Brown Pundits Podcast with teacher Michelle Kerr

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the lives of young children, students, and youth. The disruption of societies and economies caused by the pandemic is aggravating the pre-existing global education crisis and is impacting education in unprecedented ways.

Brown Pundits- Shahada, a UK College Lecturer, discusses COVID-19 with Michelle Kerr, a Maths Teacher from  California. They  compare their experiences, concerns  and impact.

Covid-19 has impacted on Education on so many levels and there are many parallels with society in general:

COVID-19 is having a negative impact on young people’s mental health. We are concerned that, with most young people not currently attending school and many young people not having access to resources and materials with which to learn, there will be a subsequent detrimental effect on both academic attainment and wellbeing. Exams have been cancelled in many states and here in the UK. This is having a negative impact on attendance and motivation.

The COVID-19 crisis is likely to have a long-lasting impact on young people’s mental health and the services that support them, including schools and children’s services. The Government must consider this throughout its emergency response and policies to recover from the crisis. Has COVID-19 highlighted pre-existing decline in mental health?

The impact, particularly on groups who are already disadvantaged, is likely to widen existing inequalities and to contribute to a rise in young people looking for mental health support. Is this a reflection and consequence of inequality in education?

Discussions  touched upon the existence of hierarchy in education and its parallels in greater society? For instance, will deprived students disproportionately be disadvantaged? Ultimately is this a reflection of class privilege?

A controversial point discussed was weather Teachers have a professional responsibility to physically go into the classroom. Both expressed very different perspectives!

Its been argued that Standardised tests are not an accurate representation of a student’s abilities and they lack reliability. We touched upon the controversial issue of removing standardised testing in education. Weather standardised testing should be formally put to an end. Has the removal of standardised testing been accelerated as a consequence of COVID-19?  Will this result in a lowering of standards and skills?  And again which group will be disadvantaged and advantaged?

Time will tell, the true long term impact of COVID-19 on Education…….


Farmers vs Government: The Benefits and Limits of Democratic Redistribution

In its period of rapid economic growth, Indian democracy was successful in redistributing gains from urban centered, globalization led growth to the rural agrarian economy. The redistribution of available economic and administrative resources among competing groups is a primary concern of democratic politics. The situation is very different in non-democratic polities. In the figure below, we see that during globalization led growth, the ratio of per worker agrarian income to overall per capita GDP drops to less than a half in China and Vietnam, while it remained above or close to one in India and Indonesia. In other words, agrarian workers in one-party China and Vietnam became relatively poorer while their country became richer, agrarian workers in India and Indonesia did not incur a relative disadvantage.

Ratio of agricultural income per worker to overall GDP per capita for four Asian countries. In democratic, farmer majority India, the rural populace could always command a major share of the state’s redistributive efforts. After an initial decline from 1.4 to 1.0, the ratio in India stabilizes. In one-party China and Vietnam, the emphasis is on efficient agricultural production, not producers, and resources are invested heavily in urban areas.

In India the vast rural population with more than a century long experience in political mobilization, has pushed governments to spend money in rural areas. Redistribution has occurred via irrigation projects, rural roads, NREGA, subsidies, loan waivers and recently, direct income transfers. Any negative externality arising from agrarian activity has been borne by urban residents (eg: Delhi smog) but farmers were not penalized. Aside from rural-urban dynamics, democratic redistribution has led to a spatial equalization of agricultural productivity across the country.

Left image is district wise agricultural productivity in 2005. Since then, as the right image shows, agricultural growth has been concentrated in the most backward areas (dark red on left). The primary drivers have been irrigation projects and rural roads.

Though the condition of Indian cities is depressing, the upshot of a democracy dominated by the rural majority is comfortable food security. In fact, even though India’s use of pesticide is quite low by global standards, and its agricultural yields, cold-chain infrastructure sub-par, it has become a major net agricultural exporter. This is in huge contrast to China which has become a massive net importer of food. This is an important strategic advantage for India.

Net agricultural trade balance for India and China since 1961. China reverts to a net import situation as soon as its economy starts booming in the 1990s. in contrast India’s exports zoom in its period of economic growth.

There are signs, though, that India’s redistribution toolkit might be reaching the limits of its efficiency. Concurrently, a more reformist Indian government, awash with surplus grain, wants to re-orient farmers towards higher return crops or even an exit from farming. An urbanising electorate may also not be as willing to redistribute their hard earned tax monies towards their rural co-citizens.

The reorientation of the Punjab-Haryana farmer away from rice and wheat will require tact and persuasion, not ordinance fiat. The set patterns are very comfortable from the economic (MSP + diaspora remittances + armed forces recruitment) and psychological (we feed and secure the nation) perspective. The simple promise of higher incomes might not convince historically agrarian communities who havent fully embraced the money economy.

The Prime Minister has proven to be a masterful communicator. We have not yet seen the same skill in his dealings with the farmers. The approach there has oscillated between genuflection and disregard. The potential is there for the 200000 sq. km tract of well irrigated, fertile land in India’s north west to become the new California Central Valley (47,000 sq km). India can then become the land that greatly increases global access to premium agro-products like fresh, dry fruits and vegetarian protein. The latter (beef-mukt world) will also resonate with many urban supporters of the government and even the farmers themselves.


India Stack: The Art of Digital Alchemy

India isn’t exactly known for efficiency. The chaos that slams your senses as you step off the plane into the Land of Dharma stands in contrast to the sense of stillness that India’s old wisdom brings. Today’s India is in constant churn. Still shackling off the chains of colonialism and bureaucracy, India can appear to move at the cumbersome pace of an elephant; but sometimes, that elephant charges.

FinTech is an arena of speed and nimbleness. Firms move at the pace of a nimbus cloud as startups rise and fall in an increasingly competitive space that promises to transform a world moving from analog to digital. Security is also placed at a premium, as conflict transitions from firing mortars and metal to acquiring capital and computer power. But above all, what is needed in FinTech is efficiency.


A country known for a fetish for over-administration would be assumed to be one of the last places to find quite possibly the most advanced and successful FinTech “stack” on the planet. Cause and effect enjoy playing coy and serendipitous games with each other, and it is in India where we find the confluence of separate information streams merge into the exceptional India Stack.

Continue reading “India Stack: The Art of Digital Alchemy”


Climate change is a development problem

In the comments below there is some mention of the problems that Bangladesh will face due to increases in global sea level. The hypothesis is that there will be a mass migration to India as Bangladeshis flee low-level zones which are going to be inundated. I don’t think this is capturing the real issue: if millions of Bangladeshis are still subsistence farmers on marginal maritime zones then there has been a massive development failure.

Even extreme sea-level scenarios by 2100 posit a 2.5-meter rise, which means only a small proportion of the territory of Bangladesh would be inundated. If by 2100 Bangladesh is not a predominantly urban society after 80 years of economic development from 2020, there are much deeper structural problems to deal with than climate change.

Development and wealth change the downsides of risk a great deal. The 1970 Bhola cyclone caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. Something that is unlikely to be replicated in the region for various reasons (e.g., information technology and coordination are far better!).

I’ve been paying attention to climate change since the late 1980s. As someone whose family is from Bangladesh I have been very worried…my image in 1990 was of peasants fleeing inundated paddies. But things have changed a great deal. In 2020 nearly 40 percent of Bangladeshis live in cities. By 2100 a substantial majority should…


Beyond the Bangladeshi basket-case

Coronavirus has been an economic disaster all across South Asia. But, beyond that, there are changes that have occurred before the pandemic and will continue after. For example, Bangladesh’s per capita GDP now higher than eastern and northeastern India:

Bangladesh’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is now higher than most Indian states in eastern and northeastern India, with the exception of small hill states such as Mizoram and Sikkim. According to the data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Bangladesh’s per capita GDP was $1,905 in 2019, against West Bengal’s $1,566 in 2018-19 (FY19) — economically the most developed state in eastern India.

Bangladesh is not really comparable to India, which is a diversified economy that is more than an order of magnitude larger. But, it is comparable to West Bengal. On economic matters, I am broadly sympathetic to right-liberal economics, so I’ll spare you my interpretation of what’s going on.


The Ambition of the Emirates


For a large part of history, the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula were on the fringe in the rise and fall of empires. They alternated raiding and trading as this wheel of fire rolled on across the dunes. But eventually, the Arabian caravan would be equipped with both sword and word to make haste across the Old World in a relentless raid that would change both history and humanity.

Yet just as quickly as the prized Arabian horses would gallop into newly conquered lands, the Arabs would soon scatter leaving their language, faith, and the prestige of their roots behind in strange lands. Tribalism trumped their newfound unity and the Arabs would once again retreat into their wildernesses and pilgrimages.

That is until wealth erupted from its wastelands. The old elites of the Middle East would now return from their desert exile to begin another round of a game of thrones.

Continue reading “The Ambition of the Emirates”


On Indians in East Africa

The Indian diaspora is said to be over 30 million. While the popular tendency is usually to talk of the diaspora in the West (which is recent in formation), Indians have played a far more important role in East Africa if we take a long historical view of the past 150 years

Thomas Sowell’s very fine book “Migrations and Cultures” is an eye-opener in this respect as it sheds a great deal of light on the Indian engagement in Africa since the middle of 19th century. This short post dwells briefly on the Indian contributions in East Africa (particularly Uganda / Tanzania / Kenya) drawn mainly from Sowell’s work.

Let’s take the Tanzanian island outpost of Zanzibar off the African east coast. While the Indian presence in Zanzibar today is not much to write home about, this island was one of the first African territories to be settled by Indians. There was a phase in history when Zanzibar was practically run by Indians. In 1860, a report mentioned – “All the shopkeepers and artisans at Zanzibar are natives of India”!

The numbers of Indians in Zanzibar weren’t great. Only about 5000 in the 1860s. But nearly all foreign trade was conducted by them. As of 1872, an American trader owed Indian financiers in the Island $2MM and a French firm owed these financiers at least $4MM.

While in mid 19th century, Indian presence was largely in Zanzibar and some coastal areas of East Africa, the interior was opened up when the British constructed the great railroad that connected Mombasa port in Kenya to Lake Victoria in Uganda in late 19th century. 16000 laborers were involved in the construction of this great pioneer Railway project. Of which 15000 were Indians.

What’s interesting is that these coolies were pretty expensive compared to the indigenous African labor. Yet the expensive indentured Indian labor from thousands of miles away was preferred as they were more valuable and productive than locally available African labor. The railroad construction proved the trigger for much of the Indian migration to the African mainland – particularly Kenya and Uganda. Much of the migration was from Gujarat.

The Indian settlements in these parts were a momentous event in Africa’s long history. In Sowell’s words, the Indian shops in East Africa were the first commercial retail establishments ever encountered by these African villages in their entire history. The Indians in East Africa were the first to import / sell cereal. Sowell credits them for “transforming East Africa from a subsistence and barter economy into a money economy” in the late 19th / early 20th century.

As an example Taxes in Uganda until late 19th century were paid in kind. Starting in 20th century they were paid in money and the currency was rupees!

In 1905, a report in Kenya declared – “80% of the present capital and business energy in the country is Indian”. In 1948, Indians owned over 90% of all cotton gins in Uganda. In the 1960s, when the Indian population peaked in Uganda, their share of the population was about 1%. But as per some estimates the “Asian” contribution (mostly Indian) to the national GDP ranged from 35% to 50%.

In 1952, there were twice as many African traders as Indian traders in Uganda, but the Indian traders did 3 times as much business as the Africans! Despite Govt regulations which hampered Indians from setting up shops (again as per Sowell).

Resentment against Indian dominance eventually got a lease of life when most of the East African countries became independent in the 60s and 70s. The dictator Idi Amin’s expulsion of most Ugandan Indians in the early 70s was a notorious episode at the time when the Asian population in Uganda dropped from 96K in 1968 to ~1000 in 1972.

The case in Kenya was not very different from Uganda. Indians dominated the Kenyan economy. Yet post Kenyan Independence, the pressures to “africanize” meant that the Asian (mostly Indian) numbers in Kenya dropped from 176K in 1962 to 25K in 1975.

Today Indians play a more marginal role in the region than they once did. .While we tend to diss imperialism a lot, we sometimes forget that imperialism was also a driver of such unlikely inter-continental migrations which brought commercial culture to hitherto unexplored regions.

Political independence to the region did not work out very well for the enterprising Indian diaspora. The Indian businessman who had played a large role in building these economies was driven out of it, with little gratitude.

The story of Indians in East Africa is a much unheralded one, that ought to be celebrated more in India, and must be taught in Indian textbooks. This was not a political colonization driven by kings. This was a mission undertaken by hard working ordinary Indians who shone with their probity, enterprise and sweat.

All the more reason to celebrate and commemorate it.

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish


Browncast Episode 108: Harsh Gupta on the India-China Conflict and Going Long India

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. This website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago.

I would though appreciate more positive reviews! Alton Brown’s “Browncast” has 30 reviews on Stitcher alone! Help make us the biggest browncast! At least at some point.

Harsh Gupta | The Indian Express

This episode features Omar, Mukunda, and Akshar talking to Harsh Gupta, an investor and author. We discuss the big picture geopolitics of the Galwan clash in Ladakh, Indian civilization, and why Harsh is going long on India. Some positive vibes in a trying time for many!



What Changes Needed for the US

Start with a quote from Matt Stoller (2011)
Change needs to happen—and it will happen, either through good leadership or through collapse.

The US has choices, most other countries dont.

With all the chaos and rioting there are no specific goals to make the US equitable, specially for the lower rungs of society.  My thoughts of specific goals.

What should be done immediately

a) Give aid to direct individuals
This includes free testing and health care

b) Debt Jubilee, i.e. forgiveness of debt.
Rent, Mortgage forgiveness based on income/job.
NOT a deferral with a huge amount coming due in the future

Electoral Process

The President, Congress and Senators need to be more answerable to the public.  The way the current system works, public votes and President, Congress and elected officials do the bidding of their paymasters, the big money  Multinationals and Military Industrialist.  This change is imperative for a proper functioning democracy.


a) No lobbyists, period.  Caught lobbying or accepting lobby, at least a few years in Jail.
Lobbying is legalized bribery and corruption.

b) Campaign Finance: I would prefer only a govt funding, equal to all contestants.
Or only donations by individuals with cap on amount.

c) Two term limit for Senators

Finance Specific*

a) Let Too Big to Fail companies/banks go bust if they are not profitable ,
instead of propping them up with more and more trillion dollar handouts.

b) Stop derivatives being used for speculation/betting.
Can be used as hedge against asset on the books.
If the asset is sold, the derivative needs to be unwound.

c) Share buybacks be made illegal.

I dont think USD 6 Trillion injection into financial markets will solve the Covid19 pandemic or the chaos in the US.

To put the 6 Trillion into perspective.  US GDP is USD 19 Trillion.  Public debt is  USD 18 trillion Interest public debt USD 479 billion/0.5 Trillion (10% of Budget)

*Some suggestions by VijayVan


Its not about cutting costs per se. Think the Henry Ford saying, workers should be able to buy what is produced. For that the US must first throw out Free Trade and embrace protectionist. Start Manufacturing and give Price protection to what is manufactured.   Same for Oil, the US is self sufficient.

But all of this means ditching the Petro dollar, and the global monetary power that comes with it.  So very unlikely those changes will be by choice.


A push for polices that re vitalize small towns with self reliant economies.   Not just a suburban enclave dependent on commuters working in a nearby big city.  Coupled with small or medium manufacturing.  i.e. Supply chain is mainly within the US.

Maybe even a partial break up of Big Ag and land distribution (100 acres or so) specifically for Agriculture.  I think subsidies for small scale farmers is fine.  Much better that trillion dollar bail outs for Big Ags.


The US will have to make some serious decisions about being the global policeman, and conducting wars. (I doubt will happen without change in Campaign Finance/Electoral Process).  The US Might has turned to “might happen”. Trillions on war, has not made the US safe.  Never ending Wars and nary a benefit except debt and death.
This does not mean disbanding the military.  Any country needs to defend itself against invasions.  The choice is wars of aggression in distant lands or developing the economy.

US Spending on wars Iraq War: +1 Trillion Afghan War: 1 Trillion  Military: 500 billion/year