Life, a wise man said, is a continuous process of disillusionment. Time peels away layers of security that we knit around ourselves, sturdy accretions of confidence that we have stacked up in ourselves and our place in the world. At some point, for better or worse, we face ourselves and our place in the world. Either way, it’s illuminating, if a tad scary.
In this decade, our sense of the normal has been fracked. All of us, to a degree, have suffered a grievous blow. Parents might have gone, friends too; loved ones with whom we could be ourselves, giving us intimations of our own mortality. Words are inadequate vessels to carry the loss of the sense of normalcy, of its anomalous nature.
Nowhere is it more evident than in our relationship with the elements. The climate crisis is upon us and getting worse by the day. The decade was punctuated by a who’s who of catastrophes: highest temperatures, worst heat waves, warming oceans, extreme rainfall, floods, wildfires, dwindling stocks, rising seas, coral reefs gasping, biodiversity crisis, habitat destruction, and climate-related extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys, a rat surviving on an island in the Torres Strait in the Great Barrier Reef, finally undone by a severe storm and rising sea. This is the first mammal, Australian scientists reported in 2016, to have gone extinct due to human-driven climate change.
Carbon dioxide emissions have hit the fan. Atmospheric carbon dioxide, as of November 2019, is at 410.27 parts per million (ppm), according to data from the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. It crossed the largely symbolic, psychologically comforting barrier of 400 ppm in 2015. Scientists say that at that previous level of concentration, the planet was warmer and people didn’t exist.
Temperatures have crashed through the ceiling. Seven of the ten hottest years ever recorded have been since 2010, according to Climate Central. Global average temperature (January to October) in 2019 was about 1.1C above pre-industrial levels, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s provisional statement on the state of the global climate. The warmest five-year period ever is 2015-2019, the statement adds.
Arctic sea ice is down to its lowest ever levels. Scientists say summers there will be entirely devoid of ice. Despite the doom foretold, the latest climate talks in Madrid failed to achieve global emission cuts. Instead, it deliberated on the rules for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Closer home, rivers are polluted; ground water levels declined, putting us maybe on course to becoming Cape Town. Glaciers are melting fast. Eyewitness accounts say they haven’t seen much ice.
Street protests have risen all over the world. Their range and scope is so great that this could be referred to as the decade of the streets. Ever since Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old street vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, there has been the Occupy movement in the US, yellow-vest protests in France, Extinction Rebellion in the UK, Hong Kong protests, Greta Thunberg pleading for the care of our planet, and many more.
At home, we had protests against rape, lynching, corruption, and those by farmers. Protests are raging against the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). In addition, economists say, the state of the economy and rural unemployment is worsening. The need of the hour is public spending on infrastructure, education, and boosting the rural economy.
Whatever the change, however powerful technology has become in our lives, the life of a tenant farmer like K.V. Krishna Rao remains down in the pits, scraping by. He asks, “Just consider how many people and industries live off or depend on the farmer, directly or indirectly. Maybe more than 20. Count them: agriculture workers, millers and workers in rice mills, bag industry, thread industry, tractor industry and their factory workers, lorry industry and their workers, fertiliser industry and their workers, pesticide industry and their workers, agricultural universities and their staff and students, government departments like agriculture, irrigation and so on. When farmer supports so many lives, apart from growing food, who thinks of the farmer? Nobody.”
The farmer is to India what a keystone species is to an ecosystem. Keystone species support the survival of vast variety of other species. The sense Krishna Rao exudes may not be particularly personal to you but you feel his sense of despair.
These facts cannot be wished away. When propaganda becomes fact, all we are left with are stories—that we tell ourselves and our friends, preferably around a campfire under a starry sky.
In the following pages Fountain Ink presents a minuscule slice of life stories by people from different stations with varied experience, of what time has wrought, how each relates to time and goings-on, of what gnaws at them even if their own individual lives are on an even keel and what inspires them.
In my life, all the days move in the same way. So it’s hard to recognise what’s the best thing that happened. I have learnt that reading spiritual books and shastras gives us insight and inner strength. As time goes, the reading slowly motivates, and propels us towards practice.
And the same reading, if we do that with shraddha and bhakti, the scriptures open lots of secrets in our heart, which we can feel. Accordingly, when we contemplate or meditate, it helps us to keep our heart balanced and takes us inward.
When in society something good takes place, sadhus rejoice and thank God. But when something takes place which is harmful to people sadhus do everything that they can for amelioration. If they find they can’t do anything, they pray to God and try to send some positive thoughts. But they take it as Divine Will.
and founder trustee of Dakshin Foundation
he decade starts with a sombre realisation. At 40, I can no longer beat my long-time adversary in our one-on-one basketball games. Well, he is 10 years younger, but still. It’s an interesting time. You’re no longer young, and you’re stressed by having to achieve something in the prime of your career.
After two Republican terms, the US elected its first black President. Charismatic, liberal, down to earth, Barack Obama was a beacon of hope for the entire liberal world. Irrelevant (or maybe not), he was pretty good at basketball, too. In India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was leading the government for the second consecutive term. Despite setbacks, the world seemed to be moving inexorably towards greater democracy, more liberal outlooks and greater rationality. We were so wrong.
Life in science goes on. We described many new species, in fact new genera, of frogs (including a wonderful starry frog called Astrobatrachus kurichiyana), lizards and snakes. We developed new theories about mixed species groups of animals. We track leatherbacks all the way to Western Australia in one direction, and to Madagascar and Mozambique in the other. I learned to scuba dive, and decided to adopt marine biology to fuel the addiction.
Over the course of the decade the world, having feinted left, swung right. Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Johnson in the UK, Modi in India. Not to mention Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Israel, the Philippines. Consequently, there has been a surge in anti-immigration policies, discrimination, increasing inequity, threatening the social and economic fabric of many societies. From climate change denial to rabidly pro-industry policies, these governments pose an equal or greater threat to the environment in general. But as liberals we messed up too, believing that rational argument alone was sufficient to change the world. All conversations simply become more polarised, no dialogue seems possible anymore.
In the late 2000s, we start several exciting initiatives. Current Conservation, a magazine that aims to bring conservation science to laypersons, becomes a platform for art and science. Its distinctive artwork and design begins to draw attention around the world. We start Dakshin Foundation to work on natural resource management and conservation in coastal and marine ecosystems. We manage the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team, the islands’ leading NGO and platform for research.
Oddly enough, in the middle of a global identity crisis, most wildlife has flourished, including in India. Perhaps because of the measures put in place since the 1960s. Elephants, tigers, bears, boar, you name it, they’re doing better. There are more leopards in the country than at any time in decades. And not just in forests, but in towns, in sugarcane fields, even in the suburbs of Mumbai. There is a gaur in every garden in the Nilgiris. Climate change, habitat loss and other threats loom, but many wild populations are increasing. And with it, conflict.
In the 2000s, we feared the imminent decline of Olive Ridley turtles and continued campaigns for their conservation. Ten years of monitoring later, we believe they are stable or increasing (despite unnecessary fishery-related deaths) with several hundred thousand nesting at mass nesting events in Odisha. So many sea turtle populations around the world have increased that some conservationists have started to ask, “How much is enough?”.
I write some books. From Soup to Superstar is an account of the history of sea turtle conservation in India. It traces our interactions with these animals from the time we treated them as resources to their transformation into global icons of conservation. I conduct interviews with many pioneers of conservation, and learn much about the inside stories and politics of the early days of conservation in India. I join a revolution in children’s writing in India with my first novel, Lori’s Magical Mystery, with a small primate and a clever bird as its protagonists. Last but not least, Moonlight and the Sea, a picture book about a little girl in the Lakshadweep, is published.
At the same time, perhaps in keeping with the politics of our time, and at complete odds with the evidence, extreme movements in conservation have taken hold. One is called compassionate conservation, and opposes killing of wild animals for any reason whatsoever. Even when those animals are abundant and could provide protein for the poor, even when those animals are destroying crops or killing people. Anything but compassionate, this flies in the face of sustainability, scientific evidence, cultural pluralism and humanity itself. How can something that purports to have a noble goal be so misconceived? But then, there is religion.
The decade ends well for me. I return from my administrative job as director of a large environmental NGO to my academic position. I am described as annoyingly happy. At 50, I feel as carefree as the graduate students, but I have no worries about exams or career or job. I can see how that might be annoying. I’ve started to play basketball again; I am no pushover, but I care less that the kids are running circles around me. I worry about the world becoming less liberal and somehow less literate despite education, but as Dylan Thomas said, we must rage against the dying of the light. In the meantime, there is joy to be found in science, in music, in sports. That will keep us going.
As a think-tanker, I have tried my damndest to influence Indian foreign and military policies specifically and the national security policy generally, with my contrarian hard power-realpolitik views. This I have attempted to do over the last 35-odd years via appointments in government and constitutional bodies (as member of the 1st National Security Advisory Board, and as adviser, defence expenditure, to the 10th Finance Commission), through books and writings, consultations with political leaders and with armed services’ chiefs and their senior advisers, and through lectures at the National War College, Army War College, Naval War College, College of Air Warfare, College of Military Engineering, College of Defence Management, and other senior military training forums, by participating in seminars and conferences, and by reaching directly to the people via public lectures, videographed talks on the net, and the less frequent TV news shows and newspaper op-eds.
Despite the severe flux in global power politics and the international correlation of forces the essential inertness of the Indian government›s thinking and policies (through the decade) was simply astonishing.
India’s inert foreign policy is the bane of this country and prevents it from exercising its prerogatives and becoming a great power. Consider that Indian policy switched from leaning on the Soviet Union during the Cold War decades to tilting in the new millennium towards America. It started with the Narasimha Rao regime and continued unaltered in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi governments, notwithstanding the ideological differences between the left-of-centre Congress party and the right-of-centre BJP.
The trouble is whatever their rhetoric, no leader or political party seems convinced about India›s big power bona fides, but seems united in seeing the country as a secondary, subservient, power that can only rise without giving offence to rivals (China) and on the backs of friendly great powers. Whence India’s “creeper vine” foreign policy, which is geared to winding India around some big power as support in order to rise like the creeper vine that needs a pole, a tree, or a lattice to climb.
It is a tragedy starkly illustrated by the persistent scandal of importing arms, making foreign defence industries wealthy and the affording supplier states diplomatic leverage, rather than trusting in indigenous talent and capabilities, which are abundant and of high worth and readily available especially in the private sector. So, as far as I am concerned, it has all been lose, lose, for India, ensuring the country remains in the new century what it has been for long—a middling power of little real consequence.
It has been frustrating to see piddling states like North Korea and even Pakistan display the guts and gumption to be disruptive—which is what I have long argued India should be to earn the world’s respect, instead of what it has been doing—acting “responsible”, pleading to join clubs (UNSC) and cartels (MTCR, NSG) on their terms, treated with disdain, and getting sidelined and kicked in the shins for its troubles.
I have become more impatient, not less, with age, impatient for India to amount to something in my lifetime which, sadly, won’t happen.
On the personal level, it is pleasing to see my many books and views that have consistently advocated ways to make India a great power by pursuing this status the old fashioned way—by unwillingness to compromise on expansively defined national interests, by the wise use of national resources and, in Bismarck’s famous phrase, by blood and steel, being appreciated in policy establishments and strategic enclaves at home and abroad.
Unfortunately, starting with Nehru our leaders have sought great power the easy way—as entitlement, by popular international acclaim, and by pushing abstract goals, like India becoming a vishwa guru (whatever that means)!
In purely family terms they have been fulfilling years—a wonderful, high achiever wife and two kids growing up to be fine adults, doing well in their careers, finding their own mates, and settling down. The downside has been the loss of my parents, which for the first time brought me intimations of my own mortality. The vibe I get from the decade is of little meaningful change in India’s national security policies and plans. India seems to be steadfastly marching in place and getting nowhere fast. As the Queen said to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, if you don’t know where you are going, any path will get you there.
As an Edmund Burkean conservative, the hopes and expectations I had for a diminished role of government in national life and in the lives of the people (that Narendra Modi promised) have not panned out. As a realist strategist, I am appalled at how diligently our leaders and the government have frittered national resources and squandered opportunities to raise India’s stock as an independent nodal power and China’s premier rival in Asia and the world.
Despite just about everything going wrong and the country stagnating, I still have absolute conviction that India will make good, become a great power in spite of the government, not because of it. In fact, the political class and the government are, I have come to believe, the biggest liability for the nation, a millstone round the country’s neck, relentlessly dragging it down.
62, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru
Mechanics of the living state
and move. It is the physicist’s way of thinking about the mechanics of the living state. Systems to which this approach has been applied include the cell interior, driven by motor proteins, collections of cells in a tissue, and collectively moving groups of organisms.)
n the last ten years, three singular developments for me have been: the dramatic changes in India’s political landscape, the no longer ignorable reality of climate change and, on the basic science front, the direct observation of gravitational waves.
I don’t like growing old. However, I think I have otherwise become more accepting of some inevitable realities. Over the years, my fundamental beliefs haven’t changed. Some would say this is because I’m not exactly a wide-eyed optimist. The vibe I get from the decade is uncertainty.
On a personal level, my kids grew up into fine young men. I lost my father, some uncles and a close colleague.
I’ve had some pleasant surprises, when simple but novel theoretical ideas by my colleagues and me have been confirmed in experiment. But I’ve also learned that I don’t enjoy the fast lane. I like working at my own pace on problems that amuse me, but the success of the little area in physics that I helped start has made that leisurely approach hard to sustain.
We are a very close family; we hold ourselves and each other together.
For the future, I have definite thoughts on what I might do other than physics, but I’m not ready to talk about them yet.
Indian National Science Academy, Vice-president.
Monsoon is the key
Monsoon is the key
work on earth surface processes with links to climate change, tectonics and human history. I develop methods to provide a chronology of sediments from modern times to up to a million years and some of our work has found societal relevance.
I moved from a pure laboratory scientist to being involved with policy issues and bringing to awareness the social responsibility of scientists and academies. It was a normal life, some recognition came my way. My kids, my wife and family did reasonably well.
The key to India’s climate is the monsoon. I feel the onset, duration and style show some changes. These need to be modelled and addressed. We are a country that lacks strategic thinking and hence our actions are reactions to disaster. This is true in all spheres and our governments, like us are no different.
Extreme events will happen. Earth sciences will play a major role in preparedness. Unfortunately, we do not have a long-term plan. We need to understand the need for solid scientific evidence for future planning and real effort to quantify changes and then predict their impacts. We need to learn to use science in all domains for the betterment of society. I advocate that every paper should state its scientific, societal and policy relevance.
The decade has made me worried about the future, challenges that the country will face to survive in the knowledge space. We are in a state of slavery in this respect. Think of our economics, defence, railways, airlines and health care, governance, research and whatever, if China refuses to supply computers. We as a society have not yet comprehended our challenges and are not preparing for them. It could be that we lack a faculty of strategic planning and thinking and then we marvel on Jugad.
In addition, we have increasing levels of intolerance, increasingly use and/or abuse social media for trivial issues, have a large youth population losing hope and lack a connection between those with and those without resources. We, as a society are missing out on our social responsibilities.
We need to spend more on education and research to be able to create a competent future in a knowledge century. Universities should be funded better and the whole paradigm of education and research needs a revisit. The focus should be on teachers, their motivation and well-being We need skilled manpower to absorb changes in technology and develop a hunger for innovation. Much is being done but much more is needed. I am satisfied (as I did my best without compromising on my core values) and dissatisfied (possibly could have done more had things been more conducive). But no regrets.
National Institute of Oceanography
The Sea and the society
The Sea and the society
work on elemental cycling in the aquatic environment mainly to understand how oceans are changing due to human interference, extreme climatic events and climate change. The ultimate aim is to develop a predictive model to forecast the modification of living and non-living resources in seas around India.
I returned to India about 12 years ago, after about eight years in Japan and three in France. I have found significant change in the structure of Indian research, funding opportunities, and life due to the economic boom. In the past 10 years, we took up several projects related to trace gases, fluxes in the atmosphere and fertiliser release into international waters, quality of living resources, mainly Hilsa fish, and to improve predictions on potential fishing zones to direct fishermen where to go to fish. I am personally satisfied with the work we are doing.
But things are going in a different way due to recent changes in the economy; cuts to funding are hindering our capacity to venture into bigger tasks. My thinking on science and its link to society has changed significantly. Initially I felt it was important to understand what is happening in the ocean, interactions with other “spheres” and links among physical, chemical and biological interactions, and so on.
With time, I have realised that all the modifications in the oceans are either by society or to society. For example, we inject pollutants into rivers or coasts that may have devastating impacts on coastal resources. However, the impact is nullified by heavy monsoon rainfall which dilutes pollutants and their impact on ecosystem. There are several examples of how nature is solving problems created by humans. Then I added the human dimension to understand how such equilibration is possible and whether we are going in that direction.
I have worked closely with students for more than 25 years and I notice patience levels are decreasing. They want things very fast and research will not happen in the time-scale they expect. Encouragement from parents to see their kids opt for research is weak as they want them to start earning soon after their degree. Researchers are not made this way.
Ocean acidification is a serious problem both in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal. More than 400 million people dwell close to the coast. The impact is on changes in coastal water quality and acidification. In addition to pollutants entering coastal waters, atmospheric pollutants also influence ocean acidification through deposition over time.
The Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal are unique in their geographical settings as both basins are closed in the north by land-masses whereas the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans can flow up to the polar regions. In addition, massive numbers of people live close to these basins and their influence is significant. Processes such as the formation of de-oxygenation zones, coastal pollution and acidification may be due to natural processes or caused by human interference. I have noticed that many of these processes were simply attributed to human interference since more people live along the northern Indian Ocean. We targeted certain processes, mainly de-oxygenation, and noticed that natural processes are more important than hitherto anticipated. We need to be careful of what kind of data we have with us when we blame a country or society for their impact on oceans and atmosphere.
Before we say something about human-interference, we need reliable data. Unfortunately, if there is a bloom we say it is because of pollution and if there is no bloom we say it is because of climate change. The ocean is a complicated place with its own dynamics. The occurrence of a bloom is not only because of pollution and climate change. Overall, I am happy doing research to understand our oceans.
he last ten years, I have taken the decision to retire. I am relaxed and have no responsibility now. For me, the division of Andhra Pradesh was the most unconstitutional thing that happened. Even though I was an MP, I could not do anything. It was a huge mistake. Nobody talks about that, the unconstitutionality of it, the injustice of it. We approached the court, and now and then, we go to the court. It’s painful. Nothing happens even though I remain pained about the division.
At that time, we were suspended from Congress party for our agitation against division, and on the day when the bill was passed, we were not in the House. According to Article 100, majority opinion should prevail but nobody counted the votes. Without counting the votes and following due process, the bill was passed. That was the fundamental blunder. Everybody knows that.
According to House records, I gave speeches, wrote letters to Chandrababu Naidu and Jaganmohan Reddy, asking them to raise the issue in Parliament and the assembly. I wrote an account of it in a book. It was not read even by Andhras. Nobody took it seriously. In it, I mentioned that if it happened with Andhra, it could happen to the other states too.
In the last ten years, (Arvind) Kejriwal becoming Delhi chief minister was a sensation, as was Modi becoming prime minister. With Modi’s election, India’s prestige increased because someone from the lower middle class could become prime minister through popular vote. That is the true strength of India’s democracy. It’s not accidental.
His performance, however, has been disappointing. This is Hindustan and that is Pakistan, RSS policies—except that, nothing came out of it. Our economy, our common values have been gutted. Modi succeeded in injecting the toxin of “Hindutva” in the public discourse. That is why he won a second term. In my opinion, that’s not a good thing for India. What “Hindutva” I practise is different from what they say.
In a country like India, with a huge population, when there is no supply as per demand, it leads to corruption. Charges were filed (as in 2G) but it was not on the scale bandied about.
For the first time, RTI came into existence. It showed its power during the first term of the UPA government, which brought it in, when questions about corruption exploded in spectacular style across the media. These are natural phenomena. We should not forget that the Manmohan Singh government brought the RTI. Ultimately, it will lead to good.
There is only one way to counter corruption: total transparency and total literacy. The prime example is Kerala. Nothing surprises me anymore because I have been in politics, in public life since I was 14.
Parliament is a formality. It was like that, it’s like that now, and it will remain like that. Whatever the ruling party says will happen. There is no chance, no way to use the power of Parliament. In the print media and on TV you may have discussions but in Parliament stuff happens along party lines. For example, the live telecast was stopped during the division of Andhra Pradesh.
A democratic system should have a platform, so, Parliament is a platform. There should be a platform for discussion. Let’s see if it gets better. In the old days, there were stalwarts, and there were substantial discussions. Governments ran with majorities. Personalities counted so they were able to get time and thus spoke well. Now there are no such towering personalities. With Manmohan Singh there was no majority. So, they discussed matters with other parties. And they did do things. Things won’t happen because you are a Member of Parliament. Only what the ruling party says will happen.
I strongly supported RTI. My amendments were opposed in party forum. The party gave me important roles—AICC secretary, later, member of the working committee, member of war room, one of the eight members; chairman of the committee on petroleum and natural gas. I was in the 2G committee and supported the Food Guarantee Act.
I gave the MPLAD funds, `2 crore for my constituency, for building public toilets. So, for the first time, the Nirmal Gram Puruskar was given to an MP. In my second term, there was a survey by NDTV as to how MPLAD funds were spent and I was in the top ten. My attendance in Parliament was 100 per cent. After the division of Andhra Pradesh we stopped going to Parliament.
These are not achievements. They are not due particularly to my being an MP. I cannot claim I have done something for the country.
In personal life, nothing much has changed. Previously, I used go here and there, and now not even that. Then, we had to speak along party lines. Now, I can speak as I want. I have the same bunch of friends. Then, there was some humiliation, but not now. That way, this is the best part of life.
Consultant Physician Breach Candy Hospital, Mumbai.
uberculosis (TB) exists on an epic scale in India. It remains the biggest public health problem. India has the highest population with TB in the world and the highest multi-drug resistant TB population. There is one Indian TB death every two minutes. These statistics have not changed over the decades.
I started my training in the UK in 1988 and my alignment with tuberculosis began with a job in the late, great, Professor Sir John Crofton’s former respiratory unit at the City Hospital in Edinburgh. Crofton was among the first to show that the TB bacillus rapidly becomes resistant to treatment with one antibiotic, and pioneered therapy with multiple antibiotics simultaneously. This is still the mainstay of TB treatment.
In my days as a medical registrar in the UK we would have seen no more than a handful of cases in a year. Working at the TB clinic in Scotland was like being on paid holiday. Endless cups of coffee were needed to deal with the boredom. So it was a shock when I returned home to become a consultant at the Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai, and found myself plunged in the maelstrom of TB in India. I set up a free weekly multi-drug resistant TB clinic. At the time, in the early 1990s, it was not particularly busy as multi-drug resistant TB was relatively unknown globally. The numbers increased, initially gradually, and then in a deluge as we began to see more and more drug resistance.
For the uninitiated, regular TB is treated with a cocktail of four drugs over a period of six months. If the organism is resistant to two of them, you have multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB). As it worsens, one gets extensively drug resistant TB (XDR-TB) with resistance to four or more different types of antibiotics. The increase in India was due to poor treatment in public and private sector. Drug resistant TB is a man-made problem. Cure becomes increasingly difficult as drug resistance increases. Patients with XDR-TB are the “no-hopers” of this world. They are accorded the status almost of “untouchables”, trapped between an exploitative private sector and a bureaucratic and uncaring public sector.
Over subsequent decades, I witnessed first-hand the relentless amplification of resistance, ever increasing numbers of MDR-TB, then XDR-TB, till finally, in 2011, we began to see the first cases resistant to ALL available drugs, “Totally drug resistant TB” (TDR-TB). These patients had undergone prolonged, unsuccessful courses of treatment, from private providers and in the government sector for several years before they visited our clinic. I put their clinical, microbiological and molecular profiles together in a short 2-page article, “Totally Drug Resistant TB in India”, and submitted it to Clinical Infectious Disease, a high impact journal (Impact Factor 9.05), more in hope than expectation that it would be accepted. I was delighted when it was fast-tracked through peer review and we got an acceptance note a few weeks later.
While I have over 150 PubMed indexed medical publications appearing in almost every major scientific medical journal, this publication remains the one of which I am most proud. It received 600 citations, placing it in the top 1 percentile of all scientific articles in print. To say this publication changed my life would not be an exaggeration. The fallout was far more than from anything else I have written or will write. The World Health Organization invited me to a special meeting at their Geneva headquarters. By contrast the Indian government and health authorities responded first with denial, then hostility, as if such an extreme pattern of resistance was a reflection of the incompetence of their TB control programme.
They seized the culture samples from our lab, claimed our findings were inaccurate, tried to get me to retract my paper, and sent the samples to be cross-checked by the central TB institute in Chennai (which several months later vouched for their accuracy). The director-general of TB, Union health ministry declared: “There is nothing like TDR-TB. We will hold a meeting to take a final call.” There was pressure on me not to discuss my findings in international meetings and scientific forums. I refused to back down, starting with a guest lecture at Harvard Medical College, where I presented my data to some of the world’s foremost TB experts. What was most gratifying was that the lay press took the article and its message to heart and MDR-TB was out in the open, no longer swept under the carpet.
Suddenly, the world was talking about the extent and horror of MDR-TB in India and this subject attracted intense media and medical interest across the globe. My work was featured on the front pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time magazine, Scientific American, and on BBC, Reuters and CNN. I began to believe in the redemptive power of the written word as I witnessed my article and its fallout catalyse change in the community. As a result of the publicity, a number of changes in public policy came into being. TB finally became a notifiable disease in India, medical help was offered to all my patients and their contacts, the capacity and funding of state TB labs was increased and the annual Mumbai TB budget increased six-fold to `30 crore. The Union TB budget also increased 70 per cent to `710 crore.
Almost ten years have passed since this paper. Over this decade my research has continued. Our research and collaboration with colleagues across the world has lead to multiple international publications on MDR-TB. What gives me some degree of pride is that we have achieved success rates of around 70 per cent with highly drug resistant patients, a figure comparable with the best in the West at a fraction of the cost. I feel blessed because life would be infinitely more boring without the intellectual boost my research gives me. I do think research speeds up my neural synapses and makes me a better physician. Still, it is unlikely that any future research article will be as impactful as that publication from almost a decade ago.
of Development Research, Mumbai.
ine is the typical life of an academic, I teach a course and do research, attend academic meetings, sometimes sit on official committees or groups, and increasingly deliver lectures at universities, colleges, research institutions across the country. It keeps me connected to students and teachers. I am increasingly to writing opinion columns on current economic matters.
My research has been mostly about contemporary economic issues. I have published mostly in widely circulated journals in India. My papers have often become part of the on-going academic and policy discourse, included in classroom teaching and discussed in the media. It is a nice feeling that one’s effort has meaningfully contributed to debate and discourse in society.
At home, things have changed, as my grown-up children left home to pursue their higher education and then on to their jobs. The decade has witnessed the global financial crisis 2008-09, and stagnation of the world economy, widening economic inequalities across the world, and their social and political ramifications everywhere.
I have been trying to understand the financial crash, and how policymakers prevented a meltdown. Yet they failed to get economies back on a steady growth path. The eurozone crisis and the tragedy in Greece are other issues to follow.
In the last ten years, economic inequalities have risen in most countries. The policy of austerity in the advanced economies has prevented the state from pursuing an active role in boosting economic growth and tackling rising inequality. The world is seeing the rise of populist regimes, often on socially polarising agendas, against minorities, immigrants and so on. I don’t relate well to these socially and politically divisive times.
The illusion of globalisation as a force of good that will lift all the boats has withered after the crisis. In its place populism, nationalism, regional and ethnic identities and conflicts have come to the fore.
I have devoted a lot of time to understanding India’s economy. The much-discussed slowdown is not a short-term issue (as is made out); the economy has performed poorly compared to the last decade for quite a while now. The steep fall in quarterly growth rates since last year, I guess, is the consequence of two economic shocks, demonetisation and botched-up GST introduction. Over the last decade, the proportion of GDP that we invest in plant and machinery, buildings and structures has fallen by almost 10 percentage points—such a sharp fall for almost a decade has never happened. It means the economy’s potential to expand output and productivity has come down starkly.
Structurally, after the collapse of the output boom of the last decade, aggregate demand has collapsed, mostly on account of investment. The IT boom tapered off, which had boosted India’s growth during the last decade.
As output growth has decelerated, employment growth has also tapered off. This is particularly true of construction which created massive employment for unskilled labour in the last decade. NREGS has been neglected in the last five years, affecting rural employment growth and consequently wage growth. This hurts rural demand and has created agrarian distress.
Demonetisation in 2016 and dodgy GST severely damaged the rural and informal economy. These have shown up in massive job losses—6-15 million in 2017-18 compared to 2011-12—as PLFS data released this year showed. Correspondingly, the open unemployment rate has shot up, especially among youth.
The way out would be to ramp up infrastructure investment and boost public spending in the rural economy via NREGS. These are probably the quickest ways to boost demand (at a time when real interest is really low and private investment is not picking up). The government should be more concerned with the unemployment crisis and rising poverty than fiscal orthodoxy—within tolerable inflation limits.
I am doing things as before—teaching and research. Probably, I am more engaged now in working with scholars with diverse perspectives on specific academic questions. Also, I am engaged much more in the media, writing opinion pieces, appearing on talk shows, and delivering public lectures.
Of course, there are always intellectual tensions over ideas, ideals and changing realities. One has to battle it out with them oneself before putting them on paper, or expressing it in public. What gives me solace is friends and colleagues who are similarly engaged and of course, my extended family.
Universal ideas of freedom, humanism, equality and social justice are being questioned and revisited by society, and many of the popular currents are at variance with my ideas and ideals. I am happy to be an academic engaged in teaching and research, and on occasion participating in public discourse as an informed commentator on economic matters.
Wisdom of the forest
have a wife and five-year-old son, live with my brother’s family and our mother. For the past 18 years, I have been involved in raising a patch of forest called Punshilok in the Langol hill range near Imphal. In 2002 I decided to plant trees because I felt humans are doing injustice to Mother Earth by destroying our natural surroundings. I wanted to pay back in whatever way I can.
Since my childhood, I have loved the wilderness, which is vanishing rapidly. I had to do something for what I love. That’s how my work started. I accidentally found Punshilok as barren land except for a few stunted trees. I immediately felt the connection and fell in love with the place. I literally felt Punshilok had been waiting millions of years for me to care for her.
We have planted more than 200 species, 25 species of bamboo and around 50 species of orchids, and are adding more. We plant anything and everything. It is all equally important. Now this young forest has become a shelter and haven for wildlife in the Langol hill range.
At the beginning, our work was literally back-breaking. Forest fires were rampant, many times in a year. Sometimes I felt like an ant trying to hold up a mountain. People frequently came to cut trees because they didn’t know the place now had a guardian. I had to argue and fight with many people. I had to guard the forest day and night. Now we make a fire line every year to protect the forest. Nowadays, people have finally taken notice of what we are trying to create here. Cows have stopped coming to graze. After the return of the tree cover, there is less and less grazing for them.
Whatever I’m today is a result of many events but my master is this forest. Most of the things I know I have learned here. It’s an endless source of knowledge; every day I get something new, she has never failed to surprise me. I once lived alone there for six years. In that time, I went through the worst time and best time of my life. This is a very special place, so I don’t how to describe it. You may go to other forests and come out, but here we go and live, soon you find yourself becoming like the forest. Everything you put on as your identity has become meaningless and irrelevant, you become empty and hollow and joyful for no reason whatsoever. It may be a surprise to many, but I don’t have any personal life agenda. I’m devoted to work, live, eat and sleep, only work, everything is secondary. This forest has taught me to accept things as they are without judgment.
I find most of us are out of touch with reality. We have lost the capacity to feel and connect with the seen and unseen that is essentially us. How is it possible to fulfil our limitless desire with limited earth resources?
What can I say about Manipur, it is as any other place, we think mostly of short-term survival since we are poor because of the corruption and lack of true leadership. We have the capacity and the potential to become one of the most beautiful places on earth but we are far from it. I am heartbroken about this. I feel the same for India, disappointed that with so much wisdom we are going backwards.
How can I describe myself? I went up the hill to become somebody and soon realised I’m nobody, came down as everybody and everything.