Markets and Maamis

What I learnt about the state of markets in India from a conversation with my grandmother.

My maternal grandmother belongs to a rarified subset of people: she falls at the intersection of all who have read the Valmiki Ramayana in Sanskrit, and the Lord of the Rings in English. I always learn something new when I talk to her, given the five odd decades of difference in our perspectives. A recent conversation with her sparked a few thoughts on how markets work in India when I spoke to her about cotton wicks.

My grandma makes her own cotton wicks for lighting lamps. She takes a tuft of cotton, twirls it around her fingers and keeps adding cotton till there is a bushy tuft at the base and a stiff stem of cotton leading up top from it. This can be easily lowered into a variety of different lamps, doused with oil and lit aflame. With age and with softening hands, she uses a dab of water to retain her grip on the cotton.

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This sounds like a very natural thing for grandmothers to do, if you asked the average Indian grandchild. But it would also seem rather odd to an observer who has no context – why would a well-to-do old woman spend so much of her time labouring over something as simple as cotton wicks? Why would she not just buy them in the market instead? It is easy to dismiss such behaviour as the pedantry of the old, but there are often better explanations.

When asked why, my grandmother explains. Apparently the cotton wicks that are available in the market are too ‘loose’, where the wick is not tightly wound and is liable to get droopy and annoying to deal with. They also are often too thick, containing far too much cotton in the wick, leaving residues upon burning. What she makes remains far superior to what is commercially available, and she prefers to stick to that. She even goes far as lamenting how a couple of her daughters are forced to buy the inferior ones from the market.

What this actually means is that the market is not yet mature enough for cotton wicks. If the supply of cotton wicks were more sophisticated, someone would have figured out that tightly wound cotton wicks can perhaps be sold at a higher price to the discerning grandmotherly customers. It means that while the market is currently flooded by generic cotton wicks, there is the potential for the market to attract new buyers if they do two things: increase quality; and through signalling differentiate the two products. While this is true, there is also a lack of maturity on the demand side. A mature set of conumers will acknowledge that quality often demands a premium and are willing to pay for it.

This little nugget illustrates a lot of what people in India are going through while dealing with markets. Till the 90s, the Indian economy had not opened up and we used to highly regulate most markets. Incomes were also lower, whereby most families figured out how to produce a large variety of small goods that they consumed themselves. At best, they would be barters from a kind grandmother to some of her children.

As markets slowly developed, many people developed a disdain for goods that were commercially available, preferring the quality of home-crafted goods, romanticising the notion at the same time. Along with the disdain came a distrust of what the market could offer. This also means that the most discerning consumers retreated from the market, thereby making markets mature a lot slower. The notion of paying higher for better quality is being discovered rather slowly, with cost-saving being the primary reason for engaging with the market.

Forget cotton wicks, this explains the state of Indian markets in most goods – from agricultural produce to home food, Indian households prefer to consume a lot of things that they produce themselves. This retreat from markets denies people the opportunity to specialise, and reduces the amount of welfare one can gain by engaging markets.

Even my grandma readily admits that she’s much happier using clean cotton today compared to the seed-ridden, dirty cotton from a decade ago. She does not have to clean the cotton and she is happy to pay the premium for it. Here’s to hoping that Indian markets mature soon to deliver the kind of cotton wicks she wants, and more.

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Wordlens and an Indian babel fish

Varun Ramakrishna pens a guest post on what it would take to get an Indian babel fish. 

Wordlens is a company that makes an impressive translation app that was recently acquired by Google. A good step towards Douglas Adams’ fantastical Babel fish, the app lets you point your smartphone at a street sign in another language, and a translation appears on your phone’s screen, superimposed on the sign, as if the sign was always in the translated language. Currently, the app only allows translations between a few European languages.

In a nation as diverse as India where so many languages are spoken and written, often in their own unique scripts, we cannot fail to ask the question: what would it take for us to get a Wordlens for Indian languages?

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The computer vision algorithms used in Wordlens are mostly well understood and fairly straightforward. The real technical achievement is that they have managed to get these algorithms to run in real-time on the phone’s processor. The processing involves detecting the region of the image that corresponds to text, unwarping it followed by binarizing the text image to normalize for color, background and illumination and separating out each character.

Once the text has been reduced to a standard form, what remains is to use an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) engine. The OCR engine does exactly what it says – it examines a pattern and identifies any language characters that are present. An answer on the website stack-overflow by a wordlens engineer seems to suggest they use an OCR engine they developed in-house rather than a commericially available or open source implementation. This is probably because commercial and open source engines have been designed and trained to work on documents which are usually imaged in controlled conditions, while for OCR to work “in the wild” (such as reading signboards on the fly) it would probably require some modification.

With the multitude of Indian languages and scripts, it seems like an app like this would find lots of users in India. So can this be done for Indian languages?

In principle, yes. The processing required is common across all languages except for the OCR. While OCR has been around for a while and commercial OCR engines have pretty high accuracies for latin languages, there seem to be strikingly few good OCR engines for Indic languages. The gold standard open source OCR engine Tesseract originally developed at HP labs but now under Google’s patronage (they use a version on the Google Books project), supports 34 languages but no Indian language. Although there are many academic publications on indic OCR, without a robust usable implementation it is unlikely that it will reach the masses.

Our best hope at this point is probably Google. If they do decide to extend their Google Books project to Indian language books, they will need to invest in improving indic OCR, which should be easily ported to an app like wordlens.

Varun Ramakrishna is a graduate student in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University working on making computers see. He believes that high technology can transform societies. [Email]

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Do cash transfers make people spend more on alcohol?

The most oft-cited reason in favour of in-kind subsidies against cash transfers is that the latter will make people waste the money on alcohol or other “temptation goods”. It turns out that all the evidence we have today debunks this as a myth. 

Rohit Pradhan shares a new research paper from the world bank, ‘Cash Transfers and Temptation Goods: A Review of Global Evidence‘ by David K Evans and Anna Popova. In this short paper, the authors review all empirical research on the topic to date. Since the success of Bolsa Familia and other experiments, conditional cash transfers have become an increasingly successful reform measure in welfare policy, moving away from an old idea of the state providing in-kind private goods to those considered deserving.

Cash transfers have also been slowly but unsteadily making their inroads into Indian welfare policies – with a Direct Benefits Transfer programme that was launched in January 2013. Linked to the Aadhar unique-ID system, the DBT if well implemented could bring about a welfare policy that is both more targeted and has lower delivery costs. That said, the parliament during the same UPA regime also passed a massive National Food Security Act that legislated the provision of food grains to two-thirds of India’s households. This schizophrenia awaits resolution with a new cabinet soon to be sworn in, and this paper could not have come at a better time to quash the last remaining refrain against cash transfers.

Perhaps the most persistent criticism of cash transfers is the misuse of transferred money by the beneficiaries who may spend it instead on alcohol or tobacco. These “temptation goods” could range from the frivolous to the obnoxious. The notion is that cash transfers would allow a callous husband to waste more money on booze that is meant instead for the wellbeing of a household. As the authors explain, past reports have been replete with anecdotes about the same. Without doubt, alcoholism (especially in adult men) and an iniquitous household structure have huge social costs on poor families. This cannot be dismissed or made light of. But it is also not something you can fix through lazy welfare policies, the problems are far beyond their scope.

What the authors show is that alcohol and tobacco consumption are agnostic to cash transfers – things are no better and no worse with other kinds of policies. Whether the state provides a kilogram of grain or the amount of money to buy one, it makes no difference to the household. People will continue to spend as they have, and what all transfers do is augment the income of the household. It is this aggregate effect of all cash and kind transfers that matters most. If the consumption pattern does change, it’s because of an ‘income effect‘ rather than anything else.

In-kind welfare policies for those in need are patronising, brimming with the arrogant assumption that the State knows best as to what a person or a household needs and what they should spend their money on. Now there is sound evidence to show that not only are in-kind welfare policies normatively problematic, but also hold no advantage over cash transfers, and several damning disadvantages.

You can read the full working paper here.

David K. Evans, Anna Popova ‘Cash transfers and temptation goods : a review of global evidence.’ Policy Research working paper; no. WPS 6886 (2014).

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In Pragati: The Strategic Import of India-US migration

I write in Pragati–The Indian National Interest Review on why the movement of people is the most important component of India-US relations:

There are two challenges facing Indian migration to the US today. The first is that while the rich contribution of Indian Americans to the US economy has been widely noted, this has not translated into thought on policies that make it easier for talented Indians to work in the United States. The second is that migration finds little purchase in government-to-government relations that policymakers in India and the US have been trying to boot up over the past decade.

While visa policies can be dismissed as pedestrian concerns beneath the notice of strategic thinkers, immigration is a tie binds the two nations and the two states with greater strength than anything else today. More dinnertime conversations in India revolve around US visas every month than the sum total of all discussions on India’s nuclear cooperation with the US. It is immigration that is the main reason why Indians have had a uniformly high positive attitude towards the United States, across years and presidential regimes. A sound strategic partnership has to start by strengthening this.

The two governments, and analysts on both sides have rarely looked at immigration as a matter of strategic import. From before the introduction of Senate Immigration Bill in April 2013, legislators in the United States mostly considered the US-Mexico bilateral relationship in relation to immigration. The India-US bilateral relationship has had a weak influence, if any, on the drafting of immigration policy.
[Full Article: The strategic import of India-US migration, April 18, 2014]

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Education and bilateral relations

A significant number of Indian students in the United States add great value to both countries, while flying under the radar of bilateral policymaking.

Migration is the foundation stone of India-US relations, if not the bedrock itself. Indian immigration into the United States of America has come a long way since Bhagat Singh Thind fought for citizenship in US courts about 90 years ago.

While the China-US economic relationship leans heavily on trade via the movement of goods, the India-US economic relationship is based more on the movement of people and services. Apart from a sizeable population of Indian origin in the US of about 2-3 million, Indian citizens also form the highest number of H-1B and L-1 visas, both dominated by technology and software professionals.

At Takshashila, we recently had an excellent talk on US immigration policy by Edward Alden, Senior Fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations. This blog post is limited to a few observations on immigrant Indians studying in the US on student visas.

A little over 23,000 Indians availed a US student visa in FY2012, less than 5 percent of the overall student visas issued in the country. This is down from FY2007 as the chart below shows, when Indian students availed more than 10 percent of all student visas issued. In contrast, Chinese students are being issued with visas at a rapidly increasing rate since 2007, and now hover close to 200,000 student visas a year.

US F1 Visas Total

This rapid increase in Chinese students studying in the US has received some policy response from the Americans, with the US government expressing a desire to bridge the gap between the number of Chinese studying in the US and the number of Americans studying in China. While there appears to be state support promoting Chinese students to study in the US, some reports have questioned whether they are getting sufficient returns on a US education. The increase in numbers likely stems from two factors: one, from rising incomes in China and two, from state support for foreign study. These numbers started going up before the global financial crisis and stayed high through out it.

Indian students in the US, while much smaller in number, arguably add greater value to the US economy per person. For one, Indians in the US are more likely to be studying at the masters or PhD level instead of an undergraduate education. This implies a higher threshold for selection, more number of years spent in the country, and a higher productivity and skill of the labour that comes after education.

Two, the number of F-1 student visas to Indians dipped slightly in FY2009, along with the overall number of F-1 visas issued. This was around the time of the financial crisis, a period when scholarships and university funding of masters and doctoral programmes started reducing in number, as well as the availability of jobs in the US started becoming uncertain. This implies a sensitivity of Indian students in the US to the American job market. This is in contrast to the increasing Chinese students who are likely to head back home immediately after education, at their rapid rate of increase.

Three, it is also likely that a higher proportion of Indian students are funded by US universities for their study, with the rupee-dollar exchange rate being unaffordable for most Indians. This could explain much of the drop in student visas between FY2008 and now.

US F1 Visas India China

The last decade in the US has seen a sharp rise in the number of Chinese students, a plateauing of South Korean and Indian students and a fall in the number Japanese students. The reasons for these changes can be multiple. Certain student cohorts are seen as revenue sources for US universities, certain others as high-skilled labour in research, tech and other sectors. The Indian student cohort, though small, punches above its weight. Binning luddite notions of ‘brain drains’, both US and India need to think about how they can enable the student cohort to do even better.

Immigration does not feature high on the agenda for strategic dialogue between India and the US, and student immigration even less so. It’s about time that people in Washington DC and New Delhi paid a little more attention to this as a policy issue much as it remains a social and cultural one.

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In Pragati: Spending for a Modern Armed Force

I write in Pragati–The Indian National Interest Review along with Rohan Joshi on the sorry state of defence modernisation in India:

As Ajai Shukla highlighted in February, only 4 percent of the 2013-14 capital budget is allocated for new acquisitions, down from 38 percent in 2010-11. The interim defence budget announced in February 2014 appears to do little to alleviate this systemic decline. Although a 10 percent increase in the defence budget was announced, there was only a paltry 3 percent increase in capital outlay, with revenue expenses garnering a large part of the increase. What little money will go towards defence modernisation from the overall capital outlay is as of yet unknown.

In the context of the budget, Mr Antony’s admission that there was no money left for the MMRCA deal in FY 2012-13 is surprising. Capital allocation for the IAF was increased in FY 2012-13 by 22 percent, conceivably in order to account for the first installment of Rs. 10,000 crore due to be paid to Dassault after the deal was to be signed in FY 2013.  If we are told that the IAF has spent all but 3 percent of its allocated capital acquisitions budget for FY 2013, where has the rest of the money gone?  The interim budget for FY 2014 has decreased the IAF’s capital allocation budget by about 15 percent (over FY 2013 beginning estimates) to Rs. 31,818 crore.  Worse, if the worrying trend of committed liabilities accounting for 95 percent of the capital acquisition budget lingers, this effectively means that the MMRCA deal cannot be concluded in FY 2014-15 either.
[Full Article: Spending for a modern armed force, March 14, 2014]

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Myths from Mars

Debates on space exploration in India have to move from costs to value.

The incredible inexpensiveness of the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is a myth that keeps on growing. Saritha Rai writes the latest article on the subject for the New York Times, comparing India’s MOM to the USA’s MAVEN:

“Ours is a contrasting, inexpensive and innovative approach to the very complex mission,” said K. Radhakrishnan, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, in an interview at the space agency’s heavily guarded Bangalore headquarters. “Yet it is a technically well-conceived and designed mission,” he said. Wealthier countries may have little incentive to pursue technological advances on the cheap, but not a populous, resource-starved country. So jugaad, or building things creatively and inexpensively, has become a national strength. India built the world’s cheapest car ($2,500), the world’s cheapest tablet ($49), and even quirkier creations like flour mills powered by scooters. [Full article: NYTimes, February 17, 2014]

Unfortunately, the Rupees 450 crore / $75 million price tag for the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is very misleading. As I had previously written in Business Standard, reading ISRO’s outcome budget tells us that the accounting cost to ISRO alone is likely double the figure, if not more.

For instance, salaries of ISRO engineers, scientists and top officials are not covered under the Rs 450 crore number – nor is the use of ISRO’s advanced infrastructure facilities such as the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram or the autonomous Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad.

A reading of Isro’s 2013-14 outcome budget tells us why it is inaccurate to repeat the official line that the organisation spent only Rs 450 crore on the Mars mission. Isro’s budget for the current fiscal year is a little more than Rs 6,700 crore, which is spent under 69 expenditure heads – of which Mars is just one. Apart from these heads, the department of space also funds five autonomous institutions.

There are 11 other heads of expenditure under which activities have been carried out either in the current fiscal year or in 2012-13 towards the Mars mission. This includes efforts by Isro’s Inertial Systems Unit, which helped the mission develop navigation capabilities; the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, which worked on fuelling the mission; and ISTRAC (Isro’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network), which is planning and tracking the vehicle’s movement through space.

There are also three direction and administration expense heads, which include the space secretariat, public relations and that of the top administration of ISRO, most of whose efforts over the last few months have been on the Mars mission. [Business Standard]

Indians have long believed that ISRO’s space programme is more cost-effective and inexpensive compared to foreign competitors. This line is fostered by ISRO, as evident by K Radhakrishnan’s and Roddham Narasimha’s remarks in the NYTimes article. Impressive efforts might have indeed been undertaken to reign in costs, but their arguments need to be substantiated with better evidence that is shared with the public.Before the Mars mission came along, many believed that the PSLV rocket was also far cheaper than foreign competitors. On past scrutiny, even this claim did not stand up.

It is easy to draw comparisons between NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM, but most are spurious. To begin with, MAVEN was almost double the size and is set to enter a trajectory less elliptical than MOM’s, which are both in its favour. Mars Orbiter Mission’s launch mass is only 1340 kilograms because the launch vehicle could not accommodate more and not because of any cost considerations.

India’s MOM was also not any more fuel-efficient than MAVEN. As Emily Lakdawalla explains, MOM had a more complex trajectory because it had much smaller rockets and thus had to employ many smaller bursts of thrust rather than a large one like MAVEN.

It is high time that we moved the space conversations in India from costs to value. India’s Mars mission should be judged on the scientific knowledge it contributes, the technological ability the mission fosters at ISRO, and the technologies it can spinoff for public benefit. For example, a private company called Decagon innovated to build a soil sensory probe for NASA’s Phoenix Lander mission. With early innovation funded through a space programme, Decagon is now deploying the same technology for use in agriculture back on earth. With a more open culture of innovation at ISRO, there is no reason that the Indian economy cannot benefit from better spinoffs.

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Economic growth and luxurious narratives

Faltering economic growth provides an opportunity for fresh ideas on energy policy and climate change strategy.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a seminar on ‘Low carbon growth strategies for Karnataka.’ Here is a collection of my thoughts on the topic and the discussions that took place at the seminar.

India and most of its states enjoyed 8+ per cent annual economic growth for the better part of the last decade. This growth was quite prolific and for many non-economist observers, it appeared to be chugging along on its own steam. A whole host of narratives sprung up from different corners on how sacrificing on a few percentage points on economic growth could help promote their cause and lead to better outcomes overall for India. In the process, there was a certain instrumental maligning of economic growth that was not always evidence-based.

The UPA government’s narrative of inclusive growth is perhaps the dominant narrative of the time – essentially saying that many Indians were not able to enjoy the fruits of economic growth and this required a rights-based, redistribution-led approach to make it ostensibly more inclusive. Other narratives in the environmental space include ‘(ecologically) sustainable growth’, low-carbon growth and many more, which while acknowledging that growth was necessary, wanted the growth to have a far lower ecological cost or much lower carbon emissions, even if it sacrificed several percentage points.

With annual economic growth lower than 5 per cent today, many of these narratives feel anachronistic. These “growth-modifier” narratives were only possible because the Indian economy was enjoying a high growth rate. Apart from creating fiscal space in the short run for entitlement and subsidy programmes, high growth also created the narrative space that could house such ideas. This space has rapidly vanished over the last two years but various organisations and campaigns have failed to adapt to changing circumstances. Low-carbon economic growth is one such.

A low-carbon growth strategy for Karnataka appears superfluous for a second reason. It is far from clear whether Karnataka has a growth strategy at all. As The Transition State previously showed, Karnataka has grown more slowly and alleviated less poverty both compared to the national mean and to other higher income states in India. The new government in Karnataka that was formed in 2013 has failed to articulate an economic policy or bring about any large reforms thus far. Advocating for low-carbon growth strategies in the absence of a basic growth strategy seems out of place.

Poverty and Growth - Higher Income States

There is also a false equivalence between low-carbon growth and renewable energy-led growth. Low-carbon growth essentially focuses on climate mitigation and ignores adaptation (this blog would advocate for exactly the opposite,) calling for sectors like energy, transport and agriculture to adopt policies that reduce emissions. Ignoring international climate negotiations and India’s position for the moment, these low emission options are further constrained by misconceptions.

Nuclear energy and LNG are two prominent energy options that are both low-carbon but non-renewable. LNG produces less than 40 per cent of the emissions that coal does per unit of electricity generated and will likely be the leading reason for the United States reducing its carbon emissions over the next decade and more. On the other hand, nations like Germany which are trying to phase out nuclear power have already increased carbon emissions as a part of its Energiewende strategy, instead of decreasing them. The larger battle for climate change cannot be won by taking nuclear energy off the table, even if it is politically correct to do so. Evidence be damned.

Finally, most narratives on energy debates ignore the Indian context. High income countries are mostly those whose energy demands have plateaued, and thus “either-or” questions on energy options are justified. Coal or LNG, nuclear or renewables, wind or tidal, and more. All have associated trade-offs, and nations can choose based on domestic considerations and global pressures.

India’s energy demands are growing as the economy grows, and millions of Indians still do not have access to adequate electricity for domestic use. With an energy elasticity of growth at 0.9-1, it means that a doubling of India’s GDP will require us to nearly double power generation capacity. This is inescapable. So instead of an “either-or” debate, we must ask how we can increase power generation from all sources. How public policies can be designed such that it is easier to do business in the energy sector is an important question. It takes years to set up and operationalise all types of power plants, with bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles lengthening the process significantly. This along with growing political risk have to be managed far better.

Proponents of renewable energy also have a chance to shift from advocating for subsidies to make renewable energy work, and instead think of what policy changes can make it easier to deploy wind turbines, solar farms and more. Faltering economic growth is providing an opportunity for fresh ideas on energy policy and climate change strategy. And the cost of squandering them will be very high.

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Openness in Space – more bang for the buck

India can get more value out of its earth observation satellite programmes if ISRO embraces a culture of openness.

Praveen Bose in Business Standard reported yesterday that a second Indo-French climate observation satellite is being planned between ISRO and CNES (National Space Agency of France).

India and France jointly launched the satellite Megha-Tropiques in 2011 to study tropical weather and climate. Equipped to profile radiation, humidity, atmospheric water content and more, the satellite passes over a huge swathe of tropical atmosphere every day and uses four different sensors and sounders to collect data. With a planned life of five years, the two nations are now contemplating a second satellite that would serve as a replacement starting in about 2016. This replacement will be essential as a lot of value from climate data comes when it can be generated for longer periods that capture interannual and decadal climate variations.

Megha-Tropiques is neither the only nor the first such tropical climate monitoring satellite. NASA and JAXA’s (Japan’s space agency) Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) has been running since 1997, and its replacement, the core Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) is set to be launched in February 2014. These are apart from a host of other Earth Observation satellites from around the world that tell us a lot about how complex earth systems work.

By all accounts, the sensory systems on Megha-Tropiques is of comparable quality and technology to NASA’s climate missions. But Megha-Tropiques takes a big hit in research impact because of the closed nature of the data it generates. While NASA has a high commitment to open access and open data, Indian satellite missions remain opaque and closed. For example, the TRMM website contains various rainfall-related datasets, products and visualisations that are open not just for principal investigators at NASA and partner organisations, but also open to any researcher in the world. Megha-Tropiques on the other hand has a website built by the French that provides a bunch of technical information and stops there.

Tropical climate science is a public good – where everyone is benefited by making the data and knowledge public. The good news is that the planned Indo-French satellite will contribute to the GPM network by complementing the data collected by NASA and JAXA’s core mission. Unlike the standalone Megha-Tropiques, the second climate mission is more integrated into a global effort. However, data sharing policies for the proposed satellite still looks opaque:

The data products are made available to the principle investigators of international announcement of opportunity for validation activities, according to ISRO. As the first of Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) constellation of eight satellites, Megha-Tropiques data would contribute to the global scientific community to study and understand the dynamics of climate system, ISRO added.
[Full Article – Business Standard, January 23, 2014]

While deigning to open up the data to select international researchers for validation, there is a lot of value lost because of the lack of a more public audience and use of the data. This is a standard feature of most national Indian research activities, from ISRO to the Indian Meteorological Department. Data access is restricted to a select few who have a monopoly or oligopoly over publishing research papers.

There are three broad reasons one can decipher for this lack of openness. First, government agencies have had a historical mandate of serving their parent department or ministry, and not the public. Some of this stems from colonial establishment of many government agencies, which were designed to serve a more extractive state under British rule.

Second, the lack of openness often stems from an insecurity of government-funded researchers. Many fear that they may not be able to complete globally if the information they had access to was made public. Government agencies do provide workarounds for other research institutions to access their data, but this if of a form and style that has huge search costs and transaction costs. Also, what ought to have been a public good ends up getting shared through a patronage network.

Third, there is a fear of commercial use and resale of the data. This is extremely shortsighted and is misguided about the idea of private profit. What matters with climate and other information is how it can be used to derive maximum societal benefit. This benefit can arise from both government use of that data (like with say the IMD) and with private use of the same, say in the form of weather channels using publicly generated data to send out public alerts. Private agencies should also be allowed to legitimately sell publicly produced data where they add sufficient value. While there may always be unscrupulous companies that repackage public data and try to con people into paying for it, the solution to this is more openness and not less.

ISRO has a chance at being a leader in overturning decades of government policy of keeping taxpayer-funded data open to only a select few. It has already made a beginning with projects like Bhuvan. The proposed new climate satellite can lead the way in a new approach to research and data sharing. It can even begin with simple things like making the byzantine MOSDAC data sharing website more user-friendly.

2013 was the year that ISRO realised the value of proactively engaging the Indian public, including using social media. With luck, 2014 can be the year that ISRO embraces openness and open access to data.

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Warfare in ancient India and high school football

I’ve spent the last week reading KA Nilakanta Sastri’s magnum opus, the History of South India, that spans from prehistory to the fall of the Vijayanagar empire. Among the many insights and curious facts that the book reveals, it throws some light on military prowess of kingdoms and empires over the ages.

By the 13th century, warfare in South India was internally competitive but had lost the edge to armies from the north of the Vindhyas. This was certainly not the case earlier – notable examples of southern victories include the Chalukya Pulakeshi II defeating Harshavardhana of Kannauj in the 7th century and Chola Rajendra I conquering up to the Ganges in the 11th century. Southern armies were no longer competitive after the formation of the Delhi sultanate.

The Khilji and Tughlak sultanates from Delhi began making inroads south of the Vindhyas starting in the latter half of the 13th century. One finds that the southern kingdoms did not offer a whole lot of resistance immediately. Allaudin Khilji’s famous slave general, Malik Kafur raided deep into the Deccan and Tamil heartlands, and they are referred to repeatedly as daring. they caught almost everyone off-guard. For example, kings like the Hoysala Veera Ballala III appear to have capitulated almost immediately, instead of putting up a fight. Ballala was busy trying to sort out affairs in Tamil country while Kafur came marching up to his capital Dwarasamudra (present day Halebeedu near Hassan, Karnataka). On full reading, it appears that extended supply lines, the limited objectives of the initial incursions and an increasingly hostile Hindu populace were the major reasons why Kafur and his successors did not fare better. Nothing that can be pinned to a competitive armed force.

This reminded me a little of the way a few of us played football (soccer) while in high school and later. A few of us friends played regularly with each other on a basketball court and the games were fun and competitive, and continued that way for years. But if we had to play with other groups, or play on a full-size football field, the game suffered immensely. While we were enjoying the sport within our little group, we were not even remotely competitive against anyone good outsiders.

Warfare in south India appears to have become equally stultified – there were known kingdoms, empires and fiefdoms spread across the land whose relative power varied with time. But by and large there was a code of the conduct for warfare. For one thing, temples were rarely destroyed. They were deprived of their wealth at best, and the priestly class were rarely harmed. For another, governance and civilian life continued without too much change. Caste groups, village leaders and corporate guilds provided much of the governance (iniquitous as it might have been) – from dispute resolution and policing to developmental works like irrigation and road building. The entry of new forces changed this status quo irrevocably.

Even if you were to discount the earlier example of Malik Kafur as having the advantage of surprise, the story remains the same even a century later. While Harihara and Bukka Raya of Vijayanagara were rapidly consolidating their hold on regions south of the Krishna river in the 14th century, they barely met with any success in military engagements with the rival Bahmani sultanate. If anything, only the incessant in-fighting and intrigue between various ruling muslim factions in the Deccan appears to have blunted the impact of their victories against Vijayanagara. It is only by the time of Krishnadeva Raya in the early 16th century that Vijayanagara starts winning large scale victories on the Northern border of their empire that were not quickly reversed.

Clothing of Bisnagar (Vijayanagar), a Dutch engraving by Cornelius Hazart, 1667.

Clothing of Bisnagar (Vijayanagar), a Dutch engraving by Cornelius Hazart, 1667.

Krishnadeva Raya managed to achieve this only by creating a more martial state, fostering a competitive military culture with games and contests of physical feats, as well as a modernisation of the army with gunpowder technology and horses via the Portuguese, and other sweeping changes.

North Indian powers were equally blind to events outside the subcontinent, as noted by historian KM Panikkar in a speech in 1961, ‘Before the enemies reach Panipat‘. They probably paid for it a lot more. South Indian states paid for this blindness to people outside the basketball court less frequently, but this deserves no excuse. Perhaps a key failure was in not looking for military technology through oceanic trade routes and restricting trade largely to luxury items and commodities. The only major defence import via the seas was the horse – and it is quite telling that south Indian armies never developed the ability to care for horses well, with many of them dying regularly of disease. Not even the Vijayanagara empire managed to change that. For Arab and Persian traders, south India remained a happy export destination for horses, with an ever-present demand.

Religious taboos on sea voyages likely resulted in a complete lack of parity in trading ability, and it is little wonder that maritime powers from Europe conquered India from the south. With the exception of the Cholas, Indian powers never had a blue water navy. One can only imagine the possibilities if an Indian power had developed a blue water navy after the invention of gunpowder.

Though India sort of has a blue water navy in the 21st century, we should really be asking ourselves – have we really left the basketball court?

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