Circles: Starting the Indian Revolution (Part 2)

Social Infrastructure

Eric Klinenberg, in his book “Palaces for the People”, discusses the importance of social infrastructure. He explains:

Public institutions, such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks, athletic fields, and swimming pools, are vital parts of the social infrastructure. So too are sidewalks, courtyards, community gardens, and other green spaces that invite people into the public realm. Community organizations, including churches and civic associations, act as social infrastructures when they have an established physical space where people can assemble, as do regularly scheduled markets for food, furniture, clothing, art, and other consumer goods. Commercial establishments can also be important parts of the social infrastructure, particularly when they operate as what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “third spaces,” places (like cafés, diners, barbershops, and bookstores) where people are welcome to congregate and linger regardless of what they’ve purchased. Entrepreneurs typically start these kinds of businesses because they want to generate income. But in the process, as close observers of the city such as Jane Jacobs and the Yale ethnographer Elijah Anderson have discovered, they help produce the material foundations for social life.

What doesn’t qualify as social infrastructure? Transit networks determine where we live, work, and play, and how long it takes to move between places. But whether they’re social infrastructure depends on how they’re organized, since a system designed for private vehicles will likely keep people separate as they travel (and consume enormous amounts of energy), whereas public systems that use buses and trains can enhance civic life. Although they have obvious social impacts, waterworks, waste treatment facilities, sewage systems, fuel supply lines, and electric grids are usually not social infrastructures. (We don’t congregate in these places.) But conventional hard infrastructure can be engineered to double as social infrastructure.

So, why is it important? Eric Klinenberg elaborates in an interview with Fatherly:

I think that when we invest in good, shared spaces we get all kinds of returns. We can build bridges. People who live around each other can create something that feels more like a community. And that’s important. In disasters, creating networks of care, and mutual support [is important.] But it also matters every day for people’s feelings of life satisfaction. We can give people access to happiness that they don’t get from just succeeding in an individualized market economy.

I think for a lot of people, good social infrastructure is a lifeline. It’s not just about relationships. A good library creates opportunities for personal fulfillment, for learning, and for mobility. That’s one of the reasons that the United States has invested so much in that in the past.

Parks created opportunities for recreation. But also for health. We have all sorts of evidence that people are healthier when they spend time outdoors and in green environments and a little less time hunkering down at home in front of a screen.

Even as India has not built its hard infrastructure, it has also under-invested in social infrastructure. Can we change this? What we need to do is to think how to create social infrastructure in post-Covid India – one where we are socially distanced but virtually just a click away. What would a 2020s shakha look like?

Tomorrow: Part 3

Circles: Starting the Indian Revolution (Part 1)

Libraries and More

In January when I was in the Bay Area, one of my meetings took place at an unusual venue – the Mountain View Public Library. Unusual because most meetings tended to be at Starbucks or some café. (Fun fact: The US has more public libraries than Starbucks or McDonalds.) When I arrived at the library, I was amazed at how big it was. There were also meeting rooms where one could have privacy. There were also computers with Internet access. The library was much more than a home for books; it was a resource for the community. And perhaps the person I needed to thank was Andrew Carnegie.

During 1883 to 1929, a total of 2509 libraries were built from money donated by Carnegie. These libraries – across the US, UK and Ireland, and Canada – became knowledge hubs and meeting points for local communities. Here is an overview from NPR on the impact: “Public libraries became instruments of change — not luxuries, but rather necessities, important institutions — as vital to the community as police and fire stations and public schools… Temples of learning, ambition, aspiration for towns and cities throughout the United States.”

I thought about my own experience with libraries in India. When I was in college, I visited Mumbai’s British Council Library at Nariman Point often. They had a very good collection of books. I discovered the Asiatic Library at Fort quite late in life. For some reason, it didn’t seem as attractive – dark and gloomy. (Or maybe that was my mood the day I went.) One of the best libraries I have visited has been the Kavi Narmad library in Surat – the collection of books is huge, there is a separate children’s section, and there is a large well-lit room for reading newspapers and magazines. Friends talk about the Nehru Memorial Library in Delhi, but I have never visited it.

Most libraries are places of silence – they did not encourage community. They are lonely places – and perhaps that’s the right focus for libraries. Besides the fact that India lacks an adequate infrastructure of public libraries, what we also miss are places where people can gather and connect with each other.

If we had to start India’s political and economic revolution that I recently wrote about, it would be very important to bring people together and change minds – one at a time. For this, there would be a need for neighbourhood cells all across India with a dual purpose – creating the social infrastructure and an organised cadre.

It was in this context that I started thinking about the shakha (meaning, branch) – popularised by the RSS in India. Friends who had attended the RSS shakhas in their youth spoke positively about the fun and game activities and the bonding – and of course, the indoctrination. But when I asked if they would send their kids to the shakhas, the answer was a universal No. While the physical shakhas may not be as active as they once were, how could we rethink the concept of the shakha to bring people together in neighbourhoods and foster a common bond between them? Could a new version of the shakha – the local “Circle” – become the foundation for building India’s social infrastructure?

Tomorrow: Part 2

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 12)

Making It Happen

“Deliberation and debate is the way you stir the soul of our democracy.” – Jesse Jackson

There are seven elements which can fuel the rise of debating in India.

First, there needs to be a simple app which can allow people to join or view a debate. The fun lies in watching debates live. So, it almost needs to work like a two-sided market – debaters who get connected with each other through the app, and then the viewers who watch, cheer and vote. Debates can be 1:1 or between teams. To start with, an array of topics can be listed and debaters can express their interest. It is like playing online games against strangers over the Internet. Alternately, a duo or quartet can schedule their debate, and then attract an audience.

Second, the best snippets from the debates need to be edited and amplified via social media. This will create the content factory to counter the propaganda and fake news that is so filling our inboxes. People should be able to see the two sides of the issue, and then decide for themselves. This will also create the debating stars, who will generate their own followers. This is very similar to what happened on Tiktok. The debating app needs to become the new Tiktok to create celebrities out of the best debaters.

Third, make debates as a core element of education, as proposed in Robert Litan’s book. It will make education more exciting and also inculcate the discipline of debating early in kids. It will encourage them to listen to the other side and structure their own thoughts in a coherent manner. In short, a debate-centred education will better prepare them for the real world.

Fourth, there is a need to create leagues, competitions, clubs and societies at multiple levels. This could be in schools, colleges and neighbourhoods. The competitive spirit brings out the best in people. Given that all this is going to happen via the app, it doesn’t have to wait till schools and colleges start. Here too, the lead can be taken from the world of games – and how they have fostered celebrities and communities. If prize money can be found, this can make the entire process even more attractive for participants.

Fifth, we need to make debates mandatory for all electoral contests. People have a right to see and hear the candidates whom they are being asked to vote for in an interactive format. Today, all we can do is to watch them at rallies or in friendly stage-managed interviews. They never have to face their opponents in a debate. This needs to change.

Sixth, the same idea of debating can be applied within corporates also. For key decisions, it would be good to set up teams to argue on both sides of the issue in a structured manner. Many times, it is the ones who speak with loudest who tend to rule the day. What a debate does is to level the playing field – providing all speakers a ‘right of way’ to speak uninterrupted to make their points. A debating culture will help create more openness and better decisions within corporates.

Finally, all of us need to do what I am doing with my group of friends – start a weekly circle of friends with whom we can debate on issues. Instead of just passing around messages on WhatsApp, we all need to become participants. It will be a learning experience – as we think and put forth our points. Our private conversations will be richer embellished by the spirit of debate.

A debating culture can thus be one of the key pillars for building a better discourse, an open society and lead the political and economic revolution India needs.

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 11)

For the Revolution

“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.” – Colin Powell

I wrote recently about the revolution India needs.  Here is an excerpt:

If We, the People, are to change India’s destiny in our lifetime to give our children the shot at the prosperity many of us were denied, we have to come together for a single mission – a transformation that gives true freedom to every Indian to pursue life in the way they choose without the overhang of the government. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but a careful study of the causes of prosperity in the Western world will show otherwise. This is the revolution India needs.

What India needs is a people united to create a bottom-up movement to dismantle the corrupt political party system and end the mai-baap Sarkar that pervades our lives. Only then will a new India rise — an  India not steeped in poverty but reaching out for riches, an India not divided by ancestral surnames but united in our individual diversity, an India not searching through history books for its lost glory but powering its way through entrepreneurship to future prosperity.

A revolution might sound disruptive and violent. It is not. Just as technology is helping us buy, learn, connect and communicate, it can help us change our nation. For this a few of us need to first understand that the change is really needed. This is the job of political entrepreneurs. They have to change minds. Only then will the votes change.

The pandemic has shown us how a virus can spread itself from person to person. We need to apply similar thinking about the rules of contagion to spread ideas from person to person. We need to get past the belief that India was, is and will be great. We were not, are not and will not be great – unless we the people actively work to bring about the needed political and economic transformations. This is the revolution India needs – and what some of us have to deliver.

This is where decentralised debating clubs across India come in. They can be the spark that lights the flame of freedom (which every government has worked so hard to extinguish). This is the time when India needs to see new faces and hear new voices. The debating clubs can be the platform for this, the vehicle to give wings to the aspirations of many Indians seeking to do their little acts to change the future in a small way.

Imagine daily duels – not between the anchors in a studio and their handpicked guests, but people like us, using hard research, critical reasoning, well-fashioned arguments and the politeness of the spoken word to change our minds. Is Dhan Vapasi the best treatment for our economic crisis? Is it morally right for a government to discriminate based on religion? What is the right way to free India’s farmers? Is banning apps the right response to China’s aggression? Was the harsh lockdown of April-May the right decision by the government? Should masks be made compulsory in public spaces? There is no limit to the topics to be discussed. What is needed is a mind open to listening and learning.

So, how can a debating culture rise in India?

Tomorrow: Part 12

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 10)

Debate-centred Education

“I think debating in high school and college is most valuable training whether for politics, the law, business or for service on community committees… I wish we had a good deal more debating in our educational institutions than we do now.” — John F. Kennedy

A timely recently published book by Robert Litan, “Resolved: Debate Can Revolutionize Education and Help Save Our Democracy” argues for expanding competitive debating to building a culture of debating in schools.

Debate is much more than just learning how to speak, however. Debate requires both effective listening and the ability to present one’s views on virtually any topic, backed by evidence and logic, and then to defend those views orally when attacked, in real time, in a civil way. In structured debate, there is no name calling or shouting or interrupting, the mode of debate one sees all too often on cable television. Nor are there “flop accounts” on Instagram, which teens have used to debate serious issues but without rules; not surprisingly, those debates have since mirrored the incivility we see in real life and, unfortunately, far too often on the internet.

Perhaps the most important benefit of debate is that it requires learning how to argue to both, or potentially multiple, sides of almost any issue, a skill that fosters critical thinking, empathy, and understanding for other positions, and an understanding of complexity—that most issues and questions in life are not “black” or “white” (in the nonracial sense of these terms), but involve shades of gray. Understanding and appreciating this complexity is important to sharpening critical thinking while in school, but having this skill and experience is essential when students grow up to be voting and, ideally, thinking citizens, to be effective employees in all kinds of jobs, and even as entrepreneurs.

Schools would be a great starting point for building a debating culture. Habits developed early stay for a lifetime. Litan’s book provides very compelling ideas for making debate part of the core curriculum in schools and shifting to debate-centred instruction. Adds Litan:

Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School summarized, perhaps unintentionally, what DCI (debate-centered instruction) is all about when he wrote: “Instead of trying to prevent arguments, we should be modeling courteous conflict and teaching kids how to have healthy disagreements.” He adds the following rules:

  • Frame [the question] as a debate, rather than a conflict.

  • Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong.

  • Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.

  • Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them

I also then started thinking about debating clubs and societies in India – combined with digital technology. How would London’s debating societies be if they could be re-invented for the modern mobile era? Imagine watching people going ‘mano a mano’ but with exquisitely crafted arguments designed to persuade and change minds. In today’s India, where most independent institutions have forsaken their role and bowed obsequiously to the political leadership, where Parliament has become a rubber stamp, where the Opposition has singularly failed in its responsibility to act as a watchdog, where the media thrives on the puerile, there is a need for alternative platforms of public discourse and engagement. Could grassroots digital debating clubs play that role?

Tomorrow: Part 11

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 9)

Verbal Duels

“Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.” – Christopher Hitchens

I watched Hamilton shortly after its release on the Disney app a few months ago. It is an amazing experience – even on TV. It grips you from start to finish, telling the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the US. And what a story it is! Set as a rap musical, I was a bit wary of whether I would understand the words. I shouldn’t have – the subtitles help and the diction is also very clear.

The one thing that struck me was the “duel”. Both Hamilton and his eldest son are killed in duels. The duel was a contest between two people with guns to settle a matter of honour. Even as I was watching it on a TV screen, I was gripped by the drama. Two people standing face to face with guns – having to decide whether to shoot directly at the other person or let it pass. A moment of life and death.

When I was thinking about debates, my mind went back to the duel. Could the debate be the verbal duel? Instead of shying away from views different to our own, could we engage in a public debate (duel) with the other person – where the force of ideas and the power of reason would decide who carried the day? And these would be broadcast live via mobile apps, much like video games are now streamed to an enthusiastic audience on platforms like Twitch.

Tiktok created stars out of ordinary people via song and dance. Could a new debating culture create celebrities out of people who could wield the power of ideas and words? Could schools and colleges be a good starting point?

Tomorrow: Part 10

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 8)


“The key to holding a logical argument or debate is to allow oneself to understand the other person’s argument no matter how divergent their views may seem.” – Auliq Ice

It was then that I started thinking about how to make the debate format better. There were times when an idea or thought would strike me as someone was speaking. Could I make a quick interjection and get an immediate response? Or would this be considered as a rude thing to do? As I explored debating formats, I came across a format practiced in UK schools called Mace. Julian Bell explains how it works:

  • There are two speakers on each side.
  • It is long prep; speakers are usually given the motion several days in advance to prepare.
  • They speak for seven minutes each, alternating between proposition and opposition.
  • The first and last minute in each speech is ‘protected’ (meaning no one is allowed to make points of information during that time).
  • When all four debaters have spoken, speeches from the floor (i.e. short points from the audience) are heard.
  • One debater from each side then gives a summary speech, lasting four minutes, with the opposition speaking first. In this speech, they should not introduce any new material, but should instead respond to speeches from the floor, rebut their opponents’ case, and summarise their own case.
  • Marks are awarded for both content of speeches and speaking style.

(As an aside: Julian Bell also discussed an alternative format – one used in the British Parliament.)

In the non-protected time that a person is speaking, the other side can interrupt with what are called “points of information.”  Here is an explanation from DebateHQ: “A point of information (POI) is a question or a statement that is raised while a speaker of the opposing team is speaking. You are allowed to raise a POI at any time in the speech, but not during the protected time. Protected are the first and the last minute of the speech…The speaker has to decide if she is taking your point or not. If yes, the speaker is going to allow you to state your point. If not, she is going to say “no”, “no thanks” or similar, and you will see that some speakers will just sit you down with a hand motion. If you got an OK, now you have 15 seconds, not more, to raise one point.”

I liked the Mace format. The “points of information” addition could serve to make the debate more interactive and engaging.

And then I started thinking: Could debates be just the format for a discussion for a wide variety of topics that we are afraid to discuss on Whatsapp groups and social media because of the fear of being trolled? Could this be a format for something bigger – creating a debating culture across India? How would debating work in a world where all of us had mobile phones? Could debates become a public spectacle – like the rise of e-sports? Could debates transform India?

Tomorrow: Part 9

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 7)

Intelligence Squared

“You don’t do new things and try to change the system without generating debate.” – Anne Wojcicki

A friend pointed me to Intelligence Squared (IQ2), which has “has established itself as the leading forum for live, agenda-setting debates, talks and discussions around the world.” Its aim “is to promote a global conversation that enables people to make informed decisions about the issues that matter, in the company of the world’s greatest minds and orators.”  The winner is the side which changes the most opinions, not the one with the most votes. (You can watch their debates on Youtube.)

The Guardian wrote in 2004, shortly after their launch in the UK:

In their mission statement, they offered ‘to meet the pent-up demand for participating in the intellectual struggles of the day… the hunger of the British public to be involved in such intellectual tournaments is undeniable’. They promised not only ‘intellectual heavyweights… accomplished in the verbal martial arts’ but audience participation.

…Novelist Deborah Moggach, who goes to a lot of local debates, thinks that, paradoxically, computers had helped their users back into real contact with each other. ‘Email cuts you off, in one way, and yet it also links us all up. People are separated as they sit in front of their screen, but they are also much more quickly alerted to what’s happening out there.’ Public debates had become more attractive because the old places for meeting, like pubs, had grown too noisy.

…But frustration is the common element, if you talk to audience members. As one grey-haired Londoner put it: ‘There isn’t anywhere in the media or politics where people talk about the world in intelligent terms. The media are only in it for the cockfights and they airbrush out what they consider boring. Parliament is just MPs talking to themselves and hoping to get reselected.’

New York Times had this to say about IQ2 in 2009: “Polarizing political talk, overwrought in the extreme, is making for big headlines these days, so it is somewhat counterintuitive (or maybe just smart counterprogramming) that a program based on civilized, formal debate has chosen this moment to try to raise its profile…The premise, said Robert Rosenkranz, Rosenkranz Foundation’s founder, is to present an evening where the audience “is not exposed to pure punditry and sound bites, where they can hear the flesh of an argument in an interesting venue with a good moderator and make their own decisions.””

As I read through the material, I started thinking: would it not be a good idea to have the equivalent of an IQ2 in India? Our TV media has sunk to new lows in recent times – just when the country faces its biggest crises. There needs to be an alternate platform where we can discuss issues without raising our voices. Could the world of mobile phones coalesce with the world of debates to create new formats to engage and entertain us? And in so doing, can they help us understand the multiple dimensions to an issue and help us make informed decisions?

Tomorrow: Part 8

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 6)

Debate Format

“It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.” – Barbara Jordan

The format I decided for our Saturday debates was a simple one. We decided the motion or question a few days in advance. Each of us would first speak for five minutes in round-robin format, and then for three minutes. The first round could be used to make prepared comments, and the second round for rebuttals, answers to questions asked by others and clarifications. In just over half an hour, we would have enriched each of us with our views in a structured manner. The rest of our hour could then be for unstructured conversation.

The first thing I realised was that I had to actually prepare for the debate. Previously, I could just show up on the Skype call and talk whatever came to mind. All I had to do was to make some reasonable interjections – most of which would be short and sharp. If I had to speak for long, I realised that I rambled – because I had not done any homework and research. So, I would speak quite randomly – trying to convey an impression of participation but without eloquence.

In the case of the debate, I had to speak initially for five minutes. That meant about 750 words. I would not be able to do that without investing time before the call in thinking through what I was going to talk about. This automatically changed my mindset. I started doing some research, planning out my talking points, and also doing a mental dry run to make sure I would not overshoot my time. This preparation made all the difference when I spoke.

When the others spoke, I had to stay alert because I also needed to identify points that I could address in my second and shorter speech. I had to stay fully focused – no distractions, no wandering mind. Those 30 minutes were an amazing experience – it was like being in a zone of complete concentration.

I loved the first debate. And we then repeated it for our next call with a different topic. It became even better. Everyone was prepared. There was a richness to the conversation that used to be missing in our free-flowing banter. Each of us could make our points clearly without the worry of being interrupted or cut-off and therefore losing one’s train of thought. More importantly, each of us was an equal participant with the same speaking time. I got a better understanding of each person’s position and mental models – which is sometimes difficult to get when there is a steady stream of short sentences from different voices. More importantly, many new ideas emerged from the debate which otherwise perhaps may never have been said.

A quarter century after my IIT experience, I was starting to re-discover the joy of debating!

Tomorrow: Part 7

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 5)

Debate in Ancient India

“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.” – Nelson Mandela

Wikipedia has this to say about debating in ancient India:

There was, for a considerable period of time, a very lively and extensively practiced tradition of formal debates in ancient India. These debates were conducted, sometimes with royal patronage, to examine various religious, philosophical, moral and doctrinal issues. The corpus of knowledge on conducting a successful debate was referred to as vādavidyā and several manuals dealing with this discipline had been produced. It was from these debates that the Indian tradition of logic and allied investigations were evolved and developed. The antiquity of this tradition can be traced even to pre-Buddhist period. For example, Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, a pre-Buddhist text, has references to King Janaka as not only organizing and patronizing debates between the sages and priests but also as participating in such debates. Women also used to participate in these debates. Gargi was a woman scholar who used to participate in the debates in King Janaka’s court.

Though debate was popular at the time of the Upanishads, there was no theory of debates during that period. Such a theory evolved along with the spread of the teachings of Buddha, Mahavira, and other ascetics or religious reformers. By the third and second century BCE, monks and priests were required to have training in the art of conducting a successful debate. Several debate manuals were written in different sectarian schools. But these early manuals written in Sanskrit have all been lost. However, the nature of these manuals could be glimpsed from Buddhist Chinese sources as well as from Pali sources like the Kathavatthu.

Indic Today has an excellent summary of public discourse and debate in ancient India:

Basically, the people of ancient India believed that Truth was sacred. So the word was to be used to utter the truth, and to take us closer to the truth. Intellectual integrity was given the highest importance.

In our quest from ignorance to the truth, we start out with bias. Each of us has our biases and stereotypes; these are often based on flimsy evidence. The next stage of refinement is opinion. Having thought about the subject at hand, we form our views and impressions; this doesn’t require deep study, only cursory analysis and logic.

Further, refinement leads to perspective. When we examine the available facts and look at the different sides of the argument, we take an informed stance on the subject; after much toiling we construct our worldview.

The final stage before we reach the truth is vision. Not only do we examine all the facts from different sides but we also internalise the various ideas, thus developing a holistic vision. We become clear about what our assumptions are, what the facts are, what constitutes our analyses, and finally, what the purpose of the study is.

Reading all this made me more convinced that we needed to make a culture of debating central to our lives. In a world being polarised by all media, it was up to the people to step up and create their spaces where they could discuss, argue, persuade and change minds. How could we do this?

But first, I had a more basic problem at hand – to evolve a simple format for the Saturday night conversations with my three friends.

Tomorrow: Part 6