2016

December 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

I’m not someone who’s too held up by special occasions. But, welcoming a New Year is always an occasion which I like to pay some attention too. This attention isn’t about partying, but looking at where I stand in life, and what’s happened. Something I learnt in 2016(as tweeted):

a) 2016 was a lot about learning about myself, learning to cope better with depression and not being too hard on myself.

b) Also acceptance that I may not be as important to people as they are to me and that’s okay. Friends will be there.

c) No one is responsible for my happiness, but me. My state of mind and balance can only come from within.

d) There is no need to expect anything from people around you. Expectations spoil relationships and also leave you sad.

e) And whatever I do is because I want to do it. It is a choice. So enjoy what I do and not be bothered about what other people think.

f) A year where I was hurt a lot, but also bounced back. Confident in my ability to do this now.

g) Lastly, “work” isn’t merely work. I do whatever I do and I care about what I do.

You can find the thread here.

 

Demonetisation: A noble thought, but demonstrates government’s distrust in its citizens

December 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

An edited version was first published on Firstpost- http://firstpost.com/business/demonetisation-a-noble-thought-but-demonstrates-govts-distrust-in-its-citizens-3165246.html

 

November 8th, 2016 will go down as one of those days which define an era in the annals of Indian history. Such moments usually tend to be planned confrontations, with  a crescendo slowly leading up to it, and while not always obvious at that time, it is heard later, and understood in hindsight. Kingdoms and rulers are defined by these moments, mostly on the battle field and sometimes off it.

The locus of today’s war is the Indian economy, and the Government of India has sounded the gongs and issued a battle cry against those evil-doers who have stashed away “black money.” Much like most wars since the World War era, civilians aren’t just inactive participants, they are collateral. Both sides have a free run on them, and whatever each does is in good-faith to their conscience and belief system.

So much has been done and said, and said and not-done- some true, some not so much the truth, and some outright lies and rumours, that to get a full sense of what’s happened and what’s happening is like trying to wrap your head around a religious text- as much as one’s personal morality and belief cry out aloud, one still has to adopt an arm’s distance and try to understand the logic and reason of the text, however convoluted and perverse.

To state the simple facts, without reducing to ad absurdum- the Prime Minister of the country announced that five hundred and thousand rupee notes will not be valid tender from the following day. People have been given fifty days to exchange, deposit, use it for a few things like petrol, tickets, etc.- basically to get rid of the old notes. The exchange is subject to limits, and deadline(s) have been set for using the old notes for certain transactions. A limit has also been set for ATM transactions and withdrawing cash from banks. People have been encouraged to adopt non-cash methods of transactions. We are still within the 50 day window.

The intention of demonetising 86% of the currency in circulation is to bring out the “black money.” The government has been quite vocal in taking on black money, and this isn’t the first move. When it comes to intentions, there is nothing to fault. In fact, it is laudable that they have the will to take on what’s almost become a characteristic of an Indian.

Black money tends to be of two types- money which is from an illegal activity and not reported to the taxation authorities, and that which is from a legal source but hasn’t been reported to the taxation authorities.

This money isn’t always necessarily in cash- it is also stashed away in tax havens – countries and businesses who are committed to the tenets of secrecy and believe that what they do not know isn’t their problem and you will not know when you don’t ask questions. The path to “justice” for this money is much harder and almost impossible, because of the complex structure of these transactions, and international laws, rules and diplomacy. Also, one usually doesn’t tend to prosecute oneself or the hand that feeds.

And then there is the black money that is in cash – ubiquities and an innate part of the Indian economy. This money is created, owned and used in transactions by almost everyone. It is not created just through bribes, capitation fees or land deals, but also is created by teachers, doctors, Chartered Accountants, lawyers, priests and other noble folks who take money and not pay taxes on the transaction. This money is then used in further transactions where it may or may not come back into the legal system. As such, the difficulty here lies in not just getting hold of the romanticised huge stashes of money, but also in bringing it to account in the hands of the person who hasn’t paid the taxes.  For legal transactions, we have a VAT system, TDS/TCS, etc.  which are aimed at this – to catch a transaction at its origin and bring it into the tax net. The GST regime which will soon be ushered in aims to build on and strengthen the existing system.

A key measure which the government seems to have identified is digitalisation and encouraging non-cash transactions. This is certainly the best way to eliminate the creation of black money- when the number of cash transactions reduce it becomes more and more difficult to hide illegal transactions and masquerade them as legal; that is, people cannot create black money, when everything has been brought to account and large cash transactions will draw suspicion.

This is where eliminating the higher denominations comes into play. It would mean that apart from transactions of small value, people would tend towards non-cash transactions. It would also mean that physically carrying and stashing away black money will become difficult, not just because of the weight and volume, but also because the actual value of currency in circulation will be lesser than what it will be with higher denominations in circulation.

Demonetisation means removing an object of its intrinsic value. It doesn’t necessarily mean new currency of the same denomination aren’t issued, it just means the old notes are retired. The idea behind the current demonetisation drive is to bring out the hidden 500s and 1000s and subject them to taxation. The idea here isn’t to eliminate higher denominations, as evident by the new 500s and 2000s, but more of a confession for old sins. There also seems to be a move towards reducing the currency in circulation, maybe even a possible demonetization of these new notes in the future as we head towards a more digitalised economy.

As stated earlier, the intention behind this move is excellent and noble. But what has happened is a mess of an execution. We see queues at banks and ATMs where people are forced to wait to withdraw their own money. Small businesses and traders have lost income, and are in a fix to make ends meet.

The government has carried out extensive advertisement campaigns and people aplenty have been quick to rubbish anyone questioning the move as anti-national (“With the growth of nationalism, man has become the greatest menace to man. – Tagore).

But beyond what at times sounds more propaganda than anything else, what we need to look at is the success of the move – this can be by the amount of BLACK MONEY brought out and future gains from it and also the move towards digitalisation.

it will take a long time to know the actual amount of black money brought out. Apart from stories of certain huge deposits, the actual money which has come out or has been destroyed will take a long time to emerge and might still be subject to a good degree of error.

Also, this move doesn’t eliminate the conversion of old black to new black or the creation of new black money. While the former shows how deep corruption is ingrained in our system, the latter is possible since we still have high denomination currencies. While the headlines of new black being caught would seem to show a higher efficacy in catching hold of perpetrators, it can simply be down to reporting bias and won’t become evident till we know the extent of the new rot.

The gain to the exchequer also needs to be considered. The direct gain here would be taxation imposed on the black money reported. Here again, this money would only be subject to direct tax and not indirect taxes which were also evaded. In fact, tracing the origin of the money and therefore the point of taxation might actually lead to better plugging the system and loopholes. It remains to be seen if this gain will outweigh the cost of the move.

The indirect gain would be the income in the future generated- the increase in money in banks should theoretically lead to a decrease in interest rates which in turn would lead to more borrowings and investments into the economy. In the long run, this should out do the loss to the economy due to the demonetisation. Again, it remains to be seen if this will happen.

Great impetus has been given to going Digital. The general awe of using cards to pay for everything in places like Singapore, is no more a distant dream, but almost a reality- how we wish.

Much like the Swachh Bharat drive (ironically the logo of this mission appears on the new currency notes – a haven for germs, dust and other such), saying and cess-ing doesn’t really solve the problem. For every railway station that beams at us, the fact remains that a hundred other places are as dirty as ever. Implementation is what matters, and for that we need two things, a) an infrastructure and b) education (different from merely disseminating information).

Quoting the number of bank accounts is a moot point. What matters is the number of digital transactions actually carried out as an overall percentage of transactions. What also matters is the available infrastructure and if it is enough to support (almost) everyone going digital overnight (if 86% of the cash is removed and only a small % added back, then clearly this is the intention and way out.)

Without going into servers and capacities, we have to look at the availability of POS machines and cards, net banking facilities, smart phones, phones (for UID),, etc. And beyond that, we need to look at if banks can receive requests, process and issue/digitally enable people overnight, especially when they are caught up in changing money and accepting deposits. The obvious answer seems to be in the negative, especially considering we still have villages without electricity, or proper banking infrastructure. While it can be argued that quite a sizeable quantum of legal transactions are non-cash anyway, what needs to be remembered is as a government it is equity that matters- the quantum doesn’t matter, but the number of transactions do. And what needs to be remembered is that we are talking about not just about illegal money, but access to legally earned, taxed money and transacting using it.

While anecdotal stories have been published to belie us into thinking that people have adopted digital technology overnight, the reality is far from it. Educating people goes beyond advertising and pushing matter- it involves teaching them how to register, use and transact using digital technology securely. As such there is much distrust in technology, especially when it comes to money, by quite a large portion of the population.

The government seems to have overestimated the influence of the Prime Minister and assumed it as enough motivation for people to believe and switch over. But the panic which followed the announcement and practical considerations like paying for food and rent and standing in queues to get money for these things didn’t really allow for much room for people to consider what was being said. So while being highly nationalistic and soldering along queues, people did not have time to learn and adopt. Maybe the government could have used the wait time to actively educate people using its highly motivated volunteers.

The difference between fortitude and balderdash masochism lies in choosing the moments you use to exhibit the underlying quality- to use a much too familiar example would be of Karna from Mahabharata who bore the pain of a creature digging into him while his guru slept- which as anyone would tell you led to him being cursed to forget all he knew at the moment of reckoning. The intention maybe right, but personality driven egotistic heroism is the also the start of a tragedy. All the suffering of civilians, and soldiers (to the convenience of those who bring them into conversation, can’t respond) is of nought when neither have you stopped the creation of illicit money nor have you caused a major shift towards cashless economy.

To be fair, corruption is too deep seated in us that you are asking people not just to adopt to a new system but to fundamentally kill a part of themselves. As much as a majority has elected this government on the strength a supposed maverick, it isn’t enough to inspire what would seem like hara-kiri. This especially so when the priest is corrupt and the believer is corrupt – the God too is corrupt and that’s what the people seem to be praying to anyway.

It would have been wiser to adopt a bottom-up approach and create the infrastructure first. Slowly prod people to move away from cash and allow the majority of the country which transacts in cash to get an idea of how it works. The demonetisation then would have made sense and could also have done anyway with the issue of new high denominations.

The ultimate aim is to always win a war, not merely a battle. It might seem unfair to judge an army based on a single battle, but some battles are more significant than others. This certainly is so. This round of the battle, with the advantage of surprise on the governments side and all that it had its disposal, including the implicit trust of many, is the government’s. But when almost all the (faceless) leaders of the enemy camp are intact, and many have lost trust which they had in the government what did the victory achieve?  It is possible to kill an elephant and deceive a person, but not an entire country, especially when the people you are supposedly fighting for are the collateral. And in a democracy, even if you honestly believe in what you said to be true, you better be ready to answer questions and not expect people to radically change their lives merely on your word.

Time will tell who wins the war. Nationalism stems from a feeling of oneness, and making people insecure – to think you can’t access a lifetime’s work(legally earned, tax paid) the way you want, isn’t going to inspire that, how many ever ladoos you distribute. Above all, this shows a lack of trust in your own citizens- to catch a few thieves, the entire nation is being asked to line-up. Who is going to identify them, remains a mystery.

 

 

 

You

August 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

We need to believe that anything is possible; that there are infinite possibilities. That we will never know what’s going to happen next, and not force our lives to become slaves to suppositions planted by society and it’s talismans. At times, the world seems to be crumbling under its own weight, and life a series of disappointments, all seemingly aimed at boxing you in, as if you were the problem with it. But that isn’t so. When the world around you starts hitting out, it recognizes you. And when it finds that you aren’t conforming to what it deems as your life, and bounded possibilities, it wants to rein you in. For long you fight the world by its terms, but there comes a point, when you realise that there is more to you than this fight against the world, and the way you see it changes. You realise you don’t need to fight the world on its terms. You can do it by yours. The question is always what does it take to do it your way. When you  know what you are willing to give, and what it means to you, the world will respond to it. It will allow you to carve yourself some space, because it thinks it has placed you. But it hasn’t. You know it, it does not. The possibilities are infinite, and you need to remember, however lonely the night is, there is someone there –  you.

May in Madras

May 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

When it rains in mid-summer,  Madras sighs, half in relief, half in wont reminiscences. This rain, let out like old alcohol bought in another season, to celebrate another joyous eve, first strikes with the smell, a petrichor, a de javu, of a November day- breezy and clay lamps which struggle to remain lit. And when you taste it, at the tip of the tongue, the air is no more languid, but fresh, vigorous, and resplendent. The harsh light is kept out by a curtain of clouds, and the shadows longer as if the sun was further South, and the tempers of precarious Bay, waiting to blow out.

This is May, in Madras. You can call it Chennai if you want, but the ring of the word, without the harsh Che is more of this city- not the incessant cacophony of horns, but the amorous sea-breeze than reminds you of shores on which Occidental flags fluttered and gyrated to the tolling of ancient bells, and the braying of donkeys, diligently carrying laundry.

This city, in this month, when tempers flare, and you perspire without effort- as if you are born into success; and the smoke of camphor and agarbatti prevail in the narrow lanes, brings upon a languid hope. That tired, strained hope, which some find in a heavy meal after religious excesses. That wish after noon, for the school day to get over, or at best for the Maths teacher to disappear.

The waves in the beach of Madras, diligently crash, again and again- the troughs and tides, make their own pace, unhurried by the liners, or excited children, angry parents, hidden lovers, or drunk men caught in the nets of boats they may not own. The crests, shoved away, by the over-crowded port on which a canny English man once found a place to stretch his leg, and measured an empire that never set- creep in, year by year, till a time they shall swallow with a tumultuous crash, the old fort, and Santome.

The simmering heat is a memoir of those days- of history, and childhood, of myths, and veritable veshti-clad  old-age. And year, on year, it comes again, and the thirst just becomes more, and more. Till an insatiable  day, when nothing can be quenched, except the land that is the city, and her people, their boisterous pride and nine yards of contemptuous vanity.

 

 

 

Compassion

March 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

We have become creatures who no more can find the beauty in life, no more look into the mirror and smile at ourselves as free beings. We enslave ourselves in crass expectations,  we bind ourselves in social limits and petty empty words which mean nothing to anyone. We aren’t truthful or honest, we lie, and lie more, and then lie to ourselves that our lies are the truth, and by that we expect ourselves to live and conquer.

I’m utopian. As utopian as I was when I was a teen, a child. There was a point where I almost mistook Rand’s Utopia to be what I dreamt of, but then realised that wasn’t it. Those who still hold by that, would call me a sore loser- after all, by a measure of absolutes, I have my share of blunders, but by a measure of personal time and belief, I believe I am not. I wouldn’t say I have succeeded in doing anything of significance, but I would certainly say I haven’t failed- I still believe in humanity and that we possess that something it takes to be nice to each other.

What remains certain though, is not to expect it from individuals. No, not holding people not responsible for their words and actions, but to not expect them to be what you see as desirable. We need compassion, and by that, to put yourself out there and be hurt, again and again, again and again- it is not masochism, it isn’t to make yourself feel good- it is to remember that what separates the merely alive, from those that yearn pleasure and meaning, is to give to another, as if to oneself.

The intellect in itself is of no use, if the mind lacks compassion. All the intelligence in the world, will foster nothing if it fails to emerge from a larger human consciousness, that which serves life and our living. To hate the intellect and the intellectual is to pollute the river that feeds us, to cut the forests that gave birth to us, and to claim the barren fat land as scared and unpolluted. We are all nothing than a sum of those atoms, those almost unimaginable quarks, in a seemingly infinite universe of those. Our significance is bound to our world and what we know, as much as it is for a myopic lizard. And when we fail to appreciate that there is much more than we know, and destroy the words from the  human mind that tell us so, we are but heading towards self-destruction.

Belum caves and Gandikota

February 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

The Andhra Pradesh border is about 50-60kms from my house. Yet, I have never really been anywhere in Andhra, except Tirupati and Pulicat lake. Aswath and I have been planning a trip to Gandikota for a couple of years now. And when both us finally found the time(Pongalo-Pongal) we decided to explore the unexplored, the mystical, the late-breakfast eating state of Andhra. We recruited Venkatadri to balance the weight in the car and as a handy bodyguard in case my hindi/telugu/pidgin ended up getting us in trouble. Truth be told, both Aswath and Venkat speak pretty good  passable Hindi, while I will tell you to go inside the bridge(as against under) because it will surely lead you onto the highway to Hogwarts. We didn’t really use much of our rudimentary Telugu- to our surprise almost everyone we encountered seem to know Hindi or generally understand what we were trying to say. Of course, I’m still not sure which language I spoke in- more of a mish-mash of everything I know- for all I know, I might have sung Malare to some unsuspecting cop.

 

The ideal plan is to stay at Gandikota, catch the sunrise, go to Belum and return to Chennai. However, the only resort at Gandikota was full and we decided to stay at Kadapa instead. Not so bad, since Kadapa is about 250kms from Chennai and it was 6:30pm by the time we rolled into town- considering the condition of the road between Kadapa and Gandikota, it wouldn’t have been wise to drive there in the dark anyway. The drive from Chennai to Kadapa takes about 4-4:30hrs. The drive between Reinugunta and Kadapa in the evening was lovely. One thing though- throughout the trip we had to watch out for unmarked big speed-breakers on the highway. At one point Venk even considered buying an helmet. We found a lodging- hotel Ziara through Tripadvisor and after being given the runaround by Google navs through narrow market street, we found our way to it. A charming 8th grade kid, the brother of the owner(I’m guessing) showed us the way to dinner(a certain Meenakshi place) where we had humongous barottas.

 

Somewhere near Rajampetta

A photo posted by Vishesh Unni Raghunathan (@poeticgooner) on

 

The next day, being true Chennai boys, Aswath and Venk, decided we shall start early. Early being seven in the morning. Now, Tamil Nadu is a state which is notoriously early. You will find shops open at five and people generally getting on with their lives, like brushing their teeth while riding a bike, reading paper at the local tea stall or waiting for the first bus at four in the morning. Evidently not in Andhra. The hotel guys were sweet enough to make us some coffee before we left, and that’s all there was till about 8:30am in a random village where we had breakfast.  We changed our plan- there was no point in going to Gandikota first since we had anyway missed the sunrise. Instead we drove to Belum caves. You take the Kadapa-Kurnool four-lane highway for about 36 kms and then have to take a left(there’s a detour involved and google map’s navigation is correct), you drive past Jammalamadugu and take the Tadipatri-Jammalamadugu highway- the road here is mostly decent. There isn’t much of traffic and you pass through a few villages. A highway is under construction, so there are a few diversions along the road.  After 85kms on the road, take a right at Kolimigundla and in about 5kms you will reach Belum caves.

 

A village where we had breakfast on the way to Belum caves.

A photo posted by Vishesh Unni Raghunathan (@poeticgooner) on

Belum caves is the largest cave in the Indian plains, and has those pointy-pointy(Stalagmite and Stalactite) rock formations.  The caves are made of Kadapa stones(black limestone) and carved by random superpower which rules the universe, homo sculperus WATER. Considering we did not have to cross Silk board, TIDEL park or any of those awful signals, we made it in record time-9am- only to find that the place did not open till 10am. But being the bony (first sales) for the day has its advantages- by the time we left the caves, the place was infested filled with tourists. Add to this that the temperature inside is around 33C and humidity at Chennai-summer level, it could turn out to be not-so-pleasant trip. But it is fascinating. To think that water did this over millions of years, is mind-blowing and almost unimaginable( cue a few million years long movie with nothing but water flowing through the caves). Of course, some humans did feel the need to put their name on it and claim it as their work:-

writing on the wall

 

 

After the humbling experience of the caves, we headed out to Gandikota. You head back to Jammalamadugu, go into town and take the Muddanur road. Once you cross the Pennar river, take a right- the road ends at Gandikota. The trip is 60kms long and takes about an hour. The road up to Gandikota is  a winding road, which looked specially lovely in the evening. Having had only a sparse breakfast we dug into some Andhra meals at the Harita resort in Gandikota. The place was teeming with families, bikers and other sorts of humans who had all had the same idea as us. After napping for a while in the car, we finally walked up to the gorge. What a brilliant sight it was! For the second time in the day we were stunned by the power of water. And well, you just feel inconsequential in general- the world has been around for far too long, things have been happening anyway and the big bang happened so long ago, and the universe is still expanding- and just wait for the day we find out the quasars aren’t moving out any faster, but heading back in(okay, highly unlikely a) that will happen b) that will happen now, even if it were to happen).

Anyway, after being humbled beyond origins and meaning of life and what not, we clicked pictures with our fancy-ass camera and mobile, grumbled about the litter, got into the car drove back. (not before I shot this pic) –

On the way back from Gandikota. #gandikota #travel #andhrapradesh #india #eveninglight #evening #sunlight

A photo posted by Vishesh Unni Raghunathan (@poeticgooner) on

 

The 90kms drive from Gandikota to Kadapa is bad. The road till Yerraguntla is terrible- a highway is under construction and majority of the paving was removed. Yerraguntla to Kadapa wasn’t so bad, except for the fact that there are unmarked speed-breakers which you have to wary of and there is a lot of lorry traffic with big blinding headlights. After getting suitable lost in trying to find the place we had dinner the previous night, we found another place to eat. If you are going to stay at Kadapa, I would recommend you stay near the bus stand, although the hotel we stayed at(Hotel Ziara) was good. The city does have KFC, dominos etc for those you who need your does of vapid fast food.

The next day, we found out again that Andhra just isn’t the place for early breakfast- this time at 8am, inside Kadapa city. After a quick grab at a small tea-stall-esque place, we headed back to Chennai. On the way we stopped at Kodandarama temple in Vontimitta- while I managed to get away with it, they don’t allow you to enter the temple if you are wearing shorts. We were also stopped at checkpoints to see if were smuggling red sanders. We weren’t.

Gandikota- click on photo to open album

Memories, of your memories

January 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

Memories, of your memories.

I stand beneath that gopuram, between these pillars and ask the silence to tell me, of those days when you hid and played, unseen.

The breeze that blows is filled with the smoke of vehicles, the pillars have been reinforced by concrete and those who seek redemption drop rupees and not annas. This is a world which won’t allow me in without you- the family home is now something else- claimed by wont and avarice of those who sought more than memories and peace. The streets are dirty and the cars line the way, I try to imagine your life, as it could have been, under an emperor and a queen, protected by your namesake, under the vestiges of ancient beliefs.

The time you survived small pox and the man who said you would live albeit your world all but giving up- I cannot think of such a man, or the fact that he was a tenant on our family lands. People have measured you in your life by everything you didn’t do, and you could have done, but you lived a man of beliefs- of a secular life, equality and most of all, excellence in mind and thought. You taught me history, you told me the ways of the world, and gave me stories. And you gave me a philosophy, you gave me a heirloom which none else could have done. For long I felt it was a burden, but in that I found emancipation. I wish I could talk to you about what I feel now, where I stand and what want- at the dining table, just you and I.

I don’t know whose pillars these are, but you were mine. This land, it holds history which stretches far, and the river which flows has reigned the veins of many a maverick.

Do I belong here? You did. I belonged to you, as only a grandson can. Who else would entertain every foible of mine?

Memories, of your memories. I live with them, unburdened now. In them I see who I could be. I am what I am today because of who you were.

3 January went by, but it was unlike any other day, for your birthday will always be special to me. Now, I write, with a tear in my eyes, for none can be you for me(or I for you.)

We humans tend to glorify life, and for its sake death. But, no grandeur can last longer than the last breath. Our histories are ours. To the rest they are but stories and tales, a once upon a time. And in my history there is you, and your stories. In your last breath, you reached for what you believed. I hope in mine, I do the same.

Memories, of your memories.

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