WEF, Institutions, Media and Credibility

Some time ago, I had run into some Internet coverage about some WEF (World Economic Forum) report about institutions and their credibility rankings. I no longer remember where I had seen it mentioned, but the fact that such an article had appeared, had somehow stayed in the mind.

Today, in order to locate the source, I googled using the strings “WEF”, “Credibility” and “Media”. The following are a few links I got as a result of these searches. In each case, I first give the source organization, then the title of the article they published, and finally, the URL. Please note, all cover essentially the same story.

  • Edelman, “2017 Edelman TRUST BAROMETER Reveals Global Implosion of Trust,” [^]
  • Quartz, “The results are in: Nobody trusts anyone anymore,” [^]
  • PostCard, “Must read! World Economic Forum releases survey on Indian media, the results are shameful!,” [^]
  • Financial Express, “WEF Report: ‘India most trusted nation in terms of institutions’,” [^]
  • Financial Times, “Public trust in media at all time low, research shows,” [^]
  • WEF, “Why credibility is the future of journalism,” [^]

“Same hotel, two different prices…” … [Sorry, just couldn’t resist it!]

Oh, BTW, I gather that the report says that institutions in India are more credible as compared to those in Singapore.

Do click the links if you haven’t yet done so, already. [No, I don’t get paid for the clicks on the outgoing links.]

Still getting settled in the new job and the city. Some stuff still is to be moved. But guess it was time to slip in at least a short post. So there. Take care and bye for now.




Micro-level water-resources engineering—6: Evaporation

As compared to the last year, public awareness about water resources has certainly increased this year. It has been a second drought-year straight in a row. None can miss it—the water issue—now. [Not even the breweries.]

There are several NGO initiatives involved in the awareness campaigns, as always. Even celebrities, now. Also politicians.

The heartening part this year is that there also is now a much greater participation of the common people.

Indeed, water conservation schemes are these days receiving quite a broad-based support, cutting across all political party-lines. People are actively getting into the building nallah-bunds, farm-ponds, and all. Good.

Good? … This is India, so how can anything be so straight-forwardly good?

With that question mark, I began taking a second look at this entire scene. It all occurred to me during a show that I saw on TV last week or so.

Well, that way, I don’t watch TV much. At least in India, TV has gone beyond being a stupor- or passivity-inducing device; it has become an active noise generator. So, the most I can put up with is only some channel-flipping, once in a while. [In my case it is typically limited to less than 15 minutes at a time, less than 7 times a week]. In one such episode [of flipping through the channels], I happened to catch a few minutes of a chat that some Marathi journos were having with Aamir Khan and Satyajit Bhatkal. [They should have been in awe of Bhatkal, but instead were, of Aamir Khan. [Journos.]]

Both Khan and Bhatkal were being all earnest and also trying to be all reasonable on that show, and in that vein, at one point, Bhatkal mentioned that there have been hundreds (or thousands) of KT-weirs, nallah-bunds and all, which have been implemented by the successive Maharashtra State governments. These are the structures or works which now have become defunct because of a lack of maintenance. Mentioning this point, he then added something like the following: [not his precise words, but as my casual impression of what he effectively was saying]:

For the best or the most optimum utilization of the available money, it would be better to begin with a revival or maintenance (like silt-removal/wall-repairs) of these thousands of the already existing structures, rather than building everything anew, because the latter would cost even more money.

Looks like quite sensible an approach to take, doesn’t it?

Well, yes, on the face of it. But not so, once you begin to think like an engineer about it. In fact, I do want to raise one flag here—one very big, red flag. [No, I am not a communist, just in case you have begun reading this blog only now.]

Let’s look at some hard facts—and also some simplest physical principles—first.

The only primary source of water is: the rainfall.

The two means of conserving water are: (i) surface storage, and (ii) ground-water recharge.

The two big [physical] enemies of water conservation are: (i) run-off and (ii) evaporation.

Run-off means: Rain-water running off the earth’s surface as floods (may be as flash-floods), without getting intercepted or stored anywhere. Evaporation means: the loss of the stored water due to ambient heat.

It’s good that people have gotten aware about the first part—the runoff factor. The by-now popular Marathi slogan: “paaNee aDavaa, paaNee jirawaa” [English: “block water, percolate water”] refers to this first factor. Unfortunately, it has come to refer to only the first factor.

People must also become fully aware about the second factor—namely, evaporation. It too is just as important in India, particularly in places like Maharashtra.

Evaporation is not always an acute concern in the cooler climates (think USA, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand). But it is, in the hotter climates (think most of the third world). My focus is exclusively on India, mostly on Maharashtra. Since most of the advanced countries happen to lie in the cooler regions, and since in India we habitually borrow our engineering common-sense from the advanced countries rather than developing it individually here, I want to once again stress this point in this series.

As I mentioned in my last post in this series [^]:

“Evaporation is a really bad factor in hot climates like India. At the level of large-scale dams and even for check dams, there is precious little that can be done about it.”

There is a technological reason behind it: You can’t sprinkle some powder or so to cover the surface of a water body, and thereby arrest or slow down the evaporation losses, without also polluting water body in the process.

These days, you often see a layer of water hyacinth in dams/rivers. Thought the plant contiguously covers the water body, contrary to the naive expectation, it in fact accelerates evaporation. The plant sucks water from below and perspires it out via leaves. This rate of perspiration happens to be higher than that of the plain evaporation. Further, water hyacinth has big leaves. The total surface area of the leaves is many times greater than the area of the water body that the plant covers.

But, yes, the simple-minded idea is right, in a way. If instead of the water-sucking water-hyacinth, something else—something chemically inert and opaque—were to cover the water body, then it would cut down on the evaporation losses. People have tried finding such a material, but without success. Any suggested solutions are either not scalable, not economical, or both. That’s why, evaporation is a fact that we must simply learn to live with.

Let me continue quoting from my aforementioned post:

“Evaporation maps for Maharashtra show losses as high as 1.5 m to even 2.5 m per year. Thus, if you build a check-dam with a 3 m high wall, expect to lose more than half of the [stored] water to evaporation alone.

For the same reason of evaporation, most nallah-bunding and contour-trenching works [such as] those typically undertaken under the socialist programs like MNREGA don’t translate to anything at all for storage, or for that matter, even for seepage. Typically, the bunds are less than 1 m tall, and theoretically, water in them is expected to plain evaporate out right before December. Practically, that anyway is the observation! […] It is a waste of money and effort.”

That’s what I had said, about a year ago. It needs to be repeated.

Most people currently enthusiastic about water conservation simply don’t seem to have any appreciation as to how huge (and how hugely relevant) this factor of evaporation is. Hence this post.

To repeat: In Maharashtra, the range of evaporation losses is as high as 1.5–2.5 m. That is, about 5–8 feet, in terms of the height of water lost.

Thus, if you build or repair a nullah-bund that is about 10 feet tall (which is the typical height of a house), then you should expect to lose about 75% of the stored water to evaporation alone. Perhaps even 90% or more. After all, nullahs and rivers typically have a progressively smaller width as we go deeper, and so, the volume of the water body remaining at the bottom after evaporation is even smaller than what a simple height-based calculation tells you.

Coming back to the Khans and Bhatkals, and Patekars and Anaspures: If the small check-dam or Kolhapur-type of bund/weir you are repairing this summer is, say, 7–8 feet high, then what you should expect to see in the next March or April is: a dry river-bed with a few puddles of water perhaps still lingering here and there. Picture a stray dog trying to satisfy his thirst from a puddle that is relatively cleaner from among them, but with a vast patch of a darkish brown, rocky or parched land filling the rest of your visual field. In no case should you picture a large body of clean water extending a couple of kilometers or more upstream of the bund. The fallen rain-water would have got blocked by that bund, sure, but if your bund is only 7–8 feet tall, then all of it would have disappeared [literally] in the thin air through evaporation alone, by the time the summer arrives. [We are not even counting seepage here. And realize, not all seepage goes towards meaningful groundwater recharge. More on it, may be, later.]

Now, the fact of the matter is, many, many KT weirs and bunds, as built in Maharashtra, are hardly even 5–6 feet tall. (Some are as low as just 3–4 feet tall.) They are, thus, not even one (Marathi/Sanskrit word) “puruSh” deep. …

The next time you go for an outing, keep an eye for the bunds. For instance, if you are in Pune, take an excursion in the nearby Purandar taluka, and check out the series of the bunds built by the PWD/Irrigation department on the Neera river. Most of them are just 3–5 feet tall. None is as big as a “puruSh” tall. None ever shows any water left after December. [But don’t therefore go and talk to the PWD/Irrigation engineers about it. These engineers are smart. They will tell you that those are flood-control structures, not water-storage structures. You will thus come back non-plussed. You are warned.]

… In case you didn’t know what “puruSh” means: Well, it’s a traditionally used unit of depth/height in India. It is defined as the uppermost reach of a man when he stands upright and stretches his arms up. Thus, one “puruSh” is about 7–8 feet. Typically, in earlier times, the unit would be used for measuring the depth of a well. [During my childhood, I would often hear people using it. People in the rural areas still continue using it.]

So keep the following capsule in mind.

In most parts of Maharashtra, expect the evaporation losses to be about one “puruSh” deep.

If the water-body at a nallah-bund/check-dam/farm-pond is one “puruSh” deep during the monsoon, then expect its water body to completely dry up by the time the summer arrives the next year.

Therefore, an urgent word of advice:

If you are building farm-ponds or undertaking repairs of any bunds or KT weirs structures this year, then drop from your planning all those sites whose walls are not at least 2.0 “puruSh” tall. [If a wall is 2.0 purush tall, the water body will be about 1.5 purush deep.] Evaporation losses will make sure that your social-work/activity would be a complete waste of money. The successive governments—not just politicians but also social workers, planners, bureaucrats and engineers—have already wasted money on them. Let the wastage stop at least now. Focus from now on only on the viable sites—the sites where the depth of the water-body would be at least 12–15 feet or so.

If the nullah is not naturally deep, and if the local soil type is right, then you may think of deepening it (to a sufficient minimum depth), perhaps with machinery and all.

But in any case, keep the factor of evaporation in mind.

As pointed out in my earlier posts in this series, given the geological type of the top layers in most parts of Maharashtra, seepage is not a favorable option for water conservation planning.

The only exception is the patch that runs across Dhule, Jalgaon through Wardha, Nagpur. There, the top-layer is sufficiently sandy (as in Rajasthan.) Mr. Suresh Khanapurkar has done a lot of seepage-related work in this patch, and groundwater recharge indeed is a viable option there.

But remember: seepage is not viable for most of the remaining parts of Maharashtra (and in fact, it also is not, over very large patches of India). So, if your idea is to build shallower bunds with the expectation that it would help improve groundwater levels via seepage during and soon after monsoon (i.e., before evaporation kicks in the months following the monsoon), then that idea is not so much on the target, as far as Maharashtra is concerned. Engineering for seepage can be viable only if the local geology favors it.

For the general-purpose water conservation, in most parts of Maharashtra, we have to look for storage, not seepage. Therefore, evaporation becomes a more important factor. So, avoid all shallower sites.

In particular, when it comes to farm-ponds, don’t build the shallower ones even if government gives you subsidy for building them (including for the blue plastic sheet which they use in the farm-ponds to prevent the wasteful seepage). If your pond is shallow, it would once again be a waste of money, pure and simple. Evaporation would make sure of that.

That’s all for now, folks.

Yes, I have been repetitive. I don’t mind. I want to be repetitive, until the time that social workers and engineers begin to show a better understanding of the engineering issues involved in water conservation, esp. the factor of evaporation. Currently, an appreciation of this factor seems to be non-existent.

My blogging in the upcoming weeks will be sparser, because I have to re-write my CFD course notes and research related notes, simulation programs, etc. I lost them all during my last HDD crash. I want to complete that part first. So excuse me even if I don’t come back for some 3–4 weeks or more for now. I will try to post a brief note or two even if not a blog post, but no promises. [And, yes, I have now begun my weekly backups, and am strictly following the policy—the notifications from the operating system.]

Bye for now.

[May be one more editing pass, later today or tomorrow… Done.]


From the horses’ mouths

My first choice for the title was: “From the Nobel Laureate’s Mouth”; I had spotted only the opinion piece by Professor David Gross in yesterday’s Indian Express [^]. Doing the ‘net search today for the URI link to provide here, I found that there also were three other Nobel laureates, also joined by one Fields Medalists. And they all were saying more or less the same thing [^].

… That way, coming from a Marathi-medium schooling background, I had always had a bit of suspicion for the phrase “from the horse’s mouth.” It seemed OK to use in the news reports when, say, a wrong-doer admits his wrong. But purely going by the usage, I could see that the phrase would also be used in the sense: “from the top-gun himself,” or “from the otherwise silent doer himself.” This guess turns out to be right [^]. Further, since there were as many as five “horses” here, the word to be used would have to be in the plural, and if you say it aloud: “From the horses’ mouths” [go ahead, say it aloud, sort of like:“horseses” mouth) it really sounds perfect (for something to be posted on the ‘net).

So, that’s how comes the title.

As to the horses’ thoughts… Ummm…

[But please, please, give me just a moment to get back to the title again, and congratulate me for not having chosen a title like: “From Dave Himself.” You see, Professor David Gross had visited COEP in 2013, and I might have been, you know, within 50 meters of where he was sitting. I mean, of all places, in the COEP campus! Right in the COEP campus!! [^]. Obviously, you must compliment me for my sense of restraint, of making understatements.]

OK. As to their thoughts… Umm….

I think these guys are being way too optimistic. Also naive.

Without substantial economic reforms, I see no possibility of the Indian Science in general undergoing any significant transformation yet again. And substantial economic reforms aren’t happening here any more. In fact, no one is even talking about it, any more. [Check out Arnab’s hours, or Sardesai’s, or Dutt’s, if you want to find out what they are talking about. [I don’t, because I know.]]

It was the 1991 that could propel, say a Mashelkar into prominence several years later, and help transform the 70+ CSIR labs from something like less than 100 patents a year, to thousands of them per year—all within a matter of a few years [less than a decade, to be sure]. If the same momentum were to be kept, the figure should have gone up to at least tens of thousands of patents by the CSIR labs alone—and with a substantial increase in the share of the international patents among them. Ditto, for the high-quality international journal papers.

Why didn’t any of it happen? Plain and clear. The momentum created by the economic liberalization of the early 1990s has been all but lost. Come on, face it, 1991 was twenty-five years ago.

To an anthropologist, 25 years is like an entire generation! More than enough of a time to lose any half-hearted momentum (which, despite the hysterical Indian press, the liberalization in the early 1990s was).

It’s been years that we entered the staleness 2.0 of the mixed economy 1.0. Even today, the situation continues “as is,” despite a change of regime in New Delhi. Yes, even under “Modiji.” [I am quoting Professor Gross—I mean the word.]

But, yes, the five gentlemen were also being realistic: Each one of them emphasized decades.

Decades of sustained efforts would have to go in, before the fruits could begin to be had. [But you know that decades isn’t a very long period—just recall what was happening to India’s economy some two decades ago—in the mid ’90s.]

Talking of how realistic they actually were being, Haroche even pointed out the lack of freedom in China [obvious to any one outside of California], and its presence in Europe [I don’t know about that] and in India [yeah, right!].

But anyway, it’s nice to hear something like this being highlighted after an Indian Science Congress, rather than, say, “vimaanshaastra.”

Both happened during “Modiji”’s tenure. So what is it that really accounts for the difference? I have no idea. (It can’t be a “pravaasi” whatever, to be sure; they would be too busy booking the next Olympics-size stadium.)

Whoever within the organizers of the Congress was responsible for the difference, compliments are due to him. (Hindi) “der se kiyaa lekin kuchh achhaa hi to kiyaa.”

In the meanwhile, bring out your non-programmable desk calculators and do some exercises: 0.8 \times \dots, 2.7 \times \dots, 4.4 \times \dots and 2.1 \times \dots. Oh well, you will have to refer to the ‘net.

OK then. Find out also the R&D spending by, say, (i) Baba Ramdev’s pharmaceutical industries, (ii) the top or most well-established five industrial groups in India (Reliance, Tatas, Mittals, whoever…), and (iii) the top three (or five) Indian IT firms. Compare them to those in the advanced countries. Let your comparisons be comparable: pharma to pharma; oil, steel and engineering (and salt!) to oil, steel and engineering (and salt!); IT to IT [engineering IT to engineering IT]; overall (GDP) to overall (GDP).

And, never forget that bit about freedom. Don’t just count the beans “spent” on research. Think also about whether it is the government spending or the private spending, and where the expenditure occurs (in private universities, private labs, independently run government labs, public universities in a country with a past of a private control, etc., or in the in-service-pensioner’s-paradises with something like “laboratory” in their titles).

But why didn’t the “horses” cite any specific statistics about how many Indian students go abroad for their graduate studies, and choose to permanently settle there—their trends?

Obvious: Nobel and Fields laureates (and in fact any visiting dignitaries to any country (and in fact any visitors to a foreign country)) generally tend to be more polite, and so tend to make understatements when it comes to criticism (of that host country). That’s why.

A Song I Like:

(Hindi) “kahin naa jaa…”
Music: R. D. Burman
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Singers: Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar


Micro-level water-resources engineering—5

Important Update added on 2015.04.22!

See near the end of this post.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

Today is (Sanskrit) “akshay tritiya.” In the Khandesh area of North Maharashtra (in which the Shirpur town of the famous Shirpur pattern falls), in the local lingo, the day is known as “aakhaaji.” In Khandesh, it is a festival of women visiting their (Marathi) “maaher” (i.e. their parents’ home, or the home before marriage). There are traditional songs in the local “AhiraNi” dialect, and dance of the Gujarathi garbaa style, but played only by women. When I was a school-boy in that region, the dance would be done with “Tipri”s, but as far as I remember, without any dhols (i.e. drums), loud-speakers, or any large-scale organization, even if all the streets of the town would overflow with women playing “Tipri”s. I don’t know what the situation is like today.

Festivals mark days of relief. But otherwise, summer is a time of gruelling hard work for rural women. Maharashtra’s population is already 11.4 crores. Even if you take only 20% population as drought-affected, that makes it about 2 crores. (In the 2013 drought, the estimates were about 3 crores.) That means about 1 crore drought-affected women. So, as a rough estimate, there must be at least about 50–75 lakh women facing water-scarcity in a normal year—e.g., right now! Imagine, some tens of lakhs of women having to daily carry pots on their heads for several kilometers a day, just for fetching water—often only poor quality and soily/brackish water, but something that allows them at least cooking food for their families for their barest sustenance. What can we do to spare them the hardship? Obvious.

Find out cost-effective water resources strategies and solutions that can be within their means, without remaining dependent either on government or even on charity.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

I have been browsing a lot of material, but have found that in this area, even some of the simplest questions are so hard to answer.

For instance, the data about the local geology. Or, even the data about local morphology—I mean, maps with contour lines having 1, 2, or even 5 m resolution, and not 20 or 30 m resolution. Digital DEMs with say 5 m resolution are impossible to find, and so, some creative solutions have to be found out. Here, I first thought of an idea, and later on found a part of it mentioned in a Marathi official document for irrigation department that my father gave me. I will write about it, and address many such questions some time later in this series.

In this post, instead, let me touch upon another simple question.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

How much of the fallen rainwater really runs off the ground to the rivers? Why don’t some of the dams fill up every monsoon?

In Maharashtra, Marathwada is the region of the lowest rainfall (about 65 cm/annum). The river Godavari flows through this region. There is a big dam called the Jayakwadi project [^]; the reservoir is called “Naath Saagar;” it is named after the great Marathi poet-saint Eknath Maharaj.

The simple question is this: Why does the Naath Saagar reservoir does not fill up to its full capacity every rainy season?

An easy answer would be to say: “Because the rainfall is deficient.”

Let us see whether, starting from some simple basic assumptions, this answer turns out to make any sense or not. Let’s try to do a quick, back-of-the-envelop estimate for how much water should flow into the Jayakwadi dam every year. (My objective behind working out this simple exercise was to get some kind of a datum for the small check dams.)

The basic source of water is the rainfall. To estimate the total water received via rainfall, we have to know the watershed area of the dam. The Wiki page on the Jayakwadi dam [^] notes the catchment area as 21,750 square km. Referring to the rainfall for the upstream catchment area of this dam [I used the map in the book River Basins of India (p. 66)], I estimate the average rainfall for this region as about 65 cm (which also is the figure quoted by P. R. Pisharoty as noted in an earlier post in this series). So, the total annual water received via rainfall in the Jayakawadi watershed is about 1.41375E10 cubic m. Raghunath’s text on hydrology [^] on page 5 notes that for India’s total annual rainfall water of 370 million ha-m, the total runoff into all the rivers is 167 million ha-m. Thus, the runoff to the biggest river in a basin should be about 45% of the total water received from the skies. Assuming that a similar figure applies here, I get the runoff calculations as the following Python code shows:

# Assumed data
dRainfall = 0.65 # meter, assumed
dRunoffCoefficient = 0.45 # for all India
dCatchmentArea = 21750.0*1000*1000 # meters
# Calculations
dRainwaterVolume = dRainfall*dCatchmentArea
dEvaporationLoss = dRainwaterVolume/3.0
dRunoff = dRunoffCoefficient*dRainwaterVolume
dSeepageIntoSubsoil = dRainwaterVolume - dEvaporationLoss - dRunoff
print ("Total Volume: %E, Runoff: %E, Evaporation Loss: %E Seepage: %E" % (dRainwaterVolume, dRunoff, dEvaporationLoss, dSeepageIntoSubsoil))

On Ubuntu, open a terminal, type “python” in it, and at the Python prompt (say >>>) copy-paste the above lines, and hit enter. (On Windows, you will have to install a suitable Python environment first.) Or, use the online interactive Python terminal here [^].

Thus, the total quantity of water rushing into the Jayakawadi dam every year should be 6.36E9 m^3 (i.e. cubic meters). The Wiki page on the Jayakwadi dam notes that the total capacity of the dam is just 2.91E9 m^3.

Thus, the total quantity of water flowing into the dam should be about 2.1 times the dam reservoir capacity. The dam should more than overflow every year.

Yet, the dam doesn’t even fully fill up every year—it does so only about 2–3 times in a decade.

Even if we take a lower runoff coefficient, say as low as 0.35 (e.g., to factor in the presence of the relatively smaller dams upstream, and also an increased forest cover—which must be a very unrealistic assumption), and even if we take the annual rainfall in the watershed region to be as drastically low as just 40 cm (i.e. the worst drought situation, because they declare a drought if the rainfall is 20% lower [^], and the average for the catchment area of Jayakawadi is above 65 cm), you should still get some 3.045E9 m^3 of water into the Jayakawadi reservoir—more than enough to fill it up fully.

Indeed, there is a further irony. This dam has already gathered a lot of silt (because it is situated in a relatively flatter region, with more loose soil), and the live storage has gone down by 14% (as per Wiki).

[Incidentally, there has been some criticism that the project was moved 100 km upstream. Chances are, the reservoir then would have covered even a flatter area of loose topsoil.]

All of which means that the Naath Saagar reservoir should fill up and overflow even in the worst drought-hit years.

In practice, it doesn’t.

What gives? Any idea? I have no clue.

There must be something the wrong with the way the run-off calculations are performed—they are going off the mark by some 250%. That is too big an error. Has anyone looked into this aspect more carefully?

Exercise: Undertake the same exercise for the Ujjani dam. It is supposed to supply water to another severely drought-prone region in Maharashtra, viz. that of the Solapur district and the nearby areas. It too doesn’t fill up every year.

Realize that big dams like Jayakwadi and Ujjani have comparatively huge catchment areas. For a check dam, the catchment area (or the watershed area) is very small—and therefore, subject to even wider fluctuations from year to year. This is one sobering point we must keep in mind in our enthusiasm for the micro-level projects.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

The Evaporation Loss, the High Intensity Rains, and Seepage vs. Storage:

As Raghunath’s book [^] shows on page 5, the water balance equation is:

total rainfall = evaporation loss + runoff + seepage into sub-soil.

The item of seepage into subsoil is further split into two parts: (i) a slightly bigger part (53%) of the contribution to moisture (which is the part that is used by the shrubs and the trees in their life-processes; this is the part that is ultimately released to the atmosphere via transpiration), and (ii) a smaller part (47%) of the recharge into groundwater.

Thus, the biggest items here are (1) runoff and (2) evaporation.

This primary importance of the runoff quantity in the overall quantitative scheme was the reason why I decided to check whether the simple runoff factors or calculations are realistic or not. If they were to be OK, I could use them as they are, in my detailed calculations concerning computational watershed modelling.  But as the above example of the Jayakwadi dam showed, at least at a gross scale, the runoff factors are not reliable. Now, even if there are some more detailed (say GIS based) models and micro-models for computing runoffs, I am not sure how reliable they would be. And, if the runoff factor itself is wrong, we are basically regressing back to the stage of empirical data collecting and validation, and so, coarsening out of the micro-models to macro-models (even if using GIS) would be an even more distant a step … Anyway, to proceed further….

For India, the runoff figure is several times higher than the total groundwater recharge.

Further, in the Deccan trap basalt region of Maharashtra, the seepage mechanism is not as efficient as it is in the alluvial soils (for instance, of Aravali region of Rajasthan, or in the Tapi and Purna basins of Maharashtra (the area of the Shirpur pattern)).

Recall Pisharoty’s paper I quoted in my last post in this series [^]. In Maharashtra, half of the annual rainfall occurs within only 15 to 20 high-intensity hours, which occur sometime over only 35–45 days of any actual rainfall.

Thus, in the Deccan trap region of Maharashtra, first there is an overall inefficiency of seepage. It is further compounded worse due to the infrequent high intensity bursts of rains. If the same amount of rainfall were to occur as a slow drizzle over a long period of time, say a continuous stretch of weeks, then such a rainfall pattern would be better conducive to seepage. On the other hand, a sporadic high intensity pattern implies less seepage and more runoff.

Hence, in the Deccan trap regions of Maharashtra, it is the surface storage strategy which is likely to prove better than the underground seepage strategy.

For the above reasons, our solutions should be able to handle arresting the high intensity runoff, for storage.

Next, in India in general, evaporation also is several times higher than the groundwater recharge.

Evaporation is a really bad factor in hot climates like India. At the level of large-scale dams and even for check dams, there is precious little that can be done about it. (Solutions have been sought, e.g., spreading some chemicals on top of the water, but their side effects is a worry.)

Realize that evaporation is a surface phenomenon. Dams with a shallow and wide-spread reservoir (e.g. Jayakwadi) tend to have a relatively higher percentage of evaporation losses, as compared to the deeper dams. Ditto, also for check dams. (That is the reason why the nallah-deepening aspect of the Shirpur pattern makes good sense—provided the cost of excavation is low enough. For the time being, let’s focus on evaporation.)

Evaporation maps for Maharashtra show losses as high as 1.5 m to even 2.5 m per year. Thus, if you build a check-dam with a 3 m high wall, expect to lose more than half of the water to evaporation alone. (The famous bund of the bund-garden in the Pune city used to be actually shallow; it would hold a nice expanse of water simply because the bigger Khadakvasla dam upstream would periodically release water into the river.)

For the same reason of evaporation, most nallah-bunding and contour-trenching works, such as those by Anna Hazaare in Ralegan Siddhi, or those typically undertaken under the socialist programs like MNREGA, don’t translate to anything at all for storage, or for that matter even seepage. Typically, the bunds are less than 1 m tall, and theoretically, water in them is expected to plain evaporate out right before December. Practically, that anyway is the observation! No matter what Anna Hazare might tell you, it is a waste of money and effort.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

Farm Ponds:

Before closing, let me mention farm ponds as an effective storage strategy, apart from check-dams.

One big advantage with check dams as compared to conventional dams is that there is no cost incurred in the acquisition of land, and for rehabilitation of the displaced people. Speaking purely costs-wise, I read somewhere (or heard in Suresh Khanapurkar’s interviews) that about half of the cost of the conventional dams is on just these two counts.

However, in the case of check dams, if the natural depth of the river gorge is not sufficient (try the small software I wrote earlier in this series), then in order to reduce the percentage loss due to evaporation and thus to make the project economical, some extra expenditure may become necessary in deepening the nallahs.

Now, in the Deccan trap region of Maharashtra, since small rivers and nallahs tend to run through regions of hard rocks (the top soil layer can be as thin as just 0.5 to 1 m or even zero, in them), the excavation work to deepen the nallahs can easily prove to be too costly—this is a factor going against the Shirpur pattern. (More on the economics of excavation in check dams, and of farm ponds, in a later post.)

An advantage with the farm ponds, when compared to check dams, is that since they are built in the field, i.e. in a deeper layer of soft soil, deepening the ditch turns out to be much more economical.

On the downside, as compared to check dams, the storage capacity of farm ponds is much smaller. They also eat up what otherwise could have been a productive farm land.

But, as we saw, a deeper water body means lower percentage of evaporation losses.

Thus, overall, costs-wise, there are many oppositely directed factors, and it’s not possible to draw general conclusions. It’s the cost balance that really determines whether a farm pond makes sense in a given location or not, or is it a check dam for storage, or a check dam for seepage. (I will write another post covering the economics of check dams vs. farm ponds vs. conventional dams).

Second, as far as evaporation is concerned, there is an incredibly creative solution which I ran into only today. It suggests that if you cover a farm pond with a floating layer of the used plastic bottles, then the evaporation loss (at least for very small experimental ponds) can be cut by up to 40%! [(1.7 MB .PDF file) ^]. The work has been done at the well-known Vigyaan Aashram at PaabaL near Pune; guess they also have some kind of collaboration with COEP and MIT (USA). Anyway, coming back to evaporation losses, this is a huge, huge advantage at a throw-away price! The suggestion right now is only at a preliminary stage. I think it should be seriously taken up for studies on a larger scale of a realistic pond. But yes, as an engineer, I simply marvel at this idea—it again takes a perceived problem (“Gee, even Indians have started buying bottled water, huh?” and “Now how do we deal with this mess of all this plastic waste!”), turns it around on its head, and provides a cost-effective solution to another pressing problem. Neat!

BTW, the farm ponds need not always get only“naturally” filled, i.e., with the surface-running rain-water falling from the sky on the same field. Sometimes a combination of a lift-irrigation scheme + a farm pond can also be cost-effective.

Further, as has been practically demonstrated at many sites (e.g. in the Ahmednagar district, by actually practising farmers) a farm pond can also be very easily used for farming fish, as a side business (read side income)! Farming for fish requires relatively little labour—mostly, only some aeration (if at all required) and throwing food into the pond regularly (like twice/thrice a week or so), that’s all. Fish is not only very tasty food, it also is a very high quality and easily digested protein.

The side-walls of the farm-ponds can be also be planted with the kind of trees that give lush green shadow while making do with less water demand. A welcome sight, and a welcome spot for rest, on a hot summer afternoon.

Finally, talking of water bodies, trees, and how beautiful and (literally) cool a surroundings they can go on to make, and of side-businesses, and of creativity, here is yet another creative side-business that has come out of a bigger farm pond; check out the Saguna Baug in Neral near Mumbai [^].

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

Important Update added on 2015.04.22:

Python scripts for predicting the extent to which the Jayakwadi and Ujjani dams should fill, at a given rainfall level. Also, analysis of results, and some comments:

Since writing this post yesterday, I studied more closely the topic of the rainfall–runoff relationships in standard textbooks on hydrology.

There are quite a few models that allow you to calculate the expected runoff volume from the rainfall extent. These are specific to soil types, gradients, type of surface, etc. For Maharashtra, there is a well-known model by Inglis and De Souza (1929); e.g. see p. 180 here [^]. This is an empirical (curve-fitted) model that gives you two separate equations.

For the ghat region:
R = 0.85P - 30.5

and for the Deccan plateau:
R = \dfrac{1}{254} P \left( P - 17.8\right)

where R is the annual runoff and P is the annual rainfall, both in cm.

Since the formulae seemed to give far lower values for the runoff coefficient, and hence the runoff volume even for the average rains, I decided to write a Python script to find out the extent to which the Jayakwadi (and later, also Ujjani) dam would fill up, given different levels of rainfall.

Here is a link to a zip containing the Python script files and their outputs, in the CSV format [^]. In my code, I calculate the R parameter using both the above equations and take their average. Effectively, I assume that half of the watershed region is of the ghat region, and the other half is of the Deccan plateau. Though the zip file doesn’t show it, there aren’t very glaring differences in the values of R as estimated via the two equations.

The files make it clear that at the average rainfall level of 65 cm in the watershed (i.e. the catchment) region, the Jayakwadi dam is expected to fill only to 89.6%. If there is a drought year and so the watershed region receives some 45 cm rains, this dam would fill only to 21%!! For this dam to fill 100%, an above average rainfall of 67–68 cm would be necessary. Little wonder that the dam has filled only rarely.

The figures for the Ujjani dam are not much different, only slightly different. For instance, it would take 77–78 cm rain in its catchment area for it to fill up. The catchment area of the Ujjani dam does receive a somewhat higher rain, and so, let’s say the normal rainfall there is 70 cm. At this level, the Ujjani dam is expected to fill only to 73% of its full capacity!

There are other methods to estimate runoff too. But given the informal general knowledge about these dams, Inglis and De Souza’s correlations would seem to hold well.

I am no expert in dams design. To my lay engineer’s eyes, these are decidedly wasteful designs. After all, bigger-than-necessary designs imply greater-than-necessary expenditures, too. The Wiki page informs us that Jayakwadi project has cost more than Rs. 10,000 crores by now. … What portion of this huge amount are wasteful?

Among the Maharashtrian “intellectual,” “chattering” etc. classes  (and also among the NRI community, esp. that settled in the USA, esp. in California), it has become a fashion to blame politicians for every conceivable ill concerning water scarcity in Maharashtra.

Do you think that these civil engineering designs were done by politicians? Do you think that, for instance, say Vasantrao Naik, would have knowingly ordered a deliberately bigger and costlier dam, just to score some political high point for himself or his party? (I mention him because the Wiki informs us that the Jayakwadi dam design was finalized when he was the CM. Similarly, the Ujjani dam got designed when he was the CM.)

If you think such things are possible—things like increasing a dam size just to score some political high point for oneself or one’s party—then I would say that you just don’t know the way a typical politician thinks and operates. Yes, even in a mixed economy.

Yes, it’s important for a typical politician in a mixed economy (regardless of the party to which he belongs) to show that he is doing something meaningful, whether something actually meaningful gets done or not; yes, it is possible that given a choice, he would always pick up that choice which benefits his own constituency; yes, it is possible that he might even bring a bit of pressure on the officers to tweak solutions so that his constituency benefits. (They even publicly admit if not boast about such things.)

But a deliberate increase of size of a dam for absolutely no conceivable benefit to anyone? No way. No politician even in a mixed economy—and esp. in reference to a country like India—ever operates that way.

Here, if you say that an increased dam size means an increased budget, and therefore greater bribes to him/his party-men, then I would say, you just don’t understand the system. Even if I grant you the premise that every politician is always on principle on the look-out for kickbacks and bribes, granted that, a typical politician still wouldn’t want to increase a dam’s size, because—and get this right—he doesn’t have to. He can easily use the same amount of the additional (wasteful) budget on some other project without ever affecting the total quantum of his bribe, so why should he insist on making just one dam/project bigger than necessary, at the expense of all other possible dams/projects? If he can build two dams in the same budget—note, the amount of bribe has stayed the same—since he stands to get double the publicity with the same budget-money, he would rather go in for that.

Thus, all this “logic” is simply the smart “white-collared” Indian’s way of saving the “behind” of his own—or of groups of people he regards similar to him—nothing else.

Are bureaucrats and even engineers ever going to admit there might have been some mistakes here? More importantly, how many Indians of the “intellectual” kind are going to be willing to even think of such a possibility? (Even Anna Hazaare’s all-water-vaporizing nallah-bunds seem almost innocuous by comparison; they must have involved relatively smaller amounts, say of a mere few hundreds of crores. In contrast, wasteful big projects like these would involve thousands of crores.)

And, even more importantly, is there anyone willing to have an honest second look about the socialistic nature of the system that produces costly errors of this kind? (Not just costs. Since a wrong datum for the capacity of the dam has been established, now there also are fights: Marathwada people think that if the Jayakwadi dam doesn’t fill up fully, the reason must be that the smaller dams upstream have been criminally diverting water that is rightfully theirs… Think of the bigger and bigger mess it all gets into.)

…Anyway, since I can’t do anything about it, let me wind down on that topic, and instead, let me focus on what I can do.

What this exercise means is that I can use some of these even simple text-book methods to build computational models for the check dams/farm ponds with acceptable enough accuracy; they would be accurate at least to a first-order. (After all, Inglis and De Souza’s second equation shows that a quadratic dependence of the runoff on the rainfall. Also, the other rainfall-runoff models show different kinds of nonlinear relations. So, they should be accurate at least to the first order in further usage.)

One more point before we close. Let me note a couple of good links on the topic of farm ponds. Here they are:

“Farm Ponds: A Climate Resilient Technology for Rainfed Agriculture: Planning, Design and Construction” [(13.1 MB PDF) ^]

“Rainwater Harvesting and Reuse through Farm Ponds: Experiences, Issues and Strategies” [(5.4 MB PDF) ^]

Also, a useful reference on the topic of evaporation: “Potential Evapotranspiration Estimation for Indian Conditions: Improving accuracy through calibration coefficients” [(3.8 MB PDF) ^]

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

A Song I Like:

[I recently randomly stumbled on a listing of this song, and then listened to it after a long, long time—long enough that reading only through the words, I was not able to place the song; I had to listen to it to “get” it back…  A relaxed tempo, and a beautiful melody by SD. … I don’t know if RD assisted SD for this song or not (this one is from 1963), but going by the orchestration, there is at least a hint of the young RD here, esp. in those interludes of the sax and guitar. I doubt if Dada Burman, in 1963, could have given that much of a freedom to Manohari Singh (an assistant and the probable sax player) sans RD’s presence. The tune, of course, is unmistakably SD’s own. … It’s the kind of a tune which you inadvertently catch yourself humming aloud sometime later, perhaps even a few days later, and it still surprises you, and it still makes you want to re-listen to the song…  Shailendra is at his lyrical best… And yes, it’s Suman Kalyanpur, not Lata.  Enjoy the brilliant simplicity of SD (possibly with a small assistance coming from RD)…]

(Hindi) “ye kis ne geet chheDaa…”
Music: S. D. Burman
Singers: Mukesh, Suman Kalyanpur
Lyrics: Shailendra


[PS: Though the content will not change much, tomorrow, I might come back and add just a few links to some good documents on design/experience/economics of farm ponds that I have downloaded. Done. Also added Python scripts for computing the percentage of dam capacity to which the Jayakwadi and Ujjani dams would fill up, at various levels of rainfall in their respective catchment areas.]

Micro-level water-resources engineering—4

Further Update on 2015.04.13: The debugged version is online.

Here is the zip file for the debugged version [^]. I have updated the link in the main text below, too. The bug consisted of a single change: In the file CCheckDamsSeries.cpp, line 228, it should be dEX1 = dX2 - dEWaterLength; in place of dEX1 = dX2 - dWaterLength;. That’s all. (Copy-pasting codes always introduces errors of this sort.)

What I have now uploaded is only the (corrected) first version, not the entirely rewritten second version (as mentioned in the first update below). Two reasons for that: (i) The first version itself is good enough to get some overall idea of the benefits of check dams, and (ii) I have decided to try Python for the more elaborate and completely rewritten version. The reason for that, in turn, is that I just got tired of compiling the binaries on two different platforms.

That way, I am new to Python, and so, it will take a while before you get the expanded and rewritten version. I am learning it the hard way [^].  May be a couple of weeks or so for the next version… Bye for now.

Important Update on 2015.04.12: The software is buggy.

I have noticed (at least one) bug in the software I wrote (see details below). It came to my notice today, once I began completely rewriting the code with a view to study how the economics would work out at different gradients of the river (keeping all the other variables constant, that is). The bug concerns the calculation of the water volume after evaporation, in each dam.

Please give me a few days’ time, at the most a week, and I will upload a (hopefully) correct and a much better written code.

In the meanwhile, I am keeping the current buggy code at the link provided below just in case you want to debug it or play with it, in the meanwhile. Once the new code is ready, I will remove the current buggy code and replace it with the new code.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

The last time, I had suggested an exercise to you. I had not actually undertaken that exercise myself, before writing about it on the blog.

Once I began calculating manually, I realized that the calculations were highly repetitive. I therefore decided to write a quick-and-dirty C++ program about it.

It takes a few input parameters concerning the geometrical dimensions of the highly simplified model river, generates a series of check dams, and calculates the volumes of water that would get stored.

The program also takes into consideration a thumb-rule for the evaporation losses. However, the seepage losses are not considered. That will be quite a different game.

The program also calculates the number of people whose daily personal water needs would be fully satisfied by the available water storage (after deducting the loss due to evaporation, though not by the seepage).

Finally, I also threw in a very rough-and-ready calculation for estimating the costs of building the system of check-dams, and the one-time per-capita cost (for the supported population) for the round the year availability of water (assuming that all the dams do get fully filled up during the monsoon each year).

Let me hasten to emphasize that the cost calculations here are too simplistic. Don’t rely on them; take them as just rough, preliminary and merely indicative estimates.

The cost calculations also do not include any maintenance aspects—which, IMO, is an even more serious drawback for this software. I believe that dam-maintenance must be factored in right at the stage of design—including periodic maintenance for the mechanized removal of the accumulated silt.

Further, costs for lift-irrigation or pumping of water are not included in this program.

Despite these limitations, it has turned out to be an interesting toy to play with!

I am sharing a link to a zip file (stored on Google Docs) containing the source code as well as the pre-compiled binaries for both Windows 7 and Ubuntu 14.04.01 LTS (both 64 bit), here [ (.zip, < 40 kB) ^]. Enjoy!

Things you could check out:

After altering some of the input parameters, I found that the total amount of water available (and hence the population that can be supported, and hence the per-capita expense) is highly sensitive to the depth of the river gorge at the mouth (i.e. at the extreme downstream end, where it joins a bigger river). Realize that this is a very simple model: the volume of the pyramid is directly proportional to the area of the base rectangle, and the fact of the slope restricts the possible storage volume in such a way that the depth of the river bed at the mouth then perhaps becomes the most important parameter in this model.

If you spot some other peculiarities, I would love to hear from you.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

These days, I have been discussing these ideas with my father a bit. Not much, but I just passingly mentioned to him that I had written a blog post and that I mentioned about what he had told me about the geology of the Shirpur region.

Next day, he dug out from somewhere the proceedings of an all India seminar he had attended. Here are the details of the seminar: “Modern techniques of rain water harvesting, water conservation and artificial recharge for drinking water, afforestation, horticulture and agriculture,” jointly organized by the Rural Development Department of Government of Maharashtra and the Directorate of Ground Water Surveys and Development Agency, in Pune, on 19–21 November, 1990!

Wow! 1990! The proceedings are by now some 25 years old!

Yet, browsing through it, it first seemed to be how little things had changed. The contents of that seminar a generation ago are almost entirely relevant even today!

… Of course, there must have been some changes. What I got here was only a compilation of the abstracts and not the complete proceedings of all the full length papers. It is difficult to make out the progress (or its absence) looking only at abstracts. … I notice that a lot (even majority) of the papers are mostly of the sort: “This thing needs to be looked into” or “We have begun this study,” or “this approach seems to be promising.” Concrete, quantitative results are rare in the book. May be that’s the reason why the material looks very “modern” even today.

Other noticeable points: Only one or two papers make reference to GIS or material generated by GIS, or to the satellite imaging/remote sensing technologies. None provides any kind of a computational modelling. All the diagrams are drawn on paper—not computer generated. The book itself was printed, not produced via desktop publishing.

There was a participant from a foreign country—a lone foreign participant, I think. His affiliation was with the Cornell University, USA.

The title of this paper was “Optimization techniques to study the impact of economic and technical measures in recovering aquifers polluted by farming activities” (italics mine).

Even in the abstract, the author felt it important to highlight this part: “the importance of a government body which assumes a key regulatory role in managing the quality of the aquifers cannot be understated” (italics mine).

Immediately later, he also simply added, as if it were an unquestionable kind of a statement: “Both economic and technical measures are at the disposal of the government” (italics, once again, mine).

The author had grandly concluded his abstract thusly: “A theoretical model is developed that may assist the government in determining proper policies under various conditions of economic priorities as well as under different scenarios for relative price ratios between inputs and agricultural production” (italics emphatically are only mine).

The more things change the more…

BTW, any one for the idea that participation from Ivy League schools uplifts the quality of Indian conferences?

It’s a 140 pages book, and I haven’t finished even browsing all through it. My father gave it to me only yesterday noon, and, as you know, I have been writing this program since yesterday afternoon, and so didn’t find much time for this book.

However, I did notice one very neat abstract. So neat, that I must share it fully with you. It forms the content of the next section.

* * * * *  * * * * *   * * * * *

“Indian Rainfall and Water Conservation,” by P. R. Pisharoty, Professor Emeritus at Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad.


The average annual rainfall over the plains of India is 117 cm. The average for all the lands of the World put together is only 70 cm. per year.

In Maharashtra, 80% to 95% of the annual rainfall occurs during the monsoon period June to September. And that occurs in 85 days over the Konkan and in 35–45 days over the rest of Maharashtra. The monsoon rainfall over Konkan is 270 cm., Vidarbha 95 cm., Madhya Maharashtra 77 cm., and Marathwada 65 cm. Half of this amount (outside Konkan) falls in 15 Hours to 20 hours distributed within those 35–45 days. Being of high intensity, 3–5 cms. per hour, this half amount of total monsoon rainfall runs off the ground causing floods and much soil erosion.

This is our problem—particularly in the non-coastal Maharashtra. Only 35–45 days of any significant rain in the whole year, that too confined to the period June to September, half of the rain coming down with great intensity and running off the ground causing flood and much erosion.

We need innovative water conservation methods. We have to draw on our ancient wisdom. The characteristics of the rainfall in the European Countries and in north America are different. Their rainfall is distributed throughout the year and their intensities are not as high as those of Indian rainfall.

Construction of a very large number of water ponds, each a hectare or so in area and about 10 metres deep is one such method. It can be supplemented by check dams, underground check dams, etc. There are other water harvesting methods adopted in areas where annual rainfall is 20–30 cm. or less. Maharashtra is not that bad.

* * * * *  * * * * *   * * * * *

[In the above reproduction, I have kept the typos (15 Hours to 20 hours), the mistaken convention for writing physical units (cm. instead of cm) and the italics emphasis exactly as in the original.]

Honestly, which one of the two abstracts you liked better? Why? What kind of epistemological issues seem to be at work?

* * * * *  * * * * *   * * * * *

A Song I Like:
(Hindi) “ni sultaanaa re…”
Music: R. D. Burman
Singers: Mohamad Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri





My take on Harry Binswanger’s interesting article in the Forbes

The Objectivist philosopher Dr. Harry Binswanger has written an interesting article in the Forbes. The following is what he yesterday noted at his Web site, HBL [^], from where I got to know about that article. BTW, he frequently updates the front page of HBL, and so, I am taking the liberty to quote his yesterday’s noting in its entirety:

“My new post is on the debt of gratitude the 99% owe the 1%. It contains a proposal, probably familiar to those here, that anyone who earns over a million dollars be exempted from all income tax.

It’s a big hit on Forbes. How big, you ask? Well it beat my previous record which was against gun control. That had an amazing 38,717 views, over a few weeks. The current article has had 88,000 views in one day. And it’s only going up from here.”

He then provided a link to the article, which is here [^].

Yesterday, I went through the article, and also quite a few comments. … Obviously, Dr. Binswanger should be happy about the interest the article has generated! As of writing of this post, the number of hits to this article had reached a mind boggling 164,409, and the number of comments, 585!

A notable feature here is not just the volume and the nature of the comments, but also Dr. Binswanger’s clean, direct, thorough, and gentlemanly responses to those comments. … I myself couldn’t have kept as much of patience replying back some of those nasty comments. (And you could tell that much about me, couldn’t you? (LOL!))…

The last time I commented on his Forbes column/blog [^] was in response to his article on immigration [^]. I dug it up today; it’s here [^]. …Wow! it’s seven months already! … Of course, I should have known—I have changed my stand since then; now, I am willing to  go for work anywhere, even to the USA!

Anyway, coming back to this week’s article of Dr. Binswanger’s, I thought it best not to comment on the Forbes blog, because I thought that the format of those immediate comments and re-comments, all done at the e-speed, wouldn’t be appropriate for what I had to say in response to that article…. What I have to say is something I wanted to do in a bit more relaxed mood, thinking aloud. My position is that I do not fully agree with Dr. Binswanger here. … So, before continuing to read any further, if you haven’t already done so, please go and completely read that article, and also at least the comments “called out” by the author, before continuing here.

I now presume that you have read the article and the prominent comments.

I will not bother noting down what all are the good or even great points in that article. With Dr. Binswanger, you always expect that. I will note only concerning my objection, the point where I disagree. But before that, a bit about the context.

For context, if you don’t know it, Dr. Binswanger’s obvious intent here is to counter a recent cultural idea that has gained a lot of traction among businessmen, both in the USA and in India. I don’t know who formulated this particular expression of it, but knowing that detail is not very important. What is important that many—far too many, in fact—prominent American businessmen and rich people have espoused it. Including not just Warren Buffett but also Bill Gates. (Some in SF Bay Area might want to reverse the order of noting down the two names here!) They, and others like them, have been canvassing for rich people to take a pledge to “give back” to the society.

The basic idea is ancient—it is as old as altruism is—but its specific formulation here is more in the Christian mould, and more couched for the American businessman. And, despite Ayn Rand Institute’s moral defence of the right of Microsoft not to be split in that DoJ case in the 1990s, Bill Gates, apparently, hasn’t learnt anything. On the contrary, he has been an enthusiastic front-runner in this recent “give back” drive.

Dr. Binswanger, for good reasons, would wish to counter this expression of altruism in the American culture today. Ayn Rand had a principled opposition to what she called the axis of mysticism, altruism and collectivism [^]. She instead upheld reason, rational egoism and individualism, in their respective places. (These are the main issues of contention respectively in epistemology, ethics, and politics.) Collectivism, she demonstrated, leads to statism and dictatorships, whereas individual rights lead to Capitalism. So, given this nutty but highly influential “give back” drive, and the fact that he is a pro-Capitalism philosopher, it was obvious that while writing for a business magazine, Dr. Binswanger would engage this battle against collectivism, at a level more basic to it: at the level of ethics, and on the issue of altruism vs. [rational] egoism.

His latest article is to be seen in this light. And, seen this way, if he were to be completely consistent in his position including also on the application side, I couldn’t possibly have had any issue with it.

However, I do have a problem—that way, a minor problem, but a problem, nevertheless—with this article. Dr. Binswanger here seems to have advocated a position that is, I think, perhaps a bit too narrow for an unqualified and immediate endorsement.

I don’t have any problem with the basic idea behind his suggestion: that if at all giving back should be the issue, then it’s the 99% that should give back to the 1%. The only issue I have are with the details.

The first detail: Is it really only the 1%? Or should it rather be something like, say, 2%? 5%? … I don’t know, but I am just wondering… It’s a very minor, quantitative detail, but still, that 1% figure seems to me, off-hand, too small—even elitist.

And, I have another, relatively much more important, issue here—call it a problem if you wish: Just how do you decide who constitutes the top x%?

Here, Dr. Binswanger follows the historically valid criterion: the income. Historically, it seems, the income would have made for a valid criterion in the USA: the government interference was almost nothing as compared to today, and so, “income” would have been the same as “the money made in the [mostly] free market,” which would have been the same as “the earned money,” which, in turn, would have been in direct proportion to “productive achievement.” So, it would have been valid to say that if you made a million, you are an honourable man because you are so productive. Productivity (including creativity, etc.) is a virtue.

The trouble is that today’s system is not capitalistic at all. Not even in the USA. Even though Americans habitually forget this simple fact.

Today, the income no longer is tied with the productive achievement of a man or how  worthy his output actually is (and can be). In fact, the whole issue comes up precisely because the government exercises such a great deal of coercive control in the economy (and with government, all controls are always coercive; there is no such a thing as a non-coercive government control—it’s a contradiction in terms).

Here, realize that the one element of Dr. Binswanger’s suggestion, namely that Congressional Honors (and only that—honor) may be bestowed on productive individuals is not in itself bad. We live in such bad times that it “instinctively” seems to us that selection procedures followed even if “only” for honors would always be fully problematic, even if it were to be a completely free, Capitalistic society. (And, so, we tend to overemphasize the idea that in a free society, there would be no government honors.) However, historically, in the USA, that never was the case. American presidents were known to boast of the wealth they personally made, and simultaneously, also used to be eager to bestow social honors on the other, wealthy, individuals, all in a manner so innocent as to seem to belong to a realm of fairy tales, today. And, people would by and large have no problem with who was thus honored and who was not. The goodwill among people was so great and so authentic. So, in that sense, honors, even Congressional Honors, by themselves, would be fine by me.

The trouble is, when the government is so big as to create as much of a mess as the one in which we currently live, the very idea that some government- or politicians-bestowed honors should go, without qualification, to all the millionaires seems preposterous not just out of envy/jealousy, but also because far too many of us have (or at least I have) the sense that far too many of them simply made a killing precisely exploiting government-enforced restrictions or controls of the economy—or at least influenced government in some way to derive benefits (“grabbing,” really speaking).

From what I gather by regularly reading HBL site, Steve Jobs is Dr. Binswanger’s favorite example of a great money-maker—and Jobs indeed was one, in very many important ways.

But Jobs himself was found at least actively supporting if not outright canvassing for the DoJ to “break the back of Microsoft” just a decade ago—the times incidentally coinciding with quite some part of the wealth he made. And, the quoted words are his own; he said that in a fairly serious even if somewhat passionate settings—or at least the local Palo Alto and San Jose newspapers had carried such news items back then. Now, suppose you supply some great (objectively valid) contextual material to show how Jobs was simply tired of, say, Microsoft‘s abuse of the government power, by some background deals they struck with the government and all, and so, to save his business, with no better alternatives left (despite ARI’s presence right in his home state), he had to begin, say, “encouraging” the DoJ only as a counter-measure, and therefore, he really would deserve honors despite all those utterances. Suppose you say that, in Jobs’ defence. It still leaves open the issue of whether you then want the honors also to go to both Bill Gates and Scott McNealy, together with Jobs. And, also to that guy who founded some company called WebVan or so. People would want to buy vegetables online, he thought. People would not want to leave their armchair and go to market, have a direct look at vegetables like spinach and ochra, they would not want to touch and press a couple of apples or grapefruit from all sides, before coming to the conclusion that that material was good enough to take to their kitchens, he thought. Give people some good stock photographs of fresh vegetables on the Internet, and some great discount deals, and the convenience of delivery to their door-step after just a mouse-click, and they will happily buy even perishable food items like vegetables online, he thought. And bet his company on this idea. The company went bust, of course, but he made millions via what is known as the “exit parachute.”

In Dr. Binswanger’s scheme, he could have easily received the congressional honors for some 2–3 years in a row, before the company went bust, and also for a few years after that—due to the exit parachute, he would continue to make millions every year for some more years even in case the company went bust. Some money-making personality! Or, make it a plural, a sizeable one at that. Personalities!

Dr. Binswanger, it might seem, is naive.  Possible. More probable is this possibility that first he thought of this neat interest-generating idea, of turning the “giving back” idea on its head. This part is actually neat. But then, he probably simply got carried away a bit too far.

Though ideations in terms such as (economic) “class” and all that was so unlike Ayn Rand, she did once observe (though I can’t off-hand tell you where I read it) that the middle-class is the most productive among the three classes. The middle class, she had noted, is a product of Capitalism; it had never existed in any civilization and in any culture prior to the rise of capitalism.

I used to work in the SF Bay Area—arguably one of the most competitive places of work for software development—during the late nighties and early naughties. I have come across (though not necessarily personally) many, many examples of highly productive men—entrepreneurs and engineers, and even marketing people—making it big purely on their own hard work and merit. Some—in fact, many—might have become millionaires. (Microsoft, at that time, was minting a relatively very big number of new millionaires (was it 100?) per month.) And yet, I must note, per my actual, direct observations, the Venn overlap between the millionaires and the productive was only partial. There were enough on both sides of the “left-out” areas that one couldn’t possibly ignore them. Many good, productive people never made millions, though they did earn respectably well (in excess of $100 k/year).

My informal feel is that if you take the income distribution curve, the most productive would be in a band next to the top income earners. I mean to say, if you superimpose the distribution of the productivity of people (i.e. number of productive people at a given income level) on top of the income distribution curve, then, at least in today’s USA, the peak of the productivity curve would likely be on the higher income side, but not at the very topmost income levels. It would be somewhere next to it.

… Best surgeons—those who actually perform surgery as in contrast to those who don’t perform any surgery and only own or manage hospitals—would be found at, say, around the $500 k to $1 million levels. (Am I right?) Perhaps $5 million levels. But they won’t be found at the $50 million level. And, further, their density would be significantly high also in the $100 k to $250 k levels. Similarly, for lawyers and engineers. Greatest engineers are often “happy” working anywhere between, say, $70 k to $250 k. They typically miss the millionaire club. (And, I don’t buy the idea that Steve Jobs was great and his engineers relatively dumb, because it was only he who thought that so much slimming down of cell-phones was possible, or desirable. From what I know of the Bay Area engineers, that’s not possible, in fact. Engineers would be smart enough to think similarly too, though outwardly they would say: “it can’t be done.” The reason wouldn’t only be a relative incompetence, not in all cases anyway. A more likely reason would be simply that they were gunning for all those bonuses and stock options, which, BTW, wouldn’t come their way if they didn’t make it look difficult. And all of that money would still put them within only the $100 k to $500k bracket.)

I am not denying Jobs’ genius. I am pointing out another, orthogonal fact, viz., that if you take that distribution of # of productive people at a given income level, then some of the higher-level parts of this curve may go up and include some of the highest money-makers too. But its peak will not be at the highest income levels. If you want to approximate it via an all-or-nothing band (by cutting off at some low enough a level), then, the resulting band would certainly fall short of the topmost income levels.

Where does that, then, leave us? Fortunately for us, the number of the topmost earners would also be much much less than the number of productive but not-so-wealthy people. And, fortunately for us, I think, at least in the USA, the productive people’s band would lie right next to the topmost income peoples’ band. And, this make it easy to device a policy. We can afford to be generous, club the two together, and advocate for a top 2%, 3% or 5% or so. As an approximate band, they may be singled out for the remaining majority to be grateful towards them. I don’t care if you take it to the top 10% or even 15% levels. Just remember, as you widen the group, its inspiration-generation potential drops. And, that’s the last point I want to write about, today.

Nobody is really (i.e. in actual fact) inspired by a top money-makers such as Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs. And the reason is not, as many Objectivists think, that the culture is that bad. The fact is, people are awed, even mystified, by the top money-makers, esp. the wealthiest ones in today’s mixed economy. But people do not want to emulate them. Not even the most ambitious but productive among the low-earners. And not even if all tax was to be exempted for top earners like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. The reason is not a lack of ambition or moral strength or ability, and the reason is not “bad culture.” The reason is: because people are smart enough to realize, and correctly so, that these are the rather “freak” cases, speaking statistically. The amount of wealth they made came about via such a narrow and unique set of circumstances that it’s impossible for someone starting afresh to plan his career using as narrow and unique combination as that, and also not face in the process the risk, not just of possible failure, but also of too high expectations coming crashing too cruelly down. And therefore, the smartest and even the most productive among the topmost income earners (i.e. leaving aside all crooks and government’s bed-fellows aside) do not actually have a great inspiration potential.

Admiration potential? Yes. But potential for inspiration, in the sense Dr. Binswanger would desire? So as to effect the cultural change towards a better culture? LOL! Not really. People may talk in terms like “Bill Gates inspires me,” simply because they are just looking for some words to use, but in their mind doesn’t really seem to act that way—inspiration is not what their mind seems to derive.

There might be a few areas of exceptions here, of course. I am just continuing to think aloud. Top athletes (like Michael Jordan) may perhaps actually inspire the potential top athletes. But the phenomenon does not carry over more broadly into all fields of productive endeavour. And, for that matter, even among athletes, top money-makers don’t necessarily inspire the potentially best athletes, anyway. Think: who is not inspired by Sachin Tendulkar? And then, think: but who all athletes are inspired, in the real sense of the term, also by all those other millionaire cricketers? And then, also think: what makes people want to top, say, the carom tournaments or represent India in hockey team? Why does the great amount of money present in cricket still fails to inspire them to go to cricket? So, when it comes to inspiration, the top money-makers don’t inspire others, top performers do. … Indeed, it’s probably only in the finance and finance-dominated fields that top money-makers might also be the most inspiring people—I don’t know, but that could easily to be the case. In most other fields, the correlation simply does not hold good. Performance “out-inspires” money. And not because of any dichotomy the element of statism introduces, but simply as a fact of the human nature.

So, if the intent is reversing the bad cultural trends, Dr. Binswanger could have advocated honoring the most productive ones—and stopped there. But he went further, and made the issue conceptually narrower, by focusing on income as the criterion. And that’s where I disagree. Just the way he fights collectivism by taking the battle to a more fundamental level, that of ethics (altruism vs. egoism), similarly, he could have taken the suggestion to a bit more fundamental level, and advocated the most productive ones, instead of the richest ones. The former are the best candidates to appreciate the goal of bringing about a cultural change for the better, anyway—the latter may or may not be (and in today’s mixed economy, often are not).

People wouldn’t mind (or even care) if Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs get honored—or at least get all those tax exemptions, which too is what Dr. Binswanger suggests—so long as they could see that the actual productive geniuses also were getting honored, in fact a relatively greater number of them.

At a personal level, I don’t care if Mr. Forbes gets honored by the government or receives tax exemptions—so long as both Dr. Binswanger and I get 100% tax exemption on all our respective incomes, whatever these may be. That’s the bottom-line.

Otherwise, since the statists and collectivists aren’t going to reduce the government spending ahead of all that cultural change even if they accept Dr. Binswanger’s suggestion, what, effectively, he ends up doing is asking me to shell out even more income tax out of my income, in order to subsidize the top money-“makers” of today’s. And, why? Because they are productive geniuses, that’s why. Tough luck.

Now, that, really, is the bottom line.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

Update: I could locate Ayn Rand’s take on the middle class. She uses even stronger words—strong enough that no additional emphasis is necessary!:

“A nation’s productive—and moral, and intellectual—top is the middle class. It is a broad reservoir of energy, it is a country’s motor and lifeblood, which feeds the rest.”
–Ayn Rand

See the excerpts here [^].


* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

A Song I Like:

(Hindi) “kai din se mujhe, kabhi sapano mein..”
Singers: Hemlata and Shailendra Singh
Music: Ravindra Jain
Lyrics: Ravindra Jain

[May be I will come back and streamline this writing a bit.]


My loud thinking concerning the recent questions about Narendra Modi

Recently, I felt like writing a response to the following questions [^] as soon as I read them:

“What is Narendra Modi? A visionary and a statesman? Or a demagogue and master orator who can tailor a speech to his audience?

And there is another question too. One that I believe is even more important. What do Modi’s supporters really want? Development or Hindutva?”

The answer I wrote on the fly [and as usual, at a great length] appears below, but, first, an important note: I am just copy-pasting my answer. It certainly needs to be edited, but in the meanwhile, there was a kind of medical emergency at home and so, I will do the editing/expansion later. [My mother had to be hospitalized soon later, on Feb 11th; she still is in hospital—and, BTW, this is a reference which I am going to remove in the subsequent editing.]

As far as editing goes, in particular: the form of the answer needs to be changed from a personal reply to an independent blog-post in general; certain points need to be put in a slightly better context; and, as usual, some words need some qualifications or need to be changed; etc. Also check out on the “Applying philosophy…” blog my subsequent elaborations: [^] and [^].

Also, to keep the perspective/context (which often is lost days, weeks, months or, more understandably, years later, and which often is deliberately dropped as a part of the “follow up”), make sure to also check out the recent flurry of media articles/opinion pieces (some of which appeared just days after the above-referred discussion in the blogosphere), e.g.: Chetan Bhagat and Swapan Dasgupta’s pieces in the last Sunday’s Times of India, Tavleen Singh’s piece in the last Sunday’s Indian Express, and most recently, the blog-post by Pritish Nandy at Times of India.

[Links to all to be added.]

Anyway, here is the answer I had written on the fly:

* * *

He is not a statesman, that’s for sure.

We have had mixed economy for such a long time that it would be next to impossible for any one of his or younger generation to rise to that level. The cultural trends have been mostly taking a downturn for such a long time that, these days, all politicians are all driven by the compulsions of democracy—the actual, *systemic*, compulsions imposed by the rule of the mob, within a constitutional framework that contains too many contradictions and so succeeds in giving only a semblance of cohesion or integration to the polity. For instance, the constitution prohibits changing parties, thereby inducing the herd effect to a greater extent. Gone are the days of being true to “conscience.” In fact, conscience is a word which one would run into at least once a week some three decades ago, but doesn’t find mentioned anywhere for months together, these days.

Still, about the cultural downturns, I said “mostly.” That’s observation-based, not an expression of a general pessimism.

The only noticeable cultural *up*swings have been those in the wake of the *political* liberalization in the early 90s (which itself was driven by the *economic* compulsions and the better, liberalizing, terms set by the somewhat better, i.e. the Western, elements in the World Bank, when we had gone bankrupt due to our socialistic political pursuits). Though liberalization was a political process, in reducing shackles and exposing India to the (whatever remaining) better elements in the West, it also allowed betterment in *culture*.

However, these accompanying *cultural* upswings have been countered by the other cultural *down*swings, in particular, those of the religious kind.

BTW, I don’t think we have had a *cultural* downswing of the communist/socialist kind since the 1970s. All the recent downswings in India have been of the religious kind. Sonia Gandhi’s NAC-inspired socialistic programs, or, to a lesser extent, Vajpayee’s populist programs, have been downswings on the economic side, not cultural. For that matter, even when the left was a part of the power at the Center in UPA1, they were completely ineffective in promoting the leftist trend in the *culture*. Bollywood continued with the pelvic thrusts, and even artsy “socially conscious” cinema chose themes like Peepli Live, Shwaas and Deool, rather than a glorification of egalitarianism, of redistributing poverty.

So, the main thing to worry in today’s India, as far as *cultural* degradation is concerned, is: religion, not socialism. Notice the lack of any enthusiastic coverage in the urban, well-educated, middle classes about the movie: Deool. Its theme contains too many undercurrents uncomfortable to the religious mystics of the modern Indian variety.

Incidentally, despite India being a mystic country for such a long time, the execution model they (the religionists) have tried to follow in recent times is not indigeneous in origin; it’s a recent import from America. The recent Indian model is based on the upswing of religion in America, which itself is a rather recent phenomenon (gaining ground after 1970s, and consolidating during the Reagen years).

Thus, Jansangh, for instance, would never have put up a rippling-muscles, six-pack abs kind of a portrayal of Shri Ram on those wide-view flex boards in the cities; it would take the BJP to do that. The traditional Indian portrayal, in fine arts, sculputre and literature, of this God, even if he was a “kshatriya”-born, is that of a middle-aged deity with a somewhat roundish body and carrying a vague, almost nurturing kind of a smile, with the deity situated in a rich, opulent, but peaceful settings, together with family—not that of an angry, young warrior, taking aim with a tautly stretched bow-and-arrow, with his clothes flying in the strong winds as he stands alone on a treeless strech of brownish land, with anger uncontrollably shooting out of eyes. (With all that evident anger, it would be difficult to hold aim to the target, one wonders.) The traditional Indian portrayal of this deity—qua deity—has been different, the history of there actually having been a major war notwithstanding.

The elder Indian even today sometimes does an involuntary double-take at the spectacle of “teertha” (holy water) being sprayed onto those wildly dancing, hysteric masses from a high platform as in the rock concerts, using water-pumps and hose-pipes to spray the “teertha”. To the earlier generation of the religious Indian, “teertha” is always taken in a small quantity using the right hand. A small bamboo “pichkaari” is acceptable at the time of Holi, but it’s not a religious event. Using a *hose-pipe* and a *pump*, for *spraying* “teerth” is too much.

Before these trends spread elsewhere in India, they had begun in those massive religious gatherings in Gujarat, during the times of Modi’s rise to, and assumption of, the political power.

One reason the elderly Indian winces at such sights is: an Indian, true to his color, would in principle be averse to any grand-scale show on the material side. Especially so, when it comes to the matters related to religion. The Indian tendency, particular in the spiritual matters, is to turn the gaze inwards, not outwards. The Indian is not averse to the bodily power; but in his view, either the bodily power is to be subjugated to the spiritual wisdom, which is all outwordly, or the entire matter is superfluous to him simply because it pertains to this world. There is a reason why the “gopur”s of our temples may be grand on both artistic and spatial scales, but the “garbha-griha” is spatially so small as to hardly admit only a few people at a time. When it comes to temples, the idea of a vast space or a large auditorium accomodating a large gathering, with a high pulpit for the priest, is specific to the Abrahamic religions, not to the Indian ones. Clearly, “event management” of *this* kind is a recent import. (We have always had massive religious gatherings, e.g. Kumbh Mela or Wari, but these have been more noticeable for their messyness, randomness, than for masses being coralled together and aroused to a common passion by an organized priesthood. The Indian religious philosophy is far too outworldly to ever care for any organization or purpose in this world, especially that on a large scale. Our temples may have large spaces surrounding the main building (“aawaar”), but these spaces noticeably lack the pulpits to address the assemby—in fact, there never is an assembly, only a random and overcrowded collection of people.)

We have only recently imported the more effective, large-scale, techniques of management of mobs on the basis of religion as a uniting force.

Modi’s management style seems to reflect his times; it seems to be a mix of an upbringing in the traditional organization mold of the old RSS (itself based on an awkward mixture of the European fascists of the early 20th century for the most part and some Scouts-like activities thrown in for good measure), *and* these modern techniques of religion-based political management imported from America.

In short, there have been cultural betterment in certain areas. For example, today, we can openly advocate capitalism in India, without any fear of ridicule, which was not possible as late as when I was in my 20s, i.e. in 1980s.

However, overall, the net cultural change has been to go on to the down side.

Since, as you observed, culture (in the broad sense of the term) does drive politics, the culture of politics also has been going down. (I never thought it stinks to the extent you and many others do.) It’s in the recent atmosphere that it’s difficult to produce statesmen. Try to think of a successor to Jamshedji Tata, in today’s world. Or even to JRD, for that matter. Politics is hardly different. You don’t expect a Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan or even a Shankar Dayal Sharma, in today’s world; the alternative to Pratibha Patil was Bhairo Singh Shekhawat. Even if IMO politics does not stink to the extent you seem to think it does, it is very obvious that we can no longer expect statesmen to rise in today’s India.

So, the smart spin of Modi’s internationally outsourced image consultants aside, he simply can’t be a statesman. The very suggestion is ludicrous, and a direct product of his spin-doctors. (He is not alone in employing/benefitting from spin-doctors; his anticipated 2014 opponent, Rahul Gandhi, supplies an easy example.)

Is Modi a visionary? Ok. Can you use that word to describe a fascist? To clarify this issue, let’s take a more extreme example of a fascist: Can you use that word for Mussolini? If yes, then, sure, Modi is a visionary. He has the “vision” of unleashing the Hindu religious kind of irrationality, on India (and if possible, elsewhere, too), and to preside over the accompanying political power in an executive capacity. That’s his “vision.” (He might succeed in “achieving” it—simply because Rahul Gandhi is what he is.)

Is Modi a demogogue? In view of his political success in Gujarat, he must be. But then, of course, there are so many demogogues, even within his own party. Rajnath Singh, for instance. An array of them could be witnessed during the recent FDI issue. That hardly makes him special.

Is he a master orator? I don’t think so. I haven’t seen the video you refer to, but from whatever his earlier speeches I have seen, they seem to indicate skills lesser than those of a master orator. A master orator is different. Balasaheb Thakarey? Yes. Narendra Modi? Not really. Of course, he does have that ability to deliver effective speeches, often with a lot of punches. But then all politicians routinely do that. When you say a master orator, the person has to go beyond that level. I would certainly put Lalu Prasad Yadav ahead of Narendra Modi in that department. This is not humour; I mean it. When it comes to superior oratorial skills, just the way Vajpayee is (rather was) a master orator, so is Yadav.

Rather than pieces of superior oratory, Modi’s speeches seem to be like *events* that are quietly and masterfully coordinated in the background. The actual speech seems like just the tip of the icebert. The silent coordination is palpable. Right from creating the atmosphere for an upcoming speech, including coordination in the media (not just locally, not just in the neighbourhood or with the people in the city, but specifically within media), to the necessary followup capitalization on what(ever) he said.

The only way to explain the extraordinary effectiveness of this not-so-extraordinary personality is to make reference to the quiet work done for him by those “swayamsevaks.” Take away the aura they impart him, and then, judging him for himself, Modi comes across a far more ordinary personality—not just in speeches but also in every respect. There are times when I wonder if he could be described as a pigmy. He is said to divide all people into two camps, and evoke extreme passions of either admiration or loathing in them. The description is accurate except for the starting word: you have to replace “he” the person by “he” the image—nay, the rather seamless sort of an enormous collage—built up by all those collectivist “swayamsevaks.”

As to demoguery, I think more than being just a demogogue, he is a shrewd “organization man,” capable of slowly but surely advancing over his competition, especially internally. Here, I think a definite credit is certainly due to him. Not just in a value-neutral sense. I think he has put in very honest and very hard efforts in rising through his organization. To a certain extent, esp. for politicians, personal honesty *is* compatible with a contradictory or irrational political agenda.

He is not a typical BJP leader. Nope. He is more pure-minded on their agenda, more hard-working on that agenda, than any others from his party. Compare him with your ordinary, compromising sort of a guy like, say, Ram Naik, Nitin Gadkari, or even Rajnath Singh. When it comes to the BJP agenda, Modi would be more ruthless compared to any other BJP leader. Not because he lacks emotions, or controls them better, or manages to suppress them. Not even because he wants to be ruthless with people—in fact, quite the opposite is very likely, from whatever I can gather from his coverage on TV in general (never saw him in person at a close distance). It is easily possible that he is responsive and sensitive.

Still, he will end up being more ruthless simply because he would be morally more unshakeably convinced about the moral worth of the BJP agenda.

I think that it is possible to imagine Modi’s developing inner doubts privately, when it comes to his assessments of his own abilities, his own capacity to lead and to rule. He certainly does seem to be both sensitive and intelligent enough to be able to develop such doubts, at least some times. But what he seems entirely incapable of doing is: ever challenging the moral worth (to him: the moral *superiority*, nay, *infallibility*) of the *moral* agenda of his organization, of his party. It’s this greater—moral—conviction which would make him more ruthless. And it is this emphasis on the moral agenda rather than a political agenda which permits him enough flexibility to be a chamelion on many political issues or to even strike some compromises—the reason why so many Muslims do in fact support him. They too are religious, like him, but too short range, unlike him.

It’s Modi’s moral convictions that set him apart from the others in his party. It’s not any particularly superior personal set of qualities, except for being a better organization-man among them. Honest hard work, a lot of them do. Shrewd, a lot of them are. May be, he is slightly more shrewd, that’s all—though I honestly doubt that. From all that you can gather about him, he is very shrewd, but he could even be more sincere than shrewd. So, the real difference setting him apart from his colleagues is his willingness to go all the way down along the path of their shared morality. And the real reason why he can make that contradictory morality work, is: using his superior skills as the organization-man. The burden of the contradictions is calculated to fall on those outside the organization, the enemy camp (whoever they may be), and, since a contradiction nevertheless has a way to also run in the opposite direction, i.e. internally, the burden then has to fall on to those who have lesser skills to make the organization work for them. (One reason for this last also is the lesser strength of the same morals. There does seem to be a feedback loop here.) And so, when it comes to his individual assessment, the actual reason can only be ascribed to the depth to which he carries his (wrong) moral convictions.

Finally, coming to his supporters. In wondering about what *Modi*’s supporters want, if you are at all going to set up an *alternative,* esp. an alternative between Hindutva and “development” (whatever that means)—or, for that matter, between Hindutva and anything else—then, I would say, you are politically so naive, so very naive, that I have a suggestion for you: consider abstaining from voting regardless of where you are (i.e. even in places/elections where the BJP is weak/absent), for, when it comes to politics, you obviously cannot be trusted to choose wisely. :-) [This last was just a joke, BTW.]

Too long, in fact longer than usual. Hope you tolerate. (It was just a writing on the fly.) Guess one of these days I should write a slightly better organized piece on Modi, at my own blog. I wanted to do one well before the heat of the campaign begins, and right now might as well be a good time to do that. So, unlike my comments on spirituality and all, this time round, this comment might actually move very quickly to my blog. Though, guess I will let it begin its course here.


Economics—A Bit from the Past, and Something New and Exciting!

1. A Bit from the Past

While attending IIT Madras (July 1985–Jan 1987), apart from engineering etc., one of the subject areas that I tried to better get acquainted with was business and economics. So, first, I went through some books in the library at random, and in the process realized that before I could understand Finance and Stock Markets, I would have to study Management Finance. And, to understand that, first I would have to go, in the reverse sequence, learning: Management Accounting –> Business Accounting and Economics.

Since I also wanted to get a bit acquainted with the Indian situation (i.e. the Indian accounting etc. laws), I looked up, and settled on Grover’s accounting text as the main text. However, Indian texts were not very strong on conceptual explanations; for these, I came to rely on Meigs and Johnson, available with the IIT library. I found this book to be excellent. I even bought accounting journals and solved some problems.

Though I hardly remember any accounting theory today (and, somewhat surprisingly, am not at all interested in playing stock markets—here or in the USA), the one thing I still do remember is the fundamental equation: assets = liabilities + owners’ equity. Eventually, I also bought Jain’s Management Accounting and Prasanna Chandra’s book on Finance.

Actually, all this knowledge did come in handy very shortly later when I did a short summer course in the IIT on Entrepreneurship Development.

So far so good. The accounting and finance books, being concerned more with technical concretes, were fairly neat. But I found that the worth of the economics books ranged from “bad” through “very bad” to “loathsome”/”pathetic”. No exception. Stonier and Hague, I found, was somewhat bad. Paul Samuelson was from very bad to loathsome—but he was not pathetic.

Here, I remember a (good-natured) fight that I had with an IIT UG student, my hostel-mate, regarding the worth of Samuelson’s book.

My points: Samuelson failed to distinguish between a mixed economy and capitalism, and passed the first off as if it was the second. Further, his explanations sometimes fully inverted causality—making him a third-rate general thinker, granted all his technical brilliance (which I had assumed). Now, I had got it by reading Ayn Rand that in a proper economic system, there are only producers—no consumers. (I don’t recall here the excellent article in which she brilliantly traces the roots of inflation to irrational psycho-epistemology!)

His points: Samuelson was a celebrated author, from MIT, and a Nobel laureate. He was influential. These are the things that mattered. “Who reads your Ayn Rand at MIT?” was the sarcastic rhetoric with which he concluded his “position”.

With neither party willing to retreat, needless to add, we did not reach any conclusion in that debate—we just had to let it go at that.

Over a period of time, I have lost almost all my knowledge of accounting, finance and economics. I mean I am sure I could recover it comparatively very fast if I now begin studying. But I no longer find it so interesting any more. QM and computational science and engineering keeps me busy. … Which brings me to the next point today.

2. Computational Economics

Mid-1980s were the times when the PC had just begun making penetration. The twin revolutions of computers and communications, while they are still continuing, have by now become commonplace. I mean, even an undergraduate student these days invariably owns a powerful laptop—the way our “generation” had just begun owning those Casio hand-held calculators (the FX series).

Economists had always used computers, right from the days of main-frames. So, that way, computational economics is not a new branch.

But, now, there is a relatively new entrant in this field, called “Agents-Based Modeling” (ABM) for short. Personally, I find this kind of modeling both over-overdue, and highly interesting. [I also particularly love the fact that it reverses the acronym: “MBA” :)]

The idea in ABM is to perform a discrete kind of modeling that is focused on a finite number of economic agents and their interactions. Thus, instead of modeling some general economic principle in terms of, say, calculus-based(or algebraic equations, which in turn have been derived from some underlying theory, the new approach of ABM directly abstracts suitable economic agents, defines the rules of their micro-level interactions, and then, having represented all these in software, lets their interactions evolve in time during the course of a  simulation. Thus, it is a bottom-to-top approach, which is good.

If you have seen or played with Conway’s Game of Life, or cellular automata in general, you will have some broad kind of idea as to the nature of simulation done in ABM.

Note, the bottom-to-top nature of such a modeling does not automatically make the process inductive, or the conclusions inductively valid.

But, yes, this kind of modeling, I believe, would be by nature better-suited if someone wants to inductively study economics.

The ABM field is not exactly nascent; the first papers seem to have begun appearing from late 1990s. However, the activity seems just about to take off, and for good reason.

I find it exciting (but only as a side-interest).

3. How Should It Be Done?

However, a simple Google search and a bit of browsing later, I realized how naive my excitement was.

Let me give just one example. Some ABM modeling done has consumers as economic agents.

Having read Ayn Rand, I find it offensive.

However, note that the field is still taking its baby steps. So, the current times are ideal if you wish to seize the opportunity and introduce a more rational kind of theorization in this field. Thus, for instance, the agents ought to be: producers, not consumers. And, then, perhaps, to make the model both realistic and representative of our times, you would have to add: “parasites,” “moochers,” “looters,” etc.

Which made me realize that I really don’t know how exactly such a thing should be done—i.e. modeled. Hence, this post.

If you are an economist (professional or amateur), here is a question for you to ponder:

Suppose you are going to write an Object-Oriented program (say in C++) for ABM. The question is: What kind of objects, their attributes, behaviours, relationships would you pick up (or isolate)? Also, what kind of rules of interaction (e.g. trade- or force-based)? why?

Just note, the idea is to try to make it a model of economics, not of accounting. It should be enough fundamental and abstract for it to qualify as a model of economic science. 

4. One Observation

Just one more observation before we close. Suppose you have an abstract base-class (i.e. genus, in case you are not a programmer) such as, say, “Producer.” You may then derive (species) different sub-types such as “Farmers,” “UnorganizedLabor,” “FactoryWorker,” “Engineer,” “Designer,” “CEO,” etc. All these classes might implement a method (behaviour) named, say, “Produce().” The thing that is produced itself may have been derived from an abstract base like “Product” or even, in a certain sense, “Value.”

The interesting question is this. Whenever the stupids that are economists talk of people, they love to erect strawmen such as “Rational” man (and I have put the scare-quotes to emphasize that the word denotes their idea of an enforced sort of rationality) and “Rational” choices.

Since we are not stupid (LOL!), we will allow for Free-Will in our model. We might be able to incorporate such a thing in the attributes/behavior, and rules parts of our model. OK. For the sake of modeling, the degree of Free-Will may be derived either using some encoded rules—including using some random distributions (purely for convenience in implementation)—or even by letting real people make choices (as in software games that are played in teams).

The point or observation that I wanted to make in the passing is this: Any basic or fundamental economic modeling would have to consider volition explicitly—and ABM is great because representing volition can now be very direct.

This makes economics a very different kind of a science. Economics is a part of Politics, and studies social organization of men—individual men. Volition is necessary in economic modeling.

Volition (or any attribute or aspect of consciousness) is in principle outside of the scope of a physical science. On the other hand, it is in principle a necessary component of any discipline of humanities, including economics.

Bad philosophy leads to representation of men by calculus-based collectivized and deterministic rules in economic theory. Bad philosophy also allows a free reign to consciousness in fundamental physics (“observer” as necessary in physical “interpretation,” etc.)

5. Extended Scope:

Let me now add another side-point. If this ABM approach is sufficiently well developed, it could also show us how to model many other kind of interactions among men, e.g. those which fall in spiritual domain, i.e. with issues pertaining to consciousness, such as social bonding, religion, etc.

Think about it. ABM is not about just economics. It can be a powerful tool to model and observe in any kind of numerous or collective actions originating separately in individual men. Not only social structures but even spiritual interactions would be possible with it.

6. Reminder

Before closing, here is the reminder that if you have suggestions concerning the questions raised in point 3. above, I would be interested in hearing from you—just drop me an email or a comment. Thanks in advance.

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A Song I Like:
[A Note: BTW, note that when I pick a song for listing here, it is either mechanically at random, or randomly chosen by me. I never care for the cinematic or story or video or picturization context. In a way, I assume the radio-only or the record-player-/tape-recorder-only context of songs. Indeed, many of the songs I had  never seen in any form until posting them here. Often, I find videos or picturization odd or funny—e.g. the “main ban-phool” song! In short, consider any video etc. context as omitted here.]

(Hindi) “phir wohi raat hai…”
Lyrics: Gulzar
Music: R. D. Burman
Singer: Kishore Kumar

[I know I still have to streamline my earlier posts… I will do it later this week or so… ]


Whither Capitalism…

Note, the first word in the title of this post is not “whether;” it is: “whither.”

While writing and updating my last post, many memories began surfacing. This post, again, is based on a particular, in a way trivial incident which occurred during my initial years with Objectivism. But there is a reason to share that incident because it shows a few things relevant to the debates concerning introducing capitalism in India today.

The time was 1984 or thereabouts. My friends from COEP and me had graduated from COEP (1983), and had begun “tasting” work-life and organizations (i.e. companies). Criticism of government, esp. over taxes, was a norm in the corporate life even back then, and generally, any young trainee engineer could easily come to appreciate that there was something to be said about economic freedom, even though no corporate honcho or intellectual would directly mention Capitalism or Ayn Rand as such.

The most prominent and honorable exception to this rule came from JRD, the then Tata Group chairman, who later on was most justifiably honored with a “Bharat-Ratna,” India’s highest civic award. Way back (I suppose perhaps as back as in the 1960s), JRD had financed production and distribution of pamphlets to managers (working anywhere, both in and out of Tatas), expressly meant for defending capitalism. These pamphlets did mention all of the three words: “Laissez-Faire,” “Capitalism,” and “Ayn Rand,” I have been told. (I myself never saw one of these pamphlets, but was told by very reliable people, senior managers teaching at management institutes or so.) Another similar exception was Rahul Bajaj. I don’t think he went so far as mentioning Ayn Rand herself. But he was a ruthless critic of the license-quota raj, of bureaucracy, and of mixed economy. Both the facts: his being a Bajaj, and his being a Harvard business school graduate, meant a lot in those days. He used the platforms and fora such as those provided by the Pune-based Mahratta Chamber of Commerce and Industries, very effectively. (Agriculture still was not included in the title back then; it still was only MCCI in those days.)

So, many freshly working engineers, who otherwise had never bothered with economic ideas, with isms, as engineering college students, had sort of discovered during their first few years in jobs that it was OK, perhaps even respectable, to discuss the “pros and cons” of different economic systems in a way that can be pro-business, so to speak.

Having nothing to do in life in the evenings (back then, engineers with even five years of experience could not get or afford scooters; the scene had just begun changing with the entry of the new Japanese collaboration bikes such as the Ind-Suzuki and the Yamaha RX 100), we, then fresh engineers, would often eat each others’ brains out in the evenings. A few had decided to give MPSC/UPSC a try, and therefore, were especially in the “knowledge” and “discussions” mode. Many had begun pursuing part-time MBAs, and therefore, were reading up economics in a serious way for the first time in life anyway. Others had ambitions of going to IIMs. Many of us shared apartments, in a “hostel” sort of life-style. Naturally, discussions were aplenty.

In one of such evenings, this same guy from the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute who I mentioned in my last post (the COEP + Bajaj graduate through whom we had come to know of Objectivism), was visiting Pune. We were eager to ask and discuss with him, about many things, both Objectivism and business and life in Mumbai in general—the sort of things young COEP juniors might ask one of their seniors. He had MBA in finance, and would talk in awesome terms about “strategy.” After a while, the discussion naturally turned to economics.

Now, since many of these other guys had not shown any interest in Objectivism earlier, they had no idea as to what precisely capitalism would mean, require, and imply. So, some time in that discussion went in that direction. Those few (3 or 4, myself included) who had read Objectivism did come from a moral angle. That satisfied the basic curiosity of almost every one. And yet, the UPSC types were still unsatisfied. This is all OK in theory, they thought, and perhaps would also hold out in practice if some of us were insisting it would, they said, but neverthless, they continued in an anxious way: “If this issue of Capitalism vs. Socialism comes up, what the hell do I tell the UPSC interview committee—i.e. if I at all make it to the interviews stage?” That was their basic question. In other words, it was OK if Capitalism is not politically correct (the term was unknown back then). But is it at least within the bounds enough to be used at the XPSC group discussions and interviews?

Confronted with this question, almost every one (but certainly not me) tried to think of a smart way that would combine both an enlightened advocacy of Capitalism and a killer impression on the UPSC interview committee. None could succeed. Few realized that a success in matters such as these simply isn’t possible. Yet, the atmosphere seemed to be settling towards a pro-Capitalism position. Plus, it was not yet time for the evening mess, and so the discussions could certainly continue.

At this point, I introduced a question that had bugged me a lot for sometime back then. Actually, I would have been more happy to ask it to some professor from a management institute (or the Gokhale Institute of Economics and Politics). But having a senior who had read Objectivism was good enough for me. So, I blurted out something like the following (which is a streamlined description of a lot of discussion by way of clarifying the question itself):

If Capitalism is to be introduced in India, then for a country as large, complex, and ancient as ours (even if as a nation we were young), its obvious that it can’t be done in one day.

Our lawmakers and the rest of politicians, and our bureaucrats, would obviously be against it. (Back then, I said so more out of the then lawmakers’ ideological convictions/inclinations rather than out of a consideration of their concern for protecting their turf/power-base/corruption-base, though both were considered and introduced by me in the subsequent discussion.)

Now, the world history shows that all deep systematic changes at the scale of a nation involve a lot of readjustments in the least, even pains many times. (Revolutions also happen.) A change in system involves pains. Since Capitalism is good, broadly speaking, I said, only the bad can experience the pain, the good won’t. Yet, the pain will be there. The entrenched interests of politicians, bureaucrats, and the life-sucker’s “rings” around them would be certain to experience it—and fight against the change using whatever means. (This observation had made a lot of serious impact without having to labor the point; the Emergency still was less than a decade in the past.)

If so, given the entirety of your knowledge of economics, of India, and of the current state of mixed-ness of India’s mixed economics, what do you think, I asked, would be the specific areas, or sectors, or industries that can be the best candidates for freeing up the economy, so that the requisite slow change towards Capitalism can occur with the least pain—so that, I added, we don’t lose out on whatever popular support for Capitalism that we can have. Implicit in the change is that the dishonest/corrupt people who lose their power would start barking, defaming Capitalism in the process. The question is: which areas etc. of the economic/political life of India offer us the best path for opening them up to free markets—and what could be the overall sequence or direction, in specific industries/economic sector terms, in which we could pursue such a program.

Well, none had an answer, not even a vaguest possible scheme by way of an answer, back then in 1984. None had even a speculation back then. The general agreement was that this was too complex a question. The senior friend then added that to the best of his knowledge, even Ayn Rand had not addressed this question, possibly because it was too complex even for her. I was not convinced. An approximate answer or a range of options could be good enough, I said. The point is, why not do this kind of thinking?

It was almost as if for most thinkers back then, even the advocacy for the moral nature of Capitalism itself had seemed to involve an uphill battle.

The reason I mention this question today is that even 26 years after that incidence, almost 20+ years after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Russia, and some 18+ years since “privatization,” “globalization,” etc. began in India, people still are not able to feel free enough to think of beginning addressing this particular question.

Yes, there are advocates of “Capitalism” today, in India, and they have been vocal for some time now. During the BJP regime, they were busy asking why they can’t run a beer bar at the basement of their house, without mentioning in entirety the rational basis for Capitalism—and of course, without mentioning Ayn Rand. And, the Congress party was attacking the BJP for picking up for privatization only those government-run companies that were actually profitable, and selling them for a price far inferior to what their true worth would be, to foreign investors. (Hints of the “cut” made in selling these companies also were in circulation.)

Having made such charges back then, after coming to the political power, the Congress has completely forgotten about this entire privatization program. This is not a neutral position as might be supposed—it does help statism get entrenched in the system out of sheer intellectual inertia. People do silently draw some implicit conclusion to the effect, which, if wordified, would run something like this: “the government interference in economy has always been a ‘done’ thing in our country; it’s the normal state; may be it should be increased.” Since economics, like all areas of human endeavor and condition, is a dynamic phenomenon, not static, with finite limits (including the finitude of life-span), a seeming “neutral,” in matters like these, is not at all a neutral; it *is* a bias for statism, for coercive government controls.

And then, of course, apart from thus subtly stopping the privatization program in its tracks, the Indira Congress has since then also gone ahead with a whole array of welfare programs, thereby returning to such glorious pre-1991 times as under “Rajiv-ji” and “Indira-ji.” (If you don’t believe me, continue reading, for example, Shekhar Gupta. Or, Prabhu Chawla.)

Thus, all in all, the position is not even neutral; it is: increasing statism.

In Indian politics, as in the American one, political Opposition has always been avoiding any principles-based policy. No not that, they have been avoiding even a talk that is in any consistent way refers to principles. They don’t see their role of democratic political opposition, in terms of principles at all! All that they are interested in is blowing up this corruption scandal vs. that scandal. …

Ok. That is a political necessity, I can understand. You have to show the man on the street something dramatic every few months, else you lose even the basic touch with him—and together with that, your own political future. So, sure, corruptions and scandals have to break with some regularity. … There is a deeper malaise behind it. In a mixed economy, the media is always influenced by the government—i.e. by the political party that happens to be in power. So, a rational, even-handed media coverage is of course a first casualty. Therefore, just to stay in place, the opposition has to keep throwing up in the citizen’s mind one scandal after another. Corruption-related stories and scandals have their place.

The crucial question therefore becomes: Does the spectrum of opposition’s political activity *end* with these scandals? Or does it *begin* there? Do they then also go and offer some robust policy program that is based on rational principles—in this case, a morally based defense of capitalism?

If the answer to the above question were to be yes, then the opposition (today, the BJP; a sometimes, the Congress) would have not only released a blueprint of what they want to privatize first, but they would also have shown how and why. Alternatives in privatizing can exist. The political parties are the ones who are supposed to do their home-work in this regard and take a stand—not just vague talk, but a definite stand in terms of concrete courses of action.

Neither the BJP nor the Congress, in their roles as Opposition, have ever even dreamt of doing such a thing.

To the Congress, repeating catch-phrases like “aam aadmi,” “secular” etc. is enough—even if in de facto pursuing pragmatism, they have been ending up looking even worse than the Left. If you think this is far-fetched, then, considering the actual evidence of their actual government spending programs, and ambitions for the same, ask yourself: who is better (or worse): a Somnath Chatterjee or a Sonia/a Rahul/an XYZ from the Indira Congress? You may be hard-pressed for the answer.

As to the BJP, they are *not* pragmatic. Their long-term program seems to be clear: First, uplift India into the Hindu counterpart of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Then (or simultaneously), try to dissolve both Pakistan and Bangladesh under a single pan-Indian sub-continent Hindu dictatorship, based on the pre-Renaissance, pre-enlightenment variety laws given by the like of, say, Manu, Chanakya, etc.

Neither is concerned with Capitalism—certainly not the Indira Congress, but not even the BJP (no matter what Atany Dey’s, and his blog-commenters’ convictions).

And it is for this reason that people—not just ordinary people but even the most “right” among our intellectuals—really are far away from even considering a question like the above, viz., what would be the best path to Capitalism in today’s India, what sectors/areas/industries should be freed up first—and the reasons thereof. Questions like these are so remote to them that they don’t even have the reality of a fiction to them. Capitalism is actually reduced, by them, only to a convenient catch-phrase, a phrase that means nothing in particular except perhaps a “feelgood” glow in the heart, a term that may be abused any which way. That’s how Capitalism remains an unknown ideal even to those who say they are pro-Capitalism.

It’s a pity that the best of our public voices still discuss “Whether Capitalism,” not “Whither Capitalism.” [With my limited knowledge of English, I think, the word “whither” can be used here. If not, please let me know.] The word “whither” here is to be taken in the sense: which areas do we choose to begin freeing up such that greatest positive impact is made towards the popular support for Capitalism, and least political resistance is encountered.

Any ideas or suggestions on this topic would be welcome—whether as comments/replies to this blog, or as posts at your blogs, or as independent essays or articles in the media. If you know a better word than “whither,” please do let me know. Thanks in advance for both.

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A Song  I Like:
(Hindi) “main jahaa chalaa jaaoon, bahaar chali aaye…”
Singer: Kishore Kumar
Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi

[I may revise/streamline this post a bit later on.]