Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What Makes Cities Creative?

Calcutta Coffee House - Famed but Forgotten
One of the key arguments in favour of urbanisation is that cities can be creative and innovative in a way the rural life may never be. 

This is indeed a very modern idea - and perhaps one of the signature ideas of modernity - as Cities, at least until the 19th century, was considered a place of squalor and crime. Until then, cities were economic and administrative necessities, and existed in forms of Forts, Bazaars, and after the eighteenth century, increasingly as Factory towns. Creativity resided elsewhere, closer to nature.

Since the end of 19th century this started changing. The improvements in sewage and transportation made cities very different place than they were before. Mid-19th century also saw shaping of some of the great modern cities, Paris and Vienna among them. A celebration of cities such as Athens, Florence or Edinburgh, as places of ideas, entered the conversation.

Cities, as places that brought people together and created enormous creative opportunities, by cross-pollinating ideas and providing ways of adaptation and commercialisation, became the centre of the world in the Twentieth century. Great cities emerged - Chicago of squalor turned into Chicago of fashion, Calcutta the malarial town sprouted its creative energies, Jakarta became the Paris of Asia and the trendy towns of Berlin, Prague and Munich had their high noons and tragic endings. Towards the end, as we came to accept ideas as the fountain of prosperity, a place in the world - a valley, more a particular Highway - became the centre of our universe. We came to accept Creative Cities as a conceptual category, as places which make the world go around.

The 21st century has now made creative cities both an accepted policy tool, with its own theorists, experts and designers. Now, we 'regenerate' the cities and 'build creative ecosystems'. We accept not all cities are created equal and that globalisation is 'spikey' - it makes talents to gather together and clusters of expertise to emerge. We are looking to draw from the history of past creative flourishing - of Athens, Florence, Hangzhou to our more modern examples - and create toolkit of making creative cities.

And, while we may discard ancient ideas of a particular place or people being favoured by God, some ideas of the past are indeed quite useful. We know geography played a role - most of these creative cities were trading posts which drew different people together, as did political stability and relative affluence. But, again, there is no theory of Creative Cities yet. Something that may have worked for a city may not have worked for another. Certainly, all trading posts did not become cities of ideas; politically stable regimes did not always produce great cities, and sometimes, like in Florence, great political turbulence accompanied great creative flourishing. Lack of such certainty indeed makes it difficult to create 'policy' of the kind today's politicians want, and while creative city remained a narrative reality, no one really knows what made them come about.

Which would have been just fine, perhaps, if this was not subject to so many false claims and erroneous ideas. The greatest folly perhaps is to tell the tale of a city's High Noon, of a time when creative geniuses mingled together, giving it a magical ring and making it appear to have come from nowhere. While this was certainly true for cities at certain times, those moments were results of long build-ups, and in them, there were legacies of many generations of ideas and work. Too many town planners today see the Paris of twenties and want to recreate in their 'cultural quarters', some chick modern day left bank hoping for its own Picasso with political correctness! The 21st Century creative city ideas are based on scrubbed clean business-book logic of creativity without its blood, sweat and tears, something that could be prototyped and replicated. In short, the ideas of creative city today are not very creative.

Consider, for a moment, Abu Dhabi, which wants to score above its upstart wayward cousin, Dubai, by being a place of culture and education. With free money flowing in, World's best universities and museums could hardly resist its charm, and duly opened their campuses to start building a twenty-first century Paris in the middle of the desert. But would these buildings and universities would make Abu Dhabi a place of culture and innovation, some kind of Silicone Mine (for real)? One doubts when one sees in the news that an economist who stepped out of line have been tried and jailed in Abu Dhabi (see the news here - the jail sentence has now been confirmed), while his employer, Sorbonne of all places, just meekly dissociated itself, presumably to keep the favours.

Another example could be Real Estates, the first thing the policy makers think of when they think of Creative Cities. They are always trying to build the special zones, the IT parks, the Arts Quarters and the like. The imagined creative city is like this place of great facilities - beautiful marinas and expensive schools, offices with gyms and cafes, and luxury apartments - and these places are being built everywhere, including some, in China, which are called Paris and have its own mini Eiffel Towers. Alas, the expensive real estate, if one follows the story of cities of the past, does not make a city creative: It has the opposite effect. Whatever Richard Florida may say about attracting talent, one must remember Jane Jacobs' formula about old buildings and new ideas: That a shiny, expensive building makes people conform and behave, whereas a dilapidated door invites people to dare to shape the space. Inexpensive bedsits allow the penniless artists to live before they could have a chance at being Dalí.

In fact, it is not the neat thoroughfares that make a creative city: Rather, it is a matter of cobbled streets and shanty towns. Creativity does not descend from a few hot-shots, talents and celebrities; it is known to have emerged, from nobody in particular and especially the misfits. Creative Cities do not 'brainstorm'; they flourish on idle chatter. Creative cities are not busy places; they are slow and the kind that misses the bus. Their real estate is cheap; their universities undisciplined; all too often, their publishing is underground and their liquor bootlegged. They are not full of beautiful people, genetically perfected and smart as hell; but rather of all colours and forms, mostly bad, who somehow make do and challenge norms all the time.

The point we miss all the time is that these are places of ideas. They come together, not because they are ruled strongly and powerfully, but rather weakly and ambivalently, so that dissent becomes possible. They are not homogeneous, so that new ways of thinking were acceptable. They are not expensive, so that living on the fringes and experimenting with ideas become possible. Some neat plan to build 'creative ecosystems' is therefore a non-starter; if that worked, every emperor would have ordered one for himself.

The point of my work is to visualise the Creative Cities, in their formative phases, in its chaos, squalor and possibilities. I want to study its conflicts, its failure to crush dissent and its reluctant acceptance of misfits among themselves. I wish to study the lives of the great, but not without the inconvenient facts of their origins and struggles. My search is indeed for a general theory, but not the kind which can fit into five year plans of governments of Singapore or UAE, but rather the kind someone in Calcutta or Caracas can drew inspiration from.


Thursday, April 06, 2017

Why Should Britain Apologise For The Empire?

There are two reasons why I am writing this post, which is really a retake of an earlier post - Should Britain Apologise? - which I recently shared on Social Media. 

The first is that there is a renewal of this debate. The recent political twists and turns - Brexit and emergence of Hindu Nationalist India most importantly - have brought the question of British imperial folly to the forefront, engaged in animated debates and denials (see here).

The second is a renewal of interest in history itself, made possible by the deliberate wrecking of the Post-War world system by Conservatives in America and Britain. After being presumed dead, history has been regularly invoked in claims, particularly by British and American politicians who are good at pointing follies of other nations. Hollywood made a film about Holocaust denial, though the question of American imperialism in the Pacific was never deemed worthy of retelling. The British Secretary of International Trade, Dr Liam Fox, recently claimed that Britain, of all European nations, have nothing to apologise for its 20th Century history (see here). 

But why write again about this subject? The simple answer is because Britain made no such apologies and continue to live in denial. And, till such time a statement of apology was made by a British Prime Minister, the issue will not go away.

However, my intention is not go over the list of atrocities and achievements of the British Empire, but rather to address two very specific questions that have been raised:

1. Why is an apology needed? Why can't the ex-colonies get on with life?

2. What's the point of an apology? Sins, unlike property, are not inherited, and most people in Britain today can claim to be innocent of the empire. Why should they apologise?

These two questions are indeed related, and point to common misunderstandings about the issue of apology. 

For the British schoolchildren endlessly drilled in modern German History, the question of historical guilt is rather well-understood, as long as it applies to other countries. For them, it is obvious that Germany should apologise for its past for its own sake first. It is obvious, they are taught, that one of main reasons Germany succumbed to the Nazis was that it never fully reconciled with its own follies in the First World War. The atonement for its deeds during the Second World War, somewhat forced on it by the Allies, made it one most reconciled with itself: Neo-Nazis today are more common in Poland and Hungary than Germany.

Herein lies the answer to the first question: That the British government should apologise for Britain itself. In the absence of an apology, a fantastical version of the British history, of the sort Dr Fox is familiar with, lives on. And, this historical amnesia is not benign: This sort of misreading of history makes Britain at war with itself, unleashing an irrational, ahistorical rage that is making it wreck the world system. This is what makes a small cabal of politicians manipulate the British Public, not just in the Brexit debate but make them vote against their own self-interest election after election. A country with a false sense of its history is not unlike a delusional man, at once in love and maniacal rage with himself. 

This should clarify why apologising for sins of one's fathers may be good idea for today's British Citizens. This is not about the moral balancing act - acknowledging the follies of the past as they enjoy the fruits of the conquests! Knowing their own place in the world would allow them to escape the illusions of the past, and know, for once, what's really right or wrong. The double standards - between British Imperialist logic of might is right and the claim of folly when another nation used force - seriously impairs British engagement with the world, and limits its ability to deal with the future.

That the demands of apology come from nationalist politicians of ex-colonies, and not from British ruling classes - Tory, Liberal or Labour - obscure the need of history for Britain's own sake. The myth of the benign empire is one of the keystones of power of the British ruling classes. British empire, contrary to the narrative, was not about spreading freedom worldwide, but rather of importing practices of control and domination - fingerprinting was one small but symbolic example - from the colonial realm to the mother country. 

However, apart from the question this may become more important now than it has been so far. A more accurate appraisal of the imperial legacy is needed not just for Britain's view of itself, but also of its understanding of its place in the world. This is because we are perhaps at a turning point of the long arc of history, a point where the Atlantic predominance is matched or superseded by the powers of the Eurasian plain, a shift whose signs are already perhaps visible. When the most xenophobic of British politicians claim that limiting its relationships with Europe is worthwhile for the sake of new relationships with India and China, it is usually an imperial illusion fuelled by a hard geopolitical realisation: Abandoning the illusion will indeed help them deal better with the world of today.


Tuesday, April 04, 2017

On Interfaces Between Higher Education and Work

There is no longer an automatic progression from higher education to work. There was perhaps never was one, but usually the jobs that needed middle level cognitive skills usually outnumbered people having appropriate training - and, therefore, the middle class assumption that a college education leads to a job had some basis.

Two things happened since, particularly since the 1990s:

1. The number of middle level jobs have not grown in proportion of the growth in college enrolment. The reason for this is manifold, but one key factor in this is the use of computers, advanced communication and other labour saving technologies at work. At the same time, governments of different countries focused on creating middle class economies encouraged, and made possible through expansion of the higher education system, more people to go to college. This trend varied from country to country, as modern communication meant some jobs got shipped out to countries like India, creating middle skill jobs faster than college enrolment; however, over a longer time frame - two decades now - expansion of college enrolment duly caught up and job creation eventually slowed.

2. As middle skill job growth stagnated, they also become either more specialised or more generalised. This may seem a contradiction of terms, but different kinds of jobs changed differently, but both trends impacted education-to-employment transition in different ways. There are some jobs, mostly in new technology areas, became very specialised, demanding, from an applicant, in-depth and practical competence with tools of trade. And, yet, others, in functional areas, such as Accounting, Management, Marketing etc., which were traditionally the specialised jobs, became combined, demanding not just professional competence but 'soft skills' and ability to do a wide range of work, including handling the IT. So, it was no longer enough to be a Computer Programmer, as universities prepared them: One needed to be a specialist in one or the other language or platforms (or be relegated to miscellaneous tasks, such as testing, account management or sales). On the other end of the spectrum, it was no longer enough to be just an Accountant - one needed to be able to speak to customers, be able to handle the IT system, and even show enterprise and solve problems outside one's domain.

However, as the jobs changed, Higher Education changed too. There was this huge expansion, as the Governments of different countries encouraged For-Profit businesses to start offering Higher Education, often creating a system of public subsidies to make it attractive. But there were other changes too, which are significant for this conversation. 

1. The expansion of business courses was one important factor, particularly as more and more Accounting, Marketing and Management courses showed up Higher Education catalogue. Higher Education Institutions were getting into functional areas, encouraging students to do an early specialisation. Just as these professions were going the other direction, Higher Education institutions were trying to step into a space traditionally filled by professional training companies, and were essentially adapting themselves into the model.

2. In computing, it was the reverse, as Higher Education sector was often adapting down, from the Computer Science and Engineering departments of top universities to the more generalised space that new, smaller, For-Profit institutions wanted to serve. So, there were these degrees like B Sc in IT, an attempt to create non-mathematical Computer Programming courses which are not necessarily tied to one tool or another - and in theory, can be used as a platform for any tool! This was, again, the opposite of how the jobs were changing.

This - a sort of scissors crisis where Higher Ed and the world of work seem to be moving in opposite direction - presents a challenge to create interfaces between the two. The usual mechanisms - industry executives on curriculum board, guest lectures and internships - fall short. Higher Education 'curriculum' are ill-suited to address 'soft skill' requirements of business functions (they are called 'soft skills' for a reason); it is also too static to respond to changing specificity of the technology trades. Guest lectures sit outside the curriculum and it is hard to engage students, particularly early in the life-cycle (when they should really engage), and internships are often too ephemeral and suffer the same problem as guest lectures. That Higher Education is out of step with the world of work is perhaps apparent in the problem of graduate unemployment and underemployment at one hand, and the talent crunch on the other, but there is no ready-at-hand mechanism to solve the problem.

While all this makes the question of education-to-work transition urgent and important, they also introduce new challenges. Most people dealing with the question approaches it in one of the two ways - either by being reverential about the tools and structures of Higher Education, as if they are perennial and immutable, or by being completely dismissive about it. In either way, they take a static perspective. Those working in Higher Education see everything as a 'knowledge problem', and imagine solving it through better design of curriculum and assessments. Those working outside Higher Education identify the limitations of the curriculum but insufficiently recognise the challenges posed by the mutation of work and skills. With some generalisation, one could say that the educators are trying to mould yesterday's educational ideas for tomorrow's jobs and those outside are trying to design futuristic educational ideas for yesterday's jobs.

The solution, instead, lies in recognising the changes not just in education, but in society and work. And, one must be quite radical about it. The idea of 'Higher Education' should be questioned - higher as compared to what? One must remember that this is a 'value-laden' expression now - not just advanced education, but by definition distinct from vocational education - and this makes our ideas about Higher Ed quite limited. For example, ideas such as Apprenticeships are never fully accepted in Higher Education, because of its roots in the trades outside the gentlemanly pursuits of educated people. Despite the Great Expansion, universities, and particularly the new ones set up for the purpose of making students employable, scoff at the idea of Education-for-Employment being central to their enterprise, making building effective interfaces subject to continuous sniping from faculty members. 

However, the interface between education and work is the most exciting design issues today. While the general scenario is one of doom-and-gloom, as I portray above, there are indeed great experiments underway both within the Higher Ed sector and without. There are a number of employers creating fascinating interfaces - new style apprenticeships, learning communities etc - that can change education. And, some educators more than others are also coming up with new solutions and aggressively implementing them. However, these initiatives are usually seen as 'forward-looking', i.e., not mainstream, and herein lies the problem: The burden of bad ideas, within educational institutions, in regulatory frameworks and in private equity fuelled crusading start-ups, is still heavy enough to rule out a serious and engaged search of interfaces (and, this must be in plural) that may actually work.



Sunday, April 02, 2017

Twilight of Liberals and The Reinvention of History

2016 has been a watershed year for many 'Liberals' - with its paradigm shifting events such as Brexit and Trump - but the writing was perhaps on the wall. And, it is not just an Anglo-American affair: There was Modi in India, Abe in Japan, Putin in Russia and Erdoğan in Turkey, not to mention the muscular turns in China or Philippines. Nor this ends with 2016: That Marine Le Pen still remains the Front Runner in France, the Swedish election is uncomfortably close, there is open racism on the streets of Poland and Hungary, and Italy is all set to go crazy too, indicate that 2016 is some sort of a start. The twilight of the Liberals may have arrived.

'Liberals' is a very imprecise category, and over the years, it has come to mean almost everything, resulting in a confusion who the liberals really were, and what they stood for. The traditional definition - that Liberals are not Conservatives - has long been superseded by a mishmash of agendas, and Liberals came to mean different things - small government advocates and big government advocates, social freedom champions and admirers of Stalin, all in one basket. So, who won and who lost in 2016 is somewhat difficult to define, and it is best to leave those definitional issues to future academic conferences and unreadable papers that would surely be churned. It is better to stick to a more pedestrian sense of the Liberal - those who went down in 2016 (and before) called themselves Liberals and those who hated them called them 'Liberals' too!

However, this definitional issue is not mere pedantry, but of some significance in arriving at an understanding what happened. Commentators, who call themselves 'Liberals' and clearly do not like what happened, are somewhat at a loss, as they see a 'Turkeys voting for Christmas' in real life: Poor people in America voting for Trump, towns in Britain dependent on European aid voting for Brexit or Muslims in Indian Uttar Pradesh voting for Mr Modi's party! Democracy seems to have reached its apotheosis, and, ideologies, even interests, stopped to matter: All electoral politics have been plunged into the deep despair of inexistence of alternatives. There is something the electorate has rejected, and is rejecting, but with limited capacity of self-criticism - which is a dangerous shortcoming when combined with a monopoly of criticism that 'Liberals' claimed to have - there is no way of knowing what is it they have rejected.

Some perceptive commentators see this as 'The Age of Anger', a romantic, emotional outburst against the overtly rationalistic technocracies that we overbuilt. The voter demographies seem to confirm some of it: Poor white voters without college education voting for Trump, the working class voters voting for Brexit, the Hindi heartland in India drooling over Modi, etc. But these pictures are constructed to confirm the theory - that this is an irrational departure - and at least in some cases, like the college-educated women voting for Trump, the Indian professionals in London voting for Brexit or Indian technical and scientific community voting for Modi, the awkward facts are airbrushed out of the conversation. The 'irrational' is the natural opposite of the 'rational', and this construction - that people with limited ability to reason has revolted against reason - provide both an explanation and a hope about the temporality of this departure (and makes sense of the extraordinary predictions game, indulged on by serious newspapers, about how long the Trump Presidency would last).

It is against this explanation, and this hope, that I wanted to offer my criticism, and claim that the events of 2016 - or, more broadly, the 'populist turn' - is not a romantic revolution, nor a parade of temporary self-destruction of the uneducated, and there may be no apocalypse, or even, a mild 'I-told-you-so' moment of self-gratification, in the end. What went before, if we call it the 'Liberal' age, is well and truly over, and it is not coming back. This end, of an era of optimism and expansion, set in motion since the 90s, is to be understood first in a self-critical way before we can participate, organise and resist the politics of today.

The politics since the 90s were built, I shall claim, on three fundamental principles: First, globalisation is good; second, there is a political class and then there is the rest of us; and three, technology is destiny. These three together gave us an unique and contemporary vision of modernity, in which history is made redundant and possibilities of self-creation looked boundless, creating, even if for a very brief moment (as it seems now) a phenomena that was made of the stuff of dreams of kings and courtiers: A people without politics! Politics seemed redundant as all politicians spoke the same language, and the forces that control our lives seemed distant and complex. 

The 'Liberal' politics, as we call it now after its passing, was one of anti-politics. It was about creating the valences of the rhetoric, to make the political words, such as 'democracy' or 'secular', so expansive and oft-used that they are rendered meaningless. It was about creating a millennerian vision of an end and a new beginning, of old rules and values discarded without trace, of a fatalistic optimism about technological progress in an enthusiastic embrace; of leadership being a distinct craft left to the gifted and of concentrating on little joys of we as consumers instead. The global was to wipe our local clean, technology was to reform our practices, English was to become Lingua Franca (this one is not without irony) and all politics was to converge into a politics of convergence, of the centre, as it was called. The history of us since the 90s was one of not having one.

What people are revolting against now, primarily, is this anti-politics. They have been told - leave it to us - and they did; and life has not got better. They have been told about the dire consequences of not doing what they were told to do, but they were told, perhaps, just too many times. The revolt now is one of revolt itself, of politics against the lack of it, of local against global, of history - what else can you call Brexit - against not having one. The Liberal failure is not one of not educating people, but of making education all style and no substance. It is about promoting a future that is independent of politics, and of responsibility. Once we edited out the stories of all the trouble people took to gain their freedom, of all those painful steps of progress and instead promoted the magic of technology to bring a future into being, we made the world bland, unidirectional, shorn of agency and taken for granted. 

What happens now is a return of History. This is that George Santayana moment of being doomed to repeat history because of our ignorance of it. The politics-less of our being is being swept away by an urgency of political action, of false hopes first, and then of activism. This has been the course of political change, so many times in history. This is a point of realisation of the futility of millennial promise - that History can plausibly end - and a return of possibilities in our political lives. It matters who you call Liberal: Those who look to build the future should rejoice the moment and give a hand in reconstructing the possibilities.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Churchill Vs Hitler: Rhetoric and Resurrection of the Raj

Shashi Tharoor, Author and Indian Politician, has touched a number of raw nerves when he compared Churchill and Hitler, maintaining “Churchill has as much blood on his hands as Hitler does” (See story) in an interview with UK-Asian, an Asian community interest website in Britain, launching his new book, Inglorious Empire  (a catchy title with a whiff of Quentin Tarantino).

While this has now drawn several angry responses (for example, see this one from Zareer Masani), there is little new here. Churchill did preside over a genocide, intentionally diverting food from India and causing a famine to punish insolent Bengalis in 1943, a forgotten affair in Britain (like all other atrocities of the empire), but subject to detailed exploration in Madhusree Mukherjee's Churchill's Secret War, and even more famously and dispassionately, in Amartya Sen's Poverty and Famine. Churchill, the arch-colonialist, had actively participated in various colonial atrocities, starting with Boer War in 1902 right down to the various British mischiefs in Suez, Kenya and Iran in the mid-fifties. His role in the World Wars, however glorified in Britain, was questioned variously (see this New York Review of Books article), and his hand was all too visible in crafting the Cold War ('Iron Curtain', Churchill's gift to post-war politics, is a piece of rhetoric he stole from Dr Joseph Goebbels, obviously without attribution).  Dr Tharoor made this point several times before writing the book, most popularly in his Oxford Union address in 2015.

The book idea originated from this debate, and maintained much of its polemical flavour. However, Dr Tharoor's broad point is to problematize British Empire, and unfortunately, the rhetoric, such as Churchill versus Hitler comparison, somewhat distracts attention. While this makes great headlines - as it did in the British Press - there is never too much to learn, as Foucault would say, from polemics. What is important is to debate Dr Tharoor's key point - that Britain has chosen to hide its imperial atrocities and never atoned for them - and see his comparisons with other imperial and militarist nations in context. This is, in fact, not necessary to soothe Indian sentiments, but for the sake of sanity in Britain. The supposed glories of British Empires, alongwith the stories of 'civilizing missions', have been kept alive in British textbooks, and has come back to bite as the country, and its elite, hurls itself into a self-destructive path of Brexit and beyond. The good-country-bad-country tone of British history, the over-the-board coverage of Nazi Germany along with obscuration of the cold-blooded massacres of Amritsar and Mau-Mau,  makes the British live in the wonderland of Historical Amnesia. Dr Tharoor sought to challenge this, but the Churchill-vs-Hitler rhetorical device isn't very helpful here.

I shall argue that such rhetoric in fact helps a resurrection of the Raj, as in the tone of argument, in Mr Masani, that Natives don't do History! This has happened before: Pat Buchanan's exploration of Churchill's role in World Wars was met with same derision - that this is not history! History, of a certain authentic variety, seems to be a monopoly of those who wants to project a narrative of progress, a discipline practised by Lord Macaulay to Niall Ferguson and Michael Dobbs! No amount of scrubbing the 'Whig mindset' can get us to asking uncomfortable questions, and all attempts at Colonial History, no matter how lofty and unambiguously political, are by definition 'sub-altern' and to be dutifully excluded from the canon. That Mr Masani can invoke an unashamed apology for the Raj even in the 21st century points to the folly of rhetoric.

One final point: Is this debate important at all? It is, as we seem to be standing at an inflection point of the long arc of History. For all the hysteria of 2016, the politics is changing, and a shift of geopolitical power from the Atlantic world to the Eurasian plan may already be underway. Churchill vs Hitler competition, outside its moral complications, was, at its core, about this geopolitics. Today, the  configurations are different - with America at the pinnacle of its power and Britain, unmoored from its imperial possessions, adrift in its identity and unsure of its friends - but still faced with the challenge of the land empires of Central Eurasia, Russia and China. A sensible reassessment of history, shorn of rhetoric, is an essential tool living in end times such as this, and Britain's historical myth-making, useful in the last half-century, has now outlived its significance.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Stayzilla Case: Should Start-Ups Be Treated Differently?

Stayzilla, an Indian start-up which offered homestays, like AirBnB, is in the news, for wrong reasons. That Stayzilla decided to down shutters would have made it to the trade press, and further, would have signalled to the start-up community that the age of easy investor money is well and truly over. However, the reason why Stayzilla is making national headlines though is because one of its founders has been arrested by the police, for unpaid bills to one of its vendors, and the big ticket start-up entrepreneurs have requested for intervention from the Central Government as this indicates 'India is no place for start-ups'. In the meantime, evidence emerged that the Stayzilla founders threatened the aggrieved vendors with 'dire consequences' if they pursue them and the Court has refused bail to the accused, creating a bigger furore. (See story here)

There are always many sides of stories such as these, and it is best not to hazard guesses about what really happened. However, there are two things which one can comment on, without regard to the different allegations that are flying around (that Stayzilla founders syphoned money out or the vendor in question is using its political muscle). These two questions relate to the wider significance of the story:

1. Some well-known names in Indian start-up community has argued that the non-payment of bills is a 'civil offence' and not a criminal one. The police should not have got involved in the first place. 

2. The Stayzilla episode may indicate India is no place for a start-up.

These are complex questions, but facts about these are rather clear. Stayzilla used an advertising service and ran up a $250,000 bill, which they did not pay. Then, Stayzilla announced that they are closing, but did not go into administration. This is indeed fraud, because, one would suspect that while Stayzilla were using advertising services, the managers and the investors were aware - even if they did not want to accept it - that Stayzilla is not making money. It would have been, one could say, trading insolvently. Now, 'closing the business' means the investors were positioning themselves for tax losses, but without regard to the suppliers' - who in this case is another equally entrepreneurial business, but without the glamour and glitz of VC money - unpaid bills. This could indeed be a criminal offence.

As for the second question, would India be considered a place for start-ups if the big and powerful start-ups - those with financial muscle - can operate with impunity and effectively defraud the entrepreneurial businesses that trade with them? In fact, India is not a place for start-ups precisely for this reason, that big and powerful have all the advantages, and the entrepreneurs have to face all the obstacles. Just imagine what would happen if a small business did not pay Stayzilla: An army of lawyers, police and even perhaps Ministers come knocking at its door. It is shameful that some of the Indian start-up founders are trying to meddle into this case, something that perhaps indicates, as the CEO of the advertising company suing Stayzilla has maintained, that they are afraid that their companies would be next. The Stayzilla case indeed point to growing problems in the space, but these CEOs, through their intervention that made this a headline news, have attracted undue attention to this issue.

The Stayzilla case may be an one-off, or a start of a trend that the private valuation bubble is bursting. However, whatever the consequence, one must not miss the bigger question that this case raises: Can Vc-funded start-ups operate outside the acceptable norms and rules of the society? For example, is it okay not to pay the suppliers, or its employees, as some Indian start-ups have done, when financial trouble hits? Most of these people have no upside - they are basically being arm-twisted in making sacrifices because the 'company is in trouble'. In an earlier age, this would have been the entrepreneur's responsibility. But now, after the shift of focus to 'shareholder value', the other stakeholders don't seem to matter. A company would happily ask everyone else to make sacrifices to keep the company going - which is essentially equivalent to trading insolvently - in order to protect the shareholders (the alternative would have been to issue low-priced shares, equivalent to the interest on delayed payment, to anyone who is being made to sacrifice). Once the Start-ups understand these obligations, and learn to behave responsibly towards others who make them possible, they would earn the right to talk about changing the world for better.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Remote Work: An Idea That Never Was

Remote Work was once the future. With falling costs of communication, cool technologies and devices that are increasingly capable, and a need for specialised talent that may not be geographically concentrated, there was a lot of reason why Remote Work was logical, not to mention traffic congestion, urban pollution and lifestyle. Every company was expected to go remote - sooner or later - and some of the world's largest and most progressive companies took lead.

But that is now past. This week, as IBM seems to be rolling back remote work and wanting to geographically concentrate at least some of its departments, it is no longer an isolated idiosyncrasy! There is a long line of precedences - the Marissa Mayer moment of banning telecommuting at Yahoo, the Atos moment of banning email at office and encouraging people to people conversation instead, the US Patent Office's jaw-dropping moment of realisation on how widespread the abuse of its WFH system was, and indeed, something that small businesses already figured out - working from home is often working for home! Remote work seems to be an idea whose time has come and gone, or actually, never came.

Why should it be so, when there is really so much going for remote work? That some people lack the discipline can not undermine a revolutionary idea, and it is not about people slacking off, as it may seem from stories above. It is more than that, and the failure of remote work points to the limitations of the other tech-utopias and an useful pointer on how not to get ahead of oneself. And, such a reality check would indeed do a world of good, not just in the world of business, but also in other areas, like education, where we imagine that these cool technologies of content and communication would make face-to-face meetings and conversations completely redundant.

It does no such thing. There are two limitations of Working from Home. First, technologies are not yet that good. Most people don't have access to dedicated Internet links and videoconferencing equipments, and is there anyone who wants to claim Skype works perfectly? The collaborative tools have certainly got smarter - I used Slack and Google Docs all the time - but they are not yet at the stage the technology gurus claim them to be. I use the best quality Fibre Optic broadband at home, but the connection falters at times, for whatever reason. I tend to think I need to upgrade my router, but even in that - that the router needs to be upgraded by the users themselves - there is a clue why WFH may not be as efficient as one would claim.

Second, the space and the environment. Even when you have a dedicated space at home to work - and that is not the Kitchen table as it is the case with many people - it may not be the most ideal space to do work. Microsoft's reason to pull back on remote work is just that - people do better work in an environment carefully designed for such work - and not that the employees were slacking. Remote work still remains the poor alternative.

I have worked remote for the last year or so. It was good timing, as the local train services in Southern London were blighted by strikes and disruptions throughout the year. In a way, I escaped the daily struggle that my friends, who had to travel to the city every day for work, had to do. And, yet, I feel so out of sorts now that I spent my own money to get access to one of the co-working spaces in the City and go up to work there at least couple of days a week. It makes no sense - it costs money and time - but I feel I am much more productive when I am in the environment of work. It is not just about my cramped workspace which is overflowing with too many books, or the temptation I feel for spending time with my son and make up for the lost time that I spent travelling over the years, but it is my desire to feel productive and engaged that makes me give up working from home. Indeed, I can't give up Remote Work even when I try - we have no offices in the UK - but as I look for new work, I am indeed looking for a local company where I can work with people.



Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Why Can't Indian Engineers Find A Job And What To Do About It?

We knew this anecdotally: That Engineering graduates can not find a job in India. Now, we have some numbers: AICTE says that 60% of the 800,000 engineering graduates every year remain unemployed. (see story)

The story above gives out some important data points: 

1. That only 15% of the programmes are accredited by the National Board of Accreditation. This means 85% of the Engineering Programmes have no effective quality control.

2. That only 1% of the Engineering Graduates participate in a summer internship. This effectively means that while, in theory, an internship is a part of the programme, in practise most Engineering graduates never participate in one.

Of course, one can read more in this data. The fact that programmes are not accredited means many colleges may be offering a degree without having proper laboratory infrastructure. In a sense, it is some sort of miracle - indicating strong demand - that 40% of the graduates actually find a job, because most would not have touched an equipment or stepped into a workfloor, ever.

In another sense, it is a tragedy. The government may be thinking of a National Entrance Examination for Engineering, but most, if not all, Engineering students go through some sort of entrance examination. Obviously, some of these entrance examinations are not worth anything, but the fact that they come through some sort of screening makes employers prefer Engineering graduates over graduates of other streams. This means two things. First, that tests mean more than the education itself. Second, the Engineering unemployment rate indicates an even worse scenario for about 1.2 million graduates of other streams every year.

Further, we should be expecting a slowdown in job growth rates in IT and IT Services industries in India. The cost competition is one reason, and many Indian IT firms have already started expanding into other lower cost locations, such as the Philippines and Africa. Besides, the visa reforms in United States and other countries may jeopardise the business models of India-based IT firms. But the biggest threat of all is automation, where bots and robots may soon start doing a lot of things that was done by a human agent, sitting in India, so far. This is very real: Some estimates put 70% of Indian jobs at risk; others expect this to stop the job numbers from growing. (See story)

Whether or not this turns out to be correct, one can clearly see that the salaries have already stagnated. TV Mohandas Pai, an Education business leader, acutely aware of the threat of automation, recently claimed that the Indian IT firms are colluding to keep the wages down for engineering graduates. (see story) There may be some truth in collusion, but it also shows that the business models that allowed these IT firms to grow exponentially are now in the need of repair.

And, indeed, there is another problem: Indian Higher Education is out of step with the Indian job market. The engineers got the fancy jobs in the 1990s, and therefore, the whole ecosystem emerged. But since the Great Recession of 2008, Indian economy was powered by its own consumer demand, particularly as successive governments boosted rural demand through fiscal interventions. The jobs that this creates - in Education, Retail, Banking and Insurance, Health and Telecom - are less attractive, and often comes with the prospect of living in small cities rather than in the United States. Consequently, more and more people continues to be drawn to Engineering and Western-style business courses, whereas the growing service sectors get scarce attention and only second-grade talent. 

There is no one solution to this big problem, but more of the same is not the answer. The government stepping in and instituting new tests will solve nothing: Indeed, as AICTE itself is arguing, its oversight for so many years have failed to create a system that works. Half a million unemployed engineers every year is a ticking time bomb, and blaming them for their own failure - coupled with the very Indian propensity to blame the stars - can keep things going for some time, but not forever. However, the sector is anti-innovation, primarily because the owners of Engineering colleges represent a powerful vested interest, and despite their failure, the Government can not take them on and open up the sector. However, a gigantic crisis is around the corner - and hopefully, some people will wake up before the others and do something about it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Kolkata 4.0: Creating A New Conversation

Calcutta needs a new start.

The city which I call home has earned a bad name, but its reputational problems have more to do with the politics of India than economic fundamentals.

The city, the second most populous in India after Mumbai, is the third largest city economy in India, presiding over a mostly prosperous agricultural economy and a strategic state. Yet, people don't tend to see it that way: India's geopolitical obsession with Pakistan and Kashmir keeps minds focused on its Western frontiers, and a succession of opposition party governments in West Bengal (the last time Congress ruled the state was in 1977) ensured that the state did not feature in the Central Government's list of priorities. But this is changing - there is increasing realisation of the geopolitical challenges and opportunities of the Indian East - and one would hope that this would bring about a change, if only gradual change, in Indian policy.

But any conversation about change must be rooted in reality, not the shallow mythology that gets passed on as common sense. A good place to start is the back story: One may indeed notice the closed factories and slums in Kolkata, but an appreciation of Calcutta's, and Bengal's, post-independence history should correct some of the distortions that gets floated about Bengali character and enterprise.
We must remember Kolkata had an industrial base once: This was one of the world's greatest Jute processing centres, which died a premature death when it was forcibly disconnected from its jute producing hinterlands of East Pakistan. East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, is one of the most fertile agricultural economies of the world, and while the country is hardly spoken about in India, it is one of the most populous in the world (just behind the usual suspects), with one of the highest agricultural productivities. One of the economic costs of partition was to yank Kolkata, which had an economy and a port closely linked to this hinterland, from its ecosystem. 

The other impact of partition was on Kolkata's population. Already a city with one of the highest population densities in the world, it was on the receiving end of the refugee crisis : In 1947, when Hindus left East Pakistan but Muslims felt safe and never left West Bengal in large numbers to offset the same. Unlike Delhi and Punjab, where a bloody population transfer actually happened, there was no land and houses left vacant by Muslims to swap with these new Hindu refugees. Partition, therefore, meant the creation of a new underclass in Kolkata: Radicalised and destitute, the new migrants would change the city forever. 

Independence and its economic shocks also meant a flight of the professional class. Kolkata's elite, educated and europeanised, was not land-based, unlike some other parts of the country (and those who were, lost their estates in partition) and a great wave of migration followed through in the 50s and 60s. The new democratic West Bengal, with its radical left - which was there because of the industrial development and whose ranks swelled with the new migrants and jobless workers - scared the Bengali 'gentlemanly capitalists', who promptly sent their sons and daughters away to Europe and America. There was internal migration too: The mobile technocrats moved from Kolkata nearer to the centres of power and commerce in Modern India.

This is old history, but a conversation about Kolkata should start there. It is a convenient myth that West Bengal's, and Kolkata's, decline started in 1977, as the Communists took power and 'work culture collapsed'. This is indeed based on the implausible claim that all was well when Congress, the political party which ruled India most of its first 50 years, was in power. Yet, anyone in Kolkata would remember late 60s and 70s as a period of strife and decline, radical movements and police brutalities, and lawlessness on the street. Besides, it is just the Communist rule that blighted West Bengal and brought about Kolkata's decline does not explain why Communists kept winning elections for next 34 years, and why, when they finally lost power in 2011, nothing really changed. A more realistic assessment of Kolkata's decline, dating it back to the economic shocks of the partition - which Eastern Indian states disproportionately bore - is a good starting point. It allows one to go beyond the myth of the Bengali character (which does not hold up as Bengalis do just as well or as badly as any other communities) and look at the key economic issues - an unredeemed economic shock, a demographic and political transformation, flight of the professional class and destruction of an ecosystem - to understand the issue of Kolkata's decline.

One does not need to stop at the economic and social impacts of the partition, though. The last seventy years have transformed Kolkata from an industrial city to a commodity economy, with the resultant changes in politics, culture and ideas. This is part policy - the city sits near one of the most mineral-rich areas of the world and serves as its main trading point - but partly this happened by default, creating new power structures and political priorities that work against any possibility of change. This is partly the reason Kolkata changed slowly, despite its good education system, young population and successful diaspora, to the growth of the global outsourcing industry in the 1980s and 90s, and missed the bus completely as new clusters emerged in Bangalore, Hyderabad and even in once-sleepy Bhubaneswar (as well as many other Indian cities).

A second wave of refugees, from East Pakistan in 1971, duly arrived, brutalised by the Pakistani Army as it battled to undermine the nascent Bengali nationalism: Kolkata and its Bengalis were naturally sympathetic, but this imposed an economic cost; the Indian Government was delighted about the military opportunity and duly helped dismember Pakistan, but never really assessed the economic costs and provided appropriate economic support to the areas, in Bengal and Northeastern States, which had to take on those who came. This fed to resentment, which became the dominant theme of Bengali politics ever since, justifiably but self-destructively. 

This is what we want to reverse now, and create a new conversation. I talk here of the past, but not to mourn, resent or justify it, but to use it as a perspective - both to understand why the City is where it is today, and how possibly it can reinvent itself. This conversation starts with an acknowledgement: This is Kolkata's 'Ask Not' moment. For far too long, Kolkata's citizens looked to their government, a carefully cultivated colonial era habit, for development: It is important now to change the conversation and build self-sustaining ecosystems of innovation and development. Kolkata should draw its inspiration from all those Western cities, which were reduced to industrial wastelands because of globalisation but since reinvented themselves: Dresden, Eindhoven, Pittsburg and now Manchester come to mind.

These cities offer valuable lessons: Their regeneration was privately led, supported by the government, no doubt, but built around ecosystems of private enterprise. Also, they did not seek to compete with established industrial centres in their geography, but sought to leverage the new developments in technologies and ideas and created new ecosystems. It may be very difficult for Kolkata to compete with a city like, say, Bangalore, because of the latter's track record and ecosystem of IT Service companies; however, focusing on different industries and newer ideas may allow Kolkata to create a different niche for itself.

We are calling the initiative Kolkata 4.0. The 4.0 bit is indeed an allusion to the currently fashionable Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is about new industries and conversations. Exploring these possibilities and enabling these conversations is the objective of the Civil Society organisation that we are setting up now, with HQ in Kolkata (obviously) but networks in different cities. And, perhaps appropriately, Kolkata 4.0 would do four different things: First, it would create an apolitical platform for expatriates to connect with Kolkata's educational institutions and companies; Second, it would work on creating awareness about the strategic importance of Kolkata in particular and Bengal in general; Third, it would work with the government of West Bengal and Kolkata's civic administration and industrial promotion bodies to engage effectively with expats and potential global partners; and finally, it would create networks of positive engagement in different global cities to draw people into a conversation about economic opportunities and realities of the city economy. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Globalization and Anti-Globalization

It is common to hear - Globalization is not working for everyone! The Right says it, and believes that closed societies with open economies is the answer; the Left says it too, though they believe that the solution lies in closed economies with an open society. The Left says that the Right is xenophobic, and the Right says that the Left is living in cuckooland! And, the Right-of-the-Right and the Left-of-the-Left steal the wind from the sails of their clueless moderates, claiming, in consensus, that globalization is the problem, erasing the right-left divide into a new politics of For and Against Globalization.

At least in theory, global trade is good: It should keep the wars away. Stopping trade is the first rumbling of the war, the moment when the possible booty of extraction seems bigger than benefits of exchange. And, this is not just about flows of goods and money: Flow of people too, since when people started to matter in politics, is important in reducing conflicts. Once you have a Muslim friend, Islam stops being a cartoon in Charlie Hebdo; Mormon colleagues dispel the myths that surround that religion. George W Bush's point that democracies don't wage war on one another was empirically weak, but democracies which trade with one another surely have the least incentive to bomb one another.

However, this discussion misses one important thing: Globalization is not only about global trade. It has become, at least since the 1970s, a way of generating and recycling global surpluses in a specific way. This is perhaps the greatest innovation of capitalism in the last forty years, an unsung one and quite deliberately so. This is an elaborate conjuring trick - originating in the immediate aftermath of Nixon's abandonment of the gold convertibility - built around an US economy that recycles everyone else's surpluses (as was advised by Pat Volcker to Nixon). 

This system has become omnipresent and all-too-powerful today, with all the big economies in India and China joining the system. This is what globalization really is: Global flow of Capital and surpluses! This is how it works: Each country has its own rich and powerful, who are extracting its surpluses, and putting it into the global flow, into dollar accounts and sterling bonds. All this surplus is flowing into the rich economies of North America and Europe, in the form of a subsidy to its voters' cheap mortgages and high house prices, as its currencies and assets are seen to be secure (until the moments they are not - as crisis wipes away all the surplus from time to time, as it was in 2008). This is why today the inequality between the countries are reducing - the rich is getting richer and having a greater proportion of the wealth in every country - whereas the inequality inside the countries, between those who toil to produce value and those who extract the surplus, are increasing. Globalization, in its current form, is this elaborate system of recycling of global surplus.

What is surprising is that this is now creating a new politics, in the developed nations and in the developing, but the direction of these developments are mutually opposed. 

People in the developing countries, with expanding education and converging ideas of good life, want more of this: They want to willingly sacrifice more of their time, brain and energy to be pliant accomplices of global capital, wanting more of cheap loans, polluted air and longer hours slaved away- more globalization, not less! They want to vote for politicians who promise them these, and laugh at those who talk about outdated concepts such as rights of the poor or environmental protection.

People in the developed countries, on the other hand, standing over the ruins of the welfare state bought about by a muscular financial services sector who wants to replace public handouts with cheaper loans, want less of this: They are revolting against their own bankers and the poodle politicians and bureaucrats beholden to lobbyists, blaming globalization - justifiably but counter-intuitively, for their indebted lives, poorer health and broken families. They are voting for those politicians agitating for a new hot war that would replace the subtleties of surplus recycling with the assertiveness of conflict and conquest, wanting more globalization of a disappearing kind.

All politics around globalization then are based around the politics of inequality. The globalizers want a global poor and a global rich, a smooth system of capital flows where the power resides in those who direct these flows. The anti-globalizers, so called, want more inequality between the countries, and want to pursue the old politics of gunboat diplomacy, an extractive system that leaves enough to bribe their public and yet boost their profit. It is only a disagreement about means, not the end.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Career Indulgences and Getting Real

I am sure 'career indulgences' appears an oxymoron, there can't be such a thing!

But in my quest to do things I love, and also to work with people I like, I have created, at least, the possibility.

At this time, a penny-dropping moment of sorts, I am reflecting when I started indulging in dreams! And, indeed, there are many forkways to look back at, like these:

1. Walking out a secure job and an impending promotion, I jumped on the dotcom boat in 1998: Not many people around me were doing that at the time and I had no idea how to deal with investors and their contracts. 

2. A couple of years later, when the enterprise became boring and investors became bosses, I pursued my dreams of adventure - going to a country in the middle of political turmoil and business decline - and lived through bomb threats, general strikes and all that. 

3. When all that was sorted out and I had won, four years later, I gave up yet another promotion and promises of a predictable life to become adventurer again, landing up in the UK without a job in hand. 

4. Several years on, I got a foothold in the UK, with a decent job, a good boss and relationships and networks in the e-learning industry, and yet, I left to pursue a global network of training and recruitment centres, with an objective of turning English language from one of privilege to that of possibility.

5. Four years of incessant travel, and I wanted to combine the e-learning expertise with my global networks, and build a new kind of competency-based education delivered through learning technology. But instead of starting up, I went and joined a private college in London, large but facing an existential crisis at that time, with a plan to re-engineer the business model.

6. Three years later, I managed to save the college and help them sell to a new owner, but instead of going with it and working for new bosses, I decided to finally start-up, boot-strapping and living precariously, exploring the same dream of creating a global network.

7. Finally, after two years of living on overdrafts and credit cards, I decided to let one of our Chinese partners to take over the students and deliver remote education that we planned. Perhaps I was being too cautious: Perhaps we could have lived on the student money and save the business. But we felt that taking on students for two years is too big a risk, and did not want to gamble on getting future students to continue providing services. So, I took on a job - one with similar objectives, but diminished scope - in which I lived for the last three years.

One could call it stupidity - or, stupidities, if you prefer - or one could it adventure. One could label them career suicide - one can't possibly have multiple suicides - or one could call them enterprises. One could see indulgences, or one could hide all that behind serial something (being something serially has become more respectable: Newspapers talk more about serial entrepreneurs than serial killers these days). But one thing for sure: This is not the usual path of a fixed career that people usually pursue, with variable goals. I chose a fixed goal and had multiple careers trying to achieve the same. 

Yes, my invocation of Edison there may be a little weak, at least till I figured out which are ways of not doing it. I did understand some of my mistakes along the way. Some of these mistakes are shared sins, jumping in to Dotcom bandwagon, reading too much Red Herring magazine etc, far too common at the time. Yet others were very specific to my circumstances - trying to start out in 90s Calcutta, which was no silicon valley, and expecting all investors to be Vinod Khoslas - which I have understood and tried hard to change. But, there are some other mistakes which I have done along the way, appreciation of which, I believe, would help me get real. In particular, I can think of three 'signature mistakes' which I committed more than once, and these are worth mentioning as they may be easily avoidable:
1. Optimism: Optimism is one of those things: Can't live without it, and with it. Any project that I love, I am attached with it: By definition, I believe it can work. That belief is essential to make me commit to it, and without that commitment, it doesn't work. But optimism has lead me down the garden path at times. One of my mentors used to say, 'Hope is not a strategy', and I have failed to follow this sound advice at times.

2. Attachment: This is somewhat like optimism, but these are with people. It may not be obvious from my short stints at work, but I do get attached to people and form long friendships. I often say with pride that most people I have worked with in the past would work with me again. And, often, my descriptions about colleagues at work start with - I like him - which is not what one would usually talk about in work terms. Not that I regret this style or want to abandon this; but this is another thing that has led me down the garden path at times. I stayed when I should have left, and sometimes spent inordinate time in the futile quest of being a responsible leaver. I ignored the sound advice, from the same mentor I quote above, that once you have made your mind up to leave, it is best to focus on the next thing. I often spent time worrying about the relationships.

3. Desirability of Change: A few times, I assumed that since an organisation is in trouble, they would want to change. It seems optimism is my original sin, but this is still slightly different as this may seem like plain business logic. But change is never easy, whatever the management consultants say. And, indeed, change is even harder from inside. People in organisations are always living their past lives in an infinite loop, because if you are not clinging to the past, you would be outside the organisation which is on the wrong path. And, hence, even if the need for change is obvious, no one really wants to change. In fact, as I have now figured out, if an organisation needs changing, by definition the people in that organisation hate changing.

Indeed, all the three mistakes I cite above are double-edged problems. How does one do anything worthwhile without optimism? Or without connecting with people, or believing in change? This is indeed my get-real part, as I attempt to look to future with fresh eyes. My get-real strategy is based on three principles, corresponding to the three 'weaknesses' that I describe above:

1. Details As Deliverance: How to guard against this natural optimism that makes my world go around? I have met enough people in life, as you will expect, who would advise me to be cautious, even pessimistic: But those are people who never tried anything themselves and wheeled away their life in doing other people's bidding. To be real, the guard against optimism is not pessimism, but Details: I have learnt along the way to focus on the details. This allows me to go beyond the sentiments - both optimism and pessimism!

2. People are different from Organisations: Personal relationships are not the same as loyalty to doomed enterprises. Say I like someone I work with, and would rather help the person achieve their objective. However, supporting that person when I know it is not sustainable for him or for me is actually about postponing an inevitable rupture, a failure. I know walking away from an organisation is often seen as disloyalty to people involved, but it is not the same. I, in fact, know this, as I count among my dear friends people I have worked with in the past, and people who I have worked for, and that walking away hasn't destroyed the relationship. In fact, the only people I have struggled to maintain relationships with are those who I worked with well past the time I should have, confusing my personal loyalties with organisational ones.

3. A Different Change: I had given up, irreversibly, my earlier ideas - very Indian ones, I admit - that gradual change in organisations is possible. I have now come around to the view - more American, I suppose - that change has to be quick and decisive. While I don't support President Trump's politics, I can see why he attempted to make such a decisive break with earlier administration. I used to be dismissive with the 'First 90 days' kind of thing: I don't do it anymore. There is no comfortable change: All change is painful. As I look to future, I don't want to take on any enterprise where I don't have the mandate to do a fresh start, and build again. Or, even better, build fresh!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The British Ruling Classes and Their 20th Century History

Dr Liam Fox, the smooth talking Tory Secretary of International Trade, apparently tweeted, and then denied he 'tweeted', that "the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history".

To be fair, Dr Fox may not know what a 'tweet' is, and this is the work of an excited, unnamed social media intern. His claim that The Guardian twisted his words from an old speech, where he was talking about UK and EU, in a TV interview while the tweet itself was displayed on the screen.

However, there may be a method in this madness. The Tory politics is decidedly one of inauthenticity. Following some 20th Century masters of propaganda, like Joseph Goebbels (I am avoiding the H word) and Benito Mussolini, the strategy is to state an 'alternative fact' to energise the base, and then make all sorts of confusing noises in clarification, so that the whole discussion soon becomes meaningless. This is somewhat like Donald Trump, but not necessarily so, as Mr Trump and his team are usually blissfully ignorant of the alternative - the facts - and therefore, can stick to their version without confusion.

The Guardian offered to educate Dr Fox -  with a  list from the British 20th Century history - though this only contains the most obviously vile ones, and overlooks, for example, the British complicity in Greek-Turkish War and massacres and counter-massacres in Anatolia, or Munich 1938 and the surrender of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. However, one could expect a Brit to repeat history not through ignorance, but indifference, and apart from its politics, Dr Fox's tweets and subsequent tardiness only illustrate the special relationship between the British ruling classes and their 20th Century history.

I think the distinction I make here - British Ruling Classes as opposed to Dr Fox's 'The British - is an important one. Indeed, the British, a whole nation made of various diverse people, has nothing to apologise for, but that would apply to the Germans, the French, the Russians and every other nation. But the ruling classes, unless a clean break has been made, either through a revolution or atonement, carry the responsibility, because they enjoy the benefits of the past misdeeds.

The son of a thief may not go to jail for his parent's misdeeds, but when he enjoys the inheritance and celebrates his parent's enterprise, it becomes morally reprehensible. Mr Fox may not see it that way, but his tweet does exactly that: It celebrates the British Colonial History, and at the same time, tells that others may need to be apologetic about their history. Yes, indeed, Germans, Russians, Americans and everyone else may have a lot to apologise for, but the British may be in no position to claim the high ground.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why India Needs A New Higher Education

India is in the middle of a great transformation, driven by the aspirations of its young people.

This transformation is apparent to any visitor in India, primarily through its business parks and the towering apartment blocks, its new roads and its omnipresent media, the confidence of its leaders and its street vibe. India, the collective claims, is the country of the future.

And, this focus on the future is playing out in its education system. The country has affected an unprecedented expansion of its education system - unprecedented for India, though following the example of and in a smaller scale than China - particularly in Higher and Vocational education. This is the most exciting part of the transformation:  new education in India is built to create a whole new India, a fresh new future.

This educational transformation, however, needs a new imagination. India's future is unlikely to be like India's past, and even recent past, all those Call Centres and IT Hubs, is unlikely to be the template for this future. The world has changed - since 2008, but even more rapidly off late - and being world's back-office is already an outdated aspiration. But, more crucially, India has moved on - its young people are emboldened to dream new dreams and are not content to accept a second rung role in the world! It may be that the earlier generations, the current generations of parents, are still recovering, from the experience of precarious India of the 80s and 90s; they are still hankering after a little security and a promise, now increasingly illusory, of a stable job and career. But this is not the reality, and the future, for the current generation of students.

India's educational transformation, so far, has been doing more of the same old thing. The expansion came in the form of inflating of two bubbles - that of business school and engineering education - at the cost everything else. It did not matter that only a quarter of the students in these supposedly vocationally focused streams got jobs: The rest had to join the Great Indian Enterprise Show like everyone else from all other streams of life! Regardless of all this, the educational conversations in India, wholly and singularly, revolved around the Engineering and Business school entrance examinations, and the stunted experiences that follow.

But the times are changing: Jobs are changing, Indian economy is changing and aspirations are changing. The process jobs, which the Engineering schools prepared for, are disappearing, giving in to the robots and software bots who are nimbler, cheaper and local. Indian economy, at least those of the cities, are hurtling towards the middle income trap, where its cost advantages disappear and skills differentials start hurting. And, the Internet communication, satellite television and foreign travel and non-resident relatives and friends are opening the horizons for Indian students, wanting to do more than just grunt work for the Western companies. Yes, it is that moment when the wonderful Hindi-English expression 'Yeh Dil Mange More' - this heart wants more - sounds perfectly apt.

There are already some efforts - like the Ashoka University's efforts to create a Liberal Arts educated intelligentsia, or Indian business schools opening campuses in Singapore and Dubai to create more innovative programmes potentially incorporating foreign partnerships (ostensibly to avoid India's misguided regulatory controls on foreign education) - but the innovation has not still reached out to everyman. However, I shall claim, that this paradigm - that it is only the very rich who cares about innovation and new types of educational option - is misguided, and informed by the same-old thinking of an hierarchical India of ideas. The demand for new, innovative, world-class education is much more widespread - it is no longer a luxury but an economic necessity - and its supply is likely to create its own demand.

So, time to go beyond the Engineering and Business School bubbles. Indeed, technical education is not going to go away, and India needs more science education, not less. But it needs to be placed in a different context. In fact, this is the key reason why we need a different kind of Higher Education: Because the context has changed.

Most Higher Education in India today are designed around one of three models of thinking.

First, there is an ecosystem of State universities, state-supported or Church-administered private institutions, a legacy of the British India. These institutions are designed to educate civil servants, evolving from but still loosely based around the colonial ideas and models of education: patriarchal, patronising and aimed at professions. This context is passé, but the institutional form proved durable, propped up by the Indian preference of continuity over disruption.

Second, there is an overlapping ecosystem of Central technical institutions, funded by the federal rather than state governments, built around educating technocrats to occupy the 'commanding heights of the economy': A hangover from India's aspirations to build a planned economy. Indeed, this experiment has failed and the system has become a conduit of taxpayer funded brain-drain. But these institutions remain at the core of India's educational imagination - every kid aspire to get in for an easy access to America - though the Indian state has irretrievably changed.

And, finally, this system is supplemented by more recent additions of a large number of private, state-sanctioned, technical institutions, tied closely with the expansion of global service economy in India, since the 1980s. This is a third layer, still influenced by the previous models but without the aspirations of the second wave, still closely tied to Western ideas of development.

This is indeed an approximation, and admittedly, I have excluded notable examples of private charities, research institutions and institutions set up in reaction to the colonial mind control, such as the Benaras Hindu University, Annamalai University, Jadavpur University or Viswabharati University. These are all important institutions, though they are more exceptions than rules, and indeed, the institutions set up in protest of the colonial paradigm were subsumed by the planned economy paradigm that came after independence. Their existence do not invalidate the point I am trying to make: That for the last two centuries, Indian Higher Education has evolved around a futile quest to shape its mind around the West. In fact, those experiments prove my point: That education reformers since the late nineteenth century tried to contextualise Indian education to India, and tried to break the servile relationships of the colonial mind.

However, my case for reforming Indian Higher Education and making a new start is not based on, as is fashionable in some quarters in India now, a quest for a new Gurukul, a fantastical quest for an 'Indian' system. I do not believe that going back to the past is possible, and profitable. I am rather arguing for an education system grounded to the realities of the present and future time, in alignment with India's economic imperatives and social and political priorities, something that would enable a new generation of Indians think differently about their place in the world, rather than bolt the door in the quest of a misplaced security in disengagement.

In this, my suggestion is to use Asia as a context. This is not about Asia that is seen through the Western eyes, an exotic oriental geography, but about using what some Chinese theorists would call 'Asia as a method': A recognition of India's essential Asianness, and exploring and defining what this means for a way of looking at the world. This is about discovering our past affinities and relationships with neighbourly countries and cultures, and re-imagination of coexistence and cooperation as a framework, rather than the competition and survival-of-the-fittest paradigm that we have come to accept. This would be about studying Asia, and India in it, rather than trying to build around India as an unique, and exceptionalist, entity, European-style. And, indeed, to realise India's economic future within Asia! 

I believe such re-framing is needed at a time when Indian Higher Education is expanding in a rapid pace. Currently, it is spreading the ideas of subservience - those who do not speak English are deemed unsmart, those who do not support an English football club or not seen a Hollywood movie (or its rip-offs in Hindi) are outcast - and creating, just as the Colonial education system once did, a social chasm and an economic dependence. Reconstituting a new context - one that is more in alignment with Indian past, its multicultural tradition of intermingling with Arabs and the Mongolians are deliberately played down - would make education more Indian again.



Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Hinduvta Hegemony

Today's election results in five Indian states may or may not be noticed by the world media, but they are, in a way, no less significant than the Brexit vote or Trump's victory in November. These election results indicate a shift in politics of a major country, which India is, with its huge population, growing economy, large military and preeminence among the G20. And, while the 2014 election win of the Bharatiya Janata Party (hereafter, BJP) and Narendra Modi becoming India's Prime Minister was more momentous and newsworthy than these elections, they still complete and confirm the process of change that was underway since.

Admittedly, the results of these elections are mixed. Of the five states that went into poll, Indian National Congress (INC) and BJP, with their respective allies, controlled two states each, and another, the biggest one, was ruled by a large, caste-based, regional party, the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party, or SP). The BJP has now gained two states and lost two, while Congress has got back to power in Punjab, a surprise and a state won back from BJP and its allies, and emerged as the largest party in two other states but slightly short of majority. It has lost badly in Uttarakhand, which it ruled for many years and where it was crippled by defection. However, all of these almost do not matter as Congress has lost, and lost badly, to BJP in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where it was a minnow and was never going to win, because this is India's most populous state, with lots of seats in the two chambers of Indian parliament. And, this is what matters.

In a way, Congress should even be celebrating, because, after today, they may have got some footing as India's main opposition party. In a sad narrative of decline, even the number two position was in question, with the rise of various local parties. That Congress could win the elections in Punjab, a northern state where most people are Sikhs, in Goa, a Southern state where most people are Christians, and in Manipur, in the far corner of North-eastern India with a large tribal population, gives it a preeminence over the other local parties with a narrow agenda. But, sadly for Congress, this is not the story anyone would notice: It is the UP, a state where it was always going to lose, would dominate the conversation.

And, rightly so. UP,  being the most populous, sends most parliamentarians, and BJP win there would mean an eventual shift of balance in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, where BJP still does not have a majority. This would, eventually, give Mr Modi an unprecedented advantage: No Prime Minister, since the end of Congress Hegemony in Indian politics in 1989, enjoyed majorities in both houses of Parliament. And, these majorities would be big enough even to bring in Constitutional change. In short, the UP victory finally seals a Hinduvta Hegemony in India.

There are some Facebook lamentations about the end of Liberal India. I am not sure how far the INC can be called Liberal, and how far, given their chronic inability to look beyond the predominance of one family, they should be seen even as a normal political party. Whatever it seemed from outside, the UP election was fought along the caste and religious lines. Congress was never going to win: Their only contribution in the result was to enter in an ill-advised alliance that allowed a consolidation of upper caste Hindu vote, making the defeat looks grimmer. Liberalism was not on the ballot, and therefore, its death should not be mourned.

In fact, BJP under Mr Modi is classic neo-Liberal, and should be seen as that. Socially conservative and business friendly, it is a party that represents the interests of big business in India. It has found, in Mr Modi, a figure to rally around, and it has triumphed, with a clear message aimed at Indian middle classes: Development! Despite the mishmash of results, the biggest story is the rise of 'Hindu vote': This was the tactic Mr Modi successfully followed in 2014, and now he has done it again. 

Indeed, BJP has not invented the Caste and Religious voting block idea - that distinction belongs to Congress and regional parties like SP - but it has become its most successful practitioner, particularly by turning the (high) caste Hindus into a voting block. The Caste Hindus are numerous - though they are not the majority of the population - and they are disproportionately represented in education, employment, policy making and professions in India. They have, like professional classes, always had divided loyalties, whereas the other castes, and religious minorities, often voted en bloc. Mr Modi's two-tone politics - a public message of development supplemented by religious zealotry of his followers, which he rarely censors - successfully outflanked the parties dependent on caste or minority voting blocks, by uniting the Educated Hindus interested in 'development at any cost' with their less tolerant coreligionists, interested in a different agenda. The Congress, still out of favour with educated Indians for the corruption and incompetence of their administration (2004 - 2014), is completely out of sorts in a country of young strivers as they stick to dynastic privileges, and it has no answers to this Hinduvta Hegemony.

I am indeed no admirer of Mr Modi, but I recognise that public memory is fickle and moral objections are quaint. While I feared for the Indian Republic when Mr Modi got elected in 2014, such fears do not resonate with the voting public, who have more urgent, and more material, concerns. Besides, the consistent lack of political sense in Congress, and their slavish devotion to the family, makes them a lost cause, at least at the present moment. In a world where Mr Trump is the President of United States, and Marine Le Pen gets a serious consideration, Mr Modi is no anomaly, and indeed, a politician of merit in comparison. However, the current political setting in India should make people like me reconsider their position in one important way: Our key assumption that India is secular socialist democratic republic facing a challenge from Hindu nationalism is outdated, and it is time to think of Indian politics as one of hegemonic Hindu democracy, and reframe political ideas and conversations around the same.



Popular Posts

How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

Creative Commons License