Saturday, November 30, 2013

Japan's Not-so-Royal Expectations

The Emperor & Empress of Japan are now on a visit to India after 53 years. Highlighting the significance of this visit, Sanjaya Baru, in his article, "Love from Tokyo" (IE, 21 Nov., 2013), describes how a seemingly Indian-looking sculpture behind a Tokyo hotel reminded him of the ‘firm foundations of an ancient civilizational link’ between the two countries.

Even a cursory look at the recorded history of the two countries will tell you that if at all there is a civilizational link' between India and Japan, it runs through China. The iconography that so impressed Baru does indeed come in many forms, and they all have Chinese names. The six-handed figure may have been that of "Kannon", the Goddess of Mercy. At the ancient shrines in Kyoto there are also numerous icons of "Binzuru", better known as the Buddhist monk, Pindola Bharadwaja.

Tenuous historical connections aside, as we prepare to welcome the royal couple it would be useful to remind urselves that Japan's monarchy, has only been a front for alternate power centers in Japan for nearly a thousand years. Ever since the military generals - the Shoguns - usurped political power after the Warring States Periods (Sengoku Jidai), the monarchs have mostly been playing a symbolic role scripted outside their palaces.

Symbols are of course powerful instruments in nation-building.

Japan's monarchy, as it exists today, is a carefully constructed artifact of the Meiji Restoration period (1868-1912). It was in this remarkable phase of Japan's history that reformers emerging from the Samurai elite displaced the Shogun and notionally restored power to the monarchy.

Behind the scenes, a band of young, bold reformers - most of them freshly minted from foreign universities - rammed through tough reforms that made Japan what it is today. Almost overnight, they abolished Samurai class titles and distinctions; imposed free, compulsory education and established an effective national healthcare system.

The reformers also decided to replace Buddhism, which had turned 'decadent, meek and submissive', with a state-sponsored version of Shintoism, headed by the monarch himself. Thus an emperor, who could go shopping in Tokyo without being recognized by the public, was re-launched by the Meiji nationalists to play the role of a 'Living God' and foisted as the 'Symbol of Japan'.

The strategy was a runaway success. A deeply feudal, agrarian society transformed itself within just a few decades into a modern industrial powerhouse, and a shining example to the rest of the under-developed world.

It is an enduring Asian tragedy that Japan's emergence as a westernized, industrial state also turned it into yet another, relentless, exploitative colonial power. As Imperial Japan marched from one conquest to another; starting with Manchuria, Taiwan and Korea, to almost the whole of East Asia, it left in its wake, a legacy that rankles even today: Unit 731, Nanjing, Comfort Women, and a string of disputed islands.

The Japan that re-emerged from the war, and American occupation, was a very different country. Article 9 of its Constitution “renounced war forever”. Under Prime Minister Yoshida’s doctrine, it outsourced national defense to USA, and diverted all its resources towards building a strong export-oriented economy.

In many ways, the post-war economic boom also turned it into a timid, insular society which, like a rich moneylender imagines that throwing money around can solve the problems of the world. Today it is a country where the old outnumber the young, and its university graduates increasingly prefer to stay at home, in cities, rather than venture into the outside world. Japan’s lifeline of export-oriented industries is steadily losing out to other Asian economies - especially South Korea, Taiwan and China.

And yet, as we have seen in the aftermath of the 2011 'Triple Disaster', few people in the world have the disciple, stoicism and pragmatism to bounce-back, and to thrive against all odds.

In this context, as the Japan reaches out to strengthen its linkages with India, let us let us clearly recognize our own perceived weaknesses. First of all, we talk too much. The O-shaberi Indo-jin (glib-talking Indian) is a title we could do without. We prefer to indulge in sentimental tosh instead of acting on practical decisions. We tend to sacrifice long-term relationships for short-term gains.

The Japanese need a stable, predictable destination to park their investments. They need a steady source for rare earths, iron ore and other raw materials. They need greater access to our markets and human resources. Instead of swiftly bridging these demand-supply gaps, we flip-flop over many things such as the dedicated freight corridor project. After years of negotiations our finance ministry now reported to be having 'second thoughts' about accepting a US$ 4.5 billion loan for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor project.

All said and done, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are being sent here on a business trip, let us not bore them with fairy tales about civilizational linkages. It is pragmatism that brings the Japanese to India. Lets us not disappoint them with our version of business-as-usual.


* Chellany, Brahma --

- In the financial year 2011-12, India-Japan bilateral trade reached USD 18.43 billion.
- 2012 marked the 60th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Japan

* Dikshit, Sandeep (10Jul13) -


- MP - Taro Yamamoto - letter to HH

November 2013 - Interesting Articles & Links

The Four "Cs" of Innovation --

* Aravind, Indulekha (2013): A LIFESAVING WARMTH, BS 16Nov13 --
- Rahul Panicker, Jane Chen, Naganand Murty and Linus Liang -- Embrace
-  Stanford University class titled Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability
- According to WHO, 20 million premature and low-birth-weight babies are born every year, out of which four million die in the first month
- $90,000 fellowship from Echoing Green Ventures and another $35,000 for winning the Stanford business plan competition.
- Investors and supporters include Vinod Khosla's Khosla Impact Fund and Jeff Skoll's Capricorn Investment Group, as well as Ranjan Pai of the Manipal Group and Biocon chairperson Kiran Mazumdar Shaw

* The Employee - 'best short movie ever made' -

* Geeta Govinda - Dheera Samire Yamuna Theere --
- Meaning --

* Ram Guha on Nehru --
- Great human achievements are always the result of combined endeavors in which numerous people take part. It may be that one person takes the last step, but the other persons also count and should not be forgotten.

* Tharoor on Modi --

* Obituary - Augusto Odone - the economist behind a medical breakthrough -
- ADRENOLEUKODYSTROPHY (ALD) is a rare and terrible disease. A faulty X-chromosome lets very-long-chain fatty acids accumulate, and cripple the body. They eat away at the myelin sheath which insulates the nervous system. The victims—mostly boys—become mute, deaf, blind and paralysed. Then they die, often by choking on their own saliva.
-  A mixture of oleic and erucic acids (in effect, olive and rapeseed oil) should, he reasoned, inhibit the effects of the deadly acids, soaking them up before they hurt the nervous system.
- The charity founded in Lorenzo’s name, the Myelin Project, now pays for gene therapy and stem-cell research.

* Kochi Metro gets Rs.1500 Cr loan from French agency, AFD @ 11% --
- Total project cost - Rs.5537 Cr

* Biotech transforming soya oil -- "In a Bean -- a Boon to Biotech" --
- Despite industry promises to create better-tasting or more nutritional foods, virtually all the biotech crops introduced since 1996 have been aimed at helping farmers control weeds and insects. That has made it easier for various consumer interest groups to oppose the crops.
Monsanto’s Vistive Gold soybeans and DuPont Pioneer’s Plenish soybeans are engineered to silence the gene for an enzyme that converts oleic fatty acid into linoleic acid.

*  Raghavan, Srinath on Sri Lanka -

* Poem - Charles Burkowsky - Go All the Way --

* Dance moves -


* Introverts --

* Two Theories about Gold Imports -!
- while India claims to import large amounts of gold from Switzerland (more than $26 billion), Switzerland reports that it shipped gold worth less than $6 million (yes, million, not billion) to India
Switzerland ranked first among the major countries to which India despatched its secret tax and finance-related queries (232 in all) during the last fiscal year.

* Best coin ever spent --

* Partition photos - LIFE -

* 10 things Japan gets awesomely right -

* 10 Corporations Control Almost Everything you Buy (in USA) -

* Vikramaditya and his Nava Ratnas -

* Wife's Cancer --

* 39 Life Lessons -

* Why do we draw Rangolis? --

* Dale Carnegie -

* Yakuza --

* Saar Please give me  posting --

* Tweet Technology --

* Ponnappa, Shyam (2013): BS -

* 10 things Japan gets horribly wrong --

* Guha, Ramachandra (2013):  A DANGLING CONVERSATION --

* WB data - GDP indicators -
- net ODA flows - - India $3b (2011)

* 15 most inspirational books for entrepreneurs --

* India's Middle-class Defer Dreams --


* Anyone can be a polymath -

* Venture Japan --

* Flight Crash Memorial --

* Bhattacharya, Jyotirmoy (2013): INTELLIGENT DEVICES, EPW, 2Nov13 --
- Arduino - pen source electronics --


* Doodles from Ecuador --

* NItish Kumar vs. Modi - Repartee -

* Virgin America - Airline Instructional Video -

* Kashyap, Anurag (2013) - short film - THAT DAY AFTER EVERYDAY --

* Milo Manara - illustrator -

- Human history -

* CNR Rao - Bharat Ratna, BS 16Nov13 --
- Founder of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Rao has about 50 doctorates and 1,400 research papers (!)
- JNCASR - four major areas—advanced materials, molecular biology and genetics, evolutionary biology and engineering mechanics -- among the few research institutes to specialise in areas such as biology through nano-science. The institute is also working on a host of critical areas such as cancer, malaria, epilepsy, and HIV.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Reconsidering North Korea

Think North Korea and what are the images that come to your mind?

A 'hermit kingdom' full of goose-stepping soldiers, precision parades and ballistic missiles. Of anachronistic 'great leaders' who spend so much on their military that they have little left to feed their own people. Images of a generous and prosperous South Koreans trying hard to be nice - only to be thwarted by their petulant siblings across the 38th Parallel.

What if this picture is  incorrect? What if you turn around and realize that all this while you've been hearing just one side of the story?

An American author, Bruce Cumins, has been trying to do just that - presenting the other side of the story - through his book, "Korean War - A History".

Cumins starts by pointing out that Korea had most prerequisites for nationhood long before most other countries: common ethnicity, language and culture, and well recognized national boundaries since the tenth century. Over the last 1000 years it has also developed the Yangban - one of the world's most tenacious aristocracies, which had survived because it "fostered a scholar-official elite, a civil service, venerable statecraft, splendid works of art, and a national pastime of educating the young."

Trouble started with the Japanese warlord , Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion.  As a performance incentive to his soldiers he linked their rewards to the number of noses they severed and brought back home. Then, in a gesture that is touching, sensitive and callous at the same time, the Japanese erected lovely memorial mounds for this vast collection of chopped cartilage.

A few centuries later, the Japanese returned again. This time they stayed longer, and left in their wake a deep sense bitterness and suspicion that lasts to this day.

Cumins's narrative runs completely contrary to popular notions about North Korea. In this version, a new picture emerges of a proud people who stood up to bullies; Of leaders who gladly sent their men to help China in its fight against the combined strength of the European and Japanese imperialists.

If it were not for the tactical error of leaving Incheon undefended in the summer of 1950, North Korea could have easily routed the quislings who dominated the South Korean ruling elite. US intervention would have come to naught, and the history of neighboring countries like Vietnam too would have taken a completely different turn.

 Bruce Cumins's book, "Korean War - A History" reminds you that history, even if it is written by victors, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Jewels & Pebbles: Public Sector Companies in India

In "The Idea of India", Sunil Khilnani notes that under Nehru’s rule:
"...the state was enlarged, its ambitions inflated, and it was transformed from a distant alien object to one that aspired to infiltrate the everyday lives of Indians, proclaiming itself responsible for everything they could desire: jobs, ration cards, educational places, security, cultural recognition."
Much of this infiltration has been accomplished by Public Sector Enterprises (PSEs, aka PSUs). As the first 'Five Year Plan' led to the next ones, the scale & scope of PSUs was steadily expanded. While there were only five central PSUs with a total investment of Rs. 2900 crore at the time of the First Five Year Plan, there were as many as 260 (excluding 7 Insurance Companies) with a total investment of Rs. 7, 29,228 crore,as on 31st March, 2012.

The point worth highlighting here is that these 260-odd PSU's include only those owned directly by the central government.

The ones that are doing well have been ranked into three categories:

  1. Maharatnas ('great-jewels') - 7
  2. Navaratnas ('nine-jewels')- actually there are 14 here!
  3. Miniratnas-I & II ('small-jewels') - 70

In order to qualify as a minor jewel (Miniratna-II) a company has to be profitable for three consecutive years. Since this is the lowest bar, we can safely conclude that all other central PSUs (260-91=169) are loss-making companies.

Apart from the 260-odd central PSUs, each of the states have their own companies. Then there are also companies that have been floated indirectly by the government through its financial intermediaries.

If 65% of public enterprises owned by the government of India are sending taxpayers money down the drain, how much more is being wasted by the dud companies created by the state governments and public financial institutions?

Now that is something worth figuring out...


* MiniRatnas --
- EPIL -

* Early history of EIL --

* Parmatam Parkash Arya, B. B. Tandon (): "Economic Reforms in India: From First to Second Generation and Beyond" -- at Google Books

* Parliament debate on disinvestment --

Saturday, November 09, 2013

A Thin Slice of Life

Over the last one year, an international campaign to promote stem cell donation centered on one question - "Will we Save Nalini Ambady?"

The answer came in last week. Ambady, an India-born professor at Stanford University, could not be saved. After a year-long struggle, she succumbed to a form of blood cancer. Even though the campaign resulted in thousands of people registering themselves as potential donors, Ambady's own case was marred by a peculiar problem: each time a perfect match was found, the donor backed out.

Why do registered donors back out? Of what use are the latest advances in medical science & technology, of new online social networks if they cannot improve on the fine art of persuasion?

I never knew Ambady. My first introduction to her work came through Dilip D'Souza's column in the Mint (11 April 2013). He was part of a close-knit bunch of family friends & relatives who had launched an online campaign to save Ambady.

A few years ago, Ambady had become quite famous after Malcom Gladwell's 2005 bestseller, "Blink", quoted extensively from her work in Behavioral Psychology. President Bill Clinton had given her an award "for fundamental contributions to understanding accuracy of social judgments based on 'thin slices' of information”. Now her life depended on something similar.

The global campaign to find a donor was quite effective in reaching out to a vast audience., and a Facebook site that had been seen by more than a million people and had received more than 3,500 "likes". The campaign team had also created a video that had 4,500 views in its first three days on YouTube.

Thousands of people suffer from Ambady’s ailment - acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Unlike numerous other forms of cancer, this one did have a cure. Over the years medical science had shifted AML from the realm of despair to that of established medical protocols leading to complete recoveries.

The technology involved was also fairly straightforward. Much like matching blood-types, the process started with match-making between patients and registered donors. Cotton swabs of inner-cheek cells were tested for ten characteristics of certain cells produced by the bone marrow called Human Leukocyte Antigens (HLAs). A 10/10 match was perfect while 6/10 ensured a fairly good chance of patient survival.

The doctors knew exactly what they would do as soon as they found a matching donor. They would stimulate the donors’ body to produce more Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) using a tried and tested drug called filgrastim. A few days later, when the new stem cells were in full flow, they would be filtered from the blood-stream by connecting the donor to an apherisis machine. In a few hours these precious cells would transferred to the body of the cancer patient, helping her body helping the body replace diseased cells and resume production of healthy blood.

USAs National Marrow Donor Program had over 10 million registered stem cell donors. However, Ambady's chances had taken a hit in December 2012 after six matching donors had refused to follow up. Now the focus had shifted to India. Since Ambady was from Kerala, the possibility of finding a matching donor was highest within her own community.

The India campaign through newspapers, FaceBook, Twitter and Youtube, managed to persuade a few thousand donors to register. A vast majority of them - including our own swabs - turned out to be HLA mismatches. Even amongst the donors who did match-up, a bland refusal to follow-up stood in the way like a brick wall. One adult Indian donor's excuse was that his parents had refused permission.

To be sure, 'donor ambivalence' is not a new phenomenon. A study published by the University of Pittsburgh showed that race and ethnicity did matter when it came to unrelated stem cell donations. About 40% of whites and 60% of nonwhites were no longer available for ‘whatever reason’ to donate when contacted for confirmatory testing by blood sample. 10-23% of donors are unavailable specifically because they choose to opt out due to personal reasons.

So in a world where everything seems possible through science, technology and social networking, this might be a reminder that our own little fears and insecurities are only getting accentuated. Donors may be happy to register themselves but often backtrack when they are called to help.

Nalini Ambady also symbolizes something more basic - that even if you are a citizen of the world, even with the most advanced technology available, your survival might depend on your own little gene pool. Ethnic group, tribe and caste may not be things that an urbane intellectual or a 'citizen of the world' likes to wear on his sleeve. But the stark fact is that it does matter.