Friday, 28 April 2017

A BRIEF GUIDE TO OFFICIAL DINNERS.


                      

The IAS, unlike its progenitor the ICS, will bequeath few memories other than those of Chief Secretaries getting raided for disproportionate assets or being voted the most corrupt by their own colleagues. But as the service now heads for an inevitable merger with either the Vivekananda Foundation or the Observer Research Group, it is heartening to note that it will leave behind at least one innovative institution—the Official Dinner ( or OD). There are two major practitioners of the OD: the Army and the IAS. The former has an advantage in the matter of finding funds ( and reasons) for justifying ODs, because it can debit all expenses to Raising Days, Regimental Days and Shobha Deys, but the IAS has to be more inventive because it is under the ever watchful gaze of some whistleblower or CAG just waiting to ambush them with a book titled THE ACCIDENTAL INVITEE or NOT JUST A DINER-THE DIARY OF  A NATION’S AUTONOMOUS GOURMET. It is for this reason that the IAS is given a higher payscale than the Armed Forces: explaining the loss of a dozen tandoori chickens from the pantry of Hotel Holiday Home requires far more management skills than accounting for a dozen missing jawans on the LOC.
Recruits to the IAS are initiated into the arcane ritual of the OD in the Academy at Mussoorie. Its presiding capo di tuti capi ( or Director) hosts mock ODs frequently where the basics are spliced into their DNA. I still remember two of them: one, “ never open your mouth till the food is near it”, which perhaps explains why the IAS is so reluctant to open its collective mouth and speak out. The second rule stipulated that one should never speak ACROSS the table, but only to the persons on either side, even if the guy on the left happened to be a carbuncle from the IFS or the bloke on the right a blister from the IPS, and one was desperate to chat up the lady across the table with a view to marrying her because she had been allotted one’s home state ( UP, in most cases) while said one was exiled for life to Nagaland. We were also taught the difference between a butter knife and a fish knife ( the former for marinating one’s political bosses and the latter for gutting colleagues), between a soup spoon and a dessert spoon ( the former for raking it in and the latter for being politically correct). The uses of the versatile “chamcha” is something we discovered for ourselves later, and adopted as the most valuable of all cutlery. The most draconian rule was that when the Director stopped eating and put down his knife and fork, everyone stopped eating too. Since the Director, as befitted a Godfather, was the first to be served and the 400th probationer served about 20 minutes later, by the time the former finished masticating about 200 of us had not even sniffed the soup. This accounts for the fact that the IAS is always first in line at the feeding trough: it’s a hard lesson learnt well.
   Since the IAS controls 600 districts, 100 Ministries and a few thousand programmes, finding a reason for throwing an OD is never a problem. There are a few, however, that deserve special mention:
THE PSU( PUBLIC SECTOR UNDERTAKING) DINNER: held after every Board meeting, it is meant to console the officers for the huge losses they have notched up. Intended to occupy the commanding heights of our economy, our PSUs were dislodged from there even quicker than the Pak soldiers from the heights of Kargil. Now in the valley of death their officers will not go, however, without a fight- sorry, bite- hence the dinners, slotted under “ Any other item” in the agenda.
THE EAP ( EXTERNALLY AIDED PROJECT) DINNER: EAPs are a kind of international CSR where other countries give us moneys as aid, and then take them back through consultancies, technology transfer and equipment. We are usually left with only enough money to host a dinner every quarter, on which we spend every remaining dime lest they take that back too.
THE CENTRAL TEAM DINNER: when Secretaries in Govt. of India can no longer stand their wives’ cooking they usually take off to a state to “ review progress” on various schemes. The review consists of visits to temples, golf resorts, shopping on the Mall and a seven course dinner at night. The strong batch- mate network and an innovative menu ensures glowing reports for the state govt.
THE FAREWELL DINNER: modelled on the Last Supper, it is given for senior officers who are about to kick the waste-bin- i.e., retire. It even has a Judas in attendance- the guy who is hoping to succeed the retiree. There is, however, a notable departure from the Biblical allusion: whereas Christ went on to a glorious crucifixion and rose again on the seventh day, the IAS worthy rises again the very next day, reemployed in some Commission or Tribunal. The farewell dinner is usually organised by Judas himself to ensure that the retiring potentate is artfully estopped from coming back into the service. It is not surprising, therefore, that on occasion officers have to be brought screaming and shouting to their farewell dinners. In my case the Chief Secretary had to send a bulldozer to ensure my presence ( actually, the roads were snowed in, but I have a sneaking suspicion the CS was covering all contingencies!).
THE RAJ BHAVAN DINNER: no IAS officer ever wants to attend one of these ghastly death-watches, but an invitation from the Governor is actually an order. We go to such dinners half choked by “ bandh galla” coats originally tailored in the Academy when we were chinless wonders, now wrapped around Adam’s apples of the extra large variety which would have shocked both Eve and the serpent. These dinners are solemn, if not funereal, affairs; the victuals are really quite good though the only spirit in attendance is one of nationalism. Ministers bump into senior bureaucrats, the Governor bumps into the furniture and everybody escapes as soon as he can after the national anthem has been played for the third time.
   All ODs share two traits. One, there has to be a Chief Guest, who is generally a senior Minister or the Chief Secretary: although having one dampens the evening, it is a tactical necessity to ensure that Finance doesn’t object to the bill when presented. The Chief Guest ( at least in Himachal, which I haunted like Banquo’s ghost for 35 years) just HAS to wear either a maroon ( BJP) or green ( Congress) Himachali cap, depending on which party is in power. The smarter ones have now started investing in Aam Aadmi caps, just in case.
   Second, and this is something Mr. Vinod Rai may like to look into when he has time from his six current assignments, is a peculiar feature in all OD bills: the number of chickens consumed ! The per capita average is two, which appears high even if we factor in the disappearance of all other shades of meats post Yogi Adityanath. Are IAS chaps such solid trenchermen, what with their selection grade ulcers and apex scale haemorrhoids ? Not really. The answer lies in the fact that since all liquor is impermissible at govt. dinners, and cannot be so billed, therefore this Hippocrene beverage is billed as chickens ! A peg of single malt is worth a whole chicken, a scotch two legs, a shot of rum is equivalent to a wing, a glass of wine equals a breast ( its for the ladies, see) and so on. Quite ingenious, and definitely deserving of the two additional increments the IAS gets over its peers. And this  also provides the answer to that much asked question: Why did the pair of chickens cross the road? Answer: they didn’t want to become a single malt !

   Now that I live on a pension and am unable to cross that road too often I generally make do with KFC chicken nuggets.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

RETURN OF THE " ANIMAL SPIRITS" .

  Most folks would recollect that a few years back Dr. Manmohan Singh, while addressing a gaggle of industrialists, had bemoaned the fact that India lacked entrepreneurship, and that what it needed was an infusion of the " animal spirit." Well, he must be a happy man now, because our polity is now flooded with animals- fish, fowl and mammals- like never before. Anyone scanning the morning paper could be excused for thinking that we are more a menagerie than a nation. Never have animals dominated the national discourse as they do today.
  It all started, you will remember, with the Supreme Court dubbing the CBI as a caged parrot. This did surprise some of us better travelled lot, because to us the CBI resembles more the trained falcon, cowper and all, on the wrist of its master rather than the parrot, which is known to have a mind ( and vocabulary) of its own. But the SC was proved right, perhaps in a manner not intended by it. The last two Directors of the CBI are now being investigated for wrong doings and may soon become " caged parrots" in Tihar. Maybe the Court knew a thing or two we didn't ?
  Barely had the parrots taken to the skies when the buffalo appeared. One fine morning the sturdy buffaloes of Mr. Azam Khan, one of the then 3.5 Chief Ministers of UP, decided to take a walk and disappeared. This resulted in the greatest mobilisation of the uniformed forces since Kargil and the national media was agog with theories: had they defected to the BSP ? Had they become Tundey Kabab in Lucknow? Was this a case of kidnapping or simple police napping ? Fortunately the bovines returned on their own ( this was before the hey days of " ghar wapasi" ) in a couple of days, Azam Khan took a deep puff of his chillum, and the UP police went back to their daily ritual of extorting money and locking up innocent folks.
  Soon after, a lady in Madya Pradesh complained to the police that a parrot in her neighbourhood had outraged her modesty by passing lewd remarks at her. Bound by an earlier Supreme Court order that the police just HAVE TO register an FIR if a complaint is made to them, the police ( who, as we all know, are scrupulously law abiding) immediately arrested the parrot and took it to the police station for interrogation. This particular avian, however, apparently was better versed in the laws than most lawyers in UP: it insisted on the right to be silent, and gave nothing away. No cuss words. No four letter words. It simply whistled- a gender neutral whistle. By the evening the police had to release the bird for want of evidence.
   Something similar happened with the black Labrador dog of Mr. Somnath Bharti, the AAP Minister in Delhi, a few months later. His wife ( Bharti's, not the dog's) alleged that the dog had bitten her on the former's explicit command. Attended by a thousand TV cameras, both the dog and Bharti were taken to the police station where he ( the dog, not Bharti) was repeatedly ordered to bite the junior most constable there. Now, as all of us who have had the privilege of consorting with Labradors know, this breed is incapable of biting; they just love everybody, even policemen, and so this particular specimen simply kept wagging its tail. The cops finally concluded that the dog was innocent and that it was more likely that the wife had been bitten by Bharti. But since the denture marks did not match, they also had to let the Minister go. The Lieutenant Governor was not happy at this instance of the tail wagging the dog, since his instructions were to put Bharti in the dog-house, but it all ended up with the dog in the Bharti-house !
  Next came the unfortunate episode about that poor police stallion, Shaktiman, in Dehra Doon. This noble beast was battered by a BJP troglodyte MLA and ultimately died. As expected, no action was taken against the real beast, the MLA, and the discourse shifted to the question: should horses be used by the police to control crowds in a democratic country ? Never mind that we routinely kill a few thousand every year in police actions. But the real answer to this question had been provided by Mrs. Gandhi many years ago,when a bunch of IAS probationers complained to her that horse riding should not be a compulsory activity in the Academy at Mussoorie. Mrs. Gandhi famously refused with the words: " If you can't control a horse, how will you control a crowd ?" Maybe the Lok Sabha Speaker should be imparted a few lessons in horse riding ?
   Enter the bull. Till a few years ago the perceived wisdom was that the good burghers of Tamil Nadu worshiped only three things in life: Jayalalitha, lotteries and film stars. Jallikattu proved us all wrong. The depth of passion displayed by the state for the Bull for more than a month had us all riveted to our idiot boxes and almost resulted in a constitutional crisis. This bull in the china(mma) shop has finally established itself as the Holy Cow in Tamil Nadu.
   The rhesus monkeys of Shimla then made a brief appearance in the headlines. They've been there since the times of Kipling but now out-number the tourists from Karol Bagh and Kotkapura. It is reported that they've even started attending Cabinet meetings!Though the state govt. has denied this canard, some recent decisions of the Cabinet ( like granting unemployment allowance when there is no money for salaries) do indicate a simian footprint. There was an outrage when the apes were declared vermin but I'm sure there's no real cause for concern: very soon, the Gau Rakshaks will float a subsidiary- perhaps the Vannar Sena- to protect them and thereafter the monkeys can continue to contribute to policy decisions in this idyllic state.
   The UP elections saw the humble, inoffensive donkey emerge on the national stage, being equated with Gujarat politicians by Akhilesh Yadav. Apart from the fact that the donkeys had every right to take umbrage at being compared to politicians, Mr. Yadav was zoologically incorrect too: what he called donkeys are actually wild asses of the Rann of Kutch- a distinct and endangered breed, which hopefully will continue to survive without the help of our politicians or Amitabh Bacchan. But the reference to them did elevate our political discourse to new levels. 
   There is one animal, however, which completely overshadows all others in this circus: the Cow. It has become the symbol of nationalism, Hinduism, Hindutva, patriotism, tradition and Indian-ness. Ironically, this docile, compassionate animal has somehow also become the cause of much violence in its name ! Parliament has spent more time debating the cow than the GST, the Budget or Kashmir. It has won BJP the UP elections, and we are all now waiting with bated breath to find out whether UP will now be cast in the image of Mr. Modi, Yogi Adityanath or the Cow.
   So, as you can see, animal spirits are in full flow in digital India. The only quadruped missing from this list so far is the pig, but perhaps that's because they are so much like us. Churchill was quick to figure this out when he said: " I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals."
  Are we becoming an Animal Farm ? The Gaikwad episode would certainly indicate so, in more ways than one.  

Saturday, 8 April 2017

STOP LEGITIMIZING VIGILANTISM AND CULTURAL CLEANSING

   Dadri is back with us. Earlier this week a group of "gau rakshaks" stopped a truck carrying cows in Alwar ( Rajasthan), beat up the occupants and killed one of them. The police registered a case against the Muslims for cow smuggling and arrested all of them. Only a case of " man-handling" was lodged against the killers and none arrested. The Home Minister of Rajasthan defended the vigilantes and said they were needed to curb crimes against the cow! A Union Minister even denied the incident in Parliament ! It was only after a national outrage that the police registered a case of murder and. It now emerges in the media that the cows were not being smuggled at all- the truck had the necessary permit from the administration to transport the cows! Meanwhile, the count for people killed by gau rakshaks has gone up to ten. Gau raksha is big extortion business now, as a sting by Srinivas Jain of NDTV some time back showed. Cows are seized on roads and markets and released only on payment of ransom disguised as " service charges."
   This is not an isolated case, but one that keeps repeating itself in practically all ( mainly) BJP ruled states over the last couple of years. Nothing ever happens to these vigilante goons who are vociferously defended by Ministers and senior BJP functionaries. The police is thoroughly compromised if not complicit. The frenzy is maintained by deliberately provocative measures such as amending laws to provide for life sentences for cow slaughter, or by Chief Ministers publicly stating that those who kill cows will be " hung". The ban on illegal slaughter houses in UP has gone completely out of hand: hundreds of meat shops have been forcibly shut, not only by the administration but by " gau rakshaks", some have been burnt( Hathras), and thousands rendered unemployed. Restaurants and hotels serving legal meat have been intimidated into shutting shop, on the ostensible ground of Navratras. Over 500 of them were ordered to close in Gurgaon, right under the nose of the central govt. Shiv Sainiks openly boast on prime time TV how they shut down the shops, but no action is taken against them. The Haryana govt. has just announced that ALL meat ( including eggs) shops shall have to shut on 9th April ( Mahavir Jayanti). This sets the stage for more closures on other Hindu festival days and gives another handle to these bhakts. Cow slaughter has been legally outlawed since 1955, then why this frenzy now ?
   Nor is this distorted and venomous cultural nationalism limited to cows and beef. It is now being extended to the policing of young boys and girls, under the garb of " anti-Romeo squads". An intensification of the Valentine Day bashings by outfits like the Ram Sena, it is now being conferred legitimacy by being made state policy- first in UP ( post Adithyanath) and now being adopted by the police of other BJP states. Even Delhi has announced that it will set up such squads. The result is a repugnant invasion of privacy, police high handedness and corruption, and the emboldening of the same goons: visuals of innocent couples being mercilessly beaten up or dragged to police stations and released after paying bribes are a sickening constant on news shows. And generally it is the couples against whom action is taken, not the ones who harass them.
   The same goondaism, without any force of law, is being displayed on matters relating to singing of the national anthem, films that do not conform to a particular version of history or mythology, any questioning of the strait-jacketed " nationalism" invented by the ideologues of the ruling party, or any " offence", imagined or otherwise, to the Hindu religion. Those who do not toe the line are beaten up. film sets destroyed, police let loose. Most of our corporatised media have been effectively silenced and do not protest beyond depicting a stray incident or two.
  These vigilantes are beginning to resemble the Hitler Youth or Mussolini's Black Shirts, and it is time to worry where we are headed. Over the last two years an environment of intolerance, hatred and anger has been created and lumpen elements are being insidiously encouraged to take the law into their own hands. What cannot be done legally is sought to be implemented through fear and intimidation, with the state machinery generally standing by as silent or complicit spectators. There is no law which prohibits two members of opposite sexes from meeting in a public place, and there cannot be. But to do so today means risking life and limb. There is no law which says that legally acquired buffalo meat or mutton cannot be sold, but to do so in large swathes of the BJP controlled " Hindu heartland" means inviting trouble and worse. There is no law which permits self styled groups to enforce existing or imagined laws- but the police allow them a free run. A way has been found around the laws. The BJP has become adept at speaking in two voices: one in Parliament and one on the streets. There should be a third voice- that of the Prime Minister- but it is never heard except at election rallies.
   Vigilantism draws sustenance from two factors: one, the belief that its own value systems are superior to those of others, and two, the confidence that its practitioners will not be caught or punished. The BJP is providing justification for both, and for the moment it appears to be reaping the benefits. But this is a dangerous game and can quickly get out of hand. Hatred can develop a momentum of its own and, like a fire, feeds on itself. The increasing incidents of assaults on Africans or people from the north-east stem from the same vigilantism: it doesn't matter whether they are racist or not. The point is that they are hate crimes based on contempt for others' culture. When you constantly reiterate that your own culture is the only one that counts, when you show complete intolerance and contempt for what others eat, drink,wear,worship or who they consort with, when you believe that you have the right to use violence to force others to conform- that is cultural, or worse, ethnic vigilantism, whether you practice it against a foreign national or one of your own. The govt. must realise that when it allows an environment of lawlessness to exist to suit its own purpose, sooner or later it will spawn total criminality, and this is happening now on a daily basis. 
   The stand of the BJP was clearly demonstrated through a powerful symbolism last year: when one of the Dadri accused died in jail ( of natural causes) his body was draped in the national flag, he was declared a " martyr", and his funeral was attended by a Union Minster who even donated Rs. 10 lakhs to his family, Perhaps the time has come to remember the poignant words of the Urdu poet:

" Ab kahaan jaoge dhoondne mere katil ko,
  Mere katl ka ilzam mujh par hi daal do."

[ Where will you now go to find my killer,
  Put the blame for my murder on me." ]

Monday, 3 April 2017

DON'T WRITE OFF KEJRIWAL JUST YET.


   [ This piece was published in the New Indian Express on 3/4/2017 ]   

   The knives are out for Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP- if you follow the mainstream ( English), elite media you would believe that he has been wiped out as a political entity. This same media will politely ignore some telling figures released by ADR( Association of Democratic Rights), our own election watchdog: of the 403 newly elected MLAs in UP 322 are crorepatis( multi-millionaires) and 143 have serious criminal cases registered against them ( 107 relate to murder, kidnapping and crimes against women). In the five states that went to elections 75% of the seats were won by one of the top three wealthiest candidates ! These figures are the reason why Kejriwal and AAP will continue to be relevant with the people.
  Yes, he lost Punjab ( and Goa, where he shouldn’t have gone in the first place) but not without a fight: AAP and its ally won 22 seats out of 70 with a vote share of 23.7% . It also came second in 27 seats. It is the principal Opposition in the state. Not a bad showing for a three year old party confronting three mainline parties who between them have more funds than many states do ! The problem with the “ Breaking News” culture is that it expects instant successes , to match the instant solutions it offers every night on its panel discussions. It forgets, for example, that Kejriwal had won just 28 seats in Delhi on his first attempt too. Its ironic that TV channels first build up a hype, and then slaughter you for not living up to it!
   That being said, AAP could have done much better, given the Akali-BJP votes were up for grabs, just as the Congress vote was in Delhi earlier which it hoovered up so spectacularly. Since the Punjab Congress was hanging on to its vote share Kejriwal had to poach on the Akalis, which he failed to do. No judicial commission is needed to find out where he went wrong, the reasons are common knowledge in every “ Shere Punjab” dhaba: excessive back seat driving from Delhi, the expulsion of the man who built up the organisation in Punjab, cosying up with ex-Khalistanis, too many Duterte-like threats of locking up all and sundry, proximity to Panthic elements, the ego clash with the biggest ego east of the Indus, Navjot Singh Sidhu.
   Kejriwal should not now rush off to Bangalore for another bout of naturopathy but should sit in Delhi and accept with all humility that he made mistakes. He should accept that his style of agitational politics has lost its novelty and is becoming repetitive, that his opponents have learnt how to counter it, a strategy which Napoleon knew all about when he famously said: “ You should not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.” He should acknowledge that he needs to create genuinely vibrant state organisations and refrain from micro-managing them. He needs more Yogendra Yadavs and Prashant Bhushans around him, not just Sanjay Singhs and Aashish Khaitans, if he wants the educated middle classes and working youth to support him.
   He should stop attacking Mr. Modi personally: the Prime Minister has a Teflon coating which is impermeable for the moment. Perhaps most important, he should completely overhaul his style and substance of campaigning: he is no longer a revolutionary but a Chief Minister and should observe the responsibility that comes with the post. People tire of negativity very soon and the halo of victimisation fades quickly, What the AAP needs is a booster dose of positivity in its outreach, a vitamin supplement to balance the antibiotic, as it were. And the irony is that Kejriwal has plenty of this, if only he would prescribe it.
   AAP has done exceptional work in Delhi in the areas that matter: universal health care, education, slum improvement, water and power supply. Delhi is the only metro that has had the courage to successfully implement the odd-even car scheme. Its persistent demand for more autonomy to union territories finds resonance with the citizens. Its tenacious stand against corruption is its USP. These are the achievements that Kejriwal needs to take to the people, instead of the disruptionary politics he is being identified with. The strident opposition to demonetisation was a misreading of the people’s pulse; it is unfortunate that he is now following it up with another ridiculous claim that EVMs were tampered with in the recent elections. The misguided promise of waiving off residential property tax in Delhi is a mistake: the voters are wearying of the politics of sops and subsidies.
   With the Congress being rolled back everywhere The AAP has a golden opportunity to occupy the space being vacated by it, it has built up a constituency that cuts across caste and class barriers, its bona fides are not doubted. All that is needed is for it to change its style: of leadership, public engagement and governance. It must also curb its over vaulting ambition to become a national party overnight. It should eschew all state elections till 2019 and concentrate on Delhi and Punjab. In the former it finally has an enlightened and open-minded Lieutenant Governor and therefore the opportunity to deliver all round good governance. If it can win the Municipal elections next month its ability to do so shall be further enhanced. In Punjab it should function as a constructive, not disruptive, opposition. It should quietly go about building its organisational structures in the states where it plans to contest the Parliamentary elections in 2019. The country and its citizens need a party like the AAP, but one which dares to reinvent itself. In 2013 Kejriwal had the courage to make the change from activism to politics. Can he take this leap of faith again ?


Saturday, 1 April 2017

IN PURSUIT OF AN " UNNATURAL " HAPPINESS

   Having assiduously contrived a world of conflict, disease, crime and environmental apocalypse we are now just as assiduously chasing after that will o' the wisp- HAPPINESS. There is now even a World Happiness Report. The report for 2017 places India at no. 122 out of 155 countries ( though I'm sure this did not factor in the national delirium when Yogi Adityanath was appointed the Chief Minister of UP ). We have slipped 4 notches from the previous year, no doubt because of the machinations of foreign-funded NGOs. Interestingly, we are behind even Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Iraq. There are no prizes for guessing which are the happiest countries: Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland. The principal parameters considered were: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support systems, freedom to make life choices and a sense of how corrupt one's society is.
   Make no mistake- Happiness is now serious business ! There have always been innumerable God-men peddling their " Quality of Life" wares and raking in the moolah, but now even governments are jumping onto this bandwagon. The UAE ( United Arab Emirates) has a Ministry of Happiness. Our very own Madhya Pradesh recently created a Directorate of Happiness. Bhutan does not measure GDP, it measures GDH ( Gross Domesic Happiness) The private sector too is into it in a big way and this is the latest rage in consultancies. The central idea is that happy employees are more productive and make happy customers: a 2013 Gallup poll concluded that unhappy employees cost American companies US$ 500 million in lost productivity. This is even more true of the service sector where there is more interaction between employee and customer. Smart Phone Apps have appeared- Moodscope, Track Your Happiness- that let you ( and your boss!) gauge and monitor your current state of happiness. As the Economist put it in an article recently, " Happiness is becoming an instrument of corporate control." So naturally there are spoilsports emerging from the woodwork, privacy activists who advocate that such monitoring is an invasion of one's privacy. A pointer here for some members of our present ruling dispensation- you can tell us what to eat, speak,wear, think, but you certainly can't ask us what to FEEL !
   On a more serious note, however, why is it that Indians are such an unhappy lot ? I'm sure that there is no paucity of reasons, from livelihood issues to health problems to social tensions, from endemic corruption to rank bad governance.  But if we look at the top " happy" countries and the parameters considered for rankings, we can safely make some conclusions: citizens of a country are happy if they are well governed, looked after by either the family or the state, enjoy good health and live in a stable social order. Unfortunately, none ( or very little) of these conditions exist in India. But there is an even more important underlying, unstated precondition for happiness in today's world: we need to live in harmony with the natural world and environment, to preserve its beauty and uniqueness, for this is the only counter balance to an increasingly urbanised, crowded, stressful, dog-eat-dog world in which we find ourselves. It cannot be a coincidence that the top happy countries mentioned have all taken care to conserve their natural environment even as they have gone about their " development" activities.
   Our lives are dominated by- nay, controlled by- mindless materialism and consumerism which is literally destroying the air we breathe, the water we drink and the earth we call home. Our manic obsession with GDP numbers may have cloned a large number of Ambanis and Advanis but it makes for a nation which is becoming less " happy" each year. We are destroying nature on a colossal scale and the depredation of natural assets/ features in the quest for " ease of business" has ensured that the waters in most of our rivers are unfit even for agriculture, let alone for drinking; 67% of urban waste flows directly into our rivers; 50% of the blocks are water stressed; 1.50 million Indians die prematurely of respiratory diseases every year ( including 48000 in Delhi alone, by some estimates);  in just two years, between 2010 and 2012 the list of endangered species in India has doubled: from 190 to 443; the country lost 10.60 million hectares of original forests in the last 14 years, and even as I write this it has been revealed that 5000 deodar trees ( more than two hundred years old) are being felled to widen the road from Uttarkashi to Gangotri ! This is right next to a glacier which has already receded more than a kilometre in the last few years, for God's sake! More than 60 million people ( mainly tribals and the poorest of the poor) have been displaced since Independence to facilitate projects and industry; our cities generate 60 million tonnes of garbage every year but only 30% of that is treated  It is no surprise then that our fall in the Happiness Index closely matches our position in the World Bank Survey of Environmental Quality: India is at no. 155 out of 178 countries.
   Whatever little debate we hear on the subject is about " lifestyle environmentalism" and not about the " livelihood environmentalism" which is what actually impacts on the lives of 80% of our population. The concept of " environmental equity " is yet to arrive in this country. It is the poor who bear the brunt of this devastation of nature in the form of pollution, hygiene, garbage dumping, ambient illnesses, lack of open spaces in urban areas ( in Delhi, the posh South and Central Delhi provide 35 sq. mtr. of open space per capita whereas in the poorer East Delhi it is only 2.73 sq. mtr.). It stands to reason that if the poor cannot be happy, the nation too cannot. And this not just about a vision- less government: it also about us and our insatiable gluttony for everything material.
  We really have no right to be happy. We are distancing ourselves from the healing powers of nature at an alarming rate. It is not just the physical attributes of the natural world which can add more happiness to our lives, but also the values it teaches us; of a simple life, of taking only what we need and not what we crave, of avoiding conflict unless it is a matter of life and death, of forsaking ego, of tailoring consumption to sustainability, of differentiating between pleasure and happiness. The Anthropocene Age is about to bury us in an avalanche of consumption, plastics and packaging. Interestingly, as I was writing this piece I was also reading John Steinbeck's classic travelogue TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE, a fascinating account of his journey through America, and I came across these prescient observations on the consumption mania that had already seized North America in the sixties:
  " American cities are like badger holes ringed with trash...surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.... Waste seems to be the index.....I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness-- chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea. When an ( American) Indian village became too deep in its own filth, the inhabitants moved. And we have no place to which to move."

That was 55 years ago.  

Saturday, 25 March 2017

DELHI BELLY :PRESERVE THE BRIBE AS A HISTORICAL LEGACY !

   We appear to be going through an intense and populist phase of cultural revival these days and this is therefore as good a time as any to put on record my opposition to the efforts by Mr. Modi and his team to eradicate the system of bribes in our two thousand year old country. I see this as an assault on our glorious past and a move that seriously jeopardises our GDP growth rates.
   Bribes have been an integral sub-set of our hoary culture for hundreds of years, a practice which is respected and admired. It has been an indispensable part of  religion. Ours is a transactional religion where we give in order to receive. We regularly bribe our Gods to grant us things- a child, a house, a job,even a contract- which we usually don't deserve either on merit or on sperm count. Our temples are overflowing with gold and cash: Tirumala reportedly has an annual income that exceeds that of even the Vatican. During the recent demonetisation exercise even the government had to turn to these temples to tide them over the cash flow problem. The govt. wants their hoards of gold to buttress the country's bullion reserves.All this wealth is essentially a pay-off to the Gods. Indians are the least philanthrophic of races, but we will even borrow money to "donate" to our temples, for a consideration, of course.
   It would therefore be unrealistic to expect that this urge would be confined only to places of worship, and not be reflected in our daily lives. We accept corruption as a way of life and nothing proves this better than the fact that we keep on electing and re-electing corrupt politicians to office every five years. No stigma ever attaches to them, we treat them as- you guessed it- demi Gods who are entitled to all the lucre they can gather.
  The India of today is a historical consequence of bribes. It was not the Mughal armies that captured our fair country but the strategic distribution of bribes on a colossal scale. The Marathas and Rajputs were vanquished by paying off assorted generals and gate keepers, enabling the Mughal armies to easily capture the great forts of Golconda, Parli, Wardhangarh, Nandgir, Chandan, Allahabad, to name just a few. Dara Shikoh's son was betrayed ( and killed) for a bribe, thus ensuring that Aurangzeb could cement his rule. Even the British conquest of India was facilitated by Robert Clive's bribing Mir Jaffar at Plassey: it took just 3000 British troops and a lot of money to deliver India to the British crown.
   Our ancestors ( peace be upon them) had made bribery a fine art: they recognised that, like all fine art forms, it possessed subtle nuances and therefore categorised them into different types based on occasion and purpose: the nazrana, the shukrana, the mehentana and so on. Some were for specific favours, some for creating generic goodwill, others intended to simply establish the lofty status of the giver. But back then negotiations were conducted with savoir faire and refinement, over a game of chess, " banarsi paan" being served en passant, with even a gyrating tawaif being thrown in for good measure. None of today's vulgarity of Samsonite suitcases, dark  and smoke filled back rooms, or initials in a diary. This is what happens when an art is converted into a science. There is a legend in my family of an ancestor who was organising his daughter's wedding in his mansion when he received news that a gang of dacoits was planning to plunder his house at the same precise time as the wedding. This would have been an intolerable loss of face for the zamindar in front of all his guests. So said forefather summoned the gang leader and offered him a sum of money he could not refuse in return for not raiding his house. All amicably settled with a bribe, and this is the crux of our ancient tradition of bribery: it was not about the money alone, but about status and recognition of one's respective position in society. For them, bribery was like the quality of mercy described so well by Shakespeare: it is not strained, it is twice blessed for it blesses both the giver and the taker !
   Economists, those purveyors of the dismal science who can never agree on anything, typically disagree on this subject too. One group ( the Harvard lot) claim that bribes knock about 2% off our GDP. The others( the Hard Work lot) differ- they are of the view that bribes add to productivity and national wealth. I tend to agree with the latter.  Corruption makes bureaucracies more efficient. Given the lethargy of our govt. machinery and the thicket of laws and regulations that enmesh us, absolutely nothing would get done in this country without pay-offs: no roads or bridges, no passports or driving licences, no industry or trade, no public transport or bank loans, no export or import, no govt. jobs or old age pensions. If we are growing at 7.1% or 7.5% or whatever mythical figure the govt. would like us to believe, it is because of the bribes that grease the wheels of development. Just look at the latest empirical data-- the moment govt. clamped down on black money (the accumulated stock of bribes and wealth generated by bribes) by way of demonetisation our growth rate has fallen, the economy has slowed down and unemployment has shot up ! I believe things will improve by the second quarter of 2017, once the bribes start flowing again. Its not love which makes the world- or, to be more accurate, India- go around: its black money and bribes. This constitutes 15%-20% of our GDP but is the catalyst which generates the other 85%. Now that Mr. Jaitley has no doubt realised this by seeing that more money has been deposited in banks than what was demonetised by him, he will perhaps now abandon his attempts to demolish this central pillar of our history and culture. He should just consider it as another Service Tax , a more efficient one, for when we pay a bribe we get what we expect whereas when we shell out Mr. Jaitley's service tax we rarely do.
   So perhaps we need a mass movement to preserve this sapient part of our culture, to protect it from modern freakonomics, to save it from a Western paradigm whose biggest cultural achievement to date is the  MacNugget. After all, if we can fight to retain Jallikatu, Santhara, Dowry, Female foeticide  and Triple Talaq as  cultural legacies, why not the fine art of Bribery ? !
   

Friday, 17 March 2017

DELHI BELLY : HOW REPRESENTATIVE IS OUR DEMOCRACY ?

    Somebody on TV the other day termed Indian elections the largest organisational exercise in the world. Perhaps it is, but how accurately does it reflect our diverse 1250 million people ? How representative are our governments " manufactured" by these elections? Consider some figures. Women constitute almost 50% of the electorate but very few are given tickets ( even the fortunate few are usually wives, sisters or daughters of the even more fortunate ). The result ? There are only 7 women Ministers in the current Union Council of Ministers numbering almost 80 worthies. Only 64 of 542 MPs in the Lok Sabha come from the fairer sex; the figures for the Rajya Sabha are an even more dismal 27/245. Muslims constitute 18% of the population but number only 3 in the Union Cabinet. Even this is a huge improvement over the state of their representation in the states where the BJP has governments: in them there is only one Muslim among a total of 151 Ministers.
   India's per capita income is Rs. 93,231. But don't believe this for a minute; its a distorted figure, pushed up by the  incomes of the 14800 multi-millionaires( assets of Rs. 61 crores and above), the 1,37,100 ultra High Net Worth Individuals( assets of Rs. 25 crore and above), the 24.40,000 asessees who declared an income of more than Rs. 10 lakhs in 2014-15, the 750,000 who deposited more than Rs. 2.50 lakhs each in their bank accounts post demonetisation. If one factors in these super rich the average income of the average Indian would be closer to something like Rs. 10000 to Rs. 15000 per annum. And don't forget the 300 million below the poverty line. But is this reflected in the representatives we elect to our Parliament and legislatures ? The flavour of the answer lies in the figures just released by the ADR ( Association for Democratic Rights), the leading election watch dog, relating to the MLAs just elected to the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha. Of the 403 MLAs elected as many as 322 are crorepatis ( assets in excess of Rs. 100,00,000 !0 This may not be representative of the electorate but is certainly representative of all our legislatures, Parliament included. And here's the clincher- a full 75% of the total seats were won by one of the three richest candidates in each constituency, more than one third by THE RICHEST CANDIDATE.  The old adage- India is a rich country with poor people- has been upended: we are now, more accurately, a poor country with rich people!
   Sticking with UP, and if we deem our legislatures to fairly represent us, then every third person in UP  is an alleged criminal. The same set of ADR figures( based on filings by candidates with the Election Commission of India) reveal that 143 of the new UP MLAs have criminal cases registered against them- more than one third. Purely statistically, ours then is a country awash in riches and crime.
   Most important of all, however, is the fact that the governments formed as a result of elections are never representative of what the people want. They do not have the support of the majority of the population, not even the support of the majority of the people who voted! They are usually all minority governments. An analysis of the results of the elections just concluded in UP will make this point clearer.
   The overall voting percentage was 61%. Of this, the BJP ( which won with 312 seats) secured the highest-39.7% and formed the govt. Does it faithfully represent the wishes or preferences of the people of UP ? No. it does not. Because what these figures mean is that only 24 out of every 61 voters who cast their votes  voted for the BJP. If we factor in the persons who did not vote at all, then the figure becomes 24 out of 100. The same is true of Punjab where the overall voting percentage was higher at 65% and the Congress won with 38.5% of the votes cast. This means that only 26 people out of every 100 in Punjab voted for the Congress. The same peculiar circumstance applies to all elections in India including to Parliament. Governments formed as a result of such voting may claim to be the largest single parties, but they cannot claim to enjoy the confidence of the majority of the people by any means.
   This peculiar lacunae arises because of our " first past the post " system, in which whoever secures the highest number of votes in a constituency bags the seat, regardless of the actual number of votes he gets. So, though BJP secured only 39.7% of the votes cast in UP ( or only 24% of the total available votes)  it yet won 75% of the seats. Sometimes the working of this FPTP system can result in bigger distortions: in both Manipur and Goa the BJP got more votes than the Congress but ended up with fewer seats! Punjab is even more grotesque: the AAP got 7% lesser votes than the BJP+SAD combine, but ended up with 2 more seats.
   Some countries have found ways to correct this unsymmetric situation. Voting is held over several rounds till only two contestants are left in the field, of whom obviously one has to secure at least 51% of the votes cast in order to win. Others have a preferential vote system where both first and second preference votes are cast and tallied to determine the winner. As regards the representation of women and minorities, or the domination of money power, these are social issues which require an enlightened society and a progressive govt. to resolve. We, unfortunately, have never had one and are not likely to have one in the near future, either. We will continue inane debates about EVMs and Code of Conduct, wallow in our majoritarian and patriarchal mindsets rather than take any proactive action to ensure that both our elections and governments better reflect the wishes of the people. After all, any govt. which comes to power will not want to change the faulty system which brought it to power, will it ?