Good Countries, Bad Countries…

Growing xenophobia, islamophobia, racism and communalism do not sit well in an increasingly connected and globalised world – especially where challenges like climate change, air pollution, depleting fresh water resources, and disaster management require a transnational and multinational response. And any attempts to go it alone only end up dividing a nation, as the British have recently found out…

Simon Anholt is a British researcher and independent policy adviser, who believes that leaders across the world must be accountable not only for what they do within their national borders, but for the good or harm they do to the greater global community. To provide a quantifiable and comparable tool for the assessment of countries in the good/harm they do globally, he came up with the Good Country Index in 2014. This index concerns itself with the balance sheet of each of the 163 countries (for whom data are available) in terms of what it takes from others, and what its global contribution is, as reflected in these 7 essential indicators:

  1. SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, measured by the number of international students, journal exports, international publications, Nobel Prizes, patents
  2. CULTURE, measured by creative goods exports, creative services exports, UNESCO dues in arrears as percentage of contribution, freedom of movement, press freedom
  3. INTERNATIONAL PEACE AND SECURITY, measured by peace-keeping troops, dues in arrears to UN peace keeping budgets, international violent conflict, arms exports, internet security
  4. WORLD ORDER, measured by charity given, refugees hosted, refugees generated, birth rate, UN treaties signed
  5. PLANET AND CLIMATE, measured by ecological footprint, reforestation since 1992, hazardous pesticides exports, CO2 emissions, ozone
  6. PROSPERITY AND EQUALITY, measured by open trading, UN volunteers abroad, Fairtrade market size, FDI outflows, development assistance
  7. HEALTH AND WELLBEING, measured by food aid, pharmaceutical exports, voluntary excess donations to the WHO, humanitarian aid donations

Not surprisingly, the top 10 in the latest rankings are: Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, UK, Switzerland, Germany, Finland, France, Austria and Canada – the high resourced and low population countries, which have done all they can to ensure the best quality of life for their own people, and can now afford to look elsewhere and do some good at the global level.

However, if we take a detailed look at what the BRICS countries contribute to the greater good of humanity, per this index, we come across plenty of surprises:


Firstly, it’s a pleasant surprise that all BRICS countries are in the upper half of global Good Country rankings but that Brazil fares the best and Russia the worst, is rather surprising. Another encouraging fact is that BRICS as a whole is doing reasonably well in the health and well-being sector globally, even when their domestic health services are often downright abysmal and inequitable. But that’s the way the indicator is designed. For instance, Indian pharmaceutical companies have fought restrictive trade practices to reverse engineer several life-saving drugs, making them available cheaply for the worst affected areas, as in the case of HIV drugs in Africa.

That South Africa ranks as the number one contributor to international peace and security is indeed a matter of pride, and China, India and Brazil all do well in this regard. Russia is again the odd man out – but being the world’s second largest arms exporter, that is hardly surprising!

The fact that Brazil has at last got its environmental act together is a relief for the whole planet, but the world’s most polluted cities and reckless mining continue to give India, China and South Africa low rankings on this count.

Finally, the saddest performance of BRICS as a whole is in their failure to eradicate (or even reduce) poverty among their citizens, and narrow the growing divide between rich and poor – BRICS has among the highest Gini Coefficients of any group of countries. This makes them net consumers, rather than contributors of development aid and brings down their ranking (with Russia as an exception in this instance).

Globalisation is inescapable and has both negative and positive fallouts: who would have believed that a blog, essentially on governance and development in India, would be read in 111 countries within a year of its inception? But that’s global connectivity for you. So why not a new paradigm of governance based upon global participation, global accountability and global responsibility?

After all Rabindranath Tagore’s prayer for his beloved country ran:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…

Where knowledge is free.

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls…”



Remembering Gandhi

Today is the  birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. And particularly poignant, as the admirers of his assassin are now out in the open at home, and state and individual violence has reached unprecedented levels across the world.

I remember visiting the Yerawada Jail in Pune to discuss a training programme for the Prison Department, when the Jail Superintendent showed us the register from 1922 when Gandhiji was brought there to serve a 6 year sentence. There in a bold copperplate, fading to sepia, were the details of this simple man who would one day move his nation and eventually the world.

The British jailer had meticulously recorded that he was clad in a dhoti and a shirt, carried a pen and a watch, and had 16 rupees and 8 annas (or some such) in his pocket and the distinguishing mark was a mole on his arm. I found this simple litany so moving that it brought tears to my eyes… and for a minute I could actually see his frail form in that very room, standing at that very table having his life inventoried by a stranger.

The cramped cell where Gandhiji was held has now been turned into a memorial with the surrounding yard lovingly cared for by prisoners who are often serving life sentences themselves. I could imagine how uncomfortable this cell would have been as the hot afternoon sun blazed through its bars. And to think that people like Gandhi and Nehru did most of their writing in places like this! There is now a charkha there, to mark the hours Gandhiji spent spinning cotton, while he thought of a million things, perhaps… his own personal style of meditation.


Nehru mourned the passing of the Mahatma with his characteristic eloquence:

“Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that; nevertheless, we will not see him again, as we have seen him for these many years, we will not run to him for advice or seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not only for me, but for millions and millions in this country.”

And the years have gone by… And to this generation of aspiring Indians, what is Gandhi other than a face on the currency notes, the name of the main street in every Indian town, and a national holiday to mark his birth? His very philosophy is now reduced to a bunch of quotations on the  internet, to be incorporated into the speeches of politicians and visiting dignitaries, and almost expunged from Indian textbooks.

But Bapu himself was ever the realist, humble to the last, with no grand dreams of immortality, who actually said:

“There is no such thing as Gandhism, and I do not want to leave any sect after me. I do not claim to have originated any new principle or doctrine. I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily life and problems…The opinions I have formed and the conclusions I have arrived at are not final. I may change them tomorrow. I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.”

And therein lies the man’s true greatness..

Kerala: God’s own country?

Today a diversion to India’s own Chile, that sliver of a state along its west coast – Kerala. This is the quintessential spice state which was trading with Sumeria and Mesopotamia and Egypt, thousands of years ago. A land of sea-farers, Kerala is a proud part of modern India, yet utterly unique. Management Gurus will tell you that while the perpetual dependence on rain-fed agriculture has made Indians fatalistic and accepting, the people of Kerala have always been enterprising and risk-takers as they farmed the sea rather than the land. And the fact that the annual Southwest Monsoon first strikes Kerala, ensures that its fields and plantations are ever lush, earning it the sobriquet of God’s own country. Heaven with forests, backwaters and divine cuisine…

Naturally, tourism is a big part of the Kerala economy and it can satisfy everyone – the beachcombers, the wildlife enthusiasts and the mountain trekkers. And of course, history buffs. Kerala is reputed to be the entry point of all three Abrahamic traditions into India – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was also briefly the final resting place of Vasco da Gama, before he was reinterred back home.

Kerala 1  Kerala2

In the modern day, Kerala has the highest literacy rate, the best gender ratio and consequently tops the Human Development Index among Indian States in report after report. Its flagship Kudumbashree programme based upon women’s self-help groups has banished abject poverty from the countryside, and empowered its women far beyond their sisters elsewhere in India. However (and there is always a ‘however’), Kerala also enjoys the dubious distinction of being the most densely populated State in the industrialized South and West of the country – 819 souls per square km according to Census 2011. Simply too many people on too little land available for agriculture or industrial development. Consequently, ever since the oil boom of the 1970s, Kerala’s chief export has been its people. The tallest structures in Dubai, the freeways in Abu Dhabi, the grand mosques in Saudi Arabia are all a result of the blood, sweat and tears of these stalwarts from Kerala.

Back home, this exodus mostly of young, single males has had a dramatic effect. While their families have prospered on these Gulf remittances, a disproportionate number of girls have been forced into the labour market, and none more so than in the profession of nursing. It is estimated that 80% of the membership of the Indian Nursing Association hails from Kerala, and they are ubiquitous in hospitals across India, and all over the Arab world, if not further afield.

Indian media prominently displayed pictures of Kerala nurses evacuated from Iraq, and later Yemen, where one supervisor heroically rescued not just her staff but also the patients, by negotiating with the attacking rebels. But these tales of heroism hide a more sinister truth. Why are these girls forced to look for work in such dangerous parts of the world? Quite simply, because they get much higher salaries than would ever be possible to earn in India. And they all have harrowing tales of indebtedness to tell – having borrowed heavily first to qualify as nurses, and then to pay agents to find them the jobs.

The moral of the story for me is that human development implies not just making more people literate, or bringing down the mortality rates; but also providing access to free higher education, and sustainable livelihoods to all within their community, or at least within their country. And neither the State Governments nor the Central Government show an iota of interest in human and community well-being, as they chase ever higher economic growth, at any cost.


Shanghai, Hangzhou and Woman Power!

I don’t know if it’s the primal call of the few strands of my Mesopotamian DNA, or whatever, but I get a real thrill when I am in a big city, pulsating with life… And it doesn’t get bigger than this – the largest single city proper on the face of the planet, Shanghai throbs with the history of 300 years and the minds and souls of its 25 million denizens…

Any visitor to Shanghai is overwhelmed by its ultimate urbanism. It warms the cockles of every urban heart to enter the city on the Maglev at 330 km per hour, see the multi-tiered flyovers, whiz around the underwater tunnels and watch the industrious Shanghainese going about their business. I mean, where else do hundreds make a living, just taking tourists on a cruise to watch the glittering signs of the corporate megaliths of Shanghai’s iconic skyline ?

Call a halt and go into the streets under the flyovers, and you are transported back into time and of course, the Bund is history incarnate. Those days of opium wars when drug running made the fortunes of several corporate houses in India, now utterly respectable of course… the Shanghai International Settlement and the French Concession… and the entry of the word ‘shanghaied’ into the English dictionary.

How apposite that as you look across to the other bank, you see the rising towers of China rampant…perhaps, the world’s largest economy today… Shanghai Bund Interestingly, we were told that because of the single child norm, the gender ratio in Shanghai is so skewed, that the typical, treasured Shanghai girl can pick and choose the husband she likes, one who most fulfils her many demands. And remains a good and faithful husband all his life!

We did meet a really powerful Shanghai woman who runs a huge business exporting jade jewellery around the world. And when she asked her staff to present all women in our group with a complimentary pendant and insisted on slipping a magnificent jade bangle around my wrist for a ridiculously low price… well I truly felt part of a privileged sisterhood…

A day trip from Shanghai takes you to a real gem of a place, missed by most Indian tourists – Hangzhou. We went by bullet train, and unlike Beijing and Shanghai’s airport-like terminals, Hangzhou railway station was simply a cleaner version of any station in India. An ancient capital with the choicest architecture, a beautifully clean lake, and palaces and pagodas all around.

Hangzhou 2    Hangzhou 6

Hangzhou 3    Hangzhou 1

Hangzhou is also the home of the Legendary Longjing tea estates – the queen of all of China’s great teas. And the Longjingshan Tea Cultural Village is the ultimate in photo-ops:

Hangzhou 4  ???????????????????????????????

After giving us a tour, and a tea tasting, while we lingered before returning to Shanghai in our humble bus, we noticed a lot of the young ladies who whizzed off, each in her own car – a Merc here, a Porsche there, and the ubiquitous BMWs. And learnt an interesting factoid from our guide. This village has traditionally had a matrilineal society, and all the money is controlled by the women in the family, some of whom are among the richest women in China… Ha ha… One lives and learns…

Day of Judgment…

It was a beautiful summer day when we docked at Al Aqsar (City of Palaces) or Luxor as it is better known, after our Nile cruise. Some of us thought of seeing the town taking a leisurely ride on a horse carriage (or tonga). And as our 15 year old ‘driver’ Muhammad, took us into the labyrinthine bazaar, I swear we could have been in any North Indian city, surrounded by little shops selling colourful dresses and hookahs – the air redolent with the perfume of eastern spices. Ummm, magical!

Eventually Muhammad took us to this huge shop which sold everything from Egyptian cotton, to statuettes of Anubis (probably made in China) to a whole section of the most amazing papyri. The shop keeper explained that it was a training school for papyrus painters, and we would not get such intricate, hand-crafted specimens at that price (pretty steep) anywhere in Cairo or Alexandria. So along with a beautiful ‘convention of the goddesses’ (which I call the Ladies’ Club) I picked up something which caught my eye, because it had this electric blue background – not the natural cream – and seemed to be telling a story, and looked quite grand and different. And here it is:

My hunefer

But I couldn’t get away from the feeling that it was a famous piece of art… so imagine my pleasure and surprise when I came across the original trawling through (what else) the British Museum website. And this is their original.

Hunefer BM

It has the following explication: the Papyrus is from the Book of the Dead, belonging to Hunefer, who was “Scribe of Divine Offerings”, “Overseer of Royal Cattle”, and steward of Pharaoh Seti I, in the 19th Dynasty. (1290-1279 B C).

The scene depicts the ‘Judgment of Hunefer’ and reads from left to right. To the left, Anubis brings Hunefer into the judgment area. Anubis is also shown supervising the judgment scales. Hunefer’s heart, represented as a pot, is being weighed against a feather, the symbol of Maat, the established order of things, in this context meaning ‘what is right’. The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the seat of the emotions, the intellect and the character, and thus represented the good or bad aspects of a person’s life. If the heart did not balance with the feather, then the dead person was condemned to non-existence, and consumption by the ferocious ‘devourer’, the strange beast shown here which is part-crocodile, part-lion, and part-hippopotamus.

However, after passing the test successfully, Hunefer is shown to the right, brought into the presence of Osiris by his son Horus, having become ‘true of voice’ or ‘justified’. This was a standard epithet applied to dead individuals in their texts. Osiris is shown seated under a canopy, with his sisters Isis and Nephthys. At the top, Hunefer is shown adoring a row of deities who supervise the judgment.

Which left me thinking… Just how much of an influence was the ancient Egyptian religion on the Abrahamic religions?

Judaism has a day of judgment once a year… Catholics have a particular and general Day of Judgment…  as do the Orthodox Churches and Protestantism… Islam has a final Day of Judgment… Even the Bahai’s ( a fairly recent break-off from Shi’ite Islam) believe in judgment every millennium or so, whenever a new prophet declares himself. Both the Ancient Egyptians and their Abrahamic successors apparently looked on a final reckoning in the afterlife as a means of assuring good behaviour and accountability in this one.

Despite these similarities, however, the one thing that the Egyptians could not and would not accept was the common denominator of these latter day faiths viz. monotheism – because without a God-Pharaoh on the throne and the very powerful priests behind that throne, the entire socio-economic- political fabric of that very hierarchical society would crumble.

Which is why they practically wiped out their Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Queen Nefertiti from the pages of history for the crime of declaring that there was only one God – the Sun God Ra.

Makes you wonder whether all religion is eventually about only one thing – POWER … and ways to justify why a chosen few have the monopoly of power in any society…

Unique but not alone

When I walked out after a month from my Physics Masters Programme into Social Anthropology, my friends and family were perturbed to say the least. Maybe I was going stir crazy, locked up in labs on beautiful summer days on a sylvan campus…

Whatever. But I had no regrets as I found Anthropology to be an extremely humanizing subject, and strongly feel (to this day) that if we taught children anthropology in schools, there would be much less bigotry around – and hopefully, less violence and bloodshed too…

Anyway, I simply felt lucky to have wandered around in two such disparate worlds, the majesties of Physics and Mathematics on the one hand, and the welcoming warmth of the larger human family on the other; and I was quite sure that never the ‘twain shall meet – until I happened upon Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man several years ago. How can one forget his magical exploration of the blooming of quantum mechanics and the gathering clouds of World War II…

What brings this to mind is an encounter with the latest BBC series from Professor Brian Cox (envied in equal measure for his mastery of Physics, and his youthful rock star looks) … called Human Universe. Throughout the series, the Prof oscillates between hi-tech sites like NASA and little Andean villages and isolated Berber tribes, giving the series a definitely anthropological look.

brian cox                       brian cox 3

But the killer (for me) comes in the third episode, where he talks about the ‘fateful encounter’ between two simple cells; their unexpected and successful merger to form eukaryotic cells, from which all complex life forms were to emerge… Then came the flourishing of thousands of species in the Cambrian era, leading to our own species by evolution through natural selection.

The moment of epiphany comes when Cox says that to become what we are today, we had to pass through an evolutionary ‘bottleneck’ which is highly improbable to have been replicated elsewhere in our Galaxy. (Of course, there may be a million other evolutionary pathways occurring on other planets, so perhaps as a life form, we are not alone…)

However, as a species with the curiosity and intellect to explore its entire Universe, perhaps we are unique… I don’t know about you, but at the end of Cox’s exposition, I was filled with a feeling of utter desolation and utter contentment at the same time – in other words I felt utterly and overwhelmingly human. In the end, all great Science is essentially humanising… I suppose.

We shall overcome…

There is an Arabic Phrase Al Nakba, meaning Catastrophe, to refer to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. What an irony then, that Brazil had its own Al Nakba at the hands of Germany, on the very day that Israel launched its latest assault on the Gaza Strip.

The next day, on Bing perhaps, I found this picture, which is my PC wallpaper, and a constant reminder of the Greek Tragedy that was our exit from the World Cup – Neymar, the wounded hero, big brother David Luiz consoling Rodriguez after Colombia’s exit, a touch of hubris at the start of the home World Cup… ah well!


Now Brazil are redeeming themselves, winning all friendlies in style under Dunga… and given their history, they will win the Federations Cup in style as well, in 2017.

But I hope they don’t. Because every time they do, they lose in the World Cup the following year. (A point noted by Beckenbauer as well, besides yours truly!)

Probably because their Confed star gets picked up by Real or Barcelona or some such, and is totally ‘clubbed out’ by the time the FIFA World Cup begins.

Fingers crossed, and hope to see this little fan smiling in 2018