Agenda for Modi 2.0!

Dear Mrs. Sitharaman,

First things first. Congratulations on becoming the finance minister of the country. Ever since you have taken over, there has been a flurry of unabated, unsolicited advice on what you should do and should not, in the upcoming budget. I was extremely reluctant to add to that already long list. But then your extremely gracious and earnest tweet the other day, welcoming all suggestions and inputs changed my mind.  Being from Trichy as well, I could see the “Trichy Tehzeeb” in that request!  Hence this piece, with my wish list not just from the budget but overall from the Modi Sarkar 2.0 from an economic agenda point of view.

I am not an Economist. I am just a keen and informed observer of Indian politics and a well-wisher of our country. So, my points may or may not stand the scrutiny of economists but hopefully will pass muster with the readers of this post.   I promise that I am not going to repeat a lot of stuff which has already been suggested by the erudite in their pieces.  So, here we go:

  • First up, the positive effects of implementation of GST and the kicking off of several infrastructural projects from the 1st term will start bearing fruits in the coming 2/3 years. So, I suggest that the 5 year term till May 2024 be divided into 2 parts – First 3 years till 2022 and the second 2 years till 2024. Take all the tough decisions in the 1st part and use the 2nd to stabilise things.
  • Second, in Modi 1.0, there have been quite a few hits but some misses too. In the 2nd term, on the back of a solid mandate, Team Modi should play on the front foot with confidence, while at the same time leaving alone deliveries outside the stumps and negotiating short pitched deliveries and bouncers with alacrity. In governance parlance, this means implementing even the not so populist decisions with confidence and not getting muddled in unwanted distractions.
  • Third, please request the economic ministries to come up with a list of things to be done to rev up the economy which is stuttering. Divide this list into 3.
    • 1 – Low hanging fruits which don’t need legislative backing
    • 2 – Which need bills to be amended, passed in the parliament
    • 3 – which need the states to take action

Get going on this list systematically. Have a target of 60 days to accomplish everything in the 1st list. This will give a clear message to all stake holders that this government is not the one to rest in its electoral success laurels!

  • Fourth, you are now in Japan and there is a lot we could learn from the Japanese in terms of going about things. One of the things I learnt from working in a Japanese company is “Prioritisation”! As Indians, we tend to focus on 100 things at the same time and spreading ourselves extremely thin. This was one grudge I had on Modi 1.0 which embarked upon so many projects simultaneously like Make in India, Skill India, Stand up India, Digital India, Smart City project, Ujwala programme and so on. If you closely measure the success, it is only the programmes which had focus like Ujwala, Rural electrification, Rural housing that met with success. In Modi 2.0, I would suggest that the Government takes up a maximum of 2 or 3 projects at a time, focus on the delivery with finite timelines and then move on to the next set of 2/3 ideas. This is what Japanese do.
  • Fifth, in India we have been talking of linking outcomes to outlays. But seldom has the same been acted upon. So, in the coming budget presentation on the 5th of July, please do not announce plain outlays but outlays that can be linked to quantifiable  outcomes.
  • Sixth, we usually see that in the budget, there are many outlays which are just carried forward year after year with a % increment or a % cut. For example, since 2013, money from Central Budget has been allocated to Nirbhaya fund to support initiatives towards ensuring women safety. One really doesn’t know how this fund is being utilised and after 5 years what this fund has achieved. This is just one example. In every budget, there are many sundry allocations like this. Please review item-wise outlays in the last 3 budgets,  respective outcomes achieved and allocate outlays in the coming budgets only if they make sense.
  • Seventh, considering the state of the economy, there is a need to mobilise resources to generate income and keep fiscal deficit under check. As Prime Minister Modi has been talking of “Minimum Government and Maximum Governance” one way of mobilising resources is by Government exiting many businesses that are no longer strategic in nature and monetising those assets. In Modi 1.0, in every budget, we had an item called “Proceeds from disinvestment” and this was achieved by making some PSUs like LIC pick up shares from the disinvested PSUs. During NDA-1 under Vajpayee, there was a clear focus on “Real” Disinvestment with a full-fledged ministry and a determined minister like Arun Shourie doggedly pursuing it. UPA did away with this and since then Modi 1.0 included, there has been no serious disinvestment in the country. I suggest that Modi 2.0 take this up seriously. A functional ministry named as “Monetisation of PSU Assets” (since disinvestment is seen as a bad word) should be formed. I also add that the proceeds from this monetisation be parked in a separate account and used for welfare schemes. By this, any criticism of the move can be countered by demonstrating that the proceeds of the same are being used for social welfare. A creative way needs to be found for accounting like this.
  • Eighth, in Modi 1.0, there was a big push towards infrastructure projects like highways and roads which was really commendable. The same should be continued with additional vigour. However, as admitted by Nitin Gadkari the pace of the projects could have been faster but for complex land acquisition issues. This is a big issue even today. In the 1st term, after initial belligerence, the government chickened out of the much needed amendments on the Land Acquisition bill. I remember Modi taking this up with rigour in 2014 basically because all the states identified certain provisions in the existing Land Acquisition bill as impediments for timely closure of infra projects.  Since the states are equal stake holders in this issue, please have discussions with a fresh outlook, strike a consensus and pass the amendments to the bill smoothly in both houses of the parliament. Renaming this as “Land Partnership bill” or something like that instead of the negative sounding Land Acquisition bill will help too to remove the negative connotation around this!
  • Ninth, taxation in India is still complex. GST implementation was a landmark Tax reform. I am sure there is a road map towards further simplifying the same with reduced tax slabs and simplifying procedures. Now, in this term please focus on Direct taxes. I hope that the panel working on overhaul of this will submit their recommendations quickly and your government should adopt the same ASAP. In simple terms, the mantra should be lower tax rates with no or very few genuine exemptions. Some of the exemption clauses we have are weird and defy all logic. For example the current clauses we have for LTA exemptions for salaried. Applicable for 2 years in a block of 4 that being calculated from the year 1986 and so on!!! Someone needs to do a Zero based hard look at all the existing exemptions for personal and corporate taxation and do away with most of them which don’t make sense in this day and age!
  • Tenth and the last one. On the 5th July when you leave your office for the parliament to present the budget, your team will hand over a brand new brown brief case which will have the budget speech. You and your team will pose with that brief case for the cameras and then you will read out the budget speech from the bunch of documents. And here’s what I suggest. Please, please do away with this brief case and the papers. Instead, amble along in style, pose for cameras with your hands “free” and as you rise to present the budget in the parliament hall, download the speech from the ministry’s secure server and project it in a large screen. Doing away with the rambling, long speech that would be just uber cool, while at the same time giving a push towards Prime Minister’s “Digital India” dream!

Pic Courtesy: Livemint

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Semi-finals and the many Confusing Signals! Part – 2

In my last post (read here), I had written about the recently concluded state elections in 5 states with focus on Rajasthan. In this, I intend to cover Madhya Pradesh and Telangana and try to drive home the message of the confusing signals coming out for an election strategist and watcher.

In MP, in an evenly poised, see-saw battle, Congress eventually scraped through and has now formed the government with support from other parties, having just fallen short of the half way mark. At the outset, it would appear that for BJP’s performance wasn’t that bad considering that it has been in power in MP for the last 15 years. The question is – “Is it par for the course for voters to get tired with a party which has been in power for more than 2 terms?” I don’t think so. Hence brushing aside a defeat owing to just “Anti-Incumbency factor” may not be correct. There could be and usually there are other factors at play which make people ring in a change.  Considering the fact that eventually BJP ended with the same vote share as Congress with just few seats less, it doesn’t look like as if a severe Anti-Incumbency wave swept away BJP or Shivraj Chauhan.

To be fair to the BJP and Shivraj Chauhan, MP has seen a sea change on the positive side during the last 15 years. It is no longer cursed as part of the “BIMARU” states of India! Those who have visited the state in the last 10 years can see the visible improvement in the road infrastructure not just in the cities but the connecting towns. 87% of rural roads in MP are surfaced (road laid with bitumen or tar), which is higher than the national average (64 %)!  Similarly the progress on the electricity and water supply fronts are visible.

Bijli, Sadak, Paani as far as I heard, were no longer the issues in MP! So what were? Have the voters punished a government even after showing visible vikas?

Farm crisis is one reason which has been talked about. Here again, there are missed signals. Madhya Pradesh has reported the best agricultural growth in India over eight years and yet there is widespread farm unrest. It’s clear that BJP has lost in rural pockets with a seat share drop from 67% to 42% in 2018 Vs 2013. However surprisingly in Mandsaur which was the epicentre of the farmers’ agitation few months back, BJP retained its tally of 3 seats! Similarly in Neemuch district, BJP retained all its 3 seats!

Coming to urban centres, BJP’s major losses came from here unlike Gujarat where it was saved by urban Gujarat! As mentioned before, there has been visible development in urban centres like Bhopal, Indore, Gwalior,..  In fact, Indore has been ranked the cleanest city as per the Swachh Bharat survey in 2018 for the 2nd consecutive year. Bhopal came in 2nd!  Even then, BJP major losses in this election came from the urban pockets! The seat share fell from 90% in the urban areas in 2013 to 55% in 2018!

It looks like BJP in MP has been felled by the weight of expectations and not on its standalone performance which has not been so bad. The expectations could be with respect to the State’s progress from what it has achieved so far and also of the Centre’s promises to usher in the Achhe Din! In his column – “No proof required”, Dr. Surjit Bhalla calls the election results – “The Revolution of Rising expectations”! It is possible that in spite of the local BJP Government under the leadership of the “Mamaji” – Shivraj Chauhan delivering governance, the people expected more. More in terms of jobs, more in terms of disposable income and finally “Yeh Dil maange sub kuch more”!

In MP, the other factor is BJP lost 10 seats with a narrow margin of under 1000 votes!  Again, if you look at the swing of votes against BJP which is at 4%, it is not a big swing but reduced BJP’s number of seats from 165 to 109, a drop of almost 1/3rd of the seats! What does this say of BJP’s famed booth level management tactics and WhatsApp outreach programmes??? What happened to the “Panna Pramukhs” this time?

The fact that BJP lost 10 seats by a margin which was lower than the NOTA votes polled in those seats would lend credence probably to a simmering anger among a section of loyal BJP voters to teach a lesson to the party!  It would be interesting to see if this anger is temporary or permanent enough to afflict a damage to BJP’s fortunes in 2019 Lok Sabha polls!

Coming to Telangana, the TRS (Telangana Rashtriya Samithi) party under K. Chandrasekhar Rao(KCR) successfully saw off the Anti-Incumbency and managed to not just win, but win by a landslide! I have not looked at Telangana closely but as far as I saw, TRS planned out the 5 year period well.

In the 1st 3 years, KCR’s son K.T.Rama Rao was in the forefront of pitching the state to get investments. In this effort, they rolled out the red carpet to industrialists and companies in India and abroad with a promise of industry friendly policies. In the centre’s ranking of states for “Ease of doing business”, Telangana consistently came 2nd with its not friendly neighbour Andhra Pradesh coming 1st. The previous year, Telangana and AP had jointly topped the charts!

In the last 18 months though, Telangana has been focussing on welfare initiatives. Free housing for the poor, Direct cash subsidy for farmers,.., all right at the nick of time in the last year of the rule!  It ended up spending more than on Agriculture, Irrigation,… than the Rest of India.

It looks like KCR’s government divided the 5 year period into 2 halves. In the 1st half they focussed on long term, reformist initiatives, while the 2nd half closer to elections they came out with short term, populist welfare schemes that would give electoral results. A closer analysis of how this pans out probably may provide a working model for all those seeking to beat Anti-Incumbency. That of balancing long term with short term by focussing on reforms and structural changes in the 1st 2/3 years of the rule and resort to populist, welfare programmes in the last 2 years closer to elections.

With the many confusing signals emanating from these results, it becomes all the more difficult for an election strategist particularly of the BJP to come up with a winning formula for 2019! But here, one must not forget, that India has begun to vote differently between state elections and National elections. Therefore one should linearly extrapolate the trends from these Semi-finals to the finals at their own peril. However, it is safe to conclude that with these crucial wins in the Hindi heartland, Congress has got its mojo back and BJP is on the back foot. The next few months will be interesting to see how the final narrative for the 2019 elections unfolds.

Kumarakom yesterday, Vagamon tomorrow!

If there is one state in India, which has almost got its act together on tapping its tourism potential, it must be Kerala. I say, “almost” and mention Kerala in relation to other states of India. For a relatively small state, Kerala boasts of varied choices for a traveler from beaches to hill stations to back waters to Ayurveda to Culture and more.  In a strange twist of irony, for a state which still has its ideological moorings firmly tilted to the “Left”, it is “smart marketing” that has played a great part in positioning the state as ‘God’s Own Country’ over the years. To its credit, certain gaps notwithstanding, Kerala does live up to this tag line to this day.

I’m certain that there are other states which are bigger in size in India that can provide a better offering than Kerala to tourists. Karnataka, for example. And some of them have now realized the potential, tourism as an industry offers and are boarding the bus, though late.  The tourism circuit of Kerala over the years has evolved from just back waters of Kochi and hills of Thekkady in the 80’s to now Kumarakom, Alleppey, Munnar, and spots in Malabar area like Wynad, Bekal,… Outside of this circuit are a few places that are in the verge of earning their stripes. Of them is Vagamon, a hill station in the Idukki district and closer to Kottayam in terms of access, which I had the opportunity to visit last week.

Being a native of Kottayam, I have had the chance to visit Kottayam many times. It was the default summer vacation option while growing up. And with family roots still entrenched there, social visits have been a regular.  Though Vagamon is just 40 Kms from our place in Kottayam, we never thought of exploring this location in the past. Not just familiarity, but proximity also at times breeds contempt isn’t it?  Having been hearing of this place as an emerging hill station, we decided to visit Vagamon and spend a night there during this trip.

For long, Vagamon was mainly known for its milk – Vagamon milk is popular in the surrounding areas. Like all hill stations of India, though the British were the ones who discovered this place, I understand that it is the Christian missionaries in Kerala who developed Vagamon and among the first to live there. A Dairy farm that still exists was the early business activity to flourish and hence the popularity of Vagamon milk!  So one can say that it is a place where honey and milk literally flows! The road leading to Vagamon from Kottayam is patchy having been battered by the recent heavy rains. For a Mumbaikar used to pot holed roads resembling craters of the moon, they were still bearable, but then Mumbai is no bench mark for a tourist destination! As you near the place, the scenic beauty of the place and the accompanying chill weather just enthrall you.  The views on the way give you an idea of what to expect.

The resort where we stayed (Treebo Adrak Summer Sand Resort) is right at the heart of the town and has fantastic views. Located next to the Pine Valley which is one of the places of tourist interest, is neat, clean and very well maintained. The property is great and picturesque. However, for such a nice property, the staff is inadequately trained and is marred by slow and laidback service. We see this dichotomy in many small towns in India.

All places of visitor’s interest are in a span of 5 Kms which include breathtaking viewpoints, idyllic Tea estates, the Dairy farm, the Pine Valley,… and could be covered within few hours. Being a fledgling tourist destination, the infrastructure is just developing. One of the popular viewpoints has now become a paragliding point where frenzied construction activity is going on. I realized that as of now, Vagamon is more of a one day outing place for those nearby during holidays and long weekends.  The result – all the points of interest were overcrowded and vehicles parked alongside the narrow roads clogging the approach. The Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was tottering, with people who bring food along eating alongside roads and littering the place with plates, cups and left over food! This was sad for a state which I always thought was in the forefront of Swachata. Though declared a plastic free zone, plastic could be freely seen strewn in places where people thronged.

The 3.5 hour drive back to the Kochi International Airport, half of which is through hilly terrain is quite scenic. Airtel 4G connection of mine failed the test, as in many places my phone was out of coverage. On the other hand, our cab driver’s JIO connection passed with flying colours when we need to access Google maps. Not to mention of the equally effective cell phone coverage of BSNL in those far off areas! The drive through also gives an insight on why the “Left” is so well entrenched in Kerala.  Red flags flutter in regular frequency in a gap of 10-15 Kms even in those remote areas.  Even in a non-election season like this, there was a nukkad meeting going on being addressed by a spirited leader with at least a 100 keen listeners!  But one cannot dismiss the flowering of the Lotus here and there.  In fact, the day we were leaving Kochi, BJP was kicking off its “Project Kerala” in Kannur with Modi as the main face in posters alongside the Kerala BJP President Kummanam Rajashekaran, who incidentally resembles Modi in some angles. Yet, it will take years of labour to dislodge the Left from probably its last bastion in India!

With Nature in abundance, Vagamon has immense potential to be the next Munnar or Kumarakom of Kerala. Additional place of interest for Westerners is a place called Bharananganam which is on the way from Kottayam to Vagamon. It is the abode of Sister Alphonsa who was the first woman of Indian origin to be canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church.  But, to get into the God’s Own Country circuit, Vagamon needs to be developed in terms of its infrastructure. Incidentally, the same day I saw a quote of the new Central minister for Tourism Alphons Kannanthanam who hails from Kerala, talking of Vagamon in the same breath as Munnar as an area to focus for tourism development.

The jury is still out as to whether development happens first and then tourism picks up or the other way about. But there is always a tipping point. Like for Kumarakom, when in the last week of December in the Year 2000, the then Prime Minister Vajpayee decided to ring in the New Year at Kumarakom.  The musings of Vajpayee from Kumarakom still reverberate in the air! Similarly, another event that catapulted Kumarakom to its today’s glory was Arundati Roy’s Booker prize winning novel “The God of Small Things”. Set in the village of Aymanam which is at a calling distance from Kumarakom, the novel made many Western tourists include Kumarakom part of their itinerary!

May be Prime Minster Modi, who in his last Mann Ki Baat address called upon people to explore new destinations in India to boost tourism, could emulate Vajpayee and take a break at Vagamon during Diwali! Who knows, in that calm, cool and scenic setting far away from the political nerve centre of Delhi he may discover some new ideas to bring back John Maynard Keynes’ “Animal spirits” of the country!!!

“Turmoil” Nadu needs a Naidu!!!

The once prodigious state of Tamil Nadu (TN) has in the past few weeks earned a pitiable sobriquet of “Turmoil Nadu” and not without reason.  The state has been in a state of incapacitation ever since it’s Ex- Chief Minister the late Jayalalitha, was herself bed ridden for multiple health problems around the same time, last year. From then on, TN has been limping from one crisis to another. If it was uncertainty over Jayalalitha’s survival for few months since September, it was the crisis of her death in December for few weeks followed by the now done and dusted Jallikattu controversy in January.

When one thought that “Thai piranthaal Vazhi Pirakkum”, it is was the “Amma” of all leadership wrangles which ensued, resulting in the unceremonious exit of O. Panneer Selvam (OPS) as Chief Minister. The subsequent sentencing of Sasikala, the 24*7 resort drama that followed and the many heart to heart discussions various leaders had with the soul of Jayalalitha at her Samadhi consumed the state for few more weeks till Edapadi Pazhanisamy (EPS) was installed as Chief Minister. When one thought that the worst for the state was over, then came the cancellation of the bye election in R.K. Nagar constituency following brazen distribution of cash even at the peak of Demonetisation!

For political parties, fishing in troubled waters comes easily. BJP at the centre has been no exception in fishing in TN’s muddled waters. With the spectre of a drought looming large, this fishing expeditions so far have not yielded much results. Yet, it has not stopped the BJP from trying. Throwing the hat into the circus ring or rather posturing to throw have been two ageing star actors – Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, who of late have found the voice to raise against the not so new ills of TN. As I write this, it is yet uncertain if these will remain dress rehearsals sans a final stage performance! In the meantime, there has been coming together of the OPS & EPS camps while isolating the Mannargudi camp which has been camping in one of the resorts in Pondichery. Or may be Coorg. Or is it Kerala?  With the judiciary intervening almost on a daily basis on conducting a floor test, on disqualification of the defectors and generally everything, one can be certain that the state is in Coma and governance in suspended animation!

The Tamil Nadu I grew up was never like this. Even today, in spite of the lack of any meaningful governance, the state does still rank high on many social indices. But this is living in past glory and milking the once healthy cow.  The seeds for today’s rot have been systematically sown by the two Dravida parties who have been ruling the state alternatively since the death of MGR. To be fair, till the beginning of this century, things were not bad.  Almost ten years ago, a foreign visitor after visiting few states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, UP, the then AP, and in the end TN asked me why things were looking better in TN compared to the other states. And like all Indians who never say “I don’t know” to any subject on the earth, I gave my own theory. Which was that TN was the only state where the economy was quite balanced between Agriculture (Rice), Manufacturing (Auto, Textiles and small machinery) and Services (SW). Unlike other states even when growing well, the growth was not balanced between the sectors and hence created its own problems. For example, Karnataka had a high share of Services and less of Manufacturing while Punjab had a high share of Agri and Industry but less of Services. But if I look at the statistics today, this is indeed the case for TN and this has certainly ensured a very equitable growth in the state and no other state comes close to this balance.

Again, what TN is today is a result of some far-sighted thinking in the 70’s and 80’s by the then Governments. In the last decade or so, the state has been drifting away. While TN has been sleeping and slipping, the other states have been catching up. And this catching up has happened mainly due to some strong political leadership in each of these states. The neigbouring state of Andhra Pradesh ever since its bifurcation has seen some frenzied action. Both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are fiercely competing today to garner investments. And in the age of competitive federalism, one state’s gain is another state’s loss. When Kia Motors (a subsidiary of Hyundai Motors) decided to set up a new manufacturing facility they opted for Penukonda (Anantapur) in Andhra Pradesh. It is heard that the Chief Minster Chandrababu Naidu took personal effort in bagging the project for his state and ensuring painless and swift land acquisition. In his weekly Swaminomics column, Swaminathan Aiyar once hailed the AP model of land acquisition for developing the capital city of Amaravati as an ideal model for other states to follow. He wrote that “Other states must study Naidu’s example, and adapt pooling for their own use.”

In Telangana, K.T.Rama Rao, its IT minister and son of the Chief Minister, has been in the forefront of attracting investments in the IT sector. In my own resident state Maharashtra, the young and dynamic Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is focused on making Maharashtra the most sought after destination for manufacturing again. And he already has a few early wins. Among his other plans are big bang infrastructure projects like Mumbai – Nagpur Express way,… In Rajasthan, its Chief Minister Vasundara Raje has been the flag bearer for labour reforms for the entire country.

In the midst of such action, what has been TN up to?  Plunged in a serious leadership crisis ever since Jayalalitha went to jail in 2014, TN has been just a torch-bearer for sycophancy saddled between MGR/Amma anachronisms on the one hand and OPS/EPS/TTV acronyms on the other. So, for “Turmoil” Nadu to regain its past glory and become a “Thalai” Nadu once again, its needs a Naidu like leader! ASAP. No, as of yesterday!  Do you have any picks? I have none at the moment.

Cartoon courtesy: Surendran/The Hindu

Modi Sarkar and the Gita Saar!!!

As Modi Sarkar completes 3 years in office this week, the media is abound with pieces on the hits and misses. Depending upon who the author is and his/her political leanings, the pieces portray either a Glass Half Full or Half Empty picture. Very few have been honest portrayals.

As Aam Aadmis, it’s but natural that our opinions are influenced by what we read/see in the media. So per what we see these days, the economy is doing rather well – India is the fastest growing economy in the planet. The stock markets are on fire and at historical highs! India’s consumer price Inflation stands lowest since we started publishing consumer price index in 2012. In the past weeks the Rupee has been strengthening Vs. the Dollar though this is a double-edged sword.  FDI has been seeing record inflows.

And if you go by some of the pronouncements of the Govt. there again the last 3 years have been very busy for the Govt. of India. Infrastructure projects mainly on Roads and Railways have been unleashed like never before. Govt. has been kicking off programs like Make in India, Skill India, Start up India,..,.. to increase the employment and employability across sectors. Price control though a very socialistic intervention has been resorted to particularly in the healthcare sector to prevent fleecing of the common man. Programmes like Jan Dhan Yojana, Swachh Bharat and Aadhar have been given a fresh impetus right from the top.

In the 1st 18 months, the Prime Minister took it upon himself to travel to countries that mattered to signal the change and restore confidence on the India Story. The results have been emphatic. World over, it is now acknowledged that this Govt. under Modi is on a crucial transformative path and probably this time this is for real and long-term. (In the past India always flattered to deceive).  The inflow of FDI and announcements of various projects in Mfg. and Infrastructure are there to see.

So far so good.

While this is the flavor in the media by and large, it will be interesting to know what the sense on the ground is. If one goes by electoral results as in a democracy it is the barometer of an incumbent Govt.’s performance, there are no two ways about Modi Sarkar. By and large in all types of elections, Modi and his government have got a thumbs up from the electorate. In Economic times’ survey of the Indian Industry, the Industry has clearly thrown its weight behind Modi Sarkar.

In Britain, mid-term opinion polls ask a simple question to respondents: “Are you better off today than you were three years ago?” It would be interesting to know the outcome if somebody does a similar mid-term poll in India to understand what’s in peoples’ mind.

My hunch is that the response will be a farrago of sorts. First, that the conditions on the ground are yet to change. And, second that still the people are happy with the Govt.’s performance.  And yet this is fully understandable. For all the economic indicators and the efforts which have been put in by the Indian Govt. so far, on the ground, results are yet to show up. The fastest growing economy or the influx of FDI or the flag ship programmes kicked off by the Govt. or the massive increase in infrastructure spending and the many other initiatives are yet to result in changes in the life of the common man. In terms of jobs/increased disposable incomes to workers, farmers, middle class,..  And yet no one seems to complain. People still have immense hope on the Prime Minister and his Sarkar.

This is where the Saar (essence) of Bhagavad Gita comes in. In Chapter 2, Verse 47 of the Gita, Lord Krishna says, “You have the right to work only but never to its fruits. Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.”

representative visual

The public so far seem to be satisfied as long as their Govt. is earnest in their intentions and seen to be carrying out their job sincerely. The hope being that this is still “Work In Progress” and results will follow sooner or later. The common man’s response to Demonetisation is a good example of this behavior.

It looks like the Govt. is also taking this Gita Saar seriously and moving forward on a mission mode without getting too much flustered by the noise around it.  I must say here that while this is true for most of the ministries, there are some which have not taken the Gita Essence seriously. I am not sure if the Smart City project has gone beyond announcement of a list of cities. No one knows what the Ministry of Agriculture is up to in transforming the agricultural landscape which has been fraught with draught related woes at times and flood related at other times. That is to name a few.

So when the PM does a review of the performance of ministries on completion of 3 years, we hope he cracks the whip on those who have not taken their mission seriously. And reminds them of their Karma and another gem from the same Gita which says, “The meaning of Karma is in the intention. The intention behind action is what matters”. And declares,  Abki Baar Gita Saar!!!

Wah, Taj boliye!!!

When I visited Agra and the Taj Mahal last week, it was exactly after 10 years. That was in the midst of a hot summer in 2006. Much water has flown in the Yamuna since then and 10 years is a good time to see for oneself if the so called winds of change blowing across the hinterlands of India is for real. In these 10 years, the “Elephant” and the “Cycle” have got their opportunities alternatively to ride in Uttar Pradesh with the “Lotus” blooming or rather looming large at the centre!

We left Delhi pretty early (5.30 am to be precise) to beat the morning traffic till Noida. Close to Aerocity the new Airport hub replete with hotels and offices, even in the wee hours the roads were busy. One, with the slew of vehicles ferrying the staff from Call centres and BPOs of Gurugram after the night US shift and two, with the panoply of cars of all hue waiting in the roads for the call from their owners when they land at the airport. Now here’s the dichotomy. Folks who don’t bat their eyelids to write cheques for purchasing cars of the types of Audi, BMW,..  whine to pay the parking fees at the airport! So the drivers just hang around choking the roads leading up to the airports. (This by the way happens in almost all cities in India, I guess). After that initial congestion, the drive through the Lutyens’ Zone was nice. Lutyens’ Zone could be a credible advertisement for Swachh Bharat mission I thought. But then it’s always been that way.

Once we cross Noida, we quickly enter the new Yamuna Expressway which is supposed to make the Agra and the Taj trip more memorable. Earlier also folks from abroad always remembered the Taj Trip very well for the long travel from Delhi to Agra. The Expressway is international class so are the toll fees! But then if we need quality infrastructure and if private guys have to develop the same, you need to pay for it!  Along the Expressway one cannot miss the Buddh International Circuit built for bringing F1 to India. It’s sad that India doesn’t feature on the F1 calendar since 2013! The circuit now is reduced to hosting national races and being a promotional/testing venue for automobile manufacturers.  Blame it on the financial troubles of the promoter Jaypee group or the bureaucratic hurdles around hosting F1. One hopes F1 returns to India soon for the changes in brings in the landscape overall – partly which is even today visible. However just ahead, confirming the winds of change were the surprisingly neat and clean toilets at the 1st break at the food plaza!!!

The Expressway has a speed limit of 100 kmph for cars and 60 kmph for heavy vehicles. The driver of our luxury coach clearly believed that ours was a heavy vehicle and never for once allowed for himself the luxury of accelerating beyond 60 kmph. Never once. Now this discipline of following speed limits on highways must qualify as a big behavioral change!

As the Expressway ended and we entered the city limits of Agra, the dream drive ended. We were back to the early morning hustle bustle of a small town with buffaloes, dogs, hen and monkeys interspersed with a whole lot of people, handcarts, autos, crowded tempos,… on the roads. Busy road side eateries were rustling up morning snacks and the overall “dust bowl look” hardly can pose for Swachh Bharat. The road from where the Expressway ends leading to the Taj is surprisingly still narrow with chaotic traffic. The very impressive guide (impressive with his suave English and worldly knowledge) who joined us at Agra would tell me later that a highway straight from the Expressway to the Taj is ready and would be open to public soon. It was apparently waiting for the UP CM Akhilesh Yadav who has been busy with his parivar war these days!

The guide cautions us of all things prohibited inside the Taj. Well except for cameras, phones and wallets everything else is – looks like.  The 1st sight of the Taj as you enter from the main door is breathtaking and indeed the best sight!

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The guide no longer tells stories of why Taj was built as he knows very well that the tourists are all Google savvy these days. He focuses more on the intricacies of the construction and why it is a Wonder of the World. Talking of Taj being one of the Wonders of the World, at the Great Wall of China you can see an official certificate declaring it as one of the “New 7 wonders of the world”! Wonder why we can’t have a similar plaque at the Taj???

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The whiteness of the Taj has been fading thanks to the excess pollution over a period of time. So the authorities have undertaken a massive job of restoring the whiteness of the marble with surface treatment. We were told that they use what is known as Multani Mitti (mud from Multan). This process is underway and one could clearly see the difference in the 3 of the 4 minarets where the treatment is already over. The main dome will be up for treatment soon next year during which time it may be closed and will be a letdown for the tourists! Considering that Multani Mitti is from Pakistan – wondering if MNS will have a problem with that under the present Indo-Pak rough weather!

The Diana Bench which has now become the best photo-op place or rather selfie spot at the Taj– continues to reinforce what marketing and PR can do to a product. A spot where couples celebrate their love with that enduring pic is named after a person for whom love was elusive for most of her curtailed life!

Compared to the last time, the vicinity of the Taj is certainly neater, cleaner and devoid of general litter. Of course don’t expect us Indians to drop all the disposable shoes only in the bins kept for that purpose. Bins are provided and as is our habit we litter the shoes all over the place!

A good over 2 hours spent at the Taj and post lunch we visited the other monument – the Agra Fort. Agra fort is also impressive and brings a lot of high school history lessons back to memory! The emporium which the guide took us for shopping was expensive even for the foreign visitors in our group. But what was striking was the way they explained the process involved in the making of the marble handicrafts in understandable English. And didn’t do the pushing and shoving to buy! Talking of push and shove, the road side vendors hawking different “tourist targeted” stuff were polite and didn’t really hound us – a change from last time.

As we left Agra for Delhi, again a very pleasant but slow drive on the Yamuna Expressway was fantastic. In the backdrop of the setting sun, the smoke from burning of the agricultural fields create a hazy feel and of course add to the pollution of the capital. I read about this practice of burning the rice stubble by farmers once the harvest is over just few weeks ago in a “Swaminomics” column in the Sunday Times of India. Read here. As pointed out in that piece, it’s high time, they find an alternate to this polluting practice lest any “Odd-even” or other kind of idea is not going to help curb pollution levels in Delhi.

Once we crossed Noida, we couldn’t escape the now notorious evening peak traffic of Delhi. From Noida to the hotel took close to 2 hours! In India we now famously suffer from last mile connectivity! In almost everything. For example in roads, the highways like the Mumbai Pune Expressway or the Yamuna Expressway eases the travel between the borders of the respective cities but the journey from the end of the expressway to the heart of the city is still a nightmare wading through narrow roads and ever exploding traffic.

So to conclude, many positive changes are visible. Few legacy issues remain. As in many other areas, “the elephant” is on the move and we are getting there albeit slowly. Though visiting after 10 years, this is my 3rd visit to the Taj and somehow for the 1st time I really felt like “Wah, Taj boliye”!!!

Postscript: One of the enduring lines of the guide while explaining India’s high population – “In India, in the day time we believe in ‘Culture” and in the night – Agriculture😂😂😂

 

Swachh, Sochalay & Soch!!!

In his 1st Independence Day speech post becoming the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi announced a dramatic and by any stretch of imagination a very ambitious goal of turning India into a ‘Swachh Bharat’ by 2019 – the 150th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. As far as ambitious goals for nations go, Kennedy’s – “before the decade is out of landing a man in moon and returning safely back to earth” goal set in 1961 usually comes up on top. But I would say that Modi’s goal of turning India into a Swachh Bharat is far more ambitious and audacious. Unlike ‘Project Apollo’ which only required commitment of huge resources and a focused effort from NASA, ‘Project Swachh Bharat’ required focused effort from Govt., funds, and more importantly a fundamental change in attitude of people. That too that of millions.

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2nd Oct, 2016 – Gandhi Jayanti marked the completion of the 2nd year of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in India. As one who was and is excited about this project right from when it was announced and is keen to see it succeed, I make a conscious attempt see how the program is progressing.  So not surprising that this is my 4th post on this topic!!! And based on what I read and see at least in Mumbai where I live, I can say that while the Govt. is sincerely working to make it work, we as people are failing the same.

In 2014, after the initial months of ‘broom wielding photo ops” and “appointing Swachh Bharat Ambassadors” I guess that the Govt. realized that more serious thrust is required.  The impressive Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin & Urban websites give updates of the programs, activities and progress on real time basis.  The Swachh Bharat Mission dashboard tells us the “Before” 2014 Oct. and “After” situation on many milestones like Household toilets built, Community toilets built, Open Defecation free villages,..,… And the site also shows the progress at a state level thereby inducing competition among states to achieve their respective milestones.  And the Govt. introduced ranking of cities and towns in terms of how clean they are. The civil society picked up cue from the Prime Minister and in the first year I recall that every week there were Swachhata activities in nearby parks, community areas,…

2 years down the line, as I observe what is happening, it’s very clear that the Government has turned its focus on “Capacity building” – pouring money on building toilets and other sanitation related infrastructure as can be seen in the dashboard. Not just in villages. Even in cities like Mumbai, I am seeing “E-toilets” which have sprung up on highways. And I hope the Govt. is putting to good use the 0.5% Swachh Bharat Cess it is collecting from us.

The civil society comprising of NGO’s, Action groups,… are still carrying out their regular Swachhata activities though not as frequent or as visible as in 2014.

The Municipal administration, I see routinely carrying out cleaning exercises and then painting of walls, road dividers and other assets more frequently than before.

Awareness campaigns involving celebrities goading people to keep our cities clean,… are also quite omnipresent.

Even corporates have pitched in to support the “Cleanliness campaign” some of them expectedly weaving into their product’s marketing strategy.

The missing cog in this wheel is the attitude of the common man. What is happening there? We continue to litter in common places with gay abandon. I don’t see any remorse among people when they throw all kinds of garbage on the roads like wrappers, banana peels, cigarette buds, empty bottles, left over food,…,…!  Mumbai which is the so called commercial capital is also the “Spitting” capital of India. Here people take pride in turning their mouths to ‘Pichkaaris’ and spit wherever they are except their own houses.  “Painting the town Red” has gotten a different meaning here.  The Government could very well launch a new game called “Tukemon Go”. We could sight and catch hell of a lot of “Tukemons” of the real type and not virtual just as we step out of the house. I feel ridiculously bad when I see the freshly painted Yellow-black road dividers smeared with pan tainted Red in roads and highways of Mumbai.  Similarly the E-Toilets along the highways have still not prevented many to urinate on the side of the roads in the open! Any amount of cleaning is not going to make a place clean if this kind of atrocities continue.

Ergo, while “Capacity building” is progressing well as I mentioned earlier, “Character building” is lagging behind. And for that we have nobody else than ourselves to blame. As a country it is our collective failure that we put “a clean surrounding” as least in our priorities even now when supposedly the literacy and economic well-being are on the up.  A state like Kerala which is high on literacy is also among the cleanest states in the country. However when I see what happens in Mumbai which is a fairly literate metropolis, I have come to the conclusion that literacy has no bearing on Swachhata!! It is one’s attitude towards keeping common places clean which finally matters.

I do feel that by 2019, the Government may very well achieve the targets it set for itself in terms of toilets,…,… but cleanliness may still elude perhaps even till 2050. For Swachh Bharat Mission to succeed while the Government works on Sochalays, “We the people” have to work on our Soch!!! And that Soch is – “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is not about cleaning, but ending the need for cleaning”!

Postscript:  Heard somewhere “Don’t know if we will become a Swachh Bharat, but we are already a “Cess Bharat”😁😁