Sunday, December 07, 2008

Hospitals or Hell?

This is the title of an article on mental hospitals that I wrote along with my friend Sundar. The article finally got published in Counter Currents. I am happy that something finally has appeared in the media, but sad that this did not happen earlier. A more elaborate article by both of us on mental patients and their pitiable condition in India is pending with Frontline for quite some time, though they have agreed to publish it. A slightly longer version of the current one was not accepted by another web magazine because they felt a study on a specific hospital was more appropriate. I am happy that this has finally appeared and hope that someone will take notice of the matter. And, maybe, do something about it. In any case, I urge you to read it and talk about the issue. Thank you.

The link to the article once again:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Climate Change, Energy Crisis and Development

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that climate change is real, that human beings are causing it and that we seem to be heading for a real bad time. Global mean temperature and temperature at specific locations could go up by a few degrees by the end of this century and the mean sea level could rise by several centimetres as a result of polar ice melting and water expanding with increase in temperature. The global warming could lead to reduction in total rainfall, while, at the same time, increse in severity of rainfall events and drought. All this could result in reduction in food productivity especially in the tropics (while productivity could increase in the temperate regions for temperature increases up to 3 degrees but would reduce for higher temperatures), increased sea erosion and loss of land to the ocean, and various other problems. The main cause for all this is the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This, in turn, is a result of the large-scale consumption of fossil fuels on the one hand and deforestation on the other.

There is a group of people who still believe that all this is humbug, that the changes we see in the atmosphere are simply normal changes. They, therefore, argue that there is no reason for us to change our life styles. Unfortunately, the United States has accepted this argument and refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol that aims at reducing the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, mainly by developed countries. A major mistake such people are making is that, if they, by some chance, happen to be wrong and IPCC happens to be correct, entire humanity could be severly affected, if not wiped out. That is, of course, assuming that they are sincere to themselves. If global warming continues, it could possibly even lead to a major catastrophe that could even wipe out life on this planet. We could hardly do anything beyond a point. As of now, it is the poor nations and islands who suffer most, and, of course, the poor in the developed countries.

Fortunately or unfortunately, this is happening at the same point in time when petroleum is runnign out. In a way, this is good, because that would certainly put a halt to our consumption of petroleum and tend to reduce the production of carbon dioxide. But in a way it is bad because we will have to face two crises at the same time. While, on the one hand, we could be faced with changes in the distribution of diseases and the availability of food grains in some regions, we will also have to tackle the problem of fuel for transportation. This is complicated by the problem that real figures on petroleum availability are not available because observers believe that the figures given out by the oil producing countries are not reliable.

Let me also point to a third potential crisis that may be approaching. And this is the loss of traditional knowledge. A lot of knowledge that could probably have helped us face some of the problems that could arise in the near future, as discussed above, is being lost because they are not properly documented and because they have been replaced by new knowledge from the West that is considered "superior".

There is no need to emphasise the role of the West in creating the atmosphere for causing these problems and the role they have to play in solving them too. We should ralise that the problem of global warming and climate change has its roots in the Industrial Revolution, when human power was replaced by machine power, which, in turn, required power from coal and then petroleum and electricity. All this did, certainly, lead to an improvement in human living conditions. But we should not forget to also see the misery that it created. Admittedly, much of that misery has disappeared from the developed world, and, maybe, given enough time, it would disappear from the developing world too. But we are running out of time. More importantly, we have lost many of the skills that we had before. We have come to a high energy economy and it would be really tough to go back to a low energy economy. Humanity is simply consuming much more than its fair share of resources. And, in the process, we have destroyed much of the flora and fauna that we had.

India and China have a big role to play in both mitigating the crises and in protecting the traditional knowledge. These are two countries that have the largest populations in the world and also are wealthy in terms of traditional knowledge. And this traditional knowledge is disappearing fast. And, while it may be possible to regenerate the lost flora and fauna, though extremely improbable, it may take eons to recreate lost knowledge. We have to admit that we have behaved badly with our Mother Earth.

The way I see it, the greatest tragedy is that we have not learned a lesson. We are still trying to find technological solutions to the problems we have created in nature. We are still trying to find alternate sources of energy. We fail to see that no one expected any problem when humanity started using petroleum as a source of energy. It became a problem when the use of petroleum became widespread. When millions of automobiles started running on petroleum. Are we sure that the alternate sources of energy that we are looking for also will not create such problems when they become ubiquitous? Do we know what problems await us when millions of square metres of solar cells are manufactured and deployed? Or when millions of windmills are deployed all over the world? Or when thousands of nuclear reactors are built and they start producing spent fuel?

I feel that humanity has got into a trap -- the trap of over-ambition and over-confidence. The consequences of the actions of my generation, and of the previous couple of generations, are going to be borne by my children and theirs. And this is certainly not a comforting thought.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Shame! India

And another Olympics has come to an end. Predictably, India can return with memories of brilliant performances by athletes from other countries. And be proud of the record three medals it won. Three precious medals for a population of a billion people. Let us weep for them for a minute.

A country with a similar population has ended up with a record number of gold medals. China has won more gold medals than any other country in the history of the Olympics. And more than half the medals they won are gold. Another first. One athlete has won more gold medals than the total number of medals that India has won in the last fifty two years. Shame!

You may protest. After all, India is a poor country. We don't have enough money to spend on promoting athletics or sports. Bullshit. Sorry. There cannot be a milder response. Look at the medals won by the other countries. Is Ethiopia a wealthier country? And Kenya? Ethiopia won FOUR gold, one silver and two bronze, seven in all. Better than India. And Kenya got FIVE gold, five silver and four bronze, total fourteen. More than three times what India won. And tiny Jamaica won SIX gold, three silver and two bronze. We have gone out of the Olympics in hockey, a game that used to win our only medal once.

"Ah, just some games. How does that matter? We are becoming the world's top economy soon. We are a power to reckon with in software, in science and technology." Is that what you think? Sorry. I strongly disagree. World's top economy with the country's sixty percent or so struggling for three square meals a day? A software power through doing some routine work for other countries? How much real development work do we do? Isn't what we do just repetitive, boring work? What challenge is there for our best brains? Won't our entire IT industry collapse if China, for instance, builds up the English skills of their people?

The point is that it is simply not a question of some games or sports. It is a question about how well, how effectively, we do things. We have been waiting and waiting for our athletes, our sportspersons, to become world class. This country of one billion people have been waiting for more than half a century. And they are seeing only deterioration in performance. Yes, we won a record number of medals this year. A record number of three medals. I would see it as just chance. I can't see that as the result of a planned programme to promote sports and games. If it really is so, I would still say "Shame!". Say that more vigorously. How can we be so absolutely incapable of doing anything well?

We need to start asking this question. Because our sports and games infrastructure is spending our hard-earned money. The money the poor Indians have paid as taxes. And we need an answer. The authorities have to answer, answer the questions raised aloud by the people who have given the money. We have a right to an answer. And not just any wishy washy answer. The establishment, beware. The people are fed up with your self-serving incompetent performance.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dressing Up and Down: The Answers

So very few people seem to be interested in the question why we dress up. Is it that they do not realise the importance of dressing up? Is it that they do not realise to what extent we are influenced by the way others dress up? In any case, at least one person has responded, and now it is my turn to give a detailed reply.

It appears that humans must have started wearing clothes some 40,000 years ago. If we can believe modern studies in palaeontology and palaeo-anthropology and related branches of science, we have to believe that the entire population of homo sapiens sapiens on the earth today are descendants of one short female, named Lucy, an Australopithicus afarensis--a species that lived in Ethiopia some 2.5 to 4 million years back (see, for instance, or Wikipedia)). Lucy would certainly have not known that her descendants would migrate to all parts of the world and virtually exterminate all other species. If she had known, perhaps, she would have committed suicide before she gave birth to any child.

But her children and grand children and great grand children and so on were born, and did grow up and have their own offsprings and did migrate to all parts of the world. Including much warmer and colder places. And they evolved. At some point, at least some branches of the family, started shedding their fur. This could have been in response to a warmer climate or, as some experts in body lice tend to believe, in response to body lice! Ugh!? "Dr. David L. Reed, a louse expert at the University of Utah, said the idea that humans might have lost their body hair as a defense against parasites was a ''fascinating concept.'' Body lice spread three diseases -- typhus, relapsing fever and trench fever -- and have killed millions of people in time of war, he said." (see this article from New York Times). Anyway, at some point in time, humans or proto-humans started losing their body hair. Maybe this also led to people getting a darker skin. But that is beside the point. Our question is about clothes. So how did this induce humans to wear clothes?

We know that human beings, before or after homo sapiens sapiens evolved, migrated to the extremes of the Earth. And they would certainly have faced extreme cold climates. And they would also have met animals that have thick coats of fur. Look at the polar bears, for instance. And look at the Eskimos who live in such conditions. Humans must have'borrowed' the clothes from the local residents. Just as they do today also.

That seems reasonable. But when did homo sapiens start wearing clothes? One idea is that this is approximately the time body lice started appearing on human body. Though this appears far-fetched, it may sound reasonable to a scientific mind. After humans lost their fur, the only place lice could have comfortably curled up on humans is on clothes. At least, that is how one argument goes (see, for instance, this ezine article). So, it seems, lice caused humans to loose their fur and it also helps us understand when we started wearing clothes. Great, uh?

But then, how does one find out when the lice appeared on the human body? Simple. Just take a modern day louse and ask it. ;-) No, not joking. I did not mean, ask it in so many words. There is another way os asking. And that is to do a kind of DNA analysis that would tell you something about the species. Of course, I hope you know that the human body lice is a species by itself. As the article cited above says, someone actually went to the trouble of asking this question and the lice gave the answer as 107,000 years. Fine. But not so fine. Someone asked the same question to other members of the lice society and they gave a different answer: 540,000 years. This is the problem with asking questions to individuals. Each guy will have his version of the events.

The article cited is rather recent (2008), but there seems to be an earlier report, from 2003, that gives a date like 40,000 years before present (see this abc article). And some recent results from anthropological studies seem to show that humans started wearing shoes some 40,000 years ago (see Softpedia or Livescience). This was deduced from the shape of the toes! What these guys will find out, god only knows!

So, it seems reasonable to believe that people started wearing clothes some 40,000 to 100,000 years ago to protect their body from extremes of weather. It possibly even prevented them from getting soaking wet in rains because in the initial days clothes must have been made from animal skin.

But look at what clothes have become today! They have become a form of self-expression, a means of projecting an image that one wants to be seen, a means of subjugating others, and so on. Apparently everything other than the purpose it was originally meant for!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dressing up and down

There are a number of things that we simply take for granted and never think about. For instance, when we dress to go to work, we normally follow a pattern, a certain kind of dress, maybe we have selected items of our attire that are kept for the purpose. We dress differently when we go for, say, a wedding. It will be different for, say, an outing. We do take a lot of care about our dress, even if we are not generally very careful about dressing up by the standards of our society. I wonder how many people have thought about the need for being so choosy about our dress. Have you?

What I am going to ask here may shock you. So be prepared. Keep your thoughts about conformity, norms, social customs and so on far away from your mind. Done? Ready? Here goes:

Why do people wear clothes? ..... I mean, why do we at all wear clothes? Did your face change colours? Yellow, red blue ... ? Now you know what I meant. Hope the explosions are over. If so, just think of an answer.

Of course, the standard answer is there: How can we move about in society without clothes? That is preposterous, indecent, unlawful, atrocious, shameful, ... blah blah. Well, I am not interested in these answers. If all other animals in this world could get along pretty well without clothes, why should we, humans, homo sapien sapiens, have to wear clothes? Why do we have to hide our bodies from others?

Now, think of the consequences of wearing clothes. Clothes are used to project an image of oneself on others--an image that is not truly that of oneself. Think of how a rather ordinary looking girl/woman can make herself appear like a real beauty with the help of very pretty clothes (and, of course, makeup). Think of how a person can look imposing with the proper kind of clothes, and how some professors (very knowledgeable person, quite possibly) look like tramps because they do not care to take care of their clothes. And so on, and so on. Just think of how often clothes deceive us.

Think of how it might have been helpful if we were not wearing clothes. For example, someone would notice that there is an unusual discolouration behind one's neck, and the person would be able to meet a doctor before the discolouration developed into something bad. Some of us would also get rid of allergic reaction to synthetic fibres. Or escape the consequences of sweat remaining for a long time at some places. With all those disadvantages, we still wear clothes. Why?

Does anyone have any answers? Let me see. I will wait for some time and see what responses I get. Then I will give my reasons. Scientific reasons, believe me.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Ignorance of Science

Perhaps because I had always been interested in science, and was a researcher till recently, I find it astonishing that many apparently well educated people have a lot of misunderstanding about natural phenomena that have been more or less understood by science. Interestingly, some of these things are taught at school level, and some at college level. Somehow, they don't seem to realise that these facts that they studied are really related to the world around us.

I remember a classmate in M.Sc. whom I met again after about three years or so. Learning that I was doing research in atmospheric physics, he asked me a question about the atmosphere (something like why the sky is blue). I told him that he should know because we had studied this in our M.Sc. class. After listening to my answer, he gazed at the sky for a few seconds and said, "Oh, so all that is real?" I was shocked to say the least. Apparently, many students think that what is taught is just for the examination. I hope things have improved now.

I have had the experience several times, while speaking to school students, that they say that thunder and lightning are caused by two clouds colliding. Some of them have even told me that their teachers told them this. Of course, a couple of school teachers too have told me this. In these situations, I have asked them about their concept of a cloud, and also how they think that there can be two winds from opposite directions that cause the clouds to collide. These have generally led to doubts in their minds.

Now let me explain briefly, for those who do not know, what we believe causes lightning and thunder. There is a type of cloud that stretches from close to the ground up to what is called the tropopause of the atmosphere. (The tropopause is at a height of about 18 km at the tropics and comes down to about 6 km at the poles.) This type of cloud is called cumulonimbus by meteorologists and is popularly known as thunderstorm. Because of its nature, it has strong circulation inside and is therefore avoided even by large aircraft. Since temperature decreases as one goes up, ice crystals exist in these clouds above some height. Though the process is not exactly understood, these ice crystals help to generate electric charges inside the cloud. The top of the cloud is generally positively charged and the bottom negatively charged. As the charge builds up, the voltage increases and eventually it becomes possible for the charge to flow and neutralise. This can happen either from the bottom of the cloud to the ground, between charge centres within the cloud or, if two clouds happen to form close together, from one cloud to the other. This is just like an electric spark that forms when the positive and negative terminals of a battery accidentally get short-circuited or power lines sometimes come close together in strong winds. Thus, a lightning discharge is a huge electric spark and thunder is a huge crackle that is produced in an electric discharge. As electric current passes through air, it heats the air suddenly. This leads to the sudden expansion of the air, which creates a wave that we call thunder.

Recently, I met a well-educated elderly person, with degree in science, and employed in a senior position. He told me that he had always been wondering about how clouds can cause such a huge sound and recently found the explanation in a general knowledge book. He told me that the sound is caused when two clouds collide because there are millions of ice crystals in them. I told him what I know but I am not sure that he was convinced. But then he came out with an astonishing observation. He said that if we go to some height, there is no gravitation, and therefore we can float in the air! He had apparently seen visuals of skydiving and thought that the people were actually floating! Again, I tried to tell him that they were not floating but were actually falling. But again, I am not sure he believed me. He asked whether it is not true that there is no gravitation on the Moon. He had seen people leaping over long distances on the Moon in Apollo videos. I tried to tell him that the gravitational force on the Moon was one sixth that on the Earth, but again I doubt that he believed me.

It is unfortunate that our education system fails to convey scientific facts to the students. This makes people easy targets of charlatans who make a living out of cheating such gullible people.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Ten Commandments of Mathematics

While I was rearranging my books and papers, I happened to come across this sheet of paper with the Ten Commandments of Mathematics written down. I thought this may interest others too. So here they are:

1. Thou shalt not divide by zero;

2. Thou shalt not multiply any inequality by zero;

3. Thou shalt not mix up different values of a multiple valued function;

4. Thou shalt not invert the order of operations unless inversion is valid;

5. Thou shalt not proceed to determine a quantity unless thou hast established its existence;

6. Thou shalt not generalise from particular cases;

7. Thou shalt not employ divergent series and divergent integrals;

8. Thou shalt not believe by seeing;

9. Thou shalt not depend on intuition alone; and

10. Thou shalt not mix-up the two-way implication and the two one-way implications.

Hope you find these useful!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Plight of Mental Patients in India

We call a mentally ill person "mad" and throw him/her into an "asylum", and then forget about the person. I don't mean that everyone does that, but a lot of families do that. We think that mental illness is something very different from physical illnesses, something that is probably caused by some "spirits", something incurable. And many people find this a way of eliminating a claimant for property. And some even find this an easy way to get rid of an unwanted spouse. Remember the case of Anjana Mishra, who was put in a mental hospital without even her knowledge, apparently to get rid of her. Fortunately, she found her way out, but how many other women might not have been so fortunate? Remember Ervadi where several mental patients charred to death because they were chained to their beds? We and our hospitals often tend to treat mental patients as though they were not human. This has to stop.

Some time back, when the daughter of a mental patient went to meet her mother in the hospital (Pavlov Mental Hospital, Kolkata) along with a doctor of the hospital, they found all the women in the ward totally nude, as I have explained in an earlier post. Recently, in another hospital, when a patient asked for some more curry, she got a rap on her wrist instead. (Remember Oliver Twist?) These are really nothing compared to what Anjana has written about her stay in the hospital (see the magazine Manushi, issue no. 120). Just a short quote: "The dining hall, situated a little away from the wards, constitutes the most unhygienic part of the entire establishment. Dirty wooden tables line the wall, with the remnants or leftovers of earlier meals, especially, rice and dal particles. Almost a dozen dogs loiter around. The afternoon meal consists of coarse, half-cooked rice, watery dal and a tasteless, odourless curry. All of this put together can kill the appetite of even the hungriest human being. Again, privileged patients, like myself, were entitled to a piece of fried fish, a little curd and a pappad. All the patients eat in a child-like fashion, hogging a mouthful and then taking a walk, then coming back for a second mouthful. The dogs happily lick the plates in this interval. ... Some of the very ill patients even put their food on the floor and have it along with the dogs, while the ayahs in charge exchange gossip." Hospitals give Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT), what we call "shock treatment" without following the norms laid down for it. ECT is supposed to be given only under anesthesia, but then, many hospitals have no anesthetist. ECT is sometimes used as a punishment for not obeying instructios. In most developed countries, ECT is banned. Even the so-called modified ECT is not used in most of Europe and America. Because adverse effects of ECT are reported. There are doctors who admit people without even seeing them, for a consideration. Some time back Tehelka exposed one such doctor. In short, while the condition of mental patients is very bad inside or outside a mental hospital, clever people use these hospitals to get rid of people they don't want.

On the other hand, the social stigma of mental health is so strong, families refuse to accept even relatives who have been cured. Once out of the hospital, former mental patients have often nowhere to go. In most of the cases, they cannot get back to their former jobs, and they cannot find a new job either. Their only recourse most of the time is to go back to the hospital and live the rest of their lives there.

All mental hospitals are overcrowded. The budgetary allocation for mental health is much lower than the need. It is a small fraction of the health budget, but mental patients form a significant fraction of all patients. Many hospitals in the country have no nurses. Sometimes, the hospital Superintendent is not even a psychiatrist.

All this is a big tragedy, and all this has to change. But who will take the initiative? Political parties cannot be interested because mental patients cannot vote, anyway. The hospital staff, doctors, nurses and others, are not interested because the present set up is good for them. The public does not get to know about the issues because hospitals are out of bounds for the ordinary public. But there has to be a change, and the earlier the better. This is a blot on our country, our civilization.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Story of Stuff

Where do all the stuff we use come from? What happens when we throw them away? For an interesting insight into these questions, take a look at Though the story is meant for the US, I think it would be good for every human being to see it, and be sure to watch the entire show. It taught me a couple of things that I never knew. You, too, may gain something. So do not miss it!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Sanal Edamaruku refuses to be killed!

Sanal Edamaruku challenged a senior tantrik, Surinder Sharma, to kill hum using tantra. The encounter was telecast on India TV and the video is now available on YouTube. Be sure to watch all the three parts and spread the word. The tantrik tried four times, every time promising that his victim will feel pain and lose consciousness and finally die. However, Sanal refused to oblige and was finally seen laughing. Interestingly, the tantrik was seen pressing Sanal's forehead, doing something with his hands, moving his head around, and so on. If the tantrik needs physical access to the person, then, I guess, the easiest way is to poke a sharp knife (which the tantrik was seen brandishing at one time) into his heart! Congratulations to Sanal for this feat! I am pretty sure there would be people who would explain this off. They are sure to have excuses. The presence of the camera disturbed the tantrik, Sanal was protected by his god (an excuse the tantrik himself gave, to which Sanal said that he did not believe in any god!), the tantrik was not given sufficient peace to be able to concentrate, and so on. I am sure there would be many to believe these excuses, too.

Every few days or so, we see news about some tantrik killing or injuring someone in the name of revenge or treasure. It is pitiable that in this age we still have in India people who blindly believe such things. Recently, a woman was tied up and beaten on the excuse that she is a witch! All this is due to the failure of our economic and educational system. People resort to such things, I guess, mainly due to a sense of insecurity aided by ignorance. Can we hope that this episode will bring some relief from such exploitation? I wonder.

Incidentally, Sanal is the son of Joseph Edamaruku, who was a leading rationalist in Kerala. Joseph, I think, was the person behind the Rationalist Association and the magazine Yuktivadi.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Female Mental Patients kept Naked

Female patients at the government-owned Pavlov Mental Hospital in Kolkata were found to be kept naked. This was found out when the daughter of a patient was taken to the ward to see her mother. The excuse given was that the clothes had gone for wash!! This is shocking, by itself. But what I found really shocking is something else. When the patient's doctor, who took the patient's daughter to see her mother, reacted to the treatment meted out to the patients, the employees there protested and started an agitation against the doctor!! The doctor refused to apologise. Peace returned only after the Superintendent apologised on behalf of the doctor! Apparently, the nurses thought that keeping the patients naked was not a big issue!!!

I am not going to discuss what happened. Information is available from several websites such as The Hindu, the Telegraph, FRIDA and so on. But I would like to look at the reasons why such things (which are not all that uncommon) happen.

When something like this becomes known, what the government does usually is to order an enquiry (which has been done in this case too). However, no one seems to look into why such things happen. I think this is more important than understanding what happened. How can some employees leave some helpless women patients totally naked? In fact, how can hospital employees leave any patient naked? How can women employees feel that there is nothing wrong in this? How come people become so insensitive? What is happening to our society?

I have to give special emphasis to these questions since people go to hospitals because they have problems, not for a holiday (though, apparently, there are hospitals where the wealthy go for a holiday). And what they expect are solutions to their problems, not more problems. And answers to these questions are essential if we are to ensure that such things are not repeated.

I have a few possible answers, one or more of which could have some truth. The first is that the hospital does not have enough money or manpower for proper functioning. This is a possibility since this is the condition in many government institutions.

Another possible answer is that the employees are not given proper training to handle patients, real people with real problems (mental or physical). In the case of mental patients this is particularly important since they are unable to react or demand their rights. Their situation is worse than that of criminals in prisons. No one takes what they say seriously. Therefore, nurses and other staff in mental hospitals need to be trained especially to be sensitive and empathetic to the patients and not treat them like objects, like just names in the register, like numbers in a roll. Are they trained for that at the nursing schools or after recruitment? This has to be ensured by the government. Ill treating mental patients is not going to help bring cure, even if they are given medicines.

But a question may be asked whether people can be trained to be empathetic, to be sensitive. The question is very appropriate, since these qualities are often imbibed or cultivated over a number of years. And this leads to my third explanation: Is the recruitment process appropriate? Does it select people who can handle this kind of a job? It is heartening to see that a doctor protested the treatment to the patients. We sometimes (often?) see doctors behave without empathy to their patients, doctors who behave as though their patients are just like the cadavers they have operated upon in their medical school. I have heard of doctors who wait for their bakshish to reach them before fixing the surgery of cancer patients who are suffering, whose relatives are running from pillar to post to save their bread-winner. This happens because individuals who have no aptitude for service (after all, treatment is a service) become doctors due to various reasons. What the government should do is to ensure that the selection process weeds out such individuals. This may not be as easy as it sounds, but I feel that aptitude is not one of the considerations in recruiting people for jobs, especially such jobs.

Will the government of West Bengal consider these aspects in the enquiry they conduct? Or will the enquiry remain a fact-finding mission and some scapegoats be found to tide over the present problem? I hope they will not, though my mind tells me they will.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Richard Peet---Geography against neo-liberalism

This is an interview I had with Prof. Richard Peet at Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai, when we met during the International Conference on Critical Geography in December, 2007, which no one wanted to publish.

Prof. Richard Peet is a well-known Marxist Geographer. He has a B.Sc. in Economics from the London School of Economics, an MA from the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He works in the Clark University in the United States. His areas of interest include: social and economic geography, political ecology, liberation ecology, development theory, geography of consciousness and rationality, philosophy and social theory, iconography, semiotics, and critical policy studies. He has published several popular books including Geography of Power, Unholy Trinity: The IMF, World Bank and WTO, Liberation Ecology and Theories of Development (with Elaine Hartwick). A very friendly and sensitive individual, he speaks with a lot of passion especially when he talks about poverty and neo-liberalism. He was recently at the Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai, to participate in the 5th International Conference on Critical Geography. In this interview that was started in Mumbai and completed through e-mail, Prof. Peet speaks about poverty in India, neo-liberalism, the Indian left and so on.

Q: Prof. Richard Peet, Welcome to India. Is this the first time you are visiting India?

A: Yes, it is. I have been in India only five days.

Q: How do you find India?

A: India has made a deep impression on me. I have never seen the depth or extent of poverty I have seen here anywhere in the world. I have visited many poor countries, and lived in such countries, as for example South Africa, one of the most unequal countries in the world. But nowhere have I seen so much poverty. I was in Delhi before I came to Mumbai, and one moment stands out. When traveling in Delhi by car, beggars come up to you when you stop anywhere, especially when they see a white person. This has happened many times. But one moment stands out. A little girl, about 5 years old, came begging in the usual practiced way, mournful face, hand pointing to mouth, and
everybody rejected her. I did too. She was talking to herself as she went from car to car. She has lost her childhood in this way. I was thinking what it must be like for a child to grow up being rejected a thousand times a day, instead of being re-inforced, told she is wonderful, hugged and kissed by her Mum and Dad. That night I called my wife and tried to tell her about this. I could not complete the conversation because I became so emotional. And here in Mumbai, along the road, little naked kids play inches away from trucks, cars, taxis. I even saw a couple of boys flying a home-made kite over the traffic. What a mess. India needs hundreds of millions of new houses, with good services, in pleasant places, so its children can grow up ... happily.

Q: That leads to a very important question. Why do you think, after sixty years of independence, we have failed to effectively address the question of poverty?

A: I think it failed because the development model that has been used has been totally inadequate in meeting the problem. What we need is to be able to generate a large number of productive jobs, you know, to make most of the people productive in society making useful goods and useful services. There were some indications of that in the early days when there was still some degree of socialist commitment in India. But that has dissipated. And now we have the neo-liberal model but it's never going to do it. That model will never be able to produce the number of jobs necessary to end poverty. Even China, which has been supposedly successful using this development model for the last fifteen years, is ridden with inequalities to the extent that, even in difficult circumstances, there are eighty thousand major protests each year. And protesters in China are not only beaten with the cane, as with India, but also imprisoned, tortured and shot for taking part in those demonstrations. So even the most successful case of using the neoliberal model has produced that level of inequality. It just shows the whole neo-liberal model to be completely inadequate to solving the kinds of problems faced by the masses, the peasants and workers in China, India and elsewhere in the Third World.

Q: We are standing in Mumbai, which is possibly the most industrialised city in India. But we find abject poverty also here, with people living even inside concrete pipes meant for drainage. Why does this happen?

A: It is because this model deliberately siphons income to super rich people. It disguises this by saying: "Look, to develop we need people to invest. For investment to happen we need people with money. So rich people should have large incomes in order to raise capital. They are the people who are going to invest and create jobs.'' This is a corrupt idea. Rich people may or may not invest, may or may not keep their money in India, and so on. There is nothing that forces them to invest in productive jobs for people. They can invest in movie production, they can gamble on the international market, all they want to do is make a profit. So siphoning income to super rich people is a totally inadequate way of producing jobs for the masses. What you need instead is more a bottom-up model of development, where you subsidize co-operative production, small scale production, medium size industries, where you have land reform to enable the peasants there to use their surplus in increasing
productivity capacity. And in the end what you get is a more productive agriculture leading to smaller scale industrialisation, the two sectors interchanging goods with each other. To generate an internal field of this kind of productive exchange you need protection against competition from the global market, at least for a while. Economics emphasizes competitive efficiency far too much. The more important thing is for the economy to produce jobs that bring
income and dignity. "Efficiency'' needs rephrasing to mean efficiency in generating income for poor people.

Q: As you said, there was a socialist approach in the initial days after the independence. The left was very strong then, though not in a position to influence the government since the ruling party had a large majority. But now the left is split into several parties. And some people believe that the split has actually helped its growth. What do you think about that?

A: I think you can have very productive discussions among people in the left that do not splinter the left. It's difficult I know. But in the case of dialogue among the far too many Communist parties in India, we have to remember that Marxism is not some dogmatic doctrine that forces you to think along a certain line, though it is often interpreted to be exactly that---as though its been learned by heart, through class recital. It is a way of thinking creatively on behalf of the working class. If you are an intellectual, you are well educated, you can think generally, you can think theoretically, then you should be using that capacity to think on behalf of the people. Not that you just impose your views on people. But you take their ideas and help restate them in a more theoretical and general way. Then, of course, you have lots of discourse among people who hold different kinds of opinion. Because all these ideas are extremely creative. But don't let that split the left. There is a difference between discussion and splitting into factions. Splitting is just selfishness.

Q: We find the left parties coming out and saying something like "We made a mistake when we did that. We admit our mistakes.'' This is good, in a way, that they admit mistakes. But this seems to happen rather frequently. They seem to continue to make mistakes. One would have expected them to learn from the mistakes and take care not to make new mistakes.

A: You would think that the left is the most pretentious, egocentric and split-prone group of people in the whole world! All that they want to do is split and form splinter parties. This has always been a problem, it seems almost to be a natural characteristic of the left. However, we can learn from the past, without being imprisoned by it. The differences among left parties are insignificant in comparison with the tasks faced by the left, by anyone who has a conscience, in India. This country is ready to explode! You cannot have such a degree of inequality in a country without having major uprisings. Be the spokesman of those people, say it eloquently, concentrate on your real enemies, don't dissipate energy on inter-factional in-fighting.

Q: Yes, it is a wonder that, with so much disparity, this place has not exploded.

A: Neo liberalism is actually a very effective ideology. Somehow it gets people to think that maybe they can be one of them, one of the rich and powerful. A lot of new capitalists have come up. But it does provide also a very nice entertainment system---I have never in my life seen more people dancing on TV. So the misery of the masses is reflected at the utter opposite pole in the super happiness of the movie idol. I have never seen an entertainment system that is more opposite to the conditions faced by the majority of the population than I have witnessed in India.

Q: It sometimes appears that the left has vacated spaces that one would think should have been naturally theirs. The first thing that comes to my mind is the environment movement that the left rejected as a conspiracy of the developed countries. Some of the environmentalists were even branded as CIA agents.

A: Let us take the environment movement. I was a socialist when I heard the first environmental discourse. I thought it was a diversion, you know, from the main issues of class, power, poverty etc. I didn't realize the connection between capitalism and the destruction of nature and I didn't know the extent to which the damage has already been done, to the point of being irreversible. Climate change is a massive transformation in the natural system. Even now, with the
little bits of realisation we've achieved experiencing "natural catastrophes'', we go on doing the damage. Even when people realize what they are doing to nature, they still consume and produce in careless ways. This resembles some kind of mass suicide which says, "I know I am destroying nature, but let me get my bit in first''.

Q: Interestingly, our conversation almost appears like a conversation with an economist or a politician. However, you are a geographer. You have also written that you do take a definite political stand when you teach geography. We understand geography as something related to the surface of the Earth, distribution of people and so on. How is politics involved in this?

A: I think, write and teach as a social scientist not encumbered by disciplinary limits. But I emphasize issues of space and nature more than, say, an economist. For example, my recent book Geography of Power looks at concentrations of power in hegemonic global cities and the outward diffusion of power as policies, the re-shaping of these in sub-hegemonic centers, like New Delhi, and the interactions among different power centers, as with Mumbai (financial power) and Delhi (political power center).

Q: We are now in the middle of a conference on Critical Geography. Most people have little idea about this subject. Can you please explain what Critical Geography is?

A: Once you understand what Geography is---for example, the study of power in global space---the notion of a critical geography becomes easy to realize. We are critical of the existing globalization. We want a different kind of globalization. We stand for the oppressed in this globalization. We want to help in a political process that might be summarized as; "Poor people of the World, Unite ... you have nothing to loose except your Chains''.

Q: Can you say something about how popular is Critical Geography in the US and in other countries?

A: We call it radical geography, and it appeals to students and the public on a wide scale. In the US, students have a lot of freedom to take classes that they are interested in, rather than just courses that are prescribed. They come to radical geography en masse, and leave ... changed for ever.

Q You have written that you take a Leftist stance when you critique geography in your classroom. I would imagine that you would have to face quite a bit of criticism in the US for doing that. Have you faced problems because of your Leftist ideology?

A: Not really in the sense of censorship. I say what I want, in and out of the lecture theater. The students protect me. Where they get you is by not awarding grants to openly Marxist faculty, not appointing you to endowed ``chairs'', not giving you pay raises. But who cares? Contributing to the global struggle is satisfying at a level far above these petty punishments. We live our lives saying interesting things to interested people. They live their lives doing
petty things, going to boring meetings, writing memos, reading trivial texts, and so on. I feel sorry for administrators, for powerful people in general. They have no meaning in their lives.

Q: Hope you will be coming to India again, sooner rather than later. Are you thinking of any work in India?

A: I'm going to write a couple of things based on my experiences here, and I will send you copies. I will return if I'm invited.

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