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Of Compassion of Drug Companies on the Suffering

I had forwarded to my friends an appeal to join in a petition to the CEO of Novartis to drop the proceedings against the State of India regarding India’s patent regime, echoing as I did, the sentiment that corporates make way too much money out of the sufferings of people.

I have received response from some people, genuinely concerned,  that ask me questions on this:

– Is it not right that drug discovery is an expensive process and are not the companies entitled to a profit? If you deny them this, would not research dry up and would that not be against the interest of the sick? Can’t concerned governments buy bulk doses from the drug companies and subsidise their sale to the needy indigent (at least till a good system of publicly funding research on new drugs is in place)?

– Do we not become free-riders of the R&D that goes into these medicines (if we permit process patents, etc) ? Perhaps our (read Indian) generic drug manufacturers will be forced to do better than just reverse engineer molecules if patent rights are upheld. Yes, life-debilitating conditions in third-world countries are a good reason to push for differential pricing – but unfortunately pharmaceutical smuggling is now big business (and smugglers will be the main beneficiaries).

– Are there not provisions for compulsory licensing? Is this campaign, now being sponsored, just and reasonable? Should the campaign be supported simply because victims of disease are poor? Does the vicitm’s interest not lie  in allowing Novartis a fair return on its investment ? Have we seen what profit the other firms, which are now manufacturing the drug, are making?

Okay. I hold no brief for Indian, or Chinese, or any other manufacturers who reverse engineer the drugs that have been discovered strenuously, spending much money and then more on clinical testing, etc. I know several of them are perhaps more greedy and want to make higher profits on lower investment.

It still does not make me agree that the companies that have developed the drugs in the first place are entitled to whatever profits they decide. And I am not convinced that permitting them this is in the interest of the suffering,  and these companies will thus and only thus pursue their research activities. A focussed commercial company needs to maximise returns to all its stakeholders and I have not known that the word “stakeholders” ever included, in this case, the sick.

There is an entirely different area where the whole philosophy of social, collective ownership and management of activities for the public good is concerned. Let me not get into all of that. My only peeve is that copyrights and patents, originally intended to protect the labour of the creative, to ensure that it is not stolen by the smart operators, are being taken too far without a real audit of the costs and rewards. It is too much prevalent in the pharmaceutical industry and computer software. Richard Stallman has extensively written on the software industry. And it has been demonstrated by several companies in the open (source) software that more than a decent living can be made, a fair return ensured in their business model. I do not know whether the Open Source Drug Discovery initiative will ever bloom – I am not very optimistic, given the record of CSIR-India.

But there was a time when music, the arts, science grew supported by the State, not a communist or socialist one but in the court of royalty.

And I stand by my effervescent appreciation of Marie Curie who did not patent her radium process, Jonas Salk who refused to patent his polio vaccine. Can you patent the sun, asked Salk.

Tailpiece: We have had the spectacle of foot-in-the-mouth Katju rooting for a pardon for Sanjay Dutt. He (Dutt) only thought (like the NRA in the US) that guns are made for protection, not killing.

Now we have Tamil politicians falling over each other trying to make the Sri Lankan Tamils a free nation. Like boy scouts who (for their daily good deed) want to resuscitate someone who has not drowned.  And one of them, (a lawyer!), wants the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India prosecuted for sedition! Subramanian Swamy called him (the lawyer) an idiot. What would you?


The Sham(e) of Democracy, Dilli Ishtyle

Democracy, representative democracy, is a compromise. People who think like me support it only because every other practical form of government seems to be worse. But then there are different styles of representative democracy.

The Indian version of the Westminster model elects representatives, who are declared elected if they garner the largest number of votes. Say 60% of the electorate votes, and a candidate who gets, say,  30% of the polled votes gets elected because no other candidate has as many votes. Therefore a candidate chosen by 18% of the registered adult voters represents 100% of them, as well as those too young to vote, and may be a few unregistered adults too.

And the ruling ministry is formed by political parties;  matters are voted in the house along party lines, with party whips enforcing the will of the dominant strong man or woman of some rag-tag party. So much for vox populi, so much for the will of the people.

So far, so bad.

But again, look at the material (sic) that gets elected. Look at the Lok Sabha sitting on the 19th of March, 2013. The house rocks to the prurient wit of a member who has distinguished himself in the past claiming that the Women’s Reservation Bill would help only “choti-bal-wali-auraten” (short-haired-women). Short haired women who might dare think something their lords and masters do not want them to. In the first place, they (the lords and masters) wanted them (the short-haired-women) to wear their hair long, you see.

About stalking women, he says, “Who among us has not stalked…” and the great assembly of exalted MPs, geriatric man(sic)-kind, roars in approval. The Minister for Home is shown smirking in enjoyment by the Lok Sabha TV. And he goes on to suggest women enjoy it. Possibly he has a theory that it is the biological behaviour that perpetuates the human race. But we thought the development of the frontal lobe of the cerebrum… oh, forget it. It is not developed for all of us.

A few hours earlier, a female guest in a hotel in Agra had jumped out of the window of a second-floor room to escape the amorous attention of the owner of the enterprise. Would this gentleman have roared again, “Who among us has not…?” Do not cast stones.

And what were the women-MPs, the woman-speaker, doing?

Hang down your head, you fool, I tell myself. Hang down your head and cry.

Every other form of government is worse…

The Passing Show

Hugo Chávez is dead. Like so many other leaders who dominated their nations’ political space, he will probably leave a vacuum in Venezuela. And someone once notoriously said that the earth shakes when a big tree falls.

Chavez achieved attention by picturing the US as a bully to whom he and Venezuela under him would stand up, even though the United States bought much of its oil. Like friend Fidel Castro in nearby Cuba that has suffered the privations of Uncle Sam’s economic blockade for more than half a century.

He achieved the reputation of being a friend of the underprivileged in realms far away. But it was a show that lasted quite a short while. Now that Fidel is old and infirm and it’s many years since we have seen a rifle in his hands, or a microphone in front of him, we need someone else to speak up, and prove that we will not tolerate a unipolar world, after all. Ahmedi-Nejad looks passe. Kim Jong Un hardly promises – he has no style, gangnam or otherwise, no panache, no wit, just an inscrutable small time bully playing with dangerous fireworks.

Romance brought up the nine-fifteen

Time was when I would wistfully watch the chugging steam engines on the metre gauge railway haul their seven or eight coaches along the track that lay below the first-floor verandah from where I watched them as a child. It was quite some time, several years, before I could board a train to travel to a far-off place.

“Sleeper” accommodation, third class, in days gone by had a conductor who travelled in the coach and had clean toilets that were cleaned once every four to six hours. Water would be topped up in the tanks at equal frequency. And in the first class compartments, there would be the attendant to run errands. The attendant in the AC coach could be seen polishing the chromium plated or stainless steel handles and hand rails and glass windows of the coach at each station. There were real beds, not bunks, in there.

The colonial comfort went away with the lumpenisation (oh, is that a politically incorrect term?) of the polity, of the railways. The “entitled” class no longer travelled on the railways but in aeroplanes or helicopters, and where they would not go, in air conditioned limousines and SUVs. It became less necessary to clean or maintain the coaches.

Rajdhani: rusted coach welded to keep in one piece; the door coming to pieces; the window about to fall off to pieces

Rajdhani: rusted coach welded to keep it in one piece; the door flaking and coming to pieces; the window about to fall off

Travelling by the Rajdhani was once a dream. A dream that was shattered by the actual journey, when we did undertake it a couple of years ago. See the photographs here as a collage of the disrepair of the coach. (Click on it to see bigger image). The food was the same at every mealtime, reheated from earlier stock. We shared it with the cockroaches on board.

The British, with all their experimentation with keeping the “commanding heights” of the economy in the public sector (Clement Attlee’s idea, mis-attributed often to Jawaharlal Nehru in India; as is the quote about customer service by some crass American salesman attributed to the Mahatma and “edified” – possibly he “re-tweeted” it) had change of government and then decided that motorways, more fuel-inefficient, were the future. They were the leaders in railways and had trains chugging all over the islands, but the tracks were literally ripped off so that the commercial interests of motorway-builders were not threatened by their re-use. Germany, who was the first to introduce the Autobahn did not destroy her railways. The British are now so backward in their railways.

Collage of the tourist train in Yorkshire

Collage of the tourist train in Yorkshire. Click the pictures to see bigger image

But there are rail enthusiasts still left there and retired elderly people (see the ticket checker in the picture) run the restored special steam engine powered trains like the one in Yorkshire that we travelled on. And yes, we in India do have our heritage mountain railways that still operate and rail museums, and palaces on wheels. I do not have ready electronic images to paste here.


Waiting for the train at Dolni Pocernice, Praha. A double decker commuter train approaches

Railways have done well on the European continent. It would be more practical to ride a train between city-centres there rather than fly through out-of-town airports, and their inter-city trains travel at speeds of several hundred kilometres an hour. The Japanese led the speed-trend and now the Chinese top in speed if not sophistication. Our railways are proud if their trains touch a 130, and jittery that they should not derail at that speed. Good, perhaps, what with all those cattle and people wandering over the tracks.

The commuter trains as also long distance trains we travelled on in Europe (even in the UK) werePlatform at Orianenberg. There is a double decker on the next platform

Platform at Orianenberg. There is a double decker on the next platform

clean and organised and had toilets that did not stink nor soil the countryside. See these pictures of trains in the Czech Republic and Germany.

And now comes the announcement about the Anubhuti trains. I do not mind the pedestrian trains we have now, if only they could be maintained with basic cleanliness. I agree that the users are to blame for more than half the filth and discomfort on the trains (and typically in buses). The use of water or basic sanitation is foreign to many, and they spit all over and spread the remains of food. The AC coaches are unbearable with the smell of spicy food, onions and garlic pervading all through, suffocating one, inviting more rats inside. I have experienced little of vermin in railway coaches so long as they disinfested them “departmentally”. Now modern management practices must dictate concentrating on “core competencies” and outsourcing such tasks to the venal small contractor, colluding with the venal employee who should certify his bills. I now see a chart stuck on near the toilets showing coaches have been disinfested not more than a couple of days earlier when they are swarming with roaches and rats. I see linen being re-used without an intervening visit to the laundry, from passenger to passenger – never mind that they bill for it. All told, it has become well near one whole pig-sty-class and clever clogs can literally claim they are travelling cattle class. Or can they – pigs are not cattle?

The Railways had several hundred trades in-house. They were perhaps the first to go for integration (backward, forward, sideways, in all directions). British rail companies in the 19th century, I think, stopped just short of owning steel mills. Let us fear the new “lean, mean” railways created by expert business-process-re-engineers that will outsource everything.

I could do with the lowly double deckers that ran between Surat and Bombay Central, and not necessarily take the new AC Bengaluru-Chennai contraptions. They were honest, and did not confine the ill-odours inside. Or the two tier and three tier third class sleepers. First Class coaches used to be maintained first class, and had not become the cattle transport they are today; I mean it, I should know, having fought the cockroaches and cleaned the dirt from the upholstery before I could sit down. The First Class AC coaches are meant for upper echelons of cattle.

And yet I find trains impossibly attractive. Maybe it was a coach of the Bhubaneswar – Puri passenger that let in the rain with a gaping hole in the roof. Local roughnecks returning from a festival used to pull the chain and stop it every half a kilometre or so, so that they could get down near their villages. Or the metre gauge train with a gaping hole in the floor of the first-class cabin that carried us from Guwahati to Dimapur. An army officer had covered most of it with his outsize wooden box and the only worry was that we had to sit cross legged in padmasana on the seat as there was no place left on the floor to put our feet down on. There have also been the sweet trains like the super-smooth one that carried us at the breathtaking speed of a hundred kilometres an hour on metre gauge from Trichy to Chennai, the mountain train from Neral to Matheran or from Mettupalayam to Ootacamund, or Siliguri to Darjeeling. Travel was still fun when one had to change coaches from the metre gauge to the broad gauge on technically the same train that ran from Dibrugarh to Delhi. I have enjoyed it when the then Meenakshi Express to Jaipur from Kachiguda laboured hard to climb the Malwa plateau with an additional engine at the back and it still sometimes rolled back and moved in fits and starts. And I have sat up watching the arid landscape with fascination as we moved into the desert at Jaisalmer from Jodhpur in the overnight passenger.

The old railways with its clanging steel and hissing of the super heated steam was a romance to me. The track that stretched into the distance was romance. And no, it has not diminished even if the hiss of steam has been replaced with the hum or howl of the electric motor, or the chugging of the huge diesel. And in our land of continental proportions, the train tells me tales about far off valleys and hills and plains, of rivers and lakes and deserts. Yes, getting there is half the fun. I want to ride the train from Pathankot to Joginder Nagar, up the Araku Valley on the highest broad gauge track, and when they finally do it, to Leh. If I am still alive.

I am again the small boy sitting in the first floor verandah, wistfully watching the train chug away to unknown lands. Romance still brings up the nine-fifteen as it did in Kipling’s days, and surely will do in times to come.

Tailpiece: Usually I want the tailpiece to be light. But no, today’s is bad: there is this couple who with their kids crawl under a goods train in the railway yard and come up on the other side. The children walk onto the next track and are run over by a passing goods train. Local people attack the railway station, the deputy station master and a colleague run into a room for fear of their lives and bolt the door. The crowd locks them from the outside and set fire to the room, and they burn alive.

What senseless terror, what senseless horror, after the irresponsible behaviour of negligently letting young children cross the tracks, and unsighted, from below a goods train. But then, why should not people watch for the train that cannot stop for them, when they can very well see the solid track at level crossings that should warn them to watch out?

Read it


Background to those who’ve been living under a rock: A scholar named Dr. Rejith Kumar, as part of a series of “moral consciousness” lectures, made quite a few patronizing comments against women. Only one girl walked out. The media blew it up. People blew up. There was outrage against this guy, but more so against the media. Below are screenshots of some amazing comments on just one video of his speech. Look around Facebook for more. Or Twitter. Or other videos on Youtube. These activists are everywhere. Hey human beings with uteruses, hold on tight. 

Disclaimer: I’m not witty, and wasn’t trying to be. Any accidental sarcasm is purely a shield for anger. 

Youtube Comments from Just One Video

Dear lovely brothers of mine,

View original post 1,651 more words

One Billion Rising!

There is this feisty girl in Trivandrum who by her own admission took turns with her father and beat up an “eve teaser” on her way back from leading a motorbike rally to mark the “One Billion Rising” day in Trivandrum. It may not exactly have been legal, but there was no malice aforethought and she might have used overwhelming force in the heat of the moment, even if unnecessarily. Well, the necessity would be a matter of opinion. The police having registered a complaint against the teaser, and having refused to entertain his complaint about the battery he suffered, he has filed a private complaint against the girl, and under court orders, the police have registered a case against her.

God’s Own Country has the infamy of having extremely woman-unfriendly streets. And more, like electricians who install spycams with radio transmitters as a free add-on while they install water heaters in their customers’ bathrooms; especially if the customers happen to be women living alone.

And there are other myths. One, that the women of Kerala have historically enjoyed better status, a say in society. The 13th century Arab traveller Ibn Batuta said they were so promiscous that the paternity of a child was ascertained by the child turning to the call of one of the possible paters at its first birthday feast. But it is not clear whether it was by choice or forced upon them. The eldest male within female lineage always controlled the family in the matrilineal system. And historians tell us that the matrilineal system itself arose only about a thousand  years ago, possibly when there were  lots of wars with the Tamil kings and menfolk were away, and died in large numbers. The only remarkable positive aspect to my mind is the sex ratio in the population. And that could easily be because more men die early in their lives from the ill-effects of chronic excessive consumption of alcohol.

The eve-teaser-bashing followed the other controversy about the ethics taught by one Dr Rejith Kumar in his “class” at the College for Women, Trivandrum. He seems to have been sponsored by the Education Department of the State government, and advised the young women that they should not jump or wear tight clothes, specifically, “jeans.” They should stay at-home modestly. While a few people in society applauded the lone girl who booed him and walked out of the assembly, a very large number of people are seen to endorse the wisdom of the Doctor’s words. They argue that one should watch the whole performance of the doctor and appreciate the value of his words. The hypocrisy of the local (male) society that wants modesty in its women while behaving in utterly disrespectful and offensive manner boggles one’s senses.

I tried to watch the available footage of the Doctor’s performance. It was amazing. He claims he has a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Kerala and has therefore authority to teach biology and yes, “medical science”. He has amazing theories that there are genes that make you lie and those that make you speak the truth. But no, they are not just inherited; if you speak lies, the lie-gene gets “activated” and the truth-gene gets recessive! And so on, even touting the sensationalist “news” items that say tight clothes lead to disorders of the uterus or urino-genital system or something like that, as science.  I should consider myself to be in line for the next Nobel, at least of the Ig-Nobel variety, if I spoke out like this. To add to his achievements, he has made a study of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity and has written books that contain gems which experts say are not there in the original texts. (I also hope he was not speaking of jeans, but genes . I am not sure).

I would agree with the Doctor that it is a jungle out there, but his solution of avoidance disappoints me. His crude language to me is abhorrent. He also seems to think that men are smarter and can easily trap young maidens because they are smarter. This militates against my ideas of cerebral capacity of the sexes. While he should have the right to hold his opinions, I think the Department of Education in its campaign to empower young women should have thought twice before letting him loose, especially as it seems, according to what he says, he has been delivering thousands of these speeches. And the way the reports pour in, these speeches have not helped the streets become safer in Kerala. It could be the way we bring up our children that makes men appear smarter, in a negative way. Should there not be a campaign aimed at the male sex, young boys, to inculcate responsible behaviour, and should we not be telling young girls to react rather than advocating what in essence is passivity at best; and cringing subordination and flight, at worst? Change the world, shall we?

I do not see many people willing to strike, dance or rise here.

Tailpiece: Indeed there has been a hiatus in my posts again, but I should not have wasted my time writing this one, perhaps. But for the memory the Doctor stirred in me of a spoof in the Deevana nearly thirty-five years ago. The Deevana (English, sister publication of Deevana Tej Saptahik in Hindi), incidentally was a weak copy of Mad magazine run by I think, Viswa Bandhu Gupta (I could be wrong about the editor). That it managed to cock a snook at the dumb censors during the Emergency of 1975-77 was what endeared it to me more.

Well, there was this feature, a series of purported letters between one Thadali Ghugus and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Bombay. Ghugus wants a doctorate and is willing to pay for it. So the VC patiently explains the procedure and says it is not sold for cash. Ghugus goes on describing his meetings with “Doctors” from Bombay University who maintain, for instance, that the Islets of Langerhans are near the Hebrides, etc. (Not this really, but this favourite item of trivia of quiz-masters came in handy to me as I don’t remember the exact goofy things). If they can be awarded doctorates, why not me?

The feature ended with a letter from the VC to Ghugus felicitating his appointment as the Minister for Education, adding an appeal for funds, and asking when he could schedule a special convocation for Ghugus to receive his Doctorate, honoris causa.

Twilight Over the Internet

I had some time back groaned about what I feared would be nightfall over the Internet, with an upper-case I. The proceedings at the Dubai conference (The World Conference on International Telecommunications, WCIT) of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) that ended yesterday certainly seems to indicate it is near twilight.

The US has had a big advantage after World War II on the technology front in communications. Whatever I think about the behaviour of its government, there are some things in its society that I greatly admire: most of all the fierce defence of the First Amendment to its constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech, assembly and religion. No doubt it is in my opinion a little bit misused, but that is far better than having a nanny state or an oligarchy of the Orwellian 1984 type. Of course it all becomes a little confusing if you look at the way life went on and goes on there. Extraordinary rendition is, or at least was, practised by the country (The European Court of Human Rights has only yesterday pronounced its verdict on the CIA). Yet pornography is permitted under the freedom of expression.

You have seen repeated instances of people going berserk with their guns in schools (but why mostly schools?). You have also seen periodic outcry against the “gun culture” there. The first in my memory was when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. And today, there was a person from the for-gun-lobby saying the massacre in yesterday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary may not have been so bad if only the school had a gun, and someone to use it. That someone could have shot Lanza down after he got in his first few shots. Some logic, assuming the “someone” was not the one to be shot first. It is also interesting to note that the Second Militia Act of 1792, signed by George Washington, required every able-bodied (white) male in the new republic between the ages of 18 and 45 to purchase a musket and ammunition.

I wonder why the US has been able to ensure that there is no terrorist strike after 9-11, yet has these repeated school-killings.

Let me end the digression and go back to my proposition, the US advantage in technology. Though the internet in fact descended from a computer network model in the US, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee of the UK is considered the father of the Internet, creating the World Wide Web. It is envisioned as a web, not a hierarchy of authority and control. This is what annoys States like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and seemingly India, of late. The ruling classes of Egypt and Syria (and others of the “Arab Spring” group) would also agree. The only “authority” on the net is the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority that regulates assignment of addresses. There is heartburn that they do this under a contract with the United States Department of Commerce. (Earlier the US Defence Department gave a similar contract). Nevertheless, the authority stops with assignment of the addresses and does not look at the content of Web sites.

That is not to say that big boys do not play in the figurative night. Content filtering, looking for patterns, and similar games are played by security agencies, and the West that champions the freedom of the net has had an advantage of technology, and denying technology to others. Operating System versions that enabled complex encryption (more than 128 bits) was not permitted by the export control of the US earlier. They may have the resources also. Anecdotal evidence still suggests people have cocked a snook at the cloak-and-dagger guys using Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). Interestingly, PGP also works on a “web of trust,” with no Certificate Authority

So it seems Russia, China, Algeria and Sudan, all with doubtful credentials with respect to freedom of thought in addition to speech, wanted a say in assigning the numbers. The West begged to differ, and the move has been shelved.

The ITU was propped up as a possible controller of the internet. Such control could have warmed the hearts of policemen and politicians in Thane. The final treaty is claimed to provide for some control of the net and the Western nations (the US, the UK, Australia and Canada) have refused to sign it. I do not know what the treaty really says.

I do not trust  the powers that be in a country with policemen who can arrest a young woman after the hour of 7:00 PM and lock her up with non-bailable charges for the crime of “like”ing a facebook post, with any authority for control of the Internet, or a part of the “Web”. The problem is that they do not need the authority; arresting a woman after 7:00 PM itself is not sanctioned by any authority. So it boils down to I do not trust, period. The authority only could make it a little worse, “clothe” their actions, as a pompous lawyer may say. Only the Anonymous can protest and laugh a little bit; the BSNL site ( has been off the Web for the last two days, and is still not seen as of last count!

That is why I said I like the society of the US; Paul Begala could write about the supreme arrogance of the judiciary and in fact call a judge of the US Supreme Court a “jerk”, in a Newsweek article, without being prosecuted. (In fact, I got the information about the Second Militia Act only from this piece. Read it, the article is good for so many other reasons, too). I shudder to even think about how Article 19(a) of our constitution would hold up against the matter of “contempt”.

There was also a sinister side to the proceedings at Dubai. The official agenda had a suggestion to find ways to make the “Web” accessible to two-thirds of humanity who today have none. But there was this proposal from the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) that developing countries should establish and fund broadband networks and hand them over to them (ETNO members) to run services and make profits!

And Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the Internet” (other than Sir Timothy) and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google seems to have said, ahead of the WCIT, about attempts to put “governance” or control on the Web: “If delegates have their way at next week’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, the man in charge of the Web will be a Soviet-trained apparatchik from Cold War days.”

“These persistent attempts are just evidence that this breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains, hasn’t figured out that they are dead yet”, he added, to my delight, “because the signal hasn’t travelled up their long necks.”

Tailpiece: Who hasn’t heard of Alan Turing? He led British research on cryptography during World War II, was a leading light of cybernetics (remember the Turing Machine and the Turing Test?) and was convicted of homosexuality, a criminal offence then in the UK. He committed suicide two years after his conviction, in 1954. Stephen Hawking is leading British scientists who want Alan Turing to be pardoned posthumously.