Monday, April 27, 2015

Foster Farming ...... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ April 26, 2015

Foster Farming with Those Familiar with Ground Reality, Not Foreign-Educated Planners

If there is glory in fame, there is also cruelty in being a celebrity. Gajendra Singh Kalyanwat was just another depressed, nameless and faceless farmer from Rajasthan, until he hanged himself in front of thousands of AAP volunteers and TV cameras in New Delhi last week. Unsurprisingly, every politician irrespective of the colour of his flag, is agonising over the farmer’s tragic death. Gajendra has become a household name worldwide. His family wants him declared a Shaheed Kisan (martyr farmer). His semi-pucca house has become a pilgrimage site for the political class and TV channels. Barring corporate fat cats and Bollywood badshahs, almost every loquacious luminary has waxed eloquent on the abominable plight of India’s farmers. But the dismal discourse is more about the relief package for Gajendra’s family rather than diagnosing the real reason behind the rising number of farmer suicides. According to official figures, one farmer takes his life every half hour in India. Every fourth suicide in the country is that of a farmer. Fifty years ago, then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri coined the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ because he understood the contribution of agriculture to the Indian economy. Five decades later, the BJP struck an emotional chord during the 2014 elections by attacking the UPA with the war cry ‘Mar Jawan, Mar Kisan’ (die jawan, die farmer) depicting the dire state of the Indian agricultural ethos under the UPA.

The welfare of our farming community, however, has been degraded into mere election slogans, only to become the subject of a blame game debate when Gajendra and ilk are driven to death. Unfortunately, for the past four decades, India’s economic planning has only touched upon the agriculture sector, all the while working for the growth of the elite service sector. Less and less money is being invested in the rural sector from which over 60 per cent of India’s population earns its livelihood. Fifty years ago, agriculture contributed around 45 per cent to the GDP. It has dived drastically to less than 14 per cent. The policy of politically linking land and finance to the farmer is yet to be incubated. Let alone easy loans, kisans do not even receive on time basic necessities like fertilisers during the sowing season. On the contrary, marketwallahs are pressuring the government to withdraw foodgrain subsidy to avoid paying massive capital gains tax. They have been pushing direct transfer of subsidy on PDS but avoid arguing for providing farmers with fertilisers and power.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi realised the futility of the Planning Commission and similar institutions, which have been responsible for creating regional and sectoral disparities. He took a bold step of replacing the commission with a National Institution for Transforming India (Niti Aayog). Since Modi’s emphasis is on Digital India and Make in India, he has chosen well-known, foreign-educated economists to advise him on the country’s growth roadmap ahead. All of them have outstanding academic track records. But India needs to foster its farming community and the government should also choose those who are familiar with the heat and dust of Indian villages. The ruling class has conveniently forgotten that India still lives in the villages and aspires to enjoy the benefits of its growth story. But economic policies have been framed in such a way that service sectors can employ cheap rural labour to boost their bottom lines. It may be farfetched to connect the decline of Indian agriculture with the composition of the Planning Commission and the pace of economic reforms, but statistics and the track record of servile seneschals who ruled the commission at the Centre and in the states confirm that it was used to tailor policies and public investment in favour of the service sector at the cost of agriculture.
The process of economic reforms started in 1991 when Manmohan Singh was finance minister. At that time, the share of agriculture in GDP was about 35 per cent and that of services less than 30 per cent. But when he stepped down as the Prime Minister in 2014, the agriculture sector was staring at total extinction with its share plummeting to just 14 per cent. India is the first developing country in the world where the services sector contributes over 65 per cent to the GDP. It is evident that the Central government was promoting its growth and chose as advisors only those who were committed to markets over agriculture.
From 1991 onwards, almost all Planning Commission members held foreign degrees or had worked for multinationals or the World Bank and its affiliates. From 2004 on, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and his four colleagues were only pushing investment in services and high-tech businesses, which yielded quick returns. Those who had no connections with the farming sector infiltrated even the state planning boards. Over the decades, theoretical Oxbridge pundits lacking any concept of the idea of Bharat have captured Indian institutional mechanisms. They saw foreign financial institutions and stock markets as the real symbols of prosperity in a poor country like India. None of those who are responsible for taking crucial decisions on agriculture have spent even a single night in an impoverished village, plagued by conscience or mosquitoes. Liberal resources were allocated for the setting up of elitist institutions like IIMs and IITs, while only frugal funds have gone into creating institutions that specialise in agricultural research and advising farmers on how to improve productivity and change cropping patterns. There has been little investment in creating irrigation facilities, leaving farmers at the mercy of the vagaries of the weather. On the other hand, liberal fiscal concessions were given to those who invested in the stock market. While big industrialists and techno-titans have been feted and awarded, hardly any official scheme exists to give financial incentives to those who introduce innovations in the farming sector.
India’s growth story will never be sustainable unless agriculture becomes the fulcrum of economic planning. The glorification of the elitist supply side model has to be buried if Bharat has to be revived. India needs a policy, which stops the trend of tillers turning into realtors because farming is becoming unprofitable. India’s neglect of the rural sector is visible on the shelves of upscale markets. One can find big stores in all the metros, selling imported fruits, food products and fancy vegetables while Indian produce has been delegated to the carts of vegetable vendors on the street. Modi will have to put in place a dream team, which supports him in his commitment to reviving the slogan Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, April 20, 2015

With His Networking Style, Modi ...... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ April 19, 2015

With His Networking Style, Modi May Well be the Hero who Defied Conventional Diplomacy

Modi (left) with his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper
                                         Modi (left) with his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper

A day is a long time in politics, but for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a year is a short time. He has become a record-holder as the first Indian PM to spend the maximum number of days abroad travelling to 16 countries in just 11 months. When Air India One bearing him and his delegation landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport on Saturday morning after his eight-day visit to France, Germany and Canada, Modi earned the distinction of spending every eighth day abroad ever since he took over in May last year. In contrast, NDA’s previous Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had made just three visits covering four countries over seven days in his first year in office. His successor Manmohan Singh was more active in international affairs. He spent 28 days outside India during his six visits to seven countries. Modi’s itinerary has been carefully planned by keeping his priorities in mind. His directive is clear. Connect with neighbours and do business with affluent nations. Barring Russia, Modi has visited most countries which influence international business. He has been to the US in the West, Japan in the East and Australia Down Under. When he wasn’t on board Air India One, Modi was unrolling red carpets for visiting heads of states from China, Great Britain and the Middle East. It is also a matter of record that most heads of states or foreign dignitaries made India their destination of choice in the first year of Modi’s tenure. Over 100 of them have met him so far, with the same purpose, to win his heart. The villain of 2002 has become the global hero of 2014.
The frequency of his visits is not the only difference between Modi and his illustrious predecessors. Both had travelled to other nations mostly for multilateral talks and not to settle bilateral issues as Modi is doing by engaging global leaders. The PM is known for his marketing mantras. He has captured a major chunk of the Indian political market using innovative sales pitches and mesmerising packaging savoir faire. He is using similar innovations to market India to the world’s powerful nations. Economic diplomacy is at the heart of his singular statecraft. Perhaps, he is actually putting into practice the famous saying that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Modi has understood the seductiveness of the gargantuan size of the Indian market which every nation with desperately avaricious multinationals are salivating over. He chooses his audience and the content of his speeches by playing to the economic hunger of host countries. He extols bullet trains, electronic El Dorados and infrastructure in Japan. He speaks about mining in Australia, makes deals on civil nuclear equipment with France, talks to the Americans about financial reforms and to India’s neighbours about the advantages of peaceful coexistence.
Modi’s strong emphasis on economic diplomacy is obvious going by the content of his speeches and the nature of his interactions during his foreign visits. His invariable meetings with the corporate aristocracy of the countries he goes to have become an essential feature of his travel diaries. If he is in Japan, he meets tycoons from Sony, Suzuki and top Nippon bankers. In the US, his visit is not complete unless he has addressed top American corporates. Previously, trade and commerce have rarely been part of Indian foreign policy. Former Prime Ministers were scared of meeting business barons during their official overseas visits. Now prominent Indian corporate leaders zoom off as advance parties to prepare the ground for Modi’s business meetings. Multinationals are finding it smooth going to do business with a country whose Prime Minister is not bound by administrative protocol and antiquated business baggage. In the sequence of priorities, trade now comes first on India’s new economic diplomatic agenda. Modi has made civil nuclear energy and indigenisation of the defence equipment manufacturing sector as the premier pillars of his diplomatic je ne sais quoi. Since he has converted Make in India into his messianic mission, he seems to be working according to a plan. No foreign company would like to make in India what it makes at home without irresistible inducements. For example, the deal for the supply of 126 Rafale aircraft had remained enmeshed in the bureaucratic web for over a decade. Allegations and counter-allegations of arms lobby adventurism were flying around like pilotless aircraft. Modi simply canned the prodigious pile of files and became the first Indian Prime Minister to announce a deal during a foreign visit without holding formal consultations with domestic stake holders. He invented a new mechanism of signing a government-to-government defence deals to prevent middlemen walking away with huge commissions. With a stroke of his pen, Modi obliged both the French government and French industry, showing his resolve to facilitate the entry of their companies into a sensitive sector. Only Modi could possess the flair to give an on-the-spot order for 36 Rafale fighter aircraft  worth over $4 billion. He wanted France’s Dassault Aviation to invest in India as fast as possible. Earlier, he had changed policy to allow FDI in the defence industry to reduce spending on arms imports in the long run. Already many Indian companies like Bharat Forge Ltd, Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group, Tata Group, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), L&T, Godrej Group, Mahindra Group, Astra Microwave Products Ltd, Dynamatic Technologies Ltd, Centum Electronics Ltd, Precision Electronics Ltd and Technologies Ltd have set up subsidiaries to produce defence equipment and have sent their top representatives to France, Germany and Canada to expedite follow up measures. In Canada, with his visit generating business worth 1.6 billion Canadian dollars, Modi made it a point to approach corporate captains of the insurance industry, as his NDA government had raised FDI limit in the particular sector.
But it is not the number of companies which flock to his meetings that matter. What matters for Modi is the kinetic gush of dollars which flood India to propel his favourite projects. Through his networking style and bold posturing, Modi wants to go down in history as the hero who defied the golden rule of conventional global diplomacy, which says that in the world of international engagement, some things are better left unsaid. But Modi by his tone, tenor and tendency says it all.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, April 13, 2015

Media Must get Rid of ..... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard / April 12, 2015

Media Must Get Rid of the Enemy Within to Fight the Hypocrisy of Political Class

Condemnation is savagery through subjectivity. Opinion is outlook of objectivity. Emotion is the alchemy that binds both. In the larger biological metaphor of history, politics and the press are twins with incompatible DNA. They are meant to be adversaries during times of conflict between public interest and political profiteering. The recent outburst of General V K Singh, the Minister of State for External Affairs, against sections of the media reflects the growing conflict between the might of the pen and the powerful politician. Enraged over negative reporting about his earlier conduct as former Chief of Army Staff, Singh continues to carry his hostility in his holster. He has coined an innovative term of abuse, ‘presstitutes’, against journalists who have been hounding him. He has perhaps forgotten that he is no longer an Army commander who can command an independent media. He pulled off a stellar performance by leading from the front in getting stranded Indians evacuated from Yemen, but he couldn’t wait for his work to speak for him.

Singh’s excessive ire has raised questions about the credibility of the cursor. More and more politicians are veering towards his opinion. The India media has been at its most fearless when it pulls on its gloves to take on the establishment. In the past decade, however, ‘media’ has become a dirty word and journalism an adjective to describe all that is rotten in the industry. With over 250 news channels, 50,000 newspapers and magazines, and websites at their disposal, almost all literate persons have become either reporters or commentators. Most of them not only contradict each other but also provide innovative versions of the same story. The perception among readers and viewers is that the media—particularly the electronic—is like a stage on which actors are performing their roles with sound and fury, signifying nothing but according to a script. Anchors have replaced reporting with rhetoric. TV panelists are asked in advance about their opinions instead of letting them evolve their views during the debate. If any of the participants don’t agree with the pre-drawn conclusions, they are dropped as panelists or aren’t allowed to express views in print or on TV. The illusion of independence was perpetuated during the last elections by TV channels, which gave hours of live coverage of political rallies without even informing viewers that the source of the feed was the parties. What is source for the goose is not sauce for the gander.
Such selective self-imposed censorship has perhaps provided a handle to Singh and his type to hit out at the media, which needs to do some introspection. In the wake of fierce competition for ‘breaking news’, regurgitating old news or stealing from other papers and labelling them as exclusives, some of us are forced to dole out novel nuggets which destroy the credibility of the truth. Let us accept that the recent sting ops have exposed the vulnerability of many journalists who try to extract information from sources by engaging them in indiscreet conversations. The recent Documentgate and earlier the Radia tapes damaged the credibility of many journalists. The leakage, however, was selective and unrelated, passed out by a few politicians and civil servants who meant to protect some journos and defame others. Then the media did not question the tapping of phones, like it is doing now. Even I have received puerile payback for speaking to Neera Radia, though I don’t mind reiterating that I would speak in the same language with her, or someone like her, if she was to call me again. There are manufactured ‘truths’ and the real truth that will prevail. Curiously, I seem to be the only journalist to put the entire conversation with Radia on my website for social scrutiny. None of the other 36, including famous and infamous names, dared do that. Incidentally, both the previous organisation where I worked and the current one carried stories on my banter with Radia. From breaking news, I became news.
The media is under much severe scrutiny now than ever. Since the public, which doesn’t own any press platform, is mounting pressure on the mainline media to speak the truth and nothing else, we have to be more transparent in our practices. We must inform the public that journalism today is a lucrative career. The average monthly salary of a mid-level journalist is over Rs 1 lakh. Some editors draw seven-figure salaries every month. But it isn’t enough to rant against morality while sipping a Macallan 18 or a glass of exclusive wine and sharing cozy club gossip about politicians they are beholden to. All of us in the media, especially the titans, must declare our assets. We should also make public the shares we bought of companies at what price and sold to whom at what price. It should be mandatory for every columnist and editor to disclose his connections with ministers and corporates, government agencies, NGOs and foreign think tanks. Even media owners should disclose subsidised land or any other benefits they got from a particular state or the Centre, and whether they have sold it accruing huge commercial gains.
Unless the media becomes more transparent than the government and big business, it will remain the target of politicians and others who subvert the system. There are clear signs of a class and corporate coalition taking shape in the media industry. Ominous signals aimed at maiming independent opinion are emanating from various parts of the country. Contrarians are hounded by the establishment. Surprisingly, such a trend was noticed years ago by social scientist Noam Chomsky. At a lecture, he said, “Those who occupy managerial positions in the media, or gain status within them as commentators, belong to the same privileged elites, and might be expected to share perceptions, aspirations and attitudes of their associates.” Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures. Chomsky concluded by saying “those who fail to conform will tend to be weeded out by familiar mechanisms”.
The media needs to restore the balance between news and views, and subjectivity and objectivity. Unless it gets rid of the enemy within, it will continue to be targeted by the political class, which thrives on demolishing those who challenge its hypocrisy.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Smoketeers Investing in Empire .... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ April 05, 2015

Smoketeers Investing in Empire of Death Instead of Modi's Make in India Must Face Fire

It is said that there is no smoke without fire. But sometimes in Indian politics, a gasper can leave you gagging. If some of our fustian legislators are to be believed, there can be no fire with smoke. Three BJP Lok Sabha MPs—Shyam Charan Gupta from Uttar Pradesh, Dilip Gandhi from Maharashtra and Ram Prasad Sarmah from Assam—have lit up a devious debate over a danger the entire world has recognised. They are using a smokescreen by skipping their party leadership’s efforts to promote and propagate the good work done by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Is it a mere coincidence that whenever the government embarks on a massive drive to market itself as India’s most successful government, some Parivar members try to stub out its reputation in the ashtray of their irresponsible behaviour by championing socially and politically incorrect causes? They seem to have all the time and research at their disposal to bring their own government under fire. They hardly realise that their calamitous claims have the potential of painting their own government as a supporter of tobacco manufacturers. Former NDA health minister Anbumani Ramadoss found banning smoking a noble cause when he claimed that his attempts to tame the tobacco lobby were thwarted by powerful and influential political leaders in the past. The huge adverse publicity over the smoke signs of Gupta, Gandhi and Sarmah has forced the Prime Minister to instruct his health minister, JP Nadda, to take remedial measures without delay.

Yet, these three MPs want to prove the entire world and medical fraternity wrong with their private knowledge on the impact of smoking on health. It has been globally proved, including in India, that excessive smoking and use of tobacco products cause lung cancer. According to reports published by numerous agencies, over 3,000 die every day in India from tobacco-related diseases. Of the 1.2 billion smokers worldwide, 300 million, or every fourth smoker, lives in India. As per hospital records, every second person who dies of cancer turns out to be a smoker. The latest findings of the reputed International Tobacco Control Project claim that unless the government takes urgent preventive measures, India would be blighted by a tobacco epidemic—by 2020, over 1.5 million would die of tobacco-related ailments. India has the highest prevalence of oral cancer on earth, with 75,000 to 80,000 new cases being reported every year, according to a finding by the Ministry of Health and National Institute of Health and Family Welfare.
But for Gupta, Gandhi and Sarmah, no indigenous evidence exists linking cancer with tobacco use. It is evident that this putrid perception arises from their business activities, since two of them are in the tobacco industry. It begs the ethical question: How did Gupta get into a parliamentary panel on subordinate legislation, which is looking into increasing the size of the pictorial warning on cigarettes and bidi packaging? He should have withdrawn on the grounds of conflict of interest. Said Sarmah brazenly: “Whether cigarette smoking causes cancer or not, there is no full proof till now. It is difficult to prove, whether it (smoking) causes cancer or not. Whether smoking tobacco is cancerous or not or whether it contains any herbal medicine also, it has to be found out. So we have kept it in the committee meeting so that doctors can come and testify as witnesses or provide chemical proof, medical proof that smoking causes cancer.” It is yet to be ascertained whether Sarmah himself is a smoker. Earlier ‘beedi’ baron and BJP MP from Allahabad, Gupta, also a member of the same parliamentary panel, made an equally laughable claim, “I can produce a lot of people in front of you who are chain smokers of beedi and till date they have had no disease, no cancer... You get diabetes due to eating sugar, rice, potatoes.”
It appears that the MPs have made a strategic move to thwart the government’s intent to notify the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labelling) Rules, 2008, which seeks to increase the size of the specific health warning from the current 40 per cent to 85 per cent of the principal display area. Incidentally, Gandhi also wrote to Nadda seeking deferment of the implementation of the notification, which was issued by the NDA government in 2014.
The conduct of these three MPs clearly proves that even in a party like the BJP, there are some elements for whom business interests reign supreme over political priorities and national interest. At a time when Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are fighting a vicious battle of perception, the Three Smoketeers have added an avoidable headache to the government. Though Nadda has to explain the inexplicable delay in the actual implementation of the notification finalised by his own ministry, the party could have discouraged business-minded MPs from taking up cudgels on behalf of the industry in which they are either stakeholders or are inclined to support. Their only defence against the statutory warning is that it would endanger the employment of over 40 million workers, mostly children. The gaffe is astounding in its temerity—child labour is a punishable offence in India. But they are conveniently ignorant of the fact that the economic cost of handling tobacco-related diseases in India is unaffordable to the national exchequer. According a health ministry report, the country spends over Rs 23 billion yearly on the treatment of tobacco-prompted ailments in the 35-69 year age group. India spends much less on education. Tobacco products contribute Rs 20,000 crore in excise duties every year. The beedi industry (half of Indian smokers are beedi smokers) deposit just Rs 500 crore annually. In the comparison rests the case.
But for the businessmen-turned-MPs, the truth is like the smoke of the very product they produce. They think it will vanish in the wind of their verbal power at a parliamentary forum. It is true that gutka owners and other tobacco barons enjoy huge financial clout. Each death caused by the puff of a beedi or a cigarette makes the bottom lines of their companies only healthier. They don’t mind investing in an Empire of Death instead of Modi’s ‘Make in India’ mission, which aims at transforming the country into a healthy, robust nation. Maybe it’s time to kick their butt.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla