Lake Palace Hotel

There are romantic places in the world. And then there is Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur. Emerging from the Pichola Lake like a ghostly apparition, the brilliantly white summer palace for the rulers of the Mewar dynasty is sumptuous in its offering. To add to the mystique, the hotel is only accessible by boats. It is built on a natural island, which is now entirely covered by the palace. From afar, it looks like the the palace is just floating in the Lake.

We went there on a really dark moonless wet night. There rain was like a fine mist in the air and the lake was brimming with water. As we approached the Palace on the boat, palace seemed to emerge from the dark waters of Lake Pichola. Flowing curtains in the window, subdued light in the courtyard and a restrained sense of opulence. Rivulets snaking along the walls of the palace refreshing in the usually oppressive desert heat of Rajasthan.

The palace was restored and converted into a luxury hotel in 1971. The Taj group runs a really exclusive hotel in the palace now. The hotel is as luxurious on the inside as beautiful it is on the outside. There are two restaurants, one for Indian cuisine and the other for multi-cuisine. The food is not exceptional but the ambience is fantastic. We ate at Jharokha, the multi-cuisine restaurants with a fantastic view of the lake. The service was polite and the food well presented.

In terms of ambience, it is very difficult to beat the Lake Palace Hotel. As one would expect, it is expensive. But, I think it is worth an occasional splurge.

A thoughtful movie

Everyone in India is watching talking about Peepli Live. After a long time a movie has caught the imagination of the country as a whole. (Link to the movie’s funky website.)

The plot starts innocuously with a poor indebted farmer called Natha contemplating suicide as a way of repaying his family’s debt. There are rumours of generous compensations for the family of the farmers that commit suicide due of indebtedness. Natha, sees this as a way of providing for his family after his death. He starts speculating about it in public and the story finds its way into the local vernacular press. Turns out that there is political battle brewing over the upcoming bye-election in that area. Overnight the national media, the politicians and the bureaucrats and the rest of the country get hooked into the story. Everyone starts trying to use the story to advance their owns interests as the story starts to snowball.

What ensures can only be described an gladiatorial contest. As the country becomes conscious about the imminent suicide of Natha through the media, various institutional components of the country get inter-locked in a battle to extract the most of out of the story for their own gain.

The beauty of the movie lies in its ability of capture the nuanced interaction between the various institutional components of the society. The bureaucracy, the media, the political establishment and a country hungry to consume sensational news.

Art is often an artist’s perception of reality. It often is not able to escape a particular perspective. Too often in the post-modern world, the perspective is celebrated and glorified. This is a reflection of the move towards self-reliance that accompanies modernisation.

Maybe, that is why it is difficult to come across art that is able to faithfully represent and explores the complexity of the world around us. The world around is woven from strands of reality that individuals experience. The sum of the whole is very different from each components. It is rare that an piece of art goes beyond a few strands. The complexity of the world is rarely captured in any form of art. If at all it is captured, it in the sterile general equilibrium models in Economics. It is welcome change of watch a movie that captures reality in a entertaining way and restrains itself from simplifying the world into black and white.

Elite capture of government machinery is a fairly clichéd theme. Peepli Live goes beyond that the obvious themes and is very deftly able to explore the tension within various institutions along the rural urban line. The suave urban TV anchor patronises the local news paper reporter. The local politician outmanoeuvres other more powerful national politician. The village politics drives national politics. The movie is extremely restrained in it portrayal and leaves the viewer to observe what is happening and to make up their minds.

The viewer observes the superstructure of the society grinding against the changing ground realities. This symbolises the permanent revolution that has gripped the nation since the early 1980s. The incumbents hang on to power, very hesitant to let go as the power centre’s dissolve and get more diversified. Recent work is telling us that the change in the country is not a result of the some brilliant insightful master plan by the incumbent policy makers and power brokers. It is a result of people forcing the policy makers and power brokers to let go. See Basu & Maertens (2007) for a very accessible account of this.

The power that centralised till the 1980 has slowly seeped away, resulting in a resurgent rural India. (See Deaton and Dreze, 2002) The rural India is slowly trying to hold the urban India accountable, while the urban India is hungry for resources and ready to grab anything and everything. The parallel with Singur, Yamuna Expressway or the Maoist insurgency in the tribal heartlands is inescapable.

In a strange way, I see Peepli Live as a complement to the Guru, a Mani Ratnam film made in 2007. Guru portrayed the resurgent India from a different perspective.  Guru is a story of Dhirubhai Ambani taking on the coterie of the industrialist and politicians that had shackled India for their own gains through license raj till 1980s. He is able to break their stranglehold by deviating from the prescribed law and accumulating enough wealth to take on the interest groups.

The power no longer lies within a small coterie. Various changes in the country has ensured that the power is geographically and socially diversified. There are many smaller power centre. Any policy or change is a result of the bargaining process between the various power centres. Institutional change as a result is on one hand painful slow but on the other hand more responsive to needs to of the people. The movie’s sophistication lies in its ability to capture this contradiction. Everyone in the country cares about Natha, yet nothing really changes.

A lot has been written about the ongoing transformation in India. The process of transformation is messy and elongated. There are winners and losers locking their horns like gladiators. India is shinning only for a minority. Peepli Live is just a ringside spectator, merely observing the gladiatorial contest. It dispassionately portrays what is observes without either getting swayed by emotions or wincing at the pain inflicted by the participants of the contest on each other. It is frightening how much life in India is like a gladiatorial conquest, where only the strongest walk out of the ring alive. The hope is that this is the just the birthing pains of new more equitable society of the future.

References:

K Basu and A Maertens (2007). The pattern and causes of economic growth in India. Oxford Review of Economic Policy.

A Deaton and J Dreze (2002). Poverty and inequality in India: a re-examination. Economic and Political Weekly.

Naxal Violence in India

There was another naxal attack in Chhattisgarh today. The naxal violence has had a secular upward trend in the last couple of decades. The violence has also spread geographically. The government response has often been local, confined to the state governments. There has never been a coherent national strategy to deal with the naxal violence. This may partly be due to the fact that policing is a state subject and the problem by default is percieved to be a law and order problem. Historically, the central government gets only involved once the political conflicts in the country become significant enough to start having impact beyond the boundaries of the state in question. Home Ministry, the ministry responsible for internal affairs in India is a fairly opaque body with very little accountability. It controls the country’s resources for policing yet tends to not consider itself accountable for any lapse that may occur. The national strategy for most political conflicts in the country have had a predictable cycle where it is initially perceived to be a law and order problem for almost a decade before the government starts thinking of political solutions.

The response to the recent upsurge in the naxal violence has been mainly a militaristic on, both at the level of state and central government. The chattering classes seems to be of the opinion that it is a problem that needs a political solution. Yet, the response hitherto seems to be mainly in terms of increasing the resources allocated to the police marginally. Since the naxal problem has been perceived as a law and order problem by the government, the responsibility of dealing with it has fallen on the police by default.

Lets look at pattern of violence. It is clear that the naxal violence is confined to the tribal areas in India. By no means all tribal areas have been affected. The pattern seems to be that in the afflicted states, the intensity is much greater in the tribal areas. Further, the newly formed states like Jharkand and Chhattisgarh have bore the brunt of the naxal attacks in the recent years. These are states that were formed in 2000 and thus are just 10 years old. It is possible that when the boundaries of the new state were being drawn, the bigger states parted with under-developed areas more easily. The bottom line is that the government in these new states are less effective administratively as well as less muscular than in states with longer history.

Further, the naxal violence dominates the mining belt. Mining is a significant proportion of India’s export basket. Mining requires land acquisition and it is not difficult to imagine that the unfairness in land acquisition maybe be one of root causes of the naxal violence.

Moving on from root cause, it is useful think about the organisational structure of these organisation. It seems that there is a very dedicated upper management cadre that guides the naxal movement. What is also striking is that there is no branding in terms of the name. There seems to be significant amount of decentralisation in the actual execution of the violence. At the local level, there seems to be a local coalition of people, some with clear criminal intent, that seems to act like the psuedo-state at the local level in the absence of effective local government machinery. This local coalition seems to get material support from the upper management, yet it does not have the rigid organisational structure that we associate with terrorist organisation in the 70s and 80s. As a result, the movement can lose the local organisational structure and yet preserve its upper management that goes on to create other local organisation structures. Peter Bergen in his 2001 book Holy War, Inc. claims that it is exactly the strategy made it so difficult to penetrate Al-Qaeda. He claims that in Al-Qaeda information flows down but does not flow up. As a result it is very difficult to the pin down the upper management of Al-Qaeda.

The other interesting element seems to be that hitherto the funding for the naxal movement has been very local. There is no evidence as yet that there is any flow of resources either from outside the India or from institutions within the country. The arms naxal movement uses are the ones captured from the police. In their attacks, they have often targeted places which would give them access to resources that they can use to perpetrate more violence. Recall the attack on Nalco’s Daman Jodi mines in 2009.

The current militaristic strategy seems futile. The strategy seems to be take on the problem locally through policing. Yet, it seems that breaking down the naxal coalition will involve the empowering the local administration and making them accountable to the local population. Of course that is easier said than done. Further, there needs to be some kind of national strategy that fights the problem both locally and nationally. The problem can be fought locally by strengthening the local administration through a combination of the state and non-state actors. The non-state actors could be given the responsibility of providing public goods. The state actors along with the local community become monitors and give signals that have an impact on the payoff to the non-state actors. Bolivia, through its social funds has implemented this kind of decentralised problem quite effective (See Faguet, 2004).

Of course, this on its own would not be enough. In any peaceful society, the state has a monopoly over violence. How peaceful the society is depends on how judicious the state is in using violence. The upper management of the naxal movement are competing very hard with the government to take over this role by using violence judiciously to protect the local population. Breaking down the upper management is critical, with the understanding that if the problems at the local level are not solved, a new upper management cadre would come up very soon to the replace the old management cadre.

Reference:
Bergen, Peter (2001). Holy war, Inc.: Inside the secret world of Osama bin Laden. Free Press.

Faguet, Jean-Paul (2004) Does decentralization increase responsiveness to local needs?: evidence from Bolivia. Journal of public economics, 88 (3-4).