Thursday, 21 December 2017


    [ This piece was published in The New Indian Express on 20.12.2017, with some minor changes, under the heading BRINGING BACK MALLYA NOT EASY. ]                   

    T he government has pulled out all the stops to extradite Mr. Mallya from the UK but it would be well advised not to put its prestige on the line. It’s unlikely to happen, primarily because of the dismal state of our criminal justice system and our poor human rights track record. The developed world sets great store by both these factors and the past history of our extradition requests clearly show that they are not applauding us for either.
    India has extradition treaties with 38 countries and since 2002 only 61 accused have been extradited to this country. Currently, 121 extradition requests are pending with 24 countries. We signed a treaty with the UK in 1993 but till now only one person has actually been extradited, and that too because he consented to it! Ominously for the govt., the latest rejection was in October this year: one Sanjeev Chawla, a UK based bookie, was given the reprieve even though the judge found prima facie evidence against him for match fixing in 2000. The reasons cited for refusing the request were our poor human rights record: abysmal conditions in Tihar jail, overcrowding, lack of medical provisions, risk of being tortured, violence from other inmates and prison staff which, the judge noted, “is endemic in Tihar.” And it’s not only the UK. In February 2016 a Canadian court rejected the extradition of Surjit Badesha and one Mrs. Malik wanted for an honour killing in Punjab in view of the “appalling human rights record of Indian prisons.”  And therein lies the rub.
    Statistics prove that these judges were right. With more than 450,000 persons in jail( most of whom are undertrials and shouldn’t be there in the first place), our prisons are horribly overcrowded: Tihar has three times the population it was designed for. Corruption and violence are rampant. Quoting NHRC figures, the Asian Centre for Human Rights has revealed that between 2001 and 2010 there were 14231 custodial deaths in India- 1504 in police custody, 12727 in judicial custody. 99.99% of the deaths took place within 48 hours of the person being taken into custody. This is damning enough, but what the international tribunals will find even more inexplicable is the govt’s refusal to do anything about it. India signed UNCAT ( United Nations Convention Against Torture) in 1997 but we have not yet ratified it. We are only one of 7 countries not to have done so, and they are not elevating company: Sudan, Gambia, Comoros, Brunei, Bahamas, Angola. Unlike other countries, we have also failed to enact an anti- torture law: the draft Bill has been pending in the Lok Sabha since 2010. The recent murder of a woman inmate by warders in Arthur Road jail in Mumbai does not help our cause.
   We have not improved our credibility with the developed world by failing to adopt or implement the Standard Minimum Rules ( for prisoners), also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, adopted by the UN unanimously in 2015. This signals a disregard for prisoner welfare and rights.
    The British court will also note our pathetic conviction rate- 45%- which will raise doubts about the genuineness of the charges made in most of the cases, including, naturally, Mallya’s. The independence of India’s investigating agencies will come under close scrutiny, with the Supreme Court itself labelling the CBI a “ caged parrot.” Ironically, the CBI is the investigating agency in Mallya’s case! The manner in which only opponents of the ruling regime are being prosecuted will lend credence to Mallya’s defence that he is a “political victim”. The clogged judicial system is another major area of concern: as on October 2017 there were almost 40 million pending cases, of which 1.62 million and 743000 cases had been pending for more than five and ten years, respectively, with the various High Courts. These figures raise serious questions about our judicial system’s ability to provide justice in time. Taken together, all these dysfunctionalities feed into a perception that human rights cannot be assured in the country. Even the 2017 report of Human Rights Watch notes that India “has serious human rights concerns.”
   Certain recent events in the Supreme Court will further erode the perceived image of our higher judiciary- charges by senior lawyers against the Chief Justice himself concerning his integrity, inaction on the suicide note of the Arunachal Chief Minister in which he had accused senior judges of bribery, corruption charges against a retired judge of the Odisha High Court. In fact, according to a press report on the 13th. October 2017, Mallya’s lawyers have already seized on this- his defence has already brought to the Magistrate’s notice a research article by a scholar in Portsmouth Law University about corruption in the Supreme Court. It does not help matters that the Court is locked in a bitter battle of attrition with the Central Govt. over appointments and “judicial overreach,” or when its coherence is suspect when it appears to be internally divided, with judges overruling each other on important matters.
    There is also the question of whether Mallya’s failure to repay loans justifies criminal prosecution or is a matter for civil action. We do have a propensity to arrest people at the drop of a hat, whether it is for someone’s foot accidentally touching a woman on a plane or a cartoonist lampooning someone in power. All these factors will coalesce into a powerful defence for Mallya, and his lawyers have already started using them. A lot of our dirty linen shall get washed in public but the outcome is still not certain as most of the cards are stacked against India. It is difficult for a civilised society to extradite a man to a country with a dysfunctional legal system, a thoroughly compromised police and a strident media which appears to be the final arbiter of guilt and innocence.

Monday, 18 December 2017


    At times there's more glory in defeat than in victory, and the results of the Gujarat elections demonstrate this. Congress may have lost, the BJP will form the government for the sixth successive time, but the real winner is Rahul Gandhi. He fought an honourable battle, which is something of a rarity in these devalued times, against a party which has made the gutter its own, and a media vying with each other in singing hosannas to the presiding deity. His was an impossible task, taking on the most efficient and unscrupulous election machine the country has ever seen, a Prime Minister who appears to have cast a spell over most Indians, a partisan Election Commission and unlimited money power. And this with a non-existent Congress apparatus, a party which had been out of power for 22 years!
   Rahul Gandhi went to Gujarat as an underdog- the much reviled and lampooned poodle ranged against the powerful mastiff, scorned and reviled daily by the apopleptic  sycophants of TIMES NOW, REPUBLIC and  NEWS-X type of venom spouts. Not only did he lead from the front, it was almost a single-handed battle as very few other national level leaders of the Congress were around- whether by design or default, one will never know. For a person whose public speaking skills are limited, as is his knowledge of Hindi, he addressed more than 150 rallies over six weeks and by the end had matured into an accomplished word spinner. The style, manner and substance of his public interactions could not have been more different from that of Mr. Modi.
   Whereas the Prime Minister was his usual haughty, distant, table-thumping, talking-down self Mr. Gandhi came across as much more informal, relaxed, accessible, exuding an almost school-boy kind of openness and honesty. Where Mr. Modi came across as contrived and scripted, the Congress  (then) Vice-President appeared to be much more spontaneous and natural. The former did not mingle with the crowds, no doubt befitting his SPG endowed aura, but the latter( also an SPG protectee) had no hesitation in doing so at every opportunity, even stopping at the odd wayside tea stall to have a cup and a gossip session with the locals. This contrast in demeanour and attitude could not have gone unnoticed by the people and the results show this.
   The contrast between the two in the content and substance of their electioneering was even more stark. Mr. Modi stuck to his time tested formula of Hindutva, the Muslim card and the Pakistan bogey, playing the cliched poor chai wallah victim and personal attacks on the Gandhis- starting from Jawaharlal Nehru to Rahul ( he has not yet picked on Mr. Vadra's children but that is only a matter of time). The common thread uniting these sub-texts was a liberal dose of falsehood and innuendo. Development, economics and welfare were almost totally absent from his discourses- again, something that the electorate did not fail to notice. He stopped at nothing- he questioned Mr. Gandhi's temple visits, his religion, and his pedigree; he dug out the four year old chai-walla jibe of Mani Shankar Aiyer, spicing it with the latest " neech" appellation to further buttress his humble credentials as against Rahul Gandhi's privileged upbringing, forgetting that after 12 years as Chief Minister and 3 years as Prime Minister this plaint is wearing rather thin; setting the bar of decency at its lowest mark, he went on to accuse a former Prime Minister, a former Vice President and a former Army Chief ( among a dozen or so of India's most distinguished diplomats and journalists) of conspiring to remove him; he even hinted that Mr. Aiyar had issued a " supari" in Pakistan to get rid of him. As usual, he did all this with his customary mastery and the virtuoso performances must have got him the votes, but all this rabble rousing is becoming predictable; he needs to write a new script.
    In refreshing contrast, and to the pleasant surprise of many, Mr. Gandhi came across as much more would-be statesman like. He publicly announced at the start that he would not repay Mr. Modi in the same demonetised coin, that he respected the office of the Prime Minister and would never use inappropriate words for Mr. Modi, that he would campaign with love in his heart, not hate; that  (unlike the PM's stated view of the Congress) he did not want a BJP mukt  India for a strong Opposition was essential for a functioning democracy. He perhaps overdid the projection of his Hindu credentials, and failed to publicly condemn the horrific murder of a Muslim labourer in Rajasthan to avoid sullying these credentials, and this is something he needs to avoid in future- he should not try to win the Hindu vote by espousing the  BJP's ethos. He would do much better by emulating his great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru. who, in the first election campaign after partition in 1951 when the wounds of the religious conflagration were still fresh, had the political courage and vision to proclaim his unambiguous article of faith at the Ramlila grounds in the following words: " If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both at the head of the government and from outside." It is this kind of leadership we need in these critical times.
   Contrary to the vacuous " Pappu" image of Rahul Gandhi created by the social media trolls, he showed remarkable ability in strategising vital alliances and weaving the noose of failed economic policies and development with which to choke the BJP's narrative of specious claims. He appears to have correctly read the electorate's pulse, a departure from previous elections. He increased his party's seat tally by 19 ( 21, if one includes the two supported Independents), a 30% increase, and vote share by 5%- an astounding feat for a party which has lost just about every election since 2014. To put this in perspective, one should recollect that in the Parliamentary elections of 2014 the BJP had won in 165 constituencies; Rahul Gandhi has brought this down to 99. Let us also not forget that Mr. Amit Shah had arrogantly announced that his party would win 150 seats! He also showed great courage in accepting the Presidentship of his party just two days before counting and declaration of results, signalling that he was not afraid of accepting responsibility if things went horribly wrong for his party. They didn't, and in the process we have a new leader who has been through a trial by fire, has shed his "reluctant politician" image and can perhaps provide the counter balance to a powerful Prime Minister whose militaristic/corporate style needs to be tempered with compassion and tolerance. The BJP may not admit this in public, but Rahul Gandhi has given it plenty to chew over: if he can almost upstage the BJP in the Gir lion's den, he can inflict much more damage in the states going to the polls next year- MP, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh. He has seized the initiative and the BJP will no longer be the sole driver of the electoral agenda.  Pappu pass ho gaya !   

Saturday, 16 December 2017


    At 67 I'm well past my sell-by date and would be difficult to off-load even at a discount sale for grandmothers. Notwithstanding this, however, I'm fairly active and " vigorous", to borrow a word famously used by Mr. Virbhadra Singh a few years ago. I walk three miles every morning, and till some time back two more in the evening with my Golden Retriever who, sadly, is now in canine heaven ( not to be confused with bovine heaven which is near Gorakhpur). I liked travelling the length, breadth and filth of our great country but have now decided to give it up and stay parked in my Patparganj flat. Travelling has become just too dangerous these days.
   Earlier, I used to drive up from Delhi to my cottage in Mashobra a few times every year. Not any more, for a number of reasons. Firstly, one never knows when the sturdy Jats who straddle the national highway might suddenly wake up from their bhang induced stupor and discover that they still haven't got the reservation promised to them at the last five elections. These sturdy folks generally prefer to speak in sign language, and their default statement is the stiff finger drawn angrily across the throat, and I don't want to be around when a couple of hundred thousand of them are conversing in that manner. Their discussion last time resulted in hundreds of cars and buildings being set on fire, 36 of the more vocal debaters being killed, and Rupees 10000 crore in damage to property.
   If, however, the Jats are in slumber, you can bet the god-men of Haryana are active. Being gods, they naturally have a low opinion of the Constitution and the IPC and look askance at those who question their right to confer special favours on unwilling ladies or to use nut-crackers on disobedient disciples. Their followers express their devotion also by torching cars and travellers on the highway. The Haryana police usually arrive after this religious service is over, torch the remaining cars and beat up the surviving tourists, just to show they have an open mind on the subject. And don't forget the gau rakshaks lurking behind every cow-spat. I like carrying up frozen mutton kababs and tikkas for the evening bonfires, but I'm sure the rakshaks would take a different view if they stopped my car and discovered them in my ice-box. Given their usual SOP I'd be, quite appropriately, mince meat in an unscheduled bonfire before I could yell " Good gau-d !" No, sir, road travel is definitely out for me.
   Why not the railways, you may well ask. I've tried that too, but never manage to catch the right train. I went to Kanpur Central one day to take the Garib Rath superfast to Delhi, and to my delight found that it had arrived ten minutes before time! Unable to find my name on the reservation chart, however, I approached the TTE. " Saary, sir," he said," this is not today's train- this is yesterday's train arriving 23 hours and fifty minutes late!" In the last twenty years I've never once reached my destination at the scheduled time. Makes you wonder: why do the Railways print time tables at such great cost? And even if you do get on to the right train, chances are your right toe will have been nibbled off by a rat while you were asleep, or the expired food will give you colitis, or the dirty blanket( not washed for weeks, according to a CAG report) will bless you with mange. And if you persevere through all this, there is still the derailment or collapsed overbridge to look forward to.
   The airlines? I've done my share of flying (though, sadly, I never made it to the Mile High club) but have decided its no longer for me. There are too many risks involved. I might be arrested at the gate for carrying a cigarette lighter. I would almost certainly be refused boarding if I wasn't carrying my Aadhar card. If the baggage guy doesn't like my face( to be fair, nobody does) he may extract everything of value from my baggage and put a packet of drugs  or a bullet in my baggage. I might get beaten up on the tarmac by the ground crew, or get slapped by the Duty Manager at the counter, or shoved aside by VVIP security, all daily occurrences these days. If I do make it to my seat I might find a woman on the next seat, and that might just be the beginning of a whole new set of problems, with the omnibus charge of sexual molestation staring me in the face, especially if the lady happens to be built on a generous scale and parts of her overflow onto my seat. I'd be too scared of any meeting of minds taking place, but a meeting of the flesh would be inevitable, just a casual hello from one epidermic cell to the other- but it would be bad enough, legally speaking. Additionally, I suffer from restless leg syndrome and when asleep my legs take on a life of their own- they move, twitch, jerk, yank. The condition being gender neutral, such involuntary movements do not distinguish between male and female objects they might encounter on the seat in front. Neither does the law, unfortunately, and if the object beside me or in front of me were to complain, I'd be jail bait- homosexual advances under Sec. 377 or sexual molestation under Sec. 376.
   No, sir, its no longer safe to travel in India. I'll stay in my Delhi flat, much to the annoyance of my wife. She will, of course, want to throw me out, but that's no shit- she's been wanting to do that for forty years. I console myself that I'll be in good company, after all all great travellers- Marco Polo, Magellan, Hieun Tsang, Amundsen- at some point hung up their boots and decided to put their feet up on the dining table.. In fact Alexander the Great had one look at the hordes of bhakts across the Sutlej and quietly headed back for Delhi- sorry, Delphi. That's why he continues to be Great- had he crossed the river he would have either been road-kill, on the no-fly list or in Tihar jail.   

Saturday, 9 December 2017


    The conventional wisdom is that the less government we have, the better. In fact, that was precisely what Mr. Modi had promised us in 2014 with his rousing " Maximum governance, minimum government." Of course, he confused governance with intrusion into our private lives, but that is the subject of another column some other day. My assertion here is that there is one sector in India to which this policy should not apply- the Health sector. If proof were needed to validate it, it has been provided by two shocking incidents  in just the last month, both in Delhi. The first was the case of the little girl who was treated for dengue in Fortis Hospital, Gurgaon; she could not be saved but her parents were nonetheless presented with a bill for Rs. 16 lakhs: this was after the parents had turned down a preposterous suggestion to do a whole body plasma transfusion at a further cost of Rs. 45 - 50 lakhs ( on a patient who was already 80% brain dead!). An " inquiry" has been ordered ( the classic cover up) but the affair is a good as closed: we shall hear no more about it. The second case occurred on the 30th of November: twins born to a mother in the Max hospital in Shalimar Bagh were declared dead immediately, packed up nicely like an Amazon prime parcel and handed over to the parents. On the way to the cremation ground, one of them was found to be moving-he was alive! ( This baby also died subsequently a week later). The AAP govt. has now cancelled the hospital's licence after an inquiry ( the order will probably be stayed and the matter will  drag on in the courts for years). The callous insensitivity of the medical fraternity was revealed on prime time TV  when the President of the Indian Medical Council put the onus on the patient/ relatives- he advised us that we should not assume death if the patient has a low body temperature or hypothermia! Why should WE assume anything, Doctor Aggarwal ? Isn't it for the people like you and the hospital to do all the assuming, specially when you charge us hundreds of thousands for it ?
    These are just cases that found their way to the news: similar stories are playing out in their hundreds everyday, in hospitals and nursing homes all over India. A sting last week by CNN-TV18 exposed how doctors and path labs collude to fleece patients and share the spoils.. Profiting has now degenerated into profiteering. The list of malpractices indulged in by the medical profession is menacingly imposing, and has been revealed by whistleblowers and NGOs such as SATHI ( Support for Advocacy and Training in Health Initiatives): commissions, failure to prescribe generic drugs,  "sink tests" by path labs where all the samples are thrown into the sink without testing and false reports generated, corporate hospitals' unwritten rule that 40% of OPD cases should be converted into admissions, unnecessary and expensive tests. Even diagnoses are deliberately distorted in order to milk a patient for all he is worth: a report by Medi-Angels, a Mumbai medical centre that offers second opinions has reported that 44% of 12500 patients advised surgery for stents, joint replacements, cancer etc. were advised against it by the second consultants. ( Most of us have our own personal horror stories about this.)
    There are reportedly 4.50 million cases of medical negligence in India every year. But the citizen has little recourse to justice, except to go the Consumer Courts which is both expensive and time consuming. Govt. policy, till now, had visualised that the medical profession would regulate itself and had established the Medical Council of India for the purpose by statute. This body, however, like most internal regulatory bodies, has been a spectacular failure; it has become the protector of the practitioners that it was supposed to regulate and monitor. I have googled incessantly to find out how many doctors it has disbarred or deregistered for negligence or malpractices- I have been unable to get any information, because in all probability it hardly ever does so. All it does is lay down ethical guidelines, conveniently forgetting that it has legal obligations to the patients too. In contrast, in the USA about 450-500 doctors lose their licence EVERY YEAR, and in the UK the figure is between 150 and 200 ( incidentally, most of them are of Indian and Pakistan origin !- not an export we should be proud of).
    The medical profession has consistently resisted any attempt by the govt. to discipline them or to cap their exorbitant charges/ fees. But ( after the Kunal Shah case in 2013 where Rs. 13.00 crore was awarded as compensation to a patient) they have been demanding a cap on the compensation award! So far they have manged to get away every time by arm twisting the govt., their strength lying in the fact that the private sector provides 80% of health care in the country. Successive govts, both at the centre and the states, are responsible for this dismal state of affairs: the state spends barely 2% of GDP on health, whereas the WHO recommendation is a minimum 5%: he who pays the piper calls the tune, and that is why doctors and corporate hospitals are humming all the way to the bank. But this has to change. Govts. have to drastically increase outlays of the health sector: the 2.50- 3.00 % promised by the Union Health Minister by 2022 is just not good enough. Self regulation has failed, the cupidity of doctors shows no sign of abating, and corporate hospitals are medical vampires who suck your blood and make you pay for it! This is one sector that requires maximum government. It is high time that the National Clinical Establishments ( Registration and Regulation) Act 2010 and the Clinical Establishment ( Central Govt.) Rules 2012 are implemented and enforced by the Center and all states . Currently only a handful of states and UTs have done so, and that too for mere registration purposes only. If implemented sincerely the Act empowers governments to deregister clinical establishments, entertain complaints, award compensation, initiate criminal cases where needed, cancel licences of  doctors, hospitals and other health related commercial facilities, fix the rates of various medical procedures ( as it already does for CGHS and EGHS members), lay down minimum standards of treatments. The MCI's mandate should be limited to advising on medical education issues, and issuing ethical guidelines ( the only thing it is good at). The health consumer has been betrayed by the medical profession and the govt. must now step up to the plate and do the right thing. It must protect the ordinary citizen and not be seen to be siding with, or succumbing to the blackmail of, these corporate profiteers. As the poet lamented:

" Inquilab-e-aasman se kyon na ho uljhan mujhe,
   Main pukaru dost ko, awaaz de dushman mujhe."    

Friday, 8 December 2017


         [ This article was published in the New Indian Express on 6.12.2017 ]

    Responding to a PIL by the NGO Common Cause in the Supreme Court asking that the right to die with dignity be declared a fundamental right, the Union govt. has opposed the concept of a Living Will. The reason given by the  Additional Solicitor General was that “ it could be enormously misused.” This attitude is extremely regrettable, though not surprising since it is consistent with the government’s backward looking and obscurantist stand on some other progressive and liberal reforms. It had opposed the declaration of sex with a child bride as rape, it still refuses to delegitimize marital rape, and it supports the odious Section 377 of the IPC which criminalises homosexuality. It justifies this antediluvian mind-set by claiming that the peculiarities of the Indian ethos sanctify these practices or beliefs, and that Indian society cannot be trusted not to abuse good laws. This is a strange position to adopt for a country which seeks to be a superpower and leader of nations.
    A Living Will is the ultimate assertion of privacy and the desire for dignity on the part of an individual. It is an “advance medical directive” to a physician or one’s next of kin by a person of sound mind, stating his wishes for end- of- life care, in case he is unable to communicate his decisions at that point in time owing to illness or incapacitation. It specifies the type and extent of medical care he desires and appoints a person( power of attorney) to carry out his wishes or take medical decisions on his behalf. It can state, for example, that no aggressive interventions such as attachments of ventilators, heart-lung machines, intubation, dialysis, tube feeding etc. be made to keep him alive.
    The Living Will is a response to advances in medicine which can keep a person “alive” indefinitely even though he may be in a coma or in a vegetative state, brain dead, with no hope of recovery. This life support comes, however, at great financial and emotional cost to the next of kin, unnecessarily prolongs the suffering of the patient and also blocks scarce health care infrastructure which could be used for someone with a better prospect of recovery. The only gainer is an avaricious hospital system which makes more money by aggressively keeping a patient going even where there is no hope. Can we ever forget the tragic case of Aruna Shaunbag of Mumbai who remained in a coma for 42 years before God mercifully intervened? Even the higher courts did not allow the hospital to withdraw the useless life support systems and denied her the relief and release her tortured body and soul were entitled to.
    The concept of a Living Will was first mooted in the USA in 1969, and has  been accepted by most of the developed world:  USA, Australia, Canada,  UK, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland- all have framed legislation to permit it, and some have even devised standardised formats  for it to make them more legally acceptable. Adequate safeguards have been built in to avoid the kind of “misuse” our govt. is apprehensive of. A recent study in the USA revealed that 80-90% of respondents would refuse aggressive medical intervention if they were in an incapacitated state with no hope of recovery. The figure would be higher in India, given the dismal state of our health care; India is one of the worst countries to die in- the Quality of Death Index places us at 67 out of 80 countries.
     In its draft bill- The Medical Treatment of Terminally Ill Patients ( Protection of patients and medical Practitioners) Bill- the govt. expressly forbids recognition of a Living Will by providing that “ every advance medical directive( called living will) or medical power of attorney executed by a person shall be void and of no effect and shall not be binding on any medical practitioner.” Therefore, if a family of an incapacitated patient wishes to refuse life support in deference to the latter’s wishes, it will have to apply to a High Court for permission . Clearly, the govt. is confusing the Living Will with euthanasia, and not recognising that what is involved in a Living Will is not withdrawal of life support when the patient is comatose but an advance  refusal to permit it , a decision made when in full control of one’s senses and faculties. The distinction is critical, because it is the person himself deciding, not someone on his behalf. And the right to privacy and the right to a life with dignity gives him this entitlement.
    The govt’s position is just not right or compassionate. Approaching the courts (as suggested in the draft Bill ) could take months as evidenced in recent cases of abortion of rape induced pregnancies. The apprehended “misuse” of the Living Will is no justification as just about every law in India- dowry, domestic violence, sex selection, Sec. 377- is misused: that can never be a reason for rejecting a progressive legal provision. Not just constitutional, moral and ethical considerations are involved here too. One, if I can legally decide ( in a normal will) what to do with my worldly possessions, why can I not be allowed to decide what to do with a useless body that has become a curse and a source of intense suffering? Two, if the law allows me to tell a doctor to cut me open to remove a tumour or cancer to alleviate my pain, it should also allow me to tell a doctor not to touch me, and to let me die, for precisely the same reason- to end my agony. These are two sides of the coin, and I should be the one to decide which one to flip- not a disinterested government, doctor or judge.
    Medicine or law should not always be active protagonists in the process of dying- there are times when they should be simple bystanders.

Saturday, 2 December 2017


    This is the season of " Ratings" when all kinds of agencies come out with their ratings and the govt. cherry picks which ones to accept and which to slam. It was all kicked off by the World Bank which breathlessly revealed that India had jumped 30 places to a rank of 100 in the "Ease of Doing Business" index. This was, of course, the same Bank which had showered encomiums on the USA in 2008-09 just before its economy collapsed in the sub-prime disaster. The index is not based on hard facts or figures but on the "expectations" of its team, the primary expectation being that the BJP will win in Gujarat and HP and therefore the Bank should ensure that its own ease of doing business is not adversely effected by a sulking govt. As is the practice with its five star hotel consultants it did not bother to consult anyone who is not on the Forbes list of Indian dollar millionaires. It also does not appear to have consulted Mr. Sanjay Leela Bhansali who is encountering quite a few problems these days in doing his business.
    Next off the block was Moody's, an eponymous name whose similarity with another name, we hope, doesn't colour its assessments. It  upgraded India from BAA3 to BAA2 ( in layman's language , from Junk to Trash status - can you spot the difference?), making hasty reparations for its adverse report on the economy just a few months ago. This did not, of course, have anything to do with helping out the BJP in the Gujarat elections but was presumably the result of a well timed epiphany. Thereafter Forbes came out with its by now boring revelation that Mr. Mukesh Ambani is the richest man in India, a position he will continue to occupy for the next ten years thanks to a cooperative TRAI. And on the 23rd of November we were greeted with the QS World University Rankings for BRICS countries, in which only two Indian universities feature in the top 20 ( quite pathetic, you would say, but I would disagree- given that our Universities are being slowly converted to RSS shakhas, having even two in the list is welcome). And, finally, our very own Ms. Chillar was rated as the most beautiful woman in the world: if only our Sikkas had not been demonetised we'd have bagged the second and third spots too. So as you can see, its quite a mixed bag of ratings, somewhat like the bag of trash you throw out of your house everyday- bio-degradable and recycled.
   But the real churning is currently going on in the world of film making and distribution, where the rating system has been completely revised in the last three years. Earlier the Censor Board rated films as A, U and A/U- patently a defective process as there was far too much emphasis on vowels, making the certification sound like a diphthong. It also did not take into account what the govt. and/or the mobs wanted. So the Board has now decided to abdicate its role and await the views of the mobs, or the results of impending elections, whichever comes first. In order to facilitate this it has just ruled that all films should be submitted 67 days in advance- enough time to break a few heads, vandalize a few theatres, cut off some noses and impose multi state bans.
    There was a time when film critics used to review films and award them Stars- from one to five. This too was confusing, because this is how ACs and hotels  are also rated, and readers were left wondering whether the stars denoted the energy saving values of the film or the decor and ambience of the theatre. For example, if a Salman Khan film got 5 stars did it mean that he was expending too much energy on beating up the baddies, or that the multi- plex provided reclining seats and complimentary pop-corn? Our rent-a-mob types, who in any case never read anything other than VHP or Bajrang Dal posters, were particularly unhappy with this protocol and desired a change.
    It has taken three years for this change to materialise, but it has finally arrived with the movie PADMAVATI. In true democratic fashion the rabble ( ably supported by politicians, the police, the royals and actors of the Swacchh Bharat sponsoring breed), have now come out with their own system of rating films. It is simple, based not on the "put in the vowel" principle but on the "throw in the towel" policy and can be comprehended by any stick wielding simian. And best of all, one doesn't even have to see a film to give it a rating ! It has just four categories: A, B, C, and D. Here is what they denote:

[i]  A-- -----Agitate.   
[ii] B( 1 )-- Burn.
[iii] B( 2)-- Ban.
[iv] B( 3)-- Behead.
[v]  C( 1)-- Consult.
[vi] C(2)--  Censor.
[vii] D----- Discard

As you can see, its a very simple and progressive roster, progressing in an ascending order of violence in which, as in the Kaun Banega Crorepati quiz, the Director is offered an exit clause at every stage. Even the sturdiest of them will usually lose his head and exit by B(3), at which point he is invited to go in for consultations/counselling in the manner of a dying man being counselled by a priest. The mechanism for this is under the active consideration of the govt.: the VHP ( Vishwa Hindu Parishad) has already demanded that a committee with their representatives be set up for the purpose and no film be released without its consent. Of course, consultations with other stake holders of Indian culture and nationalism will also be necessary- the Bajrang Dal, Ram Sena, Shiv Sena, Karni Sena, All India Gau Rakshak Sena,  and others of a similar ilk already in the pipe-sorry-sewer line. Its only after this stage that the film will go to the Censor Board ( C(2)) which by then is also busy consulting historians, pesphologists, shamams, soothsayers and the four witches in Macbeth. By this time, naturally, the film  will have to be discarded ( D) since by then it will have more cuts than the Rajasthan Canal during a prolonged drought. All film production will cease, Sunny Leone will regrettably go back to Canada, Amitav Bachhan will become Baba Ramdev's brand ambassador, Salman Khan will resume a different kind of shooting- black bucks and chinkaras- which is a far safer occupation in India these days than shooting films. As for the rest of us, the more committed ones will devote themselves to re-writing history, and the rest will sing the national anthem or bhajans during weekends. Best of all, Moody's will give us a new rating- LOL.

Saturday, 25 November 2017


    The Indian Constitution gives us six Fundamental Rights: right to Equality, right to Freedom, right against Exploitation, right to Freedom of Religion, Cultural and Educational rights, and the right to Constitutional Remedies. The Supreme Court has recently given us another one: right to Privacy. It sounds pretty impressive on paper. Now, I'm no legal expert- for a long time I was under the impression that "corpus delicti" meant a beautiful body, and till recently I thought that RIP on a judge's grave meant Recused in Perpetuity, in deference to a common practice in inconvenient cases. But even I can see that these fundamental rights are not available to large sections of society, and of late they are being denied with renewed vigour.
    Equality still eludes millions of dalits, tribals and the poorest of the poor; our push for a digital India with Aadhar as its trumpet call is further disadvantaging these sections and denying them access to public welfare services such as pensions and food rations. Talk of equality is a farce when 200 million people go to bed hungry, when 15% of the population in under nourished( FAO figures), when 34% of the children are stunted, when the top 5% of Indians own 65.5% of the country's wealth while the bottom 50% have to make do with only 4.5%. Freedom is still a dream for millions of bonded labour and child workers, and for those who are indiscriminately arrested by the police, for the more than 400,000 undertrials in prisons, most of whom will be acquitted if their cases ever come up for trial in a system as clogged as a railways toilet. Freedom of religion did exist for some time, but is now being threatened by new conversion laws in some states that require the approval of a District Magistrate before one can exercise that option. The sporadic demands for a Uniform Civil Code and a muscular assertion of majoritarianism constantly haunt the minority psyche. Educational rights consist of mere statistics of enrollment figures; in actual practice, so dismal is our govt. educational system that a Class 6 student lacks the ability of a Class 2 student; 27.51 of every 100 children who join school drop out by the time they reach Class XI. Those who pass out of college are unemployable. The hardest hit here are the physically disabled: of 28 million not even 0.1% have access to schools and 0.01% to higher education. The courts are waging a valiant but losing battle to enforce our right to Constitutional Remedies, hamstrung by an adversarial central govt. and its own internal shortcomings. How, for instance, does one enforce one's constitutional right to freedom of expression when the govt. will not act against those who murder it ? Seventy journalists have been killed in the last 14 years, hardly anyone has been punished. How can this right be exercised when draconian laws- criminal defamation, sedition- are used to muzzle any contrary voice ? These remedies, unfortunately, are available only to the rich and powerful, usually to save their own skin.
    There is, however, one Fundamental Right that the Constitution has not given us, but one which is being enforced these days on a daily basis- the Right to be Offended. " Hurting the sentiments" of any one of the country's seven religions and 7331 castes/communities is an offence under the IPC and is the trigger for claiming this right. This legal oddity has always existed, right from the days when the film Kissa Kursi Ka and Rushdie's Satanic Verses were banned by the Congress, but over the last three years it has acquired an accelerated virulence and a violent character. Organisations- mainly perceived to be of the far right- have sprung up whose sole purpose in life is to feel offended. Anything which does not conform to their regressive ideology or can help them win the next election is a legitimate source of causing offence, and therefore for raising the demand for a ban, criminal prosecution, apology or mindless violence. Offence is taken at girls wearing jeans or a young couple going out in public ( Valentines Day ?), MS Dhoni appearing as a Hindu God on a magazine cover, Kamal Hassan's comment about Hindu terror, any form of sympathy for a Kashmiri or for the Kashmiri perspective, support for a  Pakistani cricket team, any questioning of the Indian Army ( sedition), possession of cattle or meat, intercaste marriages. Creative work- films, books, paintings- the very mediums which advance civilisation and its best values, are the primary founts of imagined offence and hence the primary targets for the proponents of this right.
    Taking offence has de facto become a fundamental right these days and is being practiced on a daily basis. The latest instance is that of the film PADMAVATI. Official Rajput organisations have joined hands with criminals and louts to ransack theatres, offer Taliban type of rewards for beheadings, hold up trains and threaten to maim the artists. As the furore over this film has demonstrated, two factors are conferring legitimacy on the sinister assertion of this right to be offended. One, neither the central govt. nor the concerned state govts are taking any action against these criminal elements for violence, criminal intimidation, destruction of public and private property, wrongful confinement, instigating public disorder, contempt of court, etc. Second, and even more telling, is the fact that this manufactured disturbance is being supported by these same govts, directly or indirectly. Union Minsters have done so by proclaiming that film-makers should  be "sensitive to cultural feelings" and to the "status of women", state Ministers have lamented that the feelings of the Rajput community have been "hurt", the UP, Punjab and Haryana CMs have asked for a ban on the film, the MP and Gujarat Chief Ministers, in their attempts to out Herod all other Herods, have actually banned it ( even though the Supreme Court has refused to do so!), the Rajasthan CM wants it to be censored, the Union Home Minister declares that even if the film is cleared by the Censor Board the govt. can always review it. The Congress and other opposition parties maintain a psephological silence, for this is the age of votes, not values. Only Mamta Banerji has had the guts to speak out in support of the film.
    Other constitutional rights be damned. The only fundamental right which matters in India today is the Right to be Offended, and this has become the new clarion call for the self appointed custodians of the country's culture and national pride. The govt. appears to agree and has legitimised it by its inaction, bans and statements. It may as well take the next step and legalise it: amend the Constitution and provide for it as the seventh fundamental right. We may as well end this "willing to wound but afraid to strike" charade and reveal ourselves in all our regressive glory. Then our country can officially become the kind of unfortunate place WB Yeats had written about , a place where
    " The ceremony of innocence is drowned,
       The best lack all conviction, while the worst
       Are full of passionate intensity."
Welcome to the New India of 2022. 

Saturday, 18 November 2017


    The community of beggars doesn't usually make news, but it did last week, twice. In Hyderabad the govt. has gone into an overdrive to remove a major "nuisance" from its roads- not encroachments or bag-snatchers (as you might assume) but beggars! All because Ivanka Trump is visiting the city, and the administration doesn't want her to see the real India. So what else do they want to hide-garbage, potholes, smog, cows, the urinating Indian male? Are beggars the worst of the ills of our country and towns that they have been singled out for this special attention form a govt. that donates crores of public money to temples and vastu rituals to make the CM's new house more auspicious? Couldn't some of this largesse have been used to rehabilitate them?
    Actually, maybe our sturdy beggars don't need to be rehabilitated, as this other story from Pune indicates. The Pune police rounded up seven beggars last week and produced them before a magistrate intending to lock them up for a couple of weeks. Bail was set at Rs. 5000.00 and the cops got their black van ready for the drive to the jail, confident that this penurious desiderata of society would never have this kind of moolah. To their utter shock, all seven came up with the bail amount immediately- in cash!-, deposited it with aplomb and reverted to their temporarily disrupted trading activity! Its obvious to me that Mr. Jaitley has been targeting the wrong section of the business community so far in his black money crusade- he should forget the names in the Panama and Paradise papers and concentrate on our entrepreneurial beggars. Recently one of them died in Delhi and it was discovered that she had left behind two flats and a sizeable bank balance! Why not make them go digital too and give them POS swipe machines and PayTM apps, as part of"ease of doing business" ? There would then be no need to hide them from Ivanka Trump, I'm confident she would be impressed with our digital derelicts.
    Now that we are on the subject of mendicants, however, a few anecdotes from my hoary past come to mind. In 1980 I was posted as Deputy Commissioner, Una, and one day received an order from the govt. to intimate by next day the number of beggars in the district! Apparently, the information was required in response to an Assembly question by an MLA who was clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel in his quest for votes. I immediately realised I had a major problem: this earth-shaking information had never been compiled, the Census was silent about it, these artful dodgers never stayed in one place to be counted, and they didn't advertise on prime TV. Since I had only two and a half years's service by then, I consulted with my SDM, one DD Sharma, who'd been making the govt. proud for the last 34 years. " No problem, sir", was his instantaneous ( I swear) response, " we'll send a report that we  have 387 beggars."
" How do you know?" I shouted. " we've never counted the blighters!"
" Exactly", replied DDS. "Nobody's ever counted them, and nobody ever will, or can. An idiotic question can only get a meaningless answer. There's no way they can challenge our number."
So I sent the reply, and  never heard about the matter again. The MLA is presumably still looking for those 387 votes. But I learnt an important lesson: the govt. just loves numbers- it doesn't matter how you derive them or how fudged they are. In later years DD Sharma's nostrum saved me a lot of legwork and midnight oil- say, about 170 litres ?.
    In the late 80's the issue of beggars nearly caused a major rift between the state govt. and the Planning Commission( may its departed soul rest in peace). It was, however, an exchange of words underpinned by subtle innuendo, to grasp which one must understand two things. One, the summer months in Shimla are also the peak tourist season and this attracts hundreds of beggars from all over north India. This is also the time( naturally!) when a Planning Commission delegation usually visits to " review" the pace of Plan expenditure. Second, in the winter months of December-January a state govt. team visits Delhi to extract the maximum moneys it can from the Planning Commission in the next Budget. Do keep this in mind while I recount the episode.
   The Planning Commission high-powered team was in town that summer ( as state guests, naturally) and during the meeting one of them remarked on the large number of beggars on Mall Road and the Ridge. Was it, he asked sarcastically, due to the failure of the state govt's social welfare schemes? No, replied the Finance Secretary, it was because all the beggars from Delhi landed up in Shimla in the summers! The Planning Commission chappie was nonplussed, but only for a moment.
" I see," he remarked, " and I suppose these beggars come down to Delhi in the winters, right?" Touche!
Both sides had established their begging rights ! Bonhomie was re-established that night over drinks in Hotel Holiday Home, billed as tandoori chickens, naturally.
    Beggars may or may not be destitute but they have their pride and maintain some basic minimum standards, as I discovered in Delhi in the mid-nineties. I used to drive in my battered Maruti 800 from Bharti Nagar to my office in Shastri Bhavan everyday. An aged beggar had claimed a spot near the Khan Market traffic light as his own, in the same pugnacious spirit as the Chinese on the Doklam plateau. Like Doklam, it was a strategic location since hundreds of vehicles had to perforce stop there. I, of course, never made a donation to his coffers since I was in the market myself for handouts, what with two sons in Modern School and EMIs for a flat which never came up above ground level. I was also burdened by the principle that " the good Lord giveth and the Income Tax Deptt. taketh", hence there was no surplus available. But one evening it had started drizzling when I was on my way back from Shastri Bhavan. As I stopped at the light I took pity on the beggar out in the rain, stepped out and gave him a two rupee note ( this was before Mr. Modi so the two rupee note had not yet been demonetised). The old rascal took one look at the note, dug into his bulging jacket, extracted a ten rupee note and gave it to me. " Yeh lo, sahib," he said with what was almost a chuckle," lagta hai aapko paise ki zyada zaroorat hai." Having correctly diagnosed, and confirmed, my humble station in life, he shuffled off to the next car.
    I don't see the old man there any more. I have a feeling he has acquired and moved into one of those premium flats on Tughlak Road. I, of course, have moved to Patparganj.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017


[   This article was published in THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 13.11.2017 under the title: THE STRANGE LANGUAGE OF GOVERNANCE.]

               In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. And then God committed one of his periodical goof-ups, the first after the original mistake of creating Eve and involving us for perpetuity in sexual molestation cases: he created the Bureaucracy and the Bureaucrat took over the Word. Originally intended to convey meaning, the Word now became a means to conceal!- a mechanism which even the RTI Act has not been able to dent. But let’s not scoff at this, for concealment is an art- given the sheer scale of goof-ups and gerrymandering constantly going on in the labyrinths of power, concealing them behind just a few words requires far more skill than merely revealing to us that our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. Shelley may well have been right when he said that, but could he have hidden behind words a hefty kickback in danger of disappearing? That's what one Minister was once required to do, without Mr. Vinod Rai finding out about it.
      Having successfully negotiated the required payola from a contractor, a Minister called for the file and wrote on it "Approved." The contractor, secure in the false illusion( like Lalu Yadav a-la Nitish Kumar) that the Minister was now committed and could not go back on either his word or file noting, refused to pay up. Unfazed, the Minister requisitioned the file again and simply added the word  "Not" before "Approved." The now chastened contractor, acknowledging defeat at the hands of a master. prostrated himself ( like Nitish Kumar a-la Amit Shah) before the icon of democracy and begged for his contract back, wondering at the same time how the worthy would find a way around the neological cul-d-sac. The Minister, a wordsmith par excellence, extracted the file from his drawer and just added the letter "e" to the word "Not." The final noting read " Note Approved"- two simple words that concealed twists worthy of a Saki or an O'Henry !
     In the mid eighties in Shimla a powerful Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, whose wife wished to devote all her time to disciplining other IAS wives and thus delegate her culinary responsibilities to a cook, moved the Finance Deptt. for the creation of a Class D post. The file duly reached the JS in Finance. Now a JS, compared to a Secretary to Chief Minister, occupies a slot in the bureaucratic food chain comparable to the position of the plankton in relation to the sperm whale, and in the normal course the file should have been cleared without a whimper, or whatever sounds the plankton emits. In this case, however, this humble organism ( born and bred in the badass corridors of Hindu College) refused to accept his humble station in life and rejected it ! A livid Secretary to CM, accustomed to worms squirming before him and not turning, returned the file with the noting: "Has this file been seen by the Finance Secretary? If not, it may be put up before him." ( Senior Secretaries belong to the same lunch club and are usually more adept than the macaque monkey in scratching each others' backs). The JS returned said file after recording on it the standard default option of all Finance Deptts.: " FD regrets to reiterate its rejection of the proposal." An epileptic Secy to CM decided to teach this callow fledgling a lesson. Confident that he now had this amoeba cornered, he put the ball back in JS's court with a thunderous ace: "At what level has this decision been taken?" The JS, having dealt with seven foot Jats on a daily basis in Jubilee hall, was unfazed and responded with a classic cross-court of his own: " Secretary to CM is respectfully informed that the decision has been taken at the competent level." Game, Set and Match. No actionable information revealed. The sperm whale retired shortly thereafter, sans cook.
    Another story which comes to mind is that of a  young Deputy Secretary in Shimla ( now grown long in the tooth and safely parked in the USA) whose newly acquired wife happened to be in Delhi. He kept applying for leave to spend some time with her, especially during those long winter nights in Shimla when a quilt is not enough to keep one warm. His applications were invariably rejected by the Chief Secretary who had long ago replaced his wife with a bottle of triple XXX rum. The DS then changed tack: he requested for leave on  "compassionate grounds", stating that he had to check up on his aging parents in Delhi. Even this crap did not cut any ice with the CS ( the mixed metaphor may be excused). The increasingly desperate DS then made his final gambit, taking a huge chance: he applied again, this time on "passionate grounds" viz. that he was only recently married and had not seen his wife for many months and would not be able to recognize her if he did not see her soon! It worked! Off he went to Delhi and he has not left her side since then- much to her annoyance, of course. The power of the word- the deletion of three letters- made all the difference between marital bliss and enforced "vanprastha". Why, he may even have joined the RSS if denied leave again, left his wife and become a Chief Minister !
    My own favourite is the one about the officer who wanted a bigger garage built in his official residence to park his two cars. He sent a note to the Secretary PWD requesting that the "garrage be constructed immediately.'' The latter's response revealed his stout English Literature background: " Request approved. However the officer may be informed that while a garage can always contain two cars it can never contain two 'R's'! "
    The good Lord need not worry- His Word is in good hands.

Saturday, 11 November 2017


    Even the most rabid of Mr. Modi's detractors would not grudge him one thing: that he is an orator par excellence with an acute grasp of crowd psychology. He has all the arrows in his quiver: the suggestio falsi, the rhetorical question ( "kaha tha na?"), the breathless tapering off of a sentence, the pregnant pauses and suspenseful silences, the pumped up fist, the innuendo and worse. At his best he can be almost a Shakespearean figure- a King Lear, an Othello, even a Hindutva version of Richard III ( "A cow, a cow- my kingdom for a cow!" ). Why then does he have to descend to the level of a Kilkenny cat in his election rallies, as he recently did in Himachal? His generic hatred for the Gandhis was on full display but that is something we have come to accept, even though we still don't understand what lies behind it: there appears to be something almost personal behind it. But some of his comments went way beyond political antagonism. By calling them termites and rakshash ( devils), by branding the AICC as the All India Corruption Committee and terming the Congress ideology as "sadi hui soch" ( rotten, putrified thinking) he has lowered the dignity of the Prime Minister's office and exposed both his hubris and insecurities. Before Mr. Modi's arrival we had become accustomed to a different style of oratory from our Prime Ministers for the last twenty years or so. Mr. IK Gujral was the quintessential gentleman, seeking to make friends and to persuade by debate and discussion. Mr. Vajpayee was a fiery orator himself but his metier was passion, learning, poetry, reconciliation. Mr. Manmohan Singh was no orator but he was soft-spoken, learned, polite and never confrontationist. Their public speeches were both conciliatory and critical, but never scatological. Their followers also took their cue from their leaders' styles, and public discourse rarely crossed the laxman rekha. But all that has changed with the new government . Are the votes worth it if they are won by broadcasting hatred, anger, contempt, calumny and vitriol ? There is so much anger in Mr. Modi that I cannot but quote the Buddha: You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.

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    Delhi just has to be the most messed up capital in the world- administratively, politically and environmentally. It is becoming more dysfunctional by the day. Things have become particularly bad over the last three years because Mr. Modi finds it hard to forget that Mr. Kejriwal delivered him the biggest haymaker of his political career by winning 67 out of 70 seats. Ever since then the Union govt. has a simple one point agenda for Delhi- let its administration and civic services deteriorate to a point where the AAP is totally discredited and Delhi-ites are ready to lynch Mr. Kejriwal. It does this through a multi-pronged strategy: don't allow the AAP to legislate any new initiatives ( by sitting on its Bills- at last count about 11 Bills were awaiting approval), intimidate the IAS and Dhanics officers into being loyal to the Centre rather than the state, use the three Municipal Corporations( all BJP controlled) to deliberately deny proper civic services to the citizens by constantly raising financial demands on the Delhi govt and instigating strikes, ensure non-cooperation by central agencies such as DDA, the Delhi Metro, CBI etc. And its lethal trump card is of course the Lieutenant Governor, a latter day Viceroy, a superannuated appointee who can ( and constantly does) veto the wishes of a govt. that has been elected by twenty million voters. He is omni-potent but accountable to no one. None other than the Supreme Court has held, in a recent obiter dicta, that he is the undisputed and constitutional head of Delhi. But have you ever seen him appear on TV to explain why he is presiding over such disarray and shambles, and what does he propose to do about it ? Why grill poor Mr. Kejriwal on prime time every evening when the Big Boss is the LG ? Is it that asking him to give an account of his administration would amount to some kind of lese majeste ?

    As if this were not bad enough, there is also a plethora of statutory authorities issuing all manner of directions, sometimes contradicting each other, to which nobody pays any attention, each questioning the other. The city is a modern tower of Babel, confusion confounded- should trucks be allowed in or not ? Should Badarpur TPS be shut down or not? What the hell do we do with the 15000 tonnes of garbage we produce every day? Should all construction activity be stopped ? Why is garbage still being burned at the landfills? Should odd-even be introduced again ? Does it actually lower pollution levels? Is Amarinder Singh allowing stubble burning in Punjab to get even with the BJP and AAP ? There is no shortage of "Authorities" or Ideas in Delhi- just a famine of people who will implement them.
    And while India's finest grapple with these daunting issues, the Air Quality Index is approaching the 500 mark, and the PM 2.5 ( no, its not the title of Chetan Bhagat's next book, though almost as deadly for the brain) continues to climb. We are constantly looking for exotic solutions to the death shroud of pollution tightening around us- mechanised sweeping of roads, seeding of clouds for rain, spraying water from helicopters, installing huge air purifiers at major intersections. The courts are on a banning spree; ban away a problem and it will disappear. But it doesn't, because problems have to be resolved, not wished away by judicial dictats. Take the ban on stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana. It cannot be implemented by challaning or locking up 15 million farmers. It must be recognised that this is an economic issue, not just an environmental nuisance, as the NGT appears to think. It costs Rs. 2000 an acre to remove the stubble, money the already embattled farmer can ill afford to spare. There are mechanical devices already available to remove the stubble- straw chopper-cum-spreader, rotavator, happy seeder, cutter shredder, baler- which can either shred the stalks and spread them as compost or stack them in bales for use as  fuel,fodder, feed or as raw material for paper units. They cost  between Rs. 45000/ or Rs. 3 lakhs each, way beyond the means of the average farmer, especially when compared to a matchbox costing one rupee ! The govt. should make these implements available on a cooperative/community basis free of cost. In the long term it should wean these farmers away from the cultivation of paddy in these water deficit areas. Punjab and Haryana were never meant to grow a water guzzling crop like paddy, which is sucking dry the ground water table. Punjab is a water stressed state and practically all its blocks are in the "black" category. Stubble is a by-product of paddy and reduction in the area under paddy will solve both problems, of water and pollution.               The same lack of clarity and political/ administrative will applies to Delhi:  we will not do the obvious and simple things: protect Delhi's green cover and stop deforestation ( 400 trees are being chopped down at Pragati Maidan to make space for an international convention center !), protect the Aravallis and the Ridge( 40% of which has already been lost) , our last defence against the deserts from the depredations of the Haryana and Delhi govts , revive the lost 600 water bodies of the city, preserve the Yamuna flood plains from ever increasing construction, declare selected roads as one-way to reduce congestion, add another 5000 buses to the DTC fleet ( their numbers have actually gone DOWN by 2500 over the last three years), shift ALL industrial units out of the city ( Beijing has done it, with remarkable results), introduce Odd-Even scheme mandatorily for two months every winter, stop ALL construction in the winters ( dust is the biggest pollutant as per all surveys).
    Delhi's citizens are equally culpable for the mess they are in and deserve every particle of PM 2.5 which they breathe in every time they open their mouths to complain against the govt. They will just not change their honey badger attitude and habits, and resist every reform or change. They continued to burst fire crackers this Diwali inspite of all appeals and orders. They will not walk or take the metro or a taxi ( it is illustrative to see the hundreds of cars outside, say, Lodi Gardens every morning: they belong to people who will DRIVE half a kilometer to walk two kilometers in the park- why can they not walk the entire 2.5 kms?). They will waste hundreds of litres of water daily to wash their cars. They insist on polluting the Yamuna with hundreds of idols every year, they will burn huge mounds of firewood during Holi and Baisakhi. They will oppose Odd-Even or BRT or cycle lanes. They will defy every measure suggested by the govt. Its an endless and despairing list, actually a DIY step-by-step guide to suicide. We are lemmings , led by honey badgers.
    As I finish this piece in my flat in east Delhi I'm seriously wondering if I'll ever get to see the sun  again. The pigeon on my window sill appears to have read my thoughts, for it looks at me like Edgar Allen Poe's raven and croaks: Nevermore! 

Saturday, 4 November 2017


    I seem to have developed a fascination for Economics this autumn, or at least for what passes for Economics in the land of the Arthashastra. I say "passes" advisedly because everybody today- pracharak, gau rakshak, my kiryana dealer, even Kamal Hasan- has an economic theory of his own. These, to use a term in vogue, are the informal sector economists. The formal sector economists- those from DSE, LSE, prime time TV and JNU ( yes, they still hold classes there, sometimes, when the faculty and students are not in the Vasant Kunj lock-up)- on the other hand, can never agree on anything. The RBI governor never speaks, Mr. Jaitley never stops speaking, Chief Economic Advisors come and go faster than a metro train at peaktime on the Blue line, Mr. Modi still treats economics as an acronym naming game, Mr. Rahul Gandhi has officially given credit for his economic discoveries to his dog. Are you therefore surprised that I am as confused as the Customs Officer who asked an absent minded Professor of English ( an ardent admirer of Oscar Wilde) whether he had anything to declare, and received the reply: " Nothing but my genitals."!?
    Which naturally brings me to a term very much in fashion these days- NPA or Non Performing Assets- not to be confused with NDA or Non performing Democratic Alliance. Now, in my time, Non Performing Assets denoted a condition which required the attention of a Sexologist or one of those Khandani Shafakhanas in the by-lanes of Paharganj, advertised with a mug shot of a stud with handle bar moustaches. Not any more in these post Samuelson days. NPA now means a bank loan gone bad and currently amounts to about Rs. 8 lakh crores. Mr. Jaitley's prescription is to recapitalise the banks with Rs. 2.11 crores of- you guessed it- your and my money. The loans will be written off, the defaulters will be back to their unscrupulous ways, and in a few years it will be time for NPA-II. The FM has the full support of the Banks and big business for his scheme, which is not surprising since, as George Bernard Shaw said: " A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul."
    " Demographic dividend" is the next phrase that puzzled me. Its supposed to be one of our primary strengths, according to Surjit Bhalla and Sunil Alagh, the spy vs spy duo who do their vaudeville act every evening defending the govt. on TV. My first assumption was that it meant a monthly pay out ( dividend) to me from my sons( my demographic investment). Not so, said my sons who are NPAs themselves, as far as I am concerned. I now learn that it refers to the huge population of under 35s that we have, about 500 million, give or take a hundred million. According to the economists they give us a huge advantage in the labour market. Really? It seems to even a Hindu College graduate like me that, for the advantage to accrue, these guys have to be employed, right? Given our huge( and grossly under estimated) unemployment and under employment rates, our demographic dividend is right now sitting on its collective backside in the hundreds of millions, taking selfies or playing the Blue Whale game with gay abandon as if the world were coming to an end ( which it probably is, courtesy Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump). How can they possibly make us the " fastest growing economy in the world"- if, that is, the definition of the word economy has to extend beyond the Ambanis, Adanis, Mittals and other Forbes centre-spreads?
    Here's another conundrum: how is it that, with the economy going rapidly down shit-creek, our stock markets continue to soar into the stratosphere faster than a North Korean ICBM ? The Sensex and the NIFTY are setting new records everyday. My addled brain, weaned on simple sarkari gibberish, couldn't explain this contradiction, so I asked my younger son who is an investment analyst to explain it to me . preferably in two syllable words or in easy- to- understand- pictures. He did- in sign language- and now I can figure out the sleight of hand. You see, the North Korean analogy above is not so facetious, after all. Like Mr. Kim's Politburo, the Sensex and Nifty are a closed club with hand-picked companies, numbering just about 150. Only their performance is tracked, and since they consist of the Pauls mentioned earlier, and of the ones who donate liberally to the political parties, they are obviously doing well. Furthermore, just about 1.5% of the population of the country is invested in the stock market. So the whole operation is like an incestuous organisation or a Playboy club, the bunnies and wolves being replaced by the bulls and bears. What the Stock Market does, therefore is a pure hedonistic exercise, a monetary inbreeding which has no effect on the rest of the country or economy. Thank you, Saurabh. I'll return the favour some day by explaining how governments fudge their budget deficits. 
    Time was, when you wanted a haircut you went to the barber on the roadside, or ( if you belonged to the North Korean club) to a salon where you paid one rupee per hair fallicle ( the dandruff is free). Not any more. Now you go to the NCLT or National Company Law Tribunal where corporates who have siphoned off all the loans tell the bankers: "Bu***r off, I'm off to St. Kitts." So what do the bankers do? They take a "haircut" which is the correct economists' term for getting scalped. A "haircut" means that the banks settle for a much lesser sum than what they are actually owed. The reason is simple- in English it is "something is better than nothing", but it is more vividly expressed in Hindi: "Bhaagte bhoot ki langoti pakarna"- grabbing the briefs of a ghost. So, while Mr. Mallya can grow his locks as long as Rapunzel's, you and I have to go for a butch hairstyle.To make up for this loss, however, you can bet that Mr. Jaitley is going to be  grabbing you by something else in next year's budget.
   Time to hang on to your Non Performing Assets.


Saturday, 28 October 2017


    The week before last I had written an article for the New Indian Express disagreeing with the govt's move to introduce lateral induction in the IAS ( Privatising The IAS Would Be A Mistake, 14th Oct. 2017) . The feedback from the readers was interesting and has prompted me to analyse at least one part of it in some detail. Those in favour and against were equally divided, about 50:50, but what surprised me was the anger, vitriol and contempt for the IAS among those who favoured privatisation. They gave three primary reasons for this: the IAS was a service which had developed a cosy nexus with politicians, it was self-seeking, and it had made itself completely unaccountable to both the govt. and the public. How much truth is there in these not flattering charges?
    Plenty, I'm afraid. But for the purposes of this piece I'll concentrate only on the first one, the parabiotic relationship that the IAS shares with the politician, to mutual advantage.
    The IAS has occupied all the commanding heights of government over the years, but in order to remain there it has had to strike a Faustian bargain with the political executive. It is now the gate-keeper to the political authority, controls all Cabinet Committees and Ministries, policy making and all postings, promotions and appointments, even those of judges and military commanders. No one- but no one- is allowed to breach their hallowed portals.The armed forces, for example, have been trying for years to gain meaningful entry into the Defense Ministry and to have a COAS but have been thwarted time and again. The IAS has consistently, and fiercely, protected its payscales and promotion avenues in all Pay Commissions and even awarded itself the "Apex Scale", an HR monstrosity, which has subsequently cost the govt. tens of thousands of crores in extending it to other services. It has cornered all post retirement sinecures, except where the judiciary has staked its claim first- but even that is smart give and take! It has had to pay a price for this, however. Unlike the "YES, MINISTER" model, where the astute civil servant controls the politician through deft tactical manoeuvres, team spirit and by thinking one step ahead of the politician ( without compromising either his service or the public interest), the IAS has surrendered to the politician. This capitulation is of two types. The vast majority of officers have no political loyalties, try to be neutral but generally flow with the current, taking the easy way out. They are not "politicised" but merely compliant. A small minority, not more than 10%-15 of the cadre, however, become active camp followers of one political party/ politician or the other and promote only their interests, whether they are in or out of power. They represent a spoils system within the service and are the main reason why the IAS is seen to be politicised. And thereby hangs a tale.
    One of my readers, Mr. Duggaraju Srinivasa Rao from Andhra Pradesh, has sent me an interesting postulate. The IAS, like the other two All India Services, is structured into state cadres: an officer is allotted to a state which then becomes his cadre for life and he is expected to be loyal to that state. Mr. Duggaraju's thesis is that over time an unofficial sub-cadre has emerged in all states- these are political sub-cadres where the officer is allied with some political party or the other and subserves its interests ( rather than the public interest)! I find this postulate fascinating- and true!
   Such sub-cadres are an inevitable progression when officers, for purely personal gains, attach themselves to a political party, preferably the one in power, and swear allegiance to it. Over time they become "branded" and rise and fall with the fluctuating fortunes of that party and constitute a distinct sub-cadre within the state cadre. Thus the UP cadre of the IAS has its Samajwadi, BSP and BJP sub-cadres, Tamil Nadu its DMK and AIDMK sub-cadres, West Begal the TMC and CPI sub-cadres, Himachal has the BJP and Congress sub-cadres, and so on. No state is exempt from this Duggaraju rule, except perhaps Delhi where Mr. Kejriwal is too hot for any IAS officer to touch, especially with Big Brother watching from North Block!
   Readers from Himachal can see this thesis playing out right before their eyes! Both the BJP and the Congress have a bunch of IAS officers in their sub-cadres ( and most readers can probably name most of them too!). When their parent party is in power they occupy all the important posts and hound the officers of the other sub-cadre with transfers, departmental action and even FIRs. When their party is in opposition they lie low, go on long training assignments, study leave or central deputation. If none of these escape routes are available then they maintain a low profile, leak official secrets to their mentors or sabotage the current govt's programmes. When they retire they get plum supernumary assignments, but for this the timing has to be perfect. It is important that they retire when THEIR party is in power, or they won't bag the sack of oats. If the timing does not match then they take premature retirement to avail of the sinecure in advance- a bird in hand is always worth two in the bush, especially if the bush may not be around for much longer!
    To extend Mr. Duggaraju's analogy, there are other types of sub-cadres also. To continue with Himachal, there is the Regional sub-cadre ( do you belong to Old Himachal or New Himachal ?), tribal sub-cadre ( officers from Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti, Bharmour and Pangi), Outsiders sub-cadre( allottees from other states marooned on this mountain), Reserved category sub-cadre( SC, ST, OBC). When I joined service in what now feels like ancient India there even used to be St. Stephens and Allahabad University sub-cadres !
    To an extent, such groupings are not bad per se in that they promote an espirit d'corps, like in an Army regiment, for example, which only strengthens the organisation. But when they get overtaken by politics, and their only raison d'etre is self seeking aggrandisement ( as the IAS sub-cadres have become) then they vitiate the service and weaken it. Incidentally, it would not be fair to only tar the IAS with this brush- it exists in all govt. services, including the IPS, the Indian Forest Service, the state services, and down to the clerk in the Secretariat or the patwari in the field. That the government still manages to hobble along is due to the other 10% who still abide by the oath they took when they joined service. They are the Rohingyas of the civil services- stateless persons allied to no party, squeezed between opposing forces and unwanted by the powers that be, perpetually under threat of deportation to Delhi or Pangi or the north-east- but THEY are the real civil service, not the time servers and camp followers of the political sub-cadres.
   To conclude, Mr. Duggaraju's law is playing out right now in Himachal, which goes to the polls on the 9th of November. Since the BJP is widely expected to replace the Congress, one can now see the Congress sub-cadre chaps frantically digging their burrows and packing in the provisions to weather the long winter ahead. The BJP sub-cadre, on the other hand,is now coming to life like  grizzly bears after a long hibernation. And like the bears, they are hungry- for power, the loaves of office they have been denied for the last five years. They are already busy short listing their preferred postings and preparing a Schindler's list of the damned. Like homing pigeons, they will soon start returning from central deputation, study leave or wherever they were in hiding, and head straight for the house of the likely CM nominee. Incidentally, I have always believed that pollsters and psephologists predicting election results spend a lot of unnecessary money and time in doing opinion and exit polls. Instead, they should simply watch the bureaucrats- the weather vanes, as it were- who always know who will form the next government. Watch the sub-cadres and you will never go wrong.  

Thursday, 26 October 2017


         [ This article was published in the NEW Indian Express on 26.10.2017]

We may attribute the grotesque miscarriage of justice implicit in the conviction ( now set aside) of the Rajesh and Nupur Talwar to one judge and one investigating officer, but we would be deluding ourselves. This case represents a colossal failure of our entire system where every institution intended to safeguard a citizen’s rights- the executive, judiciary, Parliament and the media- has turned rogue like an auto-immune disease and turned upon itself. The checks and balances have not worked and the lives of two respectable members of society have been destroyed while their murdered daughter is just another statistic in our cavernous hall of shame.
The UP police and the CBI should of course hang their heads in shame. The former destroyed most of the evidence and could not proceed beyond besmirching the character of a dead girl. The CBI had no real evidence against the Talwars: the Allahabad High Court has painstakingly demolished their fabricated house of cards, Joker by Joker. The most important elements in proving guilt in a murder case are motive, murder weapon, and the chain of circumstances: the High Court could find none of them. Neither the SP Mr. Kaul nor the then Director of CBI Mr. Ashwani Kumar could be bothered with this nicety, however: they went ahead and prosecuted the Talwars without any evidence against them, or evidence that was concocted by pressurising a maid and intimidating forensic experts. They let suspicion and personal bias take the place of scientific evidence: this was the first failure. The second was the failure of the CBI’s legal wing/ Prosecution branch to point this out while vetting the case. Or did they do so and were overruled by the gentleman who went on to the luxury of a Raj Bhavan while his victims were rotting in Dasna jail?
The CBI trial judge who convicted the Talwars is the third failure. It frightens me to think that there are, in all probability, many more such judges in our judicial system who hold the lives and freedom of millions of citizens in their hands. I have rarely read a worse judgement in my life, even if we discount reports at that time that the first part of the order was written by his son and that the worthy judge had started writing the judgement even before final arguments were made in the case! Equally, I have rarely come across such scathing remarks by a High Court against a judge, describing him as a “film director” who was “prejudiced” and whose reasoning was “vitriolic”. It says that Mr. Shyam Lal’s approach was “ parochial and partial”, he tried to “give shape to his own imagination stripped of a just evaluation of the evidence and facts of this case,” and that he was “unmindful of the basic tenets of the law.” The fourth systemic failure ,therefore, is simply this: how could such a judge ever come to occupy a position where he could, literally, send a man to his death?
The Allahabad High Court has rectified somewhat what the CBI and Mr. Shyam Lal had perpetrated on the Talwars, but it took them four years to do so, and this too has to be a failure of the system. Why could they not have been released on bail pending their appeal? After all, sometime back the Patna High Court had granted bail to the notorious Mohammad Shahbuddin who has three life convictions and two dozen other criminal cases pending against him. Did the two dentists pose a greater threat to society, with their scalpels and drills, than the don with his assault rifles and guns and goons? The double standards of our courts is part of the reason our system is breaking down.
The media- particularly the electronic media- provides the next malfunction of the system. A TV studio these days is the Colosseum of Roman times where panellists, led by rabid anchors, bay for blood- it does not matter whose, just so long as it keeps flowing on prime time. Without any investigation or facts they brand people guilty, hound the police till they do likewise and create a malevolent public pressure which the Kauls and Shyam Lals of the world are only too happy to appease. These anchors have played no small role in railroading the Talwars.
Parliament too has failed us, and the Talwars. It has done nothing to legislate some of the corrections into the system: creation of separate Directorates of Prosecution to stop the predatory tactics of the police, introducing an All_india Judicial Service to improve the quality of our trial judges, allow more liberal bail laws considering that of every one hundred persons arrested, fifty-five will be ultimately declared innocent in our country, mandate fast tracking of appeals where the accused are already behind bars, bring in stricter gag laws for the media to prevent them influencing investigations and trials.
Most important of all, given the rapacious aptitude of our police, the whimsical nature of court judgements and the sheer enormity of miscarriage of justice in our country, it is high time Parliament and the Supreme Court considered introducing a system for compensating citizens wrongly imprisoned by the govt. Most progressive and rule based countries have them : 29 states in the USA have Wrongful Conviction statutes under which unfortunate detainees are given compensation ranging from US$ 50000 to 100,000 per year of wrongful detention. The UK too has the Criminal Justice Act. The logic for this is clear: the citizen has voluntarily given the state enormous powers over his life and liberty in the interest of a cohesive social order; when the state betrays this trust it must offer reparations to the people it has wronged. This trust is the bedrock of a democratic order.

We betrayed this trust and covenant with the Talwars. Do we have it in us to rectify these shortcomings before the canker pervades all ? 

Saturday, 21 October 2017


    I have never been of a mathematical bent of mind, in fact I failed in Maths in my Senior Cambridge exams, thus validating the prediction made by my Maths teacher when I told him that sound travels faster than light. I based my view on the fact that, whenever we surreptitiously played cards in the dorm at night we could hear the Warden coming long before we saw him ( and thus could get rid of the evidence- consisting of cards with photos of girls in bikinis- the Jokers didn't even have that- and cigarette sticks as the money). I have since been consistent in my ignorance of maths, and even today can't figure out why my pension is one hundred times the salary when I joined service- I am positive the gnomes in the Finance Deptt. have made a mistake. However, I may be mathematically challenged but I'm not stupid, so I'm not about to complain.
    Now, Economics has a large dose of maths built into it and so I've never understood Economics either, especially as present day economic theory- the neo-classical model promoted by earlier Nobel prize winners such as Oliver Hart and Alvin Roth- is almost wholly based on mathematical modelling. The only bit of economics I knew was something imparted to me by a batch mate in the Academy, an economics whizz kid, who told me: " Remember, you can pull on a string but you can't push on it!" This discovery didn't get him the Nobel prize but I guess he must have done some strenuous pulling on that string because he got reemployed as a Regulator after retirement. And since I kept pushing on that bloody string instead of pulling on it I retired to my village, unsung and unemployed. So the theory works.
    The universe of Economics, however, has been turned on its head now after Mr. Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel prize for Economics earlier this month . Thaler eschews the mathematical models and bases his models  instead on behavioural traits. He believes that people behave irrationally, but are consistent in their irrational behaviour, which can then be predicted while framing economic policies. Now this is something which I can grasp as an average irrational Indian and therefore I am now beginning to understand economics. This in turn helps me to understand what is happening in India today, something I'm willing to share with the reader.
    The most famous economic principle espoused by Thaler is the NUDGE theory. What it says is that, instead of forcing a citizen to do something ( which he will resist) govt. should gently "nudge" him into doing it, making him believe he has the freedom of choice. Take for example a compulsory savings plan like the PF ( Provident Fund). Thaler says don't force an employee into it- give him a number of choices but make PF the default option. Most employees are too lazy to exercise any choice and so the default option will kick in for most of them. The govt. would have got what it wanted but the employee will feel HE has made the choice, not the govt. I think its brilliant, this NUDGE principle.
    Mr. Modi, who is as subtle as a kick in the backside, doesn't think so- he has his own economic model- the SHOVE principle. This postulates that people are fools who don't know what is good for them, they have to be herded like cattle, they are all crooks and cannot be trusted, they should be given no choices, Big Brother knows best. In pursuance of this breakthrough revelation which had eluded the likes of even Adam Smith, Keynes, Bentham, Pareto and Schumpter, he has unleashed a barrage of economic reforms: demonetisation, GST, Aadhar linking, minimum balances, digitisation, cashless economy, etc. He is convinced that this muscular model of economics will win him both the Nobel prize and the 2019 elections. The former is unlikely, the latter possible. But in that case Mr. Thaler should be asked to return HIS Nobel- the Shove would have won over the Nudge.
    The Shove model, however, cannot work on its own, it has to go in tandem with another economic theory, best exemplified in the FUDGE principle. The globally acknowledged maestro of this model is Mr. Arun Jaitley. In this model the actual macro figures are fudged to make Shove appear to be working, at least till the next elections. And so we are told that demo has worked, even though all the black money has come into the banks and become white; that hoards of unaccounted funds have been unearthed, though only Rs. 4500 crore has been seized so far; that millions of bogus beneficiaries of govt. subsidy schemes have been identified, though most of these are those unfortunates who were unable to link their Aadhars with their ration cards, bank accounts, mid-day meal scheme or gas connections; that GST is a resounding success because Rs. 92000 crores has been realised in the first month, whereas Rs. 64000 crore of this has to be refunded to the assessees; that 20 crore new jobs have been created, whereas Labour Bureau and CMIE figures indicate that millions of existing jobs have been lost; that India will continue to grow at 7.3% whereas we are actually growing at less than 5%. And so on. Mr. Thaler's Nudge has some serious competition from the new Shove and Fudge models. I sometimes wonder: is global economic theory being re-written in 7, Race Course Road ?
    And what about me ? Just when I had convinced myself that I was finally beginning to get a handle on Economics, with behaviour replacing mathematics as its driving force, all this nudging, fudging and shoving has left me confused again. So I've evolved my own model to cope with this confusion. Its called the HUH? principle: its driving force is a state of total incomprehension, and it exhibits itself via a glassy look in the eyes and a gaping mouth. It has not yet made it to the syllabus of the Delhi School of Economics but may do so in the ballot papers of the 2019 elections. Till then I think I'll stick to English Literature