out... What could it be? - a butterfly, a moth or a dragonfly?

On the same palm, this fungus (?) turned up on a dry leaf. Does this delicate, stamen-like thing have a name?

This insect appears only on our Tulsi plant...

The last visitor is this butterfly. It seemed fresh out of its cocoon, waiting for the sun to stiffen its wings...

Can somebody help?

Answers from Shaku (University of Georgia, Atlanta) -

1) The larva (caterpillar) of a skipper butterfly - family Hesperiidae, Order Lepidoptera. I really cant identify it to species level without taking a closer look, but if it was the adult, it would have been much easier. You can identify skipper larvae by the constriction between the head and the rest of the body. And they're not usually seen in the open - they always make little cases for themselves out of leaf bits, etc.

2) I'm pretty sure they are not fungal structures, but the eggs of a green lacewing - family Chrysopidae, Order Neuroptera. Lacewing eggs are among the cutest insect structures that can be seen with the naked eye - because they are stalked!

3) Those are the nymphs of the tulsi lacebug (Ocimum tingid) Cochlochila bullita (Family Tingidae, Order Heteroptera). They suck the sap from the leaves and the leaves become speckled with white and ultimately dry up. If the damage is only on few leaves, pluck those leaves and burn them. If it has affected most of the plant, give a spray of mild soap solution - take care to spray undersides of the leaves also. I won't suggest any pesticide for home garden.

4) That is most definitely the Red Pierrot (Talicada nyseus), family Lycaenidae, Order Lepidoptera. Although the common name for the family Lycaenidae is "Blues and Coppers" because most members come in shades of blue or copper, there are exceptions like this one. You can tell its a Lycaenid, from the little tail at the rear end of the wing (the orange half).

Interesting Links (nice pics, but no answers here!):

* Some Indian Butterflies - by Amber & Abha Dev Habib
* Indian Butterflies -

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Yen Loan Projects in India

What is common between the Bhakra Nangal & Hirakud Dams, the Durgapur Steel Plant and the Metro’s at Calcutta & Delhi? -- They were all built using concessional loans under Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA), commonly known as “Yen Loans”.

Japan’s first Yen Loan was extended to India in 1958 in the wake of Prime Minister Nehru’s visit to Tokyo, to supplement funds for the Second Five-Year Plan. Since then the flow of ODA loans has steadily increased over the years. Last year's loan-commitment to India peaked to a record Yen 225.130 billion (~ Rs. 1000 Cr. / $ 2.085 billion).

India is now the largest recipient of Yen Loans, having surpassed China in 2003. As of 11th March 2008, 53 projects worth Yen 822.615 billion (i.e., about Rs. 30,436.75 Crores / $7.6 billion, at current rates) are under implementation with Japanese loan assistance. Cumulative Japanese ODA loan commitment to India has reached Yen 2662.56 billion (Rs. 101,497 Cr. / $ 25 billion).

To put these figures in perspective, the World Bank has 63 active projects in India, with a net commitment of about $ 12.7 billion (Jan. 2007). India's annual budget for 2008/09 is Rs. 7.47 trillion ($187.68 billion) and and its GDP crossed $ 1 trillion in April 2007.

Why does the Government of India borrow so much from a bilateral agency? How are the loan-projects selected? How is the money obtained and used? This article attempts to answer some of these fundamental questions.

Government of India has come a long way from the days when it mortgaged its gold reserves to meet a balance of payments crisis. It now sits on a pile of forex reserves worth over $ 300 billion. And yet, every year, it borrows money from the World Bank, ADB and Japanese ODA, especially for building social and physical infrastructure across the country. These “soft-loans” from multilateral and bilateral agencies are cheaper than commercial borrowings but they come with “conditionalties” that are not so easy to swallow, let alone digest. But it is precisely these conditionalities that make the loans worthwhile for the Government of India.

Loan projects are usually implemented under a tough set of guidelines that ensures the implementation of the projects using international best practices in contracting, technology-selection and project management. At the same time, they force the borrower to take a hard look at efficient management of their own institutions and resources. This, of course, is the expectation - the ground realities can turn out to be somewhat different.

Once a Loan Agreement (LA) and Project Memorandum get signed, the ‘die is cast’ and it becomes the template for duration of the project. The scope for political interference, mid-course changes, and corruption is rather limited. After all, this is borrowed money guaranteed by the State, and it has to be repaid.


The Japan Division at the Bilateral Cooperation Division of Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) at the Indian Ministry of Finance is responsible for raising and monitoring external borrowings. The DEA receives numerous loan requests every year from the states and quasi-government agencies. The proposals include detailed documents justifying the necessity, techno-economic feasibility, environmental & administrative clearances, as well as its relevance to national & state development plans.

On the Japanese side, ODA loans were originally administered directly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA). The Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF) handled the loans till 1st October 1999 when it was merged with the Japanese Exim Bank (JEXIM) to form Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), creating an agency with a portfolio of investments & loans totaling Yen 21.750 trillion (Rs. 870,000 Cr. / $ 174 billion).

From 1st October 2008, the yen-loan division of JBIC will be merged into Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). About 300 JBIC employees are expected to join JICA's existing workforce of 1400.


Once the applications are short-listed under a list of potential projects called the “Rolling Plan”and sent to the Embassy of Japan. The proposals then follow the following steps in what is broadly known as the “ODA Loan Cycle”-

  1. Appraisal by relevant agencies in Government of Japan (GoJ)
  2. Submission of a “Prior Notification” or “Pledge” by GoJ to Government of India (GoI)
  3. Loan Agreement Consultation for finalizing the terms & conditions
  4. “Exchange of Notes” between GoJ and GoI
  5. Signing of “Loan Agreement” and “Project Memorandum” – this all important document specifies the legal rights and obligations of all parties concerned, with respect to purpose, scope, content, loan amount, duration, repayment period, procurement & disbursement procedures.
  6. Implementation of the Project - Usually begins with the selection of an international Project Management Consultant (PMC) by the Executing Agency (EA-loan recipient), followed by procurement of materials and equipment required for the project.
  7. Completion / Ex-post Evaluation and Follow-up - to draw lessons for future projects.


The Yen Loans are primarily aimed at creating socioeconomic infrastructure. The present rate of interest is 1.2% for general projects and 0.65% to 0.75% for projects in the environment sector. The loans come with a “moratorium period” of 10 years and have to be repaid in 30 years (40 years for environmental projects). In effect, the repayment starts 10 years after the Loan Agreement (LA) and continues for the subsequent 20 or 30 years respectively.

Once a loan is committed, it is the responsibility of the borrower to avail the money within the agreed time frame. In order to improve the availment efficiency rate, and to discourage procrastination, a "Commitment Charge" of 0.1% (half-yearly) has recently been introduced on the undisbursed loan from the date of effectuation of the loan agreement. At the same time, the 0.1% "Service Charges" for each disbursement has been withdrawn.

Interest accrued during the implementation phase (IDC – interest during construction) gets deducted from the loan amount.

In order to ensure transparency and accountability, the borrower has to appoint a renowned international consultant to oversee the project. This consultant, in turn, helps the borrower not only in implementing the project according to the ODA guidelines, but also in generating the necessary progress reports.

Consultants are usually expensive - they get paid up to 3.5% of the loan amount. Borrowers are usually queasy about spending so much of their loan on consultants - especially when they have to be selected only through a QBS (qualifications based selection) process. But the guidelines make it amply clear that their services are required for –

  • Pre-investment studies: prioritizing projects, evaluating viability (economic, technical, financial, commercial), environmental & social matters;
  • Preparation services: detailed investigations and review;
  • Implementation services: supervising procurement procedures & construction work.

For the benefit of borrowers who may need additional help, there is a Special Assistance Facility (SAF) for project formation (SAPROF), for implementation (SAPI), for sustainability (SAPS), and for procurement management.

At the very outset, the loans are divided into “tranches”, and further sliced-up into contracts. Disbursement of the loan is linked to satisfactory implementation of the contracts through any of the following methods –

  1. Reimbursement
  2. Transfer – Direct payment to contractors on submission of attested “claims”
  3. Commitment – Forex payments through a Letter of Credit (LC)
  4. Special Account – Advance payment to borrower’s account

As soon as the moratorium period is over for each project, the Government of India starts repaying the loan through its designated bank (Bank of India) in Tokyo. All transactions related to disbursements and repayments are overseen by the Comptroller of Aid Accounts & Audit (CAAA – Ministry of Finance).

Until recently, the Indian Ministry of Finance used to pass on the loan to the recipient state government with a certain mark-up, through a complex “70-30” scheme. Following the recommendations of the 12th Finance Commission (1 April 2005), the Yen loans are now passed on to the borrowers “back to back”, at exactly the same rate that was agreed during the Loan Agreement.

A portion of the yen-loans also goes towards private sector investment, business activities in developing countries and development-related research work.


As of 10 March 2008, India has 202 active Yen-Loan agreements with the Japanese Government, aggregating to a total of Yen 2,662.56 billion (Rs. 106,502 Crores; ~ $25 billion). The earliest of the loans being repaid by Government of India is a 1976 “Commodity Loan” to DEA. It was a “partially untied” loan of Yen 7 billion (Rs. 280 Cr. today), lent at the rate of 3.5% payable over 25 years, after a moratorium or ‘grace period’ of 7 years. The range and scope of yen-loans has expanded over the years, while the interest rates have come down to the 0.65% - 1.2% range.

The loan projects vary in size and scale. The smallest loan now is Yen 84 million (Rs.3.36 Crores in 1990) towards engineering services for the Indira Gandhi Nahar project, and the largest single Loan Agreement(LA) so far has been for the Delhi Metro – Yen 59.296 billion (Rs. 2372 Cr., 2004).

The top five projects, in terms of amount committed, are –

  1. Delhi Mass Rapid Transport Project (V) – Yen 59.296 billion (Rs. 2372 Cr., LA-31/3/2004; RoI 1.3%)
  2. Anpara B Thermal Power Station Construction Project – Yen 49.801 billion (Rs. 1992 Cr.; LA 23/01/1991; RoI 2.5%)
  3. Bangalore Metro Rail Project – Yen 44.704 billion (Rs. 1788 Cr., LA 31/03/2006; RoI 1.3%)
  4. Gandhar Gas Based Combined Cycle Power Project (II), NTPC – Yen 42.599 billion (Rs. 1704 Cr.; LA 09/01/1992; RoI 2.6%)
  5. Hyderabad Outer Ring Road Project Phase-I – Yen 41.853 billion (Rs. 1674 Cr.; LA 10/03/2008; RoI 1.2%)

Even a cursory glance at the projects reveals that some states are better than others when it comes to wooing external lenders. Presently, Uttar Pradesh leads the pack with 17 projects, taking 13.77% of the loan-pie. UP is followed by Andhra Pradesh (12.95%), Delhi (11.96%), West Bengal (9.37%) and Karnataka (8.52%).

The distribution of loans is closely linked to the priorities of both governments, as well as the ability of borrowers to make convincing, competitive packages of their loan requirements.


Note 1: Exchange rate used - Yen 100 = Rs.40; $1 = Rs.40
Note 2: Japanese ODA & China - Even though net ODA to China has been declining since 2001, China continues to top the list of borrowers. As of December 2007, China had 365 active yen-loan projects, worth Yen 3316.48 billion (Rs. 132,660 Cr. / $ 34 billion) - about $10b more than India.


References / Links:

* Indian Ministry of Finance - Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) – Japan Division
* Outline of Japan’s ODA to India - Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), Japan
* “Japan’s ODA Loans – 50 Years in India” – Booklet printed by JBIC in 2008

* “World Bank to Help India Achieve UN Goals”, IANS/IndiaPRwire, 12.02.2007

* Message from the JBIC Governor – Hiroshi Yasuda, JBIC Review (PDF)
* JBIC Financial Statement FY ending March 2008 - JBIC Homepage

* JBIC Homepage- Economic Cooperation (ODA) Division
* JBIC - Types of Japanese ODA Loans
* ODA Project Cycle
* ODA - Special Assistance Facility
* "Japan Cutting Yen Loans to China" - Reuters - 6 March 2007
* Overview of Japan's ODA to China : MoFA-Japan
* Country Assistance Program for India (2006): MoFA-Japan

* Aid Audits & Accounts Division, DEA, Ministry of Finance (India)
* "What Caused the 1991 Currency Crisis in India?" - IMF Staff Papers

* JBIC-Watch - An NGO network for monitoring Yen-Loan projects

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Downside of "Kerala Model"

I've often wondered why the much vaunted "Kerala Model" of development is mocked by the people of Kerala themselves.

"You call this development?", they ask, "We get our foodgrains from Andhra Pradesh, vegetables from Tamil Nadu, our shops are stocked with goods made elsewhere and our politicians flail helplessly, taking the state from one financial crisis to another".

It turns out that the one of the biggest achievements of the Kerala Model - land reforms - is exactly what led to a steady decline in food production in the state. Land reforms had been implemented as a means to redistribute land, not to raise productivity. Instead of leasing out land to prospective tillers, the people who received the land, the erstwhile tenants, were not required to cultivate the land given to them. These tenants were merely the intermediaries between the landlords and the laborers.

Since there was no economy of scale in tilling small plots of land, they merely treated it as a piece of real estate that was quickly sold off when Gulf-jobs beckoned in the mid 1970s.

"Imagining an Economy of Plenty in Kerala" - Pullapre Balakrishnan, EPW, 17 May 2008

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Notes From Kangra Valley

How things have changed in a decade!

The valley is now crowded with buildings, the roads looked like they had not been mended since my last visit. At McLeod Ganj, the vendors along Jogibara & Bhagsu roads selling sun-dried pork had been replaced by swank pizza joints; Mrs. Naoroji's shop had been reduced to an empty showpiece and strange new rules restricted the flow of public transport after dusk.

Tsuglagkhang Complex, McLeod Ganj

Is the public display of rage linked to the price of vinyl posters? It certainly seems so at the 'Tibetan Capital-in-Exile'. Huge banners and posters now dot the streets and chowks of McLeod Ganj, listing the brutalities committed by the Chinese in Lhasa; pamplets pasted on the lamp-posts and walls urge the world to boycott the Beijing Olympics.

Inside the Tsuglagkhang complex, it looks like a mini India now. People in a wide range of costumes and languages pay their respects at the Dalai Lama's shrine. It is difficult to make out who is Tibetan and who isn't.

Club Mahindra Kangra Valley, Dharamsala

If you've already seen other Club-M properties, this one is a clear let down. "Club Mahindra Kangra Valley, Dharamsala" is actually 14 km away from Dharamsala, closer to Yol, on the on a road to Palampur-Mandi. After having seen the spacious gardens and neat cottages at Binsar and Coorg, this place looked like an isolated, pathetic hotel along a dusty, noisy, state highway.

The building itself was unremarkable - just the usual tinted glass windows on the outside; a small cemented parking area; a foyer at two levels shared by a restaurant, bar and reception desks. A wooden staircase connected each of the four floors that housed 8-10 rooms.

If there was one thing that reminded you that you were not at another dodgy hotel but at a Club-M property, it was the staff. All of them, without exception, were smart and well groomed. A couple of them manned the reception area, a few were busy with housekeeping and room-service, and most of them were outside enjoying a game of cricket on the sunny lawns.

But what about the guests? The front-desk had claimed 70% occupancy but there was no sign of anybody. The parking lot was practically empty, the rooms were silent (no sound of kids, TV) and the dining hall at lunchtime was full of empty chairs. Perhaps all the guests had gone elsewhere in search of "family-fun-forever".

Our room reasonably spacious. It was not the 'studio apartment' we expected (no kitchenette, no balcony, no carpets). It had chunky furniture and a badly designed bathroom (the "exaust fan" actually blew air inwards) but the view from the windows was almost priceless. 'Almost' because you only had to ignore a few ugly buildings located next to the resort, to let your eyes sweep across the little emerald-colored rice fields and orchards, up the slopes of the nearest hills, past the fluffy clouds, up the sheer cliffs of the Dhaula Dhar Range, until you caught a glimpse of the Manimahesh Kailash peak (5656m).

You could sit by the window all day, watching the clouds romancing the mountains; imagining the panorama that would unfold if you were with the eagles flying high above...If you went soaring through the thermals over Kangra valley, just across the mountains lay Chamba valley - just 20km away. Or if you flew eastwards, road connecting Manali to Rohtang La was just 60km away. No wonder so many hang-glider's come to Bir!

Getting There: We took an overnight train Jammu Mail to Pathankot (~484km, 10 hours, Rs. 500, ) and from there, by taxi (90km; 4 hours, Rs. 2000!) to Kangra Valley. A better option would have been to take the overnight HRTC volvo-bus service from Delhi (11 hours, Rs. 660). The buses would have allowed us to completely bypass the taxi unions and their obscene rates.
There is a brand new airport at Gaggal but it is serviced only by Deccan and an unfamiliar company called MPLR Airlines. Flights from Delhi cost about Rs. 4500.

Getting Around: If you have a choice, come in your own car. If you have the time, stick to the local buses and "share-cabs" . The local taxi union sincerely believes in fleecing the tourists, so a one-way, 14 km drive from Sheela Chowk to McLeod Ganj will set you back by Rs.350. A bus-ride will cost you Rs. 20, at the most.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Public Policy Making in India

“Here is the policy decision – now find the data that supports it, and implement the scheme!” – This, in a nutshell, summarizes the attitude and approach of many policy-makers in India.

When we make a habit out of putting the cart before the horse, the outcomes are rather predictable – grand decisions that get needlessly mired in controversies; a demoralized bureaucracy; waste of precious time and lots of money down the drain.

Remember the VAT rollout, Conditional Access System fiasco, Fiscal Responsibility Bill, Parliamentary Reservation for Women, Telecom Inter-connectivity Charges, etc., Why do we keep repeating our mistakes? Does it come from the lack of introspection? Not quite – there are many of scholarly documents that pinpoint critical problem areas.

Take, for instance, the paper published by O.P. Agarwal & T.V. Somanathan – “Public Policy Making in India: Issues &Remedies”. Here is what it says about the process of policy-making in India –

“The process ought to produce a high-quality decision, made with a high degree of legitimacy, power and accuracy. Essential features of this process –

  1. Knowledge – up-to-date & relevant data processed with the right analytical tools, to create reliable subject-matter knowledge
  2. Awareness of Inter-Sectoral Impact – analysis of trade-offs, using analytical tools – policy analysis, program evaluation, cost-benefit analysis. Eg. transport policy impacts petrol consumption and the environment, environment policy (pollution norms) affects industrial development
  3. Assessment of winners and losers – crucial in a democratic set-up
  4. Legal authority - Legitimacy - procedural & substantive
  5. Execution – swift and successful
  6. Leadership – coordination, synthesis, integration, unbiased”

Agarwal & Somanathan also point out that in reality, policy decisions are often made without adequate analysis of costs, benefits, trade-offs and consequences. According to them, the underlying causes for this are -

  • Excessive fragmentation – too many ministries and departments, leading to widespread prevalence of the ‘blind men and the elephant’ syndrome;
  • Inadequate time spent on policy-making – excessive overlap of policy-making and implementation; over-centralization of implementation authority;
  • Inadequate professionalism of policy-makers and advisers;
  • Inadequate consultation of in-house specialists – ‘generalist arrogance’ (IAS cadre?), inter-service rivalries;
  • Mediocrity of in-house specialists – worsened by excessive dependence on ‘outside specialists’.

Ultimately everything seems to boil down to leadership. Is this the biggest challenge in our political milieu that encourages weak & pliable officers over those who are perceived to be strong & honest?

References / Links:

* Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
* Public Policy Making in India: Issues and Remedies - O.P. Agarwal & T.V. Somanathan (2005)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Malayalam Words of Foreign Origin

Growing up in a polyglot environment was quite confusing at times. During our schooldays, we used to look forward the summer vacations in Kerala - the two-day train journey from Hyderabad to Chanaganaserry; the endless hours spent in catching fishes, splashing in the pond, hunting for fruits, and playing with cousins. But after spending two months in Kerala, my Deccani Hindi vocabulary would get completely swamped by Malayalam, resulting in strange conversations as soon as we got back to Hyderabad:
Friend - कहाँ था बे? तेरेको इतना बुलारे थे..(Where the heck were you? We had been calling out..)
Me - में तो कक्कूस में था..(Oh, I was in the "Kakkoos"/Toilet)
Friend - कक्कूस?? वो क्या बे?(Kakkoos?? Whats that??)
And that would be the exact moment when a new nickname was born. I would be heartily called "Kakkoos" for a few days until all strange new words were badgered back into the confines of our home.

It now turns out that "Kakkoos" is not even a Malayalam word - it is originally Dutch!

This and many other surprises tumbled out of a PDF file that Dr. Jayathilak sent me sometime back. The file is an appendix to an unknown book and contains a long list of Malayalam words from European languages. Here are some of the more commonly used borrowed-words:
Malayalam words from the PORTUGUESE language -
  • Alumaari - അലമാരി - Cupboard - "Armario"
  • Amara - അമര - Mulberry tree - "Amora"
  • Aaspatri - ആസ്പത്രി -Hospital - "Hospital"
  • Chaavi - ചാവി - Key - "Caave"
  • Govi - ഗോവി - Cabbage - "Couvre" (also in Hindi)
  • Iskuul - ഇസ്കൂള് - School - "Escola"
  • Istri - iസ്ത്രി - Smoothing iron - "Esterar"
  • Jennal - ജെന്നാല് - Window - "Jenala"
  • Kamis - കാമിസ് - Shirt - "Camiso" (also in Hindi, Urdu)
  • Kurisu - കുരിശു - Cross - "Cruz"
  • Laelam - ഈലം - Auction - "Leilac"
  • Mesha - മേശാ - Table - "Mesa"
  • Maestri - മെസ്ത്രി - Foreman - "Mestre"
  • Naranja - Lemon / Citrus fruit
  • Paadhiri - പാധിരി - Clergyman - "Padre"
  • Paappa - പാപ - The Pope - "papa"
  • Pena - പേന - Pen - "Pena"
  • Pera - പേര - Guava - "Pera"
  • Pikkassu - പിക്കാസ് - Pick-axe - "Picao"
  • Tambloor - തമ്ബ്ലൂര് - "Tambler"
  • Teila - റെഇല - Tea leaves - "Tea"
  • Tuuvala - തൂവാല - Towel, handkerchief - "Toalha"
  • Vattakka - വട്ടക്ക - Watermelon - "Pateca" (can also mean "the round fruit" in Mal.)
  • Vatteri - വട്റെരി - Battery, a set of guns - "Bateria"

Malayalam words from the DUTCH language
  • Kakkoos - കക്കൂസ് - Latrine - "Kakhus"

If so many common words have been borrowed from the European traders and colonizers who came a few centuries ago, there must be a much bigger collection of words that came from the Arabs. Wonder where I could find some papers on this...

Related Links -
English words with Malayalam origin

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Catching Up

So much to read, so little time! :(

I had been so busy chasing the TsukubaU documents that I now find myself with a pile of untouched reading material. Sunday "Eye's" from Indian Express, Tehelka magazines, EPWs, and many newspapers folded inside out, waiting with news of the ongoing Olympics; of the sudden eruption in J&K; of roads and houses ravaged by the extended monsoons and SIMI's alleged expertise in serial bombings...

The first magazine I picked today was the Tehelka of 16/08 and two pieces struck a chord. The first one was an article, "Guardians of our secret hometowns" by Sudhir Mishra, director of the amazing Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi. He writes about his childhood in Sagar and the friends he grew up with, one of whom turned out to be Dr. Binayak Sen who "embraced what everyone wanted to escape". An excerpt -

"Because he is not from Bollywood, he would not have been able to give his opinion on all subjects, from public toilets to higher education, but then life is not perfect and the paychecks would have compensated. Instead, he chooses to go to a place where instead of appreciation he gets locked up in jail!...where the people who run the place are using him as an example to all those who dare raise their head that if they don't retreat, they will face the same fate as him...".
The full text is here.

The second article was the interview of Richard Castra. I had not heard of him or his books before, but his opinions made a lot of sense. I have been reading the much-talked-about "Sea of Poppies" by Amitav Ghosh and I found myself grudgingly agreeing to Castra's view that most of Indian literary output is controlled by the West -

"You cannot be a professional writer unless your main focus is on the Western market. That's how they end up ruling us. Another method: the Brooker.The Brits always give prizes to well-behaved brown boys who served their purposes. Rao Bahadur and Order of the British Empire. Who the hell are they to give us prizes? Why don't we give then prizes? "The Cooker Prize for Docile, Well-behaved Brit Writers" and "The Order of Lalu", whose recipients will have to kneel while Lalu knights them

Now, where can I get my hands on "The Revised Kamasutra"?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Etymology of "Ferenghi"

The first time I remember hearing this word was in the movie "Junoon", a movie based on Ruskin Bond's novel, "A Flight of Pigeons". In a scene where anxious relatives rush out to meet the warriors returning from Delhi during the 1857 revolt, a wounded, haggard Sarfaraz Khan cries out in despair, "Feranghi jeet gaye! Hum Dilli haar gaye!" (The English have won! We've lost Delhi!).

In Asia, why were the English or Europeans in general, called Ferenghi's?

Last year I came across this word again in Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. The story revolves around the Ottoman Sultan's attempt to create a book of miniature paintings that would stun the 'Venetian infidels' or Franks into accepting that Ottoman art was much superior to their own. While reading about 'Frankish' master's and 'Frankish' kings, it had sounded so much like Ferenghi...

In Kerala, cashew nuts which was brought in by the Portuguese is called Parangi Andi or 'Foreign Kernels'.

The word for a 'foreigner' in modern Thai is farang, which according to one version, is an abbreviated form of farangset, meaning 'French'.

So is there is common link between Franks, France, Farang and Ferenghi?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Old Dragonfly

I was moved by this old dragonfly that found a resting-place on our balcony.

With its beady eyes and frayed wings, it held on to its umbrella until the rains finally stopped in the evening.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Prof. Randy Pausch Passes Away....

Randy Pausch - inspiring teacher, builder of Alice, creator of ETA - passed away today in America. He had been suffering from Pancreatic cancer.

The first time I heard the name Pausch was in Tehelka (Oct., 2007), in an article by his former classmate turned writer, Dilip D’Souza. I wish I had not waited until Dilip came up with book review to download and read the much-celebrated lecture at Carnegie Mellon, titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”. It was a real eye-opener on the nuts & bolts of US leadership in science & technology.

Some excerpts -
  • About persuading NASA to take him on a zero-gravity flight - “have something to bring to the table”.
  • About Coach Graham Graham at football – “Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. You’ve got to get the fundamentals down because otherwise the fancy stuff isn’t going to work”
  • “When you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up.”
  • Power of enthusiasm – “When you’re only doing it for one play and you’re just not where you’re supposed to be,and freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, boy are you going to clean somebody’s clock for that one play.”
  • “When you do something young enough and you train for it, it just becomes a part of you”
  • 'Head-Fake' and playing football - “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”
  • Head-fake or indirect learning. We don’t actually want our kids to learn football…we send them out to learn much more important things. Teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, etcetera, etcetera..
  • Getting a reject letter from Walt Disney Imagineering – “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people.”
  • About his own impatience and temper - “When you’re pissed off at somebody and you’re angry at them, you just haven’t given them enough time”
  • Dealing with students who exceeded your expectations – “…you obviously don’t know where the bar should be,and you’re only going to do them a disservice by putting it anywhere.”
  • “One of the biggest gifts you can give somebody – the chance to show them what it feels like to make other people get excited and happy. I men that’s a tremendous gift.”
  • "Apologize when you screw up an focus on other people, not on yourself."
  • About hard work and getting an early tenure - "'Junior faculty say to me, you got tenure early. What's your secret?', I said, 'It's pretty simple. Call me any Friday night in my office at ten o'clock and I'll tell you."

References -

YouTube Recording of the Last Lecture - 1 hour 16 mts
OBITUARY Chicago Tribune - Randy Pausch, 47; terminally ill professor inspired many with his 'last lecture'
Personal Histories - Dilip D'Souza in Tehelka13 October 2007 - ‘Dying’s just another step through life, another chance to celebrate life’
THE LAST LECTURE - Book review by Dilip, Tehelka 12 July 2008
Dilip D'Souza's Blog

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Which Butterfly?

Jahanpanah Forest was teeming with butterflies this weekend. Cabbage Whites, Grass Yellows, and Common Tiger's swarming all over the oleander's and other seasonal, wild flowers.

One curious sight was this strange looking caterpillar on a cactus plant, making a rather feeble attempt at mimicking the thorns. What could this be? Which butterfly or moth finds it worthwhile to seek food a cactus plant?

No answers so far...

Related sites -

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Din and Tonics in Delhi

The Harvard Din & Tonics had their first performance in Delhi yesterday.

Just a few days ago, while reading Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat", a few unfamiliar words had made me reach out for a dictionary. In a paragraph about how Georgia Tech improved its performance by encouraging its undergrads to take on musical pursuits, there was something about "Glee clubs and Capella Bands". Capella had turned out to be something like karaoke ("empty orchestra"), except that the performance rested entirely on vocals. I had imagined it to be something like the erstwhile "Cochin Mimics" in Kerala, but that was way off the mark.

Stein Auditorium at IHC was already jam packed by the time I got there. The hall was dark, the music was already on, but something was wrong... Instead of a bunch of Americans, a group of glum Indian students stood under the spotlights crooning a Hindi song.

Was I in the wrong hall? I checked Arshia's invitation again - "7:00 PM, Din & Tonics" is what it said. It looked like a filler anyway, so I squeezed into an empty seat and took a closer look at the bunch.

The poor fellows looked like they had been dragged away from a cricket field, handed some instruments along with a threat - "Sing! or else...". They sang well but the voices barely managed to get past the loud drums and synthesizers .

This turned out to be a fine way to introduce the Capella. It was a relief to see the offending instruments dragged off stage and replaced by a bunch of eleven sprightly, quaintly dressed undergrads from Harvard - and none of whom carried any instruments.

They were sharp, articulate and completely self-processed. As the program got going with their carefully coordinated singing, dancing and antics, I couldn't help wondering - were these delicate, effeminate and amazingly talented kids from the same country that is sending out troops and bombers to bully Iraq? Are these the guys who are still debating the merits of detention and torture at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and Eastern Europe?

But the performance was awesome!


Din & Tonics Homepage


Friday, July 11, 2008

A Purpose

How often do you stumble upon words that express the very thoughts that run in your mind? Words that cut through the clutter and tangle, tie-up the loose threads and put them in a perspective and pattern that startles you into saying, "Hey, this is exactly what I wanted to convey!"?

I found this today at under "Why Mean Anything?" -
"...One might still choose to lead a purposeless existence, but I don't want to. Having an underlying purpose creates motivation for action; it makes some things imperative, and provides a framework within which to make decisions. Without a purpose, the world seems less colorful, less tragic, less hopeful. Choosing a purpose makes both progress and disappointment possible, and I would rather risk disappointment in exchange for a chance of progress than assure myself a zero sum existence. Sharing a purpose with others creates community, and as a social animal, I enjoy that community. The experience of it is good, even in disappointment."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

World Rice Shortages – Taking India’s Green Revolution to Africa

It’s a quixotic world out there – especially when one takes a closer look at international commodities trade. Thanks to a maze of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), WTO rules, national subsidies, trade blocks and bilateral pacts, massive quantities of food grains rot in western silos while food riots erupt in parts of Asia and Africa. Nothing illustrates this farce better than the rice trade.

Despite being largely self-sufficient in rice, developed countries like Japan end up importing rice from America to maintain some semblance of ‘balance of trade’. 1.5 million tons of high-grade American rice is currently idling in Japanese silos. As long as the Japanese have the money to buy local 'sticky-rice' varieties like Sasanishiki and Koshihikari, they would rather pay over Yen 600/kg (~Rs. 200/kg) than suffer the indignity of eating American rice. And as long as the US-Japan agreement prevents resale of this rice, a lot of it is destined to either rot or be disposed off as animal feed.

Total world rice production is about 646 million tons (2007, IRRI), of which only 6% or 38 mT is traded internationally. About 50% of rice exports come from three countries - Thailand (26%), Vietnam (15%) and India (10%).

This year, a shortage of rice has sent the world markets into a tizzy. A crisis that worsened after India decided to ban exports (non-Basmati rice) in order to build sufficient buffer stocks. How much is sufficient? Food Corporation of India (FCI) has announced plans to raise the rice buffer stock to 27.5mT, i.e., about 70% of recent world rice exports.

If this seems like a huge buffer, consider one point - FCI distributes around 2 mT of rice every month under the national Public Distribution System (PDS). The system is notorious for its inefficiency, corruption and leakages, but it still remains a political hot-potato that nobody wants to touch – let alone the thought of making it more efficient.

Across the Arabian Sea, in Africa, millions of lives depend on rice imports. Despite producing about 14mT (2006, FAOSTAT) it imports about 7mT annually. According to an International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) report - "With only 13% of the world's population, Africa accounts for 32% of world rice imports, which makes it a big player in the international rice”. The report goes on to say, “In 2006, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) imported more than 9 million tons of rice worth an estimated $2 billion. With world rice reserves at their lowest level since 1983-84, international rice prices are expected to double in the next couple of years. This is especially alarming for SSA nations, which need to import about 40% of their rice to satisfy local demand."

Africa Rice Center (WARDA) in Benin is one the 15 international agricultural research Centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). It has been working towards improving the productivity and profitability of rice production in Africa by popularizing a hybrid called NERICA (NEw RIce for AfriCA), a variety that has high yield potential in a short grown cycle. The Center’s website has a long list of international collaborators and India is prominently absent. Having benefited enormously from the Green Revolution, one would have expected India would take on a leading role in teaching Africa how to lead farmers from hybrids to bumper crops.

There was no trace of such generosity in the recently concluded India-Africa Summit (8-9 April 2008), even though Agriculture figures prominently in the joint framework for cooperation. The framework broadly outlines sustainable development of agricultural and animal resources, capacity building, water resources management, disease control and processing/storage technologies. Surprisingly, there is no mention of the ongoing commodities crisis or of any collaboration in rice production.

India has a wealth of experience in rice production. We owe a large part of this to international collaborations that helped us improve our research capabilities, our expertise in breeding and seed production, agricultural extension, use of improved seeds, fertilizer and equipment, as well as post-harvest handling and marketing. It is time we returned the favor and extended our wholehearted support to African countries in their efforts towards self-sufficiency in food grains and reduction of imports.

Setting our own house on order also help. Efficient management of Indian public institutions like FCI and the PDS system would not only reduce wastage but also reduce the necessity of maintaining huge, expensive buffer stocks. Releasing our surplus rice into the international markets would go some way in easing the pressure on those who are worse off than us – especially the countries of Sub Saharan Africa.

There are, of course, no short-term, quick-fix solutions to the problems of food security. While India curries favor with Africa for its natural resources, and trade concessions, it would be helpful to remember what Cervantes noted in Don Quixote - “There's no sauce in the world like hunger”.