Pace of things around

 

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In the distant horizon was a bullock-cart rolling away. On the straight road this distance was over a kilometer. Pace was on my mind this evening – of things around, of me running and of Scott’s during Sparthathlon. I was trying to think what a pace of 7 min per mile takes after having done 130 miles of a 160 mile race. It is clearly beyond me at the moment.

A flock of parrots sped past flying low. I counted ten of them. It was a marvelous site when in their high speed flight the group which flew in formation of an arrow head, split every so swiftly, negotiating a neem tree ahead on their flight path. Then they grouped as easily, all the while maintaining their pace. What a sight, it was!

By this time I was closing in on the bullock cart. Almost all the men driving these carts are old. There is hardly a young man or woman that I have seen driving bullock carts in these several years that I have seen them in different regions. Is it that a cart’s pace can no longer hold the young? Almost all of them are on some form of automobile. Perhaps, only the old timers can be at ease and be okay to move at that pace of bullock-carts. By now, I had crossed the cart which was about a kilometer ahead of me on the straight road. In the next few minutes I cross two more of them.

I thought of my slowed down Grandpa because this week they tried a new bone implant in his leg and removed it, for his bones have gone too weak for this. A railway man, who once used to walk down the length of entire freight rakes of fifty-four wagons, everyday. At ninety, he is slowed such that several minutes pass before he manages to muster strength to put one foot ahead of the other. Life has slowed down phenomenally for him. These days, his children and grandchildren often run out of patience with his pace.

On the return lap, a high speed train sped through the landscape knifing that space where the green of fields met the blue of horizon. Again a thrilling sight, unlike any other in the world. May be I am a biased to these Indian landscapes. But even those Dutch trains, rolling across the scenic landscapes of Harlem, on ward to Rotterdam, didn’t  appear as lovely. There was something sterile about them. May be it is the thrill of locomotive horn from a distance and the anticipation that it builds up on the level crossings where people and traffic wait for the speeding train.

Different paces were noted in a magnified sense on this evening’s run. Paces registered with a heightened sense of awareness almost anew.

And then, I began fretting over Ladakh Marathon next month where I might not be able to sustain any respectable pace at 4500 meter altitude. Four weeks to go. Hope I manage to put in enough number of runs before that. To Ladakh this season!

Workers of the world can’t unite: May Day in neo-liberal times

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May Day Rally, Town Hall, Bengaluru. 2017.

Walking with workers on May Day morning was a humbling experience. Workers’ unions from various establishments across the state showed up for May Day rally at the Town Hall yesterday. I was also filling up the last of my field trips for masters’ thesis. So, this also comes from my field notes. The roads in all directions from Town Hall were a stream of red. While it was heartening to see workers showing up in such numbers, it was also distressing to see that a key driver of unionization among workers across jobs like marketing and distribution, automobile manufacturing, garment manufacturing, cleaning and garbage collection and a whole range of other miscellaneous ones, is the fact that they find their situations too precarious in the emerging economic context. The unions in this year’s May Day were not the traditional unions of pre-1990s which drew mainly from skilled, industrial workers in long term and secure jobs, who needed to fight primarily for wages.

This May Day was of the precariat – a category of workers in low wage jobs with no social security and job security. They are retained only on employment contracts and will never be valued by the employers as workers who are worth investing in, over long term. These workers are the former proletariat with an added precariousness to their lives owing to the jobs that they find themselves in. This is the precariat that Guy Standing refers to in his work – The Precariat: The Nww Dangerous Class.

In a 2014 paper – The Precariat and Class Struggle, he writes –

The world economy is in the midst of a Global Transformation that is producing a new global class structure. A new mass class is emerging – the precariat – characterised by chronic uncertainty and insecurity. Although the precariat is still a class-in-the-making, divided within itself, its elements are united in rejecting old mainstream political traditions.

It was the precariat in action yesterday at Town Hall. Nothing significant is likely to change in their lives if they continue to organize in manner and style of the old unions. The call for action isn’t simple anymore. Neither the workers of the world can unite nor will the tripartite of state – market – trade union will ever be respected as earlier. I was glad to be a part of the march filled with sloganeering, music and dance. However, here are my concerns because I know that the music and dance mood would hardly take time to turn into violent protests and lockouts in these times of arbitrary policy making by the state which tends to favour businesses:

  1. Workers of the world can’t unite anymore because the global solidarity that the traditional unions called for has been rendered unattainable by effects of globalization which relocates shop floors to cheap labour markets, thus depriving one group of workers and providing another with work. Case in point – Detroit’s death in the US and rise of Asian car manufacturing hubs. There is a reason why Volvo opened a large manufacturing unit outside Bengaluru and not in any of the pretty settings in Scandinavia. So how do workers feel for each other when they end up as losers and winners?
  2. Resurgence of radical nationalism seems evident in several parts of the world – India, US, Germany and France among major economies. Countries like Hungary have gone a little further with their attitude towards immigrants. This will prevent any transnational solidarity to emerge among workers.
  3. Complex state-business relationships in free-market economies have rendered the place of unions irrelevant, if the unions are still articulating their concerns and fights in the language of the 1960s. States will pander up to businesses which bring in investments. Workers are no longer indispensable, should be known wide and across the segment. Indian unions moreover do not seem to have taken lessons from the devastating 1982 textile mills strike led by Datta Samant. What was the end result? Why does this question upset union leaders? This famous strike with over 300,000 workers participating in it which assumed that workers would stand their ground (owing to the poor choice of their leader Samant) and the state would bend, wiped out textile industry from Mumbai!

Returning to Standing, only because it seems a useful analysis of the situation, suggests what might the transformation of the precariat’s situation need –

To become a transformative class, however, the precariat needs to move beyond the primitive rebel stage manifested in 2011 and become enough of a class-for-itself to be a power for change. This will involve a struggle for redistribution of the key assets needed for a good life in a good society in the twenty-first century –not the “means of production”, but socioeconomic security, control of time, quality space, knowledge (or education), financial knowledge and financial capital.

I find Standing’s views a reasonable direction that workers in the neo-liberal times need to reorient their thinking in. In my work, I have been studying the contract workers who sweep, collect garbage and clean the city for Bengaluru’s municipal corporation. These workers are referred to as porakarmika in Kannada. Their union was formed three years back and in my analysis I find that this is the only effective grievance redressal agency that they have to plead their demands to the corporation. There are over ten thousand registered members. Every time I participate in their protests for wage hikes and workplace conditions, I am struck by the lack of thought in their demand for regularization – that they should be made permanent employees. In these times, with neo-liberal thought and new institutional management having taken firm ideological root in the government imagination, there is no hope for contract system to be discontinued. The state will increasingly deliver more services through contractors. The workers and their leaders seem to have no idea about the impossibility of permanent work and abolishing contract system for public services. The political-economy context of this is perhaps not known or at times seems known but a refusal to acknowledge it prevails among the leaders.

On May Day 2016 post at MPP’s Lokniti blog – From Haymarket Square to Hosur Road: State of Workers in India in 3 Charts, I ended with the following –

The direction to move in is to think of how must the workers be armed (not in the weapons sense) to take on this shove from the current economic system which appears to be shortchanging them left, right and center.

I feel the same on May Day 2017 and this is likely to be my outlook for the workers in the next decade too. In the three charts that I shared on last year’s post, I’d say that te number of registered unions might start looking up soon. Case in point – Rakhi Sehgal’s National Trade Union Initiative formed in 2006 has grown from a membership of just 500 workers to nearly 11 lakh by 2011.

There are new labour leaders emerging in India who are making a serious dent by organizing workers and letting businesses know that it won’t be easy for them to feed the workers into the machines for cheap. I’ve known some of these leaders covered by India Today magazine several years back – Face of New Labour, and how they mean serious business.

In these times soaked with neo-liberal ideology, workers are essentially fighting commodification of vital social services like healthcare, education, insurance, work benefits etc. These must be specific sites of focus and targeting these sharply should be the unions’ work. It appears difficult at the moment, but not quite if unions’ recognize that they need to know the nuts and bolts of how the new economy works and that concepts of means of production and labour power has outrun their potential in these times.

Reading Pirsig on road trips

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Ooty. August, 2013

It was a ride to Ooty in the monsoon of 2013. Being no good with dates, the ride registers a clear memory because Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Pirsig was in the bag. At the breakfast table, hundred kilometers down on the road to Mysore, ZAMM was making partial sense. Details and descriptions of the road, landscapes and the bike were identifiable. The thoughtful bits didn’t quite register with the same intensity as in later years when its pages were sought in moments when one wanted to feel enthusiastic about road trips all over again. For someone reading this classic in India it wasn’t a kulturbarer as Pirsig described in the book’s afterword. It was partly about biking and the rest appeared to be about the lives we live and the character of these lived lives. The words “strange and beautiful” were stuck in mind from a NYT review about ZAMM when the buying decision was made. Years later and at a time when I hear the news of author passing away, it feels glad to have come across this book. Beyond the culturally specific notes on life in America, the human condition and people coping with it is perhaps a worldwide phenomenon now, at least in the cities.

This morning when Prisig’s obituary came up, the only mental picture that flashed was a highway, breakfast table with a plate of idlis and coffee, ZAMM in hand, hurriedly getting past two pages to get back on the road. There was a pillion rider and it must be left at saying that those rides were good together.

Bandipur’s forest was bursting with green with the rain as it has every year that I have rode on its narrow roads. On the hills beyond, Ooty appeared cloaked in clouds. That must be the best appearance of this hill town of ruthlessly gashed hill sides to fit in yet another hotel. Coonoor’s YMCA had no guests staying in. That large bedroom on the first floor was almost a time travel. On a small table by the wall, by the evening’s descending cold a diary entry remembering the day’s ride was made.

Pirsig was along on that ride. Understanding what he wanted to convey in ZAMM was a progressive discovery. Some more insights flowed in even as the obituary came in today. It is remarkable that the man took that ride with his son, to square off the events that had occupied his life at that time. I haven’t known of many who reconciled things in life by taking the highway (before it was made fashionable by Bollywood) and returning home with such words and reflection.

There is a section in the book where he writes of teaching. It was easy to relate to. That year, I was about to begin teaching at Poorna. He speaks of experiments that the teacher does with his class, where through assignments on writing the students and he (as a teacher) both figure some important lessons – in seeing and what schools teach.

He writes:

As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn’t have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself.

That sounded right, and the more he thought about it the more right it sounded. Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything – from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.

These lines are striking in their relevance to teaching and grading that we do in our school. At the same time, it also makes a teacher cautious about these biases creeping in.

However, it was the metaphor of motorcycle took a long time to hit home –

“The motorcycle is mainly a mental phenomenon. People who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this.”

Pirsig’s writing appealed to the traveler within and still does. May be it is that zeal with which he writes that is sort of enviable. Or may be about riding and living with this brief sense of being free to ride, take whimsical detours, enjoy the sense of arriving in new places and call it a day when it feels like.

 

Longing for those gone by

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This was in the making for several years. Subconsciously, I have been scripting words to remember Derek and the bitter sweet time spent with him, until the day he flew into England’s harsh winter with a promise to return and find his resting place here in India.

His endless craving for streets of Calcutta, the descriptions of Liluah, Park Street and its cemetery, Esplenade, New Market, Chowringhee… remembered on walks in small town Vellore, is the way I experience these places even after countless visits to Calcutta. Derek’s Calcutta was of the 1940s. The Calcutta I came to know of is six decades later than Derek’s. By his intense longing for the city of his childhood, I came to connect to it just the same, with the same intensity, not because I knew no other, but the fact that Derek’s city is where I loved walking. Derek’s city had these Bangla jingles that he would sing ever so often. It was the city that a man longed for and wanted to be buried in.

Until I met Derek, I had known of people craving for various things in life but not for a plot in Calcutta’s Park Street Cemetery. In his 70s, is when life brought us together on the same seat in a Vellore bound train. That is how we met. Derek was a boy with looks of a 70 year old, sitting in the overheated train coach, comfortable and watching everything happening around, fanning himself with his handkerchief. It wasn’t until the last quarter of our journey that we bothered about introducing ourselves. Why would we, when there was India of 1940s and 1950s to be known from someone who grew up in a boys’ home outside Calcutta. This was thought to be the best way to raise the boys after their father’s death. The adolescent boys would remember every bit of these years after their English mother emigrated with them to England. For Derek, the years were only ticking away to bring him back to India. By the time train rolled into Katpadi juntion, the distance from Bangalore was filled with descriptions of places I had known but from another time. This is where Derek preferred to live. The optimist in him wasn’t hoping for a good time ahead, but only of a desirable burial. It was mildly disconcerting for a man in his mid-twenties to hear that sort of a wish. We got off the train agreeing to meet again. And that is how one of the most remarkable friendship in my life began . It would come to an end in the next three years.

In these three years, I learnt to identify days when Derek would hit the absolute bottom of his spirits. Hopes of a man in late years of his life are emotionally distressful to hear. At least this is how it was with Derek. Some of those days would begin with Derek asking me to make dal-pooris for him. These lentil filled parathas is what he would buy off the streets in Calcutta whenever he was let out of the boys’ home. Since the day he figured I could prepare them, he had found a way to create his virtual reality of his childhood days in our town in South India. With the dal-pooris he’d ask me to play Robin Williams’ song “Better Man”. This became the soundtrack of our friendship. And as he took small bites of dal-pooris, with the song playing, his eyes would brim with tears. The song on those evenings would be on loop and his tears a constant stream. I’d put off the lights and mind my business. I’d never know what was it that he lived in his mind as this one song played. By by the looks of it, something deeply regrettable mixed with intense longing, is probably what he was going through. I would never know.

All of this came with a gush that I knew was how his tears flowed on some evenings. The time from seeing Don Bosco Boys’ Home in Vellore pass by from the bus window to thinking of days spent with Derek, all of it made me long for him. I wanted to see him one more time. It was October or November, when having overstayed his visa he left in panic after we helped him arrange for an exit visa. I didn’t know it then that this would be the last that I will see of Derek. In England, he stayed with his sister, who was ailing herself. His best buddy in a brief two sentence mail told me that Derek was sick. All these men – Derek and his friends that I knew of, appeared remarkably, terribly alone in the evening of their lives. May be it was their choice, but it sure wasn’t a happy experience to see them in their states. Derek would always be upset with his brother who always wanted to talk about his dogs even on those occasional calls that Derek made overseas. It has been seven years since then. Messages to him and his friends have gone unanswered. He isn’t in India for sure, because if he was, he knew the address of our house – which we shared for several months, way too well to walk down even on a dark night.

I remember him sing along Sinatra’s “My Way” whenever I played it. Often he would ask for it. This was his lighter mood. Pensive yet holding strong. He had an LP record of it which he treasured a lot. We would look at that and play the same track from my laptop.
Remembering Derek is to find those three years of my early youth, which offered an experience of friendship unlike any that I’ll ever possibly live again. The clasp of palms to tell me that I’ll do fine in life, whenever anxieties got better of me, that nudge to go ahead and do a thing, the affectionate looks… I missed all of it this afternoon on the streets of Vellore.

Is there a way that one can live to its experiential completeness, the pleasure of a person’s company? Or does a person’s going away makes it even more unbearable – the thought of times spent together? One of the abilities that one can never perhaps have in life is to be able to handle loss, longing and remembering those gone by.

The ordinariness of Indian boys

Manu Joseph’s recent piece on how boy really gets the girl in livemint has been on my mind because it was a rather unusual (and unpopular, if one might add) view on courtship, as it happens between boys and girls in India. This is likely to be a rant.

He was, perhaps, making a reason for himself, for why Badri gets the girl in the movie Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya. It isn’t new for Bollywood to portray such a thing – a deliberately funny boy, confused and well-off falling for a good-looking girl and the chase for her and how they end up together happily a dozen songs later. What caught my attention is this remark that he later makes, on love –

In the real world, love occurs for the simplest reason, that it is very desperate to happen, and because it cannot wait it tends to reward not the extraordinary but the available.

That is an extremely interesting way to look at love and relationships. It is also less acknowledged. I see this happening ever so often – desperate people making hasty choices. Love is desperate to happen and that is why ordinariness works well. The exceptionally talented boy (or girl) doesn’t cut it because he is often not there to participate in the small and commonplace – daily things of life which sort of drive relationships. It is true in either direction. That walk in the park would be less preferred if any of them loves a good workout by running. The idle banter at a public place is likely to happen less if either of them is a voracious reader. These could be termed as personal preferences, but of course these are shaped by aspirations of the individual. One with the least, gets to make it to most of the mall hopping and ice-cream eating sessions late night or mid-day. And this ability to be there makes the ordinary win. Manu writes of this,

The regular guy is in the right place at the right time because he is up and about most times even as his formidable competition is hidden in solitary confinement working long hours on heroic dreams.

Whether heroic or not, those with a long list of things to-do, and which do not quite involve the partner, lose out on relationships often. Long working hours is a relationship killer. But wait, this may not be for all. Some people get along well, if they have to, but we’d be purists in assuming that love prevails over all odds. It doesn’t. It falls through, the moment either of the partner’s personal pursuits foreshadows the time that they can spend together.

It is a difficult terrain to write about as a man, although Manu’s piece appears to be from the male viewpoint. I am however of the opinion that the sense of ordinariness and being committed to a personal pursuit is true of both boys and girls. So, the issue can run in either direction. Also, that one’s own situation is likely to induce an analytical bias here. Being single, the piece looked like a compelling commentary on how relationships unfold, at least in urban settings. It could be seen differently by those who are married and that, after a long period of courtship. May be, it works differently for everyone, however, the observation that one is often surprised to see the choice of boy that a girl makes, hits home for me. And Badri… sort of portrays that well.

The odd thing here is that it is the ordinary which seems to have a rather nice and sorted life as far as relationship is concerned. The rest either have to make hard choices or fall by the side, sticking to their pursuits.

 

Written word in our times

This morning, I read a very tender story – of a woman named Lois who fell in love with Kerouac (story via Brain Pickings). Their relationship continued on and off for several years. After several years, when Lois was under depression and grief from losing her mother, Kerouac turns up at her doorstep only to play a song. He had walked five miles, after a long journey.

Lois penned this poem on what she lived that night when Kerouac turned up and played a song for her, spent time with her and perhaps left. The poem is called Universe – One Song

UNIVERSE — ONE SONG
a letter to you Mr. Kerouac

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud
o my god it could be quick
tho i will not attend —

in the middle of the night
my father answered the door
with great annoyance
i followed

you were there with tears in your eyes
you had walked five miles
with a heavy reel-to-reel
tape recorder on your back

you said
“i brought
St. Matthew’s Passion for you to hear
so you won’t commit suicide”

you had walked five miles
in the middle of that long dark night
to bring me your passion —

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud —

i am still here Ti Jean
but wonder where you are on cold starry nights
my eyes as ever, tear bright!

For those who value words, this is a moving gesture. I wonder if everyone who receives words as an expression of a moment spent together value it the same. At least, if not value, shouldn’t people not try to trade it away as though something shameful was written which must be known to rest of the world? It is appalling to see books and newspaper articles emerging from letters that were at some point too personal for individuals involved. Yet, either one of them or someone else grabs them and lays bare what was meant for only the two involved – sender and receiver. It is of course a different matter when he sender himself permits the use. So, I haven’t been an admirer of biographical accounts that rest on some ‘rare’ letters as one of them on Lady Mountbatten and Pandit Nehru which was published some years back.

On another front, it is crushing to see how in relationships, during estrangement, some people end up sharing letters (with others or make public) which were meant for them as individuals, only as an act of revealing something detestable. Why were those words not detestable when received? For all that one can do and must do, at least some dignity and respect to words that bring the writer’s truest self to the receiver, must be accorded.

I went on this tangent thinking about how people around me value words. There is this tendency to read what a ‘famous’ author writes and an effort to remember those to be later used in their own arguments. Yet, when someone else, not famous, nowhere near it in fact, writes something, it is not even granted the basic minimum dignity.

In these times, written words matter. They have mattered and perhaps will matter even more with the onslaught of communication technologies which favour a virtual presence and dispenses with real human interactions – the touch, the presence and the shared sense of the moment spent.

 

Stupa to Stupa: Trail running in Nepal

Stupa To Stupa Run 55 K, Kathmandu, Nepal

Stupa To Stupa Run 55 K, Kathmandu, Nepal

“Its gonna be a long day”, said the Canadian runner as we tackled the first elevation of the day. It was half past seven in the morning. A naive 6-7 hour finishing time however was my idea. I saw that intention mocked at, by the trail, as the noon sun began drying the salt at the back of my neck. Stupa to Stupa run has been the most grueling run that I signed up for, until now. What, with a lifestyle of running in plains (and the lovely parks of Bangalore) was I hoping for here in the mountains? Running is a completely different affair on mountain trails. A simple lesson as this, hits home as I write this. An Olympic runner once said that “you have to run mentally first” is true of trail running too. I tried running mentally. Then, at 28th km I realized that I had the mind for the remaining 27 km but not the body. Spirit was soon a pendulum swinging from I-can’t-do-it to keep-chipping-it-away. Every 100 meter done is 100 meter closer. By the third ascent at around 39th km I was in the dumps – cursing myself for being there. This was a perfect spot for the onset of such crisis – no hope of dropping out because on either side the trail has no vehicle support. One would have to walk through anyway!

The morning had an upbeat mood which is sort of typical for runs. A little beyond the Swayambhu stupa which was the start line the trail began climbing up to the peak of Changunarayan. The summit lies at 7.3 km from the start. The impression was that this is the only hard tackle of the day. Rest of it would come easy. This wasn’t true. It was only first of the many truths about trail running and about myself that were to hit over the course of the day.

I wasn’t prepared for the substantial elevation gains three times over the entire course. As soon as one starts, over the 7 kms the trail goes from 1326 m to 2073 m. When this is done, a long winding forest trail follows which is also one of best forest trails I have seen. A thick bed of dry leaves covered the trail for the next 10 kilometers. There was an earthly feel to that stretch. At such moments there is a feeling of being thankful for being able to run, which gets you to these places. I was glad to be there in that morning. It was hard to spot any stray piece of plastic packaging or litter that generally comes along with human presence. Whatever was, was nature’s own. Nepal is a very beautiful place to run in my impression. The trails are very well kept, or rather, left alone. There is military presence all along the mountains though. And one needs park permits to enter in these reserved areas. SAARC nationals benefit from low entry fees.

The first aid station (with food) was at 20th km. Picked up a few muesli bars and biscuits and went on. The sun was bright by this time. However, on higher altitudes it was cold and comfortable. Crossing 20th km, I felt a good reserve of energy and was up for the remaining, until I saw the trail marking ribbons stretching all the way to horizon. The second climb, contrary to popular view, was actually more difficult. It ended with squeezing all the energy, knee strength and hope. It was a grinding halt. Hereon, I could only walk. Left knee was no longer able to bear the sight of those long staircases which stretched almost 200-250 meters. This was a trek, not run, I thought. Between 20 km to 28 km the elevation dropped to about 1460 and went up again t0 2050 m. To a runner from the plains this was a sentence to the gallows.

Meanwhile, the Nepali runners with their ‘hill legs’ were cantering out into the canopies. The fastest finishing time on this trail is 7 hours. This was a piece of info shared at the finish line. The finishing time estimate I set out with in the morning had a reality check!

On this trail, I bonked out by 28th km. The usual mind games took over. The DNF devils buzzed around and I was giving in to them. Even a gentle gradient hereon would get me walking. There was no hope of shuffling through them. The many streams of water flowing across the trail helped with reviving home and a good wash could get me an uncomplaining half km run.

Soon enough, I was out of my mind. The entire machinery stopped. It was like the silence which consumes a space when the power goes off abruptly. I wasn’t thinking anymore. I wasn’t registering events around anymore. I had stopped looking at the GPS too. Same state of mind until 50th km when the trail descended from the hills onto the plan and had the last 4 km run up to Boudha Stupa. This was an aid station. A kid sat on a chair, may be 2-3 year old. I stretched out my palm, she stretched out and touched it after some hesitation. We sat. After a few biscuits, I was up for the last leg. It is amazing to see what is registered in the mind’s eye during such states of exhaustion. 200 meters ahead I lost way. Went off a different path until someone said that other runners have passed through a different way. I almost died at the thought of backtracking to the right course. However, from this spot the Boudha Stupa was visible in the distance. It would have been a shame to call it quits now.

Getting back on the right course, the last two kilometers were through city roads. It was not a run. It was a quick leap to end it all. A large part of me wanted to get done with it all and go back to the hotel bed. I hobbled into the paved alleys that led up to the stupa. Runners had to do a kora (circumambulation) of the stupa and then show up at the finish.

I had managed to end the day. As always, finish line never sees a miserable runner, just an exhausted one. This wasn’t life changing. I felt that such event have been character building for me. I returned to a very large meal of Nepali daal-bhaat after a long hot shower.

The rest of the night was seething pain in knees and torso, but a peaceful realization that I know myself a little more, a step at a time.

 

 

Policy lessons from Nepal

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Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal. 2017

This week completes over six months of formal engagement with Nepal’s development sector. On the sidelines of the second Nepal Investment Summit which is being held for the second time, after the first one in the 1990s, there seems to be a recognition of need for investment in economic growth of the country. There is also a pressure on the government to take faster decisions on proposed projects.

I first visited this country in 2008. Early observations were with an eye of a traveler from the neighbouring country. Last year, work led to understanding Nepal’s development context (and challenges) better. Here are a couple of policy lessons that emerge from this experience:

  1. Influence of geopolitics on public policy: This link is under appreciated  in policy literature, in my opinion. Domestic policies in Nepal’s case are significantly influenced by factors emerging outside the country. The choices for low income countries (LICs) in the current global context are by far limited. It is well acknowledged that infrastructure like roads, electricity, healthcare etc are vital for improvement in basic quality of life which then is likely to translate into economic growth. In low income countries like Neopal, most of this vital infrastructure is poor. To get this built should (and is) a national priority. This is where LICs have tough choices to make because their own investment and expertise potential is low. These must be supported by someone else. If these are aid agencies then they are driven by the aid providing country’s strategic agenda. If the support comes from multilateral agencies then these come with conditionalities (as Latin American and Asian countries very well know by now). If the support comes from regional powers (in Nepal’s case India and China) then the geopolitical considerations take the center-stage. Nepalese attempts at improving its economic growth are limited by the rate at which it builds highways, electricity generation and supply among other things. Japanese agencies have helped fund some of the highways over the last decade. One Belt One Road (OBOR) project proposed by China is another strategic project which awaits Nepalese government’s approval. On the southern side, India continues its support to build postal highways and other roads leading into Nepal from Indian border. The progress on all of these highways which are important for Nepal’s domestic trade are influenced by changing nature of relationship with its neighbours. A basic core of policies driven by domestic context and demands appears to be weak in Nepal. Our discussions with civil society groups reveals that the national policies on water and sanitation too are influenced by aid agencies and their financial support. This is what I mean by influence of geopolitics on public policy. 
  2. Governance capacity gaps are more debilitating than financial capacity in the long run : The common refrain for state of affairs – poor infrastructure, weak state capacity, governance issues etc, is that LICs lack financial resources to fix them. This need not be true. Answers to efficiency and service delivery do not emerge from national exchequer.
  3. Often times, strengthening democracy is a necessary condition in societies with diverse ethnic and social groups: At ATREE@20 conference last month in Bengaluru, Kamal Bawa sat listening to the presentations on conservation and development. The tension between development aspirations and conservation was a key theme. Towards the end, Bawa remarks that only an authoritarian regime can decisively and conclusvely act towards the environmental, conservation and development challenges. Democracies aren’t as capable. I could see that Bawa was acknowledging the strength of a democratic system and at the same time speaking of its strong limitation in being able to address the challenges in a short span of time. In its long drawn process of addressing societal and environmental challenges. However, what democracies come up with are equitable solutions, if not entirely sustainable.

Though on a tangential topic, this insight is useful as one sees Nepal struggling with laying a foundation for a strong democracy since the democratic Constitution of 1990. Until democratic form of governance finds its root, there might not be an end to the frequent clashes and shutdowns of various regions that are fighting for rights and representation.

Journalist Prashant Jha writes that “instability has remained the norm, with a government canging every nine months.Nepal democratic trajectory is framed succintly in his book “Battles of the New Republic” –

From war to peace, from monarchy to republicanism, from being a Hindu kingfom to secularism, from being unitary to a potentially federal state, and from a narrow hill-centric notion of nationalism to an inclusive sense of citizenship – Nepal’s transformation was, and is, among the most ambitious political experiments in recent years in South Asia.

4. Public policy in fragile states must engage with and respond to political reality:

While some debate whether there can be any semblance of policy in a fragile state (politically), I argue that if it engages with political reality and respond to it within the extremely short time that an incumbent government has, that can lead to a minimal core of polcies. Every incoming party tends to pick up reins from the past and improvise on it. If the template is engineered such that it formalises priorities, there might be hope for continuity. This is arguably difficult. For instance, labour policy in Nepal can benefit from this. Almost every government in the last decade has seen its youth migrate to Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia and to Europe for work, any kind of work. The country now earns substantially from remittances. A policy to regulate and channelize remittances and at the same time care for its migrating workers’ rights in distant lands, could have earned the government a major support group. As it now stands, the migration is largely driven by distress at home.

The above are visceral responses to the state of public policy in Nepal. On a deeper engagement, it could be true that some or all of these are unfounded. However, it helps my learning that I put them here as they emerge in the head.

A way forward for aid agencies that work in Nepal could be to look at interventions that enhance governance and policy-making capacities of the government as a priority. This involves the danger of transplanting ideas from elsewhere into a different context and see things getting messed up, however, this is arguable. There still exists a core set of ideas that are useful and effective in helping an economy make best use of its resources and enhance living conditions of its people.

Reading Foucault & thinking college activism

This has been in the making for several years now – trying to identify the causal chain from ideas to action, especially since the first reading of Foucault. The ongoing trouble in colleges and universities of Delhi presents a case to reflect upon this causal chain.

There comes a phase in student life when encounters with different views and ideologies happens. These emerge not in the classroom but come in via campus gates, campus canteens, chai shops and similar such student watering holes. These are at times tensions in the real world, varieties of conflicts of interests and at times plain matters of ideological positions. All of these get overwhelming for a person who is a few years out of school and as a youngster. I remember my first experience of a political rally in a small town in Tamil Nadu. Then there were these trade union rallies (AITUC, INTUC and Mazdoor unions) that I got hooked on to. They were amazing sights and assemblies of people. As a youth this encounter – of the unfolding of ideas as action in real life, shapes one to either question what is happening and have an opinion, or walk away with an indifference altogether. These plain experiences seem to have a bearing on that student’s worldview in later years when he joins the workforce (like, sympathies to the causes of marginalized people and organized resistance as a recourse).

In this process, I find that readings can help a great deal in shaping early views which might enable a student to make, perhaps, a slightly better sense of the encounters that he is likely to have. Political events – rallies, meetings, protests, clashes etc, are referred to as “encounters” because in a student’s life in India these typically have no precedence. Often, the student has seen an action but has not known the idea that inform that action. Towards this, I recall my experience reading thinkers like Foucault and how the use of “power” began pervading my arguments and consequent formation of opinion.

August, 2012 is when I first encountered his article in – Governmentality, in Colin Gordon (ed), (University of Chicago Press, 1991). Since then, the frequency with which Foucault’s writings have ambushed me, became alarmingly high. He died in Paris in the year I was born. That somehow felt like Foucault’s experiences that inform his ideas might be a bit reachable in their nature. However, it was difficult to discern the plane at which his thought-process worked. I wasn’t quite getting a hang of the range of his engagement. Over time, I began sampling excerpts from various themes that he engaged with. The man looked fascinating to begin with and having read a bit more of him I can say that his writings can serve as an armory which can effectively enable thinkers and actors alike for the battle of ideas that rages in our contemporary society. Take for instance, the university and college campus clashes happening in India this week – Ramjas, JNU and the fight for turf. As an unconditioned student in these or any other educational institution, how does one navigate the variety of opinions that seem to be leading up to these clashes? This question seems important now because having attended two universities (which are strikingly different in their institutional values and student body) I see that the ways and means that shape student opinion in these campuses do not have a space for a student’s own reasoned choice which builds organically over time. A student today is drawn by factions and he either tunes in with them or tunes out and stays home, out of “politics” as some label it.

A reading of ideas and examination of arguments made by either sides during historic events can, in a subtle and slow manner, shape (not indoctrinate) opinion-making process in students. Back in school where I was teaching a group of 16 year old students, I tried this out. After a series of classes in “argument and reason” which were driven with thinkers like W E B Dubois, Gandhi and Robespierre (of French Revolution) we examined how these men stood for causes and defended their reasons. These were a random set of thinkers chosen only because the curriculum until then had a mention of them. Over the course of following months, I noticed the students using the methods of reasoning of these men in some of the discussions in classroom and outside. This was a useful insight.

At the same time, in those teaching years, I was also attending a full-time masters at a university where I’d be on the other side – as a student. In that classroom however, the difference was stark. The student discussions invariably escalated into arguments which were fueled with emotions than substantive reason. I tried probing into some of my classmates’ education and work trajectories. And hardly a few reported having had any systematic or coherent engagement with ideas, thinkers or seminal works. Without an intention to offend, this appeared to be an impoverished education. This lack of tradition of reading and informed debates at intermediate and university level of education, appears to be a contributing factor to the rather ugly clashes in Ramjas college and universities like JNU. One might allege that this is an oversimplified take on the events. I’d like to argue that it is not when viewed systemically. The students’ own lack of engagement (due to a variety of reasons) has amounted to this violent and unproductive environment.

I began with Foucault. So let me recall an interview that Foucault gave to Christian Delacampagne in 1980 – published as The Masked Philosopher in a volume of his collected writings. This relates to the case I am making for role of knowledge by the way of reading.

CD : Let’s risk a few concrete propositions. If everything is going badly, where do we make a start?

MF: But everything isn’t going badly. In any case, I believe we shouldn’t confuse useful criticism of things with repetitive jeremiads against people. As for concrete propositions, they can’t just make an appearance like gadgets, unless certain general principals are accepted first. And the first of such general principles should be that the right to knowledge (droit au savoir) must not be reserved to a particular age group or to certain categories of people, but that one must be able to exercise it constantly and in many different ways.

Responding to the above, CD asks the following question, which reveals Foucault’s clarity of thought as well as seems instructive to the case for reading that I am making .

CD: Isn’t this desire for knowledge (envie de savoir) somewhat ambiguous? What, in fact, are people to do with all that knowledge that they are going to acquire? What use will it be to them?

MF: One of the main functions of teaching was the training of the individual should be accompanied by his being situated in the society. We should now see teaching in such a way that it allows the individual to change at will, which is possible only on the condition that teaching is a possibility always being offered.

So, does that mean we are envisioning a society of scholars? Foucault’s reply again seems useful to our case.

CD: Are you in fact for a society of scholars (societe savante)?

MF: I’m saying that people must be constant able to plug into culture and in as many ways as possible. There ought not to be, on the one hand, this education to which one is subjected to and, on the other, this information one is fed.

Shiv Vishvanathan in a recent piece on the moral economy of a university speaks of the problem from a different end – that of the university. He reasons that the university’s “role as a nursery for the availability of eccentricity, and for dissenting imaginations, is under threat.” In a partial sense, this piece also speaks to the gap in reading and engagement with ideas and thinkers that I have spoken of above.

Bottom-line: A part of the fault lies in the disharmony between information (which emerges in the real world) and education (which is situated in a classroom) that the students in India have been living through. This is amounting to phenomenal amount of ignorance and naive behaviour among the student body.

Kathmandu: Thamel, Jamel and the local

Rising Mall, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Rising Mall, Durbar Marg, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Among the capitals of the world Kathmandu perhaps has nothing noteworthy than its location on the road to Himalayas.The famous ones make it to the lists – “best cities to…” (travel, live, work etc). Whereas, Kathmandu makes it to none. This capital is on the itinerary than being on the bests list. It already does well by being on a traveler’s itinerary, not as a pit stop but as a reprieve and that too for several days, for weary travelers who have known the press, push, shove and breathlessness of global capitals with people fitting in as much as they can in their list of to-dos. In Thamel one only tries to fit in as much food and as much leisure as one can before the plane flies out of the valley.

Of course, this is one version of Kathmandu. The one shaped by a traveler taking timed immersions in it. One where he lives in Thamel, wakes up to a continental or English breakfast or to a bowl of hummus. He encounters the city through what is seen and presented to him in the clutch of lanes around this tourist ghetto.

This morning, I took table which faced the door at the Chikusa Coffee Shop. For most part wanted to have some coffee and look out to the street which set itself up habitually every morning in this tourist hub of Thamel. I noticed a couple of Nepalese men reading newspapers in the cafe. The Republica is a new one, which is printed here in collaboration with NYT and also circulates a copy of international edition of NYT along, every day. Quite a long distance this little capital has come in just over a decade that I have seen it for. In one of them there is a drug addiction report, new PM’s unhappiness with an investigation agency of the government, a festival which is marked with a dip in a river in the city and bits about high mountain regions with their problems this season. Usual in several sense. Just that these reports being read widely is somewhat new. Nepal has seen an increase in newspapers published here particularly in English.

Overheard a traveler describing how people he saw over the past days “did everything” – washing, bathing, cremating the dead and much more on the line along the river. The man wasn’t born when England and riverside cities of West did the same. And sure he hasn’t read about it either in all these years of his existence. Not being mean here, after eavesdropping on the conversation… but it strikes remarkable how visitors process the visual encounters they have in countries they travel to.

After the breakfast,  I joined sunbathers by the red wall of the Moroccan Consulate on Tridev marg. The map seller dusted the shelves and went about tucking the trail maps on the shelves by the pavement. In another hotel’s foyer a couple loaded several hundred kilos of kit bags on a pickup, leaving for a distant trail.

Thamel, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Thamel, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Imadol, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Imadol, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Another Kathmandu wakes up in Sanepa and Jamsikhel where the typical cafes seen in upscale areas of cities like Mumbai, Bangalore etc serve the typical breakfast menu of English, Continental, American and an odd insert of Nepali chia and poori-tarkari. Sanepa is, in a local newspaper’s words, ‘an NGO town’. One can find the major INGOs operating in Nepal and UN agencies offices along its clutch of lanes. The road from Sanepa leads up to Jamsikhel where housing market serves the expats. A walk around these two areas can be a good start for a newcomer into the aid world of Nepal. A local says, “we now call Jamsikhel as Jamel” implying the transformation of a once Nepali area into a tourist or expat dominated locality like Thamel (which has been legendary for the presence of tourists at all times of the year). The traditional area of Patan has as though disowned Jamsikhel and rolled back itself a bit.

The hangouts for the locals, as I understand, aren’t any of these but Kathmandu’s new malls. Durbar square still packs a throng of locals of all ages at all hours of the day. The inner lanes around the expanding ring road is where one finds the local version. The ring road now seems to be forever covered in dust and traffic snarls, yet there is a buzz – that typical Asian energy and activity fills the streets. Scores of workers finishing their day and milling around the corner spaces that serve tea.

It is interesting to see how the aid agencies and the whole support industry around it has created urban spaces where it appears as though the locals have vacated those spaces, given them up and retreated. To this it might also be good to add effects of tourism on urban spaces, although this is being widely studied. People from Barcelona, Paris, Goa or perhaps Kochi can testify for the effects that growing tourism in their cities have had on their lives. However, this might not yet be the situation with what a thriving aid industry does to the local lifestyle in a city. The spaces are not contested yet. I’d be interested in exploring statistics on employment of Nepalese in aid sector and employment in other sectors. Being a low income country, it has been developing its infrastructure through various loans and grants (example, the B P Highway completed with aid from JICA), as have other countries around the world. But, the business of aid has also brought along urban dynamics which includes and excludes people in ways that should be concerning.

These are at best impressionistic observations from knowing this country for a couple of years. It might however fall into some kind of pattern if one begins a comparative study of countries that receive substantial amount of aid, its effect on urban spaces (at least in their capital cities) and what the implications of this urban impact might be on the cities’ governance, civic upkeep and local culture.