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: