Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Congress campaign for austerity

This must have been the shortest austerity campaign in recent times; the Congress Government, in a measure to try to get some political points, decided to try and make a show of an austerity program. Hence, 2 ministers were evicted from their hotels (even though they were apparently paying for their stay out of their pocket) and told to stay in the State Guest houses, ministers were told to fly economy (and the whole country had fun when the apparent discussion inside the cabinet where many opposed this campaign was exposed); then you had the spectacle whereby Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi went by mass consumer transport - Sonia Gandhi by an economy ticket, and Rahul Gandhi by train. It was soon that the press highlighted the costs, with many more tickets booked inside the plane and train for security reasons. Further, there was grumbling about how SPG security is based on surprise trips where no one knows the exact transport, and here there were press people along with Rahul Gandhi.
The press took up this campaign in right earnest, with the first fun involving a Congress MP on the same flight as Sonia Gandhi, who had to give up his first class seat in order to come back to economy. And then the press took up the actual costs that politicians spend on their office, on their vehicles, and so on, to the extent that the Government would have regretted going on such a campaign. None of our politicians of the day are the renunciation type, the saint type, and all of them like their luxuries.
In some cases, it is downright foolhardiness. When a Minister goes abroad for a conference or a discussion, you need the Minister to be rested and relaxed, now bone-weary after multiple flights cramped in economy.
The biggest problem is that instead of focusing on areas where the Government can really save money, it is looking at cosmetic show effects. If the Government were to focus on leakages in social sector programs such as the Employment Scheme, the PDS, do project completion in time and without cost over-run and try to reduce the corruption endemic in the Government, it could save incredible amounts of money. But there is no gain in taking such an effort, that removes money from middlemen down the line.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 11:59 AM    

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Preparation for the Commonwealth Games - how good are we ?

First of all, it is difficult for an individual to really find out what the current state of the preparation for the Commonwealth Games is ? The current reality is that there is work needed to be done at various fronts - the Delhi Government has set in process a huge amount of infrastructure improvements to give the city a modern feel and look. This includes improvements to the transport infrastructure (new roads, modification of roads to reduce jams and increase speed of transport, more metro stations), improvements to the existing stadia to make them capable of handling huge international sports (for example, the Indira Gandhi Indoor stadium leaked a couple of years back when there was an international badminton event), provision of adequate power, housing, and water supplies.
There are multiple levels of responsibility in all this - there is an Organizing Committee of the Indian Olympic Association headed by Suresh Kalmadi, and of course the Delhi Government headed by Shiela Dixit is responsible for the progress of the various infrastructure initiatives. It is worthwhile to remember that one of the biggest problems quoted for infrastructural project cost over-runs in the past is poor project management. I stated in the beginning that it is difficult for an individual to assess, however, there are many other authorities who do take such assessments, and it is hard to determine whether we will follow the time honored method of Just in Time, or will there be a comfort margin before all these efforts are done.
There was a CAG report that stated that the efforts were behind schedule, the media does evaluations from time to time, and in most of them, the efforts are behind schedule, and in fact, from their own project plans, the effort is behind schedule. However, the duo of Suresh Kalmadi got seriously worried when a similar accusation was made by Commonwealth Games Federation President Michael Fennell. He wrote a letter in which he wanted the Indian Prime Minister to get involved to help get this effort on schedule (link to article):

Reacting to Fennell's outburst, Dikshit said she would use every means at her disposal to make it a success, while Kalmadi announced that he would facilitate the CGF chief's meeting with the Prime Minister. Exuding confidence that everything would fall in place, Dikshit said the Delhi Government would complete all work "well in time" although it was little "nervous" about the preparation.
On the recent criticism by the CAG about slow progress of the infrastructure projects, Dikshit said the audit body had prepared the report last month based on status of works six months back. "They have the right to criticise. But we are working very hard. We are looking at all alternatives. Nation's pride is involved with the event and we will do everything possible to make it a success," she said.

By the Delhi Government's own admission a couple of years back, there will be no augmentation of the power generated specifically for Delhi, so this would mean that the Government will have to buy power at that time to ensure that there is enough energy for the Games sites and the Games Village.
In addition to the above problems, there is also the problem of not enough capacity available for the expected inflow of guests. The Commonwealth Games are expected to pull in a huge number of tourists and there are not enough rooms as per the projected demand. And on this end, there are no details available either.
What is the solution ? The Government spent 5 years realizing that the pace of development of the country-wide network of roads had slowed down, so not sure whether there will be an increase in the intensity of work. My expectation is that in the last few months, there will be a escalation of the pace of work, and we will just make it in time, with a few loose ends in terms of infrastructure, and for the rest, in terms of better road connectivity for the participants, the Delhi Police will chip in terms of routing traffic so that the traffic is suitable for the Games, the normal man getting screwed will not matter.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 11:12 AM    

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Nuclear issue over Iran - another attempt at dialogue

The nuclear ambitions of Iran well known, and the attempts by some of the significant world powers to stop these nuclear efforts (mostly in a futile effort) are also well known by now. Iran has most likely done the calculation that it will be able to pursue its nuclear quest through a measure of playing one country against another along with a dogged determination to go the full path. Further, given the difficult power structure of Iran where the Supreme Leader and the President both represent power centers, it is hard to figure out who is fully in command (although it is believed that in any decision making, the Supreme Leader will prevail; but the recent political chaos also showed that the President has cultivated the Revolutionary Guards and the military to get more power). Iran also believes that the only way for it to project itself as the natural leader of the region is to get nuclear weapons (especially since its given enemy, Israel, has nuclear weapons and advanced delivery systems). Iran also stands alone politically in the region (except for Iraq), since the other countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, etc, all are more or less against Iran (they are all Sunni countries while Iran is a Shia dominated country).
And yet, the countries interacting with Iran over its nuclear stance (primarily the countries in the UN Security Council) are unable to make a decision on how to proceed. Iran has always had the stance that it is using nuclear energy for purposes of generating an alternative to fossil fuels for electricity, a stand that other countries refuse to buy, and yet this must be one of the longest running attempts to have a discussion (link to article):

The U.S. and European Union called for a meeting with Iran to discuss stalled nuclear talks, brushing aside the Persian Gulf country’s failure to mention the dispute over its atomic program in a proposal for negotiations. The EU request for a meeting came in response to the Iranian plan to tie any discussion of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East to talks on the future of the Palestinian people and changes in the structure of the United Nations Security Council.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki presented a five-page document to China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and U.S. in Tehran on Sept. 9. The proposals are a response to Western concern about the atomic work, said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies allegations by the U.S. and major allies that Iran’s nuclear-power development is cover for the production of weapons. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told worshippers in Tehran yesterday that Iran must “stand firm” in the nuclear dispute, saying it has the right to the technology, Agence France-Presse reported.

The members of the Security Council and the EU have not been able to come to an agreement about how to deal with Iran, given that Russia and China have not agreed with the western position. And of course, there is widespread problems even in the US, and the EU about trying to move ahead with a military and hard decision. For India, having another unstable nuclear armed nation in the neighborhood is something that needs to be avoided at all costs.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 3:07 AM    

Friday, September 11, 2009

Massive changes in the Artic weather and ice levels happening

In the last few years, there have been a spate of reports on how global warming is continuing to march ahead, irrespective of the debate among countries and politicians about the steps needed to stop the emissions that contribute to global warming. Global warming is supposed to have a horrific impact on the ice levels of the polar regions and Greenland, with large scale reduction of the Artic and Antartic ice shelfs, along with melting of the huge amount of ice present in Greenland. This melting will release enough water to increase sea water levels, in turn devastating many low lying islands and low lying coastal regions. Scientists further fear that we are moving to an accelerated level of changes due to global warming, where global warming will become unsustainable (as an example, less ice covering the water means that the blue dark water will absorb more energy rather than the light reflected by white ice).
Global warming is already devastating the habitat of animals in the colder regions in the extreme North. The impact on polar bears is already pretty well known, but there are a whole range of animals that are affected (link to article):

The Arctic as we know it may soon be a thing of the past. That's the message from Eric Post, lead scientist of a new report into the effects of climate change on life in the Arctic. "It seems no matter where you look -- on the ground, in the air, or in the water -- we're seeing signs of rapid change," said Post in a press statement.
With the decline in sea ice and snow, animals usually seen at lower latitudes are being found in more northerly regions, including red foxes that have been displacing native Arctic foxes. Migratory caribou in low Arctic Greenland and elsewhere are declining in number as they have not been able to keep their calving season in synch with changes in plant growth. With the decline in caribou comes a knock-on effect to native Inuit hunters, according to the report's authors. Hotter summers could result in more insects and parasites that prey on the caribou, which could then also reduce the annual caribou harvest by local indigenous peoples.

This impact on animals and the native human populations is different from 'Survival of the fittest' since these are changes made by humans. Unfortunately, these are just an indicator of the impact of global warming, the changes are happening all around us.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 10:54 PM    

Monday, September 07, 2009

Government goes in for reform in education system: Class Xth boards off

The Congress Government, in its second 5 year term, wants to make a start with a bang. As a result, the Government had set an ambitious plan of kicking off many major initiatives in the first 100 days; part of which were some announcements by the education ministry. Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal shocked a large number of politicians and state officials when he advocated for the abolition of the class Xth boards (and many other proposals). He faced criticism for the sudden announcement of such measures, but looks like he has done a lot more networking since that time.
When you look at today's world, with a huge amount of pressure and load on students, the Class Xth exams are a major contributor. Schools have been known to encourage students to leave or take a non-favorable option in XIth if a student does not do well in the Class Xth board exams. In addition, schools have an additional pre-boards that are used before the boards and which essentially mean that a student can go upto 3-4 months of heavy pressure. In order to reduce this peak pressure somewhat, the Government (which controls the CBSE board, but not state boards) has proposed that the Class Xth board be now optional for students, and they can instead opt in for a comprehensive year-round appraisal system. The year-round system will be valid from the current school year, while the boards becoming optional will happen from the next year (link to article):

Over eight lakh students appearing for their class X exams in March 2010 have to take Board exams for which the results will be declared through grading system. From 2011, the grading system will continue but the Board exams will become optional. "After the Board examination is abolished in 2011 (for class X), students will have choice to take the Board exam on demand for transfer (to another school) or entry into pre-university institutes," Sibal said.
Grading procedure, which was finalised by a high-level committee headed by CBSE chairman Veenith Joshi, will warrant students to secure more than 33 per cent marks to get a certificate. The nine-point scale will start from A1(with 91-100 marks, exceptional), A2(81-90, excellent), B1(71-80, very good), B2(61-70, good), C1(51-60, fair), C2(41-50, average), D(33-40, below average), E1(21-32, needs improvement) and E2(00-20, unsatisfactory).

The worry of course is that the system is now made in place, but schools are not properly instructed, or that schools decide to follow their own path and 'encourage' students to still give the boards. The enforcement of this policy needs to be carried through in letter and spirit in order for students to feel a sense of relief.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 12:44 PM    

Friday, September 04, 2009

Gujarat High Court removes ban on Jaswant Singh's book

A democratic country believes by certain principles; one of the most important ones is to recognize freedom of speech, and make that a corner-store of policy. There are certain real world considerations that come into this freedom of speech (one classic example is that of hate speech, where you would certainly like to control such freedom of expression), but such considerations should be only after a lot of thought, not based on political thinking.
The ban and entire treatment of Jaswant Singh's book was totally an expression of politics. The book, 'Jinnah - India, Partition, Independence' tries to portray a different thought on the role of the key players at the time of partition, and re-evaluates the role of Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Nehru, and Jinnah. In official reading of history from the Indian side, Jinnah is the arch-villain, and Nehru was the one who reluctantly agreed to partition, even though it cast a huge emotional hole in him.
Jaswant Singh takes a fresher look at all this, portraying each of these monumental figures as people with a grey side to their character, in the sense that Nehru and Sardar Patel also had a role to play in the movement towards partition. And it was this depiction of history, especially the role of Patel, that caused a huge uproar. Without any due process, just on the basis of a book (and almost repeating what Advani had said earlier about Jinnah), Jaswant Singh was cast aside from the BJP and not even given a chance to present his case. And in further political moves, the Gujarat Government promptly banned the book for causing the depiction of Sardar Patel in a negative light.
It is this decision by the Gujarat Government that was over-turned by the court, claiming that the decision was invalid, and did not present a valid case. However, since the court allowed the Gujarat Government to file a fresh notification, one can expect that the Government will do so again. The Gujarat Government does not want it depicted that a high ranking BJP member wrote a book denigrating Sardar Patel and the Government was not seen to be taking any action.
All this is nothing but politics. From what I have read of the book, it does not go into any kind of hate speech, and does not provoke any kind of lowering of respect of the nation. At the same time, we as a nation should be strong enough to handle any such book that could present other sides of our previous god-like leaders.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 12:53 PM