Thursday, April 30, 2009

Skeptical about the 'flu?

The American media is going nuts. Crying wolf. Or should I say, crying pig?

Most 'thinking' humans are skeptical. They contend that

(a) America is known to have a hyper-active media. The media always tends to hype things up. When the media says we're all going to die, it does not mean it. It is a slave to its ratings.

(b) Good ol' normal influenza kills 100 people per day on average. The swine 'flu cannot hold a candle to it. This is all misplaced concern.

While these points of view are indeed not without merit, we would do well to remember the great pandemic of 1917. The Spanish flu killed anywhere between 20 Million to 100 million people around the world. (No, this is not a typ0 - almost one third the population of Europe was wiped out). And this was caused by a virulent strain of the influenza virus. The single most deadly event of the previous century. And arguably the largest death toll by any single incident. Clearly, 'flu is serious business.

Perhaps the immense death toll of the Spanish flu would be enough to justify the media fear mongering. Staying on the safe side, after all. While this does convince me that some amount of fear-mongering is indeed warranted by the popular media, I would still like a few clarifications.

1. Does this swine disease have a larger probability of morphing into something like the Spanish 'Flu, than does a normal influenza virus? If it does not, then all the hype is but pointless.

2. Why isn't the original spanish 'flu still around, if it was so successful?

3. Why are deaths being reported only in Mexico? Is it because the disease is far more widespread than acknowledged? This would appear to be so, since so many people who have traveled to other parts of the world from Mexico have contacted the disease. If the number of sick people in Mexico were only 2000, then the probability that so many tourists caught the disease is very, very low.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's Election Time!

When I used to live in India, I did kind of take Indian democracy for granted. But only now, when I look at it from a distance do I see how historic, inspirational and remarkable the whole thing is.

Because what is happening this month (Mid-April to Mid-May '09) is the largest exercise of democracy in the history of humanity. With 700 Million potential voters and turn outs of the order 60%, this is a mammoth undertaking. The number of ballots cast will be larger than the entire population of the world's second largest democracy, the US! Every subsequent Indian general election that happens from now till around 2050 (when the Indian population is expected to peak) will set the record for being the largest the planet has ever seen.

What I meant when I said that I used to take Indian Democracy for granted, was that I assumed it was infinitely robust. I thought Indian democracy would stay until infinity. But a little time away from home (and regular perusal of world news) later, I realize how feeble the whole thing actually is - and how close India is to being an illiberal democracy.

The single largest threat to Indian democracy is not Islamic terror. It is not Hindu terror. They are irritants - the latter, possibly more so than the former. It is not jingoistic Nationalism. If America has its Glenn Becks, then India does need every square cubic centimeter of its chauvanists. (Perhaps more nationalistic versions of Bal Thakeray?) . Don't get me wrong: I will still hate them. But I will hate them less than I hate the current Thakeray. Nationalism is necessary to prevent India from disintegrating into little nation states fighting against each other.

In my opinion, the single largest threat has more to do Maoist terror than with religious extremism. It is extreme poverty. With 14% of India living on less than Rs 20 a day - and 1,500 farmers taking their own lives this year (in Chattisgharh alone), one can appreciate how seductive a call for revolution - a call to over-throw the 'oppressors' can sound. Suppose, for argument's sake, your Dad is a cotton farmer in Vidarbha. And suppose he takes on some debt to sow some crop. And suppose that either (a) the monsoon fails (b) The monsoon succeeds and everyone has a bumper crop pushing down prices and the big farmer with his larger fleet of trucks reaches the market first. Then he (your dad) is left with a huge loss and a loan shark pursuing him. He has no option but to commit suicide.

Of course, Milton Friedman (and the like) would probably interject at this point and claim that the business model of the farmer is fundamentally flawed. He should not be sowing cotton in his field, they will claim. He should sow something that fetches him more reliable profit. But one would do well to remember that we are talking about some of the poorest of the poor farmers in the world. It is not likely that these folks will be able to hire McKinsey to tell them what to sow.

And now you, after seeing your father die because either

(a) The government did not intervene and help him out in a drought
(b) The big farmer manages to sell all his cotton before your father could even get his produce to the market

you are justifiably disillusioned with the whole system. You are convinced that the system that we are living is has ceased to function. The notion that a revolution is necessary is becoming more and more evident to you. You would only be rational to respond entusiastically to a call to arms; to a call to spread Anarchy and exact revenge on you deem a hearltless, exploitatory society. You, along with your cohorts then proceed to hijack a train or something.

India's economic reforms have left some of its poor behind. Though poverty has indeed reduced in India in the last few years - and the middle class has indeed become richer, the prosperity is yet to trickle down to a staggering percentage of Indians. Can we really blame the opressed for feeling that Democracy has failed them?

That being as it may, it still can be argued that Indian elections is the lone voice of a suffering people. Every five years, the long suffering farmers in rural India have a chance to throw out candidates who do not address their plight. And they do faithfully reject these failed candidates. India's suffering multitudes are quite politically savvy. They attened their rallies, they listen to their candidates - and they have a track record of throwing out elitists. (The BJP government is a case in point, as is the Naidu government in AP). They throw out tyrants (Ms. Indira Gandhi). They respect development and honesty (I will grudgingly admit that Gujarat's butcher, Modi comes to mind here).

You vote out one set of jerks. But if the new bunch of people are also a set of jerks who are unlikely to help you, then how long does it take for you to lose faith in the system and then radicalize and become a Maoist (or something similar)? I say this because the numbers are extraordinary. More than one lakh (100,000) farmers have committed suicide in India in the last decade! If this is the number of people who have actually taken the drastic step of committing suicide, then the number of discontented people must at least be 5-10 times more. And that's as many people as we have in the Indian Army.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Shoes, Tea Parties and the Like.

Firstly, some apologies for not updating. I've hardly been getting time to do anything other than work these days. I have been catching up with my news regularly - but I have just not been able to sound off on the numerous events that have transpired since my last significant post.

Inspired by that Iraqi journo who hurled shoes at the American Bush, several Indian journalists, teachers and party workers have hurled shoes, shoes and slippers respectively at their over-lords. Home minister P Chidambaram (at the recieving end of the second of the said projectiles at the hands of a political dissident) actually went ahead and did a Gandhi ("I forgive him".).

Since these projectiles were traveling at sub-sonic velocties and certainly did not originate in a barrel, one does find them rather amusing and disconcerting at the same time. This method of expressing discontent seems to be decidedly better than methods being used by some in Pakistan these days - but still, does one really want to go there? Ought we be throwing shoes at anyone? What good could possibly come out of throwing shoes at Chidambaram?
This proliferation of projectiles propelled towards leaders does at least indicate that Indians are staying cognizant of events occurring on the international stage. It is obvious that these incidents were inspired by the intrepid Iraqi who was reluctant to buy into the idea that his nation was prospering under the US of A's imperial presence within its borders. What's next? Tea parties in Patiala?

Update: As of April 28th, shoes (and slippers) have been hurled at Dr. Singh and the CM of Karnataka and alleged Muthalik sympathizer, Yeddyurappa. Looks like the shoe event horizon has truly arrived in the sub-continent (positive economic growth rates notwithstanding).

Tea Parties

Several hundred (a few thousand) Americans, oblivious to the fact that Obama's stimulus package actually cut taxes on the middle class, took to the streets claiming that their tax rates were too high. They went ahead with ridiculous proclamations that Obama was Hitler's reincarnation - and threw the f-word ("fascist") around quite liberally.

In my opinion, the tea parties are the most perverse events on the face of this planet. There is nothing worse than seeing some of the richest people on this planet whine about paying their taxes - especially when their taxes are at historically low levels.

Considering that people around the world are dying of starvation and extreme poverty it seems offensively selfish to see the pampered elite of this planet complain that their government is eating up their hard earned cash - especially when their taxes are lower than other liberal democracies.

Rich Americans and Europeans, the only reason that you're rich is because you have colonized a rich land that you snatched away from indigenous folks and (slaugtered them all). If all of you were stuffed inside continental Europe, I dare say, you would not be about as prosperous per-capita as you are right now. Europe has a population of 0.7B. Americans (mainly descended from Europeans) number 0.35B. Add them together and take away the entire area of north America - and you will probably have a sub-continent-esque economic situation in Europe.