Saturday, November 29, 2008

Faith at the Stock Exchange : The Dharma Index

Although only close to two percent of Indians invest in stocks the sensex occupies awesome media and public space. It ups and downs are reported across the length and breadth of the country and over numerous television channels and news papers. It is as if the sensex does not merely mirror the economic health of the nation but its numerous intangible complexities too.

If mathematical tools are indeed so useful that they can calculate just about anything, then they can perhaps measure something as nebulous as morality and righteousness? Well it appears that they can and sometime earlier this year, a tool appeared under the auspices of the venerable financial news powerhouse Dow Jones & Company. The company has launched new “dharma indexes” to track the stocks of companies that observe the values of dharma-based religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

The principle of dharma contains precepts relevant to good conduct, but also the implicit requirement of mindfulness about the sources of wealth — and therefore responsible investing,” says Nitesg Gor, the CEO OF Dharma Investments, a private equity firm that is partnering Dow Jones in rolling out the index. Shorn of CEO speak, it really means that Dow Jones is now capable of measuring a company’s ethics and moral conduct and will accordingly enable it to advise its clients to invest in companies that uphold high ethical and moral standards. Implicit of course is the assumption that ethical business practices translate in to good business returns in the long run; if not in the short run. Remember that neither Dow Jones, nor Dharma Investments nor their clients are into philanthropy!

The Dharma index is no joke. Review committees of religious leaders and scholars will screen companies’ environmental policies, corporate governance, labour relations and human rights, among other measure. By upholding the premise of dharma, companies will demonstrate conscientious practices about the groundwork of wealth and in turn support equally conscious investing.

While Shariah based indices and investment practices have been around for a while, largely stemming out of roots in the Islamic banking, they are somewhat easier to implement, since Islamic law is codified and therefore relatively black and white in its interpretation. But codifying and then tracking righteousness and the concept of ethical duty in a dry, mechanical way and making business decisions would be an interesting path to follow.

May be one day some one will replicate and customize this tool for nations to use and mirror themselves against a code. Rating agencies like Standard and Poor would then regulate Indian notions like rajdharma and raajneeti and Ram Rajya and then rate them from time to time with regular reviews and assessments. In a world and time that measures the GNP and GDP and of late, the human development index; this would be a fascinating development in a very materialistic world.
The closest tool there is today that resembles any thing like the Dharma Index, is Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, which acknowledges that it takes a lot more than wealth to create and generate happiness and has been measuring the happiness of its people for years even though it has never become really popular.

As a parting shot, if India, the nation that is – and not just the entity often called India inc. were to be assessed on the Dharma index, where would it find a place ? On the higher echelons or the lower? Furthermore, every day here we find news that the Sensex is plummeting new depths. Would it be true of the state of Dharma in the country too, were the Dharma index to track it?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Leprosy : The shadow lingers

One of the hallmarks of a developing and progressive society is the degree to which it is inclusive – inclusive of minorities, marginalized and other vulnerable sections of society who may normally not expect to find a place under the sun. Such a place of equality is what the Indian constitution guarantees in Article 14(equality) and Article 15(no discrimination)

It is this provision that one takes shelter under to fight for one’s rights; whether it be gay activists, or those who are fighting discrimination against one’s HIV status. And yet, in the gargantuan labyrinths of the Indian states, discrimination is in built in to our laws itself; effectively legitimizing them.

Usually it is assumed that the law is ahead of times when it comes to social legislation for it is understood that while society has many obscurantist and divisive influences, law makers at least in theory are above such influences and will enact laws that are progressive and inclusive. That was how laws that made Sati illegal or raised the age of marriage got into the statute books ; not because society as such was ready for them but because legislators of the time thought beyond their times and into an equitable future.

So what is one to make of the recent Supreme Court ruling that those leprosy patients cannot contest a civic election or hold municipal office in Orissa state? The case was brought to court by two men who were elected to a civic body in Orissa in 2003, but were later disqualified as they had leprosy. The Orissa Municipal Act of 1950 bars people suffering from tuberculosis or leprosy from holding such posts. “The legislature in its wisdom has thought it fit to retain such provisions in the statute in order to eliminate the danger of the disease being transmitted to other people from the person affected,” Supreme Court judges CK Thakker and DK Jain said in their ruling,

In the colonial era, the central government passed the Lepers Act of 1898, which provided legal provision for forcible confinement of leprosy sufferers in India. A hundred and more years have passed by ; politically India is an independent state, has become a signatory to the UN resolution which says discrimination against leprosy patients must be ended. Medically, leprosy is detected early and thanks to a multi drug regime, cured early too. And yet a few years short of the second decade of the 21st century, piles of archaic legislation keep those who happened to have contracted leprosy at some point on the margins of society.

The Life Insurance Corporation Act of 1956, which specifies a higher premium to the leprosy-affected, is one such law. The Special Marriage Act, Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act 1939, The Hindu Marriage Act, 1956 or the India Divorce Act, 1869, all have provisions for divorce on the grounds of a partner suffering from incurable and virulent leprosy. Similarly, the Juvenile Justice Care and Protection Act 2000 says a child found to be affected by leprosy should be dealt with separately.

A leprosy patient cannot stand for local body or panchayat elections in states like Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.This prohibition extends to tuberculosis patients in Orissa’s Panchayati Raj Act. Further, if a member of local office contracts tuberculosis or leprosy during his/her tenure he/she may be declared ineligible for the job. While there are heaps of organizations fighting for the rights of those who are HIV positive, and there is pressure to constantly enact laws that are sensitive to some one who is HIV positive. There is a ringing silence when it comes to the rights of those who are being victimized for having once contracted a disease that is now completely curable.

Mahatma Gandhi, in his life time had made tending to leprosy patients and bandaging to their wounds as a personal initiative in his mission to create a society that was inclusive. Sixty years after his death, the work of fighting stigma and discrimination in alls spheres of course continues; but more pertinently in leprosy; the battle is even against an insensitive State and the laws it has kept on the books; not only sanctioning discrimination; but actually making it legal. And that feels worse !

Friday, November 7, 2008

"Uncle Sam" ki Jai

One of the things that should be appreciated about the American system of democracy is the manner in which they are able to things to a closure. During the election campaign, they campaigned viciously and arguably as shabbily as one could with no holds barred. But within hours of the results being announced, McCain had made a very graceful speech conceding defeat and pledging full support to the man who would now be “ my president”. No further bitching or griping or whining but a simple acceptance that he and his campaign had done their best to win but that best wasn’t good enough; and now it was time to put all that behind and get back to normal living. The victorious candidate was just as magnanimous in victory – no gloating and abuse and no vindictiveness ; once in office. Of course all of this is as much a matter of the nature of the personalities involved as much of the electoral system and conventions that have evolved over two centuries of democratic evolution.

It can be argued that if the United States took that long to evolve its conventions, that much of time should surely be allowed to India too to get where the American system has got and there may be some logic in that argument too. But it would be nicer if countries did not to choose to reinvent the wheel and crystallized some conventions on the fast track. After every election in India, there is so much of bickering, grumbling and vendetta that could be avoided. Reviews reversals of the previous regime’s policies, usually for petty reasons , some times after crores of Rupees have been spent are hardly a good use of the tax payer’s money !

Political parties in India seem to have so much of venom reserved for each other ; that one wonders at the depravity of it all….. There is Mamata Banerjee throwing a spanner at West Bengal’s industrialization ; not because she cares a damn for farmers or agriculture( if the Trinamool Congress has got any policy document on agriculture or land use, it has still to be seen !) but because if industrialization had picked up , it would have meant that that Left Front government would have notched up some successes. Or look at the politics of the Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena, trying to occupy the space vacated by Bal Thackeray, who has now more or less fully retired and trying to ensure that cousin Uddhav doesn’t get to succeed. Or the abominable incident that happened the other day – if you don’t like your opponent or ideological opposite - , just spit on his face and humiliate him as strongly and as badly as you can.

The one thing to learn from the American election campaigns perhaps is the whole idea of “closure”. There may be a time in the heat and the dust of the campaign trail, when on the odd occasion, there is a hit below the belt. But the bulk of the campaign is fought around the articulation of issues – the well conducted debates, the knowledge and the erudition of the candidates, the background and the credibility of their aides and advisors. Witness the outrage for instance at the fact of Sarah Palin’s ignorance of the fact that Africa is a continent and not a country ! Who cares what politicians here know or don’t know !

But coming back to closure, when the last ballot has been cast and the results are out , the once bitter rivals were able to put rivalry behind themselves, agree that differences still remain and will remain, but come to remember that the nation is bigger than all of them and pledge to work together, putting minimal hurdles in governance. We fall a bit short there. For even as we revv up our lungs to yell full throated “ Bharat Mata ki Jai”, we are busy gathering up our bricks… for the next round of bickering and brick batting. There is a time to break down .. and we know that well, but there is also a time to build up… and we haven’t quite got there yet…..

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Red : The other color of terror

The news that the convoy of Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the West Bengal chief minister escaped being mined and that naxalites are the ones being accused, will draw attention to Left wing terrorism once again. Although left wing terrorism and insurgency affects large pieces of the country, it has never had the kind of visibility that it needs to have, mostly because their terror is wielded largely in rural India where television cameras don’t whir.

This violence of course shows the level of fragmentation in the leftist movement within india over the decades and the “establishment” left – those who get to speak in parliament or the state assembly and become ministers and the others. The establishment leftists ride those white ambassadors, go to television studios and give press conferences and in states like West Bengal and Kerala, run industrial establishments that can give any traditional capitalist a run for their money.

The contradictions that are becoming evident between the ultra left and the left (ironically there was a time when the CPI (M) itself was considered ultra left!) will add another twist to the convoluted history of the communist movement of India. The Communist Party in India was founded in Kanpur on December 25, 1925 in the midst of an anti-colonial struggle which attempted changed India’s political landscape in a fundamental way. It placed on the agenda the creation of a state power of workers and peasants by workers and peasants to end all forms of oppression and exploitation.

The policies of the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Part of India (Maoist) and most other fragments of the communist movement that began 80 years ago is today a far cry from the revolutionary rhetoric posted in their web sites. The largest communist groups today are fine tuning their political positions to come to power just like any other bourgeoisie party that they supposedly have contempt for. The many fragments of the underground communists – supposedly allied to Maoist ideologies of various shades have only one thing in common – their penchant for violence.

Left wing violence( not calling it terrorism) is probably the oldest form of organized ideology terrorism that exists in India with its roots in the pre independence and immediate post independence era when BT Ranadive had launched an armed struggle in Telengana in the period around 1948-50. This was subsequently called off and Ranadive accused of “adventurism” but subsequently rehabilitated.

The next major bout of violence is now the subject of folklore and inserted the word”Naxalite” in the Indian political lexicon. It also was the first instance when insurgency and terror was successfully tackled by equally tough counter insurgency measures and state repression. State repression thought not new by this time – (it was always in use in the troubled North East), had matured enough.

Yet Naxalites were never completely wiped out, not quite. The Naxalite terror now extends to a dozen States, affecting 509 police stations. For the first time naxal activity has been recorded in two police stations in Haryana. The menace has spread to nearly 40 per cent of the country’s geographical area with the affected population going up to 35 per cent. Areas in many States, which looked too obscure to fall for naxal influence, are today witnessing naxal activity.

Although the cousins of the Naxalites in Nepal, the Maoists have been won over to the ballot, the Indian Maoists have so far resisted this – partly because they see the example of the main line communists which did join parliamentary politics and what they see of left front politics is not too inspiring or different from the bourgeoisie parties which they had sought to uproot.

Further more the government’s own response of treating this only as a law and order problem hasn’t helped very much, as it only made the Naxalites dig in their heels deeper and go further underground. One does not know where the left wing insurgents would be placed in the spectrum between cultural nationalists and plain terrorists given that this classification is religion based and the Naxalites are of course atheistic in their ideology. However, whatever it may be, given that this has been around much longer than most other forms of terror and insurgency, it wont get lost in the current melee where we seem to have time for only right wing terrorism and nothing else.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

I the Nationalist ; You the Terrorist

The Bharatiya Janata Party president has condemned the hype around the Sadhvi Pragya Singh saying that some one like her was a “cultural nationalist “and not a terrorist. There it seems is a difference and I am trying to break the code. It is a bit convoluted really ….. If you are my kind of person and you kill or maim the kind of people I dislike, then you are a buddy and you are a flag waving nationalist. But if you look different kind of name and look different or worse – dress different and speak a different kind of language, then you are my mortal enemy.

This kind of labeling can get very confusing, for before using the right wording and vocabulary is important before I can place any one. Not only that, once done, people need to constantly be aware of what ideology, people are currently professing and adjust the label accordingly to avoid becoming out of date. To quote just an instance, “nationalists” of yester year like Chagan Bhujbal or Narayan Rane or Shankar Singh Waghela are today not to be mistaken for being one but rather are pseudo secularists today. These changes happen so frequently that one can not always keep track unless one makes the effort. And using the right term could be every thing – terrorists after all deserve death by hanging, and cultural nationalists in all probability an amnesty, immunity from arrest and possibly some award of recognition.

One of the difficulties of electoral politics and democracy even is the divisiveness that the whole exercise brings. And as the elections approach closer, more the name calling and the polarization between religions, states, communities and languages. These then become symbolized based through these nomenclatures and semantics. And so it goes on, though the scars will linger long after the original provocation has come and gone.

And what to make of those who are not even nationalists – those who espouse a base kind of sub nationalism that looks base but obviously has a mass base of a kind that was waiting to be exploited. What would you call the ones lynching their own people because they speak a different language and celebrate a different festival? We protested when a couple of years ago, those who spoke Bengali were indiscriminately chased out and deported without as much a by your leave – particularly Bengalis who were of Muslim – and except for the left front government in West Bengal, the rest of the nation looked on askance. A generation ago it was the South Indians who were similarly the victims.

Although L.K. Advani, the Prime Ministerial aspirant has today said that it is not the role of the police to look at the pedigree of an accused, he could be just acting have is part as the leader of the opposition and elder statesman. Others certainly aren’t so circumspect and the Hindu Maha Sabha and the Shiv Sena have rallied around the cultural nationalist and it is not very different from the various Jammats coming together in the name of Muslim solidarity. While the posturing of both groups of people is unfortunate, it is at least possible to understand the ghetto like thinking of the minority muslim community. But it would appear now that the majority community – not withstanding their huge numbers are just as insecure and juvenile in their responses in classifying different classes of citizens differently.