Sunday, September 4, 2011

Jobs, Inflation, and South Asia

  Its funny how I typed this essay just a couple of days ago. And today, after a drive to West Virginia, I feel repelled by my very own arguments. One thing is (un)certain: drive to West Virginia, and awaken the Republican within.
Err. What?

   Anyway, getting to the point, what is the key to ignite a more-and-better-jobs-in-South-Asia vehicle? Numerous keys, I'm guessing, but what is upsetting is the carefree way with which people (especially high-ranking officials and leaders) apply the "growth-growth-growth" oil to the engine. Obviously, the vehicle doesn't perform well with inferior oil. At the outset, I'm critical of the consequences of an unchecked ‘more-and-better-South-Asian-jobs’ agenda.

Before I construct my argument, let me quickly throw some light on what my problem with mindless – unfortunately how it is today – economic growth is. When I returned home to India this Summer, after a year, I noticed a stark disturbing trend in prices of common goods. A pack of chips worth Rs 10, a year ago, is now worth Rs 15. A simple McDonald’s burger has gone from Rs 20 to Rs 25. Chewing gums worth Rs 2 are now worth Rs 5. So much so, I got my shoes polished at a Mumbai railway station for Rs 7, instead of 5 rupees as I paid a year ago.  All these simple costs have increased by 25%-150%, just within a year. The government, meanwhile, congratulates itself for a fierce 8-percentage point growth of the economy during the same fiscal. (Although credit must not be taken away: India’s Central Bank, the RBI, recently raised interest rates to manage inflation.)

If prices are rising, are incomes rising proportionately? If not, then we have something worrisome to deal with. Yes, incomes of those working in the private sector are rising. But the private sector, largely responsible for the success of this India-growing phase, employs roughly 8% of Indians. (It is interesting to note that the list of Indian billionaires and High Net worth Individuals, who comprise ~0.01% of the total population, has swollen by 20% over the last decade.) On the other hand, the average Indian struggles to cope with price rise. Let’s not forget what 41% of Indians, living below the poverty line, must go through each day to have just one meal. If not curbed, inflation yielding price trends will narrow the access to basic resources and, thus, amplify societal disturbance. While growth is beneficial to some, it has a slow and subtle negative impact on the masses.

The reason I’m critical about a ‘more-and-better-South-Asian-jobs’ agenda is that it has a favorable probability of straying into mindlessness. This is evident from the history of the free-market capitalism where growth has come from consuming resources faster than the rate of natural replenishment. While this growth, as pointed out above, is beneficial to some – about 2% of humans own 50% of all wealth – it has a negative net impact on society.

Having set this caveat, what should the next chain of thought be, so as to generate ideas for mindful more-and-better-jobs in South Asia? It is time to turn to sustainable economic growth. The advantages of pursuing sustainability and economic profitability together, despite the limiting factors, are multi-fold: better living conditions, as that’s what business models will focus on to begin with (for instance, wouldn’t reducing the rate of waste-generation, that cannot be absorbed by the ecosystem, result in healthier living conditions?), preservation of natural habitats, sustainable consumption, and of course the potential for returns on investment and employment, et al.

The idea of deriving opportunities through sustainable development, as a concept, can seem vague. While some business models depend on technological breakthrough - that is yet to take place - a glaring (and sizeable) opportunity is waiting to be grabbed. What is called, efficiency. Humankind can either achieve growth by consuming more resources, or by consuming lesser resources with greater efficiency for the same result. Consider the way we drive cars. Our vehicles today – driven on the Internal Combustion Engine – use only 15% of energy per unit fuel (so to say, have 15% fuel-to-energy conversion efficiency.) This means, 85% of the energy from that unit of fuel is simply wasted. New Hybrid technologies increase this efficiency by 5%-85% (depending on the technology). And this is just one specific market for commercial vehicles There is a vast, largely untapped, pool of opportunity in resource-consumption efficiency gains – energy production, waste management, agricultural production, among a horde of others. Think about it.

Lastly, a ‘more-and-better-jobs-in-South-Asia’ solution must incorporate the agricultural sector. Not only is it a source of food, but also the major employer in all South Asian economies (fishing, for countries such as the Maldives). While the private sector may be responsible for economic growth on paper, agriculture is responsible for the day-to-day sustenance of a country. At this point, let me exemplify my social entrepreneur friends from the Bihar region in India, Shashank and Manish Kumar. The Kumars work towards increasing the efficiency of farm produce per acre of cropland. They do so by implementing scientific farming techniques as well as eliminating the middleman networks. Not only have their endeavors resulted in greater income for farmers, but also will go a long way in lowering/holding food prices for consumers. Such agro-based business models better the lives of many millions of farmers that are the under-appreciated lifeline of South Asian economies.   

To be fair, a number of macro-variables need to coherently converge to establish a solution to the better-jobs challenge. These include a new wave of entrepreneurism, supporting policy frameworks for first-generation entrepreneurs, regulatory frameworks to penalize inefficiency, measures to manage inflation, to name a few. There is no easy way out. Neither is it impossible.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Losing a Friend

The Night Goddess wept as the child tried not to cry.
The silentest purple amidst the black beaten sky.
The clouds seemed much closer than they normally did,
The stars and the moon the clouds completely hid.

The child drew the curtains as thunder sounded,
He curled up on the bed as his sadness mounted,
He remembered the fights and the anger that ensued,
The slice of trust of which he the wrong end now chewed.

The mother walked in and put a hand on his head,
Ruffled his hair and gently she said,
What's the matter baby? I'll always be here.
And the boy started crying and spoke through his tears..

A friend I have lost today mama, he confided.
A friend who had love for me undivided.
I've broken his trust, I've failed him to no end.
I don't think I'll ever be happy again.

His mother let him cry on her lap for a while.
When he looked up into her face, she said with a smile,
You have wronged your friend dear, please regain his trust,
A friend is a gift. A friend is a must.

It's not easy to lose a friend, least one that was close,
Always he will for you happiness enclose.
You KNOW I look over you and will come back to you forever,
But one can find NEW friends, it's now or never.

Saying this, before he inhaled she was gone,
The room was as it was before, forlorn.
He looked at the framed photo of his mother over his bed,
And in respect calmly bowed down his head.

Family was and always will be by your side,
Regardless of whether they be dead or alive,
There are some things that are not as immortal as they seem,
And that is evident when the final cracks are seen.

Friendship is gullible, friendship is fragile,
Thinking it lasts forever, is actually futile.
Respect those who walk with you holding your hand,
You never know when the friendship will be buried in the sand.

Honour your present company, the future will unfold,
More sweet memories, the best of times untold.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Journey of Faith

Its really hard to believe how some of us can be non-believers.
Because when you think about it, logically, there must be more to life than randomness. Imagine our Universe's Big Bang as a press-factory that exploded. If one expects the result of this explosion to be a random production of highly-organized dictionaries in multiple languages, then, well, isn't something wrong with the programming of one's logic circuits?

Having said that, this post is not about the Big Bang Theory, or other atheistic facets of science. Instead, I'm going to blot out personal realizations from a recent spiritual odyssey; and leave you with another opinion to arrive at your respective conclusions.

I had an incredible journey of faith last week, in Puri, Orissa. In a beautiful last minute arrangement, I received an invitation to attend the original - and the largest - Rath Yatra. Descriptions of the essence of such holy festivals run into thousands of pages. I'm merely going to describe it in an undeserving paragraph. Please read what I share with an open heart and mind. For a certain disclaimer, I'm not pushing any sort of Hindu ideology.

Here, the deities of Jagannath, Baladev, and Subhadra, come out on their Raths (carts), for a 3-kilometer yatra (journey), giving their Darshan (blessings) to all those who're a part of this journey. All this without discrimination between men, women, or even animals. Almost three hundred thousand people attended this year's yatra, thronging into the main street of Puri. I had the blissful fortune to not just view this merciful spectacle from my own eyes, but to also pull the carts among crowds immersed in devotion. Have you ever imagined flinging yourself willingly into a number of stampedes and coming out with a thrill in your heart and a smile on your face? Despite bleeding legs and an obviously over-fatigued body? Even though it may sound insane, the joys were real. The ecstasy was real - and far greater than what material pleasures alone can offer. The tears in the eyes, that came naturally with the vibrations of the surroundings, were all real. Real, meaningful, intense, and lasting. I'm sure this is what believers of Allah experience in Mecca, or followers of Hashem experience in Jerusalem.

My point is this: there is a higher, a supreme, force. 
To begin with, look at the beauty of nature's creation. For all our technological advancement, scientific discoveries and innovations, we still are nothing compared to Mother Nature. For all our encyclopedias, and papers, and research, we cannot come close to creating life. Can we create even something as little as a straw of grass, or any one single specie of bacterium, that in all its humility, has the power to keep the entire natural world in balance? Have you ever wondered at the efficiency with which nature effortlessly creates and degenerates in cycles that last from seconds to millenniums?

An eye-opening fact: An amount of area of forest soil, roughly the size of an average middle class master bedroom, has a greater network of worms, insects and bacteria, than the entire internet and all its servers and wires and zeta-bytes of data. In this patch of top-soil, if one tree faces shortage of water, the network of microorganisms coordinate and transfer water from another tree that may have excess of water. What an unselfish way to achieve equilibrium. Mustn't there be a master plan, somewhere, for such existence? I mean its downright stupid - and even an ironical stab at science itself - to believe it all happened randomly.

Why don't we hear more on Spirituality through modern scientific perspectives? (Caution: I'm talking about spirituality, not religion, and there is a vast difference between the two) 

In its truest form, Science is a means to understand the ways spiritual forces nurture existence. Science itself is not factual. Some scientist comes up with a theory; if none can disprove it, it conveniently becomes scientific fact. Now just because we can't see something, doesn't mean that something does not exist, right? Consider, for instance, our blind spot. Just because we cannot see anything on our blind spot, does not mean that the 'anything' does not exist. Else, isn't it just an Ostrich mentality?

Science is powerful. It has helped us understand various laws of nature: gravity, karma, energy, etc. Unfortunately, modern day science has blinded itself to the core spiritual essence of life by, simply, discoveries on the surface.Truth is, Science will never be able to talk definitively on matters of spirituality. Because to understand spirituality, one requires faith. And modern day science is not equipped to deal in faith. 

To believe, we need Faith
While it may be hard to imagine, our intelligence is limited. Like, take for instance our own memory. Do you remember exactly each and every one of your experiences from your childhood to date? Realistically, do you even remember the exact chain of events and experiences from a week ago? I hardly even remember anything from what I learnt in Grade 12, leave alone anything in all of high school. 

I'm not saying we're not intelligent. We have the power to think. However, due to our own limitations, we cannot physically derive a higher evidence to prove God on paper. To be fair, faith is not illogical, as logic itself points out to a supreme force (as pointed out through nature, above). 
This may still be hard to accept, and perhaps be even the weakest point of my case. But, this is how faith really comes to test. We need faith, to forego the ego, to believe. . .

On a more practical note, spirituality does not mean you give up on the material joys of this world to become a full-time saint. Enjoy every moment of what you do, but alongside be grateful to That - Nature, God, Father, Allah, or even Krishna Bhagawan if you may - which provides the essence of your joys. That's all.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


No twitch of the toe, no power to show,
No general cacophony of sound.
No rustle of trees, no whisper of the breeze,
Just stillness all around.

What I would do, for a whisper or two,
Or even a fulfilling talk.
To make me breathe, to let me see,
To get me out of this shock.

If somebody may, in kindness lay,
A hand on my bent head.
I don't even know, if I'd get up and go,
And forget about the dead.

As my eyes filled with tears, and back came the fears,
I'd had during the last minute.
As I held his hand, and promised him I'd stand,
By him till the end and I did it.

Wherever I go, the bravery I show,
The stillness will follow around.
As I try my best, to laugh and to jest,
The stillness still holds ground.

Every view that I see, that appeals to me,
Will be lacking always I confide.
It'll always be within, that every situation I'm in,
Would be better with him by my side.

The birds and the breeze, the smell of t he sea,
The child running around in glee.
No matter how fun, the time in the sun,
Will always bring sadness to me.

Into the garden I strolled, with memories to hold,
Of every walk there I'd taken.
I spotted a pot, the oldest of the lot,
Which a lot of memories did awaken.

'He's gone', said I, to the plant with a sigh,
'It's just you and me now.'
And the plant in response, took up the chance,
To open up its Lily and HOW!

So beautiful it was, I could see no flaws,
And the white was stroked with grey.
The delicate hues, the absence of blues,
At first filled me with dismay.

But the I saw, saw through the clause,
The plant had tried meekly to portray.
The world was not at end, and it tried to blend,
The best of the world in its array.

If stillness I choose, it still has its hues,
In stillness colour abides.
Be a white or a grey, satisfaction or dismay,
In it life resides.

I now live in peace, amidst flowers and trees,
Where nature's beauty abounds.
The birds join in song, as I tag along,
With just stillness all around.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

What I learnt from Stanford

Stanford University. One can say only so little about the richness of its history and its exceptional contributions to society at the global scale.  

It had been a dream of mine to be a part of its richness. The first time I tried, I got on to the waitlist. Then, over the course of the past year, I realized it was what I wanted to try for again. So I did, as a transfer applicant. Though, this time, my acceptance probability was reduced significantly: only 1-2%, about 20 students in number, of a 1800 strong applicant pool are admitted as transfers. 

I just received my admission decision yesterday. It wasn't the news one would like to hear.  
A rejection letter, even so with praise, is no consolation. The decision has been uneasy to swallow. 

At the same time I have had realizations that, even though obvious at first glance, come only with stark out of comfort zone experiences. Certainly, I have been fortunate to experience these early on, and it is only just of me to share this knowledge. Just, in hope that what I share is useful to you in your future decision making, or as another view point that may help broaden your horizons.

Before I begin, let me thank all those who have given support and loved me through this phase. :)

Have faith in yourself. Know that you are a champion. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Each and everyone of us has the potential to do the greatest of great things. Its only a matter of self-belief that takes us to materialize this stellar potential. 

I'm not the smartest one around here. But I know I can make big things happen. And that is all that is going to help me make those big things happen.
The problem is that by the time we realize this potential most of us are not young anymore; and have fixed, sometimes inflexible, world views and values. No, that doesn't mean there is no hope for the elderly. Look at Colonel Sanders' (of KFC), for instance. But, of course, the earlier you start, the better advantage you have at creating more value out of your realized self belief.

Most people rightfully cautioned me when I shared the decision of applying to Stanford, at such odds; while some were plain hopeless. Should have I been too? No. I'm proud that throughout these two months - of application and of wait - I never once lost self belief. In retrospect, it may not have even been wise to put most my eggs in such a small basket, but we are all learning, and have the room to take such risks.... 

Take risks. If you can, take big risks. If you can't, take smaller risks. But take risks.
Taking risks puts you ahead of most risk-averse people. And most people are risk-averse. This Stanford risk - risk by virtue of time, money and energy - was a good move despite the results. The potential upsides were much, much, larger than the downside. The downside? Opportunity costs. Time, and indirectly tuition money, I could have otherwise spent in other seemingly fruitful activities. 

It is essential not just to try, but to try by taking at least some amount of risk. That makes the results even more rewarding.  Listen to your heart as much as you would to your mind. Your inner self knows what direction is best for you. Your mind does the driving.

Now that I know for sure Stanford is not where I'm headed, I can progress with full focus on my present work without any provoking distractions. Something that will be more precious than gaining admission itself.

Sometimes, things don't go your way. Its alright. Keep trying. Try for the joy of trying. Not in expectancy of the result. The journey is much more enriching and enjoyable than the destination itself. You never know what, maybe another path, you like along the way. Another path might lead you to a place better suited for you. Thus, there is hope as long as you are moving along your path, and learning with each step. Keep going.

Have you heard the incredible story of Groupon? The company was offered $6 billion by Google, just 2 years after its founding. Its founders' story is very interesting. Andrew Mason started out with a company, The Point, that aimed at inspiring social change through collective action and fundraising. All on-line. Most reputable investors thought that this concept was an epic fail. Even Andrew did not expect it to yield returns from a commercial point of view. But only because he tried, was he able to evolve The Point into Groupon. Today Groupon, based on the same "social change" model, assists smaller businesses to compete with  the big daddy's of consumer society, and mints money as it does so. 

On the other hand, there are examples of those who always tried, and were never successful. Or those who tried, and took millenniums to achieve their targets. The bottom line? Sometimes, things don't go your way. Its alright. You keep trying. Try for the joy of trying. Not in expectancy of the result. 

Lastly, rejoice failure. Smile. And move on to the next challenge. The biggest take home through this experience has been dealing with the ego. There have been moments where I have been sucked into it, and there have been others where I have been stripped off it. And the biggest positive has been that I have realized to acknowledge mistakes, apologize, and move on. You win some, you lose some. But you win all, if you learn more each time. 

If you ever have the time, look at Lalit Modi's twitter feed. Here is a man who created billions of dollars in value. Created and sustained many thousands of livelihoods. And what is he doing now? Indulging in a derogatory war of words with rivals publicly. Mr. Modi may have been unfairly ousted by politicians at the Cricketing Board in India (BCCI), but irrespective, is this what great leaders are made of? Egoism? Shameful public degradation of each other? Even though I have great respects for Lalit Modi, his reaction to criticism is alarming. 

At the same time, even though some of you may not agree, Barack Obama epitomizes all that I have had to say. He believes that he is a true champion. He takes risks. He keeps trying. And he accepts defeat in smile, and moves on.

My  own future plans. Now that Stanford is out of the way, I will continue to build on the truly wonderful opportunities I have at the University of Maryland; pursuing entrepreneurial avenues of work wherever I go: Washington DC, Costa Rica, London, Copenhagen, Mumbai, or Beijing. There is a lot of good work, with potential high returns, that needs to be done with/in the environment. I hope to continue meeting great people, learning from my surroundings, and initiating/inspiring change at all scales possible.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Statement of Purpose

Its been a while since I have been able to blog, and while my journal of ideas is over-flowing, this is one "statement" I would like to put up for reference on The Sound of Thought. This is a letter I recently addressed to folks at the Virgin group; it aptly summarizes some of the thoughts I have been jotting down over time in my journal. I'm certainly not attempting to blow my own trumpet. Instead, this is a humble attempt to use the power of the internet to share ideas and thoughts that have the potential to create strong impacts..

Respected Sir/Ma’am,

I have been invited to attend the Business for the Environment (B4E) Summit, to be held in Jakarta, Indonesia. The Summit will be held between April 27th - April 29th of this year. (Link: On April 9th, 2011, I established contact with Global Initiatives, organizer of the convention, and presented my credentials and eagerness to be the voice of the world youth at the B4E. In a very favorable response, Mr. Kisha Krishna, senior manager at Global Initiatives, extended an invitation to me as well as waived all registration fees. More importantly, Global Initiatives will give me access to a special B4E Youth dialogue with current UNDP Administrator Helen Clark.
Here is the excerpt from Mr. Krishna’s email dated April 11th, 2011:

Dear Mr Gupta
Thank you for your email and interest in our event.

We are happy to invite you to attend and cover (i.e. through your blog and other social media such as Facebook and Twitter) the event as our guest. There is also a special B4E Youth Dialogue with UNDP Chief Helen Clark and other distinguished speakers, that we can also provide you entry to.

We can waive the conference fee for you, but you would need to arrange your own travel and accommodation in Jakarta.
Do let me know if you decide to join us at the event.

Best wishes
Kisha Krishna
Manager, Partnerships and Outreach
Global Initiatives
M: +49 151 **

Sir/Ma’am, I request your office to assist me with my travel to the aforementioned event. This is a tremendous opportunity for any student of Environmental Science and Policy to go out in the open, interact with the real change-makers and important leaders. In the broader scheme of things, this event would also be an opportunity for someone, such as me, to be the voice of my generation: bold young people eager to drive change. I urge you to consider this request for the following reasons:

1.) The Business of the Environment: This conference has a very specific objective ie sharing innovative ideas that will propel business(es) in the environment. These ideas are the much needed incentives for creating win-win situations between present day environmental conditions and economic profits. This is a good start to understanding various ideas, models, and techniques for change that today’s change-makers believe in.
More importantly, I look forward to the association of the people working on the issue of incentivizing the environment - innovative thinkers, prominent business leaders, even visionary world leaders. At the end of the day, Sir/Ma’am, making an impact isn’t as much about the resources one possesses as much as it is about the people one surrounds him/herself with. As an aspiring green-entrepreneur, I look forward to initiating, being part of, and working on social-entrepreneurial ventures… that start from associating with positive people here.

2.) An ambassador of the Virgin Group: Every investment is made to obtain returns - social, monetary, or anything positive depending on the context. You too will look forward to positive returns by investing in a student’s travel to such a conference.
Besides cultivating and grooming a future leader of the environment, you would also enable me to represent your conglomerate’s ambition as a green-business leader. It is a tremendous opportunity, for an environmentally visionary group such as yours, to showcase itself through the highest stakeholders of today’s environmental decisions - the Youth. At a convention attended by Former Vice President of the US Al Gore, Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, with whom I will have the opportunity to personally interact with, leaders and change-makers alike, Virgin will have another positive footprint on the environmentally conscious world map.

3.) International experience: In December 2009, I was India’s Climate Ambassador to the prelude of the COP15 negotiations in Copenhagen. This was on a UNICEF sponsored delegation. And even though I have a lot to learn, I have the experience of being at a mega international conference. This holds me in good stead to maximize on the three days of the convention. Knowing how to interact with people, move around, exchange ideas, I know I will be able to make best use of the resources at the conference. Combine that with my passion towards my work, and I’ll certainly represent Virgin in a just way so as to make your Group proud in its investment.

4.) Passion for the Environment: Even as an enthused 15-year old back home in Pune, India, I had a motivation to work towards change. I had this sense of foolishness to dream (which I still very proudly do possess.) After multiple (some unsuccessful) tries, and the sense of learning and wisdom that one obtains through the process, I connected with two Non-governmental Organizations and formed a joint-venture between them called 'Trees for Life.' The project is in its last year of operations as of today, and we have planted and maintained a total of 500 trees atop a previously denuded hill. Through other such efforts, the partner NGO, Green Hills Group, has successfully collaborated the plantation of 2000 saplings. In totality, our efforts can be compared to, very literally, drops in the ocean. What is important, however, is that through multiple campaigns and plantation drives, we have inspired community members to come out, participate, and make a difference. We have made people aware of not only the prominent problems, but also the solutions. And my role with the Trees for Life is now over. I have moved on in pursuit of inspiring change at a bigger scale. Be it through my internship last summer, where I made a report on the possibilities of business ventures in the environment (for a private financial services company), or be it through my blogs - which relate different subjects to the environment.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nomad on the block

After close to eight weeks of continuous activity in the College hullabaloo, a 9-day Spring Break was a much needed getaway. I took this as an opportunity to see places, both big and small, as a guest, couch-surfer, and wannabe young tourist-y investor-y man.

First stop, suburban Baltimore.
This was a good relaxing start to the travel week. My roommate, Dave, is an eagle scout - a big deal in the United States. Its positive to observe how an entire community comes out encouraging its members. From President Obama, to the Governor of Maryland, to the local county administrator, everyone sent in a note of encouragement congratulating Dave. (While in Chicago, I saw parents volunteering at schools, taking time out to coach the community-kids in activities from sports to speech.)
The best of both, communism and democratic living, have been adopted in this culture. Something practiced successfully in Scandinavian Europe. 
Also, it was rather satirical to see the Caplans' average american lives being influenced by India. Here is a family that has been in Baltimore for generations, and has nothing to do with anything outside the United States of America. But, today, the mother's work is to coordinate with her colleagues in Bangalore. Her Son rooms with a guy from Pune. And their favorite TV show is "Outsourced" - a comedy show depicting a story of the impact of outsourcing of work to India. 
I also had the opportunity to interact with my roommate's grandfather who was involved in the world war II building American fighter planes. He added that he worked for another decade or so at General Electric, building microwaves, refrigerators and appliances of the like. It felt as if he was an ambassador to the lines in history books that tell us how America transformed industry and manufacturing in the 1950s.

Second stop, New York City.
After experiencing that carrying a bag with a laptop while travelling is a menace to the shoulders and back, I decided for better, this time. All I had on me were clothes (duh?), a blazer, a pen, and a map. I was supposed to meet a friend at her UNICEF office around the UN Plaza on 42nd Street. But She sent me an email a couple of days before my departure saying that she wouldn't be able to keep the meeting. But that wasn't going to deter any of the motivation, mate. 
As I got off the bus, the close-to-zero temperatures (and rain) made me shiver rather violently for someone well-layered. So I walked down a block, and decided to fill the empty stomach with warm food and hot tea. I entered this Indian-looking cafe run by a seemingly Indian lady. Therefore, I assumed that the "Herbal Tea" on the menu would be the familiar hot Indian masala chai, or at least somewhere close. Turns out it was a Turkish Cafe, and no one had anything to do with India in there. The herbal tea wasn't Indian after all, but good nonetheless. It warmed me up, and the cold wasn't an issue henceforth.
For the next four hours, I kept walking on these streets, from Penn Station, Times Square, Grand Central Station, NY Public Library, to the UN Plaza which I anyway wanted to see. From the 42nd street down to the 14th - ah, let me be honest, I took the metro on that last leg.
Honestly, I was disappointed with the City. Having always grown up with Utopian dreams of a big and beautiful New York, all it seemed like was an advanced version of Mumbai. The emotion of the people at Penn Station was the same as that of the people at VT or Churchgate. Everyone seemed to be in the same hurry. The air, strangely, smelt the same. The people looked the same. Only, the buildings were taller, traffic better controlled, and the Indians more courteous. 
Alas, I did want to walk on Wall Street most badly, and was only 7 blocks away, but I had to catch a bus sooner than what I had booked in order to catch the metro in DC. That shuts down at 1 am, and in retrospect it was good to have taken the earlier bus. Else, I would have had to sleep at the Union Station, DC, which probably wouldn't have been the best thing to do. 

Third stop, Baltimore. The City this time. (Its interesting to note the highly distinguishable difference between American cities and their suburbs - unlike in India)
I was supposed to meet with two friends in the country side but I missed the 11:30 am train to my destination. The next one was at 5.30 pm. Instead of waiting at the station, or going back to college, I thought of checking Baltimore City out. So I took the train to Baltimore's Penn Station (hey, whats with the fascination with Penn and trains?) and my word, it is one the most under appreciated cities. Its inner harbor gives a Gulf like - Abu Dhabi, Muscat like - feeling. Walk in a block, and find yourself in the standard American downtown with tall buildings. Walk in a few more blocks and its amazing how you're confused if you were in Baltimore or Barcelona. The roads, the architecture of the buildings, and the entire feel had something European about it. Indeed, the beautiful Charm City is terribly undervalued. Perhaps because of the crime rates and large number of ghettos; nonetheless, it looks like an opportunity-pot worth keeping an eye on.

Fourth stop, Bel Air.
The logic to visit the country side was to observe the contrast between the largest and smallest. Something an Uncle of mine advised after reading my childly blog on my winter-travel: "Chicago, NY, etc are fine", he said, "see the farms, see the rural side, see the real America."
My hosts, Puerto Rican-Americans, were most homely and in fact prepared a special Indian dinner that night. Chole Bhature (Chickpeas), Rajmah (Beans), Chawaal (Rice) and Pappad (I have no idea what the English word for this is.) Added was their traditional Guacamole (like our Indian Chatni) and the meal was blissfully satisfying. The good times.
Even though this doesn't specifically relate to my being in the country side, I drove a sports car. A two-seater real deal sports car. And I'm still pumped about it. :)
As far as the contrast that I wanted to observe: the buildings weren't there, the crowds weren't there, and all those other distinct differences were obviously evident. These were what I - or anyone else - would expect. But there wasn't any subtle realization as such. However, intuitively, I'm sure I have taken something out of the whole journey.

Fifth stop, Edmonston.
Another small town, I went to volunteer at a farm here. The farm, named 'Eco-farms', is run by alumni of the University of Maryland. Here are these two social entrepreneurs, whom I fondly referred to as the solution in my Peace and Politics blog post, who are trying to develop models for economically viable organic farming. Christian, the co owner, believes that organic farming has commercial potential and deserves a much greater market share. According to him a large number of small community based farms - where the people volunteer - can do the job of increasing that market share. Christian has just started out and in all likelihood there is a long way before he successfully creates a sustainable duplicable model. But meeting him, seeing his effort and visibility of work, was an experience of good learning in itself.

Alas, Catonsville.
I got together with my fellow-countrymen, Indians, to celebrate our festival of colors Holi. Best described as spiritual and childish, we all had a good time. By the end of the celebration, we were all drenched in powdered color from head to ..... shoe. My hair had a nice mix of yellow, green and purple which I must admit looked rather cool. 

And that was Spring break. At heart, I'm not the full-fledged adventure person. But I do hope to cover ground in the coming future, learning more about life, culture, and people as I progress.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Peace and Politics: an unlikely synergy

As I think, "What does peace mean to me?", the words, “A peaceful world is one where everyone has equity in access to opportunity and where every child has equity in access to education, nutrition, and love” ring in my head. But, the ringing of these very clichéd words stops as soon as it begins. I feel the realistic and practical need to question if peace comes from this need for equality or education and nutrition.

Considering the margin for imperfection: disparities, crimes, wars and violence will always exist in society.

So, what really determines peace? 

A good starting point to question the dynamics of peace in society should definitely be politics; after all, our leaders and their policies determine the environment of our surroundings. 

Let’s begin by looking at the three forms of governances – Monarchism, Communism and the (Western Capitalist) Democracy – and see whether peace prevailed in either of the three.

It is a well-known fact that the Maurya, Gupta, and Chola kingdoms of ancient India were considered the “Golden periods” of our history. People not only prospered, but were happy, peaceful and content with their lifestyles under their Kings – a reason why India was the envy of the entrepreneurial European sailors. In monarchies such as these, people never had an equitable access to opportunity. The caste system then in prevalence, assigned the Shudras, or in today's terminology the lower-class, the jobs of the farmers, cleaners and service-men. The business-folk and the warriors were Vaishyas and Kshatriyas respectively. The Brahmins, or teachers, imparted knowledge to the people as well as advised the Kings on how to rule their kingdoms. No one ever tried to switch their "career-paths"; everyone stuck to their duties. And back then, according to our government sponsored history books, things were good. 
So why didn't this sort of a system work? The power wielded by the monarchs most often ended up being misused by the lethal combination of corruption, influence and greed. Repetitive trends made mankind brand the system of monarchism as “un-progressive”. At the center of this unbalanced equation, lays the answer to the most recent Arab world uprisings: in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya.

Then, there were/are the communists of Eastern Europe, Russia and China, who believe(d) that a system of governmental control and dominance yield both, prosperity and peace. In theory, there is no reason not to believe that such a system would create a happy society. For instance, the Native Indian American society was built on the community-based model of living. There was no sense of ownership, yet the people lived peacefully content lives.
However, in recent communist regimes things have changed for the worse. Governmental oppression led to the human-induced Ukraini Holodomor famine. It also led to revolutions in the Soviet Union and its' post-Cold War collapse. Meanwhile China’s forceful centralization of everything - from farmlands, education, media, business, to the economy - shows nothing but a hazy picture of happiness in that society.

Fast forward to the 21st century era – a small and globalized world dominated by democracy and capitalism. Today, people have the freedom of thought, speech, movement, and most importantly freedom to access every opportunity possible. 
However, today's vicious cycle of buy, throw and buy, is not only fostering the infamous greed is good principle, but is also hurting the middle and poor classes of people. Even though the absolute measure of poverty has improved (the percentage of people living under a $1/day, as per 1970 UN Metrics, has reduced), inflation-adjusted relative poverty has increased. Let’s not forget the damage tribal groups, and the repeated rape our environment and planet have undergone.

When one looks at a country that has excelled in providing all fair and democratic services to her citizens, the United States of America, the current speaker of her Congress, John Boehner, comes to mind. A janitor in his teens who lived the American Dream to become the top-boss of the World's most powerful democratic body. How more peaceful, according to those words that rang in my head, can a world get?
Not really much, right? 
But when we look at this piece from the average plane, we see that average Americans work all throughout the week on things that they dislike (according to a survey by Market Watch, 53% of Americans said “I hate my job”, even before the economic crises crippled the luxury of opportunities), and then, get drunk, drugged and wasted on Friday nights. As an indirect result of which, homicides, violent crimes, rape, assaults, robberies, have ensued into swollen American prisons. This somehow doesn't look more than an illusion of peace.

In all the three governing models, the end results are theorized to hover very closely around peace. The actual results are stark and diametric opposites of any such projections.

So how does one work around this? Do we lose hope in the harsh reality that a greedy race of men can just never create a peaceful environment?

There are no definitive solutions to this. Activities occur in our world in random, multifarious and incredulously large volumes. Integrating solutions and ideas into the invisible forces of activity would end up being a bigger problem than being the solution. 

Whom we need most today, for the most effective change, are social entrepreneurs; those entrepreneurs who are not driven by individualism. 'Cause while greed maybe good, its only so for the individual, not for the society in entirety. The greater the inequality, the greater the masses are disadvantaged. The greater the masses are disadvantaged, the greater the loss of peace. 

We need social entrepreneurs to change the current linear system of consumerism, which is nothing but out-of-control capitalism, of extract resources, produce, sell, and throw to a sustainable cycle that would repeat itself - Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. How we manage our resources is a critical factor that would influence the random order of activities that occur simultaneously in our world. This would ultimately influence peace.

We also need the more privileged people to adopt a socially responsible mindset. To help undo the damage done on our poor. Instead of having debt-laden governments' - except China's - try to organize education at the grass-roots level, which they anyway make a mess of, the educated urban folk should come out more often and help the lesser privileged sections of society as part of voluntary social service. With due credit, there are salutary examples of such existing groups of people: Teach for America, Times Group's Teach India, YUVA Unstoppable, The Joy of Giving Week, and so on. Such groups now need to expand, infect and reach out to as many members of society as possible.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? "Its all about converting the straight lines (that go to nowhere) into efficient cycles." But it requires heaps of effort and determination. With that, I leave you to the sound of your thoughts: are you doing your bit?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Chin-dia cannot be world superpowers

In today's post-recession scenario, China is out-innovating, out-building and out-educating the world. The question Barack Obama put forth to his fellow citizens at The State of the Union - can America out-innovate, out-build, and out-educate the world (or more precisely, China)? 

Maybe, maybe not. 
But thats irrelevant to who-ends-up-being-the-next-superpower.

To go a little deeper, lets have a look at a little bit of history.

Great Britain and her navy successfully ruled the world and its seas for almost two-hundred years. Her explorers dominated land in every direction, east, west, north and south. They opened the world for British markets - and therefore created one of the most robust economies in the time. Her armed forces (mainly, naval) were most feared and quite invincible.
Then came the wars. The Great War of 1914 (better known as World War I) and the World War II. Both of these events drained her economy; during the war of 1914, Great Britain spent as much as 45% of her GDP on military. Hardly recovered by that one big economical hole created by war, She spent another, this time 50% of her entire GDP, chunk on battling out during the second world war.

This severe drain of resources allowed the USA, fresh with surpluses off all the manufacturing and entrepreneurial innovation stirred by Franklin D Roosevelt's (the then American President) economic policies (The New Deal), to take over the baton as the World's leading superpower. 

The rest has been history. We know the might of the USA up until today. Dreams envisioned by American people have changed the way the world works...... up until today.

(Here comes a deja vu moment)

Today, the United States of America is in the same position as was the United Kingdom during the Great wars of 1914 and World War 2. The difference is that the US is plagued not only by wars in the Middle East against terrorists who seem to enjoy volunteering to die, but also by deficit-laden governmental spending that doesn't seem to be tamable - despite all the political will mustered.

Meanwhile China has all the economic surpluses in its kitty, courtesy its seemingly infinite capability to manufacture for the entire world. Also, her army, air force, naval and nuclear capabilities are well-feared world over. Whats best is, She has a billion hard-working, smart folks - which also makes them desirably cheap. Something like how the US felt before, during and after World War 2. 

Deja vu? 

.......Somehow, it is indeed difficult counting the US out to China already. The USA still has the largest purchasing power in the world, largest GDP, and most private wealth - numbers dwarfing those of China. It still attracts people from all the world to come and live the American dream. 

However, for assumptions' sake, assume that America loses its power on the World in the next decade - to China. Can China really take over the mantle? With all thats going behind Her, She possibly can. But the chances are bleak. Hypothetically, even if China does become the sole superpower, She won't be able to hold on to it for more than a decade. Here's why;

The Americans had a lot of things going for them when they took power over from the British. The most important was the language - English. The British, through all their global adventures in the past centuries, have made English The World's language. A South Korean randomly bumping into a Swede will try to converse with him/her in English, more than in Russian, French or even Arabic. All international business is done in English. Which didn't make it hard for the Americans to lead the world head on, as most of it understood their language - English.

Consider Cantonese and Mandarin, the two Chinese languages. Both have ancient histories, and an entirely alien script - as opposed to the Latin script followed by most languages including Spanish, English and a list of others. The grammar is absurd to an outsider. I find it hard for a Dutchman in Amsterdam, or an Argentine in Buenos Aires, to understand that the word, 'ma', in Mandarin can alone be pronounced in five different ways to mean five different things. 
Alas, the Chinese culture is very deep and complex as opposed to the western, easy-going, likable, American way of life. 

What makes things worse for China is her following communist principles. The Chinese government (run by the Communist Party of China) actively participates in human rights violations and a high degree of censorship. It is a well known warning, when in Beijing (or any other part of China) do not utter a word about the government in public. You'll most likely land in prison. Would such blind worship of the government be appreciated in mostly democratic nations around the globe? Uh uh, unsustainable form of world leadership.

Consider also the entrepreneurial nature of the two. However smart the Chinese folks are, they aren't natural entrepreneurs. It takes entrepreneurs, who build corporations, create jobs, innovate and build societies, to build a world-leader out of a nation. You would rarely find a Chinese businessman flashing a two-feet wide comforting smile as opposed to his American counterpart. At the end of the day, these seemingly small differences make all the big difference.

Coming back to Barack Obama's State of the Union speech. He also warned that America must compete against India. Indians who are smart and hard-working. Who are doing a better job for corporations (mainly American) around the world at an average of 1/8th the cost of American labor. 

But I find it hard for India to be a global leader. Credits to us for coming up so quick and rich. However, our politics is rotten and the civil situation gets worse at home by the day; for example in Kashmir, for example about Telangana, for example through the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, for example by the Gorkhas in the North East. Meanwhile our smart and efficient middle-class prefers staying out of politics, content with well-paying jobs and a great sense of (mostly Western) lifestyle. All this presents a sadly grim story that our politicians are decently incompetent to lead the world... at least for another two decades.

That being said, if there is a fall in the world power wielded by Washington D.C., it is assured that it won't go solely to one place - Beijing, Brasília or even New Delhi. The polarity of world power, most probably, will be evened out between the developed and the currently developing.