Archive for March, 2012

Let’s rev up our modified DeLorean and hop a little backwards in time, to our Rajasthan japes a couple of weekends ago. I’m hot and sticky from a hard day of 35°C vintage furniture browsing and badminton—oh, South Delhi—so this is going to be a low-maintenance photo-heavy update.

After blasting around Agra Fort, packed with umbrella-wielding Japanese tourists, we hopped on a bus to the Rajasthani capital of Jaipur. All of its 3.1 million inhabitants seemed to be touting on the streets, to the extent that the neurotic hotel owner even gave us a password for the taxi driver to mutter. With the clutter of people and anonymous lights in the dark, we awkwardly forgot to go and see any of its sights.

So, on to Pushkar, a wee temple-filled town whose sacred waters are mentioned by the Mahabharata. We passed through its larger sister Ajmer, where dung patties dried before glimmering malls, and clambered onto a sweating local bus on which everyone munched delicious condensed-milk icecreams for grubby ten-rupee notes. The journey into Pushkar wound up into the Kefalonia-esque hills at precarious angles, sidewinding back down into a valley.

The town’s now full of crummy hotels and Israeli food and irritating bongo-coveting hippies with bare chests and beatific expressions. Pushkar is increasingly water-strapped and rubbish-filled, and the tourist industry seems to have driven out much of its famed spiritual serenity; the lakeside ghats are interrupted by paunchy men trying to sell blessings and flower petals. Luckily we’d managed to book into its loveliest hotel, ‘Inn Seventh Heaven’ (lolz), in an old haveli. There we loitered happily whilst entire civilisations of pigeons and lizards rose and fell around us.

Hannah unwisely dispatched me alone to go and buy our bus tickets onwards. There I met the charming specimen on the left. Given that he (a) was wearing shades and a very loud Jamaica T-shirt and (b) had just sold me tickets, I foolishly assumed the man worked in the travel office. No, he was apparently the descendant of fifty generations of pious Brahmins, and ‘directed’ me back to the hotel via a blue pool overlooking the lake. Half out of curiosity, half sunstroke, I allowed myself to be pujaed: ‘England Mexico Paris Pakistan Sri Lanka Canada Australia, happiness joy 2012 yes God now look at the sun madam most tourists they give very big donation.’

Mr Oont the champion camel

There was only one thing to do: flee. Being tourists, we did this by camel—perhaps most ineffectual of all escape vehicles. My camel was suspiciously stunted and supremely lazy, with malevolently awful halitosis, but allegedly a racing champion at Pushkar’s famous camel fair. Hannah’s had engorged Brangelina lips, obscenely luxuriant eyelashes, and ethnic beaded bracelets in a convincing parody of a particularly annoying hippie we’d seen earlier; in good Hansel and Gretel style, it shat constantly as we walked.

Hopeful passers-by tried to sell us marijuana as we stumbled through the town, its camel-racing/-dancing/-speed-dating stadium, and into the arid countryside. My guide, astonished to hear we aren’t the most camel-reliant of nations, felt we were fools not to have already established a British camel import business. At the Pushkar fair a decent camel might cost around Rs30,000 (£370), a badass camel like Mr Oont upwards of Rs50K (£610), but a baby camel is a steal at just Rs10K (£120)—’is not trained, but training is taking two months only,’ he explained encouragingly. Who knows: with the business skills I learn from the cult, I might just go ahead and launch One Hump or Two™.

We spent the night with a local family—startlingly not a South Delhi ‘farmhouse’, where Bengali triphop artists go for artistic retreats and Thai nibbles are served, but an actual one with bleating and milking and suicidal goats trying to throttle themselves on their own ropes. The matriarch told a hugely compelling and confusing tale of family woe: accidents and drunk drivers and children so poor they had to go to a government school. We were left not entirely sure if the daughter-in-law had managed to marry two brothers with the same name, adopt six or seven random ragamuffins, and conceive with a dead man—a plot that sounded suspiciously like a Hindi soap I’d seen earlier.

There are some things you just can’t do in the UK. We opted to spend the night under the stars on the farmhouse roof, blankets rustled by strong winds. In the morning, we were woken by a convenient alarm clock tree of nymphomaniacally cooing birds.

After a deliciously ghee-laden breakfast, our guide-boys raced us back into town. Sprinting on a camel is, alas, a little like riding a pogo stick made entirely out of elbows and fleas. This proved to be much more comfortable than our trip back to Delhi, though. At the huge dark Ajmer bus station, we timidly asked where the toilets were—’is outside toilet,’ said the driver, gesturing expansively at the shrubbery four feet away. In the sleeper bus we ricocheted around inside a glass-lined coffin through a country with 196,000 road deaths annually (according to Jeremy Clarkson, the subcontinent’s Tufty the Road Safety Squirrel).

We emerged bruised and blinking into an alley somewhere outside an Old Delhi textiles factory, and immediately began plotting the next voyage.

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! On Friday, the long-anticipated event finally arrived. An occasion so dazzling that the streets leading to the swanky Taj Palace venue were decked in banners, the tickets for the 950 participants cost US$1,200 (I had somehow sneaked in free under the auspices of an amiably evil industrial lobby group, who seemed to believe I belonged to an unspecified embassy), and Manmohan Singh himself was turning up for the opening… Yes: the 7th Asia Gas Partnership Summit!!!!!

Over breakfast, I casually eyeballed the programme one final time—and nearly coughed out my dubious masala toast. You’ve guessed it: I managed to miss the Prime Minister’s speech. Sigh. Let’s move swiftly on.

Laughing gas!

Luckily, I knew much backup glamour was in store given the summit’s tubthumping subtitle—’Evolving Dynamics of the Asian Gas Market: Challenges of Sourcing, Integration and Sustainability’. And boy, it didn’t disappoint!

The fifty speakers included some crackers: sweating Brits in loud ties, hilarious moustache styles from Jafar to Stalin, a US State Department man with Bill Gates’ voice, a cynical-eyed International Energy Agency leader in scarlet, an icy Gazprom man who held the podium with a featherlight killer’s grip, and even a Turkmen who deployed Borat syntax and a sinister gothic Powerpoint. The host stressed the need to ‘attract the younger generation’ to gas with a picture of a sexy young lady and a nozzle. Every now and then an American would joke about their continent’s ridiculously low (and charmingly named) Henry Hub gas prices: ‘We wish this winter had been colder!’ and everyone white would laugh. And, amidst the garish chandeliers, the Taj’s food was solidly good—we did some serious gas guzzlin’!

Fracking brilliant!

The overall mood was one of buoyant optimism—’Are we entering a golden age of gas?’—for three main reasons:

  1. Gas is inherently attractive. It’s much cleaner than coal, producing less than half the carbon dioxide and far fewer noxious fumes and particulates—so gas advocates claim it’s the ideal ‘transition fuel’ before the great renewables takeoff, to the extent you’d think it was carbon-neutral ambrosia and not a fossil fuel. Gas plants are also quicker and cheaper to construct than coal plants (although this isn’t true of the refrigerated LNG [liquified natural gas] that everyone is talking about shipping across the world). There’s also a lot of gas about: the world has 250 years of estimated reserves.
  2. The declaration of the new ‘age of gas’ at this point of time—in case you’ve been living under a rock!—is largely down to the American ‘fracking revolution’. Fracking can free natural gas from shale, and has abruptly turned the United States from a gas importer to a potentially large exporter. The price of gas in America has plummeted (to the extent that companies are abandoning it as unprofitable and opting for oil rigs, making the sector in the short term a victim of its own stunning success). Other countries all want a piece of the action.
  3. Brand spanking new 2,200km cross-country pipeline

    In India, gas also promises geopolitical dividends. The prime minister took the opportunity to announce the dedication of a new cross-country pipeline, which he said he hoped would soon be linked to TAPI. This latter ‘peace pipeline’ is planned to run Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (anybody spot any problems with this?). A Pakistani dignitary was on hand to claim that pricing would be finalised within a month and gas pumping by 2016 at the latest; the Asian Development Bank promised a huge tranche of money. The project has been under discussion for at least twelve years, but maybe this time… Then sweetness and light between the TAPI countries will follow, and milk and honey will flow throughout the lands.

A load of hot air?

Great! Clean development and reliable power and regional peace, right? Alas, no. In public, 1¾ days of the conference were all sunbeams and puppydogs. Between sessions, state gas officials complained the summit wasn’t addressing their real concerns, and private sector players called it ‘pie in the sky’ and ‘old wine in new bottles’.

In the final session, a variety of influential politicians and technocrats—their power indicated by their extraordinarily bad dress sense—finally had their say. To put it mildly, they pissed on the Bunsen burner parade.

The most crucial problem is price. There is no unified world gas market and enormous Asian demand—not only from a hungry China, but also from traditional exporters like Indonesia, Malaysia, and even UAE and Saudi Arabia, who’ve crippled their domestic sectors with consumer subsidies—means it’s a sellers’ market. So while prices might be astonishingly low in the self-sufficient US, they’re almost seven times higher in India and higher still in Japan (cue the F-word: Fukushima). This means in India coal is still far cheaper and more attractive.

Moreover, to fulfil their development obligations the two biggest sectors, power and fertilisers, both demand gas at far lower rates than in the international marketplace. The giant state-owned firms like event hosts GAIL and sponsors ONGC are forced to sell fuel for fixed prices to these sectors, only partially compensated by the state. A representative of the Planning Commission, the brains behind the central government, emphasised that this isn’t going to change rapidly. Gas might be brought in to cope with gaps between peak demand and supply, and to diversify and secure India’s energy portfolio, but the Age of Gas in India has yet to flare.

Gas fired.

Inspiring token from gas chap who promises to make me 'student cum entrepreneur'

Being the only academic at a titanic corporate networking event is, alas, like being a leper at a children’s party. We were all wearing affiliation tags on dangling navel-level scarlet lanyards, the equivalent of ringing a bell to announce my necrotising hunchbacked presence (though at least the 99% male population stared a little lower than usual). People backed away in horror, crossing themselves; my only hope was to seize a business card from the runts of the herd before they recognised my affliction. At one point I thought I’d finally made a friend, but he turned out to have taken pity only to foist New Age business philosophy upon me (naturally, his other enterprise when he’s not flogging hydrocarbons).

An ambivalent conclusion, then. But there’s hope for India, and for me. I’ve heard the solar hippies are much more friendly. And I imagine the wee coal chaps whistle a lot and respond very well to lone damsels in their midst.

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EPILOGUE

This morning, I casually put on the business motivation CD as the gas bloke keeps trying to call, and idly googled the company, BWW. After a couple of brief detours—Google at first helpfully translated BWW into ‘BBW’, the slightly alarming obsession with big beautiful women—I found it.

Crikey Moses. BWW turns out to be an international scam/cult affiliated with creepy multinational Amway. It’s a classic pyramid scheme (dare I say the word Ponzi?), in which the top tier accumulates vast wealth from the efforts and hopes of a constantly rotating lower membership. Like a twisted version of Avon, the bottom stratum must desperately try to sell overpriced health food and cosmetics to their friends and family—and are encouraged to buy a big chunk themselves. The CD is an example of the company’s indoctrination material, which it also flogs in vast quantities to its wide-eyed membership. The message contains a healthy dose of greedy materialism, mixed with a dollop of evangelical Christian rhetoric, mockery of poor people, and emphasis on married couples as the ideal business unit (the women should stay at home, of course). Yum.

Do I look like a cult member?! Clearly I really need to work on my networking style…

Apologies for the hiatus, loyal Readers. With only a knapsack of mosquito repellent and E.M. Forster, we have been voyaging around some of North India’s classic tourist destinations: the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Agra and Jaipur (along with Delhi). I lurched out of a sleeper bus coffin just a couple of hours ago, so please imagine these ramblings read with a slight misanthropic slur and odour of feet.

On Friday, we sped past the great Sufi saint’s shrine to hop aboard a morning train from Hazrat Nizamuddin. There’s something refreshing—though frankly a bit alarming—about suddenly slipping on your tourist shades (battered mock-Aviators) and approaching the country anew. I love India’s railways with a sadly unrequited passion, but even I had to admit the men whose knees we were almost knocking were a bit starey for the first-time tourist. And Agra, hot, noisy, dirty, traffic-choked, hustler-filled, and urine-perfumed, wouldn’t be the ideal introduction to the country. The touts are even more resiliently crooked and swarming than elsewhere, like heavily accented mosquitos around a particularly plastic-bingeing cow. But—at the risk of damning with Rough Guide-esque faint praise—it’s hardly the outer circle of Hell. The locals are aware of this reputation, though: our young auto driver announced piously, ‘Madams, I hate horn, have removed even. Is too noisy city. People must chill’, before bellowing out of the window, ‘Maderchod! Move, you bloody shit, MOVE!’

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri

Arriving in the early afternoon, we first headed to the beautiful Mughal ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri. Briefly Akbar’s imperial capital but hastily abandoned once they worked out they’d forgotten the minor problem of access to water, its subdued majesty was only somewhat dulled by the beating heat and the vaguely threatening demands for mosque charity.

En route, we became ensnared in a gigantic procession for the goddess Kaila Devi. Thousands were on the move: middle-aged women with handbags on their heads, mothers hauling patiently unconscious babies, carts with garlanded statues, trundling ghetto blasters accompanied by wildly gyrating teenage boys, placid herds of stationary trucks.

Unfortunately, this caused our taxi driver to become enraged: Horn. Drive onto verge and roar along for five metres on the left. Stall. Horn. HORN. One, then two autos pass, driving on the wrong side of the road. Force self across two lanes of traffic and jubilantly roar along for five metres on the right. Stall. Horn. Finger drumming. HORN. Another auto passes in the ditch on the left. Outrage. Force self across two lanes of traffic again. Stall perpendicular to traffic, blocking all three lanes. HOOOOORN.

By accident or design, I’ve visited India four times—eight months and counting—since 2008 and managed to avoid the Taj Mahal. Wonder of the world, crown of palaces, monument to undying love, greatest flower of Islamic loins, etc: let’s just say I was looking forward to it.

The world's most photographed object: my contribution

Alas, that particular morning I was seized by what the Indians euphemistically call Loose Motions. Of course, this was an essential part of the experience: I have greeted the spatter of authenticity with great joy in all the corners of India I’ve visited, from Amritsar to Nagaland, Mussoorie to Cochin. My sympathy with this national obsession was reinforced the last time I was in India, when (a) I was working on the Great Toilet Paper for Unicef and (b) my landlady, a woman known only as Auntie, would discuss the Motions in great detail each morning with the alarming fluency we Britishers reserve for drizzle. Imagine my delight as the tradition took hold just as we glimpsed the 6.30am queue, dense with braying hordes of sari-clad blonde Oklahomans. ‘Madamji, toilets are inside Taj only’—I threw myself upon the mercy of an entrepreneurial ten-year-old and a bemused seller of ceramic Tajs, thrusting handfuls of rupees (what price dignity?). Once inside, I sprinted. My first glimpse of the Teardrop on the Face of Eternity was at high speed, muddied by the gurgles of equally fortunate Oklahomans.

Particularly photogenic pylon on the river Yamuna, just as Shah Jahan saw it

Thankfully, the Taj really is all that, serene and soaring and surprisingly delicate, especially viewed from the gardens. (I found the interior, with its frozen flower motifs, a little cold and funereal, though perhaps this is a slightly unfair criticism of a tomb.) As one blogger more eloquent than I put it, ‘I felt like Atreyu, in The Neverending Story, the first time he sees the Ivory Tower. I think I actually heard the same music playing on my internal iPod!’

Conclusion: through tourist goggles, India is quite scary and dirty, but some Muslims once built pretty things. Next instalment: a jaunt to Rajasthan.

Throw out the Hindi phrase books, the capricious software. You don’t need ’em. All you need to do, citizen of the world, is to master one simple yet profound gesture: the Indian head waggle.

The waggle’s effect is something between a nod, a shrug, a dog’s tail wag, and flipping the bird at someone when their back’s turned. From experience, it appears to mean:

  • Archetypal head-bobbler

    Yo, homies

  • Yes
  • No
  • Ta
  • I acknowledge your existence, underling
  • I’m doing your bidding, madam, but with extreme lack of enthusiasm
  • That’s impossible, but I’m damned if I tell you that
  • I have no idea what’s going on
  • Meh.

This ocean of meaning gives rise to some minor ambiguities in social interactions. Indians, as my (Indian) friend generalised wildly, hate to say no. Is the hat shop that way? Yes, madamji, if you want it to be that way. Do you still have train tickets left? All truth is relative, madamji, and we are but motes of dust in the timeless eye of the Universe. This culminates most mornings in my house with the maid and I locked in mutual incomprehension, bobbling away at each other passive-aggressively over the toaster.

My favourite bollocks explanation for the head bobble was put forward by an Indian management consultant:

For well over 400 years, Indians were ruled by the British Empire and before that it was all monarchy. And people were afraid of saying no as an answer… They would just nod their head this way and leave it up to the other person to judge whether it’s a yes or a no and leave it there.

Certainly the Indian education system seems designed to inspire boredom and mindless deference. Hindi is also full of little responsibility-evading techniques. Lack of knowledge, strong and unruly feelings like regret, love, hunger, and diarrhoea often happen to you in Hindi (mujhe dast hai, mujhe bhukh lagi hai, etc)—we humans are mere ants facing a powerful and hostile world/our passions/loose bowels. But compare this with Indian drivers’ psychopathically aggressive use of the horn, surely the basis of Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. Apathy and va va voom coexist… land of contrasts… melting pot much like a curry or a slum or a curry in a slum… schizophrenic elephants… etc etc. What I’m trying to say is that the head bobble is a cunning and sublimely useful manoeuvre—imagine its potency when deployed against an unfairly nosy supervisor or indulging in some light bigamy—and I intend to use it religiously from now on.

You too can become fluent in the waggle. Imagine your head is ludicrously gigantic, like a Thunderbirds doll or James van der Beek. Keep your face entirely expressionless (resigned eye-closing optional): we’re talking reluctant subordinate ‘tude here, not African-American diva. Relax your neck and dip your left ear precisely 15° and then precisely 15° for the right ear. Repeat smoothly for several minutes. Practise in all social situations for the rest of your life.

Today I was—fleetingly, almost—part of a gang: and I loved it. As we pelted whooping through the narrow shit-caked streets, faces daubed and guns cocked, I thought, Crikey Moses! being an antisocial menace is fun!

Holi arsenal

Holi is a Hindu festival celebrated increasingly madly across North India, most famously a couple of hours southeast of here in the sacred towns of Mathura and Vrindavan where Krishna was born and grew up. Its enormous popularity today across the country probably owes much to Bollywood: the White-clad Superstars Gambol Flirtatiously Through Puffs of Colour scene is now mandatory, much like inexplicable shots of Paris and London and driving a white convertible. A sixtysomething Bengali maintains that it wasn’t a particularly big deal when she was growing up in the east, but notes that’s since changed dramatically; South India resolutely ignores it, but given the creep of Bollywood I doubt it can hold out. Like Diwali, it’s just too danged photogenic to resist.

In the abstract, Holi looks a lot like the Roman Saturnalia and Feasts of Fools celebrated across mediaeval Europe: to ring in the new year, social norms are briefly overturned—or at least relaxed—and the old year is consumed in a brief carnivalesque period of fire, anarchy, and debauchery. People light bonfires and paint each other with less regard for seniority, caste, and gender than normal (although young men still sometimes bent to touch their seniors’ feet, and occasional men were very wary about powdering me). Women get to beat men with sticks, though in practice this seemed to be a marginal phenomenon. And of course many quaff booze and bhang—an almond or pistachio milkshake laced with cannabis, or served in laddu-sweet form or samosas—and sway blank-eyed through the streets.

The stakes were high—we were off to play with half the Indian rugby team, who are all from the same village and troublingly almost all share the same surname—so yesterday my perpetually beaming French housemate and I headed out to load up with weapons for our Holi war: SuperSoaker rip-offs, cans of coloured foam, packets of gulal powder, tins of water-soluble pigment, Barbie® water balloons. I carefully moisturised (‘Colour only sticks forever on dry skin’, I was sagely warned), filled with a disproportionate excitement probably best reflected by the fact I waited impatiently on the stairs for 45 minutes so that I could shoot my flatmate when he came through the door (and then misfired, a fatal error punished by copious squirting).

Red-handed

Holi hai! The celebrations start early, around 10am. The few autorickshaws plying their trade charge an extortionate Holi premium, but our driver then obligingly veered us towards passing pedestrians and cyclists so we could SuperSoak them. I felt quite the hooligan. This backfired somewhat when we got out too early and swaggered along the street, excited children approaching to smear us as we sprayed the odd motorbike piled high with young men. One such motorbike screeched into a U-turn and we were well and truly vengeance-inked. By the time we arrived in the village—as the old unplanned quasi-rural settlements that the modern city has guzzled are still known—I was already a mess.

The day passed in a colourful blur, possibly because someone sprayed me in the eye. (I have since committed the grave error of searching ‘Holi India’ on Google Scholar, imagining a pleasant slice of anthropological whimsy. Some choice results in fact include Ghosh et al., ‘The “Holi” dermatoses: annual spate of skin diseases following the spring festival in India’; Velpandian et al., ‘Ocular hazards of the colors used during the festival-of-colors (Holi) in India—malachite green toxicity’, Journal of Hazardous Materials; and my own uplifting personal favourite, Chauhan et al., ‘Bilateral periorbital necrotizing fasciitis following exposure to Holi colors: a case report’. Where’s Hugh Laurie when you need him?) After fly-strewn snacks and vast tots of whiskey with some respectable Uncleji figures, there was a brutal initiation ceremony in the team’s clubhouse, as I hear gangstas are wont to do. ‘Playing Holi’ itself is fun as long as you’re on the winning team, like all other sports. When one person turns on you, though, others follow, aiming savagely for eyes and maximum saturation.

Boyz n the Hood

Bonds sufficiently forged, we took off over the wasteland—where delinquent puppies and giant pigs root and people bathe in a filthy plastic-filled pond—into the village proper. With terrifying ululations and the roar of a dragged motorbike, the pack started to hunt. Women and children pelted us with water grenades from above, vanishing out of reach of retaliation; it was exactly like taking on the Taliban. Roaming through the narrow streets and climbing a tower block to snipe below, we sprayed anyone who wasn’t wearing a priceless Alexander McQueen concept/looked like they wouldn’t actively burst into tears. Amazingly, most of them just stood and took it with a resigned expression, before smearing us with more powder. The exception was a particularly feisty group of Aunties, who covered their faces with saris to protect against the gunfire and launched themselves upon the yelping boys, beating thighs and buttocks until their thick rods snapped. The entire village was left dripping with fuchsia and vermilion and lime.

A bit of Bollywood grooving and a surreal visit to woo a local politician for rugby money later (soiled bemused English girl = excellent bargaining token), and with the young men getting ever more ominously boisterous, I retired. An unforgettable day—not least because I’m (a) still purple and (b) lying here worrying that my flesh is going to gangrenously start eating itself while I sleep.

What on earth does the doctoral student do with her long sunkissed exotic days? As this weary old meme-chart (and the meta-fact of the creation of this weary old meme-chart, and the meta-meta-fact of the writing of this entry on this weary old meme-chart, etc) suggests, less than she probably should. Much of the time fieldwork life seems to involve waiting, watching people, buying hard-to-find books, musing on stuff. It’s the intellectual equivalent of having a really good scratch of your onion bhajis.

In fact, there’s a great tradition of not doing a whole lot in India, especially for educated unemployed youths. There’s even an expressive Indian-English phrase for it: ‘doing timepass‘.

In clumps through the city, young men (and occasional women) kill time. I watch them sidelong, they stare at me. Rich kids like the spoilt brats in the awesomely titled Pakistani film Slackistan go to malls, have endless torrid affairs, go clubbing, sip macchiatos (I am extrapolating wildly from the trailer). Those a few rungs down the social ladder smoke bidis, ‘hang out’, drink tea, drink booze, dominate public space, wander around, play mobile phone tunes in parks, mutter to each other and leer and catcall at passers-by; these sleazy and occasionally aggressive young men are flippantly termed ‘roadside Romeos’, and their harassment of women ‘Eve-teasing’. If the cult-classic novel I’m reading—English, August (1988), purely because it’s by a bloke called Upamanyu Chatterjee—is at all accurate, marijuana and masturbation also play a central role.

Watching the day go by in Purana Qila

Many of these young people have little option but life in limbo, watching indefinite tracts of time flutter by. Waiting forlornly for a middle-class job to open up in a phenomenally competitive labour market, they collect endless degrees from fourth-rate colleges—the sort of places notorious for scandals like the entrepreneurial registrar who subcontracted postgraduate examination marking to schoolchildren, and student campaigns for the right to cheat in examinations because cheating is so widespread. The result, as in so many other countries, is a dangerously large and disaffected group who are really, really bored with the status quo.

One particularly idle afternoon of my own, paroxysms of guilt threatened to spoil my coconut-water. A new friend soothed me with an essay by Bertrand Russell, the title of which I’ve cheerfully nicked here.* With his caustic class analysis, slightly mad economics, and call for a healthy maximum dose of four hours of work a day, Russell is a primly reassuring voice in defence of laziness:

I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of WORK, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work… The morality of work is the morality of slaves.

Idleness and leisure are essential for civilisation, and are one of the ends of life: surely a heartening message for the world’s millions of jobless educated youngsters. I almost feel inspired to start an NGO to spread the word. Right after I finish this onion bhaji.

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* I tip my hat, in the oddly C19th blogospherical phrase, to Puja for this. In case you’re really procrastinating, the full text has been inexplicably provided by the Massachusetts Green Party here, and you can also hear it read aloud by a smug American or a more lovable world-weary robot.

Power politics

Posted: March 5, 2012 in electric geekery
Tags: , , ,

For many courageous young academics roaming India on fieldwork, their research is an easy sell to civilians (as we call those outside the ruggedly militant terrain of academia). I’ve met people working on prostitute castes, Indian nukes, love and marriage in Hyderabad, ‘criminal tribes’ in Rajasthan, political fixers in Mathura, caste discrimination in the UK, and a whole host of other sexy topics.

At the overpriced conferences where these people meet to chortle over the latest titular pun they thought up on gender, I’m part of a misunderstood and shunned group—a pariah, if you will. When I tell people what I work on, they begin edging away, eyes glazed with dull horror. The worst example came the one and only time I met Amartya Sen. The Warden had carefully groomed us both for the encounter, and a pleasant evening of Caerphilly and the capability approach beckoned. The diminutive lothario said gummily, ‘And what do you do?’ I panicked, and only managed to mutter: ‘I study pylons.’ He tapped a hasty retreat, and was seized by a septuagenarian lawyer with an ear-trumpet.

My friendly neighbourhood pylon, Vasant Kunj

Why electricity?, people ask plaintively, when I’ve physically managed to corner them and cut off all means of escape. Why? WHY?

Actually, Indians don’t ask this at all, because it’s so blindingly obvious.

Come closer, children. Let me set the scene:

  • An estimated 400 million Indians still lack electricity.
  • During the summer, the shimmering IT metropolis of Bangalore—in the US, a byword for the theft of American jobs—suffers from three to four hours of planned blackouts.
  • In 2007, business consumers cited lack of reliable electricity as the biggest hurdle they faced in India, ahead of corruption or taxation. (Indian industrialists also pay some of the highest electricity tariffs in the world to cross-subsidise farmers and residential users.)
  • Pylons overloaded with illegal wires blow out: around 40%—and 60% in some areas—of electricity produced is “lost” through a combination of technical losses, mispricing, and theft; in the US, the figure is a mere 6.5%.
  • Energy sources and power projects have become notorious vehicles for corruption.
  • Policymakers are panicking because they earlier overestimated India’s vital coal reserves by as much as eight times.

Something is clearly rotten in the state of Denmark. In this setting, newspapers cover the sector avidly, citizens complain about it endlessly, corporations resort to circumventing it entirely. And even Arundhati Roy got involved, with typical understatement.

If the power sector is characterised by failure, it’s a very political one. Since at least 1980, electricity subsidies have been used as a political sop to buy off important rural constituencies—elections are won and lost on the issue, as the World Bank has raged for the last twenty years. But this has come at a crippling price. By 2000, the rural power subsidy came to 1.4% of India’s entire GDP. Some states were recovering less than half the cost of the electricity they produced, the single greatest contributor to their near-bankruptcy and grovelling to the central government. It is therefore no surprise that the World Bank immediately targeted the power sector for deregulation and privatisation after India was forced to go to the IMF in 1991, and the shiny new Age of Liberalisation dawned.

The World Bank’s demands [cue Imperial Death March] fell on ripe soil in the central government. The power liberalisation experiment has largely been a disappointment: more on this in later Electric Geekery posts, perhaps. (Delhi may be the only electric liberalisation poster boy still standing, after humiliations in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, but even here middle-class activists continually lobby against the private companies’ rocketing power tariffs.) The chicken of improved and increased power supply requires the egg of consumer willingness to pay more and stop stealing. But power subsidies are the opiate of too many states, and an exasperated central government seems to have abandoned efforts in favour of a two-tier system.

If you made it this far, Dear Reader, I hope this is enough to persuade you that the power sector has all the ingredients of a classic tragicomedy (happy ending pending). I’ll write more another day—unless the wacky power supply blows up my laptop, of course.