Thursday, April 09, 2015

Cooking it up

I was watching the news. A very erudite-looking gentleman from Calcutta was polled by a journalist - asking him whether he would voluntarily give up his LPG subsidy (something the government has recently been exhorting all financially capable Indians to do). With an air of know-it-all conceit, this person goes on to say that he most definitely would not give up his subsidy - because, "Crude prices have fallen so much. At current levels, an LPG cylinder should cost Rs200, not Rs450."

It amuses me no end when such pseudo-intellectuals claim expertise on subjects that they actually know so little about. To set the record straight, at "current crude prices", the government loses almost Rs150 for every cylinder that it supplies to you through HPCL, BPCL or IOCL. And no, the government does not earn ANY taxes on LPG sales. Customs duty? Zero. Excise Duty? Zero. VAT? Zero. The government has essentially waived off all these levies to ensure that middle class consumers like you and me do not overpay on LPG.

If you are looking for an excuse to not give up the subsidy, you will find many -

1) I pay taxes, that's enough for the government.
2) The government is corrupt, it siphons off my money.
3) Politicians subsidise their own luxuries on taxpayer money. Chicken curry costs Rs27 in the parliament canteen. Let them give THAT up first.

This can go on and on.

The question is, what can you do, that is beyond what you are REQUIRED to do? As Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

The same individuals who, today, are finding it difficult to give up their LPG subsidy, wouldn't so much as bat an eyelid before spending Rs200 on a cup of coffee at a plush cafe. It is important to put these numbers in perspective. A household of 2-3 individuals barely consumes a cylinder a month. The Rs150 that you are loath to shell out for a cylinder that lasts you more than 40 meals a month, is a fraction of the amount you spend ordering a pizza on a whim one weekend. So if you decide not to give up your LPG subsidy, be honest enough to admit that it's a decision that is driven by purely selfish motives rather than any rational ones.

PS. This is the exact calculation of what LPG should cost at current crude prices, vs. what it actually costs consumers -

Sunday, June 08, 2014

A Minority of One

'Any man, more right than his neighbours, constitutes a majority of one' - Henry David Thoreau.

The times have changed, and the tables have turned. We have taken this beautiful idea, articulated by Thoreau in praise of independent thought and civil disobedience, and flipped it on its head. Far from having to deal with the lack of independent thought, we are now plagued by the other extreme: a cacophony of disparate voices. Identities, as they stand today, are so fragmented, that every man, for himself, constitutes a minority of one. There seems to be a strange fissiparous tendency that divides Indian society into tiny fractions, each claiming to possess an independent, authentic identity.

We have been reminded, time and again, by the great intellectuals in our midst, that India is a mere 'idea', whose very existence is a miracle - we are an improbable nation that must be grateful for the fact that we have been brought together in an accident of history, probably apt enough to be called the greatest socio-cultural experiment of modern civilisation. We are actively encouraged to 'celebrate our diversity', our leaders and administrators are exhorted to govern with sensitivity, with compassion and discretion, and appreciate the fact that India is a heterogeneous, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society of sharp contrasts, juxtapositions and multiple, alternate realities, only coincidentally co-existing in a perverse twist of fate. Sounds like a lot of poppycock? Well, apparently not: these are not mere incoherent ideas, these are the basic axiomatic principles which have crept into the discourse of governance in this country.

We are not just 'Indians', we are Hindus and Muslims, men and women, upper and lower castes, haves and have-nots. But that is not enough. We must also be tribals and peasants, capitalists and communists, conservatives and liberals, literates and illiterates, billionaires and the homeless, public servants and private masters, possessed and dispossessed, landed and landless, gay and straight, sane and insane. No other country, no other society, seems as eager to fragment itself into individual constituencies. With every passing year, a new 'idea of India' seems to emerge, one that was born from a parent 'idea' that divided itself into many new wholes - each one of which is only destined to undergo another socio-cultural mitosis to emerge unrecognized as multiple identities.

To be able to think about why this is so unnatural, let us only contrast ourselves with the other great society of our times, our accomplices in keeping that flickering flame of democracy alive: The United States of America. In some senses, America is an even more unlikely social experiment - a nation that did not exist for much of human history, one that had only started learning to walk, when we in India were well into a ripe old age of civilisational existence. The Americans are a country of immigrants - born out of not just multiple nationalities and ethnicities, but multiple streams of thought and principles of existence. They came in as Germans and Brits, Poles and Czechs, Sicilians and Africans (the latter being brought in forcibly). But one would be hard put today, to find any distinct cultural remnants of their immigrant past, in our American brothers. Instead, what has emerged, is a rather homogeneous American way of life. In fact, it has metamorphosed into a culture so alluring that the whole world appears to be in the throes of their allegedly crass, debauched 'culture' of pop music, fast food, corporate zeal and war mongering.

Of course, the debate on which of these two separate 'models' of civilisation will triumph in the long run, is an open one - when you are in the middle of an experiment, you are powerless to obtain any foresight into its result, or to course-correct. But as Keynes would have said, we are all dead in the long run - and what this experiment with celebrating diversity and distinct identities is doing to us in the meanwhile is dangerous, to put it mildly. Under the guise of empowering multiple constituencies and granting them special rights and privileges, we in India are only incentivising further fractious tendencies in society. In acknowledging the right to special treatment of any one section, we are playing with fire, encouraging the emergence of more such demands.

So does that mean we should discard the process of empowering our people, of reversing the injustice and neglect that they have suffered through history? Absolutely not. But two wrongs never made a right either. The solution to these problems, the salvation of  the downtrodden, heathen peoples of this country, lies not in the myriad 'schemes', 'programmes', 'missions', 'reservations', or 'reports' that the state so condescendingly doles in their name, but in the unglamorous process of everyday governance. Put simply, the state just needs to do its job. It doesn't necessarily need to do it better for some people and less diligently for the rest, in order for the wounds to heal and for 'development' to ensue.

For all the alarm raised against the tyranny of the majority, today there is none left in India. There is no one section of our country that can count itself as a numerically superior group anymore - we have all reduced ourselves into minorities, with the population of each tending towards one.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

National Integrity - Looking Beyond the Obvious

I often hear the platitudinal cry for "National Integration" repeated in the mainstream media - usually uttered by some pseudo-secular politician canvassing for votes. More often than not, the notion of the nation, and its integrity is narrowly confined to the idea of religious unity. We are repeatedly reminded of the dangers of religious nationalism, as if nation-building is the exclusive domain of the self-proclaimed secularists. I often wonder - how much of the hate-mongering that takes place in the name of religion is actually a reaction to obsessive secularism? Could it be, that by harping on the religious fault-lines in the Indian nation, by actively classifying sections of the population as "religious minorities", our 'secular' leaders consciously (and shamelessly) accentuate those rifts? Is true secularism not meant to be defined by the complete abstinence, on the part of the state, from the proclamation of any sort of religious identity, be it that of the minority or the majority?

I do not seek to deny the very existence of religious divisions in the Indian nation - that would be presumptuous, even foolhardy. Yes, we have stood divided at multiple points of our history. But I beg to ask - which modern society has not lived through checkered chapters in its history? The Americans had Slavery, the British had Colonialism, the Europeans had Fascism/Nazism, the South Africans had Apartheid. Most major modern civilisations have skeletons up their cupboards - but no country seeks to make those apparitions the centre-pieces of political debate. One simply moves on. Wounds heal, sins are atoned for, reconciliation follows. Keeping the bogeyman of religious division alive - through discrimination, appeasement and false sympathy - is regressive thinking at best; and a dangerous, debilitating threat to nationhood at its worst.

Amidst the din of religious-identity politics (masquerading as secularism), what tends to get lost is a threat which, I believe, is far more potent in its 'nation-breaking' ability: Racism. I dither to classify regionalism (or at least separatism) in the same bracket - for in my opinion, that devil lies interred in the cemeteries of India's twentieth-century-past (the recent bout of peace in Kashmir could be evidence?). Racism, however, is alive and kicking in twenty-first century India. Episodes such as the recent murder in Delhi of a young student from Arunachal Pradesh, and the assault on Ugandan women in the same state, only underscore the point - that Indians are a deeply racist people. That we, as a civilisation, have extremely debauched, depraved notions of race, skin-colour and genealogical superiority. And, sadly, these racist notions are furthered by our politicians (people like AAP leader Somnath Bharti), our movie stars (who shamelessly endorse skin-lightening products) and I dare say, our parents and community-elders. The latter's greatest failure lies in bringing up an entire generation, reinforcing in them an 'Us' vs. Them' mentality.

What has been systematically ingrained, must also be systematically purged from the psyche of a nation - we must stop indoctrinating our children into believing that people from North Eastern India, are in any way, different from the rest of us. We, as a society, must learn to celebrate duskier role models, not seek to bleach them in inane television commercials. The tacit, slow subversion of India's National Integrity is progressing through these, outrageously well-accepted notions of race and colour. The greater enemy, they say, is not one who is visible - rather, the one who is hidden, ensconced in the deepest corners of our social consciousness - it is about time that we hunt it out and exterminate it from this country. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Perspectives on the Aam Aadmi Party

There's a new kid on the block. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), suddenly, is the most talked-about political movement in the country. While the party itself has been in existence for over a year, this is the first time it has captured the collective imagination of millions of Indians. And this has happened by virtue of their sterling performance in the Delhi State Assembly elections. It has been interesting to watch the ebb and flow of popular perception about the party over the last one year - and I have tried hard to maintain a liberally impartial view of the AAP brand of politics over this period. Here is an honest account of my views about the AAP movement, and how they have evolved with time.

I must confess - I started out as an ardent supporter, not of the AAP itself, but of the IAC (India Against Corruption) movement - the larger umbrella organization which fathered the AAP (and which included stalwarts like Anna Hazare and Kiran Bedi). But as I have come to ponder a little deeper, the issues and ideologies espoused by the AAP, I have certainly vacillated. As things stand today, I am rather middle-of-the-road in my assessment of the party (as well as the larger political movement it epitomizes). My own opinions on the issues raised by them are neatly split - between enthusiastic admiration and cynical disapproval.

What I appreciate:

1) Commitment to grassroot issues -

What the AAP has proposed to tackle head-on, are the quotidian, almost unromantic issues that face the ordinary Indian. Problems like water, public toilets, environment, health centres and public schools. These issues, while often part of 'electoral promises', rarely occupy centre-stage in a party's ideology. Sadly, voters in India, contrary to their demands in public, have privately almost never voted on developmental lines (except in recent rare cases where leaders like Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Nitish Kumar have been voted back into power solely on the basis of their delivery on the developmental agenda): there have been umpteen instances where narrow considerations like caste and favours/handouts have defined electoral arithmetic.

2) The promise of transparently funded politics -

Nearly all political parties, cutting across the ideological left and right have resorted to inscrutable sources of funding. The AAP is the first platform that transparently declares their funding sources and maintains accounts. The campaign funding for the State Assembly elections in Delhi seemed to be largely crowd-sourced, with a scientific efficiency of allocation aided by some savvy analytics and social media/telecom use.

3) A thus-far principled stand on issues - 

How many times have we seen parties prevaricate on important issues and stances? The AAP has thus-far stuck to their principled stand of not soliciting support from either of the two national political parties to form a cobbled-coalition government in Delhi.

What I don't appreciate:

1) Luddite promises - 

AAP promises to cut electricity tariffs by 50%. In a state that already has one of the lowest tariffs across urban centres in India! (funnily, they are the highest in the avowedly populist Mamata Banerjee's Kolkata) If power generators/discoms were making 50% margins, India wouldn't be an power-deficit nation. Corporates would be falling over themselves to set up power plants and distribution companies. Instead, power producers are among the financially sorriest companies in the country today, with a large number of generators making a beeline before banks for restructuring their loans. What AAP fails to realize is that India is a fuel-deficient nation (despite having the highest reserves of coal in the world, but that is a debate for another day), and must pay a price for not encouraging cheaper sources like nuclear and hydroelectric energy. The real scandal in electricity distribution is in leakages, a problem which is largely far removed from Delhi - there are entire industries in other parts of India whose business model depends on free electricity - which is either stolen or siphoned off in the name of agricultural use (electricity is free or subsidised for most farmers in India).

2) Mob justice masquerading as 'decentralisation of democracy' - 

One of the AAP's marquee ideologies is 'decentralisation of democracy' - they radically propose that most decisions would be made by 'Mohalla sabhas' or neighbourhood gatherings, which would have the power to delay payments to contractors and would 'vote' for which public facilities would/would not be constructed in the neighbourhood. If decision-making could so easily be outsourced to crowds, why would we need leaders in a democracy in any case? Why not have public gatherings to try criminals and pass laws too? What the enthusiastic supporters of such Mohalla sabhas fail to realize is that crowds are not equipped to take unpopular decisions that might actually benefit them in the longer term or even benefit a collective that is larger than the individual neighbourhood which votes on the issue concerned. Oddly enough, such ideas remind of the kangaroo courts which the Scarecrow (Crane) runs in the epic move, The Dark Knight Rises. Yes, our leaders do not always take decisions which are in the best interest of the public, but the solution is not to crowd-source their decisions. It is to elect better leaders.

3) Right to Recall - 

The AAP intends to implement a system where a government (or an individual representative) is recalled or dismissed by the electorate before the end of its stipulated five year term if it disagrees with its policies or is dissatisfied with its performance. Again, one must remember that the policies of governments seldom see immediate results. In their quest for immediate gratification, people could well end up recalling well-meaning governments every time an unpopular decision is taken. Let me give you an example. Every time fuel prices are hiked in India, we see large-scale protests and collective crying-foul. Almost no one realises that these are tough decisions which must be taken in an oil-importing nation exposed to the vagaries of international oil prices and a floating exchange rate. In the absence of price hikes, India would have continued to consume larger quantities of oil, importing more of it and hence fueling even more inflation because of higher current account and fiscal deficits. So in the longer-run, these price hikes are a bitter pill, which must be taken to prevent uglier ailments. Electorates, unfortunately, do not find long-run economic decision making palatable.

So, on balance, I remain equivocal in my assessment of the AAP. My views, like the party itself, are rather nascent and in a state of flux - I would rather wait to see the AAP tested out in the grind of daily governance before passing judgment. It is easy to oppose - but rather difficult to face the music on the hot seat of government. Having said that, I sincerely wish and pray for the success of movements like the AAP - it is not often that a political party reinstates our faith in Indian democracy.


Wednesday, October 02, 2013

A foot in the door...

As the country heads into parliamentary elections, the political scene has certainly heated up. A number of issues are being debated in newsrooms and living rooms across the nation. While politics takes the limelight (and almost every event in the country these days assumes, or is given, a political overtone), one must remember that at the centre of most of these debates lies an ideological divergence. 

At the risk of oversimplification, the most fundamental question at the heart of these debates is one that concerns the direction that the country now needs to take. And the multitudinous schools of thought eventually end up draining into one of two major streams: the ideological left or the ideological right. I am not in any way claiming that India votes on the basis of these ideologies - no, there are hundreds of other, more petty, considerations of caste, religion, lobbies - the works. My point concerns the broader debate around the policies that each constituency wants its government, once elected, to follow. On the one hand, there is the school of thought that firmly believes that India was better off following the Nehruvian socialist route, that we have been led astray by ideological Satans of the right. On the other, there is the school which believes that India has over-experimented with half-baked socialism. They believe that what India needs is more openness to market oriented growth, and that any growth and concomitant development that has come about in the past couple of decades is by virtue of this unshackling of policy.

This debate is important because the stakes have never been higher. 

Almost everyone agrees that India seems to have lost the plot. The socialists bemoan the entrenched inflation that has hit the average Indian hard and eroded real incomes. The capitalists argue that we have gone back to the days of lethargic decision making and protectionist policy-making that serves no one's interests (not even those of the poor in whose name these policies are embraced). Both agree that India needs change. While the former are baying for a return to state control and subsidy-economics, the latter are crying hoarse that the economy needs to be rescued from government and bureaucratic control, that the 'animal spirits' need to be unleashed.

Before taking one or the other side, I believe that every self-respecting Indian must give reason a chance - and decide his/her loyalties based on facts. And the facts are that neither Nehruvian socialism nor crony capitalism have got India anywhere. Yes, it is true that we have made remarkable progress since the opening up of the economy in 1991. It is also true that a concern for the poorest of the poor should be the moral compass for any government of the day. However, the governance that we have received for most of our existence since 1947 neither champions the cause of the poor nor truly unleashes the entrepreneurial spirit of the economy. 

The funny thing is, depsite all the bickering in pseudo-intellectual debates, these two schools of thought can and must co-exist. For that to happen, government needs to exit the sectors where its presence is superfluous and increase its presence in those where its absence is conspicuous - yes, the government has no business running corporations or holding stakes in them. It has no business controlling the natural resources in this country that are desperately required for growth, and which it hasn't been able to supply in the quantities that get anywhere close to real demand. One of the biggest reasons why we have a shamefully high current account deficit today, is because the government has run coal and oil production into the ground - state oil and coal companies are among the most inefficient state-owned entities in the free world. In an energy-deficient nation which desperate needs fuel to power economic growth that will both alleviate poverty and improve standards of living, being unable to mine natural resources that one possesses in abundance (and therefore having to import them) is criminal.

At the same time, government needs to increase its presence in sectors where no private corporation has been able to deliver the goods to the farthest reaches of this country. Sectors like education and healthcare have seen great stories in entrepreneurship but the truth remains that the private sector will only serve those sections of society that it finds economically viable to serve. There are millions in our villages and in the forsaken slums of our cities who do not have money to pay for their food, leave alone their medicines or for their children's education.

The government will only find funds to serve the poorest of the poor if it stops subsidizing the middle class and the rich farmers, who are the real beneficiaries of the egregious subsidy policies of the government. The food security bill, while excellent in its intentions, will never be able to serve the truly deserving sections of our society in whose name it is being championed. We just do not have the adequate infrastructure and the delivery systems to reach those people or to ensure that the benefits that are meant for them do not end up in the hands of middlemen or undeserving vote-banks.

I wish that the people of this country would see through the real issues behind these debates and vote wisely in the upcoming polls.  The current parliamentary elections will be one of our most critical ever, given that the nation has a lot to lose from losing its way - we have a foot in the door when it comes to raising India into the league of developed nations, and doing justice to our billion-plus citizens. We can either barge in and claim what is rightfully ours or allow the doors of prosperity to be shut in our face forever.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Not all those who wander are lost...

As I found the last dregs of energy to clamber up the final leg of my climb up the mountain, I was greeted by a truly remarkable sight. Through the fleeting white clouds on the horizon, rose tall and mighty, the Annapurna Himalayas. It was a cold, damp evening and we were not really expecting to get the fabulous views of the peaks that the early morning climbers are known to be welcomed to. We had finished our trek for the day ahead of time and we did not really have much else to do - other than to climb further. And climb we did. Up the side of the famed Poon Hill, a feature that lends its name to many an adventurous trek in the kingdom of Nepal. Travellers and trekkers from every corner of the world, like streams rushing to a river, find their ways to Poon Hill from different points in the Pokhara trekking circuit. So did we. We wound our way up from Kathmandu to Pokhara on a rickety old Toyota car. And trekked from there to Poon Hill, via Ghorepani and Ulleri.

There was nothing much to do at the summit of Poon Hill if you got there in the evening. Devoid of the splendid views of a cloudless dawn, Poon Hill seemed abandoned, almost unwelcoming, and we loitered around and waited for the sun to set. There was a watchtower, for those looking for unhindered panoramas of the 7000m plus Himalayan peaks. Even in the evening sun, whenever you could catch a glimpse of the snow-capped mounts, they seemed majestic - towering above everything else and staring back benevolently like a protective sentry.

That's when I met him. I walked up to the edge of the cliff and stared out into the horizon, as if wondering if this was indeed the end of the world. I was giddy with mirth, a feeling of footloose pleasure having crept into my spirit after the picturesque trek up to the hill. As I looked far and wide across to the other end of the open expanse, I noticed him standing on the edge and clicking away with his SLR camera. His tent was pitched just a few yards off the spot where he stood and he seemed like he was cold and would step back in soon enough. I waited a few moments and then stepped up to him and said hello. As we talked and got to know more about each other, I realized I had met a man who was truly 'free' - His name was Christian and he was from a small town in Sweden.

Christian had a fantastic story - he travelled the world like this, for six months every year, while he waited tables at a small restaurant back at home for the other six. He earned just enough to pay for his travels on a shoestring budget. I had a minor epiphany at that moment. I realized that life is far simpler than we choose to believe it is. That the truest experiences are the ones which involve the simplest of pleasures - travelling, walking, running, climbing, singing, spending time with your family or simply enjoying a book or an engaging conversation over a cup of hot coffee. Everything else is an unnecessary complication that we invent to make ourselves feel important. I realized that the greatest insights in life come from within - that it is important, once in a while, to spend time with oneself and travel alone - to wander aimlessly and see the greatest sights and sounds the world has to offer. For, as Tolkien once said, not all those who wander, are lost...