Landlocked island

In appreciation of a speech I delivered in Kuala Lumpur in late February on the global financial market outlook, one of the organisers, the Swiss-Malaysia Business Association gave me a book, ‘Swiss Watching’ written by a British expat Diccon Bewes. I read it even though the initial reaction was one of disinterest since I had lived there for five years in the 1990s. The book was full of useful tips for an intelligent tourist. The author takes readers to locations where there is unique Switzerland – places where they make watches, cheese and chocolates; the place where three gentlemen put their hands together and sealed the formation of the Swiss Federation, the home and the cemetery of the author of Heidi, to name a few.

Very interesting to read that a store brand (a brand of chocolates made by the supermarket chain Coop) came second in a blind test on chocolate tasting. The brand is Coop Prix Garantie. The winner was Cailler.

These experiences are sprinkled with stories of how Swiss eat, what they eat, the do’s and don’ts in Swiss social gatherings (greeting every one by name when you enter and exit!), how to eat, whether to offer to pay for lunches or dinners in restaurants with Swiss friends, etc. The book makes the point that the Swiss do not like to queue!

There is a separate section on Swiss rail system  – as it should be. That system is a marvel and still very much a model of high efficiency and comfort.

Serious readers would find the commentary on their direct democracy fascinating and be envious of the system that has worked well so far. The accusations of the Swiss having profited from Nazi loot are put in proper perspective. The author’s objectivity comes through.

I must admit that the book made me nostalgic for the place although on seeing the freezing, sub-zero temperatures during this Easter weekend in Switzerland, the nostalgia quickly gave way to relief at not having to endure those temperatures on a long holiday weekend.

Written with good humour, the title of the book, ‘Landlocked Island’ is both apt and interesting. Recommended read.

Messages from a graduation ceremony

From the Dean to the graduating class of 2013 at NPS International School in Singapore on 26th March, 2013:

Do not repeat the same mistake because the second time around, it is a choice.

From the speech by a graduating student:

In school, they teach a lesson and then they test you on it.

But, remember that life does it the other way around: It tests you and expects you to learn your lesson from that.

Some interesting stuff I read/watched

Was happy to read this story in ‘Indian Express’ that my wife had so kindly left open on my computer. It is about how a Muslim woman corporator took into her fold a old Namboodiri woman who was about to commit suicide and has looked after her since then, without making her embrace Islam. Lovely story.

This one is about a rich man who downsized to a 420 sq. feet apartment in New York. He says less is more. Stuff fills up the space that is there. Both chase each other without much meaning or purpose. I should know, living in a 4000 sq. feet house with just four people. Most shopping is mostly devoid of meaning and purpose. It fills an existential void in our lives and not needs. We do not probe its motivations enough. We do not want to lest it exposes uncomfortable truths that we cannot bear facing. There is peer pressure and curiously, there is also the fear of being considered ‘different’ by the group, if we acted according to our convictions, and hence being sidelined. The urge to belong is more powerful than living out one’s convictions.

This article about how boredom starts/sets in has many insightful observations that are worth pondering over:

Boredom has at its core the desiring of satisfying engagement but not being able to achieve that,” Eastwood said. “And attention is the cognitive process whereby we interface with both the external world and our internal thoughts and feelings. So it falls logically that attention must be at the core of the definition.”

When a task is so simple that it doesn’t require focused attention, he argues, we often can’t find a suitable point of engagement: We’re not expending enough effort to maintain our focus on the activity at hand, and have no other suitable point of engagement to compensate. On the other hand, trying to process an overwhelming environment with a limited amount of attention can also make us feel bored.

[My comment: As in big parties when there are too many conversations going on or in a big function like marriage, etc. Of course, my context is Indian marriage].

Research suggests that even simply taking note of the boredom-provoking conditions we’re in can offer some relief.

[My comment: Yes, becoming aware of a situation/problem is already a big step towards dealing with it, resolving it because implicit in the awareness is acceptance. Think about it].

Can pollution turn us inward?

It has been a while since I posted anything on this blog. It is not that I am short of views, thoughts that cross my mind that are interesting enough (I would say that, won’t I?) to be shared but it has been a case of inertia. The news-item I saw in THE HINDU this morning helped me to shake off that inertia. The news-story is about levels of pollution in Bangalore. I spent ten days in Bangalore teaching at the Indian Institute of Management in January. I enjoyed the idyllic campus. But, it is not available to every one else in the city. These lines, in particular, make me feel sad:

Vaman Acharya, KSPCB Chairman, said that the most immediate concern is the huge vehicular population. Air pollution continues unabated despite technological advancements that facilitate reduction of emissions, he said. Apart from emission, dust and garbage are also polluting the city. “The worst affected are children who suffer from asthma,” he said.

“We were earlier a pensioner’s paradise. Today, we are known for wheezing and asthma, and the city is a hell for pensioners,” he said.

He said that children between the ages of 2 and 17 suffer the most. In this age group, he added, eight per cent of children are found snoring and around 1.05 per cent suffer from Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome. “People are paying with their heart, lungs and body,” he said.

There are many ways to respond to this ‘crisis’. Some are external to us and some are internal to our behaviour. Each of us might think differently about which matter the most. Nor should it be construed that the measures are exclusive. That is, if you do one, you cannot do the other. No, that is not the case.

We need to pursue on all fronts – petitioning the Municipal Counsellor, raising the price of diesel, removing subsidies on kerosene, etc., clamouring for more investment in public transport to vehicle-free days, hours, zones and imposing road-usage charges, etc. to changing one’s personal behaviour.

For this post, consistent with the ethos of this blog, I shall focus on personal behavioural changes.

We need to ask ourselves if we really need a oversized vehicle. We need to ask ourselves if we need to take the car out for one person to travel. We need to set time aside for reflection, reading, spending time with family members rather than be out somewhere. We need to ask ourselves if we should buy diesel-powered vehicles. We need to ask ourselves if a conversation could not be concluded over phone.

Policy experts and economic experts have jargon for expressing our reluctance to change attitudes when the benefits are diffused but when costs are direct. For example, if the price of diesel is raised, we feel the pinch immediately. But, we will not connect the reduction in the number of visits to the doctor or the reduction in medical bill, etc.

That is the reason governments subsidise each and every item separately by keeping their prices artificially low. It is easy for a logical person to say that the government could estimate the usage of each item for a poor family per month, determine the price that they can afford to pay and transfer the difference between the economic price and the ‘subsidised’ price as cash payments into their accounts. Then, they can go to the market and buy the same goods at the same price that is charged to all. The problem with this is that those who are used to buying at a subsidised price would somehow feel cheated. They would not connect the cash in the bank and the subsidy. Both are the same. But, the first one is direct and the cash is indirect. Our minds perceive them differently. This is what makes policymaking challenging and interesting.

There is another rational explanation for not changing one’s behaviour. That is, we are not sure if every one else would do it. Only then, will benefits become visible. Otherwise, the sincere person who changes his behaviour for the better, still pays the price for others behaving badly or undesirably.

But, one thing is clear. Our behaviour – whether we change them or not – has direct costs. The costs are borne by our own family members and children.  That is what the selected sentences from the news-story convey. We pay a price for our behaviour. Some of the health costs may not even be evident  immediately but would visit us later in life.

India simply cannot grow the same way as the West did. Circumstances, size of the land, the number of people and climatic conditions are all different. Second, we even need to question strongly if these are really the signs of development – having five cars in the garage, having a SUV, etc.

Educated and healthy population, safety on the streets for men and women and essential public amenities – a platform to walk on, for example  with no potholes and electric wires dangling on your face – are all signs of development. Not shopping malls, not SUVs, not glass and steel structures.

All of us have to change – whether we are policymakers or the public. Starting with oneself is immediate and results can be quicker.