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Creative Destruction

Town Hall/ White House

Original post from the SAES blog. I’m blogging and tweeting from the South Asian Economic Summit along with a few others, hastag #saes2013.

This morning Pakistani economist Akmal Hussein talked about how mainstream economics/capitalism teaches that inequality is essentially an un-avoidable by product of growth. He said that equity is not only a measure of social justice but can also be a powerful driver of growth. You just have to open the lower and middle classes to opportunities to grow, giving you a much bigger base.

Great sentiments, I agree 100%. But how easy is it to talk about equitable growth while many countries in South East Asia are facing a ‘neoliberalize or die’ situation? And indeed, are enthusiastically jumping in the very same capitalist bandwagon that facilitates this systematic inequality. India for example is notorious for facilitating corporate expansion. It is, in fact, one of the most characteristic features of its growth. I think the tendency is to hope that equity will come after wealth is achieved, but if the West is any example, a semblance of equity within one’s borders is only achievable by impoverishing peoples beyond it.

Earlier still Ahsal Iqbal Chowdhry, Federal Minister For Planning in Pakistan, spoke bold words about the ‘failure’ of the Washington consensus, and even mentioned discarding it for a Colombo consensus, whatever that may mean, hopefully achievable starting today. But seeing as the most powerful economy in the region got its early nineties boost by the very same Washington Consensus, has it really ‘failed’ in that sense? What would India have been if it wasn’t bailed out? If it wasn’t invested in heavily by Western corporations?

I’m not defending the Washington Consensus, far from it. It has indeed created a lot of harm by seemingly creating growth, but it is ironic that it is this very growth that we celebrate, and hope to convert into something that is fundamentally against its nature. The Washington consensus ‘worked’ because it was essentially hegemonistic. It is the patronage of the powerful to the weak, and beggars cannot choose luxuries like equity.

Will Choudhry’s imagined Colombo Consensus incorporate some similar form of hegemony? Assuming it can even shrug of its Western counterpart as easily as he makes it sound. Indeed can South Asia with all its deep running conflicts, ever form a collective without some entity dominating?

Perhaps the fear of outside interference can enlighten the region to the benefits of mutual cooperation. But it has already incorporated many elements of Chowdhry’s ‘Washington Consensus’, perhaps too many to think of turning back without completely destroying and remaking itself. Perhaps in retrospect, it is telling that both speakers were Pakistani?

labour-movement-610x282

As published in Echelon (artwork by same) 

May Day Rallies to me were a vague call back to communist absurdity, until I found out that the phenomenon actually started in America, and has more to do with the labor movement than communism. I’d always greeted it with appreciation; because like every Sri Lankan I appreciate the occasional holiday, them being so hard to come by and all that. This time though, volunteering with a movement of anti-hate activists, I found myself stepping out to distribute our message to rally attendees. As veteran activists assured us, there is no easier way to get your message across to otherwise practically unreachable corners of the island than to ambush the people when they gather in Colombo en masse.

May Day in Colombo is a crazy affair. Busloads of people are brought in from all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city, they eat, they drink and they pay for nothing. Although no official figure is known, if the government’s claim that nearly 2 million people were ferried into the city this May is to be believed, then the cost for the whole day could have been close to a billion rupees. What is also unknown is who actually footed the bill. Mainstream media was silent on this particular nosy question.

Minor rallies attracting fewer people had move the staging area to the middle so that only half or even a quarter of the grounds were fully used. This seemingly absurd tactic succeeded in giving the illusion of a larger crowd, especially to the cameras. However the JVP rally drew massive crowds to the BRC grounds with its decorated floaters and people in red t-shirts with stylized pictures of Rohana Wijeweera, reminiscent of that iconic Che Guevara portrait, emblazoned on their backs.

The emasculation of the labor movement in Sri Lanka started before Wijeweera, in the 1950s, when it was at its peak. During its glory days the labor unions organized a series of successful strikes under the leadership of AE Goonasinge, who founded the movement in the 1920s. At the height of the power of Sri Lanka’s political left, which soon adopted the movement, the general strike and civil disobedience of 1953 brought the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. A massive outbreak of what some called ‘hooliganism’ and others termed a ‘public uprising’ forced his resignation. The 1953 hartal represented the first and probably the last real instance when genuine public discontent was allowed an outlet via something close to ‘democratic’ means in independent Sri Lanka.

The general strike of 1980 for instance was less successful. The vicious crackdown of JR Jayawardene’s UNP only put the nails on its coffin. In a nation with the glimmerings of war already on the horizon, and politics highly oppressive, the labor movement had lost much of it potency. In the intervening decades, the once influential LSSP had split in to various parties touting Trotskyist, Maoist, Stalinist and other ideological manifestations of leftist thought and the labor movement had split along with it. Traditionally ‘capitalist’ parties had encroached it in a bid to dilute its power and transform it into a means of countering political opposition. In the process, public recourse to expression of dissent was quickly moving from democratic to undemocratic means. The eighties are a bloody testimony to this, with not one, but two insurgencies tearing the country asunder.

Alcohol and sycophancy go together. Now parliamentarians bring their own busloads of people whom they apparently ply with drink to appease. Indeed an overwhelming number of people we met that day were drunk. The scent of liquor and the doddering unpredictable congeniality of drunk people was everywhere. When we reached out to grab a number of caps that fell out of a bus carrying rally attendees, eager for any implement that would allow us to ‘blend in’, we found them soaked in vomit. At rallies that were starting off, people were enthusiastically shouting slogans and dancing to the beat of drums; at rallies that had gone on for a while, they were morose with a higher tendency to get into fights. After tactfully extricating ourselves from a tight spot we proceeded in the afternoon to a rally where the crowd, seemingly done partying for a while, was idly napping in corners of the grounds as the speaker onstage droned on about Engels and whatnot, as oblivious to the crowd as the crowd was to him.

What motivated them to come? Perhaps some came of their own accord, spending hundreds of rupees, from distant villages, in order to fight for the rights of the laborer in a broken system on a much needed holiday. But May Day today is less about the workers than the politicians that represent them. The money, in a rare example for our country, is flowing from the top to the bottom. It is the politicians that are bringing the workers into town. It is the politicians that are spending money, apparently motivating workers to fight for their own rights. The labor movement has been sabotaged by politics; its integrity sold for a free trip into the city, a lunch packet and a quarter bottle of liquor.

Today, any resemblance the labor movement has to a ‘people’s movement’ has all but disappeared. In a few decades, from the height of its power in 1953, it disintegrated from fighting for the people and toppling governments in their name to being an instrument for their subjugation. The failure of several attempted general strikes in the wake of utility price increases in recent weeks evidences its lack of cohesion and unity. May Day rallies today are a sad testimony to what infighting, politicization and a loss of purpose can perhaps do to any truly grassroots movement that strives to express the ‘people’s voice’ in our country. The labor movement is a body without a soul. A farce perpetuating an ongoing political charade.

Frederica Janz was a controversial figure in the local media, and working with her as my editor was an educational experience. Here she is talking to Al-Jazeera on what is probably her first media appearance after being fired from The Sunday Leader and leaving the country. 

The Sunday Leader may not have been perfect, I only joined after the war and was spared the trauma of Lasantha’s death, from which i am given to understand that the paper never recovered. But the Leader continued to be one big pain in the behind of the establishment.

It crossed lines that were only located on the distant, unvisited borders of other papers. It was kicked out of the country’s primary journalistic association. The Sunday Leader had its faults, it had a tendency to sensationalize things and its vitriol was often perceived as lacking in taste, but it asked the right questions, even thought it may not have always come up with the complete answers to those questions, these were questions that no one else dared to even think about.

The Leader was fearless but also a little reckless about the way it approached things. And I supposed its fast living finally caught up to it. Today the Leader is a shadow of its former self, though still trying to come out with hard hitting stories, thanks to a few reporters who are holding on, despite its ownership’s supposed vested interests to the contrary.

Journalistic stalwarts i know like to decry the Leader as being a ‘rag’.  But in an age where most other papers are good for little else than wrapping your lunch packet after catching up with your daily dose of directly-observed reportage and classified ads (so_many classified ads), it offered excitement and a hint at what was really going down behind the scenes. Not that it mattered really.

It didn’t matter because the means for free expression were steadily closing down. The institutions by which free expression could be made use and put into action like the judiciary and the opposition had long since shut down. Free expression and the freedom of press was fast losing its currency, and its value to the general public has all but dissipated, replaced with state owned propaganda machines at one extreme, and sensational reports of crimes-and-other-shocking-goings-on to keep the public’s appetite for gore satiated at the other.

Investigative journalism that looks at the essence of what goes on behind the inner workings of the country has disappeared, along with many of the journalists who actually did the investigating. Today the press here has given up trying to be free. Like a caged animal finally come to terms with the boundaries of the rest of its life, it doesn’t even try to rebel, not even like an angry teenager, in a slightly immature way. In fact, it hardly pouts.

ce

This post was originally published in The Platform

I dislike the label ‘activist’, armchair or otherwise. To be defined as an activist is to be defined by the inactivity of others. Armchair activism, as I see it, is a constant struggle against (to paraphrase Milton Freidman) ‘the tyranny of the status quo’; that dread inertia that prevents people at large from forming the critical mass required to propel decisive solutions to social issues that affect them all.

Armchair activism is different in nature from ‘on-the-ground’ activists who have a gamut of other responsibilities, like standing in front of tanks and bulldozers should the need arise. (Raashid Riza has an excellent post on contemporary activism, armchair activism and cynics of all forms in the light of recent events here.) Armchair activists are more specifically involved in spreading the word in the domain of public opinion – they are in the fight against ignorance, cynicism and apathy.

The goal of the armchair activist, conscious or otherwise, is to convince OTHER people of the need for altruism and moral consideration. Theirs is a sustained effort at tipping the balance of this inertia, at creating that critical mass. Social media has contributed to a phenomenal rise in armchair activism. The ability to influence public opinion is now at our very fingertips.

But armchair activists are rendered outcasts in an environment still dominated by  the primary tyrannical force, materialism. Materialism breeds selfishness, and selfishness is protected by cynicism. Cynicism denies responsibility for the actions of others, even individuals the cynics themselves have elected into power. Cynics deny that one can make a difference, but know that many can. However they doubt that enough will overcome their own cynicism in order to join together convincingly, thus building a self fulfilling philosophy that makes selfishness always comfortably right.

This is played out in social networks, both real and virtual, everyday. People cannot understand why other people get all up in arms about things that happen thousands of miles away. These others can’t understand how some can idly sit by and look at pictures of kittens when not only kittens but children are being slaughtered indiscriminately ONLY a few thousand miles away. Vocal cynics resent being reminded of the latter. And say so. Scoffing at idealists is a popular pastime when idealists get active.

And then there is the silent majority, too caught up with its own affairs to even bother with vocalising its cynicism. To all of them, the ‘voice of the people’ is a myth. Or if it exists, it only exists in order to elect the next American Idol, or president.

This disillusionment with the power of the ‘voice of the people’ is the primary source of conscious or unconscious ire for the armchair activist. Forever trying to influence and educate, shock and engage the public at large, armchair activists capitalise on critical events they see as having the ability to finally tip the majority in their favor. These are the times when they get really active, because to them it is all about critical mass.

And they help. Public outrage in the wake of Israel’s illegal Operation Pillar of Cloud helped accelerate the ceasefire agreement; public outrage at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill sparked investigations debating BP’s drilling practices, the risks of oil spills and key environmental issues in general. But have they done enough? I’d say no. The underlying causes of these issues remain, ready to burst forth in some new form of violence in the future. Change more radical than this would need to happen for a permanent solution, the kind of solutions that all activists, everywhere, ardently hope for.

But, unfortunate as it may be, this kind of critical mass manifests only when a major crisis is imminent. Only when the disease spreads to the very foundations of the materialism that breeds the cynicism, that breeds the apathy of public opinion, will the majority awaken from its inertia. But when this does happen, to paraphrase Friedman again, their actions will depend on the ideas that are ‘lying around’, the discourses, social infrastructure, alternative policies and theories of change that have been kept alive by activists of all kinds, waiting until the ‘impossible’ becomes the ‘inevitable’.

This is probably why activism and armchair activism appear futile in the short term and only superficially effective in the medium term. For long lasting change to occur, whatever that may mean, the efforts of activists are not enough.  It takes the efforts of non-activists as well, in the process converting everyone into someone who acts, removing the need to define what an ‘activist’ is altogether.

take it easy and you’ll do fine: Upali

Upali is what industry insiders call a ‘professional tuk tuk driver’. He bought his first tuk tuk 27 years ago. Currently driving a four stroke TVS,  he claims that it is better than its Bajaj equivalent. The TVS is the latest of 8 three wheelers he has owned throughout his career. He gets a new one every three or four years.

Though he makes a successful living (he has built two houses), the idea of sitting back and having others drive his tuk tuks for him never appealed much. His past experiments have all failed. At one time he owned 3 tuk tuks simultaneously. But the problem with having others drive your tuk tuks is that well… others drive your tuk tuks. Accidents are a norm. He has lost count of the visits he paid to the courts. Drivers don’t pay you on time, if ever. So no thank you but i’ll drive my own, he says. Even if it means less money, the peace of mind is worth more.

His lease costs him Rs.10,500 a month. Petrol about Rs 500-600 a day. Servicing costs about 7500 every 3 months. But spare parts are a problem. Tyres cost in excess of Rs 2000 and other parts don’t come cheap. This is why its important to use your vehicle very carefully, he thinks. He needs to earn about Rs 2000 to be happy; a decent figure.

Upali recently switched to a meter. He says he gets more hires this way but the fares are less, so in the end it probably amounts up to the same. Asked why he refuses to join a taxi company and get even more hires that way, he balks. Taxi companies don’t give you time to relax. They’re always calling you with hires.

Instead Upali has nurtured a strong network of contacts. He regularly transports light cargo for a firm in Piliyandala. This morning by nine he had already earned about Rs 600 through other hires who called him personally. He’s relaxed and at peace with his job. His years of experience have served him well and i’m sure he can teach a thing or two to budding professionals in the field. Like for instance; so long as you don’t do crazy stuff like running whores and other dodgy things, you’ll make a good living.

Programming; slightly trickier that making accharu, though principally the same. Photo by @aufidus

I have long since been fascinated and frustrated by computers. I’m not ashamed to say it, i don’t understand them. All i know  safely is that they are some sort of glorified abacus. But I’ve been given to understand that even this definition might be somewhat of an oversimplification.

Time was when I used to need to call a friend to even install a desktop computer. A laughable matter to me now. After a following a short course in the rudiments of computer hardware i can now safely identify the physical makeup of a ‘machine’ (as the computer is known among us connoisseurs) for instance, from the stomach contents of a dead, man eating crocodile. A vast improvement. But the inner workings of the soul of the machine, the mind they call ‘the software’ has always been about as clear to me as a brick wall.

Recently to try and break that wall down a bit, and to ward off disturbing visions of me becoming a bitter old man removed by degrees from understanding technology completely, i started a course at MIT. Not the MIT in Maradana, the one in Massachusetts. It’s a free online course and is very insightful. For one thing, I discovered that ‘computing’ or ‘programming’ is actually a deeply philosophical pursuit, tackling fundamental questions about how we look at learning and solving problems. Most startlingly ‘Computing’ they tell me, has about as much to do with computers as geometry has to do with your average compass.

Now there’s a thought to mull over..Computers have nothing to do with computing? Surely you are joking, professor.

But the science is so new that the association it has with its tools are still too strong in our minds. Its like looking at a microscope and saying ‘ah, biology!’ and refusing to acknowledge that it applies to our bodies and virtually the whole of nature. Computing is the science of processes.

These processes function like ‘recipes’ to find solutions, powerful recipes capable of taking over the solving of complex human problems. Automated recipes that just need the ingredients of basic facts in the form of ‘primitives’ to arrive at the delectable dish at the end. The program is the recipe; the computer is the pot, spoon and kitchen infrastructure. And, just like the recipe is written down before it can be used to cook, the program is first written in a ‘language’ which requires proper sentence structure (syntax) and good sense (semantics). I suppose then a programmer is some form of chef. And at the end of the day, food is all about the cooking, not the pot.

Anyway, I’m still trying to get Python to run on my Windows 7 computer. They are cumbersome creatures these primitive tools. I tried everything, and command prompt is refusing to run my little “hello, world” program. The first program I ever wrote and I can’t run it. Some programmer I’m turning out to be. If anyone out there can help, I installed Python 2.5.4 (old but that’s what the course wants) and created a folder to put my little program file in. After looking online, I added both the Python folder and the folder I put my program file into the PATH variable.

When I type ‘python’ in command prompt the Python console shows. But whenever i type the path to the folders e.g. c\python25 or c\Pythonpractice i keep getting a ‘syntax error’ saying that there is an ‘unexpected character after line continuation character’.

Hello IT?

A Beijing subway map

Traffic in Colombo is not pleasant. Leaving home at the wrong time can ruin your whole day. Do this for a while, and soon cursing behind the wheel everyday will likely give you grey hairs and a prematurely weak heart.

Blame The Cars

Tax reform, low interest rates and possibly increasing middle class incomes have multiplied vehicle imports faster than road networks can expand. The UDA has been trying to keep up, they’ve extended Marine Drive to Colpetty, opened up Bullers Road and have generally tried to fix things like perennially bad maintenance. Traffic lights and police presence has been increased, but still cars pile up faster than hungry people at a dansala.

I drive down Galle Rd often and it used to be that i’d invariably try to take Marine Drive to avoid evening traffic, but now i steer clear because of the massive wait at the turn off back into Galle rd. Similar situations are playing out along all of the major exit-entryways to the city. Baseline Road, Negombo Road and Kandy Road are veritable nightmares in rush hour. Let’s not even go near Rajagiriya, literally, you want to stay away from there when other people exit their offices. There are just too many. freakin. cars bob.

Don’t Blame The Cars

But blaming the vehicles is moot. There are good reasons why people feel they need cars. People are worried about getting to work on time, they also need to get there smelling good. So will drive if they can afford it, or paradoxically take a tuk tuk if they cant. As traffic increases, drivers get more and more frustrated and will wish for alternative ways to travel. But aside from moving closer to the city (an unthinkably expensive option for most) they have no other alternatives. This is absurd, but that’s just the way things stand now.

Public transport is unreliable, too congested, and completely ruins the attire of your average executive, discouraging most of them from opting for it. The lack of a cheap taxi network is also a problem. Tuk tuks, even metre tuks, are overpriced.

Building Our Way Out

The Defense Ministry/UDA (whats up with that? no one even talks about it anymore) has followed a strategy to expand capacity and increase efficiency by improving roads, building flyovers and increasing police presence. But it has only worked so well. In fact, capacity is so limited that everyone breaks road rules when the cops aren’t looking to get ahead. Our roads are ganglands, whatever you can get way with is legal, Gehan has a good post on driving and its malcontents.

The situation poses some interesting problems for urban policymakers. Things have come to a point where even the bureaucracy must realise that there is no building our way out of this, at least not in the conventional add-em-as-you-go fashion.

Trains have worked remarkably well in other cities. But Colombo’s existing train lines only circle the city and do not venture inside, making them just feed lines to hubs just outside the city centre and that too only from the North and along the coast.

The bus networks are mass market. And probably already transport double the amount of people travelling in cars. The recently launched Executive Bus service has failed to spark much interest. Again due to unreliability, irregularity, coverage gaps arising from the fact that they only traverse a single main route, and did I mention unreliability, the bus service can only do so much too. The much touted ferry service is also floating about aimlessly if you’ll excuse the bad pun.

Innovative work policies can help. Firms can rethink employment policy and offer the option of working from home. Or offer flexible hours to enable employees to beat traffic to and from work, like my new workplace. Individuals can also avoid traffic if they decide to leave early because not everyone will do it especially here where being fashionably late starts half an hour after an appointment.

Bring The Commonwealth Games to Colombo

A subway system would be ideal, as indi says, a good subway system can completely eliminate the need for cars. The Delhi Subway system cost somewhere around 700 million USD. Peanuts in comparison to how much we are borrowing for other projects of dubious worth. Maybe the Chinese can help us out with a loan and even expertise, the Beijing subway lines are superb; and are an excellent way of getting around in an otherwise smoky, congested city.

Both the Delhi and Beijing lines were conceptualised and hurried up because of the 2010 Commonwealth games and the Olympic Games respectively. The need to show off and provide seamless transport to attendees forced these cities to consider building what is probably the most efficient urban transport mechanism invented by man.

Colombo is the centre of the country still, the heart that pumps out all the country’s logistics. The main arteries of it are now getting clogged. If hosting big international games can bring a city a subway then Hambantota might end up getting one. But Hambantota doesn’t need a subway system, Colombo does. So bring the Commonwealth Games to Colombo, and build something useful to the economy in the process.

This is a policymaker standing on a minefield

But the relationship between expanding capacity and reduced traffic is not always direct. This study done by USCB shows that when capacity expands and some traffic is diverted through other channels, latent demand clogs up the free space. Meaning when more drivers take buses, people who took buses because the traffic was too much will start driving.

Colombo being a very decentralized city doesn’t help. Public transport is simply not capable of reaching all the crannies where people need to go, most of the inroads can’t accommodate buses anyway. I work on Thimbirigasyaya Road and it’s barely wide enough for two cars. There is an expansion program going on but it had been in the works for over two years now, no results.

There is also mispriced congestion. Drivers don’t pay for the time loss they cause to others, and so will make inefficient decisions on when and how to travel. These ‘negative externalities’ are the social cost of congestion, and can result in little or no reduction in traffic.

Expansion in trains might divert commuters away from the bus service, because the latter is crap, while not affecting the amount of cars on the road. Deteriorating the bus service even further while causing no improvement to traffic.

So wuttudoo? Maybe an expansion in overall capacity, trains, roads and buses, thereby taking levels of capacity beyond ‘latent demand’. Together with innovative alternatives like carpools, office vans and flexi hours and urban planning focusing on centralized corporate space, these policies might help. What is really needed before anything else is a comprehensive study of the city by specialists (its much more complicated than it looks) followed by bottom up policy making to prevent us from arbitrarily building roads that lead to nowhere worth going slowly.

But all this takes intelligent policy making followed by quick implementation. And so far the Defense Ministry/UDA has only been implementing like mad, where the intelligent planning?

Milinda Moragoda has set out a manifesto here, in it he gives some vague outlines of a transport policy that are a bit vague. Aside form promising clean pavements it promises circular bus routes but fails to describe how they will be different from existing bus routes, which cover the city’s main highways pretty well.

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