For as long as I can remember, The Hindu op-eds and my mother's irreplaceable filter coffee were my morning ritual. Undeniable facts, clear logic, persuasive style, a sprinkle of flare at the finish all come to a holy union making a cohesive case in an op-ed. Having been a part of the student media at McGill and CEG and the occasional internship at a newsroom, the following is a sampling of commentary pieces from different sources, written over the years.

When good is not good enough (The McGill Tribune, February, 2013)

More than a decade after the first suspicions arose and categorical denials began, Lance Armstrong has finally come clean. Armstrong’s televised confession sheds light on more than just a sportsman with a tainted legacy. He claims that the win-at-all-costs attitude that helped him overcome cancer was what turned him into a doping machine.

At first, this sounded like a poor, empty excuse. But similar motivations exist in all spheres and sections. Cutting through a cross-section of events in the past year alone reveals the alarming rate at which this same trend has been prevalent in academic circles. Over 100 students were caught cheating at Harvard. Respected journalists such as Fareed Zakaria and Margaret Wente were found plagiarizing. Dongqing Li, a professor at the University of Waterloo, is facing suspension for lifting sections of text from other papers for his own publication. While all of these incidents signal a lack of ethics in the way research is conducted, it also sends out some telling signs about the mindset and attitudes that underpin these actions.

A lesser known, and even lesser documented activity among this string of misdeeds is the use of neuro-enhancing drugs to boost academic performance, the subject of the Tribune’s Nov. 26 feature. In the absence of a policing mechanism in academic circles, is it alright to use drugs such as Ritalin or Provigil when an important exam or a scholarship is at stake? The final choice rests with the user. However, it’s imprudent to ignore the fact that such decisions are also heavily influenced by peer and societal pressure.

The Tribune story included an interesting observation from an athlete who claimed that, in competitive sports, players “are paid to be unnatural.” The Armstrong story makes me wonder whether, if someone is too good to be true, perhaps he or she isn’t true at all in the first place. It also demonstrates our overwhelming need to push human boundaries by any means. At a time when the question of doping was obviously doing rounds, I wonder why the Tour organizers continued running the event year after year with so much aplomb! Just winning a grueling race one time isn’t enough. After all, would we have noticed Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor and one time wonder? The truth is his story it would likely not have been the fairytale we all witnessed. But at the same time, it would have never had cause to devolve into a horror show either.

In academia, however, the lines of right and wrong apparently blur. There is no explicit rule that forbids students from taking these drugs. Yet, the thought of academic performance becoming contingent on drug use is simply unacceptable. The mind is the most potent part of a human and developing intellectual capacity has to be on one’s own effort. Piggybacking on a pill may not be illegal, but it definitely creates an unsustainable atmosphere by artificially raising the stakes. Can anyone performing well on these drugs ever rid themselves of self-doubt or be sure of their own potential?

Competition at some of the most prominent universities is indeed cut-throat. Developing strategies that typically suit one’s natural pattern of learning and recollection are techniques that help. Succumbing to peer pressure and adopting such unhealthy practices can produce great results in the short term, but life extends beyond the realms of academia. The purpose of true education is to act as a scaffold and a guide in the world beyond the walls of the university. It is precisely for this reason that within these walls, we must stick to walking on our own two feet.

A burning issue (The McGill Daily, February, 2013)

“Where ever there is oppression, there is resistance”
—China’s statement at the Shanghai Communiqué, February 28, 1972

In the four decades that have passed since the Shanghai Communiqué, when China and the U.S. agreed to “renounce and reject hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region,” many of the dynamics in Asia have changed. A one-time warrior community that inhabited the highlands of the Himalayas has now become a diaspora community in exile scattered all across the globe. To the millions of Tibetans that live outside of Tibet, returning to their homeland remains a difficult yet attainable dream.

Despite the retelling of the history of Tibet in mainstream Hollywood movies (such as Seven Years in Tibet), this story remains one that is not well understood. February 13, 2013 marked the centennial of the 13th Dalai Lama declaring the independence of Tibet. Since 2009, 102 Tibetans have self-immolated themselves as a sign of protest against the oppression they face inside of Tibet. After all, the Chinese did get it right – here is indeed resistance when there is oppression! Over 6,000 monasteries that the Tibetans consider places of higher learning have been destroyed. Lhasa, the holy capital city of Tibet and the seat of the Dalai Lama, has become an army base for stationing military troops. (Of course, these ‘facts’ cannot be completely verified, as the media in the People’s Repbulic of China (PRC) is under the tight leash of the Communist Party of China.)

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit seller from Tunisia, set himself on fire, the act resonated across the Arab world. This one act of despair started a chain of events that we now know as the Arab Spring. Many months later, the world still recollects the incident. But the world does not extend the same logic to Tibet; I refuse to accept this state of apathy.

History has proved time and again that the seemingly impossible can become a reality. The fall of the Berlin Wall, and subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, is a good example. The value of the tactic of self-immolation is questionable; it is our duty to ensure that these lives are not lost in vain. The monks, nuns, and other people who have burned to death resorted to it as a tool to draw attention to the worsening state of affairs in Tibet. That the self-immolations have peaked over the last year is an indicator of how dire things are, but also Tibetans’ perseverance. The example of India’s freedom struggle is a lesson in tenacity and non-violence that gave Gandhi to the world. Very recently, the successful incorporation of Palestine as a non-member observer at the United Nations sends encouraging signs. We need to extend this empathy to the Buddhist nation.

In his book, China’s Water Warriors, Andrew C. Mertha highlights the increasingly important role played inside China by non-governmental organizations that have started policing and influencing the decision making process. This is a trend that is on the rise and definitely heartening. The role of civil society in bringing about social change by influencing general public opinion and support for intervention cannot be stressed more. The Tibetans are peace-loving by nature and have drafted a ‘middle way policy’ for resolving their dispute with China. The middle way policy recognizes Tibet as an autonomous state under Chinese suzerainty. Although this is a tricky stance to negotiate, it is symbolic of the Tibetan willingness to resolve this long-standing conflict. A free and neutral Tibet is important politically, economically, strategically, and environmentally – not just for Southeast Asia but for the world at large.

There are several grassroots campaigns such as International Campaign for Tibet (a Washington, D.C.-based lobby group), Students for a Free Tibet (a network with over 640 chapters of students rallying for the cause of a free Tibet) and non-governmental organizations such as Machik (which works with the Tibetan community inside Tibet to improve their quality of life). Instead of silently watching, we can choose to act – here and now. Your action could even be just learning as much as possible about the Tibetan cause and disseminating it. Indeed, wasn’t it an excited conversation among a group of people (mostly students), who cared about changing the world, that started Occupy Wall Street – or closer to home Idle No More?

Is multi-culturalism killing the core Canadian identity? (The McGill Tribune, November, 2012)

Two weeks ago, Statistics Canada released a report on Canadians’ linguistic characteristics. The report’s results suggest that while bilingualism is on the rise, about 20 per cent of Canadians reported speaking a language that wasn’t French or English at home. Following the publication of the report, the question of whether multiculturalism is eroding the ‘core Canadian identity’ is doing the rounds.

Multiculturalism was introduced as a Trudeauian liberal-socialist policy in the ‘60s. While it was encouraged and extolled as contributing to the Canadian ‘cultural mosaic,’ there has been a recent reversal of sentiments in some circles.

In his book Delecteable Lie, Professor Salim Mansur, a Muslim born in Calcutta who immigrated to Canada 40 years ago, stacks a pile of arguments against the adoption of multiculturalism as national policy. According to Professor Mansur, the growing dissent stems from the notion that multiculturalism attenuates the goal of individual liberty over collective equality. The loss of one ‘core Canadian identity,’ he argues, is attributed to the proliferation of sub-identities that do not resonate with the whole.

Multiculturalism may have been a by-product of the counter-culture spirit of the ‘60s. Yet, it has been so deeply entrenched in the Canadian fabric that it might well define the Canadian identity today. Imposing restrictions, such as a language policy, are antithetical to democracy in Canada. Such a policy leads to the creation of a monochromatic society that might keep out people from diverse backgrounds, as it is designed to integrate only like communities.

Diversity, however, is at the crux of Canadian identity and the freedom that every Canadian enjoys stems from it. It is this that binds Canada together as one whole—stoic and stable in a world rife with turmoil, economic or otherwise.

The other aspect to answering this question lies in understanding identity. Symbols such as a national sport—or unofficial ones such as local food—are strong binders glueing a sense of unity into the common psyche. While these are sufficient for a national identity, they are by no means completely necessary or even complete. In light of additional factors, such as a conducive environment for multiple cultures to thrive, these become redundant factors.

Richard F. Day, a noted Canadian historian, believes that there is an incompleteness associated with the idea of identity. The only way any country can appear complete is by imposing certain subtle restrictions that create a so-called unity among its citizens. The solution to this issue of incomplete identity lies in open acknowledgement of the ‘impossibility of full identity.’ Understanding and appreciating differences are key in creating an inclusive atmosphere that in turn will foster a true sense of unity.

While there is a shared common identity as a Canadian, our government does not baptize its citizens in the name of homogeneity. There is ample freedom to practice one’s own customs and traditions. Rather than seeing these as competing identities impeding overall progress, they are symbiotic that have common points of overlap.

New Canadians choose to immigrate with the intention of bettering their quality of life in a new land of promise and dreams. Hard-working immigrants, yearning for a better life, become a contributing key asset to the host country. But to reaffirm an immigrant’s conviction and loyalty to his new home, the host country must not only be tolerant, but also welcoming, of his unique culture.

Instead of a slippery slope creating a society divided by ethnic difference, I believe multiculturalism is the bridge towards embracing inherent diversity while warmly inviting newer citizens to join and recreate the whole.

Multiculturalism—and the growing percentage of Canadians who speak languages other than English or French—should be seen as an empowering feature of the Canadian identity.

Journey or Destination (The McGill Tribune, October, 2012)

Earlier this year, India’s most well-known newspaper, The Times of India, was found to have recycled a three-year-old full page cover story word-for-word as a paid-for advertisement. There has been an alarming regularity with which incidents of gross misconduct have come to light: for example, over 100 Harvard students cheated on an exam last academic year. Closer to home, Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail admitted to running excerpts written by others in a July 2009 column, passing them off as her own. Most recently, the Harvard Crimson scrutinized Paul Krugman’s citation standards in one of his NYT op-eds.

Each of these cases (barring Dr. Krugman, of course—journalistic citations demand integrity but definitely offer some latitude) presents interesting questions to ponder. Can money cloud the judgment of a newspaper enough for it to sell its masthead to advertisers? Does the promise of getting a good grade on a final motivate an entire class to cheat? Would the prospect of publishing a spectacular piece drive a columnist to sample other’s thoughts and opinions without credit? Wente is certainly not an exception in this case. These questions are eloquently summed up by American philosopher Martha Nussbaum in her The Fragility of Goodness. This philosophical treatise is Nussbaum’s authoritative view on notions of tragedy and ethics. By analyzing ethical dilemmas, Nussbaum puts forward a pointed question: Why should anyone do the right thing when there are no particularly striking incentives for good behaviour?

The motivation for such acts of plagiarism largely stem from mismanaged time. During the years we spend at McGill, there’s always room for a lapse or two—under the brutal force of a looming deadline, all standards of ethics and originality can crumble. When immediate focus is placed entirely on submitting an assignment, acing a final, or turning in a report, the final results—grades—take precedence. Acquisition of knowledge and expertise in a field feel like utopian ideals in a system of education that seemingly acts against you. The joy and goal of learning seem mundane as we don roles of assignment-completing, number-crunching machines. The incentives are not apparent; the options tempting, even corrupting. In the viral age, it is much easier to give in, and it is just as easy to get caught.

Finding the right incentives lies at the core of reform. All is not right with the way higher education functions. Most institutions deal with plagiarism by penalizing misbehaviour. The failure to acknowledge and reward good deeds can counteract the effects of these supposed bulwarks that prevent damage. For instance, many consumers at the grocery store check-out line continue to spring the few additional cents for a plastic bag without thinking, and wasteful behaviour progresses in an infinite loop. The ideal solution to this issue is to charge more and provide a cloth bag. Any sensible consumer would eventually bring his or her own cloth bag (likely purchased at a check-out line at some point). This sort of positive penalization promotes good behaviour.

The solution to academic dishonesty is a similar one. Instead of handing out an identical problem-set to a class, students should be allowed to select from a pool of challenging questions. Additionally, the weighting of assignments towards the final grade can be reduced to a bare minimum, assuming that most of the cheating happens on assignments. If such a system were replicated in educational establishments today, there’s some hope for the preservation of the ideals in a real university education.

A case for uniform and universal system (The Tribune, 2011)

Both Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have a well-functioning Public Distribution System (PDS), in contrast with many other Indian states. However, there are interesting differences between these two states in the way the PDS works.

Himachal Pradesh has a "differentiated" PDS in the sense that everyone is entitled to subsidised food, but "Below Poverty Line" (BPL) households pay lower prices than "Above Poverty Line" (APL) households.

Additionally, the state also runs the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY - for the poorest of the poor) and Annapoorna Yojana (for elderly persons without a pension). While these distinctions might add to the brittleness of the system (as is evident in other states), Himachal has achieved relatively low errors while identifying BPL households.

On the other hand, Tamil Nadu has a simple universal system, without differentiation - a model worth replicating, given the efficiency with which it functions. Every family (including my own) has a ration card. Cards are of two different colours, green (eligible for rice and other commodities) or white (eligible only for sugar and other commodities; no rice), but people can choose between the two. In this way, the entire population is covered and there is no discrimination of any sort.

The universal approach has helped prevent corruption and leakages, since everyone has a stake in the integrity of the system. In fact, this applies in Himachal Pradesh as well.

While the disparity between BPL and APL prices in Himachal is significant, Tamil Nadu's uniform entitlements resonate the spirit of 'food for all'. In terms of quantity per household, PDS entitlements are somewhat lower in Tamil Nadu (up to 20 kgs per month, compared with 35 kgs in Himachal), but spread over the entire population.

In Tamil Nadu, the field survey suggests that the quality of rice varies a great deal. On the other hand, the people of Himachal are quite happy with the quality of PDS grains. I would go as far as to say that the quality of grains from the Fair Price Shops is almost on par with a commercial provisions store.

In Himachal Pradesh, food grains are lifted by the State Civil Supplies Corporation from FCI godowns and then transported to the Fair Price Shops. The Fair Price Shops are managed by one of the following: cooperative societies, Gram Panchayats, State Civil Supplies Corporation, Mahila Mandals and private dealers.

In Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, cooperative societies and the government itself take care of the entire delivery system. With ample support from women's self-help groups, villages in Tamil Nadu have Fair Price Shops that are not only close to corruption-free but also answerable to informed consumers.

In Himachal Pradesh, formal checks and balances seem to be weaker. As we found out, the Fair Price Shop manager has opportunities to manipulate the consumers. Yet, in spite of this lack of formal checks and balances, the PDS in Himachal Pradesh seemed to work really well and to be free from the large-scale embezzlement that has plagued the PDS in many other states.

In terms of access, Himachal Pradesh has definitely done a commendable job. Despite the difficult terrain, the Fair Price Shops are very well distributed and access is not an issue at all. In Tamil Nadu also, the opening of part-time Fair Price Shops in remote places (in addition to the full-time ones in main villages) has ensured high levels of accessibility. A striking feature about Tamil Nadu is the high level of awareness among the people as to what they are entitled to. They answer questions with supreme confidence and this awareness empowers them to fight should they be subjected to injustice. They are not shy to demand their rights, increasingly including (for better or worse) free goodies. Decades of populist policies by the government have sure had their effect.

Both Himachal and Tamil Nadu offer interesting case studies with their well-functioning PDS. Numerous lessons can be learnt from them, notably about the importance of universal entitlement and the possibility of putting in place effective checks and balances.

Changing the world, one transaction at a time (Ten Thousand Villages, 2014)

On a cool, bright Sunday morning, an elderly man with salt and pepper hair and a jovial manner walked into our store. He was looking for a gift for a friend. While he didn’t have a specific idea in mind, he mentioned that his daughter had suggested that he check out Ten Thousand Villages. And so, that morning he was there to pick up a unique handcrafted gift for a special loved one.

As we were going through the shelves of delicate lotus-shaped tea light holders, his eyes fixed on a metal wall hanging gently perched on the wall in front of us. Flanked on one side by Andean wool wall art reminiscent of a radiant autumn day, and by cheerful needlework butterflies fluttering about in a summer garden on the other, was a serene metallic tree of life that captivated our friendly visitor in a tranquil sense of peace. Catching the glint in his eye and the ghost of a smile playing on his face, I knew his choice had been made.

As I started to ring up his purchase at the cash counter, he asked me to shed some light on the birth of the product. I began narrating the story of how an old discarded 50-gallon steel oil drum, on its way to a landfill in Haiti, was rescued to be cut into this beautiful piece of art through a technique called “fer de coupe” or “iron cutting.” While assuring the Haitian artisans a reliable livelihood in a nation riddled with natural and man-made disasters, this was an immaculate example of a sustainable cradle-to-cradle approach to consumption.

Afterwards, he told me that he had himself volunteered in Haiti shortly after the 2010 earthquake, and has been returning for short visits ever since. The visibly happy and optimistic customer then noted that Haiti has been a story of hope and survival, and that he believes “we can all do better for the people and the planet.” I could not agree more.

Reflecting on this optimistic encounter as I write this on another bright Sunday morning, I am deeply grateful for the stories that were shared that day and the bonds that were forged.

So, next time you are visiting Ten Thousand Villages, I urge you to learn more about the faces and stories behind these creations, the workings of fair trade, the creation of a sustainable system, and how your actions change the world – one transaction at a time!

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