Saturday, June 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW:THIN DIVIDING LINE By PARANJOY GUHA THAKURTA & SHINZANI JAIN



BOOK REVIEW


TITLE: THIN DIVIDING LINE-India, Mauritius And Global Illicit Financial Flows
AUTHORS: PARANJOY GUHA THAKURTA with SHINZANI JAIN
PUBLISHER: PENGUIN PORTFOLIO, RANDOM HOUSE INDIA, 2017
PRICE:Rs. 599/-

The World of Hawala, Tax-Havens, Round-Tripping, Anonymous P Notes & The Vexed Question of Tax Competitiveness

There are a   plethora of almost no- questions asked “Tax Havens” both onshore and offshore, across the world. Many have been there for a century or more. Much of the money flowing through them is not necessarily ill-gotten, but seek to take advantage of the tax avoidance opportunities proffered. This naturally to the detriment of the taxation authorities in the  country of actual residence.

 However, global as the issue is today, what tickles and tantalizes people in India, are estimates that $62.9 billion or Rs. 400,000 crores is secretly stashed by Indians abroad by way of illicit funds.

This book is something of a companion primer to a documentary of the same name, concentrated quite largely on Mauritius. The authorities in Mauritius have framed their laws and practices in a way that there is no wrong doing as far as they go. Nevertheless, the “Mauritius Route”, with a double tax avoidance treaty, has been controversial since 1982, when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. The treaty lay dormant for almost a socialist decade, and was only operationalised with the advent of India’s liberalization in 1991. PV Narasimha Rao  was Prime Minister –assisted, of course, by his economist Finance Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Soon, 40% of all foreign investment into India, now in many billions of dollars and mostly into the equity market, came in via Mauritius. How much of it is really Indian money turning white from black? All of it has been 100% exempted from capital gains tax for decades.

A clarification was issued to the Central Board Of Direct Taxes (CBDT), by the Finance Ministry when it was inspired to interpret the terms of the treaty differently in 2000.

The CBDT in its wisdom, tried to tax the capital gains of Foreign Institutional Investors (FIIs), High Net Worth individuals (HNIs) etc. despite the Double Tax Avoidance Treaty with retrospective effect. That is, for all the years the FIIs and others using the route were active in India! This naturally raised a hue and cry and the then Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha was forced to intervene. The clarification issued  during the Vajpayee government, said that if an FII was able to establish its “tax residency” in  Mauritius, (which anyway did not have any capital gain s tax itself), then the CBDT could not tax it in India.

But all along the line, there had been criticism of the Mauritius treaty by large domestic institutional investors (DIIs), for creating an uneven playing field albeit to attract foreign investment. This view was echoed by Left-leaning economists, bureaucrats, lawyers, and politicians. It was seen by them to favour FIIs using the debatable argument of “tax competiveness” vis a vis other countries.

This too changed after the global economic crisis of 2008, when the prevailing sentiment underwent a sea- change. Now most developed countries began to call for an end to “tax havens”, because of their allegedly deleterious effect on their domestic economies.
India too decided to go in for a change under the Modi government which has mounted a fairly serious effort against black money, hawala, round-tripping using tax havens and so on.

It has gone ahead and renegotiated various avoidance of double taxation treaties, starting with Mauritius in May 2016. India imposed a withholding tax of 7.5% of capital gains for those using the Mauritius Route for the two years till 1st April 2019, when the full tax rate of 15% will be applied on foreign investors on par with domestic ones. That is, from financial year (FY) 2020.

For the moment, India’s level of taxation is most competitive, and the move has been generally well-received, mainly because most developed countries have imposed a 10% tax on capital gains presently. After this, India went on to amend its tax treaty with Singapore which was also on similar lines.

However, many FIIs claim that the currency exchange rate risks of operating in a emerging market of about $ 2 trillion market capitalisatiion with the rupee constantly depreciating,  puts them at an additional disadvantage.  

It is difficult to say whether round-tripping of massive hawala funds is really all that bad. Despite the obvious money-laundering, the alternative is that all the money sent out of the country via hawala, fraudulent invoicing and other means, never comes back at all! 
This thought might be behind the government’s reluctance to ban anonymous participatory notes (P Notes), that are accommodated by the registered FIIs. Efforts to regulate and tighten the regulations concerning them have been tried in 2004, without much evident success.

The question of tax residency however has been made redundant. And companies using the Mauritius Route henceforth have to put in Rs. 27 lakhs into the equity of the Mauritius companies they set up. This puts paid to operating via the erstwhile “shell companies”.

The alleged abuses that have involved this infamous route are a morass of legal conjecture, litigation, arbitration, and elevation to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). That clumsy attempts at tax realization from Vodafone and Cairn Energy, some of it retrospectively, has damaged India’s reputation is undeniable.

Author Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is a prominent media person and educator. He has sharply-honed journalistic and investigative abilities. Guha Thakurta’s prose is lucid as he tackles a somewhat dry subject despite its cops and robbers undertone. He also has a proper grasp of the economics and evolving regulatory framework involved. This is, of course, not his first joust with the world of fast-and-loose Capitalism in book form.
His young collaborator on this book, Shinzani Jain, comes in for fulsome praise from Guha Thakurta himself . Again, Jain, who is studying for a Master’s Degree in Sociology, writes articles for a number of print and digital media offerings, and has co-authored another book on the related subject area of black money, cronyism and the damage it is doing to the Indian economy.

For: The Sunday Pioneer BOOKS
(976 words)
June 9, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee

Thursday, May 31, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: HICKY's BENGAL GAZETTE


BOOK REVIEW

TITLE: HICKY’S BENGAL GAZETTE-The Untold Story Of India’s First Newspaper
AUTHOR:  ANDREW OTIS
PUBLISHER: TRANQUEBAR, WESTLAND PUBLICATIONS, 2018
PRICE:  Rs. 899/- in Hardback


NOT ONLY INDIA’S FIRST NEWSPAPER BUT ONE THAT CHAMPIONED THE UNDERDOG

Does history repeat itself in the media, just as it does in politics and governance? What are the origins of India’s particularly vibrant freedom of the press? This delightful book from an American PhD scholar, Andrew Otis, at the University of Maryland Philip Merril College of Journalism, suggests it all began in the 1780s.

Otis researched this book in Delhi, Kolkata, Germany and England over a period of six years. He gained a unique perspective on the establishment of “Company Raj”, Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, and their imperial times.  And 90 years after the establishment of the British in Calcutta, came India’s first newspaper.

James Augustus Hicky was a “subaltern”, a poor Irishman out to make his mark in India. He could only afford to live in the “Black Town” of Calcutta, and not amongst the bungalows and gardens of the privileged. He was sent to common jail for being in debt, first for a failed trade, and the latter incarceration was for libel.  

But throughout, once started in 1780, Hicky gave voice to the underdog with his newspaper, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette or The Original Calcutta General Advertiser, which became an instant sensation. So much so, that Governor General Warren Hastings, moved quickly to try and limit its rapidly growing influence. The story of this short-lived but highly influential newspaper, and the dramatis personae of the time, is fascinatingly laid out in this book.

Hicky’s Gazette was priced at Re. 1, expensive for the 1780s, but equivalent to newspapers in England then. It was printed weekly, four or five pages long- two or three of them containing news and opinion letters, and the other two featuring advertisements. The printing press was located at 67, Radha Bazar, Calcutta.

Competition from the establishment that Hicky targeted, came later in the same year. Backed by Hastings, the rival paper was circulated free and without postage via the Indian postal system. 

The India Gazette, founded by Bernard Messink and Peter Reed, propounded British superiority, the viewpoint of the East India Company, and the upper-class. Its advertisements were from private boat rental companies, for hunting dogs, garden houses and dinner clubs. A popular and repeated advertisement was for the buying and shipping of diamonds “home to England”, presumably for corrupt  Companymen, and some of their many contractors.

Hicky, convinced that the powers-that-be were out to ruin him, undertook a series of exposes . This earned him even more repression. Warren Hastings now banned even the paid circulation of Hicky’s newspaper via the postal system, and  ordered that mail that enclosed cuttings from Hicky’s newspaper be stopped too. 

This hurt Hicky’s profits and wider circulation, but made his paper more popular in Calcutta itself, where it was now distributed via runners or hircarrahs, and the number of his subscriptions there increased markedly.

Hicky’s Gazette was the anti-tyranny, anti-corruption, and pro-free speech campaigner of its time. People depended on it to spot and expose “malfeasance, fraud, abuse of power”. Hicky adapted and : “embraced notions of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that were coursing through Western Europe and America”.

This tonality and content annoyed most high government functionaries, particularly because of Hicky’s relentless exposure of abuses of power in the government and judiciary, patronage as bribery, and rampant corruption in government contracts.
Hicky’s newspaper often also gave voice to the grievances of the common soldier both British and native, the Anglo-Indian, the injustices borne by ordinary people, the rapaciousness of the evangelical clergy involved in commerce rather than the harvesting of souls, the subversions practiced by a biddable judiciary, and the like. Hicky’s Gazette was also popular for its humorous pieces, satire, and human interest stories. 

Soon assassins, fortunately discovered in time, came for Hicky in the dark of the night. And Hicky, in turn, turned up the journalistic heat. He began suggesting, via anonymous articles using various pseudonyms like Cassius and Britannicus, that it was not a good idea to fight in expansionist wars initiated by Warren Hastings that sacrificed common soldiers for his “personal dreams of conquest”. This, and similar pieces took Hicky to the “edge of sedition”, especially when the articles printed in his paper, suggested mutiny, and the carrying out of a coup.

In consequence, Hicky was slapped with criminal charges of libel against both Hastings and a rich clergyman Kiernander, his bail being set at Rs. 40,000/-, twice his annual income. This forced Hicky to stay in jail.

The newspaper continued however, with Hicky running it from inside the jail, now lampooning all his tormentors including those in the judiciary, with biting satire. After a tumultuous trial, the 24 member jury, many of them East India Company men themselves, returned a Not Guilty verdict. Otis sees this as a landmark judgement for the early “freedom of the press” in India.  iHickyHHH

There were multiple and separate trials with regard to the priest Kiernander and  even sundry others Hicky had offended. Some of these trials returned indictments. In one mounted by Hastings, against Hicky’s paper urging soldiers to mutiny, he was sentenced to a year in jail with fines.

But all this railing at Warren Hastings’ tyranny and corruption had begun to have its effect back in Britain. This, even as the continuous litigation pauperized Hicky and closed down his paper, when his press too was seized in 1782.
The litigation and adverse publicity also drove Kiernander into bankruptcy and penury in his old age.

Next came the karmic retribution for Hastings. The East India Company Act of 1784 put severe curbs on the powers of the Governor General and subordinated his actions to control from the Crown. Hastings decided to go home at this, after three decades in India. But, perhaps as a public relations gesture, not before asking the Supreme Court in India to forgive the rest of Hicky’s fines and let him go free.

Now it was Hastings’ turn to be put under the lash. Parliamentarian and political theorist, Edmund Burke, mounted a bid for his impeachment with twenty-two  separate charges, in the House of Commons.

After 8 years of gruelling parliamentary  investigation, through both the House of Commons and Lords - in July 1795, Warren Hastings was eventually acquitted. But not before his reputation and fortune had been destroyed.

Hicky died at sea aboard the ship Ajax en route to China in 1802. But clearly, he was not the only protagonist in this drama that ended his days in penury.

For: The Sunday Pioneer BOOKS
(1,074 words)
June 1, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee




Thursday, May 24, 2018

Petrol Bombing The Public With Lazy Taxation Will Not Do




Petrol Bombing The Public With Lazy Taxation Will Not Do

The price of fuel at the pumps has been hiked everyday for the last 11 days. Petrol is now at Rs.85 a litre in Maharashtra, which also imposes some 40% of state taxes on top of central excise. Diesel, on which our transportation sector largely runs, has also crossed Rs. 70 per litre in more than 15 cities.

These are all-time highs, even as they carry at least 50% in overall taxation, and up to 100%, if the sum is reckoned from the barebones cost of refined petrol and diesel.

What didn’t pinch when international crude prices were at about $40 a barrel, let alone $29 as it was in early 2016, is definitely hurting at $80 . Besides, the taxes imposed on retail fuel were not so high at one stroke. Excise duty has been increased nine times by the central government between November 2014 and January 2016, and cut only once by Rs. 2, and this is before the states get to work .

The states, in fact, realize higher revenues in VAT and Sales Tax, (calculated ad valorem) the higher the price of fuel. If this keeps up though, a customer could conceivably be paying Rs. 100 a litre for petrol in the near future.

Is the government hoping for a downward trend in global crude prices soon? It could, of course, happen, with the easing of tensions, production bottlenecks, increased supply and removal of sanctions. It could also head the other way towards $100 a barrel, if conflict breaks out between America and Iran for example.

The impact of sustained and high global crude prices will weigh heavily on the Indian economy, as it did in the closing years of former UPA rule, when they ruled at $ 112 on average. Weakened macro economic data will harm an India that has currently developed a fine balance sheet. It has low inflation, very little or no current and fiscal account deficits, record foreign exchange reserves, a healthy growth rate in the region of 7.5% per annum, impressive FDI relative to context, little external debt, relatively better international credit ratings, a fairly buoyant stock and debt market, good monsoons/food grain stocks, and so on.

Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram, agent provocateur fashion, has said current retail prices could be cut by Rs. 25 a litre. This, of course, only if a big chunk of the taxation is withdrawn. But consider that the central government realized Rs 2,42,000 crores in excise alone in 2016-17. It is therefore not so easy to let go off. It will, at an estimate, lose Rs. 13,000 crores in excise revenue for every rupee cut in prices.

Reportedly, the government is reluctantly contemplating a Rs. 2-4 cut in excise duties  running at over Rs. 19 per litre of petrol and over 15 per litre of diesel. The States then put on at least as much and are equally loath to cut it back. Appeals to cut VAT on fuel have had just four states responding with mild cuts.

The government on its part, has held inconclusive talks with the oil PSUs with a view to sharing the burden. It seems to be taking its time, despite the threat of looming inflation and the likelihood of a 25 bps interest rate hike to start with, when inflation spikes.

High fuel prices are seen as a direct catalyst to higher prices all around. Meanwhile, Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari, one of the best performing BJP mantris, rose to the defence by saying bringing down fuel prices will hurt the NDA’s Welfare programmes. But can’t the government find the money elsewhere? Why does no government audit its own ever-expanding expenses with a view to making suitable cuts?

Fuel, including aviation fuel, is a convenient thing for a government to tax, as the nation has no choice but to use it. Even cigarettes and alcohol, perennial favorites for taxation, do have a voluntary elasticity to their demand projections. Asking people to use overflowing public transport, or suggesting they cycle or walk, seem to be less than viable alternatives-especially in mid-summer.

Other arguments to keep fuel prices high are even more specious, and range from an environmental push against petrol/diesel run vehicles, to a theoretical bid towards adequate levels of public transportation. Electric vehicles may indeed come to the rescue in the future. And conceivably, nuclear, solar and other green energies could generate all our electricity one day. But for now, the public is being saddled unfairly with onerous and unfair taxation on a near essential commodity.

Cars and other vehicles, not just the luxury ones, including commercial vehicles, are also taxed to the nines by this and former governments. Despite this, because of poor public transport options, people are buying cars and motorcycles in very large numbers. India is today one of the biggest automobile markets in the world.

But, coming back to fuel prices at the pumps, we the public have been deceived. Prime Minister Modi spoke of his own naseeb when he cited how all-time low oil prices from the very start of his government in May 2014, have helped him repair a ravaged economy. 

This more so, because India imports more than 80% of its fuel, and the demand is ever rising in quantum terms.  But what has been good for the government has been far from salubrious for the people.

The doing away with subsidies on petrol, diesel, aviation fuel, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to the better off, and even  discontinuation of the humble kerosene, was presented as a move to both improve the nation’s fiscal health, and take advantage of historically low global oil prices. The implication was that the public would receive much lower fuel prices at the pumps too, as they would float day-to-day based on international crude prices, just as they do in many countries abroad.

The fact is, ordinary fuel purchasers abroad get the benefit of lower prices when they obtain, and we don’t. . Here, the government quickly moved in after the subsidies were scrapped, and promptly began enhancing the excise duty on fuel before the States added their VAT and Sales Tax.  

But because the NDA rules in 19 states out of 29 now, can’t petroleum products be brought in within the ambit of GST? However, if the exercise it to be “revenue neutral” per the accepted mantra, then prices cannot be brought down. The culprit is the lack of austerity in governance at the expense of the people.  

So, for now, this lazy but sure-fire taxation on fuel, is hard to replace. The Modi government, despite the public clamour, is still hoping to get away with a minimal cut, because of its increasing reliance on the votes of the poor. The poor, it is reckoned, do not consume much petrol or aviation fuel.

But some amongst them do use diesel, at least when they travel, albeit not those  firmly below the poverty line, who probably don’t buy tickets.

The poor ostensibly get the benefit from the money surreptitiously extorted from high fuel prices at the petrol pumps- at least according to Union Minister Gadkari.  This has been engineered unilaterally, without any publicity or engagement in public discussion. 

This, following on from quite a lot of explanation to build public support for the removal of subsidies on fuel, presented as a general benefit for all. Besides, how Gadkari can draw a direct co-relationship between just one contributor to the government coffers, and the funding of Welfare, is indeed a mystery. It could, after all, be paying some of the bill for all the roads being built by the NHAI under his benign gaze.

High oil prices hurt most of the consuming world. So sorting out the turmoil in Venezuela, a major oil producer in difficulties, and the confrontation with Iran, could resolve the issue at the macro level, sooner rather than later. There is also the mercantile tightening of supply by Russia and Saudi Arabia and lesser oil producers under their influence. America is touting clean coal even as it is ostensibly oil self- sufficient, though fracking does need higher oil prices. But major consuming countries and blocks like the EU, China, and India, are not without influence too.

For: The Sunday Guardian
(1,372 words)
May 24, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee

Monday, May 14, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: BLACK COFFEE IN A COCONUT SHELL


BOOK REVIEW

TITLE:   BLACK COFFEE IN A COCONUT SHELL-Caste as a lived experience
EDITED BY:  PERUMAL MURUGAN
TRANSLATED FROM THE TAMIL BY: C.S. LAKSHMI
PUBLISHER:  SAGE/YODA PRESS, 2018
PRICE: RS.595/-

Fissure Lines Of Tamilian Casteism: A Pan-Indian Mirror For 2018

This is a engagingly written set of unpretentious and short essays, straight from the heart, on the unbending rules and practices of caste in rural Tamil Nadu.

The narratives range from birth and one’s sense of station, to assignations, marriage, and what might have been, the simulations and euphemisms of tact, particularly between religions, and also death – with its separate and stratified final rites. These are stories of personal experience and very touching for their authenticity.

Published by Sage/Yoda Press, the quality of the flawless editing and presentation in this volume is exceptional.  

The essays, serious in content, are written by a pantheon of highly educated academics, authors, poets, editors, even a doctor, who could easily have chosen to be pedantic and pompous, but have instead chosen a quiet tone of dignified poignancy, simplicity, and acute honesty.

If one didn’t read the notes on the contributors, bristling with PhDs, though many were indeed born in the village, you would have taken the entire collective of 31 to be ordinary people, writing directly on their own experience with their caste and religious identities.

The essays, some only two or three pages long, have been impeccably translated by the distinguished Dr. C.S. Lakshmi, specialized in Women’s Studies.

The Editor of this slim but valuable collection, Perumal Murugan, is a professor, author, poet, with what must be a fairly rare PhD in Tamil.

Caste is a formidable construct in India.  The message of this book however is that though it can, and does, much to preserve traditions and structures - with its rigidities, it often destroys lives too.

Recent Assembly elections in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, the North East, taught us caste, class, creed, tribal loyalties, are all crucially relevant to the “social engineering” aspects of winning State elections.

Such groupings compete with religion, ideology, and the modern, inclusive, siren calls to development, and still hold their own. The vast metro cities with a population in millions are perhaps the only places where these issues loosen their hold, provided one does not seek out familiar ghettoes.

Most recently in Karnataka, we were treated to detailed analyses of Lingayats and Veershaivas, sub-castes, Mahants, Mutts, Vokkaligas, Kurubas, the Muslim- Shia, Sunni Imams, Maulanas, Dalits, Maha-Dalits - all bubbling away in the election cauldron. Along, that is, with money, liquor, fake voters’ lists, intimidation, lies, accusations, promises and hoopla.

Reservations, the modern affirmative action panacea, say some in this interestingly titled book: Black Coffee in a Coconut Shell, are responsible for even more divisions than were originally built into the caste system.

Getting in is one thing, but then cheek by jowl colleagues proceed to snuff each others’ promotions based on caste groupings.

Skin colour, physical features, crudity, refinement, food habits and inclinations, are all repeatedly brought up as visible markers of caste to the discerning observer.  The untouchability of caste practice, though some of the authors attributed it to departed mothers and grandmothers, is heartbreaking- the separate glasses, the laxman rekha of inside and outside, bathing to dispel “pollution”.

It is no wonder, given the childhood trauma, that many of the erudite writers here meekly accept their caste limitations, hinting at genetic probabilities, without demur.

It is poignant to read this. Comparative study would explain to these distinguished professors that the tinker, tailor, butcher, baker, candle-stick maker of “tradesmen entrances”, craftsmen, artisans, would have never climbed into the Boardrooms of Europe and America if this was inviolable. Of course the world wars that wiped out their aristocracy helped.

But also, mongrellisation seems to have worked really well in the “melting pot” that is America, and here we are, hesitating at “inter-caste marriages”, and being routinely lynched by the Tamilian equivalent of Khap Panchayats.

There is a feeling, represented in most of these essays, that caste is immutable in the village. It can, after a fashion, lose itself in the big city, in the Chennai of this book.

But only if the incumbent does not let himself be tortured by its internal dictates even there, amongst all the reasonable anonymity and the cosmopolitanism. A suicide is cited even here though, when the attempt fails.

Caste is heartfelt. The low, the middling, and high-born, all feel its lash in different ways.  This is interesting, and true enough for the articulation. Nobody is really on top anymore, certainly not by right! It is money that is replacing caste, and thank God something is.

Not even the atheist politicians of the South, and their ardent followers, who tried to cut through the Gordian knot are anything but just such and such
(generally low) caste, who say they don’t believe in God anymore. There is a churn, but one must still carry the baggage.

Theoretically, if a person can shed the effects of caste on his developing psyche, particularly if he grew up in Tamil Nadu’s villages, then all is well.

But not one of the authors of these essays dares thumb his nose at the notion. Everyone accepts its pernicious hold in the spirit of age-old Karma. There is no communist or modernist attempt to belittle the meaning of caste and its stratifications in this volume. Perhaps it is not lost on this distinguished assemblage that Karl Marx was himself a Jew.

This realism is indeed remarkable, and at the nub of this book’s honesty. No one celebrates the apartheid of caste, but no one denies its existence either.

Everyone ends individually and separately, with a hope that future generations may make a better job of rendering caste irrelevant than they have.

It is possible. A multi-cultural Europe has blurred colour, ethnicity, race, and cultural lines in the minds of most of its people. A generation or two ago this was unthinkable. Did economics and technology do the trick?  Perhaps the answer is in all of the above, and in the inexorable processes of evolution too.

For: The Sunday Pioneer BOOKS
(977 words)
May 14, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee

Thursday, May 3, 2018

In Concrete Terms, What Has Modi Accomplished In Four Years?




In Concrete Terms, What Has Modi Accomplished In Four Years?

You and I come by road and rail, but economists travel on infrastructure- Margaret Thatcher

Build it, goes the Americanism, and they will come. China’s 10% plus growth through 30 of the Deng Xiaoping years, was predicated on exports to the US, and massive, impressive, domestic infrastructure development.

India is playing catch-up, though it is the domestic market for us, but under Narendra Modi, it means business. Infrastructure is an article of faith for him. It has worked well in his home state of Gujarat.

Modi is indeed the focal point of this, and other, new BJP thrusts, because the Party, before he took over the top job, was of a different kind. It was derisively dubbed the “Brahmin-Bania” party, propped up by RSS Hindutva, but still unable to will itself into power.

The Vajpayee years, were the only other time the BJP ruled. They were characterized by a massive coalition of disparate elements. But it did yield both nuclear weaponisation for India’s security, and the world-class Golden Quadrilateral system of roads.

Modi has been pushing infrastructure development relentlessly over the last four years, not least because it was the surest way to pull India out of the GDP slump it was in.

Infrastructure growth is an objective imperative too, given India’s gargantuan population grown three-fold and more since independence. Most of what is on the ground, except in recent years, is creaky, antiquated, inadequate, engendered by decades of low growth Socialism, or inherited from the British Raj.

From the late eighties, and certainly the nineties, infrastructure was identified as an impediment to our ambitions of rapid growth, with its bottlenecks and high costs. And it became clear that only double-digit GDP numbers can help us raise over 400 million people from abject poverty.

While infrastructure development, rather than the promotion of consumption(which has now also picked up), is indeed Modi’s “suit boot” side - there is another as well, a Social Democrat face, working in tandem.

This is distinct, in a teach-a-man-to-fish way, from the populist freebies of his Socialist and Communist opponents. And this face has considerably grown the BJP’s voter-base via Amit Shah’s “social engineering”, as a consequence. The limited reach in the cow belt, has been transcended by embracing the humblest of the have-nots pan-India, under the capacious Vikas umbrella.

The Modi Government is now in the final stretch to general elections in 2019. It is just as well that the economy is looking up, inclusive of a good monsoon and cheer in rural India, with a number of State Assembly elections looming nearer.

But what is concrete about the Modi Government’s achievements after 4 years?  There has been, since May 2014, a palpable growth and development in Roads, Railways, Metros, as well as laid groundwork for Rapid Transport Systems, Bullet Trains and Freight Corridors, broad band systems and so on. Ro-ro systems are being tried out on the coast lines, and inland waterways are being revived after decades.

The Bharatmala roads of the Modi years will manifest only in his second term.  But when it’s done, it will establish new benchmarks in connectivity, communication and possibility in India.

Other road plans under the Act East Policy, actively under execution, include a new airport terminal at Guwahati just announced, and road connectivity through Myanmar all the way to Thailand.

Work done in Afghanistan- a dam, roads, government buildings, and at Chabahar Port in Iran, again show the inclination towards infrastructure development as diplomacy too.

At home, completion of stuck road projects after removing financial, environmental and legal impedimenta, strategic tunnels and bridges, dams, revived mining, new ports and modernization of old ones, bypasses, widening of roads, even planting of trees- are palpable.

18,000 villages outside the grid so far, sitting in the dark all these years-  have now been electrified. Next target is to provide electricity to every home and business. The 100 Smart Cities are so far manifest in terms of masses of affordable housing. Plans are afoot to have everyone in a pucca home by 2022.

The nuclear power programmne, long mired in motivated NGO protests and delivery problems from suppliers, are now also moving ahead.

There are new international airports on the anvil at Jewar  in UP, in Navi Mumbai, and more airport terminals at Chennai and Lucknow to cope with present and future demand.

Old WWII airstrips from the Burma campaign have been refurbished and reopened to meet military and civilian needs of present times. Ditto the famous Stilwell Road.
Brand new strategic border roads are being built in remote places of Arunachal Pradesh , Ladakh and Uttarakhand.

Pilgrimage circuits such as the Char Dham in the Garhwal mountains are being firmed up, with all-weather connectivity and roads. Other places such as Vaishno Devi have already been rendered more accessible by a high-tech rail line to Katra.

New railway track is being laid for the first time in decades connecting the neglected and isolated North East. Recent launches of ISRO satellites are being used to develop India’s own GPRS System - for peace, surveillance and war.

Metro systems as a viable mass transit system  are extant in almost all the metro cities now, though much needed expansion is yet to come, and will spread to as many as 38 cities in time.

The Make in India programme has  worked well for electronics, particularly the assembly of cellphones, and automobile assembly/manufacture, ancillaries etc. but is grinding slowly in Defence- into ship and submarine building, aircraft, tanks,  modern rifles, bullet-proof vests, night-sight equipment, ammunition, armoured carriers,  helicopters etc..

New techniques of counting employment now hint at crores of new jobs created via all this infrastructure development after all, and will no doubt provide ammunition in the election battles coming up. Now, even private sector recovery is showing up after the government’s four years of heavy lifting.

The Social Democratic face has not been sleeping either. Many programmes indeed are continuations of what previous governments have initiated, such as the multiple welfare schemes for the rural and urban poor. These can, and have been tweaked, expanded, and implemented with fewer leakages.

But there are spectacular new successes too. These include tremendous electoral wins that has brought 22 states into the NDA fold. And major economic reform, like a single unified indirect tax- the GST. The latter, after a contentious start, has recently breached the Rs. 1 lakh crore mark in monthly collections for the first time, with signs that it could keep growing at 3%-5% per month.   

Breaking through the decades old logjam for the Armed Forces pay parity and welfare programme under OROP was another huge accomplishment.

And then, there are the massive Aadhar linkages that have eliminated lakhs of fake  subsidy accounts. The significant expansion of the direct tax base is a new phenomenon after the disruption of the shock demonetisation.

In foreign affairs, there is a new warmth, cooperation, and respect for India all over the world. The smacking  of Pakistan via surgical strikes and standing up to China at Doklam has not gone unnoticed.

Ordinary people too can obtain passports in days now.

Many long-standing and intractable subsidies have been removed though the fuel taxes are decidedly onerous even if the money is purportedly being used for infrastructure building.

Apex level corruption too has been stamped out for the very first time. Defaulting businessmen are in the process of having all their assets confiscated.

Micro loans without collateral have been provided to lakhs of people running tiny businesses.  Muslim women have been shielded from the ignominy of Triple Talaq for the first time.

Self-attestation of required document copies, the CBDT dealing with income tax assesses almost exclusively online, are part of hundreds of such improvements.

80% of all income tax assesses have to pay no more than 5% tax, or nothing at all, after availing various tax-saving incentives.

Going beyond welfare handouts, thousands of LPG gas connections and cylinders have been provided to the poor at subsidized prices. 80% of the population willy-nilly now has a bank account, and despite much derision, these accounts collectively hold crores of rupees now.

The thing is, administrative reform and welfare programmes, however plentiful can be twisted and belittled. But how do you deny the evidence of infrastructure development? There is a reason why nearly a century later, we still call the seat of power- Lutyen’s Delhi.

For: The Sunday Guardian
(1,392 words)
May 3, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee


Sunday, April 29, 2018

BOOK REVIEW:THE BRAHMIN By RAVI SHANKAR ETTETH


BOOK REVIEW

TITLE:   THE BRAHMIN-a novel
AUTHOR:  RAVI SHANKAR ETTETH
PUBLISHER:  WESTLAND, 2018
PRICE:   PAPERBACK, Rs. 350/-

Tales Of  The Blood Flower

Ravi Shankar Etteth - journalist, political cartoonist, illustrator, author, bon vivant, has recently offered up his fifth novel. The Brahmin is anchored around the spymaster in King Ashoka’s Court, at Pataliputra in legendary Magadha. It is a frolic of a book with the Chanakya-like figure of the spymaster as the main mast.

There is therefore a good deal of cloak and dagger, combined with swashbuckling action. And relentless description, fuelled by powerful, visual, imagery. Description that appears carefully researched and appropriate to a period novel. At the same time, there is the constant and unsettling politics of war, in the presence of the fantastic and ambitious- the chosen method of advancement in that setting and time. But marinated, from the first word to the last, in the juices of myth and epic possibility as the final ingredient.

The individual characterisation however, is overwhelmed by the narrator’s voice and omniscience throughout. There is a great deal of tell, and not an awful lot of show. And as a reader, you want the characters to speak, more often than not, for themselves, however clever they are made to sound by their agent- the narrator. Colonel Tom Parker may have over- managed Elvis. Hindsight and criticism reveals all.

But leaving this aside, it is a gripping intermingling of stories, of shadows and murders, and concealed motives. And story- telling comes naturally to this author.  It represents his imaginative fecundity. As proof,  it has already run to five novels in a period of just sixteen years.  This, in addition to a cluster of day-jobs in the media.

There is little mention of the historical Emperor Ashoka’s moment of epiphany after his winning and very killing battles with Kalinga. No mention of his subsequent conversion to a pacifist and infrastructure-building Buddhism.

Certainly, that would have complicated the plot of this book and nuanced its pace, perhaps fatally. Or perhaps Etteth is saving it for a sequel.

This then, is the bloodthirsty Ashoka, though he plays, even less than his queen, only a cameo role in the book. It is of the period before he turned over his philosophical leaf, and he appears glowering, unpredictable, full of threats.

There is thrilling skullduggery of the Game Of Thrones  variety in this book on the Magadhan times, woven in with  ninja warrior clones who are in fact,Chinese, and stay-on Greek soldiers, from Alexander the Great’s visit.  

Mention of Ravana, the great Lankan king, comes and goes in the narrative, along with his nuclear weapon- the golden scythe. In fact, by the end of the book, we learn there were two- a good scythe and a bad one, and the Brahmin plus the queen, on their travels through the mazes and corridors of power, secure both. It is a touch of the Holy Grail in duplicate, for God and Satan, one of each, in a Temple of Doom kind of way.

The mysterious Blood Flower, a woman, but naturally, is definitely a stealth phantom dealer of death, the very best, in the conceptual and practical hierarchy of assassins. That she gets killed in the Brahmin’s presence, at court, even as a scheming Ambassador of Kalinga is exposed, by her own sister warrior no less, is what the script writes for the hero.

A hero that escapes a knife attack himself by a whisker of well-judged movement in the self-same climax scene.

At times what’s going on in the book is a bit of a blur. It is difficult to follow the sequence of events. It makes you long for it to be turned into a screenplay, and then a movie, that becomes easy to keep up with. One can rewind to learn who is doing what to whom. Besides- a book that would make for an interesting movie or a TV serial is good news. If I were the author, I would be smiling at this, wouldn’t I?  

But outside the book’s purview, is the enduring historical legacy of Ashoka, besides the wide roads he built, that the author does refer to. There is the suggestion of strength, rule- of-law and justice, made by Ashoka’s best known symbol - the Ashok Stambh, almost the official symbol and seal of the Republic of India today.

In the end, it is a simple thing. The warrior spymaster’s most trusted bodyguard and assassin, the Chinese woman Hao, whom he had rescued from execution, is the Blood Flower Dao’s sister. The Blood Flower, quite the professional, has been killing members of the harem and other important members in the inner circle. Most of it has the imprint of the known suspect –neighbouring Kalinga, and its agents, about to be conquered by Ashoka.

That’s where it starts, with a signature murder, breach of security, and threats to Ashoka’s queen Asandhimitra. The queen too has her secrets, in a sub-plot of her own-something to do with the gloves she wears to conceal a bracelet, and a certain crescent shaped birthmark just above her wrist.

And wait, the spymaster Brahmin does meet the Buddha in the closing pages of the novel. There are blessings, gifts exchanged, and the fragrance of flowers. Then there are the war horses for Hao, (who, by now, tends to rest her head on the Brahmin’s shoulder from time to time), and Himself; and the need to ride away to another adventure. Heigh Ho, Silver Away!

For:  The Sunday Pioneer, BOOKS
(894 words)
April 29th, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee