Sainath is Innumerate

October 31, 2007

P. Sainath being innumerate is actually the most charitable explanation for this editorial. A less kind explanation is that his bias is making him too lazy to do his research properly, and a very unkind explanation is that he’s actively using scare tactics to push an agenda.

I refer specifically to this section:

Let’s revert to the latest maternal mortality figures released by the WHO and others. Some 536,000 women died in childbirth in 2005. Of these, every fifth one of them, at least, was an Indian. That is, 117,000 of them. A total that could only be matched by Nigeria, Afghanistan and Congo together.

Does Sainath not understand the concept of per-capita mortality rates (which makes him innumerate at best and stupid at worst), or is he intentionally not bringing them up (which makes him dishonest)?

The report Sainath is referring to is here. Scroll to Page 23 of Section 1 (which is Page 29 of the PDF file). This is the table which has the estimates of maternity deaths. Page 24 has the India figure: as Sainath says, it’s 117,000.

What about the three other countries? The figures are:

  • Nigeria: 59,000
  • Afghanistan: 26,000
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo: 32,000

which totals to 117,000 as well.

What Sainath omits, of course, is that India’s population is one billion people, much more than that of Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the DRC taken together. What is very curious is that the report puts the lifetime risk of dying in childbirth and the deaths per hundred thousand childbirths in the same table, and Sainath doesn’t use these measures, which are far more useful and worthwhile. Incidentally, here they are:

Lifetime risk of maternal death:

  • India: 1 in 70
  • Nigeria: 1 in 18
  • Afghanistan: 1 in 8
  • DRC: 1 in 13

In other words, you are four times less likely to die giving birth in India than Nigeria.

What about the number of deaths per 100,000 childbirths (referred to as the Maternal Mortality Rate, or MMR)? In the same table, we get the figures:

  • India: 450
  • Nigeria: 1100
  • Afghanistan: 1800 
  • DRC: 1100

Now, if 1 out of 70 mothers is going to die giving birth, that is still an obscene figure. And there is a long way to go. Similarly, if approximately one of every two hundred pregnancies is going to end in the death of the mother, that’s still nothing to be proud of.

For comparison, here are the MMR figures for the Asian tigers, which started independence poorer than India:

  • South Korea: 14
  • Singapore: 14
  • China: 45 
  • Malaysia: 62
  • Thailand: 110
  • The Phillipines: 230
  • Hong Kong: not considered
  • Taiwan: not considered, because this is the UN, and we can’t offend the Chinese. Oh no.

So there’s a long way to go. But to twist statistics to make India seem worse off than countries with actual mortality risks four to eight times worse smacks of scare tactics. Moreover, an unbiased person would look at the table, and see links with levels of urbanisation, the rule of law, and how soon a country started economic reform. Sainath looks at it and goes off on a tangent to abuse the media for talking about the Sensex instead of this (and doesn’t that argument sound very similar to the one which abuses the media for talking about the Gujrat riots instead of the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits?).

Sainath also writes:

In fact, it would be good to devise a health index spanning the reform years. One that looks at how both rich and poor have done health-wise. How many years of life, for instance, are taken away from you by ill-health if you are one of India’s less well off citizens?

Excellent idea. Let’s look at the WHO’s 2000 report on Maternal Mortality. Scroll to page 26. The MMR in 1998 was 540. In other words, the maternal mortality rate has seen a 20% drop in 7 years.

So let’s close with Sainath’s parting shot:

Maybe we need a media relevance index. An MRI scan of mass-produced mediocrity.

Like the mediocrity of his research and grasp of statistics? Pot, kettle, black.


October 30, 2007

My iPod playlist is on shuffle. Wake Me Up When September Ends just came on after Jaage Hain.

Property, Transaction Costs, and Black Money

October 30, 2007

One last Indian Express link for today: Gautam Chikermane’s column on what India can learn from Hernando de Soto:

Take de Soto’s theory a little further and you’ll probably reach a conclusion that like the sub-head of his 2000 book The Mystery of Capital, capitalism may not be able to triumph in India. While the dreamer in me disagrees, my pragmatic side tells me that in some states the bridge towards that triumph is being built in the form of lower stamp duties.

Going forward, the Delhi government plans to reduce it further — the state cabinet has approved a fall to 6 per cent for men and 4 per cent for women — which is good news for all stakeholders: households, the real estate and construction industry and the government. By lowering rates, the incentive to dupe the exchequer of legitimate taxes falls. The average black or unaccounted cash component in Delhi, at between 40 and 60 per cent, remains high, but it’s early days. Marry this fall in stamp duty rates with the way the Central government is trying to plug every possible loophole on the spending side, and the future of unaccounted wealth moves from black to bleak. Scholars have argued that state governments could double their stamp duty receipts if properties were valued correctly.

But like a chicken-and-egg syndrome, I don’t think that’s likely to happen unless, ceteris paribus, stamp duties fall like they have in Delhi, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

The emphasis in the last quoted paragraph is mine.

Read the whole thing

And this reminds me that I really should write followups to my post about allowing farmers to sell their land.

Saddam was Worth Thirty Civilians

October 30, 2007

At the Pentagon, Garlasco was chief of high value targeting at the start of the Iraq war. He said his team was authorised to kill a set number of civilians around high-value targets like Saddam Hussein and his leadership….

Asked if so much care is being taken, why so many civilians are getting killed, Garlasco said because the Taliban were violating international law and because the US just does not have enough troops on the ground. “You have the Taliban shielding in people’s homes. And you have this small number of troops on the ground. And sometimes the only thing they can do is drop bombs,” he said.

“I don’t think people really appreciate the gymnastics that the US military goes through in order to make sure that they’re not killing civilians,” Garlasco said.


Making a calculation about how many civilians you’re willing to kill sounds completely outrageous, but such an approach is still better than bombing indiscriminately.

This reminds me of first term at IIMB, when one of us had to make a presentation about acceptable defect levels for our communications course. He was questioned on why he thought it was acceptable to pass any defect on to the customer at all, which sounds similarly outrageous (without obviously being as outrageous as civilian deaths).

Unfortunately, the English language (and most other natural languages) make it difficult to get the statistical point across. The idea is not to calculate how many deaths or defects you can get away with, but to assign a cost to defects to ensure you feel the pain of making each one.

(Note 1: I haven’t been very clear. In the unlikely event I find time, I may go back, pull out my Levin and Rubinstein and explain more clearly.)

(Note 2: This of course, holds good in the context that you assume that the goal of the war and eliminating Saddam are justified in the first place. Which is a whole other argument. Please do not bring it up in this post.)

I Hope This Becomes a Trend

October 30, 2007

She calls herself Street Hero, says she is a former prostitute, knows martial arts and takes to the city’s underbelly to protect women who work the streets. Her uniform includes a black eye mask, a black bustier and black knee-high boots.  

Then there is Red Justice, a substitute teacher from Queens, who wears red boxer briefs over jeans, a red cape and a sock with eyeholes to mask his identity. He trolls the subways encouraging young people to give their seats to those who need them more.

These were just a couple of the 13 or so do-gooders who gathered near Times Square Sunday for what was billed as the first meeting of Superheroes Anonymous.

There were locals and out-of-towners. Most were in uniform and all said they were serious about helping make their communities cleaner, safer and kinder places.

“We’re not these crazy people,” said one man, Geist, who traveled from Minnesota. “We just have an unorthodox approach to doing good.”

(NYT story syndicated on Indian Express)

This is awesome. The disappointing thing here is that these are very Robin-ish or Huntress-ish superheroes, with no superpowers, but you’ve got to make a start somewhere. Hopefully, we will see technology enabled superheroes of the Batman/ Iron Man variety soon. I am pessimistic about real superpowered superheroes coming up any time soon, but one can always hope.

Meanwhile, where are Bangalore’s superheroes? We could do with a masked man who fills in potholes and destroys speedbreakers.

Tandava and the Open Society

October 29, 2007

Drawing on Jerry Rao’s funda of Kipling and Rushdie having a Vaishnavite and Saivite view of India, I think it is good and worthwhile to apply this concept across the board. Especially to governance.

Read the rest of this entry »

Mint on FM

October 29, 2007

Today’s Mint is carrying a report on the future of FM radio as a business, and how differentiation is finally happening under the pressure of competition. Do read it, and also my old post on where the opportunities for differentiation lie.

Ram Rajya

October 25, 2007

Under Ram Rajya, the ruler derives the moral authority to rule from the consent of the subjects. This sounds wonderful, but people fail to realise that legitimacy is derived from adherence to the truth, and not from popular support.

Ram Rajya meant that the vocal disapproval of a single washerman led to Ram abandoning Sita, without bothering to examine the truth or the facts.

Today, the vocal disapproval of Prakash Karat has led to the government abandoning the nuclear deal, despite the obvious benefits. We have finally achieved Ram Rajya. Manmohan Singh has accomplished what the BJP failed to do.

I Want to be a Young Man in Spats

October 25, 2007

Skimpy claims that monsoonal rains follow the Gregorian solar calendar, while post-monsoonal autumn showers follow the Hindu lunar calendar. Thus, there is always rainfall at the time of Dasara, whenever that might be, while the monsoons always show up in June. Every three years, when the leap month is added to bring the lunar year back into sync with the solar year, this manifests itself as a longer and dryer summer.

The reason I bring this up is that due to the Dasara rains, my trousers have been spattered with mud even before I reached office. As is usual after 10 millimetres of rainfall, Magrath Road is now a dirt track, and the traffic passing over it has left my lower right trouser leg looking like a Jackson Pollock painting – if Jackson Pollock would have used brown.

For a banker of repute, having such indignities visited upon his trousers is intolerable. One cannot convince customers of the virtues of zero-cost options unless one’s trousers are spotless, starched, and straight. The cry goes out: what to do, what to do?

Fortunately, we do not need to come up with new solutions that will impose heavy research and testing costs. The answer lies in our past, and we can reach back and grab it. Ladies and gentlemen: spats.

As the Master wrote:

Spatterdashes was, I believe, their full name, and they were made of white cloth and buttoned round the ankles, partly no doubt to protect the socks from getting dashed with spatter but principally because they lent a sort of gay diablerie to the wearer’s appearance. (link

Remarkable, no? My trousers are protected from spatter, my appearance borrows a gay diablerie, and best of all, I promote Edwardian values:

This is pointed out to me every time a new book of mine dealing with the Drones Club of Jeeves and Bertie is published in England. “Edwardian!” the critics hiss at me. (It is not easy to hiss the word Edwardian, containing as it does no sibilant, but they manage it.)

I will now rant about the importance of Edwardian values. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Congratulations, Amit

October 25, 2007

Amit Varma has won the Bastiat prize.

Joyous as this is, I can’t help but wonder if and when someone will come up with a Miss World-style conspiracy theory that an Indian has won only to promote a neoliberal agenda in India.

(The original conspiracy theory was that Indian beauty queens were winning Miss World and Miss Universe titles only because cosmetics companies were trying to push sales in the Indian market. If there’s a country which liberalised cosmetics imports and retail at the same time as India, but didn’t win any beauty pageants, this could actually be tested.)