Monday, September 04, 2006

19th Aug, 2006

There are times in your life when you feel like everything you know has been shattered. But then you realize that all that has been shattered was a layer of colored glass - a heavy, almost translucent layer - that covered what you really knew. What lies under that layer, the core of truth, is something you have purposely hidden, whose view you have purposely distorted; but there's something about it that won't go away. Its permanence, its essence is so real, that it cannot be dismissed or destroyed, just hidden. And it keeps nagging you.

Anyhow, the point is that today, i feel that i made another crack in the glass layer to get a quick glimpse. The crack was not shattering, it wasn't even deep enough to give a direct glimpse, but perhaps what i saw was a somewhat less distorted view.

I am in Ahmedabad, visiting Nafisaben. The last year and a half has been surreal, i feel like i have been in one long pursuit of these cracks. From leaving my job for a man, to reading a lot, to sleeping a lot, to refusing to look for another job. All in pursuit of one glimpse into this tender underbelly that is my true knowledge.

So anyhow, as part of my obligatory learning about Utthan, the organisation that is run by Nafisaben, I read their manual on conflict resolution. They had this example of an exercise that can be run. There are two people and one bag of rice. They both really want that bag of rice. What can be done? Well.. I didn't give it much thought, just went straight to the "solutions". There was one solution that the bigger and stronger wins - which i later realize is the realist view of the world. Then there's the solution that they split the bag in half, a more intricate subsolution of which is that they discuss their needs and the one with the greater need gets the proportionately larger share. As an economist, I thought about looking at their needs in terms of incentives, ie the one with the greater need should be willing to pay more of something else to get that bag of rice. But then, down the line, one of the last solutions caught my breath. What if in their deliberations, they look at each other and say, why the hell are we in this stupid experiment with just one bag? If we both want a bag of rice, why not address the root cause of the scarcity of rice in the first place?

My previous worldview had always been extremely pragmatic when facing these types of problems. Maybe its due to my background as an engineer and then a would-be economist, or maybe it was the reason i was drawn to those fields in the first place. If something is scarce, how best to utilize it so that it achieves its optimum utility. I thought in terms of efficiency, of speed, of getting more and more from less and less. For example, when writing a paper on how to best deal with water shortages in Peru, I came up with this elaborate scheme that gave people a basic minimum amount but then gave incentives to them to use less over that minimum.
When the question I should be asking is why is there a scarcity in the first place? What went wrong with the traditional schemes for managing water? Who is looking after the watershed? Is someone exploiting the water resource?

But thats just about water. What about so many other scenarios where conflict is caused by competition over a scarce resource, when if only the rival parties sat down to look at it, they would know that the real problem is not the other side but the entity that is keeping the resource scarce.

And these are things that we know. They are true and the truth lies inside. But we're so caught up in wanting bigger things, more things - the world where the engineer and the economist are our new gods - telling us what we want - that greed is good and to want more is perfectly natural and that we keep acquiring things till our utilities hit a pareto optimum.

Wanting more is not perfectly natural. Its selfish, unethical and the root of a lot of evil. dammit.

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