Archive | November, 2013

India from space

A small step for ISRO, a giant leap for building consensus around space exploration in India.

India MoM Image of Earth

Humans have looked up at the stars even before language was invented, and the lights above us have always been a part of human imagination and curiosity, be it in religion, philosophy, science or the arts. What changed in the last century is that not only could we look up, but humanity got the ability to go up high and look down. The photograph Earthrise by astronaut William Anders is easily among the most iconic images to date, where a blue earth rises above the scarred lunar surface.

Exploration in general and space exploration in particular have always excited and inspired people in a manner that few other ideas could. Organisations like NASA figured out early on that beyond any scientific or utilitarian purposes, beautiful images from space have immense value in and of themselves. With human spaceflight, astronauts could take photographs manually. But with improvements in photography, image processing and visualisation technologies, even satellite images can now have great aesthetic and communicative value.

Anyone who has glanced at Google Earth or seen any of NASA Earth Observatory’s exquisite pictures already knows the value of visually observing the earth from space.

ISRO and the Indian space programme have been quite slow in realising the same and acting on it. Though India has been sending satellites to space for over three decades now, there are hardly any memorable images one can think of. Rakesh Sharma in his cosmonaut suit comes to mind, and the other is of space launches. Little from the satellites themselves. While several Indian satellites have imaging capabilities of various kinds, they have been put mainly to technical and scientific uses and almost never for public consumption.

India’s Mission to Mars providing the above simple and elegant image of the Indian subcontinent is the latest step in establishing a culture of communicating with the public on the national space programme. Compared to NASA’s high quality, you can see that the image is far from perfect – the clouds are overexposed, the image has been rotated and cropped, and resolution is sub-optimal. But instead of descending into snobbery, we really need to appreciate the increasing effort ISRO is putting in doing this. Earlier in the year ISRO provided some stunning images of the Kumbh mela and the disaster at Kedarnath. Nothing illustrates the changing mindsets at ISRO better than the contrast of these examples to the rather lacklustre photograph of the earth from Chandrayaan – shared below.

chandrayaan-pic-of-earth

Space exploration is a very public affair – for better and for worse. It is exceedingly difficult to hide success or failure from the public eye, and one has to constantly address questions of poverty while spending public monies on space. Visually engaging the public is essential if ISRO wants to think bolder, aim higher and go farther.  One picture from above can help people understand floods or urban growth or complex natural phenomena like no amount of explaining can.

The good news is that NASA has already paved the way for ISRO, and they could also possibly help the latter in setting up a team in-house which can work on a visual exploration of India from space. Below are a curated set of images of India from space, taken by various NASA spacecraft and satellites. Here’s to hoping that their tribe grows larger.

Follow Pavan Srinath India from NASA’s eyes on Pinterest

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Taxing our way to better health?

The idea of taxing junk food to tackle obesity is silly at best and dangerous at its worst.

Nivedita Kashyap pointed me to intriguing news coming out of Mexico yesterday: the middle-income country has just approved a tax on junk food in response to an overwhelming majority of its population suffering from obesity. There is to be about 8 US cents of tax on a litre of soft drinks, and 8 percent sales tax on high-calorie foods. [New York Times]

At first glance, this looks like a welcome idea. Frequent intake of sugary and high calorie foods is extremely unhealthy, and a tax can ostensibly start weaning people off of them, even if in small steps. But once the idea is interrogated with a little more care, it starts falling apart.

Taxes can be deft instruments at influencing behaviour. In a country like India where we routinely ban things that we do not like, taxation can look like a surgical scalpel to the chainsaw that is a blanket ban. Wherever there is a strong economic motive or human desire behind a particular action, banning it only drives it underground. Sports gambling is illegal in India, but it happens any way, and without any regulation. Ditto with the supply and consumption of liquor in states like Gujarat, Mizoram and Nagaland – where alcohol is currently prohibited.

However, there is an inherent assumption of elasticity when taxes are used to influence behaviour. The assumption is that the demand for junk food or alcohol will reduce meaningfully with a modest increase in the cost of it. This assumption is very valid in many cases. The higher price with taxes can make alternatives more attractive. Unfortunately, the assumption fails quite spectacularly in known cases similar to junk food: tobacco and alcohol. Both of these are taxed quite heavily in most economies for precisely the opposite reason – not because people start consuming less of them, but because the demand remains steady and high. In the name of curbing ‘socially undesirable’ habits, states can pocket reliable sources of large revenues. To Mexico’s credit, its lawmakers admit that the tax on junk food was “necessary to reduce rising rates of obesity and diabetes, as well as to raise revenue.”

Note the use of the word modest earlier – overzealousness in taxing goods with inelastic demand like alcohol or junk food can have disastrous consequences. About 170 people died in West Bengal in late 2011 by drinking adulterated illicit liquor, as the excise duties on alcohol were between 30 and 49 percent in the state then. The very high taxes forced many to subvert the process and try to distill liquor at home, to disastrous consequences. For all we know, heavily taxing soft drinks and fatty foods at restaurants and supermarkets could drive people in Mexico to start deep-frying more food at home. Further, if frying oil were to be regulated (as a diligent authority keen on reducing obesity might) enterprising individuals could turn to dodgy substitutes again.

An alternate defence of taxes on undesirables is that the money received in taxes could be used to offset the effects of it. This makes sense in cases like asking polluters to pay, where the tax is almost a compensation that can be legitimately redistributed to those adversely affected. But in a case like junk food, what states usually end up doing is running ad campaigns trying to change people’s behaviour. There appears to be a poetic sense of justice to this – taking money from junk-food-eaters to tell others not to do so. Please permit this blogger to guffaw a little though, having watched decades’ worth of ineffective commercials and warnings regarding tobacco smoke or alcohol. As to taxing sugar making sugar-substitutes more attractive: I am yet to see a single person use artificial sweeteners who was sensitive to its price. What they are usually sensitive to is diabetes or obesity.

There is also nothing inherently moral about taxing something like junk food just to raise a lot of revenues for the state. The moral imperative with taxation is that the state extract as small a levy as it can from its citizens to perform its expected and unique functions. There is nothing moral about asking smokers, drinkers or junk-food-eaters to finance the profligacy of a state.

As humanity evolves, we find new challenges that we are biologically and socially ill-equipped to tackle. While food, calories and sugar have been extremely scarce for hundreds of thousands of years, they have become ubiquitous in the last century or two. It will require great feats of innovation and creative thinking, and not incremental taxation to address problems like obesity.

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Postscript. Taxation is closely linked to the idea of redistribution – which is the notion of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. This is often hailed as the hallmark of a compassionate, welfare-oriented society. But as The Acorn puts it, taxation for redistribution is theft: the act of taking from Preetam and giving to Palani. The grand conceit is that Preetam is necessarily richer and that Palani is necessarily more deserving, and progressive taxation on income usually gives us that impression. However, redistribution also happens from all the aforementioned taxes: from beer drinkers to non-drinkers, from cigarette-smokers to teetotallers, and now from the fat to the not-so-fat in Mexico. Similarly we also see redistribution from one state to another, from cities to villages, sector to sector and more. It is time we started acknowledging redistribution as theft and allowing it only where absolutely necessary.

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