Tuesday, 24 November 2015

HOW ISIS IS WINNING THE WAR

  One can't  help but notice the irony and Biblical deja vu inherent in the multiple tragedies playing out in the Middle-east. The region which gave birth to three of the world's major religions is now witnessing a carnage in which these three are doing deadly battle with each other. Islam appears to be taking on the other two faiths for supremacy but is mainly killing its own faithfuls by the tens of thousands! And the Biblical sweep cannot be missed either: the lure of the Promised land inducing an Exodus of millions for whom, unfortunately, the waters of the seas do not part but consume by the thousands. And now we see the beginnings of a new Crusade being mobilised in Europe.
  Only a fool, or a Nostradamus believer, would predict how this war of cultures will play out. The inter-play of personal rivalries, strategic considerations, economic interests and historical baggage has so far ensured that neither the Islamic world nor the Developed world are united even among themselves: how then will they ever join forces to take on the " enemy" whose definition in any case defies consensus? The Russians regard everybody other than Assad and Iran as their enemy. The Saudis consider all Shias as their enemy. The Americans and western Europe identify all who support Assad as their enemy. Iran is convinced that all Sunnis are their enemy. Somewhere in this maze of diplomatic confusion lurks ISIS, playing one power off against the other and gradually filling in the vacuum created by the competing disarray of the western powers, steadily expanding its empire. The Caliphate is not a defined territory, but an idea whose boundaries shift daily, like a viscous quicksand whose enclaves extend also to the ghettos of France, to Lebanon and Turkey, to the Sinaii. Militarily, therefore, the conflict is likely to continue for the indeterminate future.
  But the ISIS is winning the cultural and political war while the western powers persist in defending their individual interests. Consider the following:
  Islam is a proselytizing religion which consciously seeks to increase its numbers and spread its area of influence. The current refugee crisis in Europe is an indication that ISIS has been hugely successful in doing so. Its barbaric actions in Iraq and Syria will ensure that a million refugees, predominantly of the Muslim faith, will inundate Europe this year, with another million and a half expected next year. Physical barriers and panic driven legislation will not stop them for they have already lost everything: as Bob Dylan sang- " when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose." Whether or not there are any terrorists embedded among this multitude of the damned is irrelevant: their sheer numbers are enough to change the demography and culture of Europe in a few years. The Islamisation of Europe is well and truly underway, abetted by soft states and liberal societies.
  The political and administrative structure of Europe, already weakened by the financial crisis of Grexit, is buckling under the pressure of the refugees. The very idea of the European Union is unravelling: common borders are a thing of the past with each country setting up border barriers to stem the human flood; the Schenzen protocol is on its way out, its fatal flaw exposed by the ease with which the Paris terrorists moved between countries; the authority of the European Commission is being defied by member states on the matter of refugee quotas; the exit of Britain next year is now almost certain with the spirit of protectionism hardening every day.
  Western Europe is changing in more subtle, and more fundamental, ways too. Countries like France which have always prided themselves on their extreme liberal values-freedom of expression, privacy, keeping the state at arm's length, secular tolerance- are now being forced to reassess these tenets of democracy. The process had started with the Charlie Hebdo massacre and now has been accelerated after the downing of the Russian plane over the Sinai and the Paris killings. Security now demands a more intrusive state and a curbing of long cherished freedoms. The political repercussions of the ISIS attacks are also significant: moderate centrist parties are now being edged out by those on the extreme right, such as Britain's UKIP and Marie La Penn's National Front, who have consistently opposed immigration. The essence and ethos of western Europe is changing in accordance with the ISIS agenda, and this perhaps is the deepest cut of all.
  Organisations like ISIS, Al Quaeda and the Taliban feed on the Muslims' fear of oppression, discrimination and ghettoisation, and the panicked reactions in the west are adding to this fear, which is precisely what these terrorist outfits want. There is now a growing Islamophobia across the world, prompted not only by the terrorist attacks but also by the tsunami of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. Some countries have openly announced that they shall not accept Muslim migrants, an increasing number of US states have also declared that they will not honour Mr. Obama's pledge of taking in 20000 Syrian refugees. Even Mr. Donald Trump is finding a new resonance in his vitriolic opposition to any kind of immigration. Caught up in this mass hysteria and anger the developed world is losing its capacity to distinguish between Islam and terrorism, to recognise that the terror in Europe is not imported from Syria or Iraq but is home grown, to accept that it is social alienation, not the Quoran, that drives youngsters into the embrace of terrorism. They are hesitant to ask themselves that revealing question: Why is it that, with a population of just a few million Muslims, they have produced thousands of recruits for ISIS, when the 400 million Muslims of India and Indonesia have yielded just a couple of dozen? By not doing so they yield more ground to terror and make their societies more vulnerable- which is what ISIS wants. The war against this brand of terror cannot be fought only in Iraq and Syria: it will ultimately have to be won in the ghettos of Paris and Belgium, and Europe has to realise this sooner or later.
  ISIS may well- and probably will, now that a coalition is taking shape against it- lose the military and territorial battle. It should. But it has already achieved its objectives in large measure.  For the struggle has already moved beyond the middle-east into the heart of Europe and America, and it is there that the poison will fester. The developed world will never be the same again- its values, principles and standards of behaviour will undergo a transformation for the worse, a siege mentality will prevail, liberties will be curtailed, Islam will be reviled, and will find ever more recruits.
  Whose victory would you call it ? 

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

THE " CESS" POOL-- STOP THIS TAXATION THROUGH THE BACK DOOR.

   The government has given us our belated Diwali gift- a brand new Cess on all services. From 16.11.2015 we shall all now have to pay an additional 0.50% Cess on all services on which service tax is applicable. And this is not 0.50% of the service tax but 0.50% of the cost of the service. Most bills of daily services availed by all economic strata shall now go up- telephone/mobile, eating out, travel, all forms of insurance, TV charges, entertainment, etc.etc. This additional burden is the Swachh Bharat Cess ( SBC) which is intended to fund the Clean India mission. By itself the SBC may not be a back- breaker but the larger picture should give us some food for thought.
  Our Cess pool already has 20 Cesses, one of them dating back to 1953! ( Salt cess). We also have six surcharges. The five top Cesses in terms of revenue earned are: Road Cess( 2005, Rs. 43,100 crores), Education Cess( 2004, Rs. 26,677 crores), Clean Energy Cess ( 2010, Rs.13,118 crore), Secondary and Higher Education Cess( 2007, Rs. 1812 crore), and Research and Development Cess( 1986, Rs. 750 crore).
  You would be reasonable in presuming that since Cesses are essentially tax on tax, and of tiny percentages, they are not really a matter of concern- and you would be dead wrong! Sample this: In 2015-16, out of total tax receipts of Rs. 9.20 lakh crores in the central budget the various Cesses shall contribute Rs. 1.52 lakh crore, or 16.60%- one in every 6 tax rupees! The corresponding percentage in 1999 was 1.81. Its quite obvious that this virus has profligated promiscuously  in North Block over the last fifteen years, and if not stopped shall soon assume endemic proportions.
   Systematic taxation by Cess is abhorrent to any fair and enlightened form of budgeting. Originally conceived in Ireland to tide over a temporary exigency, under our scrounging mandarins it has simply become a permanent tax by another name. Fiscal fairness and logic demand that once that temporary need or situation is over the Cess should be discontinued. That never happens in India, as evidenced by the Salt Cess which has been around for  62 years, or the Mines Cess and the Beedi Workers' Cess which have been fattening the coffers for the last 40 years.
  Secondly, if the need for a particular Cess is felt to be of a permanent nature then it should be levied as a straightforward Tax ( which can be properly examined and debated in Parliament) and not squirreled away among the fine print of the budget papers. One reason why the central govt. is loath to do so is that whereas taxes have to be shared with the states, a Cess is retained by the centre exclusively. Its time the states woke up to this day light robbery!
   My most serious objection to taxation by Cess, however, concerns the manner in which these funds are utilised. Take just two of them: Construction Workers' Cess( CWC) and Research and Development Cess( RDC). The CWC is a joke-ask any construction worker, whose lot remains just as risky, impecunious and insecure as in 1996 when this Cess was introduced. Had the govt. used this money to start an insurance or health care scheme, or provide safety equipment, or creches for women labourers, or special schools for their children, in any meaningful way then perhaps we would not have complained about this imposition. But nothing of the sort has happened: of course, schemes have been formulated on paper, more offices opened and staff recruited, but the construction labourer remains at the mercy of the contractors, a pawn in an entirely unorganised sector which the government has failed to regulate but in whose name it taxes us ! 
  Almost one crore is collected as R+D Cess every year: where does this money go ? The state of R+D in this country with a two trillion dollar economy is pathetic in all fields- health, agriculture, industry, defence, manufacturing to name just a few sectors. Whatever research there is is being done by the private sector and the government has little to show for the thousands of crores it has been collecting for the last twenty years.
  The ugly reality is that the government has discovered that a Cess is an easy method of garnering funds to buttress its kitty and to bridge deficits in other sectors. Searching for figures of actual utilisation of dedicated cess receipts I found that in 2004-2005 it collected Rs. 5100 crores as Education Cess but spent only Rs. 2000 crore of it on Education. I would be very surprised if this was not the case also with other Cesses. In my view the CAG should carry out a dedicated audit of all 20 Cesses from their inception to determine how much was collected and spent under each Head- the results should be revealing.
  The Swachh Bharat Cess now imposed is another regressive form of taxation: it is expected to generate Rs. 1200 crore per annum and will hit the middle/ lower income classes the most. Its purpose is to clean up the environment. This raises an important question: should not core activities of the government be funded by the sectoral budgetary provisions rather than by imposing additional Cesses? Surely, Roads, Education, the Environment and Clean Energy are mainstream government concerns and should be funded by govt's tax/ non-tax receipts and not ad-hoc Cesses? The current year's budget already provides Rs.3500 crore for the Clean India Mission: where then was the need to pilfer another Rs. 1200 crore from the public? By constantly resorting to this convenient mechanism the government is actually abandoning the fiscal discipline inherent in the prioritisation of expenditure, and taking the easy way out-at our expense.
  We are told that the SBC shall be used to construct 120 million toilets to stop open defecation, a pure engineering solution that indicates that we have learnt nothing from the past. The UPA had also spent thousands of crores on such a scheme, resulting either in " ghost toilets" which were paid for but never built, or toilets that function as stores for cattle feed- and 600 million Indians continue to defecate happily in the open or on railway tracks! Experience in states such as Himachal Pradesh where the scheme has been fairly successful reveals that what is needed is overcoming age-old shibboleths that open defecation is healthy ( and even ordained by religious tradition!), convincing families of the clear connection between open defecation and child mortality and so on. One interesting statistic on the subject is contained in a 2005 study by the government: the percentage of Muslim families defecating in the open is 42% as against 67% for Hindus. the connection with child mortality?- child mortality rates are higher among Hindus than Muslims, according to an article dated July 19, 2014 in the Economist: 1.7 more Muslim children per 100 children survive to the age of five years than Hindu children. What is needed is not the pumping in of more and more money but a dedicated extension effort, which the government appears to be incapable of. It should be roping in grass-roots CBOs and NGOs for the purpose since it lacks the capacity itself, but is more busy issuing them notices and freezing their bank accounts.
  The same is the story with the cleaning up of the Ganga and the Yamuna: in the last ten years more than Rs.10000 crore and Rs. 3500 crore ( also collected from various surcharges and fees) have been spent in efforts to clean up the two rivers respectively, but they become more polluted every year. The problem is sheer incompetence, corruption, insensitivity to the environment and reluctance to take hard decisions. Just last week it was reported that the sand mafia in Faridabad/ NOIDA has built a sand BRIDGE across the entire width of the Yamuna!- and neither of the two administrations claimed to be aware of it. The government will not take the obvious decisions which alone can save these rivers- ban sand mining, stop the construction of more dams upstream, ensure a regular and adequate flow of water, stop immersion of hundreds of toxic-painted idols in their waters, prevent the encroachments on their floodplains, treat urban sewage properly. Why should it, when it is far easier to impose another Cess ?
  Its all about the money, honey!

    

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

REVISITING THE TRUST DEFICIT

  Many decades ago when I was growing up ( in a simpler era when when crooked people were called cheats, not " ethically challenged"; when a "face lift"   was generally given to a building, not a visage ravaged by time; when " silicone valley" was understood to refer to Pamela Anderson's cleavage and not to a tecchie wonderland) it was easy to have trust in people or things. The only objects that were universally not trusted were politicians, bureaucrats and shop-keepers ( something, by the way, which still holds good today). Other than that, however, having trust was more the norm than the exception. Not any more, or ( as the Raven in Maupassant's poem would have said: No More). We live today in a miasma of  deficits.
    We have the usual suspects, of course: Current Account Deficit, on which careers of Finance Ministers and Secretaries have been made and broken; Food Deficit/ Nutrition Deficit , which sustains many more careers in the FAO and WHO; Monsoon Deficit which plays out like an Agatha Christie novel every year since it is revealed only at the end; Dialogue Deficit, a delicious term coined by Kailash Satyarthi, which is an insidious hint at Narender Modi's stoic silence; Budget Deficit, which refers to the amount siphoned off from the state's coffers by well connected carpet baggers; Neurological Deficit, a term used by doctors when they don't have a clue about the patient's condition, which is most of the time.
  But in modern India, which by some is considered to be the Neo- Vedic India but is actually an India of smart phones and stupid people, a new type of Deficit has emerged- the Trust Deficit, an entomological coinage for which the nerd responsible should, in my view, be awarded at least the Sahara Shri if not the Padma Shri. The Trust Deficit is today all-pervasive: one simply cannot accept anything or anyone at face value.
   Take, for instance, the professions. The Doctor you are consulting ( at Rs. 1200/ per visit) may not be one at all: he may have been recruited by Vyapam, one of more than 4000 we are told, who never sat for the entrance test or even the MBBS examination. There are very good chances that he cannot tell the difference between a testimonial and a testicle, or between a heart by-pass and the Hapur by-pass, or between an esophagus and a sarcophagus. No wonder, then that there are more people taking out life insurance policies than health insurance ones !
  Consider lawyers next. Ever since the ex Law Minister of Delhi, Mr. Tomar, rendered exemplary public service by spilling the beans, we now learn that a large percentage of lawyers in Delhi's courts may have bogus law degrees. This has been admitted by the Bar Council of India itself which has now asked all Bar Associations to verify the degrees. How can we repose any trust in such lawyers who probably think that beggary and buggery are the same thing, whereas one is an offence while the other is a social condition? No wonder so many cases are being prosecuted under Sec. 377 of the IPC: I have a feeling most of the accused must be beggars, poor buggers! No wonder too that there are more than 400,000 poor sods in jail- their lawyers probably think that that " Guilty" is a short sentence because it has only one word !
  Consider next our Professors, ostensibly men of learning weighed down by the Phd's they have acquired over the years. It now turns out that not all these Phd's have been obtained by burning the midnight oil: quite a few have been acquired by substituting grease in place of the oil. There are reported to be institutes in Ghaziabad and elsewhere which churn out the degrees on an assembly line basis: fool's cap paper is inserted at one end and fool-proof Phd degrees emerge at the other ! And these Professors are entrusted with the task of leading our youth into the light. No wonder then that CII finds that 80% of these youngsters are unemployable. No wonder also that my son is convinced that Newton discovered gravity, not under an apple tree, but on a toilet seat: the revelation was indeed inspired by a round falling object but that object was not an apple but something that rhymes with the word " chit."
  The same trust deficit has blighted my view of women. Time was, when you saw a beautiful woman you knew that she was created by a God who had an eye for good things. No more ( the Raven again.). This manufacturing has now been out-sourced- chances are that a plastic surgeon has much more to do with her looks than a God. It now takes years to shape an hour glass figure, and those stunning curves and angelic face that took your breath away faster than the Diwali smog probably belong to a cyborg. The firm. provocative bust line is probably the result of a procedure called Exilis; those suicidal curves would be sculpted by Coolscupt and Skin Needling; that taut, wrinkle-free skin owes much more to Ultherapy and Thermage than aerobics; that teenager face has probably been pulled into place by a Vampire Facelift; the sunset glow on the face is probably the work of Mesotherapy and Vitamin Drips, that perfect derriere a paean to Liposuction. How times have changed ! In our time, insofar as women are concerned, what you saw was what you got; today what you see is what she paid for! No longer does beauty lie in the eye of the beholder, it lies in the scalpel of the plastic surgeon.
  In the same vein, eating out nowadays is filled with suspicion and distrust. I am mostly a vegetarian and in the old days simply looked for a " Vaishneo" or " Pure vegetarian" restaurant. But I can no longer trust these appellations, thanks to fanatic nutritionists and dieticians. I now have to further check whether they are Flexitarian ( mostly vegetarian but occasionally serving meat), Pescatarian( no meat, only fish), Lacto-ovo-vegetarian( eggs and dairy products permissible), Lacto-vegetarian( no meat or eggs but serving other dairy products), or hard core Vegan ( no animal products of any type, period). By the time I've figured this out( without the aid of my smart phone) and whether Regan was so named because he was a born-again vegan, I usually settle for papri chhat.
  The trust factor is even more invidious if you are a non-vegetarian, a more recent phenomenon. A non-veg guy can no longer trust what meat he's eating. Earlier the doubt was whether it was chicken or crow, mutton or dog; now its whether it is mutton or beef. And if it IS beef, then is it cow, calf, bull, bullock or buffalo ? Once you've sorted that out ( and not been beaten to a keema by the Gau Suraksha Samiti or Sanatan Sanstha or Bajrang Dal) you still have to figure out whether its legal to eat it in your particular state/city. Most states do not allow cow/calf slaughter but its permissible in the NE states and in West Bengal. Most states allow bull/ox/bullock slaughter but at least seven don't. Ditto for the buffalo. At least six states don't allow the slaughter of any species of this bovine genus. And even where the slaughter is permitted the animals have to be more than 10-15 years of age. Try and make sense of all this. And, needless to state, you can't trust the police on this- they'll arrest you first and ask you to produce the birth certificate( the animals', not yours) later, while they sample the seized food itself. Their constantly expanding bellies is testament to how busy they have been in this area of law enforcement of late.
   So you now have a sense, I hope, of the trust deficit we all have to live with these days- nothing can be taken at face value. Things have come to such a pass that I don't even trust myself now. Why, just the other day I was at this party and my eyes happened to rest on this beautiful, elegant woman with a charming, glowing face. On a sudden impulse I went over and kissed her. I was informed by my friends later that she was my wife.
See what I mean?

Sunday, 1 November 2015

THE NJAC DEBATE: PURPLE PROSE AND RED HERRINGS.

     If you thought that the discord over the National Judicial Appointments Commission( NJAC) and the sparring between the government and the Judiciary was about " independence of the judiciary" or "will of the people "- think again. From where I sit it is a simple contest for power: in a country where fiefdoms are assiduously carved out and fiercely protected since the days of the East India Company, one has to guard one's turf zealously to survive and what we are witnessing today is a reaffirmation of this primordial instinct. The battle is no doubt couched in politically and legally correct jargon: basic structure of the Constitution, sensitivity of the selection process, sovereignty of Parliament, separation of powers, tyranny of the unelected, and so on. But its about none of these: its simply about being numero uno at the top of the  heap.
   The Indian people want neither the tyranny of the elected nor the tyranny of the unelected- we want a judicial system that works and judges who are men of integrity and fairness. According to the Supreme Court this can only be ensured if the judiciary is " independent."- meaning, that judges can only be appointed by an amoebic process, i.e they self-reproduce without any external fertilisation. While this may be okay for protozoa it is certainly not adviseable for more advanced evolutionary species. It is my submission that "independence of the judiciary" in the matter of their appointments is a red herring that deflects attention from the real issues that need to be tackled if we really want judges who are free, fearless, unattached and honourable. To assume that a mere mortal system of appointments can guarantee these qualities is akin to believing that the moon is made of blue cheese, as the conduct and track record of many judges in the past have proved. True independence does not depend on who appoints you or from any fanciful separation of powers; it comes from a basic strength of character, self-imposed standards of integrity, a willingness to offer oneself for scrutiny and a commitment to one's vocation. Everything else is a red herring and an alibi.
   There are four  issues/ problem areas that need to be addressed:
   ONE. Abolish the system of appointing retired Supreme Court and High Court judges to Tribunals, Commissions, Lokayuktas and other sinecures. This is a self created system at which the Executive has connived with, for obvious reasons. There is no politically correct way to put this: the day a public servant( and judges are public servants too) seeks or accepts a post-retirement assignment he compromises his objectivity and it will be a very rare person who can buck this rule. The hand that feeds is rarely bitten. Most of these Commissions and Tribunals are by now permanent bodies and therefore these posts should be encadred and ONLY SERVING JUDICIAL OFFICERS OF APPROPRIATE SENIORITY should be appointed to them. For shorter duration bodies( such as Commissions of Inquiry etc.) too serving officers could be taken on deputation. In such a process neither category of judges would have to be beholden to anyone for the posting. The current system of appointing only retired judges smacks of patronage at both ends.
   TWO. Abolish the practice of recruiting 50% of the higher judiciary from the Bar. In theory this process is intended to tap into the best and most experienced legal pool so as to elevate the quality of judges in the higher courts, and in many cases it has done so. But it has also created another parallel system of patronage with both the executive and the judiciary presiding over it. It is no secret that political parties when they come to power seek to reward their favourite lawyers by such elevation, and the large number of relatives and associates of sitting judges appointed by this route indicate that such patronage is not limited to the executive only. Secondly, an eminent and reputed lawyer with decades of practice who is appointed to the higher courts cannot but bring with him the baggage of industrialists, politicians, corporations and other powerful people whom he has represented during his long career at the bar. Conflicts of interest are bound to arise in such cases and the mechanism of recusing one's self from a case is no solution. Thirdly, the most outstanding legal brains at the Bar have no wish to join the Bench in any case. They earn at one hearing what a Supreme Court judge perhaps makes in a year, they enjoy an equal status among the legal fraternity, and they even have the option of a political career ahead of them! For them its a no-brainer, and therefore the objective of attracting the best legal talent to the Bench is not even partially served. On balance, this is not a healthy system and should be replaced by promotion from the permanent judicial services. On the bench objectivity is a much more preferred quality than mere brilliance.
THREE. Create an all-India, national judicial service to attract the best legal talent from the law schools and the Bar to the judiciary: this will provide a uniform standard of dispensation of justice through-out the country, and prepare a nursery for selecting candidates for the higher judiciary. Currently, the brightest law graduates spurn the judicial services which are state level and start at fairly low positions, and where promotion prospects are severely limited by the practice of recruiting higher level judicial officers from the bar. An all-India service( on the lines of the IAS,IPS,IFS etc.) would remove these drawbacks and qualitatively improve the caliber of judicial services throughout the country. This has been talked about for a number of years but unfortunately neither the Supreme Court nor various governments have taken any initiative to push this idea forward.
   FOUR. Amend the Contempt of Courts Act to make it reasonable and less draconian. Judgements that effect the lives of millions of people should be able to be discussed, criticised and any shortcomings in them pointed out. This constitutes valuable feedback for the courts. Unfortunately, as the Contempt Act stands today, any such criticism could constitute contempt and be punishable. This insulates the courts from the winds of reality and, in the longer run, weakens their credibility in the eyes of the public: this in turn could affect their independence and autonomy. The Act should be limited to providing protection to judges, not their judgements, and to the enforcement of judicial orders. The best protection for the dignity of the courts lies in the wisdom of their judgements ( not in punitive legislation): the former ensures respect, the latter fear and distrust. A democratic institution cannot be founded on fear and distrust.
   These four reforms/ measures would do much more to strengthen the " independence of the judiciary" and free the government from the " tyranny of the unelected" than any system of appointments. They would also improve the quality of justice dispensed, which appears to be declining under both the appointment systems which we have tried so far. Let us lay this ghost of " primacy of appointments" to rest.  The ordinary citizen of India is fed up of cliches, of both the " committed" and the " independent" judiciary, and of the " will of the people" and "Parliamentary sovereignty".  How about giving us an   " effective" judiciary and a Parliament that simply works?