Posted in The World Beyond

Nordic Noir – Fiction or Fact 2.0

I have posted 96 posts to this website and these have been a mix of comments on topical events, summary of Reports from UN organizations, theoretical frameworks for various aspects of development and governance, and India-focused posts twice a year on its Independence Day and Republic day.

And then there are posts I simply enjoyed writing.

There are some posts which figure repeatedly in the daily stats and others long forgotten and buried unread or unseen. Starting today, I shall be re-posting some of the most meaningful posts in my opinion – duly updated when necessary. So do watch this space and, better still, subscribe to this website for free so that you get a notification in your inbox each time something is posted or reposted here.

Thanks to the readership now touching 158 countries!

This post was first published on 15 March 2015


  • Joyful Headlines seen late last year: All Five Scandinavian Countries Now Have Centre-Left Governments
  • The World Happiness Report 2021 lists all 5 Nordic Countries in the Top 7

For me, and perhaps most English speaking Indians, the Nordic nations are best discovered through the excellent crime fiction these countries produce. Perhaps, like me, they too discovered Nordic noir  through the famous Millennium Trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson with its unforgettable protagonist Lisbeth Salander – probably the most memorable literary character in a long, long, time…

It was only a short step from there to discovering Jo Nesbo (Norwegian) and Arnaldur Indridason (Icelandic), Håkan Nesser, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell, and many, many more I am still uncovering…

And of course, as already noted by millions across the world, all these books (essentially of the ‘police procedural’ genre) have several common threads running through them: like a sense of brooding melancholy, the local landscape as a potent character in itself, dysfunctional families, the ever-present shadow of Nazism past and present, xenophobia, child abuse, and moral ambiguity…

It is not unknown for serial killers to get away, or for emotions like loyalty, love and hate to get in the way of law enforcement. Life is not clearly cut-and-dried in black and white…

In fact, Nordic noir runs the gamut from grey to grey…

The protagonist in most cases is a police officer with heaps of personal problems but absolutely honest when it comes to his work, and never afraid to speak the truth. He (or she) may not be a believer in rules and regulations but is guided by his own moral compass, aligned to the great universal truths of all humanity – which supersede man-made laws of evidence and proof.

Perhaps it is this trait, this alignment to a universal truth, which sends a young Danish nurse to the slums of Calcutta, or a Swedish activist to fight modern day slavery, or a Norwegian Doctor to scream in anguish from the blood-slicked corridors of the Al Shifa Hospital, which shook a whole continent from its stupor and awakened them to the horrors of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza in 2014.

So despite the unhappiness of individuals portrayed in their crime fiction, I think the Nordic countries have really got something right…

It is no wonder then, that they score high on the Human Development Index, have the least social disparity, and are now also in the top ten of the World Happiness Index: (yes, there is such a thing, believe me!) According to the World Happiness Index Report 2013, the top ten countries were:

The report also charts the difference in perceived happiness across the world between the period 2005-07 and 2010-12, and I have picked a few representative countries to get a better understanding of the trend.

The Nordic nations are, as expected ‘happier’ than ever before, along with Chile, Brazil, Russia, China and Germany; but the UK, France, Pakistan and USA show marked decreases in perceived happiness…

You know what they say about violence: the more violence you put out into the universe in the form of war, drone attacks, regime change, and torture camps; the more likely are you to have violence on your own doorstep in terms of drug wars, inner city crime, drive-by shootings, race riots, campus shoot-outs and so on…

The same is true of unhappiness too, I suppose…

I received this comment from J E Jakobsen on ICH in 2015, but am re-posting it here:

Hey Nasrin,

Being a Nordic person, I read your article “Fiction and Fact” with great interest.

In the context of this ICH article, you highlight some positive traits of Nordic societies. I have lived outside the Nordic region for 17 years now and have grown accustomed to the Asian way of life: entrepreneurial and buzzing, yes indeed, but recklessly selfish and no safety nets whatsoever for the have-nots.

Whenever I go back to Norway, I’m awe-struck by how comfortable lives people are leading; plenty of free time, high personal incomes and free healthcare. I think an important factor of the Nordic mindset is we are NOT brought up to believe we are anyone special, but to seek the simple and not necessarily the most luxurious pleasures in life. It may sound harsh, but it’s probably led to Nordic people feeling very comfortable about being equals. With support structures in place you actually don’t NEED to be the richest and most successful kid on the block. Remember also that Nordics are few in numbers and live with vast space. No stress on resources and fighting over them, probably also contributes to their “happiness”.

Putting this into perspective: the American Dream teaches people to pursue their own dreams and make them come through, but really, how many percent of 300 million people can realistically achieve those dreams? Americans often see Nordic socialism as a form of communism (i.e. an evil) but this couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary a healthy balance between state and private ownership is desired. Recently a petition by the people of Norway actually halted the government from selling the airport-link between Oslo and its airport off to Chinese investors. State involvement was actually preferred, because people use those services frequently and felt better served by the state than a private party. Yes, this was probably also a case of xenophobia, but experience has shown that the people of Norway, at least, has been better served by keeping an eye on their politicians and controlling their own interests.

In the end, what is most striking about happiness itself and as a concept, is that it comes not from enriching yourself to the max, but through unselfishness and sharing. In Norway this is done through high taxes by a state intermediary! But the blows suffered by high taxation are often softened by the rewards you reap by giving to others, and ultimately also receiving when needed. Unfortunately selfishness is on the rise and the common belief is that fending for yourself is the only way. Sadly many people don’t have the choice and must continue to do so. But in more modern and developed societies, this belief system tears away traditional support structures and also enables the widening of income gaps – all around. Communism, no thanks. Capitalism, no thanks. But something in between does exist, and it seems to work better than the other two…

Posted in The World Beyond

Latin America: Damned to be violent forever?

When I wrote the last post on this subject, Latin America: Populations are also People in April 2015, I felt quite optimistic about the future of that region, with no less than 14 Left wing governments elected, and the Gini Coefficient of Inequality steadily moving downward for the whole region. The hope was that the slow but steady human development in these societies would reduce the glaring inequalities, and this would decelerate crime and therefore violence…

But this was not to be…

As explained in another post, WDR 2017: Revisiting Corruption, Capture and Clientelism, quoting Dr Jong-Sung You – every time an attempt is made at redistributive justice, the aggrieved elite forced to give up their privileges, react with allegations of ‘corruption’ to affect regime change, bring in a rich-friendly government and ‘capture’ the economy. This has happened in Brazil, Argentina and is under way in Venezuela, while the world focuses its energies on the Middle East, and the drama in the White House.

And all the good done in terms of social and human development in the first decade of the millennium is gradually undone, leaving Latin America as prone as ever to violence and crime, as seen below:

Latin American Homicide Rates

Therefore, it was with special interest that I read a recent World Bank Publication Stop the Violence in Latin America – A Look at Prevention from Cradle to Adulthood by Laura Chioda.

The Report makes several important points about what it calls the physiognomy of crime and violence in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC Region):

  • The relationship between crime and development is highly nonlinear: crime can increase as income rises.
  • Economic development per se does not seem sufficient to curb violence: development must occur at a fast enough pace and be inclusive
  • The relationship between crime and inequality is confounded by poverty. If inequality matters for crime, it matters at the local level
  • Not all unemployment is created equal; age and quality of employment opportunities matter.
  • However, employment per se is not sufficient to deter criminality
  • Development has a dark side. What benefits the formal economy may also benefit illegal markets

These ideas are very thought provoking. And as the Report correctly points out, the extent of crime and violence is not unique to Latin America and the Caribbean. It just so happens that the region has been a playground for global politics, located as it is in the backyard of the country which invented organized crime, has the most liberal gun laws, and boasts the highest prison population in the world – the USA.

It suits the US to hide its poor and corrupt policing and enforcement in the areas of drug and human trafficking, and put the onus on the perpetually ‘criminal and violent’ poor neighbours in the South – an image constantly reinforced in entertainment and the mainstream media.

Furthermore, being relatively small and extremely urbanized, crime statistics in the LAC are much easier to compile and publish than other more populous and rural developing countries, such as those in South Asia and Africa – which are equally prone to violence and crime. The only difference I see is that while in Latin America, violence is closely related to organized crime and therefore driven largely by economic forces, in Asia and Africa the causes of violence are more likely to be social  – tribalism, racism, casteism, communalism, gender discrimination, domestic violence, family disputes over land… and so on. And these are the crimes most difficult to record and catalogue .

Which doesn’t mean they are NOT as destructive as drug dealing or gang wars.


Posted in The World Beyond

Latin America: Populations are also people

As Mrs Indira Gandhi, late Prime Minister of India, once remarked, ‘the world media are interested in reporting on developing countries, only when there’s a coup or an earthquake.’ Of course, in the age of global connectivity and the internet, this tendency gets a hundred-fold exaggerated.

I was struck by this ‘list’ I saw on a website, incongruously squeezed between something as banal and ridiculous as the world’s 10 richest cats, or the 20 worst gowns on the red carpet, or whatever. Except, this was a list of the 50 most violent cities in the world. And the writer of that particular post couldn’t be more off-hand:

“Murder is more common in Latin America than any other part of the world… Thirty four of the fifty worst cities were located in the region, including repeat murder capital of the world – San Pedro Sula, Honduras – which saw 187 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013, and is getting steadily worse. Drug trafficking, gang wars, political instability, corruption, and poverty combine to cause the region’s elevated violence.”

And in less than 70 words, do we dismiss the hopes, fears, dreams and reality of 588 million people – almost a tenth of humanity!

This disregard for those who ‘do not really matter’ as much as one’s own social class, caste, compatriots, co-religionists, brotherhoods and sororities, is a universal trait. And as Foucault so beautifully explained, the modern State has lost its moral purpose and it suits those who govern to put a label on the governed, or ‘populations’ as he called them – forever diminished, devoiced, defanged, and disempowered.

In fact, marketers and campaigners in the US have honed this to an art, when they talk of a product or candidate appealing to X, Y, Z ‘demographic’.

If, like me, you found this list profoundly disturbing and dug a little deeper, what would you find? A region which has known the worst of colonial excesses, the decimation of indigenous populations, slavery, and the systematic plundering of its natural resources. South America, because of an accident of geography, became a battlefield for the superpowers during the Cold War in the late twentieth century, and in the 1960s and 1970s, the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay were overthrown or displaced by US-aligned military dictatorships. These regimes detained tens of thousands of political prisoners, many of whom were tortured and/or killed. Economically, they began a transition to neo-liberal economic policies, in tune with the Washington Consensus, resulting in international indebtedness, widening gaps between the rich and poor, and one deep economic crisis after another.

The legacy of these years was stark : rampant corruption, weakening of civil society, growing poverty and ever increasing economic disparity, where a few controlled the many. As any social scientist will tell you, corruption, poverty and disparity are the three major forces behind urban crime, and Latin American cities had well and truly begun their slide downhill, with violent crime receiving a boost from the easy availability of cheap handguns across the border, in the USA.

Add to that the lack of opportunity in declining economies, where the only way out of a favela was football – no wonder then, that every Brazilian star from Pele to Neymar has a rags-to-riches story to tell. And where would the unsuccessful aspirants go but into the criminal underworld?

The UN-Habitat’s ‘State of the World’s Cities 2012-13’ illustrates this point quite well, by quantifying the barriers to achieving greater social equity in a city:

Social Equity LAC

As expected, the chief barriers to greater equity in Latin American cities are: weak civil society, corruption, ineffective governments, historic patterns of inequality, public institutions controlled by ruling elite, and lack of interest from ruling elites.

You see the pattern emerging?

However, there is hope…

Beginning with Hugo Chávez’s victory in the 1998 Presidential Election in Venezuela, South America has seen no less than 15 left-wing Presidents voted into office in Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru. And their pro-poor policies targeting the disempowered and marginalized – like systematic vocational training, direct aid transfers, and guaranteed food security – are beginning to make an impact.

A 2013 UNDP Report by Lustig et al has heartening news: Inequality in Latin America has unambiguously declined in the 2000s, with the Gini Coefficient (a measure of disparity – the higher the Gini, the greater the inequality) decreasing significantly in 14 of the 17 Latin American countries studied, while steadily increasing in China, South Africa, India, and USA:

Gini LAC

So next time you are tempted to brand a people as lazy, or a country as corrupt, or an entire religion as terrorist; take pause and spare a few moments to find out their history and where they are coming from… Remember, someone somewhere is pigeonholing and labelling you in exactly the same way…

Posted in The World Beyond

Is La Liga killing off the World Cup?

I chose the Spanish League for my title only because it is the most enjoyable league for a neutral to watch these days, and because the South American Triumvirate and its exploits are the most talked about football events in the world today.


And we know precisely how badly they let down their national teams in the World Cup 2014. Neymar, poor chap, couldn’t play after his injury; Suarez because he drew the wrath of the Western European establishment at FIFA, and got punished beyond all reasonableness; and Messi just couldn’t get the support from his team-mates that comes his way at every Barcelona match.

What we forget when lamenting the decline of the South American game is that like a thousand other professions, footballers also operate in a labour market and the trend over the last few years has been that the best deals are to be had only in the major European Leagues.

A recent Report published by the CIES Football Observatory in Switzerland shows that the number of foreign players playing in European Leagues has reached a record high of 36.1% in recent years, with the top leagues in England, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain as the major employers:


The trend is reaffirmed if we look at the number of expatriate national caps playing in Europe, with the richest clubs at the forefront in England, Germany, Russia, Italy and France:


As an honorary brasileira (see my ABOUT page), I am proud that Brazil remains the major talent producing country in the football world, but am also dismayed to note that there were no less than 515 Brazilians spread over 31 European leagues in 2012, with varying form and incipient injuries, so how could any Brazilian coach gather together the most talented 22 in time for the World Cup 2014? After all, a country that plays together wins together, and Spain in 2010 had all but one of the championship side playing at home, and most played for just one club – Barcelona. Ditto the mark of Bayern Munich on the German players in 2014.


This internationalization of football is inevitable in a fast-globalizing world, but it has killed off the joys of nationalist fervour we saw, once every 4 years. And this nationalism was to be seen in the most positive and joyous terms. Like on the streets of football-crazy Calcutta, where a ‘Brazilian’ brother would face-off against his ‘Argentine’ brother to see who displayed the largest banner. In large parts of Asia, we spelt football as B-R-A-Z-I-L, and when Brazil won (in Asia in 2002) the World won; but when Germany wins in 2014, only Germans win.

Another sad fall-out of the big European clubs cornering the world’s Football talent is that their national teams have started reflecting the same predatory tendencies. And they have the (very convenient) Article 17 of FIFA Rules on the ‘Acquisition of a new nationality’, which states that:

“Any player who refers to article 15 Para 1 to assume a new nationality and who has not played international football in accordance with Art 15 para 2, shall be eligible to play for the new representative team, only if he fulfils one of the following conditions:

  1. He was born on the territory of the relevant Association;
  2. His biological mother or biological father was born on the territory of the relevant Association;
  3. His grandmother or grandfather was born on the territory of the relevant Association;
  4. He has lived continuously for at least 5 years, after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant Association.”

It is obvious that the first three provisions will favour former colonial powers – all European – and the last is a way to fast track naturalization of a talented 18 year old, so that he can become a full international player of his adopted country through his prime playing years of 23-30. QED.

It is hardly surprising that the naturalization route taken by countries in Western Europe has greatly enhanced their chances of success in the World Cup – never mind that they have strict anti-immigration rules for other aspiring migrants; and islamophobia, xenophobia and racism are rampant in their societies, which limits all ethnic diversity exclusively to the football field. That’s it.

When you see half a European team not singing the national anthem at the start of a World Cup match, you wonder what happened to the joyous nationalistic fervour I mentioned above…And you know why this is so…

However, despite my despondency at Brazil’s prospects of ever recapturing its past glories, here’s hoping that Latin America will keep the joy alive in football, with a Colombia here, a Uruguay there, and brave little Costa Rica popping up unexpectedly. After all, Brazil played some of its best football under Socrates in the 1980s, without winning the World Cup, and have consistently been a joy to watch in the Confederations Cup – who can forget Ronaldinho running circles around Argentina in 2005, or the rout of Spain as recently as 2013?

So roll on 2018. We are ready…

Posted in The World Beyond

Merry Christmas, Palestine

As the world prepares to mark the birth of the greatest Palestinian of all time, I wonder what Bethlehem was like at the time of His birth. Well, it was under the oppressive regime of King Herod, ‘client’ king of the only superpower of the time, Rome, which wanted to retain control of Palestine because of its proximity to Rome’s two resource rich domains – Syria and Egypt.

Not much changes in a mere 2000 years, does it?

In my quest for a present day resident of Bethlehem, I came across Anton Murra, a Palestinian Christian and writer specializing in interfaith dialogue, Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives and multicultural understanding.

In his recent post on the Huffington Post, Murra explains:

Religion plays a big role in the life of Palestinians – and integrates itself into politics, culture, society and ethics – like no other place in the world. In Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians and Muslims have experienced good relations and have demonstrated solidarity and support for each other on many occasions. There is a shared history among the Palestinians in Bethlehem that has created good relations throughout history… Today in Bethlehem, however, Christianity is experiencing a crisis. This is not due to the growth of so-called Islamic fundamentalism or the persecution of “believers” by their Muslim neighbors, misrepresentations that are unfortunately used to distract from the realities of occupation. (emphasis added)

Instead, the plight of the Palestinian Christian is very much connected to that of the Palestinian Muslim in that both experience injustices every day as a result of oppressive and discriminatory policies imposed on them by the Israeli Occupation.

Bethlehem is about six miles (10 kilometers) south of Jerusalem. Although only about 20% of Palestinians in Bethlehem are Christians, Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem have been living together for centuries. They are neighbors, friends and classmates. Both have suffered from the Israeli occupation for over sixty years and both have showed steadfastness in the face of oppression.

Like their Muslim neighbors, who are also prevented at checkpoints and roadblocks from making pilgrimage to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Christians in Bethlehem are denied basic religious freedoms, routinely prohibited from traveling very short distances to worship in one of the most holy sites in Christianity – the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are commemorated.”

Murra goes on to elucidate the responses he got to his question: What do Palestinians want for Christmas?

… Some people mentioned spiritual gifts like love, faith and hope… Other people wished for the end of the occupation and freedom for Palestine. These people have suffered tremendously from the Israeli occupation… Like those who wish for world peace, these wish for peace and justice for the Palestinian people. They are not activists nor are they affiliated to any political group. They are simply ordinary people who are frustrated with the Israeli occupation and consider it the source of hatred and evil.

Roger Salameh, a 27-year-old Palestinian from Bethlehem, argues ‘for us to live in peace, the occupation must end.’ His Christmas wish is for ‘a free country recognized by the world.’ Another group of people wishes for a better life situation for themselves and for their relatives and friends. Others wish for food security, health, jobs and reconciliation with their relatives and neighbors. They want to challenge the depressing reality that surrounds them and live lives despite all the odds.

Murra then explains his own thoughts and dreams:

I myself have been experiencing the Israeli occupation all my life. I’ve heard people talking about peace and justice since I was a little boy. A lot of people were lost struggling for peace and justice. I have been actively working towards achieving peace and bringing justice for the Palestinians since 2000. I haven’t given up hope and I will keep working to bring about positive change.

‘I have a dream’ and I don’t care how disappointing it has been working to achieve that dream. But I know that my dream is possible. I know that in process of achieving my dream I will encounter a lot of failure, a lot of pain. Sometimes when I am alone and I see all the injustices, I doubt my faith and I start asking why this is happening to us? Palestinians are just trying to take care of their families.”

So as you rush around to fulfil every little Christmas wish of those near and dear to you, what will you do to help Anton Murra and his fellow-Palestinians to fulfil their dreams?

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year !!!



Posted in The World Beyond

Shanghai, Hangzhou and Woman Power!

I don’t know if it’s the primal call of the few strands of my Mesopotamian DNA, or whatever, but I get a real thrill when I am in a big city, pulsating with life… And it doesn’t get bigger than this – the largest single city proper on the face of the planet, Shanghai throbs with the history of 300 years and the minds and souls of its 25 million denizens…

Any visitor to Shanghai is overwhelmed by its ultimate urbanism. It warms the cockles of every urban heart to enter the city on the Maglev at 330 km per hour, see the multi-tiered flyovers, whiz around the underwater tunnels and watch the industrious Shanghainese going about their business. I mean, where else do hundreds make a living, just taking tourists on a cruise to watch the glittering signs of the corporate megaliths of Shanghai’s iconic skyline ?

Call a halt and go into the streets under the flyovers, and you are transported back into time and of course, the Bund is history incarnate. Those days of opium wars when drug running made the fortunes of several corporate houses in India, now utterly respectable of course… the Shanghai International Settlement and the French Concession… and the entry of the word ‘shanghaied’ into the English dictionary.

How apposite that as you look across to the other bank, you see the rising towers of China rampant…perhaps, the world’s largest economy today… Shanghai Bund Interestingly, we were told that because of the single child norm, the gender ratio in Shanghai is so skewed, that the typical, treasured Shanghai girl can pick and choose the husband she likes, one who most fulfils her many demands. And remains a good and faithful husband all his life!

We did meet a really powerful Shanghai woman who runs a huge business exporting jade jewellery around the world. And when she asked her staff to present all women in our group with a complimentary pendant and insisted on slipping a magnificent jade bangle around my wrist for a ridiculously low price… well I truly felt part of a privileged sisterhood…

A day trip from Shanghai takes you to a real gem of a place, missed by most Indian tourists – Hangzhou. We went by bullet train, and unlike Beijing and Shanghai’s airport-like terminals, Hangzhou railway station was simply a cleaner version of any station in India. An ancient capital with the choicest architecture, a beautifully clean lake, and palaces and pagodas all around.

Hangzhou 2    Hangzhou 6

Hangzhou 3    Hangzhou 1

Hangzhou is also the home of the Legendary Longjing tea estates – the queen of all of China’s great teas. And the Longjingshan Tea Cultural Village is the ultimate in photo-ops:

Hangzhou 4  ???????????????????????????????

After giving us a tour, and a tea tasting, while we lingered before returning to Shanghai in our humble bus, we noticed a lot of the young ladies who whizzed off, each in her own car – a Merc here, a Porsche there, and the ubiquitous BMWs. And learnt an interesting factoid from our guide. This village has traditionally had a matrilineal society, and all the money is controlled by the women in the family, some of whom are among the richest women in China… Ha ha… One lives and learns…

Posted in The World Beyond

China and India: Two roads diverged…

There is a lot of talk in New Delhi and among the Government’s globe-trotting enthusiasts, about following the China Model for India’s development especially on two fronts: infrastructure development, and the manufacturing sector. However, let us pause a moment:

If China runs 4 of the 10 fastest trains in the world – there is a reason…

If just one District in China produces 50% of what the world buys, there is a reason…

And I admit I am very partial to looking for reasons in the pages of history, rather than among the political rhetoric of an election campaign. So here goes…

China and India have had somewhat similar histories, with civilizational continuity stretching back thousands of years. Both have had centuries of hierarchical social systems, with a very low status for women. Both suffered at least a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign traders, conquerors and colonizers before breaking free; and both became modern, independent nation-states at roughly the same time – 1949 and 1947. Both countries also suffered the trauma of partition/fragmentation at the time of independence – Taiwan broke away from China, while Hong Kong became a British dominion; and India was cleaved into two with the creation of Pakistan.

However, it is after emerging as independent nation-states that the trajectory of these two Asian giants completely diverges:

    • While India opted for democracy; China chose the Marxist ‘proletarian’ road
    • While India chose centralized planning and governance as the route to development, China built up from the grassroots, village committee level
    • Political power in India flows from the top downwards, through a series of patron-client relationships; in China it rises from the village, to district, to regional capital to Beijing in the pyramidal structure of the Communist Party
    • As an eminent Indian historian once noted, India alone of all the newly independent colonies had the audacity to launch not one but 5 simultaneous revolutions – agricultural, social, national, industrial and urban. Naturally these varied revolutions could not keep pace with each other and after over six decades, India’s development directions still remain hazy. China meanwhile had no such ambiguities when it launched its Cultural Revolution, with the sole aim of tearing apart the fabric of the old feudal society and weaving it anew into a more modern, rationalist, pragmatic, egalitarian and secular pattern.

It is ironic indeed that at the height of its Cold War with the Soviet Union, the West could only denounce and rant at the ‘excesses’ of this Cultural Revolution, and did not see in these excesses the seed of China’s future success – which the same West now admires so much. But as any neutral observer will tell you, perhaps it is these very ‘excesses’ which have made the Chinese miracle possible today.

So what exactly were these transgressions?

At the risk of being facetious, one can summarise them under the 4 Ls:

Love: The most obvious excess was interference in the personal and family life of the population by enforcing restrictions (unique in human history) culminating in 1979, in the single-child norm.

Land: The collectivization of all rural land, with ‘possessory rights of usufruct’ for 30 years; and the acquisition of all urban land by government (with a lease of 70 years to developers) were also considered as ‘excessive’ especially by the erstwhile feudal landlords.

Lord: The outlawing of feudal lords on the one hand, and the abolition of religions loyal to a higher ‘Lord’ on the other, were quite repugnant to the rest of the world, and found to be violative of human rights and basic freedom of religion – never mind that the West was equally callous about the rights and freedoms of communists and atheists in their midst.

Learning: This was the most far-reaching ‘excess’ of the Cultural Revolution, as schools of higher learning were closed and there was a deliberate process of dismantling the Western-educated elite. Intellectuals were put to the most demeaning physical labour in the countryside and told to adapt their knowledge to serving the peasants. These reforms also meant the end of the privileged civil service – after all, the word for bureaucrats everywhere comes from the Chinese word ‘mandarin’. It also cleared the decks for a complete revamping of the higher education system and its indigenisation to meet China’s immediate development needs.

As argued above, the Cultural Revolution put China on a path to development, while India was still floundering and experimenting amidst priorities that changed every five years – in the name of democracy. China’s focussed single-mindedness and its willingness to sacrifice today for prosperity tomorrow, set against India’s vacillations and contradictions are succinctly summarised in the chart below, showing the time lag between China’s achievement of a human development goal, and the number of years it did so ahead of India. (Courtesy: The Economist)

India China

For example, a child’s odds of surviving past their fifth birthday are as bad in India today as they were in China in the 1970s. Similarly, India’s income per head was about $3,200 in 2009 (holding purchasing power constant across time and between countries). China reached that level of development nine years earlier. This does not necessarily imply that India in 9 years’ time will be as rich as China is today. That is because China grew faster in the last nine years than India is likely to grow over the next nine.

Let us now look at the ways in which China’s excesses of the 1960s, became the keystone of its successes in a globalised world, once Deng Xiaoping opened its doors to the world:

  • The Single Child Norm has helped to stabilise China’s population growth while India is all set to overtake it in the next few decades. This stabilisation has greatly increased opportunities for the individual, leading to greater equity. Moreover, it has at one stroke halved the incidence of poverty and thus broken the vicious cycle of deprivation in a single generation, while India continues to struggle with endemic and chronic poverty.
  • The collectivisation of rural land has made agriculture more productive through economies of scale, and provided rural livelihoods that are more sustainable, because a collective has better coping strategies in a crisis than an individual or a household. The lack of individual land ownership also makes rural society more egalitarian and less exploitative; and rural politics more participatory. In India, the absence of redistributive justice in land ownership is now acknowledged as the major cause of the insurgency in its predominantly tribal areas.
  • Similarly, the urban land in China is entirely owned by the Government, and this has allowed proper urban planning, redevelopment, infrastructure development and affordable housing, whereas in India, no Development Plan gets more than 20% implemented because of the difficulties of land acquisition, and the inevitable litigation through India’s tortuous judicial system.
  • According to some estimates, over 70% of Chinese are listed as being atheist or agnostic, while the remaining follow Shenism-Taoism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Aspirants to the membership of the Communist Party have to affirm their atheism if they wish to progress in their political careers. The most obvious fall-out of this policy has been the true secularisation of Chinese society, with formerly religious practices being reduced to general public holidays, and State and religion being kept strictly apart. This too contributes to the pervasive egalitarianism in Chinese society. It also means that there are no constraints like caste on the opportunities available to Chinese students, whereas caste and related affirmative action programmes continue to remain a political tinderbox in India.
  • The benefits of the Chinese Revolution are most visible in the way the country raises and educates its children. The first major reform was the standardisation of the written language (Mandarin-Beijing dialect) across the country. Then, there was universal literacy and mass education, and eventually with a new higher education system geared to the country’s development needs, we see massive vocationalisation with an emphasis on technology in higher education.
  • Today, there are no less than 4 Chinese and 4 Hong Kong based institutes/universities in the Asian Top-25, and not a single one from India. Higher Education in China has rapidly adapted to the global trend of internationalism, duly followed by indigenisation of the knowledge gained. This means that the Chinese technocratic class is now geared to move from re-engineering western technology to innovation in its own right, and are encouraged through government investment to set up businesses in China itself. Contrast this with India, where IITs and IIMs, funded entirely by the humble Indian taxpayer, compete with each other in how many alumni they have been able to place in foreign companies – preferably in the USA!
  • Another programme recently launched is the teaching of English in all urban schools from the first grade itself. Furthermore, by opting to invest heavily in manufacturing industry, China has found a place for its unskilled, semi-skilled, skilled, and highly skilled workers, all in the same business matrix. Whereas, by opting for hi-tech services such as IT, India can provide the best opportunities only to its best and most educated workers, further fuelling the social and digital divide in the country.

Therefore, we may safely conclude, that today’s China was born after a long and hard gestation, with thousands of lives lost and all the blood and thunder of revolution. They re-invented themselves. So must India – development is not a matter of simple ‘copy and paste’.

In my next post, I shall be focussing on urbanisation in China and lessons therefrom, for urban planners and managers in India.

Posted in The World Beyond

Day of Judgment…

It was a beautiful summer day when we docked at Al Aqsar (City of Palaces) or Luxor as it is better known, after our Nile cruise. Some of us thought of seeing the town taking a leisurely ride on a horse carriage (or tonga). And as our 15 year old ‘driver’ Muhammad, took us into the labyrinthine bazaar, I swear we could have been in any North Indian city, surrounded by little shops selling colourful dresses and hookahs – the air redolent with the perfume of eastern spices. Ummm, magical!

Eventually Muhammad took us to this huge shop which sold everything from Egyptian cotton, to statuettes of Anubis (probably made in China) to a whole section of the most amazing papyri. The shop keeper explained that it was a training school for papyrus painters, and we would not get such intricate, hand-crafted specimens at that price (pretty steep) anywhere in Cairo or Alexandria. So along with a beautiful ‘convention of the goddesses’ (which I call the Ladies’ Club) I picked up something which caught my eye, because it had this electric blue background – not the natural cream – and seemed to be telling a story, and looked quite grand and different. And here it is:

My hunefer

But I couldn’t get away from the feeling that it was a famous piece of art… so imagine my pleasure and surprise when I came across the original trawling through (what else) the British Museum website. And this is their original.

Hunefer BM

It has the following explication: the Papyrus is from the Book of the Dead, belonging to Hunefer, who was “Scribe of Divine Offerings”, “Overseer of Royal Cattle”, and steward of Pharaoh Seti I, in the 19th Dynasty. (1290-1279 B C).

The scene depicts the ‘Judgment of Hunefer’ and reads from left to right. To the left, Anubis brings Hunefer into the judgment area. Anubis is also shown supervising the judgment scales. Hunefer’s heart, represented as a pot, is being weighed against a feather, the symbol of Maat, the established order of things, in this context meaning ‘what is right’. The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the seat of the emotions, the intellect and the character, and thus represented the good or bad aspects of a person’s life. If the heart did not balance with the feather, then the dead person was condemned to non-existence, and consumption by the ferocious ‘devourer’, the strange beast shown here which is part-crocodile, part-lion, and part-hippopotamus.

However, after passing the test successfully, Hunefer is shown to the right, brought into the presence of Osiris by his son Horus, having become ‘true of voice’ or ‘justified’. This was a standard epithet applied to dead individuals in their texts. Osiris is shown seated under a canopy, with his sisters Isis and Nephthys. At the top, Hunefer is shown adoring a row of deities who supervise the judgment.

Which left me thinking… Just how much of an influence was the ancient Egyptian religion on the Abrahamic religions?

Judaism has a day of judgment once a year… Catholics have a particular and general Day of Judgment…  as do the Orthodox Churches and Protestantism… Islam has a final Day of Judgment… Even the Bahai’s ( a fairly recent break-off from Shi’ite Islam) believe in judgment every millennium or so, whenever a new prophet declares himself. Both the Ancient Egyptians and their Abrahamic successors apparently looked on a final reckoning in the afterlife as a means of assuring good behaviour and accountability in this one.

Despite these similarities, however, the one thing that the Egyptians could not and would not accept was the common denominator of these latter day faiths viz. monotheism – because without a God-Pharaoh on the throne and the very powerful priests behind that throne, the entire socio-economic- political fabric of that very hierarchical society would crumble.

Which is why they practically wiped out their Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Queen Nefertiti from the pages of history for the crime of declaring that there was only one God – the Sun God Ra.

Makes you wonder whether all religion is eventually about only one thing – POWER … and ways to justify why a chosen few have the monopoly of power in any society…

Posted in The World Beyond

Unique but not alone

When I walked out after a month from my Physics Masters Programme into Social Anthropology, my friends and family were perturbed to say the least. Maybe I was going stir crazy, locked up in labs on beautiful summer days on a sylvan campus…

Whatever. But I had no regrets as I found Anthropology to be an extremely humanizing subject, and strongly feel (to this day) that if we taught children anthropology in schools, there would be much less bigotry around – and hopefully, less violence and bloodshed too…

Anyway, I simply felt lucky to have wandered around in two such disparate worlds, the majesties of Physics and Mathematics on the one hand, and the welcoming warmth of the larger human family on the other; and I was quite sure that never the ‘twain shall meet – until I happened upon Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man several years ago. How can one forget his magical exploration of the blooming of quantum mechanics and the gathering clouds of World War II…

What brings this to mind is an encounter with the latest BBC series from Professor Brian Cox (envied in equal measure for his mastery of Physics, and his youthful rock star looks) … called Human Universe. Throughout the series, the Prof oscillates between hi-tech sites like NASA and little Andean villages and isolated Berber tribes, giving the series a definitely anthropological look.

brian cox                       brian cox 3

But the killer (for me) comes in the third episode, where he talks about the ‘fateful encounter’ between two simple cells; their unexpected and successful merger to form eukaryotic cells, from which all complex life forms were to emerge… Then came the flourishing of thousands of species in the Cambrian era, leading to our own species by evolution through natural selection.

The moment of epiphany comes when Cox says that to become what we are today, we had to pass through an evolutionary ‘bottleneck’ which is highly improbable to have been replicated elsewhere in our Galaxy. (Of course, there may be a million other evolutionary pathways occurring on other planets, so perhaps as a life form, we are not alone…)

However, as a species with the curiosity and intellect to explore its entire Universe, perhaps we are unique… I don’t know about you, but at the end of Cox’s exposition, I was filled with a feeling of utter desolation and utter contentment at the same time – in other words I felt utterly and overwhelmingly human. In the end, all great Science is essentially humanising… I suppose.

Posted in The World Beyond

We shall overcome…

There is an Arabic Phrase Al Nakba, meaning Catastrophe, to refer to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. What an irony then, that Brazil had its own Al Nakba at the hands of Germany, on the very day that Israel launched its latest assault on the Gaza Strip.

The next day, on Bing perhaps, I found this picture, which is my PC wallpaper, and a constant reminder of the Greek Tragedy that was our exit from the World Cup – Neymar, the wounded hero, big brother David Luiz consoling Rodriguez after Colombia’s exit, a touch of hubris at the start of the home World Cup… ah well!


Now Brazil are redeeming themselves, winning all friendlies in style under Dunga… and given their history, they will win the Federations Cup in style as well, in 2017.

But I hope they don’t. Because every time they do, they lose in the World Cup the following year. (A point noted by Beckenbauer as well, besides yours truly!)

Probably because their Confed star gets picked up by Real or Barcelona or some such, and is totally ‘clubbed out’ by the time the FIFA World Cup begins.

Fingers crossed, and hope to see this little fan smiling in 2018