Meddling with Economics

This is why you don’t meddle with the Economy every chance you get—even though there is apparently something you can do. There’s always something you’ll miss in your predictions, and then everyone is left to pay the price.

They tried to regulate the cost of cancer drugs—but only ended up creating a shortage of said drugs in the market:

The low profit margins mean that manufacturers face a hard choice: lose money producing a lifesaving drug or switch limited production capacity to a more lucrative drug.

It’s a good read; go read the whole thing.

Link via Cafe Hayek

Typical West Bengal

There is a law in West Bengal whereby it is illegal to use loudspeakers in public places during school board exams. (It is another matter that the law only protects students of the State Education Board, not those of other Central Education Boards whose national exams fall on different dates.) In risk of digressing slightly from the topic, the other funny thing about this situation is that local political parties, to gain ‘support’ from local people, set up booths during this exam time at busy intersections, and try keeping the traffic running smoothly for the benefit of the examinees – by blaring their instructions over a loudspeaker.

Anyway. The law exists. And here’s what the Chief Minister does, flanked by his Information and Cultural Affairs Ministry, and his own police department – whose job (I think) is to protect the law of the land – in blatant violation of the loudspeaker law.

Typical West Bengal, no?

P.S.: It’s election time, and being the eternal optimist that I am, I am hoping once again for sanity in West Bengal. Does anyone have news? I haven’t got any yet.

Of ‘No Smoking’ Laws

This post I had referred to, in an earlier post. And said that I had more to say about it.

What caught me was Suchismita’s attitude towards the ‘no smoking in public places’ law that the Health Minister recently passed. Here’s what she says:

First there was Ramadoss that acted the big daddy and barred smoking in “public places” without explaining what public places he was talking about. So now because of one whim Doss Almighty had one day over tea, people like you and me are looking for corners where we can smoke. We are lepers you see, we have to be ostracized because consideration is reserved for people who turn their pretty noses up when they smell cigarettes half a mile away.

Hm. Yes, the guy messed up, in not defining ‘Public Place’ sharply enough. He has moreover acted in very weird ways before, on the subject of smoking, and on which I have commented earlier.

And yet, I do not agree that the law is unfair.

Smoking is a personal choice, as is anything else that we choose to indulge in. And yet, that choice, that freedom, extends only as long as we do not infringe on someone else’s choice, and that person’s freedom! You, Suchismita, are free to indulge in smoking, but are not free to force others to breathe in the toxic gases that you are contributing to the air that they breathe!

Suchismita, whatever your limits are on things that you enjoy indulging in / have tried / don’t mind seeing around you, I am sure you have your own upper limits too. Would you feel very comfortable if another person indulged in something that was beyond your upper limit of tolerance, and moreover forced you to be a passive participant in that act?

I think not.

ID for a bicycle?

I came across this today: the UP government, in a bid to curb terrorist activities, has decided that buying a bicycle will involve the same ID checks as getting a new cell phone connection.

Isn’t this stretching it a bit too far?

Three thoughts come to mind:

1. Something about bolting horses on the one hand (how many times does a terrorist outfit use a modus operandi that has been used before?), and

2. Extreme paranoia on the other (will they require ID for childrens’ bicycles too? Surely, if bombs can be packed on an adult bicycle, so can it be done on a childrens’ bicycle?).

3. Something about planning for scenarios. What happens if a bomber hires a cycle rickshaw, puts his ‘stuff’ on it, and asks the driver to wait while he ‘gets’ something important? How do you plan for that?

Wow. I wonder how far things like this will be stretched without looking at the practicalities.

Oh Kolkata!

Or rather, oh West Bengal. Bengal’s woes continue, and I wonder (do I really, now?) how much of it has to do with the ‘system’ in place, and the contacts that people who should be ‘responsible’ manage to use for their own good.

We’d been wondering in our last days at Kolkata at how some of the newer buses had different designs from what we had grown used to seeing for the past twenty-odd years. Turns out there was actually a directive to make the said changes! Yet, only some of the newer buses actually had those changes, not the rest of them.

There was a mishap recently on a major Kolkata roadway where a private bus ran off the road, and where 21 people were killed, and around 20 more injured. Putting aside the fact that the driver was on a ‘race’ with another vehicle, there are other issues too. It emerges that some of the changes in design, that were not made in the bus in the accident, actually hampered rescue operations.

And what do the people in charge have to say about that? Here goes:

Says the Times of India (scroll down to the section titled Rescue was hampered by window bars’ ):

“Local people engaged in the rescue operation said things would have been a lot different had there been no iron bars on the windows. Private buses in the city still have windows bound by iron rods that hinder rescue operations during emergency.

“We had to use shovels and axes to break the rods. A lot of time was wasted. If the windows were not bound, we could have saved many more lives,” said Swapan Haldar of Kestopur.

Though all public transport in the country has to abide by central safety norms, buses in Kolkata still have barricaded windows.

A circular in 2003 had instructed all private buses to convert to the two-by-two sitting arrangement as well as do away with grilles. The deadline for such conversion was 2004. PVD (Public Vehicles Department) and RTA (Regional Transport Authority) officials admitted that there has been leniency in taking action against errant vehicles.”

Says the Additional Director (technical), Public Vehicles Department:

“The grilles were introduced to rein in unruly passengers. The new BS III buses do not have these barricades.”

Well, what about the older buses, which actually form a major portion of the vehicles on the road? Never mind. To continue,

Says RTA Deputy Chairman:

“… the vigil on emergency exits has not been strict. The Kestopur incident should work as an eye-opener. We will definitely take up the issue.”

Definitely, eh? And what were you doing for the past four years?

Says President of Bengal Bus Syndicate (essentially the bus owners’ union):

“It is not possible for all owners to convert the models of the old buses. But we will definitely take up the issue to do away with the iron grilles at the meeting on April 11,”

Not possible??? How so? I wonder if such a logic would work anywhere else. Why won’t you make your buses so as to adhere to safety directions? ‘Coz we can’t afford it. An accident once in a while? So what, but we can’t afford to be safe!

And there’s that ‘definitely’ word again. And once more, as in the previous case, is a promise to ‘take up the issue’. Not do something, no, they can’t promise that they’ll do something, but they will ‘take up the issue’.

Ours is supposed to be a democracy, right? In fact, the world’s largest one. I wonder who it is that is supposed to raise his voice. And raise his voice against who? When the people in charge, including the Assistant Technical Director and Deputy Chairman of two government agencies, can make these statements in their formal capacities, where does it lead us?

Of Smoking, and Indian visual media

The Indian Health Ministry has for some time now tried to enforce anti-smoking rules to Indian visual media, with the brunt being borne by the movie industry. The Ministry’s point seems to be that people in general, and the youth in particular, look up and learn from Indian movie stars, and watching their heroes smoke on screen encourages them to do the same.

Well, how is that supposed to work? Cinema invariably displays a range of actions and emotions, and not all of it positive. Did the ministry object to Dhoom or Dhoom 2 because it glamorised stealing? What about Bunty Aur Babli, which glamorized fraud? If the youth can make sense of such morals, surely they can also be expected to make sense of the cigarette?

OK, assume for the moment that stealing and fraud are much more taxing on the conscience, and hence are easier to stay away from. Well then, if everyone agrees that smoking has no place is society, just ban the thing!! The government, for all it’s apparent care for the society, will not be able to ban cigarettes, because that would harm the economy. It will not even ban cigarettes in places where it might cause discomfort to others, because again, that will not be a popular decision with the large mass of smokers. Here in the US, most buildings are designated non-smoking zones, and anyone wanting to smoke must step outside, even if it is snowing. Imagine a rule like that being enforced in India!!

For the Indian government, it is always a case of flaunting apparent care for people, rather than doing something practical that would be a step in the right direction. If you want to reduce the influence of cigarettes,

1. Stop the sale of cigarettes in any and every stall on the street. Enforce the ‘No Smoking below 18’ rule for cigarettes. If it can work for alcohol, so can it for cigarettes. Of course, there will be a fraction of people with wrong access, but can you really dream about 100% efficiency?

2. Ban smoking in public places, and public buildings. That takes out a lot of places where people, including the youth, can smoke.

3. Like the US, make it a rule that a large percent of cigarette packaging must include anti-smoking warnings. The US rules make it mandatory that 33% of the package must include statutory warnings.

Some final pointers:

1. Taking care of the youth is the government’s responsibility, not the movie industry’s.

2. What the youth does is its choice, at least allow them that much intelligence.

3. If the youth really learn from its heroes, why can’t the government have people of exceptional character, who can influence them? When the government itself engages in cheap politics rather than spend time over fruitful decisions, how can they direct others to think about the country before themselves?

At least our youth is idolizing movie stars. God help us if our youth start learning from our politicians.

Of the IT Act, and the Indian Police

India’s response to the increasing rate of cyber crime has been the Information Technology Act, which sets out certain measures that the police can take, if a complaint of cyber crime is made. While this is a step in the right direction, the Indian system, as with many other things of the recent past, has really failed to live up to its requirement. When the Bill was first passed, there was a lot of noise made in the press from the legal circles, pointing out the various loopholes in the Act.

Of course, no one really paid any attention, and the IT Act has found its pride of place among all the other Acts.

This recent report is the latest instance of the system going completely awry. An Internet Service Provider (in this case, Bharti Telecom, of Airtel fame) provides the police with an IP address, and the police, based on the IT Act, promptly put into jail the person who’s IP address it was. You know, of course, that every IP address is unique and can identify the particular computer that was used to access a certain website.

Only, this system works in two cases. One, and most important, the IP address needs to be static, that is, constant, for the computer concerned. The norm in India is for the ISP to provide dynamic IP addresses, which means a new IP address is generated every time an internet connection is reset, even from the same computer. This makes it very difficult to track who is responsible for a certain cyber crime, because with so many subscribers and so much of connection-disconnection-connection going on, it is difficult to keep track of all the IP addresses. Indeed, this is the reason that most cyber crimes in India go undetected, because if you can’t identify whose IP address it is, how can you apprehend the individual?

The second situation where the system works is when the user does not use a proxy server. There are various online service providers (essentially, websites, just like any other website) that route your data packets through their servers, and help to camouflage your own IP address. When the IP address gets recorded, it is not your IP address, but one of the proxy servers’ choosing. Additionally, because these websites route the data through their own servers, the most common method of censorship, ‘blocking’ websites, does not work if they are not taken into account. In fact, nowadays, the major IT companies are remodelling their internal censorship models to include the presence of such proxy servers, because their employees continued to access their favourite leisure websites, such as orkut.com, even after the company had ‘blocked’ them.

I am sure when an ISP provides the IP address of one its subscribers, it makes sure that the IP was a static one, or if it is not, it actually tracks who had which IP assigned at what time. If Bharti did not do this, then indeed, they should be hauled to court immediately. But even if they did do that, are they sure that the IP address that was recorded on the website was actually the IP of the user concerned? I am not an expert in this field, but I wonder if Indian ISPs actually track the presence of proxy servers. Given the shallow nature of cyber crime laws in India, I would think not.

What, then, does the user do when something such as this crops up? The average person in India is more likely than not completely computer illiterate, and this includes the police and other individuals concerned in the judiciary. Is this not then the responsibility of the government, to get on one table the foremost computer security experts, and have them make the laws for a change? But of course, this type of law, however essential in this day and age, will not be a vote bank, because a large fraction of the Indian population are not exposed to the computer, and hence is not of real concern to the political parties.

And while all this happens, the Lakshmana’s of this world spend 50 days in prison, for no fault of theirs.