Remembering SPB One Year On!

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was published on the 26th June, 2021 – on the 1st death Anniversary of SPB.  It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/ennadi-meenakshi-malare-mounama-20-songs-spb-brought-life-his-voice-155731

It’s exactly one year since SP Balasubrahmanyam left us. Or did he? Is he not lingering still amongst us through the 40,000 plus songs he left behind?  In the case of creators and artists, milestones like the first death anniversary is an occasion not just to remember, but also to celebrate. Celebrate their legacy. On this first death anniversary of SPB, this piece aims to just do that — celebrate the legacy of the versatile singer by revisiting some of his songs.

I hope I know what I am getting into. To pick just a few songs from his vast discography, of which 50% could be classified as hits — if not super hits — is an arduous task.  Therefore, first up, my list is going to narrow down to just Tamil songs. Next, instead of making it as a list of super hits, I would like to look at some of his songs that had some uniqueness to them. This is, of course, purely a personal choice and therefore subject to my own biases and subjectivity.

The songs can be unique in many ways, as I have tried to explain. It could be also due to the way SPB rendered those compositions, where even imagining those songs in someone else’s voice would be unfathomable now. These songs are what they are because of the way SPB sang them.

So, here is the list of my top 20 ‘unique’ SPB songs, in chronological order. That many of them are predominantly solos is coincidental. Here it is:

  1. Pottu Vaitha Mugamo: This was at a time when the MGR-Sivaji duo was dominating the Tamil filmdom. Till then, we were used to the legendary TM Soundarrajan (TMS) doing playback singing for Sivaji. In fact, it is widely believed that TMS used to modulate his voice to suit Sivaji and MGR respectively, for whom he regularly sang. SPB was making his baby steps into the Tamil industry. Music Director MS Viswanathan (MSV) tosses this song to SPB — his first for Sivaji. The very youthful voice of SPB manages to suit Sivaji in this melodious duet and for listeners, this came as a different experience after being used to the usual steely voice of TMS for Sivaji.
  2. Aval Oru Navarasa Naadagam: SPB started singing for MGR quite early in his career. But this song from MGR’s Ulagam Sutrum Valiban — a musical and a blockbuster — remains etched in our hearts.  Among the ten odd songs in this film, while the other songs were mostly sung by TMS for MGR, Aval Oru Navarasa Naadagamwas sung by SPB.  A very soulful and soothing melody, SPB teases with his soft voice while matching the tempo of MSV’s famous rhythm arrangement. We have heard of the Tamil phrase paal vadiyum mugamto denote innocence. This was SPB’s paal vadiyum voice!
  3. Then Sindhudhe Vaanam: Though this song was composed by GK Venkatesh, this has an Ilaiyaraaja connection, with whom SPB would collaborate later to churn out thousands of hits and create history. Raaja, who was assisting Venkatesh in this period, has himself explained the uniqueness of this song. The melody is complex, with long phrases and octaves that alternate between the higher and lower. SPB along with S Janaki complement each other beautifully to give us this memorable song.
  4. Kadavul Amaithu Vaitha Medai: From the film Aval Oru Thodarkathai, this one is not just a song but a stage performance. Apart from the male singing voice, there are a lot of sounds of animals, birds and others that come in between. Amidst all this, SPB holds his own, conveying the sombre mood of the scene very well.
  5. Ennadi Meenakshi:The Raaja era dawns upon us and for SPB and indeed for us, it is a golden period in Tamil film music. This song is from the film Ilamai Oonjalaadugirathu. While there is the song Ore Naal Unnai Naan, a melodious number sung by SPB, I picked this song — Ennadi Meenakshi — to be part of this list, for a reason. SPB displays another dimension of his singing, hitherto not seen. Could SPB sing only soft romantic or smooth flowing numbers? He answers these questions with this song. He sings with a rough tonal quality for this song, in line with the angry mood of Kamal Haasan, for whom he sings this song. This would pave the way for many more songs in this genre for SPB later throughout his career.
  6. Engeyum Eppothum: This is a song which will get into any ‘SPB list’. Period. SPB is in his element here as his voice traverses seamlessly from one rhythm pattern to another and from one octave to another — Pallavi to Anupallavi to Charanam. It is as if the song is a journey around the whole musical universe. Just like the words in the song itself: “Kaalai Japaanil kaapi, maalai New Yorkil Caberet”!
  7. Naan Ennum Pozhuthu: An everlasting melody, which is easily mistakable for a Raaja composition. But this is composed by Salil Chowdhury for the film Azhiyaatha Kolangal, based on his own original Hindi version: Na Jiya Lage Na, sung by none other than Lata Mangeshkar. SPB’s Tamil rendition is as mellifluous as a hot knife piercing through butter and to me, fares better than the original.
  8. Vaa Machaan Vaa: How will a typical ‘Dappaan kuthu’ song sound in SPB’s voice? Listen to Vaa Machaan Vaa from Vandi Chakkaram. He does attempt a false voice for this song to show a more rough-and-tough performance. Kudos to the composer duo Shankar Ganesh for exploring SPB’s range at that time.
  9. Ithu Oru Pon Maalai Pozhuthu: This is another song which will be in any ‘SPB list’. It is very difficult to separate the composer Raaja, the singer SPB and the lyricist Vairamuthu from this song. I felt that the voice of SPB in this song had a more mature feel that had not been felt before. And amazingly, this timbre of SPB’s voice would sustain till his last breath.
  10. Sangeetha Jathimullai: By his own admission, SPB was not a classically trained singer. And this song would challenge even a seasoned and trained singer. But SPB breezes through the complex notes and Jathis in this song once again composed by Raaja. It’s a sure way of getting goosebumps, even today, when we see clips of SPB performing on shows.
  11. Entire album of Payanangal Mudivathillai: Welcome to the ‘Mic Mohan’ era in Tamil films. All the seven songs in this film are brilliant compositions by Raaja, but SPB takes them to another level. Each of the songs belong to a different genre. From Western classical style (Ilaiya Nila) to Carnatic ragas (Raga Deepam Yetrum Neram) to Folk style (Ye Aatha) to a typical melody duet (Saalai Oram Solai Ondru) to a pathos number (Vaigaraiyil Vaigai Karaiyil), SPB straddles all these genres in absolute ease.  In my personal opinion, with Shankarabharanam in 1980 and Payanangal Mudivathillai in 1982, SPB stepped into the hall of fame of India’s top playback singers.
  12. Kana Kaanum Kangal Mella: What a melody! This number from Balachandar’s Agni Saatchiis a personal favourite. It’s a deeply haunting melody that invariably touches your heart. At no point in the song does SPB’s voice miss the soothing feel, which is the hallmark of this rendition.
  13. Sandanam Poosum Manjal: While SPB was all busy with his singing, did we miss a gifted composer residing in him? This song probably proves so. A beautiful song from the film Thudikkum Karangalfor which SPB himself composed the music, the song, somehow, is not talked about much.
  14. Ilanjolai Poothathaa: Raaja and ragas. Balu and bhavas (emotions). And if there is a song that epitomises these, it is Ilanjolai Poothathaa. A fine melody set in the Hindustani raga Madhuvanti, SPB lords over this composition with his easy, flowing style. A gem of a song from the Ilaiyaraaja-SPB duo.
  15. Mannil Intha Kadalandri: This song is impossible to ignore. Yes, SPB did accept that he didn’t hold his breath while singing the charanams of this song. Yet, will we believe it? SPB’s breathless singing in this song is part of folklore now.
  16. Vanthenda Paalkaran: When did the trend of energetic, high octane, foot-tapping solo opening songs, invariably sung by SPB for Rajinikanth in his movies, start? I guess it is with this song from Annamalai. Most of the opening songs that came after this one, up until the Superstar’s last film Darbar, have followed the Vanthenda Paalkarantemplate.
  17. En Kadhale: Can anyone else convey a love failure or disappointment in a song better than SPB?  This song from Duet is a testimony to this, so is the song Unna NinachuPaatu Padichen. SPB gets into a melancholic groove in this song and moves the listeners to tears when he finishes it. I can’t think of anyone else who would have brought a similar effect to this song.
  18. Malare Maunama: An evergreen and beautiful composition by Vidyasagar, SPB along with Janaki rendered a song that would become an all-time classic!
  19. Mun Paniya:This number from the film Nandha, that released in 2001, told us two things. That Yuvan Shankar Raja as a composer had arrived, and that SPB was not finished even in the new millennium.
  20. Meduvaagathan:This is a personal favourite, though the song didn’t get the attention it deserved. A peach of a melody from Rahman for the film Kochadaiyaan, it is as if SPB turned the clock on his voice by 30 years for this song.

Did I miss quite a few of SPB’s ‘unique’ songs? Probably. That’s the beauty of this exercise, though, isn’t it? At the end of it, you are only half satisfied! Nevertheless, putting this list together was a wonderful experience as I got a chance to revisit the epic work of SPB in Tamil. Is there a better way to celebrate our favourite Paadum Nila?

P.S: My friend Arunmozhi has put this list in a playlist for easy reference. Please check it out.

Thanks Arun!

Catching up on the Economic Agenda!

Social Media is an ongoing battlefield for the IT Cells of political parties. There, you routinely find claims and counter claims by BJP and the Congress, which get forwarded and go viral.  Among the regular updates from the BJP side, the ones which are popular are those where Narendra Modi era (Post 2014) and Manmohan Singh era (2004-2014) are compared which show how the country has progressed rapidly in the last 7 years whether it is Highways construction, Rural Electrification, Toilet construction, Clean water supply etc. etc. However, one thing on which the BJP IT cell is put on the back foot by the Congress is the Economic growth. This is a graphic which is popular among the Congress supporters and rightly so where in comparison, the Singh era shows higher average GDP growth than the Modi era, so far.

I am certain that if there is one thing Modi as a person, who likes to leave behind a legacy in whatever he does, would like to correct, it would be this. Frankly, I had high hopes from this government in its first term on its economic agenda. I thought that with a clear majority, it will pursue bold and long pending reforms with a much higher vigour than the reformist Vajpayee Government which was always bogged down by coalition pressures.  It turned out that, but for the introduction of GST (a landmark and very important reform, in my opinion) and Demonetisation (in which the costs outweighed the benefits), the 1st term was lack lustre and was more or less on “Maintenance mode” as far as pursuing a bold economic agenda was concerned.

It is my opinion that lawyers do not make good Finance ministers. P.Chidambaram, a fine lawyer, who is regarded as one of the most reformist Finance ministers the country had, always use to come up with one nit picking thing in his every budget, which cast a dark shadow on all the other good reforms he came up with. We all know what happened with Pranab Mukherjee, another Finance minister with a legal background. His retrospective taxation idea much against the wishes of even the economist Prime Minister Singh, punctured the “India Story” then and our economy went into a tailspin. So, that’s what happened with the Modi Sarkar in its first term. Arun Jaitley, another fine legal eagle was picked as the finance minister but, even during his regime the retrospective taxation was not rolled back! With no much economic traction, the 1st term of Modi ended on a disappointing low economic growth path.

In 2019, when Nirmala Sitharaman was made the Finance minister in a very surprise move (not Piyush Goyal who was touted as the favourite), expectations were quite low. But, I had mentioned that time, that she could surprise the critics at the end of the day. I felt that considering her background and her studious nature, she can be expected to meticulously follow the agenda as laid out in the manifesto. Not just that, but also follow through methodically in terms of execution.  You can see that this is what is happening now.  In her 1st budget in 2019, when corporate taxes were cut – a bold economic move to boost private investments and sentiment, it appeared that the Modi Government in its second term had got its intentions right in pursuing its economic agenda to boost growth which faltered in the 1st term.

 

The pandemic though, which hit all economies hard including India in Feb/Mar 2020 put a spoke all further bold moves. Economic management during a pandemic is a double edged sword. The government needs to focus on lives on one hand and livelihood on the other and that too when its income is crippled.  But, I thought that the team managing the economy in this government weathered the Covid storm very well and managed to tide over the crisis very well, under the circumstances.

In the midst of the pandemic last year and perhaps even now, top economists of the likes of Dr. Abhijit Banerjee, Dr. Raghuram Rajan and Dr. Kaushik Basu have been of the opinion that the Central government should not worry about fiscal deficit, agency ratings and all. Among other things like increased spending on health, they maintained that it should just do cash transfers through DBT mode to the needy. However, the government took a more cautious and calibrated approach of support by providing free ration to the needy, extending loan support to businesses etc. instead of cash transfers.  This has been a clash of ideas between the economists in the government and economists commentating from outside.  Frankly, I felt that what our government did is a better approach for a country like India.

Unlike the West, in India, people are more conservative financially. So, when a person gets free cash during a pandemic his first instincts will be to save it for spending on essential goods rather than on non-essential stuff to boost demand. Secondly, thanks to the lock down, there were supply restrictions. It is not logical that people will spend money just because they have been provided with cash support. So, the Government’s calibrated approach of providing free rations to the needy serves the purpose of protecting livelihoods during the pandemic. The salaried upper middle class and above were anyway not so affected as they were getting the salaries and even they spent only on essential stuff basically due to lockdown restrictions. So, the argument that Direct cash transfer would have boosted demand in the times of a pandemic doesn’t seem logical at all.  If not all, a few economists like Swaminathan Aiyar finally admitted that this approach worked better for India.

It is in this context of understanding the thought process of this government on handling economic issues during the pandemic that I bumped on this video. In this speech, Sanjeev Sanyal, Economist and Principal Adviser in the Ministry of Finance, articulates brilliantly the approach of the government in managing the pandemic from an economic stand point. If you haven’t watched it, please do so.  It answers quite a few questions which are routinely thrown at this government at the way it has been responding to the pandemic.  Its clear from the speech that there is a “method” in the thinking of the government while there is “madness” in the newsrooms that feed us information.  I wish that the government articulates the thinking behind their decisions more regularly for the benefit of all.

Now if you see the last few months, it is clear that the government is dead serious in reviving the economic growth. Some of the decisions since March have been bold and commendable. The rolling back finally of the retrospective taxation is one.  The Asset Monetisation program is another.  Taking a call to relieve the stress on the balance sheets of the banks by forming a “Bad Bank” is also another one.  Again, addressing sector specific long pending issues like in Telecom is yet another.  So, there has been a slew of bold decisions recently that gives a hope that in this term, with the pandemic hopefully behind us, the Modi Sarkar is pushing aggressively on its economic agenda.

As an economy, I believe we are at an interesting and crucial point. The pandemic is ebbing (or so we believe). Vaccination is progressing at a rapid pace. Economic activity is getting back to normal. These should bring the economy soon to pre-Covid levels. Now, if the bold reforms that have been unleashed this year has the desired effect, the growth only can be higher from here. For the Modi Sarkar which is finally catching up on the economic agenda, it will be a lasting legacy to demonstrate a higher average economic growth than the Singh era. And for the IT cell of the ruling party, few memes less to counter!

Debate around the Growth of the Indian Economy!

Few weeks ago, the GDP numbers for the 1st quarter of this fiscal year for India were published. As per that, the Indian economy grew by 20.1%. In the following days, there were columns, Op-Eds and Social media commentary on whether it was a good quarter or not. Since “Neutral media” is an Oxymoron, depending upon the leanings of the media, the economic performance was either branded “historic” or “pathetic”. There are no surprises here and we have now learnt to live with the media spin on all issues.

Along with the media, the tribe of “Neutral Economists” is also on the wane.  Depending upon their political affiliation, the first quarter performance was touted to be “record breaking/highest ever” or “worst/shocking” in decades by reputed economists.  Therefore for an Aam Admi, it is difficult to judge what actually the situation is. And the truth as in many situations may be somewhere in between.

I am no economist but as an ardent follower of the Indian economy, I tried to make sense of the numbers and the trends thereof and this is what I find. I would like to hear the opinion of the readers as well on my hypothesis.

In isolation, a GDP growth of 20.1% is of course very good. But, we should not forget that this is at the back of a low base of -24.4% same Quarter last year. In that sense, some of the commentary from pro Government circles that this growth is massive and is earth shattering etc. is immature.  At the same time, commentary from the opposition side comparing this with GDP rate pre-Covid and claiming that actually it is lower than what it was two years ago is equally immature. And this is why.

First, the reality is, on a trend line after a massive negative growth of 24.4% in Q1 last year and growing marginally by 1.6% in Q4, a growth of 20.1 in Q1 this year shows that the economy is indeed recovering and the recovery is V-shaped to be precise. This is certainly to be happy about.

Second, we must keep in mind that during Q1 this year, we got caught by a massive second wave which again put several curbs on the functioning of the economy, which was as such firing at much lower levels than before. So, among the eight buckets which contribute to the GDP namely Manufacturing, Construction, Agriculture/forestry & fishing, Mining & Quarrying, Electricity/Gas/ Water & other utilities, Trade/Hotels/Travel & Communication, Finance & Real Estate and Public administration, Defence & other services, it is obvious that a couple of engines are not firing at all. It is therefore natural that when you compare with the pre-Covid situation, the GDP in absolute numbers will be lower. This however does not take away the fact that with the easing of restrictions, the economy is obviously recovering.

Third, let us take a look at the monthly GST collection numbers for the past couple of years.  The average monthly GST collection figure in 2018-19 was Rs. 98,114 Cr. and the average in the 1st four months of 2021-22 is Rs.113,333 Cr. 2018-19 was pre-Covid, normal times and these four months are right in the midst of Covid. And compared to Rs. 101,818 Cr. monthly average last year. So just a cursory glance shows that the economy is on the mend clearly this year.

Here, I would like to dwell into a larger point and thereafter a question.

I would presume that GST collections represent transactional activity in the economy with respect to both goods and services. We are all aware that post the pandemic all “Contact” based sectors have been severely affected. This includes the likes of Travel, hospitality, Wining and Dining (all these for business and pleasure), impulse shopping, recreation and entertainment of all sorts and other human touch related services (salons, spas…). While the Software industry per se has not got affected due to Covid with “Work from Home” filling in well, the ecosystem around it has been significantly disrupted. This includes transportation, catering, real estate, utilities, other discretionary spending and stuff.

As common public, our shopping is mostly restricted to what is required. We travel only when it is utmost required.  The “Festival economy” which is big in India has been crippled since last April.  So my question is, when transactions around goods and services have been curtailed, how is it that the monthly GST collections have shown a growth over 2018-19? (Pre-pandemic period)

There are can be two inferences from this trend:

First, if the monthly GST collection is showing such a robust 15% growth (over 2018-19) even during the pandemic times, once we are done with the pandemic and when all the cylinders start firing, we are looking at an exponential growth in monthly GST collection figures. (Even adjusting for inflation)

Second take away is, either with whatever limited avenues left to us, we are consuming much more than average or there is a significant shift towards formalisation of the economy. I would like to believe in the latter. I don’t think we are consuming more than what is required. However, certainly our purchasing patterns have changed. Due to the pandemic imposed curbs, it is possible that our dependence on the neighbourhood mom and pop stores have come down and we have got used to the convenience of door delivery for everything.

As a personal example, pre-Covid, we used to buy vegetables and fruits from our neighbourhood bhaiya. Once lock down struck, this shifted to a vegetable vendor who was arranged by our apartment complex for door delivery. Here, payment was through G-pay/PayTm etc. Now in the past few weeks, the same vendor is now part of an E-Commerce aggregator called Bhajiwala.com! Bhajiwala.com, I am sure is within the ambit of GST and hence clearly part of the formal economy! My view therefore is, the benefits of GST implementation which we were all looking forward to is beginning to accrue and will be more visible when we are out of the pandemic.

It was widely believed that once GST is implemented, it will add 1-2% to the annual GDP. I now believe that once the pandemic is over and when economy starts firing in all cylinders like before, the bump due to GST could be in excess of 2% because of the increased formalisation of the economy is the last 2/3 years. This I am talking about even after the pent up demand effect.  That should put the naysayers of the GST to rest.

Though we cannot take the stock markets as a real indicator of the state of the economy thanks to its fickle and speculative nature, probably the markets are seeing into the future as above which others are not.  Which is why the markets have been on fire since the last few months even in the midst of the pandemic.

In conclusion, I would like to say that yes, the high growth in Q1 is due to the low base effect.  Yet, it is a significant milestone and pointer towards a robust economic recovery. It is certainly one to be cheered upon if not celebrated upon as yet.  Acche Din are around the corner!

Pic Courtesy: The Economic Times

The Great Indian Malayalam Cinema!

In the last few days, I have been prompted by a few friends to watch Kuruthi, a Malayalam film which was released on Amazon Prime two weeks ago.  The interesting part is, most of those who gave this recommendation are Non Keralites. I just managed to watch this film yesterday and before I could post “My Flash Review”TM as usual, I have already started getting recommendation for another film – #Home, again a Malayalam film that has just released on OTT this weekend. Malayalam cinema has never had it so good.

It’s not been like that always. Back in the 70s and 80s in Tamil Nadu, where I was growing up, Malayalam films had a ring of notoriety attached to them. Invariably, a Malayalam padam meant a shady, crass, soft porn film with a typical target audience in mind and any talk of Malayalam films was met with naughty giggles. So much so, even “normal” Malayalam films were packaged as films with erotic content and some fancy titles and released in other states. Interestingly, such films found more takers in other states than Kerala itself.

If my memory serves me right, the reason for Malayalam films that time getting this infamous image was I.V.Sasi’s Avalode Raavugal which hit the screens in 1978. The film’s story line centred on a sex worker and her relationship with three men in her life.  For that time and era, it was considered to be an extremely bold theme and the film was duly released with an “A” certificate. The film was a phenomenal success in Kerala and catapulted I.V. Sasi to a film maker of repute in Malayalam cinema.

The film got dubbed and released in other languages like Tamil at a time when Tamil films were pre-dominantly dealing with family drama and associated sentiments. Though the film actually dealt with a social evil, the overt theme and the bold narrative of Avalin Iravugal in Tamil created almost an indelible image for Malayalam films in TN as a repertoire of sleaze.

This at a time when in reality, Malayalam cinema was boasting of some fine film makers like Aravindan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Padmarajan and the like.  Somehow their films were bracketed as “Art films” which could be watched only on Sunday afternoons on Doordarshan, when other language (Non Hindi) films used to be telecast in turn. Mostly the films chosen were of the Award winning variety and I remember watching films Elipathayam and dozing off in a few minutes. I.V.Sasi went on to make some mainstream films like Ee Naadu, America America etc. which became super hits at the Box office. Even then, outside of Kerala, I.V.Sasi was the original master of sleaze!  So, in the 80’s, the image of Malayalam cinema swung between two extremes – being “Slow and Arty” on one end and being “Sleazy” on the other end. As an avid follower of Malayalam cinema then, which had just seen the blossoming of Mammootty and Mohanlal in some outstanding mainstream films, it was difficult to convince my friends in TN of the superior quality of Malayalam films.  Invariably they were denigrated as “Mallu padams”.

All this started changing for the good in my opinion, with a film titled Oru CBI Diary Kurippu. Headlined by Mammootty, this film was released as it is (without dubbing) in Safire theatre in Chennai and other cities of TN. This is way back in 1988/89. The film got a huge positive response and I guess the distributors and theatre owners made a killing in the process. Soon, Safire would become the go to place for mainstream Malayalam films (and incidentally Hindi films too, later). So, popular Malayalam films which became hits in Kerala, soon found their way to theatres in TN and soon to other South Indian states as well.  This phase where super hit films of Mammootty and Mohanlal like August 1,  Manu Uncle, Chithram, Vandanam etc. got good response in TN helped immensely to erase the original image of Malayalam films as “Art films” or “Shady films”.

I vividly remember when Uncle Bun, a Mohanlal starrer in which he was seen as an obese character was released in Chennai, huge cut outs were erected in front of Safire theatre just like it used to be for Tamil stars like Rajinikanth, Vijayakanth et al.  Mainstream Malayalam Cinema and Malayalam stars had arrived.

Which takes us to the “Massification”TM phase of Malayalam cinema. The subsequent years in the 90’s and 00’s saw the mass hero cult from Tamil cinema being copied and pasted in Malayalam cinema. Actors like Mammootty and Mohanlal who, in my opinion are among the All-time Top actors Indian cinema has ever seen, moved from being real on screen to being larger than life, closely aping their brethren in Tamil and Telugu industries. So, mass hero entry scenes, frequent slow motion effects, loud punch dialogues, low angle shots and all that jazz became staple features in Malayalam films too.  In a sense from the halcyon days of Elipathayam (Mouse Trap), Malayalam cinema fell into “Mass Trap”!  And coincidentally in this phase, I was sort of out of touch with Malayalam films due to lack of access to them in locations where I was based for work then.

Luckily, in the last few years I must say that Malayalam cinema has got back its mojo. Particularly, post the pandemic driven lock down and with the burst of OTT as a platform, film lovers not just from Kerala or from South India, but from other regions, have discovered the depth of Malayalam cinema.  Of course, Social Media has played a crucial role in amplification of the quality of Malayalam cinema, not to forget the role of Sub titles.  So, when the sequel of Drishyam was released few months ago, not just Malayalis, but people all over were raving about it.

And in this phase of Malayalam cinema, if there is one actor who has emerged as the shining star, it is undoubtedly Fahadh Faasil.  He has been consistently focussing on content in his films so far and has not shied away from bank rolling some unconventional scripts like Trance or C U Soon.  And it’s now good to see other stars like Prithviraj Sukumaran following his footsteps to back good script based projects even if they are risky at the outset.

The film Kuruthi, which I referred to in the beginning, is one such film.  Apart from being a part of the cast, Prithviraj has also produced this film which is a social commentary on today’s sharply seen social divide based on religion. I doubt if such a film will see the light of the day in any other language.  But then, of late in Malayalam films, we have seen that film makers have been willing to take up touchy topics which are of course prevalent in the society. Films like Trance which talks about commercialisation of religion or Sufiyum Sujatayum which has Hindu-Muslim love angle or what is now called as Love Jihad as the central theme, have become quite common in Malayalam cinema.

A film like The Great Indian Kitchen which doesn’t boast of a mega star cast has found resonance across the country purely by the strength of the subject.  The point is, such films are now being regularly made in Malayalam, watched and being hailed by critics and people alike all over the country. That’s why today, even if I don’t follow the new releases, I am sure, I will be duly prompted by some of my Non-Mallu friends who have already caught up with it, to watch the same.

Malayalam Cinema has now truly transcended all boundaries and become “The Great Indian Malayalam Cinema”! And talking about Malayalam Cinema do not draw the impish smiles these days. I.V.Sasi will Rest In eternal Peace.

Olympics and Sports as a great Unifier!

The Tokyo Olympics 2020 which got delayed by a year due to Covid, finally got over today. The Indian effort at the Olympics culminated in a flourish with Neeraj Chopra winning the Gold in Javelin throw. All these years, after every Olympics, the commentary has been about how a country of 1.3 billon cannot win even one Gold.  Or for that matter how small countries like Kenya and Spain can win more medals than India. This time, we will be spared of the usual diatribe or so I hope. For, we won a Gold that too in a track and field event for the 1st time. With a total tally of seven medals that included two Silvers and four bronzes, this is our best outing in an Olympics. Not just that, we missed a handful of bronzes by a whisker.

At a time when the whole country has been going through a challenging phase for more than one year tackling Covid and its spiralling after effects, the encouraging performance of our contingent at the Tokyo games came as a whiff of fresh air. We almost forgot to track the everyday Covid statistics of daily new infections, number of deaths and the R-Factor etc.  The media as well, which is what steers our attention usually on a day to day basis, gave more coverage to the games rather than the usual stories.  For a change, WhatsApp groups were buzzing with forwards related to the lives of the winners at the Olympics. And for once a Javelin throw was being watched by many Indians when a Test match was going on in parallel!

I have not seen this kind of frenzy for following Olympics as we saw this time, ever before. This kind of excitement and passion is usually reserved for Cricket in India. With Cricket of course, the craze and following have been for a long while.  For instance, an Indo-Pak Cricket encounter at any level can bring India to a grinding halt. Cutting across geographies, religion, caste, creed, language, gender and social strata, a World Cup Cricket match and that too if between India and Pakistan unifies India like no other.

What we have seen in the last few days with Olympics has shown that the Indian passion for Cricket need not be exclusive. People’s passion will follow wherever we win or succeed. For long, it has been ingrained in our minds that “Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar”. But the other part is the question of National Pride. The number of times the clip of Neeraj Chopra on the podium with the National Anthem being played in the background, got shared on Social Media since yesterday is a testimony to this.

The general commentary or narrative has been that we Indians only support or cheer Cricket and that is the cause for other sports not flourishing. While this could be true, it is only partly true if at all. I am of the opinion that as Aam Admi, what we chase is not Cricket, but National Pride. For a long time that National Pride has been bestowed upon us by our repeated success in Cricket. So, we became a Cricket crazy country.

Make no mistake. If our Indian Hockey takes off from what we have achieved at the Tokyo Olympics, fan following, attention and of course money will chase Indian Hockey too. Same is the case with other sports as well.  Well, defending India’s craze for Cricket versus other sports is not the purpose of this blog. But trying to articulate that any sport or for that matter any event that arouses National Pride can be a great Unifier in a diverse country like India, is.

That is why I find questions often raised on why India should spend its money and resources on the Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions while millions languish in poverty, to be ill founded. We have seen how landing its men on the moon first successfully with the Apollo mission tilted the scales of National pride in the US during the Cold war period.

Similarly, I saw some questions being raised as to why Orissa state should spend its money on sponsoring the Indian Hockey Team instead of focussing on its own state’s players. If by spending that money, Orissa has enabled the revival of India’s fortunes on the world stage as how we saw in the Olympics, it is certainly worth it.  The National Pride that got aroused thanks to the performances of the men’s and women’s Hockey at the Olympics is priceless. For everything else there could be a MasterCard. And Naveen Patnaik the shrewd politician he is, has understood this well and took a call to back the Indian Hockey teams when no one else did.

As I had written in my 2016 piece post Rio Olympics (Read here), availability of financial resources is a key factor in winning more medals.  So, with the backing of sponsors, talented sportsmen can get access to the best – whether it is coaching staff or equipment or infrastructure. We have seen this in the flourishing of a Neeraj or a Sindhu or a Saina! What Orissa has done or a few other brands have done is an eye opener for many including other States, Centre and Corporations to pick up a sport or sportsmen and back them to the hilt. The returns on this investment by way of National Pride and the associated brand recall is beyond comprehension in a spreadsheet.

And no one else understands the power of National Pride than Narendra Modi. Each and every phone call he makes to a winner is because of this understanding, the after effect of it, we will see in 2024.

Postscript: The next Olympics is in 2024 😃😃

Wanted – Reforms on “Kaizen” Mode!

In the last few days, newspapers and online portals have been filled with nostalgic Op-Ed pieces on how the 1991 reforms happened as we celebrate 30 years of the reforms. These pieces by some of them who were part of “reforms team” then and other commentators often talk about the circumstances in which the reforms were unleashed, how the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao weathered the political storm in taking some bold steps and how the then Finance minister Manmohan Singh and his team went about implementing them finally.

Yes, the “1991 reforms” was a significant event in our post Independent political history and in terms of impact on the ground, probably the most significant. Though it was not realised then, the reforms package helped to change gears of the country which was stuttering at a modest pace of growth all along, while the rest of the world was galloping.  It also helped lift millions of Indians out of poverty in the next 20 years.  So, it is apt that we give due recognition to the process and the people behind it and celebrate with much enthusiasm.

As a country, we are in a phase where we need the next reforms momentum. One that will define our growth trajectory for the next 30 years. In that sense, we need to now move on from living in past glory of what the 1991 reforms delivered and initiate the next cycle of reforms. So, what could they be? A reform is defined as a change brought in an existing system to make it better. Therefore there are reforms that result in incremental changes, thereby incremental benefits and there are reforms that are big which result in monumental changes and thereby impact. 1991 reforms can be grouped in the latter category.

 In the last 20 years, since the Vajpayee regime till now, it’s not that there have not been reforms of the big impact category in our country. But they have been few and far between. In the issue of reforms, I would like to see the glass as half empty. What we need is the next bust of reforms one shot that will change the course of our country forever and for the better. And if at all there is an opportune ‘muhurat’ for the same, it is this. Because when we come out of Covid hopefully very soon, we need to not just recoup the lost two years but get back to an irreversible high growth trajectory.  And for that, we need a whole set of big bang reforms that need to be unleashed ASAP. And I will group them in the following critical areas:

  1. Ease Of Doing Business: While we continue to say that we have improved our ranking on the Ease Of Doing Business front from before, those of us on the ground very well know that India continues to be a complex country to do business in and with. And the issue of “Central” subjects and “State” subjects adds complexity to the whole thing.  To put this in perspective, we have 1536 Acts, 69233 Compliances and 6618 filings to comply with for our businesses in our present regulatory environment.  There have been bits and pieces effort in states to remove/amend rules and regulations in the last few years. But these are just incremental changes and do not move the dial. What we need is a complete review of the existing rules and regulations across all states that include Central laws and state laws and a wholesale repeal of all the frivolous ones.
  1. Labour: This is connected to the “Ease Of Doing Business” but has scope beyond that as well in terms of ensuring competitiveness and achieving productivity as well. A paper I read on Labour Reforms mentioned that labour laws in India constitute 30% in terms of acts and 47% in terms of compliances in our regulatory framework! In terms of numbers, it is 463 labour Acts, 32542 labour Compliances and 3048 labour filings! Not that the existing regulatory environment has benefited the labour so far. The current labour laws cover only 9% of India’s employee base! So, there is an express need for simplified labour laws that will help the industry to grow while remaining competitive, will be fair to the employees while empowering them while bringing a majority of the labour force in its ambit.
  1. Infrastructure: It is undisputable that the general infrastructure in India has grown leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. There are two ways of looking at this. If we compare with where we were in the past, then of course, things are certainly better. If we look outwards and compare with our peers, then we will realise that we have still a long way to go in basic infrastructure. It is also a fact that with respect to infrastructure we are always in a perennial “catch up” and “Work in Progress” mode. And I will explain this with an example. In 2005, in the Nagoya city of Japan, a new airport was thrown open just to coincide with the World Expo that happened in that city. When I visited Nagoya in that year, I was appalled to find the new airport almost empty though, it was witnessing almost 4-5 times the normal traffic on account of the Expo. Compared to the old airport, the new one was huge and I was told then that this airport was now built forecasting for next 30 years of traffic growth so that they don’t have to meddle with this for a long time. Now, this is the approach required for infrastructure projects. However in India, we build projects based on today’s situation and by the time the project is completed, it is already bursting at its seams. The new Bengaluru Airport is an example of this. Inaugurated in 2008, it had to launch its expansion by 2011 within just three years! Most of our highway projects are planned like this. That’s why I say that the grudge towards the bullet train project in India based on today’s situation is ill informed. By now, we should have kicked off at least eight bullet train projects, not one.  Unlike in the past, financing for infrastructure projects is no longer a concern. There are global multi-lateral agencies backed by developed countries willing and waiting to fund viable infrastructure projects in a country like in India which offers potential and returns.  In the area of Infrastructure, we need drastic reforms in our planning method and execution. And that brings me to the next critical area.
  1. Land: Most of our infrastructure projects get stuck or go through inordinate delays due to the issue of land availability aka land acquisition. This is an indeed complex issue but we need to study best practices in other developing nations and come up with a new method that is fair to all and makes the process easy and less time consuming. The present Land Acquisition bill in its form needs urgent reform.

There are other areas too where reforms are the need of the hour and I will continue with those in Part – 2 of my blog next week.  But my focus remain on areas related to economic growth. To part conclude this piece, I would like to say that “Reforms” are a continuous process. And so continuous improvement of what we do is required. Going back to the Japanese way, they call it the “Kaizen” approach in management.  In India, we need Reforms on “Kaizen mode”!

To be continued.

 

30 Years of “1991”!

As I was wondering what to write on this week, I realised that in a few days, half of this year 2021 will be over.  Back in January, everyone thought or rather hoped that we were all done with the “New normal” and soon one will get back to the “Old Normal” in more ways than one. Till March, we were coasting on towards that. Then came the dreaded 2nd wave leaving us literally gasping for breath. And in no time we are back to hoping to see the end of this year.  Just the feeling we had the same time, last year.

And probably 30 years ago in the year 1991.  If 2021 has been a tough year for those who are running the country, I reckon 1991 would also have been so and for a variety of reasons.  When the history of post independent India is written, the year 1991 would feature prominently. Today, the year is associated with the unleashing of economic reforms and liberalisation in India and being crowned as the ‘Year that changed India”. But it has got so many other associations to it, which is what I thought I will write about, when we are in the midst of “30 Years of 1991”!

As 1991 dawned, I was in my 2nd year of MBA course in Bombay. Just as the year commenced, we were witness to the 1st televised war in the Gulf when US attacked Iraq to liberate Kuwait in “Operation Desert Storm”. In India, cable TV was still in its infancy. But we could watch some visuals of the war in “The World This Week” programme which made New Delhi Television (NDTV now) and Dr. Prannoy Roy household names in English speaking households in India.  I must add here that those days as young students we had tremendous appetite for news and current affairs which is seemingly missing in the current generation. Oh yes, that law of diminishing marginal utility! When News is a plenty all around, it finds lesser and lesser interest.

And it was during this war in 1991, that India probably removed its veil of Non Alignment, when the then government under Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar allowed re-fuelling of US Aircrafts in India. The decision had to be soon reversed under immense political pressure eventually in particular from the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress which was supporting the Chandra Shekhar government from outside. Though the war happened in the Gulf, it had its own implications for India as a country. Oil prices sky rocketed pushing the imports bill to hit the roof and plunging the economy into a deeper crisis. And we had a humanitarian crisis to deal with as the Gulf was home to millions of Indians.

In May, I was back in Madras after completion of the course and preparing to return to Bombay after a short break. On the 21st May, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumpudur near Madras by a suicide bomber at an election rally. The death of Rajiv Gandhi that too in that most tragic manner shook the nation. Rajiv Gandhi was all set to return as the Prime Minister with the Congress getting a comfortable lead. But his untimely death put the country again in chaos and when the results came, Congress became the single largest party but short of majority on its own.

It is difficult to speculate as to what would have happened to our country had Rajiv not been killed and had he returned as the Prime Minister. It was widely believed that having learnt his lessons from his first stint, Rajiv was a wiser man and with his youth, energy and impatience would have changed the course of the country for the better.

With the loss of Rajiv, P.V.Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister heading a Congress led coalition government. He made Dr. Manmohan Singh his finance minister and between them unleashed a slew of economic reforms that liberalised India. Those were eventful days and day after day, headline grabbing announcements followed.  Dramatic devaluation of the rupee, pledging of the country’s Gold reserves, announcement of the New Trade policy, announcement of the New Industrial policy that would end the licence-permit Raj,  the historic Budget presentation and so on. When all these were happening, one didn’t realise that these will forever change the destiny of India.

Unlike now, when economists and policy experts are in unison singing the praise of the 1991 reforms, back then the reforms were always projected as “Acts in Duress”.  Even among the ruling Congress, there was no consensus on the reforms forcing Dr. Singh to make that famous quote that he walked around with his resignation letter in his pocket.

Elsewhere in the same year, the dissolution of the Great Soviet Union was in rapid progress and by December the entire Soviet Union was formally dissolved that eventually ended the Cold War.  Google also tells me that the World Wide Web was launched to the public in 1991 and Microsoft.com went online, though I have no recollection of these!

Coming back to India, not to be limited to financial problems, in the same year 1991, on June 28th, Kashmiri militants kidnapped the then Executive Director of IOC, Mr. Doraiswamy. He was finally released after a couple of months in exchange of a few militants. I remember this vividly as day after day front page in the newspapers were occupied with this news.

For India, not just 1991 but the next two years were indeed full of challenges that wrecked the country pushing it from one crisis to another.  So, looking back, as a country we came out of all that relatively unscathed as we kept growing to what we are today, though the pace and extent of growth may not be our liking.

30 years hence, in 2021, as a country we have been inflicted hard by a global pandemic that has been hogging everyone’s attention. Our economy has been bruised badly. Lives have been lost and still counting.  Clearly not just India, but globally we have been set back by couple of years if not more.

As we come out of the 2nd wave, a recovery is imminent but not without the potential danger of further waves. We can only hope that this time also we will follow the 1991 cycle.  If you remember, the economy fared poorly in the 1st year of the reform (1991-92) but from 1993-94 after two years, the economy was on a roll.

Going back to 1991, personally for me that was the year when I started my professional career and so along with the country, the year has a personal significance and it will be always etched in my memory.  Where were you in 1991 and what are your memories of that year? Do share in the comments section.

India’s Vaccination Conundrum!

Delhi, India’s capital reported around 1600 new cases yesterday with the test positivity rate dropping to 2.5% from a high of 35% in April. Mumbai, the commercial capital reported around 1300 new cases yesterday. In the 1st half of April, the daily cases were averaging 10000 plus.  Both these cities are under near complete lockdowns and the reduction of activities has helped to bring the case load down. Elsewhere in India, many cities and towns are still showing a worrying trend and the respective authorities have imposed circuit breakers and I am certain the numbers there will also show a decreasing trend in the coming weeks.

Now with the decrease in the case load in Mumbai, already there is a clamour to “Unlock” so that business activities can resume. In Delhi, the Chief Minister has said that if the cases continue to drop for another week, his government will start the process of unlocking. As we saw in the past, when the lockdowns are eased, there is a chance that the case load goes up. It is a vicious cycle of numbers going up and down with locking and unlocking. Hence, at this point of time, the only option we have, to break this cycle is to rapidly vaccinate majority of the population.

India’s vaccination program thus far has only flattered to deceive. The programme kicked off on the 16th Jan, 2021. It is now over 5 months and yes, we have administered over 18 crore doses but, the coverage has only been 3% of the population. If we continue at the same pace, we will take years to cover the total population by which time, wreckage on all fronts due to Covid will be humongous. It is clear as daylight that we have to up our ante on the vaccination front as of yesterday.

This is where the government’s overall planning on the vaccination program begs all kinds of questions.   During the initial phases of the program that was meant to cover health workers and later senior citizens, one thought that the program was proceeding smoothly. However, it was during the 2nd phase – that of citizens over the age of 45 commenced, the whole program started falling apart. From a phase of vaccine hesitancy we quickly moved to vaccine shortages. And this was happening exactly at the time when the second wave Covid numbers were hitting the roof on a daily basis.

A panic struck government facing fire from all directions on a single day opened up the vaccination program whereby it allowed vaccine makers to sell 50% of their stock to states and private sector. And in another bizarre move, it opened up the vaccination to 18+ age group with a caveat that this will not be sponsored by the Central government.  Bizarre, because the opening up happened when there were no sufficient stocks to cover the 45+ age groups adequately.

Today as far as vaccination is concerned, there is a strange situation. As I mentioned earlier, there is less vaccine hesitancy among people. There is a good awareness and urge amongst many to get the vaccination done. However, due to the shortages, we are back to the good old “IRCTC” days. The tyranny of OTPs, slowly loading site and the fastest finger first routine are back. Those who are not IT savvy, have to make the daily trips to the centre and try for walk in jabs and of course deal with big lines there, that too during Covid times. The Cowin portal which at the outset is impressive is a gate keeper today. And for some strange reason it is available only in English language!

As I have written in my earlier posts, as far as Covid is concerned, there have been many unknowns. The magnitude of the second wave came as a big surprise and caught all of us in the back foot. I have argued that no government in the world could have planned and smoothly handled a wave which is 3X and 4X times the peak of the previous wave in terms of hospitalisation requirements. On this, the barrage of excessive criticism on the Indian Government has been a bit unfair and we should cut the government some slack on this.

Having said that, where the Government and here I mean the Central Government, has been found wanting is on the vaccination project front. In this project, there were lesser or no unknowns. Data of the population, the production capacities of the indigenous vaccine makers were all available right in front. Yet, we did not move on securing enough stocks of the doses for vaccination. It is not clear if it is executive decision making or bureaucratic sloth that has landed us in this situation. Either way, we missed the bus.

While the important aspect of arresting the second wave is in progress, the Central Government must shift its priority to bringing the vaccination program back on track. We are now seeing that the program of state governments procuring vaccines directly is not taking off. In response to the global bids floated by the Municipal Corporation in Mumbai (BMC), only suppliers of Sputnik have quoted. And there again, with the stringent supply conditions of the tender, I doubt any supply will happen in the near future!

Therefore, the onus is on the Central Government to ensure sourcing of the required doses of vaccines required to vaccinate at least 70% of the population by end of this year. That would mean making available over 160 crore doses from now till December. In a recent press conference, the government put out a table that said that the Production/Availability of vaccines from August to Dec is 216 crore doses. With this availability picture, has the central government placed the orders on the vaccine makers already at least for the approved ones? Are the approval process for the other vaccines on queue put on fast track? Has the government assessed the working capital requirements of the indigenous vaccine makers and committed the same? Is the supply chain secured for the production of the vaccines as per capacity? IS work happening on the Cowin site to make it more citizen friendly?

If the answers are yes, we have learnt from the past mistakes. If No, we have decided to live “Ram Bharose”.

Image Courtesy: Amul

2021 State Elections – My Flash Take aways!

This round of elections in five states is finally over today and India will get a break from being in election mode for a year.  It’s been too long an election process that, everything else took a back seat including our war on Covid.  The counting is still on as I write this but the broad trends are clear. Since there are pundits galore in theorising on the results, I will skip that for the moment. Instead, in this post, I would like to list a few take aways on the whole elections, not just the results of this round of elections.

Here we go:

  • Anti-Incumbency as the pièce de résistance among theories for explaining a result is passé: In the past, analysts would always just dismiss any defeat of an incumbent government by ascribing to “Anti-Incumbency” as if it was extremely legitimate and acceptable. A few decades ago, it is true that incumbent governments were thrown out 7 out of 10 times. But, that’s no more the case. As we have seen in this round, 3 out of 5 governments have been re-elected. In Bengal, TMC has won a third consecutive term. It all boils down to quality of governance and what people feel about the next best option.  Anti-Incumbency is no more an excuse. And Pro-Incumbency is a virtue.
  • Hawa, Leher, Mahoul exist only in the minds of commentators: This is increasingly becoming the case in social media driven journalism. As we saw in UP in 2017, Karnataka in 2018 and now Bengal this time, mainstream media and social media can create their own “Waves” and “Hawa” that is far away from situation on the ground. So, making predictions and conclusions based on social media trends, Youtubers’ narratives and mainstream media commentary is fraught with a lot of risks.
  • Opinion Polls and Exit Polls are for entertainment only: This we have seen time and again now and doesn’t need much explanation. For almost all agencies, getting the polls right has a huge amount of luck riding on it. If they get it right, it’s their day. That’s all. In a diversified country like ours, statistical samples however scientific they are, have proven to be inconclusive. So, opinion polls and exit polls are a lottery. Even in this round, no agency predicted the scale of Mamata win and almost all predicted a tough fight.
  • Voters vote for Lok Sabha and State polls on their own merits: This is getting very conclusive by every election. In one of my earlier articles for Newslaundry (Read here), I had explained this with quite a few examples. In this round as well, we can see this aspect quite established in Bengal and Kerala.
  • Time for building consensus around One Nation – One Poll: This is linked to my last point as well. Now that we can see clearly that voters are indeed intelligent and vote as per merit in Lok Sabha and state elections, many of the regional parties and even the Congress which have their apprehensions that it will be only “Advantage BJP” if India opts for simultaneous elections, should shed the same and have a re-think for the sake of larger national interest. It is obvious that elections every year or twice a year are a huge distraction for governance. Also it is a drag on the resources for any government. Both the government and the parties can save a lot of money and time if we have simultaneous elections. Of course, it is not as easy as it sounds, but there should be a national debate on the same and a consensus built around this so that at least in the next 10 years we can move in this direction. My personal opinion is, if not simultaneous polls, at least we should move towards “One Nation, Two polls” by having Lok Sabha Polls once and all State polls together after 2.5 years.
  • Limit the number of phases to 3 or 4 for any state: I don’t think there is any country in the world that conducts its elections over two months in eight long phases. The phase wise polling was conceived by T.N.Seshan when he was the Chief Election Commission mainly to counter violence and election related mal practices so that the EC can muster central forces and conduct free and fair polls. But those were the days of ballot papers where the chances of rigging were higher. Also in today’s times of EVMs and of course prevalence of Smart technology, ways and means need to be found for conducting free and fair elections in 3 or 4 phases in any state and eventually one phase.
  • Limit for expenses in an election is a joke: It is high time, the limits are re-visited. Also new limits need be prescribed for self, party and total expenses. It wll be good to take a look at best practices in other democratic countries on this and come up with a model for future.
  • Huge market opens up for political strategists and IPAC type organisations: This is not a new take away based on today’s results. But today’s results cement this proposition beyond doubt. It is no longer enough for parties to depend on their loyal karyakartas to carry our ground work. Parties need strategists and organisations to hold a mirror to them and carry out smart work in the field using data, analytics, technology and tools. It is not that an external strategist or marketing can save a bad product. But even a good product in today’s competitive times need adequate marketing cover. And therefore, the market for political strategists and political consulting companies in India has expanded. So it is as a career for youngsters in election management and related marketing. And Marketing works.
  • Last but not the least, EVMs are not instruments in the hands of those in power: I hope the debate around EVMs is put to rest conclusively now that opposition has also won spectacularly.

As you can see half of the points are related to the way elections are being conducted in India. After a round of reforms which Seshan initiated during his tenure, we have not seen much of electoral reforms. It is now time for the country to build consensus around electoral reforms and introduce them to keep our status as a vibrant democracy.

Image Courtesy: Firstpost.

Covid – Contending with the Waves of Uncertainty!

If at all there has been one thing which is consistent with Covid, it is its remarkable inconsistency.  From the time Covid entered our collective lexicon in February last year, every theory or conclusion related to its behaviour has been found to be inconsistent or invalid very soon after.  Like India was never affected by Bird flu or SARS virus, so we will not be affected by Corona virus (See the situation today). India is a hot country and in peak summers, Virus cannot survive (It did hit us through the last summer). India will be spared as we have better immunity for many diseases (Of course India was not spared).  During monsoons in places like Mumbai, Covid is going to create a havoc (There was no specific spike during monsoons).  Masks are required only if you have symptoms but hand washing and sanitising are most important to prevent the spread (Today, it seems it is the other way – Masks are most important and hand washing is not that important).  Once vaccines are found, that will be the end game for Covid (Vaccines were indeed found but the end game is still not in sight).  Once you take the two doses, you are safe (Now the latest theory is, we may have to take vaccines every year!). This was just to list a few theories on Covid which have got negated along the way.

We must keep this in perspective when we make our judgement on the way the municipal administration or State governments or the Central government or the Prime Minister have handled what is now called as the 2nd wave in India. Let us all be honest. Since the dawn of this New Year, all of us have in some way or other started moving towards leading a normal, pre-Covid life. We started – travelling out of our cities, taking vacation breaks, working from Office, wining and dining out, going to places of worship, having social get togethers, planning for house functions and getting domestic helps back in our houses, to mention a few normal/pre-Covid activities.

All of us were keen to put Covid behind us and lead a normal life. We all understand that it is important for economy to get back to normal which can only happen if consumption in all spheres get back to normal. We were all happy when GST figures reached pre-Covid levels and were delighted when it started exceeding pre-Covid numbers. All this when we also got the news that vaccines were available and we could see some light at the end of the Covid tunnel. We all celebrated and rejoiced about how India came out unscathed on Covid.

What we did at individual levels, companies did at their level as well with respect to businesses. And similarly the administration and Government did at their levels. In this period, we must not forget that farmer protests which in normal Covid times could be super spreader events were going on in most parts of North India. Yet, we didn’t see any spike in Punjab or Delhi or other states where farmers in large numbers were protesting taking limited or no Covid precautions. A full test match was held in Chennai with spectators watching it and there was no spike after that. Looking at these I guess, the Election Commission went ahead with the conduct of the polls in the five states in March and April. Ditto for the Uttarakhand government for the Khumb festival.  We all lowered our guard. Not just the government.

Today, however in India, we have been savaged by a Covid Tsunami. So, what we see all around are depressing news about deaths, sufferings and other collateral issues, all related to Covid. We have been hit by a lethal second wave which none of us saw it coming. This is where the first failure of the epidemiologists, experts and relevant authorities in the administration come into picture. All the while in the 1st Quarter of this year, I only saw experts explaining how India has flattened the curve and how we were moving towards herd immunity.  So, when other countries like the UK, USA and a few European countries were hit by a second wave, why was there no alert from the experts of a potential second wave in India?

In the mid of March, we could see suddenly numbers rising in states like Maharashtra and Kerala without any specific trigger like a super spreader event. When at that time, a few were enquiring with me on what’s happening in Mumbai, I mentioned that it is only a question of time the numbers start going up in other cities/states. And that’s what happened. So, when a person like me without looking at any regression models or analysis could predict that we are up to an imminent spike in numbers, how come the state governments and Central government did not realise that we are walking into a sudden burst if precautions are not put in place immediately.

Even in the 3rd week of March, if the Election Commission had announced strict regulations on campaigning or Khumb was made symbolic as it was done eventually, things would have been different. Or if all states including Maharashtra started what it is doing today in terms of restricting movements, we could have avoided the crisis. This is the second issue.

As some wise man said, “Before, you are wise. After, you are wise. In between, you are otherwise!” In hindsight everyone is God. Anyway, today lock downs have been put in place and I am sure, the numbers will start coming down in the next 4 weeks. Already the numbers in Mumbai are showing a declining trend day by day. But, once we reach a trough, again it will be time for “Unlock 2.0”. When that happens, we may once again at some point of time witness a third wave, unless by that time we have vaccinated a reasonable mass of people.

It is clear therefore that the key to prevent further waves, is vaccination. Or so we hope at this point in time, unless even this theory gets demolished. It is now apparent that the vaccination roll out has been patchy.  Just six weeks into opening up of the vaccination program to public, we have a shortage of both the vaccines.  And I am not joining the chorus of why India exported vaccines when we should have used it for Indians first. The external affairs minister has articulated recently that if we do not support other countries, we cannot expect support from other countries for supply of raw materials. This could be the official line. But the main reason why the government also decided on exports initially was the shelf life, in my opinion. The government cannot give this reason out for obvious reasons.

The shelf life of Covishield is six months from the date of production. As per Serum institute, by the end of December, it had already produced about 50 million doses of the vaccine. I must add here that it had started producing and piling up inventory even before the official approvals. Since the vaccination roll out in India was planned to be in phases starting first with the health and frontline workers for obvious reasons, the stock would not have been consumed before the expiry. Hence, exports meant to serve triple purposes as per me. Consumption before expiry, generation of good will with Vax diplomacy and fulfilment of commercial and licence related contracts for Serum.

A committee under Niti Aayog has been entrusted with the roll out of the vaccination program and it appears that the whole plan was based on “let’s cross the bridge when we get there”. How else can we explain the fact that the Central government had not secured supplies for the vaccine from the two approved sources at least to cover 60% of the adult population right at the beginning? Why is it that the companies were not committed working capital support right at the contract signing stage? If there was a clear plan of sharing of responsibility between Centre and states, it was never made transparent. And today we see that the whole vaccination has been opened up but without ensuring supply. From vaccine hesitancy, it is now a rush for vaccine. It is going to take at least till June for stabilisation of supplies. To me, more than not anticipating the second wave or being lax on taking actions after witnessing the second wave, the ill preparedness of the government on the vaccination roll out is the main issue.

While it is now clear that we as a country have landed our foot into a second wave land mine, the last thing we should see is politicking over this and the never ending blame game between the Centre and states. It is high time that the Centre and states work together in diffusing the crisis rather than pointing fingers on who is wrong at this stage. This is a collective failure of all of us, the society, the administration, the domain experts, the State and the Central government.  As common public we must now learn to be cautious throughout even if we have taken the vaccine, control our instincts to get back to normal lives soon and learn to deal with what could be waves of uncertainty in the coming months.

Having said that, in terms of accountability, the buck of course stops at the top, which is the Prime Minister. He must now quickly move towards establishing a separate ministry for Covid and have a competent minister and set of bureaucrats to man the same.  This ministry should be tasked with all activities related to Covid as an umbrella entity. Being pro-active should be the core mantra for this entity.  It should be acting on a WAAR footing – Watch – Anticipate – Act – Repeat.

As we have seen, unless we get out of Covid quickly, lives and livelihoods will be under jeopardy – caught in the ensuing waves of uncertainty.

Pic Courtesy: India Today