Of Saints and Humans

I know I’m late by many decades but I finally read Orwell’s Reflections on Gandhi today. I’m jotting down a few key lines from this essay.

But I could see even then that the British officials who spoke of him with a mixture of amusement and disapproval also genuinely liked and admired him, after a fashion. Nobody ever suggested that he was corrupt, or ambitious in any vulgar way, or that anything he did was actuated by fear or malice. In judging a man like Gandhi one seems instinctively to apply high standards, so that some of his virtues have passed almost unnoticed.

Here, Orwell says that the mark of a saint is the standards used to judge him/her.

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives”, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.

Here, Orwell brilliantly argues that it is a fallacy to see a human as a failed saint. May be a saint is a failed human too. Or that both of these streams are fundamentally incompatible.

Another brilliant section is on the limit of Gandhian morality in the conduct of international relations. It highlights that in an amoral world, morality can be a handicap, much less a weapon.

It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary [..] But let it be granted that non-violent resistance can be effective against one’s own government, or against an occupying power: even so, how does one put it into practise internationally? Gandhi’s various conflicting statements on the late war seem to show that he felt the difficulty of this. Applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist or becomes appeasement. Moreover the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true, for example, when you are dealing with lunatics. Then the question becomes: Who is sane? Was Hitler sane? And is it not possible for one whole culture to be insane by the standards of another? And, so far as one can gauge the feelings of whole nations, is there any apparent connection between a generous deed and a friendly response? Is gratitude a factor in international politics?

 

The Second Order Effects Have Begun

Financial Express reports that demonetisation and glitches in GST implementation has led to a loss of 4 lakh jobs, erosion of wages, and reduced exports in the textile industry in Surat.

The Federation of Surat Textile Traders Association (FOSTTA) claims that after the rollout of the new tax structure, over 4 lakh jobs have been lost with many of the textile units in the city running far below their installed capacity. Moreover, the past 18 months have seen sales slump by about 30-40 % and payments getting delayed.

It further mentions that the small and unorganised textile units are not able to comprehend the complex GST rules. The delay in refund has also led to a fall in export orders.

Nearly a year and half after demonetisation, the second order effects are beginning to show up. The recent shortage of currency is another such second order effect. Any big macroeconomic shock will have multiple rounds of effects – the growth slowdown and all the associated effects in 2016-17 was just the first order effect. Unfortunately, I believe we’ll see many more stories of particular industries getting affected in novel ways due to the double whammy of demonetisation and the faulty implementation of GST.

Karnataka’s Electricity Woes

It is the election season. We are talking about Bangalore in the year 2018. Yet, the city is facing scheduled and unscheduled power cuts up to 4-6 hours per day. It is simply unacceptable by any standards. If the government cannot ensure uninterrupted power supply in peak election season in the most important city in the state, I shudder to think of the situation in rural areas.

BESCOM, the power distribution company in Bangalore, supposedly received 6552 complaints on just one day (April 24th) regarding power disruption. For the month of April, the number of complaints touched nearly 40,000.

The two normal reasons given for power cuts are: increased demand and disruption due to technical reasons following rains. These are not tenable excuses. BESCOM seems to be surprised every year that people use more electricity during summers. There are no steps taken in advance to manage the higher demand.

This is the statement given by N Jayanthi, the General Manager of customer relations of BESCOM:

Transformers get overloaded, flashovers occur and there are other technical problems. Sometimes, trees bring down feeders with them, and as a precaution, we have to cut off the power, so that no one gets electrocuted.

Is our critical infrastructure setup so fragile that a bit of rain and wind can leave an entire city dark? Surely, there are solutions to prevent such damage to the power lines due to wind and rain.

Ultimately, to solve the problem, the government would need to increase the price paid by the consumer for electricity, which would allow the ESCOMs (Electricity Supply Companies) to buy power and invest in better technology. BESCOM can introduce also special seasonal tariffs for summer or prepare for a weak monsoon by making arrangements to buy power in advance. Privatisation will also go a long way in ensuring uninterrupted power supply. Cities in India, such as Mumbai and Gudgaon, which have privatised has witnessed good power supply.

Finally, ESCOMs in India should operate the way a private firm does: project production quantities, projecting demand, possibilities for production disruption, alternatives for mitigating the disruptions, etc.

The Oil Conundrum: Reduce Taxes vs. Reinstate Price Controls

Global oil prices are rising, but still only half of their record high at $75 a barrel. However, the price of petrol and diesel in India is the highest that it has ever been, causing quite a bit of distress to consumers. The knock on effect of high diesel prices, mainly used in transportation, can also be significant. It can have an inflationary effect on the commonly consumed goods and of course makes the visit to the petrol bunk all the more painful for owners of motorbikes and cars.

With many state elections around the corner and the general elections next year, the government is feeling the pressure to restore the price controls on fuel. Early in 2014, the government had decided to remove all subsidies on diesel and free up the prices on diesel and petrol, in an effort to reduce the massive subsidy bill.

Simultaneously, in 2014, oil prices came crashing and the government decided not to pass on the entire reduction in prices to the final consumer. Instead, it decided to levy a tax on fuel, which is still in place. Now, with global oil prices rising, and the tax still in place, consumers are feeling the pinch.

So, the government has two options – reduce the tax, which roughly amounts to 50% of the price of a litre of fuel or go back to price controls. The government is preferring the second one. The government has gotten addicted to the revenue that excise duty and other fuel taxes bring – estimated to be about 2.5 trillion rupees for 2018-19. Reducing taxes might severely affect its fiscal health and is thus, favouring the second option of partially reinstating price controls.

Taxes on gasoline is far higher than many parts of the world. It accounts for a bit more than 50% of the final price. There are union and state level taxes on gasoline. Excise duty, one of the major components of federal tax, was hiked nine times between 2014 and 2016. To get an idea, of the Rs. 75 final price of petrol in Delhi, nearly Rs. 39 are taxes.

Price controls on fuel would again damage the finances of the upstream oil companies. In the previous regime of price controls, the finances of HPCL, IOL, etc were in a bad shape. If their bottom-line gets affected, it is again the citizens who will pay for it. It might also worsen the debt situation of these companies, which will affect an already fragile banking system. To give a taste of this, when the fuel subsidies and price controls were lifted, the debt burden of the oil companies reduced by as much as 50-65%. A reversal is not in the public interest.

P.S: Back in 2016, I had written a blog on the break-up of petrol price in Delhi. The main image from that blog is reproduced here and shows the price break up of a litre of petrol costing around Rs.60:

 

Newton and the Free Speech Apple

News18 reports:

Rajkummar Rao’s Newton, which was India’s official entry for the 2018 Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category, earned widespread critical acclaim across the globe and received numerous awards and nominations. However, what was Indian cinema’s pride for some has hurt sentiments of a CRPF officer, who has filed a complaint against the makers of the film seeking deletion of a few scenes allegedly portraying the India’s Central Armed Police Forces in a bad light.

You might read this and think, what kind of man would file such a complaint? What’s wrong with him?

The problem here is not the man, though, but the fact that we don’t do enough to protect free speech in this country. There are many laws that can be used to muzzle free expression, and they cannot be challenged on constitutional grounds, because the constitution does not protect free speech. Article 19 (2) allows grounds on which free speech can be muzzled such as “public order, decency or morality” and “defamation,” all of which can be interpreted widely.

We have a whole bunch of IPC laws that make it a crime to offend someone — and people can be offended by anything one says, which makes it all a bit of a joke. The producers of Newton have enough money to put their lawyers on the job, and this case is just a minor nuisance for them. But these laws are liberally use to strike out at dissenters, and they have a chilling effect on potential dissenters.

What’s worse is that it is not just the laws that are messed up. Most people around you — unless you move around in a self-select elite circle — will agree that there need to be these restrictions on speech. That makes it not just a political and legal problem, but also a social one.

Okay, I’ll shut up now.

The Kennedy-Klobuchar Bill – Updates from a Post-Zuckerberg Congress

(This post is part 1/n of what’s happening in the US Congress post the Zuckerberg testimony.)

If (like me) you spent hours watching Zuckerberg testify before the US Congress, then you’d remember how several legislators promised Facebook they would be tabling bills to regulate social media.

Well, it’s just over two weeks after Zuck’s testimony, and the first such bill is already tabled before the Senate. Sponsored by Democrat Senator Klobuchar and Republican Senator Kennedy, the Social Media Privacy Protection and Consumer Rights Bill, 2018 centers around important principles of user consent and compulsory breach notification.

The bill stresses on drafting the terms and conditions in simple English so that users know exactly what data the website wants to collect, store and process. It also puts the ball back in the user’s court by allowing her to delete her social media data once she becomes aware of a breach.

Well-intentioned as it is, it looks like the Kennedy-Klobuchar bill retains a “Take It or Leave It” binary. It proposes solid user protection and rights, but most of them are squarely based on the power of the data collector to provide only two polar options to the user – to opt-in to its terms, or to opt-out of the platform completely.

If you’ve been so bored that you’ve read your favourite app’s terms and conditions, you will know that several of them today are a binary.

These are called “Take it or Leave It” clauses – so, if a user does not agree to a particular clause her only option is often to not sign up on the platform at all. While this provides simple, easy to understand options to the user, it is also a problem because it may make the user accept terms she is unhappy with. This is why, one of the suggestions data privacy advocates make is that companies collecting data devise smarter, non-binary ways in which the user is assured while still making their platform available to users.

Simplifying these terms and conditions, while still allowing the user multiple options other than to “Take It or Leave It”, as well as being a fast moving service provider at the same time is bound to incredibly tough for the social media company. The good news is, there are some effective ways to do that. However, as the Kennedy-Klobuchar bill rests on the correctness of this approach, its impact is automatically limited.

That said, the Kennedy-Klobuchar bill is an otherwise significant proposal. It looks out for the user by making the data collectors responsible for communicating terms and conditions in a simple manner.

The nerd in me is super excited to do a clause-by-clause breakdown of the bill, but until then, here are some neat summaries of what it talks about:

Senate privacy bill gives Facebook what it asked for.

Senators introduce bipartisan internet privacy bill.

Blogging Is Not Dead Yet

In the first episode of this weekly podcast, Amit Varma and Hamsini Hariharan discuss the launch of Pragati Express, and their favourite pieces for the week. Here are some of the pieces that were spoken about in this podcast:

  1. The Freedom Fighters of Pakistan by Chintan Girish Modi
  2. Breaking New Ground by Manoj Kewalramani
  3. A Strong Law is Not Enough by Rishi Majumdar
  4. We Will Not Protect You by Alok Prasanna Kumar
  5. I Want My Free Sub by Gaurav Sabnis
  6. The Future of The Internet on the Seen and the Unseen

 

Closure of Bars on Election Day Reflects Failure of Democracy

The Election Commission in Karnataka has been overzealous in enforcing the model code of conduct, with special regard to sale of alcohol. Election times are generally a pain for owners of liquor stores and bars, but this year seems to be a whole lot worse.

The EC has issued directives and guidelines for owners of bars and other establishments selling liquor. They must maintain diligent accounts of every sale of alcohol. The specific order that has many bar owners worried states: “If there is more than 10 per cent difference in sales compared to the previous year, such outlets will have to face inquiry”. This is ridiculous.

The 20th of April in 2018 was a Friday, when sales generally tend to be high and in 2017, the date fell on a Thursday. The discrepancy could easily be 10 percent.

There will also be a flying squad constituted by the excise department which will patrol the city. It can visit any shop at any time and ask the owners to produce the accounts and sale details. This makes it ripe for rent seeking and discretionary abuse of power. Consider this:

Till Tuesday afternoon, 303 excise licenses have been temporarily suspended in the city alone, and a total of 793 establishments have been temporarily shut till the polling day for various violations across the state.

Further, there has been a lot of seizure of alcohol stock by the excise department, the flying squads and the Election Commission’s vigilance units. In less than a month, these entities together have managed to seize a total of 3,65,388 litres of alcohol seized since March 27.

There are also restrictions on how much alcohol a retail store can sell to an individual: no individual can be sold more than 2.2 litres of beer, or 750 ml of hard liquor. Again, these limits are ridiculous. Is it impossible to imagine a person buying two full bottles of alcohol for a private party he is hosting at home?

Finally, the biggest problem I have with all of this is that it curbs economic freedom. How is it fair to restrict the business of one type of commercial establishment? How is it fair to close down bars and disrupt business on election days? The election day closures are a feeble compensation for state failure and on a larger scale, failure of our democracy. If people vote based on liquor they receive, the problem is not with whether bars are open or not. Finally, I would argue that it is on the election day and the day of results that I could really use a drink.

Is the US immigration policy an opportunity for India?

Earlier in the day, we discussed the impact of a tighter US immigration policy regime on India. At the margin, will it lead skilled Indians to return to India? Nitin Pai in The Print gives a conditional yes as an answer.

Even if pay scales were equivalent (say in terms of purchasing power parity), few NRIs would trade the comfort, security and quality of life in a developed country and come back and face the challenges of daily life in India. Despite sentimental links, patriotic feelings and family connections, most NRIs prefer to live abroad. It won’t change because of government schemes, no matter how attractive they are on paper.

This idea can be conceptualised as two forces acting in the opposite direction. One force is a “India” premium — the extra salary that would compensate for the returnee’s lower quality of life in India. A force in the opposite direction is the “motherland” discount — the discount arising out of patriotic and familial considerations, leading people to stay back or return to India. It is the interplay between these two forces that will decide the direction of skilled labour flows.

As of today, the “India” premium is way larger than the “motherland” discount. Closing this gap is necessary to convert US immigration policy into an opportunity for India.

Enemies With Benefits

The Times of India reports:

Congress on Thursday alleged conspiracy and lodged a complaint with the Karnataka police over what it called “unexplained malfunctioning” of the 10-seater Dassault Falcon 2000 aircraft (VT-AVH) carrying party president Rahul Gandhi to Hubballi from New Delhi.

According to the complaint, filed by Rahul’s close aide Kaushal K Vidyarthee, who was travelling with him, the aircraft suddenly tilted heavily on the left side and the altitude dipped steeply, combined with violent shuddering of the plane’s body, during the course of the flight.

Apparently Narendra Modi called up Gandhi after the incident. I imagine his concern was genuine. These two men should love each other, because they need each other. Modi needs Gandhi because he wants to destroy the Congress, and a weak leader like Gandhi is helping the process along. Gandhi needs Modi because he does not have the skills to come to power on the basis of his own personality, but an anti-Modi wave could get him there.

Basically, the relationship between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi should have BFF-status. You think they send each other cat videos?

India’s plagiarism policy is facepalm

I could’nt believe my eyes when I read in this week’s Science magazine. Here’s an excerpt from Pallava Bagla’s report on UGC’s new plagiarism policy:

The new policy creates four tiers for addressing plagiarism, which is defined by UGC India as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or idea and passing them as one’s own.” The first tier, for what it calls “similarities up to 10%,” would carry no penalty. The second tier, in which 10% to 40% of a document is plagiarized, would require students to submit a revised manuscript and force faculty members to withdraw the plagiarized paper. In cases where 40% to 60% of the document is plagiarized, a student would be suspended for a year and the faculty member would forfeit an annual pay raise and be prohibited from supervising students for 2 years. Students who plagiarize more than 60% of their thesis would be kicked out of the program, while the penalties for faculty members would be extended to a loss of 2 years of pay increases and a 3-year ban on supervising students.[Science]

This is not lenient. It’s breathtaking. By failing to seriously penalise persons who copy as much as 40% of their work, the UGC is effectively condoning massive levels of plagiarism. Whether or not universities are able to catch and act against those who plagiarise, the signal this sends to students and the academic community is perverse. It’s telling them — “it’s okay to copy!”

Now, plagiarism is rampant in Indian academia, a manifestation of the rot that has set in our education system and intellectual life. Instead of attempting to stem that rot and turn things around, the UGC seems to have decided that it might as well legitimise the copying culture. This, to put it mildly, is not expected of the regulator of higher education.

Plagiarism is theft. Condoning theft perverts the settings of the moral compass of young minds. The cascading effects of this will be disastrous for Indian society.

What should the UGC have done? Set the plagiarism threshold very low. The tiniest plagiarism fetches a warning. At 10% you get kicked out. Then announce a transition window of two years to allow everyone to understand and adjust to a new, stringent regime.

As it stands, the proposed plagiarism policy is not, as V S Ramamurthy asks, merely “a joke”. It’s a license to copy.