Excerpted economics doesn’t work

“Even if the rupee falls to 80, it will not be a concern, providing all other currencies depreciate”, our Economic Affairs Secretary was quoted as saying, earlier this week, on the front page of the Mint.

The logic is pure Alice in Wonderland – if all other currencies depreciate, then what exactly does the rupee depreciate against? One commentator explained – “he’s transposing the dollar against the rest of the world”. She was probably right. And maybe the honorable secretary had mentioned that elsewhere. If so, then the Mint editors took the quote out of context.

This morning, the Vice Chairman of Niti Ayog, Rajiv Kumar, was quoted, in the same paper, as saying,

“The rupee rose by about 17% during the last three years. Since the beginning of this year, rupee has declined 9.8%. So it has recovered. It is coming back to natural value”.

This is a staggering statement, for many reasons:

  1. The math – if something rises 17%, then drops 10%, it ends up 5% higher. But the rupee is at it’s lowest against the dollar. If the dollar is the benchmark here – which it typically is, this defies logic.
  2. If the rupee has declined, how exactly has it ‘recovered’? Recovery usually suggests rising, not falling.
  3. What is the ‘natural value’ of a currency?

Again, in response to my tweets, a  commentator tried to add context – namely that Mr. Kumar was talking in the context of REER (Real Effective Exchange Rate). That may well be the case, but even read like that, it makes the math illogical. And it definitely puts the Mint editors in the dock, again, for printing an excerpt out of context.

Careless comments typically appear when people are in a hurry. Why are our senior-most economic bureaucrats in a hurry? It doesn’t behove the custodians of a large rapidly growing economy. And it certainly doesn’t behove the custodians of a responsible newspaper, to rush half-baked statements to press.

 

Mohit Satyanand

Tourism is not a vertical

The Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi is clearly inspired by the Taj Mahal.

While Shah Jehan commissioned the Taj for his wife, Sheikh Zayed wanted to ensure his mausoleum was in keeping with his self-image. The scale is grand – and this breathless piece describes its opulence: http://www.traveller.com.au/abu-dhabis-match-for-the-taj-mahal-7cnw.

The Abu Dhabi dome is larger, the minarets are twice as high, and the grounds are on a scale only possible in a sparsely populated desert kingdom.

The Macedonian marble of the Abu Dhabi mosque is a flawless, almost synthetic white, and since it has not been aged by the centuries. it sparkles against the clear blue skies of the gulf peninsula. You could take offence with the garish crystal chandeliers in the mosque; what you think of the inlay work is a matter of taste, but to my eye, the vast floral sprays on the floor and one wall are quite exquisite. And I couldn’t help noticing how absolutely clean the water in the reflecting pools is.

This cleanliness is, of course, true of the grounds, the security posts where guards clear you, the parking lots, and the sweeping drive into the mosque complex.

I couldn’t help compare this with my last visit to the Taj, barely 12 months earlier – the parking lot was littered and tacky; the toilets were leaking; the walkway was uneven and dusty; and the queues impossible. We take all of this as standard for our nation, but at the Sheikh Zayed mosque, I couldn’t help wondering why international visitors would want to come to the Taj, once word gets around how stunning the Abu Dhabi mausoleum is.

Turns out, the word is already out there – Last year, Trip Advisor rated it as the world’s 2nd favourite tourist attraction, just behind Angkor Vat, and ahead of the Taj Mahal, at No. 5. The rating was obtained by using traveler reviews over  a 12 month period, folding both quality and number of reviews into an algorithm developed for the purpose.

We can’t solve for the Taj, or any of our other heritage buildings alone. The shambolic state of our infrastructure, the shabby attitude and poor training of our security guards, the , er, cleanliness of toilets, the indifference to litter – these have all come to define our national character; increasingly, these, rather than the built heritage, will determine tourist traffic, which continues to lose out to other nations.

 

Mohit Satyanand

 

Who the *@# are you?

I am that pesky Uncle whose car blocks a motorcycle heading the wrong way up a one-way street, and asks the driver what he thinks he’s doing.

I’m also that elitist idiot who once rapped on a lady’s car window, and handed her a Subway sandwich wrapper she just tossed, saying, “Madam, you left something behind.”

When I was not a silver-haired senior citizen, I would often get “Who the @#* do you think you are?” in words, or body language. Now, it’s more, “Don’t waste my time, move on.”

Sometimes, it’s more hopeful. Recently, on my cycle, I caught up with a motor-cyclist who swerved across two lanes, crashed one red-light, but was forced by traffic to wait at the next. I smiled at him, and asked him how much time he’d saved by the last manouver. “Not much”. he acknowledged.

And even if he had, I persisted, what would he have done with the time. He had the grace to consider that a valid question. “True”. And actually went to say, ” I won’t do that again.”

I’m not idealistic enough to believe that I modified someone’s behaviour that morning; but I got through.

I once read that traffic in Italy – long renowned for it’s unruliness – began to tip into the lane of European civility when it became socially unacceptable to drive with extreme selfishness. In Delhi, where I live, the blatant disregard of driving rules is worsening; I don’t see the traffic police responding in any meaningful manner.

As long as I have the energy, I will continue to be that pesky Uncle. But the years have taught me that you have a much better chance of getting through when you engage with civility and decency, rather than anger. And humor is the best recipe.

Once, tired at the end of a long day commuting by metro, I stood in front of the seats reserved for senior citizens and the disabled. The two young men occupying the seats pretended not to have noticed me. Loudly, I asked, “Which one of you is a senior citizen, and which one disabled?”

One scooted into the next carriage. The other looked around, saw another white haired-gent, and asked him resignedly, “Would you want to be sitting, too?”

I think we have a responsibility to engage with our fellow citizens, to make ours a more respectful, orderly society. But, if we want to succeed, we too, need to engage with respect.

The World’s most livable city

Yesterday, a cousin sent me a triumphant WhatsApp message from Munich, a city he has made his own: “Munich named world’s most livable city, again!”

The top city ranking was awarded by Monocle Films, which does an annual ranking of the world’s 25 top cities. Mercer, a global consultancy firm, ranks Munich at Number 4.

No.1 or No.4, Munich’s a gorgeous city, with great museums, a vibrant student life across 16 universities, beer, and above all, the English garden. With 78 kilometers of paths, this is one of the world’s largest urban parks. The Isar river runs through it, and a quirk in the topography creates a standing wave that challenges surfers in body suits. 10 minutes downstream, an artificial island hosts a Japanese tea house. Some of the garden’s architectural features are somewhat kitschy, but the feature that caught my liberal soul was this signboard posted at the top end of a meadow reserved for nude sun-bathers

 

I translate loosely:

LAWN FOR NUDE SUNBATHERS

 

  • Nude sunbathing is permitted in the meadow within the horse track
  • It doesn’t need saying that dogs in this area must be on a short leash
  • Please don’t disturb the peace of sunbathers here – many other lawns within the garden are at your disposal
  • Football and other ballgames are not permitted

Please regard this freedom as a special expression of a liberal and tolerant society

 

For this one sign board, and the worldview it represents, I hereby nominate Munich as the most tolerant city I have ever visited.

 

Modi and the Politics of Inauguration

Can you inaugurate something that’s not ready?

If you’re Prime Minister Modi, you can. You parade yourself in an open top jeep, with scores of security guards and attendants, and inaugurate 9 km of a proposed 96 km expressway, that was first proposed in 1999.

The next morning, your followers wake to full-page announcements where your Union Minister of ‘Road Transport & Highways…’ proclaims:

“Congratulations to NHAI and Welspun Group for completing the green and sustainable Delhi Meerut Expressway in record time”.

For a government perpetually in PR and campaign mode, why bother with the details, namely that only one tiny phase of the project is ready?

Talking of campaign mode, it doesn’t harm the party that a by-election is around the corner, and it just happens to be a stone’s throw away from the expressway. Campaigning inside the constituency would be a violation of EC norms, so let’s find a new way of fingering these outmoded pseudo-democratic traditions.

Seizing share of voice in the political marketplace is Modi’s forte, and he leaves the opposition flat-footed several times a week. Every institution – governmental, corporate, or non-governmental is recruited for the purpose.

Opponents can cavil, but the moment is passed.

Finicky folk can point at the facts, but this is a post-truth world.

There is a larger issue with public projects. In our country, especially, large projects span several governments, as they go from conception, through planning, to debate, costing, land acquisition, tendering, and execution. The Delhi-Meerut Expressway was first mooted in 1999. The idea was written into the NCR Transport Plan 2021 in 2005. Chidambaram announced it in his 2006 Budget speech. At one stage, it was to be built by the UP state government; in 2013, it was confirmed that the central government would be responsible for the project.

Given these massive gestation periods, infra-success has many fathers. What matters is who proclaims paternity loudest. Right now. Modi is doing that.

 

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…

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.

Namaaz, public spaces, and religion

Over the last couple of weeks, the practice of namaaz in the open spaces of Gurugram, Delhi’s southern neighbor, has become a deeply contentious affair. Hindu vigilante squads heckled and intimidated the worshippers till they dispersed.

When civil rights groups brought the matter to the Haryana government, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar was quoted by NDTV as having said, “it wasn’t right to pray in open spaces.”

“If there is shortage of places for offering namaz, it should be done in personal spaces, inside homes,” Mr Khattar added.

I agree with Mr. Khattar. Religion is a private affair, and should have no demand on public spaces. I hope he holds to this view during the kawariya season this year.

Every July, millions of observant Hindus spill onto the streets of north India, ferrying water from the Ganga, at Hardwar, and at Garh Mukteswar, to their homes in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Haryana. Recent estimates put the number of water carriers, called ‘kawariyas’, at 32 million. Governments of the northern states, including Delhi, through which many of the busiest routes pass, make extensive arrangements for the welfare and security of these pilgrims.

Roads – sometimes entire highways – are blocked, schools are closed, law and order becomes sensitive, and meat shops are shut down for fear of offending religious sentiments.

Here are some news clippings of the impact that the kawariya season has on public spaces and private lives every year:

“We found that the entire Delhi-Hardwar highway was closed to non-pilgrimage traffic. Our bikes went so fast it felt we were going to take off! On the way, there were places for us to rest and eat – all free!

Business Standard, August 10, 2013

“The Ghaziabad administration on Monday declared a seven-day holiday for all educational institutes located along NH-58 for the ongoing kanwar yatra. Schools, colleges, and management and engineering institutes along the highway will remain closed till August 1. It’s the first time such an order has been issued in UP for kanwar yatra. “The order is applicable to all types of educational institutes,” district magistrate Nidhi Kesarwani told TOI.”

Times of India, July 26, 2016

“Huge force would be deployed along NH-58 for people’s security and also to maintain the traffic. A large number of policemen in civil clothes will also be among the Kawariyas.” Inspector General, Police, Meerut range, Uttar Pradesh.

India Today, July 31, 2015

Besides this, all meat shops on the Kanwar Yatra route in the Ghaziabad district have been ordered to remain closed. All eateries on the route have also been instructed not to display non-vegetarian dishes till Maha Shivratri celebrations on July 21.

Financial Express, July 10, 2017