Tensing Carlos Rodrigues

Archive for January, 2013|Monthly archive page

Among the Kristangs of Malacca

In Travels on January 25, 2013 at 10:14 am

IMG_2043Strategically positioned mid way on the maritime corridor between China and Indian Peninsula, that led onwards to the Middle East  and further to Europe, Malacca had trade inscribed into its destiny perhaps from the time Parmeswara built the city in the fourteenth century.  The city grew rapidly and soon became a wealthy and a powerful hub of international commerce. In 1409 Admiral Cheng Ho, Commander of the Chinese Imperial fleet, arrived in Malacca on the first of his seven voyages to the Indian Ocean, beginning a long era of strong Chinese influence on Malacca. Little later Gujarati traders brought Islam to it.

Afonso de AlbuquerqueBy the first decade of the sixteenth century Malacca was a bustling, cosmopolitan port, attracting hundreds of ships each year. The city gained acclaim worldwide as a centre for the trade of silk and porcelain from China, textiles from Gujarat and Coromandel (India), nutmeg, mace, and cloves from the Moluccas (Indonesia), gold and pepper from Sumatra (Indonesia), camphor from Borneo, sandalwood from Timor and tin from western Malaya.

IMG_2277It is not surprising therefore that when Europe began to extend its power into the East, Malacca was one of the first cities to attract its covetous eye. The Portuguese under the command of Afonso de Albuquerque took the city in 1511, after a fierce fight. But it was to remain with the Portuguese for just one hundred and thirty years; in 1641 the Dutch conquered it. Soon it went into the hands of the British. And was occupied by Japanese for a little while during the Second World War. 

IMG_2038Besides the ruins of a colossal fortification – A Famosa – and of a magnificent church – St. Paul’s, the Portuguese left behind in Malacca a community of descendants of Portuguese men who married the local Malay women. They are called the Kristangs;  they are all Roman Catholic Christians. They speak a Portuguese creole known by the same name. In the mid-1920s, at the fag end of their rule, the British set off a large area of land along the sea, not far from the Malacca port, as a sort of a reservation for the Kristangs; what has since then been called the Portuguese Settlement or Portuguese Village or Kampung Portugis.


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The Systemic Myopia Endemic to Democracy

In Politically wrong on January 24, 2013 at 9:22 am

Viral Acharya is an engineer turned economist, currently the C.V. Starr Professor of Economics in the Department of Finance at New York University Stern School of Business. He is also the Program Director for Financial Economics and a Research Affiliate at the Centre for Economic Policy Research; a member of Advisory Scientific Committee of European Systemic Risk Board, Advisory Committee of Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission of India, International Advisory Board of SEBI (India), and Advisory Council of the BSE Training Institute, Mumbai, and an Academic Advisor to the Federal Reserve Banks of Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia.

But this big list of positions, and the list of publications and the awards that Acharya has won for his academic work in finance and particularly in the area of Systemic Risk, is not perhaps as impressive as his being the co-author of the book Guaranteed to Fail : Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Debacle of Mortgage Finance (Princeton University Press; March 2011); the book nails the  myth of sovereign guarantee.

But why I am talking about him today is not even because of that book; its what he said in one of the talks on the book at Kansas City Public Library that I wish to bring to your attention; because that has a lot of relevance to India; in fact, Acharya himself confessed that the idea came to him from his childhood experience in India.

What he said in that talk, and perhaps his unique contribution to the analysis of the 2008 US financial crisis may be summed up in just two closely connected points : democracy distorts the vision of national welfare – it sets the time horizon for the vision to five years; and since both the electorate and their democratically elected representatives get affected by this myopia, the latter tend to pay the former in the currency that the former desires. 

Acharya recalls a very telling memory from his childhood in India. In the Bollywood movies he would watch, he would see candidates distributing sarees to the women in their constituencies; and romp home to victory. And he found it very amusing and satisfying. It was only much later when he switched over from Engineering to Economics at NYU-Stern in 2001, that two questions faced him point blank : Who pays for those sarees ? Is the saree the ultimate satisfaction of the woman’s need ? As long as we do not ask those questions, the myopia makes a mockery of the democracy. Saree is only a symbol; the myopia metastasises through the entire democratic functioning.

The 2008 US financial crisis was less about finance. The unbridled greed of the private corporations like Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Countrywide Financial or AIG, or the wicked genius of the financial engineers who were nicknamed “masters of the universe” may look as the obvious culprits for the mass financial destruction. But that came later. Where it all started was in the White House. Documents after documents, testimonies after testimonies (the folder on my HDD weighs about 15GB as on date) evidence only one thing : a government desperate to woo an electorate faced with an imminent rerun of the 1930’s experience, let loose a new New Deal. If it was the saree in India, it was a house in US.

gasThe five year window that democracy affords to a government probably could not accommodate anything more than that. And the situation was desperate. The WWII opened the door to a new age of prosperity for US. The subsequent governments kept it going for another half a century by igniting wars all across the globe in unfailing regularity. But to their bad luck, new wars refused to start after that, and the American economy got into dire straits.  

But that is a fait accompli; my concern here is not about the 2008 US crisis. What worries me is the fact that India and US are the world’s largest democracies; and what is happening in India, is no different from what happened in US. Sarees is a relatively low impact issue. As I have said before, the democratic myopia pervades the entire functioning of governance, and more sadly, even the critique of the governance. Look at the populist schemes that are ground at the mills of the government; and the way in which they are lapped up. Look at the counter-establishment movement; what is it focusing on ? The broader issues before the nation or the pic-pocketing by the powerful ? What is more important : who made how much profit in allocation of coal blocks or how much benefit is the national resource delivering to the people of India and at what cost ?

For me the saddest day was when I had to watch on a 48” Plasma screen the run up to the Presidential election filmed through a 0.2 mm camera aperture – it was as exciting as a blow by blow depiction of a wrestling match where I was the losing player. 

Destination Goa : The white, the grey and the black.

In Goa at Crossroads on January 23, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Goa at Crossroads


May be that was just a hunch; but I sort of got a feeling year before that those in the marriageable age were in a hurry to tie the knot before the leap year dawns. During one of those year end weddings I got talking to some friends of the groom who had come down all the way from Delhi; and they planned to leave Goa after the New Year. They told me that up in the North, being in Goa between Christmas and New Year, is considered as a life time achievement – sort of Gen Y equivalent of Amarnath or Haj. Next morning I left for Bangalore, to escape the wrath of the pilgrims !

Before I proceed any further, let me define the scope of the word tourism as used here. By tourism I mean everything from shacks on the beach to 7* spas to Carnaval/New Year bashes to Sunburn/Moonlite to river cruises/jeep rides to banana boats/floating casinos to Flea Market/Russian restaurants to nude colonies/celebrity bungalows, and everything in between and beyond that satisfies one criterion : it is nothing about us, all about Destination Goa.

They say Goa was rediscovered by hippies around 1966 or so, a few years after the political heirs of the “first discoverer” Afonso de Albuquerque deserted it; it is believed the hippies were driven out from Nepal, or drove themselves out; the next freak joint they found was Goa. That was definitely true of some beaches along the Sinquerim-Vagator belt. Probably it all began there. Subsequently, as the word spread, more sober travellers began trying out the new destination. But that was a trickle. What really turned the trickle into flood was the conflict in Kashmir and Sri Lanka – both choice destinations for Western tourists. In fact, tourism in Goa was a result of violence – the hippies fleeing the war in Vietnam and the tourists wary of violence in their favourite destinations ! No, I am not trying to recount the history of tourism in Goa – I am trying to draw your attention to the fact that Goa began as a “default” tourist destination !

And tourism was a default option for people of Goa as well. Portuguese fed us with butter from Holland and potatoes from Idaho; I was myself brought up on Cow & Gate milk from England. But during the 450 years of their stay, Portuguese did pretty little to promote income generating activities in their prized overseas possession. Besides a few escolas primarias and a Medical College (and a course in Pharmacy) they did little in the educational field as well. Those who were keen on higher education and could afford, crossed over to the Brittish India or went to Portugal. This is the supply side story.

The story on the demand side was equally depressing. Though Afonso de Albuquerque died desolate seeing his grand dream of creating in India “a community of half-blooded Portuguese who would remain forever loyal to the Portuguese crown” in dust, his successors did succeed in creating a community that was more outward looking than loyal to its roots.

GoaThe result was an exodus of Goans, mostly from the coastal conselhos, to the major cities of Brittish India (Bombay, Calcutta, Karachi, Rangoon), East Africa, Persian Gulf and on board the ship. This continued for long, with ebbs and tides and varying patterns. So, when the opportunity arrived in mid-sixties in the form of white tourists, it was natural that many of us jumped at it : here was the Africa-Gulf-ship all bundled into one, right in the backyard. We moved into the kitchen, renting out the living room and the bedroom for paying (rather, heavy paying) guests. Sometimes we cooked for them for the pocket money. Occasionally our daughters kept them in good humour; and our sons helped them in their adventures. Here was the Garden of Eden, full of white sand and rimmed with blue sea. That was the beginning of The Arab and The Camel story.

The map above is interesting : it shows the typical colonial spatial development pattern – the core : Baga, Calangute to Colva, Mobor; the periphery : Arambol and Palolem; and the beyond : the feeding hinterland. Look at its orientation – oriented outward towards the metropolis, the mother economy that it serves. But more about it later.

At this point, I would like to draw your attention to just one fact, and an important one : we did not choose tourism; it happened as we sought the easy way out.

Bylakuppe (Karnataka) – A Nation in Exile

In Travels on January 12, 2013 at 4:01 am

Bylakuppe, situated 90 kilometers from Mysore on SH 88, comprises of two Tibetan refugee settlements that were setup in 1961 and 1969 respectively and has now grown into a full-fledged town housing the largest Tibetan population outside of Dharamsala in India. In 1960, the Government of Mysore allotted about 3,000 acres of land at Bylakuppe in Mysore district in Karnataka and the first ever Tibetan exile settlement came into existence in 1961. A few years later another settlement, Tibetan Dickey Larsoe was established. More than 150,000 Tibetan refugees have found asylum in India during the past 50 years, subsequent to Jawaharlal Nehru’s offer to shelter Tibetan refugees until their eventual return. But they have not returned; perhaps never will. It was a smart gamble on the part of India that unfortunately failed. Had it succeeded, India’s game with China might have had a different ending.

IMG_1578 IMG_1588 IMG_1587 IMG_1586 IMG_1585 IMG_1584 IMG_1581IMG_1589 IMG_1592 IMG_1591 IMG_1590The gradual change in scenery and the feeling of being transported to another country with every step one takes towards where the monasteries are located, adds to its mystique and charm of Bylakuppe. The Golden Temple is fast becoming a major attraction local tourists; the environs are crowded and dirty, as in any popular tourist destination. In the monastery guest houses and far off camps, however, one gets really authentic momos and thukpas.IMG_1593

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IMG_1610IMG_1609IMG_1612The land grows mainly maize. But the Tibetans themselves do not work in the fields. They lease the land to the local Kannadigas for a rent that is small compared to the value of the crop, or employ the locals as daily wage workers. It is a win-win situation for the Tibetans as well as the locals.  The monasteries are showcases of affluence; so are the seminaries and halls of residence.  The monks do not drink or smoke. But other than that they have all the comforts of life. The fridges in the guest house were full of Coke and Red Bull cans; and the food that went waste was really hurting. Golden Temple is nothing but gold.

Why I wish Kejriwal fails

In Politically wrong on January 11, 2013 at 6:54 am

The morning after Mrs. Indira Gandhi declared Emergency, my father told me in whispers : “Do not worry; her end is near.” And then he quoted some Greek phrase whose meaning was : Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first take away their sense.Kejriwal

I feel exactly the same way about Mr. Arvind Kejriwal and his companions – those that are still with him in the blitzkrieg against corruption. I have no reason to fault his entry into politics, or more correctly party politics; Anna Hazare’s movement was always political, whichever way you interpret that word. If you say politics is about the dynamics of power, the movement was political – power of the people against the power of the establishment. If you say politics is about which party wins the next election – by making corruption coterminous with Congress, the movement sought to determine the result of the next election.

Where, I feel Kejriwal has faulted is in putting the aam admi on his topi – that is, by making him the centre of his model of governance. My finding fault with aam admi may sound strange to you; after all every successful politician, and even those not so successful, swear by him. It is my firm belief that aam admi cannot be the decision maker in day to day governance of a country; he will destroy it much faster than all the politicians have been able to do in last half a century. For aam admi is a monster, created by the politicians to further their own interests. The difference between him and that of Frankenstein’s is that this one has no mind of his own.

And now, Kejriwal wants to give it in the hands of the aam admi to frame the laws, make the budget for the country, fix the prices of goods, … Can there be a better recipe for anarchy ? As someone said (was it Warren Buffet ?) after the 2008 meltdown referring to the role of the cheaply populist policies of the US government : If the devil had kept awake the whole night, he wouldn’t be able to find a better way to destroy the country.

Think of just one of Kejriwal’s utopian idea : aam admi fixing prices of rice and chillies. The atta will then be available for Rs. 10 a kg and onions for Rs. 5 a kg. How great ! But why do you forget that even now it is the aam admi who decides the prices ? Is it not the aam admi’s demand in the market that determines the prices, given the supply ? So Kejriwal is contemplating a schizophrenic aam admi : who puts a board in front of the shop with the price of tomatoes at Rs. 3, and then goes by the backdoor to clear all the available stock of tomatoes at Rs. 13. As long as Kejriwal does not succeed in growing enough tomatoes (and rice, chillies, onions, wheat, sugarcane, …) at Ram Lila Maidan or Constitution Club, these will remain stupid dreams on a sultry night.

In the run up to the last panchayat elections we got a chance to try out an interesting experiment with the aam admi. We used an existing NGO which had done remarkable work in a village, and earned considerable respect, to float an unique idea in grass root democracy : a truly peoples’ candidate. Our logic was simple but impeccable (in theory); we argued that if the people of a ward select from among them one person who is honest and capable, and at least 50% of the people back this selection, then this candidate would be 100% assured of victory in the elections.  To make it really fool-proof, we laid a condition that any of the activists of the NGO or anyone who has an ambition of contesting the election cannot present himself or herself as a candidate; the name has to necessarily come from the people. Within a week or two a strong opposition built up for the idea, including from the loyal workers of the NGO. We had to naturally retreat defeated.

A similar experiment was tried in Dhenkanal in Orissa. Two childhood schoolmates with diametrically opposite views of democracy ended up contesting the panchayat elections in a certain ward. To keep their identity under wrap, let us call them Bansi and Abheer. Bansi had a steady job in the city and was known in the village for his sober habits and integrity of character; already a large number of villagers availed of his services to put straight their property matters or sought his advice on education of their children and their employment. Abheer, on the other hand, was unemployed, given to drinking and gambling and was seen most of the time hobnobbing with politicians. To make the contrast more striking, they followed totally different modes of canvassing : Bansi would not spend a pie on his voters, would only meet them one-on-one in their houses and explain his stand. Abheer, on the other hand would spend lavishly on his voters, wine and dine them and “pay” them for the votes. Abheer won by a large margin. 

Fifty years down the line : Goa at crossroads.

In Goa at Crossroads on January 10, 2013 at 3:59 am

Goa at Crossroads


A year ago Goa completed fifty years of independence from colonial rule. Not much of a fanfare was made; at least not as much as we wanted to make. I know twenty five is more apt for celebration; by fifty, one is a bit tired. But, perhaps, fifty is the time for a country or state when it begins to question its being; rightly then we are today facing an existential question : To be or not to be what we have been during the last fifty years.

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It is not an easy question to answer, but. One reason perhaps is because during these fifty years we have not all moved in the same direction; as a result, today our interests are diverse. Lest I confuse you by this abstract argumentation, let me recall a small incident that happened many many years back. The Zuari Bridge had just been completed, after a long long wait; most of us let out a sigh of relief – no more of those mad rushes into and out of ferries over precariously positioned wooden ramps. But, days before the bridge was to be inaugurated, there was a huge protest demonstration by shopkeepers who thrived at the ferry points. Once the bridge is commissioned they would be out of business. They were absolutely right; they too had a right to livelihood. But did that mean there should have been no bridge ?

The point is simple : truth is not as flat as we would like it to be; should I say there are layers of truth ? Is it possible to identify those layers and differentiate between them and exercise a choice ? I feel it is possible, if we accept that the layers are basically determined by the time horizon; if we take a shorter time horizon we see one truth – say the loss of livelihood of the ferry point shopkeepers. It is more than twenty five years now since Zuari Bridge is standing; and I have not heard of any of those families dying of starvation. If we take a little longer time horizon, the truth changes its contours. And if we take even longer horizon, the truth may change completely.

Today the air is rent with all sorts of noise about the evils of mining; and, equally loud protestations about the ills of not mining; Shah Commission Report and its aftermath is a part of a larger debate between the “shopkeepers at the ferry point” and the “commuters”. There is also a rupture erupting between “shack owners” and the “locals”, which is again part of a mahasangram between those who have a stake in the tourism pie and those who do not. I suppose that is natural.

I do not want to take any position on these issues right here. I would rather prefer to go beyond them to what underlies all economic conflicts – the problem of resource utilisation and the social and temporal trade-offs. But I shall not do it with the rigour of a college teacher discussing Third Law of Thermodynamics or Keynes’ Theory of Effective Demand. Fifteen years back I would have thought that was the only way to do it. But well past fifty, one develops a certain tolerance for digression and fuzziness; one is less certain about the absolute truths, and history takes on the hue of stories. I would therefore be more personal, and experiential. I shall tell the truth, but the whole truth; not just what fits into the theoretical construct of right and wrong.  You are free to accept it; or dump it into dustbin. Tomorrow, even I may do the same.