Why women will continue to be raped in India

rapeVivek Kaul
Late last night while flipping television channels I saw TV Mohandas Pai, a former CFO and HR Head of Infosys, advocating ‘chemical castration’ for rapists. A leading television anchor also ran his show yesterday around the theme and instigated his celebrity panellists in trying to get them to advocate chemical castration for rapists in India. That is the problem with arguments that emerge due to the heat of the moment. My heart is also thinking along similar lines. It even goes to the extent of telling me that the rapists should be stoned to death. But my head tells me even that won’t make a difference.
Any solution is as good as the system that executes it. In a country like India if anything like chemical castration for committing rapes becomes the order of the day and the police are pushed to solve rape cases faster, what are they likely to do? More often than not they will get hold of some random guy (the homeless, the slum dweller or probably just about the first person they can get their eyes on) beat the shit out of him and get him to confess to it. How do we ensure something like that does not happen? There is absolutely no way to do that.
The other point here is that the police and the judiciary the way they have evolved in India cater more to the rich and powerful rather than to those who ‘need’ the system to work for them. How do we ensure that solutions like ‘chemical castration’ will not be abused by the rich and the powerful?
Someone very close to me for the last two years has been caught up fighting a false case registered against him in New Delhi. It takes is a bribe of Rs 15,000-20,000 to the local
thanedar to get a false first information report (FIR) registered. And it takes Rs 500-1000 to the babu at the court to ensure that the case does not come up for hearing, every time it is scheduled. And this in a place like Delhi, which is the capital of the country. Imagine what must be happening in small towns and villages across India? The police in this country have sold out lock, stock and barrel and they shouldn’t be given any further ways of creating more problems for the citizens of this country.
What is interesting is the speed with which Delhi Police has acted in this case and managed to round up most of the rapists. The
Delhi High Court has taken suo motu cognizance of the gang-rape and asked the Delhi Police to explain how the offence remained undetected.
Yes the citizens of this country are up in arms against what has happened but that I don’t believe is the real reason why the police and the judiciary have acted with such speed. The only reason for showing the speed that the system has is that the rapists come from the lower strata of the society. They are the ordinary citizens of this country.
As The Times of India reports “The accused have been identified as Ram Singh (33), resident of Ravidas Camp at Sector 3, R K Puram (driver of the bus, DL1PB-0149), his brother Mukesh, 24, (who was driving during the gang rape), Vinay Sharma, 20, (an assistant gym instructor in the area), Pawan Gupta, 18, (fruit seller), Akshay Thakur, 26, (bus cleaner) and another cleaner, Raju, 25.”
If the accused had been the sons of the rich and powerful the entire administration would have by now been working towards getting their names cleared.
The molestation charges against SPS Rathore, an inspector general of police were never proved. He got away with more than a little help from his friends in the government. Manu Sharma, son of Congress politician Venod Sharma, was first acquitted for the murder of model Jessica Lal. With the hue and cry that followed the judgement was overturned and Sharma was sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 2009, Sharma was allowed a parole of 30 days to attend to his sick mother and other matters. His mother was later found attending public functions and Sharma was found partying at a nightclub in Delhi.
Matinee idol Salman Khan had rammed his Toyota Land Cruiser into a bakery in Bandra on September 28,2002, killing one person and injuring four others. The case has dragged on for ten years now. Recently, cop turned lawyer-activist YP Singh revealed that the “P
olice had deliberately not taken the job of issuing summons seriously. Also, Salman was absent 82 times when summoned by the court.” This is what the rich and powerful in this country can do. The police is at their beck and call. Loads of rape cases go nowhere because the rich and the powerful who are the accused simply bribe their way through the system. When the accused go unpunished or justice takes a long time to be delivered, it makes rape a way of life for Indian men.
That brings me to my final point, the male:female sex ratio in India. As Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya write in
Indianomix – Making Sense of Modern India “In 2011, the Census estimates that there were 914 girls for every 1,000 boys for the ages 0-6. This is even worse than in 2001, when there were 927 girls for every 1,000 boys. More pointedly, this ratio is the worst ever since the country’s independence in 1947…In nature, with no sex selection the observed sex ratio is approximately 1,020 males for every 1,000 females.”
What this tells us is that as a country we have a ‘son’ preference. And that leads us to sex-selective abortion and even female infanticide. In simple English we kill our girls before and just after they are born. Delhi and the neigbouring state Haryana have among the lowest sex ratios in the country. And it just doesn’t end there. Debraj Ray and Siwan Anderson have carried out research to suggest that most women who go missing in India do so as adults than at birth or as children. That explains India’s highly skewed sex ratio in favour of men.
Dehejia and Subramanya talk about the research of Ray and Anderson in their book. As they write “They show that about 12 per cent of women in India are missing at birth: they are probably missing due to sex selective abortion or infanticide. Another 25 per cent perish in childbirth. But that’s only a little more than a third of the total. Another 18 per cent go missing during their reproductive period, which picks up among other things deaths during childbirth. But a massive 45 per cent of the total number of missing women go missing in adulthood, something which by definition cannot have anything to do with sex selection.”
Anderson and Ray come up with some more information. “They find that it’s only in Punjab where the majority of missing women are at birth: in fact it’s as high as 60 per cent of the excess female mortality in the state…Two other states show up as having a majority of of their women missing at birth or in childhood (before the age of 15) and it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that they’re Haryana and Rajasthan.”
Hence, we kill our women before birth, after birth and keep killing them as they grow up. In a society like this it is not surprising that men grow up with terribly demented minds and commit heinous rapes like the one in Delhi.
People are appalled. And they want instant justice. Chemical castration. Public hanging. Stoned to death. Anything will do. But what has happened is sheer reflection of the way India has evolved. Women being raped day in and day out is a story of Indian evolution.
And evolution cannot be undone.

So we might take to the streets to protest.
Have candle night vigils.
Protest on Twitter and Facebook.
Call for chemical castration.
Face water cannons from the police.
Sing ballads against the government.
Breakdown and cry while speaking in the Rajya Sabha.
But things won’t change.
As Arvind Kejriwal keeps reminding us “poore system ko badalna padega”. And that of course is easier said than done.
And in a day or two when our conscience is more at peace with itself, we will go back to living our lives like we always have. Because we are like this only.
Meanwhile women will continue to be raped.

The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 20, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

It’s luck: Explaining Sonia’s rise, BJP’s 2004 loss and cricket debuts


Vivek Dehejia is an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is also a regular economic commentator on India for the New York Times India Ink. He has most recently co-authored Indianomix – Making Sense of Modern India (Random House India, Rs 399) along with Rupa Subramanya. The book is along the lines of international bestsellers like Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist, and tries to answer a wide array of questions ranging from why did Jawaharlal Nehru did not see the 1962 war with China coming even though there was a lot of evidence to the contrary, to why seatbelts don’t save lives. Dehejia speaks to Vivek Kaul in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
One of the controversial ideas in your book is that the BJP’s India Shiningcampaign of 2004 was not as much a disaster as is made out to be. Why?
I am glad you asked that. We think it is one of the interesting contributions of the book. I would agree with you that it is a controversial hypothesis because we have this received narrative of the 2004 election – which is that the poor voter had punished the BJP/NDA for the triumphalist India Shining campaign. Even the BJP bought into this interpretation. This has had far-reaching consequences. If you look at the political history of India since 2004, what was the lesson that was drawn? The lesson that everyone drew from the so-called disaster of the India Shining campaign was that you cannot win an election based on economic reform, economic policy and economic success.
And you don’t agree the India Campaign was a disaster…
Our argument here is that if you look at the numbers, if you look not just at the seats won but at the vote shares as well, you get a different story. Yes, there was a swing away from the NDA, but the actual vote share difference between the NDA and the UPA was just over 2 percent. The NDA won 33.3 percent of the vote and the UPA won 35.4 percent of the vote. For us that 2 percent difference in vote share can equally be attributed to a number of other explanations, such as bad luck, as it is to anything else.
Or let me put in another way; if you look at those results, basically it came down to a coin toss. A third of the voters voted for the NDA, another third voted for the UPA and a third voted for somebody else. As we see it, the role of luck and randomness in an outcome should not be underestimated.
That’s a very interesting point…
The NDA might well have won the election. And, in fact, they actually would have won if the DMK hadn’t pulled out their 16 seats at the last minute. And that really was what made the difference. Hence it is very difficult to conclude that it was the voters punishing India Shining. In all Indian elections, there are many regional and local issues at play and then there are issues about the complex way in which alliances work. Our point in the chapter really is that it is a very appealing narrative. We like to have these very convincing explanations because to say well, you know, it was bad luck doesn’t seem like a very satisfying explanation. But if we know that the BJP lost because they had this India Shiningcampaign and the poor voters punished them for it, that appeals to human psychology. We want to have a convincing story that explains everything.
A convincing and simple story that can be broadcast on TV..
That’s right. A story that can fit into a sound byte.
You also talk about the role of luck in Sonia Gandhi‘s life. If it was not at play she would not have ended up at where she is now…
We sort of tell the story as to how she met Rajiv Gandhi at a particular Greek restaurant in Cambridge, England, on a particular day in 1965. That itself was a chance event. Maybe if she did not like Greek food, or if she had gone on a different day! And the number of chance occurrences it took to go from being the shy Italian housewife that she was to being the most powerful person in the country. It took two assassinations and five unexpected deaths. The assassinations, of course, of her mother-in-law and her husband, and then the deaths of five senior Congress leaders (which included Rajesh Pilot, Sitaram Kesri and Madhavrao Scindia). The probability of that happening is so small that you have to call that an accident of fate. Or luck. Or randomness. Or whatever you want to call it.
Any other interesting examples on luck?
We have this study by Shekhar Aiyar and Rodney Ramcharan, two economists of the IMF, who look at the role of luck in test cricket. And they found, amazingly, that the advantage of debuting at home for test cricketers actually had a long lasting effect on their careers – which was really surprising. You would think that if you debut at home, sure it would effect your performance in the debut series, but in fact it has a long-lasting effect.So basically people who debut at home end up playing a lot more…
That’s right. Selectors unfairly punish those who debut abroad and don’t do well. Therefore, you are more likely to be dropped from the side once you debut abroad and don’t do well. But also there could be some learning by doing here. If you debut at home you are able to hone your skills and technique on your home turf and, therefore, you become a better player. Both things could be going on there. But the bottomline is that it is a result of luck because these Test schedules are set months and years in advance, and when someone is picked up for the national side is really the luck of the draw.
An extended portion of your book deals with Jawaharlal Nehru and the fact that for a very long period of time he did not see things heating up with China in 1962, despite there being evidence to the contrary. What is the broader point that you were trying to make?
That forms a central part of our chapter on cognitive failure when we draw on recent behavioural economics literature. The point and the purpose of looking at Nehru in the lead up to the 1962 war was how could something so obvious be missed. It had become clear at that point that China was flexing its muscles. It was a nationalistic state and the border issue was going to be a real problem. But the fact was it apparently caught Nehru by surprise. He himself admitted that he was more or less been living in a dream world before the war. He said: “We were living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation”. So how could Nehru’s own assessment have been so far off the mark and have changed so radically over a short span of time?
And what did you figure out?
Certainly, one of the several possible interpretations is that Nehru and Krishna Menon (the Defence Minister when the Chinese attacked India) and people around them had succumbed, perhaps to a cognitive failure, where they couldn’t perceive the Chinese threat for what it was. They were looking at it through a different lens.Could you explain that in some detail?
Krishna Menon, for example, was ideologically towards the left and he found it very hard to accept that China, being a socialist state and being an Asian power, could have any threatening impulses towards India. This showed an ideological blind spot to Chinese nationalism that had been detected as long back as 1950 by the shrewd Vallabhbhai Patel. So the broader point we were trying to make is that a strongly-held ideological view can blinker you to some realities that don’t fit in with that view. There is this pattern that one sees where  leaders can become overconfident in a lead-up to a crisis because what is happening doesn’t fit their world view of things.
From Nehru you jump to rail accidents in Mumbai…
Yes. A staggering 15,000 people die on railway tracks throughout India every year. Of this 40 percent, or about 6,000 deaths, take place in Mumbai alone on the suburban railway network.
And why is that?
If you look at it from a strictly conventional economic point of view, there is a cost-benefit calculation. So someone who is crossing the tracks at an unfenced point will reckon that he is saving the time it would take for him to get to the next safe crossing, i.e. the foot over-bridge. But that foot over-bridge could be several kilometres away from where he is. If, say, you are a daily wage labourer who has get to the construction site and give your name to the foreman, if you arrive half an hour or 45 minutes late you might miss out on a day of work and so the day’s wages. So the cost can be pretty high. That would be the end of the story from conventional economics and you would say let’s build more foot overbridges to reduce the time cost.
But that is not the whole story?
Let me tell you a little story. Biju Dominic, a former ad man and a co-founder of FinalMile, learned about the daily tragedies on the Mumbai rail system while teaching a class at the railway staff college. So he and his team started gathering some data. They realised that 85 percent of those trying to cross tracks were adult males. Of course, this may also reflect the fact that it is mostly men who are trying to cross the tracks. Also children were most adept at crossing tracks. An interesting finding was that people who are used to crossing tracks tend to underestimate the danger to their lives. This is a classic example of the overconfidence bias, along similar lines that had happened in Nehru’s case before the 1962 war with China. While crossing they don’t consciously realise the risks they are taking. They filter out the boiler plate warning signs and the text signs.
That’s very interesting…
So given the possibility of cognitive failure, it’s possible that some targeted interventions might change that tradeoff. FinalMile came up with three specific interventions. First, they painted alternate sets of railway ties (that’s the series of metal beams that connect the two ends of the track) a bright yellow. This was to help compensate for the psychological fact that people tend to underestimate the speed of large moving objects. With an alternate set of ties painted yellow, someone would be better able to gauge the speed of an oncoming train as it as it passed from the painted to the unpainted ties. Suppose you are in a high a speed train and you are looking out at the landscape, it is hard to tell how fast you are going, unless there is some reference point for the speed. That was one nudge.
What was the second one?The second one was to get the train drivers to switch from a single long warning whistle to two short staccato bursts. Again, this was based on neurological research that showed that the human brain was more receptive to sound that was separated by silence. And the third, the most striking nudge, was an image. People tend to filter out generic boiler-plate kind of warnings. So here they actually hired an actor to portray the wide-eyed horror of someone about to be crushed by an oncoming train and made a poster of it. The poster was vividly visceral enough to really get to someone’s gut, to effect someone psychologically. It is much harder to filter out something like that vis-a-vis a generic sign which says it’s dangerous, don’t cross here. And the poster was put up at points were people crossed tracks. Those were the three interventions.
And how are the results?
They started at Wadala. In the first half of 2010, the number of deaths dropped by 75 percent to nine from the previous year. When we spoke to them in February this year we were told that railways were rolling it out at the Mulund, Vikhroli and Ghatkopar stations. But the other point that we note there is that the success of that really won’t show up in any kind of statistic because if someone looks at the poster and decides not to cross or makes it across safely because of the yellow paint on the ties, it will be the absence of a statistic.
Another interesting piece of research you talk about are seat-belts…
Our inspiration is this classic 1975 article by Sam Peltzman, at the university of Chicago, who wanted to test whether seat-belts saved lives in the United States (US) where everyone had just assumed without argument that seat-belts must save lives. And what Peltzman found was that, in the US, that turned out not be the case. What was going on was that since the cars were now safer, the driving became more rash. The human reaction was, now that my car is a little safer, I can drive a little faster and I don’t need to worry as much about getting into an accident. The human behaviour offset the effects of a well-meaning government programme.
You can find examples of this everywhere. We give an example of sports equipment. There is some evidence now that in team sports where there is a lot of protective gear, you actually see more violence on the pitch. So American football and ice-hockey have a lot more protective gear and so you get a lot more violence. It’s the same thing because the players feel safer as drivers feel when they wear the seat-belt. But in soccer there is relatively very little protective gear and hence very little violence.
How does the seat-belt thing work in an Indian context?It’s not been very much studied but we found this one interesting study by Dinesh Mohan at IIT Delhi. The Delhi seat-belt law came into effect in 2002. What he found was that seat-belts saved very few lives. If you look at his paper, he concludes that the seat-belt law at most saved around 11-15 lives per year in Delhi out of nearly 2,000 fatalities.
Why was that the case?
There are two things going on here. The fatality rate for drivers and front seat passengers was already relatively low. And that dropped a bit after the seat-belt law came in. The deeper explanation is that most of the victims are not the front-seat passengers or the drivers. They are the other people. They are pedestrians. They are two-wheeler drivers. And others. With seat-belts in place drivers are essentially transferring the risk from themselves to the pedestrians.
An interesting part of your book is where you talk about how Indian states that were ruled by native princes are doing much better economically than the states that were ruled directly by the British. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

One of the questions that we like to ask in India is what if we hadn’t been ruled by the British, would we have done better? Or questions like: were the British good for India? And here there are all spectrum of opinions. There was a debate published an American magazineThe New Republic between Niall Ferguson and Amartya Sen which looked at this question. Sen wrote that had India not been colonised by the British then it might have evolved in a different (and) better way than with the colonisation. Then Ferguson replied to that. And Sen had a rejoinder. Ferguson is very much a believer in the British Empire. His argument is that the British Empire in its later phase did a lot of good for its colonies by integrating them into global trade and finance.
So what is the point you are trying to make?
It is very tempting to say that Indian economic performance or growth stagnated during 190 years or 200 years of British rule, and then growth began to take off after independence. The point we make is that by itself it tells you nothing and you have to have a counter-factual scenario. What are you comparing it with? And this is where we draw on the research of Lakshmi Iyer of the Harvard Business School.
What is this research about?
She very interestingly compares the economic performance post-independence of those regions which were directly ruled by the British as against those which were ruled by the princes of princely states. And she shows statistically that the native-ruled regions have done better on average even post-independence. And that is a very striking result. One sort of hypothesis is that the British, to the extent that they were more likely to rule states that generated taxation revenue for them (because tax on land and agriculture was a big source of revenue), may not have invested so much in physical capital and human capital as the Maharajas and Nawabs may have. At least, among the more progressive princely states, they probably realised the good value of education, health and so on and began to invest in that.
Can you give an example?
You can take the example of the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III. He ruled from 1875 to 1939. He had compulsory primary education, including that for girls. He put in place a number of socially progressive policies. That sort of legacy is still being reaped till today. That is one possible explanation and a suggestive idea.
The interview originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 19, 2012.
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

“Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre…He should find another profession”

ramachandra guha
The New York Times has referred to him as ‘perhaps the best among India’s non fiction writers’; Time Magazine has called him ‘Indian democracy’s preeminent chronicler’. Meet Ramachandra Guha, one of the few intellectuals in India, who is a liberal in the classic sense of the term.
He has pioneered three distinct fields of historical inquiry: environmental history (as in The Unquiet Woods, 1989), the social history of sport (A Corner of a Foreign Field, 2002), and contemporary history (India after Gandhi, 2007). He is currently working on a multi-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi.
His latest book Patriots and Partisans (Penguin/Allen Lane Rs 699) is a collection of 15 essays based mostly on all that has gone wrong in modern India.
“Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre… He has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession,” he says in this interview to Vivek Kaul.

You write that “Indian constitution had always been impalatable to the Marxist-Lenninists since it did not privilege a particular party(their own), and Hindu radicals since it did not privilege a particular faith (their own).” Can you discuss that in a little detail?
Marxist-Leninists the world over believe in a state run for and by a single party, their own. Hence the problems encountered by the Communist Party of China, which is paranoid that a call for freedom and democratic rights will lead to the dismantling of their monopoly. Indian Marxist-Leninists are no exception. The Naxalites fantasize about planting the Red Flag on the Red Fort. Even the CPI(M) still somewhere believes that one day it will be the sole party in control in India.
And what about Hindu radicals?
A core belief of the RSS(Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh) is in a Hindu Rashtra, a state run and for Hindus. Muslims and Christians in this scenario have always to prove their loyalty, in fact, they have to acknowledge their distant or proximate, real or fictitious, origins in a Hindu family and in Hindu culture. When the NDA came to power, under the influence of the RSS they constituted a Constitutional Review Commission. Knowing that the former Chief Justice, M. N. Venkatachaliah, was a practising Hindu with a profound knowledge of the scriptures, they asked him to head the Commission, hoping he would advocate amendments in the direction they desired. To their dismay, Justice Venkatachaliah said the secular Constitution of India was completely sound.
Which is a bigger threat to India, naxalism or Hindu bigotry?
In the 1990s, Hindu bigotry; now, Naxalism. Things may yet again change, or an altogether new threat may emerge. Historians cannot predict!
In one of your essays you talk about the senior Congress leader Gulzari Lal Nanda, who was twice the acting Prime Minister of India, dying in a small flat in Allahabad. You also talk about Lal Bahadur Shastri to highlight how upright Indian politicians used to be. What has made them so corrupt over the years?
Ironically, leaders of the CPI and CPI(M), despite their strange and archaic ideology, are perhaps the least corrupt of Indian politicians. They do not have Swiss bank accounts and do not sup with corporates. The compulsions of election funding, the state’s control over natural resources (including land), and sheer venality and greed have encouraged leaders of all other parties to become grossly wealthy by abusing their office.
There remain exceptions. Manmohan Singh is completely honest in a personal sense (though complicit in the corruption of his party and government). And there still remain some outstandingly upright judges, IAS officers, and Generals. The day his term ended, Justice Venkatachaliah moved out of his Lutyens bungalow in New Delhi and returned to his modest home in Bangalore. Others would have at least stayed on for the six months allowed for by the law, using that period to lobby for another sarkari post with perquisites.
You also suggest that if Lal Bahadur Shastri would have been around for sometime more India would have been different country than what it is today. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Shastri has been greatly under-rated both as politician and Prime Minister. It was he who laid the foundations of the Green Revolution (although Indira Gandhi took the credit). He was a far more focused leader in defence and military matters than his mentor, Nehru. He had initiated moves to open out the economy and encourage entrepreneurship. And he was scrupulously honest and completely non-sectarian. Had he lived another five or ten years India may today be a less discontented democracy and a less corrupt society.
Normally when people want to refer to dynasty politics in India they talk about the Nehru Gandhi family. You say it should be just the Gandhi family. Why do you say that?
I show in my book, with concrete evidence, that the dynasty originated with Indira Gandhi, not Nehru. I think this dynasty is now on its last legs. Its charisma is fading with every generation. And Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre. Rajiv at least had a vision–of making India a technologically sophisticated society. Sonia has enormous stamina and determination. Rahul has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession.
Has chamchagiri increased in the Congress party over the years? Are the chamchas of Sonia Gandhi bigger chamchas than the chamchas of Rajiv, Sanjay and Indira Gandhi?
Quite possibly. As there is less to go around, there is more active chamchagiri to get what remains. The cult around 10 Janpath in Congress circles is sickening.
Are the Internet Hindus the new kar sevaks?
Yes and no. They have the same bigoted worldview and fanatical fervour of the kar sevaks, but express this through the safe medium of the Web. The kar sevaks had more raw energy, travelling to Ayodhya, provoking riots on the way there and on the way back. The Internet Hindus are as narrow-minded and sectarian as the kar sevaks, but, since their abuse is verbal and not physical, far less dangerous.
Gurucharan Das talks about the need for a new party which understands the Indian middle class in his new book India Grows At Night. You also make a slight mention in one of the essays. Do you see that happening? Does the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) look like filling in that gap?
The anti-corruption protests of 2011 were an important wake-up call to large sections of Indian society, not just the politicians. However, for the energy and passion to have a substantial and enduring impact, the movement must stay focused, and be patient. Too much media attention is inimical to solid grassroots work. The leaders of AAP should, for the moment, stay away from TV studios and build state-level units and forge alliances with civil society groups across India. To fight the next General Elections would be foolish and premature. They should aim rather to make an impact in the General Elections of 2019.
Over the years have we become less liberal as a society than we were before?
It may not be accurate to say that we have become less liberal as a society. On the whole, Indians are more aware of the rights of Dalits and women than they were 50 or 60 years ago. Sectarian religious sentiments on the ground are markedly less intense and polarizing than they were 10 or 15 years ago. At the same time, the media only gives space to extreme positions. And the state capitulates to bigots when it should stand up to them. This capitulation is sadly true of all parties.
Why did the UPA encourage India’s greatest artist to flee into exile? Could it not protect his life and dignity in his own homeland? Why did the Left Front not provide protection to Taslima Nasreen? The tragedy is that the so-called secular parties cave in most easily to the sectarians and the bigots—the Congress to the Hindu right, the Congress and the Left to the Muslim right, the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra to the Shiv Sainiks.

Could you elaborate on that?
About four years ago, I wrote a piece in a Delhi newspaper known to be read by senior Congress leaders and Ministers. I said there than when the next Republic Day awards were announced, the Government should give MF Hussain the Bharat Ratna and Salman Rushdie the Padma Vibhushan. This would be just reward, no less than their artistic and literary genius deserved. It would strike a blow for artistic and literary freedom. And it would simultaneously insult Hindutvawadis and the mullahs. The rest of India (namely, the majority of Indians) would praise the Government, and the bigots would be speechless, the Hindutvawadis not knowing whether to praise the Government for honouring Rushdie or abuse it for honouring Hussain, and the mullahs confused in the other direction.
But that moment has now passed…
Sadly, Hussain is now dead, the moment has passed, and one does not see the Government—any government—stand up boldly for liberal and democratic values. This is the tragic paradox—that while society as a whole may be becoming slightly more liberal, the further progress of liberalism is halted by the encouragement to illiberal forces by the state and political parties.
The interview originally appeared in www.firstpost.com on December 17,2012

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])

Caveats on cash transfers: Don’t over-commit, don’t screw up

Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee is currently the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at MIT. He was educated at the University of Calcutta, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Harvard University. Together with Esther Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University, he founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab in 2003. He is also the author of the bestselling Poor Economics – A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.

Banerjee was recently speaking at a literature festival in Mumbai on why most people don’t understand what it means to be poor and how the decisions made by the poor might be irrational to us but are very rational decisions given the situation they are in. The UPA has been unveiling many schemes for the poor, the latest being the direct cash transfers scheme. The critical questions are: will they work, and how well will they be implemented.
Here are few excerpts from what he said. This is the second and concluding part. (Read the first part here)
On whether the cash transfers scheme will work

There are two concerns with the cash transfer scheme. One is will we screw it up like everything else. That is the first order concern. In this case there is more thought that has gone into design than usual. That is thanks to Nandan Nilekani (Chairman of the Unique ID Authority of India). There is an interest in implementation.
The second issue is that it could really degenerate to the bottom. It is very easy to give money away and every government will try to give away more of it once the system is in place. And at some point it will mean that we won’t have any money left for anything else. I think it is important to commit not to spend more than a certain amount.
abhijit banerjee
Other than that, the poorest of our poor are so poor that it is unconscionable that we don’t offer them something. This is something that will make their lives better. Whether they spend the money on beer orkaala channa I really don’t know. Kaala channa is supposed to be the most healthy food.
What are critical to cash transfers
An important part of the cash transfer is who do you give it to and in what form do you give it? Targeting, for example, the woman in the family, who will directly spend it on food, is a good idea. Also, putting it into a bank account rather than handing over cash, is a better idea. If I give people something in the bank account they may not spend it immediately. Hence the design of the programme is very important. As I said, we could do it well or badly. If we do it well it could be very good.
Banks don’t like the poor

In general in India, the poor are not given bank accounts because banks don’t like them. If a poor person walks into a bank and he says he is going to put Rs 100 in it, the bank usually sends him away and never opens an account. Hence, the poor do all kinds of creative things to save. One thing they do is they build houses brick by brick. Once you move slightly out of the city centre, in most towns in India you see hundreds of thousands of unfinished houses. Houses with poles sticking up. A few bricks on one side. Some plaster on the other side. Nothing finished. That’s how they save. Whenever they get some money, they come and buy a few more bricks and they stick it on. So the money isn’t spent. It is put into bricks. And we call it saving brick by brick. It’s not that these people like unfinished houses and that is why there are so many unfinished houses. It is the only way to accumulate assets. We create all this perverse behaviour because we really don’t provide bank accounts to the poor. Therefore, they have to find a way to solve this.
Why the poor borrow at 24 percent and put it in a 4 percent savings account
We were very struck when we heard about this woman who borrowed from a microfinance institution at 24 percent and put it in a savings bank account at 4 percent. The first lesson, as I have said, is that you should listen to what people are saying. So when we asked the woman what did you do with your microfinance loan, she said I put it in a bank. You got to be kidding. You are paying 24 percent on this and you are getting 4 percent in the bank, we told her.
Why borrow to put the money in the bank, we asked her? Otherwise how do you think I am going to get that money? she replied. Her argument was that if I keep putting Rs 100 aside every month at home, somebody will want it, something will happen and that money will get spent. Now, if I borrow Rs 10,000, and I have to pay Rs 100 back every month, if I don’t payback, the loan collector is going to come after me. The microfinance lender will come after me. So I have to pay up. She was very clear that this discipline that the microfinance loan would provide her was valuable to her and she would never have managed to save the money otherwise.
Poor people spend a lot of money on health.
Health is a very, very good example where we have always imagined the problem as being exactly wrong. For most poor people we think that they don’t have good health because they can’t afford it. In fact, most poor people spend lots of money on health. They spend a higher proportion of their income on health than we do. In other words, it’s not that because they have to feed their children there is no money to go to the doctor.
This particular area that we where working in – i.e. Southern Rajasthan – the common belief among people is that to get really good treatment you have to get an injectable. And even better get a drip. What drips do they get? Glucose or saline. Ten years ago they were paying Rs 120 for a glucose drip which gives a sugar high for about half an hour.
Why the poor don’t like government health centres
There are many reasons not to like government health centres, but the one fundamental reason they don’t like it is because they say you don’t get the right medicines. What they mean is that they don’t give you injectables. In the government health system, unless and until you are a doctor you are not allowed to give an injectable. So basically, the nurse who is the first line of care in every village has no power to give an injectable.
And so everybody likes to go to a private doctor. An average village actually has seven doctors and a number of bhopas who are basically faith healers. All of these people provide healthcare and all these people charge money. The government health system is supposed to be free but they also charge money. The private healthcare system also charges money.
Hence, everybody is spending money. The poorest people make 60 percent of their healthcare visits to private doctors, 20 percent to faith healers and 20 percent to government doctors. They are making their choices all the time and mostly the wrong choice. Healthcare is one area where you have to make the right choice.
On self-declared doctors
I have this guy on film who said, “I passed out of school I could not find a job so I took this job of a doctor.” He made himself a doctor. Most doctors all over India are doctors like that. They are self-declared doctors. There are compounders who have become doctors. Many of them are hereditary doctors. There grandfather was a doctor, they have become a doctor as a result of that. There are all kinds of wonderful ways of being a doctor. One thing that you can do is pay rent to a qualified MBBS doctor and put up a sign bearing his name and sit under it as his assistant.
One of the core problems in the healthcare is that it is completely unregulated. The only reason I know where to get healthcare is not because I am more intelligent or I have better judgement, it is because I live in a country (ie, the United States) where if you did what happens in India, you would be in jail.
The fundamental fact about healthcare is that none of us are capable of understanding healthcare. The reason why healthcare works for some people is because some regulatory system determines who can practise healthcare. But in India anyone can go in and prescribe saline drips for Rs 120 to anyone they want to. You have people giving steroids right and left to whoever they want to with no explanation of what it is, and no explanation  on the consequences. One of the reasons you see premature aging in India is because of the indiscriminate use of steroids.
Willingness to believe in everything
For me the reason I why believe in a particular form of healthcare has nothing to do with my understanding of it. I know there is a regulatory system that works reasonably well and I trust it. In India, where the regulatory system frequently fails, I wouldn’t believe in the system. Most people who go the bhopa also go to the private doctor or the government doctor. They also go to the temple. They go to every possible course of action. Given that you have no specific reason to believe in anything – you believe in everything.
Unqualified doctors are a tad better at identifying heart attacks than government doctors
Another reason that people go to unqualified private doctors is highlighted through a nice study carried out by one of my ex-students Jishnu Das. It shows that an unqualified doctor spends four minutes looking at you and the qualified government doctor spends one minute looking at you. As a result, on an average the unqualified private doctor doesn’t do worse than the government doctor. The way he tested this was that he sent an actor who pretended to have a heart attack. The actor walks in, says my chest is hurting, my left arm is hurting, etc. The government doctors miss the heart attack 75 percent of the time, but 25 percent of the time they find it. The unqualified private doctor does slightly better because he pays a little bit more attention. He is a bit more worried about this guy.
The first thing to think about on healthcare is that if I am poor, I have no idea what to do. I am bewildered. This is a classic place where the government is supposed to provide regulation. They are supposed to say this is the right thing for you to do and because we have never managed to convey such a feeling, we get such bad healthcare.
The travails of primary education

Primary education in India is doing miserably. That is true. If you look at the average child in class IV, 40 percent of them can read a paragraph. 60 percent cannot read a paragraph. And 30 percent can do simple divisions, 21 divided by 7, that is.
People have been claiming for a very long time that is this because the teachers aren’t being paid enough. In fact, teachers in India get paid a huge amount. Government school teachers are paid – somebody estimated this but maybe its an exaggeration – seven times of what they would get paid if they did not get that job. They are paid Rs 20,000. If you look at private school teachers, they are paid Rs 3,000. So the lack of learning is not because teachers are not paid enough.
What is the real problem? Where is the hope?
We did one experiment in Bihar which was with government school teachers. This was in summer around two years ago. The teachers were asked that instead of teaching like you usually teach, your job for the next six weeks is to get the children to learn some basic skills. If they can’t read, teach them to read. If they can’t do math, teach them to do math. At the end of six weeks, these teachers were given a small stipend. They had also been given a couple of days of training. At the end of six weeks, the children had closed half the gap between the best performing children and the worst performing children. They had really improved enormously.
What happened? Why did the government school teachers do so much better? The reason was they were asked to do a job that actually made sense. They were asked to teach the children what they don’t know. The usual jobs teachers are asked to do is teach the syllabus – which is very different. Under the Right to Education Act, every year you are supposed to cover the syllabus.
It doesn’t matter whether the children understand anything. Think of all the class IV children who can’t read. They are learning social studies and all kinds of other wonderful things – except they can’t read. They are learning nothing. They are sitting in a class watching some movie in some foreign language without subtitles. Hence, the dropout rates are high. And I am shocked why anybody comes to school at all.
The solution is simple

The problem of education has a perfectly good solution. In the first four years, we should prioritise the learning of basic skills – forget about learning the history of the country, etc.
You don’t have to know who Gandhiji was for the first four years. Let’s just concentrate on students being able to read and do simple math, I think that system would deliver a much better outcome. One thing we forget is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We are trying to have an education system that is perfect and that every child would come out with wisdom at the end of it. As a result they learn nothing.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 15, 2012
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

Why television is more important than food

abhijit banerjee
Vivek Kaul
Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee is currently the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at MIT. He was educated at the University of Calcutta, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Harvard University. Together with Esther Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University, he founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab in 2003. He is also the author of the bestselling Poor Economics – A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.
Banerjee was recently speaking at a literature festival in Mumbai on why most people don’t understand what it exactly means to be poor and how the decisions made by the poor might be irrational to us but are very rational decisions given the situation they are in. Here are few excerpts from what he said. This is the first part.
The poor man from Morocco
A part of the point of writing this book was to say that the poor make lots of choices. They are very active participants in their own lives. They are like all of us excited about making choices. And they make choices that are often sort of not intelligible to us, which is different from saying that they are making irresponsible choices.
Let me give you an example. We were in a village in Mexico talking to a guy who was standing in front of his house. He was telling us about his life and to get the conversation going we asked suppose you had some small amount of money what would you do with it? And he said I am going to buy some food. And then we asked him what would he do if he had some more money? He said I will buy more food.
So we were very persuaded that this was a hungry man. We walk into his house and see that he had a television, a parabolic antenna and a DVD player. So we asked him what is this? He said, entirely without missing a step, television is more important than food.
An evening in a village
When you first hear it, you say, that can’t be right. But I think the mistake we make we don’t think about what he is trying to say. One advantage of being a development economist is that you get to spend a lot of evenings in random villages. One thing that is uniform across the world is that an evening in a village is very boring. There are no movie theatres. No music halls. No place to go. There is one tea shop. You can go there. You have been there before. All the other people have been there for years. They have talked to each other for years and they say the same things more or less. Somebody says something, other says, oh yeah, and then they are silent.
So what does this tell us?
What that is telling us is that evenings in a village are very boring. And that person in the village in Morocco really felt life would be unbearable without a television. He explained that he had three friends and they typically did not have anything to talk to each other. And that happens because there is almost nothing coming in from the outside. Television gives them something to talk about. This is why I empathise. In any decision we make there is a space for pleasure. A space that recognises we are human beings and the domain of pleasure is an essential driver for us.
The poor are thinking that I could either grab healthy calories or buy a tv. If I grab calories then maybe I will become a little bit healthier and my resistance will go up, maybe I will go from being extremely poor to slightly extremely poor. On the other hand if I forego calories I can watch television right now. The typical way we think is that these guys who buy television and don’t eat nutritious food are somehow damaged or irrational or are somehow different, and we can’t help them because they are not helping themselves.
I think they are helping themselves. We should understand what they are doing.
The right to food
The principle behind the right to food if we give poor people subsidised food there nutrition will improve. I am a part of the Poverty Action Lab where we run large scale field experiments. We do these experiments to figure out what works? One of the things that we are trying to figure out is that whether the policy of giving people cheap subsidised food to improve nutrition, really works? We carried out a nice experiment on this in China. What we did was that we gave some people a voucher to buy cheap rice. Instead of buying rice lets say for ten rupees, they could buy it for two rupees, using the vouchers. The presumption was that this would improve nutrition. This was done as an experiment and hence some people were randomly given vouchers and others were not given vouchers.
When people went back and looked at it, they were astounded. People who had got the vouchers there nutrition had become worse. They felt that now that I have these vouchers I am rich. I no longer need to eat rice. I could eat pork. I could eat shrimps. They went and bought pork and shrimps and as a result their net calories went down. This is perfectly rational. These people were waiting for pleasure.
Pleasure is something very important not just for us to live a day but also in terms of being able to control of our destiny. You think the rest of my life will be drab, and it becomes very difficult to live. In that particular sense they had a little opportunity and they knew that this wouldn’t last forever. They could improve their nutrition or for the next ten days they could also eat a little bit better. I think fun is something that we forget about. The answer surprised everybody because we thought about it as what we would have done if we were in a similar situation.
he auto-rickshaw drivers of Chennai
I think when you look at many poor people the first thing you notice is that they are not doing what you think they should be doing. As I said before that is partly because you have it wrong and partly also because its hard to be poor. Sometimes you just want relief. Let me give you an example of the auto-rickshaw drivers in Chennai, where one of my students did a survey.
The survey found that 40% of the income of the drivers goes into drinking. If you were to ask why they are doing that? The answer is that my body hurts and I want something to stop it hurting. You are in an auto-rickshaw twelve hours a day. Your body is bouncing. Your bones are hitting against each other. At that point you want something.
I understand that alcohol is not the best possible relief. But whenever we want to be judgemental of the poor, and whenever we don’t want to trust their judgement, the question for us is to ask first what is it that makes them make that choice? Unless we ask that question we are often tempted impose our own conditions on their lives.
It never occurred to me that driving an auto-rickshaw for 12 hours a day is so painful. It didn’t strike me. I thought of many things but not that. And then I realised that we being in an auto-rickshaw for five minutes is painful, and think of 12 hours a day, bouncing on Chennai’s streets, your bones hurt. I don’t doubt that their wives are not happy about it. I am sure if we could find a way to get them to drink less it would be good for all of us. But the first one thing that one has to do is to start by trusting that they have a reason.
Why immunisation rates are low?
One of the facts about the world is that immunisation is a life saver. A lot of blindness in India is caused by the fact that a lot of woman are not immunised when they are pregnant with a child. They get rubella, which causes a cataract which makes people blind. So lots of people are curably blind because of their mothers not being immunised.
So immunisation is seen by people as an obvious thing to do. Given that why are the poor not immunised? We tend to think that it must be because that they are poor. But that is almost truly the wrong answer if you take it at a face value. You realise its the wrong answer because immunisation is free. It is something that the system is supposed to provide. But the next answer is that it must be because the government is failing to provide it. There is some truth to that answer.
We did a large scale field experiment in villages in the Udaipur district in Rajasthan. In sixty of these villages the NGO Seva Mandir went and communicated that every third Monday we will come to your village and immunise. So immunisation was guaranteed. It was done reliably. And that raised the immunisation rate from about 5% to about 17%.
What raised the immunisation rates?
What got it up there was that in 30 out of the 60 villages we said that every time you come for immunisation you get a kilo of
dal. That’s it. That got it up to 40% in those thirty villages.
The first reaction that when the life of children is at a stake why are you trading it off for a kilo of
dal? Why does a kilo of dal make such a difference?
The second thing is you think about what does immunisation mean? For my children I have no idea of how many times they have been immunised. You get a shot for this, a shot for that and so on. And you are supposed to keep track of all this. Make sure that your child gets this one at the right time and that one at the right time. And remember.
My children grew up in the US. In the US and in the most other western countries that is externally imposed. So there is a piece of paper at the hospital which helps keep track. You don’t have to actually remember any of this. What does the
dal do? It reminds you that it is important to get your child immunised. Otherwise there is no external pressure. For me I knew that my child could not go to school unless he was immunised. I was under external pressure.
Of all things about Western Capitalism the thing I really loved was cold clean water all the time
One mistake that we make is we assume that we are in control of our lives and we are making all sorts of choices and poor people are in not in control of their lives. In fact, I think it’s a reverse issue. For me, my immunisation was guaranteed by the fact that I did not have a choice. I had to get my child immunised to get him into school.
The same is true about my pension. It is deducted from my salary. And somebody will give it to me when I retire. I know there is some money and haven’t checked actually how much. I have no choice.
The water I drink, comes out of a tap and I pour it into a glass and I drink it. I don’t think about whether its a good water or bad. It is always good water. The first thing I loved when I went to the US was that there was cold water everywhere that was fit to drink. Of all things about Western Capitalism the thing I really loved was cold clean water all the time.
You could get water and you did not have to worry about whether this water is clean or not. Think about a poor person and when we ask why don’t you boil your water? Think about every time you drink it, you have to boil the water, you have to put in chlorine and wait for one hour before the chlorine vapours go out and then drink it. It’s a challenge to live your life well as a poor person by our standards.
You have to make sure that the water is clean. You have to make sure that you are putting away money for your future because there is no automatic deductions of your savings. You have to make sure that your children get immunised.
It is difficult to be poor
We need to understand is that how difficult it is to be poor. That is the first fact to keep in mind. Every poor person every day is much more in control of their lives than I am of mine. I am totally not in control of our life. I don’t know how much my salary is. I don’t how much my pension is. I don’t know where my water comes from. I have automatic health insurance. I don’t have to choose health insurance it comes automatically. I don’t have a choice. Most of my choices have been taken out of my life. In fact, wait, I don’t want those choices. Those are hideous choices. I would rather want to choose whether I want to eat meat today or fish? That is a much more pleasurable choice to make. I could choose my pleasures because my needs are taken care of.

The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 14, 2012
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]