03 October, 2014

AMERICA AND THE END OF THE SCRIPT OF SLAVERY: 150 YEARS LATER



A hundred and fifty years ago, under the auspices of Abraham Lincoln, the American government abolished slavery.

According to jyotish (this is not your average Sun Sign/newspaper horoscope, people!) astrology, a hundred and fifty years ago, Saturn was exalted in Libra. Rahu, the force of sudden and revolutionary change, was sitting next to Saturn. Saturn is a signifier for government. Rahu is the force that sneaks upwards into the echelons of privilege to disrupt and change the established order.

From November 11, 2011 to November 2, 2014, Saturn is again exalted in Libra. And as 150 years ago, Rahu is next to Saturn from January 2013 to July 12, 2014.

What happened in these months is well known. The Snowden revelations came to light, showing the American government was engaged in mass surveillance of virtually the entire world. The sense of impunity that they were entitled to spy over, and look at people’s private lives, closely approximates what happens in a system of slavery. In the slave-owning world, the master has full rights to the life of the slave. There is no concept of privacy, because the slave belongs to the owner. The US government’s reaction—bafflement and incredulity that people should protest these intrusions—is perhaps a hint to how the script of slavery remains deeply engrained in the psyche of the American elites.

In much the same way, the American government also continued to torture people in Guantanamo and hundreds of “Black Sites” around the world. As with the surveillance, the sense of entitlement (the “right to torture”) is a throwback of slavery—slave-owners had a right to torture their slaves. The Americans, in other words, are merely repeating a cultural script with which they are familiar, and which continues to be repeated over and over, in different formations and manifestations.

Will the changes wrought in these 18 months shift this script and end it for ever?

It is clear that capital is the way in which American elites continue to practice bondage: people’s labor, time, land, resources, and private lives are all commodities to be controlled. The dollar has reigned supreme for almost a century—tied to the sale of oil, and to the transactions of foreign trade as reserve currency, it has been virtually unchallenged. About a decade ago,  the Federal Reserve of America, emboldened by this seemingly permanent state of affairs, started to print 85 billion dollars per month to buoy up the American economy. Nobody was looking. Nobody said: this is untenable. It didn’t appear untenable. The countries of the world were ready to buy the Greenback, at whatever price.

The military-industrial complex, flush with success, went on a trillion dollar spending binge. War after war followed-Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria. It looked like a never-ending story of military might and conquest.

The only small flaw in the above story of America’s endless rush towards the future comes from a brake provided by nature. And that is the finite nature of natural resources. Mainly, oil. As oil starts to run out and wind down, the American economy, deeply tied to the lifeblood of that black gold, now has to look elsewhere to continue its vampiristic search for new blood.

The slavery of South Asians in the oil economies of the Gulf, and the money collected from their labor, has gone to engorge and fatten up “Sovereign Wealth Funds”. The Europeans are more than happy to steer this blood money in their real estate and “trophy assets” that rich sheiks are buying up in London and Paris. But like the American economy, this investment in brick and mortar (at the expense of human beings) has its own tragic short-sighted flaw. Europe is sinking economically—not because its not profiting off slavery still (it is) but precisely because of this above mentioned reasons. Life has become easy in Europe—raw materials are sourced with great ease from war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East, and wine and cheese is cheap. Why work when interest of money put in the banks, and the benefits of slavery, are paying for all of your costs?

Debt bondage and contemporary slavery is not limited to Nepalese, Indians and Bangladeshis entrapped in the Middle East, working for employers for decades for no pay. It is also prevalent in America where the mortgage system, and government approved Pyramid Schemes like the subprime loans, legally entrap giant number of citizens of their homes and livelihoods.

What the past eighteen months has brought us is this:
  1. Germany asks for its gold back from the USA: The mythical Fort Knox, a powerful force on people’s imaginations, was under scrutiny. Nobody knew if its fabled reserve of gold still lay in the vaults. Germany decided to ask for its deposits back. Whether it will get it is moot. What is clear is that the Europeans sent a very clear message that the American system of deposit was no longer reliable, or trustworthy.
  2. The Russians pull out 500 billion in US treasuries in March: and as with Germany, the Russians sent a message to the world, in effect saying their trust in the American economy is no longer there
  3. The Chinese, who owned 2 trillion dollars of American debt, suddenly showed much less. About one trillion of this vanished—poof!—without a trace. What happened? Commentators tend to think there were dealings which quietly disposed of this debt in different forms and manifestations. In other words, American debt, which at one point was seen to have future value, no longer does.
  4. The Russians and Chinese are now trading in their own currencies. This is the start of the end of the dollar as reserve currency. Once the dollar is no longer the currency of choice in international trade, the bloated American economy is going to slim down to a more normal size

Back to the timing of astrology: on November 2, 2014, President Obama’s Saturn enters his eighth house. It will stay there for two and a half years. This is known as the astamashani period. The astamashani is one of the darkest periods in Saturn’s rotation around the twelve houses. I tend to think this is the moment when the overheated (and illusory) stocks of Wall Street will collapse, bringing about a readjustment in global finance. And it will definitely be the moment when the torture report comes out. It will also be the moment when all the deep, hidden secrets of the US government come to light, including all of its technological developments geared towards  mass torture and control. Interestingly, many top people working in US agencies that have suddenly come to light—NSA, DARPA, et cetera—are going through something called sade-sati. The sade-sati is when Saturn grinds through seven and a half years of its course of law and justice in a person’s life-cycle. If you’ve been making merry torturing people for the last thirty years, it is now time to pay.

As the world moves towards new forms of energy (the planting of bio-fuels are already causing great distress in Central America, where the US has moved to next to grab land and resources, and from where 80,000 children flee to the US every year), new forms of slavery will manifest. So to imagine that slavery will end from these 18th months of upheavals is optimistic.

What these 18 months did, however, is show the way. Just as 150 years ago, the people in the Northern part of America had to come together in a coalition and agree to fight for the abolition for slavery, the consensus of different countries fighting the economic injustices of the US had to coalesce to a point where everyone is working in co-ordination—even if they were working alone. And that’s precisely what seems to have happened.

It appears to me that increasing number of investors aren’t pulling out their money from the dollar economy because of any advisory BRICS  put out, but because of their own native intelligence: “Lets pull money out from Wall Street and put it in the local stock exchange, because something tells me  our Stock Exchange is going to flourish in the next thirty years.” Perhaps the material gains wouldn’t be as high (but on the other hand, they could be better), but investors seem not to care. It was not the material gains, but the many other forms of capital, and the long-terms gains that would accrue and flourish if they invested in their own country.

This is the zeitgeist. And the changes wrought in these 18 months cannot be undone. The clock has moved on--there cannot be any turning back of the dial. What will emerge are new systems of material exchange, new methods of currency and capital, and new relationships of power. With each of the changes that happened above, a seismic shift has taken place in the world economy, which in its own small way will help to end the systems of contemporary slavery.








17 September, 2014

Why independent Scotland brings forth a new economic order



The prophet of the New York Times, Paul Krugman, has told the Scots that if they secede, they should be: “Afraid. Be very afraid.”

Now that’s the kind of economic advice I like to hear. “Boo!, said Mr. Krugman to the defiant Scots. “If you don’t listen to me, the Loch Ness Monster will come get you.” It adds color to this whole thing. Plus Krugman is getting far too boring, lecturing to everyone in obscure Economese and making them thinking that American economy is more complicated than it actually is. In fact, there’s little mystery to the American economic model of monetary growth—print money, print more money. And print more money. Just keep on printing. Right around November 3rd, America’s going to hit hyper-inflation and the dollar’s going to collapse, but  Mr. Krugman doesn’t know this yet.

Now the reason why independent Scotland is going to be such a good thing for the whole world is this—England has been following the path of privatization and globalization, as led by the Americans, for a few decades too long. And with  this model has come a whole host of problems, including slavery in the Middle East, from where oil is extracted by big British companies who turn a blind eye to the activities of Gulf business practices; the complete collapse of local economies within Europe, including garments, shoes and other essential items which are now made in free economic processing zones in Asian countries where women are locked up under tin roofs for 100 hours, seven days a week, with no access to the bathrooms; obscure and unaccountable financial transactions and companies that posture as real banks and get huge amounts of people into untenable debt, as seen in the United States’s mortgage scandal; medical institutions whose main aim is profit, not healing; and a whole host of other social, environmental and ethical problems.

Scotland being free won’t automatically solve all these problems. But it does send a message outwards that the British Isles and its fabulous financial record is not all its hyped up to be. London’s eager wooing of the sheikhs and their Sovereign Wealth Funds may make it rich, but its not going to give them the moral cache to keep the Scots in the same house.

I woke up last night and was scratching my head for a bit, wondering why Scotland had fired up my imagination. And then I got it. In 2012, I visited Oxford University, where I presented a paper at a conference. England, in my imagination, is still the England of 50 years ago, as remembered by my parents-gracious people with good manners, expensive high quality manufactured goods, beautiful fabrics and tailored coats. But alas! All the supermarkets were filled to the hilt with the same cheap crap as everywhere. The prices were high, but the products were the same. I looked in vain for something local to buy-it was a lost cause. The British apparently no longer make any clothes themselves.

And then I saw this long store that looked sort of bare, and had one green woolen sweater in the window. It was woven in the Scottish tartan pattern. I think somewhere in there it said simply: Scotland.

I stared. Every item in there was green, wool and tartan. I loved it. It was a defiant statement of some sort—economic, political. A flag being hosted up a flagpole, with bagpipes playing, would have gotten the same attention. I wanted that sweater. I immediately went in and had to confirm for myself the wool was from sheep raised in Scotland. It was local! Never mind I was a poor Nepali tourist. I was willing to pay however much they were charging, because for the first time it felt like I’d seen something local, that hinted at mountains and sheep and real wool and an industry tied to the land. This was what I’d come to see! Not floor after floor of crappy Gangzhou coats.

Talking of English coats, I have a funny story.  When I was small, my father used to own beautiful coats made in London—they were distinctive, and they were quality. I even wore one of these coats from London, a blue wool coat cut exquisitely. It belonged to my mother, and fitted me perfectly at age 12. The joke about the blue wool coat was that it looked so good I even got access to a special puja at Bishwanath Mandir in Benaras one evening, when I shouldn’t really have. The temple was packed to bursting that evening, where a rich seth who was holding a puja. The pujari/priest kept on shooing away everyone angrily, including my mother. But he saw me—actually he saw the blue Oxford Street wool coat I was wearing—gave me an ingratiating smile, and let me to the front, under the delusion I was related to the seth. My mother winked at me, so I stayed there. Then somewhere in the middle of the ceremony the priest saw me looking at my mother, and realized I was a little scamster in my blue coat—and shooed me away angrily. My mother and I walked home that night laughing all the way about the stupid priest.

Unfortunately those coats no longer exist. I look back now at all the brocades and fancy fabric I gave away over the years—fabric that would have lasted, but which I causually thought I could replace. The problem now is that over the last decade, all countries in the world sell the same crappy clothing—even if people have money, you can’t buy items of good quality. The classic example is of jeans. I always thought I couldn’t get good jeans in Nepal—the blue Mao fabrics that were posturing as jeans annoyed me. Let me get to America and I will buy a real pair of jeans, I thought. So this summer, when I visited the USA, I made a special effort to set aside a few days to find some real jeans. Imagine when I realized, to my horror, that there is no “real jeans” in the USA anymore. As in Nepal, the jeans there, branded ones, are made of flimsy and disposable cotton.

Welcome to the neo-liberal, globalized world. But perhaps Scotland will lead to a change towards a localized economy, which signals a more responsible economic world order.














13 September, 2014

Scotland and the Saturn-Rahu moment: A Jyotish astrological analysis of Scotland's call for independence

Everybody’s flipping out because Scotland wants to leave the British Union. Most notably, the Spanish. The Spanish Prime Minister warned Scotland and said that entry to the European Union would not be automatic if it seceded. Clearly he was thinking of the independence movements in his own country, including the Catalans and the Basque and the effects Scotland’s independence would have on them.

Astrologically, though, he has nothing to fear. As anybody with some tiny familiarity with astrology knows, it is all in the timing.

Scotland is not doing anything radical—it is simply asking to take itself out from a union which is no longer in its favor. In terms of the way people want to live their lives, the new economic changes of Britain is not serving the Scots. And they want to see what a country ruled by themselves would look like. The United Kingdom has traditionally been an empire from which bits and pieces have floated off over the past century. India asked for independence. So did many countries in Africa. Scotland is the last remaining bit of that empire.

As to all those arguments saying Scotland will be small, poor, detached from the British economy’s great gains, and other such anxious arguments: small countries do exist, and they have thrived in many cases, especially in Europe. Being small doesn’t automatically mean becoming poorer. In fact, the smallness could be an advantage, if used properly. The Nordic countries being prime examples of small countries which have done exceptionally well for themselves. Scotland of course also has the oil, and the mountains (tourism is a big money spinner.) Not to mention the Loch Ness Monster.

Spain also had a history of decolonization—in Latin America, as well as regions in what is now the United States of America. But those colonization, and decolonization, movements go further back in history. For the regional movements in Spain asking for more autonomy and independence according to culture and language, there is not the same sense of being a part of an empire. Spain has always appeared to be a hodge-podge of regional cultures that jostle for more power and recognition. While the Catalans resent the Castilians for imposing their language, I’m not sure if they feel part of a colonial empire from which they have to secede.

Going back to astrology: from November 2011 to November 2014, Saturn reaches its highest exaltation point, which only happens once every twenty-nine and a half years. But this particular Saturn Exaltation period had something else going on: Rahu, the disruptive planet, was also in Libra with Saturn for a year and a half. And when that last happened, a 150 years ago, slavery ended in America. In other words, great ruptures and changes happen during this Saturn-Rahu period that don’t happen at other times.

The fact that the Spanish movements didn’t put forth their demands during this time means that while skirmishes will be ongoing, there won’t be a break in Spain between different  states. Whereas the call for Scottish independence, which came out of nowhere and took everyone by surprise, does classically occur during the Saturn/Rahu moment—when moments of great rupture occur.

The astrological good news for the British is that Prince William and Princess Kate gave birth to their son during the same time Saturn/Rahu period. Saturn represents authority, power, discipline. Rahu gives worldwide fame. The little baby prince has a loaded 10th house-Saturn and Rahu together shows discipline, hard work, power and authority in the house of profession, or karma. In much the same way as the separation of Scotland will impact the United Kingdom, the birth of this prince, during this time, will also pave the way for a monarch who is going to be greatly engaged in the public sphere, working for the nation. His reign will also impact the direction of the country for the next 150 years.

On a related note, the death of the nurse who took the phone-call from the Australian pranksters is very much a Saturn/Rahu phenomenon. Rahu sneaks upwards to reach to elite ranks of privilege to which it does not belong, and does this deceptively—the pranksters were, in other words, manifestations of Rahu. Rahu also signifies “foreigner” or the Other, which the nurse represented. Saturn, the sign of the established authority, came down heavily on Rahu—the white British nurses bullied the nurse so much for her mistake she committed suicide. As I’ve written before, the Saturn-Rahu combination is thought to bring about sudden death, especially suicide. This is the clash of planetary forces that make astrologers wary of Saturn-Rahu. The one positive outcome of this sobering suicide is that the young prince may focus his life’s work on balancing out the delicate question of how to rule the Rahuvian masses—the large mass of “foreign” immigrants that cover Britain—in a fair and equitable way (Exalted Saturn.) Because Saturn is exalted in Libra, the sign of equality (incidentally the rashi sign of many great leaders, Gandhi being an example), the question of how to “balance” the needs of Rahu (foreigners) with Saturn (the establishment) will probably occupy much of his life’s work. Following the path of his grandmother who was deeply engaged in social work, he may also be engaged in starting a charity that helps reduce suicide, for example.

Looking at Prince Williams and Princess Kate’s charts, I marvel at how similar they are—it is unusual to have charts that match each other so closely. Where did they find each other? So perhaps it is no coincidence that in astrological terms, they also gave birth to an heir at the perfect time.

Incidentally, while the calls for Scotland’s independence came during Saturn-Rahu, it is now a new moment: Rahu has shifted out of Libra and is now in Virgo.  Jupiter, however, has become exalted as well, so we are now in a moment when both Saturn and Jupiter, the planet of good fortune and wisdom, are exalted. This is surely an auspicious time, and for those fearing change, fear not—change sometimes is a catalyst for good fortune.






08 August, 2014

COMPLEMENTARY ALTERNATIVE MEDICINES AND HOW IT COULD CONTROL EBOLA




I was travelling in Jumla, a remote district in mid-western Nepal in 1992, when I became acutely aware of how scary diahorrea can be. I was all of 19 years old. I’d flown there on a rickety plane that landed in a small runway. The plethora of tea-shops that I was assured, by the non-governmental organization that had hired me and had sent me out, were in existence and would take care of my food and lodging never materialized. Instead, there were small homes selling a few items-perhaps a biscuit packet, some cigarettes or matches. Tea was still a luxury. 

After tramping around the villages for six weeks, and living off fox tailed barley bread sprinkled with salt and chilli, and recording stories of mysterious deaths on the side (“my sister was walking back home to her husband’s house and she fell down dead on the way”, “about seventeen people have died in that village that-a-way, we don’t know why”) my fellow guide suggested we try to climb up to Rara lake. “It will take only half a day,” he said. This sounded like an adventure and I agreed. 

Halfway up the mountains, however, two things became apparent to me: first, that I had severe diahorrea. I suspected it could be giardia. And second, our water had run out, and I was quite pleased and happy to sit down on the trail, look at the mushrooms, and not move. A pleasant drowsy haze fell over me. My guide took one look at me and realized the state of affairs: I could hear him crashing down the bear-infested jungle to get to the river to get me that precious bottle of water. After the bottle, and a few sugar candies (how little do people realize how precious those sugar candies are!), I was able to get up and walk again. Obviously, we didn’t make it to Rara Lake that time. 

Here’s a description in Wikipedia about the trek, written by  travel writer Ethan Gelber. Note we tried to do it in half a day:  
Although more trampled than in the past, the road to Rara Lake is still without any of the comfortable services available along more popular trails. Logistically it is not an easy trek; it is hard to get to and from, and it is an organizational challenge, requiring informed guides and porters to tote the two weeks' worth of material that will keep you warm, dry and fed. It is also tough on the bones, involving several 11,000-foot passes. However, once you overcome the obstacles, the rewards are legion: few if any other trekkers, incomparable natural splendor, "untouched" villages, blissful quiet.…[6]

Since that day, I often think about the people who don’t get the bottle of water, and who die from simple dehydration. Nepal often gets epidemics of choleras and diahorrea even now—ebola is obviously of great concern. If ebola makes it to Nepal, legions of people will die due to an apathetic government and unevenly run government health posts and beaureaucracies. 

Because of this experience, I’ve often had great interest in medication that can stop diahorrea. Anybody who’s tried the Western medication available on the markets may have experienced what I did—the sense of being “stuffed up,” and which disrupts digestion and well being for a few days. Undoubtedly the diahorrea does stop, but the sense of unease doesn’t. 

Recently, a herbal dealer from the same district Jumla sold me an herb called “bhotay khayyar.” It resembles a betelnut, and the man assured me he would pop a small bit into his mouth while he walked, and it had no adverse effects. More to the point, he said, this herb stops diahorrea and “blood in stools.” He titled this condition “Ragatmasi.” I didn’t know anybody who got ragatmasi, but since diahorrea was a common problem, I bought a handful from him. On a recent visit to Kapilvastu, when I again got diahorrea from eating the tempting but dangerous street food from a chat-wallah, I took a bit of the bhotay khayyar. Almost like the Western medication, it stopped the diahorrea-but gave me terrible gas and a feeling of being “stuffed up.”

On the other hand, a cleaning lady who came by complaining that she had blood in her stools for the past month, and uttered the word “ragatmasi,” seemed to fare better with it. I gave her three tiny samples, and instructed her to take one morning, afternoon and night. The next morning I asked her if she was feeling better. “Oh yes,” she said. “I took a tiny bit of that jadi you gave me. The blood stopped completely. In fact, I only took one piece, the rest is still with me. I feel so fine I ate a dozen bananas and a liter of yogurt. In fact, I think the bananas and yogurt cured me, not your herb. How can that tiny little thing act so fast?” 

In New York, in one of my forays into interesting ethnic neighborhoods, I came upon a Chinese supermarket. I bought, in this order: a bag of tea titled “Slimming Tea,” a plastic bottle of Siberian Ginseng, and a small bottle of Chinese medication marked with a small label that said it was useful in diahorrea. The “Slimming Tea” apparently did not have FDA approval, because what happened to me after drinking it was quite startling and unprecedented: it felt like my intestines were being wrung out, and I was sitting in the toilet for a full hour till everything was purged. In hindsight, I think it was an extremely strong purgative. Since I didn’t want to be size zero like the fashionable Chinese ladies, I happily threw this slimming tea into the trash. Then I tried the Siberian Ginseng. I had little interest in Ginseng but a lot of interest in Siberia—obviously Siberia sounds romatic when you’re living in New York City, so I bought it and popped a tablet. What followed was again quite startling—vivid nightmares and great aches and pains in the upper arms. I imagine now that I fell into “The White Man Trap”: the bottle was clearly designed for white folks who would be as enamored as I about the notion of Siberian ginseng, and take it without realizing how it could have dangerous side effects. The people from Siberia probably take it in their alchol, or make a medicine with 20 other herbs, with the ginseng being only a small compound. But of course in NYC, it was sold full strength and in a white man’s dose. I advice people not to take it in this form. 

But all these mistakes and travails of complementary alternative medicine was worth it, because  in the third bottle I hit the treasure. I regret today that I didn’t keep this small nodescript bottle, nor noted down the chinese characters on the label. The bottle was filled with small black balls, which you were supposed to take 3 (or was it 5?) balls at one point. I seem to remember that they were small enough they could be swallowed with saliva during emergencies when water was scarce. Each time I took it, my diahorrea and stomach pains stopped almost immediately, and I felt no bloating, gas or other pains. I would be back to eating a normal diet within 1 to 3 hours.

The point of this story being: there are already thousands of complementary alternative medication that stop diarrhea that have gone through 5000 years of “clinical trails” in ancient cultures. Why don’t we tap them for stopping the ebola crisis? I’m going to assume that bottle was a common enough off-the-counter medication that one can find in a supermarket in New York City. Of course, I told you the story of the Ginseng and the slimming tea to point to the hazards of picking up the wrong complementary medication. But I think its time now to think about effective medicines that already exist in the world’s pharmacopeia—and not just imagine that the experimental drugs are the only way to solve this crisis.

04 August, 2014

MODI’S NEPAL SPEECH, DECONSTRUCTED



I’m not sure if I caught all of Indian PM Modi’s speech to the Nepal Parliament, but the portion I did was  powerfully articulated, well thought out, and persuasive.  What came across most clearly was the PM’s interest in decreasing poverty not just in Nepal but all across the 7 SAARC nations.

I’d read a great deal about Modi—from Modi’s critics. One criticism was that his much vaunted results about decreasing poverty in Gujarat was hyped up. His poverty figures, said critics, were less than what the Modistas claimed the numbers were. After listening to his speech, it was clear to me that PM Modi has a clear anti-poverty agenda—not just for his own country, but also for the SAARC region as a whole. Whether he can show results is unproven. But clearly he’s putting a remarkable amount of energy and devotion to this project, traveling thousands of miles and meeting people of all persuasions in order to inspire them with this vision. And that, I think, is achievement enough, considering his predecessors.

The sincerity in his voice was unmistakable when he talked about tourism, for example, and how bringing pilgrims to Nepal to visit Pashupatinath would help everyone from the chana-seller to the ricksaw-pullers to the tea-sellers. The mention of the tea-sellers got a bit of a laugh from the Nepali parliamentarians, but it was a friendly, we-are-with-you laugh, the sort no doubt Modi will get all over the subcontinent, because I don’t think there’s anybody in South Asia who is not a tiny bit thrilled with his I-used-to-be-a-tea-seller and now I am a Prime Minister story. It’s a story that South Asians love (engrained in us by Bollywood)—the notion that anybody can, with hard work, pull himself up by his chappal straps to the highest position in his nation. If Modi, surprisingly, got some portion of the Muslim vote, this story probably had a big hand in it.

Modi started off by exhorting the Parliamentarians to do their job—basically, write the Constitution. There was a bit of the grandfatherly touch to his lecture—writing a Constitution is a great endeavor, he said, and you sit here with this great task before you. He then went on to commend the Parliamentarians, mentioned the world’s eyes were upon Nepal, and that this Constitution would show the way to all those warring parties who chose war over peace. The country of Gautam Buddha, he said, would show the way. All of this was very persuasive, I must say, even if had a tiny ring of an elder coaxing recalcitrant children who were refusing to do their homework.

Suitably wowed, the Parliamentarians then listened to Modi talk about herbal medicine. “When Laxman fainted, this is the place where Hanumanji came to get medicine for him,” he said. (I’d always wondered about where exactly Hanuman went, because I sure would like to go there and find that herb myself.) Mr. Modi then mentioned, with that same note of sincerity in his voice, that a project that developed Nepal into a herbal processing and developing nation would help “all of humanity”. This sort of broad, humanistic vision cropped up a couple of times in his speech, enough to make you think his vision extends beyond the usual narrow nationalistic one. I liked this humanistic approach. Helping all of humanity is an ideal that can get me out of bed, no matter how tough the outer conditions of life at any given time.

Modi then got onto water and electricity. This, of course, is a touchy subject with Nepalis. “If we build Pancheswor, this will generate five times more electricity for Nepal than it has at present,” he said. “Perhaps if Bharat helps Nepal to end its darkness now, then Nepal can help Bharat to end its darkness in a few years’ time.” So far, so good.

Then he got onto HIT. Yes, HIT. Highways, I-ways, and transways. Highways, as in roads, I-ways, to connect Nepal to the rest of the world, and transways, to transmit electricity. “We’d like to build transmission lines,” he said. Obviously, transmission lines are important, since without them electricity cannot be transported from one place to another. And this is also a big obstacle for why Nepal is not able to properly use its massive hydro potential. I hoped he meant the Sanskrit “heet”, as in “benefit”, and not “HIT”, as in “we’re gonna get you with this one.”

“We don’t want the electricity for free, of course,” he said. Or rather, joked.

Then he got on to the one billion dollars recently earnmarked for Nepal. “And this money is separate from the one given before,” he said, trying to act cool. “The one before—well, that’s separate.” The Nepalese did give an extra-energetic slap to their desks to this ghosana.

“I think that money is going to be spent by one or two politicians getting health care in Singapore or America,” an elder in my house grumbled, watching this portion on TV. No criticism of the Indians here, only of the Nepali politicians misusing public funds.

On the theme of double meanings, Modi—who so far had been swinging along with his speech, then turns to… Sikkim. Now as anybody knows, mention Sikkim in a room full of daura-suruwal wearing Nepalese, and you’re going to get one reaction—fight-or-flight. Modi approached it in this manner. “And on the theme of organic farming,” he said, “I’d encourage you all to get into it. The organic produce really brings in the dollars.” Everybody was on the organic farming boat. Then: “In our own country Bharat, the state of Sikkim has totally turned organic.” Then the (confusing) clincher. Then he says, rather sneakily and cleverly: “If you want to become like Sikkim, we can help you.”

Eer, Mr. Modi. Excuse us, but we don’t really want to become like Sikkim. Not even for all the organic farming in the world, thank you.

Modi did mention that he wanted Nepal to become even closer—and this is the sort of neighborly hug the Nepalese wonder about, wondering if it’s the camel in the tent. Modi mentioned the bridge over Mahakali would bring Nepal closer to India. This felt like a genuine expression of: “why are we so distant even if we are so close”, and a bridge over Mahakali surely sounds like a good idea, although perhaps the locals of the area would have to be consulted before anybody in Kathmandu gave the go-ahead on that one.

Modi did mention that Nepal was a sovereign nation, and he had no intention in meddling with its internal affairs. He just wanted us to be the best we could be. Which, somehow, also rang true.

All in all, the Nepalese should probably take Modi’s speech for what it was: the speech of a great orator with a great interest in social transformation, reduction of poverty, and neighborly connection, without necessarily forgetting their own interests and boundaries. A strong Nepal would continue to be a strength for India, primarily because Nepal and India have always been allies and always will be. As for the sharing of natural resources, it would have to be done judiciously and with equitable agreements, including into it many clauses for ecological preservation and conservation. Water is a finite resource, and it needs to be managed as a resource that could run out, if over-used or not stewarded with respect. And electricity, while greatly needed in order to lift people out of poverty, must be done with care so that its dams don’t destroy the ecological flow and balance upstream and downstream. It’s not something that couldn’t be done, with great thought and care. I hope for the sake of both countries something along those lines can be worked out. 

Sushma Joshi has a BA in international relations from Brown University. 


















25 July, 2014

BIG DRAGON, LITTLE DRAGON




When I heard that Japanese Prime Minister had gone to America with his prototype for the Maglev, the train that levitates on a magnetic field, and offered it royalty-free for the Americans to try out, I felt a tiny bit of incredulity. For such a smart people, it appears the Japanese are not to up to date with the American aversion, and outright hostility, to public transport.

 For a country like America that has depended upon the internal combustion engine and its gas guzzling propensity to rule the world, the Maglev brings the quiet hiss of revolution. And the ruling elites, unsurprisingly, will resist this at all costs. America’s influence around the world would wane if people started to use magnets to get around—forcing this gas-dependent giant to quickly reconsider priorities. The wars of the Middle East would cool down as oil became a fuel of the past century.  Much of America’s spending, now dedicated to a war machine of insatiable proportions, would shrink, and could finally be redirected to renovate its aging transport and other publicworks, education and food security.

The Maglev, of course, is hope for the rest of us who have never ruled the world. We comprise the majority of the world’s population, and we will eventually shape a future which is more sustainable and creates a cooler planet through safer technologies. People from poorer places have a greater stake and willingness to bring down their carbon footprints. Unlike America, the rest of the world has no aversion to public transport, if its done right and is offered at the right price.

Who can do this? China, of course. I have no doubt China’s interest has already been perked by this new technology—as has many others who don’t want to keep being dependent on petrol for mass transport. That includes almost every country in Asia, Africa and other parts of the world which doesn’t have a direct pipeline to oil. Even countries that do have reservoirs have ethical considerations about using it, considering massive climate change.

China has been thought to lack the R and D necessary to be a true leader of industrial and technological progress. But if we think of Asia as a sum of its parts, Asia already has two powerhouses—the R and D can come from Japan, the Litlle Dragon, and the industrial capacity to create vast publicworks can come from China, the Big Dragon. If they work together in tandem, there are no limits to the quick changes that can occur to change all the 20th century challenges we face, as a planet and as a race of human beings.

China and Japan are traditionally portrayed as being at odds with one another, due to old historical grievances. But the time has now come for this to change. A new century has arrived, and practical needs to provide ethically sustainable leadership dictates that these two countries put aside differences to think about ways to move forwards.

If Japan can get over its historical conflicts with China, and vice versa, and learn to work together in tandem, the two  can create technologies that shape a world which will not just be cooler, more sustainable and more friendly to the mass of global humanity, but may also reshape global foreign policy priorities, and ways of competing and winning.

The old notion of “Spheres of influence”, in which one Superpower dictates and shapes the foreign policy of countries and regions it may be geographically quite far from, must change in the changing realities of this new century. Our priorities now should be to think in environmental and sustainable ways, and in collaboration with old and new allies and enemies, to solve the 21 Century problems of global warming, climate change, water shortages, education, healthcare and poverty. There is no time to be wasted on wasteful wars, the outmoded forms of which continue as the elites of the previous century refuse to give up their priviledges.

A strong Asia created with the partnership of Japan and China could bring about poverty reduction in not just poorer parts of Asia, but also Africa and Eastern Europe. As the Northern Europeans try to ensure their wine-and-cheese lifestyle at all costs, it must be increasingly clear to people from poorer parts of Europe that there has to be a new mode of moving forward into this new century. Youth are out of work and the population is aging. Squabbles about the form of currency to use won’t solve these two issues.

Africa has also benefited tremendously from China’s approach—a low key engagement with business alliances, allowing for mutual gain. China has made it clear it is interested to create business partnerships and opportunities for regular people, and is not there just to exploit resources, as Europeans and Americans have done, in the old colonial (and post-colonial) style. Although there’s plenty of criticism from different parts of Africa about China’s growing presence in the continent, it is also clear that sharpest edge of poverty may have been reduced by China’s willingness to engage and do business. China’s approach reaches the poorest of the poor, while the Americans and Europeans often engaged only with elites, creating puppet regimes friendly to their own economic interests, thereby exacerbating poverty.

A strong China-Japan alliance, with Japan providing the R and D, and China providing the industrial backbone, could take our planet into the next century, with the next phase of mass transportation and personal transport, completely changing the old world order. It is urgent, more than ever, to encourage these kinds of alliances.

 The outmoded Western notions of “Great Powers,” “Spheres of Influence”, and other old school thinking has to now come to an end. The West’s primary mode of operation, ie; old school pillage and resource colonization, has led to rapacious exploitation of natural resources of poor countries, coupled with the seemingly benevolent but ultimately spurious fig leaf of foreign aid. This has only led to perpetual poverty for the planet. This way of thinking must now come to an end.

Sushma Joshi has a BA in international relations from Brown University. 
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