Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Economic Slowdown Needs Immediate Address

The Buck Stops With the Duo (Courtesy: Bloombergquint)

The fracas in Maharashtra notwithstanding, things are at a critical juncture with respect to the economic scenario. Not undertaking critical labour and land reforms in the previous terms of course have contributed; however, the lack of steps is not really the problem right now. The real problem at this stage is a dampened sentiment about the state of the Indian economy. This sentiment has essentially been harmed by a handful of reasons that are not being addressed suitably:

  1. GST – yes, it is proving to be a dampener. While I had back then too stated that its benefits were being overstated, the GST mechanism per se needs fixation. While tax collection is immediate and even before payments are received by the suppliers of goods and services, the input credit necessary to keep many businesses afloat and flush with working capital is taking unduly long. Steps have been announced to attempt tax reform; however, this step is yet to be addressed by the GST council. The government really needs to face the truth on this.
  2. Tax terrorism and tax litigation – tax inspectors are proving to be the proverbial Pandora’s box. The genie has been let out of the box and the government has frankly not gotten a grip on this bureaucratic setup. Steps have finally been announced; however, much damage has been done. Similarly, the tax litigation of pre-GST era is still ongoing, with more than 60 lakh crores stuck at various levels of tribunals and courts. On top of that cases like Vodafone only serve to make the central government look like a banana republic.
  3. Poor industry-financial sector relations – there is minimal trust between the two. Largely driven by the Reserve Bank of India’s crazy rules on identification of non-performing assets (NPAs), banks are hell bent of declaring any and every loan, even if serviceable, as an NPA. Some level of backing down by the RBI is certainly necessary. In the same vein, the country’s institutions also need to be less obsessed with fiscal deficits and inflation targeting, and with a strong rupee.
  4. Bureaucratic intransigence – Fear of being deemed corrupt thanks to a bunch of over-eager watchdog institutions and voices of the public, as could be seen in the case of Rafale purchases. This has meant that those who want to move the agenda are tied down, delaying critical decision making. Political shenanigans are creating further pressure, hurting India’s image when it least needs it.

Steps are ongoing in this direction to resolve, and the Finance Minister has also been candid in accepting that all is not well. However, it needs to be understood that big ticket spending in certain areas can become a catalyst right away. Only so much of highway building can help. Disinvestments will certainly help, but only in terms of raising liquidity. Addressing the issues mentioned above on war footing is certainly going to help. This is where a few big-ticket projects can really help to turn the tide around. Some projects have been under discussion, though I feel a few stand out in really pushing the agenda on economic growth in multiple ways:

  • Jewar airport near NOIDA in Uttar Pradesh, whose tender has just been awarded.
  • Building a high-speed rail in an alternate corridor, given the new Maharashtra government’s opposition – possible Hyderabad-Bengaluru.
  • RRTS corridors between Delhi-Chandigarh, feasibility study already being undertaken.
  • City gas distribution system layouts, as the licenses have already been awarded against bids.
  • Building new river ports in the Indo-Gangetic basin, given the perennial nature of the rivers.

These projects have been under much discussion. Getting these projects rolling off the ground immediately can prove to be test cases in themselves on several points. Involving the private sector, both Indian and international, will certainly help. Successful implementation of these projects can also help to build a case of India truly meaning business, and can help showcase the improved business sentiment globally. These projects will also involve significant skilled and semi-skilled labour participation, which can help to bolster the job market in a big way. Further, these cities can bolster the national economy as they will have multi-sectoral impacts – industries can set up along these corridors to take advantage of the infrastructure, and also push city economic growth. Furthermore, these projects will necessarily can help to utilize the liquidity that is now available in the market in a positive manner by tapping into the bond markets and utilization of innovative financial instruments to raise funds.

The problem exists, and in my opinion, there are immediate answers as well. This is a trial through which the government must come out of successfully, but will require out of the box thinking and some guts. The political mandate for it exists; it is now for the Prime Minister and Finance Minister’s offices to give the necessary push. It is now or never. The buck stops at the duo's offices.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

What Being Hindu Really Means to Me

It is still clear in front of me. Daytime had started to make way for evening on a December day. I and my family stood in front of BrajRaj Swami ji in Nurpur in Himachal Pradesh Legend goes that the idol, worshipped by no less than Mirabai herself, was brought to this land from Chittorgarh. Mirabai herself was the consort to this idol, perhaps the only place in the world of its kind.

Even as we stood there to partake of the caranAmrita, thoughts of all that I had read and learnt about my ancestors came rushing back. This very idol was nearly a victim of iconoclasm, and my ancestors were among those who fought to save it, to protect it till their last breaths. Was it just another idol anymore? Something that invoked reverent love among one and all could not just be another museum piece - it was rather a living being for us, whose protection and upkeep was our responsibility. 

Even as I had gone there after visiting my ancestral village, where we had prostrated before our clan deity who manifests as a snake, there was no contradiction within us in reverence for either of them. Someone who we believe has protected and taken care of our community deserves our reverence just as much. There was no conflict in any sense between them, even as they are different. The sacred is everywhere, and possesses different attributes. No one is superior to the other; rather, they each hold an importance to us which goes beyond just fear or wanting some goodies and boons from them. They are our guides, our philosophers who tell us how to live our lives the right way. This very definition of civilization, or Dharma as it has been identified with by none less than Rabindranath Tagore, is what defines our existence, our very raison d'être.

This Dharma teaches us that there are right and wrong ways of approaching situations, circumstances and scenarios. Aacharan or the right conduct tells us how to deal with things, with the Devas rendering the answers to our questions through their lilas. However, to learn that every action has a consequence, and the fruits of our actions have to be ultimately borne by us are not a scare tactic - that's a very low level understanding of the way karma is understood. The whole concept is about understanding to deal with situations in life and how one can overcome obstacles in particular. Remaining steadfast and unaffected by joy or adversity is much more than just a psychological therapy for us. All of these together are our guide in this world, the guidebook having been written by those who have not been seen but have been experienced. The anubhav, or experience of witnessing something inexplicable, remains a pivotal guiding force for us.

This way of life is not for the defeatist and the faint hearted. Having undergone several centuries of unrenderable torture and punishment for just being who we are, it has hardened us and strengthened our resolve only further to be who we are. Our Devas didn't create this universe for their own glory - rather, this vanity has no place in our pantheon. Our deities invoke all kinds of emotions, but that has little to do with scaring the adherents - rather, it is about teaching us to be fearless even in the face of crisis and fighting it out towards victory. Our ancestors never accepted defeat at any cost. They persevered and kept at it, even with the odds stacked against them. They gave us reasons to be proud of them, to remember them during shraadha and connect to their memory and thank them for our manifestation. We fought, and we fight to date for the sanctity of our spaces, for upholding our beliefs, our customs and traditions. We change when we feel that the community has raised valid concerns, not to accommodate whims and fancies of the disconnected.

Being Hindu means that life is a reminder that extremes exist at every step. The mourning of a deceased or the exhilaration of a festival both teach us valuable lessons on life, even as we recall the feats of our Devas and loved ones, while somberly pay homage to the sacrifices that our ancestors made that make us a reality today. The puja bells and the lamps make many of us teary eyed, just like the final rites of our loved ones. And yet, both are invaluable to us.

Being of this Dharma also binds us to our land and gives us our identity. One can claim whatever they want, but the core argument always is about identity. This identification with the path of Dharma is a great benefactor - it gives us an identification that we can only imagine and be ever grateful for. It serves as testament to the fact that whenever I go, I will always be identified in a certain way, and I will be accepted gracefully just like I humbly accept the other identity. That acceptance of the Divine rope of unity present and knotted in a sea of diversity, pulling us in all together in this unique churn is a definition of who I am. That doesn't in any way however mean pacifism - we are a group that has fought hard at every given instance to save our way of life, our civilizational values and beliefs. This inherent patriotism is not from some European construct but from the soul stirring mantras that have been chanted for centuries and have become an entity unto themselves over the times.

The identity that I get reflects in my music, my sense of aesthetic for art, my ability to identify the rhythm of life in music. The arts have a higher purpose in life, and are not supposed to be propaganda. Yes, there's Dharma in music, there's Dharma in dance. The identity that gives us the ability to transcend all limitations and create absolute gems of art when painting Lord Jaggannatha, of deciphering the complexities of shruti with ease when singing about the childhood of Krishna, of reading the anger of Shiva in the tandava of the artist with awe and fear - that is my identity in Dharma.

This identity also surfaces in the understanding of my body, its physical ability and shortcomings, and attempting to balance it with the surroundings. Living in harmony with nature by being at peace with oneself. It is also accepting and acknowledging the divinity of living beings, of accepting the sanctity of the cow for all who adhere to Dharma, of offering the first morsels to the Devas, then to the animals, and then partaking the balance. This very path also teaches that we always have to have karuna or kindness to the less next and do whatever one can within their capacity to help the incapacitated, the next, the powerless. Not treating the cow as good but as the Divine itself is nothing short of a non negotiable. This association of the sacred with the everyday life is a powerful message for one and all to understand, accept and follow, for it is their support that lets us survive and flourish into a prosperous civilization. Without that acknowledgement, we would be barely any different from the deracinated, the aimless and the mediocre.

This identity is such that it validates an existent Continuum that has been going on for thousands of years, shaken but not impacted, which has distilled itself ever increasingly. It is an identity that has often attempted to correct and recalibrate itself whenever the sense of wrong has been identified. Reformers did not have to attempt to establish themselves as Messiahs of new religions. The strength of the original framework was good enough to accommodate the various storeys of Dharma that have developed over centuries. This strength amalgamated itself with times to produce geniuses of various kinds, and yet did not at any time get refuted or declared false. It did not need any validation from the scientific, for they found a natural refuge in it that cannot be explained but has to be experienced.

This is perhaps an incomplete assessment of what being a Hindu really means to me. One may write a thousand books on the subject, may make a thousand claims on their Hinduness. However, the very fact that we can call ourselves Hindu is not because I was merely born into it. Even asuras, rakshasas and danavas of our itihasas were born Hindus. It is about living in a certain way that makes us stick to the path of Dharma workout being daunted by the mountain of problems that we face on a daily basis that we can call ourselves Hindu. Being Hindu for me is to venerate the cow. Being Hindu for me is to hold our temples and their traditions sacred. Being Hindu for me is to never bow down to injustice. And being Hindu for me is much more - it is being on the bath of Dharma, which emanates from the viveka the intellect, ripened by thousands of years of thinking and practice, which always leaves room for accepting right without too much of a fuss.

Being Hindu for me is being a part of a civilization that I am immensely proud of. 

मिट्टी के दीए

सरजू निराशा के बादलों से घिरा बैठा था। दीवाली की दोपहर हो गयी थी, और अभी भी सरजू के ठेले से सामान ज्यों का त्यों पड़ा हुआ था।  बड़ी आस से उसने...