A Commentary On Current Issues, in the knowledge that
"Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor"
Sunday, May 29, 2005
Caveat emptor! (Standard Chartered; Credit cards)
The letter is made out as being occasioned by a (3-year old) circular from the Reserve Bank of India “bearing reference no. DBOD No. DL.BC.29/ 20.16.002/ 2002-03 directing all Banks operating in India to periodically submit credit information pertaining to their customers to the Credit Information Bureau (India) Ltd. or any other agency authorized by RBI”
In a classic sleight-of-hand, the letter then goes on to construct a clause for consent and authorization that goes much beyond what the RBI requires and where any future extension of consent and authorization will be beyond what is required by an independent body such as the RBI.
According to the clause which all customers are required to agree:
“authorize the Bank to disclose to Credit Information Bureau (India) Ltd. (CIBIL) or any other agency authorized by RBI or such other parties as the Bank shall deem fit” (note that “the Bank” is Standard Chartered); “The Customer(s) also consent and authorizes CIBIL or any such other agency authorized by RBI or such parties as the Bank shall deem fit, to use, process the said information disclosed by the Bank in the manner deemed fit by them and to furnish for consideration, the processed information or products thereof prepared by them, to Banks/ financial institutions and other credit grantors or registered users, as shall be specified by RBI in this behalf or otherwise” (Emphasis provided)
In one stroke, Standard Chartered is not just assuming full ownership of all information that customers have submitted but is also abrogating the right to provide it – free or otherwise – to anyone it pleases, for any purpose that Standard Chartered or the subsequent entity (in whose hands this information reaches) may want to use it for.
And Standard Chartered is doing this beautifully – by just appending a few words to what the RBI is requiring it to do (for the record, the creation of CIBIL and RBI’s support to this new organization in form of requiring banks to share data with CIBIL is an extremely important and beneficial step for all involved in the personal credit industry – including customers – in our country).
Why is this important at all? Well, as an overarching cause, note that they’re taking your and my personal particulars (including, but not just restricted to, financial data) and trading in it – which is absolutely not their remit. And, to be very specific, note that the next time an auto-loan salesperson calls you on your mobile phone, you have actually authorized that call to be made.
No wonder there are a number of people who despise these MNCs (in banking or otherwise): Standard Chartered wouldn’t have tried such a trick in any developed market that it operates in – it is using the lower standards (with respect to data protection and consumer awareness) prevalent in this country to “get away with what it can”. Despicable. Next, consider that it is such exploitation of loopholes that lead to the government and regulatory agencies becoming very prescriptive in their recommendations – so, the RBI could have had issued a circular with specific wording on the communication between banks and their customers. But, had that been the case, I am sure there would be editorials and (planted?) news stories about “license-raj-mentality” or “overzealous regulators” and such like.
For things to change (without throwing out the baby with the bathwater), at least one of the three conditions – consumers becoming powerful as an organized group, RBI’s ombudsman becoming proactive and powerful, some sort of a producers guild becoming forward looking in respect to consumer issues – need to be met. Till then, thank you very much but I do not want any personal loans, so don't call me: should my needs change, I will call you.
I have written to Ms Mitra at the address supplied, specifically excluding the discretionary portions from the consent, but I doubt if she or her employer will pay any heed (surprise me, StanChart).
Saturday, May 28, 2005
The Persian Letters – I (What Democracy?)
There is no escaping the noise generated about the democratic status of this country. It comes through in many ways: state-sponsored celebrations twice a year, (relatively) high rates of electoral participation, (as a part of) explanation by numerous commentators for moderate rates of growth and change, the chest-thumping variety displayed by politicians etc. Importantly, this pride isn't restricted to the man on the street; journalists, social scientists, bureaucrats, lawyers (i.e. people who one can reasonably expect will know better) also use democracy to explain many successes and condone many shortcomings of what goes on around here. However, both in their writings and in my conversations with (a sub-set of) them, I can't seem to find anyone who truly appreciates (and applies) the range of conditions that need to be satisfied to earn the label of democracy.
Let us start at the beginning: "In a democracy, the people are sovereign. They may govern through ministers, or be advised by a senate, but they must have the power of choosing their ministers and senators for themselves." All around me, I see people that are servile, not sovereign; and ministers and parliamentarians who, in all senses of the word, are rulers. And the power of choosing ministers: that's been abdicated to a coterie of brokers. They used to ridicule one dynasty in this country - now these are too common to be ridiculed. Socialists of varying convictions are inducting their progeny into politics. A well educated, young, 3rd-generation politician was proudly holding forth on a talk-show: "if a lawyer's son practices law or a doctor's son also becomes a doctor, there's no comment so why should there be any when a politician's son enters politics", and the young lady who was hosting the show could do no better than "So there you have it: that's a pretty strong logic that Omar has laid out...".
You will recall that Montesquiue wrote of the principle of democracy being political virtue i.e. "the love of the laws and of our country". By just this yardstick, this democracy doesn't measure up at all. The love of the laws has all but disappeared: in its place, you now see anything ranging from impatient tolerance to impudent flouting of it. Indeed, this has come to pass, in no small manner by the fact that laws have proliferated to an extent that they that are now too numerous to even track while enforcement is sporadic at the best of times and, in worse instances, it is motivated and malafide. Is it changing, you ask? Just consider this: almost one-fifth of the Central lawmakers have serious criminal charges pending against them; and this ratio is trending steadily upward. Any demand for changing the rules of the game - not that there have been very many coherent ones - is met with strident cries of "attack on democracy" and "anti-people elitist conspiracy".
Let's stay with Montesquieu for some more time today. He wrote of democracy becoming corrupted in two possible ways - "the spirit of inequality" and "the spirit of extreme equality". It is clear to all animals - save, of course, the ostriches that we have many of - that this land was been systematically pillaged in the first manner over a long period (and the loot hasn't ceased yet) and, of late, the second kind of corruption has also spread to many parts (in different guises).
The spirit of inequality - "when citizens no longer identify their interests with the interests of their country, and therefore seek both to advance their own private interests at the expense of their fellow citizens, and to acquire political power over them" - was possibly always with this country but in the post-independence era, it characterized the governance and administration of the entire country. Bureaucrats and politicians (mostly owing allegience to the Congress party, as those were largely unipolar days) literally ruled the country and while I hear talk of inequality and differnces in development as if these are issues of recent vintage, I open my books and see that poets were cautioning the rulers about inequality in the 1960s: "Sakal desh mein haalahal hai, dilli mein hala hai/ Dilli mein roshani sesh bharat mein andhiyala hai/ Makhmal ke pardon ke baahar, phoolon ke us paar/ Jyon ka tyon khada aaj bhi marghat sa sansaar" (Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar'; Samar shesh hai).
The spirit of extreme equality, when the people are no longer content to be equal as citizens, but want to be equal in every respect, when they "want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges" is a more recent phenomenon but has taken roots as deep as the former malady. A number of individuals in politics have appealed to narrow sectarian interests (divisions on various lines: a mix of regional and religious identity with Mr. Bal Thackeray; caste-based groupings in the Hindi heartland) and, having established these vote banks have now extended the license to claiming to be above any law because they have the "popular mandate" and publicly wonder why "if the people don't consider us to be criminals and vote us to the parliament, who is the court to label us thus?"
Eventually, as Montesquieu pointed out, the government will cease to function, the last remnants of virtue will disappear, and democracy will be replaced by despotism.
What is the redeeming feature, then? The quinquennial electoral process which is "free and fair" and where a surprisingly high proportion of the eligible voters participate? People are justly proud of both the scale in participation and the overall conduct of this "festival of democracy". However, this is just the form of democracy and not its bedrock. Those bedrock principles, as I explained earlier, have been eroded over many years and are now less capable than ever of sustaining this edifice.
How can they shore up the structure then? Can they? One certainly hopes so (after all, one-sixth of the world is involved)! There are a number of steps that can be taken - indeed, must be taken - which vary in their points of incidence, in the significance of their impact and in the lag between their administration and results. Many of these are well known but the notion that the malady will only respond to a well-considered cocktail of drugs (or, for when you prefer less contemporarily inclined language, to a well-considered portfolio of interventions) is still not as developed as it should be (prescriptions that approximate a laundry list are plentiful, though).
In my next letter, I will make the case for the portfolio approach - and hopefully be able to distinguish it (in its reasoning) from the laundry lists - and then, in subsequent dispatches, talk about some of the most urgent and some of the most important elements within the portfolio.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it
In today’s article, Mr. Jaithirth Rao presents his case for revisiting the scorn heaped upon one of the representatives of the Crown – Thomas Babington Macaulay. Mr. Rao – in breathless prose – labels Macaulay “the most important founding father of modern India” and contests “Without his gift to us, so many of us would be lesser individuals, not just different individuals”. And it is not just us common people who should be thankful – he goes on thus: “It is trite to state that not only R.K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie, but the very constitution of the Republic of India and the landmark judgments of its jurists are all a direct fallout of Macaulay’s historic minute”. My my, strong words indeed!
Of course, Mr. Rao seems to have read the original Minutes – in which Macaulay makes his case – and therefore acknowledges that “Macaulay ridiculed traditional Indian knowledge as useless, deluded and shallow. He alleged that Indian histories talked about reigns of kings that were forty-thousand years long and geographies made reference to seas of treacle and whey”. But he makes light of these, claiming that there’s “some justification in this harsh criticism” (as indeed there is) and reserves his opprobrium (“stupid Whig smugness”) only in relation to Macaulay’s views on Indian literature.
Now, I must confess to liking some of Mr. Rao’s previous op-ed pieces and find him to be, on balance of evidence, one of the better commentators represented in our popular press. This article, however, is unadulterated trash (Too harsh, is it? I am using the same license here as in “Swadeshi chauvinist or a dim-witted leftist” used to describe people who dislike Macaulay). Here's why.
He says, “Such indeed are the ironies of history. A person who oddly enough is central to the history of the conquered is quite irrelevant in the annals of the conquerors… … in any event you cannot ignore Macaulay and his enduring decisive intervention in India’s history.” Macaulay’s irrelevance in Britain is of little concern to me and not at all as surprising as Mr. Rao makes it out to be. However, on the other point, had Mr. Rao referred to Macaulay’s work in respect to constructing the Indian Penal Code – which is still the mainstay of our criminal law – yes, we could debate the ‘enduring decisive intervention’ because, whether you know it or not, IPC applies to everyone among us (and has remained largely unchanged despite the passage of much time). As for English, there are only about 60% of our countrymen (and women) who don’t know the language and while it disadvantages them in respect to job opportunities (specially in sectors such as IT and ITES – where Mr. Rao works), it is not the end of the world.
Mr. Rao's claim of “to think of India without the English language is pretty much like thinking of India without the monsoons. It may not touch everyone, but its influence touches everyone” should be seen in this light. English education, even today, is restricted to a minority: an increasing minority (happily, given today’s world economic order), but still very much a minority so I wouldn’t term this intervention as “decisive” in “Indian history”.
And before you start off on themes of “he wants to keep them down… the path to economic freedom is learning English… etc”, please allow me to remind you that it is only one of the possible paths – indeed, should one look closer home (e.g. Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, or China in 1980s and 1990s), it will be apparent that economic growth – specially the kind that is manufacturing led and whose benefits are distributed among a larger section of population – is independent of widespread English-language skills among the population. It is my contention – and open to rebuttal, like any other – that going forward, if we are to realize the true economic potential of India (e.g. as captured in predictions of Morgan Stanley’s BRIC report), the role played by non English-dependent jobs (e.g. manufacturing for the world, growth in internal services e.g. retailing etc.) will be far more important than the experience of the past decade may lead us to believe.
Next, in referencing things such as “Vivekananda on Vedanta, Coomaraswamy on Indian Art, Aurobindo Ghose on Vedic Mysticism, Radhakrishnan on the Hindu View of Life, Krishnan on Indian Wildlife, Srinivas on Caste, Zakaria on Indian Muslims, etc.” to make the point that English is not just “a medium or a means to an end; it is part of our very consciousness”, Mr. Rao grossly shortchanges these thinkers. Is it a fair contention that their works would’ve had been lesser in inputs, analysis or impact had their medium been an Indian language? Did Voltaire – or any of the contemporary French thinkers – miss out because their consciousness was bereft of the full glory of the English language? After all, had the creeping acquisition of English not been injected into us, what is to say that literary and intellectual progress as in France would not have taken place?
And, let me hasten to add: I am not, for a moment, advocating that there is any cause to turn back the clock or even think of “righting historical wrongs” (a habit which our BJP friends are partial towards) but let us not twist facts to support a specious argument.
Macaulay, in his minutes, draws analogies with not just “untutored Russians before Peter the Great transformed them” but also Europe coming into the age of letters. And both these analogies are spurious with respect to justifying the imposition of English. I don’t have to make a new case: H. T. Prinsep, who was Secretary (Education) in that era, had the following to say in respect of the Russian analogy: “The analogy of Russia is less convincing. It is through communication with foreigners through imitation and translations that the Russians are building up a native literature. This is the method that is specifically advocated by those who despair of making English the language of general adoption or the vehicle for imparting a knowledge of the sciences to the millions who compose the population of India. The argument would only have weight if, in the schools and colleges of Russia, German were now or had ever been the exclusive organ through which the youth of that country derived instruction which it assuredly is not and never was.” For Macaulay’s reference to importance of Latin in renaissance and equating that to usage of English for India’s renaissance, Prinsep reminded Macaulay that “This however is not the true analogy – Latin and Greek were to the nations of Europe what Arabic and Persian are to the Mooslims and Sanscrit to the Hindoos of the present population of Hindoostan and if a native literature is to be created it must be through the improvements of which these are capable.”
I trust the first contention of “swinging to the other extreme to battle entrenched orthodoxies” is made out in the above points. It is an unnecessary and self-defeating tactic which, I trust, we will see less of. As for my second contention – that regarding motive – this note has already become longer than I wished it to be and so I will restrict myself to two observations: one, that the object of these deliberations (when the Viceroy was considering the question) was to decide where the fiscal support to education should be channeled and as a result of these exchanges (where Macaulay's views prevailed over those represented by Prinsep), public money was diverted almost exclusively thereafter to English-using institutions. It became a systematic replacement of our homegrown font of knowledge (warts and all) with another one of imported variety (not without its own warts, it should be noted). And two, much as Mr. Rao would like to make light of Macaulay’s observations on Indian thought and literature, comments such as “I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” do – and should – predispose the readers towards taking a skeptical view of the conclusions captured in such a Minute.
To close this note, I will submit a personal anecdote – which changed my views to what they are today from when they were closer to Mr. Rao’s (and led me to much of the research as above). It was in 1990, I was still at college and we were debating this topic when I asked if anything in the vernacular could match “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought” (Percy Bysshe Shelly; To a Skylark) – and Avinash (an interlocutor in this debate) took about a second to recite Sumitranandan Pant’s lines: "Viyogi hoga pahila kavi/ Aah se upja hoga gaan/ Umar kar aankhon se chupchaap/ Bahi hogi kavita anjaan”. As coup-de-grace, he went on to inform me that greater personalities than the two of us had a similar exchange: Mr. Nehru once challenged Dr. Bachchan to find something in Hindi that would express the sentiments of his favorite lines “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/ But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep” (Robert Frost; Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening) – and Dr. Bachchan took but a few minutes to come up with (his own) “Abhi kahan aaraam badaa/ Yeh mook nimantran chhalna hai/ Abhi to humko meelo humko/ meelo humko chalna hai”. QED - even if it related specifically to literature rather than to all learning.
So, Mr. Rao, I am all for “revising” our views of the past – to the extent that such revisions do not presuppose that the currently held views are all wrong or that the new ones must take another, but equally extreme, position. And, importantly, I will also urge you to to consider that unintended consequences of an act are not enough to justify its occurrence – much less glorify the perpetrator.
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
Crouching Tiger (un)Hidden Dragon - II
This argument has been made before but nevertheless, reading the account of his administration – and (at least some of) his policies – does remind one of the successes that we have been able to achieve as a nation: at no stage did we permit such insanity (great leap forward, cultural revolution etc.) to become mainstream policy. While this isn’t worth declaring a public holiday for, we will also do ourselves injustice if we were to underestimate its value.
Dear Diary - I (Star Wars)
Most people (read: "people-like-us") of my generation - even in India - will have their personal Star Wars story - so do I. Star Wars (or, as it is known now, Star Wars IV: A New Hope) was the first English movie (in reality, I couldn't understand most of the language and any of the accent then) that I was taken for (in 1978 - I think) in the newly constructed Mona cinema (Air Conditioned) in Patna. I wasn't yet 7 years old but do remember most of the experience (and almost none of the movie - except as below): the air-conditioning was a huge deal, of course; so were the plush - by the definitions of those days - seats (dark red, rexine covers), the small popcorn machine (yes, yes - they're in every department store from Saharanpur to Siliguri now but back then, it was a novelty in Patna: imagine, something to eat being prepared so quickly in a glass fronted machine - and so expensive, my God). In between all this, I also managed to watch the movie (my cinema hall narcolepsy yet to strike) and understand some of it. Even though it has been 25+ years, I remember the scroll with which the movie begins, the last battle for (on? with?) the Death Star, Darth Vader's helmet filling the screen, his wheezing speech and some other fragments from the movie. Quite an experience, it was - as Yoda would say.
I missed the next two movies - there was lots happening on the home front around 1980-81 when The Empire Strikes Back came out and going to the sequel didn't ever make it to the to-do list. By 1983-84, when Return of the Jedi hit the screens, I boxed it into the "for kids" category - a kiss of death as far as my participation was concerned (small towns and large families make the eldest child grow up quicker, I have noticed). However, when the series was resurrected in 1999, I was more "settled" in life - and had a nephew of the right age who I was keen to show things that were cool (unknown variable back then) in our times (even if I was to experience them for the first time myself). So we saw The Phantom Menace - which was a bit of a let down (this really is kid-stuff what with the pod racing and all, where's the story?), and Attack of The Clones - where I dozed off (too many long shots of rank-and-file clones in the army) but, all through, I think the realization that these were parts of a larger, more interesting story persisted.
In Revenge of The Sith, I am happy to report, that faith has been vindicated. Oh, yes, it suffers from some obvious - and huge - faults: grossly juvenile acting in parts (Mr. Christensen and Ms. Portman try to be affectionate in an important sequence and fail miserably), the end is too abrupt (Darth Vader's torment at not getting the prize promised to him in his Faustian bargain with Emperor Palpatine is given short shrift) while the sequence leading up to the end isn't (the fight between Obi-wan and Anakin on the volcanic planet is drawn out much more than it deserved), and (I can't blame Mr. Lucas for this one, though) the projection-room technician at Wave Multiplex sacrificed a few important minutes of the movie (where Anakin cuts off Mace Windu's hands) so that we would go buy Pepsi and popcorn ("Intermission"). Keeping such jarring notes aside, the movie is a winner - like Senator Goldwater's handlers asked reporters to do, we should focus on "what he means, not what he says". The torment of a young achiever as elders of the council refuse to grant him an equal place; placing personal love over ideals and duty to the greater good; being tricked by the temptations held out by a fraudster; the pride in - and doubts about - an apprentice; coming up short in key skills - which you're known for - at the moment of truth; protectors becoming predators in the blink of an eye; the terrors from our childhood that stay with us through our life: these are grand themes and they have all been handled well in this story. I quite enjoyed the entire movie and will endorse it to all ages - as long as there's some idea of what comes before (and what has already come after) this episode.
And, one final note - if rumors are to be believed, the "original plot" and the "unedited version" of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith is much darker and complicated story than the one that has been released (marketing-types wanting to "broaden the appeal" are the culprits, it seems). Should this indeed be the case, I will be front in the line when the Director's cut is released. Till then, Go into exile (on this topic) I must.
N.b. The "Dear Diary" series on Saara Aakash is unlike other postings - which relate more to "high-impact issues" of governance, politics and economics. These entries are more personal accounts - on many occasions, on happenings of only incidental importance - which may be of lesser interest to most others. I will keep such postings separate under the "Dear Diary" sub-heading and should you be one of the "most others", please ignore these.
Governance - Lectures in theory and practice
N.b. Cartoon reproduced from PawanToons at The Bihar Times
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
If thy brother wrongs thee...
I think the time-tested "Mother's Law" of "one brother does the division, the other one gets to pick first" is the most straightforward solution. Yes, it will still destroy some value (the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts) but it will allow M/s Mukesh and Anil to independently start building off substantial bases once again.
This will not work, of course, if either one or both believe that equality is not a required feature in a settlement. However, "If thy brother wrongs thee, remember not so much his wrong-doing, but more than ever that he is thy brother" (Epictetus; Enchiridion, 43) holds true as a mantra - whether the division is of a few household utensils or a US$20 Bn industrial empire.
Epictetus (A.D. 55?–135?): Greek (Phrygian-born) philosopher who popularized the Stoic ethical doctrine of limiting one's desires, believing that one should act in life as at a banquet by taking a polite portion of all that is offered. Epictetus' main work is the Enchiridion --or "Handbook", while his longer works are known as The Discourses. It is believed that Epictetus did not write these himself, but that they were penned by his pupil, Arrian. (Source: www.answers.com; See here for more details).
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Crouching Tiger (un)Hidden Dragon - I
The simple story is that we don't have enough to save (and we don't save enough), our (formal) financial system doesn't intermediate as much of the total savings into investments as it could/should, it (our financial system) is marginally more efficient than the one in China and finally, the tyranny of compounding laws is widening the gulf between us and them every year. (I need to look into what this "marginally more efficient" means in real data terms - I'm still hoping it is more than "marginal".)
Be that as it may, the policy prescription should be clear to our economic czars too - we need someone to agitate the financial system in a manner that it changes orbits with respect to its performance on the intermediation role. It has, for too long, been just a facilitator for the real sectors, it now needs to become the vanguard and engender developments in the real sector by being out front.
Of Regents and Mathematical Analogies
You erroneously equate the "Common Minimum Program" with "Lowest Common Denominator" (Leaders; May 12th 2005; India's reformist government, one year on). We should be so lucky - lowest common denominator would've meant that our economy was reformed at least as aggressively as the most aggressive constituent of the UPA. Instead, both in statistics and in practice, the CMP is actually the Highest Common Factor which, in a government that includes both clueless mild-mannered regents and hard-core criminals, tends to zero.
More generally, this one-year-review (the "self-inflicted" one by the PMO and the unsolicited ones by the media) has attracted wide coverage in the popular press. Almost all - I have only seen one exception till now - are puerile in their analysis. The one exception is here (Seven Commandments of Mr Singh; Swaminomics; Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar; Sunday, May 15, 2005; Times of India) where he presents a straightforward delineation between the de-jure and de-facto realities.
And yes, this regent theme is beginning to interest me (note the reference in my letter). All I remember of regents from my history lessons is Bairam Khan who exercised power on Akbar's behalf for a few years. I seem to recall that he was imprisoned or exiled to Mecca (or both). Hmmm... This looks like something I should look up in more detail (history repeating itself etc.) - and certainly something which Dr. Singh should think about (there must be other models - smoother transition et al - but I wouldn't bet on it).