Daily Archives: 07/12/2008

Net deficits (2005)


 Times of India (Editorial), 12 May 05




Net deficits


Rajesh Kochhar


The Internet no doubt challenges ignorance, but it is also a purveyor of false information. It is decentralised and anarchic, since nobody controls or owns it. To borrow a phrase from al Biruni, it is a mixture of pearls, pebbles and dung. Yet, many people utterly believe what is posted on the Net. Newspapers tap the Net for background information.Thus, noted astronomer-mathematician Brahmagupta is placed in 628 BCE instead of CE 628. The Jantar Mantar observatory is said to have been employed for predicting eclipses. Not true. Predictions require mathematics, not instruments. A newspaper described Aryabhata as “a scholar at the Nalanda university” and credited him with authoring the so-called “heliocentric theory of gravitation”. We know very little about ancient astronomers, our only source being stray comments in tersely worded scientific shlokas by them or in those of their commentators. Some speculate that Aryabhata was head of Nalanda university. Even if this were true, it does not necessarily mean that he was a student there. A website even displays a picture of Aryabhata standing in front of his university! As for the heliocentric theory, this is illiteracy of the highest order. A mathematical theory is constructed so that it can have wide application. It cannot be centred on the sun or anything else.


The Internet has 11,800 entries on Aryabhata. How does one decide which ones to reject? The Net also throws up problems of rigour. M K Gandhi is widely quoted as saying the earth has enough for everyone’s need but not greed. Many versions of this statement are doing the rounds. Which are correct? Some Hindus in North America were the first Indians to use the Net. They have constructed an Indian past that would help them cope with their real or imagined problems in an alien setting. With dependence on the Net as a primary source of information growing, it is necessary to create an authentic web resource from an Indian perspective. Indian newspapers should form a consortium to set up an online Indipaedia or encyclopaedia Indica. A committed band of editors and contributors should prepare entries. This might seem like an ambitious and long-drawn affair but may be worth the effort.


The writer is a commentator on history and science.




China’s and India’s different goals (2007)

Commentary: China’s and India’s different goals

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New Delhi, India — China and India are the world’s largest countries in terms of population. Both are enjoying a high rate of economic growth. But that is where the similarity ends. Very farsightedly, China is planning for the next 50 or 100 years, while India is busy savoring the moment.China exports goods worth US$700 billion every year, giving it a whopping trade surplus of US$100 billion. China is no longer interested in merely being the United States’ sweatshop, however. It has developed geopolitical ambitions and has the wherewithal to achieve them. Not being a democracy is a great help. The transition cost is low. China is fond of giving the analogy of social suffering in England when it made the transition from a traditional to industrial economy — and China has the advantage of not having a Charles Dickens around. If its totalitarianism can hold, China will achieve its goals.

A few years ago the Chinese deputy minister of science visited India’s National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, of which I was then the director. During conversations on low wages in China he made a significant point, to the effect that, since China was not in a position to compete with the West on technologies of today, it was making money from technologies of yesterday to invest in those of the future.

In contrast, India is happy playing a marginal role in the West’s technologies of today. While China is manufacturing goods at low cost and selling them at a profit to the West, India is training its top-class manpower at high cost and supplying it to the West at low cost. The most significant aspect of its flaunted software-driven services sector is its underemployment. A large number of young men and women are working beneath their intellect, training and skills for the sake of a lowly monthly salary of a few hundred dollars, which translates into a neat rupee packet.

Although India likes to imagine it has become an IT hub, facts and figures do not support this claim. India has 15 percent of the world’s population. It is only in poverty-related indices that India’s share is higher than 15 percent. In all indices related to education, industry or technology, India does not have a share larger than 2-3 percent.

In 2006, India earned a gross amount of US$22 billion from software-related exports. This is a small figure. First, it is a gross figure. From this we should deduct the amount spent on importing computer hardware and branded software to arrive at the net figure – which is not known, but could be as low as half the gross figure. (My guess is that India’s computer-related imports in all sectors are more than its exports.)

In contrast to this US$22 billion, India earned US$24 billion from money sent home by Indians living and working abroad — two-thirds of which came from the United States and the Gulf countries. This would constitute most of the earnings of semi-skilled or unskilled workers abroad and a part of what Indian professionals earn in the United States.

China earned about US$50 billion from exporting low-tech stuff like toys and sports goods to the United States. The point here is that India’s highly skilled persons are doing low-tech work at salaries that are low by international standards.

China seems to be saying to the West: “This is a beautiful house you are living in. Get out because I want to live here.”

India seems to be saying: “You have a lovely house here. Please permit me to stay in the outhouse.”

Female feticide as a business (2007)

Commentary: Female feticide as a business

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New Delhi, India — Technology can be as effective in killing conscience as in killing human beings. It has permitted India and China to graduate from female infanticide to female feticide.Murder of the girl child had been prevalent in India. It was however restricted to certain caste groups in some parts of India, but female feticide is now cutting across caste and geographical boundaries. In the past, there might have been some remorse or sense of guilt in murdering a baby after birth, but technology-assisted murder before birth is seen as no more than a procedure.

A generation ago, both India and China convinced themselves, assisted by the international wisdom of the day, that their, and the world’s, biggest problem was their large population. In 1971, as part of its family planning program, the Indian government bestowed legal status and social sanction on abortion, permitting its hospitals to determine and disclose the sex of the fetus. In India, families were balanced because they were large. It soon became clear that for people in general a small family meant a girl-free family, and only female fetuses were being aborted.

Accordingly, the arrangement was discontinued in 1978, but now private players were ready to fill the vacuum. India’s first commercial sex-determination clinic opened in early 1979. The era of the ethics-free greed-driven medico had begun. The same year China introduced its one-child policy, effectively meaning a son-only family.

The development in the West of ultrasound imaging technique, though primarily meant for detecting genetic disorders, provided a convenient and non-invasive way of sex-determination. In 1990 the American General Electric Medical Systems set up an ultrasound machine production unit in Bangalore in collaboration with vegetable oil maker turned software giant WIPRO. About the same time GEMS made its appearance in China. A comment on the corporate strategy of GEMS may not be out of place here. Its units in the United States are meant to produce “leadership products” for advanced university hospitals, while Japan provides machines for top as well as smaller hospitals in Europe and Japan.

India and China are the hub for “low-cost segment, mainly aimed at the mega-markets in Asia.” As the technology has become more and more user-friendly, cheaper and impersonal, the cult of the murder of the girl child has assumed alarming proportions.

We are better informed on the Indian rather than Chinese efforts to curb feticide.

In 1996, the Indian government banned the use of ultrasound for determining the sex of the fetus, but the 2001 census data showed that the law had been ineffective. Finally, responding to public interest litigation, the Supreme Court issued orders for overhauling the earlier act and ensuring its enforcement. The modified law, which came into effect in 2003, absolves the pregnant woman of any crime, but seeks to punish the husband or relatives who pressure the woman. It asks the clinics to maintain proper records and specifically bans sex determination and sex-selective abortion.

There have been some success stories in implementing the law: Nawanshahr in Punjab and Hyderabad have earned well-deserved praise for their efforts. But these successes have been personality-driven rather than systemic.

Female feticide is a crime that is socially acceptable. The criminals are not social riff-raff, but respectable members of society whose education, affluence, social and political connections make it difficult if not impossible to touch them. The law asks the district medical officer to discipline erring radiologists. It would be better to vest this power in administrators rather than doctors.

The administration has a difficult task at hand. The sex determiners and the fetus exterminators are merrily doing their work, while the government officials and the social activists have to be on high alert all the time. The extant laws are based on the assumption that ultrasound technology is sacrosanct and only administrative forces can be marshaled to combat its misuse. This assumption is not valid. Ultrasound no doubt is a powerful diagnostic tool in the hands of a doctor. It is nobody’s case that the technology be banned because it is being misused. At the same time its wide applicability should not be used to condone or divert attention from its abuse as a murder weapon.

It is quite obvious that abortion economy is driving the low-tech end ultrasound industry. The mega-market GE and other companies are targeting in India and China is the sex-determination market and not the health care market. There is a need to make a distinction between the two. A high-powered commission comprising medical scientists and other experts should ascertain the need for ultrasound machinery for genuine purposes and suggest steps for regulating and even controlling the machinery’s technical specifications, manufacture and installation. Sufficiently high minimum academic and professional qualifications should be laid down for opening an ultrasound clinic. It can even be mandated that stand-alone clinics will not be permitted and that they must necessarily be part of a hospital or a polyclinic. There is a need to continually assess the genuine need for and the economics of ultrasound and other medical technologies, especially because rapid technological developments can quickly overtake legal and administrative measures.

The universal outrage at the large-scale female feticide in India and China is fully justified. But let us not forget that barely 20 years ago, the world was lauding these two countries for using technology to control their population growth.

(Prof. Rajesh Kochhar is the former director of India’s National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies and former professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore. ©Copyright Rajesh Kochhar.)