Monday, October 6, 2008

18. Small Car, Big Scam

No sooner had the containers started moving machinery out from troubled Singur, many a skeletons from the Nano's cupboard had started falling. Shocking as these are, some could have easily put the legendary JRD to shame. That business is without the virtues of ethics and morality needs no more `evidence', Tata's Nano has amply demonstrated. Else, the company would not have filed a petition in the Calcutta High Court requesting for a restriant on the State Information Commission from releasing details about the controversial car project. Read on:

1. The company that could buy the British Corus for a whopping Rs 35,000 crore sought a loan of Rs 200 crore from the West Bengal Government - at an unbelievable 1 per cent interest - the first instalment will be due after 20th year. Do you smell `fish'? What does the State stand to gain from such gesture?

2. The fertile land did not become the core issue without reason. Hard to believe that 647 odd acres were leased out at Rs 1 crore for the first 30 years, over a 90 year old lease. At Rs 1,300 per acre it is quite a bargain, any local businessman would have paid more for such a lucrative offer. Without doubt, the beneficiaries list of such a deal could be long?

3. For producing the so-called cheapest car (after so much of cross subsidisation) the West Bengal Government had planned to provide power at Rs 3 per kilowatt hour (as against the prevailing rate of Rs 4.15). Should the rates go up over the next 5 years, the company would be refunded by the state. Why is the state government so liberal with Nano at the cost of its people?

All this will soon be `past', relegated to the history books. It may get referred to as a failed `development' mission by the well-meaning state. It may well also be remembered as a colossal public loss at the hands of `development extremists'. This and much more! If you are one whose chest got filled with nationalistic pride the moment you saw a Tata product across the national boundaries, think about the `public money' and `public pain' that would have contributed to it.

These facts are indeed important now that the project is moving to a new location. What fresh deals get drawn to keep the Nano as cheap, at the cost of exchequer's money need to be carefully monitored. As the country is taken on a ride on the cheapest car, the Small Nano could be the Biggest Scam of the present century!

Monday, July 28, 2008

17. ANALYSIS: Climate Change Mission Lacks Vision

The political controversy may have subdued its release but not its contemporary relevance! It is however another matter that the much awaited National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), released in June 2008, has turned out to be a listless compilation of predictable ideas that lack depth, vision as well as urgency. Making a case for the right of emerging economies to development for alleviating poverty, the action plan places economic development ahead of emission reduction targets.

It might disappoint those who believe in scary picture of climate change and consider emission reduction to be the panacea for reducing the impact of global warming. The Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, under whose aegis the action plan has been drafted, is firm that the country would not cross the per capita emission levels of the industrialized west any time sooner. Consequently, the report makes no commitment to cut country’s carbon emission at the cost of its projected development.

In doing so, the action plan gives a spin in favour of the rights of the poor to emission equity and climate justice. Why should an average US citizen spew 20 tons of carbon dioxide annually into the atmosphere when his counterpart in India averages only 1.2 tons? In the absence of a firm link between global warming and anthropogenic emissions, the action plan reaffirms individual’s right to emit carbon dioxide (through enhanced energy consumption) for attaining a reasonable standard of living.

But there is more to climate change than per capita emission only! India’s cumulative carbon dioxide emission at a whopping 1.5 billion tons, which is a quarter of the US’s current emissions, can tip the climate balance against the poor. Whatever be the source of emissions, the glacial melting in the Himalayas is threatening to impact food and livelihoods security of over 1.4 billion people across the sub-continent. Projected sea-level rise, flash floods and unexpected droughts will only add to the woes of the poor....more

Monday, June 16, 2008

16. REFLECTION. The real winner?

Barack Obama’s candid acceptance that the flights of jobs to Bangalore cannot be reversed may have pumped up nationalistic pride on this side of the Atlantic but hidden beneath are the manifestations of economic change that may bounce back once the growth engine has its full run. The skinny hands that held the begging bowl in the past may have started moving fingers across keyboards of world-class technology, but the economic growth hasn’t been able to pull the country out of its dismal status on the UN Human Development Index, still languishing at 128 out of 177 countries.

Obama acknowledges India’s arrival on the world stage with a stern message that the once poverty-stricken and colonized India `does not owe a living to the developed world’. However, the unleashing of the power of internet connection may have made the elite in Boston compete with the poor in Banda but the balance of power has not tilted as many may have started believing. Self-disciplining of the workforce is in the offing across the US, much will depend how indeed Obama’s proposed $50 billion stimulus package is used to cushion the present decline?

Further scrutiny reveals that though India may be walking tall amidst the comity of nations, its much-hyped economic growth is still not at par with the west. No wonder, a small but significant surge in petroleum prices triggers shock waves across the stock market and a weakening rupee sends alarm bells ringing at the IT hubs in Bangalore and Gurgaon. Statistics reveal that the economy of India doesn’t compare any bit with that of the US, Britain and Germany. Consequently, what gets admired and applauded is the shining fraction of the illusive jewel (the real Kohinoor is still in Britain)!

Buoyed by the liberal show of praise by the western observers, the rulers and planners have swept any cynicism of projected growth under the carpet. Finance Minister P Chidambaram lashes out at those who oppose his model of liberal growth: `people are being deceived to believe that the existing state of life is an ideal state of life and that development will make it worse. This could be categorized as a conspiracy of the socially-driven class to keep people poor.' Barrack Obama’s acceptance of India’s incredible growth and Gordon Brown’s praise that `the East is rising’ only helps the stubborn politicians miss the other side of the growth coin.

That the projected two-digit growth will be at the cost of the country’s finite resources and teeming millions gets under shadow! When asked if India, once independent, would ape the British model of development, Gandhi had responded: `if a small country like Britain had to colonise the world for meeting its basic needs, given our size we will need to colonise other planets.' There is no denying the fact that the right to growth and attainment of basic living standards ought to be equal but the question is whether or not India will be able to withstand the growth of unlimited appetites of its billion plus?

Bush may have erroneously hinted at the impact of such growing appetites but Obama has instead been cautious in accepting the inevitable. Paradoxically, while both acknowledge the value of a growing market for the products they make; their people rue the emergence of a new global economic order that has forced the relocation of new jobs outside their territorial jurisdiction. But as growth acceleration widens inequality within our society, unchecked industrialization and unbound consumption promises to amplify social strife as security nets against misery and want begin to evaporate.

It is intriguing that while the industrialized west seems content with our growing consumerism, it rues bearing the cost of `become like us’ through increased carbon emissions. Undoubtedly contradictory, there doesn’t seem to be any going back from the pattern of development though. That `development’ one day will threaten its proponents could not have been foreseen by then US President Truman who had positioned post-World War America to extend its technological prowess to the developing world as a euphemism for expanding the era of American hegemony!

The trouble with beating the west in their own game is that it will be at the cost of rich traditions and cultures of a great civilisation. Can an ancient civilisation be compromised at the altar of modern economic growth? At this time, no one seems to be reading the writing on the wall. On the contrary, infinite appetites are allowed to express themselves against the finite resources on offer – creating a process of self-annihilation through irreversible ecological degradation. This unprecedented historical experiment of pitching unrestricted demand against shrinking supply will consume the resource poor of the developing world, as there will be no colonial hinterland to relocate them. However, the technological prowess may help the west create an escape route for itself while the developing world would be left to fend for itself.

Wonder, who will be the winner?

(This blog has been published in Deccan Herald, the Bangalore-based newspaper. Click http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Jun192008/editpage2008061874193.asp )

Friday, May 30, 2008

15. ENVIRONMENT. A Waterfall Refusing To Die!

A peaceful protest has been underway since Feb 25, 2008 at Athirappilly (Kerala, India) demanding the scraping of the proposed 163 MW Athirappilly hydroelectric power project. Over 70 different social, political, environmental, and youth organisations from across Kerala have continuedto support the protest. Despite the Government underplaying the significance of the protest, the picturesque waterfall is refusing to die. Two Public Interest Litigations have been under hearing with High Court of Kerala

As the peaceful protest at the proposed site for the controversial hydroelectric project at Athirappilly clocks hundredth day, the stand off between people and powers-that-be underscores the fact that growth engine remains unilaterally focused to undermine human rights and ecological costs. But is it the first time that an economically unviable and ecological destructive project has got the undesired push at the corridors of power?

Do the doubtful gains of the project measure up to the irreversible losses it will inflict on the environment and the tribal population? That it is hornbill habitat with home to four distinct species; that it has rich fish diversity with 104 different species; and that it is most frequented elephant corridor with a high density of 2.1 elephants per sq km seem at best relevant for the environmental discourses to follow!

Does it matter that the proposed 163-MW dam will displace 78 families of the Kadar tribe, the primitive hunter gatherers endemic to the river valley? Haven't displacement and rehabilitation been the persistent cry across river valley projects across the country? So, isn't the issue of rehabilitation of 1500 members of the primitive tribe on familiar grounds? All this to usher in the rare distinction on the 144-km long Chalakudy river, to be the most dammed river in the country....more

Monday, May 19, 2008

14. REFLECTION. Reinvent employment guarantee!

Should employment guarantee mean minion labour for the poor? Could there not be other ways in which the state can compensate its poor?

Suspecting me to be a government official, the tribal in village Gunnar in Koraput district of Orissa rushed forward with their job cards. Not having seen a magic job card that ensures 100 days of guaranteed employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), I was curious to have a careful look at it. To my surprise, all the 42 cards in a 45-household village were blank. Not a single day worth of job was ushered to any of the poor tribals during the past two years. Second year of the UPA government's flagship scheme had come to a close, signalling that almost a million from the country's taxpayers money have been siphoned off from just one village.

With the scheme been extended to the entire country, previously restricted to 330 districts, securing employment rights of such hapless villagers has only become more compelling. While there have been success stories in NREGA files, exceptions fail to correct the abysmal failure of the scheme that could generate only 18 days of average employment across the country during the first two years. In the process, Rs 12,000 crore of taxpayers' money was devoured last year. Incompetent state machinery, riddled with corruption, will only better its previous year's achievement!

All said, the proponents of the scheme argue that there is nothing wrong per se in the idea of assured employment to the rural poor. That all governmental schemes of this magnitude invariably fall short of its targets must therefore be accepted as given. That a large fraction of the money ending up in the pockets of various intermediaries at the cost of the poor must not be frowned upon. An editorial in one of the business magazines has estimated that, in 596 districts where the scheme is being implemented, some 4,000 new millionaries will be created if the money siphoning process is not reversed.

Can the NREGA be made to deliver any better? Spending huge amount of manpower to create non-tangible assets such as kuccha roads, which will be washed away during the rains, could ensure employment but cannot create durable assets. Cleaning of village ponds and creation of water bodies may seem tangible but there is a limit to which these could be done, year after year. No wonder, some economists have even suggested enacting a law to help the government make a minimum monetary transfer to poor households every year. It is argued that if digging the earth is an excuse to distribute money, direct disbursements are sure to work better!

As the employment guarantee scheme transits into new areas, more questions related to defining `wage work' have started to surface. Farmers in drought-ravaged Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh wonder if tilling one's own land could be considered worthy of wage compensation. Why dig a pit in no-man's land when similar effort can help prepare a piece of farm for cultivation instead? Villagers in Sangrur district of Punjab desire that the workforce they hire from other states should be covered under the employment guarantee scheme, even if it amounts to direct subsidy.

The crucial question, however, is whether the state finds comfort in converting its massive rural communities into minion labour. Further, creating dependent millions may become a huge financial liability too. Can the poor farmers not barter their knowledge instead? Should the tribal not be compensated for preserving country's natural assets? There are several ways in which the productive potential of the economically poor could be assessed, measured and compensated. The poor harbour in them the living culture of survival techniques, of livelihoods ecology, of exquisite handmade objects, and of passionate folk songs.

The tribal households in Gunnar could do without wage labour provided the state can compensate them for their low-carbon lifestyle, evolved after centuries of living in harmony with nature. Converting such vibrant cultures to menial labour is also a crime, when the opportunity cost of such transformation is considered. There has been talk of initiatives to make communities stakeholders in conservation. These financial incentives should not be seen as subsidies, but necessary policy interventions to protect the environment and create wealth via the carbon trade route.

The employment guarantee scheme offers an opportunity for its innovative application across diverse situations, provided flexibility in its implementation is permitted. Since such populist measures find political support of all hues, the challenge will be to convert a resource-guzzling scheme into one that generates wealth and self-respect for the economically weaker sections of the society. A bad script that the NREGA is at present can indeed to turned into a good story!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

13. ANALYSIS. Getting a sense of Coca-Cola's philanthropic ideas!

In a country where 70% of irrigation water and 80% of its domestic water supplies come from its rapidly depleting groundwater reserves, groundwater recharge is bound to get unstilted support. What if the recharge is funded by Coca-Cola from out of the profit it nets by extracting groundwater in the first place! That the company's expanding business eyes country's groundwater reserves is pushed aside. Not without reason as everybody is brainwashed by the corporate PR that passes for news these days, which makes everyone think that the Coca-Cola groundwater recharge model is the greatest invention to come down the pike since the wheel was invented.

It needs multiple voices and committed cheerleaders to hold aloft the corporation's water stewardship credentials. That it's bottled waterbrand Dancing was awarded with `Consumer's International 2007 International Bad Product Awards' - filtering drinkable tap water andselling it back to the market, particularly in Europe; that it faces charges for human rights abuses of union members trying to organise Coca-Cola plants in Colombia; and that two-thirds of freshwater used by Coca-Cola is converted into wastewater globally are facts that the company will see erased sooner from the public memory!

Co-opting unsuspecting civil society organisations to support corporation's green makeover comes handy. Coca-Cola's long-term partnership with the World-wide Fund for Nature; it's recent supportof $1 million to the Global Water Challenge, and its ongoing funding for more than 100 community water projects in 49 countries are designed to help the company avoid addressing reasonable questions. In India, where the privatisation of the state is nearly complete and where the idea of capitalism is fast sinking into middle-class psyche, the propaganda that a beverage company is recharging groundwater gets accepted without question....more

Monday, April 21, 2008

12. INSIGHT. Microcredit Fairy Tale


Daniel N. White is an electronic `acquaintance' who is connected because we share our common concerns around `micro-credit'. Daniel does a blue-collar job, lives in Austin, Texas and has a skeptical enquiring mind. Else, he'd not be questioning the Grameen Bank's micro-credit model of development. Having read one of my critical pieces in The Hindu (see link below), Daniel wanted some ideas for good questions to ask Nobel Laureate Mohd. Yunus, during the booksigning event at the local bookstore, BookPeople, in January 2008.

Says Daniel, `...most everybody is brainwashed by the corporate PR that passes for news these days, and most everyone will be thinking that the Grameen Bank development model is the greatest invention to come down the pike since the wheel was invented. Yunus will be getting a bunch of ignorant, kissy-assed questions, and I'd like to ask him a good hard one or two.' Daniel's report on the event, being published by Black Commentator, makes interesting reading.

Yunus the media phenomenon. Kissinger was one once, Brittney Spears is one now. The mechanism by which it is decided that you get to be/should be one is one that requires investigation, as it is a most interesting and important sociological phenomenon. I am sure I am right that Yunus' selection is in large part for his being a cheerleader for capatalism. His only selecting good-looking women in the audience to ask questions makes me wonder if he might be heading down the Brittney Spears path. Should be an interesting show if that happens!

I listened to Yunus tell his story of how he came to start Grameen Bank, and how the important thing now was that he was doing things to promote busineses with a social objective. Yunus was weak on explaining what exactly the latter concept is and how it is supposed to work. While there are success stories from Grameen's files, they are proof of nothing but the desperate crying need for capital in the third world rural sector. The drawback to microcredit is that the historical record shows these rates in aggregate over time are horribly destructive. Microcredit's track record is short; history's is long. And nobody smart bets against history.

Yunus has definitely tapped into something in the American psyche, in particular the well-intentioned white educated younger demographic's. Yunus' praise of individualistic capitalism certainly is a message that suits the stone hearts and tin ears of ruling elite America, and that accounts for much of his stateside PR. Yunus is telling us a wonderful fairy tale about how capitalism actually works if done right, and how if done right in the rural Third World it will save those people from underdevelopment and lives of hardship and misery.

In the US, people are torn by their deeply ingrained beliefs in capitalism, which we most all have due to the relentless propaganda for same that has always surrounded us in our daily lives. Most everyone knows in their heart that the large corporations run things in this country, both the economic and the political end of things, and that they are fundamentally more heartless organisations than the mafia. People want to believe the propaganda they are surrounded with, even if their own experience tells them otherwise; it is just so much easier that way.

Yunus' fable of capitalist success yielding a saved third world allows people here the luxury of believing in the fairy tale we know consciously as adults is mostly false. It saves us all a great deal of cognitive dissonance, which after all is hard work. It may not work here that well, but Yunus tells us it will work THERE, a far-away there that we know not at all, and we are happy because of it.

(Yunus picked on three good-looking women for their questions following his speech and left Daniel fuming with his question: `Dr Yunus, why is it that your 36 % interest rate (or even more) microcredit loans are going to promote rural development when historically those same interest rates destroyed small farmer landowning and turned yeoman landed farmers to landless peasants?')

Related Links:

Friday, April 18, 2008

11. REFLECTION. Guaranteeing Potable Water!

Unlike the stock market indices, imagination can be taken to any height.

So, let’s imagine a world where all fresh water will be available in a bottle. While many will fume at this proposition, several others will concur that indeed we are not far from this possibility. Though there isn’t any evidence, it is likely that leading beverage giants have business plans ready.

Isn’t fresh water in short supply and municipal supplies in utter disarray? Tap water is a luxury for the teeming millions. To uphold people’s constitutional right to water, let there be a demand for a national potable water guarantee scheme (with reference to India). Unlike a mere 100 days of guaranteed employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), the present proposal seeks uninterrupted access to potable water for every citizen, 24x7.

The phenomenal reach of bottled water alone can guarantee this right. Isn’t bottled water available in plenty even where taps run dry for the better part of the year? That’s because there is a class that can easily afford it. But its unrestricted reach, albeit to those who can afford it, absolves the government of its primary duty of providing potable water. The poor are often left to fend for themselves in a Darwinian struggle along the urban fringes and in far-flung villages....more

Saturday, March 22, 2008

9.FUN REPUBLIC: Is it dance or rolance?

From Boogie Woogie to Jhalak Dikhla Ja and from Nach Baliye to Rock `n' Roll Family, the celebration time on Indian television has yet to stop. Opening any popular channel on the television takes one to live (or recorded) images of children, couples and families dancing their way to ecstasy, giving a feeling that the entire country has hit the dance floor. Age no bar, caste no consideration and gender undifferentiated, dance has been democraticised across the television channels for past few years. With most reality dance shows generating hefty sponsorship revenue through respectable viewership (or TRP), the channels are unwilling to let the genre rest in peace.

After kids, couples and parents having been on it, one wonders who could be the next? Don't be surprised if your maid makes it to next grade of the reality dance show! And why not? But spare a moment for the suspecting wife who will find her husband publically cheer the pelvic gyrations of his favourite maid! There could be much in store as reality shows expand their penetration into small towns and cities - making celebration `inclusive'. Did'nt the prime minister reiterate the need to `make growth inclusive'? Here it is, the television channels have shown the way to do it.

With a nation-wide audience in attendance and with prizes worth lakhs in store, no one is scared to look silly. Instant stardom and quick cash is on the minds of the burgeoning middle class, from Jaipur to Jamshedpur and from Pune to Purulia. Clearly, small town India has shed all its inhibitions to go where no other from their generation has gone before - to the studio dance floor. However much one shun the dance floor or opt out of the live program, we remain party to this great `celebration era' of modern times as each purchase at the grocery store and every text message from our mobile contributes to making the unsuspecting public dance to the greedy tune for making instant money.

Be it the corpulent grandparents or their precocious offspring, each represents a society in transition with huge `aspirations'. As bad policy and inept governance dumb the public mindscape, reality shows have seemingly emerged as convenient vents for releasing accumulated frustrations with the prime motive of realising one's hidden aspirations. But being a public display of collective emotions it reflects us as a nation that has stopped thinking; that no longer rues inherent fatalism of accepting injustices; and that which cocoons itself from the rest of its fraternity for narrow self-interests?

Else, how could this unique public-private partnership engage in collective celebration when farmers' suicides have become more of a norm than exception; when millions face displacement at the altar of giganticism; and when one-third of districts in the country exert self-rule. The dance floors may be distanced from such realities but dry taps, choked drains and clogged roads are everyday realities in the colonies and the streets that these dancers cross to reach the studio. Isn't it is clear reflection of mind-body-spirit disunity in a deficit democracy where consumerism pretends to fix problems by creating illusion of affluence and opulence?

Could this dance be anything but rolance - a belief wherein the dead body starts dancing under the influence of an evil spirit. People in the Lahaul-Spiti region of the Himalayas (in the state of Himachal Pradesh in India) believe that if a dead body is kept without proper vigil, an evil spirit enters into it. Haven't evil spirits entered our collective self-conscious? It is further said that as an evil spirit enters the dead body, it starts doing all kind of odd things including dancing. As you watch the next episode of your favourite reality dance show, imagine them to be the rolances of our times!