22 April, 2015


I read an article by a nuclear scientist which said that nuclear energy was unsafe for South Asia, primarily because extremists had always managed to attack even the most highly guarded military areas,and that the chances of an attack by a religious extremist group was a high probability.

I think he could also have added that nuclear waste was going to be a big problem. So far, India hasn't even figured out how to dispose of human waste of 1.3 billion people--let alone nuclear waste generated by large number of generators.

I've always been against nuclear energy--Fukushima also brought home what could happen to the soil, agriculture, and life of communities in the event of a disaster.

But taking part at the Watson International Center's Advanced ResearchInstitute at Brown University last summer, what came out through our discussions is that nuclear power was an easy option for many countries trying to fulfill energy needs of vast numbers of people. A palmful of nuclear material could generate enough energy to keep a large part of India or China lit up, and all its industrial activities going on at full swing, whereas you would need literally millions of solar panels to generate that same kind of energy. In addition, solar could light a home but it couldn't power heavy machinery needed by industry--it couldn't even power a drill needed by an electrician to do electrical installations in a home. This argument convinced me,somewhat, that nuclear was an option that couldn't be overlooked,especially in the context of massive poverty which could be reduced significantly with the additional boost of energy. In addition, it would get China and India to stop using coal-an important win for global warming.

The risks are always going to be there, of course. A nuclear reactor close to Pondicherry, India was hit by the tsunami in 2004, and it leaked dangerously--but the officials there hushed it up and never evacuated the area. Consequently, many residents around the area suffer from radiation induced diseases and disabilities. Also, India's nuclear waste disposal strategy remains unclear.

The best strategy, at the present moment, seems to be a mix of energy sources that include renewables like solar, wind, natural gas, hydro,and magnets, along with the traditional energy sources of petroleum, a bit of coal and a bit of nuclear. New energy sources might be in the offing--I was told by an IIT graduate about a gel that would replace air-conditioners, and perhaps absorb and store the heat to convert into energy for household use as well (this second clause is unverified, whether I got that from my friend or from my own vivid imagination). While the eventual goal should be to phase out coal completely, that may not be possible for India, at least, for a decade or more, during which moment they could use cleaner technology to filter out the toxic gases--technologies to clean coal emissions exist and can be added to existing coal-using industries.

In addition, nuclear should perhaps be seen as a stop-gap measure--energy that could help make the transition from coal to green energy, without it being seen as the answer. But Asian countries would need a very strict and highly monitored regime of disposing of the waste, since this will surely be the area in which they will try to skimp or completely ignore international guidelines.

Nations like China and India also need to stop viewing and boasting about their energy guzzling, consumeristic overpopulation as are source--discourse of that nature is leading to a lemming-like tendency amongst Asian nations to compete for "Who has the most population?", and this discourse is often tied to religious demographics in a fatal race towards population hegemony.

Of course, there's always the option of not being that wired--and living a more simple and sustainable lifestyle. The existing energy sources we have, along with huge amounts of investments in recycling human waste into gas, recycling every man-made material to reach zero waste, is a good way to reduce the growing carbon footprint human beings are leaving on an increasingly fragile and overheated earth.Living a less frenetic lifestyle in smaller cities, and riding bicycles in urban zones rich with art and culture, may be the way we should live, rather than try to power up all of Asia with nuclear reactors.

Ultimately, that may be where we should head--but until people have the requisite education to realize this is where the Europeans have reached in their linear trudge through history, Asians are going to want the Apple goodies and the high speed cars to zoom through life on the fast lane. Whether the sustainable activists are going to win this one is up for debate--surely some people in Asia, at least, are beginning to realize that this sort of population growth and this sort of consumption habits are not sustainable, and is killing the planet.Eventually even the most wired people want clean air, clean water and a safe environment for their children-that's usually the turning point for most high-growth capitalists. Whether that awareness reaches people fast enough to save the planet is moot--what is clear is that we need to keep working towards that vision.

Published in Setopati, Nepal's digital newspaper, 22 April, 2015

18 April, 2015

When there is no honor amongst men, where does the human civilization go?

The ancients had codes of conduct in war. In ancient India, the Law of Manu stated that one should not attack a sleeping enemy—even a child can understand that attacking someone who’s sleeping brings no glory because no courage is required. No doubt the ancients Romans, Greeks and others had their own codes of war. Fighting sneakily and without showing your hand was in general considered cowardly—you had to fight with a sword in your hand, clearly visible by the enemy.

The two World Wars remain prominently in people’s memories because they were, besides the epochs of human bestiality, also the epochs of human bravery and courage. The millions of stories of people who behaved humanely during these moments, with the correct code of conduct, is what makes people turn back, time and again, to the memories of those brutal years.

Sadly those times seemed to have passed. Now technological war in which healthy, beefy young men sit in computer cubicles from thousands of miles away and attack defenseless people, including women and children, through aerial aircraft and wireless technologies, and kill them, seems to be accepted as not just the new way of conducting war, but even something that brings glory. And while people fought the Nazis and their apocalyptic vision, people now seem to respond to this new moment in the history of technological warfare with a deadened silence.

Then there are the sneaky, covert wars that are not even accepted yet—the men and women subjected to 24 drone surveillance in their homes, which is a despicable, cowardly way to conduct warfare because these drones are in people’s homes, at night, in their most private spaces, watching and attacking people when they are at their most defenseless—ie, when they are asleep.

The wireless systems we have allowed to enwrap almost every inch of the planet are capable of being “hacked”—not just by the random terrorist or guerrilla, but also by state and government forces intent on subjugating the populace. What can be done through these wireless networks? No international authority has yet looked at these questions in a systematic manner, nor made international rules which forbid attacking people through these ubiquitous technologies. What if the wireless network was simultaneously being used to torture people—by keeping them awake at night, by disrupting their electrical and phone systems, by spying not just on their cell and email messages, but perhaps even the thoughts in their mind? Contemporary science, well documented, tells us of experiments in which scientists are already able to “download” a transcript of people’s thoughts through various methods. Pair that up with a megalomaniac state which imagines it can control every single bit and bob of “information”, and is eager to see the benefits of “data fishing,” than you realize that human civilization, and the codes of conduct with which people have treated each other since time immemorial, breaks down into the deepest void of anomie.

The disruption of climate, and the creation of “natural disasters” through manmade means, has become another way to attack weaker enemies. Those who are working with these technologies may not be visible yet, but one day they will be. Which international body has the authority to deal with such a state, in the case such activities come to light in the future? Disrupting the climate disrupts food and water, and that is the most inhuman way of warfare.

No matter how “great” your technological progress might be, there is no glory, nor any greatness, in attacking vulnerable people in cowardly ways. No technological advances can replace these values that humanity takes for granted—human values which include agreements between human beings about codes of conduct, even in the deepest moment of war. But with no limits to modern warfare, and with every single human civilizational ethics and code of conduct being thrown to the winds to the march of technological “progress”, humanity may have reached a new nadir in its 10,000 year history. Who’s dictating our future? Where are we heading? Are we heading to a future where people sitting at computers will define the nature of human civilization? Or has the time come for a new international movement that opposes this view of humanity? 

05 April, 2015


In case you missed it, the American banking system has been giving out massive amounts of loans to foreign companies. This has good, and bad, consequences. Because the American banking system had a limitless amount of cash and credit (so it appeared), it was willing to loan out these quick and easy loans to businesses in China and India, amongst other emerging economies.

But now, with the American dollar going up, the exchange rates have become sharply assymetrical. Any emerging economy business trying to pay its loans is going to find that the amount they need to pay has sharply increased in local currency. With the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, these companies may find it difficult, or impossible, to pay the loans back. There’s always Chapter 11, leading to a massive wave of defaults across the world. Apparently around a trillion dollars may be at stake here.

The Federal Reserve cannot keep interest rates artificially low for ever. Then there’s also their massive 85 billion per month dollar printing program which has been steadily pumping dollars into the economy. At some point, all of these billions catch up and come to be known as “inflation.” But American economic head honchos were apparently supremely confident that the economy was so strong it could withstand an unlimited amount of money, especially for defense, being printed each year since 9/11.

Will the American economy be able to absorb the last 10 years of massive overprinting of dollars? Will the defaults in the emerging economies act like dominoes, bringing down the American financial system? Its hard to say for sure, but what is clear is that countries that have taken these easy loans from America are going to reconsider where they get their credit from, in the future. In fact, indebting people is nothing new in America-most people have massive amounts of credit card debts, and they also buy everything else, from college education to house to car to their monthly food items, on credit. For America, this is a normal way of operating. But for many other parts of the world, where debt is not considered an asset and a sign of normalcy, the sudden spike in interest rates and the resulting defaults could spell serious consequences.

In general, banking operates on trust, and the notion of stability. People plan their projections of future growth, and payment, based on a notion of stability of currency and exchange rates. When the rates start to fluctuate this wildly, businesses become more risk-averse, and the dollar becomes an unreliable currency. Of course, for the risk-takers who don’t have any other form of credit, the dollar will still remain a currency to bank on, since its more easily available to them in the form of credit than say, the Swiss franc. But in the long run, the losses incurred from the dollar’s easy credit (And easy indebtedness) may be harmful to emerging economies.

I’m also interested to know how many emerging economy countries are tied by debt to the World Bank, and what these loans are for. Also, how do they get repaid? And how is the dollar’s wild ascent going to affect these economies?

I was working as a consultant at the World Bank between 2008-2010. My job was to take part in the countrywide assistance strategy, and to note down the suggestions given by various groups of stakeholders in Pokhara, Nepalgunj and Biratnagar. In one of these sessions, teachers gave the feedback that the World Bank, in collaboration with the Nepal Government, had frozen the hiring of permanent teachers, but started a new program that allocated “block grants” to school—these grants were given in small chunks to schools to do what they wanted. Most schools built a spanking new concrete structure. In exchange, the World Bank put on hold the permanent hiring of teachers—that was the conditionality for the block grants (from what I could understand, the agreement was that the school could do whatever it wanted with the grants—including pay its teachers, which of course none of the schools actually did.) This left the government schools, in effect, with shiny new concrete buildings but poorly paid temporary “teachers” who may just have passed their SLCs. In other words, they took what was once a very efficient and well-functioning system from which many highly educated individuals graduated to go forth in the world and hold international positions, to a system which boasted “infrastructure” but whose commitment to teachers and teaching had been allowed to be greatly undermined. With the Maoist affiliated students threatening teachers, a teacher admitted to me that he hadn’t failed a single student for a few years, even if they were not sufficiently up to standard—meaning a lot of these Maoist gangsta boys then reached SLC but didn’t actually have the academic chops to pass the final examination.

My purpose in sharing this story is to show that loans that operate on this level of conditionalities can be dangerous. Who thought it would be a “neat” idea to stop hiring lazy permanent teachers? Perhaps there was some wild new radical theory of social change (no doubt started by anthropologists) which posited than handing $4000 to schools would automatically make them hire good teachers, or teachers more suitable to their ethnic and /or caste group. In fact, the program seems to have backfired, since the permanent teachers, many of whom are actually selfless and dedicated individuals who happen to spend a lifetime teaching in extraordinarily difficult circumstances for very little pay (and often facing mortal danger, as during the civil conflict when they were targeted by both sides), are now no longer present in these schools, leaving the schools in remote areas even more vulnerable than before.

These loans, therefore, can lead down the slippery path where governments, businesses and individuals end up taking actions that are bad for the collective good. The ironic part of this whole story is that the very student who fails from this educational system then has to go to Qatar and work in slave-like conditions to amass enough wealth, some of which will be extracted from the government as tax in order to service World Bank loans—the same loans that made him a less educated and less skilled man. I cite an example of a loan from the Word Bank, an “international” institution that just happens to be headquartered in Washington DC, but it could just as well apply to private businesses as well.

It would be a strange world in which only America’s monster currency swallows all others, in some PacMan like movement through the banking system. Clearly some intervention of international proportions would need to occur, especially if these fluctuations of interest and exchange rates also effect the debts of the Third World countries, via the World Bank, amongst other international banks that have been loaning money to poor countries for infrastructure, governance, et cetera.

How will the loans repayment work out? Lets hope the American lenders will think about a way out for themselves, as well as for their borrowers. There could be solutions, including allowing the businesses to repay the loans at the interest rates, and the dollar exchange rates, at which they initially made the contracts. Of course, this would bring on a big loss to American banks, but this might be better than not getting anything back in return.