Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tibet & China..

I wrote about how China ought to honour its own socialist constitution and ensure autonomy in its fullest for Tibetans and also about how that this critique is independent of the "hypocritic" support that is given to the Dalai Lama by the West.

Is China living upto its own constitutional pledges? :

Quoting one paragraph from the constitution:

"Article 4. All nationalities in the People's Republic of China are equal. The state protects the lawful rights and interests of the minority nationalities and upholds and develops the relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all of China's nationalities. Discrimination against and oppression of any nationality are prohibited; any acts that undermine the unity of the nationalities or instigate their secession are prohibited. The state helps the areas inhabited by minority nationalities speed up their economic and cultural development in accordance with the peculiarities and needs of the different minority nationalities. Regional autonomy is practised in areas where people of minority nationalities live in compact communities; in these areas organs of self- government are established for the exercise of the right of autonomy. All the national autonomous areas are inalienable parts of the People's Republic of China. The people of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs."

Well. Real News has some videos that show how the recent unrest in Tibet has been treated by the Chinese law enforcers. The videos do not tell us enough about whether the Chinese government is committed to its constitution. But it certainly makes a case for more open-ness and guaranteed constitutional rights in Chinese society especially vis-a-vis the minority nationalities, part of China, as much as there should be open-ness and constitutional rights in Indian society vis-a-vis Kashmir or in Nagaland.


Z: He Lives..Scenes from the classic movie, "Z", directed by Costa Gavras. A must see is Z..I re-saw that yesterday. Awesome direction, great flow, dark humour, class acting and total relevance. My recommendation: Have a good DVD rental nearby? Grab it rightaway.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Enlightenment in the Himalayas

Article published in The Post
Two predominantly mountainous nations in South Asia are creating late history. While Nepal is poised to shred any remaining dalliance with monarchy (even the constitutional variety), Bhutan recently embarked upon its first democratic experiment adding itself to the burgeoning numbers of nations that treat people as the chief sovereign instead of a monarch. It is the route that these nations have taken that is worth pondering and that forms the crucial difference.

In Nepal, monarchy was a sine qua non just two years ago. Observers outside the country suggest that the rapid decline in the status and popularity of the ‘kingdom’ in Nepal owes to the inter-royal squabbles that resulted in the death of several members of the royal family and the succession of Gyanendra after his brother Birendra’s death. Such a simplistic explanation is not enough to understand how the entire polity (except for a few sycophants of the royal family) united against the monarchy despite irreconcilable differences and formed a working alliance that retained power after an emergency called by the king was rescinded.

Nepal enjoyed absolute monarchy till the early 1990s when a constitutional form of royal suzerainty was structured. The main political parties, however, failed to provide stability and the king usurped total power, before being stripped of all power by the eight-party alliance that is ruling Nepal today. The yeoman struggle of anti-establishment forces of all kinds: extremists – represented by the Maoists – and civil society was responsible for the gradual withering of the hold of autocratic power, which legitimised itself on the basis of abstract concepts of ‘divinity’ and enjoyed vulgar privileges of pelf, power and privilege in a nation primarily of the poor. In merely two years the tide has changed so much that Nepal is no longer a Hindu kingdom and owing to the Maoists’ tenacity in calling for a republic, is to set to announce itself as a constitutional republic.

Bhutan, on the other hand, has had a different story. The current monarch came to power after his father abdicated in favour of this son, his eldest offspring (from his third wife). Bhutan had a treaty with India that allowed India to guide its external affairs relations, but over time Bhutan’s independence in foreign policy has been de jure, accepted by the Indians in a new treaty signed in 2007. Still Bhutan’s economy is heavily dependent upon trading with India. Bhutan’s king is supposed to enjoy a great degree of popularity. Even the fact that the living indicators in Bhutan are quite low has not meant that there is enough dissatisfaction against the ruling regime. The regime introduced a concept called, ‘Gross National Happiness’ to describe content and ‘spiritual’ progress and to justify the path of progress that had been charted by the monarchy in the kingdom. The current monarch, educated in public policy in England, has ‘guided’ democratic reforms in the state, by calling in for elections and ensuring good participation. The ‘democratic revolution’, however, is limited, as royalist parties have won all seats and have promised continuity in the impoverished Buddhist state.

For someone in the developing world, inured to modernity and exposed to the values of enlightenment, however, such fallacies such as ‘spiritual development’ is a farce and a euphemism for a false consciousness that privileges obligations of the public toward an anointed abstract authority (the king) over rights of the public itself. Surely, in today’s world, the ascription of divinity to the ruler and the suggestion that the public perform their duties and obligations in furtherance of the aims proclaimed by a ruler, who is certainly not accountable to the public in any form or fashion, is a sure-fire case of egregious regression and must be confined to the dustbin of history.

Considering this, it is encouraging that hidebound tradition and ‘false consciousness’ has given way to rationality in Nepal, which is on the cusp of becoming a constitutional republic with an elected constituent assembly to rewrite the norms of governance, and structures of political economy for the nation. In Bhutan, on the other hand, the guiding hand of the ‘renouncing’ monarch in developing democratic consciousness is welcome, but it is no substitute to peoples’ agency in deciding their collective destiny for themselves. One, therefore, hopes that the Bhutanese people also get to enjoy the virtues of freedom and civic rights instead of being hobbled by obligations and abstract duties, while holding on to their distinctive progressive cultural practices.

Meanwhile, yet another section of people are also demanding independence (and some others ‘real autonomy’). Tibetan protestors are now in the news for having staged demonstrations across several capitals obviously trying to use the backdrop of the soon-to-be-held Beijing Olympics to bring international attention to their ‘cause’. Commentators, particularly from the West, have tended to support this agitation for ‘independence’ from Chinese rule. Many have sympathised with the ‘spiritual’ head of the Tibetans, Tenzing Gyatso, named the Dalai Lama, who himself suggests a middle way to achieve ‘real autonomy’ as part of China. Yet, the commentators are not asking the most important question. How could one individual enjoy both temporal and spiritual suzerainty over an entire people? Was the Dalai Lama not ruling over a feudal order with ordinary Tibetans serving as serfs tied by the same obligations and iniquitous norms that are termed as regressive by Western countries, which themselves had gone through the phase of modern enlightenment? These are controversial questions that are skirted simply because the issue is made out to be a binary: that of so-called ‘Chinese communist occupation’ versus ‘Tibetan self-determination’.

In this author’s opinion, Tibetans should as much be children of enlightenment and beneficiaries of human progress as much as any other citizen of this world. The primary criteria is to judge whether China is fulfilling its own constitutional duty (as prescribed in the socialist constitution of China) to provide autonomy to Tibet and to preserve its cultural heritage within the framework of a socialist republic. This is consistent with the Dalai Lama’s pronunciations that Tibet is an autonomous part of China, but inconsistent with the fact that the Dalai Lama himself heads a ‘Tibetan-government-in-exile’ and thus has a temporal existence that cohabits his ‘spiritual’ image.

Thus while the Nepalis and the Bhutanese get to become masters of their own destiny in the material world without having to partake their rights for obligations to a nominal authority on the basis of divinity, the world including the West appreciates this as a step ahead in progression. Yet, as Tibetans couch their struggle against Chinese indirect rule in the language of independence and protest for the return of divine rule by the Dalai Lama in both temporal and spiritual matters, the support provided by the West to this endeavour reeks of hypocrisy.

The Tibetans should and must protest against the Chinese rulers if there is a violation of enunciated norms as provided by the Chinese constitution. And the world must put pressure on the Chinese (through the aegis of multilateral bodies) to respect its own sovereign constitution and treat its republic’s autonomous citizens with equanimity as ensured in the constitution and not to foist Han Chinese populations in the region. But the world cannot and must not take the inhabitants of Tibet back to an era that was reminiscent of the feudal dark ages of the medieval world. And to that extent, the Dalai Lama has to conform to the separation of the temporal and the spiritual. And that would be correct progressive thinking in these muddled times.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Higher Education: For a Different Paradigm

Editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

Higher Education: For a Different Paradigm

Foreign provision of higher education cannot be based on the need to create skills for the global economy.

In May 2007, a proposal to introduce the Foreign Educational Institutions Regulatory Bill, prepared by the ministry of human resource development (HRD), in Parliament failed because of opposition by allies of the government. Since 2000, there has been provision for 100 per cent foreign direct investment in education in the automatic route, but this is “subject to sectoral policies”. The 2007 bill was supposed to regulate entry of foreign educational providers other than those that partner existing recognised institutes in the country.

The objective behind the aborted bill was to mitigate the problems of commercialisation and commodification of education in the country because of the entry of “fly-by-night” operators and at the same time provide incentives to “accredited” foreign institutions to set up educational centres in the country. This was in line with the National Knowledge Commission’s (NKC) recommendations to utilise the qualitative advantages of foreign institutions in higher education.

The state of higher education in India needs no elaboration. Starved of adequate funding, with only a few institutions of quality and relatively low enrolment from the relevant age-groups, higher education needs a major overhaul and a new thrust. The key argument, however, offered for foreign entry in higher education, particularly by the commerce ministry in a 2005 consultation note, is that there exists a quality and quantity gap between what is required by the market and what is produced in institutions of higher learning. More higher educational institutes are therefore necessary to plug this gap in skilled manpower and this could be achieved by utilising the norms of trade as may evolve in the General Agreement on Trade in Services, or so the argument goes.

The paradigmatic understanding here is the treatment of higher education as a “value adding” service that gels well with building manpower to service the global economy. While the commerce ministry note concentrates on building a competitive skill base through higher education, the HRD ministry focuses on keeping this process away from crass commercialisation. There is a serious lacuna in this vision itself: nowhere is the necessity to see institutes of higher learning as creators of organic intellectuals attuned to the specificities of Indian society acknowledged.

With respect to social sciences and humanities, there is a need in particular to build indigenous institutes that focus on the particularities of the Indian context and do not necessarily ape the methodological and epistemological structures of the west. This is especially so at a time when the Washington consensus exercises an ideological influence over the nature of development – a crucial aspect of nation building in which higher education plays an important part. Surely the entry of foreign institutions in the realm of social sciences, despite perfunctory regulation of the kind proposed by the bill, will work against this consideration. This does not mean that any exchange of knowledge and ideas transcending national boundaries should be avoided; only the treatment of such exchange as purely commercial ventures needs to be rejected.

In the case of technical and basic science education as well, the same emphasis by the government that sees higher education as a product of commercial value makes foreign investment problematic. The government has recently announced the establishment of 38 new central universities, 8 new IITs and a school of architecture in the country. This is a small beginning and much more can be done with the public university system itself. The argument that all the costs of building indigenous centres of excellence cannot be managed because of a lack of adequate resources does not hold water. For one thing, India continues to spend far too small an amount on higher education. It currently spends only 0.37 per cent of GDP on higher education, compared to China where the corresponding figure is 0.5 per cent. With the tax-GDP ratio rising and scope for reducing outlays in other areas such as defence, resource mobilisation can no longer be the problem it once was, especially in expanding science and technical education. If at the end of a major expansion of the public university system – in both numbers and quality – there is still space for foreign providers of higher education, that is something that could then be considered.

The enormous lack of research and technical facility as well as expertise plus the problem of a “brain drain” mean that there is a very real need for resource mobilisation for basic science and technical education in the country in conjunction with participation by technological and scientific institutions from across the world through exchange programmes, bilateral knowledge sharing agreements, etc. It is at the same time very necessary to reduce the income gaps between the professional and academic spheres so that the exodus of human capital from the teaching/research areas to the non-academic world in India and to foreign shores is stemmed.

Social justice and the socio-economic imperative to address students from the deprived sections with a low fee structure, scholarships and affirmative action also need to be given due weightage while deciding to let in foreign players. Foreign institutions, with their focus on cost recovery and commercial gain by tapping into student “consumers” of their academic “products”, will not weigh initiatives of social justice in the same manner as a publicly funded institution under public scrutiny would.

In essence, a paradigmatic shift that brings back the focus on higher education as a public good with concomitant increases in public funding, and that also overhauls our entire understanding of higher education is something that is expected of the government.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Blogging vs article-writing

This (New Praxis) started off as a pure blog and then went on to become a mixture of opinion articles/editorials and some occasional blogs. Yours truly now intends to write everyday on a particular topic, instead of hosting this blog merely as a collection of articles.

Freudian slip or mental blip?

Time and again the warmonger presidential candidate in the American 2008 elections from the Republican Party, John McCain makes a nincompoopish statement that Al Qaeda is in control of Iraq and therefore the US occupation of Iraq must continue even if it lasts a 100 years! Obviously this bellowing warmonger is a Bush to the power of Bush. A paleoconservative, Pat Buchanan says that McCain will make the neoconservative lunatic veep Dick Cheney look like Gandhi with his harping on a militarist American foreign policy!

McCain yet again makes a case for Shiite Iran training the Sunni terrorist Al Qaeda, before being corrected by former Democrat, but current independent Zionist Joe Liebermann who points out his Freudian slip.

Hard to believe that this bloodthirsty warmonger is a presidential frontrunner, ain't it?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Congress Suffers in North-East

Editorial published in the Economic and Political Weekly
The Congress is the clear loser in the three states that went to the polls.

The elections in the north-eastern states of Tripura,Meghalaya and Nagaland have thrown up few surprises. In Tripura, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front (LF) has retained power with an increased majority. With no single party gaining an absolute majority in Meghalaya and Nagaland, the two states have produced hung assemblies. Mixed the outcome appears to be, but there were presumptive winners and losers in the elections. The Congress Party must be considered the biggest loser though it did emerge as the single largest party in Meghalaya.

The comfortable victory (49 out of 60 seats) of the LF (minus the Forward Bloc this time) led by chief minister Manik Sarkar was achieved in an election that saw a record turnout (92 percent) and the Congress-Indigenous National Party of Tripura (INPT) alliance winning only 11 seats. The victory of the LF could be attributed to the superior mobilising abilities of the ruling coalition, which pitched socio-economic development and its handling of militancy in the state as the major election issues. The INPT, led by former insurgent Bijoy Hrangkhawl, was able to win only one seat, signalling a disaffection with the former militants among the tribal populace of the state, even as many Congress leaders bit the dust at the hustings. Questions were raised about the possibility of an upset, because of the withdrawal of the Forward Bloc – which is a constituent partner of the front in the panchayats and in the autonomous council – from the LF for this election. The party, however, lost heavily in all of the 12 constituencies where its candidates contested on their own.

Secessionist forces in Tripura have been dealt with firmly by the LF government, which has also addressed issues faced by the tribal populace by devoting resources to people’s welfare in coordination with the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council. This resulted in an increased seat share in tribal areas for the left parties (19 out of 20 constituencies reserved for the scheduled tribes). Tripura under left rule for the past 15 years has shown progress in indicators such as literacy, in improving livelihoods, especially in rural areas, and in extending education and health facilities. The high degree of political participation among all sections and the LF’s high vote share are testimony to the positive reception for the alliance among the voters.

In Meghalaya, however, a familiar drama is taking place. As has been the disturbing norm in recent cases of a hung assembly, the governor, using the logic of inviting the single largest party, controversially called upon D D Lapang of the Congress to form the government despite the party winning only 25 of the 59 seats to which results were announced. The day before, 30 legislators were paraded under the leadership of former Lok Sabha speaker P A Sangma in front of the governor; the legislators were part of a post-poll alliance, the Meghalaya Progressive Alliance (MPA) with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) taking the lead in its formation.

Meghalaya has had a history of unstable coalitions and governments (18 in the last 35 years) and this decision by the governor not to honour the existing arithmetic is only bound to recreate the familiar tactics of buying support to prove a majority on the floor of the assembly. Having said that, opportunism has characterised the various parties in opposition to the Congress. Other than the NCP, which won only 14 seats and the BJP one seat, the other regional parties in the MPA were all part of the Congress-led coalition before quitting on the eve of the polls. The NCP, which led a furious campaign against the Congress, could not manage to win outside its traditionally strong areas in the Garo Hills. There are 25 newly elected members in the assembly, a sign of dissatisfaction with the performance of the sitting legislators in the state.

In Nagaland, a pre-poll coalition, the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN), consisting of the Naga Peoples’ Front (NPF) with 26 seats, the BJP with two seats and the NCP with two seats, along with four independents, was able to win a majority of the 59 seats in the assembly and has formed the new government. The Congress won 23 seats and accepted defeat in the insurgency-affected state. The erstwhile DAN government was removed from power and president’s rule was imposed in January this year following a bout of defections and squabbling. This was made a campaign issue by the NPF and its allies.

The question of statehood (greater Nagaland or “Nagalim”) still predominates in Nagaland and as a dominant issue, this election was no exception. The Congress Party in the state had promised in its manifesto to press for “Greater Nagaland”, quoting certain unimplemented clauses in the 16 point agreement between Jawaharlal Nehru and the Naga People’s Convention in 1960. The response of the major insurgent outfits in the state was negative to this poll promise by the Congress, while the NPF, which promised a continuation of its “equi-closeness” policy with the insurgent outfits engaged in internecine fighting, was able to reap support by indicating to go beyond the 1960 agreement in evolving a political solution. The new DAN government has now appointed a political affairs committee to talk to the underground insurgent outfits to resolve the long-standing statehood problem. There is no guarantee, however, of a stable government because most of the parties in Nagaland have used tribal loyalties and the politics of pork and pelf to come to power.

Monday, March 17, 2008

War Testimonies by American soldiers in Iraq

Real News Video featuring War Testimonies of Iraq War Veterans and other War related videos from Iraq

Courtesy Real News Network

More Videos on

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Indian media -- beyond bias

Article written for The Post

More than a week ago, the Indian finance minister released a much talked about annual budget. The budget included a loan waiver of about Rs 65,000 crore for farmers in the country, reeling from a tremendous agrarian crisis. The waiver was made the talking point in the predominantly corporate-owned print and mass media in the country, most of whom were critical of the ‘dole’, calling it a gimmick meant for the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

As such, after the details of the waiver scheme were released, it was established by agrarian experts and rural India watchers to be some form of a breather for the much traumatised farmers in the country. Agrarian India is in the throes of a severe crisis that has forced thousands of farmers across the country to commit suicide owing to a variety of reasons. Agriculture as a profession has virtually become non-viable because of high input costs and a quirky globalised market. Farmers, running out of clear cut financial options, have depended upon credit from unscrupulous money lenders and the debt trap has only made their situation worse. The worst sufferers of the agrarian crisis, farmers who have committed suicide, have an amazing geographical spread: from Punjab in the north to Chattisgarh in central India to Vidharbha in the west to Kerala and Andhra Pradesh in the south of the country. This full-fledged crisis situation has dragged on for nearly a decade now in the country.

Yet the response to the one-time measure of a credit waiver from public sector banks for farmers has been treated with scorn by the media, be it ‘pink paper’ business press or broadsheets or the ubiquitous mass media news channels. No such angst or derision was witnessed when similar waivers were given to large private-owned corporations and debt written off as ‘non-performing assets’. Estimates of such written off bad loans are in the range of staggering number of lakhs and crores, but not even a crocodile tear came out from the press on the burden over financial institutions of the state, which had to bear the waiver loss in these cases. The obvious question one would raise is: if fiscal health is indeed the concern, why is there a selective angst among the so-called ‘fourth estate of Indian democracy’, the media? The answer is very simple, the Indian media as much as any other elsewhere, suffers from class biases. The only trouble is that the coverage of events in the Indian media goes beyond class biases and suffers from an acute form of status quoism, elitism and pro-establishment opinionating. The fact that the agrarian crisis has virtually been given a short shrift with neither the farmer suicides nor the agrarian distress being given any sort of priority coverage is galling.

Ever since substantial economic liberalisation in the country, the media has taken a sharp turn toward uninhibited commercialisation and sensationalism (with honourable exceptions of course). The English press in particular has devised a formulaic way of conducting ‘news business’ making the traditional role of acting as the guardian of the fourth estate of democracy to be a secondary one. The coming to town of the energetic and privately-owned TV news channels has exacerbated this trend. These channels thrive on a business model that is advertiser-driven and hence, relies on a competition that tries as much as possible to pander to the lowest common denominator of tastes to enhance viewership. Coverage of issues that do not quite resonate well with the upper middle classes in the country, who never had this better a life in all the years after Indian independence, is virtually nil. Thus what dominates television and print media (except for some honourable exceptions) is news that is ‘sellable’ and that which has a ‘commercial value’, is sensationalist and opinion that is clearly anti-labour, anti-poor and pro-nouveau/established rich. On every issue, where there has been a direct clash between forces of non-elite (blue collar labour, rural peasantry, unorganised labour, marginalised sections) and the elite (corporate big businessmen, foreign investors, ‘celebrities’), the media has taken the side of the elite.

That the arena of contestation where the poor have hit back (electoral democracy) sits uncomfortably with the elite, for whom ‘politics’ is nothing about merit or ‘class stature’ means that the media rubbishes politics and brands the entire ‘political class’ under the same brush. Of course, there are exceptions – those politicians who sit well with policy-making that favours the elite are given place of pride in coverage and given titles of ‘messiahs’ and ‘visionaries’. One only has to witness the adulation that the current finance minister, P. Chidambaram (a compulsive votary for neo-liberal reforms in the country) enjoys among the media along with other pro-big business and pro-elite politicians, to see this in action.

So cloistered is the media in India today in a territory that is very much cut off from the reality that governs the majority of the third world nation’s population, that it gets its political prognostications serially wrong. In 2004, when Indian voters brought down a right-wing government, which announced that India was ‘shining’ (even as the agrarian crisis was in full flow and the march of inequality was on), the media were gung ho about the existing establishment retaining power. Its coverage of politics is not highlighted by an anti-establishment role, but by a derision for ‘politics’ itself. Witness, for example, the coverage (or the lack of it) of the parliament.

The parliament is only in the news during disruptions and bedlam. Question hours, discussions, policy positions are either given the short shrift or are ignored in toto.

The derision for politics is accentuated especially when it comes to the coverage of the policy positions of the left space in the political spectrum in the country. Instead of analysing and critiquing positions taken by the Left, the tendency is not just to dismiss and disregard, but to subject leftist politicians to unfiltered abuse. A sample of this was available extensively during the Indo-US nuclear deal coverage. From calling the leftists traitors to the national cause, to insinuate extraterritorial loyalties and to excoriate any reasonable opinion that divorced from making a common cause with the Americans on every issue, the media clearly went overboard in maintaining its coloured credentials.

Even the credit waiver issue was given a new spin: the government had embarked upon this waiver as a populist move in lieu of snap polls. For the elitist media sections, the nuclear deal must be signed despite the leftists’ opposition (and even if there was a majority consensus against the deal in parliament), even if it meant that the government would fall in doing so. And the reasoning: some senators from the US had warned of an expedient timetable that had to be adhered to, in the ‘national interest’. As yet, the government is still strained to answer some of the legitimate concerns over the deal that has been signed with full cognisance of its positioning within a strategic partnership with the US. But this was not a problem for the custodians of the media as it sat well with the perceptions of the elite on the necessity of the nuclear deal.

Such a pro-elite shift in the media can only be explained by the fact that the larger part of the media is owned by corporate bodies, in partnership with foreign-based news channels themselves under corporate thrall. The ownership cuts across different segments in the media space from print to mass media and opinionating suffers from the fact that the proprietorship gets precedence over independent editorial control. In the print media for example, because of the predominance of commercialism over objectivity and analysis, the proprietor determines editorial and news content, with the editor (once an all powerful entity in the press) playing a subservient role. As for the TV news channels, the considerations of instantaneous gratification of the viewer requires that opinionating and news reporting are tuned to dubious rating principles that give precedence for quantity over quality. The only way of getting back the normative nature of the fourth estate in the country would be to regulate the content in the media, primarily through self-regulation and by setting a code of conduct. The preponderance of commercial and corporate interests in the media must be curtailed through stringent norms on cross-ownership and foreign control over the media. Freedom of the press must not mean a negative liberty, which misinterprets freedoms that were established in the form of a social contract between the people of the country and the ruling classes and that were instituted in the constitution.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cricket, Excesses and Market Mania

Article published as a commentary in the Economic and Political Weekly

The Indian Premier League (IPL), a corporate driven tournament featuring a set of city teams playing Twenty20 cricket has made news with a multimillion dollar player auction. Players from various cricket playing nations were “bought” and “sold” through bids made by the corporate owned teams (the franchisees). Cricket in India has become the only sport that has captured widespread mass and media attention. The popularity of the sport has increased in leaps and bounds and the way the sport has been managed and administered has reflected the dominant mode of economic transactions in the country.

From being a sport that was a hangover from the colonial era and restricted to teams divided on communal basis (the Pentangular, for example, during the early 1940s) to becoming a symbol of nationalism and now to becoming a full- fledged commercial enterprise, cricket has traversed a path very much followed by the nation in its socio-economic course. If playing for the nation’s pride was what drove professional cricket after independence, it is playing for commercial gain that is the driving story today, much in consonance with the sharp changes in the nature of nation-building that exists in India today.

An Afterthought

Sport was always viewed as an afterthought activity for leisure by the post-independent Indian state and it never fitted in with youth development and community building. The neglect of sport because of this lack of priority has meant that India as a nation has performed poorly in international competitions and, other than a few individual and team successes, the story is one of despair. Even in sports where Indians held a traditional advantage such as hockey, the lack of adequate institutional support and planning has meant that the sport has gradually withered away.

Cricket, however, underwent a different trajectory. Run by an autonomous board (the Board of Control of Cricket in India or BCCI), which has created a structure of age group, state, and domestic tournament based cricket and manages the national cricket team, cricket has effectively become a popular sport that has touched several urban and semi-urban bases in the country. At the same time, the powerful board has followed an opaque model of functioning even as it has earned money by the fistful owing to the growing popularity of the sport, particularly after the victory in the 1983 World Cup and the growth in popularity of one-day cricket.
The growth of the market economy since 1991 given the BCCI manifold opportunities in the “system”. So, just as corporate bodies in India control pretty much the nature of growth and the pulse of nation-building, cricket has passed into their hands too. In the past, Indian cricket was used as a tool to buttress nationalism; and the Indian cricket team (managed by the BCCI) was meant to represent the Indian nation in international competition. The players in the national team were therefore performing a national duty. However, over time, commercial and corporate interests could no longer be kept out of the way cricket was run.

Ergo, the IPL, an assortment of eight city-teams (franchises) playing Twenty20 cricket. This new league is a form of commodity market, where the commodities are players, the owners are the corporates, and the value of the commodity is determined by a set of rules that play itself out on a maidan with cricketing instruments and more so on the television screen in the form of commercials.

Commodity Market

The establishment of this commodity market was kicked off by an auction system that instituted market value for the players through a valuation process. This valuation process considered not just the skill levels of the players but also their brand building capabilities. So it is that Ishant Sharma, a tyro who has promised a great future through some inspiring performances in Australia for the Indian team was valued at $ 9,50,000 as compared to the established Umar Gul valued at just $ 1,50,000 although he took the most wickets playing for Pakistan in the World Twenty20 tournament. Sharma’s value as a representative for brand building the franchise, owing to his Indian nationality, trumped over the real value of Umar Gul.

Obviously the corporates were looking ahead at great returns for their investment. India had just won the Twenty20 World Cup some months ago and this form of the game had captured the imagination of the masses. Added to the buzz of Twenty20 was the glitz from yet another set of obsessions of the Indian public: the entertainment industry (Mumbai film personalities) plus the new consumerism of the middle classes. Now this potent mix was bound to churn out golden eggs from the cricket goose and the Indian cricket board only had to release its employees to partake in the process. The BCCI had the advantage of running the game in the second largest populace in the world and it was only natural that it could influence other boards in releasing its own players for the jamboree that the IPL was. Ergo, the league got an international flavour adding more golden eggs and more value.

This bonanza for cricketers in a formal sense is a huge progressive step. Earlier, players were stuck in an atmosphere where the board decided their allowances and pay – even after substantial raises in recent years – which were commensurate with the semi-egalitarian economic environment of the past. So, a cricketer despite his performance and the attention that he received was paid a pittance and the only recompense he had was that he was playing for “national pride” that sat well with the politico-economic story after independence.

Qualitative Difference

Commercialisation of sport is a reality that has existed all across the world. But there is a qualitative difference between the forms of commercial sport that exist in mature capitalist and developed countries and what is taking shape in India in the form of the IPL. In the US, for example, major leagues have been established for four main sports – baseball, basketball, American football and ice hockey (a league exists for soccer too). These sports are played seasonally as a well integrated market that cohabits with a regulated structure.

Participation is guaranteed for interested sections through feeder units in colleges and schools and infrastructure is established through community ownership and city planning administrations. In other words, a fully fledged sport environment with corporate ownership and state and community support exists, transacting action in the various leagues.

In Japan, professional baseball leagues involve corporate owned city-based teams too. Sports persons are fed to these leagues from the school and college levels (the extremely popular Koshien school baseball tournament for example) and athlete development programmes are coalesced with youth development activity driven by the state. In Spain, club football acts as an avenue for passionate local nationalism (Spain is a composite country with different autonomous regions) to be channelised into sporting competition. The local governments play an important role in youth and skill development initiatives. The clubs and cities have also diversified into other sports such as basketball and tennis (polideportivos) thus opening avenues for sports persons who are not footballers alone. Market driven competition has not diluted the essence of the sport either. In nations where the state predominates in planning and administration of sports, such as in Cuba and China, emphasis on youth development and participation in amateur sports is given very high priority.

In India, the growth of cricket at the expense of other sports derives from the lack of a participatory sporting culture. Sport, traditionally viewed as leisure activity has been shunned by governing institutions and there has been virtually no focus on youth development and infrastructure building from village to city levels. The reduced emphasis on youth and skill development for sport in general ensures that the process of bringing up talent remains anarchic and only cricket with its relatively more mature feeder systems of age group tournaments, clubs and state boards remains the dominant form of sport activity.

Cricket’s thriving, in contrast, has been limited to urban and semi-urban areas and has been driven purely by popularity. The rural masses hardly have any hope of getting through to such tournaments without state intervention in grooming talent in these areas.

Anarchic Nature

The anarchic nature of market-driven sport also ensures that only a small coterie of readily recognisable talent gets attention. Those slogging it out in domestic cricket with skill levels say suited more for the more rigorous 5-day Test cricket would pale in comparison to the players getting to play in the IPL Twenty20s. The IPL is bound to skew and distort cricket as it is today a jamboree that is not so much balanced in its recognition of skills as much as it values brands. The IPL itself was a response to the Indian Cricket League (ICL). The ICL was started by the Essel group to operate outside the purview of the BCCI, and weaned away domestic players disenchanted with playing conditions and lured by the money offered by the corporate owners of the league.

Seen from a larger perspective on sports management and administration in the country, the IPL becomes a distorted money-spinning exercise devoid of substantial participative value. Thus a cricketer like Ishant Sharma would earn $ 9,50,000 over three years for merely bowling four overs each in about 16 games in each year and for endorsing a brand while other sports persons such as hockey players suffer from lack of compensation and training facilities. Reliance on corporate bodies alone to promote sports would only help bring in so much benefits of commercialisation-inflated value for the commodified participant and exclusive pandering to the voyeuristic desires of the consumerised spectator.

The corporates themselves realise that they are unlikely to earn any money in the initial years; returns, if any, will come later. Why then were some of the biggest names in the business? There could be many reasons. The professed ones are related to brand building. The more accurate explanations are of two kinds. One is plain vainty – as expressed in the money poured out by the likes of Vijay Mallya, Mukesh Ambani and the filmstar Shahrukh Khan. They can indulge in this vanity because business has never been so good in India. The second reason is that it is a sign of excess all around that this finds its expression in many areas – excess in the lifestyles of the rich, excess in consumerism, excess in business endeavours and excess in “bidding” for team licences and players. History tells us that the period of excess is followed by a period of collapse. The only unknown is how long it would take.

After Fidel who?

Nice joke by Good Ol' Letterman:

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Developers of the world -Unite!

A spectre is haunting the proprietary software industry: Free-Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS).

Karl Marx would have been elated at the success of FLOSS today as a subversive and alternative to the global behemoths of proprietary software. As little as ants would be but equally hardworking and persevering, as diverse as workers may get to be, the FLOSS community across the world has rewritten the rules of intellectual contribution and technological growth. They have broken the shackles that tie them in respective nationalities and units and have created a new chain formed from intellectual and autonomous solidarity. They have created a business model so powerful and so transcendent that this has forced even proprietary software to adopt it in its own way.

Any primer on the software industry in the world today would tell you that the industry was dominated by corporate units. For example, in the most important operating system and word processing/office applications business, Microsoft Technologies has had a huge monopoly. This has been buttressed by a variation of ‘license raj’ that allows code written by Microsoft to be available in the form of high ‘APIs’ or keys that are available for licensees to buy. In essence, users are denied access to proprietary software’s code base and all one gets to have is the ability to ‘consume’ the product without having the ability (or only having a limited and constrained one as defined in the copyright license) to alter the product to their choice.

Free and open software on the other hand makes a qualitative leap by allowing the consumer to build upon/alter and improve the product. The success of operating systems such as GNU/Linux, internet browsers such as Mozilla Firefox and office applications such as OpenOfficeare and other FLOSS applications has meant that the user not only has enough choice on the product to consume, but that he/she has the power now to become a product developer since the source code is available. The availability of the source code comes with a license too, albeit of a philosophically and instrumentally different kind: a ‘copyleft’ license. This license does not come with a negative freedom aspect of preventing users to do something outside the license, but actually comes with a positive freedom that enforces users to keep the software ‘open’.

There are some basic differences between the ‘free software’ and ‘open source software’ streams. The former harps upon the philosophical notion of liberty in using and modifying software, while the latter talks about the fundamental leap in performance because of the advanced community-oriented business model that ‘open source’ provides.

Despite such distinctions, however, very few software products exist that are exclusively ‘open’ and not free or vice versa. The success of the free and open source movement was seen particularly in the collaborated effort that went into designing an OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard for word processing and electronic office document applications. This standard was arrived after nearly three years of toiling by the developing community across the world, which included individuals and other big companies specialising in enterprise applications such as Sun Microsystems and IBM. Now the ODF standard is widely accepted as an Office standard and has been adopted by Open Office, Google Documents and other applications. The presence of a unifying standard made the job of users using various applications easier. These multiple applications could communicate to each other sparing a headache for the users to have to face the problem of incompatibility of various application file formats even though they performed one single documentation/word processing function. Evidently this affected the monopoly strength of office applications offered by the biggest software company in the world, Microsoft Applications.

The logical thing to do would be to adopt the ODF standard for Microsoft Office products keeping the philosophy of universalisation intact. Yet, Microsoft chose to introduce its own open source standard OpenOffice Extensible Markup Language (OOXML). The logic that Microsoft provided was that the presence of many standards helped foster the free market as has been the case in other areas such as Picture Readers. The adoption of OOXML as a universal and full international standard, however, hit a roadblock as a majority of countries affiliated to the worldwide standards body, International Organisation for Standardisation decided to reject it in September 2007. OOXML still had a lifeline thrown in the form of a ballot resolution process that gave the countries another chance to review their decision based on Microsoft’s responses to their complaints made in September 2007. The most important complaints were the fact that the standards document was unwieldy and cumbersome and also fact that OOXML was not truly ‘open’ and was written in a manner to continue the monopoly status of Microsoft in the market. The ballot resolution process is to come out with a verdict next month holding in the balance the acceptance of OOXML as an international standard.

In the meantime, in another blow to proprietary software, Microsoft was fined a huge amount of $ 1.3 billion for having violated anti-trust laws by a European Union (EU) court. Such setbacks have had an unintended effect: Microsoft recently affirmed to make available several sections of source code interoperable with open source, signalling a change in philosophy to a gradual acceptance of the open source policy. Open source advocates and others have, however, reacted with cautious optimism but seen in the light of things, it is clear that the subversive called the open source movement has had a tremendous effect on the way the industry is run.

Not long ago, advocates of the proprietary software model were calling the open source movement as ‘communist’ and ‘market-unfriendly’. But the relative cost-free nature, liberating outlook and transparency offered has made open source hugely popular. In India, for example, FLOSS advocates have been successful in getting a state government announcing statewide education and use on FLOSS. FLOSS makes immense sense for resource constrained governance bodies in India as well as help creating myriad developer communities in a participative model.

The challenge remains for FLOSS evangelicals to take forward the process of educating the populace in the country to be familiar with basic programming and application usage skills. This requires the state to play an active role to facilitate this process.

Monopoly and proprietary software have an advantage in influencing state and governmental institutions because of their large market base and ready capital. Unscrupulous ways of influencing state governments have persisted in India, for example, where executives of proprietary software cajole government heads to promote their brands in lieu of some form of charity given. FLOSS activists must overcome this huge challenge in order to get their philosophy accepted and model implemented for the good of people who are still on the barren side of the digital divide.