How funny, one wonders!

N.R.Narayana Murthy is a great corporate icon! He is much admired and almost held in high esteem, not only by his peers but in the rest of the society. So, he has accumulated lot of fame and also carries the burden of living up to his own earning of this vast goodwill and the sort of moral authority.

That is why we find whenever he commits any small misstep or too-smart-type employment of language, one or many of his admirers feel a bit taken aback or even embarrassed!

In a recent article in the business  weekly, Business Today(August 9,2009),there is a guest column and in which he has written about his long time colleague ,Nandan Nilekani who has just taken over as the Government of India’s unique identification project. Nothing wrong in paying tribute to a deservedly very highly rated colleague like Nandan Nilekani.

But then, the style of language employed or deployed by Murthy, while not in any way less than beautiful, the trouble is, it is more than beautiful. It verges on the PR hype in a less than mature manner.

Here is one sentence:”That was the day I realised that Nandan was destined for nobler stuff in life than just the next Maybach car or the next Beaujolais wine”. No harm if we take it that way it was meant to be.

An effusive tribute we all pay to our close friends and admirers and we take it this way only here. The serious point we want to make here is this:
Leaders and  achievers like Murthy who wears his adherence to values and morality on his sleeves, have to take up more serious subjects on which the society and the people, not only his peers and others in the corporate world and even in public life would like to hear from such an achiever and articulator.
For example, why the US economic and financial had come about in the way it did?

What short-term and long-term implications the crisis, the global meltdown, the recession, the depression and what other aspects you like to look at, when such a crisis is likely to ease…

Such topical questions and issues, if taken up by such corporate leaders like Murthy, such views would command much more attention even in such a context like paying tribute to a fellow achiever like Nandan Nilekani. Why we say this?

Men like Murthy must now come into the open, in the public domain. He can be called upon by the Government of India and we have said so on more than one occasion that Murthy like persons must be called upon by the government to assume bigger responsibilities.

In fact, we like to take some credit for Nandan being called upon by the government. In the last few months we have in fact said so!

The point is that India has a long way to go. There is still an unacceptable level of poverty in our midst. No week passes without an article or other detailing the sort of malnutrition of children, this time in Maharashtra’s Amravati district, last time, it was in the four districts of MP…

Murthy can come out with so many innovative solutions to so many issues. The e-governance project itself is a big area for many innovations. Democracy, freedoms, individual rights and freedoms, human rights, women rights…

Even today to visit a government office is to enter a sort of hell!

So, we have to devote our time and energies to help the last man, unto the last is still the greatest message and the challenge. Let us hope our leaders, corporate leaders shape up into real leaders of the society outside the corporate cosy environments.

Family values
I am just a bit embarrassed by this theme! Why?

Just before I typed this page, I saw a new book with the title:”Family values”. By whom? By one Jain muni and Dr.Abdul Kalam!

They don’t both have familes! Then, how they can talk genuinely?

So too our other greats: Mahatama Gandhi, Nehru and Dr.S.Radhakrishnan. Though they had families, their experiences didn’t impel them to talk of family values? I often wonder!

I attach much value to those who practice what they preach! Unless we have such strict criteria, we, Indians would only fall back on our own backwardness, we preach or we pretend!

So, I am a bit embarrassed and yet felt bold to say what I wanted to say on this highly sensitive issue. How the Indian society looks at these critical issues? Who speaks for family values? What are family values like in India now? There is a news item in the pages of this journal. It is about the decline of the family (values) in Britain.

Most Indians might not have even noticed that nowadays even in Britain they, the British government, the British media and the public discourse there, dont write their country or describe their country as Great Britain! There is no more Great Britain! It is now just Britain. No more United Kingdom. Just Britain and the people Britons or more colloquial, Brits!

Yes, there is a great deal of decline in Britain today. There is first the decline of the country in the international arena. The empire gone, the Queen is just a shadow and the colonies are now more concerned about their future, the “white” colonies are now very, very different from the “coloured” colonies like India.

How many in India know that the Commonwealth no more matters. It is almost as good as dead. Only an Indian official serves as its secretary and draws a fat salary. One doesn’t know who pays for that! May be the Brits make it looks like a high ceremonial office and make us, Indians, pay for that too!

Now, the point I am driving at here is the fate of the traditional family system in England. There are now so many unprecedented breakdowns of the traditional family values and the family structure. There are now more children born outside the marriage, about 46 per cent of the new born children, are born outside wedlock.

More divorces, more single parent families, and more children living in the families that is below the poverty line, more homelessness and more workers, more number of different definitions of the middle classes. There is that enduring British institution, the class system.

Britain is one of the more rigid and peculiarly self-conscious class societies.
They would find out or try to find out immediately to which class status you belong to, even if you are from India!

When I wanted to apply to Oxford for admission, my India-based(then)British friend, a British Jewish friend told me that I should write my social background as  from the gentry  class! Yes, not as from a village or as a farming family, but as gentry class!

I don’t know I got the much-sought after admission for that description of my social background but it might have also contributed. It took me considerable time and efforts to understand the intricate class structure that operated at that point of time and I learnt a great deal through my time there.

At each stage you confront the class question, my British white men servants, we called them as scouts, in my Oxford college behaved in due regard to my status as an Oxonian. They knew instinctively that because I went up to Oxford, more so as the gentleman commoner, I paid for my education that was additional point to be noticed. They noticed! So, the conversations between myself and my scouts, as also with others in the Oxford town, with shop assistant girls or maids or some room makers in the hotels and even my “landladies” the very socially under ranked women who kept homes and rent out to the students in the holidays, were all from the very ordinary social background.

How to converse with them? How to move with them? The dos and the don’ts were too many to learn there! So too socially when you get into touch and also cultivate friendships with the girls from the European continent, from Germany Austria, Sweden and Norway. They are called aupair girls; they stayed with families and attended to the children here for free stay. Sonia Gandhi was one such!

When I got into higher social classes I also learnt lot more etiquette and manners in keeping with such families. I was fortunate to get into such high society families too. Sir Treharn and Lady Rowena, Mrs and Mr.Dickensons and Lady McDonald of Sleat who first introduced me to these two ancient families were also a remarkable high society lady. Now, all these introductions lead me to the question I wanted to ask for a long time but hesitated to ask in India!

There is a breakdown of families and family values everywhere. More so in the West, more in England and France. Marriage as an institution, as a sacred institution even in the traditional societies likes England and France and where the church, Anglican in UK, Catholic in France, are string and yet there is a rapid decline in the family and marriage values. There are more co-habitation, more divorces and more single parent families!

What about India? Who still speaks for family values and marriage as a sacred institution?

Just now I am going through the pages of famed Indian sociologist, my dear and much respected acquaintance and friend  M.N.Srinvas’ book, “Social Change in Modern India (1962).

What do I get there, in those very learned pages?

Yes, there is much to learn: Sanskritisation, Westernisation, Caste mobility, Secularisation and studying one’s own society. Much of what Srinivas says is true but much of the empirical evidence he cites are out of date. Today, the processes are more accelerated.

India in 2009 is more westernised, more globalised, every other middle class or even lower classes have seen their sons and daughters are settled in the West, mostly in the USA and UK and Australia and elsewhere. Indian society is more globalised, more westernised or rather Yankeeised! More secularised, more Sanskritised as well.

There are almost very many Western culture symbols or even cultural experiences within every household, irrespective of the social classes they belong to. Yet, there is what Srinivas says about the Hindu society’s structure, basic structure, the beliefs, customs and rituals and routines, the samskara etc.
What about family values? About marriage and the sanctity we attach to family values and marriage as an institution?

While Srinivas has much to say about the orthodoxy or orthodox ways of the Indian and Hindu families, there are certain questions he didn’t bother to ask.
Why I say this?

I don’t know for sure. This is the right stand I should take on such highly complex issue like family and marriage. But some of my hunches are these ways…
Our own great leaders, from Gandhi, Nehru and others like Dr.S.Radhakrishnan, to cite only the well-known names and others like the Mutt heads and others, the question of secular lives, marriage and family values didn’t exactly fit into these particular individual lives or life styles and for the mutt heads they don’t have to worry as they have no families to lead and as such marriage as an institution was not discussed in any elaborate ways.

Am I right in assuming so? As for the secular Indians, secular Hindus, if you like, we as a nation, as a society, have never been so explicit to expound the ideals and precepts for others to follow! Today, in the present circumstances, we have to evaluate and expound afresh, in my view, how family values still matter a great deal. Though we are Westernised, secularised and modernised in our life styles, we as a Hindu nation and society rate family life as sacred and great. We value marriage as a sacred institution.

This needs to be expounded in more detail and by more worthy personages and institutions. So that the Indian society, the Hindu society doesn’t fall for the many distortions and vulgarities and we don’t to learn to desecrate our traditional values and beliefs and belief systems.

It awarded the economics prize in 1997 and now the word pays a high price for it!

Foolhardy speculations led to the current economic crisis.
The Ascent of Money
A financial history of the world by Niall Fergusson, Penguin, 2009, pp441, paperback.

The book, the paperback edition has come out only a month ago. The edition has a latest introduction and an afterword that means just as we are talking of a possible recovery is still far off, if we see what is being given in the last chapter.
The current economic crisis is not one more once-a-century event as such/?
This time the global financial crisis is truly global, as it encompasses the entire world, the big and small nations, as there is first a truly globalised, more integrated world and the financial markets are so closely intertwined. Second, the real boom in the wake of the latest technological revolutions, computers, internet and the rise of wealth all across the world has also given rise to much more an unequal and ineqitous world.

The rich and the poor are now much more acutely aware of the many implications for living a high life in the sense of much consumerism and reckless high spending everywhere. The IT revolution has also triggered a large scale migration of talented human resources, there is very large Indian IT personnel in the USA and UK and therefore, there is migration and much high-tech IT jobs are cornered by the new migrants, there is resentment, rise of racism, there is tension of various types in the new globalised world.

Barack Obama, the US president has to talk of “No to Bangalore, Yes, to Buffalo”
Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman comes to India and openly talks of what the US president thinks about blocking or limiting the flow of talented foreigners as wrong. The Wall Street bankers in the USA are a peculiar tribal lot. Their invest banks, all famous names, century old names and their reputation is now gone for their reckless speculations and bringing about a bust. Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, were all gone bankrupt and other banks either bout out or merged or renamed as banks and the net result is the US government has to shell out an astonishingly high bailout to the tune of some 700 billion dollars.

All this has created a panic and the so-called subprime crisis, was a credit-crunch-induced financial crisis of a gigantic nature the world hasn’t seen for nearly a century. The rise and fall of money!

Or, how to explain and understand the current meltdown, recession or depression? Yes, this is the subject matter of the new book by Prof.Niall Fergusson, who is a professor at both Harvard and Oxford and he is also the author of some of the well-received best seller books.

He is an authority of the Empire history, how Britain built its empire and what the empire means today for the Britons as well as for the former colonies like India.
But this book is a sellout of sorts. Here he has combined his sense of history as well as his sense of statistics of an unprecedented nature. The book is full of rare and important data.

The global financial crisis is now on everyone’s mind and the lips. Even the poor, illiterate and rural migrants, from Orissa’s Ganjam district who went to Surat want to understand and how to transfer their money back home to their villages, use the English word “recession”! So, the English word “recession” becomes now an Indian language word! Yes, such is the power of the current crisis.

The book under review opens up with data like this: In 2007, the income of average Americans was 34,000 per annum. It went up by 5 per cent. Cost of living rose by 3.5 per cent. So, the Average actually in terms of real income was better off by 1.5 per cent. Now, if you allow for inflation, the Average’s life didn’t improve at all. But then the highest executives like the one at the investment bank, Goldman Sachs received income that were two thousand times! Goldman’s net income at 46 billion dollars exceeded the entire gross domestic product (GDP) of more than a hundred countries of the world! Then he gives a list of such CEOs of large financial companies, various names, like hedge funds etc and the net take home pay of these bigwigs are mind-boggling. The result?

2007 saw the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Is the world fair? Not at all? Is this the fat-cat capitalism? It is. The whole history of mankind has been unkind to money lender and money dealers! Why?

They had always caused miseries to the borrowers as well as to the common folk! So, money is really a veil. It hides and creates an illusion of health and well-being but in actuality it really causes much anger and misery and that is why the Bible to all religious texts condemns money -making aim all sorts of manner of beautiful and memorable words and languages.

So, the best brains, all Harvard graduates, went into finance and finance sector jobs commanded three times more salaries than in any other sectors. To cut the story short, the Wall Street banks indulged in unabated speculations and took risks and the net result was a sudden collapse of all reputed names. So, money lending and banking jobs in the USA took a very different turn and the US proved to the last straw in the wind.

This book makes for such an engrossing reading. I spent a whole forenoon running through the pages, the first and the last chapters are pure delight, and it is not the hard figures and the dry numbers that caught my attention. It is the way Fergusson carries you through the utter stupidities and unethical calling of such knowledge like economics that led to the foolish ends.

Space limits my own enthusiasm for saying many more things than I can.
The Nobel Economics Prize committee committed the stupidest of things by awarding the Prize to two economists who did the most dishonourable thing so finding out the eternal truths to speculate and make quick money.

In October 1997 LTCM, the Lon Term Capital Management (LTCM) authors, Merton and Sholes were awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. They were the ultimate Brains Trust (page 326). Says Fergusson:”It is as if intellect triumphed over instinct; rocket science over risk-taking” Just to prove the point, the Nobel men’s “balc-box), their entire wisdom packed into a mantra, they bet on their speculation, the ultimate speculation that led them in just five months. In one single day, on Friday 21 1998 it lost 550 million; almost the entire capital was wiped out!

That was the terrible lesson that taught the world many fundamental truths!
Don’t take the Americans seriously! They could do many serious things; they could ruin the world, the world economy.

The only consolation is the world is now learning a painful lesson. The Americans are the world’s reckless consumers, they borrow and borrow and the Chinese lend and invest so heavily in the US assets.

You have to really read Fergusson chapter after chapter to get all the small details of the dollars and pennies. Yes, he is so capable of surprising you with such little statistics you can’t have it anywhere else.

The books read not like a dry economics text. It reads like a great piece of literature. It is worth a life time experience I got, a student of economics myself!
A book that would remain forever a favourite of many readers. In a way, Fergusson is a later-day Galbraith. He has the capacity to engage and enliven boring topics like money and finance!

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What is new about it? Not much!

The same old faces are here again. The newly constituted Commission has once more the same deputy chairman, namely, Montek Singh Ahluwalia. There is again the old list with Ms. Syeda Hameed and Mr. Abhijit Sen  from the old panel. The Prime Minister has administered  the oath office to new members whose names are given but not their faces in the photos that are published in one newspaper. They are : Mr.Mihir Shah, Mr.Narendra Jadhav, Dr.K.Kasturirangan. The other names are Mr.Arun Maira, Mr.Saumitra Choudhury, and Mr.B.K. Chaturvedi. The point here is that we can’t find fault with the gentlemen inducted into the new setup.

What we object to this sort of induction is the fact, first, there is no detail about the qualifications of these gentlemen and their specialisation for the public enlightenment. The Planning Commission has a history, right?

In the prime days when it was making news, it usually  had a head that is the deputy chief, almost a public figure of sorts. That only gave a momentum to the deliberations of the body. There were any number of experts on this once  prestigious body. There were  some pubic figures, names are too many, names like Drugabhai Deshmukh, why, Chintaman Deshmukh himself  were charismatic figures and also with great public service behind them.

Now, the point is what the previous commission’s great moments? What are the new supposedly great moment going to be?

We are for one totally disagree with the wisdom of the government is selecting the names and inducting them in the way as they have done, all without any public  participation in such an exercise. It seems the whole exercise was done in a hurry and in a hush-hush manner. It certainly casts a shadow of credibility-gap on the part of the government to do things, always without any public interest or public consultation or public participation in the constitution of the body which is  supposed to function like a catalyst.

Or, is there any small or short speech or note about the ideas of the new body or what mandate has been entrusted with the body for the next ,say, five years?
None, none at all. This is simply unacceptable.

There area  whole lot of issues on which the public is agitated. There is the global meltdown. There is a “deep recession” to borrow the phrase from Barack Obama. Has anyone, from the Prime Minister  to other experts why the global meltdown has taken the form and reach as it has done?

Aren’t the Indian people entitled to know from such great economic experts like our Prime Minister and the deputy chief of the commission  why the economic recession set in? Please let them educate us, enlighten us. Also, let us know what the new government proposes to do to bring back the economic recovery and growth.

So, there must be a freshly thought of mandate for the commission. There is the  state of the Indian economy. Is there any single rate of growth even now. The finance minister gives one rate. The RBI gives another rate. Whom to take seriously?

Will the planning commission stimulate economic growth? And how?

What are the new ideas on the old issues, disinvestment and FDI and other economic reforms. As it looks all these days since the new government has taken office there is not much evidence for the old set of economic reforms agenda. In fact, in the face of the meltdown and the winning of the elections with a comfortable majority, all the economic reforms have quietly exited! It is now, it seems, back to old business, the talks of aam aadmi and the safety net etc.
Nothing. But you must have to articulate and impress with your new articulations.

The finance minister’s budget is not a budget at all. It is a  populist spending agenda. May be there is an invisible(or invidious?) hidden agenda for all concerned as to prove  who is really populist and who will win the hearts and minds of the people as well as the potential rivals and supporters!
Anyway, an expert body like the planning commission must surely must come out with a policy priority note and give to the country. That is the minimum moral justification for these otherwise honourable gentlemen to remain in the positions they are now occupying.

There are of course very serious  issues. Just now we have a report before us narrating how serious and widespread and deep the, for instance, the question of malnutrition of children in the Amravati district of Maharashtra. There were similar reports about the malnourished children, dying, in the four districts of Madhya Pradesh. It is heart-rending. In Maharashtra, the infant mortality rate is 38 per  1,000 live births. While in the Malghat region it is 74 to 78,according to the petitioners before the High Court in  1997 on a petition filed by none other than the activist, Sheela Barse on malnutrition deaths.

Twelve years now gone. What progress made? The court once again remained the state of its constitutional obligations. On another petition filed by Rajendra Burma and others,it is a PIL, the court said  this on January 15,2009:”We have no hesitation in observing that the progress made in preventing malnutrition is hardly satisfactory…”

Adivasi children death due to malnutrition is unacceptably high. This geography is the constituency of dignitaries of the President of India. Maharashtra has other great dignitaries also. There are also great many issues in the agriculture sector. As the magazine is chiefly devoted to agriculture, we don’t burden the readers and others with that much more challenging field.

So, one thought the new commission would have some fresh new faces, some activists and others so that the commission would interact with the ministers who are also now made as members of the commission and there would be more interactions with the policy makers and the policy implementers.

Experts can come later. Problems must come first! Issues must be posed in the face of policy implementers.

We simply don’t believe in high sounding schemes and faceless bureaucrats formulating plans. We demand accountability from those who sit in the commission and demand results.

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Prime Minister’s case seems weak and taken in haste!
Kerala Chief Minister raises objection for the right reasons!

Yes, trade talks are critical for any country, more so for India.  Asean is India’s fourth-largest trading partner after the EU, US and China. Indo-Asean trade is growing at 27 % and stands at 38.37 billion in 2007-08.
Yet, the Indian government’s move and the haste doesn’t justify the move.

WTO talks is yet to be concluded and it is not easy for a country of India’s size and diversity and the critical state of our large agricultural economy to get any significant concessions or concede concessions on agriculture.

Therefore, the haste with which the PM seems to have got the Cabinet sanction for FTA with Asean has rightly raised stiff resistance within the Cabinet itself.
It is good to know that Cabinet ministers like A.K.Antony, Vayalar Ravi and Veerappa Moily and others have objected to the FTA.

Most of the MPs from Kerala, both the Congress and the Left have raised objections. So too, one imagines MPs from Southern and other states where there is a great deal of fishing industry and also plantation crops.

Now, the PM, in our opinion, should have initiated an in-depth study and reached a consensus before pushing through such a sensitive and critical document.
The commerce minister is new to the job nor the PM is really acquainted with the issues of the sector which comprises a range of plantation crops plus fisheries and they have been India’s traditional strengths in the agri exports sector.
One can’t just come in and upset the long historically critical sector to appease some foreign policy objective.

Manmohan Sigh government in its second term doesn’t seem to have gone well so far. Within a few months, it has encountered many dissident voices, resistence and the much-desired democratic exchange of differing opinions on matters of state.

In the international arena, India was not well-taken, there was some sort of downgraded tones, the G- 8 saw India not taken into consideration when the summit openly came out against India receiving its nuclear fuel supplies, on-proliferation and also in the climate change debate India didn’t have any clearly thought-out position. Next came the big bow to its prestige when at the NAM summit India nowhere was to be seen, only the NAM countries’ dictators faces were displayed, Cuba, Egypt and Libya are not the faces that the world like to see and cheer about!

What an irony! India just walked into the trap, yes, it was a sort of trap India walked into and we were nowhere to be seen at this prestigious summit.
One wonders whether the UPA government-II is really making any impact on the international scene and the international debates that are going on.

The Indo-Pak dialogue proved to be a near disaster, as far as the Singh visage of a wise statesman! He entered into an agreement that had some disssonance, words like Baluchistan and linkage or delinkage of the terror talks and composite dialogue all got mixed up and the result was the backlash, back at home!
Now, comes the not so good news to the Prime Minister’s wisdom that at the Cabinet meeting the Free Trade Agreement with the Asean countries was met with opposition within the Cabinet.

Nothing wrong or great, of course. This is however the first time we see some ministers seem to be asserting themselves, notably Mr.A.K.Antony, the defence minister and also from Kerala. Antony is a no-nonsense man sometimes. He has his own well-stated positions on some important issues.

This time, he knows well the sensitive nature of the agreement that opens up a Pandora’s Box as far as the Kerala’s thousands and even lakhs of small farmers and also the millions of labour, the plantation sector on which the entire Kerala economy revolves.Though finally, it was reported the Prime Minister himself pushed the FTA and secured the Cabinet’s approval, it is not as if this is the last thing we are going to hear.

Kerala chief minister V.S.Achudanandan has dashed off a letter to the PM. The CM has  explained how the agreement was signed at a time when the market was affected by the coconut oil and pepper dipping by the liberal imports. Now, the FTA would lead to liberal import of natural rubber, India is the third largest consumer of natural rubber. Now tea, pepper and edible oils would be liberally imported and the consequences for the Indian sectors, all are very sensitive issues and the Prime Minister of India could not have visualised. The PM is both out of touch with the ground level realities and he is not a grassroots leader either!

The FTA provides a regulated reduction in the duty of items imported from the Asean countries. The liberalisation of fish import would directly hit Kerala and Karnataka fish sectors. Even the Tamil Nadu and other coastal states would be hard hit. V.S.Achudanandan has pointed out that about 10 lakh people, largely landless labour would be rendered jobless.

And at this time when there is a deep recession in the world, world markets are volatile and when Indian agriculture sector itself is undergoing a severe drought owing to poor monsoons, surely this is not the opportune time to introduce India into the FTA. Surely, the Congress party has to worry about the political implications of this move by the PM at a surely wrong time.

The party had won a huge victory in the 2009 elections from Kerala, there are very many Kerala ministers at the Cabinet and also in other administrative positions. This move if pushed further, would make these ministers to face a great resistance and render them unpopular after securing such a huge majority of MPs,13 MPs out of the  20 MPs are from the Congress. Every MP from the state who is someone has raised his voices over the FTA move.

China has been cited by the PM as the reason to go for the FTA. But then China is already is active on so many fronts. Just by signing the FTA, is there any guarantee India would really rise up to the Chinese challenges on many fronts?
There is no such guarantee.

India seems to be acting on a weak-kneed posture on many sensitive issues lately. Even in the arms buying spree there are many anxious questions that need to be answered. India must look like an active  nation and must be conducting its diplomacy and its foreign policy initiatives on a wider and well-defined vision and must be appealing to a wider world, not just regional powers like China alone.
India needs friends with Japan, Russia and even countries in Africa and elsewhere where China seems to be only too active.

By simply being active  no  country or country doesn’t earn any praise or approval in the international fora. It is by a sense of genuine concern for the wider issues that affect the largest number of people and countries only India can hope to match the perceived  Chinese  threat or rivalry. Certainly, all these thought also weigh on the minds of Indian people when the issue of FTA comes in. The small farmers, the more fragile system based plantation crops economy of India is our traditional strength.

So, there is room for a reconsideration on the issues before we can compromise with the security and livelihoods of the vast millions of people who are dependent upon this very sensitive sector of Indian agriculture.