Saturday, 26 November 2016

REBOOTING INDIA---OR--- " WHO NEEDS THE MONEY, HONEY ?"

                            [ Picturisation of a modern parable-- In Que(ue)st of Freedom ]
         
           

         So we have had our own 8/11 event and Mr. Modi has had his CASH-22 moment- just to demonstrate that when it comes to crises we don’t lag behind the developed world, no sir ! The serial is still playing out to breathless reporters and hysterical anchors on TV, grateful for a sequel to the surgical strikes of last month. The common man is bearing it out with exemplary fortitude: I have stood in ATM queues to withdraw subsistence level shekels for hours and have been amazed at the good humour and patience on display, reaffirming a trust and social entente without which the legal fiction of money cannot survive for a day. Contrast this with our pampered politicians: I am no longer surprised at the fact that in India any major crises always brings out the best in our people and the worst in our politicians.
Mr. Modi has achieved with this one stroke what two years of ghar wapsi, beef ban, sedition cases, love jihad etc. could not—revive the real Hindutva spirit! The essence of Hinduism is the practice of a simple life, strong familial bonds, charity, thrift, humility,  worship of our Gods, the sober contemplation of an after-life. All these values—hitherto banished by an all pervasive consumerism-- have begun to dominate our lives again after 8/11. With no cash to spend we now expend our shrunken resources only on the most essential items- food, medicines, fuel and so on; no more visits to Malls or Multiplexes, no more parties, no more beauty treatments or spas, no holidays: our lives have reverted to the simplicity of the Mohenjodaro days ! Family bonds are becoming stronger since now evenings are spent at home in happy togetherness, instead of party hopping or pub crawling. A rare humility shrouds the metro landscape along with the trademark smog, from Khan Market to Golf Links to Chanakyapuri, for there is no more humbling experience than standing for three hours at an ATM, grateful for the two thousand rupees you will be grudgingly dispensed. That famous Hindu religiosity is evident again with millions of the now useless rupees being “ donated” to temple “ hundis” ( God will convert them into “ white” again, not to worry). We have rediscovered the uplifting spirit of charity, what with beggars being sought out and being persuaded to accept our murky thousands into their Jan Dhan accounts. And, finally, most of us have begun to think beyond the hedonist pleasures of the here and now, of the future, a future where the Income Tax man will be watching over all ( not necessarily in the manner that the good Lord watches over us), a future in which neither gold nor land would be able to offer much comfort for our hidden wealth. The promised land is beginning to look more and more like Eliot’s wasteland. In fact, in our quest for this enforced simplicity Hinduism may even be moving towards Buddhism with its asceticism and renunciation of all worldly goods and pleasures. Indeed, do not rule out the possibility of Mr. Modi emerging as a latter day religious Messiah, combining all religions in India under the banner of a new syncretic Modiism. We may yet get the Promised Land, along with the new Rs. 2000 and Rs. 500 notes, after all. The millionaire may yet enter the portals of heaven, along with the camel which has already passed through the eye of the needle, but AFTER he has paid his tax and 200% penalty, of course. 
    But, thankfully, its not all gloom and despair in these cashless times. We can extract some humour and wit from all those long queues. I give below some gems, collated from various prophets and weirdos forming those queues, that irrefutably demonstrate that among the fire and brimstone of the politics there remain nuggets of earthy wisdom, irony and irreverence that will see us through this crisis:
Mr. Modi has fulfilled his pre-election promise of a deposit of Rs. 15000 in every person’s account. The manner in which the 25 million Jan Dhan accounts are being used for depositing black money by fat cats ( Rs. 65000 crores at last count) holds out hope that Modi may even exceed his promise!
Sex workers in Sonagachi in Calcutta, GB Road in Delhi and Kodambakkan in Chennai are out of work these days because there is now no cash in an essentially cash based sector. I have heard that, in order to counter these withdrawal symptoms digitally,  PayTM is coming out with a customised, untraceable App for the trade, to be called LayTM. I have not, however, been able to nail this down.
Retrospective taxation is now being followed by retrospective corruption--bribes are being returned! I have reports from my own state and from Punjab that officers are returning the bribes ( taken in better times in the now banned notes) to their erstwhile extortees, to be given back in a post-FIXIT future in new notes, at a discount of 30% which is the going rate apparently. See, even bureaucrats have a code of misconduct.
In just one week Mr. Modi has achieved more for prohibition than the Bihar CM Nitish Kumar has managed to do in six months. Liquor sales are down 75% because no one has cash. Economists, usually a dismal lot, are happy because it proves their dictum that fiscal measures are better than physical ones. This also provides us a hint as to why Mr. Kumar’s JDU is one of the very few political parties supporting demonetisation.
A Keralite friend has come up with an eminently sensible suggestion for Mr. Modi and the Election Commission, consequent upon the order for inking fingers of those exchanging old currency. He notes that since all male Keralites in any case stand in queues outside booze shops the whole day the govt should consider opening polling booths and bank counters in these shops and carry out all three activities simultaneously. The proposal, I’m told, is being examined seriously as it will result in major savings to the govt. and also ensure a high turn out. OROP will now become OVOP- One Vote One Peg. As my friend commented: “  How does it matter, bro- whether politics or the booze, its all old wine in new bottles, isn’t it…hic !?”
By the time the current exercise is over India will have become a truly equitable society. With all businesses at a standstill and all the rich demonetised, the only ones who are making any money these days are the beggars and daily-waged labourers, upto their hocks in exchange commissions and Jan Dhan deposits. Why did this not occur to Amartya Sen and Bhagwati ?
The reason we don’t see many policemen controlling the lines at the Banks and ATMs is that they are all IN those lines, in plainclothes, depositing their hoards of cash!
Here are a couple of new words that have entered our lexicon, post FIXIT:

         NILLIONAIRE---an Indian millionaire after 8th November 2016.
        PREMATURE EJAQUEUELATION---what happens when the ATM runs out of cash before you reach the head of the queue.

A brilliant take by Babumoshai on Facebook:
  “ The old lady you see in the ATM queue used to be a young bride when she joined the line.    QUEUE KI SAAS BHI KABHI BAHU THI.

Sometimes our past speaks to us, just to put things in perspective. At a time when the entire opposition is ranged against Mr. Modi here is a quotation from Kautilya’s  ARTHASHASTRA:          “ Learn--  When thieves,  dacoits and traitors in the country become restless, shout, and try to create anarchy—the King is ruling well !”

So brighten up, folks, and don’t listen to all those doomsday politicians and economists. We’ll be laughing about all this one day soon or when the ATM starts dispensing cash again, whichever is earlier.





















Saturday, 19 November 2016

THE DELHI SMOG--FROM CHANDNI CHOWK TO CHANDNI CHOKE

       Delhi has been choking on its arrogance and indifference for the better part of this month and on the 6th of November pollution levels jumped off the 1000 point AQI scale, after it reached 999 at Anand Vihar ( where I live !). I am delighted . What Delhi-ites are now getting are the wages of their own sins, and if the govt. is pressing the panic button its because of its own mutton headed policies. I am, in a perverse way, happy that matters have reached a crisis point because in our country nothing ever gets done until the problem assumes crisis proportions. The Lokpal Bill was conceived only when Anna Hazare et al fasted in Delhi for days on end, the laws on violence against women were passed only when a massive people’s movement brought Delhi to a stand still, and OROP was granted only when the ex-servicemen’s agitation started assuming dangerous proportions.
Delhi has been the most polluted capital city in the world for quite some time but no one was bothered in their focused worship of Mammon. Garbage is dumped outside Rs. 50 crore houses, a car is a must for even going to the bathroom, every fifth house is being demolished to build more flats ( raising prodigious volumes of dust), green areas are concretised to provide parking for more cars. Traders will not allow pedestrianisation of markets, residents will insist on their right to burst millions of fire crackers,  devotees will proclaim THEIR right to choke the Yamuna with all kinds of muck ( with ample support from the likes of Sri Sri Ravishankar), and everyone will gang up against the Odd-Even scheme. Assorted environmental experts make a good living criticising every positive move at doing something. Politicians do little except blame each other, generating even more hot air and adding to the ambient temperature. Living in their air conditioned cocoons Delhi-ites have taken the natural environment for granted for far too long and their self-created nemesis is now catching up with them
     As for the NDA govt. at the centre  this metropolitan gas chamber is a symbol of its experiment of Make in India at all costs. I have not seen a dispensation which is so indifferent and destructive of the environment as the present one. For all its faults ( and there were many) the UPA and earlier Congress govts. did respect the environment and created a regulatory framework to protect it, under the umbrella of three cardinal laws- The Forest Conservation Act, The Wildlife Protection Act and the Forests Rights Act. It gave teeth to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and established the National Green Tribunal.
     Regrettably, the NDA govt. has spared no effort to dismantle this protective framework, in the mistaken belief that this will hasten Make in India and ratchet up the GDP figures . In the process 30% of the proposed ESZ ( Environmentally Sensitive Zone) of the Western Ghats has been thrown open for mining and builders, railway lines and national highways are being bulldozed through national parks and tiger reserves, rivers are being diverted without adequate EIAs, large swathes of forest lands are being diverted for industry, rights of tribals and forest dwellers are being trampled underfoot, industrial projects are being permitted even in the buffer zones of protected areas, hydel projects in the fragile Himalayas are being sanctioned with gay abandon, and efforts are even being made to de-fang the NGT. And all this while 75% of our rivers are polluted, the genuine green cover is declining at an alarming rate, more and more species are being pushed towards extinction and 300,000 children die each year from air pollution.
      There have been enough warnings- the landslides in Kedarnath, the floods in Srinagar and Chennai, the frothing lakes in Bengaluru, the rising temperatures all over the country, the two year drought in 2014 and 2015. The Delhi smog is the latest, and is just one manifestation of the environmental neglect taking place at a nation-wide level.
     But neither the citizens nor the governments will read the writing on the wall. The former refuse to change their life styles geared exclusively towards convenience, consumption, pleasure and money making. The latter  cannot look beyond GDP, FDI and WPI.   The Union Environment Minister has passed the buck to the states, the CM and LG of Delhi are holding parallel meetings spouting competitive clich├ęs and platitudes, all of which we have heard before. A Delhi Minister has created an Avaz petition seeking suggestions from the public ! The solutions have been there all the time, if only the govt. would muster the will to implement them:
·            *  Ban ALL firecrackers permanently ( not just for marriages, as the LG has done). The right to life supersedes the right to practice distorted religious rituals.
·             * Add 5000 more buses to the DTC fleet within a year.
·            *  Implement the ODD-EVEN scheme immediately, and keep it going till January 2017.
·            * Shut down the Badarpur Power Station permanently ( not just for ten days). We cannot have a coal guzzler of ancient vintage in the middle of a city where 30000 people are expected to die of respiratory disease this winter alone.
·          *  Ban demolition of ALL residential buildings for three years ( except on safety considerations). Their rampant, F.A.R. driven reconstruction is a prime cause of dust pollution, generation of vast quantities of rubble  and underground water depletion.
·           * Ban ALL construction ( including public projects) for two days in a week through the winter months.

·          *  Encourage Uber and Ola to introduce ride-share schemes instead of erecting administrative hurdles belonging to another age.
There is much more to be done ( including a review of the anti environmental policies of the central govt.) but let us at least begin with these six . This can be a template for other metros too.
    The Delhi smog is indicative of a blind spot in the govt’s priorities. It is high time all development projects are sifted through the filter of their impact on the natural environment and proper cost-benefit analyses conducted. We cannot blindly pursue unmitigated economic agendas with no thought given to their impact on the natural order. After all, we still have to live on this planet and cannot outlive its destruction for long, not even with all the technology and monetary resources at our disposal. Milton Friedman put it very well when he said this about the kind of world we are building:

“ What if it meets all the criteria of economic success except one: you cannot live there ?!”



Saturday, 12 November 2016

DEMONETISATION: PLUMBING THE DEPTHS OF INDIAN POLITICS.

    Mr. Modi's evening strike on black money on the 8th of this month is the defining assault on India's real enemy. Pakistan is an external adversary and can ( and has) been contained by our armed forces. It is always more difficult to do battle against your own internal systems which have turned rogue, as in the case of auto-immune diseases. The dark or black money in India is one such malady which had been flourishing unchecked for the last forty years. It has been responsible for the culture of corruption, gutter politics and tax avoidance that has become our defining characteristic. It has widened the gap between the have and have nots where the top 5% of the population own 75% of the country's wealth even though only 3 million people pay Income Tax. Even more grotesque, this leprous culture has acquired legitimacy ( if not envy!) as exemplified by the lifestyles of the rich, the famous and the politically powerful. The Finance Ministry has estimated that this parallel economy comprises 12% of our GDP or about Rupees 14,00,000 crores.
   I have grave reservations about Mr. Modi's governance model: its emphasis on industrialisation at the cost of the natural environment, his refusal to communicate with the people except at election rallies, his penchant for over centralisation of authority, his lack of tolerance for dissent, his religio-cultural brand of nationalism, his inability ( or unwillingness ?) to take the minorities along with him. Nothwithstanding this, however, I have no words to adequately praise and laud the momentous step he has taken on the 8th of this month. We had believed till then that the Indian politician had lost for ever the moral essence to take such decisions. Most Indians are over-joyed to have been proved wrong.
   The most effected are the politicians and the business- bureaucrat nexus which had evolved a symbiotic relationship of blood-sucking with them. But one is none the less surprised by the vehemence with which they are opposing, and trying to sabotage, the path breaking measure. In fact they are going further- trying to incite panic and disaffection in an already somewhat disturbed situation. When the going gets tough the crooks get going: Mr. Modi has managed the impossible- he has brought Mulayam Singh and Mayawati together: the only thing they have in common is their subterranean swag of illegal moneys. Mamata, buoyed  by her success in Bengal, is now trying to strike a national pose. Kejriwal has made a terminal blunder by jumping on to their bandwagon like an organ grinder's monkey: by joining them on this issue he is now tainted with the same brush as them- he will soon realise that if you lie down with dogs you will get up with fleas. Only Nitish Kumar, Chandrababu Naidu and Naveen Patnaik, to their credit, have come out in open support of the demonetisation. The rest, wily politicians all, are typically silent, like scavengers waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before committing themselves.
   Specious, misleading and irrelevant arguments are being advanced to condemn the decision: What about the black money stashed abroad ? How will the common man, the farmer manage without cash ? Only 10% of black money is in cash- what about catching the other 90% ? This is the marriage season and therefore the wrong time to implement such an action. The timing is suspicious, the BJP is looking at the UP/ Punjab elections.
  Its all self-serving, opportunistic balderdash. Of course there's unaccounted money abroad, but its  not even 25% of our own domestic black money; in any case its stupid to argue that one should not touch the latter before tackling the former! The common man is moving towards the banking system and this decision will only accentuate this movement: there are almost 700 million debit etc. card holders and they can easily migrate to a less cash dependent system. Yes, cash is only one of the forms of black money, but its the one which feeds the others, the prime others being real estate and jewellery/ gold. Demolishing the cash haven will automatically erode the value of the others- property prices in Gurgaon and Delhi have already come down by 30-40% in just 72 hours, and gold will also follow suit . Its always festival or marriage season in India and if important decisions are allowed to be constrained by them we would never be able to move forward. The election argument is just as vacuous: ALL political parties- including the BJP- would be effected by this turning off of this illegal tap.
   Mr. Modi must be supported in this agenda- changing initiative by all right thinking Indians. He must, however, not rest on his laurels but should move with the momentum he has generated and quickly take follow-up measures to consolidate this initial thrust:
* His biggest immediate challenge is to normalise the situation on the streets and markets and to ensure that the cash starts flowing again to families and businesses, big and small. If the long lines at banks and ATMs continue for more than a week the back- lash from honest citizens will start to build up and he could lose public support.
* It is common knowledge that gold traders and foreign exchange dealers have been working overtime to convert black money for the last five days. This has to be stopped with an iron hand, and quickly.
* The current demonetisation is a grievous blow to the corrupt body politic, but it is not a mortal one, and this egregious monster can quickly recoup itself in a few years if secondary measures are not taken. These should include
       - Netting the self-employed and the professionals like Doctors, Lawyers, Beauty parlours, Private tutors, Property dealers etc., all of whom deal exclusively in cash and never issue receipts.
      -  Revise the circle rates of land to plug the real estate sector, especially the secondary one. In South Delhi, inspite of revisions, the circle rate is still barely 50% of market rates.
      -  Prohibit reemployment of retired bureaucrats, defense officers in ANY private sector employment-companies, trusts,societies, foundations, NGOs- for five years.
     -  Bring in legislation to stop the system of governments ( both state and central) appointing retired bureaucrats and judges to PSUs, Commissions, Tribunals, Regulatory Authorities etc. by arbitrary nominations. Such appointments should be made by open selection by a statutory body.
       [ These last two suggested measures will break the nexus between govt. officers and business, and the even cosier one between politicians and bureaucrats/ judges whose last year of service is generally devoted to establishing a quid pro quo to obtain reemployment.]
    -  Clean up the political and electoral system by bringing in legislation mandating donations/ contributions to political parties and candidates through cheques only, regardless of the amount. All mature democracies have this provision, and after blitzing the common man there is no reason why the politician should be exempted.
   -  Impose a cap on how much gold can be retained by an individual, trust, religious institution. Any quantity in excess of this limit should be compulsorily depositable in the Sovereign Gold Bond scheme. This will bring huge quantities of gold into the banking system, curb demand, and drastically reduce imports of gold, which currently are the biggest drain on our foreign exchange reserves after oil.
    All Indians have been served a bitter medicine this last week, for our own good. But the medication needs to be continued with follow up doses, like an antibiotic whose full course must be taken. Otherwise the disease will remanifest itself in an even more virulent form very soon, and the next time we may not have a physician like Mr. Modi brave enough to prescribe the right medicine. 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

DELHI BELLY : SIGN LANGUAGE

        In today's world which puts such a premium on communication we have millions of words and sound bytes thrown at us every day. I read somewhere that the equivalent of one whole Encyclopedia Britannia is uploaded on the net every TWO MINUTES ! To protect our sanity from an overload the brain automatically filters out 99.99% of the stuff. Unfortunately, one of the genres filtered out is also one of the most innovative, unconventional and creative ones: I refer to the signboards and hoardings on the roads and the stickers or painted words of wisdom on the back of trucks, buses and autos. This is not the elite blather of Ogilvy and Mather or Hindustan Thompson, this emanates from a grass roots sub-culture of those who live their lives on the roads and in public spaces, one way or the other. It is therefore far more virile, spontaneous and infused with an earthy humour that reflects the pulse of life of the sons of toil. Most of us not yet confined to hospital beds spend a large part of our lives on the roads, yet how many of these signs can we recollect ? Be honest.
      I have been fascinated by this highway literature for some time now and have noted a few of them: this is as good a time as any to share them with the reader who must by now be sick of the full-page ads of both the Aam Aadmi  and Samajwadi parties and badly in need of a break !
      Many years ago I was driving to the Corbett National Park when at a roadside dhaba-cum-liquor shop I saw a sign announcing CHILD BEAR.  I couldn't believe my eyes- this was a wild life sighting I never expected. I parked quickly and rushed inside. There was no bear cub there, the owner assured me, only CHILLED BEER ! Was it the Uttarakhand education system on display here or a wily marketing strategy ?
     Continuing on to the Dhekala Rest House within the Park, adjacent to which flows the Ramganga river, we witnessed a rare instance of bureaucratic humour. On the bank of the stream( which is infested with crocodiles) was a signboard containing a dire threat:                                                               RIVER HAS CROCODILES. SWIMMING PROHIBITED. SURVIVORS WILL BE                           PROSECUTED.                                                                                                                                       Quite a Hobson's choice, if you ask me-- if the crocks don't get you, the cops will !

     We are all used to painted advice on the rear of trucks and buses, exhorting us to use the horn or dipper or to stay away from power brakes. But what on earth does one make of this, sent to me by a friend recently ? Its a sign painted on the rear of a Himachal University bus : USE DEEPER AT NIGHT. I sometimes wonder if the guy who painted this was an illiterate, a closet humourist or a sexual deviant. I am giving the photo below as proof that this is not an invention. HP University is an educational institution, right? Then how come no one there has noticed this bad spelling. worse pun( or therapeutic advice)?


                                                               
                                                                                                      ( Contributed by Pankaj Khullar)

     There was a time when auto rickshaw drivers in Delhi didn't just beat up passengers, they made them smile. In the early 90's I was serving my five year sentence in the Ministry of Coal in Shastri Bhavan ( before they started handing out longer prison sentences in this Ministry). The Ministry had hired an auto rickshaw for delivering files to the officers' residences. On the back the driver had inscribed:                                                                                                                                                                   NANAK DUKHIYA SAB SANSAR, SARE DUKHIYA YAMUNA PAAR.

   Amen. I live in " Yamuna Paar" these days and I know exactly what he meant.

    Not too long ago  Himachal still had avian life in the wild, but that was before our politicians discovered there was much more money to be made from hydel projects, cement plants and road widening projects. One day, driving down to Kalka, I was pleasantly surprised to note that some enterprising forester had put up a board on the roadside near a clutch of dhabas, claiming that

                               A BIRD IN THE BUSH IS WORTH TWO ON A PLATE.                                          The sign is no longer there. Its a pity, because there is certainly a need for the HP Forest Deptt. to continue trying to educate the public on similar conservation issues. I sometimes wonder what we'll be seeing in a few years ? Maybe something like this: THE WESTERN TRAGOPAN IS OUR STATE BIRD ( UNFORTUNATELY IT IS NOW EXTINCT).

    Here is another message on conservation from Kenya- without a single word needed to be spoken:


                                                                                                  (Courtesy: Quora Digest.)
Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words.

    Governments are not known for their sensitivity to the disabled or the disadvantaged. That is why I found this hoarding on a road in the Netherlands quite touching. It is absolutely brilliant in conveying the " feel" of this particular handicap. Maybe our own governments should emulate such empathy, instead of merely making meaningless gestures such as changing " viklang" to " divyang" and then ensuring that they have no access to public spaces, trains or buses and are regularly humiliated at air-port security and on planes.


                                                                                                           ( Courtesy: Quora Digest)
     Finally, I cannot conclude without referring to a remarkable advertisement issued by the Punjab govt. in the early 1980's. In a bid to woo industrialists the government, quite against the run of play, came up with a bright idea and announced it in all newspapers as follows:

    GOOD NEWS FOR INDUSTRIALISTS. ALL THEIR NEEDS WOULD NOW BE TAKEN               CARE OF BY ONE SINGLE WIDOW !

Talk of window of opportunity! Never has one missing alphabet contributed so much to the industrialisation of a state.