[Policy Thinking]: A Flowchart

In the type of work we do in our consulting practice – research, evaluation and advisory, there is seldom time to develop theoretical insights, during the preparatory phase or during an ongoing work. It helps us to have (relatively) quick process flows; application oriented concepts and most importantly actionable insights. This is where one cannot pick up theoretical books. Application oriented books on practice of policy, evaluation etc are fewer in comparison to theory and fundamental concepts books. So, we are always on the look out for action-oriented thinking. The last I wrote about an applied concept was a post on development primer. A couple of my friends suggested that it was useful for them in their research projects and over the years we have used it too.

This post is to share a flowchart to think about policy problems and propose solutions, methodically. It is set within economic theory. The steps may appear rudimentary. However, for beginners in public policy the crisis often is about how-to ‘begin’. Here are the steps in analyzing an issue and methodically develop a solution for it:

  1. Identify an issue
  2. Build a model
  3. Analyse behaviour of economic agents
  4. Look for a solution by identifying the equilibrium
  5. Understand the conditions for a stable equilibrium
  6. Introduce welfare concern in the equilibrium
  7. See if the equilibrium undergoes any change
  8. Study enforcement or implementation of the altered conditions under which the equilibrium with welfare effects incorporated is achieved

This term, I am assisting in Public Finance course. The above flowchart is from a lecture by Dr. Anup Pujari. It helps that he has had decades of experience in government and in teaching economics.

A more recent inspiration for this post is Ajay Shah’s post Become a public policy thinker in three easy stepsI have returned to his post often, for its simple and effective presentation. Step 3 on the hurdle of public administration is just the kind of input that only those with a longer exposure and experience to real world policy problems can provide, as is the case with Dr. Pujari’s flowchart above.

I will use Policy Thinking as a label to series of applied ideas that will be written about on this blog henceforth.

Advertisements

Death of a library

FullSizeRender (11)

Two registers lay open on the front desk with a blunt tipped pencil tucked in one of them. Visitors are required to enter their names in it. Many walk by without a second look. Two women manned the baggage counter, deciding in a seemingly random fashion, bags that must be tagged with a number and bags that should be left on the floor, in a corner. My bag  didn’t deserve a tag. Back volumes section on the first floor resembled a wastepaper dealer’s store room with bundles of old newspapers and periodicals tied in strings, lay coated in a thick layer of dust. Back volumes of journals, or what one may call as archives, is what I had gone looking for. The library opened in 1915 and one expected a rich list of journals and periodicals from pre-independence era being subscribed to. Did the library have subscription of the journals I was looking for? The staff at the lending desk had a serious difficulty in understanding what ‘journals’ meant. There was no hint of familiarity with this word. She pointed to the same store room on the first floor where I knew the state of affairs. There was repeated use of ‘general’ books in her conversation. In that moment, I abandoned the search for ‘journals’.

The paradox that hits a visitor standing in the middle of the large circular hall, encircled with shelves of books, in two levels, is whether to be glad or sorry. Glad, for the State Central Library (SCL) still exists. That it retains some of its original architectural character and that it appears to be in good health as far as the building and its upkeep goes. Or sorry, for the shelves that hold nothing of the past. The library has no archive. It seems to have done away with the past that once stood on its shelves. For a public library that opened in 1915, SCL has frightfully few books from the early half of twentieth century. A few odd late nineteenth century publications remain tucked among the latest books, as survivors of the purge. There is irony in this report from a newspaper on the reopening of library after renovation – ‘The State Central Library is ready to play host to a new generation of bibliophiles’. The new generation of bibliophiles are civil services aspirants pouring over books that are relevant to the UPSC examination, the grand test that leads up to the portals of modern Indian empire.

For the rest it is an empty shell. It should have once contained within it accounts of past years, stories of those before us, pictures of a world that was and millions of conversations from a world that can be known only through the books of those times. Those books and journals were our only chance. This library sits lifeless for the history seeker, having done away with such records of the past.

Now the city strings it like a treasure to display and entice the tourists who walk by marveling at the setting – an expansive, green park, a pretty red coloured building set within it and pruned gardens around, in which they are likely to take a seat when the park tires them out.

Digital revolution won’t kill the libraries. Government will. Celebrating the structures and gloating over founding dates is all that we are capable of.

To become young fools again

IMG-2974

‘We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies…’ Pico Iyer writes in a reflective and philosophical piece on why we travel. His keen eye on how the experience changes the traveler and the place he travels to, is revealing in a way. In these years that I have re-read the piece, it appears as though I have been graduating from one reason to the other. ‘We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.’ Check and check! At different times in life, both these observations were true of my travels too.

Lately, when I venture out, travel seems driven by a compulsive need to be in a state of movement. The movement, as though, will counter the slowness of inner life. The transitory state, where every place on the itinerary serves as a transit camp, seems appealing. The temporariness of program and of intent brings along a lightness that stands in contrast to the planned and predictable everdayness of home. Plans and precise knowledge of what one will do a month later, and the meetings one will attend three months in the future, for some, stand against the vital nature of life.  Unnerving too. To travel, then, is to resist this. Resist, in a way that doesn’t destroy anything. At best it destroys one’s financial prospects. This resistance is constructive. It is a conduit to that high-pressure frustration (or just fatigue) that some of us are building up in our professional and personal lives. We travel to heal. In this healing, one learns to love all over again. Unlike other experiences, the place that we leave behind, doesn’t always conditions the character of the destination ahead. We learn to cast away, molt fast enough to arrive at the next destination and take it as new, formative experience.

Healing, by tuning-out of the regular, taking time to get back (if one must) and renew oneself, is how I’d describe the deliverance of travel. This, of course, doesn’t apply to all. It is also dubbed as ‘escaping’. I have avoided that word because one doesn’t escape by undertaking an uncertain travel. If anything, this strikes more fear than the familiar spaces of one’s own home, locality and city. If one must see this as an escape, then it sure must be an escape as Santayana describes, observing that ‘the world is too much with us, and we are too much with ourselves’ –

We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.

In these words, I see an unhinging that Santayana speaks of from the daily (‘into aimlessness’). It is unsettling, as I have experienced, yet empowering. I write this note on travel again (wrote earlier on meaning-making) to record this shift in perspective on travel. In these months, I have come to see its healing potential. Perhaps, the explorers, adventurers, expeditionists, Sufi saints and sadhus who have tramped the vast expanse of this country for aeons have known it all along. On me, it dawns this morning as I sit looking out of the window, awaiting the train to roll past the beautiful Chilika lake on the Eastern coast.

Second year at Mumbai marathon

FullSizeRender (7)

On Sunday, January 21st I ran the Mumbai marathon. It was my second year at this marathon. I will continue to run this every year. I realized that this once a year run is a good opportunity to mark one’s physical and mental states through time. As I began this time, I clearly remembered how fit and prepared I felt the previous year. This kind of a subtle comparison felt interesting. I had put in plenty of kilometers in Oct – Dec, 2016 before I arrived for Mumbai in Jan, 2017.  It felt good and positive. Moreover, after the finish in Jan 2017, which was my personal best until then, I went back to do my first ultra in Nepal. The months slipped by and during the middle I ran no more marathons, until Kochi in November. Arriving at the start line in 2018, past year flashed back in an instant. I was apprehensive. Yet, it was relieving to stand there and attempt it. The run was my personal best this time too.

About running, it seems true that it is a constant discovery – of human abilities and of possibilities that the body and mind hold. Running helped me understand this and over the years believe in this potential. This belief might weaken at times, but every run seems to reinforce it, bringing it back to an even higher level. This reminds me of @sweatscience ‘s piece on Nike’s Breaking 2 project – Are Physical Limits All In Our Heads?, which speaks of human abilities and ‘pushing the limits’ that running has seen over the years. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that over and above the minimum necessary physical readiness, the limits do seem to get marked by the mind. It is the mind that carries one beyond the physical.

Over the past months, I practiced running a 5 min/km pace. Lack of focus and regularity kept the pace in 5.20 – 5.30 range. The best I ran was a couple of weeks in back in December at a 5.05 pace for a 22 km distance. That was it. On keeping this pace for 42 km was unlikely. Somewhere along the Mumbai marathon course, a little past the Worli Sea Link, which is about half-way point  I was reminded of Kipchoge. He often says that one runs with the mind first. I was beginning to see its effect kicking in this time. When I felt a strong in the head, I was striding well. By the time I was on Pedder Road, I could at least arrest the sliding pace, if not improve it. This was working. Mind and heart. It may sound a bit too self-helpish, but at that point, in the run, it was working. On a different note, these half and full marathons at times feel like practical versions of self-help books with the same package of motivation, hope, believing in oneself, being present etc. Keep showing up on the start line and see how that works on the mind. To the very least, one feels good about making the physical effort to cover a significant distance on foot, something which is certainly not normal in urban living now.

From last year’s post I notice that my gaze was fixed on the world around me. I was seeing Mumbai in 42 kilometers. After writing the above, this year’s seems to be inward looking. Some sights remain as distressing as last time – the amount of litter, plastic and children picking them up. I chucked a few plastic bottles too. And many like me did and then we had mountains of plastic being stuffed away into bags by poor children and men and women, as others ran past. I do not think I’ll ever get comfortable with this sight as much as people use the cliche ‘this is India’ to rationalize their discomfort. I do not think this is us.

In comparison to last year, I ran the course six minutes faster. It took a year to achieve these these six minutes. I managed to keep an average pace of 5.08. Picking up pace along the last two kilometers to the finish line, I felt a wave of quiet taking over. It felt neither exhausted nor stressed. There was a gentle wavy feel and legs worked a smooth way to the finish. From that moment, finish time didn’t matter as the first thing to know. I stepped over the finish line, splashed some water, walked around and hung about. It was over an hour later when I looked up the finish time in the text message on phone.

The space around the finish line of a marathon is one of the few places where one always finds a near hundred percent of the people smiling. Elated, joyous, emotional, relieved, in pain… but almost always happy and smiling, these faces are a delight to watch. In a corner I sat for an hour and watched those faces.

Brahmagiri: An account

bmgiri_image

Image Courtesy Team G Square blogpost on the same place

 

This is a guest post by my friend Srikara. He explores history of places with a particular interest in Vijayanagara Empire. In this post, he speaks of his visit to Brahmagiri Hills near Bellary, Karnataka.  From this visit he writes, “The sheer scale of devotion, prescience and benevolence that seemed to have gone into Ashoka’s vision of a just society over two millennia ago, when many other contemporary societies were busy tearing themselves apart with violence, amazed me.”  I find this continuing amazement with accounts of the past and the contrast with the present, as a key driver for our interest in history. 

 

It must have been just past eight in the morning. The bus destined for Bellary had dropped me off on the highway, at the juncture of the road leading to Siddapura. ‘There is no stop here, we will only slow down, and you can get off!’ the conductor had said. I was off and was walking towards the village of Siddapura, five kilometers away. The sun was already in action, filling the world with its yellow spread. It was a lonely road for the most part, through expansive paddy fields with imposing boulder strewn hills peppered across them. Some humongous giant must have crushed solitary rocks with his bare fist and sowed the pieces in these fields as piles of stone. The sun, the paddy, the hills, and the silence of being alone filled me with anticipation for the setting of my destination.

The road ended at the village that had been recently anointed Ashoka Siddapura. And all around, petty shopkeepers, skinny elders wearing shirts, towels, and panches that were once white, and other idlers greeted me with curious stares. I smiled and moved on through the village.

The heat was getting stronger as I continued to walk on a road lined by plots with mud houses with sloping red-tiled roofs. Typical of rural settings in India, chickens running across the road, dogs barking at my perceived trespass, famished oxen tied to their posts, ruminating solemnly, and women carrying cans of water, all met my eyes as I pushed myself through. Just as I stepped outside the village and away from the hum of its life, a large bare hill loomed ahead, to the right of the road. Walls of ruined fortifications straddled the sides of the hill. ‘Brahmagiri.’ I thought. I was near.

I passed by a stone temple in ruins and reached an unusual structure at the foot of the hill. ‘This is it.It was a rather horse-shoe shaped edifice built of stone blocks, the whitewash on whose walls had mostly faded. It served as a shelter to the upper surface of a large boulder and had a staircase leading up to it. I absorbed my surroundings for a minute. I was looking up at the shelter in the silent shadow of Brahmagiri. A necklace of ancient fortified walls stared at me from the heights. In front of the hill was a vast fallow land that was, again, lined by gigantic boulder hills afar. Taking a deep breath of the eerie stillness, I climbed up the steps.

Atop the boulder, a cage enclosed what I had come so far to see. As I peered through the steel bars, deeply engraved runes on the boulder made themselves visible over an area of a standard Persian Carpet. The script was vivid and each of its characters was inscribed with elegance. As I observed each line in awe, I tried to remember what it said from what I had read about it.

The Brahmagiri Inscription is the southern-most of all of Maurya Emperor Ashoka’s myriad Rock and Pillar Edicts proclaiming universal peace and an embrace of humanity. They were inscribed over two thousand years ago across the Subcontinent, from Kandahar to Siddapura, Gujarat to Bihar. They mark Ashoka’s righteous rule after his adoption of Buddhism.

The Brahmagiri inscription announces to the lost city of Ishila that once was in the vicinity, that ‘the men of Jambudvipa had (since Ashoka’s reign began) become mingled with the gods’ and urged its residents to embrace the Truth, treat their parents, elders, masters and relatives with respect and obedience, and be compassionate to animals.

Other edicts across the country are more radical in their call for humanity. They proclaimed religious equality and freedom to pursue one’s faith, right of prisoners to appeal against sentences that were ordered to be dispensed justly to begin with, protection of several animal species by royal decree, provisioning medication and treatment of illnesses, facilitating long-distance travelers with the planting of large banyan trees and digging wells, and much more.

I tried to fit the Brahmagiri edict into Ashoka’s vast philanthropic jigsaw puzzle, as I continued to observe the curvy letters. The sheer scale of devotion, prescience and benevolence that seemed to have gone into Ashoka’s vision of a just society over two millennia ago, when many other contemporary societies were busy tearing themselves apart with violence, amazed me. The presence of this gem of history in what was now a desolate place was mystifying.

Siddapura is like an all you can eat buffet for history-buffs. It has a preserved site of megaliths, written records on stone, forts atop hills, ancient temples in ruins, artfully carved veeragals, saffron-clad mendicants and, most importantly, a weight that keeps pressing on you, filling you with enigma and wonder, a weight of history, of the place having been there, and seen it, for thousands of years, a weight of ghosts that had dissolved in the air with time. I had only savored a starter, and was salivating for more. I walked down the stairs.

Social History and the City: A guided tour of Avenue Road

Avenue Road, Bengaluru. This crossroad is said to the spot from where Kempegowda sent out four oxes to mark the frontiers of this city.

Heterodox is flavour of the season. This encourages me to make transgression into history, a discipline where I can only be described as a consumer of texts and accounts of places and events. Hobsbawm’s collection of essays Uncommon People and his endearing essay on jazz music remains a favourite reading in history. I have enjoyed Tony Judt’s Post War although I can’t seem to agree with his rather condescending views on social history that I discovered later. But this post is about a guided tour along one of the oldest roads in Bangalore. This walk was an opportunity to think about writing history and methods of this discipline. I walked down Avenue Road led by my friend Srikara, on whom I have relied on over the years to know Bangalore better. We walked a whole afternoon and evening, with him speaking of the settlements, monuments, events and major developments around this old and very busy part of the city. It is anything but forgotten. Avenue Road is like those Angkor temples, which are engulfed by massive growth of tree roots all around. Avenue Road, much the same is enmeshed into the everyday life of this city and people instead of just trees. The throng of people on Avenue Road is perhaps the same as in earlier centuries, only a bit more dense with an expansive variety of goods traded in its bylanes.

A walk down Avenue Road is to take a break from the stiffness of history that holds structuralism and determinism with an unquestioning faith and from historians of that ilk. This road and the space around it, affirms the relevance of social history. To understand the transformation of this city social history presents a method that yields a nuanced picture of the city and its historical transformation. From this walk with Srikara, I return with a firm intent to venture into history as discipline because of dissatisfaction with political history based narratives of the city and its spaces. They are plainly inadequate in identifying the cultural and social richness of the past of a city. It is a transgression because I am neither a historian nor an architect. These are the two varieties of professionals that one comes across when it comes to writing, speaking and researching history of cities in India. Chronology is important. But with that chronological movement there is often a story told through lives and work of well-known personalities or story that is hero-led (think of the Dewan of Mysore, or Chief Engineer of the Presidency etc). This is the kind of history that is insular to everyday life. On heritage walks, one is likely to hear this variety of historical narratives. I am tired of them. The everydayness of life and spaces, which is situated at a distance from the day’s politics, holds as much potential in revealing a past that, if not better, can illuminate the present just the same as other methods. I was on this tour to know about this everydayness of life and people on Avenue Road.

Srikara explaining a beautiful series of motifs depicting Parvati and Shiva’s wedding ceremony, on the walls of sanctorum of Kote Venkateshwara Temple. It is located next to Tipu’s Palace in Bengaluru.

We walk along one of the roads that was once the center of the city. Bangalore expanded much beyond this old center, not forgetting, but shifting out into adjacent areas. The sprawl wasn’t expanding due to political reasons or changes in production relationships. This is where deterministic historical analysis is likely to run out of steam. Here is a city expanding, less due to politics or economic drivers but out of other reasons, one of them being poor hygiene and sanitary conditions in the old quarters. This could be a one-off event. These reasons don’t lend themselves well to the determinism that one would want to read in the expansion. Moreover, it isn’t that the settlements of artisans, textile workers (in Cottonpet), salt workers (in Upparapet) and others shifted out once new housing locations developed. Many preferred the congested and tight spaces of this old center then and in future. In fact, embedded deep in the bylanes running perpendicular to Avenue Road one finds the city’s oldest mosque, from a time the area was called ‘Taramandal’ during Tipu Sultan’s reign, one of the oldest chapel and several Hindu temples that are centuries old. All of these continue to be visited. It turns out spatial re-arrangements and civic engineering are not sufficient reasons for people to move out to where the engineered intent of the administrators might wish them to go. Instead, they stay. Their reasons often slip out of the grasp of a political historian.

The imposing wall is of Bangalore Fort and the space next to it, of scores of hawkers. This contrast and interaction with historical monuments has been fascinating to see in cities and towns across India. It is interesting to compare this with the sterilization that monuments undergo with conservation projects.

This is why I love guided walks. In all these years that I have ridden past the flyover in front of this shrine, I failed to notice this. This shrine, Dargah Hazrath Meer Bahadur Shah, is built over the grave of Bahadur Shah a fallen military commandant during the siege of Bangalore Fort in 1791.

In Social History and Its Critics published (1980) Louise Tilly provides a back-to-the-basics kind of explanation of the project of social history to its detractors and its utility,

One of the key impulses of social history’s development is (was) a populist vision that aims (aimed) to seek out how ordinary people lived and acted in the past. That these people seldom appear by name in the political narrative of events is another way of saying it is hard to discern their individual or collective consciousness in the narrow political sense, or that discernable collective consciousness is expressed episodically.

Avenue Road should be of interest to those seeking lives of ordinary people and a sense of what the collective lives of various social groups was like, over the centuries. It offers an enriching experience, with possibilities of finding narratives beyond the predictable ones of politics, architecture and urban design. For instance, in the motifs of temples, old stables for horses and elephants, cavalries and hubs of goods trading one finds glimpses of continuities to present day.
From this walk emerged glimpses of a city’s social past. I am intrigued and fascinated at the same time. Avenue Road is also rich in a kind of aesthetics which needs some time to sink in. Beyond the chaos of pedestrians, pushcarts and scores of hawkers, this aesthetics emerges in the temple motifs, in the shrines for fallen heroes and in dozens of minor ways that people go about tending to their trade or craft. Or one can just find a corner to imagine the visuals of stories that are told today, of events in the city. Either way, it appears a great way to explore the city, especially, for those interested in history. I could make a laundry list of observations, but I’d rather let Avenue Road work on the visitor in its own way. And for the rest, I am thankful to Srikara for the tour.

Roundup 2017

IMG_2596

In a way all the years have the same course, from hopeful beginning, onto slow middle and tapering off with tiresome but content or at times relieving sense of having lived through another year. Yet, one reflects. Sometimes it is a list of things done or accomplished. Sometimes it is a list of experiences and their effect. And sometimes it is about the acute realization of progressing through life. I give in to this process, only after fighting the cynicism and seeming futility of doing these roundups. Every year! May be, it is worth reflecting in the interest of knowing the good, the bad and the ugly of the passing year to make the year ahead better. On that note, it feels that 2017 demonstrated how months can be consistently downhill, each passing week, when one dispenses with all the nice things reflected upon during the previous year’s end and at times resolved for. This year, in short, has been the most difficult to endure, both, personally and professionally. It is marked by a mix of personal achievement and failure. Work and education got better even as personal life got worse. This is in contrast to the ‘balance’ that 2016 was about.

I graduated with MPP degree in July. This was a personal achievement, with its import striking only after it all finished. This was a full-time masters done alongside teaching at a school and working in our consulting business. It was hard to imagine that I’d survive this. I was riding on the city’s outer ring road at speeds of 100 kmph+ on most weekdays. I don’t think I’ll be that reckless again. The degree gives an edge to our work as my business partner’s and my profile improved with this additional qualification.

On teaching front, I had to leave Poorna because work related travel made it difficult to commit to a teaching job. In February, I took my last few classes and we ended with a series of presentations by student groups in school assembly. The brief was simple – to choose topics from sociology course that appealed the most to students and share their views on it with all the kids in school during assembly. Some of the students also included a quick introduction to that topic for junior students. That form of shared learning was heartening to see. I miss school from my daily life now.

Things at Weaver Technologies, our company, are so much better this year, with a new product in the pipeline and improved prospects. This year, I learnt that raising a fledgling business first and foremost needs individuals who feel mentally and emotionally secure. It rides on their spirit and sense of optimism before it even comes to skills. All the partners went through tough personal life situations at various points in the last two years. What we now have is a tempered, empathetic and committed team, which has the mental space to think about ideas and ways to take the business ahead. It is amazing how little is spoken of this (personal, emotional & mental aspects) in startup stories compared to the hyper-brilliance of the founders and the team. Going forward, I’d want to first ensure that the people we team up with feel safe and secure personally above everything else.

Personally, the course of this year has been disastrous on emotional well-being. This isn’t hard to figure from the perspective on work. I failed in relationships. The after-effects have been hard to make peace with. It felt vulnerable. Moreover, there was this seething frustration and meaninglessness that overtook for a while. To overcome these, I feel, has been the greatest battle this year. In those months that I was going through a break-up, everything was on a slide. It was tough to get out for a run on most days. House was in disarray. I read less. I got reluctant to meet people. Work suffered too. On most occasions I was barely punching time and got done with the tasks. All of these emotions that people talk of, loneliness, despair, agony, frustration, anger, futility… ran their course on me. What more, I couldn’t even find enough will to finish the marathon at Ladakh. Looking back, I feel too sure that it wasn’t a physical failure. It was mental. I stopped at 34th kilometer. Who does that? Even with a hobble one can walk to the finish line from there. I knew it from earlier runs. But this time, it was this fuck-all state of mind. I had spent an utterly lonely week in Leh, holed up in a room sitting by the window.

In January, at Mumbai marathon I ran my personal best. I returned with an intent to do a sub-3:30 marathon. In February, I ran a 55 km mountain trail outside Kathmandu. I returned confident about attempting a 130 km ultra in Coorg later in the year. From March, I couldn’t get myself to do the regular 10 km run even for two continuous days. It got to August and I cycled from Manali to Ladakh alone, wanting to re-claim that spirit for outdoors and for a good workout. I wanted to finish with Ladakh marathon. I DNFed! It threatened to take all that I loved and worked on in the past years. In November, I ran a marathon in Kochi. It was startling to see how personal difficulties had chipped away all the confidence. I showed up at the start line desperately wishing to complete it. That is all! This run was necessary for me to feel confident again. It was November, by the time I came to terms with the situation.

If 2017 is to be thought of in terms of a keyword, antifragility would be it. It wasn’t about resilience or becoming robust through experiences. Rather, the experiences seem to be making it better to thrive in uncertainty while at the same time be able to chart a better course than the previous trajectory, through these experiences. I was fascinated by Taleb’s conception of antifragile and now find a semblance of it in the way things have been this year. It seems identifiable and reasonable when Taleb writes in his book about the nature of antifragility as ‘beyond resilience or robustness: the resilient resists shocks and stays the same’ and that ‘the antifragile gets better.’ On the last day of a tempestuous year, I agree with this. Things have indeed gotten better, which was hard to see when it was happening.

The spin-off effect of a personal crisis has been interesting.  It feels ‘unafraid to feel’ as E E Cummings once wrote. And in that moment one feels, ‘you’re nobody-but-yourself.’ This quality was not experienced before. In December, I began horse-riding lessons at EIRS. The mornings over the last couple of weeks have been beautiful in company of horses. Riding horses is the highlight of this year. From faltering trot to a smooth canter, the learning experience has stoked old memories of living close to a Cavalry Regiment and to be able to ride those fine studs one day. Only that it took a little too long from those schooldays to the morning when I could do the canter on my own.

On a different note, I observed the staggering amount of time spent looking inwards and immersed in personal issues. The sense of living in the world was lost. I was less bothered about global or national issues. Domesticity clouded all of it. Not engaging with the world around doesn’t appear an appealing way of life.

My friend Joe (of roughghosts) spoke of having made meaningful friendships through his blog and via twitter. I have had a similar experience. For this, I am glad to live a digital life, partially at that. The year leaves me with some great friends – supportive and helpful. Joe, Sonia, Osh, Ambika, Sana, Satish and so many more. I am thankful to all of them for their generosity and admire them for the what they do.

There is an apocryphal story about the legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman. Barely into the concert one of the strings of his violin snapped. This was considered as an end to his performance even before it began. However, Perlman took a pause and began playing with the three remaining strings. The music that day is said to have been one of Perlman’s finest. In the end, he is reported to have said, ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.’ Tonight, it appears as though a string broke this year, in life. The next is about trying to make music with what is left and what can be created.

So here again, the year ran its typical course – a hopeful beginning, slow middle and tiresome but content end. Saddling-up for the year ahead, towards a more fulfilling time, one moves on.

Happy New Year to the readers!

 

 

Economics, Development & Policy Takeaways, 2017

It has been an extraordinary year in academic realm, especially in public policy and economics. This is the year when economics got realistic, if one regards the annual Nobel Prize in Economics as a defining moment in economics research. Richard Thaler won it for for showing how the human traits of ‘limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control’ systemically affect individual decisions as well as market outcomes. This has been a clear break from the past. When have economists bothered about psychology before?

Besides being my areas of interest and training, public policy and economics, in my reading went through a rather significant transition led by eroding away of the traditional orthodoxy. The heterodox economics movement has now acquired the necessary critical mass which makes me hopeful about the discipline’s future.  May be, the Nobel prize recognition to behavioural economics also helps the cause.  The kind of change required was articulated well by Jean Tirole trying to push for economics for common good – ‘we urgently need economists to engage with the many challenges facing society, helping to identify our key objectives and tools needed to meet them.’ It is further affirming when the most influential thinkers contribute to a book titled Economic Ideas You Should Forget, edited by Bruno Frey and David Iselin. Some of the ideas to forget about, included in this book are “capitalism”, “rational expectations” and the efficiency-equity tradeoff”.

As for public policy, traditional policy thinking has been about what ought to be done, imagined in isolation from political factors like incentives for politicians. Thinking about policies that help institutions align social and private interests has only begun, as I figure. However, I’d still wish there was more concern shown to issues of work in digital era and workers’ welfare in these times of cheap goods and services. The year’s readings to the least makes me sure of pursing labour welfare research in the future. At the moment it looks somewhat ignored, in contrast to its consequences for development outcomes in an economy.

In terms of reading preference this year, it was India focused. I picked up Sumantra Ghoshal’s World Class in India and began looking at the case studies on Indian corporations again. This is a fine collection of innovative, risk taking and forward thinking Indian corporations detailing their paths to growth and transformation. I am particularly struck by Dr Parvinder Singh’s remark on the theme of building a world class company in India – ‘Ranbaxy cannot change India. Instead what it can do is create a pocket of excellence. Ranbaxy must be an island within India.’ As a philosophy for change, this is simple and compelling.

In development, I was led to Bad Samaritans: The guilty secrets of rich nations and the threat to global prosperity by Ha-Joon Chang. Earlier this year, I also read his Kicking Away the Ladder: Development strategy in historical perspective. Both these books are a seminal read in thinking about development from a mix of economic and historical perspective. The intersection of these perspectives makes Chang’s works insightful. Bad Samaritans alerts the reader to ‘the historical double standards involved in recommending free trade and free market to developing countries’. Whereas, the developed countries grew by practicing exactly the opposite. What follows is a careful, evidence-based and tempered argument for the same. I have learnt the art of constructing a clear and forceful argument from Chang’s writings.

In July, 2017, I graduated from MPP course. The quantum of reading in public policy almost dipped after that, except occasional academic papers. I intend to now begin a policy-thinker series which gives me an opportunity to discuss interesting ideas as well as develop a set of policy thinkers who are shaping the discipline. In all of these readings, I am struck by how few Indians I come across. May be, it says much about my exposure. While we do have scores of economists, those in public policy research seem few. I hope to discover them in the year ahead.

Overall, the year’s readings leaves me feeling positive about these disciplines’ focus and concern. I didn’t feel this way last year or before that. In fact, the state of disciplines made me reconsider if I ever want to pursue a Ph.D. But this year is different. I am considering research again, over abandoning it for business and work.

Among others, I was fascinated by Dror’s critical examination of public policy making which reviews the state of discipline in the early 1980s, and goes on to propose a shift (away from the idea of ‘muddling through’ of Lindblom) towards theoretical frameworks. Perhaps, there is a characteristic policy approach in the developing world and countries of the tropics, as opposed to others. It could be seen as ‘policy-making in the tropics’. I hope to build this idea further, in the months ahead. For one, policy-making in tropics is intricately linked to an institutional working culture which is somewhere between formalism and non-procedural, incidence-based functioning.

When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air is an unsettling read which at the same time leaves the reader with a compelling sense of optimism.  It is a stirring experience of knowing a man’s mind from the frighteningly close distance of his own words, as he prepares himself to meet his end. It certainly doesn’t seem like death. To use that word would be to demean all that Paul strives for since the time his terminal illness is confirmed by medical examinations. It isn’t death. It is a man trying to re-size a life time’s plan into the shortened time that he is given. The book is an account of the short span when every day is lived as a conviction to finish all that one can, instead of a surrender to the inevitable. It is not a fight as the popular versions of experiences with terminal illness go. Paul’s is a preparation and finding satisfaction in what is.

Paul is diagnosed with state IV lung cancer at the age of thirty-six and at a time in his career when he is about to reap the fruits of his long training as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. What does a man think in those moments after he is told that he doesn’t have much time to live? When instead, he has lived with a belief that there is a lifetime ahead to work and achieve his dreams? Does he pass away in dejection or makes the best of what he has? If he makes the best possible use of his time, then I wanted to know what does it take to be that hopeful against the hard and cold ceiling of the inevitability of fast approaching death. Paul’s writing answers much of it. In the face of mortality, Paul manages to show remarkable thoughtfulness and compose. From insights into a surgeon’s work to a young man’s quest and aspirations in life and on to a couple’s heartbreaking journey through the illness, the book is an insight into lived experience in situations of life that one tends to not imagine upon oneself.

Here is an intelligent young man who isn’t succumbing to despair but rather manages to see things objectively. From one of his early meeting with his Oncologist, he writes –

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both noting and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

Personally, to not despair in the wake of difficult situations has been hard. Perhaps, this makes the book even more important for me at this time in my life.

Again, the following conversation between Paul and his wife is extraordinary, in the face of what they face ahead and the clarity about suffering.

“What are you most afraid or sad about?” she asked me one night as we were lying in bed.

“Leaving you,” I told her.

(…)

“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t that be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

In face of daily life situations one tends to feel pushed against the wall. Coping with them feels daunting. Reading this book is to know what the extremes can be and that there are people who have responded to such situations in a constructive manner. As the last moments of Paul’s life are described in the epilogue by Paul’s wife, Lucy, one sees a family united in sorrow yet cherishing a life that left behind a certain kind of completeness and contentment that is felt typically when people die in their nineties.

For the importance of this book, I find the reason in Paul’s remark “Words have a longevity I do not.” The final words of the book are for his daughter Cady, who is eight months old when Paul died. He leaves this passage for her and I believe this to be indicative of his attitude towards his illness and mortality. This shall remain a very fine piece on human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, for me –

There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple.

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

As this year draws to a close, I realize that I have spent several months grieving over matters that can never be as soul destroying and hopeless as Paul’s illness. In his writing I find an attitude to work and life that was unknown to me. If I were on as short time as Paul’s, these months I lost doing very little would have been a colossal waste. The book then brings back the importance of time and making the most of it, while has the good fortune of having that time.

Art of Monstrous Men

The Paris Review ran a thought-provoking piece last month by Claire Dederer, who reflects upon What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?  set against the backdrop of series of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by several famous men, who have also been exceptionally good at what they do for a profession. As Dederer lays out in the beginning, ‘They are monster geniuses, and I don’t know what to do about them.’ She ends with, ‘What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters?’. I am fascinated by the journey of the author in-between these points.

Beyond that clarity of question, the impressions, views and observations in the piece are often mixed. It is a difficult subject understandably. The point of me writing this post is to note that I wish she meant people when she wrote men because it is art and a certain monstrosity of human behaviour that she discusses and not just predatory sexual behaviour. In their monstrosity men are not alone. It can be said as much about women, although it happens that the gender balance (and some would obviously add power balance) across professions in the world is skewed with men outnumbering women everywhere. This is likely to rile the feminists.

Without a doubt this is a brilliant piece and I love it for the analytical yet personal tone. By the end, Dederer comes close to looking at monstrosity that in the beginning verged on sexual conduct of men to a certain selfish behaviour. This softening of view is worth taking note of because when reasoned, people undergo this kind of softening, not out of fatigue of reasoning, but perhaps out of an understanding that human failures and moreover, perspectives, beliefs, convictions and values among people has tremendous variation. Your morality isn’t your neighbour’s. If it was, law wouldn’t have had such a hard time in societies across the world!

Oddly, when Dederer does get to writing about ‘female monster’ she ends up portraying them as victims with Doris Lessing and Sylvia Plath. These are monstrous women just because they placed their writing before family, children and others, she seems to argue. There is sympathy for women and relentlessness for men, which, as a view is okay. But it seems to be an epidemic now. This needn’t be. And this is my contention with opinion pieces and commentaries being published every week since the Weinstein scandal, that hatred for men and assertion of women as weak is back with a greater force. The propensity to hurt, violate and perhaps force others to do things towards one’s own interest is perhaps the same in men and women. Men do it and get noticed (or caught, if you will) for their acts far more than women. Maybe? It is naive to imagine violence only as physical. Both men and women can be violent in same or different ways. Each of these have consequences. In these times we are only willing to speak of consequences of actions of men. I do not even for the slightest part mean to say that men should not be pulled up for what they do. They must pay for it. Retribution after all is a part of justice. The problem is with generality of it and the sweeping generality that takes over later too – that men are the problem. It is them, always them.

The argument is not in defense of men. I am merely trying to figure out if we are helping anything by bring in gender in almost every issue that occupies humanity’s attention today. Or is it complicating matters needlessly. I have a feeling we are complicating and adding to the noise much more than trying to get any helpful reason or solution across.

The gender divide is affecting all of us, in varying degrees and for sure, negatively. It doesn’t help to infuse ‘feminist perspective’ in every aspect of life. As I write this, I recollect that while teaching sociological perspectives to A level students at Poorna, not every girl student had that revelatory moment when they figured what feminist perspective meant in a broader sense. In fact, some remarked if there was a need to have such an exclusive perspective and if it wasn’t already implied in views on society and social processes that are discussed in contemporary sociology.