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COP21 has been a failure

Now that the euphoria surrounding the supposedly ‘breakthrough deal’ has died down, let’s all sit back and suck up the bitter truth: COP21 deal is the last thing that will ever save this planet from man-made annihilation.

The reasons are not too far to seek, and what has happened should have been obvious to even a remote follower of the debate around climate change.

There are three fronts that, when brought together in harmony, will bring about a renewable energy revolution: policy, technology, finance. To get access to the last two - technology and finance - the developing countries must absolutely receive substantial assistance from their developed counterparts. Only this help can raise the abilities of most developing nations to put an effective climate change mitigation policy in place. Unfortunately, the deal is non-binding on both fronts.

This transfer of technology and finance from the developed to developing nations - represented by the moniker CBDR (common but differentiated responsibility) - has always been the sticking point in reaching any truly effective deal. Unfortunately, most developed world leaders have derided CBDR as wasteful, burdensome and a retrospective punishment that they no longer deserve. In reality, CBDR is none of these. At its most philosophical level, CBDR is the real-world manifestation of the most ideal human goal - a commitment for shared and equitable progress.

With very few exceptions (Germany being one), all nations of the world have put disproportionately greater emphasis on economic development than on emission cuts. This becomes still more true for the developing world, where almost all of the world’s poor live. For their upliftment, access to energy and electricity is the most basic requirement. Unfortunately, fossil fuels still being the cheapest and most easily available option, governments of such countries have a natural tendency to gravitate towards those. Clearly, this is yet another case of need for instant gratification. But in the absence of resources, they have few alternatives. This is where developed countries come in - by providing access to resources, they can help developing countries be more reliable partners in the fight against climate change. Instead, by removing the phrase “historic responsibility”, the deal further relieves developed nations of any pressure to assist developing nations.

It is bemusing how developed countries ignore the limitations of developing countries. If it were that easy, all developed countries' citizens must immediately give up milk and meat consumption, since livestock rearing contributes 14.5% to global GHG emissions. 61% of livestock emission comes from cattle reared for beef and milk.

Having highlighted the conundrum of developing countries, it would be unfair to say that nothing is being done by them to promote climate change mitigation efforts. For example, India is one of the few nations in the world to be taxing carbon as well as petroleum products, instead of subsidising them. India is levying a coal tax worth Rs.200/tonne (which is set to increase every year), and an excise duty on petroleum products. All of the money collected from the former is going towards expansion of renewable energy. Under its national policy, Indian aims to install solar energy worth 100GW, and wind energy worth 60GW by 2022. Rapid progress, driven by massive government support, is underway.

As per other developing nations, China has taken the lead in providing the world with cheap solar panels. It is also set to overtake Germany as the world’s biggest user of solar power.

On the other hand, certain developed nations seem to be abdicating their responsibility towards the goal of climate change mitigation.  UK is a primary example. A cursory google search should provide enough evidence of my claim.

None of the above is meant to show developed nations in a poor light. Despite being ultra rich, France and Scandinavian nations are models of energy usage. Hats off to German consumers who are carrying the burden of nearly 25% higher electricity prices to support renewable energy. In the same breath, it must also be said that China consumes nearly half the world’s coal, and India's coal consumption looks all set to keep growing for the next few decades.

As per the deal, the decision to have 5-yearly emissions targets is the only silver lining in an otherwise grey cloud. As expected, countries have a choice when it comes to obeying those targets. At the very least, the deal could have tried to formalize a mechanism to transfer $100bn/year by 2020, that has been promised by developed nations, but is very unlikely to be delivered on. If not that, there could have been binding commitments made to improving battery technology, and making it accessible to the developing nations at subsidised prices. There are umpteen other futuristic technologies that could have been targeted. No, none of that.

Instead, what we got was an almost laughable pledge to restrict temperature rise to 1.5 degree celsius. In future, the global community should look to tone down the scale and grandeur of these climate change gatherings. At least that will ensure lesser emissions from the thousands of jet-setting delegates.

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Thoughts on the FT Community

Thanks to Project Firefly, I could get unrestricted access to Financial Times for a period of three months. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed perusing this terrific publication, and in the end 90 days seemed only too short.

In my view, the collaboration with FT has so far been the most sagacious move by Project Firefly. Besides the invaluable readings, it helped bring out the best in the now big and ever expanding Firefly community. Comments left by diverse members of the community, especially Gregory Marks, helped me better understand the nuances of the financial world. It assumes all the more importance for the likes of me, who are already professional journalists, and are looking to make further progress in this most exciting and challenging field.

The incentives for the participants were perfectly planned, and I was touched by FT’s gesture when they included me in the list of those who were allotted the FT badge well before time, and invited me to two of their summits.

Personally, my best moment during these three months came when I was queried by the FT team over a comment I’d made regarding election campaign financing. Such involvement greatly augments the drive in the participants.

I was heartbroken after my subscription got revoked. It means no more free access to undoubtedly one of the highest quality writings and analyses anywhere in the world. I am very eagerly looking forward to a repetition of this collaboration, this time hopefully for a longer period.

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Impact of Civil War on Life Expectancy

The following article is a result of coming together of some fortunate coincidences* and my recent forays into the big bad world of data analytics. I feel this analysis is extremely important to not just layman/non-specialist readers (such as myself), but even to world leaders, as it deals with arguably the greatest man-made killer of humanity, i.e., civil wars. Such quick data bites could help dispel the cloud of uncertainty that envelopes civil wars and their unimaginably egregious consequences, and help shape future response of the international community to such events.

The data I have worked on is ‘Life expectancy at birth’ (Link) from 1960-2012, taken from World Bank’s public database. The reason why the words ‘at birth’ have been italicized is that they signify the expected number of years a child would live when it’s born. Consequently, any drop in this metric shows that children are at risk of dying at an early age. Reasons behind such a drop would generally either be outbreak of epidemics or deliberate killing of children. In my analysis, I have tried to show how the outbreak of civil war in any particular country adversely impacts its life expectancy at birth  (LEB), thus mainly focusing on the second reason behind death of children.

Eureka Moment!

The spark that such large and seemingly innocuous data could carry a clandestine message occurred to me when I plotted the Average, Maximum and Minimum values of LEB data for all countries of the world for each year from 1960-2012. Below is the graph, which, for example, shows that the country with maximum value of LEB in the whole world in 1960 was Norway (73.55 years), the one with minimum value of LEB in the same year was Mali (28.21years), while the average LEB for all the countries put together in this year was 53.73 years.

 

 

As seen above, things seem fine with the top two line graphs, with steady increases observed in each of the metrics. By 2012, the value of highest LEB for any one country/region in the world had jumped to 83.48 years (for HK) while the average for the whole world had climbed to a healthy 70.60 years. Similar end-to-end increase is seen for the lowermost line graph (in blue), with the value having climbed to 45.32 years (for Sierra Leone) in 2012, from 28.21 years (for Mali) in 1960. However, this last metric jumps out because of the two almost magnificent horse-shoe shaped dips, centred at 1977 and 1994. The dips make this last graph worthy of further scrutiny.

First evidence:

Curious to see why the minimum LEB in the world dipped so sharply at these two points, I revisited the data, and found out that the country depicting minimum LEB in the year 1977 was Cambodia. For further clarity, I superimposed Cambodia’s LEB (1960-2012) on the above graph, and got this shocking result:

 

 

Cambodia’s graph for LEB (in dark blue) shows a dip in the country’s LEB from a peak of 42.61 years in 1968, to a mind-numbing trough of 19.50 years in 1977! This period coincides with the murderous rule of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which was responsible for the egregious slaughter of millions of its countrymen. Though it would be hard to find out precisely how many of the dead were children, the above graphic should be enough to make even the most hardened of men quake in their boots.

Second evidence:

Intrigued, baffled and deeply upset by the first finding, I dug further to find out that the country behind the low LEB around 1994 was Rwanda. Upon superposition of Rwanda with the first graph, this is what I found:

 

As with Cambodia, Rwanda too shows a shocking dip in LEB from 49.90 years in 1984 to 26.76 years in 1993. Again, this coincides with the bloody Rwandan civil war where Hutus butchered Tutsis by the millions. However, this doesn’t present the full picture. The same period is also infamous for the outbreak of AIDS virus in Central Africa, which was responsible for devouring probably many more than what the Rwandan Civil War did. To put things in perspective, I carried out a comparative analysis of countries surrounding Rwanda, which resulted in the following graph:

 

 

Three of Rwanda’s bordering nations-Kenya, Tanzania and Congo-show sharp dips in LEB around the same time period, though none as pronounced as Rwanda’s. All of these dips could be attributed to the outbreak of AIDS virus, however, Rwanda’s situation is aggravated by the outbreak of civil war.

Further evidence:

Bolstered by two evidences where civil wars clearly coincided with sharp reductions in LEB, I proceeded to check further evidence. Plotting LEB data for two countries, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone, both of which bore the brunt of civil wars at different times in their history, I found this:

 

 

Bangladesh (in Blue) shows a dip in LEB between 1970 and 1972, when it reeled under a genocide inflicted by military dictators in West Pakistan. Similarly, Sierra Leone (in Red) shows a dip around the time it was engulfed by a civil war.

Exceptions:

The most obvious application of the above correlation between Civil War and LEB in today’s world is Syria. However, fortunately or unfortunately, the correlation doesn’t hold, as Syria seems to have maintained a consistent level of LEB through the civil war, so far. Similarly, South Sudan’s LEB data has not been impacted by the long and bloody civil war.

 

 

I haven’t really been able to figure out the reasons behind the above two exceptions (there might be more that I’ve missed). Maybe the children were just plain lucky, because it seems unlikely that aerial bombs and chemical weapons would single out children for forgiveness. In any case, data on demographics of the dead would make the picture clearer.

What is notable, though, is the fact that data on LEB exists only till 2012, and we might well have to be prepared for a sharp dip in Syria’s LEB as and when data for further years emerges, as the seemingly never ending civil war rages on. Hopefully, Syria’s children will continue to have it slightly better than their adult countrymen, hundreds of thousands of whom have already perished.

Concluding Remarks:

It is said that confounding correlation with causation is one of the gravest and the most antique mistakes of mankind. However, in this case, the unmistakably strong correlation is indeed a compelling argument for civil war’s being the cause for dip in LEB, and by corollary, the bloodcurdling slaughter of millions of children.

The world watched in disbelief as unarguably the world’s most powerful man let arguably the world’s most cruel man happily cross the so-called “Red Line.” Maybe the self-proclaimed do-gooders of the world need to have a look at this and redefine the Red Line to mean the deaths of innocent children, and never ever let another vile man cross it.

 

 

Footnotes:

*I do not intend to take sole credit for this paper.

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Demystifying Indian Elections - Part 2

However, as is the wont of politicians, Mr. Modi allegedly hides some serious skeletons in his closet. He was the CM of Gujarat in 2002, when the most vicious communal riots witnessed by modern India broke out, and devoured over 1,000 members of the minority community. Though Mr. Modi has been declared innocent by none other than the Supreme Court of India, his critics have never stopped baying for his blood, accusing him of complete administrative failure at best, and direct complicity at worst. Besides, Mr. Modi has also earned the Hindi language sobriquet ‘pheku’, pointing to his undying endeavour to push the so-called ‘Gujarat Model’ a little too far. Critics accuse him of having contributed very little to the development of the state, especially evidenced by the largely stagnant social indicators since he’s been the CM. He’s also accused of crony capitalism, having allegedly gifted away massive tracts of land to corporate honchos at throwaway prices. Of course, Mr. Modi denies all these charges, and his supporters, some of them blind lovers, are only too happy to oblige.

Much greater than any of the other accusations is the one that labels Mr. Modi communal to the extent of being Islamophobic. Secularism has been of the great narratives of Indian polity ever since independence and most leaders are engaged in a perpetual rat race to become the minorities’ favourite by extending them political patronage in varying colours. Mr. Modi, on the other hand, has repeatedly stated that he views this veritable mass of 1.25 billion people as ‘Indians,’ refusing to view them through prisms of different religions. However, critics have labelled his calls for unity a mere facade, behind which hides his real face. Indeed, Mr. Modi has made little effort to allay the fears of minorities during his high voltage election campaign. Some of his closest aides have indulged in vitriolic rhetoric against minorities.

Fears of his overtures towards the majority Hindu community are compounded by the fact that he has taken up the cause of the politically untouchable Kashmiri Pandit community-a group of half a million Hindus displaced from their original home, Kashmir, since 1990-much to the consternation of other politicians who believe any efforts to restore the dignity of Kashmiri Pandits might compromise Muslim votes. Mr. Modi also has, in a rare display of spine for a politician, spoken out openly against the millions of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants living in India, who’ve frequently been blamed for instigating communal tension and terrorist attacks in the country. Such strongly nationalistic overtones have led his opponents to invoke Samuel Johnson’s golden words- “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” pointing to the possibility that Mr. Modi might be fanning underlying patriotic feelings for electoral gains. Also notable is the fact that Mr. Modi takes great pride in his rustic and humble (he was a tea-seller in his younger days) Indian origins, which renders him naturally at odds with the elitist, English-speaking ruling coterie of Delhi. So much has been the bitterness between him and the ruling Congress party that the latter has left absolutely no stone unturned to obliterate the former. From fudging every possible statistic and fact to unleashing every possible constitutional and extra-constitutional authority against him, Congress party has tried every dirty trick in the book, yet has failed, though its failure hasn’t been complete. Large sections of Indians fear, and sometimes loathe, Mr. Modi. Despite being proven innocent time and again, he has been slandered as the ‘Butcher of Gujarat’ and ‘Mass Murderer’ quite liberally. Nowhere is Congress’ success more visible than outside India, where Mr. Modi is perceived as Hitler-in-waiting. Though far from being spotless, Mr. Modi’s administrative record-including the fact that there have been no communal incidents in his state since 2002-makes him deserving of a less obnoxious attitude than the one adopted towards him by international institutions, especially in US and UK.

Only time will tell who wins these elections, however, the fears of what Mr. Modi might unleash seem to be at least partially unfounded, given the great strength India’s democratic institutions have acquired. Such institutions can be grouped under two heads- those under the control of the government (such as bureaucracy, intelligence and police) while those independent from the government (such as Election Commission, Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and Supreme Court). While the former might well be tamed, the latter have shown the government its rightful place time and again. CAG has acquired such powers that any wanton favouritism to capitalists could be exposed swiftly, as has happened with the incumbent government. The SC has been the guardian of Indians’ fundamental rights, especially religious freedom, and any discrimination might well come back to bite the government in the face.

If he comes to power, Mr. Modi’s foremost priority should be to restore the confidence of minorities and protect their right to freedom and expression-clearly fundamental pillars of any democracy. Only then will he be able to carry the nation forward on the path to development, prosperity and dignity that has been the centrepiece of his campaign.

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Demystifying Indian Elections - Part 1

The greatest and the grandest exercise in democracy is underway. The sheer heft of Indian elections can be gauged from the fact that, this time round, a humongous 814 million voters have a once-in-5-year opportunity to choose their representatives. This, coupled with the fact that the current elections will take over 5 weeks to accomplish, truly makes it a spectacle to behold. Given Indian elections’ violent history, security remains the major reason behind the inexplicably long duration of elections (Brazil, Indonesia take a single day to get through theirs). The Election Commission of India deploys only the better trained and unbiased Central Security Forces (11 million in all), and not the state police, for protection of polling booths, which is why the elections are split into as many as 9 different phases.

Of course, the most amazing fact about Indian elections is that, despite the obvious complexities involved, they have been largely free and fair, especially post-1994, when, TN Sheshan, India’s erstwhile Chief Election Commissioner, introduced some sweeping reforms to completely overhaul the electoral process. The elections make India unique amongst countries of the world in being a flourishing democracy at such low levels of per capita GDP.

Despite the usual fanfare surrounding Indian elections, the ferocity with which this edition is being contested, not just by the politicians and their acolytes, but even by the average Joe, has taken the most seasoned political analysts by surprise. Of course, the deep penetration of digital technology, led by social media, has piqued the Indian electorate’s interest. Clearly, the outreach enabled by digital technology has helped to bolster the quality of Indian democracy by facilitating discourse and dissemination of information. However, it has also often been hijacked by vested interests to spread false propaganda, not just about their own greatness, but even about the devilry of their opponents, with unprecedented ease and rapidity. The digital media, coupled with modest levels of political awareness, has given rise to an army of arm-chair political activists in the country.

Thankfully, the storm kicked up by these elections has not just given birth to the sometimes way-below-the-belt diatribes exchanged between politicians and their supporters, but also to much healthier voting percentages in most parts of India. However, the fact that India’s metros continue to record much lower voting percentages than the smaller towns and villages shows that social media can only have so much impact on the outcome of the elections, and most arm-chair activists prefer the comfort of air-conditioned rooms to venturing out in the sun for a few minutes to cast their vote.

These elections will also be known for the 23 million youth voters (between 18-25), who’ve, for the first time, made political parties stand up and take notice of this hitherto ignored demographic. Almost every party has made special provisions, focusing on job creation and education, in its manifesto. Daring to go beyond their comfort zone, a lot of highly educated youth have also directly or indirectly affiliated with parties of their choice. A certain new political outfit on the horizon, called AAP, must take major credit for galvanizing youth into a force to reckon with. AAP has seen a meteoric rise based on their anti-corruption and clean politics agenda. Based on exhortations by youth, largely led by AAP, politicians have paid lip service to fielding honest candidates without a criminal record. However, the ground reality seems to be the same since nearly 1/3 of candidates have criminal charges against them, a proportion very similar to that of the current Parliament members. Even 12% of AAP’s candidates have criminal charges against them.

The ongoing elections are also unique in the fact that they’re almost presidential style, in that the parties have taken a backseat and their demigod like leaders are driving the voters’ choices. Presently, there seems to be only one forerunner for the post of the PM, Narendra Modi (from the party called BJP), a man who’s been worshipped and hated in equal measure (more on the reasons later) by Indians from different walks of life. Opinion polls have given him a good chance at becoming PM, though this in no way means he faces no credible opposition. Indian political theatre is a jamboree of actors, minor and major, from all parts of the nation, and each of these almost perpetually dreams of securing the top post. Whether or not Mr. Modi is able to become PM depends entirely on his skills to win over such regional leaders in an alliance in order to secure a minimum of 272 seats, which would mean majority in the 543 seat Lower house of Indian Parliament, called Lok Sabha.

The incumbent government, an alliance of over 10 parties called United Progressive Alliance (UPA), faces a massive trust deficit vis-à-vis the Indian electorate and could see its strength in Parliament being eroded massively. At the helm of UPA is the Congress party, which alone holds 206 seats from the 2009 elections, and could see its tally reduced to below 100 this time round. A bystander-like PM, myriads of corruption scams, crippled economic growth, rapidly deteriorating security situation (both internal and external), gargantuan and wasteful subsidies, are some of the factors which have brought the UPA to its knees. In the face of such resentment, the Indian electorate seems naturally inclined towards Mr. Modi, who’s been Chief Minister (CM) of the Indian state of Gujarat for the past 12 years, and has delivered stupendous economic growth under impeccable law and order conditions. But his appeal is not just due to a lack of better alternative, Mr. Modi is a gifted orator, capable of stupefying crowds as large as half a million for as long as two hours, all in the baking Indian summer. He has become the darling of the Indian corporate world, which perceives him as the only leader capable of making India climb the ‘Ease of Doing Business Index.’ Mr. Modi talks tough and, as a welcome break from the usual tenor of Indian politics, rubbishes talks of community-based reservations and more subsidies. He carries the message of unity and progress for Indian people, and his message has been carried far and wide by his PR machinery, arguably the most efficient and widespread in the democratic world. Mr. Modi’s popularity has also surged by leaps and bounds due to the obvious contrasts against his major political opponent, Rahul Gandhi (great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru), the baby-faced leader of Congress Party, who comes across as a reluctant and naïve politician, as opposed to Mr. Modi’s fluent oratory and tall ambitions to lead the country.

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India: Speak now or forever hold your silence

I think I can safely say that the upcoming Indian general election in 2014 is going to be the most crucial election in recent times for the country, maybe even the most crucial election ever. The country has been governed by undoubtedly the most pathetic government in recent memory. The electorate has been used to scams, inflation, poor law and order and the like, however, what makes this particular government of Indian National Congress (INC) outstandingly atrocious and downright sinful is that they betrayed the collective hope of a depressed billion, and there’s just one thing worse than betraying hope, having hopes from someone who’s gonna betray them.

Touted as a rising power, with even the odd designation of a future superpower loosely thrown around, the country is plagued with weak leaders and near zero decision making today. The booming economy has disappeared, the currency has tanked, Chinese troops have found Indian Kashmir to be their latest holiday home, and governance is at an all time low. Arguably the only good thing to have come out of the country in the last decade is the rise and rise of Narendra Modi, thrice elected Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, and almost certainly the Prime Ministerial candidate of the main opposition party-BJP- in the next election.

Mr. Modi is a man of extremes, and he most certainly evokes the most extreme reactions from his supporters and detractors alike. Hailed as the messiah of Hindus, he has been vilified for having masterminded the infamous Gujarat riots of 2002, when, in reality, he has been cleared of each and every iota of suspicion by even the apex court in the country. If statistics are anything to go by, Modi’s state is the richest, arguably the fastest growing, and definitely the best governed in the entire country. Personal female acquaintances boast of how they can roam the streets of the state capital Ahmedabad, alone at midnight, without having to watch over their shoulder, surely a seething contrast from the national capital New Delhi, which is governed at the state as well as the union level by the intellectually and morally bankrupt coterie of Indian politics, which is the INC.

The detractors of Modi have been crying their throats hoarse over how he is going to be ‘India’s Hitler’ and how another Holocaust, this time for Muslims, awaits the world. Aside from the fact that all this is utter rubbish, with even the VP of India’s most respected Islamic body having hailed Modi for his efforts at bettering minorities (of course, he was fired for such blasphemy), a threadbare analysis of such anti-Modi noises reveals an underlying pattern which hints at a reason completely different from any genuine concern for minorities- it is that some Indians are afraid of a strong leader. Conditioned to be colonized- first by the Muslims and later by the British- a small chunk of Indians quake in their boots at the mere mention of this complete misfit of a typical Indian politician, who believes in taking the reins of the country in his own hands and driving it forward like a responsible and dedicated charioteer. For the first time in history, we have a leader who publicly proclaims that he sees these billion and a quarter people as Indians, and not as Hindus, Muslims, rich, poor, forward caste and backward caste. This is what irks and terrifies his opponents, for they fear that the brazen divide and rule politics of INC, as well as other political parties, might just come to an end forever.

Intellectuals such as Amaratya Sen lead the anti-Modi brigade and claim that his rightist agenda is damaging for the nation, and urge continuation of INC’s leftist, subsidy laced policies. What they conveniently forget in the name of Modi baiting is that it is these very policies, followed by successive INC governments since 1947, that have left India a laggard nation with 26% people below Indian poverty line (which mind you is well below WB’s line of $1.25/day). Sen claims that Modi is going to devour the minorities, what he forgets is that the INC, which has ruled India for nearly 55 years since independence, has created and managed the communal fissures to serve its interests.

India needs a strong leader. One who is capable of making tough decisions keeping the well being of Indians in mind. For the first time in independent history, we have a leader who has the gall and the will to do just that. I wish the collective conscience of this once great nation arises and does not let this one last chance at redemption slip.