Politics & the Nation
  • What's wrong with our Tiger census?
    • When minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh proudly announced the gain of 225 tigers last week, it made happy headlines. Accounting for the Sunderbans figures (70) that were not available in 2008, the minister preened, the population gain was a healthy 295.
    • But these figures are now suspect and the World Life Institute of India (WII) had admitted that "there has been a mistake in the computation of the standard error for the tiger numbers for the state of Maharashtra."
    • For decades, foresters studied pugmarks and usually counted more tigers per tiger. Then, in 2002, Project Tiger (now National Tiger Conservation Authority) and Wildlife Institute of India (WII) began replacing the human error-prone pugmark census method with a scientific estimation protocol. It was a landmark initiative.
    • Nine years later, however, India’s tiger numbers remain equally suspect. So far, more than Rs. 22 crore has been spent during two all-India estimation drives, in 2006-07 and 2010-11, to scientifically evaluate the status of the tiger. And yet all the government churned out were a few gospel figures for media consumption.
    • Back in 2006, an international team of experts led by John Seidensticker from the department of conservation biology at Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park in Washington, DC did a peer review of the new estimation method. In its report, the team questioned the feasibility of the exercise given that more than 40,000 forest units would have to be sampled, adding that the new method, too, relied on the “integrity of the primary data collectors, data compilers and their supervisors.”
    • For the record, the new method breaks down the estimation process in three phases. Phase one involves data collection (signs of tiger presence, prey abundance and canopy status) across the tiger landscapes. In the second phase, satellite data is used to assess conditions of habitat. Phase three requires camera-traps to be set up in selected pockets for capturing tiger images to identify the number of individuals in a sampled area. Next, the camera-trap data is extrapolated to arrive at numbers for entire landscapes.
    • Phase III of the latest count was compromised by too many malfunctioning camera-traps.  WII purchased around 500 Moultrie camera-traps for the second all-India estimation, out of which 300-odd malfunctioned.
    • WII used about 100 cameras to cover just 120 sq. km of Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam tiger reserve in Andhra Pradesh. Only seven tigers were identified in that area. Based on these seven tigers in just 120 sq. km, somehow the estimate extrapolated a figure of 60 for a 2342 sq. km-area of this reserve.
    • If data was compromised, the analysis was suspect, too. On the extrapolation process, the 2006 peer review cautioned that “there is also no detailed write-up of the technical analysis, explicitly identifying the analytical techniques to be used in each phase of the framework.”  In simple terms, it means different results at different estimation attempts, resulting in unreliability.  The official count only referred to standard errors of estimated densities and population sizes while offering a range of 1165–1657 tigers.  The report did not use the appropriate confidence intervals, which if standardised, would have stretched the limits to roughly 900-1900 tigers, an embarrassingly unreliable range.
    • While the number game continues, it is important to note that the new protocol does not allow comparison of subsequent results.
  • Cleansing Ritual
    • A 5000 year old vedic ritual is about to be performed in a Kerala village -- Panjal in Thrissur District.  The Athirathram was last conducted 35 years ago.  It is a 12 day ritual that was officially discontinued in the late Vedic period at a time when Buddhism and Jainism were on the rise in India.  Nevertheless, a few Namboodiri Brahmin families in Kerala kept up an unbroken 3000 year tradition and this edition of the ritual begins today.
    • A few individuals have come together to form a trust to put the clock back 5,000 years to perform rituals that many scholars regard as inseparable from the myth surrounding athirathram. There are many including the one called Putrakameshti (blessing the childless couples). But that isn’t first on the priority list of the members of the Varthathe Trust, formed by a group of individuals from India and abroad who think alike. The yagna has more universal ideas to implement in its wish list.
    • The yagam hopes to achieve two goals — propitiate world peace, and energise and protect the environment by destroying undesirable elements. Fire is believed to cleanse, and that is what this ritual is all about. It involves the chanting of selected mantras from three Vedas, the ancient sacred texts of Hinduism — Rig, Yajur and Sama.
    • Beginning today, the yagna will be conducted by the best in the business — where ‘best’ means the only ones who can recite the mantras impeccably.
    • The athirathram, which will cost an estimated Rs 1 crore, is likely to draw more than 15,000 people from all over the world including not just devotees and believers but also scientists, scholars and critics. The star attendee of the event will be Indologist and heritage crusader Johan Frederik ‘Frits’ Staal, a driving force behind the preservation of the world's oldest surviving Vedic ritual athirathram. Staal, emeritus professor of Philosophy and South & Southeast Asian studies at the University of Berkeley in California, announced the existence of this ritual to the world by documenting it in his seminal treatise ‘Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar’.
    • A team of scientists led by VPN Namboodiri, former director, International School of Photonics, CUSAT, will monitor and analyse the beneficial impact of the historic fire ritual to the environment and people.
    • Whether it is the shape of the main fireplace or the kind of utensils and ingredients used, every aspect of athirathram stands apart. For example, the main fireplace is in the shape of a bird.
    • 1,000 specially designed bricks are made, special pottery and vessels are designed, darba grass is acquired and so on. The most important offering is somarasa, extracted from somalatha, a herbal plant (Sarcostemma acidum) believed to be the nectar of life. The fire itself is created by rubbing two pieces of wood.  Each day will commence with Vedic chanting and homam. On the last four days, the rituals will be held throughout the day and night without a break.
    • In 1975 as soon as the ritual was over, “a heavy downpour fell over the area which the sponsors claimed was true to tradition and marked the 'success of the ritual”, says Krishna Kumar Namboodiri of the Varthathe Trust.
Finance & Economy
  • IMF and its double standards
    • Our politicians and quite a few intellectuals have been crying hoarse for a long time about IMF's double standards.  A report by the IEO (Independent Evaluation Office) of the IMF itself now confirms that IMF does indeed follow double standards and suffers from other malaises like toeing the line of the bigger donors, developed countries, groupthink and intellectual capture.
    • Let's know a bit about these new phrases groupthink and intellectual capture.
    • Groupthink is the tendency among homogeneous, cohesive groups to consider issues only within a certain paradigm and not challenge its basic premises.
    • When you are overly influenced (or over-awed) by somedbody's reputation or expertise, you tend to develop a stance which doesn't question their actions, howsoever wrong they may be.  That is intellectual capture.
  • An excellent explanation of how liquidity squeeze reduces inflation (Excerpted from Bradford Delong's op-ed)
    • The Fed would then cause a liquidity squeeze and so distort asset prices as to make much construction, sizable amounts of other investment, and some consumption goods unaffordable (and thus unprofitable to produce). The resulting excess supply of goods, services, and labour would cause inflation to fall. As soon as the Fed had achieved its inflation-fighting goal, however, it would end the liquidity squeeze.
    • Asset prices and incomes would return to normal. And all the lines of business that had been profitable before the downturn would become profitable once again. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, therefore, recovery was a straightforward matter: simply pick up where you left off and do what you used to do.
  • Why NBFCs prosper where Banks cannot?
    • The share of NBFCs in market capitalisation of financial services companies in the country went up from 14% to 25% in the last decade.  Why couldn’t the banks — who can technically do almost everything that NBFCs do — do all those things? The answer does not lie in regulatory arbitrage favouring NBFCs but in a subtle management principle.
    • The management principle is an age-old dictum: necessity is the mother of invention. NBFCs operate with regulatory constraints. They cannot accept low-cost savings and current deposits. They cannot participate in payment or foreign exchange network. They are discouraged from accepting term deposits from public.
    • The list is long. In return, NBFCs do not have statutory liquidity ratio (SLR), cash reserve ratio (CRR) and priority sector obligations that banks have. Other than a few areas of capital market exposure, a bank can do everything that an NBFC can do. However, vice versa is not true. How do NBFCs compete and grow from this constrained position? Constraints necessitate innovation. They focus on those areas where banks are uncompetitive or those that banks do not find worthwhile. Such areas are typically ones that require an innovative business model, or expert skills, or higher risktaking, or deep understanding of customer or of an asset being financed. These include the entire spectrum of businesses from infrastructure finance to microfinance.
  • Telecom push to GDP
    • Findings reveal that every 10% increase in mobile penetration rate leads to a 1.2% increase in GDP.
  • An excellent graphic on our state of finances
Language Lessons
  • skulduggery: Noun
    • Informal underhand dealing; trickery
  • eclectic: Adjective
    • Selecting what seems best of various styles or ideas
  • pedagogy: Noun
    • The principles and methods of instruction; The activities of educating or instructing; activities that impart knowledge or skill; The profession of a teacher
  • mea culpa: Adjective
    • An acknowledgment of your error or guilt
    • Interjection: An admission of guilt