Category: Indian Subcontinent, Open Government Platform, and Cancer data sets

After attending a lecture at University of San Francisco by Jonathan Reichental (@Reichental) on the use of open data in the public sector, I started poking around some data sets available at is pretty impressive. The site was established in 2009 by Vivek Kundra, the first person with the title “Federal CIO” of the United States, appointed by Barack Obama.  It is rapidly adding data sets; sixty-four thousand data sets have been added just in the last year.

Interestingly, there is an open-source version of itself, called the open government platform. It is built on Drupal and available on github. The initiative is spear-headed by the US and the Indian governments, to help promote transparency and citizen engagement by making data widely and easily available. Awesome.

The Indian version is: There is also a Canadian version, a Ghanaian version, and many other countries are following suit.

I started mucking around and produced a plot of the Age-adjusted Urinary Bladder cancer occurrence, by state.

  • The data was easy to find. I downloaded it without declaring who I am or why I’m downloading the data, and I didn’t have to wait for any approval.
  • The data was well-formatted and trivially easy to digest using python pandas.
  • Ipython notebook and data source available below.




If you’re interested in this data, you should also check out , which I didn’t know existed until I started writing this post. I was able to retrieve this map from there:



China: Norway, too? Really?

I recently shared about how China was poking at India by publishing a controversial map on their passports. Well, China is irking another country I happen to feel close to … Norway.

Link to article by Daniel Drezner:

China has left Norway off a list of countries that can visit Beijing without a visa. The list includes all the EU countries, the US, Russia, Japan, major Latin-American countries, and others.Why? Apparently Norway or its citizens are “low-quality” and “badly behaved.”*snicker*The pot calling the kettle black, if you ask me… or if you ask the experts, like Drezner. In his article, he wonders how exactly one should measure quality and good behavior:

  • 2012 Corruptions Perception Index: Norway — Rank 7. China — Rank 80. 
  • 2012 Rule of Law Index: Norway — Rank 1. China — Rank 94 (out of 97).
  • 2012 Prosperity Index: Norway — Rank 1. China — Rank 55.
  • 2012 Commitment to Development Index: Norway — Rank 2. China — unranked
  • etc

The map on China’s new passport

Interesting. China‘s new passport design includes a country map that controversially includes disputed territory like Taiwan and parts of India.


The controversial map on China’s new Passort (via Washington Post)

India’s response is clever, in my opinion — it’s impractical for India to refuse to stamp the passports like some other countries, so instead they’ve changed the visa stamp itself to include a modified version of the controversial map.

Aseem Trivedi

From the BBC news today (abbreviated):

Mr Trivedi was arrested on Saturday for a series of cartoons lampooning politicians.

In one of his cartoons the customary three lions in India’s national emblem are replaced with three wolves, their teeth dripping blood, with the message “Long live corruption” written underneath. Another cartoon depicts the Indian parliament as a giant toilet bowl.

Here’s a sample of Aseem Trivedi’s anti-corruption cartoons:

[Trivedi’s website  Cartoons Against Corruption was taken down at the request of the Indian government. I pulled the images from an alternate site created in response to the censorship. (]

I was encouraged by the tone of the BBC article, clearly condemning the arrest…

Mr Katju, a former Supreme Court judge, asked how drawing a cartoon could be considered a crime, and said politicians should learn to accept criticism. “Either the allegation is true, in which case you deserve it; or it is false, in which case you ignore it. This kind of behaviour is not acceptable in a democracy,” he said.

… but shocked by the prevalence of Indians attacking Trivedi’s cartoons and suggesting that he belongs in jail. The prevailing attitude of these dissenters seemed to be that defaming national symbols was unacceptable. Their comments suggested that these cartoons attacked the identity and  pride of all Indians.

India’s ubiquitous three-lion emblem appears with the phrase “Satyamev Jayate” — The Truth Only Triumphs. Trivedi’s three wolves version replaces the word “Truth” with “Corruption”: Bhrashtamev Jayate.

They are right… to an extent. They are entitled to the opinion that this satire has crossed some line, and if they feel directly attacked or insulted, that is their right. It is likely Trivedi’s intent to reproach not just politicians but each Indian  — for corruption in India goes beyond politics and infects the every-day life of each citizen.

They are entitled to their opinions, but Trivedi is likewise entitled to his cartoons.

What appalls me is the viciousness of their response, the militant idea that by drawing these cartoons Trivedi belongs in some sort of terrible hell, that he should be prosecuted and convicted for sedition.

The world over this echoes the same old debate about the right to free speech. The Greeks believed in free speech in the 5th century BC. The French Revolution fought for Trivedi’s right to draw his cartoons in 1789. It was more than a century ago that Voltaire argued for Trivedi’s right to state his opinion, even if he felt it was disgusting.

Yet here we are, in 2012, in the world’s largest democracy, charging a cartoonist for sedition for his bold call to action against corruption. We are tearing down his website and applauding the government for censoring his ideas and for putting him in jail.

Is that okay? Did this man go too far in his attacks of the government? Should he be allowed to slap the Indian identity in the face with his cartoons? Where do we draw the line, and on which side of the line do we place his cartoons?

Rushdie, the famous censored Indian writer, discusses this issue brilliantly throughout his essays in Step Across This Line, which I would recommend to anyone. His ideas on censorship also appeared recently in the New Yorker, in which he concludes:

Even more serious is the growing acceptance of the don’t-rock-the-boat response to those artists who do rock it, the growing agreement that censorship can be justified when certain interest groups, or genders, or faiths declare themselves affronted by a piece of work. Great art, or, let’s just say, more modestly, original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. It challenges, questions, overturns assumptions, unsettles moral codes, disrespects sacred cows or other such entities. It can be shocking, or ugly, or, to use the catch-all term so beloved of the tabloid press, controversial. And if we believe in liberty, if we want the air we breathe to remain plentiful and breathable, this is the art whose right to exist we must not only defend, but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.

-Salman Rushdie,
“On Censorship”, New Yorker, May 2012.

Anecdotes on Education in India

Walking out of the vice-principal’s office, politely but firmly rejected, I felt immensely frustrated. This was a sad, close-minded attitude for an educational institute to adopt. Visiting students, curious persons, anyone seeking to inquire or converse productively about relevant topics should be welcomed at colleges and universities. At this school of higher education in Mumbai, however, I had found the barriers insurmountable. I wasn’t exactly escorted off campus, but I may as well have been.

Principal's office

They are certainly situations and scenarios where visitors are not appropriate. And concerns about the security of the students and facilities — and the visitors themselves — understandably take priority. But these were not the reasons for which I had been asked to leave. This was a bureaucratic monster, a product of a culture of schooling that India desperately needs to overcome.

There is a problem

A few weeks earlier I had attended the India Strategy Forum in New Delhi. The event was organized by think tank Institute for Strategy and was a meeting of minds from one point of broad agreement was that Indian business needs to foster a spirit of innovation and originality, not just technical excellence. Panelists and attendees agreed that one important step toward this goal was to instill practices of independent creative thinking in schools — secondary schools and higher education — and by encouraging a more creative culture and environment at Indian businesses.

Original, independent and creative thinking: the stereotype about India seems to be that it is rare to find people who have possess these things or value them in others. The emphasis has always been on discipline, hard work, technical knowledge, and on analytical thinking. Indian students are often thought to be masters of rote learning, with all of the negative connotations that come with that.

How is it that a country with such a rich history of invention, unique thought, and open-mindedness has ended up the target of such preconceptions?

Mathematics department in IIT Delhi with Main ...

Mathematics department in IIT Delhi with Main Building in background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While i was traveling for several weeks around India, I went out of my way to visit educational institutes. Some visits, like the one I already described, were utter failures. Others were amazing. One of the most interesting was my trip to the IIT in Delhi.

The Indian Institutes of Technology, for those that don’t already know, are regarded as one of the top educational programs in the world. There is a joke that students in India who can’t get into the IITs go to MIT instead. The IITs also suffer intense criticism, about everything from imbalanced sex ratios to high suicide rates.

My cousin Rishi, at the time a student at the IIT Delhi, has a powerful entrepreneurial spirit. He takes initiative to pursue his own projects. He is technical and creative and business minded. So I was particularly excited to meet him, see his campus, and meet his fellow students.

[Unfortunately, I never managed to talk to any female students at the IIT.]

One of the students, a PhD student in the hard sciences, revealed his frustrations to me. He had had some freedom in selecting his discipline and area of research, essentially choosing his programme and professor. From there, however, his professor told him what to do and when. His said his thesis was essentially chosen for him, as was how to write it. Goals, deadlines, experiments and reading materials, were all dictated by his professor. He was painfully aware of how different his experience was from his counterparts in the US. The difference, he told me, was choice. He made no decisions on his own, he just did.

He confessed that he didn’t feel equipped to make significant decisions. He’d never had to do that kind of thing before. So there was some sort of understanding that the professors just had to do these things for him. There simply wasn’t sufficient time and resources to waste on bad decisions. In a way, he said, the professors were as trapped as he was.

Later, someone brought up a similar idea. Competition in the Indian education system is fierce. Self-initiative means making mistakes and learning from them.  But a mistake can cause one to lose time, or a grade, or class ranking. Within the current system, that risk simply isn’t worth it.

Like many Indians, I take pride in the Indian mind and its achievements, both recent and historical. I am outsider, having spent little time within the Indian educational system. But from my perspective, it seems that there is a problem. And that the problem appears to be deep rooted. Perhaps even cultural.

Call me an optimist, but…

Delhi Metro @ Pitampura stop

The Delhi Metro is a symbol of pride and change. (Photo credit: yadavankur)

Call me an optimist, but India has shown time and again that it is capable of rapid, radical change. It seems to be that the ingredients are in place for such a change in this aspect of the education system. The new generations of students are more aware. They have many channels of learning outside the schools that they attend. And they’re simply not going to put up with it.

From the opposite front, there is a lot of pressure for change from businesses. Like many who have worked with Indian “offshore” teams in business process or technical outsourcing, it is clear that the experience today is very different from what it was just a few years ago. There is still has a long ways to go, but businesses will demand an ever higher level of thinking, and this economy provides an important incentive for systemic change.

I don’t know what that change will look like, but I’m excited to see it. Will it be a subtle change in attitude, a major change in curriculum, or something else entirely? How will it fit in with — or distinguish itself from — the push for education reform in other parts of the world?

The MGNREGA program

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is one of the largest programs of its kind in the world. It is a flagship program of the Indian government, and a major talking point for the UPA (center-left) political parties. It makes frequent appearances on rallying cries during political campaigns, and is a significant portion of the Indian annual budget. NREGA’s annual spend is about INR48,000 crore (~$9 Billion US dollars) — amounting to more than 11% of the 2011 Union budget expenditure.

Annual spend on NREGA in US Dollars.

So what is it?

The Official MGNREGA logo

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is a long acronym, but descriptive: it is a large-scale program by the government of India to provide a guaranteed paid labor to households in rural parts of India. 17 million and more families have been provided employment due to this program.

The program, enacted in 2005, offers guaranteed labor for 100 days in a year, and if suitable work cannot be found for registered workers then an unemployment allowance is paid instead.

Everyone seemed to have an opinion about NREGA. Some admire an ambitious plan to make changes, others disagree with the principle of guaranteed labor. But everyone I spoke to agreed that in execution, the plan has countless problems.

There are some pretty intriguing arguments in favor of this program, which, from what I can tell, was the brain-child of economists including one Jean Drèze.

The most obvious argument, and a natural motivator to put something like this together, is that there’s plenty of work to be done in India, and plenty of people that need work.

The Federal government pays the wages and much of the other costs (materials, administration) of the putting people to work. The State and local governments are responsible for finding the projects and managing the employment. I thought this was pretty clever: although wages comes from the Federal budget, the allowance, if necessary, must come out of the State’s budget.  Therefore the state has a strong incentive to find suitable work for all registrants.

These and other checks-and-balances are meant to make sure that NREGA functions as intended. Which is important in a piece of legislature of this size and scope.

Corruption and unintended consequences

While traveling in India, I got into several discussions on this topic. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about NREGA. Some admire an ambitious plan to make changes, others disagree with the principle of guaranteed labor. But everyone I spoke to agreed that in execution, the plan has countless problems.

A big feature of these problems, of course, is corruption. Corruption in India is a scourge that takes countless smart ideas and good intentions, and renders them useless. It holds back progress in the country in order to provide immediate perquisites to people who are sometimes rotten souls, but often just ordinary people who eventually succumbed to a seemingly inescapable system.

In any multi-layered, hierarchical program in India, money leaks out at each administrative step. NREGA is riddled with these types of problems. People need to pay bribes to register for programs, bureaucrats make fake registrations and pocket the funds, the selection of projects is subject to the whims of corrupt officials, and so on.

Okay, yes, corruption ruins everything, and everybody I spoke to about NREGA rightfully mentioned corruption. But I find it perhaps more interesting to look at the unintended consequences of the program, failure points at a more fundamental level. I mean, guaranteed labor? Doesn’t that just scream unintended consequences to you?

For example, the productivity of workers that are provided guaranteed labor is very low — no surprise there. And the desirability of a government-paid and low-stress employment trumps that of any competing options, and so laborers previously employed at other projects (like private construction and agricultural labor) have an incentive to quit their jobs in favor of this more attractive option. Consequently, the government has to actually suspend the program during peak farming periods to counteract resulting labor shortages.

I heard one person argue that, as little as it sounds (INR120 or about $2 a day), getting paid at about minimum wage for 100 days each year is pretty decent for many households. So decent, in fact, that some may decide that they don’t need to work (or work very hard) for the remaining 265 days. That’s one reason, she said, that finding people for household work is getting pretty difficult.

Any program as large as this will have unintended consequences like these. How significant are they, relative to the benefits of the project?  To what extent should they be treated like casualties of war, to be minimized, but largely unavoidable, and to what extent do they make a convincing argument against the program as a whole? 

Changing the name, by the way, to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, doesn’t seem to have helped alleviate any of these issues, but it is fantastic political rhetoric.

The MGNREGA program stipulates that a third of the workforce must be women. In 2011, about half of the 45 million people employed by the program were women. This was a whole other topic of conversation, which I’ll post about later.


Quora Answer: The Must-Hear A.R. Rahman Song

This feels like double-dipping, but it took so long to write this Quora answer it must be acceptable to post it on my blog as well.

“Which is the best AR Rahman song that one must hear for sure?”
My answer on Quora (along with other answers, of course) is at, and I’ve reposted it here:

Rahman’s music for the 1995 movie Bombay has been one of the most commercially successful albums in his home country India, and the best selling film soundtrack of all time. It has been recognized on various must-listen lists, including the UK Guardian’s Top albums to Hear Before You Die.

But since you asked for a song, not an album, I’ll nominate one of the songs from this album: कहना. ही. क्या. / kehna hi kya.

Kehna hi kya is one of its most memorable and popular songs, and found its own independent success on the radio. It got additional recognition from the UK Guardian, beyond the other tracks on the album, on their Top Songs to Hear
(misspelled as “kehma hi kya”). Anecdotally speaking, it was ubiquitous in India in the 90s, and is still heard frequently today.

Kehna hi kya wins my vote also because it includes a vocal solo by A.R. Rahman himself, so one gets a taste of him both as a composer and a singer.

The movie Bombay is the story of the love between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman. The story leads up to a turbulent period in the early-1990s, escalating to the inter-religious Bombay Riots in which the Babri Masjid (mosque) was destroyed and hundreds of people were killed.

The song carefully uses language (Urdu-esque) and invokes images (like the veil in the excerpt below) that the audience associates with Muslim culture, but without any actual religious content. The images themselves are beautiful and passionate.


Sharm thodi thodi humko aaye to nazarein jhuk jaayen
Sitam thoda thoda humpe shok hawa bhi kar jaaye
Aisi chali, aanchal ude, dil mein ek toofaan uthe
Hum to lut gaye khade hi khade

Translated (my own translation; I’m no language scholar but I disliked others I found):

A little shyness came and caused my eyes/gaze to fall downward
(But) even the wind tortures/teases me,
Blowing in such a way as to throw off my veil,
— and (likewise) a storm blows/rises in my heart,
Just standing there my heart was stolen.

The lyrics were written by Mehboob Kotwal.

You can download the song from Amazon: