Friday, October 25, 2013


Hydraulic fracturing or fracking involves accessing oil and natural gas deposits deep below the earth’s surface by injecting pressurised fluids into a horizontal bore. The fracking fluids create fractures or fissures in the crust and free the trapped oil or natural gas which can thereafter be extracted. The horizontal bore, which can extend laterally for 3,000 to 5,000 feet, provides a larger surface area for the escaping gas, and is one of the key innovations that have made this process economically feasible. The jury is still out on whether fracking has adverse environmental consequences. Proponents argue that if done carefully the technology can be used to access hitherto inaccessible deposits, thereby prolonging our addiction to oil. Critics point out that the fluids used in the mining process can contaminate groundwater resources and lay agricultural land barren. (This is an informative animation that I came across that explains the process in greater detail.) Although the technology was developed in the late 1940s, its use became commercially viable only recently. As of 2010, it is estimated that 60% of all new oil and natural gas wells were being hydraulically fractured. The New Oil Landscape places fracking in a broader socio-economic context, and proved to be quite insightful. It is the sum total of my knowledge on the subject. Needless to say, I am not aware of the academic debate surrounding the technology.

I also came across a movie — Promised Land — that portrays fracking in a negative light. It stars Matt Damon and Frances McDormand, both gifted actors. Initially quite excited by the questions raised (I always enjoy watching the evil plans of big corporate conglomerates being thwarted by ordinary people), my enthusiasm was somewhat subdued when I came to know about the controversy surrounding the financing of the movie. Apparently, it has been backed by some subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian oil cartel, which has vested interests in delaying the development of fracking (Most of the oil deposits in the Middle East are conventional ones which stand to gain if fracking proves to be environmentally disastrous). Although, the financier claims that the backing was provided regardless of subject matter or genre, one is forced to wonder. The movie itself is not spectacular and I watched it only because of aforementioned reasons.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Swabhimaan gone wrong.

Language and, as a corollary, ideas are notoriously susceptible to miscued interpretation. They wear the garb of the times in which they thrive. If that were not the case, so many of our overtly idealistic revolutions wouldn’t have come to a painful and disappointing conclusion soon after their genesis and Che Guevara might still have been alive to share a cigar with Castro. Wishful thinking, I guess.

On the eve of Gandhi’s 144th birth anniversary, a rather similar, illustrative construction comes to my mind – Swadeshi. In the context of an increasingly globalised world, where identity is the price one pays at the altar of development and modernity and where slogans like “Bada hai toh behtar hai” have become commonplace, even acceptable, what does Swadeshi mean? What are the philosophical, cultural, and economic constructs defining the essentially political ideas of ‘deshi’ and ‘videshi’? Without Bapu to conveniently clear the air for us, this simple word has been repeatedly hijacked in the name of personal and vested interests, with interpretations ranging from political and economic isolation (à la mode North Korea) to a source of nationalistic pride and self sufficiency.

Although wide ranging, our understanding of Swadeshi is deeply entrenched in our somewhat circumscribed comprehension of nationalism, for a Swadeshi spirit that bans the use of everything foreign, big or small, however beneficial it might be, and irrespective of the fact that it impoverishes nobody, is a narrow reading of the idea. It leads to ‘tunnel vision’ that severely restricts the scope of what can be accomplished through a more open interpretation. But just how tricky the situation is can be gauged from the fact that the expression was first used in 1905 by social activists to unite the various protests surrounding the Partition of Bengal. Given that Bangladesh is now deemed to be a separate nation (and, often, a nuisance due to the constant influx of immigrants), do Bangladeshi goods come under the ambit of Swadeshi or do we consider them to be foreign?

At its core, Swadeshi implies restricting ourselves to using goods produced by our immediate neighbours, with an eye on protecting the home industry. In a nation fractured along several lines like religion, caste, and class, it was meant to inculcate a spirit of brotherhood amongst all its citizens. This philosophy, having influenced the ideas and opinions of a majority of Indian leaders primarily through Gandhi, also guided the direction of trade and foreign policy for several decades after independence. However, the single-minded devotion to protection of domestic industries discouraged competitiveness and bred complacency. Assured of a market for their inferior goods, the public sector had no incentive to innovate or develop competency. All investment in research and development was centralized and private enterprise was severely inhibited because of the restrictions imposed by ‘License Raj’. As a result, instead of kickstarting the Indian industrial engine, an over emphasis on self sufficiency had exactly the opposite effect, that is, an increasing reliance on imported goods resulting in products that grew more and more inferior with each passing manufacturing cycle. The success of Japan, through alliances between the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and the informal industrial agglomerations called keiretsu, and Korea, through conglomerates known as chaebol, in revitalizing their economies while managing to protect the domestic sector show just how contingent implementation can be on interpretation and context.

One might loathe accepting this reality, but India, or any other nation state for that matter, no longer exists in a social, economic, or political vacuum. We influence our neighbours just as much as they influence us. Their culture and traditions mould and shape our practices and customs. Their crises spill over our borders and become the origin of a proxy war that can last for decades. The traditional image of villages as self-contained units that are capable of meeting all their needs might not hold water any more; after all, there is no way to definitively determine what constitutes as need what constitutes as want. Villages, cities, and nations alike have become part of a vast network that is consumptive and productive in equal measure. Thoreau might have pulled it off, but most of us have become utterly mired in a cesspool of excess consumption and wasted resources.

The world is constantly engaged in a struggle to renew itself and hold onto the past. When one cares to look at it that way, regret and nostalgia are equally futile. Therefore, there is a need to reclaim notions like Swadeshi and Swabhimaan from jingoists and rid them of rhetoric, selfish interests, and their unnecessary historical baggage. We must cast old ideas in a new shell and rejuvenate the debate surrounding them so that in light of fresh ideas, like sustainable development and networked economies, our understanding of them is not merely a reflection into the past, but a peek into the future as well. I guess that is what Bapu would have wanted.

[If the tone of this article has come across as preachy, then I have failed to convey my thoughts. In an effort to save them from just the kind of misinterpretation that have been going hoarse about, I will reiterate that I did not intend to sound opinionated.]

An edited version of the article appeared here.