Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Destruction of a City

Its now close to a couple of weeks since nature's fury battered the city of Mumbai. Sitting a breadth of a subcontinent away, without access to television images (a conscious decision though!) and having just the internet as a source for images of the terrible damage that was done, it was hard for me not to think about whether we, as a society, have actively killed our cities and whether the damage that was done was just an extreme manifestation of the same.

What does a city really mean to a society/country? Take a look at any of the great civilizations in human history and you will find that cities were their heart and soul. Cities have always been not only the centers of economic activity and power but also centers of political activity, trade, culture, modern education and what not. The histories of Athens, Rome, Baghdad, Bejing, St Petersburg and others do conjure up images in popular imagination that confirm to the role these cities played in their civilizations. Closer home it is impossible to think of the Indus Valley civilization without thinking of the great city of Mohenjodaro, of the Mughals without Delhi or Agra, of even the British Empire in India without Calcutta. Needless to say, the histories of nations or civilizations and the histories of nations have and will be intertwined. When cities fall, nations fall and when nations fall cities fall (clichéd as it may sound).

Of course, none of this should in any way mean that societies needn’t look beyond their cities. The village or the small town is definitely as important to its well being as a city. But unfortunately in a poor country like ours, the issue of development has been seen in conflictive terms. It’s always portrayed as a question of the big city versus the small village. As if there is some kind of a fundamental duty to place the development of a village over that of a city and city dwellers, enjoying the comforts and better living standards that they do, are in some ways denying the people in villages of their due. Popular dialogue (in the mainstream political process, among NGOs, activists and the like) has always used this image of a conflict between the developmental needs of a city and of a village very effectively. None of it has in any case meant that our villages have seen any true development because of this; they continue to be in their downtrodden state as ever.

I think one of the reasons for all this has been due to the common metaphors that dominate political/societal thinking about the city versus village question. The Gandhian metaphor of “India lives in its villages” has been stretched far beyond its usefulness. Gandhi, in his times, saw the poverty and suffering in rural India as the most extreme manifestation of the destruction that British rule caused on India. To him, that was the arena where the battle for independence could be fought. He was also tacitly questioning the relevance of urban, western educated and elitist Indians (primarily the leaders of the Congress party before he took center stage) in the fight for freedom. For him, the battle had to be fought as much against the British as it had to be fought against the mindset of these Indians. Moreover, his conception of the economic problem that India faced also played a role in this. The idea of a self sustained village republic was a powerful solution, in his mind, to the problem of colonial rule.

But then, how relevant are these ideas today? We have moved fully away from any kind of economic prescription that Gandhi had. So how useful will these ideas, however egalitarian they may sound, when they are used as metaphors for decisions about development that society makes? Why should the developmental needs of a city and a village (different as they are) be conflicting (or rather viewed as such)? Have we somehow forgotten the role that cities can play in the development of the society as a whole? Cities do have their problems and suffering. But they also have their potential to uplift societies and act as the centers/sources of change. They have played this role in the past; they will play it in the future. We ignore it to our own peril.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Value of a Human Life

"One death doesn't make too much of a difference in a land of so many deaths".

-in the book 'Riot' by Shashi Tharoor

Modern day media organizations are really good at a form of story telling that relies heavily on the use of imagery and its vividness, going far beyond the good old principles of objective reporting. Observe how the antics of UBL (as Osama Bin Laden is known in CIA circles) and his band of brothers on that fine September morning in Mahhattan, is forever etched in our collective consciousness as "9/11". 9/11 can, in theory, mean different things to different people, but does the mainstream, modern day media want it to be so? And just when the general level of interest in 9/11 was for certain waning, what comes to the media's rescue?

"7/7"!! Or so they would have us believe.

The larger question, I would assume, that needs to be raised here is how societies characterize incidents like the above in the collective minds of the people, keeping in mind that human lives are lost in such incidents. The characterization of these incidents by the media should, in some ways, be just a reflection of the same in the minds of the people who consume the media's offerings. More specifically, the question that often comes to my mind is that whether western or advanced societies value human lives a lot more when compared to poorer and backward societies? The reaction of the west to incidents like these where typically a few hundred or at the worst (like in 9/11) a few thousand lives are lost does betray this fact. Even if we step out of the world of terrorism and mindless killings, it does seem that these societies are always geared to the protection of human life in almost every aspect. Better healthcare, better measures for public safety, strict action against offenders ranging from polluters to tobacco companies and a general notion that being a member of the society at large will ensure in some basic form of protection against threats to life.

Contrast this to the situation in countries like India. I have never bothered to collect the facts, but I am quite sure that the number of people, who die in road accidents or for lack of immediate medical attention after a trauma or for some other such stupid thing, will be far greater in number than any 9/11 or 7/7 will face. This of course does not include wars, riots and other such forms of mindless violence.

So, what really is the worth of a human life? Is it contingent upon the economic or social background of the life in question? Are the lives of people in advanced societies really all that more valuable? Is the value of a human life subject to the principles of economics? The richer you are and the more resources you can afford to spend, the safer your life would be? Or can all this be explained by the differences in the belief systems? Does fatalism have a part to play here? But then are all poor societies generally fatalistic in their beliefs?

Keeping all this in mind, it is quite difficult for me to comprehend the reaction that followed the both 9/11 and 7/7. The general sense of outrage was there, but then does it all warrant some of the crazy reactions that we have see? The quest for revenge and crusades and more bloodshed in general (never mind that the only people whose blood will be shed are those who belong to places far away and are accustomed to death in any case).

In the end, I guess people can expect me to share their grief but they should not expect me to comprehend their outrage, living as I do in a place where death is a hard reality.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Dictatorship of Relativism

"Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."

These words, coming from the Pope of the Catholic Church, shouldn't be really surprising. All religious institutions have always tried to establish a "doctrine of absolutes", a collection of moral principles that societies have to follow and confirm to. Though the methods of enforcement might have changed- from the bloody prosecutions and wars of the Inquisition to the modern, fundamentalist doctrines of all religions today- it cannot be denied that this force still continues to shape human societies everywhere.

But at another level, the very conception of relativism raises a lot of questions. Relativism- the idea that there are no absolutes and solutions to human problems are shaped (and should be) by the social contexts that surround them or even by individual perspectives- does seem, at least at first sight, to be modern, egalitarian and free of dogma. There is indeed something appealing about a conception that acknowledges that problems need to be seen away from the dogmatic and tyrannical eyes of some authoritarian structure, be it a religious institution, governments or any other political entity.

But can societies survive without the forces of absolutism, come as they may in a number of forms? Isn't some degree of "order" imperative for a society to survive and prosper? What is it that can hold a collection of free individuals, each with their own 'egos and desires’ together as a community? Will it be possible for human beings to live at all in a world where there is no unifying sense of purpose for the race as a whole?

On the other hand, can societies develop and progress when they are held together (tyrannical as it may sound) by the forces of absolutism? Hasn't every bit of human progress occurred when an absolute principle(s) was questioned and rejected? Where will the forces of absolutism leave the basic desire for the exercise of one's free will?

Complex questions need simple answers or so the saying goes...oh really!!


After an inexplicable amount of procrastination, two previous failed (?) attempts at starting my own blog, here I am ready to tune in to the world of blogging (how unfamiliar does this sound!).
Just keeping my fingers crossed on how regular I can be at this keeping in mind the demands of learning (learning???don't know a better word for this) business startegy, managing a portfolio(tooo eaasy!! as the prof in question would say), writing an equity research report and figuring the intricacies of the paper " The Pricing of Options and Corporate Liabilities", all in a space of 10 weeks.
A word on the address of this blog...
beruf: German for "Calling", a task to carry out in life, with spiritual connotations.
Widely used by the German sociologist, Max Weber in his classic " Die Protestantiche Ethik und der geist des Capitalismus" ('The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; pardon the spelling, writing straight out of memory and without a wee bit of knowledge of German)

Till next time.....