Tag: Book Review

India Connected: Boon or Bane?

Pic Credit: Clicked by me

“The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had”

Eric Schmidt, Former Google-CEO & Co-founder of Schmidt Futures

#Baba Ka Dhaba, #Justice for Sushant Singh Rajput #Justice for Rhea #Justice for George Floyd #Black Lives Matter #Dalit Lives Matter #Metoo are some of the recent most popular hashtags on social media leading to huge outpouring of sentiments from the public creating a huge impact in real lives sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. This book is about the power of the smartphone and the internet which made these hashtags popular.

This book “India Connected” by Ravi Agarwal celebrates the power of the internet and smartphone that is leading to unthinkable and unpredictable changes in people’s lives. The book is quite relevant at this time as India is at the cusp of change and especially in the Covid period when a smartphone with internet looks like the driving force behind everything. As per the author, the smartphone is transforming Indian democracy in an unprecedented manner. As he also adds, “the influence of smartphones on the world’s largest democracy is pervasive and irreversible, disruptive, creative, unsettling and compelling.”

The author has travelled to different cities of India and met with innovators, founders, teachers, common people, students, government officials, villagers who are an important part of this digital revolution. This whole book seems like a conversation between the author and these people. The author has divided the book into three parts, and each part consists of two or three chapters. The first part is about the ‘opportunity’, the second part is about ‘society’ and the third part is about ‘the State’ vis a vis, their interplay with the digital revolution.

The book has provided a balanced perspective on the smartphone revolution in the country. How the smartphone with the internet is bringing about substantive changes in the lives of people, providing opportunities for education and employment and also empowering the women in villages. How a smartphone is changing people’s lives, their thinking, and their dating patterns. And also how the young generation is getting addicted to their smartphones leading to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. How smartphone has also made pornography easily available and also provided an outlet for venting out the frustration of the youth through trolling, rumor and prejudice. In the last part of the book, the author writes about the role of the State vis a vis the whole internet saga unfolding in the country at an unprecedented level.

For the author, the internet-enabled smartphone will mean the same for India as the automobile was for America. “The smartphone is the embodiment of the new Indian dream.” A Smartphone is changing Indian people’s lives in various ways in which they live, learn, love, work and play. The stories narrated in the book make it an interesting read and let you think how differently the smartphone is impacting the people of Indian society.

However, the author also talks about the challenges of the smartphone revolution in the country. Fake news, trolling, hate crimes, cyberbullying, mass piracy, etc. are creating huge challenges for the whole society and it also impacts the society negatively leading to crimes and polarization in the society. Smartphone addiction is making teenagers depressed and anxious. Teenagers are suffering from ‘nomophobia’, and it is impacting their lives very badly. As the author mentioned in the book, smartphone addiction can neurologically damage a young person’s brain in the same way as cocaine addiction can. It seems that smartphones are destroying the younger generation, but there are millions who will not have the access of these ‘magic devices’ as the author call them because they don’t have resources and they are illiterate.

As the recent Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’ revealed that the social media giants are manipulating our minds and we are doing what they want us to do. The recent social media circus around a tragic death of Bollywood actor and subsequent media frenzy leading to arrest of his girlfriend reflects the negativity these social media sites bringing in the people. The author has shown how the consumption of pornography has increased exponentially in our society and how some people believe that it is leading to an increase in rape cases..

The last chapters of the book show that how the State is acting as a big brother and shutting the internet as per their own interests especially in Kashmir in the name of stopping unrest and terrorism when internet started giving an outlet to Kashmiri people to show their outrage. The book also talks about the whole fiasco of free basics and internet.org and how civil-society activism led TRAI to rule against it in 2016. Digital money has become an important part of the Indian economy through some homegrown startups and obviously the government of India’s ill-conceived moves of demonetization gave them a push.

I really enjoyed reading the second and third part of the book. It’s really insightful and also scary to know how internet enabled smartphone is creating innumerable problems in the society but also if used properly making positive changes in the people’s lives. So the way the author of the book tells that “India Connected is a story about change and it is a story that has just begun and the next chapters of the story will depend on how these technologies are harnessed and regulated”, there is a need to create more awareness and sensitization among the youth about the problems emerging due to these technologies and also create mechanisms and regulations to deal with the same. The recent story of #BabakaDhaba is a great example where a smartphone & social media can bring so much positivity and hope in someone’s life.

What matters in the End?

“Death is inevitable; Each moment is precious; Nothing matters in the End”

Recently, in a small conversation, I said, “We all are going to die” in the context of this dreaded pandemic. I could see the expression of people disliking that comment because no one wants to talk about death in our society. Death is seen as inauspicious and something bad. We all want to live in a fantasy and don’t want to think or realize that we all have limited time. And this thinking has repercussions not only on our health but also on our future. As the author says, “how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive you will live forever.”

This book is actually about the experience of death and how the medicine and medical system have failed to understand how to deal with a finite life and make final years a joyful experience than torturous days of your life. And how do we forget the inevitability of death and the fleeting nature of life? And when we become old, we don’t want to talk about death, we talk about living.

The beauty of this book is that it has been written by a surgeon who is also a professor at Harvard Medical School. This book has his personal accounts of dealing with terminal patients and also the death of his own father. The author shows through his various interview of patients suffering from a terminal illness that how the medical system has failed to educate the medical professionals about aging, frailty, or dying. And how to inform or educate a patient about his condition? How the whole process unfolds and how does it make an impact the people around them?

I remember even I didn’t understand the value of death, and what does death means to me till someone close died in my family. The problem with us as a society is that we teach everyone, not so important things – earn a lot of money, build a big house, clear all damn exams existing in the world by memorizing all formulas, cram an entire dictionary for that GRE examination and also prepare to go abroad and earn a shit load of money. But no one teaches us how we should live our lives. What is the meaning of death? And especially, when we become old, we don’t know what we are fighting for. What are our priorities? What are the trade-offs we are willing to make? We don’t discuss what are our fears/hope for the future. What are we willing to sacrifice? What are we willing to lose, and what are we not willing to lose?

How care of the elderly changed from ‘multi-generational systems support’ provided by the family to institutionalized nursing homes in our times. Modern nursing homes act as prisons. The Elderly don’t feel good in these homes. They feel restricted, chained and their health gets worse in these nursing homes. Old people living here always felt the longing for being at home where they can have their privacy and the ‘purpose of living’ in their everyday life.

We are so engrossed in living this life that we forgot to ask the question what’s the purpose of our lives? Did we ever ask this question to us? What makes life worth living when we will become old and frail and unable to care for ourselves? To answer this question, the author discusses psychologist Abraham Maslow‘s influential paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation” which is depicted in the form of a pyramid and talks about the hierarchy of needs of the people. According to Maslow, ‘safety’ and ‘survival’ remain the primary and fundamental goals of our life even in our old age.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Old age only brings some slowness and calmness in our lives. People in old age focus on being rather than doing and they live in a present than the future. Old age generally functions at the peak of this pyramid and focuses on ‘self-actualization.’ “Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old are achieved over time,” says the author. As per various experiments (discussed in this book by the author) conducted during some crises like the 9/11 attacks, the SARS epidemic 2003, etc., old and young both valued the bliss of life and focused on being rather than doing. This might be true for the current pandemic also. People these days from both young or old generation are slowly realizing the meaning of life.

This book also shows the results of experiments of assisted living done on various old people where they were given small freedoms in terms of taking care of plants, spending time with a cat, a dog or a bird, etc., helped them to live a longer life. The most important finding of the experiment was “having a reason to live” reduced the death rate. Harvard Philosopher Josiah Royce in his book, “The Philosophy of Loyalty,” inform us that people seek a cause beyond themselves. That cause could be anything: it can be small or very big. ‘We all require devotion to something more than ourselves for our lives to be endurable.’

The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not.

Josiah Royce(The Philosophy of Loyalty)

The biggest problem in the medical sector is that they never focused on the well-being of the people, rather they focused on health. They concentrated on repair/maintenance of our body parts and not the nurturing of the human soul. Not only medical field but the society as a whole needs to understand this, as people grow old and become aware of their fleeting life, they are more interested in writing the story of their lives and believe in simply being rather than doing.

Amid this pandemic, there is a need to remember our old traditions of the ‘art of dying’ and accept the death and decline as normal and eternal truth. Also, be ready to accept our lives in old age that will come along with sickness, frailty, isolation and we will need the support and care of others. We should rather not spend the last days of our life in ICU and spend it with our family members. In just 263 pages, the author has said a lot of things about life and death and most importantly how medical science/field can correct the wrong committed till today not accepting the inevitability of old age and death. Acceptance will lead to finding solutions that can make old people’s lives better and joyful in their last days.

Book Review of The Capital

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics”.

Plutarch
Migrants returning to their home walking hundreds of km due to lock down declared by the government corona virus crisis.

The present migrant crisis in India is a stark reminder of the economic inequities existing in our society. When rich and middle-class people are spending their time in the comfort of their homes doing various activities, poor and marginalized migrants are walking for a hundred thousand kilometers to reach their homes. Some also died on the way because of hunger and exhaustion. In this context, I thought to write a short review of the book, “The Capital” by Thomas Piketty, and how income inequalities are going to hurt us in the longer-term unless some concrete steps are not taken by the State and its people.

I never read the whole book but read it as much as to give a paper presentation on this book in the final year of my public policy course. Since then I was thinking to write a short take on this book. Whatever critics say, this book has brought the issue of income inequality at the forefront. Income inequality is not only an issue based on some statistics but also it’s a moral issue that will always pinch the conscience of the people living on this earth. This book became quite popular since it got published. The author of the book has also been hailed as “the Modern Marx” by “The Economist” magazine. He is a French economist who also taught at MIT for two years. His major work is a compilation of historical data about economic inequality. He also criticized the discipline of economics.

To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences.

Thomas Piketty-The Capital in 21st Century

The core concern of the book is to put the issue of inequality in its broader historical context. The author’s main argument is that in an economy where the rate of return on capital outstrips the rate of growth, inherited wealth will always grow faster than earned wealth. He also adds that the concentration of wealth at one level is incompatible to democracy and social justice.

The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms.

Thomas Piketty-The Capital in 21st Century

He rejects the Simon Kuznets hypothesis which says that though societies become more unequal in the first stages of industrialization, inequality reduces as they achieve maturity. However, the author does not think so. According to him, demography, low taxation and weak labor organizations will fundamentally lead to greater inequality.

The author feels that unless we do something, ‘free-market economy’ will become a ‘patrimonial system’ with an entrenched hereditary upper class and the rest of the population. He is highly critical of high compensation paid to senior executives of MNCs which is responsible for extreme inequality especially after the financial crisis in 2008. To save the world from this ‘doomsday scenario’, the author proposes various measures namely a global tax on inherited wealth, changes in income taxes, use of inflation to redistribute wealth downwards and also enforced transparency of banks.

His paper -,“Indian income inequality, 1922-2014: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj”? co-authored with Lucas Chancel argues that income inequality was highest in India in 2014 since the creation of Indian Income -tax in 1922. They concluded that the top 1 percent earners in 2014 earned 22% of India’s national income. Though there are various counter- arguments to it. Jagdish Bhagwati & Arvind Pangariya refuted this argument in their book, ‘Why growth matters’. Swaminath Aiyar also disapproved of his idea of stark inequality in India in one of his articles on the grounds of statistics and his failure to distinguish between different kinds of inequality.

Thomas Piketty’s hypothesis has been severely criticized by various economists. According to them, his approach to economics is anti-mathematical. As per the paper, “Income Inequality, Catastrophe Predictions, Thomas Piketty, How income and economic unit are defined can create significant differences in the data produced and in the interpretation of the data? For instance, Stephen Rose and Thomas Piketty reached different conclusions about the status of the middle class based on the definition of income and economic unit. Generally, there is no correlation between increasing income inequality and general welfare. His use of tax records to approximate income is convenient and allows easy comparison across different countries and at different times and he has also not considered the social security payments as part of his data.

Though income inequality is a complicated issue, Piketty’s biggest contribution is to elevate the income inequality issue to the forefront of both public and scholarly attention. Whatever is the reason behind stark inequality existing in society, the issue of inequality will always be debated as a moral issue.


Be fluid and follow your passion

Pic Credit:
http://www.ashishjaiswal.com/

Be formless, shapeless like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now the water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend-

BRUCE LEE, The Lost Interview, 1971

This is the season of results. I am not talking about election results but the results of high school and intermediate students in the country. On one side marks of the students are skyrocketing touching 90 to 99 percent and on the other side, around 22 students of Telangana Board of Intermediate Education (TBIE) has committed suicide because they were failed or did not get expected marks due to some goof-ups in giving marks by the board. Recently, one Delhi woman’s Facebook post became viral as she was feeling proud when her son scored 60% marks in high school examination of CBSE board. Not only this, as per the recent ASER report 2018, 75% of the Std III students of the government schools across the country can not read and perform basic calculations. It shows the grim picture of the Indian education system. In fact, this is the key idea of this book written by Ashish Jaiswal, a scholar from the University of Oxford and a humble and down to earth human being.

The title of the book is so intriguing that I had not thought in my wildest dream that the author is going to be discussing the education system of India. How the Indian education system is creating rote learners, unemployable and unskilled graduates? There is one more peculiarity how the so-called best education system provided by IIT-IIM and foreign degrees creating money minting machines who have no concern and responsibility for the “Lok Kalyan” means public welfare the term used by the author in the book to answer the question- ‘what should be the ultimate purpose of our life’? The sad example of this rat race also mentioned by the author in the book is the suicide of Sarveshresthra Gupta who committed suicide because of the stress and work pressure despite graduating from Ivy League colleges.

Why India despite being the oldest civilization in the world is still behind its counterparts at various fronts? Why no Indian university has achieved the feat of the best rankings in the world ? Why there is a massive “brain drain” from India to western countries? Why we are still talking about poverty elimination in our country even after seven decades of Independence? Why our education system are not able to produce more number of people like E. Sreedharan(Metro Man), Amartya Sen and Rabindranath Tagore and producing mediocre engineers, doctors and social scientists. Why do we Indians still feel inferior to western people in culture, language and heritage of our country?  There might be a number of reasons for these questions. But I am confident of one reason that the way Indian education system evolved over the years is one of the most important reasons which drags India behind. Why this is so?

The book ‘fluid’ answers the question. Being fluid means be more than what you are taught to be. As per the author, you become fluid specialist when you explore the universe in integrative form, learn from your surroundings and take the inter-disciplinary approach to create knowledge and wisdom. How anti-fluidity in terms of compartmentalization of the streams of the subjects taught in the school has made us unimaginative? We are told to choose our specialization after 10th when we are hardly aware of the world around us. Choose science and mathematics and your life will be set. Go for engineering or medical or commerce, you can earn good money. Go abroad and earn in US dollars.  Nobody tells us, “follow your passion and do something for the greater good”. Not only this, when you want to explore the world or you want to take a gap in your studies, this decision is looked down upon by the society in general and family in particular. The author has mentioned about Rene Descartes, father of modern Western philosophy who once left his education for the sake of travel. He is the one who wrote- ‘I think, therefore I am’.

In fact, the author has showed how the whole theory of right-brain and left-brain is complete non-sense. The author has quoted Neil deGrasse Tyson, american astrophysicist who completely rejected this theory saying that these fake divisions between science and art is taking our civilization away from true learning. Charles Percy Snow, British scientist and novelist in his book, ” The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” highlighted the huge gap between those studying sciences and arts and concluded that lack of exposure to other academic circles led to hostile and having a distorted image of each other. The sheer categorization of subjects into STEM and non-STEM shows the stereotype mindset towards social sciences subjects.

This book tells us to be fluid in our approach to learning. Unforced learning is the most beautiful thing. It not only makes you a better person but also gives you various perspectives to understand the world. The author of the book has mentioned many learned and famous people like Charles Darwin, Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, Goethe, Amartya Sen, C V Raman, Peter Geddes, Frank Lloyd Wright, Edwin Land, Steve Jobs, etc who did not follow a set path and explored the universe and exposed themselves to diverse fields of education. The fluid approach which was depicted in the form of charkha(wheel) by the author appreciates the ‘integrative nature of the universe’. In the era of digital technology and artificial intelligence, when there will be more monotony and job losses, as per the author, the people who are fluid in their approach will have more chances to survive because of their exploratory nature and never-ending desire to challenge the defined boundaries.

One of the most important findings of the author is that India should get credit for Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man. The undiscovered Hans Purush from Vishnudharmottaram Puranam mentioned by Rishi Markendeya was one of the perfect men discussed in the Purana. In fact, the author wants to stress the point that human knowledge is circulatory. The world has been benefited not by one single country or race but by the combined intelligence of all spread over the thousands of years. For instance- architectures around the world are the best example of combined intelligence and cultures of humanity. The best example mentioned by the author is our India Gate which not only incorporated western architectural influences but also the elements of Indian architecture in terms of the dome on the top and canopy structure in front. That is why Indians should not feel inferior of their history, culture, language, etc because we have a lot more to offer the world not only with respect to new knowledge but also we are the one who gave the world the idea of spiritualism and simplicity.

In fact, this book is a culmination of out-of-the-box thinking. The author has tried to challenge the stereotypes and challenges us to confront the boundaries built by society. He wants us to be a learner who explores the universe, get inspired by the surroundings and create a melting pot of intelligence to work for the betterment of the society. However, I also think that in just 210 pages, the author has said too many things which the reader might not be able to digest. Most importantly, as a public policy student, I always look for solutions. I agree with the author that there are so many issues in approach towards education but what are the solutions. How can we inspire everyone to be fluid in their approach?

Please find the author, Ashish Jaiswal’s Comment on the review of the book:

Dear Ritambhara, The review reads absolutely fantastic. It does summarises ‘fluid’ brilliantly. I also do understand the importance of your last line – the question. Our mind is an amazing construct. My learning journey has taught me that every dimension of knowledge for mind is locked inside a web just held together by a loose knot. A idea/thought/reflection/event/experience , if powerful enough, causes that knot to open. This is the beginning but most crucial step in acquiring any wisdom. Fluid is that first step in acquiring wisdom over multi-dimensionality. Once, you realise there is something like fluidity in specialisation , you will never go back to walking on a uni-dimensional path 🙂

The tweet about this review is here:

Why Indian education system is not able to produce the people like Gandhi, Tagore, Amartya Sen and E Sreedharan but producing mediocre engineers, doctors and social scientist? Do read this review to find out. https://t.co/736f2tmGGv— ritambhara (@ritambhara4) May 12, 2019