Sunday, May 15, 2016

Many Homes, Many Wonders

Flipping through my passport recently, I came across the first stamp on it – New York, August 24, 2004. Ten years of my life had zipped by in the USA. One-seventh of an average human’s life expectancy. Since I had subsisted on a student diet of pizza and ramen noodles for much of those ten years, you might reasonably argue that ten years was a much bigger chunk of MY life expectancy. In any case, I digress. A decade is a sizable increment of time to immerse in any society, allow it to wash over you and emerge scrubbed clean of your old prejudices in some areas and entangled with the weeds of new ideas and debates in others. It also allows you to dispense sage advice and write introspective essays without coming off as too full of yourself.

In August 2004, I came to a New England liberal arts college as a foreign student from India, immaculately dressed and carrying travelers checks in a secret inner vest pocket, with little clue about New England people or its winters. When greeted by the customary “How are you?” or “What’s up?”, I often launched into an existential soliloquy, only to be met by a polite but nonplussed “Ah, ok” at best, or people walking off at worst. Comparing this casual acknowledgment of strangers to the cultivated indifference in bustling public spaces in urban India, I realized that the latter was a function of a much higher density of people. This theory was confirmed in my first visit to Manhattan, where no one cared how I was as long as I didn’t stand around, gawking at skyscrapers and obstructing their path of least resistance on the sidewalk.

When I did get past the initial greetings, I was struck by the uniquely American notion of a private bubble. Standing in a queue might be a cherished British institution; standing in a line with five feet of space between one person and the next in is decidedly American. I became so accustomed to giving people their space in cafeterias lines, when I went to a supermarket in my hometown, three people shoved their carts in front of me thinking I was still grocery shopping. My father, clearly exasperated, shook his head and sighed, “Son, you’ve lost the competitive spirit”. He had reason to express similar sentiments the next time I was driving, often letting people cut in while I was intent on following rules and norms that outlived their usefulness in the Indian context. Today, when I look back at these experiences as a student of economics, I understand that the rule-bound driving in the US and apparently lawless driving in India are both equilibrium outcomes, with drivers responding optimally to their enforcement environments. Indeed, driving with the US code increases your chances of being in an accident in India, given that others don’t change their behavior!

As I transitioned from my undergraduate experience in New England to a master’s program in Chicago, I began to recognize the variation in culture, society and weather within the US, fine-tuning the instinctive reflex to compare it to India. Living in South Side Chicago, I began to appreciate the stark spatial and visual differences in neighborhoods across that immense and spectacular city. Chicago, perhaps because of its long and brutal winter, invited its residents to experience its downtown in magnificent public parks, fountains, lakeside trails and sidewalk seating restaurants. Just a few miles away, South Side Chicago remained an industrial wasteland with large, barren tracts of vacant lots and unoccupied buildings, foreshadowing what I came to observe in Detroit later. To my Indian eye, empty neighborhoods and a shrinking big city made no sense. In India and much of the developing world, the metropolitan perimeter is forever expanding, with rural migrants living on the fringes of the city and its laws, yet being completely visible by supplying their labor in the homes, offices and streets of cities.

Coming from Chicago to East Lansing, I experienced discontinuities in both my formal and informal education, i.e. American sports. On one hand, I transitioned from being a consumer to producer of knowledge and have now covered the spectrum of higher education from a small liberal arts college to a medium-sized private institution to a large research based public university. On the other hand, I went from a school which was the national champion in squash (many Midwesterners have asked me how a winter pumpkin can be played) to a school with no football team, to MSU, with its near fanatical fervor for Spartan football and basketball. After many years of avoiding anything to do with American football which contrasted wildly with genteel, no contact cricket, my first love, I cheered myself hoarse at the 2011 Wisconsin game which MSU won with a Hail Mary pass – my life had changed forever. When I found myself explaining what a tailgate is to new international students this year, I realized how ingrained MSU’s sporting culture had become for me.

While East Lansing is where I have immersed myself in research and college sport, it is also the place where I have met some of my closest friends and the love of my life, my wife Meenakshi, also a graduate student. We can never be too grateful to the friends who introduced us, acted as our support systems and literally connected us, driving us on snowy days when waiting for the CATA bus was not an attractive proposition. Recently, we were married in a backyard ceremony officiated by my first East Lansing roommate, surrounded by friends, colleagues and advisers who have been nothing but kind and generous to us.

When I reflect upon the last ten years, I’m often stumped by the idea of home. I was born in a small, steel making town with a population of about a million – yes that is a small town in India.  I’ve made many cities my home after that and they compete for the loyalties of my heart. Yet, East Lansing and Michigan State will remain a special home for me as this is where I have spent the most amount of time outside my hometown, this is where I found my partner and this is where my formal education will end. When I do leave, this place will still remain with me. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak ho, Egypt!

February 11 should forever be known as Egypt Day. The brave, ingenuous and resilient people of Egypt have overthrown a 30 year old dictatorship after nearly three weeks of sustained and creative protest. Some have contrasted this day with another February 11 (1979), when the Islamic Revolution in Iran was completed. Others have drawn parallels with February 11, 1992, when Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island after 27 years. While future events will dictate how history judges Egypt's transformation, today is for celebration.

On that note, check out my Chicago Policy Review interview of Farah Barqawi, a friend and classmate, who studied in Cairo as an undergraduate, and covered the region as a journalist at Arabian Business. Since the interview was conducted a week ago, much has been obviously been overtaken by events. Yet, it is a record of a crucial moment in the last two weeks - when Mubarak indicated he would step down in September and his son would not succeed him. It is a testament to Egyptians' resilience that they did not let this cosmetic concession split the movement and came back harder, to ultimately dislodge him.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

(Some of) The Things I Didn't Blog About in 2010...But Should Have

There are clear benefits to blogging about events long after they occur. While I've love to claim this was deliberate strategy on my part to to offer some kind of meta-analysis, the truth is I was just a bit lazy with my posts. In any case, these were thoughts I shared with friends on email discussions, so I figured I might as well given them their due in this extended post.

And oh, Happy New Year!

Bihar Elections: Nitish Kumar led JD(U)-BJP coalition swept 206 out of 243 seats, the biggest margin of victory in a state often described as "lawless" and "ungovernable", but now basking in the glory of 11% economic growth.

1) As we all know, business likes certainty and hates risk. Such a decisive margin means that new entrants into the state know they don't have to funnel money towards political actors of different stripes to hedge against political risk. Make no mistake, there is still plenty of administrative red tape which kept 398 investment proposals from getting off the ground during the previous Nitish regime. Yet, this outcome, combined with the Nitish regime's strong record on law and order makes it more likely that new businesses will come into the state.

As an aside, the MoU of the year might be between Vijay Mallya owned United Breweries and Bihar, to produce wine from Muzaffarpur’s litchis. That is one wine I’m looking forward to!

2) On caste, I think this hails a second generation of caste-based politics, where it is not sufficient any longer to cobble together a caste coalition for the purpose of winning elections. The notion that Nitish had to resort to a broad development agenda because he hails from a demographically small caste does not have much evidence to back it up. As an old socialist, Nitish’s commitment to progressive policies predates the caste-driven electoral politics that started dominating Bihar in the late 1980s.

Even if his ideological leanings are discounted, it was sound politics, independent of caste calculations, for Nitish to emphasize development (building 6,800 km of roads, hiring teachers for rural schools, etc) simply to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Lalu, who while being one of the shrewdest political brains in India, presided over a destruction of the state infrastructure and government machinery.

Andhra Pradesh Microfinance Crisis: Responding to reports of microloan induced suicides, the AP government introduced an ordinance (now law) regulating interest rates on loans. Also, local politicians urged borrowers to stop making payments, nearly leading to a collapse of the microfinance industry in the state.

1) For a long time, light regulation has been necessary in the industry. While the AP regulations are pretty strange (no security be taken for loans…last I checked, no requirement of collateral was the USP of microfinance) and don’t achieve their rationale (interest capped at the size of principal amount…current interest rates are 20-30%, placing even atypical loans with 3 year repayment periods within the proposed cap), the need for an oversight body which enforces client protection, governance and portfolio management standards, cannot be denied.

2) India is not Andhra Pradesh. Even if the MFI industry is concentrated there. And even if the NYT calls the AP crisis a collapse of Indian microcredit. If anything, there is tremendous opportunity for growth in microfinance in other states but banks and MFIs have been geographically limited because of agglomeration effects and AP’s good governance. This crisis, and the resultant legislation, might have the unintended consequence of spreading MFIs to other states, a good outcome in the long run.


Where do I even begin with this one? I'll say this much - I think secrecy has its benefits in the short-term. I have sat in off-the-record meetings with Chatham House rules and they are useful in that they allow public figures to thrash out ideas (good and bad) without defending each of them publicly. Diplomacy or indeed any policymaking requires the sort of college dorm kind of freedom which generates a proper debate before a policy is agreed upon.

But I would distinguish this defense of secrecy from secrecy around events in a conflict/insurgency/war. Wikileaks’ exposes of American soldiers’ callousness during Iraq war, the Afghan war logs and human rights violations in Kashmir are acceptable, indeed necessary, because they (could) force course corrections and policy changes for states, which are particularly prone to excesses. Importantly, these excesses have real, tangible consequences on human lives – I’m not so sure about the diploleaks, which only serve to embarrass people for expressing views on record which have been accounted for in the policy making process anyway.

Monday, August 09, 2010

A Newbie Surveyor’s Guide to Rural India

Its been a whirlwind two months in India and this is a post which has been in the pipeline for a while (hence the length). For those unaware of my current research project, I’m working on a study of Microfinance Self-Help Groups in villages near Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh. It is the first time that I have conducted a real survey. Needless to say, it has given me a deep appreciation of the process of data collection and work of the surveyor.

First, designing a questionnaire is not simply about putting questions on paper; Murphy’s Law rules big time. Framing of questions is key – anything remotely ambiguous WILL cause confusion. Leaving any decision making to your interviewer and interviewee WILL come back to haunt you. Less words, the better. More options, even better.

Second, Lost in Translation is not just the name of a sappy movie. It is a huge pitfall whenever you are relying on an interviewer to translate questions and record responses. While I hired a local person to accelerate the rate of data collection, the main challenge was to have him understand the entire survey and be able to code responses in Bundeli, the local Hindi dialect, onto the English questionnaire. Fortunately (and it is good fortune in a country where the dialect changes every 100 kilometers), I understood Bundeli well enough to oversee that process and ensure that erroneous recording of responses was minimized.

While questionnaire design is demanding, the actual interviews of people were the most fun and rewarding part of the survey. Their responses often threw all the planning of a first-time surveyor like me out of whack. Observing features of demography and village life which veteran surveyors (and astute casual observers) of rural India know very well, I would often have to retract, change my interview questions or simply remember to account for those features when interpreting my results. In any case, here they are - A Newbie Surveyor’s Guide to Rural India.

· aG Age: Women simply don’t know it. Tellingly, they don’t care enough to understate it. Women who are 30 think they are 40 and vice-versa. For all the influence of cable TV on rural women, propensity to understate age is not one of them. Caveat # 1: this might be a local phenomenon as renowned Indian demographer, Ashis Bose, claims otherwise. Caveat # 2: Women under 30, who tend to have attended school, do know their age, often reminding me of the 60s anti-establishment dictum, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” when asking the age question.

Education: Hardly any woman over the age of 30 had attended school. Almost every woman under 25 had some schooling. Clearly, some education policy began working in the area in the early 1990s. Two frequently cited reasons for dropping out of school were 1) corporal punishment, and 2) inability to pass the class V or class VIII exams, common dropout points.

Time: The Gregorian calendar has little to no meaning for the rural woman’s calendar. Time is marked by festivals, crop cycles and the Hindu calendar (Panchang), based on lunar movements. This meant that I finally put my mind to understanding how the months of the Hindu calendar map onto the Gregorian calendar!

Time II: The Pan-Indian problem of “Indian Stretchable Time” (IST) is amplified many times over in villages. Anyone who has lived in India/South Asia or has a brown friend knows what I mean. Trying to quantify distance between the houses of SHG members through time, which I had initially considered a great idea, flopped big time. It does not matter whether you ask if point A is 5 minutes, 10 minutes or 20 minutes away from point B – the answer remains the same! A better question is to simply ask if point A is close or far from point B.

Assets: Using household owned assets (bicycle, fan, almirah etc.) as a measure of poverty can be tricky if you take responses at face value. Assets which come into the household by way of dowry are often not considered ‘owned’ by the household and respondents need to be reminded about them (Dowry is not restricted to Hindu marriages – Muslim marriages are also characterized by it). Moreover, the high maintenance cost of assets means that many are in a state of permanent disrepair, creating another classification dilemma for researchers.

Financial Inclusion: Commercial banks (state-owned and private) have not reached the poor and ultra-poor in Madhya Pradesh. Very rarely in my sample would I come across someone who had even attempted borrowing from a bank, forget actually taking out a loan. Reasons varied but a common refrain was that a bank location was too far, in the city. This suggests that the financial inclusion gains made between 1977 and 1990, when national banks were mandated to open 4 rural branches for every branch opening in an already banked location, have been reversed. Check out the famous Pande-Burgess paper on Social Banking to know more about the positive poverty reduction impact of that policy.

W While there are plenty of non-survey related anecdotes to keep this post going, I’ll stop here and save them for some other time and place. Stay tuned for the startling revelations of my earth-shattering paper which will be written sometime this summer.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Two Minutes with Amartya Sen

For those who don't have the distinct pleasure of being my Facebook friend, you may not have noticed how I recently trumpeted my meeting with my intellectual hero, Amartya Sen. Some of you who do have the distinct pleasure (and have not been rude enough to suggest I merely posed with him!), have asked me what we spoke about. Well, wait no further.

So, Prof. Sen had come to Chicago to talk about his recent book, the Idea of Justice, which in itself is quite abstract but has interesting implications for international politics. One of its central ideas is that given the capacity to prevent manifest injustice, we shouldn't get deadlocked in arguments about what the most just institution to address injustice is. When I heard this argument, one of my first thoughts was humanitarian interventions and I asked him what should countries which have little capacity to act internationally, do? For some reason, he assumed I had India in mind when I asked the question and immediately replied that India should do more in Burma and Sudan (to promote democratization and prevent genocide respectively).

I was quite surprised because a) I hadn't heard that from him publicly, and b) despite that economics training, he had little patience for cost-benefit accounting in these two scenarios. While there is plenty to disagree about in this particular application of his idea, I think in general, it has a lot of merit in arguments about economics, law and social justice.

In any case, the meeting was definitely the highlight of my year and one I will treasure for a long time to come.

Thoughts on Faisal Shahzad: Lone Wolves Are Also Bad Omens

The failed Times Square car bomb attempt which came to light this weekend is tough to analyze because the investigation is not yet complete and there is still uncertainty about the facts. Gen. Petraeus has recently ruled out Pakistani Taliban’s involvement, describing Faisal Shahzad, the individual arrested for attempting the attack, as a “lone wolf”. At the same time, Pakistani officials have hinted that Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a group with a Kashmir centered agenda, might have been responsible for his training. Meanwhile, Pakistani Taliban has denied any role as well, after initial YouTube videos which seemed to suggest otherwise.

While it will take a while for the facts to emerge, let us assume that Shahzad did not belong to the rank and file of a terror group but simply acquired the training to make and detonate a bomb during a short stint in Pakistan (most likely scenario – check out Steve Coll’s post on how Pakistani terror groups treat US based volunteers as “freebies”). This is troubling in two respects:

1) It hints at possible radicalization of young Pakistani-Americans, a phenomenon previously seen in the UK (London Underground bombings being the most infamous attack by British-born Pakistanis trained in Pakistan), but not in the US. It is noteworthy that in early 2009, the CIA had advised President Obama that British Islamists were the biggest threat to the US. While one of the key reasons for radicalization of British-born Pakistanis was the UK’s involvement in Iraq, high joblessness and discrimination were other underlying factors as well. In comparison, the Pakistani-American community is more prosperous and socially integrated into the mainstream.

2) It emphasizes that while terrorist organizations mainly recruit from the poor and marginalized, their ability to attack the U.S. depends upon individuals who are often wealthy, educated and integrated in the West. Faisal Shahzad’s higher education was in Connecticut and his father was Air Vice-Marshal in the Pakistan Army. The underwear bomber studied in London and his father was the chairman of a Nigerian bank. This is significant because it indicates the limits to effectiveness of US aid to Pakistan, even if it successfully reduces poverty and promotes economic development in targeted regions of the country.

There are other things to look out for in the days to come. Pakistan’s arrests of Shahzad’s associates in Karachi is being touted as evidence of the ISI’s (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) increasing cooperation with the U.S., but such enthusiasm needs to be tempered given Pakistan’s spotty track record with keeping suspects under arrest. The real bone of contention between the U.S. and Pakistan is the Pakistani Army’s refusal to undertake a large-scale offensive in North Waziristan, the home of the Haqqani network (which targets US forces in Afghanistan) and Pakistani Taliban. There is little to suggest that the failed Times Square bomb plot will change that.

This post was first published at on May 7, 2010.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Marjah - Strategic Success or Useful Distraction?

In statistics, you need at least three data points to find the line of best fit. At the risk of future ridicule, I proclaim that with my third blog entry in March, my output is once a month. Which is not prolific by any standards, but is at least a benchmark which creates expectations for you and me!

Anyhow, on March 9th, I tore myself from the prep for a Political Economy final to check out a talk by Gilles Dorronsoro on the recent escalation of the War in Afghanistan, as part of UChicago's excellent "World Beyond the Headlines" series. The video from his lecture is not up yet, but keep a lookout for it (older ones include Stiglitz and Thurrow).

Preemptory conflict of interest note here: I worked with Gilles last year at the Carnegie Endowment. Which in this case was one of the reasons I have immense respect for his analyses -I know for a fact that he is one of the few scholars/commentators who travels frequently to Afghanistan (and not on govt/army orchestrated trips) and has spent significant chunks of time there since the 1980s.

In any case, Gilles' talk was insightful in that it challenged a lot of what has been written about the recent US offensive in Marjah and supposed turning of the tide in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some of his key myth-busters were:

The lack of strategic importance of Marjah - Marjah is not a city (as is often reported) but a collection of towns. It is neither close to the border nor linked to Afghanistan's main highway, Ring Road, making it irrelevant from the point of securing US supply lines. It is also not a Taliban stronghold like the city of Kandahar, which is not being targeted. Lastly, while it is located in Helmand, where the majority of Afghanistan's poppy is grown, opium is just one among the Taliban's many sources of income. Taking Marjah does not weaken the Taliban's finances significantly.

The Pakistan Army has not changed its priorities - Much has been made of Pakistan's capture of Taliban's second-in-command Mullah Ghani Baradar, with Fareed Zakaria even arguing that Pakistan's new cooperation represents a foreign policy victory for President Obama. Gilles claimed, and next week a Karzai advisor confirmed, that the Afghanistan government was in negotiations with Baradar. In essence, Baradar's capture was not a changing of Pakistan Army and ISI's basic strategy, but a reminder that they would prefer a future Afghan dispensation which includes the Taliban members they control, rather than those of the Karzai government's choosing.

Negotiations, not escalation is the way forward - An argument that has been the theme of much of Gilles' writings is that the US and its allies simply do not have the resources (165,000 troops are nowhere close to enough) and time (decreasing public support) to pursue an escalation in Afghanistan. Given this tough context, the way forward are negotiations with the Taliban. Getting the timing right is important though - if a talismanic figure like Mullah Omar survives, he will acquire the same legendary status that Ahmed Shah Massoud, who helped drive out the Soviets in the 1980s, did. And that will decrease his, and in turn, the Taliban's incentives to negotiate. While this adds unpredictability to negotiation, in Gilles opinion, it was still a better option than escalation.

While there is room for disagreement with Gilles' policy recommendation, his analysis is useful in that it presents a cogent explanation of recent events apart from the easiest one - that the international coalition is now winning in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The next few months would provide more clues about whether the tide has indeed turned in AfPak.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Great Expectations from India

I write this post after 3 weeks of getting clobbered by midterms and shellacked by assignments. The experience was made worse, knowing fully well that my commitment to blogging was becoming less credible by the day. Anyhow, the only vent to my thoughts I managed last week was a response to my friend Dan Michaeli's post about Indian foreign policy. In it, Dan argues that India's domestic politics often prevent it from working closely with the U.S., thus leading to a situation where it often makes demands but rarely reciprocates in the India-U.S. relationship. Here's my response:

Dan, I disagree with the premise that only domestic politics prevents India from a closer relationship with the U.S.

On trade and climate, India’s interests are very much those of a developing country, with 60% of the population engaged in agriculture (explaining being at loggerheads with the US at Doha) and 45% extremely poor (making it hard to accept legally binding emission cuts).

On Iran, while India does not support sanctions against it, it did vote against it at three IAEA resolutions between 2005 and 2009. These were significant moves for India, which has had warm relations with Iran since the heydays of nonalignment. In fact, this vote was criticized in many quarters as a test set up by the US for India during the nuke deal negotiations.

Also, the unwillingness to have a closer relationship is reciprocated by the US on an issue like Afghanistan. Both countries have a convergence of interest there, with India even more leery of any reconciliation with the Taliban (it was the only country to express dissent against negotiation with the Taliban at the recent London Conference). While it is unlikely to send troops there, it could have contributed to US efforts by supplying military trainers. But the idea was shot down during the US strategy review because of Pakistan’s apprehensions.

Finally, I take the point that there is a reflexive distrust of US geopolitical motives in certain Indian political circles. It was a significant political cost during the nuke deal negotiations as well. But it does not explain the divergence between India and the US on many issues. Divergence of interests does.

On a related note, Dan's post reminded me of a beautiful review that George Perkovich had written for Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi in 2007. In it, he placed U.S. expectations of India into historical perspective:

"To comprehend India's achievement, imagine if Mexico became the 51st of the United States, followed by Brazil, Argentina and the rest of Central and South America. Add Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to give this union the Sunni-Shia mix of India. The population then represented in Congress would still be smaller and less diverse linguistically, religiously, culturally and economically than India's. If such a state could democratically manage the interests and conflicts swirling within it, and not threaten its neighbors, the world should ask little else from it. If we were such a state, we would feel that our humane progress contributes so much to global well-being that smaller, richer, easier-to-manage states should not presume to tell us what to do."