Sunday, 6 October 2013

Holy Dwar

Religions are complex and contentious. In its multitude, the fact that religions do share common ground in their beliefs, practices and symbols are often overlooked. This is not only true for religions that share a common ancestry, like Abrahamic or Indian, but also across these religions.

In Hinduism, Surya; the Solar deity, is usually represented as riding in a chariot. This representation of the Sun God is not limited to Hinduism alone. A similar representation is being used in some of the European religions as well. In Greek, Helios - the Greek personification of Sun, is represented riding in a chariot. Similarly some of the paintings in the Vatican Museum also depicts the Sun God as riding in a chariot.

Holy Door in St.Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
The similarities doesn't end with symbolism. In catholic custom, 'Holy Door', also called as the 'Door of Great Pardon', is seen as a representation of Jesus. This 'Holy Door', present only in the four major basilicas of the Catholic Church, is opened during the holy year that occurs every twenty five years. Passing through this 'Holy Door', which portrays scenes of man's sins and redemption through God's mercy, is believed as an act of redemption among the Catholics.[1]

A custom similar to that of the 'Holy Door' is being practiced in another religion, a non  Abrahamic, whose roots are in a different continent.

'Vaikuntha Ekadashi' is a holy day for certain Hindu sects. On this day, the devotees pass through a special door called as 'Vaikunth Dwar' or 'Swarga Vaasal' which literally translates to 'Door to the Heaven'. According to the Hindu mythology, people who fast on this day and pass through this door are redeemed of their sins.[2] Though the Hindu mythology and Catholic church have different stories about the origins of these doors, their purpose is similar and is not very difficult to draw parallels between them.

Swarga Vaasal in Jagannadha Temple, Tamil Nadu[6]
In a multi-faith country like India, certain religious practices can be found common among different religions within the country. The votive offering of metal images of body parts (for healing) and salt to God is common in certain churches and Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu.[3][4][5] This commonality is understandable in countries like India; a closely knitted society where many of its customs are shared, including religious ones.

In the case of 'Holy Door', though is a catholic belief, is practiced only in the major basilicas, located in Rome and the Vatican City. So the 'Holy Door' is not a common practice outside the major basilicas. So unlike votive offering,  the practice of  'Vaikunth Dwar' being influenced by another religion from the same geography seems less probable.

The earliest reference of  the 'Holy Door' is in c.1437[7] and there doesn't seem to exist a chronology for the Hindu practice. So it is unclear how the same practice came into existence in different religions. Comparative religious studies might explain this commonality and may even highlight many such practices among different religions. Nevertheless, it is intriguing, to observe different doctrines following similar customs in different geographical locations without much influence from each other.

6. Jagnnada Temple Photo Credit: Sriram Srinivasn - Flickr:Creative Commons

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Manual Scavenging and Nash Equilibrium

Recently, I was having a conversation about the manual scavenging issue in India discussed in Satyameva Jayate1 and how the law enacted to abolish manual scavenging was of little help. For example, Indian railways, one of the largest rail networks in the world, is still using open discharges. This means that the Indian railways' 115,000 km long track also makes it probably the world's largest open toilet. This also means that it is highly likely that humans are still being used to manually clear the wastage especially in the tracks near the stations. May be not with bare hands, but with brooms and hosepipes.

This is an example of a situation where enacting laws doesn't necessarily help the affected people nor stop them from continuing the prohibited.

Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India, in his book 'Beyond the invisible hand: Ground work for new economics' explores reasons for such failures in proposed laws. 

Law makers while creating new laws often fail to create or envision a system in which an individual cannot act unilaterally, to move to a better state, by breaking the law. In other words, in a system where an individual sees a better utility beyond what the law prohibits, then it is likely that the individual will violate the law. Once the individual is in a state where he cannot get any better utility, then it is very unlikely for the law to be violated.

In game theory, such a state, given all other conditions, where an individual cannot unilaterally move to a better position, is defined as 'Nash equilibrium'. Named after John Nash, the mathematician who is known better as the protagonist in the Hollywood movie 'A beautiful mind'

Basu describes Nash equilibrium as

"A choice of action (or strategy) by each player constitutes a Nash equilibrium, if these choices have the property that, given every other player's choice, each player feels that it is not possible to do better by altering his or her choice.2"

Basu stresses that if an announced law is not a Nash equilibrium, then it is preordained to fail3. When concepts like Nash equilibrium is not taken into consideration then the presence or absence of law is insignificant. Meaning, irrespective of whether a law exists, the society would continue the prohibited practice. And when there exist a Nash equilibrium, then even in the absence of a law, those actions will not be performed by the society. 

Applying the Nash equilibrium to the case of manual scavenging possibly explains why this law is violated easily both by the workers and their employers. Currently in India we have a system where manual scavenging is prohibited by law. Now, for this law to be effective, the onus is on both the workers and the employers. It should be noted here that the workers are not coerced to work as scavengers. It is more of a voluntary agreement and hence both the parties should play by the rules for the law to be any effective.

From the workers point of view, at least three conditions should be satisfied for them to not take up the scavenging work. Firstly the scavengers should have an alternative employment if they cannot not work as manual scavengers anymore. Secondly, this new employment should provide an income that is better than their scavenging work. And finally there should not be any scavenging opportunities that could lure potential scavengers from their current job, say with a higher pay or less work load. If any of these conditions are not met, then this provides an opportunity for the workers to choose a better option then their current state. The better option in this case is manual scavenging. And this is precisely what one of the scavenging workers had to say about her work

“I am happy with my work. This work is easier. Earlier, I used carry bricks on my head, which was back-breaking.4

A scavenger worker feeling happy about her work might surprise many. But the reality is, in the given state of things, this is probably the best outcome the worker could get. As soon as they see a better, sustainable option then what their current one, then it is likely that they will move out of their current state irrespective of what the law states.

The same principle can be extended to the employers of manual scavengers as well. As long as the employers get better utility by choosing to employ manual scavengers, they are likely keep employing them one way or the other and as a result keep violating the law. So, for the employers to actually stop employing manual scavengers declaring the work as illegal alone is not sufficient, but there should exist a viable and affordable alternative.

Based on this, a parallel can be drawn to other laws in India like the laws against corruption, child labor and media piracy which are almost ineffective.

Thus creating new laws without taking into account of concepts like Nash equilibrium will only ensure that laws are as ineffective as possible. Nash equilibrium may not be a sufficient condition for all social issues but it will be a necessary condition for most of the laws to meet its purpose. Policy makers and law makers should probably think along these lines rather than piling up ineffective laws for the sake of creating one.  

I am no expert in the area of economics and policy making. I have only tried to apply the ideas, that I understood from Basu's book, to the issue of manual scavenging. Any misinterpretation of Basu's ideas only shows my lack of understanding of the subject and not what Basu actually says in his book 'Beyond the Invisible Hand: Groundwork for New Economics'.

2. Basu, Kaushik. Beyond Invisible Hand: Groundwork for a New Economics. Penguin Books, 2011, p.63 
3. Basu, Kaushik. Beyond Invisible Hand: Groundwork for a New Economics. Penguin Books, 2011, p.66 

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Porum Valiyum (War and Pain)

Porum Valiyum (War and Pain) - by Savitri Advithanandhan is a collection of short stories, based on real incidents happened during the Sri Lanka - LTTE war which had lasted for almost three decades.

The book's introduction is left blank awaiting completion from the late LTTE leader Prabhakaran. In the place of introduction there is a photo of Prabhakaran with a map of the Tamil Eelam in the background (Unlike the photo in this link, the book shows only the Eelam boundary) with a note 'munnurai ethirparpudan' (introduction expecting). The book also has a foreword with a quote from Kirupanandha Variyar on Prabhakaran and promises that Prabhakaran would resurface alive again like the way he did in 88/89 when there were reports that he was dead.

The book has been published in Tamil Nadu by Cheran - a prominent Tamil movie director. Apparently Cheran was so touched by reading these stories and wanted to publish the book himself, hence started a publishing house. This is the first publication from the house. It is a bit surprising that the book has been published in Tamil Nadu first and not in any of the European countries (where there is a significant Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora) in spite of the author herself being from London. Also surprisingly a book about Sri Lankan Tamils' pain and struggle carries no foreword from any of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Probably the book is targeted at Indian Tamils?

Each chapter in the book starts with a quote from world 'leaders' which includes some of the ruthless dictators like Che, Mao and Prabhakaran himself.  The quotes are of revolutionary theme and advocates struggle for freedom until death.

Though the book is titled as war and pain, it doesn't depict the horrors of the war from a neutral stand. The book is more about the sufferings of the Tamils and glorifies LTTE on every possible opportunity. No story goes without mentioning the sacrifices of the LTTE and their struggle for free Eelam. Even while writing on the July 23rd 1983 attack on the army patrol by LTTE, which eventually triggered a series of atrocities against Tamils, the author plays down LTTE's role by indicating that the attack was used only as an excuse to target Tamils.

In one of the stories, the author narrates emotionally how the Tamils were forced to vacate their homes within a short notice by the Sri Lankan Army, but fails to mention about the 70,000 odd Muslims expelled in a similar way by the LTTE from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Similarly other incidents like the massacre of Sri Lankan Police officers and the bombing of Central Bank by LTTE has no mention whatsoever. It appears that these events have been conveniently overlooked. Because of this selective story telling, one can't avoid the feeling that 'Porum Valiyum' is biased and doesn't give the full picture.

Though the stories depict the horrors of the war, a war's effect on civilians and how it has caused irreversible damage for generations to come, the one-sidedness of these stories and the explicit praise for the tigers could make a reader with a neutral stand uncomfortable. Also in every other story, either the protagonist or his/her family member is a LTTE cadre or related to LTTE. If this is indeed true, then it blurs the distinction between Tamil civilians and Tamil armed forces and makes it more difficult to empathize with them, especially when LTTE is proscribed as a terrorist organisation in 32 countries.1

These shortcomings in the stories could prevent the book from reaching a wider audience and limit itself to staunch LTTE supporters and those who are looking for another military solution. For the rest, who are hoping for a relatively peaceful political solution to end this conflict, the book will be only a disappointment.

1.LTTE - Wikipedia

Saturday, 2 March 2013

History in Schools

Recently there was a news in England about whether History should be taught in schools in a chronological order.

I think the real question is should history be taught in school at all? Especially in countries where there is little respect for freedom of speech and where educational institutions are funded, accredited by a government body.

When educational institutions or it's syllabus is controlled by a group of people i.e say a government body, then what is taught in these institutions could be more less become a government propaganda. For example, according to a wiki entry teaching evolution vs creation in schools is a long standing debate in many countries.1 It also cites how politicians and political parties in various countries had tried to influence the teaching of creation or evolution in educational institutions.

If this is the case for a subject that can be scientifically debated, it gets trickier when it comes to cultural studies like history. A quote from the movie Braveheart summarizes it - "...but history is written by those who have hanged heroes".2 It takes years together for historians to come up with a different take on the actual events happened. And if their version is different against the accepted version, then their work is subject to restriction and ban.

In countries where the academic institutions and its syllabus are controlled by a set of people, they more or less decide what students should learn from their past. Any part of history that is against what they believe in or that could damage the reputation of their beloved leaders is suppressed.

Besides suppressing the texts that are objectionable, control over cultural studies could also pave way to selectively choose a part of history to portray some one as a leader or traitor. LTTE's propaganda in schools for voluntary recruitment is one such example.

"LTTE cadres frequently go into schools to speak about the LTTE, sometimes showing films that show LTTE service in a positive light. For instance, according to the Trincomalee Senior Superintendent of Police, the LTTE in July 2004 provided area teachers and principals with exams on the history of the LTTE to give to their students. "They [LTTE] collect them afterwards. This is part of their propaganda work. The teachers and principals can't refuse because they need to survive. They have to carry out their instructions."3

There are similar examples in other war-ridden countries. In a more civilized country, similar propaganda is possible when the schools are funded by the government or requires accreditation from a government body. In fear of losing funding or accreditation, the schools could be limited to teach only what is allowed by the approving bodies.

 In India, Rohinton Mistry's 'Such a Long Journey' was withdrawn from the syllabus of Mumbai University because it had some derogatory remarks about Maharashtrians and Bal Thackeray.4 Similarly A.K. Ramanujan's 'Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations' was removed from the University of Delhi syllabus as it contradicts the popular version of Ramayana.5  This shows how anything controversial could be possibly censored unless there exists a legitimate independent body that could monitor the contents of the syllabus and prevents censorship.

History is not one dimensional. History is best learnt only when one has access to its multiple perspectives. Access to the woes of India's partition tales would make one realize that the common notion of bloodless India's war of independence is very much a false propaganda. 
History taught in schools with its content enforced by a small group of powerful people makes it more or less one dimensional and a far-fetched reality.