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My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


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Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Thinking it Through

Our Unlucky Children

This is the 48th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last weekend, I went through the typical routine of watching a film and then doing a week’s worth of shopping. First I watched the beautiful Taare Zameen Par. Then I spent an hour inside the nearest hypermarket.

The amount of choice inside the hypermart was staggering. I counted more than 30 kinds of cheese, 60 kinds of biscuits, 50 types of papad, and quite as much variety across soaps, soft drinks, farsaan, cooking oil, pickles and so on. I needed shampoo, and I walked past two shelves of it before finding something for “normal hair.”

Some people complain that there is too much choice on offer, but I find the variety wonderful. It caters to individual taste. For example, there is shampoo available for people with “dry, rough, sensitized hair”, “dry or damaged hair”, and “weak, fragile, difficult to grow long hair”. To those of us who do not fall into these categories, these might seem excessive, but clearly they exist because they sell —and fulfil someone’s needs.

Isn’t it wonderful how the free market does this? Instead of shoving one or two types of each product down people’s throats, it effectively treats us as individuals. Entrepreneurs, seeking to find market niches to make a profit, end up empowering us as consumers. Without knowing anything about me, the market caters to my personal needs to a degree my grandparents would have found unbelievable.

Watching Taare Zameen Par, however, reminded me that in the area where it matters most, our children don’t have the same choices open to them.

Aamir Khan’s film is about a dyslexic boy let down by his school. His teachers do not recognize what makes him different and treat him as if he is stupid, shattering his self-esteem. Then Khan comes in as a sensitive teacher and turns things around.

This only happens in films, of course, and most kids in that situation would not be so lucky. They would be able to buy potato chips in the precise flavour they might desire—“classic salted”, “sour cream and onion” or 40 others—but would be denied of an education tailored to their needs.

This is not just something that applies to dyslexic kids. All children are unique. Some are better at languages than in math, some have short attentions spans, some have high learning curves, and so on and on. And yet, when it comes to education, they are treated as if their needs and abilities are identical.

This rigidity applies not just to schools but also to higher education. “Arts”, “science” and “commerce” are segregated streams, and a young man who wishes to study both physics and 19th century English literature would have a problem doing so.

You might argue that when it comes to education, it is logistically impossible to cater to individual needs. After all, schools and colleges have limited resources, and a teacher-student ratio can only go so far. Individual attention seems an impossible pipe dream.

I would argue, though, that our failure to imagine a way forward does not mean that none exists. All successful innovations work precisely because no one thought of them before, and they fulfil a need somewhere. If we give entrepreneurs the scope to innovate, they will find solutions. The problem with our education system is that the government has a stranglehold on it, and severely restricts private participation.

For example, it takes 14 licences from four authorities to open a private school in New Delhi, which could take years. There are all kinds of bizarre parameters schools have to fulfil to open a school—such as playgrounds of a specified size—and, most absurdly, they aren’t allowed to operate for a profit. They get around this by opening trusts and suchlike, which restrict their scope for further investment.

When will our government learn that the profit motive is a good thing? It spurs innovation and benefits fellow human beings, for that is the only way to make a profit.

Besides these entry barriers, there are other restrictions on what these schools must work towards. If they are not affiliated to a government-approved board with a government-approved syllabus, such as ICSE or CBSE, their students are going to find it hard to get into government-approved colleges down the line. Everything has to be government-approved, which stifles innovation.

I can barely imagine what products my hypermart would contain if all the industries that produced them were run by the government as education in India is. There would be fewer product categories, virtually no choice within those categories, and everything would be more expensive. Thanks to competition and relatively free markets, that is not the case.

When it comes to trivial things such as potato chips and garlic sev, we have been empowered with choice. When it comes to something as important as education, we have not. Isn’t that a disgrace?

*  *  *

Also read: My piece on school choice in India, Fund Schooling, Not Schools.

My thanks to the members of the Satin e-group for their inputs on this piece.

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 January, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


Some Saxy Resolutions

This is the 47th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

It is January 3, and I have already broken my New Year’s resolution. Don’t ask. So, I decided to find out from some of the notable people in our country what their New Year’s resolutions were.

First I called up Sonia Gandhi. “My New Year’s resolution is to learn more Hindi,” she told me.

“Hindi?” I asked. “But your Hindi is just fine, Soniaji.”

“No, we lost the Gujarat elections because of my Hindi,” she said. “You see, while campaigning in Gujarat, I wanted to tell the people of Gujarat that we would develop Gujarat better than Narendra Modi. So, I asked one of my minions how one says that in Hindi. My minion said, say ‘Narendra Modi maut ka saudagar hai.’ So, I said that, and see what happened.”

“What happened to the minion?”

“Don’t ask.”

Next I rang up Manmohan Singh. “What’s your New Year’s resolution, sir?”

There was a moment of silence. Then he said, in a sad voice: “I’ll have to check.”

After this, I dropped in to meet Prakash Karat. His answer:

“My New Year’s resolution is to oppose whatever the UPA does.”

“But why’re you supporting their government then?” I asked. “Why don’t you just withdraw support?”

Karat sighed. “This is the problem with you neoliberal, consumerist, imperialist bourgeois, call-centre pigs,” he said. “If I withdraw support, there will be mid-term elections, after which we may not be in a position to damage the country. I don’t want that, and neither does Beiji… I mean, neither does Brinda.”

“You don’t have to call me names, you know.”

“I head the politburo, not the polite-bureau. Now run along before Buddha’s party workers saunter along and I set them on you.”

I ran along, and called up Narendra Modi. “Sir, I wanted to ask, what is your New Year’s resolution?”

“If you find a cockroach in your kitchen,” he asked, “you tell me, what should be done to the cockroach?”

“Kill it, kill it.”

“Well, that is it. Do I have to take Sonia Gandhi’s permission to do that?”

I needed a break from politicians. One fellow called me names, another was eyeing my cockroaches, what’s a columnist to do? I called Rakhi Sawant.

“Amitji, in this New Year, I will be more saxy.”

“Rakhiji, you are already very saxy,” I replied.

“Are you making fun of me? I did not say saxy. I said saxy.”

“I know, saxy.”

“Not saxy. Saxy!”

Arre, saxy, na?”

“Not saxy! Saxy! Abhishek, cum here, yeh mera mazaak uda raha hai!”

Then she burst out crying and I hung up. Next target, Javed Akhtar.

“Sir, what is your New Year’s resolution,” I asked.

“I will be the judge on a reality show,” he told me.

“But sir,” I remarked, “you have already done that many times this year.”

“No Amit, you do not understand me. You need to do more riyaaz of asking questions. You see, I want to be the judge of a reality show for judges of reality shows. In the show, the judges of reality shows will be contestants, and I will be their judge.”

“And what will you judge them on?”

“I will judge them on how well they can lecture contestants,” he said. “They should be able to burst into monologues about women’s liberation or secularism without any reason for it. Someone sings a random song, they should deliver a lecture on male chauvinism. Someone dances, they should preach about the values of the new generation. I want to create many Javed Akhtars to make this world a better place. Run along now.”

I ran along, and bumped into Pratibha Patil. “Pratibha tai,” I asked, “What are your New Year’s resolutions this year?”

“I have decided that 2008 will be a different year for me than 2007,” she said.

“How’s that?”

“Well, in 2007, everyone made fun of me for speaking to spirits, and my comments about burkas and compulsory sterilization and so on. Even you did, naughty boy. So, this year, I have decided to become more like my popular predecessor, APJ Abdul Kalam. I will emulate certain carefully selected aspects of his persona.”

“Such as what?”

“Well, I’ll start with the hairstyle.”

I ran along. Then I thought I’ll make just one final query for the day, and hope something interesting came out of it. I dropped in at Abhishek Bachchan’s house. As Ash bhabhi made tea, I asked the small b:

“Abhishek, dude, I’m writing a column about New Year’s resolutions, and I wanted to know what yours was.”

He looked at me with red eyes. “I will find that tree,” he said, “and I will kill him.”

*  *  *

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 January, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The Expanding Circle

This is the 46th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Would you put a man in a cage? Last week, the blogger Hari Balasubramanian wrote a post about how, in 1906, “Ota Benga, a pygmy from the Belgian Congo, found himself sharing a cage with an orang-utan at the Bronx Zoo as part of a tableau intended to illustrate the stages of evolution.” Benga had filed teeth that came from “a tradition of cosmetic dentistry followed by his people,” but his captors mistook that for “a sign of cannibalism.” They duly “scattered bones in the cage.”

Having related Benga’s tale, Balasubramanian asked:

“The outrage we feel today about this scarcely believable story from just over a century ago is an indication of just how much sensibilities have changed. But to me the key issue is not what happened to Ota Benga; rather, it is this: What is it that most of us do not condemn today and are complicit with that will in 2107 seem utterly outrageous?”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 27 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Thinking it Through


Let’s Rethink Doping

This is the 45th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell once wrote. There seems to be plenty of recent evidence to back that up. Former US senator George Mitchell recently released a report on performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball (MLB) that revealed that 78 past and current players had used banned substances. Last week, Marion Jones was stripped of the five medals she won in the 2000 Olympics, following a confession that she had taken steroids at the time. Earlier this year, the Tour de France was beset by controversy, with Michael Rasmussen withdrawn by his team while he was leading the race on allegations of doping, and pre-race favourite Alexander Vinokourov busted for an illegal blood transfusion.

You could look at the glass half empty and bemoan the fact that doping seems to be so widespread in sport. You could look at it half full and feel glad that the cheats are finally being caught. I believe that we’re looking at the wrong glass.

In my view, doping in sport will be an issue no one bothers about in a couple of decades time.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 20 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | Thinking it Through


Nadiraji Wants Your Money

This is the 44th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

A few days ago, the respected theatre artist Nadira Babbar spoke to the newspaper DNA about the state of theatre in Mumbai. She felt that there weren’t enough good auditoriums in the city. “My appeal to the government is to build small, simple auditoriums with basic infrastructure,” she said. “I am seriously thinking of meeting the chief minister and put before him certain stark realities of the state of theatre. Some of my proposals are to subsidize the rates of the halls. Secondly, it would be of great help if they subsidize the rates of placing advertisements in newspapers; not only for the theatre events, but also for other cultural events.”

Most of us would sympathize with her. The arts are essential to a civilized society, and deserve our support. And there are many neglected areas of it, besides theatre, where an infusion of funds would help. Traditional folk arts are dying out, literature in regional languages gets a raw deal, and so on. So, naturally, many of us turn to the state.

But should we?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 13 December, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Thinking it Through


Punish Rioters, Not Writers

This is the 43rd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

A friend of mine, Mint contributor Salil Tripathi, recently drew my attention to a wonderful poem by Amit Chaudhuri. The poem, called The Writers, was based around “constantly mishearing ‘rioting’ as ‘writing’ on the BBC”. It began: “There has been writing for 10 days now/unabated. People are anxious, fed up.” And so on. You get the drift.

Chaudhuri’s poem felt especially apt given the events of the last couple of weeks. In this time, our cops and politicians have forgotten the difference between rioters and writers. Rioters came out in Kolkata to protest a writer’s words. It was the writer who then had to run around, evading accusing eyes and fingers. Eventually, it was the writer who apologized for her words—the rioters haven’t yet apologized for their actions. Indeed, it could be argued that the rioters have won—as they do every time.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 06 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The Origin of Human Rights

This is the 42nd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the 42nd installment of Thinking it Through, and over the last 41 weeks, I have often bored my readers with talk of “rights” and “freedoms” and so on. Such talk is everywhere—politicians love to speak of rights to display their compassion, and of freedom to display their liberalism. Often, though, these terms are dreadfully misused, and hide double standards that none of our politicians are exempt from. With a humble ponderousness alert, allow me to explain my notion of the basis of human rights.

In my view of the world, the most basic right of all is one that we are born with: the right to self-ownership. All legitimate human rights emerge from this. If we own ourselves, we obviously have the right to life, and to live as we please. Our thoughts and speech belong to us—thus, the right to free speech. Our labour, and the fruits of our labour, belong to us—thus, all property rights. And so on.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 29 November, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | Politics | Thinking it Through


Beating Terrorism

This is the 41st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

US President George W Bush never ceases to amuse. In a recent interview with ABC Television, he explained that while he wanted democracy in Pakistan, he thought highly of General Pervez Musharraf. According to a report by Voice of America, Bush said: “[Musharraf] has…advanced democracy in Pakistan. He has said he will take off his uniform. He has said there will be elections. Today he released prisoners. And so far I have found him to be a man of his word.”

Right. Bush, of course, had praised Vladimir Putin three years ago as “a strong leader who cares deeply about the people of his country”, and in different circumstances, had Eye-Raq been an ally of the US when he took power, might even have praised Saddam Hussain’s commitment to civil rights. It is clear that the fuel that drives the Bush administration is self-delusion—and nowhere is this stronger than on the issue of terrorism.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 22 November, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Politics | Thinking it Through


The Horror of Nandigram

This is the 40th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Reading the newspaper has been a depressing experience over the last few days. The headlines are dominated by events at Nandigram, where bombs are going off, land mines are exploding, the police is powerless and lawlessness reigns. West Bengal’s governor, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, has described it as a war zone. To many of us far from there, it must seem like a remote insurgency that does not affect us all. But it does—and we cannot truly be a free society if we turn our back upon it.

The problem at Nandigram began with eminent domain. Eminent domain is an instrument used by governments to take land from private citizens for public use. For example, if a road needs to be built, and the proposed route goes through private property, the government acquires the land at whatever price it determines. It does not need the buyer’s consent for this, which many would say is surely wrong—but when it involves public infrastructure, most people shrug it away as a necessary evil.

In the American constitution, eminent domain is allowed only for projects of “public use”. When the Indian Constitution was written, this was changed to “public purpose”, which is more open to interpretation. But the right to property was a fundamental right, which meant that owners of private property had legal recourse if they were being gypped. Our early governments and legislatures, socialist and fond of redistribution, chipped away at it, but the courts defended it. Then, with the 44th Amendment in 1978, it was changed from a fundamental right to a mere legal right. That’s a euphemism—effectively, it had been abolished.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 November, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Why Children Labour

This is the 39th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

If blouses were people, there is one variety of blouse that would feel rather ashamed of its origins right now. Last week, the clothing company Gap pulled a smock blouse for children from its stores because it was found to have been made by young children in India. The press called it names such as the ‘child labour top’, and the hapless thing is now being exterminated. A Gap spokesman announced that child labour was “completely unacceptable”, and that they would prevent a recurrence.

The resulting international outrage gave children’s rights groups the boost they needed to push forward a series of raids over the last few days. Child workers were rescued from seedy bylanes in Delhi, where they were hard at work in small, cramped rooms. The Observer  wrote that according to the UN, “Child labour contributes an estimated 20% of India’s gross national product with 55 million children aged from five to 14 employed across the business and domestic sectors.”

Working children are all around us: at the office canteen, the Udupi restaurant, the neighbourhood grocer’s, the traffic signal. It is so ubiquitous that most of us don’t even notice it when we shout, “Chhotu, ek chai la.” Nobody in his right mind can condone it—there are few thefts as appalling as that of someone’s childhood.

For the sake of these children, I have a request to make to the activists and journalists behind all these recent exposés: six months from now, in May 2008, do a follow-up on all these kids who have been ‘rescued’ and tell us how they’re doing. Are they going to school? Are they having a normal, happy childhood? Indeed, tell us in just one word: are they better off?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 08 November, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Thinking it Through


Remembering Frédéric Bastiat

This is the 38th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to win the 2007 Frédéric Bastiat Prize for Journalism. I picked up a handsome cheque and an engraved candlestick at a ceremony in Manhattan, and reflected that much as I valued the money and would cherish the candlestick, I would have been happier if the writings that made me eligible for this award had been unnecessary. The Bastiat Prize, according to its organizers, is meant for “journalists whose writings wittily and eloquently explain, promote and defend the principles of the free society.” In the India of my dreams, I would not need to do those things.

Frédéric Bastiat was a French essayist who lived in the first half of the 19th century. His ideas, however, are terribly relevant to modern India. Indeed, if his work had been widely read and understood by the men who brought us freedom and shaped our nation after independence, we would not be such a poor country. Virtually every mistake that independent India’s policymakers made in the economic sphere could have been avoided if they had just read his great essay, That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 01 November, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Personal | Thinking it Through


The Population Myth

This is the 37th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Government of India websites can be a hoot sometimes. If you visit the website for the department of family welfare, you will find the flashing slogan, “Have fun with one!!! Control population!!!” Had there been a place to leave comments on that site, I would have written, “Have fun with one! Control exclamation marks!”

When I was a schoolkid, I was taught that a key reason for the poverty of countries like India is their population. This is almost considered axiomatic in India today—and in much of the world, in fact. The thinking behind this is simple: there are a limited amount of resources on our planet, and if there are too many people, there won’t be enough resources to go around. We’ll run out of food. We’ll run out of natural resources. We’ll soon run out of land, and there will be “standing room only”. Harrison Brown once worried about the population increasing “until the earth is covered completely and to a considerable depth with a writhing mass of human beings, much as a dead cow is covered with a pulsating mass of maggots”.

It’s been a while since Brown’s prediction, and the earth isn’t a dead cow yet. If his kind of alarmist thinking was true, we’d have seen two trends over the last few decades: one, population density would be an indicator of poverty, and people would want to migrate away from cities, and not to them. Two, resources would have become scarcer and the quality of life would have gone down wherever populations have risen. In reality, quite the opposite has happened.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 25 October, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Thinking it Through


Dear Rahul Gandhi

This is the 36th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Dear Rahul

Congratulations on your recent elevation as general secretary of the Congress party. Yes, I know, it was just a formality, and there’s more to come. Still, it’s a start, and one that you used to make a statement.

Shortly after getting this post, you took a delegation to Manmohan Singh and asked for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) to be extended to all 593 districts of this country. A couple of days later, the Prime Minister announced that extension. With this, you demonstrated your clout in the party, and you also made a gesture of commitment towards the poor people of this country.

I have a question, though. Have you had a chance to look at the reports evaluating the NREGS that have been released recently? One of them, by the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, found that just 6% of the households registered under the scheme actually got 100 days of employment in 2006-07. Another, carried out by the Centre of Environment and Food Security (CEFS) a few months ago, is even more worrying.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 18 October, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Letters | Politics | Thinking it Through


A Political Game Show

This is the 35th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

In the last few days, I have been thinking deeply about how to solve India’s problems. I have interspersed this demanding activity with furious bouts of watching television. One moment I ponder over who I should vote for in the next general elections. The next moment I send an SMS voting for Aneek Dhar in Sa Ra Ga Ma Pa. A moment later I worry about poverty. Then I watch a repeat of Jhalak Dikhla Ja. Thus the moments pass.

After all this, I have come to the conclusion that only television can solve problems. This has been reinforced by some big bloggers, which means I am right. Scott Adams, on the Dilbert Blog, has proposed a new reality show that pits think tanks against one another, with the public getting to vote for the policies they like. Alex Tabarrok, on Marginal Revolution, has suggested a game show called So You Think You Can Be President?, which puts presidential candidates through rigorous and entertaining tests.

I suggest a similar game show for India, tailored to discovering the qualities that matter to Indian voters. Instead of going out to vote at polling booths, which involves arduous physical labour (at least to a desk-bound half-Bengali like me), we should be allowed to vote via SMS and phone calls. The revenues thus generated can go straight into the government’s coffers, and taxes can be abolished. (See, don’t you like this idea already?)

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Posted by Amit Varma on 11 October, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


These Dreams of Flying

This is the 34th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Earlier this week I escorted my aunt from Chandigarh to Delhi, where she was due to catch a flight back to the US. She was in India after many years, and at Chandigarh airport she looked around us and remarked that many of our fellow travellers would probably have travelled in trains a decade ago. I gushed about how competition in the airlines industry had made prices so much more affordable for all of us. Lower prices, more choices, yada yada yada.

Having dropped her off, I made my way back to Mumbai where I came across this poignant news report in London’s Sunday Times:

An Indian entrepreneur has given a new twist to the concept of low-cost airlines. The passengers boarding his Airbus 300 in Delhi do not expect to go anywhere because it never takes off.

All they want is the chance to know what it is like to sit on a plane, listen to announcements and be waited on by stewardesses bustling up and down the aisle.

In a country where 99% of the population have never experienced air travel, the “virtual journeys” of Bahadur Chand Gupta, a retired Indian Airlines engineer, have proved a roaring success.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 04 October, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


The Twenty20 Age Begins

This is the 33rd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Monday has long passed, and the immediate elation around India’s victory in the Twenty20 World Cup has abated. Yet, I still feel excited, and certain of the historical significance of this win. In 1975, when the first One Day International (ODI) World Cup took place, it seemed like a tamasha to everyone, a passing fancy. Today, it is a huge deal, and West Indies are inscribed as its first winners. I’m certain that the Twenty20 World Cup will be as important one day, and India will be remembered as its first champions. That’s quite something.

My excitement is not just about India winning. I am as charged up about Twenty20 cricket, though it is a format I was initially suspicious of, being a purist in love with the intricate and elongated dramas of Test cricket. My preconceptions about Twenty20 cricket have been—forgive the cliché, but I can’t resist this one—knocked for a six.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 27 September, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport | Thinking it Through


Fund Schooling, Not Schools

This is the 32nd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I read a news report a couple of days back that amazed me. It was about a small village named Maji in the Yunnan province of China. The nearest school lies across the Nujiang river. There is no bridge, though a steel cable runs across.

How do the 500 children of this village get to school? The report states, “They fasten themselves to the cable with a metal carabiner and a rope and slide across the 200-metre wide canyon.” The youngest child, A Qia, is four years old, and makes the crossing by herself. A five-year-old named A Pu has been quoted as saying, “I used to dream of having a bridge, but then I learned that my dream was too expensive.”

My column today is not about bridges—not the kind that go across rivers anyway. It is about education. I never had to cross a canyon using a rope and a metal carabiner to get to school, and if the prospect had come up in my privileged home when I was a kid, I would probably have asked my dad if the metal carabiner was chauffeur-driven. I always took education for granted, the same way I took food for granted, and did not have to worry about where my next meal would come from. Much of India is not so lucky.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 20 September, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


In Defence of Blogging

This is the 31st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Not a week goes by these days without someone bashing blogs. Last Thursday, the essayist Mukul Kesavan referred disparagingly to how the “masters of blah have migrated to the Republic of Blog”. Just days before that, Robert McCrum wrote in the Observer of how “the democracy of the Web is in danger of becoming a cacophonous nightmare”. The Times of India famously (and ironically?) wrote last year that “no one can beat Indian bloggers when it comes to self-obsessed preaching, gossiping and bitching”.

I write a fairly widely read blog, India Uncut, so let me jump to the defence of blogging. Firstly, all these gentlemen are right—but they nevertheless miss the point, as Theodore Sturgeon could have told them. When Sturgeon, a writer of science fiction, was attacked for the rubbish that came out of that genre, he famously came up with what is known today as Sturgeon’s Revelation: “90% of everything is crud.”

Sturgeon’s point was that most attacks against science fiction used “the worst examples of the field for ammunition”. And while he accepted that 90% of science fiction was rubbish, so was 90% of everything else. If one just looked at the crud component of any field, it would be easy to dismiss anything.

This problem is amplified in blogging’s case. In journalism, for example, there are filters to publishing. Newspapers and magazines have editors who constrain what goes into print, and the limitations of space ensure that a lot of crud gets filtered out.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 13 September, 2007 in Blogging | Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Thinking it Through


India’s Cops Get Orwellian

This is the 30th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I’m a huge fan of irony, and our world is full of it. Earlier this week, papers released by the National Archives in England revealed that “Special Branch police” had monitored George Orwell’s activities for a decade. In other words, Big Brother had been watching the man who would go on to write 1984. Orwell himself was presumably unaware of it – and yet, all too aware of the nature of Big Brother.

If Orwell were brought back from the dead, I presume he’d chuckle and think how little things have changed. He would certainly have been bemused by happenings in India. A few days ago, Mumbai’s police revealed their plans to install keystroke loggers in Mumbai’s cyber cafes, besides imposing licensing requirements on them.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 06 September, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


Turbocharging RTI

This is the 29th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I love the Right to Information (RTI) Act. In theory, it gives me back a little bit of the power that the government has taken from me. Governments are supposed to work for us, and it is apt that people who work in government are called public servants. Yet, over the last 60 years, our government has become our lord and master. How does one bring it back to heel?

On paper, the RTI is one way of doing so. Much of the power of government comes from its opaqueness. If you can’t put your finger on what’s going wrong, you can’t hold it accountable. Garbage not being collected from your neighbourhood? You have no idea whom to contact or what action to take. Your ration card is not being given to you? You don’t know who’s withheld it, or if someone else is using it. For virtually any service that the government is supposed to provide, bribes are often necessary, and there’s little you can do.

The RTI changes that. Information is power, and the RTI allows the common citizen access to most information pertaining to government services. A road has been poorly repaired? You can find out which contractor did the job, which officer approved it, and what action is being taken. Sewers haven’t been made in your neighbourhood? You can find out if your local municipality officials are lying about working on it. By exposing the actions of our government officials, we render them accountable for their inaction. That’s the theory of it.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 30 August, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Thinking it Through


Dear Navjot Sidhu and Hu Jintao

This is the 28th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Dear Navjot Sidhu

Recently on a television show, I am told, you criticised the Indian Cricket League (ICL), and the players signing up with it, on the grounds that “they are in it for the money.” You found this reprehensible, clearly feeling that the profit motive was a bad thing. I wish to congratulate you on your beliefs. They were once shared by no less than Jawaharlal Nehru, who described “profit” as “a dirty word.” Indeed, I have heard that when he got angry at someone, he would abuse him or her by shouting, “You, you… you Profit!” But that could be apocryphal.

Mr Sidhu, allow me to express how much I admire your values. Shunning profit, as you surely do if your actions mirror your words, takes immense fortitude. You are always smartly dressed, with your turban matching your tie, despite buying clothes only from people who manufacture and sell them as a social service. When you eat out with your better half, who is also named Navjot and is therefore the better Navjot, you only eat at restaurants that were not begun to make a profit, but to help needy diners like yourself. Indeed, you buy no goods or services manufactured with the profit motive, and I really must ask you sometime where you shop. You also clearly accept absolutely no money for the entertainment you provide us on television, which is very kind of you. Your magnanimity has moved me.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 23 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | Letters | Sport | Thinking it Through


A Business Proposal

This is the 27th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Hello dear! Myself Ram Chander Misra, politician from India, bringing business proposal for your kind perusal. I have been politician for more than 30 years now, and have worked in all major parties. I am currently holding important ministry portfolio, and handling many crores of funds for social welfare scheme. Indeed, many thousands of crores of rupees. Which comes to many BILLIONS OF DOLLARS, dear. And this is where I need your help.

First, dear, let me tell you something about Indian government. Government of India is existing on the basis that it will help poor people of India. This it can only do if there are poor people in India. Thus, it is important to keep people in India poor. This is for their own good, dear, for how can we help them otherwise?

Government of India does this with very ingenuous method that is tried and tested through centuries. First, it taxes them vigorously, both their earnings and spendings, promising to spend their money back on them. But for every 100 rupees that we take, only 15 are spent as they should. I will come back to what happens to the rest, dear, because it CONCERNS YOU.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 16 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


What Indian Cricket Needs

This is the 26th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

The mandarins at the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) must be delighted. As the third Test between India and England gets under way today, India stand poised to win the series, already 1-0 up. This, the BCCI babus are surely telling themselves, will take the pressure off them.

After India’s early exit in the World Cup, immense scrutiny was directed at the cricket board. Such scrutiny is common—the Indian team often goes through crises—and the same solutions are advanced each time. “‘Corporatize’ BCCI,” say some, “hire a CEO.” “Do away with the regional system of selectors,” say others. Editorialists demand increased investment in domestic cricket, while some get micro and simply want to “punish the senior players and give youngsters a chance”.

All these sound splendid, but they treat the symptom, not the disease. The problem with BCCI lies not in its actions or omissions, but in its incentives. The tragedy of Indian cricket is that, at the moment, the incentives of BCCI office bearers are not aligned towards ensuring the good health of Indian cricket. Instead, they are aligned towards ensuring their own continuance in power. These two don’t often lead in the same direction.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 08 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport | Thinking it Through


Mommy-Daddy, go away!

This is the 25th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

One of my favourite quotes about politics is this one from David Boaz: “Conservatives want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do. Liberals want to be your mommy, feeding you, tucking you in, and wiping your nose. Libertarians want to treat you as an adult.”

This was said in an American context, and the liberals referred to are the Leftist ‘liberals’ of America, not the classical liberals who believe in individual freedom. It would be tempting to apply this quote to India, and to point to the religious right, with their moral policing and disregard for free speech, as the Daddy among us, and the socialist left, with their belief in big government and fantasies of a welfare state, as the Mommy.

But the truth is more complex and much sadder. Our government, regardless of the political party in charge, has always tried to play the role of both Mommy and Daddy. Like infants, we acquiesce.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 02 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Will cricket decline in India?

This is the 24th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

As the first Test between India and England moved towards a finish earlier this week, one of my friends announced that he was singing Raga Malhar. This is a legendary raga that is supposed to draw rain from the sky. And indeed, rain fell. If causation could be established, my friend would be a national hero, for millions wanted precipitation.

Like most Indian men, I’m crazy about cricket. Like unrequited love, this passion often seems futile and self-defeating. It’s also mysterious. Why do we invest so much time and energy into following this sport and no other? Why is it the only sport that Indians excel at (relative to others, of course)? In a globalized world, can cricket survive?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 26 July, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport | Thinking it Through


Celebrating Pratibha Patil

This is the 23rd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

If you are an Indian, your heart should swell up with nationalistic pride today – and perhaps even explode. India elects a president as you read this, and it is likely to be Pratibha Patil. There has been much talk in the media about how she is unfit for that post, an opinion I have also expressed. But now I have seen the light. I was wrong.

Competence and intellect are optional attributes for a post that only has ceremonial value. Our president represents India to the world, and should be someone who people can take one look at and say, “Ah, so India is like that!” For various reasons, Pratibha Tai embodies much of India in her slender frame.

Consider, first, her spirituality. We are a spiritual nation, and Pratibha Tai actually converses with spirits. When she was nominated for the presidency, she revealed that she had been told by an enlightened soul that she was destined for bigger things.

“I had a pleasant experience,” she told an audience at Mt. Abu, where she had gone to meet a lady named Hridaymohini aka Dadiji, who runs a “World Spiritual University”. She had chatted with a gentleman named Dada Lekhraj, who died in 1969 but has presumably hung around since. “Dadiji ke shareer mein baba aye,” she told the audience. (“Baba came in Dadiji’s body.”) This, you will notice with pride, also has a touch of the erotic about it, which is quite appropriate in the land of Khajuraho and the Kama Sutra.

There are many advantages of having a president who can speak to spirits. She can chat with Gandhiji (Mahatma, not Sonia) over breakfast, and let us know his views on the world and Lage Raho Munnabhai. If George W Bush comes visiting, she can impress him by chatting with Saddam Hussein and asking him where those WMDs are. (“Dadiji je shareer mein Saddam aye.”) And so on. Lucky Dadiji.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 19 July, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Licensed to toast

This is the 22nd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

“You may now need licence to own toaster,” read the headline of a news report this Tuesday in the Hindustan Times. The article began: “You do not use the Toast Authority of India’s toasting services, but may soon have to pay a one-time licence fee for the toaster you own and an additional tax on any new toaster you buy in the future. Why? To support the Toast Authority of India and its employees.”

“Wait a minute,” you tell me, “you’re pulling a fast one on us. This is way too absurd to believe. Our gentle, compassionate government would never do something like that.”

Right. Well, I did make some of that up. The headline actually said, “You may now need license to own TV.” And in the para I quoted, replace “TAI’s toasting services” with Doordarshan, “toaster” with “TV” and “TAI” with “Prasar Bharati”, and there you have it.

Now tell me, is that any less absurd?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 12 July, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Thinking it Through


Arpita and the Bombay Plan

This is the 21st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Much amusement came yesterday when I read of Arpita Mukherjee ranting against singing shows on television. Arpita, in case you haven’t heard of her, is a singer who came to national attention by taking part in singing reality shows like Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Fame Gurukul. She has an album out now called Yeh Hai Chand, and in the course of a recent interview she said, “Reality shows create unnecessary hype.”

She went on to disparage the voting mechanisms of such shows, and said, “most of the competitors who are not talented win music talent hunt reality shows.” Critics of such shows would no doubt be pleased at Arpita’s outburst – she is a beneficiary of the shows she lambasts, which seems to make her criticism credible. Fans of those shows would rail at her hypocrisy and ingratitude. Actually, her comments are entirely rational and predictable. In fact, she reminds me of JRD Tata and GD Birla.

In 1944, with India on the verge of independence, a group of industrialists that included Tata, Birla and other notables like Purushottamdas Thakurdas, AD Shroff and Kasturbhai Lalbhai came up with a document called “A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India” – also known, famously, as the Bombay Plan. In this, instead of arguing for free markets, they made a case for massive state involvement in the economy. Fans of big government held it up as a sign of validation – India’s biggest businessmen were putting their faith in central planning instead of free markets. In his wonderful book, India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha writes, “One wonders what free-market pundits would make of it now.”

Well, I find Arpita’s and the industrialists’ actions to be analogous, and not remotely befuddling. The shows Arpita criticises enabled her entry into the music business, but now that she has got her break, they are a threat to her. They provide an assembly line of singing talent to the music industry, acting as a filter for talent, and are the biggest source of competition for Arpita. Who likes competition?

Similarly, state controls on the Indian economy shut out competition, and helped entrenched players like Tata and Birla. It is a different matter that the controls and license raj went too far and hurt even the industrialists who had been in their favour, but they did prevent competitive markets, which was in their interests.

It would be presumptuous to conclude that either Arpita or the Bombay Plan authors consciously intended to shut out competition, but their incentives were certainly aligned that way. And while Arpita’s comments will have no impact on the viewership of reality shows, businessmen who fear competition have harmed this country immeasurably.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 05 July, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


A Liberal Complaint

This is the 20th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Erudita, the Goddess of Words, was snoozing up in heaven when she was woken up by a sudden noise. Deep down in the Vocabulosphere, there was turmoil. “I should go and investigate,” she thought.

She zoomed down. There, bang in the middle of the political spectrum, the word Liberal was pacing to and fro. Left to right. Right to left. Left to right.

“What’s the matter, Liberal?” She asked. “You seem agitated. Is everything okay?”

“Everything okay, everything okay?” mocked Liberal. “Everything is not okay. I want to quit.”

“Quit?” said Erudita. “You can’t quit. As long as humans need you, you have a job to do. Just do it quietly, and all shall be well.”

“Humans,” said Liberal, “are the problem here. A century ago I was happy and peaceful, sure of my identity. I knew what I meant. But in the last few decades, I have been brutalized. My original meaning has been wrung out of me, and now I stand for different things to different people. I have become a label, and a cuss word, and a badge to people who don’t even know what I stand for. Aaargh!”

“Whoa, hold on there,” said Erudita. “I thought you were one of the most important words in modern history, for everything that you embodied. What’s gone wrong? Start at the beginning.”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 28 June, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The politics of division

This is the 19th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Politics in India sometimes seems like a card game. A few days ago, when Pratibha Patil’s candidature for president of India was announced, the newspapers were full of how the UPA was playing the “gender card.” Her record in politics was not at the heart of her nomination – Patil is a woman, and because of that alone, politicians were expected to support her.

Vir Sanghvi wrote last Sunday of how Prakash Karat vetoed every name the Congress threw at him till he was outwitted by the choice of Patil. “If Karat had objected to Mrs Patil,” wrote Sanghvi, “he would have seemed anti-woman and so, he finally gave in.” A news report told us of how the Congress “attacked the BJP for not supporting Patil for the post of the President of India and accused the saffron party of being ‘blatantly’ against the cause of women.” (It can be presumed that had the UPA’s candidate been male, the BJP would have been “against the cause of men.”)

While the BJP did not succumb to this dubious logic, they were certainly worried. Their assumed ally, the Shiv Sena, had reacted to Patil’s candidature by applauding the fact that she was from Maharashtra. The Maharashtra card! (At the time of writing, the Sena is yet to make a final choice – they haven’t yet put all their cards on the table.)

Cards, cards, cards. Ten years ago KR Narayanan won support across the political spectrum because of the “Dalit card”. Five years ago APJ Abdul Kalam benefited from the “Muslim card”. Both men have their fans, and I even know one person who likes Kalam’s poetry, but the political support they got derived from their Dalitness and Muslimness respectively. Parties that could not afford to be seen as anti-Dalit or anti-Muslim found it hard to oppose them.

The office of president is largely ceremonial in India, and it doesn’t bother me if we choose our figurehead according to caste or religion or gender. But the very fact that these factors count underlines the grip of identity politics in this country. The primary factor in Indian elections is not governance but identity, not what you do but who you are.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 21 June, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The comfort of a worldview

This is the 18th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

The other day I was at a party with some highly intelligent people with strong views on the world. We talked about politics, economics, movies, and, as you’d expect from Indian men, cricket. Among the subjects that stirred up heated arguments were global warming, farmer suicides and the existence of God.

You might think that of all these worthy subjects, debating the existence of God is pointless. It is a matter of faith, and lies beyond reason. I agree. But I’d point out that for all practical purposes, the other subjects we argued about aren’t too different.

Everyone present there had strong views on global warming, but none of them completely understood the science behind it, or could explain the difference between a climate model and a ramp model. All of them vociferously offered conflicting solutions for our agricultural crisis, but their belief was rooted in intentions, without a historical perspective of what had actually gone wrong, and how markets and prices work. As the hours slipped by and the pegs piled up, we conducted opinionated drawing-room discussions on complex subjects whose intricacies none of us had mastered.

Now, this is not a condemnation. The world is terribly complicated, and it isn’t rational for each of us to try and master every subject around us. If that was a prerequisite to having opinions, we wouldn’t have any, and would wander around baffled by everything. It is natural and sensible for us to seek cognitive shortcuts to understanding the world. Such shortcuts often result in neat little packages known as worldviews.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 14 June, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Mobs are above the law

This is the 17th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I felt an intense desire yesterday to go out and burn a bus. There was no specific reason for this – it was like a craving for ice-cream – and I also figured that I would throw stones at shop windows afterwards. Being in a social mood, I called up a couple of friends to ask if they would like to join me. They politely declined. Oddly, they also asked if I was okay. “I’m just fine,” I told them. “You go have latte and feel sophisticated.”

But I understand their apprehension. Had a couple of us gone out and burnt a bus, we would have been arrested instantly, and later thrashed in the lock-up. On the other hand, had a couple hundred of us gone, nothing would have happened. We would have been allowed to burn buses and throw stones, and even hurt or kill a few people as long as they weren’t anyone influential. All we’d need was a banner or two, or even just some slogans to shout. “We want justice,” we could proclaim, while figuring out whether you set fire to the tyre before or after it’s around the hapless passerby. It takes skill.

In India, mobs are above the law. The events in Rajasthan in the last few days are an illustration of this. The losses to business because of the protests by the Gujjars and their clashes with the Meenas are estimated to run in the hundreds of crores, and I think you’d agree with me that a lot of it was avoidable. Most mob violence in India is.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 07 June, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Keep the ‘Free’ in ‘Free Speech’

A version of this piece was published today as the 16th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I should be grateful that you are reading this column. I have often written about how free speech is threatened in India, but we are nowhere near as bad as some other countries, such as China or Iran or North Korea. There you’d probably read me one week, and then I’d vanish. Here the press is somewhat freer.

Nevertheless, I think you’d agree that things could be better. In India, films are routinely censored, books are often banned, and artists have been roughed up and put behind bars. Often, the constitution allows this and our laws support it, and there seems to be a common consensus that there should be limits to free speech.

A famous case for such limits was made by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr in 1919 in a US Supreme Court case, Schenck v. United States. The defendant, Charles Schenck, had been indicted for distributing leaflets to people likely to be drafted for military service. The leaflets asked the men to “assert opposition to the draft” on the grounds that it went counter to the provisions against “involuntary servitude” in America’s 13th Amendment.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Schenck, and the judgement written by Holmes said, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Since then, this hypothetical example, of a man falsely shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater, has been brought up by people who argue for the imposition of limits on free speech. Naturally, having cited this example, they often tend to propose their own limits.

Well, my view is this: I don’t think that there is any need for limits to be imposed on the right to free speech that are not already implicit in the way they are defined. Shouting “fire” falsely in a crowded theater would be wrong even without any restrictions placed on free speech simply because the right to free speech is fundamentally a property right, and does not extend to other people’s property. Let me explain.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 31 May, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


God resigns

A version of this piece was published today as the 15th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the text of God’s resignation letter, which has been leaked to us by highly placed sources. The author wasn’t available for comment when we tried calling. If anyone would like to fill the vacancy, please write in to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Dear Humans

This is to inform you that I quit. I have enjoyed being God for an eternity now – thank you for the opportunity – but I cannot bear the thought of going on and on like this. Enough is enough. I have informed my angels of my impending resignation, though I didn’t expect them to rush off to buy horns and black clothing right away. This Sunday will be my last day in office, after which I intend to spend some time with my family. (Ok, I’m kidding about the family. Heh.)

I started off badly, I confess. I was a beginning God and there was no roadmap, so what do you expect? My brief was to create a star, a planet and a satellite with a golf course. The rest of the universe wasn’t in the plans – that’s all the failed attempts. I was finally told that I could stop when I made earth, even though I got the golf-course wrong. Still, I’m sure there are other entertaining things you can do on the moon.

Then I was asked to populate the earth, and that’s when I had the most fun. I tried various funky things – I thought bacteria were pretty cool, and would rule the earth for sure. I also thought that of all the prehensile organs I gave my creatures, the penis of the whale was much more useful than the opposable thumbs of humans. I mean, how much fun it must be to grip something with that?

But you guys triumphed, largely because I gave you greater computing power. Had I put in a few trillion neurons less, it could all have been different. (And perhaps I should have worked harder on the dinosaurs.) I admit I got carried away by you because you were the first creatures to notice that I existed. Look, validation matters, period.

Then, when you were just beginning to come out of caves and get civilized, I decided to take a nap. It’s hard work, all this creation, especially at the level of detail involved, and I was tired. And really, what could go wrong while I slept? Humankind was on the rise, using all its neural computing power to create new things, and I thought I’ll wake up refreshed and see a better world, and maybe I’ll get back to work on the moon after a snack or something. Golf is good.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 24 May, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Thinking it Through


The Hindutva Rashtra

This is the 14th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the text of a speech given by Shri Adolf Shah at the Baroda University on 17 May 2022.

Dear Friends

I welcome you to Baroda University for this special ceremony. This day marks the eighth anniversary of Shri Neeraj Jain’s appointment as vice-chancellor of this university by our honourable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi. We have seen some glorious days under him, and have grown almost analogously with our Hindu Rashtra, as India has officially been for the last decade. Indeed, these two stories are interlinked, and if you permit me, I shall take you through some of our most glorious moments. The monitor on top of the stage will instruct you when to clap; please do so.

Shri Jain first came to our notice when he protested against some paintings at the now long-defunct fine arts faculty around 15 years ago. Shri Jain said the paintings offended his religious sensibilities, and his valiant thugs manhandled the painter, who was sent to jail. Many people protested, including the dean of the faculty, who, in contrast with protesters of later years, was lucky to get away with just a suspension. It was an important moment for us, for reasons other than just the emergence of Mr Jain.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 17 May, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The Halo Effect

This is the 13th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I am in Thailand as you read this, and no, I haven’t been deported by the Indian government for joking about our anthem and flag – things aren’t that bad yet. Instead, I’m vacationing, gathering up sea, sand and seafood. I knew I would enjoy the visit as soon as I saw Bangkok’s airport. Compared to Indian airports, it was a swank expanse of ease and luxury, and I immediately felt good about being here. 

On the other hand, when a foreign traveller comes in to Mumbai, as has been much written about, among the first things he is likely to see, from the air, are slums. The airport itself is shabby and disorganised, and delays and dysfunctional staff abound. And if he hasn’t organised transport in advance, he’d have to be lucky not to get ripped off. His first experiences of India are likely to be rather unpleasant.

Why should first impressions matter? Well, because of a cognitive bias called the Halo Effect. We tend to carry over impressions of one aspect of something to everything else about that thing. For example, if we get a flat tyre in the middle of nowhere, and a friendly passerby helps us out, we are likely to think of him as a good sort, even if we are later told that he also happens to be a wife-beater. Our early bias affects the way we view him, and we are more likely to gloss over his other failings.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 10 May, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Thinking it Through


The Devil’s Compassion

This is the 12th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the transcript of a speech given by the demon Beelzebub at the 90th Annual Convention of Demonic Beings.

Comrades and Monsters,

Welcome. I can barely express my joy at the unspeakable horror of being present among such hideous monsters as yourselves – demonic beings dedicated to the ruin and damnation of humanity. In various ways, under the cunning guise of doing good, we have brought sadness and misery upon humanity. We have perpetuated poverty, hatred and ill-health. I wish today, for the sake of the young apprentice beasts present here, to speak about our primary tool of achieving all this: Compassion.

Humans, you see, are fooled by appearances. Come to them as a wrinkled monster with horns, and they recoil. Pretend to be a loving grandpa, and their defences are down. We senior demons realised long ago that to hurt the humans, we have to pretend to care for them. Even as we have nothing but their marination in mind, we must appear compassionate. Stating the most noble intent, we must unleash the very worst of policies. Even better, we must fool some humans, who themselves wish to appear compassionate, into pushing these very policies.

And how we have succeeded! Everywhere there are politicians sincerely pushing well-intentioned policies that are disastrous for the people they are supposed to help. Of course, some people see through our evil designs and protest, but they are dismissed as cruel and uncaring, for they are questioning compassion itself. The irony!

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Posted by Amit Varma on 03 May, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The Anthem and the Flag

This is the 11th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through. It has its genesis in this post.

It was a hot April afternoon in Delhi. The Rashtrapati Bhavan Barista was empty. A waiter lounged by the counter, patriotically indulging in the national pastime (see 94th amendment) of doing nothing much. Then two customers walked in: National Anthem and National Flag.

“Sit,” said Flag to Anthem. “It looks like it’s been a tough month for you.”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 26 April, 2007 in Dialogue | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


Don’t insult pasta

This is the tenth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I have a word of advice for the readers of this column: Do not make fun of pasta. My religious sensibilities will be offended, and I shall compel the government to take action against you.

You see, I belong to a religion called Pastafarianism, and we worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). We follow a religious text called the Loose Canon. If we stay true to its principles, we shall get to Heaven, where there are beer volcanoes and stripper factories. What’s more… wait, why are you snickering? Are you making fun of the FSM? Do you not realise that I am protected by Indian law against being offended?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 19 April, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


The Nehru-Gandhi legacy of shame

This is the ninth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last week I caught an episode of the charming show, Koffee with Karan, in which Karan Johar was chatting with Shobha De and Vijay Mallya. I enjoy the rapid-fire round on this show, because it reveals much about the celebrity-culture of our times, as well as about our celebrities. One question Johar asked De and Mallya on the show stood out: “Rahul or Priyanka?”

Now, Johar wasn’t asking De and Mallya which of the two Gandhis was better looking or suchlike. He wanted to know who they preferred as a politician. There was an implicit assumption that one of them is certain to be a future prime minister. This has nothing to do with with their political skills or leanings, of which little is known. It is all about their last name, which is the most powerful brand in the biggest market of India: our democracy.

Rahul understandably wants to exploit this, and build the brand: a few days ago, while campaigning in UP, he spoke of how the Babri Masjid would never have been demolished had the Gandhi family been active in politics. It’s natural for Rahul to invoke the Gandhi brand, given the resonance it carries in this country. But it’s also somewhat ironic. Despite their iconic status among our economically illiterate masses, the Nehru-Gandhi family has been nothing but disastrous for our country.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 12 April, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The Matunga Racket

A version of this piece was published today as the eighth installment of my column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last week I had begun my piece on victimless crimes by asking you to imagine a dystopia where sex is banned. Smugly, I had referred to it as a mere thought experiment. I apologize for that: for millions of Indians, it isn’t a thought experiment, it’s reality. They’re gay.

I’m sure you all know about Section 377, the archaic law in the Indian Penal Code that bans “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. While it seems to deal just with anal sex, the way the law has been used effectively makes homosexuality illegal in India. Still, until recently I assumed that this law would be used only occasionally, and that too for non-consensual sex, and that gay people had more reason to worry about social attitudes than the legal system.

Well, I was wrong. I met a couple of friends over the weekend who told me about how Section 377 is used as a tool of extortion. Note, I said “is used”, not “has been used” or “can be used”. There are systematic rackets run throughout the country to extort money from gay people scared of having a case filed against them under Section 377. These rackets are run by the police. One example of this is what activists refer to as The Matunga Racket.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 05 April, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


Don’t punish victimless crimes

This is the seventh installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Imagine a dystopia where a mad dictator comes to power and decides to ban sex and dating. Sex is ruining the moral fabric of our nation, he decides. Men and women must not be allowed to get together. What will happen?

Here is what I imagine: One, immense copulation will still take place behind closed doors, and as no one engaged in consensual sex will complain, the state will have to spend considerable resources and do invasive policing to make sure people don’t break the law. Two, the underworld will get involved in enabling encounters between the sexes, as those won’t be legal any more, and couples will no more be able to shoot the breeze at a Barista. Three, there will be more rapes, as repressed men denied normal outlets will resort to force.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


General Musharraf’s incentives

This is the sixth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

In our new age of terror, General Pervez Musharraf is both Gabbar Singh and Veeru. In the global War on Terror that began after 9/11, he is a frontline ally of the US, the man given the task of finishing off the Taliban and catching Osama bin Laden. He is also the pivotal figure in the local conflict between India and Pakistan, talking peace to the international community but taking a harder line with his domestic constituency.

Much of the talk about Musharraf that I see around me arises either from wishful thinking or from false preconceptions. Without passing any judgement on his performance, it would help to consider the incentives that drive him. If Musharraf is to look after his interests, as any rational person would, how should he behave?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 22 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Politics | Thinking it Through


A beast called government

This is the fifth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

There is nothing in the world as dangerous as blind faith. No, no, this is not yet another rant against organised religion: there is enough damnation already scheduled upon me. There is another beast that benefits from blind faith quite as much as religion, and that causes as much harm from our lack of questioning: a beast called government.

Don’t get me wrong, we need government. We need it to take care of law and order, of defense, and for a handful of other things. (I don’t have a very large hand.) But the governments we have, not just in India but virtually everywhere, are vast, monstrous behemoths that are many multiples of the size they need to be. The cost of this, of course, is borne by us: we pay far more tax than we should need to in order to keep government going, and to justify its size the government clamps down on private enterprise and individual freedoms.

Part of our blind faith in government comes from the way we view it. Governments are not supercomputers programmed to work tirelessly for the public interest, nor are they benevolent, supernatural beings constantly striving to give us what we require. On the contrary, governments are collections of people, individuals like you and me, motivated by self-interest. The actions of government are the actions of these men and women, and the best way to understand how they are likely to behave—and therefore, how governments are likely to behave—is to consider their incentives.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 March, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Your maid funds Unani

This is the latest installment of my column for Mint, Thinking It Through. It is an elaboration of my concerns behind my ongoing series, Where Your Taxes Go, and I’d like to thank all the readers and bloggers who have sent me links for that. Keep them coming, and keep expressing your outrage on your own blogs as well.

These are good times for Unani. In his latest budget, the honourable P Chidambaram allocated Rs. 563.88 crores for the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. I kid you not, I am not making this up for your satirical amusement. That departments exists. And you work your ass off, and make sacrifices, so that it can be funded. You and your maidservant.

On my blog, I have a section called “Where Your Taxes Go,” where I document strange instances of how our taxes are put to use. There is much there that is trivial and amusing—a moustache allowance for a havaldar in Lucknow, compensation for a bank employee mistakenly declared dead, salary for an 11-year-old teacher, relocation of monkeys from New Delhi to MP (only Rs. 25 lakhs). There is also much there that underscores the irresponsibility of our politicians—toilet refurbishment allowances for Jharkhand legislators, parliament hold-ups that cost 20k a minute, the 90 lakh free TVs that the DMK promised in Tamil Nadu to get elected there. Most of us are so used to government wastage that we shrug this off. “Pata hai yaar,” we say together in a gruff chorus of a billion nonchalant voices. “So what is new? Gorment is like this only.”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 08 March, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Taxes | Thinking it Through


Don’t think in categories

This piece is the third installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through.

As a blogger, I often get phone calls from journalists who have been instructed to write a story on blogging. Generally, all they know about it is that it is some new kind of buzzword, and they have often not read any blogs. Their questions invariably include the phrase “blogging community.”

Oh how they generalise. “What does the blogging community feel about the new KBC?” they ask, or “What do bloggers write about?” I try to be polite and say that I can only speak for myself, but I won’t deny that the image of hanging a journalist upside down just above a vat of boiling oil gives me great glee at such times.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 22 February, 2007 in Blogging | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Reason vs Rationalisation

A shorter version of this piece was published today as the second installment of my column, Thinking it Through, in Mint. I also posted this on the old India Uncut.

Often when I argue with friends, or on the internet, I am dismayed by how intransigent some people are. No matter how many facts I throw before them, or how solid my reasoning is, I simply cannot convince them of my point of view. No doubt they feel the same about me. “He refuses to listen to reason,” they think, even as I bemoan how unreasonable they are.

This is not a phenomenon peculiar to me: we live in deeply polarised times, and around half the world believes that the other half ignores reason altogether. Well, it is my belief that we overestimate reason to begin with. The Scottish Philosopher David Hume once described reason as “the slave of the passions,” and I believe that much of the time when we feel we are being reasonable, we are actually rationalising conclusions we have already arrived at, positions that we already hold.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Thinking it Through


Where’s the Freedom Party

My weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through, kicked off on February 8, 2007. It will appear every Thursday. This is the first installment, also posted on the old India Uncut.

It’s frustrating being a libertarian in India. Libertarians, broadly, believe that every person should be have the freedom to do whatever they want with their person or property as long as they do not infringe on the similar freedoms of others. Surely this would seem a good way for people to live: respecting each other’s individuality, and not trying to dictate anyone else’s behaviour.

Naturally, libertarians believe in both social and economic freedoms. They believe that what two consenting adults do inside closed doors should not be the state’s business. Equally, they believe the state should not interefere when two consenting parties trade with each other, for what is this but an extension of that personal freedom. And yet, despite having gained political freedom 60 years ago, personal and economic freedoms are routinely denied in India. Even worse, there is no political party in the country that speaks up for freedom in all its forms.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


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