Saturday, 31 August 2019

The agony of returning to work in September

Janan Ganesh in The FT 

For eight improbable years, TS Eliot earned his crust as a clerk for Lloyds Bank. He did not have the excuse of ignorance, therefore, when he misidentified April as the “cruelest month”. All working people know the real ogre to be September. Millions of us are winding down our summer holidays around now and answering the call of necessary employment. 

I enjoy my job to an almost indecent degree. Yet even I felt a pang as I flew out of Perugia recently and into my nine-to-five (or, if you must, my eleven-to-two). La rentrĂ©e is all the harsher on people with proper jobs. 

The sour atmosphere in airport departure lounges does at least clarify something. The search for pleasure and meaning in work is, beyond a certain point, a fool’s errand. No doubt, some jobs are better than others. But as long as work is an obligation — something one must do, to uphold a standard of living — there is a limit to the joy it can ever bring. Leisure will always feel better, and by a margin that is unbridgeable with worker-friendly offices and other blandishments. 

I started my career just before any of this needed saying. But then the promise began to emerge of work that need not feel like work. Companies vied to lay on the most ergonomic environments, the kindest mentors, the loosest schedules. A generation of in-demand graduates came to expect not just these material incentives but a sort of credal alignment with their employer’s “values”. The next recession will retard this trend but it is unlikely to kill it. 

All of this is as it should be. I was raised by people who had to toil without any of these perks. I don’t romanticise it as an era of Spartan virtue. Whatever companies do to nudge their staff up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is to be saluted. 

The perk to really haggle for is not in-job comfort but the maximisation of paid leave. 

 It is just that the kindest service we can do for the young is manage their expectations. Work can be made a lot better than it might otherwise be. It cannot be made to be something other than work. The idea is taking hold, I sense, that it is odd to do something that is not exactly what you would wish to be doing at a particular moment. But this is the lot of even the most “creative” worker, the most self-governing entrepreneur. Very few professional tasks are so absorbing as to be one’s first-choice pursuit in circumstances of total freedom. 

A personal ambition is to reach the end of my career without having managed a single person. Friends who have been less lucky, who have whole teams under their watch, report a quirk among their younger charges. It is not laziness or obstreperousness or those other millennial slanders. It is an air of disappointment with the reality of working life. They will be among the people described in Bullshit Jobs by the anthropologist David Graeber. They will not be among the mere 18 per cent who told YouGov in 2015 that work was “very fulfilling”. As much as the fogey in me blames their entitlement, they were promised more than was plausible by company brochures and a culture that pretends an office can feel like something else. 

Companies are only able to soften the experience of employment so much. What they cannot finesse out of existence is the crux: the surrender of time for money that you would ideally fill with something else. The perk to really haggle for, then, is not in-work comfort but the maximisation of paid leave. 

Twenty years have passed since Office Space, and the cult film remains the acutest satire of alienating employment. In the central scene, workers do to an eternally malfunctioning printer more or less what liberated Iraqis did to statues of Saddam Hussein. 

It has one dud note, though, and it comes at the end, when the main character quits his office cubicle for life as a construction worker. The message is that manual labour does not have its own kind of soul-sucking boredom and pressure. It takes a cocooned sort to believe this kind of thing, but lots of people believe it of careers other than their own. The simplest jobs and the most cerebral are both heroised. But the defining thing about work is not its exact content. It is the fact that you have to do it. Look around at the faces in the departure lounge. In a stratified labour force, a rare unifier is dread of the cruelest month.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Tips to survive in difficult times

Journalist - Wusatullah Khan

Will Modi's Muslims pay the price for Kashmir?

By Girish Menon

Modi’s Muslims, i.e. most middle class Indians (this writer included) supported Modi’s decision to de-operationalise Art. 370 in Kashmir. It is now three weeks since the decision and India’s security forces appear to keep the casualty levels low so far. There are many scenarios possible when the communications shut down is lifted. In this piece, I will examine the best possible scenario for Modi’s supporters and how they may still be called upon to pay a very high price.

In response to India’s action, Pakistan’s selected PM Imran Khan has promised to be an ambassador for Pakistan Coveted Kashmir (PCK). He has promised to raise the issue at the UN Security Council in a month’s time. And until then he has asked Pakistanis to protest for ½ an hour after their mid-day prayers. He has succeeded in getting the attention of foreign media, though the lack of body bags has resulted in a waning interest.

The Indian government, worried about the global interest, has responded with its own version of diplomacy with a majority of UN Security Council Members not giving Pakistan any crumbs for comfort. So what price will India pay for their support and how will Modi’s Muslims react when the pain increases?

Firstly, it is possible that India may send troops to Afghanistan to facilitate the smooth withdrawal of US troops in time for Trump’s re-election.

Secondly, President Trump wants India to give US companies’ better access to its markets. This could mean Huawei is forced out of the 5G selection process. It could mean that India will not insist that Indian consumer data is stored in India. It could mean compromises on many other positions that India has steadfastly adhered to as part of its economic interests.

Thirdly, India maybe forced to purchase more expensive defence equipment from the US. India's policies of indigenisation of defence production may be completely dropped. A forerunner to this thinking was palpable when the Rafale offset was given to private contractors without sufficient safe guards.

Economic growth in the Indian economy is already at the much derided Hindu rate of growth. Investment by firms is down, while firms are shutting down and unemployment is rising. If India removes further trade barriers to the already suffering French and US economies – it will result in benefits to the workers and businesses from there. But what about Modi’s Muslims who are drooling about the benefits from a $ 5 Trillion economy?

I suppose, when the economic situation gets really bad the Supreme Court can clear the path to build Ram Janambhoomi temple. This will win the 2024 elections and pave the way for the $ 5 Trillion Ram Rajya.


The revenge of Sukhi Lala

Jawed Naqvi in The Dawn

THE flag of Jammu & Kashmir, which was taken down from the Srinagar Secretariat over the weekend, carried the symbol of a plough. The Congress party’s election symbol in 1952 under Jawaharlal Nehru was two bullocks in harness — do baelon ki jodi.

In a monsoon-fed agricultural economy, both symbols represented the productive and political power of the peasant. In a 1958 TV interview with American journalist Arnold Michaelis, Nehru spoke of differences between the Muslim League and the Congress over land reforms, which the latter was committed to in independent India.

When Nehru became president of the All India States Peoples Conference (AISPC) at Udaipur in January 1946, he got Sheikh Abdullah elected vice president. They were both committed to land reforms, and AISPC, which was a Congress-backed body that worked to nudge princely states to become part of the future India, was equally determined to uproot feudalism after independence.

This was a quandary Jammu & Kashmir ruler Hari Singh faced. He resented Nehru and Abdullah as socialists, but may not have seen a great future for himself in Muslim Pakistan either. Moreover, the disputed Instrument of Accession he signed described him as ‘Jammu Kashmir Naresh ani Tibet Desh Adhipaty’ (Jammu & Kashmir ruler and sovereign of Tibet nation).

It got Sheikh Abdullah into trouble when he met Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in Algiers in 1965, an alleged indiscretion that prompted his arrest upon return. Gandhian pacifist Horace Alexander pleaded on his behalf with then information minister Indira Gandhi, who had sympathy for the Sheikh, but also a word of caution.

“What Sheikh Sahib does not realise is that with the Chinese invasion [1962] and the latest moves in and by Pakistan, the position of Kashmir had completely changed. The frontiers of Kashmir touch China, USSR, Pakistan and India. In the present world situation, an independent Kashmir would become a hotbed of intrigue and, apart from the countries mentioned above, would also attract espionage and other activities from the USA and UK,” Alexander quotes Mrs Gandhi as saying in early 1965.

It is a Hindutva canard that Sardar Patel muscled 560 plus princely states into joining India. Pressure mounted on the monarchs when Nehru declared in his 1946 presidential address at the AISPC that those princely states that refuse to merge with India and join the Constituent Assembly would be considered hostile states. This was the background in which Sukhi Lala had to earn his keep in a new India. Who was Sukhi Lala?

Sukhi Lala generically was the moneylender-land grabber in the 1950s movie Mother India. He also appears as the land shark-zamindar in Bimal Roy’s Do Beegha Zameen, and as decadent Hari Babu in Ganga Jamuna. Sukhi Lala played the stock markets in Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420, and sold adulterated medicines in Nutan’s Anari.

In Zia Sarhadi’s Footpath, Dilip Kumar underscored the evil of stock markets, derisively called satta bazaar in Nehru’s India. Indian peasants suffered Sukhi Lala’s greed and occasionally revolted violently against the excesses. Dilip Kumar’s Ganga and Sunil Dutt’s Birju would be jailed or killed in India today as Maoists.

Manmohan Singh called Maoists his biggest security threat, but offered no comment about why the peasants were committing suicide in thousands following his pro-Sukhi Lala economic policies in 1991. India’s finance minister recently flaunted the bahi-khata cover, the moneylender’s cash register, instead of the briefcase her predecessors carried with the annual budget proposals, perhaps signalling who rules India today.

Gandhiji had many Sukhi Lalas as friends who financed the Congress. He saw in them the future trustees of India. Nehru who was a better student of history took a different view of the business class his political guru was enamoured of. His election symbol of do baelon ki jodi captured an affinity with the peasants, Sukhi Lala’s prey from time immemorial.

Ironically, it was Gandhi who had dispatched Nehru to cut his political teeth among the rural masses of Uttar Pradesh. It was in Rae Bareli from across the Sai river that the future prime minister watched police shooting at unarmed peasants at the behest of the local Sukhi Lala.

Rahul Gandhi’s sharp criticism of Narendra Modi’s wily games in Kashmir deserves an assessment of his politics, which may not be unrelated to his much-discussed Nehru-Gandhi lineage.

The lineage in a nutshell is a challenge to Sukhi Lala. Nehru jailed the tallest of the business tycoons. Indira Gandhi nationalised their banks. Rajiv Gandhi directed them to lay off the backs of the Congress workers. Rahul may have a cleaner slate to work with after leading Lala acolytes in the Congress jumped the ship over Kashmir.

Look at it this way. Modi is sworn to make India a Congress-free country for a reason. But the developments of recent days have shown, like it or not, that there is no Congress party without the leadership of the Gandhi family. Think of the PPP without a Bhutto link or an Awami League without a Mujib association, marked variance from the Bandaranaike and Kennedy clans in the limited sway they held on their respective parties.

Now consider a vengeful possibility. A parliamentary act protects the family of the assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi with the highest grade of security of the Special Protection Group. Given the hatred whipped up against them by India’s new rulers in league with a conniving media, it would not be difficult to immobilise them (from a Srinagar visit, for example) by stripping them of their security in the name of economic prudence. Already a move is afoot, says The Hindu, to remove Manmohan Singh’s SPG cover.

On the other hand, such a move could spur the newly cleansed party to come into its own. The waters are being tested on both sides. Sukhi Lala is drooling.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Pakistan’s Crocodile Tears for Muslims – Global, Indian or Kashmiri

By Girish Menon

It is two weeks since the Indian Parliament de-operationalised Art. 370 and used the armed forces to crush any dissent in the few Muslim majority districts of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir. It is well known that when any army administers an area there will be human rights violations; and I don’t expect anything different in the Kashmir valley. But does Pakistan’s rhetoric in this matter inspire confidence among embittered Kashmiri Muslims on the Indian side?

Image result for crocodile tears

Pakistan (the land of the Pure Muslim) was founded on the principle of the Two Nation Theory for Muslims from the Indian subcontinent who were afraid of being persecuted in a post-British, Hindu majority India. From its inception, Pakistan persecuted its own Hindu, Sikh, Ahmadiya, Shia and Christian populations. It also persecuted Sindhis, Balochs, Pashtuns etc. and ended up as the land only for the Punjabi Sunni. It acquired the epithet Bakistan (leftover land) after its Bengali Muslims left to form Bangla Desh.

Pakistan initiated four formal wars against India viz. 1948, 1965, 1971 and1999. It launched proxy wars in the Punjab in the early 1980s and in Kashmir from 1989 onwards which resulted in the displacement of a large number of Hindus who were resident in the Kashmir valley. It did not adhere to the UN resolution of 1948, the Simla agreement of 1972 and its miltablishment jeopardised peace initiatives between civilian governments including Modi’s by attacking the Indian Parliament, Mumbai, Pathankot and Pulwama.

Internationally, the pious Pakistan general Zia ul Haq earned his spurs by firing on Muslim Palestinians even before he came to power illegally. The Pakistan state persecuted its Mohajirs who fled India after the 1947 partition. Recently too, it did not step in to help Syrian refugees, the Rohingyas or the Uighurs (all Muslims) who suffered in large numbers.

Now the Pakistan media alleges that India is using genocidal policies to subjugate Kashmir. However, I don’t see any counter relief policy by Pakistan welcoming aggrieved Indian Muslims in general and Kashmiri Muslims in particular to cross the border and to settle in the Sunni Islamic paradise called Pakistan. After all, the other famous land of the faithful, Israel, is an open haven to Jews from all over the world.

Pakistan’s support for Indian Muslims is part of the Ghazwa-e-Hind rhetoric. They hope that Indian Muslims will take up arms (which they have supplied) to create a fifth column so that the armies of the faithful can wander in and establish Imran Khan’s Riyasat-e-Medina.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s friends and members of the Islamic ummah viz. the UAE and Saudi Arabia have not supported it’s rhetoric. Also, most Indian Muslims have decided to follow their self interest and ignored the calls from across the border. Now, it is up to the Indian government to ensure they win the hearts and minds of the doubters in the Kashmir Valley.

More importantly, the Indian government should focus on the dire economic situation in the country which affects people from all denominations. Success in this area will ensure that Kashmiri Muslims will wish to stay with India and not raise the call for Azaadi (freedom from both India and Pakistan).

---Prognosis for the Future (in Urdu)

-----Interview with Imran Khan which validates the above theses

Monday, 19 August 2019

Ten Best Jokes from Edinburgh

"I keep randomly shouting out 'Broccoli' and 'Cauliflower' - I think I might have Florets" - Olaf Falafel

"Someone stole my antidepressants. Whoever they are, I hope they're happy" - Richard Stott

"What's driving Brexit? From here it looks like it's probably the Duke of Edinburgh" - Milton Jones

"A cowboy asked me if I could help him round up 18 cows. I said, 'Yes, of course. - That's 20 cows'" - Jake Lambert

"A thesaurus is great. There's no other word for it" - Ross Smith

"Sleep is my favourite thing in the world. It's the reason I get up in the morning" - Ross Smith

"I accidentally booked myself onto an escapology course; I'm really struggling to get out of it" - Adele Cliff

"After learning six hours of basic semaphore, I was flagging - Richard Pulsford

"To be or not to be a horse rider, that is Equestrian" - Mark Simmons

"I've got an Eton-themed advent calendar, where all the doors are opened for me by my dad's contacts" - Ivo Graham

Saturday, 17 August 2019

You’ll Find an Unicorn Before You Find a Free Market

Syed Bakhtiyar Kazmi in The Dawn

THE realisation that conventional economic wisdom, seeped in the myth of the free market, will be extremely antagonistic towards any solution based on protectionism and planned industrialisation, stipulates a bit of digression.

Scope limitation: the discussion here under is based on pure common sense sans any political bearing, with the simple objective of discussing alternative options for economic growth; those who know it all already need not read any further.

Whilst conspiracy theories may explain the ‘why’, it is indeed mind-boggling ‘how’ the world was sold an idea, ie free markets, which has nothing to do with reality. Essentially, you need the long arm of the government to even enforce the rules of the market, including breaking cartels for countering undesirable social outcomes.

My personal favourite from the net is, “You’ll find a unicorn before you find a free market”!

Perfect competition in free markets, even in theory, inevitably eventually results in an oligopoly or monopoly, as in the case of Coke and Pepsi.

More to the point, how many genuinely believe that any domestic cola manufacturer has any chance of ever taking market share from Coke and Pepsi in Pakistan; and this has nothing to do with quality or free markets!

Capturing the market for coloured aerated water has only to do with deep pockets!

This example is easily applicable to our case study, the imported can opener. To recap my observations in another article, because of free markets, Pakistan had started importing can openers which were cheaper and shinier than the domestically manufactured can opener. However, with the rupee depreciating, the Pakistani can opener might have become cheaper, but the domestic facilities have closed down and we probably have lost the skills to manufacture a can opener during this time.

At this point, foreign manufacturers will go to any lengths to scuttle any new initiative for the domestic manufacturing of can openers; dumping and price war are just the tip of the iceberg. The home country of our foreign manufacturer of can openers may probably even oppose Pakistan in the UN Security Council, just to apply pressure to protect their manufacturer’s interests!

Is that voluntary trade?

Here the free market proponents argue that voluntary trade is beneficial for both parties. They argue that purchasing, say, a Coke, demonstrates that the purchaser values a fizzy drink more than the money in his pocket, and hence should have the right, and the choice, to spend his money as he wants.

There is nothing wrong with that statement. However, no person, with even a tiny bit of common sense, is expected to borrow every day to drink a Coke, if he cannot afford to pay back that debt.

In the case of a nation, government is the repository of common sense of the populace; so how does borrowing in dollars to pay for Cokes every day for 207 million people make any sense? How is getting burdened with external debt mutually beneficial trade?

And here we come to comparative advantage theory which basically argues that nations should only produce and export items where they have a comparative advantage. Notwithstanding that most developing nations can only have a comparative advantage in raw materials or basic manufacture, let us for a minute be practical.

Under this fantastic ‘all else being held constant two-nation-two-products comparative advantage’ theory, Portuguese winemakers would be re­­quired to stop making wine, since London’s winemakers have some sort of advantage over them. But why would Portuguese winemakers, who can still make cheaper wine, and perhaps better tasting wine, stop producing wine, which they can easily sell in Portugal, and start making cloth when they are clueless about the cloth trade ab initio?

The Portuguese government could force them out of the wine business, but then we really are not talking about a free market, are we? And where is the guarantee that after a few years, when the last of the Portuguese winemaker has passed away, London winemakers will not suddenly start charging double? After all it is a free market. Portugal both now pays double and borrows to drink wine, or it does not drink wine since it cannot afford it. What in your opinion should Portugal do?

Here the free trade theory argues that free floating currency will increase the competitiveness of Portuguese wine; but the last winemaker is already dead!

As in our can opener example, we have forgotten how to make can openers; the problem is that if all our food is in cans, then we will be forced to borrow and buy more expensive can openers.

But the music will eventually stop! It always does. So where do we get the can openers from?

Friday, 16 August 2019

Hawala explained

By Shahid Mehmood in The Friday Times
Hawala and Hundi are two of the most familiar terms in Pakistan’s economic landscape. Put simply, these are synonymous with informal channels through which money flows in or out of the country. It has been on the policymakers’ radar for a long time but there has not been any significant success in terms of curbing its workings. These days, there is a new urgency to tackle it as Pakistan finds itself on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) Grey List.

It is a good time to peek into the nature, history and workings of this system in order to understand its continued sway and why it became popular in the first place. Hawala basically denotes a system made up of money lenders and businessmen around the globe. What distinguishes it from the formal exchange channels (like banking) is that it works largely on repute and trust rather than formal contracts. It comes with its advantages, anonymity being the primary one. The other primary advantage comes in the form of avoiding expensive formal channels of finance and exchange. Anonymity, however, comes with a heavy price tag for countries like Pakistan as this particular characteristic has been mercilessly exploited by smugglers, drug peddlers and terrorism financiers. No wonder Pakistan finds itself on the FATF radar.

Transfer of financial resources using a Hawala type system, based on trust, is a very old practice. Robert Sobel, in his magisterial The Pursuit of Wealth, has traced the system back to the dawn of commerce and trade (he does not explicitly mention Hawala, though). Babylonian and Sumerian merchants, for example, relied heavily on people of reputation (including priests) for acting as clearing houses and money transfer intermediaries/channels providing a valuable service to citizens. Instead of taking the substantial risk of carrying money and valuables themselves, they were deposited with these individuals who in return would give them an acknowledgment receipt (with their particular stamp or insignia). When merchants would reach their destination, they would redeem the amount by presenting the receipt to the Hawala dealers of that particular place. Thus, a transaction was settled with minimum of fee and administrative requirements. Moreover, the existence of such a valuable service oiled the wheels of commerce as it took away the many risks that merchants faced while carrying money themselves.

If looked at in modern parlance, Hawala is a decentralised system based on competition. There is little requirement for meeting statutory obligations and cumbersome procedures that exist under a modern, centralised banking system. Historically, money lenders under Hawala have charged just a fraction of what formal transfer channels charge from consumers. A question may arise as to the profitability of such a service when the charged fees are low. But that aspect has, historically, been taken care of by realising economies of scale: lower charges on transfers have attracted enough customers to ensure a healthy return.

Since the dawn of commerce and trade, this system has persisted despite challenges. It was quite common in the Middle Ages, as has been documented extensively by the economist Avner Grief’s research. For example, 8th century China under the Tang dynasty had a similar system called fei-ch’ien (flying money). The need for such a system arose due to the dangers encountered in physically transferring tax money and valuables to the empire’s capital. The operation of that particular system ameliorated that risk to a large extent. Formidable challenges to this informal, decentralised authority rose with the rise of nation states, powerful central governments and central banking authority. Yet, the system refuses to vanish.

What, then, are we to make of global efforts to clamp down and curb Hawala type transactions? Specifically, one has to look at the social and economic benefits of doing away with such a system. In hindsight, this may seem odd since the official version foisted upon our imaginations is one of a system that causes substantial damage to the economy. This version stands vindicated if we were to limit the system’s workings to facilitating money borne out of drug peddling, terrorism financing and other such harmful activities.

But one has to be careful in limiting their imagination to only these activities. The fact of the matter is that a Hawala like system offers many socially beneficial incentives that tend to get lost in the fog of official versions. It tends to discount the benefits accrued to consumers. I have already narrated its extremely beneficial role in facilitating trade and commerce in the earliest known civilizations. Aside from this facilitation, there are other advantages that such a system confers upon the society. Specifically, its presence ensures lower transaction costs to its subscribers.
Banks illustrate this point. They charge various types of fees from customers under the garb of different heads and make a healthy profit based on the deposits of customers. On net, the benefits accrued to customers are either cancelled or are inferior to what they are charged for the service. But when these kinds of institutions fail (largely based on their actions), they are usually bailed out using taxpayer money (the ‘too big to fail’ phenomenon). If you think about it, it is akin to a heist! And the only remedy available against such excesses are courts, which again exact a heavy cost from society due to the time, duration and financials involved. In a country like Pakistan, given the state of affairs of courts, it is advisable to stay away from them and save time plus money.

Consumers are usually saved that predicament in an informal, decentralised system like Hawala. Once a reputation of operator is tarred, its curtains for that business and no amount of running around can recoup the lost repute. More importantly, there is little possibility of ‘too big to fail’ phenomenon, to be bailed out using taxpayer money. Thus society not only benefits in terms of saving money (very low transaction fees), but also in terms of a decentralised system that weeds out inefficient, unproductive and corrupt operators without the need for a central authority or courts.

The lesson from all of this discussion, at least for policymakers, is that efforts to curb hawala type system needs an understanding of the nature and forces that propel it. If informal systems of financial transactions have endured for centuries, there are good reasons for that, some of them outlined above. A society and its inhabitants have the capacity to compare transaction costs of having a formal system against an informal system. If the former confers a lower cost, the latter would disappear without the need for state intervention (and vice versa). If this point can be grasped, then it is clear that Pakistan’s policymakers should first review the predatory nature of its functioning (specifically its taxation) plus that of its financial system, and what cost it inflicts upon the society. It also does not help that the government strongly incentivised use of such channels when it was in its interest (to finance Afghan Jihadi groups, for example), helped entrench it, and now wants to get rid of it when faced with external pressure.

Historical evidence, though, suggests that such administrative exercises are usually futile in the end since an alternative tends to rise. The rise of crypto-currencies, like Bitcoin, is an apt reflection of this fact. At its core, crypto currencies reflect the working of a decentralised exchange with meagre transaction costs, just like Hawala. How would the world curb this system? Ban computers? I don’t think so.

A Factory or an Ashram?

By Girish Menon

In the Malayalam cult classic Chintavishtayaya Shyamala, Mukundan the protagonist wishes for a carefree life playing and hanging out with friends despite having a wife and two school going daughters. As the pressure grows, from his wife and other members of his extended family, to change his ways Mukundan runs away to an ashram where the sadhus are known to meditate for moksha (release from worldly cares). After 6-7 months at the ashram, the head sadhu (note the hierarchical corporate structure) invites Mukundan for an interview (6.17). The head sadhu mentions that Mukundan had not yet volunteered to either teach at an ashram school or offer to take care of the ashram cattle. In the following scene Mukundan mentions to a fellow sadhu, ‘I did not know this was a factory. If I had to work, I could have stayed in town and not come this far’.

Today, in an increasingly religious India, such ashrams seem to burgeon all over the land. Amazingly, these ashrams seem to be run by unpaid volunteers who work from 5 in the morning to 9 in the evening, seven days a week. Many of these volunteers are retired from corporate jobs and have chosen to spend the rest of their lives obeying the diktats of a saffron clad guru and his managers. More importantly, these volunteers claim that their minds are at peace doing seva (service) for the guru.

There might be some inner need which the ashram job seems to fulfil and which the modern corporations are unable to do so with their workforce. I have seen some of these ashram volunteers complain incessantly when they were working at their corporate jobs. Today, the same person uses all her waking hours advancing the cause of the ashram without any material gain. Some of them have been known to give up their personal homes and even pay rent to the ashram for an opportunity to provide seva.

Of course, there is a difference in the profile of the volunteer as compared to the corporate worker. The volunteers are usually retired, have an empty nest and are at a loss to spend their waking hours. The corporate workers are younger, aspirational, have demanding partners and kids and are perennially short of time.

David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister, made a good point that volunteers need to be encouraged to take over large sections of society. This has increased the number of volunteers running sports clubs, charities etc. in the UK.  Usually, some of the older volunteers bring a lot of worldly experience which could enable their voluntary organisations to perform better than with younger paid employees. In India, the saffron clad gurus have shown their smartness by recruiting such zero-cost volunteers to enhance their corporate goals. However, this begs the bigger question i.e. is India forcibly retiring its experienced workforce too soon?

Monday, 12 August 2019

Do and be damned; don’t and still be damned

Girish Menon

It’s been a week since the BJP government abrogated Article 370 and included Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India. Most of the reaction to this move has been positive within the provinces of Jammu and Ladakh. It is difficult to gauge the views of the population in the Muslim majority Kashmir valley because of the news blackout. I’d guess there should be a significant number of people who may be upset by this decision. In mainland India, the move has been welcomed by most of the people and a majority of MPs in both houses of the Indian Parliament.

Outside India, Pakistan politicians including their selected Prime Minister have been venting their spleen on this surprise move by India. Opinion in the rest of the world has been muted much to the chagrin of Pakistan. It is rumoured that the US President was forewarned by India of its plans.

So what next for the protesting Kashmiris? The Kashmiris living in the valley could be divided into the ruling elites, those families directly affected by the violence since 1989, and other citizens living in the region.

As far as the ruling elites are concerned, they must admit that it is their actions since the 1950s that has enabled the Indian government to get the support of the rest of India for such a move.

As far as Kashmir residents who have lost their family members in the intermittent 70 year old war with Pakistan there is no likelihood of an immediate peace in the region. Pakistan’s proxies, along with some local politicians will make it difficult for the Modi government to boast that they have solved this perennial problem with a piece of legislation. This means that in the short term there could be more deaths in the valley.

Those valley residents who have only been indirectly affected by the war so far, in the short term some of them may be unlucky to get caught up in the fire exchanged by the warring forces. I hope that their bad luck will run out soon and they will be able to experience a ‘normal’ way of life soon.

The Indian government appears intent on a hard stance on law and order matters while being liberal on incentivising industry to start productive activity and employment in these parts. Both parts of this strategy needs to succeed to convince the Kashmiris that their interests are better served with India. This could lead to the chants of ‘azaadi’  (freedom from both India and Pakistan) to die down.

The current Indian government has five years to get this brave decision right. If the situation deteriorates then they further jeopardise their dreams of continuous power for the next decade and beyond. Already the weakness in their handling of the economy is manifesting itself in the Hindu rate of growth with deleterious consequences for employment. If they fail on Kashmir as well, there will be a rising number of citizens who will soon call Modi’s Article 370 decision the second time when he has been foolhardy.

Just wait and watch.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Imran Khan in Pakistan Parliament

Pakistan, Abdullah, Mufti...should apologise to Kashmiris

Adv Hamid Bashani

Are Indian businessmen being unfairly targeted?

By Girish Menon

Following revelations in the suicide note of V G Siddhartha - the founder of Cafe Coffee Day, the corporate world has started a whispering campaign that Indian businessmen are being unfairly targeted by government bureaucracies. This piece will try to examine the elephant in the room.

Indian businessmen are not one cohesive group. There are many sub groups varying in size and population; from the one man tea vendor to Ambani who aspires to be the biggest tycoon in the world. Not all business-persons receive the same treatment from the governments they have to encounter in their daily endeavour.

As far as the Ambanis are concerned, it was rumoured that his office would receive a copy of any government initiative even before it was announced in parliament. Some even suggest that policies are often drafted in their offices. Clearly, such businessmen are like the Goldman Sachs of the USA i.e. too big to fail. Rivals of Ambani envy the unfair distribution of advantages to this group. However, they don’t want it to be stopped but wish they could replace him instead. This group is large and growing.

If the free market mantra is to be applied then governments should not be indulging in such behaviour. This logic states that governments should recognise property rights, make necessary rules and let citizens pursue their self interest. They should not favour any businessperson.

Economist Ha Joon Chang attributes the growth of Toyota, Samsung and many other global MNCs due to the nexus between governments and businesses. He suggests that developing countries follow this strategy else their domestic firms will lose out to already existing western MNCs. Others term this government corporate nexus as crony capitalism.

The Indian corporate world has enjoyed the benefits of crony capitalism since 1947. Under the socialist policies till 1990s the Tatas, Birlas and Bajajs were among the few recipients of licences to do business. In the 40 years of their protected status they did not produce any world beaters. They even formed ‘The Bombay Club’ to lobby against the opening up of the Indian economy.

Even after the Indian economy opened up corporates lobbied the government to make arbitrary rules that gave them an advantage over their rivals. These corporates received loans from government banks and even more loans to avoid loan defaults. It is almost thirty years since the opening up of the economy and yet there are no world class products that have emerged from these corporates. Often, such corporates have only aspired to the takeover of monopoly public sector firms so that social profit can be converted to private profit.

However, the above group do not represent Indian business-persons. The largest group of Indian business-persons run small and medium enterprises. They definitely have a rightful claim to harassment by the government. They are victimised by the government’s bureaucracy in so many ways that I am surprised they still continue to do business. S Gurumurthy, the RSS ideologue on the board of the Reserve Bank of India, is right when he advocates that the Indian government should ease the conditions of doing business for this large group. Demonetisation was a recent  tsunami that further overwhelmed this group of drowning businesspersons. Often, their only plea is that their outfits should be outside the scope of government bureaucrats. And there is some merit in their argument.

It is an irony that the pleas of persecution by large Indian corporates are being aired when the real victims of government harassment, i.e. the small and medium enterprises, die a silent death. It used to be said of the Christian church,’The church complains of persecution whenever it is not allowed to persecute’. The cries of India’s large business houses seem to echo the Christian church.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Afghanistan may hold the key to Kashmir

By Girish Menon

When Pakistan annexed regions like Gilgit-Baltistan, hitherto part of Raja Hari Singh’s kingdom, there wasn’t the kind of shrill shouting in India as witnessed now in Pakistan after India abrogated the temporary Art 370 from its constitution yesterday. What does this act mean for some of the constituents involved in the dispute?

The UN resolution which Pakistan quotes as the basis of dispute resolution states that Pakistan should pull back its troops to the position prior to its invasion of Raja Hari Singh’s territory and then India would conduct a plebiscite in the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan never adhered to the first part of the UN resolution and therefore the plebiscite part of the resolution never came into question despite Pakistan continuously harping on it.

For the Modi government the timing of this move appears helpful because it distracts the public from raising serious questions about the poorly performing economy. The narrative (fickle at most times) had begun to portray the Modi government as socialist, a label which the corporate/electoral bond funded party wishes to avoid by a mile.

For the military regime in Pakistan this Indian action poses a dilemma and an opportunity. The military has been shouting from rooftops that it has shut down the funding of its jihadi outfits in Kashmir. It was this statement that enabled Pakistan to receive the IMF bailout. Will the military now once again release the Hafiz Saeeds to act with impunity while risking a stoppage of the IMF bailout? 

The Pakistan military has promised Donald Trump an ‘honourable’ exit from Afghanistan well before the US presidential elections. The military would facilitate a peace agreement with the Taliban which will enable Trump to deliver on his manifesto promise. In return for this the Pakistan military will receive US funding equivalent to its current spending levels in Afghanistan. This will enable the Pakistan military to avoid the conditionalities of the IMF deal and start funding the jihadi outfits in Kashmir. The risk is the failure of the Pakistan military to deliver an exit strategy congenial to Trump.

So it is up to all those countries opposed to Trump (not the USA) to ensure that the regressive Taliban militants do not come to power in Kabul and enable the Americans to run away just like they did from Vietnam. India may have to take a lead in this matter with Iran, if it does not want hostilities to rise in Kashmir.

In the short term, India may have to deploy more security forces in Kashmir. This will mean larger unplanned expenditure. This will be a big injection of government money into the demand deprived Indian economy and could give a fillip to growth. While the lot of the Indian consumer may not change radically, at least the government can claim that the economy is on the path to reaching the $5 trillion mark.

As for the people of Kashmir they may have to face some more difficult times unless they join the Pandits in an exodus from the valley. The Indian government can ensure that the property rights of all displaced personnel is respected when such people decide to return back to the valley. The government could also open safe havens to these new refugees.

Of course, most conflicts develop a life of their own and these new refugees may find themselves in government camps for a much longer time.

In the rest of India, there is no mood for any settlement with a military dispensation in Pakistan. Moreover, the BJP agenda is to recover the Gilgit-Baltistan regions which was illegally grabbed by the Pakistan militia. 

Currently, a war-like situation suits the rulers in both countries. What the people of Kashmir want is not on the agenda.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Why Marry?

by Girish Menon

In response to my piece Modern Marriages - For Better or For Worse, an erudite reader asked ‘Why Marry?’ This person also asked whether one could lead a better productive life without marrying? In this piece, this writer will give some views on the matter.

In India, despite all the modernity, sex before marriage and outside marriage is still frowned upon. Until consensual sex becomes as common place as meeting a friend for coffee, there will always be some supporters of marriage.

This also begs the question whether both individuals in a marriage are content with the quantity and quality of sex available?

Another question that arises is whether the absence of sex reduces the productive potential of an individual. I will plead ignorance on this matter too.

The economic rationale for marriage used to be property inheritance. Much has been written about it which I will not revisit. However, in these days of ‘reliable’ paternity tests, the need for marriage to ensure that property goes to the sperm donor’s offspring is obsolete.

Of course, I am of the view that no child should inherit their parents’ property. But there needs a lot of change in societal arrangements for this to happen; something which I don’t think will happen in my lifetime.

What of the children born of a sexual union, whether consensual or accidental? If it is consensual, then the couple should have a plan for raising their child. As for ‘accidental’ children - there shouldn’t be too many due to the availability of many pregnancy termination choices available for women in the market place.

What impact will this have on the population of a society? If trends are to be believed, all over the world where women have shown an upward trajectory in economic independence the rate of population growth has declined significantly. This augurs well even from a climate change perspective as the demand for resources could dwindle with a rapidly declining population.

Could there ever be a time when one would have to exhort women to produce more children? I don’t think that will be ever be necessary in the future, because by the time we reach this Utopia medical technology may enable production of full grown adults. This will also take away the burden of child care from either cohabiting partner leaving them free to pursue their potential.