What must the government do now?

May 15, 2020

What must the government do now?

Just run all the trains.

Forget online registration, forget aadhar card and arogya setu, forget who pays how much, just run all the trains free for a month or two.

Forget corona, forget social distancing, forget screening; it’s anyway irrelevant for them now. Just issue tokens or printed tickets at all railway stations across the country. 1200 is not the real capacity of a train in normal times. Double it or triple it. It can’t get worse than what we are witnessing on the roads now. “Indian Railways runs 12,617 trains to carry over 23 million passengers daily – equivalent to moving the entire population of Australia – connecting more than 7,172 stations,” say reports. How difficult is it for us to transport 100 million people in a few days?

Forget fear of misuse. Trust me, nobody wants to go on a tour in these times.

Let the PM appear on TV and simply assure the people who voted for him: “We shall run free trains all over the country for the next month or two. Whoever wants to go home, make use of the trains. We will ensure food and shelter where ever you are but if you want to go home, take the trains. Stop walking, reach the nearest railway station and take a train. Stay at the railway station or nearby shelters till you get a train. We have made those arrangements. Don’t rush and cause stampedes, I assure you we shall run these trains till the last migrant worker has reached home.”

And arrange shelters and food around the railway stations. If you can’t give them food, at least give them shelter till they get a train. If you can’t give them shelters too, just don’t harass them wherever they are. They can take care of themselves for a few more days. Just run those idle trains.

You can think of massive screening, testing and quarantine centres across the country after first allowing them to reach their homes.

You can think of how to revive the economy later on.

For now, just run those trains.

What else can the government do?

The TV Speech

May 15, 2020

I somehow managed to listen to his Hindi speech, which was as usual without English/local language subtitles, and understood these five things.

1. An expensive harpic package has been announced. The junior artistes will disclose the contents of the pack tomorrow.
2. Jan Dhan, Aadhar, Mobiles have landed us up in a JAM.
3. When you make in Delhi and sell in Pollachi, it is called local. Be vocal about local and change its meaning.
4. The management jargon like incremental change, quantum jump, five pillars, four Ls still have users after many decades of overuse.
5. There are good hairdressers in Delhi who are breaking the rule to work during the lockdown. One, however, has to appreciate their flawless workmanship.

I also noticed a sixth aspect. Those who are dreaming about roaming around in the vast palaces of the new Delhi vista do not have eyes for the migrants marching in the middle of the night with splintered soles. They shall not utter a single word to recognise their plight. They shall keep boasting about how their relief money has landed up straight in the pockets of those migrants too.


April 23, 2020


Should we feel happy for these kids? One bus for every 25 students ensuring proper social distancing. Wow.


And then we have this, let alone the millions who don’t have this too. This is true meritocracy in action.


The Pyrrhic War on Corona

April 23, 2020

My essay in Tamizhini.

/Soon after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was identified in Wuhan in December 2019 and a pandemic started developing, the Indian government acted reasonably quickly to bring the Indian citizens stranded in Wuhan and other foreign countries to India, despite the risk of spreading the novel corona virus in India. Irrespective of the merits of the move, the intentions cannot be faulted. However, when a lock down was announced in India, we cared little for the millions of migrant workers spread across different parts of India./

/While the spread of corona in India and the mortality due to corona have not been as bad as other countries, the impact of the lock down has been worse. The objectionable language of war has been used frequently against corona. It must be said in the same vein, this is turning out to be a Pyrrhic war./

Notes on corona – 4: Being privileged

April 8, 2020

A few years ago, we decided to forego many of our privileges.

It is not an easy task, and to be truthful, it has been a half-hearted attempt. Privileged people don’t easily become poor overnight. Even Gandhi was privileged to the last….he was simple but never poor; he fasted but never starved.

Today I drove down our elderly house owner to a bank in a nearby village. While waiting for him to withdraw money, I went to a shop there and bought 2 kgs of red bananas at Rs.35 per kg. Less than what we pay even for other types of bananas during normal times. This would be our dinner for two days. [The prices of pulses have gone up but that of vegetables seem to have returned to normal or lower levels, despite the higher margins the traders and middlemen could be charging at this time. Restrictions on movement of vehicles are clearly affecting the perishable vegetable/fruit farmers. We are again hearing stories of farmers letting their produce to rot.]

When we came back, his wife gave me banana stem sabji (வாழைத்தண்டு பொறியல்), prepared after tedious work. She gave more uncooked stem for tomorrow. And she has a heap of bananas from the same tree and will give us a few dozens once they are ripe. She also gave us ultra sweet slices of jack fruit that filled the house with its awesome aroma. All these are from their farm.

A little later my wife returned from our farm. On the way, Parvathi, the lady who grazes her cows on our farm, gave her about 20 palm fruits plucked by her brothers from the roadside and riverside trees, each containing the juicy kernel (நுங்கு) in 2 or 3 hard casings inside the outer fibrous covering. Parvathi was overjoyed today that we have allowed her to use a part of our land this season for sowing sorghum (சோளம்), whose stalks could feed her cows for months. (Apparently there are no buyers now for their palm fruits too.) These not yet fully matured palmyra fruits are eaten by inserting our forefingers inside the casings to poke and scoop the pulpy kernel and then sucked (நோண்டி நொங்கெடுத்தல்?). They taste as good as or better than the mature fruits. Then we figured out a way of scooping with the stem of a spoon. But after poking around so much, the fingers are feeling sore now and our stomachs full. The bananas have to wait for tomorrow.

We are conscious that these are luxuries denied to the urban middle class and the poor during these dire times. We do not know how long these luxuries can last, if the lock down is extended.

When millions are starving and struggling, such unsought privileges keep leaving you with a deep feeling of guilt. Once we overcome this guilt, we may be able to articulate some solutions for the future. After corona is gone, we still have a climate emergency to deal with. The clear skies would turn hazy in no time.

Notes on Corona -3

April 8, 2020


The bar has been set so low that many of us were just relieved when the centre finally announced a relief package. P.Sainath does a deep dive into it and shows it to be woefully inadequate, and tells us what needs to be done.

/But focusing on COVID-19 to the exclusion of the larger canvas – that’s attempting to mop the floor dry with all the taps open and running. We need an approach which pushes ideas that strengthen public health systems, rights and entitlements./

/The government’s ‘package’ is a curious blend of callousness and cluelessness. It’s not just one virus we’re fighting – pandemics are also a ‘package.’ Of which economic distress can be a self-inflicted or self-aggravated part – driving us from calamity to catastrophe./


Making an apology without admitting your mistakes and then claiming what you did was inevitable is no apology at all. This means the earlier mistakes are not going to be rectified in any way and people will continue to suffer because, well, I’m sorry, it is inevitable and can’t be done in any other way and it’s for your own good. The same, ‘Oh I cry for a puppy hit by a car’ routine.

This is unpardonable. Here is a rather depressing compilation of reports on the deaths related to the poorly planned lock down in India…already nearing the deaths due to corona in India. We can argue over whether some of these deaths should be included here but…if you do argue, no point in arguing with you.


The gap between the privileged students with access to internet, books, online coaching, exponentially increased parental guidance etc., and the not-so-privileged students in their ability to crack entrance exams from NEET to Civil services is going to be widened significantly in this corona induced break.

Merely postponing the exams this year may not help. What are we going to do? This is another trigger for dramatically challenging and changing the status quo.

I am reminded of a research cited by our friend David H. Albert in his book, ‘Dismantling the Inner School – Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Abundance’. An extract from a review I wrote in 2016.

/Brick fifteen: School can fix everything and if things are not going well, the solution is more of it
David says, schools have become the chosen venue for interventions in the life of our communities far beyond their more narrowly defined educational purposes. He cites a research published in 2001, by Karl Alexander, a sociologist at John Hopkins University. Alexander followed 650 first graders and found that, after five years, children from low socio-economic class backgrounds, after starting with only a small deficit, were well behind those from higher ones. But he also found that cumulative classroom learning over the five-year period was virtually the same. The difference was a result of what happened to the reading scores of the two groups during summer vacations.
On that basis, it is asserted that keeping the kids (especially the poorer ones) in school would help bridge the gap. But rich kids gain most when they are not in classroom. So, the question should be what can be done in their homes, families, and communities outside of school and instead of school to improve the quality of their living and learning environments./


This is increasingly turning out to be a lock down of the privileged for the privileged by the hardships of the poor.

/Sanitation workers in Chennai are walking long distances to work during the lockdown, or journeying on garbage lorries. Taking leave for a day during this period invites penalties, even sacking/

/the sanitation workers are finding it hard to get even drinking water in the lockdown period. “Earlier, they would be given water by local residents in the colonies where they work. But many have been saying they are refused water these days.”/


Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey have worked with/for the common man for many decades and it shows in every word of this empathetic essay. When the social distance between the government and honest people on the ground like Aruna Roy or Harsh Mander increases, when you turn a deaf ear to a P.Sainath or Jean Dreze, this inhuman situation is what we would end up with time and again, while the mindless patriots go about banging their plates and setting fires and defending their Supreme Leader, come what may.

As/if the corona and hunger moves down the pyramid, we need to listen to these sensible and knowledgeable voices on how to alleviate the immeasurable pain and anxiety created by it amongst the poor.

/COVID-19 is a disaster that came with prior warning, and therefore did not warrant an arbitrary, unplanned and ill-prepared decision./

/This lockdown is shaping itself as the expedient response of an elite terrified of falling victim to a virus. There is clearly little imagination or application to work out a plan of action based on compassion and understanding of conditions on the ground./

/The propagandists uttered platitudes of support reiterating mandatory ‘social distancing’. The pretended ignorance of how the labour force lives — crammed together, 10 in a room — makes such statements pointless. In the slum or basti, social distancing is a non-existent concept. No order will work unless the government recognises and addresses the dire circumstances of the so-called informal sector. Those secure in isolated rooms in spacious homes, with a huge food stock, cannot wish this problem away./

/Desperation has not robbed them of dignity or independence. There is surprisingly no anger being expressed — yet. All they want is to go home./

/Draconian orders and platitudes will not work. Governments must show leadership, resolve, commitment, and compassion. Resources have to be effectively and optimally used. /

Tell me this is fake news. This is unbearable. Inhuman.


No lock down for us. The lock down has helped unlock and unleash latent energy.

Corona or no corona, coconuts have to be collected and farming has to happen. [And there are two special spectators – Mottled Wood Owls – to watch the spectacle.]

Prime Minister-ji, farmers are also rendering an essential service. I request you to come up with some brilliant 2-in-1 measure to show solidarity with farmers working in the sun and to fight corona. How about sunbathing on roof tops at noon for half an hour? Surely sunlight should be more powerful than diyas and candles in combating corona. Strict social distance to be maintained while taking selfies. Traditional dress to be worn.


Banging the plates seemed to be a harmless indulgence which we could simply ignore. Then we saw processions of people clapping and banging and dancing and marching.

Candle lighting also seems to be another harmless fiddling indulgence to keep the supreme leader happy and proud. I hope there are no candle light marches against corona, or worse, a grid failure, as some experts are warning.

The TN Electricity Board and many experts are advising us to keep our appliances on. I have poor knowledge of electricity and grids, and hence please disregard what I say if it doesn’t make sense to you and don’t ask me, ‘what about earth hour,’ et al.

We don’t have too many appliances at our house to keep on – two ceiling fans, one borrowed Amma table fan and a mixer/grinder. The last time when there was a high voltage due to some repair work in the neighbouring area, my laptop charger and mobile charger both got burnt. The Mac (my bloody old white elephant) adaptor cost Rs.7500. The fans ran at scary breakneck speeds. The PCs at our learning centre have also been damaged a couple of other times due to high voltages, and possible improper wiring – we have just been too scared to use them after that, deciding to wait till we get the wiring checked/fixed or buy some stabilizers.

Follow what the government and your electricity boards are saying, or do your own fact checks. However, having been bitten many times, we are going to be selfish and careful – sorry, we cannot afford to take any chances with any of our devices this time. And in any case, there are no power consuming devices we have that we can run at that time.

If this whole business is fraught with risk for the grid, dependent on citizens taking patriotic precautions at personal risk to their appliances, with no apparent benefits for anyone except the PM, there is still time for the PM to call it off gracefully. And focus on the real issues of the poor.

We have frequent power cuts at night and I hope the electricity board will save me from taking any anti-national decision.

We are going to switch off everything (which we do frequently), go up to our house owner’s terrace, lie down watching the stars and sleep. I do not think all the lights on the farms and the village will be switched off (unless there is a powercut). Yet the sky will be lovely as always. More lovely if the lights go off. The almost-full moon will be bright and will dispel all darkness.,

The sudden clouds masking our evening sky today may have other plans though.


Another sad ‘I told you so’ moment about candle marches.

I don’t know the authenticity of all the videos on this thread (on comments). Nevertheless, the way crackers were burst allover India, even in villages, it is clear we have an Unplanned Lock down and Planned Entertainment.

Did anyone shout, ‘Yay, we have crossed 4000!’ I wouldn’t be surprised.

Meanwhile, one analysis, shared by Yogendra Yadav, put the death count due to the lock down at 77 in the first week alone, not far behind the corona related deaths.

Sartre’s Typhus

March 29, 2020

I have seen many posts on Albert Camus’ The Plague (which I haven’t yet read) but haven’t come across any on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Typhus.

Sartre’s play, actually a screenplay, was also set during an epidemic in Malaysia.

I remember the opening scene when the last bus is about to leave an abandoned village. A Malay woman comes running towards it and people quarrel over whether they should wait for her lest they be infected by her with typhus.

The play also dealt with the selfishness of the rich and the racism of the colonialists during the epidemic, which does arrive in the city and there are many deaths. The protagonist is a discredited French doctor who fled a previous epidemic in Srilanka (I think) in desperation and is now living an unscrupulous life anonymously in the gutter. He reluctantly rises up to the challenge this time.

I don’t remember enough to write about it in further detail but I think it should be on your read list now. However it doesn’t seem to be a very popular book – I can’t find any pdf online and it’s unavailable on Amazon/Flipkart…I had borrowed the book from the government library a few years ago.

A French movie was apparently made based on this script in 1953 – The Proud and the Beautiful.

Unavoidable catastrophe – really?

March 29, 2020

Many seem to think it is an unexpected and unprecedented crisis and the government is doing the best it can and we should not be too hard on it. Without criticism, things would be worse.

It is certainly a catastrophe. But India, unlike many other countries, had more time to anticipate it and plan for it. We had the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes and successes. Right from February and early March, many who were tracking the worldwide developments were anticipating a lock down of some sort in India. Even I was personally alerting my sister to go cautiously on her company’s aggressive plans for ads and meetings in March/April…I now tell her I told you so. In fact, some who I follow on Twitter were even advising against airlifting people from Wuhan and other places, saying we will not be able to control the spread and that China would handle them better in a closed area…whether it is right or not, the risks were pretty clear.

If individuals with limited visibility and knowledge gained through media reports could anticipate this much, I would expect the central government, with its huge battery of diplomats, bureaucrats, advisors and strategists and information, to have been prepared better. They should have been ready with the plan for economic relief and the modalities for delivering it, long before the lock down. They should have checked our readiness of doctors, equipment for them and our ability to do testing. They should have known that there are 100 million migrant workers and a lock down cannot be announced dramatically without addressing their concerns. Those who wanted to go home should either have been allowed to home after screening/testing, or massive shelters and food and compensation should have been arranged in advance.

Modi should have announced the economic relief and the plan for the homeless workers (whether it is enough or not is another question) along with the announcement of lock down. The government might still be given the leeway to slip and blunder in some aspects as it is impossible to get everything right but here they did not even try to plan. The task force was not formed for a full three or four days after Modi announced it. A lock down without telling people how to face it and equipping them to face it created more panic than it would have done otherwise.

Many state governments have somewhat saved the day for us so far, keeping other things under reasonable control. They have also made mistakes but at least they were seen to be trying. However, in our current structure where much money, power and information lie with the central government, they failed us. This migrant exodus is a disaster that could have been anticipated and averted to a great extent. It is not just the wisdom of hindsight but what many of us feared and warned before the lock down.

We are yet to see the commotion that could be unleashed when the relief measures are implemented. I don’t yet see a proper plan for that too….how will the food materials be delivered, how will people go to the banks, how will the crowd management be done at the banks, how will migrants who haven’t reached home benefit from these measures, and other such logistics.

If our data is correct (which is also suspect given our low levels of testing), it looks like corona has been kinder to us so far than our central government. And I hope it stays that way.

E-Box and the plight of small businesses

March 27, 2020

My sister & brother-in-law’s company. They have built E-box, a software product – an AI based learning platform. Completely bootstrapped and self-sustaining for the last 12 years. No loans, no VC funding so far. Absolutely passionate about reforming engineering education. They have managed to do this by hiring and mentoring students – many of them their own – mostly from the so-called tier 2/3 colleges.

It has taken this long for a small story on them to emerge on a popular media platform.

They had started the E-box Colleges initiative this year by taking over the management of 3 engineering colleges . Now their 200+ employees are at home and their clients locked down. They had planned to take their longest leap this year and now face their most challenging obstacle.

Hope they, and many more small businesses like them, get through this phase.

Sleeping in the open : Corona 2

March 27, 2020

Last night our daughter had some sudden brainwave and wanted to sleep in the open. I thought, staying within the four walls is no big deal – that’s what we are used to; let’s recollect what it means to sleep under the skies. It is almost summer and the weather should be pleasant. So we obliged happily. We took a few pillows, cotton blankets and straw mats to the open roof top of our house owner (since our house has a tiled roof).

It has been a while since I went to sleep before 12 or 1. The 10 o’clock sky had the Leo above our heads. Gemini, Canis Major and Canis Minor were under our noses. Orion was farther down our chins in the west and faint. I didn’t enjoy the sight for long and dozed off soon.

By 1 a.m. the pillows were damp. The mats were also moist. We were worried if our daughter will catch a cold. Woke her up and walked her down reluctantly inside the house, with the promise that we would sleep again for a few hours under the skies today.

Of course, we had a home to go back to.