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Ten interesting things we read this week

19 1 4
16.03.2019

Image: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Psephology (Lessons from India’s first elections), Brexit (Of civil wars and family feuds: Brexit is more divisive than ever), Aviation (First-class travel is in decline), Neuroscience (How feeling bad changes the brain), Human Evolution (We just got new clues about the 'Denisovans', ancient humans who live on in our DNA), Tech (Lab-grown meat will soon be available at restaurants), and Society (How India’s anganwadi system is getting some things very right despite its many flaws).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended March 15, 2019.

1) Lessons from India’s first elections [Source: Madras Courier ]
General Elections in India are around the corner and everyone (at least most) would be stepping out to cast their vote. But, have you ever thought how elections started in India? When India became independent, parliamentary democracy with the universal adult franchise was a given, as the constitutional scheme. In March 1950, two months after the constitution came into force, Sukumar Sen, then Chief Secretary of West Bengal, was appointed as the first Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). The Representation of the People Act (RP Act) of May 1950 and the RP Act of July 1951 laid out the procedures for the conduct of elections. Many were skeptical of its success arguing that democracy was not possible in a caste-ridden, patriarchal, pluralistic society.

The challenges before the Election Commission (EC) were manifold: 1) the size of the electorate with more than 17 crore Indians being eligible to vote; 2) of whom 80% couldn’t read or write; 3) inclusion of women in the voters’ list, particularly in north India. The first election was simultaneous for the Parliament and the State Assemblies. Voting had to be conducted in terrains as varied as mountain-top villages which could only be reached through treacherous treks on narrow roads, hamlets in the middle of deserts and island settlements in the middle of the ocean. The EC roped in the Indian Navy to assist the process in the Indian Ocean islands. These challenges didn’t deter Sukumar Sen. Mr. Sen was a distinguished public servant, educated at Presidency College and London University, with a gold medal in Mathematics.

The EC then requisitioned the services of the government machinery. Ballot boxes were procured. The EC drew pictorial symbols for the different political parties to help voters choose their candidate. It also developed a system of marking voters with indelible ink, which is still used in India. Also, the election was not without its share of political drama. Political scientist Richard Park wrote, “the leading Indian parties and party workers are surpassed by those of no other country in electioneering skill, dramatic presentation of issues, political oratory, or mastery of political psychology.” The actual election was spread over 5 months and only 45.7% of the electorate voted. The Congress secured 364 out of 489 Lok Sabha seats and 2,247 of the 3,289 Assembly seats. Mr. Sen’s biggest experiment in democracy in human history was certainly a resounding success.

2) How Big Pharma kills off competition in USA [Source: unherd.com ]
Each and every company wants to gain monopoly in their business. And for pharma companies it’s the patents that give them the edge. Patents give drug makers a period of time with no competition where they can be rewarded for their innovations, encouraging drug companies to invest in costly research and development that might take years to pay off. The big players are taking advantage of this to stay on the top, while start-ups struggle to make it big. From 1900 to 1982, the number of patents increased by around 138%. After 1982, the number of patents extended increased by an astounding 416% by 2014. The longer the drug lacks competition, the longer companies can charge extortionate prices.

The United States spends over $3 trillion annually on health care, and 10% is spent on drugs. The average American spends more than $1,000 a year on prescription medications, 40% more than the next highest country, Canada, and double what Germany spends. The most important reason for the surge in costs is market exclusivity protected by monopoly rights awarded upon Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and by patents. Also, when patents are about to expire, for example, the pharmaceutical industry seeks endless extensions through ‘reformulation’ of their drugs or minor modifications to the methods of delivery. There is no new innovation, no new discoveries or any greater benefit to patients, yet companies can continue to charge high prices.

For example, the Orphan Drug Act of 1983 regulated the approval of drugs for rare diseases and gave drug companies even greater exclusivity. In theory, this would encourage drug companies to find cures for diseases that might not have a big market. The problem is that Orphan Drugs are not in fact rare. They make up 20% of all global prescription drug sales. Incredibly, 44% of new drugs approved in 2014 had orphan status, and due to pricing they are almost all the most expensive drugs. Now pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of these incentives to gouge patients, insurers and the government. Drug makers can charge what the market will bear because the magic of competition is missing. The ugly truth about regulation is that while big businesses often complain about regulation, they tend to benefit from it.

3) Of civil wars and family feuds: Brexit is more divisive than ever [Source: NY Times ]
Brexit will have a deeper effect not only on the UK as a country, but also the lives of the Britons. Like the election of President Trump, the 2016 Brexit referendum vote crystallized divisions between cities and towns, young and old, the beneficiaries of globalization and those left behind. “It’s a bit like 16th-century France between the Catholics........

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