Saturday, 29 July 2017


    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' David Copperfield 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


[ 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


   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


    [ 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


   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.


Saturday, 8 July 2017


   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


    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. ?