Saturday, August 24, 2013

I am Poor

India is recognized worldwide as to be the home of some the world’s poorest of people. Reduction of poverty levels has been treated as the primary goal for all the activities undertaken by the Government. In this regards, there has been a raging debate on the claim of the current government about drastic reduction in poverty levels. This tricky and controversial topic attracted my attention and I found myself at loss about whether or not to believe the Government on this. As with most issues the Government and Opposition get busy throwing brickbats at each other without bothering to explain the problem at hand to the citizens a. I decide to explore this independently.
Key to any exploration or learning is to ask the right questions. Starting at that –
What is Poverty?
How do we define Poverty?
Who is responsible for Poverty?
Who should act to reduce Poverty?
Why should we measure Poverty?
How can we measure poverty?
What steps could be taken to reduce Poverty?

What is Poverty? How to Define Poverty?
I am poor” does this statement make any sense? In our day to day conversation most of us have used this phrase in various situations. What did it mean? Did it mean we don’t earn enough to afford what we want to have? Or did it mean what we earn was not sufficient to buy what we think we ought to have for a dignified living? Is poverty a result of what we earn or is it a result of what we can’t afford? Or is it a result of not having access to certain essential resources that assist one in earning an income that in turn allows them to afford the amenities required for a dignified living? How do we decide what we “ought to have” and what “dignified living is”? Both of these concepts being very subjective means that no two people would agree on their respective definition of “being poor”.

Some factors emerge from the above short inquiry. First that Poverty seems to have three components and one characteristic

  • -          Income
  • -          Deprivation of resources
  • -          Lack of dignity
  • -          Relativeness

It appears to be an uphill task to come to a common ground on defining
-          Below what income would one be qualified as poor
-          Deprivation of what resources leads to poverty
-          What is dignified living
-          An agreeable definition that is consistent across societies/countries
Economists and Sociologists around the world have spent many hours in taking one or two of the above points and drawing up a definition of poverty. Needless to say that each is as controversial as the other and can be proved wrong on many counts.

Who or What is Responsible for Poverty?
It is tough to understand why there is poverty. We know that resources are always limited and the fight is to find out an appropriate method of distribution of resources among all the people. There seems to be an inherent characteristic in all our social systems since time immemorial that, it always has certain segment of people relatively deprived than the others. I don’t know what to attribute this characteristic to, however it is always there. One might argue that when it is a natural outcome of every social system then why bother about it? While a convincing logical answer might be tough to find, I think that human existence and superiority of human race over other animals would be questioned if obvious disparities are not eradicated. It is a collective responsibility of all the people to fight and work towards systems that assist people to live the way one would want to. 

Why should we measure Poverty?
In this regards one might ask what should one do to alleviate the situation. I think there are three important aspects. One - to find what are the absolute necessities to live a dignified life; Second - through consensus, find what percentage of people are deprived of these absolute necessities; Third - is to give the people that fall under this targeted category, a chance to decide if they indeed want to be called poor. Forcibly including people contented with their living and exposing them to unknown levels of living is, I think, a way to induce poverty where none existed. It is to deal with arguments like these that the need to measure poverty arose. Also countries those are serious about alleviating poverty and providing access to resources for the majority of their population, would like to know how many people are deprived so policies could be devised accordingly.

How can we measure Poverty?
There are many measurement methods proposed, used, reworked, discarded and continuously debated to understand what is poverty and how many people could be called poor. People have used the following parameters:

  • -          Income
  • -          Calorie Intake
  • -          Income and a feel if this income allows people to live the life they want to
  • -      Access to basic amenities

Due to subjectivity of the matter it is very tough to define in absolute terms who are and who are not poor. People might also feel insulted if one is called poor by someone. Yet to devise policies that would positively impact people suffering from adverse living conditions, there is a need to identify how many fall in this deprived category. Also there is a need to measure poverty in absolute terms.There are many global bodies such as World Bank and International Monetary Fund who have taken responsibility, for reasons best known to them, to alleviate poverty at international level. In order to allocate funds or grants or loans to countries to assist them in their respective fight against poverty, they need to know in relative terms which country is worse off than the other. Here United Nation Development Program through various research methodologies arrived at the $1.25 as the bare minimum income that is essential for a decent survival. Anyone earning below this income is considered to be living in absolute poverty. Needless to say that any poverty line is sensitive to inflation levels existing in each country. 

Steps to Reduce Poverty?
Alleviating poverty is a tricky business. Firstly one must understand that alleviating poverty is not in any form similar to giving alms to beggars. Infact giving money to the poor with the view of alleviating poverty snatches away the right to dignified living. Any policy of this nature would prove to be counterproductive and detrimental in the process of poverty alleviation. Being poor is subjective and not only depends on how much one earns but also on what one aspires to have. Governments have to play a role in ensuring stable prices of essential food items and also ensure accessibility to resources (ex. Finance) that could assist people to find ways to earn more. Also in countries where there is stigma attached to people born in certain communities, access to sources of income or resources is itself very difficult task, in such cases ghetto mentality keeps one deeply rooted in the state of poverty one might want to desperately escape from.  Rapid economic growth has been championed as the best way to alleviate poverty, undoubtedly it has played a positive role, however where the stigma is attached with where one is born it becomes more complicated to address the problem of poverty.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Plateau and Beyond

When Lance Armstrong after years of speculation came out and confessed about doping the whole world reacted with shock and disappointment. The downfall of an inspirational figure in world sport was both disheartening and disappointing. He was severely criticized and stripped of all his tour de France victories. In lieu of the recent spate of doping scandals arising across the world, however, raises a question of whether we reacted unfairly towards Lance Armstrong?

Look at the recent cases of doping issue:

  • French Hurdler Decaux banned for doping Aug 2013
  • Belarus Shot putter Andrei Mikhnevich fails dope test Aug 2013
  • American Major league Baseball star Alex Rodriguez was banned for 211 games for doping Aug 2013
  • American athlete Tyson Gay and Jamaican athlete Asafa Powell fail dope test July 2013
  • Indian shot putter P Udai Laxmi fails dope test – withdrawn from Asian Championship July 2013
  • Australian Cricket Board accepts to systemic problem of Doping Jun 2013

While the respective governing bodies have taken appropriate action against the faltering individuals – but I think it raises deep questions that probably are disheartening to find answers for.

Have we as humans hit a plateau with respect to our athletic ability?

On 6th May 1954 Roger Banister for the first time ran a mile under 4 minutes. In many ways he liberated our minds in what was possible and set the tone for some awe inspiring performances. We have seen plenty of world records being bettered over the years. It made us believe it is mind over matter and whatever the mind can conceive the body can achieve. Thus far it has proven to be true and many athletes stand testimony to it. Logically thinking though – there has to be a limit to how far we could push our body. At one point we probably would reach the top of the plateau despite all the power of our innovative imagination. Have we reached that point? Have we hit that plateau? Has our physiology finally known its limit? 

As far as track and field events are concerned will the World Records that stand as of today ever be bettered again? Bettered to what extent? What’s the price of such an endeavor and can it be done with natural athletic ability? Or can our psychology continue to influence physiology and push the boundary further away? The recent doping incidents do indicate in a sense that what the mind  is conceiving the body is desperately trying to achieve but failing without the banned supplements to reach there. 

If we have hit a plateau – when did we hit it?

If we have really hit the plateau – when did we hit it? Ben Johnson in 1988 was stripped of his Olympic Gold when he was found guilty of doping. Lance Armstrong confessed of doping as early as 1992-93. Are all these indications that the level of performances we desire to see are possible only if one doped? Did we hit the plateau long ago and some unlucky people got caught of using performance enhancing drugs while others who were not enjoyed public adulation?

In 2002 Jeffrey Archer published series of books based on a diary that he wrote while serving his prison sentence. In one of these books he talks about how prisoners used to get high on various drugs but also knew how to flush it out of the system before the prison Dr examined them. When prisoners could figure this out how difficult would it be for athletes, who have access to world class medical facility and consultation, to figure out? It’s scary to think on these lines and demoralizing as well, however it stares at our face waiting to gain our attention. 

Are we pushing our athletes to inhuman levels?

The other point also is that sports from being past time activities and modes of keeping the human body tuned have become a profession by themselves. Sports are now the exclusive domain of professional athletes and some are handsomely paid for it as well. It is as if, many of us have outsourced our share of athletic performance and burdened the shoulders of the professional athletes. It is a vicarious experience of whatever natural athletic ability all of us possess and also provides us with entertainment. In this process have we overburdened the professional athletes?

Any professional athlete, apart from his, also shoulders the expectation and aspiration of others. The expectation is of peak performance and at a very rapid interval for an athlete to linger in people’s mind and earn a living.  In this process have we pushed them so far that they have no option but to do whatever is required to stay away from injuries and perform at extreme pressure situation? Some who do resort to doping are more of a victim while they might appear to be benefiting from it.

What is Natural Ability in sport?

On the other hand one might also question whether sport has ever been a level playing field that it claims to be. There are sportsmen with a specific genetic disposition for a particular game; developed countries with better sports infrastructure also manage to provide their athletes with better dietary supplements. Ofcourse there is always an anti-thesis to this and Jesse Owens in 1932 Berlin Olympics not only proved Hitler wrong but was the most successful athlete of the games! One might argue that the level to which professional sports have risen, it is absolutely mandatory to have essential and acceptable dietary supplements apart from having a flair for the sport. The players who can’t afford them are at an obvious disadvantage; however this is not treated as an unfair competitive advantage as doping is. Also people have argued that people who think that certain drugs that act as performance enhancers don’t in anyway enhance the players skills – so whether we should make doping legal?

Many questions but no answers in sight, there are points and counter-points but no consensus. Till we re-think how we view professional sports players resorting to doping would continue to be castigated. Will psychology continue to triumph over any obvious physiological limits as it has done so far?


Friday, August 2, 2013

Of Honkeys and Mutes

Einstein said - Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity and I am not sure about the universe!  There are umpteen real life examples to be seen on the road every day to prove Einstein right. Human stupidity is indeed infinite. The innovation that we can bring in the way we honk and in identifying situations that are worth a honk while driving/riding is unprecedented and unbridled display of human stupidity. In this display of stupidity there is no distinction of religion, caste, language, color, political inclination, rich or poor. Stupidity has the power in which it dissolves all individual identities and brings everyone to a level ground.

There are some typical stupid actions that are often linked with the habit of honking. Places which say ‘No Horn’ – ‘School’ – ‘Hospital’ somehow invite loudest of honk. Also some people consider themselves to be in a imagined computer game and the traffic congestion that they see ahead of them could be cleared with the weapon at their disposal – and a volley of laser beams is let lose – only difference though is that it doesn’t really do anything to the traffic congestion in real life. Also most of us don’t mind being stuck in the lives that we live for years together without doing anything different, yet the last 5 seconds at a red signal – somehow appears very worthy and worthy of some of the loudest and choicest of honks! 

Infinite it is – stupidity – the quality and effectiveness of ones honking is somehow found related to the success in personal life. Good effective honking is also equated with a peaceful and gratifying day. Stupidity was proved infinite, almost conclusively, when one honked at a dead dog and another one at a fallen tree. Some of the compulsive honkers might want to fly and avoid all this congestion, but this is the thing, one can escape from traffic but not from stupidity so honking at the birds or the sun or the moon would be the norms. Hail Einstein!


Random: August 2013