Turning Litter Into Roads

My article from Bloomberg Businessweek on a new technology that has the potential to solve (or at least alleviate) two of India’s biggest problems: garbage and infrastructure.

It is difficult to exaggerate India’s garbage problem. Jairam Ramesh, the nation’s former environment minister, has said that if there were a “Nobel prize for dirt and filth,” India would win it. As much as 40 percent of the country’s municipal waste remains uncollected, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Of the waste that is collected, almost none is recycled.

Much of India’s garbage is made up of plastic—a scourge of the nation’s new consumer economy. The country’s Central Pollution Control Board says more than 15,000 tons of plastic waste are generated daily. The Supreme Court of India recently observed: “We are sitting on a plastic time bomb.”

Vasudevan sees an opportunity. A professor of chemistry at Thiagarajar College of Engineering, near Madurai, he insists that plastic gets a bad rap. Rather than an incipient environmental calamity, plastic, in Vasudevan’s opinion, is a “gift from the gods”; it’s up to humans to use it wisely. And he’s devised a way to transform common plastic litter—not only thicker acrylics and bottles but also grocery bags and wrappers—into a partial substitute for bitumen in asphalt.

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NPR All Things Considered

A short written and recorded segment from National Public Radio, All Things Considered: India’s election through the prism of literature. I chose V S Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now to talk about the significance of Modi’s election.

Audio clip here 

When I think of what just happened in Indian politics, I think about a book I first read some 24 years ago. That book was India: A Million Mutinies Now, by the Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul. Naipaul traveled through India in the late ’80s; he wrote before the economic reforms of the ’90s, before the social transformations of the new millennium.

But Naipaul was prescient. In a series of incisive portraits, he captured the incipient hopes and ambitions of the Indian people. He wrote detailed character sketches of businessmen, stockbrokers, politicians, women breaking free from oppressive traditions. Naipaul described these people — ordinary people — finding a new voice and identity. He wrote that they were discovering “the idea of freedom.”

In many ways, that idea — a sense of self-confidence, of individual self-expression — has found shape in Modi’s election.

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India’s Election Choice: Growth Economy or Welfare State

An article from Bloomberg Businessweek, on the upcoming elections in India.

Indian elections aren’t known for their clarity. Messy, cacophonous affairs, they stretch across months and almost invariably result in fragmented verdicts. Political groupings are opportunistic, driven by personality rather than issues; competing party platforms are often indistinguishable.

This year’s parliamentary elections—the nation’s 16th since independence, running from April 7 to May 12—are proving an exception. The distinctions between India’s leading parties are unusually sharp; the race is shaping up as a genuine battle of ideas, a real debate over the direction of the nation.

Youth vs. experience, communal vs. secular: These are the lines along which the elections are generally being interpreted. But there is, also, a third distinction between the parties, one that’s less remarked upon but arguably more important. The elections are in many ways a contest over economic ideas, over the model of development best suited to India. This contest significantly raises the stakes for Indian voters; the outcome of these elections could very well determine the fortunes of an economy that has recently fallen into stagnation.

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What Philippines Can Learn From 2004 Tsunami

A belated post of my article on Typhoon Haiyan, and possible lessons from the Asian Tsunami. Published in Bloomberg View.

Every disaster is particular. Different regions and nations face different challenges (and opportunities) in confronting nature’s fury. Still, there are enough broad similarities to make it worth asking: What lessons does the Asian tsunami have to offer those responding to Haiyan?

In the weeks and months after the tsunami, the area where I live (like affected regions across the Indian Ocean) witnessed something of a second wave: a veritable tide of air-conditioned cars and vans, of relief workers from around the world. These men and women (pink-faced and sweaty under the South Indian sun, dressed in clean, ironed clothes that contrasted poignantly with the rags worn by survivors) poured into the villages around here, promising succor.

In many ways, their concern was heartening. But one of the central lessons of that disaster is that international aid, while absolutely essential, can also be too much of a good thing. It’s not just quantity that counts; the quality is essential, too.

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The Cost of Growth in India

Article from The New Yorker online about coastal erosion in South India. An accompaniment to the print article from the previous week. Be sure to also check out the accompanying slide show.

I was in Kadapakkam because I was interested in understanding the impact of large infrastructure projects on people’s lives. The conventional wisdom among policymakers and development experts is that poor infrastructure is holding back India’s growth. K.P.M.G., the consulting and accounting company, calculates that the nation’s transportation and logistics bottlenecks reduce its growth rate by up to two per cent a year. A government report that came out last week estimates that infrastructure projects worth some two hundred and fifty billion dollars are stalled, mired in red tape. Last year, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said that India must meet its infrastructure-spending targets over the next five years “at any cost.”

But what, really, are the costs of large infrastructure projects?

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Letter from Tamil Nadu: Rush

My article on the East Coast Road and the changes it has brought, published in The New Yorker 

What happens when a big road meets a small village?

It was early on a summer day, the sun was still soft, and traffic was thick on the East Coast Road, in the South Indian village of Kadapakkam. In the center of the village, trucks and auto-rickshaws and taxis coalesced into a mess of diesel fumes and honking horns. Two buses met at a right angle at an intersection; each refused to yield, vehicles piled up, and for a moment this agricultural and fishing hamlet of some three thousand people was witness to the unlikely spectacle of a traffic jam.

K. Ganesh, a twenty-seven-year-old photographer from the village, stood outside his studio and grimaced. Ganesh was born and reared in Kadapakkam. He could remember when a motor vehicle was a rare sight in these parts. It wasn’t so long ago that he got around on a bicycle; now he owned a motorcycle.

“When the East Coast Road was first built, people didn’t know what to make of all the traffic,” Ganesh told me. They were annoyed by the pollution, kept awake by the noise, and terrified of the accidents. Ganesh recalled at least a hundred deaths in the area during the past decade or so, since the building of the road, a seven-hundred-kilometre-long highway that runs through the state of Tamil Nadu. Sometimes he was called by the police to take pictures of the mutilated bodies.

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My review, in The New York Times Book Review, of Crossing the Bay of Bengal, Sunil Amrith’s excellent new book. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in migration, environmental history, the Tamil diaspora, or the multicultural worlds that border the Bay.

A few miles up the road from my home, on a sandy beach in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, there is a crumbling fort that extends into the Bay of Bengal. The fort was built in the 17th century; over the years, it has been controlled by Mughal rulers from the north, by the French and by the British. Farther down the coast, past a string of fishing villages, sits the former French colony of Pondicherry, its wide boulevards and elegant villas overlooking the shimmering waters of the bay. A few miles away is an ancient Roman trading outpost. And two and a half hours beyond sits the former Danish port town of Tranquebar, its yellow fort blending into the sand, its rusty cannons pointing at the ocean.

The diversity of this region — a triangle of flat land that extends along the southeastern coast of India — is testament to an ancient history of migration, imperial conquest and seaborne commerce. As Sunil S. Amrith writes in his fascinating new book, “Crossing the Bay of Bengal,” the countries bordering the bay have for centuries been home to a cosmopolitan world that “is strangely familiar from the vantage point of the early 21st century — a world of polyglot traders and cross-cultural marriages, a world in which long-distance travel is a common experience.”

Lacking a political union to give it coherence, this world has often been overlooked. Although several books have been written about the strategic and geopolitical significance of the Indian Ocean — Robert D. Kaplan’s “Monsoon,” for instance — there is little awareness of the cultural and historical ties that bind diverse nations bordering the bay. Amrith’s signal achievement is to bring these ties to light. In doing so, he gives voice — and an identity — to one of the most complex and culturally interesting regions of the world.

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The Economic Crisis India Needs

My article in Bloomberg Businessweek, on India’s economic crisis–its worst in over two decades.

India finds itself in a particularly tight situation for at least two reasons. First, the nation’s current-account deficit, at 4.8 percent, is one of the largest among major emerging markets. With growth down, and exports subdued because of lower demand in China and Europe, that deficit is becoming harder to service. Second, any attempt to raise interest rates to tame inflation could further stifle investment and growth.

A dangerous—and dangerously self-reinforcing—narrative is taking hold. While policymakers tout the nation’s solid fundamentals, there’s a growing sense that they’re essentially helpless. There is talk of a possible credit downgrade; rumors abound (vigorously denied by the government) that India might eventually need an IMF loan. “Signs of panic,” editorialized theFinancial Express, one of India’s leading dailies.

India’s problems are certainly real. The country’s facing what is widely acknowledged to be its most severe crisis since 1991. But as dismal as the situation appears, India could yet emerge stronger, if not quite unscathed, from its troubles. In fact, a case could be made that India’s struggles are just the medicine its economy requires.

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The Fight Over India’s Future

My article in the Wall Street Journal on the feud between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati–and what it signifies for India’s economic development.

Indian politics isn’t generally known for its intellectual bent, so it was a curious sight last week when two Ivy League professors were thrust into the political limelight here. Harvard’s Amartya Sen and Columbia’s Jagdish Bhagwati are two of India’s most eminent economists. Mr. Sen is a Nobel laureate and former master of Trinity College, Cambridge; Mr. Bhagwati is a much-decorated scholar of international trade. Both are highly respected, both have recently published books on Indian development—and both have been engaged in a long-simmering feud.

Recently, their intellectual differences were recast in the mold of political combat. Mr. Bhagwati, thrust into the role of a right-wing BJP supporter, was grilled on TV and in newspaper interviews about his voting intentions. Mr. Sen found himself in the part of a cheerleader for the ruling Congress party and its welfarist policies

The equation is simplistic. Neither Mr. Sen nor Mr. Bhagwati is so easily pinned down; nor, for that matter, have India’s top political parties been ideologically consistent on economic policy. Much of the noise is simply an indication of rising political temperatures: Elections are due in early 2014, and the battle lines are already being drawn. But the controversy and accompanying media circus are an indication, too, of something more serious. They point to a growing debate within India about the state of its economy and the direction the nation should be taking.

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Review of Rushdie’s Joseph Anton

from Bloomberg Businessweek

Rushdie makes no pretense at objective analysis, but in the shade and texture he offers, in his portrayal of a man caught between the jaws of civilizational conflict, he does something far more valuable. He insists on complexity and nuance where polemic and cliché so often reign. This is what writers do. And this, ultimately, is Rushdie’s triumph. In an age of rising intolerance and diminished literary confidence, Joseph Anton—like Rushdie’s own life—strikes a blow for the continued relevance of literature.

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