Thursday, July 26, 2012

When Solutions Become Problems

For some time now there has been talk about how indoor air pollution kills more people than anything else in the world, and how this is prevalent in rural India. A lot of it has been attributed to cookstoves, and while it is true that they are a major cause, the solutions that have been bandied about for some time now are all in the same direction. Let us improve the cookstoves is the unanimous voice that resonates across the world. But there seems to be more to it than this. A recent paper by Esther Duflo, Rema Hanna and Michael Greenstone has been doing rounds for a while now. For those who have seen the program upfront as well as others who are familiar with it, the paper seems to have confirmed the worst - the problem of women's health in rural areas has not been mitigated in any way. The paper goes on to highlight how the distribution of cookstoves has been an abysmal failure because people stop using them within a year.

Why is it so? The question does not have a difficult answer. Sunita Narain had adequately found the reasons three years ago.A survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research found, in many cases, the stoves were not appropriately designed or had broken with use; over 62 per cent of the respondents said they did not know who to contact for repairs. Technology deployment in poor and unserviced households is a job the market does badly. 

So what is the solution? The solution is not a simple one. What is needed to understand is that there is no single silver bullet. You need multiple bullets. You need to understand that one size does not fit all. You need to design products that pay attention to market needs. You need to realize how different fuels have to be addressed by it. You also need to understand how people behave. Most importantly however is the need to give up this high handed manner in which 'developmentalists' (as I call them) think of when it comes to understanding how solutions are to be developed, and refuse to hear what is needed the most - a patient ear.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Mess of Basic Infrastructure

Seeing the amount of hot air over the various issues of chalta hai attitude that afflict this country, I wonder why people think this is appalling. Anyone who has travelled across the country would tell you horror stories of the terrible infrastructure (or mostly lack of it) in this country across a range of public services that would otherwise be considered a public right in developed nations (I do not count the United States in this). Lack of beds in hospitals, horrifying mental asylums. incessantly long queues at hospitals, strips of roads in potholes (and not the other way round), open manholes and deep flowing drains. no remediation of the annual breakouts of dengue, malaria and chikungunya across the country during monsoons - you name the problem, you find its evidence in abundance across the country. Nobody however seems to be trying to diagnose the disease.

This country has a law that can declare strikes of people working in 'essential services' illegal. There are also layers and layers of legislation on how hospitals are to be run, how disabled people are to be treated, and we have a lot of precedents in the civil law domain (also known as the law of commons) that can be invoked anytime to declare the lack of facilities as contempt of court, since it seems now that the only thing that people in our country is scared of seems to be the upper echelons of judiciary. However the real reason we do not do anything is because our political interests do not seem to get served. Votes it seems will not be gotten by getting the bijli sadak pani (electricity road and water) issues being solved; they can only be won by shrill warmongering and finger wagging. Talking to the people on the road reflects a sense of absolute despair in the elected representatives who are still believed to have the power to bring about the change that they seek.

It is time we changed the political conversation of our country, right from the grassroots level, especially in the urban areas. Howsoever much we may blame corruption, the problem is that we the people have refused to determine the agenda of our people, and have let a few men drive the debate in this country while the others stand absolutely baffled by the turn of events that they are witness to every day. Let us force our politicians to spell out what their vision for this country is for the next ten years. Only if we force them to do so will we make them think of our problems and understand that the people are not going to be fooled anymore by the shenanigans that some people think can continue to fool the common man. One should not forget this memorable statement:

You can fool some people all the time, you can fool all the people sometimes, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

The Economic Slowdown Needs Immediate Address

The Buck Stops With the Duo (Courtesy: Bloombergquint) The fracas in Maharashtra notwithstanding, things are at a critical juncture ...