Saturday, October 29, 2005

us imperialism

Mike Marqusee, the author of several excellent books on topics ranging from Muhammad Ali to the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry to Bob Dylan, has an excellent essay in today's Hindu explaining why American's keep refusing to believe the USA is an imperialist power: they lie to themselves.

alive and kicking

Three large explosions in crowded market areas last night killed more than fifty people, in what was apparently a terrorist attack. So far nobody has claimed responsibility, and there are a host of ethnic, political and religious groups who oppose the state. That said, unless another group comes forward, most people will assume this was the act of one of several militant groups that oppose the peace process underway between New Delhi and Islamabad over the disputed territories of Jammu & Kashmir.

News reports will slowly file in. But from the sounds of the street vendors selling vegetables and buying used bottles and newspapers for recycling, who appeared outside my window as on any ordinary Sunday, it seems Delhi will swiftly return to normal.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

the death of understatement

The Asian Age continues its "expose" on the evils of Google Earth today, with a picture of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium that supposedly illustrates "the death of privacy." Somehow, I don't see how these photos--which are very cool, but generally useless--are a threat to my privacy. You can't even see people. I looked for my old apartment in NY and recognized a few taxicabs and a delivery truck or two, but nothing that's going to out anybody, solve a crime or cause a divorce. This reminds me of those irritating placards that tell you not to take pictures of the bridge/harbor/naval destroyers. Has this crack security prevented terrorism so far? Has it protected naval cadets from appearing in compromising photographs?

I say bring on the satellites, and zoom in. Let's put the paparazzi out of business by boring everybody with 24/7 video of everybody else. Live. Voyeurs need never leave home.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

comments and spog

Special thanks to jabberwock for informing me that one can avoid spog by enabling "word verification" in the comment settings. (Bloggers take note). Let's see if that does the trick.

On another note, we're considering opening up this space to additional contributors, since we don't seem to have the time and inclination to post regularly. Anyone interested in becoming a member -- all the fun of your own blog without the hassle of posting every day -- comment on this post and include your email address.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Scouting for Homegrown Ingenuity

A unique academic network nurtures innovation among India's poor

By Shailaja Neelakantan

Issue cover-dated September 30, 2005

Ahmedabad, India

Mansukhbhai Patel, a hard-working farmer with a 10th-grade education, has revolutionized the cotton industry here in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Had it not been for a chance meeting with a college student, the cotton-stripping machine Mr. Patel invented might never have been a success.

That student put Mr. Patel in touch with Anil Gupta, a management professor at one of the country's elite Indian Institutes of Management and the founder of an unconventional academic project. An evangelical supporter of grassroots innovations, Mr. Gupta is on a mission to ensure that rural inventors like Mr. Patel can commercialize their creations. To make that happen, Mr. Gupta founded the Honey Bee Network, a scouting team of sorts, in which academics, scientists, graduate students, farmers, and artisans seek out and nurture the tinkerers, mechanics, and self-taught scientists in villages and small towns across India.

The network, formed in 1987, has discovered Amrutbhai Agrawat and his tilting bullock-cart, which greatly enhances efficiency in spreading manure on small fields; Mansukhbhai Jagani's modified motorcycle, which has attachments for tilling, weeding, and sowing; Kalpesh Gujjar's small, energy-saving seed-oil extractor with a novel gearbox; and Arvindbhai Patel's water chiller that uses no electricity.

All of those men are rural workers whose original goal was simply to make backbreaking work a little easier.

"Poor people have to be inventive to survive," says Mr. Gupta, "and the elite often fail to recognize that the poor are knowledge-rich, and that is a vital resource for any community and economy." Clad in a knee-length, hand-woven shirt called a kurta, white pajama pants, and sandals, he looks more like a zealous social activist than a professor at a university that turns out future corporate executives.

Readers in the developed world may question why a new cotton-stripping machine is needed when Eli Whitney's cotton gin revolutionized the industry more than 200 years ago. But Mr. Patel faced a problem characteristic of this region.

Farmers here grow a tough variety of cotton, called V-797, that does not need much water and can withstand the harsh, arid climate. While most hybrid varieties produce balls of cotton that can be picked directly from the plant, this indigenous variety produces sturdy pods that do not open easily to let loose the fibers within.

Instead, the pods must be picked off the plant and cracked manually to extract the fibers. This is a tedious and time-consuming task performed by women and children, who often cannot pick all of the cotton before seasonal rains arrive. Traditional handpicking methods also force children to work long hours in the field instead of attending school.

Mr. Patel, a self-taught electrician and mechanic, started work on his cotton-stripping machine in 1991. He made three models before selecting the one that worked best, and he finished the first prototype in 1992. The following year, he sold a number of them to local ginners in his village of Nana Ubhada. But after a couple of months, a wire-mesh plate in each machine broke, and the machines failed. Mr. Patel stunned his customers, and the community, by giving the ginners back their money and continuing to work on his invention. His reputation as a dogged technician and an honest businessman grew.

'The Crazy Ones'

In 1995, Hirendra Rawal, a scout from the Honey Bee Network, was touring Nana Ubhada.

"The student scouts are given a clear mandate," says Mr. Gupta. "Go from village to village and look for the oddballs, the crazy ones, the ones who do something different and don't follow set patterns, the ones with curiosity, who have come up with homegrown solutions for various problems.
And Hirendra kept hearing things about Mansukhbhai Patel, mostly about his honesty and integrity, and also about his failed machine."

Mr. Rawal met Mr. Patel and was intrigued by his machine. He wrote up his notes and showed them to Mr. Gupta.

"At the time a professor from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay was visiting, and I took him along to meet Mansukhbhai, and he said that with some alterations the cotton stripper would work just fine," says Mr.

Unlike many of the self-taught innovators the scouts came across, Mr. Patel was open-minded about getting help.

"Initially, many grassroots innovators don't like to talk about what they do or give away their secrets," says Kamlesh Kumar Tawal, a scout. "It takes a couple of visits to convince them that we are not here to steal their ideas, but we are here to help them take the ideas forward and give them credit for it."

Mr. Patel had no such misgivings. "Taking help is a good thing, and I don't consider it beneath me. I knew things would get better when they came to me," he says about the Honey Bee Network.

Soon after he met Mr. Patel, Mr. Gupta heard from Ahmedabad's elite National Institute of Design that a German exchange student wanted to work on design innovations in a rural area. The student ended up staying with Mr. Patel as they worked together on a new machine. A final model, built in 1999, worked perfectly.

"It was interesting working with a professional but also a bit strange,"
recalls the genial Mr. Patel. "I visualize a model in my head and then I make it. But the professionals sit at their computer or with pencil and paper and draw and redraw things before they actually make something."

Before he started the Honey Bee Network, Mr. Gupta was a consultant for the Bangladesh government and helped farmers there use technology to improve yields and working conditions. He says that job left him dissatisfied. "I wrote all these papers, having used their grassroots knowledge, and I got this ... [very high] salary, but I never gave anything back. I felt quite guilty. Maybe it is the Indian mentality."

So he decided to help rural innovators by securing intellectual property rights for them and publicizing their inventions. He explains how he came up with the name of his network: "I had in mind the metaphor of honeybees that collect nectar from flowers without impoverishing them, and in turn, the bees aid pollination and diversity."

In 1993 the Honey Bee Network was renamed the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions, or Sristi.
Students in the society write case studies of particular inventions and publish them in Honey Bee magazine, which was initially supported by the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, but now operates independently and is published in eight languages.

Set for Life

In 1997 Mr. Gupta and his organization helped form the Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network, or GIAN.

"We realized that we were cataloging all these innovations and helping the grassroots innovators, but we weren't equipped to take these innovations forward," says Mr. Gupta, who convinced the government of the State of Gujarat, where his institute is located, to contribute $230,000 to what eventually became a business incubator. "Back then we called it a trust, but turns out it was India's first microventure incubation fund," chuckles Mr.
Gupta. "All these concepts became buzzwords much later, but we were thinking about them even before that."

GIAN gave Mr. Patel $5,100 to start commercial production of the cotton stripper, and the first sales were made in 2000. Three years later GIAN helped Mr. Patel obtain a U.S. patent. Last year he won India's National Research Development Corporation technology award for best innovation.

Today this former amateur technician, who was once chided by his wife for his "crazy pursuits," earns nearly $7,000 a year -- a lot of money in India, where the average yearly income is $350. To ensure that sales don't stagnate, he has made energy-saving and capacity-enhancing improvements on his machine twice since 2000.

Ginners now are replacing their old machines, so sales remain steady. Mr.
Patel has moved out of his village house and built a home about 40 miles from Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. His new house has air-conditioning, and he has also bought a car.

"I have a computerlike mind. If I had become an engineer, I would be working with microprocessors today, but I am happy," says Mr. Patel, beaming. "My children are now set for life, and my wife doesn't scold me anymore."

The ginners are equally pleased. "Before we had the machine, we could produce only 20 kilos of cotton in an hour; now we can do 350 kilos in an hour," says Prabhubhai Thakkar, a ginner in a nearby district, who owns six of Mr. Patel's machines. "I used to produce only 400 to 500 bales of cotton, but now I produce 30,000 bales a year."

Mr. Gupta has been productive as well. Five years ago he convinced the Indian government to set up the National Innovations Foundation, with an endowment of $4.6-million. The interest on that money is used to support his network and finance grassroots innovations throughout the country.

"There is a lot of work to be done," says the professor, who, in addition to coordinating these multiple ventures, teaches four courses at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. (Most professors teach only two.) "I need to have more work to do than there is time to do it, " he says with a smile.

He has his wish. The foundation has so far documented 51,000 mechanical, technical, and herbal inventions and practices in more than 300 Indian districts. "Now we have to keep scouting and enabling all these innovators,"
says Mr. Gupta. Mr. Patel and his ilk will no doubt keep him busy.
Section: International
Volume 52, Issue 6, Page A43

no spog

Dunno whether everybody in the blogosphere has been rapping about this already, but I was forced to turn off the comment feature on this space because it was being abused by "spoggers" who were posting advertisements as comments.

Conflicted Commies

The force that could determine India's capitalist future is one of the world's strongest communist parties.

By Jason Overdorf
Newsweek International

Oct. 10, 2005 issue - As its name implies, the Communist Party of India-Marxist still employs the dated rhetoric of the left, down to calling its ruling body the Politburo, in old Soviet style. So it came as a surprise this summer when the national leadership endorsed "all the actions" of its maverick chief minister for West Bengal, a state of 100 million people and long a bastion of communist power. That came shortly after Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee wooed foreign investors in Singapore by saying Indian communists had to "reform or perish," and invited these capitalists to help build new infrastructure in West Bengal. The moment cemented Bhattacharjee's reputation as the Deng Xiaoping of India: a pragmatic communist reformer.

That doesn't mean, however, that India's communists have gone the way of comrades from Russia and China, tilting toward robber-baron capitalism. Just last Thursday the party's traditional allies in India's left-wing trade unions brought the country to a standstill with a daylong national strike that shut down railroads, airports and banks. In New Delhi, where the communists are critical partners in the coalition government, they have diluted free-market reforms and are hotly debating their proper role in a capitalist economy. The outcome of that debate is crucial: it could help determine whether India accelerates to China-style growth rates or stumbles yet again.

The Indian communists have more influence than all but one kindred party in a capitalist democracy, behind President Hugo Chavez's Movement for a Fifth Republic in Venezuela. (Third on the list: Portugal, where communists hold 12 of 230 seats in Parliament.) The CPM and two much smaller communist parties together control 60 of India's 545 parliamentary seats. Since the United Progressive Alliance led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress party is 51 seats short of a majority, it depends on communists to stay in power. The CPM has used that clout to block or temper policies from the sale of state-owned companies to the liberalization of labor laws in special economic zones.

In Western Europe, the leading communists for much of the cold-war period were found in Italy, where their focus was internal: their big idea was worker ownership of factories in an otherwise capitalist market. Given the vast expansion in international trade since then, the Indian communists' focus is more global. Indeed, the country's population and growing economy make the party one of the world's most influential opponents of excessive globalization. Experts debate whether India's communists are emulating Chinese reformers or European social democrats. Bhattacharjee says neither: "We are debating among ourselves. What is reform? Reform means what? For whom?" Sitaram Yechury, a member of the CPM Politburo, says the party's overriding ambition is to shift the goal of market reform from promoting corporate profit to people's welfare.

The differences with China are stark. The Indians still cling to socialist ideals like worker protection and land reform, while China's leveling impulses seem to have been spent during the land reforms of the Mao era, when the rural bourgeoisie was all but destroyed. India, meanwhile, never made good on post-independence promises to wipe out a feudal caste system. That said, the Indian communists' ideas about economic sovereignty take a page from China's book, and mirror the Congress Party view of the early 1990s.

The CPM sets three rules for foreign investors: they must increase India's production capacity—build factories, rather than simply buying assets—help upgrade Indian technology, and create jobs. While Congress is now inclined to open doors further, the communists are more wary. Where Congress leaders praise a domestic automaker like Tata for rising to the challenge of foreign competition, the communists decry how Japanese giant Suzuki ultimately gained control of its Indian joint venture, Maruti Udyog. "It would be wrong for anybody to characterize us and say we have been opponents of capital flows into India," says Yechury. "We qualify those flows, rather than opposing them."

On battles over how India should comply with its obligations to the World Trade Organization, the CPM has prevented the government from giving away too much on issues like drug patents, which could have harmed consumers. And in some market reforms, the left has taken the lead. Bhattacharjee's Finance minister in West Bengal spearheaded the introduction of a value-added tax, as a way of eliminating tax evasion and replenishing government coffers, which some experts call the single most important economic advance in India in the last five years. "You can't just paint the left as anti-reform," says Ramesh Venkataraman, a partner with McKinsey & Co. in Mumbai. "The left is selective."

The CPM has been criticized in the Indian media as hypocritical for resisting a Congress plan to increase national limits on foreign investment in the telecommunications sector, while aggressively pursuing foreign investment for West Bengal. Once scorned for its obstructive policies and constant strikes, the state has been attracting investment from companies like IBM and Microsoft since Bhattacharjee took office in 1990, and now draws more investment from Japan than any other Indian state, including Karnataka, home to Bangalore's massive outsourcing industry. But the communists say the devil is in the details: the party opposed Congress's telecom plan because it would have allowed foreigners to provide phone service—making big profits but providing no new technology or manufacturing capacity in return. Yechury says the party has done nothing in West Bengal that it has rejected on the national level.

Still, the party remains conflicted about its most progressive members. When Bhattacharjee recently signed a deal with the Salim Group of Indonesia to build a 2,000-hectare commercial and housing development, party members accused him of favoring a company close to the former Suharto regime, which took power in an anti-communist coup. Soft-spoken and white-haired, he wears the large-framed spectacles typical of Bengali intellectuals, and embraces the word "capitalism" only with protections for workers and the poor. Yet he is pushing labor market reform to attract more outsourcing companies to West Bengal. He says workers must "share a concern" for productivity with management.

The CPM, in fact, reacted quietly to last week's union-led strikes, citing them as a warning to Singh not to push too hard on reform. Tellingly, the strikes hit hardest in West Bengal, where workers took complete control of the capital, Kolkata. They defied measures Bhattacharjee took to allow IT workers to get to work through blockaded streets. Only when Bhattacharjee personally confronted them did they meekly step aside. It remains to be seen whether his detractors in a party that still values its labor roots will ultimately do the same.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

© 2005


Red-Hot Market

Growing wealth at home fuels an Indian art boom.

By Jason Overdorf
Newsweek International

Oct. 17, 2005 issue - Looking for a good investment? Try contemporary Indian art. In back-to-back auctions held by Christie's and Sotheby's in New York last month, four different works topped the previous auction-price record of $317,500, set by Tyeb Mehta's "Celebration" in 2002. And, according to experts, that's just the beginning. "Because of the strength of the market and the strength of the Indian economy, we're seeing that many of the paintings exceeded estimates, some tripling or quadrupling our expectations," says Yamini Mehta, who oversees modern and contemporary Indian art at Christie's. At separate auctions at both houses on Sept. 20 and 21, 16 works by contemporary Indian artists sold for more than $200,000 apiece; even more impressive, Christie's brought the hammer down on Mehta's painting "Mahisasura" for a whopping $1.6 million—five times the previous auction record. "It [was] an amazing week," says Robin Dean, director of the Indian and Southeast Asian department at Sotheby's.

Not coincidentally, nearly all the artworks that broke $200,000 were by artists belonging to the Progressive Group. Founded around India's struggle for independence in the late 1940s, the group includes artists like Mehta, Ram Kumar, Maqbool Fida Husain, Syed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Souza, who rejected the colonial British academic style and began the modernist movement in India. "Today we paint with absolute freedom for content and technique," reads the group's 1948 manifesto.

The market for their works took off in 1995, when Sotheby's auctioned off paintings from the extensive private collection of the Chester and Davida Herwitz Charitable Trust. At that time, according to Neville Tuli, who started India's first domestic auction house, Osian's, the entire Indian art market amounted to about $1 million. Today the same market is valued at close to $180 million.

At first the Indian diaspora drove demand, but now growing wealth in India itself is fueling the market. In the mid-1990s, most buyers were scions of India's industrial dynasties, who favored the realistic, conservative artists of the Bengal school. In the late 1990s, nonresident Indians, or NRIs, who preferred the bolder, more colorful and less traditional work of the Progressives, began dominating the market. Today, domestic buyers—buoyed by India's skyrocketing stock and real-estate markets and fast-growing economy—are helping drive prices higher. While an overseas Indian bought Mehta's "Mahisasura," private collectors living in India accounted for four of Christie's biggest sales last month, paying $486,400 for Husain's "Trial," $385,600 and $262,400 for two untitled paintings by Kumar and $284,800 for Souza's "Girl With Hairpin and Girdle." "The biggest change is the increase in activity from India itself," says Dean. And there's more to come: "For every work that sells, there are two or three new very wealthy people that come into the market."

Meanwhile, the big players in India's domestic art market—Osian's, Dinesh Vazirani's and Geetha Mehra and Pravin Gandhi's Sakshi Art Gallery, among others—are aggressively pushing the field in new directions. Osian's Tuli has published art books, built the world's largest archive of Indian art and developed a historical record of prices. pioneered online auctions, introducing a new level of transparency to a market long characterized by backroom, cash-only deals that left would-be buyers uncertain of the real market value of the works up for sale.

Now Tuli, Mehra and Gandhi are developing new ventures for the domestic art market: competing art-investment funds. In August, Mehra and Gandhi, backed by Edelweiss Capital, launched the Yatra fund. So far they have raised at least $2.3 million from high-net-worth investors—each of whom committed a minimum of $45,000 for four years—interested in tapping the art market. Osian's has a similar fund slated for launch in November; Tuli—never less than bold—expects to bankroll his fund with $25 million. In this market, he says, raising that amount is "a two-day job." Indeed, he has a good pitch: starting with about $3.5 million in 2000, Osian's is now worth more than 10 times that amount. You just can't beat that kind of a return.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

we just want to be loved

Wake up, India. Time magazine's "Asian Heroes" special is a marketing scheme, not the final arbiter of who's who in Asia. Virtually all India's major media outlets have dutifully reported that Sania Mirza has (gasp!) made the COVER (gasp!) of Time (gasp!). Why are you providing your competitors with free advertising? Are you so desperate for foreigners to acknowledge your greatness? (Aside from Greg Chappell)

News flash:
(1) This is Time Asia, not Time magazine. Its circulation is not several million, but several hundred thousand. American readers, except expatriates, do not see these articles.
(2) The magazine uses different covers for each of its markets when it does one of these specials, so Sania will be on the cover in India and Pakistan and maybe Nepal, but a Chinese star will be on the cover in China, Singapore and Hong Kong, etc.

What that means is that Time is only selling back to India what Indian journalists have sold to Time. (This is the same feature that named a Bihar criminal a hero last go-around--again following the lead of Indian reporters).

Sania has made some great strides in the past year. Celebrate them. But don't rely on the pharangs to tell you whether she's important or a media-manufactured flash in the pan. (We don't know what we're talking about nine times out of ten).