Thoughts on economics and liberty

Category: About me

An autobiographical essay (1996)

I found this short essay (below) among my papers today. It may interest no one, but a blog is a place for one's own notes: matters which interest me, whether they matter to others or not.

This 1996 essay interests me on two grounds: (a) I cite Schumacher as an influence, which is no longer true, and (b) I was reminded that since 1990 I had worked towards a manifesto for a political party to be launched in Assam.

My disillusionment with existing political parties had clearly started by then, and I was looking for solution: what would a good party do was the question I asked. If I find a copy of that initial manifesto of 1990, I'll put it up on my blog for whatever it is worth! Just memories to me, if nothing else.

In any event, that thought – of writing a manifesto – re-emerged in 1998 and led to the Victory of India Party and then to the India Policy Institute. This essay also reminded me that I never budged from my early aim (since about 15, I think) to be philosophically self-sufficient and to lead life the way I see fit.

There is a conflicting element in this essay: so, why was I preparing a manifesto in 1990 if I did not intend to join real politics (as I wrote in the essay)? I suspect I was not sure of my goals then; these things take time to evolve. But by February 1998, I had no doubt that I should join active politics, in a systematic manner. That aim remains good even today: though I had a setback in 2005, and I am only now recovering my interest in this goal, again.

Sanjeev, 7 Jan 2009

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ITEM 14. AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY

(submitted as part of an application for the USC College of Arts and Sciences Pre-doctoral Merit University Fellowship on 22 January 1996)

My family background has been relatively exceptional in terms of Indian norms. Though my parents are Hindus, they are extremely liberal, and did not interfere in my attempts to determine my own opinions through a vast reading of Western and Indian philosophy from the age of 12. Despite not being too well off, my father encouraged me to purchase any amount of second-hand books that I could lay my hands on. When I declared at 13 that I was not a Hindu, and began to offer various proofs of my atheistic contentions, I was not curbed in my expression of dissent. I have considered humanism as my religion since the age of 16. Later, I worked out stern ethical principles for my own reference, and attempted to write a book on philosophy at the age of 19. The book is far from completion (a hand-written 3000-page first draft was penned down in 1979-81), but the two years of work put into it opened my eyes to the complexity of issues involved, and enabled me to leap headlong into public service from the age of 22 with a determination to do something positive for my fellow human beings who were relatively under-privileged. Voltaire, Bertrand Russell, R.W.Emerson, Vivekananda, M.K.Gandhi and E.F. Schumacher have been some of the key influences in my intellectual development. In many ways I therefore represent a modern, liberal, independently thinking human being who could be found anywhere on the globe.

Today, I am thirty-six years old – an age when it is rather uncommon, at least in India, to be reverting to university education for one’s personal development. I have extensive financial pressures living in USA, which will get worse as both my wife and I attempt to complete a Ph.D. degree here. The salary back home will stop in August, 1996, as I move to extra-ordinary leave, and there will be a steep drop in funding available to my wife. I also have important commitments of time to my family with two children – with a daughter being born only 25 days ago, on the 29th of December, 1995. It was therefore definitely not necessary for me to have returned to higher study, or, having taken a break of two years to study for a Masters degree, to attempt a Ph.D. program. Back home, the challenging job, power, prestige, large house, servants, chauffeur driven cars, and other perquisites, are sufficient to prevent most IAS officers from leaving India for a student life. In terms of job satisfaction, also, my work was very fulfilling. But by 1989, I had began to realize that personal hard work and dedication were of not much avail if economic policies were “defective” in the first place. This meant a re-consideration of many of the economic premises which I functioned under.

It would be necessary to mention in this context that I have always taken a deep interest in politics. I have seen the political system at very close quarters in India and I believe that ultimately I must contribute to its betterment. Since 1990, I have been preparing a draft manifesto for the launch of a new political party in Assam along with a few active friends. But I soon realized that it is very difficult to work out a set of consistent humanitarian policies for political action, in the absence of immense knowledge of economics. In 1993, therefore, I considered the necessity of a trip to a good university in USA to fill up these gaps in my knowledge and thinking. I have not reached anywhere near the level of confidence I think I need to begin to sort out the issues involved. Hence the need to go beyond the Masters degree. I must state here that I have no intentions of joining active politics, however. My interest remains purely academic and intellectual – at the policy level.

The overall style of my life is therefore moving, as I planned it, in the direction of participation in events of real life, while retaining sufficient distance from them, to be able to look back and deliberate on the broader issues of life and philosophy. I would be happiest as a writer of normative philosophy and economic policy. I would like to be able to sit back and write on issues which I believe are of long-term interest to human beings everywhere. A Ph.D. degree in Economics would be just the right thing for my vision to be established on sound academic principles.

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Some thoughts on Assam from Perth

In the same vein as the previous post, here's something written in 1992. An edited version of this was published in the Sentinel. Sanjeev 22 Feb 07.

I have a background in administration in one of the most "backward" states in a developing country. Being sent here under a Colombo Plan training programme was an exciting prospect. And apart from doing my studies, which is what I am primarily supposed to do, I also decided that I would try to analyse what I saw around me, in relation to what I see back home.

What was it that struck me when I first came to Australia? The lights in the streets work. The streets are straight, well-finished, with berms sloping slightly above the edge of the road. And so on. I will come back to all this. But what stuck me essentially was the planning of the city. A city like Perth could not have sprung up on its own.

Coming from a socialist country, one has a tendency to think of planning primarily as "developmental planning" with someone at the state or central capital working out details of what is to be produced, where it is to be produced, how much is to be produced and who is to produce it. In Australia I find that there is far more planning than we have ever imagined.

But this planning is in the streets, in the design and lay-out of the parks, in the careful intersections of blocks, in the clear signboards visible to all concerned, specifying the names of roads and places. I found an amazingly high level of urban planning. Traces of this kind of planning are found in special zones in New Delhi such as Chanakyapuri, but these also are no match for the routinely perfect planning of every inch of space which Australia brings into its urban limits. But back at home, unfortunately we have delegated urban planning to a small and insignificant department, called the Town and Country Planning Department in Assam.

I am an advocate of appropriate technologies for rural areas, and a fanatic about rural development, but that does not mean in any way that our urban areas should use inappropriate technology and techniques.

As a citizen of Guwahati, the average level of frustration I faced, till only a couple of months ago, was so high that I wonder how and why I ever did any kind of work at all.

Driving:

Taking my scooter out on the streets of Guwahati was like going into hell. It was a terribly stressful experience. And I had to do it many times a day, since in Guwahati the plannig is linear, from one corner, near Khanapara, upto Jalukbari, nearly 25 kilometers away, and places are at great distance from each other. There are no interconnecting roads, hardly any alternative roads, and whatever roads exist are designed to test the driver's skills at moto-cross or "pothole-cross". There are vast areas in the rainy season (which covers half the year) where you have to walk in your boots with knee-deep drain water slushing in your feet, lugging the scooter along. There are also areas where the slush and mud on the sides of the roads is so dangerous that you never know whether you will reach home with your bones intact. And in the portions where the roads are relatively well-developed, a scooterist is liable to face all kinds of dust particles hitting his face at great speed.

And it is not as if the experience of a car-driver are any better. The traffic lights are small, hidden behind poles and mostly out of order. Except for the flyover at Chandmari, it is a stressful experience trying to locate and decipher the traffic lights, or the signals being given at night by black and invisible policemen, waving some circular, flat pieces at the traffic. The narrow, winding roads, terrible congestion, poorly-lit streets at night, lack of pedestrian crossings, lack of bicycle paths, and the movement of all kinds of vehicular traffic on the same road, are so frustrating that sometimes one wants to cry, but then, there is no other place to go. So one allows the stomach to churn and produce its acid of frustration, and tries to hang on till one reaches home at the end of the day.

Gas, electricity and and shopping:

Apart from the necessity of driving (or going by bus, if you so like) comes the stress involved in getting your cooking fuel such as gas. Till recently I had to go near the capital complex into a small street winding crazily in the middle of an otherwise totally plain area (one can expect winding streets in hills but not in the plains) and wait in a queue till I paid the money for the gas and the relevant papers were filled. Thereafter I had to go into another street some distance away where in a ramshackle "godown" someone would exchange the old cylinder for a new one. The skills in driving upto that place, reversing the car, and patience involved in getting the gas were so severely tested every time that it became a nightmare just to get the gas. Things had slighly improved just before I came, but not really very considerably.

In Perth, every flat has a piped gas connection with meter. There is so much saving of time and effort that I feel a strange kind of bliss in this place. My stomach, which had deteriorated with the stomach-wall being eaten up by its own acid in Guwahati, has improved dramatically over here. Less stress, less acid secretion. Happiness. Or, let us call it, bliss.

Shopping is one other necessary evil in Guwahati. It is a miracle that one has not caught more diseases such as typhoid and cholera, after going to the unhygienic market places littered all over Guwahati, including Fancy Bazaar. Apart from stepping over filthy footpaths and rubbish scattered all over, there is no happiness when you reach the shopping places either. The vegetable and fish shops are almost floating on filth and flies. Or so it seems after seeing the shopping centres here. And many of the other shops are adjacent to drains which smell as if these were open toilets. I remember one horrible experience when I purchased icecream and tried to eat it in a "decent" shop near Chandmari, with a most obnoxious smell coming from the drain just outside the shop. But one has to live. And one has to therefore shop and eat, even at great risk.

After travelling with great stress to the office and then to the shops, and buying the fish and vegetables in the midst of filth, and ultimately getting the them cooked on the gas which was procured with great difficulty, when one starts to eat, the lights go off! More stress, more strain. More stomach churning, more acidity. In Perth, the lights have not gone out for even one second since the two months we have been here.

A planned city is fundamental to our existence:

With the "blessings" of the streets and shopping centres of Guwahati, the difficulties in procuring gas, and the intermittent supply of electricity, it is a miracle that some of us keep on trying to work in the offices, trying to do some kind of "developmental planning" for this country of ours. And the stupid ones of us still have hope for our miserably mismanaged country.

I feel so shallow and so small here. I feel that we are like arrogant, stupid morons who are not even toilet trained and who have littered up their pants and surroundings, but who are trying to build up great developmental structures. Worse than Don Quixote. If our planning is blind to the physical space around us, and we are busy squatting and littering all over, we have no business to do economic development.

Even within India, I feel small as an officer of the Assam cadre of the IAS, when I go to some of the relatively better planned state capitals. Of course the mess that is India is inescapable everywhere, but at least in some places, here and there, people have had the foresight to plan something for their future, apart from living in the present. Take Madras for example. Inspite of the mess that one finds all over (the Cooum river, for example) there are relatively well-planned streets and parks on the beaches, where one can meditate near the ocean, if one is so inclined; and emphasis is being given on the development of children by building huge parks like the VGP Golden Beach. In Guwahati, except for the zoo, there is nothing to offer to our children.

Who will believe us when we say that we are economic experts and developmental officers? Even after my training of one year in economics and finance in an excellent university here, I am sure that I will not be able to utilise half of what I have learnt if I have to again go out in the same old filthy streets and shopping centres, and waste my time and energy organising gas and praying for electricity. A planned city is fundamental to the existence of modern man. Only a fool would decry the importance of well-planned cities in the over-all development of a country.

In my mood of depression which I feel when I look back at my country, my state, and my city, I have only this to say today. Sad to say, our best officers and ministers have more to learn from the planned and clear-headed mind of a common draftsman and brick layer of Australia than we will ever have to teach to the common man here. We may pride ourselves for having a great past, but when we live our present in a muddled web of confusion and disarray, then who in the world will respect us?

And the worst part is that the people of Australia have not done any remarkably intelligent act by deciding to live in a planned manner. This is not advanced science. It is only the elementary application of arithmetic and geometry, not even architecture. The concept is simple: draw up and implement a clear-cut plan for the place you want to live in.

Now what?

But enough of my depressive fit. I must not allow myself to feel overcome by grief. I have to tell you that there is hope. So…

What is the way out for Guwahati?

I would feel that Guwahati is a mess which can be rectified, if at all, only at great cost. Far cheaper would be to design a town somewhere outside Guwahati, but sufficiently near to it, such as we have in Old Delhi and New Delhi, so that government would be able to shift to a rational place within twenty or so years from now, and people living in it would feel proud to belong to Assam. Let us send our architects and engineers to places such as Canberra, or even within India, to places such as Ooty and Khadakvasla, so that we have, in the twilight years of our lives, a place to live from where the mess of today will only appear to have been a bad dream.

And in this matter, I must hasten to add that I have no axe to grind. I have nothing against Guwahati. I love the beautiful hills and the Brahmaputra river. Who would'nt? My wife, my child, were both born in Guwahati. This place means much to me. But we cannot continue with a place which frustrates the daily living of its average citizens, causes them disease, discomfort and distress, and saps their enthusiasm. We must search out a sister for Guwahati. And make her beautiful. And for once, show that we can plan a place to live in which is as good as the best in the world.

This paper is thus a plea to our planners and developers to turn strongly and vigourously to urban planning and development after having spent so many infructuous years in vague, socialistic, economic development. People often do their own economic development better if left to themselves, within a broad structure of rules. The government may therefore be best advised to spend a far greater amount of its energy on infrastructure and urban development.

I would also visualise the government doing a lot of training and development of the people, so that they are skilled enough to exploit the opportunities opening up to them. For this purpose, it would perhaps be necessary to set up many more engineering and technical universities of excellence and institutes of technical training all over the state. Institutes for garment production through computerised machines, institutes of foreign trade, and institutes of food processing are required in Assam. There are so many opportunities of selling our products in Australia and the rest of the world. I will touch upon this another time.

And perhaps government should withdraw as soon as possible from its disastrous experiment with managing production and commercial activities, which are best left to co-operatives and private enterprise. Intelligent people learn from their experience, and from the experience of others. We may not be worse off if we learn from the experience of people in Singapore and Korea, and Australia, among others. We have nothing to loose except our poverty and stupidity.

As I end, with a pensive note, I am led to wonder whether there would have been any change in the positive direction by the time I return to India. I love my country, but it burns my soul and hurts my heart to see the suicidal waste of its resources. Particularly by those who should know better.

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