Tuesday, July 05, 2016

My travel guide to Angkor

The key to visiting Angkor is to not try to do too much. As one guide book put it, the ‘second string’ temples here would be star attractions at any other location. But the mind gets fatigued with too much visiting. So the best thing really is to just go to a few places and spend time at them and soak in the atmosphere. And don’t try to do too much on any one day. My schedule actually worked out very well - reached on day 1 afternoon, early enough for a quick trip to one of the temples ; went to 2 locations on day 2,  one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and visit Siem Reap in the evening ; revisit Angkor Wat on day 3 morning and flight out in the afternoon. 

From the guidebooks, I picked Angkor Wat, Bayon at Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm and those were the temples I went to. On the way from Angkor Thom to Ta Prohm, I passed Ta Ko another splendid structure and stopped there for a bit. I think Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm are must sees, you could pick the others to see based on reading about them and your personal interests since there is enough unique attractiveness to most of the temples. 
A second visit to the place you most like is a good idea - it deepens the experience and there is almost certainly something you missed the first time round. 

Since the temples tend to be large and have several kinds of things to look at, a detailed guidebook is a good thing to have It anchors you so that you are not wandering a bit aimlessly and you also can have an idea of what’s there to look out for. I bought one of these guidebooks so you could try getting it from me. A human guide is also a good option, the official guys there seemed pretty good. 

The transportation arrangements to the temple from Siem Reap are not the best. I couldn’t figure out a better way so just hired tuktuks via the hotel which waited for me at the temples, which seemed inefficient. And worse, on one of the days, one the way back mixed up my tuktuk drivers and took the wrong driver and wasted some money. Its not just me being me :-) , the guidebooks also warn about confusion with tuktuks. The tuktuks also like to stick to two standard routes (Grand circuit, Little circuit) and you have to talk to them to get them to understand that you want to do your own thing. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Daydreaming about the Congress party

I’ve seen some posts on my Facebook timeline about the decimation of the Congress party in the recent elections and the real possibility of a Congress-mukt India. But the same events can be rewritten into a narrative of no significant setback and even the beginnings of a major renewal. Here’s how that might go:

The defeat in Kerala is an incumbent loss, which is par for the course. The Congress can come back at the next election. The defeat in Tamil Nadu is a reflection of the deep rot within the DMK. That party is rife with corruption, internal wrangling and Karunanidhi is past his ‘use-by’ date. If the DMK is able to enact a succession and clean up its act, coming to power next elections is quite feasible for them, and with the Congress in tow. The defeat in Assam was to be expected after two terms under Tarun Gogoi, a better-than-good run under a less-than-exceptional leader .

I don’t think all the above will happen on their own. The party does need real, strong, and deep, renewal. Thankfully and at long last, development/governance is now seriously on the agenda when public evaluates parties for election. The BJP campaigned on ‘development’ , AAP’s only line is good governance and some regional leaders like Nitish and Chandrababu Naidu provide more examples of good governance. There’s no going back. The Congress needs to get with it. it needs to move (way) past the Gandhi family. The Gandhis need to be one pole of power of a multipolar party. I have no idea why even intelligent Congressmen slavishly hold on to the Gandhi family when its clear that its not producing results. The Congress needs to rebuild itself. Regional leaders who deliver the goods in their states should be calling the shots rather than putative national figurehead leaders. 

And here’s an intriguing possibility that might bring all the above together into a winner. How about Rahul Gandhi for CM candidate  in UP? I don’t subscribe to all the conventional dissing of Rahul Gandhi as buffoon. I think if the Congress gambles on him as CM candidate in UP and puts their all behind him, they can well come to power there. And what a comeback that will be!

Note 1: I write the above as a unrepentant Congress sentimentalist - despite their many crimes of omission and commission - most recently in their 2nd term that ended in 2014. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Notes on the drought

Like farmer suicides the news every year about droughts, increasing summer temperatures and water scarcities is worrying and scary. One would not want one’s countrymen to be exposed to such trauma.  And yet, there is precious little in terms of a organised, meaningful, at-scale response. 

This is a nasty problem in that working on it is thankless - involves being out in the pitiless sun. The better a job you want to do, or the more you want to engage with the problem, the more time you spend in the sun. In that respect its like my old haunt of sanitation and it probably contributes to why the problem doesn’t get addressed effectively. 

It seems to me, we need a good national monitoring system that can tell us the scale of the problem and whether it is getting better or worse. Beyond the media articles, which paint a pretty scary picture, I don't know quantitatively how bad the problem is and whether it is getting worse. 

It seems to me, the basic approach to a solution should be a multi-year plan by each state with clear measurable outcomes. The outcomes would include things like a ‘drought-proofed’ condition, and the ability of the state to respond in a rapid, proportionate and effective way to a drought. However, Governments in India think too short-term and too political - its hard for them to have the patience to set up and follow through on  a multi-year response. Perhaps the solution then is a ‘policy entrepreneur’  who can sell long-term and sustainable drought proofing to the government. 

Another source of the problem is the lack of voice of those most affected, like small-farmers. The solution might be for people with the required knowledge and policy experience to work with farmers organisations and labour unions of landless labourers to raise the demand for real solutions. 

What can ‘common people’ like you and me do ? Donate to a good organisation working on the problem. Visit a drought-affected area to educate yourself. Realise that the challenges of national development are so large that insulating yourself from them is not an option if you want to live in a decent humane society
And, plant trees. 

Some recent articles in the media:

On transparency in Singapore

Singapore’s lack of transparency in governance is almost legendary. Researchers, for example, have extraordinary trouble getting data. A couple of examples from personal experience:
-In a class with a guest lecturer from the Public Utilities Board, he cautioned us against taking photographs of some of the slides (“You do not want to be arrested later for this”). 
-In talking to people about the immigration rules and systems, I find that people don’t know how or why the decisions are taken on work permits, guest passes etc. There is amazing amount of discretion and lack of transparency. 

It would be interesting to understand the historical origins of this phenomenon. In reading extensively of the writings of Lee Kuan Yew, I did not see anything about why he did not feel transparency important. 

In the ongoing project of revisioning Singapore, I am pretty sure that transparency will help Singapore in finding a way forward.  There have been memorable debates about Asian values and Singapore-style democracy. I don’t think these addressed the role of transparency and whether lack of transparency is a part of Asian culture :-)  
 Lack of transparency is simply incompatible with a modern society. You cannot have a educated, well-to-do population that is creative and free-thinking and a society that aims to be globalised and at par with the best of them, and at the same time, hide your governance behind a veil of secrecy. 
Prof Lam Chuan Leong, a retired bureaucrat whom I respect, pooh-poohed transparency in one of his classes. I wish I had taken it up with him then!  The bureaucracy will of course protest mightily that it is simply not possible to function efficiently if you have to be able to explain everything that you do. While there can be more discussion about the pros and cons, enough developed countries have implemented Freedom of Information acts and none have reconsidered its value. Even India has one, and you don’t hear anyone complaining about it.  Certainly it could make life more difficult for bureaucrats, but making bureaucrats' life easy is not the purpose of governance! In any case, the system will re-adjust and find new ”SOPs” that are compatible with the new laws. 

Singapore continues to be a restricted society with little space for questioning the government. Transparency would be one way to open up the space for questioning. Asking an innocent question cannot be grounds for harassment or taking someone to court.

It is surprising that the PAP, which has gone so far as to consider splitting itself in order to provide a more robust political system, has not considered the importance of transparency and implemented substantive measures in this direction. Its quite likely that 50 years of obscurity will have concealed a fair number of governance boo-boos. Whether there are more serious discrepancies between the facade and what went on behind the scenes, I do not know enough to speculate about (nor do I want to attract attention of the government by doing that!). 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Two talks

When I left for Singapore from India, Rohini N, Arghyam Chairperson mentioned that she had a pending invitation from Kishore Mahbubani to give a talk at the LKY School. That caught my fancy and I followed up with her quite a bit. So she did come and talk, and separately Nandan also did.  Nandan's talk caught the attention of the Indian diaspora - with very little outreach we had a good crowd of a 100-odd people. Rohini's was in the afternoon and on a more specialised topic of groundwater so less of a crowd but very enthu participation. Overall, went well ! I'm glad to have contributed to the intellectual life at School, beyond the courses.

With Indian classmates at the School

Sunday, March 27, 2016


Fragments from the ethereally beautiful SEA Aquarium in Singapore:

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Guest post - Banupriya

                                               At Bin Tan Island, Indonesia, a 1 hour ferry ride from Singapore

I’ve been wanting to write this blogpost since we moved to Singapore and finally got the inclination (with a little pushing from Vijay!).

When Vijay got his scholarship at NUS, Singapore and we wanted to move as a family...that's when it all started. We started calculating our living expenses including Vibhat's school fees. Meanwhile we enquired with friends living in Singapore. They gave us a figure which scared us. Some were telling us that it would difficult to live here with only our stipend. It was really scary and I backed out and started encouraging Vijay to go by himself. Vibhat and I would join later after a year if he got a job. But he was very clear that we move to Singapore with him. Now what? We started doing our budget planning on how to live with Vijay's stipend and our savings here in the bank. Meanwhile I would try to get a job there after reaching and if I got one, the salary would help.

  Finally the big day came and Voila! I landed up with my 6 year old kid in Singapore with a lot of doubts. and not very convinced with Vijay's financial planning. Initially I was very careful in spending and kept converting every dollar spent into rupees :-). It was painful after living a comfortable life in India, to live here without so many things. But later on I got used to it and starting buying necessary things. We had our budget for every month. We stayed within that but did enjoy eating out too in Food courts and  Hawkers Centres which were pretty okay and were within our budget. So we also enjoyed tasting local delicacies.

With 4000 $ per month we are able to manage. Here is the breakup:
House rent - 1500,
Vibhat’s school fees and bus facility - 1300, 
Living expenses - 700
Travelling inside Singapore (use Public transport) & Phone recharges for me n Vijay - 200
Doc's visit and miscellaneous things -  300

We are able to live within $4000 and also enjoy sightseeing around Singapore. 

The idea behind writing this post is to encourage other students of NUS not to get scared to bring their family along and to take the big step comfortably, of course after doing the required financial planning.

Monday, February 22, 2016


 Bi-bim-bap - Korean dish, veggie version. Which is basically salad :-)

Dessert at Bollywood Veggies , lychees (top), coconut and some tapioca-type thing at the bottom

Whole fried fish are a common thing here. This is from an Indian food stall. The Chinese do it with enormous fish 

Snow Ice, a Chinese dessert we like

 Snails at a market in Malaysia. Didn't know they were into that in this part of the world

 Squid ? From the same Malaysian market

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Vocational Education in Singapore

I did a term paper (in two installments) on vocational education in India for my course on Social Policy Design last semester. Didn't get a great grade :-( but found it fascinating, and was considering working in that area after graduation.  The link below should show you the papers on Dropbox (let me know if it doesn't). There is a lot of dividends for the country and its people if we get vocational education right.  PM Modi is doing the right thing by placing a lot of emphasis on Skilling India.


In India we have a huge problem with this perception of vocational education as infra-dig so we end up churning out huge quantities of unemployable B.As and B.Scs and B.Coms, while we suffer from a dearth of good technicians, plumbers etc. As as aside,

Singapore has an excellent vocational education system, one of the best in the world. They have an institution called the ITE (Institute of Technical Education), that serves people after 10th grade. They have several polytechnics (Temasek Poly, Ngee Ann Poly, Singapore Poly) that serve people after high school. One of the things that Singapore consciously did was to combat, quite successfully, the feeling that vocational education is a 2nd class or infra-dig option. Rather, it is portrayed as an option for people with different inclinations and different talents that the traditional intellect-based classroom education. They've 'signalled' this, by, among other things, funding their vocational education institutions very well and giving them a lot of facilities.

When Chandrababu Naidu visited Singapore recently, he checked out the ITE. These from the ITE website, ite.edu.sg :

His Excellency Mr Nara Chandrababu Naidu (centre in cream shirt), Honourable Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, India, at the Precision Engineering Hub at ITE College Central, where Laser and Tooling Technology training and development for staff and students are carried out. Students gain hands-on experience by working on CNC Laser Cutting Machine, Bending Machine and Turret Punching Machine with the aid of specialised CAD/CAM software, to create a wide array of metallic products ranging from name cards, pens and serviette holders to pendants, lamp shades and wall décor

I visited the ITE too, photos below:

Saturday, February 20, 2016

This is public policy ..

Attempting to do a 'teaching' piece here.

In the conversation about what is wrong with India,  some things stand out more than others and are worth paying more attention to. I would say these are things that everybody should understand.

I am referring to some of the subsidies given by the Indian government.

Governments may want to give subsidies to people for various reasons. In general, its better not to give subsidies. If you don’t give the subsidy, you can use the money for something else. For example, you can reduce taxes so everybody keeps more of their money and they are happy. Or you can use the money to set up an industry, which would employ people on a continuing basis and give them wages, and produce useful goods. That’s much better than giving a one-time subsidy. The other important thing with subsidies, is that they don’t encourage people to conserve whatever it is you're subsidising. If you subsidise petrol, people are paying less than they actually would for petrol. If they were paying the ‘real’ price of petrol, then they would try to use as less of it as possible, so as to save money. Subsidies, then, reduce that incentive to reduce usage of the thing subsidised, by hiding from you its ‘true’ price. That’s pretty unfortunate. Not only is the government paying for your consumption of that thing and every rupee is a sacrifice from other possible use, you’re actually using more of it than you otherwise would - precisely because its subsidised. Its like adding insult to injury. And in the case of goods like petrol, it keeps us hooked to fossil fuels, instead of getting us to move to renewable sources of energy.

Another problem with subsidies is that they are self-perpetuating. Once given, governments find it very hard to take subsidies away as people don’t like that. Instead subsidies tend to grow bigger and bigger. 

Nevertheless subsidies are required. For example, if we didn’t subsidise education, people who couldn’t afford education wouldn’t get it and families would be stuck in the cycle of low skills and poverty. 

Here are two simple rules about subsidies:
-Target them. Make sure they go only to people who really need them or whose behaviour you want to change. In India, the system of identifying poor people is so messed up that governments have given up and gives subsidies to everyone. This is a big waste of money. Why should Ambani (and I!) get a subsidy on our cooking gas ?! 
-Give subsidies for things that you want people to have a lot of. These are things like education - you want everyone to get as much education as they can (within limits). On the other hand,  you *don’t* want people to use larger and larger amounts of petrol. This follows from the earlier discussion that subsidies don’t encourage people to conserve.  

2.27 Lakh crore Rupees was allocated to food, petroleum and fertiliser subsidies in the 2015-15 Union budget presented in Parliament. This is in comparison to 18 Lakh crore, the estimated income of the Union government that same year. Therefore these subsides are more than 10% of the Union budget. You can therefore make a big impact on government money by dismantling the more pernicious of these subsidies. There is almost nothing else you can do that can have the same kind of impact. Hence my claim at the top of this essay, that it's important that everyone understand subsidies. 

The topic of this little sermon is a few particularly bad subsidies:

Petrol/Diesel subsidies: The logic given is that these are essential goods (for transportation) that need to be subsidised. However as said above the government has given up on trying to target subsidies so it gives *everyone* this subsidy. The results are just crazy:
  • First, of the total petrol consumed not much is consumed by the poor. Which makes sense. They’re too poor to consume a lot of it. On the other hand a lot of others consume a lot of it. For example: rich people. Large industries. So with every liter of petrol, you give a little subsidy to a whole lot of people who you don't really want to give it to. 
  • As the nation consumed more and more of these goods and and as the price of these kept rising (until recently when they’ve dropped precipitously), the subsidy bill kept rising. Its now thousands of crores.The nation simply can’t keep paying more and more to people for their fuel consumption. 
  • We ought to be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and getting onto renewable energy. There is that much less incentive to conserve petrol, when people pay less than the market price for it.  What might be possible if we invested that subsidy money into creating and furthering renewable energy sources? 
      The logic for diesel subsidies is even more inscrutable. As far as I understand, it is some idea that transporters (railways, lorries) use diesel and moving things like grains around the country is an important thing, so we subside diesel. This doesn’t make sense to me. Anyway, this subsidy goes to move all kinds of things (and people) around the country, including things rather undeserving of subsidy like luxury goods (cars,air conditioners). 
     Much to its credit, the UPA government finally started dismantling these subsidies. The sooner they’re stripped down to the minimum that make sense to support weaker sections of society, the better.

There are two other subsidies that are at the same level of importance. One is LPG subsidy. Again many of the same trends above. Subsidy going to everyone, not just poor people. In this case the government tries to separate things out so that commercial establishments don’t get a subsidy. However, as said above, we are really not good at targeting subsidies. What happens is that commercial entities cheat and get a false household connection and get LPG at subsidised rates. Fortunately, the government is in the process of reforming this too. That reform including the use of the Aadhar card, has been a fascinating process, but I won’t go into it here. 

Fertiliser subsidy: This is more complex than the above two. The case for fertiliser subsidies is stronger: we do want farmers to use a lot more fertiliser, so it satisfies one of the conditions for subsidies above. But its now proving to be more than a little expensive. There are years when this subsidy reached nearly 1 Lakh crore rupees. Its around 70,000 crore rupees now. Further, it only works when the right amount of fertiliser is used in the right amounts. That’s not happening now , so a lot of the subsidy is proving counterproductive and a waste. 

Some artlcles to find out more: