Wednesday, 10 December 2014

THE UBER RAPE CASE- MAKING SENSE OF ABSURDITY

Its happened again in Delhi and probably would have been marked as just another statistic if the incident had not been connected to an MNC and high-end app. technology. The real tragedy, however, is that everyone-the government, the political parties, the media, the NGOs-are all running around like headless chickens, spouting the same cliches about women's safety, demanding action against Uber, the police, the Transport Deptt, the Home Minister and so on. The grim truth is that this is not just about Uber or about the safety of women- this is about the complete collapse of the Delhi( and all other) police systems. Our public places have been vacated by the state and handed over to the criminals.
It is being made to appear that the cause of the incident was the failure of the verification process. This is all humbug and nothing but a red herring. Firstly, how many verifications is an ordinary citizen supposed to carry out? In Delhi we are already required to get our tenants, servants, drivers, casual employee etc. verified. Is this a police state? Isn't this a tacit admission of the total failure of our law enforcement system, if every person is to be regarded with suspicion unless proved otherwise? If latent criminality has seeped into our society to such an extent that no person can be trusted without a police certification, then we are certainly entitled to ask the question- what has our police and judiciary been doing all these years? The very need for verification is an admission of their failure.
Secondly, the verification process is an absolute farce. Pay Rupees two hundred( as Manish Sisodia  also stated in a TV programme yesterday) and you will get the certificate within twelve hours: refuse to pay and you will never hear from the police again. They have no data base and at best can only write to their counterparts in other states who can't be bothered to reply. This does nothing to curb crime in its present form and only serves to generate more money for the police and provide an excuse( as in the present case) when something goes wrong.
Thirdly, any certificate can be replicated or forged by anyone within a few hours. In the instant case Yadav DID have a certificate-a forged one! It is common knowledge in Delhi university, for example, that students of a few neighbouring states seeking admission in a DU college saunter into the colleges, find out what the cut-offs are, and come back the next day with a mark-sheet showing the requisite marks! Fake driving licences by the hundreds are churned out in every city. My last driver had an unauthorised exact duplicate of his ( legitimate) licence: he couldn't, therefore, be bothered if the police confiscated the original! What value can a certificate have in a country where even central ministers are charged with forging mark-sheets?
The order banning Uber is just a smokescreen. The accused, Yadav, had all the documents which the company was required to ask for. If he turned out be a serial rapist who had spent seven months in jail and had five other sexual molestation cases registered against him but was still roaming the streets like a predator its certainly not the fault of Uber. If he repeated the same offence he is alleged to have committed in 2012 then it is the fault of our judiciary which let him off in the first case, and of the police which fails to keep track of such potential repeat offenders. Women are routinely molested in all forms of public transport-shall we then ban all buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws, even the railways? Do we stop all economic activity in this country just because the police and the judiciary are unable to do the job they are tasked to do?
The simple truth, and the crux of the problem, is that the criminal administration system, especially in our cities, has fallen apart at the seams. Our streets and public places have been vacated by the police and handed over to the criminals. The incontrovertible proof lies in the grim statistics of crime in Delhi published by the Hindustan Times on 27th November. In the last one year crime has gone up by 100%! Street crimes such as robbery, snatching and vehicle thefts have increased by 513%, 137% and 61% respectively. Burglary has gone up by 337% and dacoity by 240%. Every single day 400 citizens of Delhi fall prey to some crime or the other. If this is not a damning indictment of the top brass of the Delhi police, the Lieutenant Governor and the Home Ministry I don't know what else it is.
It is self-evident that there has been a complete abdication of leadership by the senior police officers: they are bereft of ideas, strategies or even commitment. Crime on the street is not their priority-providing security to VVIPs and attending meetings is. There are no policemen on the streets, there is no patrolling or beat system, there is no proactivity, PCR vans are generally found parked at tea stalls with their occupants lounging around. This abject lethargy flies in the face of the experience of urban police forces all over the world, and the one lesson they have all learnt: that if you can control the relatively smaller violations on the streets, you can generate an atmosphere of obedience and respect for the law, and prevent more serious and major crimes. This concept is now known as the " Broken Window" concept: catch the guy who breaks a shop window and you may prevent him from graduating to a murderer or rapist tomorrow. This strategy was popularised by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his Police Commissioner Bill Bratton in New York in the mid-nineties: its soundness was proved by the fact that violent crimes in New York city fell by 30% in just one year, and murders by 50%.
Such a result, however, requires dedicated effort and leg work on the streets, which our police force is clearly incapable of.
Most street crimes( and even more heinous ones) are committed by repeat offenders or people who are out on bail. The police are required to keep a regular surveillance on these elements which by itself acts as a deterrence- but they can't be bothered. Every police station maintains a register ( BC register) of bad characters whose activities are supposed to be monitored  and homes  regularly visited-this never happens nowadays. Every SHO is supposed to develop an intelligence network in his area to keep tabs on criminal activities and the persons involved: this helps him prevent crimes before they occur or to solve them if they do occur- quite obviously, as the crime graph shows, this is considered a waste of time. These are the three time honoured basics of policing and if even one of them had been observed in the Uber case the incident could have been prevented.
We don't need pontifical Police Commission reports or harangues from the Supreme Court on autonomy of Police Commissioners and DGPs to improve policing. We just need to go back to the basics. We need to appoint officers on merit, not on the basis of their contacts, political affiliations, favours rendered or money paid. We need to have a relook at the recruitment of the constabulary, right up to the level of sub-inspectors. The present lot is undisciplined, avaricious, unskilled, corrupt and riddled with the caste and gender prejudices of the social milieu from which they have come. Since they comprise 94% of the police force nothing will improve unless the constitution of this rank and file is changed. The government should seriously consider reserving 50% of these posts for retired ex-servicemen. Jawans retire by 35 and there is no better disciplined or dedicated material available for the police. Their induction shall, in a very short time, bring a professionalism, impartiality and probity to the police that it is completely missing today, and make it much more effective. The idea will, of course, be fiercely resisted by all politicians and senior police officers whose apple carts it is likely to up-end, but it must be considered seriously.
Crimes in a complex society of 1.2 billion people and 29 states cannot be prevented or controlled unless there is a comprehensive and real time data bank available to the enforcers of the law. There should be a national registry of all convicted criminals, persons charged with crimes, accused out on bail: this could be referred to before granting licences or for verification purposes by employers. Had such a registry been available Yadav would have neither obtained a driver's licence nor a contract at Uber. There should be a similar on-line registry or data bank of driving licences issued or cancelled throughout the country to address vehicle related offences which appear to be spiraling  out of control. The govt. itself has admitted that 30% of driving licences are fake! The bed rock of these registries should be the Aadhar card whose biometric features will make the data virtually fool-proof.
The time has come for the country to have a sane discussion on how to get a grip on a crime graph that is galloping out of control and on a police force whose incompetence is reaching Haiti like proportions. Let us not continue to hide behind excuses like social mind sets to explain away rapes, or free registration of FIRs to explain away increase in dacoity or kidnappings. Let us not further delude ourselves into thinking that we have resolved these problems by creating Nirbhaya funds or by banning radio taxis. Because the problem lies within the edifice of government, not outside it. Change the edifice before it comes crashing down on all of us.    

Saturday, 22 November 2014

INVITING TROUBLE


Its my wife's birthday later this month and I've been thinking of inviting a few people for dinner and drinks. And that's precisely where the problem lies. Extending invitations nowadays is a risky proposition, what with the entire nation watching including Arnab Goswami, Shobha De, Swami Adithyanath and Manu Singhvi ( when he is not growing termites, that is). Look at what happened when Prime Minister Modi invited Nawab Sharif to his swearing in: half the nation was swearing at him instead for extending this courtesy to our Enemy No. 1. And soon thereafter the Shahi Imam of Jumma Masjid was held by some to have created a constitutional crisis by NOT inviting Mr. Modi to his son's " dastarbandi"! Finally, last week another furore was engendered by the selective guest list for the Nehru birthday celeberations. Things have come to such a pass that, no matter who you invite, or don't, you are likely to be labelled either a right-wing fundamentalist or a " sickular", a capitalist or a Nehruvian socialist, a war-monger or a spineless pacifist, a status quoist or an anarchist, and worse.

I have difficult choices to make, as you can see. I can't invite Mr. Modi for a number of reasons, the main among them being that I neither belong to the Gujarat cadre, or to the Vivekananda Foundation or to the RSS or to the NRI community. Furthermore he may consider the invite as a ploy to wrangle a post-retirement sinecure( he may not be wrong in this but that is not the point). The point is that he is likely to refuse, and what would my wife think of me then?-that is, if she thinks of me at all.

I could invite Mr. Rahul Gandhi, I suppose, but he is an impulsive person and he might just tear up the card and throw it into the nearest dustbin where that old ordinance is probably still lying. Or he may regard my usually backward looks as indicating that I belong to an OBC family ( he HAS made mistakes before, you will concede) and decide to spend the night at my place and have only dal and chapattis for dinner. That would be very inconvenient.

Another possibility is to invite Mr. Robert Vadra, but approaching him with an invitation is a bit of a risk. He is likely to scream: " Are you serious? Are you serious?" four times and knock me down ( once is enough in this case) with his sixteen inch biceps. On the other hand, if I DON'T invite him I'll never get that DLF flat in Gurgaon that I have my eyes on.

You see my dilemma? Issuing invitations is serious business these days. But it was not always so and there have been a few memorable moments  in my career worth sharing.
                                                      **************************
In the early eighties I was posted as a Deputy Secretary at Shimla, still wet  behind the years and laboriously climbing the learning curve. One day I received an invitation from the Governor for an " At Home" in the Raj Bhavan the next evening. This clashed with my squash game and, since the most potent drink served at the Raj Bhavan was tomato juice laced with Chyawanprash, I decided to skip it. The day after I was summoned by the Chief Secretary and given a proper dressing down with an implied threat of being posted to Spiti as the OSD( Potatoes, Peas and Ponies).
" Let me explain the rules to you, young man," roared the CS." You never disregard an invitation from either the Governor or the Chief Minister. An invitation from them is not an invitation-its an Order! Have you got that?"
" Yes sir", I mumbled, but wanting to get things right the first time, I further ventured:" But what about an invitation from you to me sir-what would that be?"
" That, Shukla," he yelled," would be an act of folly! Now take that junior-scale arse of your's out of my office!"
Today, even though that "arse" has now retired in the apex scale, I take invitations more seriously.
                                                       ******************************
Well intended invitations can sometimes have unintended consequences. I was still at Shimla when Mr. IK Gujral became the Prime Minister and arrived at Shimla with his family for a holiday. I had worked with him earlier when he was the External Affairs Minister and could also claim a tenuous  relationship with him. Armed with these credentials I called upon him and invited him and his family for lunch to my home: the gracious and warm person that he always was, he immediately accepted. The local administration and SPG was duly informed of this for making the security arrangements.
All hell broke loose thereafter.

The next morning the SPG arrived at my house even before the bed-tea in the form of three burly officers in track suits. They rousted me from my warm bed and poked into all nooks and crannies where assassins could hide or bombs be planted. Since it was a house that was a hundred years old there were numerous such places so the dogs were called in. Three fat Labradors were summoned who promptly started romping in the garden with my golden retriever: they didn't find any bombs but they destroyed all my flower beds and were sent away in disgrace. The SPG then turned its attention to my neighbours, all very senior IAS officers who could make or break( more likely) my career. Disappointed at not having been able to implicate me in a plot against the PM, they poured their professional training and expertise on these folks. They were all ordered to close their windows and doors and stay inside till the PM left my house: it was hinted, not too politely, that any head that poked out would be blown away. Hell hath no fury like an IAS officer being ordered about by an IPS officer( unless it be that IAS officer's wife) and it was a long time before I was forgiven for this " humiliation".

One fat policemen was stationed INSIDE the tiny kitchen where Neerja( my wife, folks) was cooking the lunch for Mr. Gujral and family!  He would not move out in spite of all our entreaties:his job, he stated, was to  ensure that no poison was put into the food being cooked for the PM. The situation was getting desperate: Neerja wanted him out and had that NIKE look on her face( JUST DO IT!), and the cop wouldn't budge. Taking advantage of a break when she had left the kitchen I pleaded with the copper: " Listen, just take a look at what my wife has cooked. Don't you think that if Mr. Gujral can survive this kind of food, he can survive any poison?" Surveying the smorgasbord of burnt and oily stuff on display, the constable gave the knowing smile only a husband can, nodded as if in agreement and left. I am glad to report that Mr. Gujral survived the lunch and I went up a couple of notches in Neerja's estimation. Another reason why I just can't invite Mr. Modi. Any marriage can take only so many shocks, and no more.
                                                 **************************************

And now its time to let you all in on a well kept secret. Have you ever wondered how, whenever one invites people over for a wedding , engagement or the birth of a child the first to land up are the " hijras" or eunuchs? They WILL NOT LEAVE until you fork out a considerable sum of money to them-and their demands keep pace with the rate of inflation. The going rate in South Delhi is anywhere between Rupees fifty thousand to one lakh! This is their secret: they have informers in all the printing presses( where the cards are printed) and the hospitals/ nursing homes( where the deliveries occur) and so know immediately where to go and do their song, dance and swearing routine. These days I am sure they also have Google maps. The way to beat them is to issue your invitations on-line. Not only will it save you a lot of money, it is also environmentally sustainable as it cuts down on the need for paper. Of course, this stratagem will endure only till some nerd from IIT develops an app to track all on-line invitations. But hopefully by then people will stop marrying in favour of live-in arrangements, and couples will prefer to freeze their eggs for posterity instead of having kids.
                                               ********************************************

Postscript: I've decided to take Neerja to Murthal on her birthday. Not only are the parathas there to die for, but hopefully there will be no Prime Ministers, SPG, Labradors or Hijras there. 


  

Thursday, 13 November 2014

IS IT TIME TO DO A RETHINK ON MR. MODI AND THE BJP ?


Long before words such as " populism" and " majoritarianism" started dominating public discourse Mark Twain had written: " Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect." Today, after what happened in the Maharashtra Assembly yesterday, I am inclined to follow his advice seriously.
In July 2013 when Mr. Modi was still the rank outsider in the electoral sweepstakes and was being reviled by the press and the intellectualatti I had written a piece in these columns- WHY I SHALL SUPPORT MODI IN 2014- laying out the reasons why the country needed him as Prime Minister. Today, he is not only the Prime Minister but also the flavour of the season, sweeping state after state, adulated by frenzied crowds, and fawned upon by the same people who had earlier cosied up to the Gandhis and the Chidambarams. It appears he can do no wrong. And, mindful of Mark Twain's words, I am worried and inclined to do some deep reflection.
I have not changed my opinion that Mr. Modi is what India needs to pull us out of the morass of the last ten years. He has the vision, energy, commitment and resolution to extract the country out of the quagmire of corruption. cronyism, indecisiveness, breakdown of systems and values that we had become entrapped in. But I still worry.

There are indications-straws in the wind as yet, but they tell us which way the wind is blowing- that Mr. Modi is becoming too powerful and uncaring of the few sane voices stifled in the roar of the hosannas. Consider some of these straws:
Far too many senior appointments to government are being made of persons associated with the Vivekananda Foundation, a right wing forum with links to the RSS. I will not name them because those who follow public affairs seriously know who they are.

An obscurantist historian trapped in the vedic age, who is unknown even to students of history, is made head of ICHR ( Indian Council of Historical Research) inspite of across the board protests by his peers.

A man whose life mission is to burn books and propagate a version of history that mocks all scientific progress, Mr. Dinanath Batra, is made Advisor to the Education Department of Haryana and his books prescribed as text in 35000 schools in Gujarat,

An avowed Hindu hard liner who had advised opponents of Mr. Modi ( read Muslim) to go to Pakistan and in whose house ten million rupees of unexplained cash was found is made a Minister in the Centre.

Delhi is denied an elected government for ten months and the local BJP cadre given a free hand to purchase MLAs; it is only when the Supreme Court steps in that a thoroughly compromised Lieutenant Governor orders re-elections.

Unexplained communal riots break out in Trilokpuri, Bawana, Babarpur and Okhla-all sensitive areas of Delhi- when it becomes clear that elections are inevitable. The signature on them is obvious. No action is taken against party loyalists who spew poison against minority communities or saffron clad hooligans who attack couples for holding hands or dining together in restaurants.

Hindu supremacy is being reasserted against Pakistan through the doctrine of " disproportionate response" which now appears to have replaced the Gujral doctrine of peaceful engagement with neighbours. Yes, Pakistan had to be taught a lesson for its continual violations of the cease-fire and the ten thousand shells fired by the BSF have effectively conveyed this message. The Pakistan army has learnt its lesson. Shouldn't the victor now be gracious and take the first step towards restoring normalcy again? Or is this about Hindu supremacy over Muslims again: if so, what message does this convey to the 200 million Muslims in India?

And finally Maharashtra. The vote of confidence in its Assembly yesterday has shamed the nation and set a new benchmark for chicanery and electoral fraud. For the first time in the history of this democracy, we are told, a minority government has established its " legitimacy" by a voice vote and not by a proper process based on Division. This, after committing an even bigger fraud on the voter who elected it- viz. by allying with the party( NCP) against whose corrupt govt. it had asked for the votes!

These instances make me reflect and suggest to me that the BJP and Mr. Modi are perhaps becoming too imperious and over-bearing with the power they are rapidly acquiring. The issue of concern is not that of a mere appointment or two or of a riot here or there. It is of a trend that appears to be emerging- of a sustained domination of one community, of ramming down the throats of a nation a flawed concept of Hindu values and history, of Mr. Modi himself donning his personal cloak of integrity and high morals while allowing his party to shred ethics and morality to bits( how does that make him any different from Mr. Manmohan Singh then, you may well ask), of playing Russian roulette with two unstable neighbours( don't forget Afghanistan). Its an ill wind that blows no good and the BJP is fanning it.
We need Mr. Modi, if not the BJP. We need his initiatives in liberalising the economy and manufacturing, in foreign relations, in financial inclusion, in strengthening our defence forces, in rebuilding our failing infrastructure. What we don't need is a return to the vedic ages, to attempts to re-write history, to packing the higher bureaucracy with persons of a particular ideology, to an unleashing of the dogs of war, to criminal and mercenary politics, to handing over the streets to dogmatist and sectarian bigots.
What we need most of all is a Mr. Modi who is responsive to public opinion, even though it may be that of a minority, a Mr. Modi who respects a contrary point of view, a Mr. Modi who does not consider the press his eternal foe, to be treated with accumulated contempt as a form of vengeance for years of baiting. So far he has not displayed these qualities- he talks, but he does not converse, or respond or answer, and this is not healthy for any democracy.
The crux of the problem is that Mr. Modi has no opposition worth the name, and consequently the hubris is building up in his system and, like the hero in a Greek tragedy, he is moving towards his denouement. But this is far more serious than a Greek tragedy, for when( in a metaphorical sense) he falls he will not fall alone but will take the entire nation with him. Mr. Modi is here to stay and the only force which can persuade him to do a course correction is a strong opposition. The entire universe survives on a balance of forces: every yang needs a ying, a thesis an anti-thesis, a point a counter-point. This critical balance is even more crucial for nations and somehow our present political dispensation must find this.
We need Mr. Modi but we also need a strong opposition in Parliament and other parties in power in some critical states. I hope voters of Delhi will bear this in mind in the days to come. This of course is free advice, but as Oscar Wilde said: " The best thing to do with free advice is to pass it on!"


Saturday, 1 November 2014

UNEARTHING BLACK MONEY-- THE HINDU WAY !

   So we have come full circle again- the list of holders of foreign accounts which had been lying with the  government for three years and was given to the SIT four months ago has now been submitted to the Supreme Court and has been passed on to the SIT again yesterday. Hallelujah! The Chairman of the SIT has announced that their investigation into all the 700 accounts shall be completed by March 2015. Amen! Whether they will find even a cent in these accounts, now that their holders have had three years to move the moneys to anyone of 193 countries, is the next big thing to be debated on prime time television.
   Actually, lets admit it. Indians love black money and treat with renewed respect and a sneaking admiration anyone raided by the Income Tax Department. We welcome, nay invite, Laxmi into our houses but prefer that she comes with hard cash rather than with a bank transfer or a draft. To fully understand this phenomenon, and the govt's convoluted strategy in the present case, we need to understand the Hindu view of wealth.
   Nirad C Choudhury, that iconoclast of everything Indian, explains in his book " Passage to England". Hindus, he says, are devoted to wealth and to the hoarding of it because of their belief in reincarnation or rebirth. The devout Hindu reasons that since he will be coming back to this mortal coil at some future date, he may as well hoard his wealth to ensure a good life in his second innings. Nirad Babu is aware of the flaw in this argument- how can the person be sure that he will come back to the same family where the wealth has been hoarded? He answers this by contending that if all, or most, Hindus do the same thing, then statistically there are good chances of the new soul landing in a family with amassed wealth! To put it bluntly then, the Hindu is genetically and spiritually primed to hoard his moneys- black money, therefore, is something to aspire for and to respect.
   Enter the government with its farcical attempts to recover this stockpile. To comprehend its PC Sorcar kind of moves we must first understand another facet of Hinduism- its rituals. Hinduism is all about ritualism, not substance. We can commit all manner of wrong doing-kill, cheat, beat, destroy, molest- provided we observe the right rituals: wash our sins in the Ganga, organise weekly havans, shave our hair, sing kirtans, feed portly Brahmins and so on. We garland the cow with many incantations and then let it starve to death on the streets. We feed widows in temples and then throw them out of our own houses. You get it? The ritual is everything.We are in no way interested in doing the right thing, we merely want that we should not be punished for doing the wrong thing.
    This is precisely the kind of ritualism the central government( and dare we say, the Supreme Court?) is indulging in in the matter of the Black Money. It signs treaties, obtains lists from foreign banks, sets up SITs, makes announcements about getting back the lucre in 100 days, promises investigations-and allows business to go on as usual. The business, of course, being the continued generation of black money in the country.
   Forget the foreign accounts: there won't be a farthing left in them by the time our sleuths get there. One report states that Rupees 14000 crore has already been moved out of Switzerland in the two years ending 2012. The obvious solution is staring the government in the face but it won't even look at it: take immediate steps to stop the generation of black money within the country itself. Just three measures will ensure that 90% of the tap can be turned off.
   First, tackle the real estate and property sector, the main generator of illegal and untaxed wealth. The devil here lies in the difference between the price actually paid for a transaction and the price at which it is registered, which is between half and one-third of the former: the difference is the black money. Today, anywhere in India, an all-white money sale is unheard of: if some idiot wants only white money for his property he will have to settle for a price far lower than its market value. All state governments have performed the mandatory ritual to counter this problem: they have fixed circle rates below which a property cannot be registered. The problem is, these rates are so far below the market rate they have no effect at all. In Greater Kailash of South Delhi the real rate is about Rs. 5-6 lakhs per square yard but the circle rate is about Rs. 2 lakhs. In the village where I betook myself after retiring to lick my wounds( above Shimla) the circle rate at Rs. 35 lakhs per bigha is only half of the actual market rate. It is inconceivable that the governments are not aware of this, what with their armies of Registrars,Tehsildars, Patwaris and what not, all with their hands on the pulse( if not the pocket) of our citizenry. Simply by doubling the existing circle rates the government would instantly knock off the major chunk of black money from the economy: in the process it would also realise thousands of crores of additional revenue as stamp duty every year and real estate prices would come down to sane levels as the speculators with their illegal money would be driven out of the market. A win-win situation, you would say? Well yes.....except that our politicians only want to win-win elections, and for that they need the difference between the two rates to continue. As Adam exclaimed after having a long, hard look at the uncovered Eve: " Viva le difference!"
   Second: why make a joke of our Income Tax mechanism? Only 4% of our population file income tax returns, and only 1% actually pay income tax! Can you believe that there are only 40000 people who have declared an annual income of Rs.one crore( and above) as per the IT Department's own figures? In a country where thousands of luxury cars are sold every year, where gold imports crossed the figure of US $3.5 billion last month, where a flat in South Delhi sells for Rs. 15 crore, where one peg of premium single malt at the Habitat is priced at Rs. 7500/, where the Presidential suite in a Jaipur hotel at US $ 45000/ for one night is the second costliest in the world? Why, I could point out 40000 of the one crore plus types within a ten minute walking radius of my mother-in-law's house in GK-I! And this is when one can barely walk in GK-I what with all the Audis, Mercs, BMWs and Rolls parked on the roads there!
   Furthermore, I am fairly confident that most of the people in that hallowed neighbourhood pay less tax than I do on my pension. Their salaries would be negligible and every single expenditure they incur, down to the toilet paper in their eleven bathrooms, is booked to either their company or their business- drivers, servants, electricity bills, fuel, parties, travel, holidays, even their pet dogs who are probably covered under Security Expenses. ( OK, there may be some exaggeration here but not much, I assure you). Not only does the government lose on Income Tax, it is also fiddled of its Corporate Tax.
  The other great escape route deliberately provided is the exemption from Income Tax for agriculture. There is no rational basis for this and therefore its justification does not even merit a discussion. This exemption may appear obtuse and stupid but actually its quite clever, from a crooked perspective: it enables politicians and bureaucrats to launder their ill gotten wealth by showing it as agricultural income even if the land they own is as barren as the Gobi desert. I can bet my next DA instalment that there is no major politician in this country who does not " own" agricultural land. It is not for nothing that Ms. Jayalalitha bought 2000 acres of land-such a huge area can launder far more than what she is accused of amassing, and I have a feeling that she may yet avoid the VIP cell on the strength of this acreage!
  You can be sure the government performs its rituals in this matter also. It sends notices to you and me for not declaring the Rs. 2373/ received as interest on our Savings Accounts, and fines us for filing our returns two months late. It conducts raids with much fanfare and nets the plankton and shrimps but allows the sharks to get away. But it will do nothing to broaden the tax base or to suck the undeclared income out of the parallel economy. It will not mount surveillance on some HNI individuals to match their life-styles with their declared incomes. It has PAN, TAN and what not but cannot or will not track purchases to any effect. Nothing else can explain the deplorable tax base of a country whose GDP is estimated at almost a trillion US dollars.
  And finally, that other great repository of black money- our political parties. The disclosed accounts( and these accounts are about as transparent as the sludge in your sewer line)reveal that both the Congress and the BJP have collected funds in excess of Rs. 2000 crore each and BSP is not far behind. We have no idea where this money came from, and we will continue to remain blissfully ignorant because ALL parties have ensured that the RTI Act will not be made applicable to them. They have refused to comply with the order of the Election Commission to provide information to querists. The Commission itself, clearly surprised by its own temerity in passing such an order, has retreated into its protective carapace, trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing before even attempting to enforce its order. And so tens of thousands of crores of black money continue to be spent on elections. The ritual? Oh yes, the EC fixes modest limits on expenditure by candidates, appoints Observers, audits expenditure statements, issues notices and warnings and is interviewed by Rajdeep Sardesai and Rahul Shivshankar.
    We don't need treaties or SITs to flush out the black money in this country. We simply need to go beyond rituals, to the one real religion that this country so badly needs- good governance.
     

Monday, 20 October 2014

RULE OF LAW? REALLY?

     Its fashionable to begin articles these days with a disclaimer( it makes one appear more profound), so let me confess too. I am no law graduate, never having enrolled myself in the " La Fucklety" of Delhi University, as the Law Faculty was lovingly called in my days. My knowledge of law is also limited: I cannot tell a habeas from a corpus and don't even know the difference between a solicitor and a procurer. But I have of late been getting the feeling that you don't need to know law to realise that all is not well with our juridical ecology, that the pedestal on which we have ensconced our judiciary has far too many bird droppings on it- in short, it is impossible to make sense of either some of our laws or even some of the judgements of our higher courts.
    I am not talking here of the Courts' refusal to decriminalise homesexuality or to disallow  euthanasia in terminal cases, both important facets of a progressive value system which more and more countries are increasingly adopting but we seem to be shying away from because of an ossified mind set. I am not talking either of a government( both past and present) that prefers to flounder in legislations of the last two centuries rather than devise laws for the 21st century. These are serious crevasses in our legal system into which thousands have fallen, but they will have to wait for another day.
   I am addressing today the more immediate issue of how we treat different classes of accused, even though we are fed, ad nauseum, the lie that the law is the same for everyone. I am increasingly beginning to feel that the law is putty in the hands of skilled and expensive lawyers and that there is no consistency in the judgements handed down from those lofty heights.
   How else does one explain that in this country a convicted and sentenced felon can get bail while a person who is not even convicted is denied bail? Both Mr. Lalu Yadav and Ms. Jayalalitha have been convicted and sentenced but have been released on bail, simply because they have/ are appealing their convictions. Why then have the Talwars not been released, whose circumstances are exactly similar? I am no apologist for Tarun Tejpal but I am one for equality before the law, and therefore I am compelled to wonder why he has been locked up since one year even though he has not been convicted and his trial has a long way to go? Because one set relates to corruption( not heinous) and the other to violent crimes? Then why were Kanimozhi and A Raja imprisoned for a year( their charge was also of corruption)? Because they could influence witnesses? Really? It stretches one's credulity to believe that the latter two could threaten/bribe witnesses and Lalu and Jayalalitha cannot.
   As I said earlier, try as you might it will be impossible to locate any thread of consistency in the law applied in these cases. We are told that each case is different-yes, indeed, but isn't the law supposed to be the same? I do discern, however, a faint and nebulous thread running through these cases, and perhaps you do too- if you are a politician the law will treat you with kid gloves, and if your case is picked up by Arnab Goswami and Karan Thapar for prime time panel discussions then you are damned! This is a constantly emerging pattern and cannot be a coincidence. The Talwars and Tejpal( and Mr. Pandher-let us not forget this gentleman who has been acquitted in almost all the cases against him but has been reduced to a cadaver after seven years in jail)-they were dead meat the day the prime time mob got after them, and the law obliged.
    The grant of parole is another mystery I cannot fathom. Tens of thousands of undertrials cannot even think of getting parole but the privileged have no problem, even though they are convicted and sentenced. A Chautala gets the reprieve on medical grounds and then goes on to campaign for elections: our judicial conscience is assuaged by sending him back to jail AFTER the campaigning period is over! A Manu Sharma( sentenced to life for murder, no less) repeatedly obtains parole for attending funerals, weddings and taking exams. A Sanjay Dutt benefits likewise because his wife is supposed to be ill, though she is otherwise seen partying. Two Italian marines are given a vacation to celebrate Christmas with their families in Italy- if bilateral relations make this imperative, then why charge them in the first place: why not simply accept the crores offered by Italy as compensation and give the two a Presidential pardon? Why first bring them into the legal system and then twist this system and make a mockery of it?
    Something else that addles my jurisprudence challenged brain is the constant interventions by higher courts in the proceedings of trial courts, somewhat similar to what Arnab Goswami does to his panelists. With more than 30 million cases pending in various courts as of 2013, should trials be stayed on the flimsiest of applications? A case which immediately comes to mind is the National Herald case against the Gandhi clan. Taking cognisance of a complaint the trial court issued summons to the accused for appearance almost three months ago. The accused immediately approached a higher court( no surprises here!) and got a stay-and added another number to the pendency. The case has not moved forward an inch-which suits the Gandhis just fine. Consider another odd case: Salman Khan was CONVICTED by a trial court in the black buck poaching case two years ago but the sentence was suspended by the Rajasthan High Court without even deciding his appeal. The Rajasthan govt. has challenged this in the Supreme Court. The main appeal is yet to be heard. Years have been unnecessarily added to the final disposal of this case enabling our dabang hero to add a few dozen more crores to his kitty. And this is in addition to the dozens he has already added because his hit-and-run case in Bombay has already taken 12 years and reached nowhere, because mid-way the honourable judge decided to add fresh charges against the thespian, and the whole trial had to be started de nouveau. Why can our courts not realise that delays benefit only the rich and powerful, and then do something about it?
   It has become almost the norm, if your pockets are deep enough and your connections extensive enough, to challenge every interim order of a trial court at a higher forum. Appeals are filed against charge-sheets, summons and warrants, framing of charges, summoning of witnesses, nature of evidences, and just about every excuse the fecund mind of a well paid lawyer can conjure up. I am unable to understand why these appeals are entertained at all-why not simply let the trial go on and let these issues become the causus belli in appeal when the trial court passes its final order? I have no difficulty in understanding why the lawyers do so- after all, if you are paid a few lakhs for every appearance( in court) your mind will be as fertile as a vermicomposting pit. But why do the courts allow this to happen?
   How is it that politicians who work 16 hours a day while in office and corporates who party for just as long, invariably develop heart/ blood pressure conditions the moment they are sent to jail? And why are our courts so accommodating as to send them to the nearest five star hospital ( in the comfort of which they can plan their next interlocutory appeal)? Why can they not be treated, if treatment is required at all, in the jail hospital or the nearest govt. hospital? After all, govt. hospitals are where law abiding and unconvicted( as yet) citizens like you and I go to-why not these hot shots? If the courts sent them there instead of molly coddling them I can guarantee that, given the conditions of our govt. hospitals, these worthies would be screaming to be sent back to their VIP cells in Tihar and such requests would end once and for all.
   And finally, about our laws and law makers. About 150000 Indians die in traffic accidents every year, victims of over speeding, drunk driving, unlicensed drivers, rash driving and other similar conscious acts. And yet the perpetrators of these deaths obtain bail within a few hours and, if convicted at all, can get a maximum sentence of two years only. In other words if you kill somebody with a six inch pistol or a nine inch knife weighing 500 grammes you will get life or death, but if you know your law you would be better advised to kill someone with a four meter projectile weighing two tonnes; chances are you would go scot free or spend just a year or two in jail, even less if you develop high blood pressure or an enlarged prostate or decide to take your bar council exams at this propitious moment. Why cannot the law be amended to make such a deliberate act( it IS deliberate if you drive while drunk or break the speed limit or do not have a driving license) culpable homicide at least? In the USA such offences come under a separate category termed vehicular homicide, an eminently sensible formulation. What prevents the government from bringing in a similar law, or the Supreme Court from ordering the govt. to do so?
   Civilisations cannot exist for long without a system for imparting justice that is fair, equitable, affordable, accessible; a system that is not hijacked by the rich or powerful few. In India our much vaunted justice or judicial system sadly lacks all these attributes. Furthermore, it is not merely laws that ensure the rule of law: its guarantee lies in the intellectual integrity of its practitioners-the plaintiffs, lawyers, the judges; here again there is much that is found wanting. 
   The time has come for us to tackle this creeping malaise. Otherwise there are Alternative Dispute Redressal Mechanisms( ADRMs) waiting in the wings to take over. These comprise a range of mediums or agencies, none of them compatible with a progressive society: the Taliban, The Khap Panchayat, the D-company, the Vigilante, the Encounter Specialist, the Dirty Harry cop. Their prototypes have already arrived. Its time for us to wake up.
    

Monday, 13 October 2014

TIHAR REGENCY


       This is the century of Private Capital. While governments involve themselves in waging wars and making life as difficult as possible for their citizens it is the private sector that is pushing forward the frontiers of economic development and spawning the innovations that will make life sustainable in the years to come. It is  private enterprise and entrepreneurship again which is( happily for all of us) ensuring that governments are becoming more and more irrelevant to the life of the common citizen- whether it is Twitter and Facebook for information sharing, or Dupont and Suzlon for renewable energy sources of the future, or Amazon and Ali Baba for creating freer markets. It should surprise no one, therefore, that MacDonalds and Coca Cola have conquered more countries than all of Mr. Obama's armies, or that just the combined" Brand values" of just four companies- Apple, Google, Coca Cola and IBM- at US$ 380  billion, is more than the total foreign reserves of India!
     In this changing environment, therefore, Mr. Modi is spot on in stressing the primacy of the private sector in developing the country's economy, in sectors as diverse as defense production, power, infrastructure, tourism, food processing, housing and so on. But he appears to have neglected one critical sector which of late has become a magnet for powerful politicians, bureaucrats, corporates and well connected criminals, a sector which is like, pardon the pun, a " holding" company for all kinds of dubious operators. I refer, of course, to our prisons.
    I owe this path-breaking realisation to a very close friend of mine who is a successful hotelier in Shimla. Looking around for his next project, his usual fertile imagination bolstered by a couple of single malts, he voiced the desire to build a five-star hotel in Tihar Jail of Delhi, exclusively for its convicted inmates( or at least those who could afford to pay for it). If this sounds crazy to you, just list out the crazy ideas of a few decades ago which now go by brand names such as Gillette, KFC, Otis, Hoover, Ford, Frigidaire, or by product names such as submarines, steam engines, telephones, airplanes, even the humble condom for God's sake! To slightly alter a Shakespearean phrase-those whom the Gods would make billionaires, they first make crazy.
     The more I think of a luxury hotel in Tihar the more sense it makes to me. After all, prisons in the Us and UK have been handed over to private companies for their running and management, and even Tihar has its own snacks making division, a furniture unit and even has a food-court, all under the brand name " TJ". Why not then a franchised hotel? I even examined the idea on the crucible of the three hallowed P's of marketing management- Product, Price and Promotion- and found it a winner on all counts. Let me share this with you.
    PRODUCT. There is no doubt at all that there is a niche and unmet demand for this product i.e. a five star hotel in Tihar Jail. Firstly, with the change in govt. at the centre the list of erstwhile VIPs gradually lining up for admission to Tihar is growing by the day. These include politicians of the A. Raja and Kanimozhi variety whose brief sojourn earlier is likely to be followed by a more prolonged stay now that the 2G case is reaching its end, Kalmadi and Sheila Dixit whose ( commonwealth) game is almost over, Lalu Yadav and Jayalalitha and maybe even Mamatadi and Mayawati if the CBI is allowed to get on with its investigations unimpeded and the Supreme Court takes fewer vacations. Add to this the captains of industry involved in the 2G and Coal scam cases, Augusta Westland and other assorted scams too numerous to list. And of course, how can we forget those who are already ensconced in Tihar or other jails, earning loyalty reward points- Sahara Shri, Sudipta Roy, Kunal Ghose, or those, like Mr. Mallya, who should have been there much earlier, Sanjay Dutt whose bulging biceps rule out his own release on medical grounds and therefore his wife has to perforce fall ill every few months. Scattered among these heavy weights will doubtless be some bureaucrats or bank managers who thought that their fat pensions did not do justice to their talents.
    These gentlemen( and ladies) would pay anything to be provided in Tihar the comforts they are used to- this is the nub and heart of my friend's brilliant concept. Right now they get barely a fraction of the luxuries they desire, and that too by devious means-false medical certificates to obtain parole or get admitted to super speciality hospitals, generous contributions to the jailors' post retirement corpus for special favours such as special VIP cells and servings of biryani, killing off a relative now and then in order to attend the funeral simply to get out for some time.
    All this poses a massive headache for the courts and the governments. And things are about to get  worse. At least one ex-but-de-facto Chief Minister and one potential Chief Minister are all set to establish their offices and secretariats in jail and rule from there , surrounded by pimps and rapists and murderers. Very soon, other than Mr. Subrata Roy, there will be other corporate honchos wanting to sell their assets to get bail or liquidate their loans or to pay their fines- how many corporate offices can Tihar be expected to provide on the Sahara model? No indeed, this is a deluge that the government cannot counter by itself-it needs the services of entrepreneurs like my friend from Shimla.
   A luxury hotel in Tihar would resolve all these problems at one stroke-five star accommodation, multi national cuisine, all corporate facilities, wi-fi, access to hawala accounts. Given the inventiveness of our private sector I have no doubt that soon the basic product would be tweaked to offer all kinds of special packages: for example, a Corporate Package( or discount) for two or more CEOs booking in as a group, a Bail Package for two days and one night for those who intend to stay only till their bail petitions are approved, a Nuptial Package( two nights and one day) for those wanting to be reacquainted with their wives, a Parliamentary package for our legislators, a Repeat Offender package for inmates gracing the jail more than once. There could even be a Chief Ministerial suite( they'll probably need more the way things are shaping up). Of course all payments will have to be made in cash since the guests could hardly be trusted with any money-if they could they wouldn't be here in the first place.
   PRICE. This is not an issue considering that the combined wealth of all these worthies would probably be more than the GDP of all our neighbours, with the exception of China.
   PROMOTION. Most of this would be by word of mouth and hoardings put up outside prime catchment areas such as Parliament, corporate offices of companies, Stock Exchanges, major studios in Bollywood conveying messages such as TIHAR ME ACCHE DIN AAGAYE or TIHAR-THE KING OF GOOD TIMES or THE PERFECT ESCAPE-TIHAR REGENCY. Being a captive market, pardon the pun again, the expenditure on promotion would be negligible, adding to the viability of the project.
   Tihar Regency would be the perfect product-a win-win for all: the consumer, the promoter, the government and even the courts who would be rid finally of all those frivolous applications for parole, health check-ups, attendance at funerals, sitting for exams etc.which so far have not served the cause of justice one iota but have certainly enriched the likes of Mr. Ram Jethmalani and Salman Khurshid no end.
  My hotelier friend is preparing a project report for submission to the central government. He still has one problem, though: where does he find a Chief Guest for inaugurating Tihar Regency? If you think you have an answer please do leave a comment.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

WHY MR. MODI IS THE REAL WINNER IN THE SEPTEMBER BY-ELECTIONS !

     I have been a supporter of Mr. Narendra Modi since before the Parliamentary elections, firmly believing that it is only his decisiveness, bold thinking, probity and long term vision that can drag this country out of the morass of corruption, policy paralysis, senseless populism, stagflation and reverse communalism that it had sunk into over the last ten years. And yet, I welcome the reverses the BJP has suffered in the by-elections yesterday, especially the bloody nose it has received in UP. Let me explain the apparent paradox contained in these two assertions.
    When the BJP swept all before it in May 2014 and marginalised all other mainstream political parties it was not because the electorate wanted the minorities( read Muslims) to be taught a lesson. It was because Mr. Modi promised to usher in an era of economic growth based on clear decision making, dismantling of the framework of cronyism and nepotism, revival of the energy of governments, the articulation of a vision for the country that was both specific and nationalistic, and most importantly the promise of social cohesion and amity postulated on even handed policies and the eschewing of any discrimination against or for  any community.
    In his first 100 days Mr. Modi has made considerable progress in redeeming most of these promises- ambitious targets have been set and are  being monitored by the PMO itself, crucial policy decisions are being taken on a daily basis which have brought the economy on a positive growth path again, our foreign policy has been infused with a new and refreshing robustness and virility, no taint of any malfeasance has been detected so far and the bureaucracy has been brought to heel. No mean achievement in a country where the first 100 days of any government usually consist of nothing else but the division of the loaves of office.
    But Mr. Modi has faltered in the most crucial of his promises-he has not been an honest broker in promoting harmony between Hindus and Muslims. It is not that he has himself said or done anything which could be considered communal- far from it, for he has repeatedly stated that his credo is " Sabka saath sabka vikas", that Hindus and Muslims must fight the common scourge of poverty and not each other, he has even appealed for a ten year moratorium on communal antipathy. Mr. Modi's own conduct in this aspect has been faultless. But the public perception is that he has let loose his dogs of war and will not call them back to their kennels.
    This marauding pack has been allowed a free run in UP for the last two months, and the names of its members sullies the BJP's roster- Swami Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj, Laxmikant Bajpai, the Deputy Chief Minister of Goa. Their scurrilous and Rabelaisian statements have mortified the soul of every true Indian, regardless of their religion. How could these statements have been made under the watch of the Modi we elected barely months ago?- that Madrasas teach only terrorism to Muslim Youth, that a "love jihad" has been launched to forcibly convert Hindu girls and change the demographics of the country, that 99% of rapes are committed by Muslims, that for every one Hindu girl taken by Muslims "we" shall take hundred, that India is a Hindu rashtra ?
    I cannot believe that Mr. Modi had vetted or even permitted these statements-it is just not in his character. But equally, I cannot believe that he was unaware of them or of the grave consequences that they could have on the country's social milieu and on the BJP's poll prospects.
    WHY THEN DID HE ALLOW THEM TO CONTINUE FOR TWO MONTHS? WHY DID HE MAINTAIN A SPHINX-LIKE SILENCE AND REFUSE TO CONDEMN THEM? WHY DID HE NOT CALL OFF THE PACK?
    Mr. Modi will not talk and tell us why. But I have a theory.
   Mr. Modi realises, better than any one else, that he can vindicate himself only by delivering on the ground- an 8% growth rate, ten million new jobs every year, reining in inflation, removing the rot in crucial sectors such as telecom, coal and defence, investing in critical infrastructure such as railways, roads, irrigation, improving human development indicators, projecting a more muscular presence internationally. In order to achieve all this he needs the full support of his party and the RSS which lurks in the shadows of its new government. They both contain powerful elements whose mental acumen cannot see beyond a Hindu rashtra( in its most limited and communal form). But they are both, the conscience keepers as well as the foot soldiers of the BJP. Their sheer numbers and embedment in society at large ensure that Mr. Modi cannot ignore them beyond a point. If not mollified and kept in good humour they can sabotage the policies, legislations and consensus that Mr. Modi desperately needs to translate his vision into reality. They have already displayed their muscle in their initial opposition to the amendment to the Land Acquisition Bill and the move to raise FDI in Insurance-both important for the expected surge in private investments. But surprisingly, in both cases they appear to have backed off!
    It is quite possible that Mr. Modi had struck a deal with these elements-he would let them have their way in the UP by-elections provided they called off their opposition to his big-ticket reform measures. In other words, they would have the freedom to play their communal cards in UP and Mr. Modi would be allowed to get on with his work on nation building. A bit of a Faustian contract with the devil? A Machiavellian touch ?
   But there's a twist in the tail here! There could be only two outcomes of this unholy( but necessary?) covenant and the canny Mr. Modi, I have a feeling, was aware of both. One, that the BJP's communal card would trounce that of Mulayam Singh and the BJP would hoover up all the seats: in such an event the credit would obviously go to Mr. Modi and Amit Shah, strengthening the former's position to implement his policies.The second possible outcome would be  that the Adityanaths and the Sakshi Maharajs would get no traction in UP and would be soundly scuppered by the Samajwadi Party.  This is what actually happened and this suits Mr. Modi even better. 
    The RSS and its cohorts would not like to surrender the first real power they have wielded since Independance( Mr. Vajpayee's government was only a coalition, don't forget) and given a choice between holding on to power and holding on to their Hindutva credo, they would obviously opt for the former. The experiment in UP having failed, the hardliners will now have no option but to back off for now and to let Mr. Modi continue with his work of governance, for they know that a repetition of this by-election's results in Haryana, Maharashtra Jammu and Kashmir and the elections in 2016 would mean the end of the BJP's hopes of a second coming.
    Mr. Modi was winning either way!
    I visualise an easier time for Mr. Modi now within his party and an extended stay in Gulag for Messers  Adityanath, Laxmikant Bajpai, Sakshi Maharaj and other members of his ilk, may their tribe decrease. Expect Mr. Modi to fire up the after- burners and apply himself as silently, but more vigorously, to the redemption of the promises he made to this country, including that of exorcising the specter of communalism He just needs a couple of years to cast this country in his image, to reach an unassailable position where even the RSS would no longer be a threat. Even if the fundamentalists recoup their forces by then it would be too late.
   As I said earlier, I support Mr. Modi and am very happy with the results of the by-elections.

     

Sunday, 24 August 2014

RULES OF THE GAME

    I have for some time been convinced that Moses( of Old Testament fame) was THE original bureaucrat. The anecdotal evidence is pretty convincing. He offered to his peoples the Promised Land-and then made them wander around in the desert for forty years. If this is not classic bureaucratic strategem, then what is? There's more. He was adept at beating around the bush( till one of them caught fire and he called it an act of God!). He was wont to deliver sermons from raised areas which no one understood. And here's the clinching one--he framed the first set of Conduct Rules, which subsequently came to be known as the Ten Commandments. And a fine set of rules they are too, except perhaps for that one about not coveting thy neighbour's wife which contradicts a subsequent sub-rule which exhorts one to love thy neighbour, and we all know that the later rule supersedes the earlier one. There's also a slight problem with the one that says thou shalt not kill, considering that Mr. Netanyahu is doing precisely that at almost the exact spot near Mount Sinaii where Moses announced his Conduct Rules. But we can hardly blame the Old Bureaucrat with events occurring after his retirement, can we?
    The same exoneration cannot, however, be allowed to his successors-no, not the state of Israel, but the IAS. Now, an IAS officer is at his best when he is drafting all manner of rules-if they are incomprehensible he is happy, and if they are unimplementable then he is overjoyed to an almost orgasmic level. Id like to share a few I've had the good fortune to encounter during my career.
    Have you wondered why govt. servants, especially the more senior ones, are so short sighted? Its the rules, stupid! In the early eighties I was posted as a Joint Secretary in the Finance department at Shimla. Part of my duties involved approving claims for medical reimbursement. In those days contact lenses were deemed to be a cosmetic procedure and not a medical one: their expenses were not reimburseable, not even if your retinas were shredded to pieces! One day I received a claim from a High Court judge who had had contact lenses fixed, the better to see his litigants in the manner of the wolf in the fable about Red Riding Hood, perhaps. I promptly rejected the claim and took the file to the Finance Secretary. The FS looked at me with a cunning grin and said: " Approve it!".  I was aghast, just as Moses must have been when he saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. " But the rules, sir..." I blurted. And then the FS explained.
    " Avay," he told me patiently, " you must understand the rules which govern rules. The most important rule in government is the rule of precedents. A precedent, once set, is sacrosanct, notwithstanding all other rules. Once you allow something for one person you cannot deny it to others. So let this judge have his bloody contact lenses-after all, how can a lowly FS refuse a mighty High Court judge? And hereinafter all of us can also have contact lenses!" And that's how contact lenses are now reimburseable. We now have more IAS officers adorned with the lenses than starlets in Bollywood.
     Rule number two. In 2007, after years of subsisting on bread and water I finally built myself a cottage in Mashobra, intending to spend my dotage talking to the birds and bees, refreshing my knowledge of their activities. I applied for a gas connection from the HP Civil Supplies Corporation for the new house. It was refused on the grounds that two connections could not be given in the same name, and since I already had one in my (official) house in Shimla the rules did not permit one for Mashobra. Since the MD of the Corporation was my neighbour I pestered him till he came up with a solution: he informed me that he had checked his rules again and would be able to sanction a second connection if my wife gave an affidavit stating that she intended to divorce me and was living separately from me in Mashobra! The connection would obviously me in my wife's name. I was completely stumped. Firstly, we in the government cannot go around swearing affidavits with the same gay abandon that our MPs and MLAs do at election time. Secondly, I had no intention of separating from my wife, having hung on to her for dear life for thirty years. Thirdly, once she started living separately who knew what might happen? I'm told on good authority by IAS officers who go on central deputation leaving their wives behind that the latter very soon start enjoying their separate life and encourage them to stay on in Delhi till retirement! Since they have all the perks of being an IAS officer's wife, they don't really need the officer himself given his penchant for sleeping with files instead of them. Fourthly, Mashobra has a lot of retired defence services officers who spend all their time looking for lost golf balls and single women. No indeed, this was not a good idea at all, I told my wife. She asked for two days to consider the suggestion! Finally, of course, she agreed with me. She confided in me later that she was tempted by the idea but decided against it because then who'd make the bed tea in the morning, or take the dog for a walk?! So finally we didn't use that particular rule after all: instead I went and bought a cylinder and regulator on the black market in Lower Bazaar next day.
    I am convinced that most IAS officers have very high levels of schadenfreude, not just testosterone, and love nothing better than to see the proletariat squirm; nothing else can explain this last rule I'm about to share with you. One of the consequences of having a large government is that you also have a large number of pensioners who refuse to kick the bucket.( Why should they when they get almost as much as pension as they received as salaries; moreover, for govt. pensioners( as opposed to those from the private sector) the lack of any work after retirement is not traumatic at all since they never did any work when in service in the first place). Pension rules stipulate that every July a pensioner is required to submit a "life certificate" attesting to the fact that he is still alive( being brain dead is no disqualification for a govt. pensioner, on the assumption that most of them were in this condition in any case while in service). This life certificate can be attested by any gazetted officer or by the Bank manager of the bank where the pensioner has an account. The system worked very well till a few years ago when some bright Finance Secretary in Shimla decided that the attestation would have to be done by a Patwari instead! Bank managers, it was decreed, could not be trusted with a life certificate, though they could with hundreds of crores of our moneys.
    Now, a Patwari in the mountainous regions of Himachal is a mythical figure. Though there are reported to be about 700 of them, they are more difficult to spot than the snow leopard, of whom there are barely a dozen; its easier to track down a man-eater than to locate a Patwari. But rules are rules, and so now the mountain slopes are crawling with pensioners looking for their Patwaris, usually in vain. Some have taken to camping in caves hoping to way lay him one day, others organise havans hoping to be blessed with his presence, still  others seek out astrologers to predict the Patwari's movements. I learn that some pensioners have asked their children in the US to procure some drones which can be used to sight the Patwari from the air and then drop the life certificates for him to sign. But the astute Finance Secretary, I'm told, is a happy man: outgo of pensions has declined sharply, the mortality among pensioners has gone up to satisfying levels what with all the exertion now required of them, and the budget deficit is coming under control. I'm now thinking of starting a joint venture with my Patwari- for a fee( to be shared with the Patwari, naturally) - for providing this service to other pensioners. It will essentially be an out-sourcing service and should fit in very well with NDA-II's economic policies. And all pensioners shall live( or die, which is more likely) happily ever after, proving the wisdom of  William Ellery Channing who said: " The office of government is not to confer happiness but to give men opportunity to work out happiness for themselves."

Thursday, 7 August 2014

THE NAZIS ARE IN GAZA

    It is a cruel irony of history that the Jewish government in Israel is doing to the Muslim residents of Gaza exactly what the Nazis did to them 70 years ago. In his epic of civil resistance against a barbarous oppressor, MILA-18, Leon Uris exhaustively documents how the Jews of Warsaw were herded into a ghetto by the Nazis, denied the basics of human existence, treated and exterminated like rats: more than 50% of the original residents of MILA-18( the name the Germans gave to this tiny ghetto) had died by the end of the siege. But the Jews rose against the Germans in an uprising of such heroic proportions that reading the book even today makes one's spine tingle. And they triumphed!
   Is anyone in Israel, or their sympathizers in America and the western world, reading this book today? Do they have a feeling of deja vu? They should, because history is repeating itself, not as farce but as another tragedy. Has the time come for Israel to pay back in blood and maimed corpses the injustices heaped on the Jews for centuries? Of course, they are products of the Old Testament, but should they take this treatise so literally- " an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"? Has Mr. Netanyahu learnt nothing from 70 years of blood soaked history and millions of deaths? Or will he, like another Old Testament figure from Gaza, in his suicidal anger, use his undoubted strength to bring down the whole edifice in an act of mutually assured destruction? At least the protagonist from the Bible had an excuse: he was blind. Mr. Netanyahu is not-but he still cannot see.
   Let us cut through Israel's pathetic smoke screen: this is not a war it is "fighting" in Gaza. A war is between two reasonably matched opponents: what we have here is the world's fifth mightiest  army shelling and bombarding from sea, air and land 3 million civilian residents imprisoned in a 250 sq.km. area from which they are not even allowed to escape. This is pure and simple genocide, the massacre of a peoples based on their religious identity. The Israelis have butchered 1875 Palestinians so far, of whom 974% are civilians according to impartial observers; 400 hundred are children. Kill the mites so there will be fewer lice later, as one American had said in the context of their own genocide against the "redskins". 9065 have been injured, a large number of them maimed for life. One thousand of them are children. Israel has not even spared the UN- 11 of their officials have been killed. 450000 people have been displaced-40% of the population of Gaza. 275000 of them have taken shelter in 93 UN schools which are also being regularly bombed and shelled. Every international law, every canon of humanitarian obligation has been violated by Israel. Even the United Nations-its Secretary General, its Deputy Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, its High Commissioner for Refugees- has condemned Israel, even calling its action a war crime that must have accountability. Israel, however, remains brazenly defiant, saying it is defending itself against Hamas.
    Yes, Israel has every right -even a responsibility to its citizens- to defend itself, against Hamas or any other similar group. But even the limits of defense have to be respected, and the use of force has to be proportionate to the provocation, and carefully targeted. There has to be a distinction between military and civilian targets, between combatant and non combatant. Israel will concede none of this.
   Hamas has no artillery, no tanks, no planes, no warships, no missiles; just some rockets of unproven efficacy and power. Though hundreds of these have been fired into Israel( according to the Israelis) they have so far resulted in only three civilian deaths, of whom one is a foreigner! In retaliation the Israelis have slaughtered almost two thousand Palestinians in three weeks! How can this degree of force be justified? They have bombed and shelled dozens of schools, hospitals and UN shelters, claiming they harboured terrorists. These claims have been denied by the UN and international observers. In fact the UN has stated on record that they have repeatedly given the Israelis the GPS coordinates of all their schools and shelters-and yet they have been repeatedly targetted.
     This raises another pertinent question which is being asked now: even if these places had some terrorists or arms, is it permissible to target them when you know that hundreds of women and children are taking shelter there? Does "collateral damage" have no limits? Should the collateral damage not be proportionate to the potential harm that the terrorist can cause? The casualty figures speak for themselves. Furthermore, which international law gives Israel the right to invade Gaza with its troops, or shell its territory, just because some terrorists are located there? " Hot pursuit" across international borders is not sanctioned by law: if this were permissible, then Cuba would have had the right to fire into the USA in 1961 when the CIA was training and equipping Cuban exiles to invade Cuba to topple its govt. ( that attempt, we all know, ended in the Bay of Pigs fiasco).                                                                                                                                     Then again, Israel has completely obliterated the line between defense and aggression: it has occupied thousands of square kilometers of Palestinian lands, including Gaza, claiming it needs to do so in order to secure its safety!This is the behaviour of a rogue state, rabid in its arrogance, contemptuous of all international norms and opinion. By this logic India should have occupied huge swathes of Pakistan and erstwhile East Pakistan- we have had the opportunity to do so in the past- but as a responsible state we have always observed international covenants and boundaries, no matter what the success of the moment yielded, and have withdrawn to our own borders. By insisting on continuing to occupy Gaza and other Palestinian territory, Mr. Netanyahu is ensuring that there will never be a solution to this dispute.
   He is able to do so only because of the unstinted support he gets from the USA which, having unsettled the whole middle-east with its myopic and avaricious policies, sees Israel as its proxy in the region. If there is one country which could force Israel to rethink its blundering strategies it is the USA. But the latter is a comrade in arms of Israel , an unscrupulous practitioner of the same policies. The USA has always interpreted laws and facts to suit its own interests and has never been guided by what is legal, humanitarian or internationally accepted. It has a long history of doing exactly what Israel is doing today, invading the territories of other sovereign nations and using force to bolster its own interests, not that of the peoples of the country invaded or attacked. It is a long list of infamy and I shall mention just a few: annexation of Hawaii( 1893), occupation of Guam( 1898 and continuing), forcible occupation of the Dominican Republic for eight years(1916-1924), CIA's complete involvement in crushing the people's HUK rebellion( 1948-54) in the Phillipines, overthrow of the democratic govt. in Iran in order to install the Shah as dictator( 1953), the Bay of Pigs operation against Cuba by the CIA( 1961), the CIA organised coup in Iraq in 1963 that killed its President and brought the B'aath party and a man called Saddam Hussain to power, the CIA engineered coup by the Army in Indonesia in 1965 that killed millions, the sustained bombing of civilians in Cambodia between 1969-1975 that led to millions of deaths and the emergence of the brutal Khmer Rouge, the invasion of Panama in 1989, the unending interventions in the middle-east that have left it a volatile cauldron of fundamentalism, terrorism and instability- Lebanon( 1982-84),Libya( 1906),Iran( 1987-88),Iraq( 199-1991), Kuwait( 1991), Afghanistan( 2001 and continuing), Yemen( 2009), Libya( 2011), Syria( 2008).
         Wherever the USA has intervened militarily, rarely has it been in defence of democracy, humanitarian values or for the welfare of the local populations: it has almost always been either to prop up dictators or undemocratic regimes in furtherance of its own strategic interests. And when it has exited it has inevitably left behind a bigger mess than when it entered.
      Therefore, to expect the USA to rein in Israel is an opium dream. In fact, just last week the USA has approved financial assistance of another $225 million for Israel for purchase of mortars, grenades and other weapons! President Obama always votes with his money. And this blatant defiance of world opinion is in the face of the strongest criticism of Israel yet from the UN and the mild mannered Mr. Ban Ki Moon. At the special meeting of the UN General Assembly on 6th August EVERY UN Divisional head was unsparing in his or her condemnation of Israel. Mr. Moon described Israel's behaviour as " outrageous, unacceptable and unjustified", adding that it must be subject to " accountability and justice". The head of UNRA emphasised that the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel and " the illegal blockade of Gaza must end". The UN's Human Rights chief, Ms. Pillai told the delegates in no uncertain terms that " Israeli actions amount to war crimes" and that " life in Gaza has become unsustainable".
    A 72 hour " humanitarian" cease fire is holding as I write this, and negotiations have begun in Cairo. I see little hope for a lasting peace in the region unless Israel lifts the wholly illegal blockade of Gaza. It has already refused to do so and instead wants the Gaza strip to be " demilitarized" ! In other words it is okay for Israel to arm itself to the teeth but its neighbours cannot be permitted to do so!
   In just three weeks Israel has forever destroyed the international goodwill and respect it had built up over the decades as a resilient disciplined, industrious nation. It is now the face of a reinvented Nazism, an oppressor of the weak and helpless. But if Mr. Netanyahu can spare the time from choosing other helpless targets to bomb he should go back to the Old Testament and read another inspiring story- the one about David and Goliath............
    

Sunday, 3 August 2014

THE UPSC DEBATE-- MERITOCRACY HAS NO PLACE FOR A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

     Mr. Modi had promised us a strong and decisive government and it is heartening to observe that he is living up to the promise. He is redeeming his pledge in a number of areas but in this article one would like to deal with the wholly unnecessary " controversy" about the CSAT paper in the UPSC's exam for the Civil Services. The Govt. has shown a rare resolve( in the face of the usual populist demands in Parliament and agitations on the streets of Delhi) in refusing to either dilute the standard of this paper or to postpone the exam itself. ( This has not yet been officially announced but the statements of both, the Home Minister and the MOS[Personnel], indicate this quite clearly.) 
    Till just the other day it took just a few hundred lumpens on the roads for the govt. to develop policy diarrhoea and succumb to pressures, notwithstanding adverse effects on the public good. The present govt's stand, therefore, must be welcomed by all right thinking persons. Arnab Goswami rarely gets things right but he nailed it the other night when he observed ( actually, Arnab doesn't " observe" he " decrees") that our politicians, having already divided this country on caste and religious lines, are now seeking to create another fault line- that of language.
   The demand to abolish the English language component in the CSAT paper on the ground that it discriminates against non-English knowing students is thoroughly misconceived and is like demanding that maths be removed from the IIT entrance exams and biology from the Medical Entrance Test because it discriminates against students from the Humanities streams! It betrays gross ignorance not only of the requirements of the job in an All-India or Central service, but also a failure to grasp the nature of the flow of global information, the increasing need to engage internationally in all sectors of govt. activity, and the fact that English is the only idiom that binds this country linguistically ( other than YO YO HONEY SINGH, that is). It also disregards the fact that English is the second most widely understood language in India, after Hindi. But these are matters that have been, and will continue to be, debated by experts as long as the likes of Mr. Dina Nath Batra and his ilk continue to stalk this mortal coil, and I have no wish to dwell on them.
   The issue I would like to address here is that last argument of all losers- that they have to be given a "level playing field". Every political party( even the BJP, unfortunately, which is why Mr. Modi must be given even more credit for his stand) swears by it because it is the politically correct stance to have in a country whose educational standards are below those of even Srilanka and Bangladesh. But the truth must be stated and this beating around the bush must stop.
   The cruel fact is that there can never be a level playing field in any exam that is merit-based, nor should there be. The purpose of such exams- and the CSAT is just one of them- is to select the most meritorious candidate with reference to the job profile; the purpose is not to give representation to regions or religions or various  IQ levels. This becomes even more pertinent when the exam seeks to select the highest level of administrators for the country, in an era when the challenges to governance are most acute and intractable. Enough damage has already been done to this structure by all kinds of reservations and this should not be compounded  by further lowering the standards of the examination under the guise of a "level playing field."
   There is no such thing as a level playing field when it comes to competitive exams where one candidate can qualify only at the cost of another. The huge disparities in educational standards across states, income categories and individual abilities ensures this. The candidate from Delhi will always have an edge over the one from Jhumri Tillaya. The student from St. Stephen's College, Delhi will always be better placed than the one from Govt. College, Tehri Garwahl. The aspirant from a rich family who can afford multiple tuitions and coaching classes will have a better chance at cracking the exam than his counterpart from a rural area where there is a power cut for eight hours everyday and where the teacher is usually absent. The student with an IQ of 130 is more likely to succeed than the one with an IQ of 90.These are inevitable realities. To force a level playing field on this reality would mean reducing the standards to conform to the lowest denominator which would be an unmitigated disaster.
   At the end of the day the only real leveller is the individual ability to educate oneself, the hard work that is put in and the fire in the belly. Only this can explain why, in the CBSE Board exams, Govt. schools out-perform the elite private schools year after year; why more and more candidates from Tier 2 and 3 towns are making it to the IITs and Civil Services in greater numbers every year. My late father-in-law was educated in a govt. school in Ballia( perhaps the most backward district in UP then, and now) untouched by even a syllable of the English language, but made it to the first batch of the IAS. He taught himself English, and was still making notes on the language and the literature when he passed on in 1972! It is this kind of dedication and desire to improve oneself constantly that makes the field level and ensures success, not the degradation of standards that the current lot of agitators are demanding. In fact, these people, by clashing with the police and torching public property, have made it evident that they are not the kind of human material the civil services need. The Delhi police should identify these trouble makers, prepare their list and ensure that( in the unlikely circumstance of their clearing the exams) they are weeded out during the verification of their antecedents.
   There are no level playing fields in life. Perhaps there may be one in the after-life, but I doubt even that.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

DELHI--THE CITY OF HONEY BADGERS

    I retired from the government in 2010 after having rendered 35 years of dubious service to the public, and settled down in a cottage in the midst of thick forests near Mashobra, about twenty kilometers from Shimla. This area being even colder than Shimla I had no T shirts, so when I had to suddenly move to a different kind of jungle called New Delhi I was( what would today be described as) sartorially challenged. My younger son gifted me a T shirt: it had a picture of an intense looking honey badger on the chest with the caption in bold letters: DON'T GIVE A SHIT!
   Now, honey badgers belong to the raccoon family and are about the same size. They are utterly fearless and have been known to make even leopards back off: they will eat anything and can consume twenty five percent of their body weight at one sitting; no sensible animal will tangle with a honey badger, at least not a second time! Therefore the caption on the T shirt was spot on- the honey badger doesn't give a shit about anyone or anything. In short, it has an ATTITUDE.
   Thirty five years in government had made one cautious and conservative in expression: bureaucrats never call a shit a shit, we leave that to the armed forces. Therefore, I was a bit non-plussed with the T shirt's assertive caption and, hoping that the courage to wear it would devolve in the fullness of time, I locked it away along with my Aam Aadmi cap and the faded photo of myself as the seventh dwarf in a rendition of Snowwhite and the Seven Dwarfs we had put up in nursery school many decades ago. You get the drift: all three were meaningful objects, but required a certain boldness, a nonchalance, a sangfroid to be able to exhibit in public, which I lacked.
   However, you can lock away a honey badger T shirt ( or an Aam Aadmi cap) but you can't forget it. So the longer I stayed in Delhi the more it weighed on my mind. There was a niggling feeling at the back of my  medulla oblongata that I was missing something, that there was some message embedded in the badger's attitude, a De Vinci type of code, if you will. Try as I might my mind, weakened by years of perusing the gibberish contained in government files, couldn't grasp it. And then one day, standing outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, I had my Eureka moment. All around me the pavements were swarming with families of patients going about their daily chores- cooking, washing, defecating, breast-feeding-while waiting for their turn in this Mecca of medical salvation. There was no other accommodation available for these people who had come from all over India.The nearby bus shelters and under-passes were also full of them. The temperature was at least 40 degrees. Nobody gave this miserable flotsam of humanity a second glance. Around them the BMWs and Audis, the red beaconed VIP cars whizzed past, their occupants- both corporate and governmental- planning how to make India a superpower; a huge swathe of area had been cleared of all traffic and people because Mr. Amar Singh had arrived to be lodged( naturally) in one of the VIP wards ( his kidneys having given up after years of his wheeling and dealing), the hawkers plied their trade, the policemen and parking attendants went about their extortion openly, the luckier patients who had been able to see an AIIMS doctor(  a mythological creature like Bigfoot or the Yeti for most of those on the pavements) lining up in hordes at the dozens of medical shops selling what the hospital should have been providing, or perhaps what the hospital HAD provided! No one even glanced at the mass of forgotten humanity on the pavements.
   In that instant the code was cracked! NOBODY GAVE A SHIT. The average Delhi-ite was a honey badger!
  Start from the top of the ordurous heap that is Delhi and you will see what I mean. The politician is so comfortably cocooned in his LOOTyen's Delhi that he doesn't give a shit how people survive outside it. How, for example, can we legitimately expect Mrs. Shiela Dikshit to give a shit( no pun intended) about power cuts in Trilokpuri, for example, when her own mansion is cooled by 31 air-conditioners and 15 coolers at govt. expense( a recent report in the Hindustan Times)?
   The bureaucrat doesn't give a shit about anything because he gets priority in school admissions, hospitals, rail reservations; subsidised housing and transport, membership of the Delhi Golf Club; and can drink himself silly on subsidised booze at Gymkhana.
  The captains of industry don't give a shit because they live on Aurangzeb Road in houses financed by loans from banks( read you and I) which are subsequently written off as non-performing assets ( don't miss the distinctly sexual connotation here- and you thought that bankers don't have a sense of humour?!), spend most of their waking hours rubbing shoulders and exchanging notes( pun intended) with the commissars of government, and take their annual vacations in Davos.
   And so it is down the food chain. The police don't give a shit because they have turned the rule of accountability on its head: having acquired their postings by dint of loyal service to politicians or by spreading the shekels among their superiors, the latter are now accountable to THEM! Likewise the municipal employees. Others - lawyers, doctors, autorickshaw wallahs, transport employees-have such a pernicious and all-pervasive nuisance value- that they don't have to give a shit about anyone, be it the courts,the government or the general public. No one gives a damn about the environment- not the Forest Department which sees its primary role as giving permissions for felling of thousands of trees every year, not the PWD whose sole mission is to destroy the Ridge as soon as possible, not the DDA or Jal Board which cannot distinguish between a river and a sewer line, not the builders pumping millions of litres of under groundwater without any approvals.
  The alpha male of these badgers, however, has to be the Delhi motorist. His aggression, single minded objective of running over anything in his path, refusal to give way to ambulances and fire engines, propensity to shoot other motorists, contempt for rules and traffic policemen-all indicate that this sub species is still evolving and may one day take over the whole city.
  At the bottom of the food chain are the people who GET all the shit: the humble, ordinary folks going about their daily chore of just surviving in this jungle. But sometimes, say once in two or three years when they are pushed to the wall, they revolt and attack in true badger style. On such rare occasions they too don't give a shit- burning buses and police vehicles,facing water cannons,clashing with police, shutting down large parts of this dung heap. The latest such incident was in December 2012.
   And so Delhi is now the most polluted city in the world. Of all Indian cities it has the highest number of cases of sexual molestation, rape and car thefts. Twelve hundred people die in road accidents every year. Sixty percent of its population lives in slums( which the govt. has abolished by calling them instead JJ clusters or unauthorised colonies). It has lost 25% of its green lungs-the Ridge- in the last fifteen years to construction, mining and encroachment by the same Davos types mentioned earlier. The Yamuna is, scientifically speaking, no longer a river but a drain- only 5% of its total length lies in Delhi but this city contributes to 80% of its pollution: when the river leaves Delhi it is organically dead.
   It is scientifically proved that species evolve to suit- and better confront-their external environment. That is exactly what the honey badgers of Delhi are doing. Delhi's environment has been continuously changing for the last thousand years or so- don't forget that today's Delhi is the seventh city on this site. From being the centre of Mughal culture, British imperialism and old world gentility it has now become some kind of smorgasbord of the worst qualities of its neighbouring states, the arrogance of power, the corrupting influence of money, and the unruliness of millions of migrants who have no stakes in the city. You just can't afford to give a shit here.
  Next month, to commemorate the completion of three years of my stay here, I propose to take out that honey badger T-shirt and proudly don it ( the AAM AADMI cap will have to wait a bit longer). I've earned the privilege of being a honey badger.