Friday, December 9, 2016

Chapter 3 - Naggar

She was sleeping. The train journey's endless meandering was proving to be too dull for her energy, and so she chose to do what she could think of - sleep with her head in her mother's lap.

Shailesh had been playing with her for an hour or so, and then after sleep, he tried going through the magazines he'd purchased from the Wheeler stall at the station of departure. Caste, terrorism, Ram Mandir - these were all he could see, and frankly, he was sick of all the verbiage the magazines contained. All the rhetoric had gotten them nowhere, he thought, as he kept the magazines in the seat pocket ahead, and chose instead to stare into the monotony of the passing scenery. You could see the weather change in the color of the crop, was his father would often remark. Simple man that he was, his superstitions were too much to handle for him. He remembered that time when his father had asked him not to touch the broom with his foot.

"Beta, it's a symbol of Lakshmi. Don't insult it," remarked his father, as his mother took it away to keep it as some elevated spot in the house.

Shailesh felt odd at this insistence of his father, but he had learnt by then that silence was his ally.

Frankly, Shailesh was still thankful to his father to bear his college expenses. He had sold of his land in parcels, and despite earning a pittance from that and the farming produce income he had, he never gave Shailesh an opportunity to complain. That, he thought, helped him see how far the world had gone ahead, while people in these villages were still worried about ill omens.

His father had not refrained from appealing to him to come for perhaps what he thought was the last time shraadha would be done. Considering his father’s advance age, he was not surprised at this thought - he was already touching eighty now. Shailesh had tried offering him a stipend from his money order for his medical bills. He had even tried getting him to move to Delhi, but to no avail. Thankfully, he was always in the pink of health, never complaining of any ailments. But time was clearly running out now. It was clear to Shailesh that the matter was not any more about it, but of when. The clock was ticking backwards now. Perhaps, sighed Shailesh, the time had come for them.

It had been a while, nearly a decade since he saw his home. The last time was that fateful time, when his mother had passed away. She had passed away unexpectedly - the previous day she was all happy and smiling. But she had seemed very distant all day long. It was another one of those breaks from the city he would take; only this time, he was forced to do things that he did not wish to. All the rituals around death - the Garuda Purana recital, the pind daana, the immersion of ashes - all of it was repugnant in nature. He remembered that conversation with his father that night.

“Pita, why are we doing all these wasteful meaningless rituals? Mother has died, simple as that.”

“Beta don’t talk like that. These rituals will help her atma’s journey forward. We are bound by our duty and dharma to do that for her.”

“What duty? This is all just hogwash. You are insulting her memory. There is no God, no soul, no heaven or hell.”

“Don’t say that son. It is incorrect to talk like that. This is our dharma.”

“If superstition is our dharma then I do not want to be a party to it.”

“Shailesh, I know you do not like what we are doing, but for your mother’s sake, or for my sake, please just stay back.”

He remembered how his father was pleading the next morning as he packed his bags. His father had kept a small picture of his mother, and was advising him to get it enlarged in the city and then light incense or at least keep the picture garlanded. He had refused to take the picture along - a body made of atoms and molecules is not worth these shenanigans, and is only insulting rationality and modern knowledge with superstition and ignorance.

The train came to a halt. The station had arrived. He motioned Neeti to wake up Kusum, and a sleepy Kusum stirred to life, thanks to her mother’s soft words. There was still some distance to go - at least a hundred kilometers to be precise. Forty years, and still nothing much had changed. They still had to get down at Naggar and take a tonga or wait for a bus to reach the village. Shailesh began wondering if he made a mistake by bringing the two along on a journey that made little sense to them. All of a sudden, there was an announcement on the train station.

“There is a curfew in Naggar. All trains are suspended; I repeat, all trains are suspended. Passengers are requested to wait at the station till further notice.”

Shailesh was taken aback. Curfew? In Naggar? How was it even possible? This was one of the sleepiest, laziest places ever - how could it come to this?

Neeti and Kusum looked completely confused like a score of other passengers who shared the station with them at that time. “Just wait,” spoke Shailesh, as he walked towards the waiting room. “Is there space?” he asked the guard outside, who was motionlessly chewing gutkha away into ignominy.

“How many people?”

“Two. Plus a little girl.”

“I have space for two people right now.”

Shailesh was a bit relieved. At least Neeti and Kusum can go in. He signaled them to come in, and paid some advance for the waiting room facility.

Walking into the waiting room, he just looked around and wondered how little things had changed here. The teak wood cabin’s paint coat looked long overdue, and the musty smell of moss from around the hill overpowered the air. It was autumn season, and that would mean dampness inside this wooden shed, he thought, and told Neeti to keep the windows open. With the two settled, he walked out to inquire about the status and wlked up to the station master’s office, conspicuous by his absence. A peon sat there aimlessly, and stared in an unpleasant manner, offended by the unnecessary intrusion. “What do you want?” he scoffed.

“Do you know anything about the curfew?” asked Shailesh, the journalist spirit of his flaring up.

“Why are you a journalist?” mocked the peon.

“As a matter of fact I am. From Delhi,” spoke Shailesh, displaying the ID he always carried in his wallet. “Tell me, why is there a curfew?”

“As far as I know there was police firing in the chowk today. Protestors got injured, and twenty two have died.”

Twenty two dead in police firing! Shailesh was shocked. “How come? What are they protesting about?”

“The usual - a separate state for these hill districts. Why do you bother babu? Go back to your Delhi, there are bigger matters at hand.”

Shailesh saw disinterest in the man, and decided to go back. Waiting was the only thing that he could do. He decided to go back to the waiting room, and apprised Neeti, who was overseeing a playful Kusum.

“So how long will we have to wait?” said a nervous Neeti. “Pita must be waiting for us.”

“I think we will have to wait the night. But we can know that only if we get a ground assessment. I will have to venture out Neeti; I will have to file a report on the situation from here.”

“Don’t go. We are surrounded by strangers here,” pleaded Neeti.

“Neeti, if there is one thing you do not have to worry about in Naggar, it is the strangers. No one will disturb you here, rest assured. I will be back soon,” motioned Shailesh, as Neeti saw him walk briskly, and soon he faded into the distance, as a blur walked out of the spot designated to be the exit of the station.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Integrating Electric Vehicles into India's Public Transport - Plugging the Gap

Ashok Leyland Launching Circuit, India's First Indigenous Electric Bus (Courtesy: The Hindu Business Line)
The recent air pollution crisis episode of Delhi has only reaffirmed what most people already know - we need to use less cars, crop stubble in other states has to stop burning, better dust control is needed etc. One attractive idea that has been hanging fire for some time (since the time Mr Praful Patel was minister of industries under the UPA) has been the push for electric vehicles. In recent times, we have seen some progress into the area - we have a much improved car in E2O from Mahindra since their Reva purchase that is developed in India apart from such cars as Prius, Civic Hybrid and Scorpio hybrid being in the market. We have seen several electric two wheelers come onto the roads. Ashok Leyland recently announced the launch of its own electric bus, while Mercedes and Volvo can bring this technology into the Indian market any time, given their assembly capabilities in India. We have a major National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020 (NEMMP) in place for a while targeting 100% electric vehicles on the road, and a grant scheme - Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric vehicles (FAME) in India since 2015. Nitin Gadkari, the current Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) has often expressed the idea of retrofitting car engines with battery technology. However, despite a broadly supportive regulatory environment, we have at best only come up with mass deployment of lead-acid battery operated rickshaws as a success story. Attempts to adopt buses running on battery technology have seen some success in recent times, with Himachal Pradesh (HP) securing a grant for 25 buses under the FAME scheme, and Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) giving an in principle approval for acquiring 150 electric buses into its overall fleet of 6000 buses. Moreover, as the NEMMP has identified, thousands of jobs - direct and indirect - can be easily created if original equipment manufacturing is promoted in Indian states. However, even these have stumbled over roadblocks that were unforeseen. So what prevents the adoption of electric vehicles in India? And what kind of electric vehicles should we focus on?

While the policy environment is broadly supportive, there are several hoops that still have to be jumped before reaching the goal. One ironic thing came up when the government of HP tried to register electric buses for operations - the current Motor Vehicles Act has no provision to register electric buses, thereby declaring such a vehicle legally ineligible for pliancy under all circumstances. Mercifully, this is not the case with cars, and electric rickshaws have been exempted from such requirements. However, not addressing such basic points is a major impediment, as it adds to idle capacity. Given the National Green Tribunal orders over the Rohtang Pass case and the urgency of the state to deploy alternatives so as to not kill tourism altogether, allowing capacity to idle away due to lack of due diligence and sufficient regulatory and legal preparedness is nothing short of a crime.

Another bizarre aspect has been the absolute lack of battery technology development in India. Attempts by the Modi government to woo Nikola Tesla to set up manufacturing base in India has not fructified thus far. Japan and China’s capabilities are far ahead; however, there may be concerns with new rules of Extended Producer Responsibility on batteries in India, given the lack of a proper formal ecosystem to dispose batteries. In such a scenario, there is a need to build capacity for disposal in the appropriate scientific manner. Experience from the automobile sector on end-of-life vehicle (ELV) disposal has left much to desire, given that we are still struggling to set up and operationalize vehicle scrap yards. Haste has to be exhibited in resolving this challenge swiftly in order to allow disposal. Much as the lead acid battery market works successfully, lessons need to be learnt and also extended to particularly the electric two wheelers and e-rickshaws, which currently operate on lead acid batteries.

One sticky point that seems to have no proper answer is the lack of supporting charging infrastructure. Much like fuel stations, electric vehicles also need to have places where batteries can be charged up to allow vehicles to move. The cost of such infrastructure is considered high, and so far the government has not explored sufficiently the ways to go about creating capacity in this space. The answers are however easy if one taps into the current energy policy scenario. Oil marketing companies (OMCs) are currently struggling to meet renewable energy obligations handed to them under the 175GW renewable energy program. These OMCs can easily turn this threat to their business into an opportunity and build charging infrastructure running on renewable resources to complement their fuel stations. Similarly, financially weak electricity distribution companies can tap into this new source of potential income by connecting renewable energy supplies, which are also presently struggling to get the appropriate price on Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) market, with the charging requirements and pass on some of the benefits. States like HP are already considering announcing a special tariff and exploring ways to supply more than surplus power from hydro power resources towards charging electric buses; other states can simply tap into wind energy, which tends to peak at night time, and divert it towards charging of vehicles. This idea as part of a smart grid concept is not a new idea, but it is an idea whose time has certainly come.

With these problems having been identified, one additional question that comes up is on the type of electric vehicle whose adoption should be encouraged at a large scale. E-rickshaws and e-scooters are good, but they cannot be used beyond long distances, and can at best complement public transport. We already have the mass transit rails working on electricity. Electric cars are a good option; however, the total cost of ownership (TCO) is very high despite insignificant operation and maintenance (O&M) costs. By far, the best option in this regard is the one that is picking up only because of China’s movement - electric buses. As an analysis by the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) for the city of Bengaluru shows, the difference between of TCO of electric buses and diesel and CNG buses is not high; and the viability gap is small enough to be covered by a one time grant to spur the economic benefits. Grant programs such as the FAME Scheme are ideal to cover the viability gap, and must be used to accelerate the adoption of electric buses.

All major cities are right now struggling to operate their fleet of buses, as they face several challenges. There are too many old buses that are being retired out, and the administration is struggling to replace them with new buses. The fuel costs are burning a big hole in the finances of the state and city owned transport companies, who are facing another crisis in generating sufficient revenue due to subsidized ticket pricing. Given the significance of public transportation and its direct impact on the quality of environment as well as the fact that transport sector contributes to about 25% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, electric vehicles are a no-brainer for a country like India that also has the hurdle of fuel security to jump over. Electric vehicles are certainly not a silver bullet, but they can go a long way in synergizing forces across several sectors in India.It is time for the elephant to be electrified, so that it can now sprint towards its multiple objectives of mitigation, job creation, grid stabilization and energy security among others, all in a go.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Meaning of being Sanatani

Yesterday evening, as I was attending the sandhya aarti at the local KaliBari, waiting for the unveiling of Durga's pratima, I had a moment that felt too deep to not be shared.

As the pujari carried out the aarti with the lamp, camphor and flowers among other things, the dhak drummers called in for the puja accompanied the aarti by giving it rhythm. As Maa Kali kept staring at us, there were two small kids who were dancing to the beats of the dhak inside the temple, absolutely overjoyed by the musical overtones to the aarti.

All of a sudden it dawned upon me that there's Shakti everywhere. It was in the beats of the dhak, it was there in the joy and dance of the children, it was there in the vigorous aarti of the pujari, it was there in the bells that people entering the sanctum rang. It was an overwhelming moment to experience the leela and maya simultaneously getting dissolved into the realization of this connect that we humans have with the divine force that flows through this universe, nurturing it and giving it strength to carry on and achieve its true potential.

While several people question rituals and ask for complete abandon, rituals cannot be thrown out of the window because they carry great significance with them. The ability to create such moments of realization, where ego dissolves and you shine forth in true splendor of your being, are reasons why they provide to be an important first step.

As I understood it personally in that moment, each and everything carried great significance. The image of Kali is black not because it is a color, but because it questions our ability to understand the significance of darkness and light, as someone had said. Her blood red tongue and the blood filled bowls signifies the life force flowing in our blood through the arteries and veins. The pushp mala is not just to please Devi; it also helps us understand the fickleness of everything on this planet. The aarti lamps remind us of the internal light our aatma, and its connect with the Divine, while the dhoop and gandha help us to unite our various senses to make us understand that our understanding Paramesvara is beyond the senses unless you completely surrender them after being overwhelmed. In these moment realization I understood why I am proud of being a Sanatani, and what it means to be one.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Chapter 2 - Delhi

Shailesh had walked back home. The strikes had ensured that no buses would ply even today. Thankfully, he did not live far from his work place unlike many colleagues of his in Delhi. The application for the scooter had not yet been granted. Of course it would not - he had tried to be honest, and not grease palms like a good citizen, only to realize just how empty those ideals sound in the face of a grim reality.

Being a man of the hills meant that he had not piled on a lot of weight, and had long legs. Perhaps it is genetic in nature, this trait often found in the people of the mountains. But it was worrying to see the chaos and anarchy that Delhi was descending into. There were protests everyday; the nation’s politics had ignited sparks people had almost forgotten about. On top of that were the concerns of blasts by terrorists. In moments like these, where an uninterested party gets caught in the crossfire, even these long legs will not take one far, brooded Shailesh, as he rang the bell on the door, only to be greeted by a concerned Neeti, his wife.

“Thank God you’re back,” a worried Neeti said, looking visibly relieved. “Of all the days, you had to go to work today, in the midst of all those protests. I hard someone immolated himself. Is he dead?”

“Well they got him to a hospital, or so I heard,” said Shailesh, seating himself down, observing his wife bring water from the kitchen, a stone’s throw in this tiny city ground floor flat. “Where’s our daughter?”

“Kusum is sleeping. She could not wait any longer. She may have to go to school tomorrow - who knows?” said Neeti, handing over the glass of water. “The food is there on the table. Shall we eat?”

A tired Shailesh nodded in affirmation, as Neeti walked over to the table and removed the lids to reveal chanaa dal and khatta along with rice.There were whole green chillies kept on the side for that extra zing that Shailesh was just not in the mood for tonight. He quietly ate through the plate of rice, observed all the time by a grim Neeti. “By the way,” she mumbled, “Pita has sent a letter.”

Shailesh kept munching on the dal soaked rice. However, the mind started racing towards the past. All he could think of ironically was his dead mother’s body, and that day of revulsion he had experienced, which he had promised his family would never see. He chose not to react, and continued to chew.

“Pita has said that shraadha is approaching in another two weeks. He has requested our presence there. You can read the letter if you want to,” said Neeti, conscious of the twitch Shailesh had on the mention of her father-in-law. It had been long since they had met, but Neeti always remembered him as a simple affable man with very few needs from life. She always admired his bravery in living all alone in an almost-deserted village. As she watched table to wash his hands. She followed suit, and handed him the letter, and saw him read through it. A pensive man, he moved to change and enter bed, observed silently all along by Neeti, unable to read Shailesh’s mind. Kusum had never met her grandfather, and here was a moment she thought, where it could happen. But understanding Shailesh’s mind in this undecipherable moment was proving to be a task. They had often disagreed vehemently to go in the past, with Shailesh often being the one to pour cold water.

But things are different this time around.

“Do you think we should go?” asked Shailesh, surprisingly Neeti.

“Well you know he never leaves home. And your daughter has not even met her grandfather,” said Neeti, nervous as to how he would react. “You know, schools are going to be closed for a while, as there are major security concerns regarding the terror attacks, not to forget the protests.”

Shailesh was fiddling with the table lamp, repeatedly switching it on and off. He seemed distant to Neeti. Something else seemed to preoccupy his mind. Neeti opted for silence, believing that as usual, this conversation was going nowhere. All of a sudden, Shailesh spoke;

“Let us go this time.”
Neeti stared in surprise. Never would she have believed that Shailesh would say anything else but no. This was proving to be impossible to comprehend.

“Baba has said that he wants to see his granddaughter’s face/ He is saying that he believes that he does not have much time left. Perhaps we could go and convince him to move with us to Delhi,” thought Shailesh aloud.

Neeti said, “That is fine Shailesh, but do you think he will want to come?”

Monday, September 19, 2016

Chapter 1 - Fading Autumn

The sun was beating down an hour ago, but clearly it changed its mind, as it decided to beat a hasty retreat. Of course, there was not much to complain; it had decided to streak the skies with the colors of its flames that it was showering till then. Brilliant oranges, vivid violets and fiery reds just spread across the sky like a rash, complimenting in part the fading greens and deepening browns of the autumn hills. Right of a painting, one would say standing there, taken aback by the sheer brilliance of something as ordinary as a sunset. Of course, it is a matter of great deliberation as to whether a sunset is ever ordinary. However, what was certain was that this sunset was not ordinary at all.

Nek Chand was standing outside the house, staring at the sun. He had come out to pick up those jars of pickles that he had kept out in the sun for preparation. Making these pickles was an old tradition in the family that his wife, like many other women before, had carried on till her last day. Getting the vegetables was such a pain in the winters, and these pickles were the only reminder of what it meant to have vegetables in the harsh and cold winter that was knocking on our door. The tradition had been going on since time immemorial.

Nek Chand recalled that first memory of childhood still carved into his senses. He was just four - or was it five years? - old. His mother was busy bottling fresh pickles while opening up the old bottles with the other women of the village, and the boys were playing in the courtyard, oblivious to what was going on. Just then, his mother called him out, and asked him to open his mouth, and before he could react, put in a piece of the raw mango pickle into his mouth.

That tingling taste of the spices - fennel, pepper, chillies, turmeric, salt - and mustard oil freshly pressed in the local oil press came rushing back to him. Sadly, he thought, there was no one left to do it. But as long as he was alive, thought Nek, the tradition will go on. There were hardly any people in the village, since the exodus that had begun twenty years ago. Many of them, including his own son, had left the village. All that they had learned with the schooling was that they needed to study further. And there was no other place like the big city far, far away, to discover another world beyond this world.
Light had still not gotten away completely, when he saw Rajbhatt, the pundit (village priest), walk along the path downhill. He lived nearer to the khudd, that gentle giant that flowed into the river somewhere after those three mountains he saw in the line. Thank God, he often thought, that my senses work properly. That indeed is more important to feel alive sometimes than even the physical ability of the body to work.

“Namaskar punditji! Kutthun chaliye? (where are you going?)” he shouted out. The pundit, a frail man, was walking down with a hunch of his own. He had been invited into the village around the same time that Nek Chand had married, and had ever since been there. And perhaps, wondered he, he was one of the four people left behind, insistent on dying with the village.

The pundit, an old wrinkled man, smiled from behind the folds of his skin, and motioned a greeting. He was in fact walking downwards to his house. “Namaskar Nek Chand! I was in fact coming to your house. There was an important thing to discuss with you.”

Nek Chand cleared the verandah and turned on the light bulb, lighting up his courtyard. Raj Bhatt sat down, heaving a sigh of relief. His tired body was happy to drink the cool water and jaggery offered to him, and soon, he entered the kitchen, sharing the cold dinner of rice and lentils with a mango chutney that Nek Chand had prepared during the day. Nek Chand noticed how just like him Rajbhatt ate very little. Age kills the will to eat as well, he thought, as they soon, started talking.

“Have you heard Nek Chand,” began Rajbhatt, “there is a tiger going around the villages?”

“Tiger? Really?” a surprised Nek Chand spoke. “The last time anyone saw a tiger was twenty years ago. Even that one was shot down by the sarkari hunter who came in the jeep. You remember Rajbhatt?”

“Yes indeed. But another jeep came today. A new hunter babu has come, and he said that the tiger has been causing harm to cattle in other villages. They are afraid that it may even start to attack humans. And all this in the middle of pitrapaksha is not a good omen.”

Pitrapaksha! It struck Nek Chand out of the blue. Sita’s death anniversary was around the corner. “Sita died fifteen years ago this month, didn’t she?” spoke up Nek Chand.

The date’s clearly around the corner. And he had not even sent his letter to Shailesh. For the past few years, he had been ignoring the village, saying he was too busy. Perhaps he was saying the truth, thought one part of Nek Chand, while the other kept saying that Shailesh did not want to come back at all. After all, thought Nek, why would he come back? What was left behind in this decrepit, decaying village that lost more and more people with each passing day?

And yet, hope persisted. His granddaughter - he had only seen her photo - had never visited the village. He wanted to hand over Sita’s anklets to her as per her wish. Would it be possible, perhaps, to hand over that last memory before he could depart peacefully? But why did this though come in suddenly?

“Yes she did. I remember how difficult it was for you and Shailesh that day, when you bid goodbye along the river. I did the final rites. The first of many that came since then,” sighed Rajbhatt. Clearly, he had seen one death too many, and seen the erosion of a vibrant community over time, plagued by many desertions.

“So is Shailesh coming?”

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Punjab's State Elections - Bankruptcy of Ideas?

The Faces Lack Any Ideas (Courtesy Punjab News Express)

It is a pity to see the level of discourse taking place in Punjab, a state still trying to emerge from the wreckage of militancy over three decades after 1984. While addressing the just concerns and the still pending problems of the Sikhs in Punjab while addressing reconciliation is a necessity, it is a pity that the agenda in Punjab of all parties either hinges around swapping corruption charges or boastful claims of dragging X and Y to jail by their ears. The drug addiction problem of Punjab is not a unique isolated phenomenon as is made out by certain sections of the press - one only look at the pubs of Delhi or the alleys of Shillong to realize the national epidemic it has become. However, all political parties are complicit in their behavior by commission and omission for letting this problem grow not just in the state but across the nation.

In the midst of all the hoopla surrounding 2017 state elections, there are strong undercurrents developing that need to be seen more closely to understand what the state is going through. Events over the past few weeks has begun to belie hopes of a meaningful change that Punjab and Punjabi voters have been yearning for. Parties want to stick to the tried and tested faces and combinations as they are bereft of ideas. It is either a Coffee with Captain or Arvind Kejriwal ke haseen sapne backed by a perpetually drunk Bhagwant Mann, coupled with absolutely nonplussed BJP and a combative but silly Akali Dal led by the unintentionally funny Sukhbir Badal, and all we have is the perfect recipe for a bland, issue-less election. In the midst of all this another political party full of well meaning but disgruntled political workers of multiple parties gangs together, making this election look like a free-for-all vis-a-vis the politicians at the expense of the hapless voters.

In a state where the youth exodus has become very large due to paucity of sufficient jobs for the well educated, or where the farming incomes have reduced due to land holdings and debt, we have CDs of adultery and stings going around by the dozen, and useless self proclaimed journalists and upset party members swearing ethics peddling them in the market. Despite being a power surplus state and having an excellent road network, there is little effort to push greater industrialization, and no one has any roadmap for the same. Additionally, the drug addiction problem has been reduced to a free for all, with guttersnipe behavior from outsider entrants in Punjab talking utter rubbish instead of telling ways in which this problem can be solved. Another crucial aspect is the water fights that happen each year. Instead of solving the challenges of falling water tables and improved irrigation methods, fighting over who gets what and closing canals sharing water with other states are the easy way out, whipping unnecessary passions across the board with ripples being felt across North India. A ripe candidate for the service sector industry like IT and ITes, nothing has come up in Punjab beyond the boundaries of the Union Territory of Chandigarh. Tourism beyond the gurudwara-temple circuit has never been promoted. Hardly anyone knows that Lodhis had built the city of Ludhiana, or that the cultural capital of East Punjab, Patiala, still houses magnificent remains of palaces. Such disillusionment can be sensed in the sarcasm that Punjabi humor is renowned for. A disillusioned people struggle for a change that clearly no one can deliver to them in this current crisis of confidence that they face today.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Overcast skies with a wet afternoon in store are the perfect foil to any good ideas it seems. As I kept waiting at the cafe, hoping for ____ to turn up, the depressing weather drew my attention towards it. Dark skies have this unique ability to draw your attention towards them more than anything else. Even in a market as busy as this, where the noise of the clanging metalware collides with the honking of vehicles packed like cattle on to a street, you cannot help but ignore it all, and continue staring into this bland emptiness. You see some odd people running around for cover, totally unhappy with all the water like a grumpy cat. And yet, they do not interest you more than a cup of steaming tea, while distancing yourself physically by a glass wall, and emotionally with a care-not attitude from the churning outside.

"Can I join you?" I heard a voice, from behind me, and I turned around to see a somewhat young-ish girl staring at me earnestly. Nothing special about her except perhaps her earnestness and curly hair, and a pair of glasses (those 'geeky or nerdy' or something called these days) obscuring her eyes. She perhaps sensed the confusion on my face, and hastily added, "there are no empty seats around." A quick scan was all that it took to affirm her claim, and given the opportunity to be a good Samaritan, I played it to the hilt. "Please seat yourself," I uttered softly, as I tried gathering my stuff thrown all across the table, while she sat down in the chair opposite mine.

It was not more than a few seconds before I resumed my empty gazing, only to realize that I now had a partner in crime. She seemed intent on knowing the secrets of the sky, as she kept looking at the sky. Raindrops kept sliding down the glass panel wall, perhaps too tired to run or walk down the path. Or perhaps they were just not interested in coming down, finding every possible way to delay the inevitable. I turned back to staring into that vast emptiness of the sky and beyond, as if meditating, though it is perhaps just another form. All of a sudden, the girl starts talking.

"Do you stare often at the sky?"

It seemed awkward, the question, as I turned around to see her staring at me for a change. "Why do you ask?" I spoke softly, curious to find the reasons for this question.

"Nothing. I just enjoy staring at the sky for no reason, and thought I had met someone who like doing it too."

"Don't you think it is a very personal question to ask?" I spoke. Staring at the sky is an intensely private thing to do. The sense of seclusion and freedom that it offers cannot be compared to very few things in the world. It has a Zen quality to it, allowing you to lose yourself to something else, while feeling free all the time.

"I agree," she spoke. A closer look at her revealed a sense of chattiness on her face, of charm in her voice. The waiter came up to her, and asked if she would like to have something. "A latte," she spoke, "and those wonderful almond biscuits that you serve with them would do, thank you!" The waiter slunk away from the stage, leaving only the two of us to muse and talk.

"Why do you ask the question?" I asked after a few moments of silence. Curiosity got the better of me.

"No particular reason really," she said, while she stared at me with a deadpan face.

"Are you random around people? Or was it a pointed question?"

"I am what I am," she remarked. "You don't have to answer the question; I am okay with it. But can't we keep silent company in staring at the clouds?"

I did not quite know how to react. It was a strange request in a life where one sees everyone seeking some meaning out of every little thing they do. Drinking the coffee, meeting people, working for someone - everything has a purpose to it. And yet, here was this girl, who just wants to stare at the dark sky, and randomly strikes conversations.

"Are you waiting for someone?" she began again. It feels odd when a random stranger wants to talk to you, and for some reason, you do not feel offended by the questions. Is this because you are enjoying the stranger's company? Or is it a consequence of anonymity, whereby nobody may judge you, or they may judge you incorrectly, much to your delight? I was not quite sure how to react to the situation. And yet, it felt good to have someone, as the coffee arrived, and she took it towards the window, to see someone just enjoy the steam and the coffee, while staring into a dark cloud.

"What do you think is going on out there?" she asked eagerly, as she drew attention to the milling crowds who were struggling to protect themselves from the steady downpour. "It almost looks like that famous rainy day painting you know."

I stared out, only to notice carefully the silhouettes of people scampering around. Yes, it did seem artistic, and perhaps even somewhat magical. And this moment to seemed to become above ordinary all of a sudden. Here I was, with a random stranger, knowing not why or how this discussion was happening. And yet, it was intriguing.

The girl just finished her coffee, and paid the bill. "Thank you," she said, "for not questioning who I am."

With that, she quickly exited the cafeteria with as much mystery as she entered.

After some time, ______ arrived. We greeted each other warmly with a hug, as she sat down.

"You know," she said in half jest, "you should not be seated here."

"Why?" I asked, surprised by her admonition. "What's wrong with this seat."

"I have been told that this table and corner of the cafeteria is haunted."

"Really? By whom? A girl?"

"You know that story?"

"What story? I was just joking!" I laughed nervously, even as my blood froze in absolute horror. Then she told me about a girl who would often sit in this cafeteria, but had died on a rainy day like this several years ago. Rumour was that she was often seen at this table by the visitors to this cafeteria.

I was quiet. Was that coffee unreal? I wondered, as I searched for the mug, only to notice that the only coffee mug there was my own.

Except for the cookies.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Why the GST Will Have Only A Marginal Effect On the Indian Economy - Yet It Is Important

Arun Jaitley in the Rajya Sabha on an earlier occasion (Courtesy: The Hindu)

The doors to this temple of the tax gods have been finally opened, and a new deity by the name of Goods and Service Tax (GST) is being prepared for installation with the Prana Pratishtha currently being undertaken in the Parliament's Upper House. While there are points being extolled in its favor, and state parties and regional leaders voicing concerns of revenue loss to their state administrative budgets, there is a near unanimous consensus on the bill being made a reality. The country is being unified into one market in terms of the indirect tax net. Even across the various cabals and lobbies the unanimous chants of 'this is a landmark reform' are gaining strength.
Even as we scour the layers of discussions and platitudes piling up across various fora, the benefits are being overstated. Yes, there is a need for a simpler taxation structure, and yes, free movement of goods and services should not be a problem. However, it is pertinent to note that the only comparable economy in terms of size and federal structure, The United States of America, has never indulged in entertaining this idea. Simpler taxation is certainly a utopia for everyone including state administrators; however, viewed from the prism of the political economy, one can notice several inconsistencies in the process. A GST in its present form takes away in a snatch the advantages of working in states that worked hard to simplify the processes in order to attract investments and greater economic activity. It will also benefit states that do not work towards simplifying such measures, awarding perverse actions on their parts. While the former loses revenue, the latter gains significantly. While this is being addressed through compensation, the change will make no significant impact on the fortunes of the poorer, less developed states. The policy structures being much simplified, and the inherent geographical amendments they own, the poorer states need not do anything about easing the business environment, thus continuing the status quo on the front of employment and overall development. For example, Maharashtra and Gujarat will continue to remain important investment destinations, while states like Bihar will fail to attract investment. Moreover, states that want to attract investment will struggle to find ways to provide incentives to potential investors.
Another interesting layer is the impact on transaction cost in the economy. Many transaction costs in the Indian economy are of an indirect type, and most belong to the informal, unaccounted economy. There are enough bribes that flow in this economy - be it at the checkpoint, be it the excise inspector, be it the underreporting, and be it the inability to trace low margin-high volume transactions that are the hallmark of the Indian economy (think your haircut, or your tailor refitting your dress). While transaction costs can be reduced partially, states have no incentives to reduce the transaction costs of the informal nature in the current setup. It is not clear if states will make the effort to simplify registration procedures, revenue reporting procedures, excise processes and a bevy of several layers of bureaucracy. Moreover, there are several delays in clearances that add further layers of transaction costs. While these are being addressed to some extent through several reforms, the inability to tap into the informal economy will persist. How will the government remedy this without resorting to tax terrorism? That question needs to be addressed suitably. It is essential to note that India has seen considerable growth periods without having a unitary market, and this had more to do with reducing transaction costs, and this clearly shows that considerable political capital has been spent over the past decade on something that only marginally addresses these issues. For instance, claims that buying a flat in Delhi-NCR would be cheaper are laughable, since the real challenge lies in a combination of demand-supply constraint, pre-tax property overpricing, and significant informal black money transactions thanks to underreporting involved. Au contraire, the prices would go up in the short run, as services will become expensive. This can be a major bitter pill in the short and mid term, given the service-sector driven nature of the Indian economy. If multiple GST rates are announced, this defeats the purpose of GST - a single uniform rate.
Another challenge lies in the benefit transfer to the end consumer.  As can be seen with fuel pricing, the end consumer never gets the benefit of falling prices; however, rising prices are immediately transferred to the end consumer. In no way is the end consumer benefited, so unless a mechanism that directly benefits the consumer - either in the form of a refund or a discount - does not arise, all such claims to benefit do not hold water.
All that said, GST does put forward advantages in a different sense. Increased revenue collection from indirect taxation can have a direct bearing on fiscal health of the economy. In a country like ours, where barely 20-30million people pay income taxes, indirect taxation has always been the real revenue source of the state, and this can be used as a bargaining chip by the middle class voters to directly push for lower income tax rates, pushing further towards the milestone of zero income tax, an idea which seems to be moving one step closer towards realization with the GST. It does make operations in the market easier. But the benefits will not be as great as are being bandied about.
So while the GST mantras are chanted, let us not fool ourselves about the benefits of GST.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Why Mayawati is Wrong and What the Latest Episode Tells us About Presstitutes of India

(Courtest: DNA)

Dayashankar Singh's abhorrent comment on Mayawati, a self made woman leader and supremo of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Uttar Pradesh, is nothing but worth condemnation. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has rightfully suspended the leader for good, and it is good to learn that FIRs have been registered against him.

That there is such sexism present in the politics is something that should be worrying to all of us. However, the way Mayawati tried to rake political mileage out of the issue through her show of strength in Uttar Pradesh and pockets of strength in North India was shameless to say the least. Sample some of the statements that have been stated in response:

1. 'I am like a goddess to them' - golden words of humility spoken by no less than Mayawati herself.
2. 'Dayashankar's family women are what they called Behenji - prostitutes' - an over eager (probably ticket seeking) loyalist Usha Chaudhary
3. 'Whoever gets Dayashankar's tongue will get 50lakh rupees' - Jannat Jahan, a BSP leader from Chandigarh (notable that a few years back some BSP leader announced a 51crore award for a Danish cartoonist head - typical of the Sharia Bolshevism such parties promote)

The problem with this demonstration is that Mayawati, in her attempts to draw mileage out of the issue, has ended up reducing the gravity of such charges. It is not new to her though - she has in fact even made light of as grave a crime as rape when she said the same things to the then chief minister Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav after she visited the Maderasa in Allahabad where some Muslim women’s were raped. Another attempt to politicize the same only weakens her arguments towards playing the victim card. Moreover, her politically charged speech in Parliament where she was inadvertently saying similar things about the women in Dayashankar Singh's family. Had she handled it more gracefully people would have agreed with her stand. However by the repeated attack, and the continuous attachment of this statement to the BJP, she is making clear a couple of political points:

1. These tactics are an acknowledgment of the fact that the fight in Uttar Pradesh this time is between the BJP and the BSP, which is pretty much the ground reality right now; and
2. There is an attempt to polarize non-Dalit SC votes within Uttar Pradesh, which have traditionally never voted for the BSP, an acknowledgment of the slippery ground on which the BSP stands, which has been rocked by desertions of key organizers and leaders.

Political theater notwithstanding, we do see a major duplicity in the way media considers women in politics of certain ideological leaning. Consider the following tweet by respectable journalist Uma Sudhir on a statement made by one of the worst misogynists, Arvind Kejriwal, in the wake of Rohit Vemula's suicide at Hyderabad Central University and the reaction of the protesting Student Federation of India (SFI) students:

Additionally, a look at the shameless attempt at sexual innuendos made by a news channel, Aaj Tak, on the same woman, is worth a watch. It is to her sagacity that she took charge of the situation and prevented a lynch mob from scalping the Aaj Tak journalists for indulging in gutter level language.

This is not the first time when the so-called progressive elements of the media have indulged in such double speak. Padma Rao Sundarji recalled in an article a year and a half ago on how the same so called progressives did not refrain from making fun of Uma Bharti back in the day for her rustic English accent. On the other hand, the kid-glove treatment given to their own ilk by the famed presstitutes of India to a certain Goa lift rapist, a famous PM media advisor aand continued attempts to rehabilitate such people into the mainstream by a large family of theirs, nd even the convenient quiet on the continued innuendos made on female leaders like Smriti Irani or the several private jokes on Mayawati by the chatterati, are nothing short of hypocrisy. The eminent presstitutes have no fig leaf to cover their fake righteousness. Let us not even start on pulling out hatchets my dear presstitutes.

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