It Doesn’t Matter If You Are Muslim.’

Here’s a story a friend told me today, quoted with permission (though the friend doesn’t want to be named):

I was teaching Civics to 6th std kids and they are learning about our government etc. I was trying to encourage them to participate by both voting and running for power.

One of the kids quietly raised his hand up and said, “It doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, ma’am. No one will vote for me if I run for Prime Minister.”

I gave him a pep talk but I really know that all I uttered was bs.

I am pessimistic these days when it comes to this nation. But I also know that change happens fast, and the world can change in a generation. The US did elect a black president. (And compensated right after.) So who knows – 40 years later, that kid could run for office and win.

You think that’s possible?

Icarus, and Doping in Sports

Last night, my son and I were comparing notes on the Giro d’Italia, one of the Big 3 European cycling races, and speculating whether Chris Froome would be able to win the stage.

Waiting for race updates from the Guardian blog, I was bemused to see a photo of a spectator taunting Froome with a massive mock-up of an inhaler – Froome is fighting a legal battle for his rights to his last two racing titles over the salbutamol levels in his blood.

The next race update showed that Froome had raced down the last descent at an average of 53 km. an hour, with a peak speed of 80 km, and was now clear in the lead for his fourth grand tour in a row, a record unbeaten since Eddie Merckx, who retired in 1978.

Thinking about drugs in sports, I turned to ‘Icarus’ on Netflix, a riveting ‘accidental’ documentary. By a bizarre set of circumstances, a playwright and stand-up comic, Bryan Fogel, found himself in contact with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, Director of the Russian anti-doping center, and filmed the drama that ensued. It’s tough to believe that Grigory is not a masterpiece of film-writing and casting, as he is an engrossing, complex character, who happily helps Bryan Fogel devise a personal doping program that will beat the anti-doping system.

Meanwhile, WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, is crawling over the Russian lab, suspecting that the Russian sports system is not as clean as it claims. Grigory bails out, flies to the US, and with Bryan’s help, turns whistle-blower. The New York Times carries a massive story, the WADA gets in on the act, and given the amount of data Dr. Rodchenkov is able to offer up, concludes, “I can confirm, for years, that spectators have been deceived. The desire to win medals superseded their collective moral and ethical compass, and Olympic values.”

The 2016 Rio Olympics were weeks away, and WADA recommended to its parent organisation, the International Olympic Committee, that Russia be banned from the Rio games. The IOC passed the responsibility for the decision on to individual sports federations; eventually, 111 Russian athletes were banned, and 278 took part.

Given the time frame, and the paucity of data from Russia, I would assume falseness in both sets of Russian athletes. Having seen the film, I suspect the number of athletes on doping programs who came to Rio was significantly more than those not on drugs who stayed away.

This is probably true of most professional sports – the doping docs stay one step ahead of the anti-doping docs, and in some cases, the two are the same. For a top-level athlete, its probably safe to assume that your competitor is doping. Looking for that tiny extra edge to get on top, it must be really tough to stay away from the magic mushrooms.

Is it even worth trying? Is the Olympic promise of a drug-free games achievable? Or would a laissez faire approach be more honest – find the training regimen, needles and pills included, that sails your boat…

Bangladesh seeks India’s support on Rohingyas

Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina was in West Bengal yesterday where she sought India’s help over the Rohingya exodus issue. She expressed hope that countries will pressurise Myanmar government so that Rohingyas would be able to return to their country.

What should India be doing to help? We had this to recommend:

New Delhi must focus on ensuring that Bangladesh is successful in hosting, managing and, once the crisis passes, repatriating the refugees back to Myanmar. Bangladesh is an important neighbour and Sheikh Hasina is a pro-India leader — it is in India’s interests to ensure that she emerges politically stronger as a result of her courageous stance on this issue.

The Bangladeshi prime minister has invested tremendous political capital in the ongoing crisis. The ‘Rohingyas-are-a-terror-risk’ narrative that has dominated the Indian discourse finds resonance in a many Bangladeshis as well. And yet, Sheikh Hasina’s government has chosen to respond in a calm, calculated, and generous manner in responding to the immediate humanitarian crisis.

India’s policy response must cover several dimensions. First and most urgent is the matter of providing humanitarian relief in an adequate and timely manner. Operation Insaniyat is a good starting point. Under the first effort of this relief operation, an Indian Air Force (IAF) plane reached Chittagong on 14th September with 50 metric tonnes of relief assistance. It is further reported that India aims to provide 7000 tonnes of relief materials to Bangladesh. In 2008, India’s Ministry of External Affairs created a separate budget line for international disaster relief, allocating US$10–30 million a year on such efforts since then. The time is right to make Bangladesh the focus of India’s disaster relief efforts over the next few months.

Second, India must enlist the support of South East Asian countries in managing this humanitarian crisis in the common neighbourhood. Myanmar is a member of ASEAN and, so far, both the grouping and individual member-countries have yet to make significant contributions to managing the conflict and the fallout. Indian diplomacy must enlist the support of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand to weigh in politically on their ASEAN counterpart in Naypyidaw to stem the crisis, and extend financial support to the relief effort.

Third, Indian government can also help channelise money and technical assistance to Bangladesh from Indian NGOs and corporate donors. The Bangladeshi government has also started biometric identification of all Rohingya refugees. This project is expected to take many years to complete. The Indian government can offer its help in this exercise as well.

Finally, the Indian armed forces must cooperate with their Bangladeshi counterparts to better secure the maritime and littoral areas, and engage in joint rescue and relief operations. Intelligence and security cooperation between the two countries is also necessary. [Pragati, 25 Sep 2017]

 

 

The Logistics of Cash

I was in Budapest recently for a conference on the relative importance and usage of cash and non-cash methods of payments. The primary message from the conference was that cash is reliable, secure, and accessible to people. It was organised by a non profit organisation that is an association of companies dealing with cash management. Before heading to the conference, it seemed strange that there would be multiple companies involved in cash management and logistics in a country. We largely tend to take cash for granted and do not think about the vast logistical network that exists behind the usage of cash.

Here’s a brief glimpse into the fascinating world of cash logistics and management:

First, you would need specialised paper to print the notes on, which is supplied by few companies in the world. The material on which the notes are printed differ from country to country. India uses a pulp made of cotton and balsam, whereas the US dollars are made of cotton and linen. Australia, and a few countries, have shifted to an innovative polymer (or plastics).

The ink used to print the notes are also highly specialised and secure ink that does not get worn out easily. The ink would be made from a special dye that is not available to anyone except the central bank. Then, comes the host of security features, such as the hologram, watermarks, security threads, serial numbers, anti-copy marks, magnetic ink and microprinting. Each of these would be manufactured and supplied by a set of private companies, according to the central banks’ specifications.

Then, for distribution, you would require armoured vehicles to move the cash from the vaults of the reserve banks to the commercial banks and finally to the ATMs. There are private companies that specifically design these armoured vehicles and provide security guards as well. You also need specialised large vaults in commercial banks to store the currency. There are also machines developed exclusive to count the currency notes.

There are companies that manufacture and distribute ATM machines and who maintain them. A separate company would take charge of managing the ATM machine and making sure that they have enough cash to distribute. On the retail side, you have companies that manufacture tills to hold temporary cash required at point of sale. Of course, the complexity of the business determines the level of sophistication required for the cash handling machines. A Casino will require a more customised and complex machine to handle and store cash, as against a corner retail store selling milk. There are also companies that manufacture paper rolls for till and ATM receipts.

This is just a sample of the number of companies involved in cash management in a country.

P.S: I am reproducing the steps involved in cash printing and distribution in India from this Business Standard article:

HOW MONEY TRAVELS: PRESS TO PURSE

* The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) chalks out the requirement for currency notes before the start of the financial year

* The requirement is then communicated to the government

* When the government gives permission to RBI, the central bank raises ‘indent’ or order for printing specific bank notes to four presses

* Papers for banknotes were earlier procured from overseas but now the material is supplied locally

* The security features are installed by the mills first and then sent to the printing presses

* The printed notes are sent to RBI’s 19 regional offices

* There are 4,000 currency chests where the notes are kept

* RBI then raises a voucher for the notes needed

* Banks raise their demand for cash with RBI’s regional offices

* RBI then sends money to banks

* Banks keep the money in their currency chests and engage cash management firms to fill the ATMs

* ATM service providers do a daily calculation of cash required at night for the next day, called indent

* Banks validate the indent and the cash is transferred to the bank branch linked to that ATM

* These bank branches generate their own cash and in case of shortage, they borrow from currency chest

* Cash management companies transfer cash from branches to ATMs

* The companies fill up the ATMs with four ‘cassettes’, which can hold up to 2,500 notes each

* The money is dispensed when customers use their card

Easing” Cancellation Will Lead to Higher Air Fares

Mint reports that the Union Civil Aviation Ministry is seeking to “ease rules for air ticket cancellation” in a bid to make air travel more customer-friendly. According to the draft rules,

  • Passenger allowed Lock-in option for 24 hours(after booking ticket) in which the passenger can cancel or amend the ticket without any additional charges.

While at first sight this might look like a passenger friendly move, it is likely to result in an overall increase in air fares.

I have argued before in Pragati that a reservation to travel consists of two instruments – the travel itself and the option to travel on the said route on the said day and time. In other words, the cancellation fees can be looked at as an option premium paid by the customer to exercise an option to travel on the particular route on the particular day.

When a ticket gets cancelled, the customer is effectively choosing to not exercise her option to travel. So it is fair that they not pay the cost of travel itself, and be refunded that amount. The reason travel companies levy a cancellation charge is to compensate them for the cost of the option to travel (the price of an option doesn’t depend on whether the holder chooses to exercise it).

The proposed regulation by the Civil Aviation Ministry requires airlines to offer this option for free for a limited period of time (24 hours after booking). While 24 hours may not be a high number, it can still result in people taking advantage of the free option by making bookings that they may later cancel or reschedule. And the airlines will want to get compensated for the free option they are providing.

It is likely that they will achieve this compensation by adjusting prices elsewhere – such as the price of travel itself or the price of the options where there is no price cap. And this is likely to hurt passengers.

All the new regulations from the Civil Aviation Ministry will achieve is to redistribute from passengers with firm schedules (who are more likely to be “retail customers”, from the middle class, etc.) in favour of those who may want to keep their schedules open for a day (more likely to be premium, corporate customers).

Once again invoking Ravikiran Rao, #thatzwhy we need strong regulations.

Wanted – A Solicitor General for India

I found out today that India has not had a Solicitor General for the past seven months. The last Solicitor General, Ranjit Kumar, resigned from the post in October of last year.

The Solicitor General is the second highest ranking legal advisor to the government, only below the Attorney General. While the post of a Solicitor General is not a constitutional one like that of the Attorney General, a person appointed to it still performs a very important role. It is necessary for the government to be well-represented so that the strictest legal scrutiny and defence is made possible for its own policies. At present, the Additional Solicitor Generals are bearing the responsibility of representing the government in important cases. This status quo is not ideal.

Such dithering over an appointment to the role does not reflect well on the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (AAC), the body responsible for filling the vacancy. One can only hope that an appointment to this important position is made sooner rather than later.

Categories Law

Chanakya is not a synonym for amoral politics

The name “Chanakya” is a favourite with political enthusiasts, who appropriate it as a nickname for themselves, and with political commentators who anoint the latest big fish in the political arena as “Chanakya”. The modern history of the use of the term perhaps dates back to Jawaharlal Nehru who adopted the pseudonym in a 1937 essay criticising himself. Today it is being used to describe the current BJP president, Amit Shah, for his leave-no-prisoners style of politics.

It is wrong to confuse Chanakya with amoral domestic politics. Not because ancient Indian political philosophy is irrelevant to contemporary politics – it is not – but because there is a difference between international and domestic politics. To read Chanakya out of context would be to arrive at erroneous conclusions. All politics may be about power but there are important moral differences between its use in international relations and domestic politics.

Chanakya’s proposals for amoral politics properly applies to international relations: to relations among sovereigns in his time, and among sovereign states today. Because there is no overarching world government, it is consistent with raja dharma to take the amoral route to power. Maximising one’s own power with respect to other (sovereigns) is the ultimate goal, because that is the surest way to protect one’s own independence, values and way of life. This is similar to what modern-day realists believe and practice.

However, when it comes to politics within a country, use of power is circumscribed by morality. Even in Chanakya’s days, a king could not violate raja dharma, nor could his subjects violate their common and specific dharmas. The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata – where Bhishma does an AMA with the Pandavas while lying on his deathbed of arrows— goes into great detail on raja dharma, and how a king must rule. There was no written constitution then, but constitutional morality existed and bound the king (and his government) in the form of raja dharma and the dharma shastras.

We should not expect twenty-first century moral values in ancient moral codes, but the point is that moral codes existed and placed normative bounds on the actions of the king and government. In other words, in the domestic context, Chanakya’s prescriptions were and must be read within the constraints of a constitutional morality. Furthermore, to apply Chanakya’s strategies in business management and interpersonal relations would be wrong except where the law of the jungle prevails.

Raja dharma today is to be found in the written Constitution of India and the legal framework it has created.

People who breach this dharma cannot be called Chanakya. To do so would be to profoundly misunderstand a very sophisticated political philosophy.

Aftertaste. Both Voldemort and Vijay Dinanath Chauhan make the same mistake, as I wrote in my Pax Indica column some years ago. My Reading the Arthashastra archive has a few posts on how to relate Chanakya’s philosophy to modern times.

Flower Power, at 50

The first rock musical, HAIR, opened on Broadway in 1968.


It captured the spirit of Hippiedom with the exuberance of protest, inspired lyrics, and the shock value of a nude scene. It ran on Broadway for 4 years, in London for 5, and was adapted into a film by celebrated movie director Milos Forman. A generous cousin gifted me the double album set of the soundtrack, and its songs deeply informed my teenage years.

Ten days ago, I got to see a traveling production of Hair in Munich, and I had this strange sense of traveling into the past to look at the present.

Hair was a protest against the Vietnam war, and the draft; a plea for love, peace, and clean air.
 
It was a paean to the solidarity of youth, to the joys of sex – of all kinds, and free love.

It was a celebration of drugs.

 
And, yes, to the freedom to wear your hair long.
 
In the context of the late 60s, the demands that Hair made of society were truly fringe. And yet, its appeal, which was quite unprecedented, could be seen as a pointer to how widely change was sought.
 
5 decades later, so much of that change has been wrought, particularly in the US.
 
Though wars may still rage across the world, annual deaths have trended vastly down since the late 60s, and Max Roser has an amazing set of graphs (https://goo.gl/images/ZtP9wY) to show the changes. And draft, a central theme in Hair, was removed in 1973.
 
‘Free’ Love, meaning sex outside of marriage, barely merits mention today; same-sex intercourse, and marriage, have wide-spread acceptance, and increasingly, legal sanction. In June 2016, President Obama dedicated the Stonewall Monument in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, to honor the LGBT rights movement. In November of that year, Kate Brown became the United States’ first openly LGBT person elected Governor.

During World War II, smog in Los Angeles was so bad that people suspected a Japanese chemical attack. But the US Congress enacted the Clean Air Act in 1970, and progress has been rapid. California is still vulnerable to forest fires and thermal inversion, but air pollution in the US is not a major public health hazard. Meanwhile, 14 of the world’s most polluted cities are in India.

And drugs? 64 % of American citizens support the legalisation of marijuana. In 29 states, you can smoke it for ‘medical use’. And legal annual marijuana sales crossed 10 billion dollars in 2017.

Long hair? Man-buns is now a thing.

I don’t want to make too much of a point of this, but I was really struck by how the performing arts can anticipate change, and, perhaps, just perhaps, influence it.

Free Speech Then and Now

The right to freedom of speech and expression under the Indian Constitution is not an absolute right. A cursory look at Article 19 (2) reveals there are no less than eight broad restrictions that can be imposed on a citizen’s right to free speech and expression. It states that a law will continue to be valid

…in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

I revisited this article recently after encountering a fascinating passage in the Law Commission Report on hate speech. This passage notes the wording of one of the very first versions of this provision, which said that the right would be subject to the following proviso (this proviso was, in fact, dropped when the freedom clause was introduced during the Constituent Assembly debates):

Provision may be made by law to make the publication or utterance of seditious, obscene, blasphemous, slanderous, libellous or defamatory matter actionable or punishable.

Here are a few thoughts I had on this:

One, we seem to have more restrictions on this right at present than were originally proposed. The Constituent Assembly debates and a few subsequent cases and amendments hold the key to understanding the circumstances behind such expansion. It would be fascinating to further study this evolution.

Two, it is encouraging to see that obscenity and blasphemy did not make the final cut. But this is tempered by the existence of decency and morality in the article as it exists today. We could do with thicker skins in this country.

Three, should defamation have a place as a reasonable restriction, particularly when recourse in the form of civil damages is available? The continued existence of criminal defamation in the rule books points towards the shortcoming of this status quo.

Making flying viable for everyone

To successfully provide affordable air travel, government needs to ensure economic viability of its policies.

This year the Indian government decided to connect 56 unserved airports, under the Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik (UDAN) scheme. The aim of the entire scheme is to make air travel affordable. Although the intentions of the scheme are noble, the steps taken have limited the scope of implementation. One of the key failures lies with the inability to understand the repercussions on the economic viability of airlines.

While the capital invested in buying and maintaining even a single airplane is already high, fuel cost and hiring the crew to keep an airline going add to the expensive affair. To give a ball park figure, domestic airlines in the U.S. spends a combined $2 to $5 billion on just jet fuel every month. Keeping the costs in in mind, it is important for the airline industries to ensure that the flight routes are economically viable. One of the ways this is ensured is by connecting less frequented routes with the major stops in order to cross subsidise the cost. In India, we follow a hub and spoke model where the major cities are the hub or the centre of the wheel and the all the traffic is connected to the centre and passes around the spokes. This helps increasing connectivity while keeping the flight routes viable. This heavy traffic is the the primary reason why most major cities in the world have two airports. The traffic going to and fro from these metropolis does not only keep the city running, but the airlines too.

It is in light of this distribution between traffic that the government policy to connect underserved airports can be questioned. That said, the current scheme tries to provide Value Gap Funding to certain routes for first few years to cover for the additional cost incurred. VGF is an economic tool that includes tax redemptions and financial support provided by the government to make the project viable. For instance for UDAN, the union government contributes 80 per cent of the VGF amount, while the remaining comes from the state governments concerned and in the case of north-eastern states and union territories, the sharing ratio is 90:10.

Although, the funding does provide incentives for flight to opt for the routes till they are being subsidised, it does not create enough incentives for the routes to remain viable after. The inherent flaw in the policy move, therefore, make it unsustainable. The grimness of the possible outcome is captured best in an article in  The Economist :

High per-passenger costs on seldom-used routes will force Mr Modi to draw the line somewhere. Inevitably, he will conclude that not every commoner deserves the gift of flight.”

To make the airports truly viable, union government needs to look at making the cities more attractive for regular travellers or tourists. Hence, to bring a ghost airport to life it is important for the government to put some life into the host city.

Did You Eat The Pig?

Here’s a thought experiment: scientists find a way to map all the information embedded in your brain, including all neuronal connections and so on. You have a fatal disease. You die. You are cremated along with your brain. But the digital replica of it exists on a hard drive, and is one day, in whatever form, brought back to life. Is that You?

In fact, if that is done to a parent of yours, and you are told they are now on your laptop and can interact with you, will you still respect them?

If that’s a deceased loved one, will you still love her? Is she a person to you? How can you tell?

Our sense of self, quite clearly, is a product of the brain. But if a brain is intact and the body is not, does the self still exist?

This is a stray thought brought about by this news about scientists having found a way to reanimate a dead pig’s brain. Suppose you ate the pig. Did you really eat it?

Delhi government bans recorded music in bars

Yet another example of the capricious nature of doing business in India is the Delhi government announcement today that all restaurants serving alcohol should stop playing “recorded music”. They are only allowed to have “live singing” or “instrumental music”. What sense does this make? Probably not much to us, but the Excise commissioner has this enlightening explanation:

When asked how live music was less noisy than recorded music, Delhi’s excise commissioner Amjad Tak said that live performances were “softer” and “controlled”, without giving reasons or data for how he had arrived at the conclusion.

Of course, this makes no sense. Music volume is easily controlled in the 21st century, and we have sound mixing technology that can reduce deep bass if that’s a problem. But the important part of this is just how difficult running a business in India can be, especially in the hospitality sector given that “without giving reasons or data” is often the standard operating procedure for government diktats.

This new rule was introduced in a circular only on 16 May 2018, so it was not even the case that anyone who acquired a liquor licence earlier knew this was going to happen. Which bar owner would have thought recorded music would be outlawed? Similarly, in 2016, the Delhi government halted issuing of fresh liquor licences, even to those who had already paid for it. Imagine being a bar owner who had invested eight figure sums to set up a bar, paid for a licence, who then got told it wasn’t forthcoming.

(If you’re interested in more such fun facts about the restaurant business, check out my podcast with Amit Varma in The Seen and the Unseen on Pragati, where we talk about the unseen effects of regulations.)

It’s possible that this could go to court and be ultimately resolved in favour of the pubs, but like most such cases, businesses suffer both in terms of lost revenue as well as the cost of litigation. How many restaurants and pubs can afford to have live bands playing every night? Would you go to a dead pub without any music?

There are better alternatives to this “hammer, not scalpel” approach to problems. The government could have involved bars in a discussion to come up with options. Or it could have implemented a rule specifying the maximum sound level in decibels for music inside a restaurant. I’m no fan of government regulation in general, but given our current situation, either of these is more reasonable than “no data for how he had arrived at the conclusion”.

If India needs to stimulate its economy, it needs to make doing business easier. And a big part of that is having a stable business environment where disruptive rules are not introduced on a whim without industry consultation. Unfortunately, that’s just daily life for most businesses in our country.

PS: Did you know that you cannot have more than 9 litres of booze in your house as per Delhi Excise law?  Most states have similar limits. Don’t believe me? It’s right there on the Delhi Excise portal. So if you have more than a few bottles of the good stuff, you should drink it all ASAP to stay legally compliant.

Delhi excise personal alcohol possession limits