Saturday, April 30, 2005

May Day

Another May Day is upon us. In this age when China seems to be more capitalist than the US, one wonders what significance does this day have. I look at the day as one of commemoration rather than of any serious pro-labour activity.

We workers are much, much, much better off today then yesteryear. It's a different issue whether it can still be better. But, for our present-day comforts we definitely need to thank the unions.

There was a time when labourers toiled hours on end without any dignity, adequate pay or any comforts. It's the trade unions which brought in some balance.

Today, times have definitely changed, so too the employee-employer relationship. It's the modern management techniques that matter more.

May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries (including India) and unofficially celebrated in many more. Interestingly, it is in the US and not in any Communist country that May Day was born. And the US is one of the few countries that doesn't have a holiday on May 1.

In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor) passed a resolution arguing that eight hours would constitute a legal day's work. The resolution called for a general strike to achieve the goal, since legislative efforts had failed repeatedly. With workers being forced to work 10, 12, and 14 hours a day, rank-and-file support for the eight-hour movement grew rapidly.

On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day protest in history. Within a few years, the fight was won.

May Day soon began to be associated with communist and socialist movement. But its potential to galvanise the workers wasn't lost on the US administration. So, very tactfully, they invented Labour Day, traditionally the first Monday in September in the US and Canada. Many US administrations have been pursuaded to shift Labour Day to May 1, but in vain.

Friday, April 29, 2005

New definition of rape?

Norwegian Court Convicts First Woman for Rape

Thu Apr 28, 9:15 AM ET

OSLO (Reuters) - A Norwegian court has sentenced a woman to nine months in jail for raping a man, the first such conviction in the Scandinavian country that prides itself for its egalitarianism. The 31-year-old man fell asleep on a sofa at a party in January last year and told the court in the western city of Bergen he woke to find the 23-year-old woman was having oral sex with him.

Under Norwegian law, all sexual acts with someone who is "unconscious or for other reasons unable to oppose the act" are considered rape. The court sentenced the woman Wednesday to nine months in jail and ordered her to pay 40,000 Norwegian crowns ($6,355) in compensation.

"This is a very harsh sentence," the woman's lawyer, Per Magne Kristiansen, told the Norwegian news agency NTB. The woman argued the man had been awake and consented. The prosecutor had sought a 10-month sentence and argued the court should not be more lenient with a woman than a man. It was Norway's first conviction of a woman for rape.

Norway has long traditions of equality -- 40 percent of the cabinet of Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, for instance, are women.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Taiwanese leader in China

Times are changing. They are, always, aren't they?

Not just the improbable, but even the impossible happen.

In the far east of the globe, a strange thing is happening. Something that was simply impossible a few years ago. A guy called Lien Chan of Taiwan flew across the Taiwan Strait today to Nanjing, an eastern city of the neighbouring country, China.

Why is it noteworthy? We need to know a bit of history. And, it is simply interesting.

Taiwan and China are bitter enemies; somewhat in the mould of India and Pakistan. The political existence of entire Taiwan island itself is confusing and controversial, like that of Kashmir.

Taiwan first. We begin in 1895 with the defeat of China by Japan. The price: China had to cede Taiwan to Japan. There was resistence in Taiwan to this. But this was quelled by Japanese military which occupied the island. Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan went on till 1945 when Japan was defeated in World War II. After the defeat, Japan agreed to hand over Taiwan to Republic of China.

Now to China, or the Republic of China. It was controlled by the Nationalist Party, which ruled ROC from 1912. In the Chinese Civil War, the Nationalist Party was defeated by the Communists in 1949, and they were driven to Taiwan. The Communists then called China as People's Republic of China. The Nationlists then shifted the capital of ROC from Nanjing to Taipei.

Although Taiwan is practically independent there is utter confusion about its political status. The Nationalists ruled Taiwan with an iron hand from 1949 till 2000, when in elections (following political reform) it was defeated.

The present ruler, Chen Shui-bian, says that Taiwan is already independent. China is angry since it says Taiwan is part of China. Some months back China said it reserved to attack Taiwan if it formally declared independence.

The Nationalists have a different view. They say since they once ruled what is now China, in the long run Taiwan must reunite with China, but not under Communists.

Lien Chan who has gone to China today is the leader of Nationalist Party.

Like our Kashmir issue, the political stand doesn't reflect reality. And, just like our map of Kashmir does not reflect the reality, their maps also doesn't reality. And just like the majority of our people, there too majority of people -- Taiwanese or Chinese -- prefer status quo, and getting on with their lives rather than redrawing boundaries, and shifting citizens' allegiances.

And again, like we are suspecting the intentions of Musharraf, sceptics say China is cosying up to Nationalists to create confusion in Taiwan and gain greater control!

Monday, April 25, 2005

Who is a dancer, who is a prostitute?

Ban is this; ban that. That's adult version of what parents tell children: don't do this; don't do that. The latter is understandable. But I haven't still understood the logic behind our governments telling adults what to do and what not to do. That too on things that are very adult.

This three-letter word, ban, finds great affinity to another three-letter word: sex, which is also the most favourite topic of hypocrites for moralistic pronouncements. I am the least interested in making it a free-for-all open house; for, keeping it under the covers ensures the sine qua non: the element of curiosity.

Girls can't dance in Mumbai's bars. That's since April 13. The government says the bars are brothels and girls are prostitutes. Their lives should be saved by giving them alternative jobs. However right the government's views and their objectives may be, no one thinks the ban will achieve anything. Bans don't achieve anything anyway.

Banning the most pervasive thing is the easiest way to corruption. Simply because in reality what is pervasive can't be banned. It will continue to exist, in a corrupted version. Winners: criminals. Losers: everyone else.

Problem lies not with dance bars or prostitution. Problem lies with the ban itself. Legalise dance bars. Legalise prostitution. Let it be officially known what is a dance bar and what is a brothel. So, one won't double up as the other. That was the government's complaint, wasn't it? Similarly, let it be known who is a bar dancer and who is a prostitute.

Evenwhile we all refer to it as the oldest profession and acknowledges its reality in every type of society, in India, it is illegal. Obviously the government will not legalise prostitution. Because it will take away a huge amount of wealth from the underground economy. A huge opportunity for corruption will be closed. The vested interests will not let that happen. Just as only a really bold government can lift prohibition from Gujarat.

Legalising the sex trade will help the practioners and the customers too. Register them, and end the expolitation of girls by their managers. At least there will be some method in the madness.

Put in place a mechanism for regular medical checkup, and certificates. Especially, when a report recently said India has the world's largest AIDS cases, a report which India denied. We are otherwise the second after South Africa.

Tax the brothels and workers. Let them be no different from other traders. Let that money not go underground into a parallel economy.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The changed Musharraf

I hated Musharraf. He was the bad neighbour: a cheat of the worst order who sneaked into our territory on the sly, and murdered our people when we challenged him. We shouldn't be having anything to do with him.

But not after 9/11. Musharraf has been incredibly transformed. Whom should I thank I don't know: George Bush, or Osama bin Laden (!), or those guys who tried to attack Indian Parliament on Dec 13, 2001 (three months after 9/11). But, what matters to me is our neighbour has been reformed, at least there is every indication of that.

Bush got Musharraf to dismount Laden tiger, and it looks like he is dismounting the Kashmir tiger too.

Ever since 9/11, with a "we- told- you- so" refrain Indian political leadership has been educating the US administration on the need to reform the Pak general. Finally, the US learnt it, paying a heavy price. Reform-Musharraf has been a slow process over the last 3 to 4 years. The results are showing, slowly but surely. It's not yet time to celebrate, though.

The change was all too apparent during Musharraf's Apr 16-18 Delhi visit.

* He used to say solve Kashmir problem first then we will talk anything else. In fact his Kashmir-centric approach was one reason for Indo-Pak talks getting stalled time and again. Now, he agrees with the Indian view point that let Kashmir issue not hold people's lives to ransom. Let life go on.

* He used to talk of a plebiscite to ascertain whether Kashmiris want to be with India or Pakistan. Now he doesn't.

* He used to ask for American mediation. Now he doesn't.

* India wanted the border (the Line of Control - LoC) to be softened. He never agreed. Now he too talks of 'soft border', across which people- to- people interaction can take place.

* He was against bus and train services across divided Kashmir. Musharraf as Pakistan Army Chief engineered the Kargil invasion (in May 1999) a few months after Vajpayee travelled to Lahore from Delhi in a bus (in Feb 1999) for a much-hyped peace summit with then Pak PM Nawaz Sharif. The Kargil invasion was aimed at spiking the fledgling peace initiative. And, Musharraf succeeded. He followed Kargil with attack on J&K Assembly building and then attack on Indian Parliament. But in the meantime, 9/11 too happened. Today, the same Musharraf is a messenger of peace.

* He tacitly backed a military solution. Terrorism was nothing but low-intensity warfare backed by Pakistan army. He used to say terrorism will not stop until the legitimacy of the existence of Jammu & Kashmir was resolved. Now, he says Kashmir can't have a military solution. He even has abandoned what he used to call "active diplomacy" to resolve the issue!

* Today in Manila, he said Pakistan will never allow terrorists to attack India. Implicit in this is the admission that Pakistan did engineer terrorist attacks in India.

* Since Musharraf never recognised Jammu and Kashmir, he used to support Hurriyat Conference as the representaives of Kashmiris. And, he used to ask for trilateral (India, Pakistan and Kashmiris) talks. India never agreed. Now, in an interview with Pak journalists he says big problems like border issue should be left to national leaders, and local leaders, like Hurriyat, should join their respective national side.

Dramatic turnabout by the general. So far so good. Now, let us hope he will deliver too.

The world has seen many, many changes. For example, did anyone ever think that a giant like USSR (which gave the US the shivers) will disintegrate? There are so many more. So, let us not rule out a solution to Kashmir problem. If not today, may be tomorrow.

When the collapse of USSR was being plotted in US-Soviet summits in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, President Ronald Reagan referring to his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, had said: Let's trust him, but let's also verify.

Same holds good here too.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Kashmir debate

What a time to have a debate on Kashmir! Musharraf is in Delhi. And today, Sunday Times of India has published the findings of a survey which says most people feel that we should get on with ground reality by accepting the Line of Control as the actual border.

One of my friends pointing to the Times: Which side are you on?

I: On the side of those who want LoC (Line of Control) as the border.

Friend: What a stupid idea it is!

I: It's not stupid. It's the only practical solution.

Friend: You mean just give to Pakistan what is actually our land?

I: We aren't giving up any land, we are only giving up a claim; of course with Pakistan also giving up its claim on Indian terrority .

Friend: How do you say that? The LoC is many kilometres within the Indian border... PoK is the area captured by Pakistan. Shouldn't we get that back?

I: Similarly, remember, Pakistan also feels that the Muslim-majority areas in Jammu and Kashmir should be with Pakistan, and that India is wrongly holding to it with the help of its troops...

Friend: Okay...

I: ... See... There is no border actually. What you are saying as border, that is what we see in our (Indian) maps as border with Pakistan is actually well inside Pakistan. It's only an imaginary border, a line showing our claim, that doesn't reflect the rearlity. The reality is the LoC. Their land (what for us is Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) is shown as part of India, while in reality for all these decades, it is a Pakistan-administered territory.

Friend: You mean to say...

I: ... I mean to say there is actually no border issue. It's just a theoretical claim that India and Pakistan are making. Just stop talking about this claim, the problem is solved... It's just that simple...

Friend: (laughs)

I: See, Muzaffarabad is in Pakistan, but our map shows it as in India. Srinagar is in India, but Pakistan says it should actually be with Pakistan (that is why Musharraf supported terrorists to free Kashmir from Indian troops.) That is it... The dispute is in the claims that the two countries are making. And all the problems like terrorism is stemming out of the claims.

Friend: We should have made sure PoK became part of India..

I: Yea, that is what Pakistan was also saying, make sure Indian Kashmir becomes a part of Pakistan! Now, how do you do that? Get the lakhs of people living there disenfranchised as Pak citizens and make them Indian citizens? And, similarly get Indian Kashmiris converted as Pakistan citizens? Do you really think it is so easy to do all that?

See, when the war ended with a ceasefire, the respective positions of Indian and Pakistani troops at that time were agreed upon as the Line of Control. Neither India nor Pakistan agreed to that line as the border since the claim to each other's land still existed. Still India and Pakistan are not agreeing to it. That is the problem.

On the ground, however, the LoC is functioning as the border, with Indian and Pak troops on either side. Only in the map, and in the minds, a different border exists.

What we should do is: One, our leaders should just stop talking about Kashmir problem. Talk only if there is something about making people's lives better. Actually that is what India has been trying to do. Indian claim on PoK is much less than Pak claim on Indian Kashmir. That is why Indian Kashmir is affected by terrorism, and not PoK. It's Musharraf who is riding the tiger, because he and not India is obsessed with Kashmir. He is finding it difficult to dismount. With great difficulty he dismounted the Laden tiger, and Musharraf is still alive. He needs to make sure he will be alive if he dismounts the Kashmir tiger too...

Two, after a few years, once the feeling of a "border problem" disappears (as India really hopes it will with lots of people-to-people contacts), quietly change the maps of the two countries to reflect the actual reality, of the areas as they have been for the past many decades.

Dear friend, it's all in the mind. See, Indo-Pak cricket matches were equivalent to a war till just a few years back. Now, these matches are just like any other cricket match. That is all.

One more thing. The so-called border or LoC is just for administrative purposes. Effectively, the border is like that between states within our country, since the people on either sides are all the same. Brother is India, sister is in Pak; or uncle is in Pak and nephew is in India... that sort of situation...

Friend: (Laughs)

I: Let the people mix freely. Let more Indian movies be shown in Pak and Pak movies in India, let each country get more access to things in the other country, more of imports and exports.... the border will matter lesser and lesser. Our lives become more meaningful.

And, soon we will realise that there is actually no need to spend some Rs 500 crores or so every day to maintain Indian troops on Siachin, and Pakistan will realise that is there is no need to run terrorist training camps!

(Our debate ended since it was time up for my friend to leave)

Friday, April 15, 2005

Musharraf, any hopes?

After saying that the cross-border bus service doesn't mean much and it is no substitute for an actual solution to the Kashmir problem, Musharraf has said that more such buses could lead to a soft border. And, like an echo, here in India, foreign minister Natwar Singh has said that we heading towards a situation where borders have begun to matter less and less.

Musharraf arrives in India tomorrow. As is his wont, he will be upto some theatrical performance, a la the meeting with editors during his last visit in 2001. This time too he is meeting editors, before he leaves.

All said and done, we have to appreciate his ability to force issues, strategically plan moves and excute them with panache.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Let's do a China with Pak

During the visit of Chinese PM Wen Jiabao, India and China agreed to forget all border disputes by agreeing to staus quo. Basically, saying, "You keep what you have, I keep what I have." As an indication, the PM presented to our PM, a new Chinese map, which for the first time showed Sikkim as part of India.

Now, why can't we adopt the same formula with Pakistan? The status quo solution or the one of turning LoC into border, is the most sensible solution.

The logic is simple. One, that is the reality. Two, when India won't give up what it has, and Pakistan won't give up what it has: the most sensible thing to do is to give up the demand itself!

Let India keep what it has of Kashmir, and Pakistan keep what it has of Kashmir, and let's (at least now) get on with LIFE. Now that there is a train and a bus too.

Thursday, April 7, 2005

Shopping for curtains

There have been many instances, which I have felt fatalistic: a feeling in retrospect that I had been drawn to a particular incident. Some of the end results have been good and some bad. When they were good, I have thanked my stars for having guided me right, and when they were bad, I just consoled myself telling: getting trapped too is a part of life.

At the same time, such incidents have also made me feel that, if not the entire life, at least some parts of it are pre-determined, whatever you do. This latest incident of mine -- fateful, but definitely not tragic -- was a very commonplace event; just a chain of events. But it set me thinking.

As we moved into our new house, we were looking out for curtains for windows and doors. We were told about the new type of "ready-made curtains" that have buttoned loops. We wanted to try them out.

Last Friday, we landed up in a shop in Commercial Street. That was the first shop we were checking out for these type of curtains. We saw a good range, found prices reasonable and decided on a set of them to buy. Also, the shop had a pleasing ambience inside. Something which made me like the place too.

Just after we decided on the purchase, I glanced at the place where the shopkeeper (a tall, fair, affable, suave guy, speaking good English) was sitting (on a stool near a chair and a table), I had a doubt if he would accept credit card, because I didn't find those contraptions there. I asked him if he would accept the card. He said, No.

As it's very hard to find a shop now-a-days which doesn't accept cards, and since we don't walk around with much cash, I asked him, why he didn't have the facility. He said, the shop is new, and that he was getting it.

He then directed me to a few ATM counters near Commercial Street. But since we were running short of time, I told him that we would be back the next day. He said he would keep the entire bundle for us. We were quite happy and decided to return the next day, with cash.

On our way back home, we wondered on the prudence of buying from the very first shop we had checked out, though we did like the material. Why not check out a few more shops? In fact, we saw many shops in Commercial Street itself and in Indiranagar where there were such curtains. Why go all the way up to Commercial Street again? That shopkeeper will wait for one day, and then he sell it to someone else. After all he is a businessman.

Over the next couple of days, we visited some three or four shops in Indiranagar. Of course all of them did accept credit cards. But, either we didn't get the required colour, or the price and quality didn't match.

Disappointed, on Monday, we returned to Commercial Street, and got into a shop. There too we saw lots of curtains. But again, somehow we weren't convinced.
So, finally we decided to go to the that very same shop we had visited first. But, will he have that set still with him? It was very unlikely that he would have, seeing the number of people checking out curtains along with us that day. But more importantly, again I didn't have the required cash in my wallet. Even if I emptied my purse, I would still be short by some Rs 60.

So, I decided to go to the near-by ATM counter. I was third in the queue. The first two withdrew cash and left. When my turn came, the machine developed some problem and just wouldn't dispense cash. The fourth guy in the queue too had the same experience. I went to the bank beside the counter and informed the concerned person. He said the notes had got jammed and a technician will have to be called. He directed me to another ATM near Bowring Hospital.

We walked to that ATM counter. Believe it or not, here the machine wasn't reading the ATM card! Again, not just me, a couple of other customers too had the same problem; and two of us walked into the bank, and informed the officials of the problem. Their answer: it could be a network problem; we'll have to call the technician.

Neither could I buy the cushions, nor could I take the cash. Left with no alternative, we decided to check out yet another shop, where probably we would find the right curtains and where our card would be accepted. We had seen one at the end of the road. It looked good and we were very hopeful that we will find the right curtains there.

But it was a disaster. None of their collections came anywhere near what we wanted. But the sales girl was very enthusiastic and suggested that we get the curtains stitched. When we said we had no time, she promised to deliver them the same day!

We made our exit, and having been really boxed into a corner, for the second time in about half-an-hour we decided to return to the very first shop we had visited. I had less money than I would have to pay and with very slim chances of finding the curtains we wanted. If we did find the set intact, I thought, I would show my purse to him, ask him to take whatever there was in it, and pay whatever little is remaining later. Hopefully he would agree.

When we reached the shop, the shopkeeper had a warm smile to welcome us, back. I said, "We had been out during the weekend..." He was equally apologetic: "I waited till yesterday, kept them for you... I think they are now gone."

Hiding my disappointment, I said, "I neither gave you an advance amount that day, nor I took down your contact number... It's okay... I know you couldn't have waited endlessly for me..."

He then interjected, and told an assistant to confirm that those pieces had indeed been sold out. That guy came back to say that what we had selected were intact, and the set that was sold the previous day was of some other colour!

The assistant brought the entire bunch for us to check. It was indeed the set we had selected. Before confessing that I was again short of cash, I asked the shopkeeper, how much it all totalled to. He took out his calculator. I couldn't believe my ears.

He told us a figure Rs 110 less that what he had told us the other day. Which means, I would actually be left with some Rs 50! Just to make sure that there was no mistake, I got the calculation done again by the shopkeeper.

Not much time was wasted. Contented, we thanked the shopkeeper, and he too thanked us for coming back to him.

On our way back, I was wondered if the shopkeeper believed what I had said -- that we had gone out during the weekend. Or may be, who knows. But why did the price come down, by a good Rs 110. There was not even the slightest bargaining. Since we had returned, if at all he wanted to change the figure, he should have actually hiked it. Or, did he make a mistake the first day?

I just kept thinking about the chain of events: how we began at one place, how we changed our plans, again, and again, and again. But ended up at the precisely where we started.

The typical explanation: It was destined that we should buy the curtain from that very shop -- the lack of cash, the delay, nothing seemed to matter!

Sunday, April 3, 2005

Poor are getting better

I have always felt that while our income is certainly important, that is not all.

If we do not have a minimum income, our life can become hell. So, we must make sure that our income gradually rises. But to give income an importance over many other essential parameters of human life is not just wrong but dangerous.

There is a saying: expenditure rises to match the income (unless of course we have a very tight control over our purse.) So, high income need not necessarily be enough income. And, conversely, low income can sometimes be enough income.

I have noticed people who have high income haggling unnecessarily over small amounts of money (which they anyway have to part with). I haven't really understood why. On the contrary, people with lesser income, have their lives better planned and have money to spare.

This is a very important contemporary social issue. We have been seeing a trend wherein youngsters are sacrificing their genuine and innate interest for jobs like those in call centres just to earn a high income. Swamped by sudden wealth, they drift rudderless, searching for an anchor -- which actually is their innate interest in a particular work, which they had dumped for money.

As a consequence, today many youngsters are being counselled to give importance not just to income, but to job satisfaction as well. has a very interesting article: "The Poor May Not Be Getting Richer; But they are living longer, eating better, and learning to read". It's not directly related to my proposition. It looks at things from the poors' perspective. The article by Ronald Bailey is based on another article by World Bank economist Charles Kenny.

The article says, "Even though some of the world's poorest people are not earning much more than they were two generations ago, they're still living much better than they were. In fact, many quality of life indicators are converging toward levels found in the richer countries." Two countries he has picked are Britain and India.

"Incomes have been falling since 1950 in several countries... yet life expectancy, literacy rates and the percentage of kids in primary school have still gone up." One of the reasons for this is... "improvements (in life style have) become cheaper over time."

Read the article here

The Poor May Not Be Getting Richer
But they are living longer, eating better, and learning to read

Ronald Bailey

Wealthier is healthier—and more educated, more equal for women, more electrified, automotive, and computer-literate.

So the conventional wisdom in development economics has long been that to boost the prospects of the world's poor, one needs to boost their incomes. This is still true, but as World Bank economist Charles Kenny points out in a provocative article titled "Why Are We Worried About Income? Nearly Everything that Matters is Converging," income growth does not tell the full story.

Even though some of the world's poorest people are not earning much more than they were two generations ago, they're still living much better than they were. In fact, many quality of life indicators are converging toward levels found in the richer countries.

To illustrate this point, Kenny compares what has happened to life expectancy in Britain and India. The average age span in both countries was 24 years in the 14th century, but Britain then began a gradual rise, and by 1931 its life expectancy was 60.8 years, compared to just 26.8 for its colony. Since then, though, the numbers have begun to converge—by 1999, Indians lived on average to 63, while Brits nudged upward to 77.

One of the main reasons for the gap-closing is the fall of infant mortality. In 1900 Britain, the infant survival rate was 846 per 1,000 births, compared to 655 in India. Today, 992 British infants out of every 1,000 survive, compared to 920 Indians.

Kenny notes that increasing life expectancy correlates with greater caloric intake. "Worldwide, the proportion of the world's population living in countries where per capita food supplies are under 2,200 [calories per day] was 56 percent in the mid-1960s, compared to below 10 percent by the 1990s," Kenny notes. And although he doesn't mention it, one reason is that buying food is a whole lot cheaper than it used to be—the real prices for corn, wheat, and rice have decreased by more than 70 percent since 1900.

Other social indicators, such as literacy rates, are also converging. In 1913, only 9 percent of Indians could read, compared to 96 percent of Britons. Today, 57 percent of Indians and 100 percent of people in the UK are literate. According to Kenny, between 1950 and 1999, global literacy increased from 52 percent to 81 percent of the world. And women have made up much of the gap: Female literacy as a percentage of male literacy has increased from 59 percent in 1970 to 80 percent in 2000.

Kenny also observes that what he calls "non-necessary consumption" has been increasing for the world poorest, too. For example, while the bottom 20 percent and the top 20 percent of the world's population both increased their beer drinking between 1950 and 1990, the bottom quintile's consumption grew five times as fast.

Incomes in the world's poorest countries have been rising slightly over the past 50 years, so perhaps these large improvements demonstrate that small changes in earning power at the lower income levels have dramatic effects? Surely that's been part of the story, but Kenny points out that incomes have been falling since 1950 in several basket-case countries like Cuba, Angola, Nicaragua, Mozambique, and Bolivia, yet life expectancy, literacy rates and the percentage of kids in primary school have still gone up.

So why is the quality of life for the world's poorest people improving, and in fact converging toward levels found in the richer countries? Because improvements become cheaper over time. Kenny notes: "Broadly, the results suggest that it takes one-tenth the income to achieve the same life expectancy in 1999 as it took in 1870.

Consider the virtuous circle of agricultural improvements, such as the way discovering how to properly use inorganic fertilizers boosted agricultural production, which increased the calories available to families, which in turn meant they didn't need their kids to work the fields full time, thus permitting them to go to school to become literate, which enabled them to more effectively adopt even better farming techniques, and so forth. Literacy makes educating people about the germ theory of disease a lot easier. Once-expensive medicines like penicillin eventually cost only pennies per pill. Although building infrastructure remains relatively expensive, technology can leapfrog entire costly steps, as has been demonstrated by the lightning-fast growth of cellular-telephone adoption from zero to 1.5 billion people.

The world's poor have clearly benefited enormously from spillover knowledge and technologies devised in the rich capitalist countries. But they would be a whole lot better off if their incomes increased, too. For that to happen, institutions like private property and the rule of law must be adopted. Poor countries remain poor largely because the incompetent despots who rule over them keep them that way. Poverty was once humanity's natural state, but today it is almost always man-made.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Defense of the Biotech Revolution, Or Why You Should Relax and Enjoy the Brave New World will be published in June by Prometheus Books.

Saturday, April 2, 2005

Packing, moving, unpacking

Shifting residence can be exhausting, though exciting too. Packing, moving, unpacking. Bangalore is the sixth city I moved to: Bhopal, Indore, Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Hyderabad are the earlier ones. In each city itself, I have moved at least twice. That's nothing compared to some government staff who have moved many times than this.

What I found was when I move from one city to another, I am more organised. Probably because of an awareness that I can rush back to the old house to pick up something that I have left behind.

We moved on the 30th to the new house. Someone told me that we should enter the new house before noon or after 1.30 pm. I guessed right: that was the inauspicious time period of Rahu Kalam.

I recalled how earlier we never cared for such things. We fixed the day, when the boss gave leave, and moved when the truck (or the camel cart, once in Ahmedabad, when I didn't have much to move) arrived. Now, probably because we have grown older, and we have been influenced by elders, we decided to keep that time period in mind.

It was 9 am. The small tempo-truck my friend, Suresh, had arranged to come to our house by then, hadn't come. It was 10. Still no sign. Finally, the driver arrived around 10.30, but no sign of the labourers to load the things on to the truck. Seeing the number of things we had to shift, the driver exclaimed: "O, that's all! I and my assistant will load them fast." Within five minutes the professional "loaders" arrived. Relief!

By 11.05 am, loading was over, and we moved. In about 15 minutes we reached the new house, around 4 km away. When the driver saw that he couldn't take the vehicle very close to the house (it's an apartment), unlike the earlier (independent) house, he began his protestation.

I asked him: "What can I do? I can't stop people who are working at the apartment complex. I am not the builder."

But his problem was something different. It will take longer to unload and put the things in the house (when compared to the loading time.) Which means, he will have to stay longer. Which means, he loses his "precious" time. Which means, he will lose another customer. Which means, I should compensate him by paying more money.

He looked like getting ready for a long argument session. But since I got the hint (not just the money, but also probably his plans to ruin my peace of mind), in a flash I offered to pay him a little more; and with a pat on his back, I got him moving. There was every sign he was taken by surprise.

You are momentarily immobilised, and lost in a thought-vacuum, when you reach your goal ahead of time! That's probably what happened to him. He had just a complacent smile to offer.

By noon, all the things were in. Hope that was a good sign! We were back for one more round, and by 2.30 pm, we were through. The driver and the labourers were gone. March 30: the first day in the new house. We were the first to move in. Though our flat is ready, work is still on in the complex.

The evening and night were spent for unpacking and putting things in place. And then, a scare. A few things, like the small wet grinder, were missing. But as usual, in due course, they were located deep inside some carton!