Saturday, 19 August 2017

HIMACHAL PRADESH'S MODEL OF TOURISM IS NOT SUSTAINABLE.


    Mass tourism in Himachal is slowly but surely decimating the natural beauty of the state and turning its once idyllic towns into urban nightmares. It is also imposing an unbearable burden on its infrastructure-roads, water supply, transport, waste disposal systems- thereby degrading the quality of life of its permanent residents. The state govt. so far has been going on an unplanned expansionist mode, happy that the numbers keep going up every year. It has done little to regulate or guide this human tsunami; to the contrary, by misconceived and populist moves such as regularisation of illegal constructions it is only encouraging mindless concretisation of the state. It is time for it to sit back, take a hard look at the damage being caused and take some remedial measures to limit the adverse effects of this model of tourism which may be acceptable in the plains but is totally unsuited for a mountain state like Himachal.
    The numbers tell their own story. The state was visited by 17.53 million tourists in 2015- almost three times its own population!- and the figure is growing by 7.5 % per annum, thanks largely to the unrest in Kashmir. It is an important contributor to the economy of the state, providing 400,000 jobs and generating about Rs. 1200 crore, which is between 8% to 10% of the state's GDP. But there is a hidden story beneath these numbers. First, only some parts of the state benefit, not the entire state. Almost 50% of these tourists visit only three locations: Kullu ( 33.15 lakhs), Shimla ( 32.65 lakhs) and Kangra ( 24 lakhs). The tribal districts of Kinnaur( 1.80 lakhs) and Lahaul Spiti ( 1.76 lakhs) are badly neglected. The implications of these figures is twofold: not only are the monetary benefits of tourism badly skewed, the three favoured towns/districts are unable to bear the burden of these huge numbers and are turning into Dharavi type concrete slums. Their permanent citizens live under a constant siege, their roads, open spaces, markets, parking all taken over by the hordes from the plains, prices of everything hiked, water supply being rationed to cater to the visitors. Their towns are being ruined by ever increasing construction to meet the needs of these millions of visitors- hotels, restaurants, parking structures, roads- most of them in violation of the building bye-laws; the green areas are being systematically depleted: the illegal massacre of 450 deodar trees in Tara Devi last year, right under the nose of the state govt., is an illustration in point. I believe only a patwari was punished!
    Second, the revenue earned by the state- Rs. 1200 crore- is a pittance compared to the huge number of people coming to the state: on a per capita basis it is little more than Rs. 600 per tourist. Any proper cost benefit analysis- factoring in social, economic, environmental, health costs- would reveal that the benefits to the state from this kind of low-cost mass tourism are minimal. And this is happening because the state has been consistently unable to attract the high-end tourist. A study carried out by AC Nielson Org-Marg in 2011-2012 underpins this dismal finding. It gives the percentage of tourists visiting Himachal, income slab wise:

INCOME BETWEEN RS. 100,000 - 200,000-----------------12%.
INCOME BETWEEN RS. 200,000 - 500,000----------------- 84%.
INCOME ABOVE  RS. 500,000--------------------------------- 4%.

This table says it all. The overwhelming percentage of tourists to the state are budget tourists who drain the state's public resources and despoil its natural assets but contribute very little to its economy. And we have got into a vicious cycle: as their numbers keep increasing more and more of this second grade( if not substandard) infrastructure is created for them, more and more of the natural landscape is being destroyed. As a result, the space for higher priced, premium tourism keeps shrinking even more. The govt. has shown no initiative in breaking out of this "chakravyuh"- to the contrary, by its inability to provide helicopter services to major towns or to resolve the imbroglio with the Oberois' Hotel Wild Flower Hall in Kufri, it has ensured that reputed hotel chains have stayed away along with their customary high paying clientle.
    There have been some policy initiatives in the past, to be fair: eco-tourism, home-stays, ropeways; these are too few, however, and too sporadic. What is now required is a paradigm change of the very model of tourism, not just tinkering around. 
    The mass- tourism model is gradually getting discredited throughout the world and citizens/ residents ( if not yet governments) have begun to oppose it precisely because of its adverse cultural, landscape and infrastructural impacts. Large scale protests by local populations have been held in Barcelona, Venice, Thailand, even Nepal and Bhutan( which has imposed a cap on the number of tourists). We need to learn from this and accept that Tourism too is an Industry and, like all industries, has to be regulated. Given the ever increasing numbers, the old laissez faire attitude will no longer do. We do not need any more evidence of the damage being caused by the existing form of tourism in the state: the condition of Shimla, Manali and Dharamshala; the traffic jams on Rohtang; the desecration of Khajjiar and Triund; the mounds of plastic on the railway tracks between Kalka and Solan; the road in Kufri ankle deep in horse dung ; the 67000 "shradhalus" defecating all the way to Manimahesh lake, the regular hours- long traffic jams on all major highways: the govt. has to be blind to need more evidence of a state collapsing under the weight of tourism. Its only answer is to build or widen even more highways ( the Parwanoo- Shimla and Kiratpur-Manali National Highways being prime examples of this myopic vision: all they will do is increase traffic exponentially and destabilise the hills for the next twenty years).
    Urgent and innovative, out- of- the- box ideas are needed to control numbers and shift the trajectory to high-end, quality tourism. These could include: stop registration of new hotels/restaurants/resorts in urban areas already saturated; impose higher taxes/cesses/parking fees in these towns to divert the flow to smaller towns; provide special incentives and concessions ( like those made available for eco-tourism and home-stay units) for tribal areas to encourage visitors to go there; impose a strict cap based on carrying capacity at natural landscape areas such as Triund, Chandrata, Beas Kund, Prashar and Saryolsar lakes, Bhrigu lake, Hatu and Shali peak( this is only an illustrative list); impose heavy fees for visiting these locations to keep the numbers in check and generate resources for their maintenance; STOP BUILDING ROADS to every conceivable place- there is no surer way of destroying the ambience and natural beauty of a place; engage the big hotel chains in a dialogue for coming to Himachal and resolve the dispute with Wildflower Hall to instill confidence in them. Yes, this will make a trip to Himachal more expensive, but that is the nature of the beast. If one wants a premium product-and Himachal is one such- then one must be prepared to pay more for it, just as for any consumer goods or services. Diluting the standard or quality of your product to attract more customers is not a sensible business model. We need not be apologetic about it- come to this state if you can afford it, or else you can go to Murthal, Karnal, Badkal or Garhmukhteshwar.
    This is only a wish-list. Much more needs to be done, and quickly. I give it only ten years before we reach the irreversible tipping point from which there can be no return to the Himachal we have all lived in and loved with a passion which almost hurts. 
   

Saturday, 12 August 2017

POINT COWNTERPOINT-- THE COW AS PROXY.


        There is a supreme irony and incongruity in the fact that the most docile, humble and giving of animals- the cow- has in India become the symbol of hate and intolerance on one side and of fear and intimidation on the other. I do not want to get into politics this week- frankly, I'm sick of it as no doubt you too are, dear reader- but the extreme positions adopted on this meek animal speaks volumes of the crudeness and ignorance that has entered public discourse in these trying times. The Middle Path espoused by Buddha is no longer an option, it appears; instead, the words of a spoofed-up Confucius make more sense: " Man who walk in middle of road get run over !"
        The BJP will have us believe that the cow is a threatened species: nothing can be further from the truth. The last cattle census puts their population at 180 million, and growing at a healthy 6% annually. More cows die of starvation in gaushalas, cattle pounds and on the streets ( mainly by ingesting plastic) than are smuggled abroad- another bug-bear claim by the govt. Most of the big abbatoirs and automated meat packing companies are owned by Hindus. And yet an impression is being sought to be spread that the cow is in danger ( from a certain community, by implication) and all true Hindus must come to its succour. And so comedy becomes farce. The VHP has demanded a Cow Ministry at the center. Madhya Pradesh has introduced an Ambulance service for cows. The Union govt., having biometricised ( not the same as circumcised) every living ( and dead) Indian has launched a pilot project for an Aadhar type ID for cows. This is endemic lunacy on a sub continental scale.
      The other side of the divide is equally bonkers and ridicules each and every dimension of the raging cow debate: opposing gaushalas as a waste of public funds and ridiculing the age-old beliefs in the value of the cow's by-products. On the 10th of August this year hundreds of scientists across the country took out a "March for Science" urging the govt. to stop the propagation of "obscurantist and unscientific" ideas. They were particularly incensed at the govt. providing funds to the CSIR for  "Panchgavya" - research to establish scientifically the beneficial properties of cow products, including its urine and dung. Why this cloistered mind set ? Tradition and ancient literature should not be scoffed at under the guise of science. I have been personally using a number of cow based products of the Patanjali range for some time now: GONYLE ( a phenoil substitute made out of cow urine),  MOSTICK ( a herbal mosquito repellent) and an agarbatti ( dhoop) made out of cow dung. I find them far superior to the standard branded stuff in the market, especially because they are completely free of any harmful chemicals. My maid, in fact, refuses to use any phenoil except Gonyle because, she says, it doesn't irritate the skin on her hands like the chemical based phenoils  do!
     I am convinced that the cow is an economic power-house if only we approached its potential rationally and not for electoral purposes with hare brained schemes, or opposed it simply because the BJP and RSS consider it the best vote grabber after Kashmir. I recollect that in 2008-09 I had, on the instructions of the then Chief Minister, visited a number of gaushalas and " sansthas" in UP to study at first hand the many uses of cow products. I was so impressed with the potential that I had submitted a detailed report to the CM on my return, recommending that we also start pilot projects on similar lines in HP. Establishing "gaushalas" or " gausadans" as economic ( not political) units would serve a double purpose- provide a hospice for ailing and/or abandoned cows and produce Panchgavya products as an alternative to the harmful, chemical based stuff that we are exhorted to consume by TV ads. everyday. Over time these units can become financially self sufficient. Why must we perpetually wait for a Baba Ramdev to come up with new and novel business models ? Unfortunately, I never heard anything about my proposal thereafter, even though the gentleman was a BJP Chief Minister- but I guess cow politics was not in fashion then!
   With a four day weekend coming up, I don't want to end on a dismal note about the long suffering bovine; so, in order to cheer up the reader, I'm sharing below a vision of the future sent to me by an old school pal ( yes, some of them are still alive and kicking!). No, his name is not George Orwell.

Phone rings.
MCD: Haalo?
Ram: Haan hello, there is a dead cow lying outside our house — can you please come and remove it?
MCD: Are you sure it’s a cow?
Ram: What?
MCD: Are you sure it’s a cow – not a horse, or goat?
Ram: Well, looks like a cow, has two horns, an udder…
MCD: Forget all that. Does it have a Cowdhaar bar code on its ear?
Ram: A what?
MCD: A Cowdhaar bar code. Just as your Aadhaar card has biometric information, every registered cow is now required to have a bar code attached to its ear that contains all relevant details.
Ram: ‘Wait, let me check — no I can’t see any bar code.
MCD: An unregistered cow — that’s going to be a problem.
Ram: Is there something I can do — I don’t want it lying outside the house?
MCD: You need to get a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from the local Gau Rakshak Dal leader, duly attested by the panchayat head or district magistrate as well as the local police chief.
Ram: Why do I need that?
MCD: You don’t, Sahib, but I do. See, if I take away a cow that does not have a valid Cowdhaar code, then someone later can claim it was taken illegally. And the Gau Rakshaks will not spare me.
Ram: I don’t even know there was a local Gau Rakshak dal — how do I get hold of them?
MCD: Dial 1800 Gau Mata — they will assist you.
Ram: Okay, then you will come to pick up the cow?
MCD: Sure, as long as you have the death certificate.
Ram: For a cow? Who will give me a death certificate from a cow?
MCD: Any licensed Gau-ne-cow-logist, with a Hindu priest as a witness.
Ram: What’s a Gau-ne-cow-logist?
MCD: A doctor who specialises in bovine medicine — it’s the latest field of study in our medical schools. With over 180 million potential patients, whose lives are all very valuable to society, there is a lot of money to be made!
Ram: Ok, so NoC, followed by death certificate — then you pick up the cow?
MCD: We need a release form from the district animal welfare unit — basically that the cow is not someone else’s property and that you have the right to ask me to take it away.
Ram: But it’s dead!!
MCD: And that makes it even more important — if it were a live cow, would you even be calling me?
Ram: No, but this is ridiculous — how long will it take to get the release form?
MCD: It depends, some animal welfare officers require you to place the ad for 14 days, others for an entire month.
Ram: An ad??? What kind of ad?
MCD: Basically like a missing person’s ad — you place it in two local papers, one English and one vernacular — asking if anyone has claim to the cow. Take a picture of the cow and submit it along with any identification marks.
Ram: But in 14 days, the carcass would rot completely — what’s the point of your coming then?
MCD: The point is that we need to follow the rules and regulations so that everyone’s interest is protected — especially that of the cow!
Ram: This is ludicrous. You know what, I’m just going to get a few people and pick it up myself and move it.
MCD: I would strongly advise you against doing that.
Ram: Why — who’s going to stop me?
MCD: Your local Gau Rakshak Dal, for one — all calls to this number are being recorded. So the fact that you have a dead cow at your house is already known to the various authorities, and they will expect you to contact them for the relevant forms. And fees.
Ram: Fees?
MCD: Of course — do you think the NoC, death certificate etc. come for free? It will cost you 5-15,000 rupees by the time you’re done.
Ram: That’s extortion!
MCD: No, just the new e-cow-nomics!






Tuesday, 8 August 2017

TANKS BELONG AT DOKLAM, NOT JNU.


[ This was published on the op-ed page of the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 7th august, 2017 ]

                                 

   These last two weeks have  been particularly traumatic for us seditious citizens of this great country, for we have been administered, not one, but two booster doses of nationalism.
    The first was at JNU ( Jawaharlal Nehru University), Delhi, where a day ( Kargil or Vijay Diwas) which should have belonged to our uniformed heroes was hijacked to serve a political ideology. The function, presided over by two union Ministers and a supine Vice Chancellor, which was meant to remember those who sacrificed their lives for the country 18 years ago, was somehow distorted to a clarion call for Nationalism. This was further embodied in the menacing silhouette of a battle tank, which shall now be installed on the campus to inculcate in the students the spirit of “Nationalism.”
   To associate, or equate, a weapon of war with nationalism or patriotism goes far beyond the jingoism which has been the calling card of this particular Vice Chancellor so far. It boggles the mind that any person who has read history or political science can ever think that the true spirit of nationalism is the creation of the Army. Yes, the Army protects nations and makes sacrifices for their survival- but it does not create them ( not democracies, at least). As Rohan D'Souza of Kyoto University explains in a brilliant article in the Hindustan Times of 26th July 2017, nation making and the creation of national identities are the product of  thinkers, lawyers, writers, teachers, poets and, most important, the common man on the street facing bullets and lathis. Nationalism is a concept born out of intellectualism, not militarism; it is spontaneous, not coerced ; it is felt in our hearts, not worn on our sleeves. We have to look no further than the history of our own independence movement to appreciate this truism. To be brutally blunt, the Indian nation was not created by Generals Thimayya or Cariappa- not even by a Subhash Chandra Bose- but by people like Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Ambedkar, Patel and the unnamed hordes who took part in- and were beaten up in - the many dharnas, satyagrahas, protests and Dandi type marches. We respect our armed forces, but do not assign them a role they were never designed to perform.
    As far as I know there is no other university in the world which has inducted on its campus a tank as an exemplar or symbol of an intellectual idea or value. A battle tank is a symbol of the power of the state, of  destruction and compulsive obedience, whereas a university is the precise antithesis of these concepts. A university is supposed to promote the power of the intellect and of non-violent didactics, to create new ideas and extend the frontiers of knowledge, to nurture freedom- of thought, speech and inquiry- and to question, not comply. Therefore, the JNU tank is nothing but a well crafted strategy to send a not so subtle message to the students and faculty of this institution which has been consistently ranked number one in the country: behave like a Military College, or else. It is no coincidence that JNU was chosen for this latest putsch by the government- this university is the one bug-bear that the government would desperately like to see humbled- all other central universities, including the IIMs and IITs have more or less caved in- so as to complete its emasculation of academia in the country. The government has tried everything so far- sedition cases against students, reducing the PhD seats by almost 800, intimidation of faculty, proscribing of certain events sought to be organised by the student unions, deregistering students who are "trouble-makers", even approaching the courts to prevent demonstrations and protests on the campus- but this pesky university is still holding out ! Hence the tank. One wonders what will come next- send in a battalion or two of the Para-Commandos ? Convert the campus into a military barracks ? Deploy a Sukhoi bomber next to the tank ? And come to think of it, a lot of our other institutions also need a dose of this right wing idea of nationalism and patriotism, so can we expect to see tanks outside Parliament and the Supreme Court too, soon ?- just to inspire more patriotic feelings, of course.
   The second antibiotic dose of nationalism was administered, unfortunately, by the Madras High Court. By now adept at rushing in where angels, and even the founding fathers of our constitution were loath to go, the Court had earlier this year ordered the State government to waive off all farm loans ! Fortunately, the Supreme Court has stayed this order. Undeterred by this slight setback the High Court has now directed that singing Vande Mataram ( the national song) shall be mandatory for all govt. offices, schools and even private institutions, on two days every week. I guess its on stronger ground here for earlier the Supreme Court had mandated the compulsory playing of the National anthem in all movie halls. However, I am absolutely unable to comprehend why our courts, which have 40 million other cases to decide, are so intent on turning us into a nation of balladeers and minstrels. These are empty and meaningless gestures- I daresay the courts would engender much more of the nationalist and patriotic spirit if they decided cases on time, refrained from giving bail to the likes of a Shahbuddin, stopped the central govt. chopping down 1700 trees in the heart of Delhi to build a convention center, or asked the union govt. why it has been sitting on the Panama Papers revelations for the last two years ( when even a much derided Pakistan judiciary has removed a Prime Minister for similar charges). The genuine spirit of nationalism and patriotism is created by good governance, equitable delivery of justice and responsive public institutions. Give the people something to be proud of as a country, don't force feed them on tanks and national songs. Heed the words of wiser people, in this case Winston Churchill : " I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught."


Saturday, 5 August 2017

AADHAR UNDER MY KURTA.


   As the Union government goes about linking the Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh I find myself doing a bit- actually, lots- of linking myself. These last few months have been exclusively devoted to linking various facets of my personal life into an ID trail for the benefit of the government's sleuths. It started with linking Aadhar to my gas connection, then to PAN card, Bank accounts. Income Tax returns, Cell phones, Pension account, CGHS card. Today I feel like I have more links than Dawood Ibrahim has to the underworld. And it keeps getting worse.
  The other day I was having a hair-cut ( okay, a trim, since there isn't much hair left) at my barber's in Madhu Vihar and wondering at the injustice of having to pay more for a haircut every year even as the foliage keeps diminishing, when I came across another astounding piece of news. Apparently in Delhi you can no longer cremate a loved one unless you produce an Aadhar card to establish the identity of the deceased ! I guess it had to happen- having run out of living souls to harass, the govt. has now moved on to the dead. This may be the reason why the number of dead bodies being discovered hanging from trees or burnt in forests seem to be increasing- its more convenient ! And here we were blaming the poor innocent gau rakshaks for it! In the coming " acche din" dead bodies shall no longer be encased in burial shrouds but shall be bound in red tape, I fear.                                                                                                                            In any case, I'm taking no chances- when I've finally kicked the bucket decisively ( not just knocked it over, as I do every day to test the waters, as it were) I don't want the inevitable celebrations by my biological descendants marred by a search for my Aadhar card or awkward questions as to why my first name is spelt differently  in Hindi and English by Spellcheck. I've stapled everything to my Will, which now looks like an Arunachal passport with stapled Chinese visas - driving licence, Aadhar, PAN, cell phone bill, Pension Payment order, the Bronze appreciation certificate issued by the IT Department (just before they rejected my refund claim), Voter ID card and a copy of my marriage photo-this last to prove that I've always looked like a thoughtful beagle  and therefore my Aadhar card mug shot should not be doubted just on that score. And now I'm also considering uploading them all onto the Cloud.When I reach the pearly gates I don't want to find that Mr. Jaitley ( may his tribe increase) has preceded me and is insisting on their production before allowing me admission. Not that I realistically expect to make it to the pearly gates after thirty five years in the government- but you never know: maybe my dossier will be missing, just like the CCTV footage of Sunanda Pushkar's hotel floor or the Vyapam computer drives. I can get lucky too, you know! 
   On a more serious note, however, I wonder why the govt. is hellbent on this surveillance overdrive when it should be concentrating on creating jobs, improving investment and stopping the decline of the manufacturing sector, all of which are at historical lows, according to the latest CMIE report. Does it think we are a whole nation of crooks ? Some of us indeed are, and Mr. Jaitley knows who they are: corporate defaulters, Swiss bank account holders, the 440 names in the Panama papers, to mention just a few. Why doesn't he get after them instead of hounding the few who pay their income tax or have a couple of thousand in their Jan Dhan accounts ? Even Pakistan, a country we constantly ( and rightly, most of the time) deride has disqualified a Prime Minister on the basis of the Panama papers whereas we have put them into deep freeze. Mr. Modi has got his priorities completely wrong. Reforms are supposed to make the common man's life easier, but here we are being delivered one sledge-hammer blow after another: demonetisation, GST, Aadhar linking. "Ease of doing business" is alright, sir, but how about  "Ease of Living"? Or dying? 
   One final thought, shared with me by an old friend. At a time when a chap cannot even consummate his marriage without producing his Aadhar card and verifying his biometrics, why is no one talking about linking Aadhar with the EPIC( Voter ID card)? Even the Election Commission acknowledges the huge problem of bogus voters, multiple EPICS for the same voter and impersonation. Won't the Aadhar linking obviate this evil once and for all? Why this conspiracy of silence on this issue by the government and the opposition ? Could it be that the status quo suits them all ? Think about it.

[ Author's note: Since I wrote this piece the Govt. has officially announced on 4th.August that Aadhar would be mandatory for obtaining death certificates. Something to finally die for! ]

Saturday, 29 July 2017

MORTALITY AND MEMORIES- A REQUIEM FOR OLD FRIENDS NOW GONE.


    I am now 66, and as the aging process proceeds inexorably one is coming to accept one of the more poignant downsides of growing old: one is now in the zone where one loses a friend, colleague or close relative each year. In the last year or so I have had to bid farewell to two colleagues, one uncle, two aunts, one sister-in-law and my father. They are fond but painful memories now: it hurts not to be able to speak to them anymore, but the pain, I find, is somewhat tempered if one speaks ABOUT them sometimes, in a way reliving the time spent with them.
   Two friends handed in their premature resignation letters this last year: Sudripta Roy and Jai Prakash Negi, both colleagues who left a lot behind by which to be remembered.
   Sudripta was only 62. Blessed with boyish good looks, he was a quintessential Bengali- charming, intelligent, cosmopolitan, gregarious, social, but what I liked best about him was his outrageous sense of humour and impish nature. A raconteur par excellence, always ready with a joke or a laugh, he was great company of an evening, a competent imbiber and trencherman. But he was also a polished bureaucrat who took his career seriously, and it surprised no one that he became Chief Secretary. He had a well thumbed copy of the IAS Civil list with him in which he had, quite early in his career, worked out when he would become Chief Secretary ! This was arrived at by a process of crossing out the chances of those senior chaps who would not make the grade, for various reasons: too old, too stupid, attachment to Delhi, politically intractable ( he put me in this category, quite rightly as it turned out!), too upright, and so on. He was right in most cases, I believe. Chandana should preserve that copy of the Civil list.
   In the early 80's we were both Deputy Commissioners- I was in Bilaspur and Sudripta was in Hamirpur. In those days DCs had to manage with broken down Ambassador cars which used to catch fire every second week. Sudripta's car was in an exceptionally derelict condition and he had been waging a long but losing battle with the Finance Deptt for a replacement: FD, like a contrary virgin, would just not say "yes." Sudripta decided that conventional warfare would be pointless and some guerrilla  tactics were in order.
   The then Chief Secretary had called a meeting of all DCs in Shimla . Now, no one in Himachal took Mr. Tochhawng ( the CS) lightly, primarily because he was six feet four inches tall, just as wide and a no nonsense man , though with an equally large heart of gold. He once came to my official residence in Una for dinner, noticed that it had no boundary wall ( the obdurate Executive Engineer refused my pleas to build one and I was then too callow to have learnt the magisterial arts of arm twisting other departments). Mr. Tochhwang immediately rang up the Chief Engineer and ordered the wall to be constructed within two weeks. When I thanked him he winked at me and said: " Can't have all those chaps on the road ogling at the DC's pretty wife, Shukla, can we ?" The wall was up in one week.
   Coming back to the DCs' meeting, we were all seated five minutes before the appointed hour. All except Sudripta. Mr. Tochhawng came in, noticed the empty seat and waited. Ten minutes elapsed and we could see the pressure building up inside the CS, as in a volcano. Fifteen minutes and still no Sudripta. Just as we prepared ourselves for a Krakatoa type explosion Sudripta rushed in, but what an apparition he was!- unshaven, bloodshot eyes, clothes dirty and torn, rumpled hair with wisps of straw sticking out, stinking like a gaushala ! In response to the roar from the Chair he explained that he had left Hamirpur the previous night, his car had broken down near Ghumarwin, no one would give him a lift at night ( there were no cell phones then, remember, and no PSOs) so he spent the night in a roadside ditch. In the morning he managed a lift in a truck carrying goats for Shimla, here he was, and would the CS be kind enough to excuse his tardiness. To cut a long story short, Sudripta went back to Hamirpur that evening in a brand new car, to the envy of eleven other DCs who could only admire his ingenuity. In later years we did ask Sudripta whether he had made up that story, but he would only smile: a master craftsman doesn't reveal his secrets, after all !
   Jai Prakash Negi ( universally known as JP) was my batchmate: he passed on last year. He was, in many ways, quite the opposite of Sudripta: if the latter was an open book, JP was a book whose pages had to be prised open one by one. A wonderful, sharing and caring friend he was by nature secretive; a typical bureaucrat, getting any information from JP was like extracting water from a stone. I once spent 15 minutes with him on Platform no.1 of New Delhi station trying to find out what his sons( he had twin boys) were doing: at the end of this period all I learnt was that they were alive and doing well!
   JP was modeled on Mr. Micawber of Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers fame; he always used ten words where one would have sufficed. A conversation or meeting with him was a Ring Road experience: going round and round and never coming to the point. I first met JP in the Academy at Mussoorie; on learning that I was posted to Jwalamukhi for my revenue training I sought him out to find out the route to the place ( I had never been north of Murthal in my life). JP was very helpful and after half an hour of detailed directions I thought I had grasped it. Little did I know at the time JP's powers of obfuscation: I followed his instructions to the T- and ended up at Jogindernagar!
   I will always be grateful to JP for having introduced me to that most wonderful of places- Kinnaur. This was his home district, of course. While under training at HIPA in Shimla JP invited me to come with him to his village, Baturi in the Karcham valley. I accepted happily and we set off in an HRTC bus, half of whose seats were occupied by goats returning from their winter pastures in the plains. JP had also forgotten to inform me that Baturi was situated 2500 feet above Karcham and had no road: it was a straight climb ! The afore mentioned goats had no problem negotiating that sun-baked mountainside but my Charminar lungs made heavy weather of it. Baturi was heaven and Eden combined and I witnessed at first hand the amazing hospitality and conviviality for which our tribal areas are justly famous. JP's father ( a Forest Range Officer) was also there to welcome me, and father and son ensured I remained drunk on the local "angoori" or " ghanti" for the entire duration of my visit.
   They are gone now- Sudripta and JP, leaving us with a whole host of memories for which we can only humbly thank them. But they have also left behind a lesson for us, at least for those of us who are approaching the autumn of our lives: there is a price to be paid for getting old, and the gradual loss of friends, and those we love and cherish, is part of this price. Robert Browning in a poem wrote to his beloved wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: " Grow old along with me, the best  is yet to be".  I can wish nothing more for my friends- and for myself.    

Thursday, 27 July 2017

KARNATAKA RAISES THE RED FLAG



[ This piece was published on the op-ed page of the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 27.7.17 ]
   

   Karnataka has announced that it will examine the legality of having its own state flag, something it has had unofficially since the 60’s. As expected it has set off a firestorm in TV studios and simulated outrage in political circles. There is probably no legal bar to the idea as the Constitution nowhere prohibits a state from having its own flag or other emblems. Moreover, the Supreme Court, in the Bommai judgement of 1994 specifically ruled that a state can have its own flag, but it would be lower in status to the national flag. ( Incidentally, there is a delicious irony in the fact that at the time Bommai was the Chief Minister of Karnataka! History has its way of coming full circle). Flags are accepted symbols but this Karnataka flag symbolises something which should disturb all right thinking Indians.
  Mr. Siddaramaiah may not know this but he is simply an instrument of history in the matter. What he has done is something which was waiting to happen: it was inevitable, just as when you plant a seed the inevitable outcome is the stalk of grain; we would perhaps understand it better through the adage “ as you sow, so shall you reap.”
 Through the flag Mr. Siddaramaiah is asserting the distinct Kannada identity. But why, we may well ask, isn’t the Indian identity good enough ? It perhaps was- in the 1950’s- but over the last 60 years our politicians have chopped up and divided the country into so many thousands of sub-identities and sub-nationalities that we are no longer one nation but a toxic mix of different castes, classes, languages ,regions, religions. These always existed, of course, but as one organic coalescence and not as a witches’ brew in perpetual conflict with each other. What we have done is to drive a wedge between each of these sub-identities, pit one against the other for government largesse, political power and jobs, subjugate one at the cost of the other, create distrust among them to the point of mindless and unremitting violence: North against the South, Kolis against Jadhavs, Yadavs against non-Yadavs, Hindus against Muslims, Jats against Baniyas, Haryanvis against Punjabis, Kashmiris against Pandits, plainsmen against tribals, Tamil Nadu against Karnataka, and Bengal against everyone else. This didn’t happen organically- it was engineered assiduously in the quest for political power, and today we have reached the point where, in a grotesque twist, the main identity has become subservient to the sub-identity- I am a scheduled cast first, a Hindu second, a UP-ite third, and an Indian last. I must, therefore, continuously and aggressively assert my sub-identities to remain in the race for political dominance. This is what the Karnataka Chief Minister is now doing by implying that the national flag is not good enough for the Kannadas and asking for his own flag. It is but the natural progression of national fragmentation.
  One may well ask, but why now ? After all, no such demand had been raised these last sixty five years. The answer is simple- the central govt. has just upped the ante by once again ham handedly trying to impose Hindi on the southern states. Language is the most vital ingredient of a peoples’ identity : it is not just their medium of communication but  it contains their history, their culture, their ethos, their literature, even their Gods. If you want to eradicate a peoples, kill their language. The decision of the BJP government at Delhi, driven by its ideological hormones, to mandate Metro and National Highway signages in Hindi in all the southern states, was exceedingly ill advised. Furthermore, Mr. Modi’s style of centralisation of powers and unilateralism- Aadhar, GST, Cattle rules, Demonetisation- had already made the states wary and apprehensive of further encroachment of their turf. The latest Hindi salvo, therefore,  further strengthened the fear of domination by the northern Hindi speakers, and played into the already existing passion for assertion of sub-regional identities.

  The Karnataka flag will be seen by purists and political scientists as a struggle for federalism. It is that, but it is also much more. It is the latest manifestation of the splintering of a national identity, the inevitable denouement of the process of dividing communities for political gain, of a reassertion of regional power and relevance. It is a push back for the centre, a gentle reminder that a vote percentage of 31% does not confer a mandate on the BJP to ride roughshod over the sensibilities of the states. It is now inevitable that all other states will demand their own flags: such gestures develop an irresistible momentum of their own, as we have seen with the waiver of bank loans for farmers. When you ride the tiger of populism it is impossible to dismount. There will be other similar gestures of defiance- federalism, to be politically correct- in the days to come. Mr. Siddaranaiah’s flag is not one of surrender, it is a call to troops to let the battle begin.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

ARE TRIUND AND KHAJJIAR GOING THE ROHTANG WAY ?

   I was aghast to see a photograph in the Tribune about two weeks back of a long traffic jam in Khajjiar in Chamba- the line of vehicles in this exquisite dale was at least a kilometer long! The SDM Dalhousie further informed the reporter that during the season about 5000 vehicles go to Khajjiar every day. Two days later it was reported that 1000 tourists go to Triund ( above Mcleodganj) every day. What are we doing to our few remaining natural features ?


                          [ Traffic jam at Khajjiar in June 2017. Courtesy The Tribune ]

   Rohtang pass has become a by-word for pollution and the NGT has not helped its cause by allowing 1400 vehicles there everyday. Now that the state govt. has introduced electric buses for the pass, NO OTHER VEHICLES should be allowed ( except for genuine travellers to Leh, Kaza and other places beyond the pass). The NGT should not succumb to pressures from the unholy nexus of hoteliers and taxi unions- their livelihoods ( based on extortion of tourists, mostly) are not more important than the preservation of our natural heritage for future generations. No new taxi permits should be issued for Manali sub-division- it already has more than the area can support. Nor should permits for new hotels be sanctioned: Manali already has more hotel beds than DelhI !And whatever happened to the rope-way from Palchan to Rohtang- the tenders were first floated way back in 2010 and it should have been up and running in three years. The NGT's local Commissioner in Manali, Mr. RakeshwarLal Sood, should monitor its progress with greater urgency, for ultimately this is what will save the Rohtang from the internal combustion engine and the external combustion lobbies.
   Coming back to Khajjiar, I've been there more times than I can remember and never sighted more than a couple of vehicles there. Even though the lake itself must have disappeared by now( every govt. department has tried to arrest its siltation, and with each such intervention it has become smaller!) the glade or vale or meadow is a thing of beauty, unsurpassed even in this state blessed by nature and cursed with commerce. The very idea of 5000 vehicles and 20000 chhola bhatura type of tourists running amok there is a blasphemy. The question, therefore, is: what is the govt. or the district administration doing about controlling this polluting flood ? Obviously, nothing, or we wouldn't have so many vehicles there in the first place. Why should we always be passive, indifferent and safe,  waiting for the NGT or the High Court to do something to stem the rot rather than take the initiative ourselves ? Why do we get fat 7th Pay Commission salaries ? Why are we always silent in the face of pressures from politicians, taxi drivers, bus operators, hoteliers and tourists who have destroyed their own cities and are now hell bent on ravaging what is rightfully our heritage? Cannot the state Forest department, which has more PCCFs, Addl. PCCFs and CCFs than we have wild life in our forests, be more proactive and visionary in protecting places like Khajjiar and Triund ?
   To my mind, the first thing to be done is to assess the carrying capacity of these places and restrict the number of visitors to that number. Secondly, impose a COMPLETE BAN on private or commercial vehicles going to Khajjiar. Instead acquire a few electric buses for the purpose as is being done for Rohtang. Third, erect barriers and do not allow any form of plastic to be taken to either of these places, not even PET bottles. Four, impose a heavy user fee for the visit ; if these urbanites can pay five hundred rupees at a multiplex to see the curves of Rakhi Sawant they should not mind paying a similar amount to view the undulations of our mountains and valleys- which, incidentally, are completely natural. Such restrictions are even more necessary for Triund which at 9000 feet is close to the snow line and has no water- garbage and human waste are the biggest threats to its pristine grandeur. I've been there at least thrice ( which I remember) and can state with all confidence that it cannot support more than 50 visitors a day. No night stay should be permitted there, in order to avoid generation of more human waste. There were no structures there a few years ago, except a Forest rest house and a much needed tea stall a kilometer below it, but I now read that a number of dhabas etc. have come up there now. This is nothing but sheer laxity, negligence if not collusion of the forest and revenue officials, for all land there is forest land. They should be demolished immediately lest it become another Marhi. There was also a proposal to build a ropeway from Mcleodganj/ Dharamsala to Triund, primarily to kill another daft idea: build a road to Triund! The technical and financial feasibility reports were ready eight years ago, so why this delay?
   Unplanned mass tourism and excessive "development" are ravaging Himachal's natural environment and assets . Mr. Virbhadra Singh's roads and Mr. Dhumal's hydel projects have already devastated most of the natural beauty of the state; let us at least make an honest effort to save the few blessed places that remain. There has to be a vision beyond money, votes and the Apex scale.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

UNIVERSAL BASIC INCOME: HAS ITS TIME COME ?

    [ This piece was published in the New Indian Express on 15.7.2017 under the heading CAN WE AFFORD FREE MONEY FOR ALL ?]

   It is said that no power can stop an idea whose time has come. The idea that is exciting economists globally these days is Universal Basic Income ( UBI): there was even a whole session devoted to it at Davos . The concept of UBI is simple: a regular, periodic payment to ALL citizens by the government, without any conditions or stipulations of income or employment. Its beauty is its simplicity ( or universality) requiring no complex bureaucratic underpinning for its implementation.
   The idea is neither new nor novel. It was first mooted by Thomas More in his 1516 book Utopia and since then it has found favour with the likes of Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine , John Stuart Mill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Milton Friedman. The beauty of the concept is that it is politically neutral: it appeals both to the right and the left. The latter considers it as a tool of social justice postulated on the belief that public wealth is created by all peoples over generations, not only by the rich, and so should be distributed equitably; it is also a means to tackle poverty and unemployment. The right sees it a more efficient way to utilise funds for welfare, compared to the current regime of huge , untargeted and leaking subsidies.
    By no means is there unanimity, however: both sides of the political divide have their criticisms too. Some on the left feel that UBI is an excuse for the govt. to opt out of its responsibility for social intervention in key sectors such as health and education, by simply handing out a monthly dole. Conservatives on the  right oppose it on the ground that it will promote indolence and provide a disincentive for seeking employment. Whatever be the merits, however, the fact is that governments are willing to give it a try, even though the Swiss rejected it in a referendum last year. Pilot programmes have been introduced in Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, the USA and Italy. In India too it has entered public discourse via the views of the Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramaniam, contained in the Economic Survey of this year: he appears to support it, though not immediately, perhaps.
   What is driving this resurrected interest in this 500 year old idea is undoubtedly the widening income/ wealth disparities post globalisation and the looming spectre of technology driven unemployment. The west has already started shedding millions of jobs because of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, and even technology’s pioneers like Bill Gates and Elon Musk have warned that things are going to get worse. India’s position is even more critical, given our historical levels of poverty, mind boggling inequity and already existing massive unemployment. The country is simply not able to create the minimum ten million new jobs needed every year.
  The unemployment rate in 2016 was 7.97%, which is a hopeless underestimation since it assumes that 50% of the population is engaged in agriculture: in actual fact at least 75% of these agriculturists are significantly underemployed but remain in agriculture because of lack of options. The even more worrying thing is that the rate of job creation over the last three years has been falling: from 4.97 lakh jobs created in 2014 it has dwindled to 1.35 lakhs in 2015-16. It would be worse now, post demonetisation, the beef ban, the liquor-on-highways ban and GST. Technology too is beginning to bite: IT sector alone is expected to shed 600,000 jobs in the next three years. PRAHAR, a non-profit, has predicted that we are likely to lose seven million jobs by 2050 whereas the population by then would have grown by 600 million.The social effects of such large scale unemployment and its fall-out on poverty ratios and the country’s stability is the biggest argument for introducing UBI and validating the views of Gates and Musk.
   The primary argument trotted out against UBI is: can we afford it? Vijay Joshi, an internationally renowned economist at Oxford has calculated that if a UBI payment of Rs. 17500.00 were to be paid to each household annually it would cost 3.5 % of the country’s GDP. As against this just the non-merit subsidies amount to 7.7% of GDP. On paper, therefore, it is affordable and it still leaves the merit subsidies on vital areas such as education, health, PDS and nutrition untouched. But perhaps a case can be made out to subsume PDS in UBI also as it is perhaps the most wasteful and inefficient of subsidies and also involves huge costs in procurement, storage and distribution. But mathematics apart, there are other concerns that militate against UBI: should the state withdraw so completely and leave the poor to market forces ? What about the accountability of the state ? Will this not lead to the ultimate withering away of the welfare state ? Is the country logistically prepared for such a huge exercise to ensure there is no repeat of the demonetisation travails ?
  That last question at least can be answered somewhat confidently. There are now about 350 million Jan Dhan accounts and the Aadhar penetration has reached 1200 million individuals. Linking of bank accounts and Aadhar has now been made compulsory by 31.12.2017, therefore the basic system for remitting UBI payments directly to beneficiary accounts is more or less available, theoretically. In actual practice, however, there may be grey areas that can cause untold misery and chaos, especially in rural areas and to the most marginalised ( who, by definition, need UBI the most): lack of bank branches in villages, poor internet connectivity, inoperative Jan Dhan accounts, lack of awareness of the banking process, a huge migratory population. Furthermore, as Joshi has pointed out, the removal of subsidies itself is a tricky exercise; without proper sequencing it can cause havoc and destitution. The country cannot afford to go through the disorganised and unplanned trauma of demonetisation again.
  The ideal, and sensible, way to go about it is to launch a few pilot projects in carefully selected areas ( blocks rather than districts) that represent the different profiles- social, economic, demographic, infrastructural- that constitute the smorgasbord identity of our country, and then analyse how well the programme caters to each. The government should give up its distrust of NGOs and learn from their experience too. SEWA Bharat, an NGO, has in fact been implementing two UBI schemes in Madhya Pradesh, with assistance from UNICEF, for some years and its experience has been fascinating. The govt. can get a lot of valuable inputs from SEWA. What it should NOT do is another surgical strike at the midnight hour.

  

Saturday, 15 July 2017

THE IAS AND ITS TEN COMMANDMENTS : A BRIEF HISTORY.


   It all actually started with Moses, he of the flowing white mane and AMS ( Anger Management Syndrome), when he descended form Mount Sinaii clutching the tablet on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments.  It WAS a tablet, and not an IPad or Notebook, my extensive research has revealed, and the ten edicts were burnt on to it, not downloaded from the Cloud. In fact there was very little of downloading or uploading going on it those hoary days, except the uploading of salt from the Dead Sea ( it was very much alive then) onto ships by the Tatas, owned by a patriarch called Cyrus the Great, better known as Cyrus Mystery. In any case, the point I am making in my own befuddled way is that the Commandments laid down a code of conduct by which the Israelis were expected to live and die ( mostly the latter in those intolerant days) and which they now use to build settlements on the West bank and Gaza.
   Even more important, however,the Ten Commandments of Moses established a trend which has continued to this day. Every organised group of people now are required to have a set of rules   (engraved in stone, naturally) by which they are expected to function and through which they retain their distinct identity. The doctors, for example, have the Hippocratic Oath, the Mafia has its Omerta, 18th century Europe had the Code Napoleon, the Freemasons have the peculiar handshake and twitching eyebrows, the BJP has its own dictum ( " Who says you cannot fool all of the people all of the time? " ), the  Congress, notwithstanding all its scams, has a simple credo ( "The buck stops here") ), the Income Tax Dept has also devised one, post demonetisation ( " Zindagi ke saath bhi, zindagi ke baad bhi") and so on. I hope you get the point.
   The IAS could not be long exempt from this universal imperative and therefore, after sorting out the initial teething problems ( should their dress code be the loin cloth or the safari suit ? should a lady Director be designated a Directory ? does a round of golf or rubber of bridge at lunch-time qualify as public service? etc.), it too has come up with its own code. It is not known when and where the IAS Commandments originated, but it is suspected to have been brewed in Happy Valley of the National Academy at Mussoorie, along with the local hooch known as " chhang". Happy Valley, incidentally gets its name because of this "chhang": probationers who go into it every day to face the tortures of horse riding and " shramdan" return happy and elated after imbibing a kettle or two of the concoction, somewhat like the sceptics in Mathew Arnold's poem who went to church to scoff but stayed to pray. Commandments 3,4 and 6 do reveal the distinct imprint of "chhang". Later, when the probationers were dispersed all over India in the manner of Jumlu Devta scattering an assortment of Gods all over Kullu district from the heights of Chanderkhani Pass , these Commandments permeated the entire service and have come to stay.                                                         This Code has not yet been notified in the official gazette or included in the Directive Principles of the Constitution, but it has stood the test of time and enabled the service to retain its distinctive style and elan. It has stopped in its tracks latter day reformers who have presumed to  "improve" this twice born service by shenanigans such as renaming the Planning Commission as the Nutty Ayog or replacing the Empanelment process with an Impalement process.Coincidentally, it also contains ten edicts or commandments, and is reproduced below for the benefit of those who aspire to be a number on the civil list:

[1]  Thou shall not take My name in vain, except through proper channel.
[2]  Blessed are the meek for they shall never know what hit them.
[3]  Do unto others before they do unto you. Forget that shit about turning the other cheek.
[4]  Love thy neighbour but grab his departments( and his car, house and private secretary). Leave his wife alone, she is not part of the perks , you benighted idiot!
[5]  Thou shalt rest from thy labours on the seventh day, it being the Sabbath- and on the sixth, fourth and third, being second saturday, public holiday and casual leave.
[6]  Covet not thy colleague's wife- before ascertaining his seniority.
[7]  Thou shalt be transferred every second year lest thy sins catch up with thee. If they have already caught up with thee then thy shall not be transferred at all, in order that they can be given a proper Christian burial.
[8]  Honour thy father and thy mother but glorify thy Chief Minister and Minister.
[9]  Thou shalt not steal- but the good Lord will turn a blind eye to gifts at Divali and New Year's.
[10]  Trust only in the Lord-provided He is not in the IPS or IRS.

HALLELUJAH !

Saturday, 8 July 2017

DELHI BELLY: THE HEART OF THE MATTER

   For a Prime Minister whose tag line is " Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas", who weeps publicly at the thought of his humble origins, who has promised to double farmers' income in four years, who has elevated the "viklang" to the status of a "divyang", Mr. Modi's government displays very little genuine compassion when it comes to these people or the public at large. In its hurry to leapfrog into the next millenium, it has demonstrated an insensitivity bordering on the callous towards the day-to-day problems of the average citizen, born perhaps out of a disconnect and the arrogance of a victor. It has been acting in haste and stalling at leisure, as the occasion demands. In either case it is the common citizen who is suffering.
   Take Aadhar, which is being rammed down the gullets of 1.30 billion people. By mandating its linkage with just about ALL government schemes in every nook and cranny of a country which is heavily under banked and where tens of thousands of villages have no inter-net connectivity, it has caused untold misery- lakhs of people have been deleted from MNREGA rolls, or denied PDS benefits, or deprived of subsidy for gas connections. Even school children have been denied mid-day meals because they did not have an Aadhar card. Some of these may have been "ghost" entities, but the majority are Aadhar casualties. In a largely illiterate country with millions of rural people migrating to towns in search of jobs, it is a nightmare for them to establish ID or address, to open bank accounts or obtain gas connections, to avail of any govt. scheme for the poor.                                                                                                                                      This has naturally bred a huge market for corruption. In its haste to roll out the scheme, and lacking the capacity to do it itself, the government franchised it out to private companies who have inadequate data security back-up. Aadhar cards are now being reportedly sold ( without proper ID or address proof) for 1000-15000 rupees. Last year a Pakistani terrorist was found to have an Aadhar card! The 6th June issue of the Hindustan Timed reveals that UIDAI has had to terminate the contracts of 34000 agents ( out of a total of 650000) for malpractices. Even worse, analysts fear that individual security may be compromised on a colossal scale for it is possible for these private agents to copy and retain the biometrics of an individual before passing on the data to UIDAI.
   Demonetisation ( a needed scheme, but ill conceived and implemented) has thrown millions out of work, in the poorest sections of our populace- the daily labourer, the small and marginal farmer, local artisans. The sheer inflexibility and unresponsiveness displayed by the govt. has now prompted the Supreme Court to order it to provide another window to genuine cases for returning their old notes.
   The most recent move- GST- is following the same, well trodden path to large scale misery. The usual practice globally has been to provide a " transition period" of upto a year before introduction of GST in order to educate both industry and the consumer on its effects, processes and prices. Such an introductory phase was even more needed in India given the unorganised nature of its trade, low digital awareness and infrastructure and past record of its tax authorities. By refusing to do so in its typical inflexible way the govt. has again disrupted the economy when it had not even fully recovered from the DM blow. Once again it is the poorest and most marginal who have been hit: " Mandis" are not buying from farmers, truckers are sitting idle, the pharmaceutical supply chain has been disrupted, PDS ( ration) shops are shutting down for want of a GST registration number ( even though foodgrains are exempted from GST !), and prices have started rising. Big business is prepared for GST ( it always is) but some thought should have been given to the mom and pop stores, the labour and small manufacturer involved in the downstream linkages. The problem is not only about unwillingness to pay taxes ( as Mr. Jaitley seems to believe with his head firmly stuck in the sand) but also about capacity to handle the complex maze of the new law.
   Its not about just the economy, however: Mr. Modi's regime has displayed the same lack of compassion and empathy when it comes to social issues. For the first time assistive devices for the physically challenged- eg. wheelchairs, Braille books, physiotherapy equipment- have been taxed under GST- whatever happened to the Prime Minister's rhapsody about " Divyangs"? Forget any tangible step to help the farmers who continue to kill themselves in their thousands, he has not even condoled publicly their deaths. Not a word about the six who were killed in police firing by his government. Or about the increasing numbers of Muslims lynched by the mobs inspired by his party's bovine brand of politics. Or about the millions thrown out of employment by the government's cattle and beef policies. Or about the dozens blinded by the security forces in Kashmir and the hundreds killed there since he teamed up with the PDP- actually, a correction: he did have something to say to the Kashmiris- choose between terrorism and tourism ! Just the balm which a wounded state needs, don't you think? Surely some healing words are in order when your own citizens are dying by the hundreds, never mind who is at fault. Proforma speeches are no substitute for genuine compassion, and clever acronyms do not amount to substantive action, but these are all we have got so far.
   Proof of the govt's skewed priorities was provided last year when two reports were released: one, the Global Hunger Index and second, the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business. The former revealed India had slipped from 83rd place in 2000 to the 97th position in 2016, below even Bangladesh and Nepal; the second report showed that we had improved our position by one place: from 131 to 130 during this period. No importance was attached to the hunger index and govt. took it in its stride. All the official concern was on the business report, which was an obvious disappointment for officialdom given the hype created with Make in India, Stand Up India and Digital India. The Commerce Minister expressed concern, review meetings were held and even the PM asked union Ministries and the states to immediately analyse the reasons for the slow progress. Wide spread hunger and malnutrition are not important, start-ups are.
   Never have we had a government so lacking in compassion and genuine concern for its citizens. It is a cold and calculating dispensation. The bitter truth is that the present government is focused on a regulatory over-drive, rather than on welfare. Its all about linking Aadhar, PAN, bank accounts, mobile phones, gas connections, restrictive laws, sedition cases, bans, disciplining educational institutions, terrorism, black money and "surgical strikes." The poor can wait till we first have one united country, and, as Nishi Saran so perceptively noted in a recent article, the country is being united by hate, not love. This government cannot see beyond winning elections ( at which it is admittedly very good). Its holy grail is power, and the Trinity it worships is GDP, Hindutva and Nationalism. Sometimes I wonder: has India got its first Bionic government, where the heart has been replaced by an EVM or a POS swipe machine ?  

Sunday, 2 July 2017

DELHI BELLY : NOW FOR GST-II.


    Most economists are aware that the Indian economy is like an ice-berg: one tenth is visible above the surface and nine-tenths is hidden from the gaze of the tax man. Mr. Arun Jaitley, by promulgating GST at the bewitching hour on the 30th June, has taken care of the former but the problem of the latter part still remains. This under water, or underground, economy is, however, subject to a different kind of "taxation",  one in which the lucre does not go to the consolidated fund of the state but finds its way into the pockets ( and lockers) of various government functionaries from a whole host of departments: police, excise, income tax, revenue, transport, local bodies, PWD, forests, industries, etc. to name just a few. Each has its own slabs of rates and sub-rates, which again vary from state to state. All this creates massive confusion which is not good for the economy: any businessman or tax avoider wants a stable regime of under-the- table payments so that he can build them into his quotes or ensure that he doesn't get ripped off by his chartered accountant or tax consultant. It is time, therefore, to address this huge problem by bringing in GST II or the Graft and Sleaze Tax.
   If this sounds weird, let me inform the puzzled reader that a public movement for rationalising this kind of extortion and palm greasing has already been launched in this great country of ours. In an article in the 1st July issue of the Hindustan Times it has been reported that the folks of Nagaland have banded together under an organisation called ACAUT ( Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation) to demand a uniform rate of extortion by the rebel and militant outfits operating there ! There are nine such groups in this unfortunate state and they all levy different rates of " taxes" on the populace, which range from 12% to 24% of one's salary or income. In an improvement over Mr. Jaitley's tortured formulation, no one is exempt: even policemen pay up ! The long suffering citizens of Nagaland say they are "not against paying taxes to the parallel governments but demand a common structure."
   Why limit this demand to Nagaland ? Since, as I explained ( to the harsh cacophony of much trolling) in a recent article, corruption is an integral part of our culture and genes; let us therefore acknowledge it and rationalise it for the benefit of the larger economy. So far we have done so in piece meal and in yogic knee- jerk reactions by introducing VDS and the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana and whatnot- it is time now to catch the bull by the you-know-what and pass legislation to regulate this plunder. To promulgate, in other words, the GST II.
   The proposed Graft and Sleaze Tax would lay down one uniform rate of bribery throughout the country for notified transactions and approvals by government officials: award of projects, approval of building plans, issue of licences, traffic challans, registration ( or non-registration) of cases, purchase of rations, scrutiny of tax returns, transfer of property etc. It will be a long list since the government dominates every little cranny of our lives and its functionaries know how to extract a pay-off for every conceivable activity: from mid-day meals to releasing bodies from morgues.
   Fixing the slabs may present a bit of a problem since certain departments who have large " capital" budgets, or those who have unfettered powers to lock anyone up, have traditionally had high rates of " taxation" and may resist lowering them. But since the concept of equity and Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas lie at the heart of all government decision making, Mr. Jaitley must be firm and remind these greedy G-men that lower rates result in better compliance ! I would personally prefer just two slabs- 15% for non-plan deptts. and 20% for plan deptts. There would be only one exemption, primarily to correct a distortion that has crept into the present " tax" regime- dead men, or those who have been missing for more than seven years, would not be subject to any Graft and Sleaze Tax. They will , in any case, have to account to the Almighty in due course ( provided, of course, St. Peter has linked their Aadhar and PAN numbers to their names in the celestial register, since regrettably their bio-metrics can no longer be verified, post cremation or burial). But that's HIS problem: Mr. Jaitley has enough of his own, including that little matter of keeping Mr. Subramaniam Swamy away from the FM's chair.
   With the passing of GST-II corruption shall become seamless, across states and departments. Inter-state investment flows will improve, project costs will become more reliable and will not be held hostage to cost escalations just because the next Chief Engineer or Minister does an Oliver Twist and asks for more, manufacturers and suppliers will be able to standardise the dilution of quality and adulteration in their products thus improving ease of business, and the Eighth Pay Commission can build this into its calculations while computing increase in salaries of government servants. It will be a win-win for Mr. Jaitley whichever way you look at it. Time for him to book Parliament for another midnight twist-sorry, tryst. ? 

Saturday, 24 June 2017

GOVT'S KASHMIR POLICY IS HURTING THE INDIAN ARMY

                 
   The Govt’s inflexible, mute and muscular  policy on the internal disturbances in Kashmir is getting nowhere fast, forcing a plaintive Chief Minister to wail: “ Kashmir hamare paas hai, zamin hamare paas hai”, stopping just short of asking the obvious question: “lekin kya Kashmir ke log hamare paas hain?” The Center appears to be playing the role of a real estate developer in the Valley, grabbing the land and to hell with its occupants. Things have only got worse during its three year rule and Kashmir is, surely and not so slowly, being pushed into the lap of radicals and Islamists. The demand is gradually shifting from a tenuous, ill-defined “azadi” to a Nizam-e-Mustafa and adopting of sharia law: a reaffirmation of an identity that is not being acknowledged. The number of local militants has more than doubled to almost 150; India Today reports that about 3000 new Wahhabi mosques have sprung up, spreading incendiary jihadist ideology. Two mainstream politicians have been killed in the last month and banks are looted on a regular basis. 16 policemen have been killed this year alone, the highest number so far. More than 60 Whats App groups with a membership of perhaps 5000 dangerously motivated youth have begun to actively coordinate anti-govt. protests. Even school girls have turned stone pelters. This precipitous slide will not even be acknowledged by Delhi’s rulers who seem to have carved their indifference in stone.
   While the politicians continue to win elections on the back of this ersatz nationalism, it is the security forces, particularly the Army, which is paying the price- in blood and reputation. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal the number of soldiers killed in 2014 was 32; it shot up to 68 in 2016 and had reached 17 till March this year. Since March 2015, when Mehbooba assumed office, 457 people have been killed, including 134 security force personnel. Almost 40 soldiers have died since the surgical strikes. But the BJP has won 4 states and 3 Municipal Corporations since then, so obviously the policy- or lack of it-is working for someone ! Hence the current policy: If it ain't broke, don't fix it !
   Casualties apart, however, there is the growing concern that the Indian Army, one of the finest fighting forces in the world, is taking a beating to its reputation, ethos and values. The reason is that it is now being used as a police force in Kashmir, a role which any armed, highly trained, professional force is uncomfortable with. Armies are meant to counter external forces, not suppress their own citizens for extended lengths of time. The latent danger in this is that, over time, army personnel can acquire the same disregard for legal processes and human rights for which our police is infamous. This is the reason why the Army is kept insulated from the civil administration on a day-to-day basis and not involved in the maintenance of law and order, except in emergencies. But by deploying our jawans as a third line of police( after the state police and the CRPF) for years on end, the govt. was just asking for an incident like the “ human shield” to happen.
   When Farooq Ahmed Dar was strapped to a jeep and paraded through seven villages by Major Gogoi, alarm bells should have gone off everywhere. This was abduction and kidnapping, pure and simple, for Dar was no criminal, there were no charges against him, he was not even a stone pelter but a citizen who was returning after casting his vote. Law abiding forces don’t take hostages, terrorists do. One cannot uphold the law by breaking it, for that is the road to a Duterte like tyranny. But even worse was the reaction to the incident. The Army we know would have admitted that this was an aberration and would have apologised to the Kashmiri people, Major Gogoi would have been spoken to, and that would have been the end of a regrettable chapter. Instead, the govt. lauded the Major as a hero, the COAS justified his unlawful behaviour, he was allowed to appear on TV programmes, and the Army even awarded him a commendation. Retired Generals of various vintages, moustaches quivering on prime time TV, conferred on him the status of a war hero. Moderate voices like those of General Panag and Hooda were drowned out in this nationalistic hysteria.
   The COAS, General Bipin Rawat, has been making ill advised statements more suited to a politician. By accusing the Kashmiris of waging a “ dirty war” he has toed the govt. line but brought into question his understanding of his role: one doesn’t wage “ war” against one’s own citizens, nor does one treat them as enemies, as the General does. By terming students and stone pelters as “ overground supporters of terrorists” he has again revealed a shocking mind set that largely explains the political controversies that the Army has now got embroiled in, perhaps for the first time in its history. Any professional army simply does the job- sometimes difficult, sometimes distasteful- assigned to it by the government of the day, but it should refrain from aligning itself with any political judgements. And it should certainly not term its own citizens as terrorists without distinguishing between terrorists and protesters.
    By cosying up to the govt. and stepping into the realm of politics the Army is walking into the trap set for it . Mrs. Gandhi infamously wanted a “committed” bureaucracy: the BJP is more ambitious- it wants a committed Armed Forces. Towards this end it seeks to make the Army another emblem of its own version of   "nationalism”, along with the cow and yoga. And by the rules it has itself set out, any questioning of these symbols is anti-national. This is why we have all this sound and fury every evening on TV when any adverse question of, or comment on, the Army is vilified as unpatriotic. For the BJP has its own version of “ patriotism” too, as pointed out by Appu Esthose Suresh in a recent article: a concocted, toxic blend of nationalism and Hindutva.

     Clearly, the ruling party is using the Army as its own human shield to buttress itself from any criticism of its Sphinx like silence and continued use of force against the citizens of the Valley. It has deliberately created a narrative, with the help of war mongering TV channels, that any  criticsm of the Army is an insult to it. It is not. Firstly, the criticism is usually of the govt., not the army- by deflecting it on the latter a deliberate untruth is being created, Trump style. Secondly, in a healthy democracy no institution is above questioning or criticism: the right response to this is transparency, not exaggerated jingoism. Equally regrettably, the Opposition is using the Army as its current whipping boy in order to attack the govt. By allowing itself, under prodding by the politicians and a rabid media, to take sides, the army is unnecessarily getting caught in a cross-fire not of its making. Its hitherto spotless image is being tarnished.                                                    The Armed Forces should be alert to this danger, and not allow themselves to be coopted into any political party’s design or narrative. They should strongly resist being “ appropriated” by any political outfit for electoral gains, continue to do whatever difficult job is entrusted to them by the govt. of the day without unnecessary comments, and keep politics at arm’s length. If they do not, they shall identify themselves too closely with a particular political party and make themselves vulnerable to political attacks. The Opposition has  already started questioning the Army’s loyalties, neutrality and respect for law; the COAS has even been called, most regrettably, a “ street goonda.” These are ominous portents, and it is for our Generals ( including the very vocal retired ones) to ensure that the Armed Forces are not dragged into the partisan political discourse that is the bane of our times. They should realise that the politicians are only making use of them, reaping the rewards while the soldiers pay the price. What kind of a deal is that ?   

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

THE ODDITIES OF AUDIT

       [ This piece was published in the New Indian Express of 9.1.2017 as " The Oddities of Auditors ]

   The difference between a Chartered Accountant and an Auditor is that whereas the former looks for Cash in Hand the latter looks for Hand in Cash. And this precisely is what makes the Auditor the bane of every DDO ( Drawing and Disbursing Officer, poor sod) in the government. Every once in a while the Audit party descends on govt. offices like a biblical plague, armed with annual targets of audit paras and a tunnel vision that would do a mole proud. Your typical auditor is adept at looking through key holes, but as all of us who have done our share of peeping through key holes during our college days would testify, this kind of opticism ( to coin a word) suffers from a loss of perspective and context: it may help one to focus on a particular part of the female anatomy but it loses the larger picture. Audit parties also like to be well looked after and it is acknowledged in govt. circles that a well turned tandoori chicken is worth at least a dozen “dropped” audit paras. However, if the said avian has flown the coop this is taken stern note of by the mole, and the resultant observations can be quite remarkable.
  Sometime in the 1940's a British forester arrived at a remote forest rest house in upper Shimla district at the fag end of a severe winter. He noticed obvious signs of a bear ( the area abounds in Himalayan black bears) which had spent the winter in the deserted rest house and, as the anecdotal and precise British are wont to do, recorded the following in the register: “ It appears that Mr. Bruno has been staying here these winter months as there are signs of his presence all over the verandah and the grounds.” When the accounts of the rest house were audited the Audit party noted that the Department had been extremely lax in allowing Mr. Bruno to stay in the rest house without paying the room rent, and directed that the rent for the entire winter months be recovered from him, and in future no one should be permitted to stay there without obtaining a permit ! The HP Forest Deptt. is still looking for the errant Mr. Bruno to settle the para.
  On a more recent occasion an Audit party was auditing the accounts of a small Municipal Committee in Chamba district. To lighten its onerous burden it desired that some refreshments be provided ( at the expense of the Committee, of course). Since the lamb which is being led to the slaughter has very few choices, some gulab jamuns were duly served( note that the mandatory chicken was missing). When this particular bill came up for scrutiny Audit pounced on it with a vengeance and demanded to know the reasons for this “wasteful” expenditure. The Secretary of the MC, however, was equal to the task: he replied that the gulab jamuns had been purchased to feed to stray dogs in order to poison them ( this was before Mrs. Maneka Gandhi discovered her true passion in life). Now, auditors are a resilient sub-set of homo sapiens and, though initially taken aback by this impertinent reply, they quickly bounced back with this counter punch:           “ How many dogs were killed ? Please furnish documentary proof in support thereof.”  The Secretary, an experienced pugilist himself, delivered the TKO with this upper cut:  “ No dog appears to have died as it is reported that they have become immune to such gulab jamuns !” Ouch!!
  My own favourite anecdote was related to me many years ago by the then Director of the Delhi Zoo. Now, this Zoo has a large number of peacocks and at one point of time their numbers grew to more than what it could handle. The Director, quite sensibly in any one’s opinion but that of Audit, decided to sell the surplus birds. The process involved some minor expenditure which was duly reflected under the heading “ Retailing of peacocks.” When Audit saw this entry all its members emitted a collective Hallelujah for their tunnel vision had detected the mother of all audit paras. And what a para it was: “ Why was the retailing of peacocks necessary ? What happened to their original tails? Has responsibility been fixed for the loss of the original tails ? Has the quantum of loss been estimated? Were tenders invited for fixing ( retailing) new tails on them? Is the quality of the new tails similar to the original tails?”
  The Director sought an immediate transfer, thankful for his narrow escape- he confessed to me that he could not even imagine what would have happened if he had retailed a lion or a tiger !
  Acquiring the peculiar mentality of an auditor is no child’s play: it requires years of arcane training at the Yarrows Academy in Shimla and many more years asking probing questions. Rome was not built in a day, nor was Mr. Vinod Rai’s Coal scam report prepared overnight; it was preceded by years of probing questions by him on government functioning: Why were three biscuits served at the meeting when the rules permitted only two ? Why were tenders in newspapers ( costing Rs. 20000/) not published before purchasing pens ( costing Rs. 2000/)?  Why was expenditure on flavoured condoms ( for birth control) booked under the Family Planning Programme head and not under Food for Work ? Indeed, the Auditor is a prime example of reverse evolution and even the Gods do not tangle with him as the following parable indicates:
Two auditors died and arrived at the pearly gates. Just ahead of them were two clergymen but St. Peter motioned them aside and took the auditors into heaven at once. The clergymen protested: “ Why them ahead of us ? Haven’t we done everything possible to spread the word of the Lord?”
“ Yes”, said St. Peter, “ but these two guys have scared the hell out of more people than you ever did !’
Amen to that.