Sunday, January 21, 2018

Ides of _________ (fill in the blank)

What is it about 15th of a month? Why so many things go wrong on that day?
So you want me list the things that indeed have gone wrong on that day. Here I go: Romans set 15th of March as the date for settling debt. That was in the Julian calendar and now in the Gregorian it would translate into March 26th. But that is just not picking. Ides of March refers to March 15th, no matter the calendar, as far as this post is concerned. Be honest, aren’t you one of us who files tax returns at the last minute? I thought so. The date may have changed and varies from country to country, but the global truth is no one feels good paying taxes. It may not be Ides, but a specific date it definitely is. It just so happens I have found a few critical disasters (you say that a disaster defines criticality, like the Three Mile island, Challenger shuttle, Chernobyl ... I don’t disagree, but I wanted to make a critical point on the date and therefore the disaster became “critical”)
Then, Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15th as per the calendar that bears his name (and hence, “Beware the Ides of March”).
I hear you say, “All of that is history. Come to now!” Yes, I am going to do just that.
Remember September 15, 2008? Lehman Brothers went down that day. It developed into a global financial tsunami. Note the date: 15th. Ides of September?
Now, the British construction giant Carillion has done pretty much the same, on...
You guessed it – January 15th. 40,000 plus people will be losing their jobs. No one can say for sure there will not be a contagion like it was in 2008. I am not believing it.
So, Ides of January?
I love capitalism, surely nasty and brutish, and definitely neither short nor solitary. From 2008 to 2018 is not short, nearly a decade. Across the Atlantic, not a pond, capitalism has friends (Lehman in the US and Carillion in UK) – not solitary. If it picks up more friends around the globe (China can help, by defenestrating its state-supported monopoly-capitalism and get real), I suspect that within the next say two or three decades, we can have Ides of January, February, ..., December.
As Hobbes said that governance by fear is the best thing there is, come every 15th, people will be afraid. Now they are afraid only on Friday the 13th that happens on a long period average reckoning 1.7 times a year.
Add to this, the fear of the consequences of global warming, in the same timeframe. One really would really be in a constant state of being scared.
Hobbes will be happy.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Necessary (?) Data

You have been warned - this is a rant. You try finding logic in it at your own peril.
The place where I work decided suddenly that it would like to be approved by a government agency. So far so good. It is a compilation job of enormous proportions – area (carpet area, to be precise), no. of rooms, no. of toilets (for men and women), areas for laboratories and on and on and on … These details are secondary to the goals of the institution, though I must admit, some of them are enablers.
But, my rant is about something else. At the outset let me tell you that I have paid my taxes as honestly as I have understood the laws. The details the institution is seeking – under duress it appears from the government agency – from its employees have nothing to do with its goals and most importantly it is of such personal nature (like how much income tax the employee has paid over the past five years) an employee may seek redressal for parting with such information. It also asks for the names of employee’s mother and father and notably, not that of his/her spouse! Bank account (which one, in which my salary is credited, I presume) including its IFSC! Also, AADHAAR number and PAN number, and the irony is the Indian Supreme Court is beginning court proceedings to decide the legality of AADHAAR. Timing? So perfect!
The problem is not with the information per se but the time pressure to put it up in the form. “You had to do it yesterday!” is the tone of the request! Some request.
Why would a government agency looking to certify an educational institution needs the income tax details of the institution’s employees, that too, over the past 5 years? Beats me. Can it at all come under the heading “Essential data”? I doubt it. I do suspect that the government agency has computing power and memory storage much in excess of what is legitimately required, and is filling up space by asking for unnecessary data, which would, if only people are conscious, will give them the creeps!
Anyway, I will be sitting in front of my computer this evening just giving what is asked, knowing full well that there is no justification for these details to be asked and no reason for not giving it when asked. Such is the condition of an Indian citizen.


Monday, January 01, 2018

Kim Jong-Un and Abdul Kalam

Unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. In this world, fear has no place. Only strength respects strength – Abdul Kalam
Have I crossed the sacred line, putting our revered former president and, how the Dotard calls him, the “Little Rocket Man,” side by side?

Perhaps I did, but there was a compelling reason for what I did. It would be helpful if you read the opening quote, in the context of the successful Pokhran-II, you would understand my sacrilegious act, I hope.

What Kim Jong-Un had done was precisely what India did in 1988, thumb one’s nose at the powers that be and Kalam was all for it. So, now, if you have fallen for the message of the former President of India, you must swallow your pride, and accept that the North Korean dictator is putting into practice what Kalam took pride in.

Wait, wait! – I hear you screaming. You say that when India did Pokhran-II, it was not, in the eyes of the world, a pariah (let me scream back – I am not even remotely using that word in anyway demeaning to individuals, political parties, communities and so forth; it is merely to point out how India in 1988 was, and still is different than North Korea in 2017 was and continues to be in 2018).

Well, I accept that chiding, but in my defence I will put forth my logic and stand my ground.
The opprobrium visited on India in 1988 was rooted in fear of another country, even if only strategically and not tactically, knocking on the doors of that exclusive “Nuclear Club”; never mind, the club was thrown open in the middle to late 1970s to Israel (if not earlier), to South Africa, and India (Pokhran-I). What kind of governance any particular country is practicing was never a consideration. Russia was/is a prime example. Perhaps except for a short period under Mikhail Gorbachev, it has, since the day it formed the club, it has been a dictatorship, any which way you may define the system. No need to mention China.

In 2017 the US turned into a dictatorship - laughable one at that, you may claim, nonetheless a system-defying regime – and no less dangerous than Russia or China. If Trump’s cabinet nominees/appointees are anything to go by, Trump is surrounded by a bunch of “Yes” men/women, with one foot in Wall Street and/or lying in under the inherited wealth comforter, and the other in the White House. Only today I read that Trump’s lawyers are afraid of saying anything that could trigger a blast, a nuclear one at that. And, that is precisely what the world is afraid of in the case of North Korea.

Now, North Korea is stronger than before it demonstrated its nuclear capabilities, but is it being respected more? No, it is being feared more. It is what Kalam wanted and celebrated, for everyone to “fear” India and not necessarily “respect”. Hints of dictatorship.

It appears that Kim Jong-Un is the first person to have understood that in all its dimensions – most of it evil. I rest my case.

Before I sign off, let me tell you that on the other side of the pond from the US, it is chaos all round. It is not for me to prescribe dictatorship there, but if it did come, I would not be surprised. It is 1984, delayed by 30 years and some, across the globe.

George Orwell must be smiling in his grave.


Monday, December 25, 2017

Raison d’etre of religion

The share of India’s service sector in its GDP is increasing at a rapid rate. Do you know how and why?
My take on the above is very unconventional but easily defendable. I think it is religious tourism that has underwritten India’s service sector growth.
In Tamil Nadu, when I was away in the US for 12 ½ years (from late ‘70s to early ‘90s), things seemed to have changed rapidly on this front. With no claim to correct chronology, let me list a few “auspicious days” that seem to have captured the imagination of the people.
Sankata Harana Chathurthi – The fourth day after Full Moon. At least 12 times a year.
Pradhosham – 13th day after both New Moon and Full Moon. At least 25 times a year.
Akshaya Trithiye – 3 days after New Moon in a particular month. Once a year. But, do not be surprised if it became once every fortnight. Jewellers will drive up the frequency.
At home, suddenly doing Navagraha Homam, Ganapathy Homam, Sudharshana Homam has become common. You just pay the money to the priest and things are done for you. If this is not service sector, what is?
I had heard of Saturn shifting from one Zodiac sign being a harbinger of bad luck or good luck (no one can tell which!). There is a temple in Thirunallaru which survives on this occasion. Incidentally, in the institution I work, on that day, a homam was performed.
And, in central Tamil Nadu, along the banks of River Cauvery, never mind it is not much more than a stretch of sand and weeds, there is this age old custom of celebrating “Aadi Perukku” signifying the river running full, harbinger of good profit from agriculture. But, celebrating the day in the face of intransigence of the state of Karnataka? Makes no sense, except through reckoning it as a service sector activity.
And, each of the festivals that were celebrated when I was in Madras has become grander on the logarithmic scale as the city changed its name to Chennai. Add to that, weddings and other rituals. All these have transmuted towards more consumption, more travel, more staying in fancy hotels, and truly should be tagged as service sector activities.
I argue, indeed claim without numbers but not without logic, that travels, eating outside, associated with these festivals are the very things that are boosting Indian service sector. Just in the past 3 weeks till date, we have had “Karthigai Deepam” in Thiruvannamalai, and in another 3 days, there will be this big thing, “Vaikunta Ekadasi” in Srirangam (Trichy). In another 15 days or so, there will be a convoy of vans to  Chengannur in Kerala, the starting point of the trek to Sabarimalai Temple. In the days of Madras, not many from Tamil Nadu made that journey and trek. Now in Chennai and Tamil Nadu, it is de rigueur (in the limited sense of “required by fashion”) to take that effort to acquire the blessings of the lord.
In the days when it was Madras, we acknowledged these special days but in our local temples. But these days, in Chennai and Tamil Nadu, doing it locally shows your incapability to do it where it should be done. You are so infradig.
After the lord comes His/Her appointed agents, the Guru. Take the instance of the Art of Living (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) jamboree in Delhi a couple of years ago. I know people travelled from other countries, at the special invitation extended by the Guru. How sweet of him, to making Indian service sector shine ever so brightly, never mind the ecological destruction.
The Guru maybe dead (Puttaparuthi Sai Baba), but tourism to the shrine must have only gone up, not come down. Likewise, Shirdi Sai Baba.
The last point. The above scenarios are reflected in every other state of the Union of India, with its own capriciousness. The Gokulashtami in Banke Bihari temple on the banks of the sewer Yamuna.
If religion promotes such service sector activities, one must acknowledge that it is a positive feature of culture that contributes to the growth of economy.
I rest my case – the first and foremost reason for the existence of religion is economics.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Thou shalt not speaketh ill of the dead

Had only Moses (Charlton Heston) had longer and stronger arms, God need not have stopped with 10 commandments; could have added many more injunctions, like the one in the title.
This thought came to me soon after the Indian Supreme Court put a full stop to the mega serial of trying Jayalalithaa and her cohorts for amassing wealth “disproportionate” to the known sources of their income. But, as irony would have it, Jayalalithaa died as someone still under trial. All her cohorts have not been that lucky!
I am no legal eagle and among the more than a few words in the final judgment that I happened to read in the MSM, one stood out. The case against Accused No. 1 (or something like that, referring to Jayalalithaa) stands “abated”. The appropriate meaning of this term as far as I can tell, is the case has become null and void. This appears to be the direct result of the “eleventh” commandment given in the title.
So, my question: In what way does the fact that she was not alive to hear the pronouncement of guilt against her make the case against her “null and void”? True, the sentence would be “abated” – (I am starting to hate that word).
For the uninitiated, Jayalalithaa tried every trick in the book of Indian jurisprudence and introduced some more on her own before the case came to the Supreme Court, for the second and final time, if my timelines are correct. So, there cannot be the defence that she was not there to defend herself. All her defences were duly noted and breached definitively. Now, to imply, by saying that her case stands “abated” is a pretzelized form of saying she was not found guilty.
And, I am appalled. If her cohorts were found guilty, Jayalalithaa was also guilty – if there is a gradation of being guilty, she was more so – and she escaped the sentence only by dying. Why could our Supreme Court not get itself to say the same in simple words, just like I put it? Legalese, never favoured by common citizens, just added to its burden of making itself less understandable – legalese becoming more and more jargonized, to be understood only within the corridors of our system of justice, while claiming to serve the society as a whole. Another piece of irony, you say?
I am sure God did not issue the eleventh commandment only because He was afraid how the legal community would twist and interpret it, and in the process wring out its meaning, like drying clothes in a tumble drier. So, Charlton Heston was meant to carry only Ten Commandments and he surely did.
And the “Shalt nots” ended.
Raghuram Ekambaram

P. S. This is where I appreciate the apocryphal stories of the past about the behaviour of Tamil rulers – Manu Needhi Cholan, just hearing the cries of the cow, through the ringing of the bell, that its calf had been run over by the prince’s chariot, ordered that his son be done in so. No, I am not for death penalty and that is simply not the message. It is to admit guilt as early as possible, do not go through hoops of fire to avoid being pronounced guilty. One retains his/her dignity through this act. Jayalalithaa just fell down on the other side of the wall she was sitting on, but the result was the same – none could put her back together.   

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The one thing I am confused about Service Tax

The heading is misleading to the extent that I seem to claim I know everything else about Service Tax! Obviously, that is not correct.
About all other types of service tax, I haven’t a clue. But, there is one service, such unreliable service at that, I have to give voice to my confusion. This is about religion, no differentiation, here. I am talking about RELIGION.
Some claim that being religious is good because it smoothens one’s perspective of bad times – good times are just round the corner, if only ...
That is a service, in my reckoning. I understand that religious establishments are out of reach of the taxperson (see, how gender neutral I am!) in India. But, service tax is levied on the devotee as (s)he is being offered a service. After all, my bill for buying medicines comes with a large service tax (I don’t think I can say the percentage before going into a swoon). So, why not the devotee at the place of prayer? Lest you misunderstand me, I am not demanding that temples/churches/mosques/sangas pay service tax. Let them merely serve as the conduit between the devotee and the Department of Taxes, a mere pass-through – surely you have heard how these so-called pass-throughs are exploited by hedge fund managers, another set of people providing service.
Say, now you pay Rs. 200/- to jump the queue, my suggestion is merely for you to pay Rs. 200/- + Service Tax and the temple will send the tax part of it to the government. Temples must be keeping scrupulous accounts, you agree.
If you are going to argue that prayer assemblies (moderated in whatever way) are not to be considered as places of service offerings, I would like you to talk to the devotees (you may be one of them) first. As said earlier, they do get comfort, mental it may be but a comfort nonetheless. More to the point, in the services sector, we do include, and I am sure there is a separate tracking of it, religious tourism. If the other segments of such tourism are levied service tax – for example, your bus ticket, the hotels you stay in, etc. – then, why cannot the temple charge you a service tax? Simple, ain’t it?
To conclude, if religious tourism is a sub-head under tourism, and tourism is a sub-head under services, then religious tourism, logic demands, comes under services and hence, someone, as usual, the ultimate beneficiary, the devotee must pay that tax.
This is why I am confused about not levying Service Tax on every aspect of religious tourism, including the charges at places of worship. Nothing but logic leads me to this conclusion. Before you say it, I know, logic and religion don’t sleep on the same bed. But, please do explain why they don’t.

Raghuram Ekambaram 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Presidential v. Parliamentary System

The US Constitution predates the Indian Constitution by 160 years. This is one thing in which we cannot claim, “…been there … done that etc.” But, we surely can claim that the writers of our document were wiser than the so-called Founding Fathers of the US. But, we can say this for sure only now. All thanks to Donald Trump.
When a nuclear war came within the realm of at least a plausibility, like the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s, Americans thought that if the then available procedures and protocol were to be followed in retaliation to a nuclear missile attack on the US, it would be a dead man attacking. They then handed over that decision, launching missiles against a hostile power, to one man, the President of the United States. But, they never foresaw Donald Trump occupying the White House, even if only between his golfing activities (by the way, do you think Trump claims a handicap? I am sure he does – take advantage of any and all situations, however serious or silly it may be, being his motto).
Now, you go to any “False Media”, what you find is Americans shuddering at the thought of their unstable president repeatedly reaching for the nuclear button and accidentally setting it on the course of destruction.
Whatever you may say about the parliamentary system, giving us all kinds of personalities at the top, none has descended to the level of Trump.  Our system has given us Modi, quite belligerent, I will admit, but he has never given reasons for us to fear India being annihilated. Can’t say the same for the world, with Trump as the US president. Now, I am ready to blame the presidential system of the US for such a situation coming to pass.
Even while giving credit to Modi the person, I would also raise my thumb for the system we have in place. We may not have a rigid system of checks and balances that the US claims it has, but which, alas, has a hole through which the huge and elephantine ego of a Trump can just rustle through.