Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Voter or Taxpayer

The issue is indirect taxation.

In India, we have become so used to indirect taxation that we have lost sight of the fact that each and every Indian is a tax payer. No one is beyond the scope of the tax collector. It is just that we don't know it. Even the poorest of the poor, who buys a bar of soap or any manufactured goods is paying a lot of indirect taxes without realizing it. And since we do not realize that we are paying taxes, we do not expect anything in return. Perhaps that is what the system desires.

On one of the post 26/11 TV debates, actress Simi Garewal heatedly put forward the suggestion that taxpayers should stop paying taxes to a government that can not provide security. By taxpayers she perhaps meant those who pay income-tax. But then she does not know that in reality the bulk of the Government coffers are filled through indirect taxation. Direct tax payers constitute a very small part of the Government's income. It is the various excises and duties and surcharges and service taxes and VAT and this and that which account for the revenue.

Every February end, we see the spectacle of our Finance Minister juggling the various excises and duties on consumables, increasing it on some and providing relief on others, but basically succeeding in increasing the governments revenue by increasing indirect taxes.

Indirect taxation is immoral in the sense that it does away with the idea of accountability of the Government to the taxpayers. As well as creating apathy amongst them who are just reduced to being voters to be approached only at election time. In the mean time they watch uninterestedly while the Government squanders away their hard earned billions on Loan-Melas and other unproductive expenses.

Indirect taxation should be reduced till it approaches zero and direct taxation should be encouraged. The counter argument is that no-one likes to pay direct taxes and this is true to an extent. No one wants to part with his hard earned money right before his own eyes. And if this happens, then one would want to find out exactly how it is going to be spent and whether one is getting value for it. That would usher in an era of a more pro-active and a more responsible and a more awakened citizenry, demanding better governance. Perhaps that would lead India to a better future.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Water as a tool of war

The time has come to use whatever powers and advantages we have at our disposal in order to win the war that has been forced upon India. Because conventional war is out of the question and diplomacy can only go so far with a two-faced adversary like Pakistan who says one thing, means something different and ultimately does what it intends to do.

The Indus Waters Treaty was signed by Nehru and Ayyub Khan in 1960 with the World Bank as the third signatory. It gave Pakistan exclusive use of the Indus waters as well as its tributaries, the Jhelum and the Chenab. While India was allocated the Ravi, the Beas and the Sutlej. But India also has a right to 'run of the river' projects which do not disrupt the flow of water to Pakistan. One such project is the 450 Mw Baglihar hydro-electric dam project across the Chenab in Kashmir. This was inaugurated earlier this year amid strong protests by the Pak Government.

In 2005 Pakistan had sought the World Bank's intervention to stop construction of the Baglihar dam and the hydroelectricity power project, but Bank-appointed experts had cleared the project while asking India to restrict the overall height of the dam.

Earlier India had to stop construction of Tulbul Navigation Project on the River Jhelum on account of objections raised by Pakistan. While India maintained that the project was designed to improve navigation, especially during the winter when the water level recedes, Pakistan said that it is a storage project which will affect the flow of water. Work on the project has remained stalled for 20 years.

The Indus Waters Treaty is in fact the only treaty which has withstood all Indo-Pak wars, Kargils and the various terror attacks that we have witnessed lately. And this has been due to India's taking a moral stance and not using water as a weapon of war.

The Tulbul Navigation Project was one of eight issues under discussion in the stalled Pakistan-India Composite Dialogue process. Now is the time to use this to our advantage and restart its construction unilaterally, to send a strong signal to Pakistan.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Lost Decades

Kanhaiyalal Maneklal Munshi is one of the forgotten titans of the era which saw great personalities like Nehru, Gandhi and Sardar Patel leaving their mark on the Indian polity as well as history and geography. He was a prolific writer and thinker as well as an educator and an eminent lawyer.

Post independence, Munshi served in the central cabinet in a ministerial capacity and as governor of Uttar Pradesh, from 1952 to 1957. He was a staunch supporter of personal liberties and freedoms and a proponent of free market economy and capitalism. Disillusioned by the ongoing erosion of personal liberties and individual freedoms by the state under Nehru's misguided socialist policies, he left the Congress Party and joined the liberal Swatantra Party in 1959. He has outlined his reasons for doing so in this document.

Nehru was one of the greatest sons of India, there can be no doubt about that. But what happened under his stewardship was that independent thought was stifled and a coterie of yes- men gathered around the centers of power, intent upon increasing the state's powers at the expense of the individual. And this legacy was furthered by Indira Gandhi. It was not until the nineties that India finally started breaking free of this Nehruvian legacy of socialism which has resulted in two generations of the Indian people being held back from achieving their full potential and migrating away from the stifling atmosphere prevalent in India. India lost its most promising and brilliant minds to the 'Brain Drain' during this era.

'Breaking free of Nehru' is a book by Sanjeev Sabhlok. You can download half of the book from this link and go thru it. If you feel what Sanjeev has to say is relevant, you can also purchase the book, which is available in print now. I highly recommend you do that and find out for yourself what Sanjeev has to say about why India has lagged behind the world in almost all spheres and what should be done to remedy that.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Capitalism and the current financial crisis

Does the current financial crisis mean the end of the idea of capitalism, free trade and globalisation? Because it originated from a country that was the strongest proponent of capitalism and those who are spared from its worst effects are sheltered economies which follow mixed or socialist fiscal policies. It has the world in financial turmoil and the worst is yet to come. In its wake, capitalism, free trade and globalisation have suddenly become dirty words.

To me, the attractiveness of a system depends on the amount of freedom which it provides to the individual. The more freedom a system provides to the individual, the more attractive it is. And the more the state wants to control your freedoms and the more it wants to make decisions on your behalf, the less attractive it is to me.

The current financial crisis has led western governments to take steps which reek of socialism and I think that was the wrong thing to do. Because immediate pain might have been avoided but a bad precedent has been set.

Capitalism is the only natural system which allows individuals the freedom to realize their full potential and enjoy the fruits of their hard work. But with freedom comes responsibility. The old adage of 'Buyers Beware' is as applicable today as it always was. And whoever did not do their due diligence before getting into the fray to make some quick money, deserved to feel the pain and the losses and to die a natural death to make way for another more responsible entity to take its place.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Two worrying news items

This is a worrying development. Anyone who is accused of a crime committed on Indian soil has a right to legal counsel according to our constitution. Denying Ajmal Amir Qasab the right to representation will only delay the legal process and will not actually achieve any meaningful result. What is even more worrying is that this has been resolved by the Metropolitan Magistrate's Bar Association. In the same vein, if he is diagnosed with a life threatening disease tomorrow, perhaps the doctors should deny him treatment and break their Hippocratic oath?

And then, this one is even more horrifying. If this attitude is taken up by real estate agents all across the country, it will help the creation of ghettos everywhere. And further divide the country along communal lines. What is needed is integration, not division, if we wish to rid ourselves of the malaise of mistrust, alienation and hatemongering amongst ourselves. Because that is the mother lode that throws up terrorism of domestic origin, and aids foreign sponsored terrorists. If India is to emerge as a strong unified nation with its secular credentials intact, we have no option but to encourage integration of our people and condemn anything that seeks to further divide us.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


She made me proud to be an Indian in 1971 and again in 1974. I was in my teens then, but in 1975, she lost my respect by declaring emergency and disgusted me so much that I actively worked to help defeat her in the general elections in 1977.

And then, like a phoenix she rose from the ashes and came back to power in 1980. Her third term as prime minister was not like her earlier stints. This was not the same person, perhaps she had lost direction, or perhaps personal tragedies had somehow changed her. Then came Operation Blue Star in 1984, and her subsequent killing by her Sikh bodyguards.

She had been a part of my existence during my formative years and I still remember the sense of loss that I felt when I received that news. The pain and hurt transformed into anger at some point. And for a long time after that, every Sikh, in my eyes was a criminal and somehow responsible for the atrocity. I had heard about the resulting riots and killings of Sikhs in Delhi but never realized either the magnitude or the brutality or the senselessness of it all. Perhaps I just trivialized it as something bound to happen after the murder of Indira Gandhi.

I was trying to educate myself about what happened in 1984 and came across Mai's blog. Reading her account as well as others brought the horror of what transpired in 1984 to life.

I do not know if Mai and Suni were lucky in that they hailed from Canada and left India soon afterwards. The Indian Sikhs had to pick up the pieces of their lives after suffering the losses of their loved ones and facing economic hardship. As well as fighting for justice within a system that was unsympathetic towards their plight.

Justice, however late, is the only solace that we can offer them and I sincerely hope that the Sikhs do receive it.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Prank call that could have led to war

Sounds like a scene straight out of a Bollywood movie. At the height of the Mumbai incident, when feelings were running high, Pranab Mukherjee calls up Asif Ali Zardari late in the evening and threatens him with dire consequences unless he cooperates fully in acting against the terrorists who masterminded and carried out the Mumbai incident.

But this really happened. Someone posing as the Indian External Affairs Minister, actually called up Zardari. And someone in Pakistan, overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation, bypassed the usual checks and verifications and passed the call directly to the Pakistani president. The caller introduced himself as Pranab Mukherjee and, while ignoring the conciliatory language of the president, directly threatened to take military action if Islamabad failed to immediately act against the supposed perpetrators of the Mumbai killings.

This set into motion a frenzied round of political, military and diplomatic activities in Pakistan, bringing the military to a heightened state of alert, which resulted in the US sending out Condoleeza Rice to the region to avert war.

A breakdown in protocol turned into an embarassment for the Pakistani establishment. But while it may sound hilarious now, India and Pakistan were on the brink of war for the next 24 hours.

Both India and Pakistan are nuclear armed neighbors, and are at odds with each other. Just imagine the consequences of such a serious lapse in protocol.

Friday, December 05, 2008

You have blood on your hands

Holding candlelight vigils and marching in protest against terror......... You are kidding me.

Do you think those candle lighting events and protest marches are going to have any impact on the menace that we are facing? What they do, is give your conscience a momentary satisfaction of having done something to help the fight against terror. And then you revert back to what you have been doing all along.

When was the last time you stopped yourself from bribing an official to get a shortcut out of a situation? You keep on bribing everybody from the lowly traffic cops to high officials to get your work done. YOU are the one who has helped poison the very moral fabric of this nation. When you buy a property, do you not agree to pay a certain amount in black? Where do you think this money goes?

Do you think that the Mumbai carnage would have been possible without the collusion of the local underworld? I feel that some factions of the underworld must have provided logistics support in either planning or the actual carrying out of this incident.

If you have ever paid protection money or if you are a celebrity and have danced to their tunes, you have blood on your hands. If you have used recreational drugs you have blood on your hands. Because guess who benefits from the trade in illegal drugs? The same people who helped carry out the carnage in Mumbai.

Those showcase events are not going to change anything. The short term measures have to be taken of course, but the long term solution lies in beginning at the grassroots level. With you and me. And by doing the right thing. Take a moral stance, even if it is detrimental in the short term. Instill the correct values in your offspring. Start taking an active role in finding solutions to existing problems and be prepared for a long tortuous journey ahead. Because only WE can help bring about change.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Shades of grey

I have been numb for the past few days. I have been staying away from the TV and the computer trying to make sense of the world around me. Partly because of what has been happening in Mumbai and partly because I happened to witness a racist incident yesterday. Which is not too uncommon in this part of the world and happens to almost everyone living in this country, sooner or later.

And then today I decided to sit down and watch a movie on the telly and I thank my lucky stars that I happened to stumble on to Crash. By the time it was over, I was overwhelmed. The movie makes you realize that people can not be classified as either good or bad. That there are no completely black or completely white characters in this movie or life in general. That there are many shades of grey and that sooner or later, people get a chance to redeem themselves. That there is latent goodness in everybody and that all it needs is a nudge from your conscience to do the right thing. And that there is latent evil in everybody as well. That the victims are guilty of the same crimes that they accuse others of and that they too participate in perpetuating racism.

A very good movie that makes you identify with what is going through the hearts and minds of the characters and definitely worth a watch.