Econ Mom in Government Vaastu

Government buildings are not so much buildings as they are characters. Mostly shady, smelly, dank characters. I sometimes wonder what they might be telling the civil contractor who builds the damn thing. “Build it so that on entering, the only thing you will want to do is exit. Tch, tch, too many troublemakers come to visit us…those NGOs, and RTI activisits (this is said with a shudder), and those economists who are always pining for data! (This last bit is said with an indignant tone full of complete disbelief)..Koi idhar aadhe ghantese jyaada reh na paaye.” Hehehe. And so these are built. To push even the sunniest and most valiant of us onto the brinks of despair. Econ mom is mostly found these days wandering in and out of one or the other of these ubiquitious cheerless vaastus, wondering how the hell Swacch Bharat or anything remotely connected to anything Swacch can be implemented from these buildings.

Today I was in a particularly interesting building in Mumbai. Well, the building was like any other Government building. It had 3-4 huge boards on the ground floor carrying some random protests from about 27 different groups. One of the boards said “Chalo Mumbai,” though why anyone in Mumbai wants to say Chalo Mumbai beats me hollow. Others carried vehement protests against the Government officers, Government schemes, Government circulars, Government tenders, Government power centres, MPs, MLAs, PM, CM, and all other Ms, errr, Ministers. The only M I would have liked to protest about was the ATM next door which carried the depressing note “Out of cash” outside it. One board was even found to be declaring Coca Cola as completely unfit for kids. I found myself interested in this.  I mean, the statement was completely sensible, though why it should be put on a protest board outside a Government office beats me. However, I did marvel briefly at the guy who must have thought of randomly scribbling the statement in pink and yellow chalk on the board and had an insane urge to meet the fellow. Why did he scribble just this, I wondered, why not E = mc2 or something like that? I had a momentary urge to buy a chalk and write “Mothers Zindabad, Fathers Murdabad” and grinned to think of Hubby’s face if he were to see it. Hehe.

There was simply no question of getting into the elevator. There were huge serpentine queues in the lobby and a lot of shoving and yelling. Elevators are designed to elevate, but there seemed nothing in that dark space that could possibly elevate me and my team of three other economists. “Chalo 5th floor,” I grinned at my colleague, who immediately rolled his eyes at me.

As I climbed the stairs, I found the familiar dank smells getting to my brain centers. I could almost feel the chemical composition starting to change within my head, converting me from my usual cheerful self to this aggressive woman having a problem with random strangers on the street. I waited to see if I would sprout an additional set of hands or something, but after nothing happened on the second flight of stairs, I trudged ahead, reassured that the damage was restricted to only the little grey cells and my other cellular structures seemed to be intact.

On the first floor, I gasped in delight, a reaction I do not normally feel in a Government building. A healthy young cat, followed by three beautiful kittens came bounding down the stairs. For some strange reason, a chaiwala had decided to set up a cart on the first floor. Yep, you got that right. There was a chaiwala on the first floor landing brewing chai on an open platform. But he seemed to be a kindly fellow, going by those plump kitties gambolling there. Government buildings normally have a fair share of cats. Why? Because they also have a fair share of rats. Hehe. No pun intended.

On the second floor, a big billboard declared that the Department of Industries was now the Department of Ind Stries. I grinned, thinking of myself, the quintessential Ind Stree, looking at the Ind Stries. I continued on my journey up the stairs to find that the third floor was being lit up. Heaven help us all! Five women employees were drawing Rangolis on the landing and other Government employees were excitedly crowding there, talking to each other in loud tones. Guess what…a Satyanarayan Pooja was going to be held on the landing! One should always be prepared for the unbelievable when one chooses to be an economist. But I seem to be in a near-permanent state of disbelief these days. I continued upstairs when it hit me. Oh God, the stink! The men’s loo on the fourth floor was so terribly smelly that it made most visitors on the landing of the third floor balk and turn into white zombies. My poor brain, already woolly with the effort of having climbed four floors, together with the joint impact of the Coca Cola, chai drinking kitties, stress of the Strees and the Satyanarayan, was pushed into a hyperactive state.

I suddenly morphed into Ethan Hunt. The MI-4 music track started in my brain even as I hit my watch just like Ethan does before jumping into the water, clamped my handkerchief firmly over my nose and ran upstairs to the fifth floor for dear life. I did it faster than Ethan and did not have to be rescued by my team, all of whom, I grinned to see, looked as stunned and white and weak with the ammonia as I felt. “We should have just taken the elevator, Ma’am,” said my colleague Benji. What nonsense! I thought. How could the elevator have elevated us to such ummm, dizzying heights of disbelief? “Gawd,” groaned another young RA. “I am never, ever, ever going to be this breathless again,” she claimed dramatically.

“Don’t be so sure”, I told the young innocent with a wicked smile. “We have reached our destination on the fifth floor. It is the Department of Statistics!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Econ Mom turns farmer!

I enjoy gardening, and that’s an understatement. I tend to plonk almost any seed I get into the soil. “It’s a disorder of some type. You need to see a doctor or someone.” That is obviously Teenager. Grrrrrr!

By now, in the small terrace that we have in our house, we have managed to grow errr, well, a lot of things. Jowar (and I mean we managed to get cobs!), bajra, wheat, mung, soyabean, chana, spinach (this is omnipresent in my garden), methi (another of my omni-feats), coriander, amaranth (lal maath), tomatoes, potatoes, cluster beans (gawar), bitter gourds, turmeric, chillies, groundnut, mustard, and lemons. And all this in pots, big and small. And most of it using home-made compost as a fertilizer.

Almost every crop we’ve grown has some weird history to it. “It’s not the crop, it’s you, Manasi..strange things just happen around you,” said Hubby, rolling his eyes at me when I told him in panic that the capsicum seeds I’ve planted have sprouted into tomato plants. Our plants don’t behave…I really do have a crazy garden. For example, I decided two months ago that my garden lacks the fun element and got myself the touch-me-not plant just to pep up the humour quotient in the garden. The plant is called as “Lajalu” in Marathi, which literally translates into a “shy” plant. Well, after about 10 days in our garden, the plant obstinately refused to close its leaves on being ruffled. “It’s certainly not shy any more,” observed Teenager drily. “It has taken on the aggressive Phadke characteristics. It’s now Dheetalu Phadke,” he christened it with a snigger. Dheet means bold. Sigh!

And then, there is that famous story about Tomato Phadke, also recorded elsewhere on this blog. It so happened that my tomato plants were just not bearing fruit. Hubby told me that the plant is probably bored and needs me to sing to it while watering. I tried every sort of music on the damn thing- Hindustani classical, Ghazals, Bhajans, Pop, Jazz, Country…oh, I had also started a kind of a dance routine to it, much to the delight of my family. Still no fruit. And then Teenager, who was at that point in time not a Teenager, but a rather sweet little kid, told me wickedly that I might be singing the wrong stuff. “You’re old fashioned, Ma,” he declared and went up to the plant and sang, much to my horror, “Chaar bottle vodka, kaam mera roz kaa!” The plant flowered the very next day.

The only crop I have had real trouble with, is coriander. For some strange reason, coriander doesn’t like us Phadkes. I have tried every possible trick on the dhaniya seeds. Some farmers soak them in water overnight and then plant them. No use. Some of them break every seed carefully into two and then plant. Nope. Some just rough up the seeds between chappals, believe it or not. Ummm, I couldn’t quite do this though. The germs on the chappals alighting on the very same seeds which we eventually want to eat, was a bit too much for my highly hygienic soul. “But ALL the coriander we buy and eat has the same germs on it,” argued scientific and unhygienic Teenager Phadke. “Coriander seeds probably germinate in the presence of those very germs, Ma. Boot it, to boot it,” he laughed uncontrollably, feeling clever. I gave him the royal boot and shooed him away from my precious seeds.

It is not only my family, but also my research team which laughs at my urban farming experiments. Most of team members egg me on to post photos of my little farm on our Whatsapp Group and then make extremely rude remarks on the “Phadke farm” photos. I am also normally ragged quite heavily for trying to grow grapes and pomegranates in pots.

However, weird or otherwise, my garden has given me a helluva farming experience, as I discovered on a World Bank project recently.

The World Bank has financed a project in Maharashtra to help the farmers get more climate resilient. The project will run in districts in Marathwada and Vidarbha, which have been drought-prone areas of Maharashtra. There are several smaller components under the aegis of the project, but the soul of the project is to create water management models in the project area.

Water is the lifeline of agriculture, and there have been peculiar problems associated with water in Marathwada as well as Vidarbha. In Marathwada, the traditional cropping pattern was one of jowar and bajra, which are inherently climate resilient. These are tough and hardy seeds, which means that they tolerate a dry spell between two rains much better than seeds of other crops. The wells of the farmers were also worked only after September, since the monsoon rains used to suffice for these hardy crops. Thus, the basic agriculture in Marathwada was inherently climate resilient! How then, did we move away from this resilient framework?

The problems started in the early nineties, when climate patterns started to change visibly. Marathwada had been no stranger to dry spells, but the time-period between two rain spells started becoming longer. Monsoons also started arriving late, thereby affecting the sowing patterns in the area. And in the same time frame, the soyabean revolution shook Marathwada. The soya-craze in Marathwada seems to have started around 1995-96. What is so special about the soya crop? Well, it fetches great money, for starters! Soyabean was touted as the global solution to plant-based protein and the dry climatic conditions of Marathwada were seen to be ideal for the crop. Farmers, in their desperation to make more money, switched indiscriminately to soyabean.

There is another underlying current to the soya-story, which I would like to highlight here. The soyabean bio-mass is INEDIBLE, in bold, read, capital letters. That means that not even goats, who have taken to even plastics happily, like to eat the soyabean leaves and stalk. Thus, once the crop is harvested, the rest of the bio-mass pretty much has to be burnt, or buried, since it does not tie up with animal husbandry at all. Now, such is not the case with the jowar or bajra crops. After the cobs are harvested, cows, buffaloes, sheep, goat absolutely devour the rest of the bio-mass. Hence, not only was the jowar system climate resilient, but it also did its bit towards enhancing the supplementary income of the farmer. Now, with the animals turning up their noses at soya, animal feed became terribly expensive. In fact, animal husbandry itself became more and more expensive. One finds interestingly, that in the same time period as farmers adopted soyabean, the livestock in Marathwada reduced rather rapidly. And this has created problems for the farmer. When the rains fail, and they have failed rather alarmingly in the past decade, the farmer can prop up his income based on livestock. But the farmer in Marathwada today does not own livestock, and that makes him extremely vulnerable to downside risks. If it rains, the soya performs and he gets his money. If it does not rain, the crop doesn’t do well and he does not maintain enough livestock which can give him some support in the bad times.

The other problem with soyabean is that of procurement. However, this is not a soya-issue, it is a general PDS issue. Procurement by the Government has largely been concentrated in wheat and paddy, and hence, soya-growing farmers often have not been covered under the procurement program of the Government. Last year, the MSP offered for Soyabean was Rs.3050 per quintal. This implies that the Government would procure the harvest at a minimum of Rs.3050 per quintal. Hopefully, the farmers would get more than that. But in most parts of Osmanabad (huge soya cultivation), there was simply no procurement of soyabean! When the soyabean was harvested just before Diwali, the farmers were forced to sell in the open market at a price dictated by traders. Since the Government was not in the procurement program at all, most farmers were forced to sell at prices as low as Rs.2200 per quintal.

Our chats with farmers, activists and Government officials helped us to construct these details about the farming patterns in Osmanabad. A Government officer, who was rather enthusiastic about his work, accompanied us on all site visits. He was also a bit of a quiz master and on getting into a field, used to ask us importantly, “Madam, guess which crop is this?” “Potato!” I replied even without thinking, thanks to my troublesome potato plant in Pune, with my entire team rolling their eyes at me. They could not quite handle my rapid transformation into Hermione Granger. Heehee!

On meeting a farmer growing tomatoes, I asked him what he does to prevent the white aphids. “I have been having major trouble with aphids,” I told the Agriculture Officer, who was by now regarding me with some curiosity. On meeting the pomegranate farmers, preceded by the usual stern “Which tree is this, Madam?”, I shared with the farmers how I had fertilized my pomegranate tree too early and how it had dropped leaves immediately thereafter. The farmer laughed and said that I shouldn’t have even looked at the tree in the first one and a half years, forget fertilizing it. We had quite an interesting time with the jowar farmers, who shared with us how new methods of transplanting might make a difference to the size of cobs. “Oh! My jowar cob was really small!” I replied instinctively. The kindly farmer immediately gave me some details on growing the sapling in a tray and then transplanting it. “I will definitely try this,” I thanked the farmer for his tip.

The Agriculture Officer, who had been walking with us and taking us across to all farmers, asked me where I stay. “In Pune!” I said enthusiastically. “Interesting! And, where is your farm?” he asked me with a lot of interest. “You must be owning at least 50 acres Madam, with your Jowar fields and tomato and pomegranate trees!” With my entire team grinning at me and me squirming uncomfortably, I told him that I do not own any land at all. “No land! But then, how did you grow pomegranates?” There was no way of breaking the news gently. “I only own 20 pots in a small terrace, Sir.”

Econ Mommy at ISRO!

I am, as Teenager reminds me loftily about a hundred and seventeen times in a day, technologically challenged. I do not like anything having more than 5 buttons and 2 remote controls. The 3rd remote, so to say, makes the chances of me using the damn thing, really remote.

Much to Teenager’s exasperation, while going out, I prefer to just go down and holler at some innocent rickshaw wallahs. “Ohhhh, why can’t you just order an Uber,” he drawled the other day from his favourite sofa, where he is normally found slouching.

“Because its just so much more fun to go down and yell and stop some rickshaw and feel triumphant because you beat the other lady to it. It gives me that deep feeling of achievement and pride. Which is missing here at home,” I hissed poisonously.

“Suit yourself!” Teenagers have that nasty habit of sounding completely dismissive and exiting arguments suddenly and Teenager Phadke, I must admit, has mastered it to perfection.

Hence, when I told the news at home that my new project on Agriculture requires me to go to ISRO, Teenager looked at me in complete disbelief. “You are going to ISRO? How come? I mean, and that too, for agriculture..”, he spluttered. Heeheehee, the poor kid couldn’t quite take it. Firstly, he regards my passion for all things green as completely crazy and secondly, despite my best efforts, fails to understand how interesting agriculture is.

Well, so coming back to the issue, what does an economist do at ISRO? Loads of things! Here is a quick look at how technology may well change the way we look at Agriculture data, Agriculture Finance and most importantly, Agri- Insurance products.

Let us talk a little bit about agriculture insurance, before I tell you about the rather interesting time I had at the ISRO.

Insurance is normally present wherever there is risk. But in India, we observe a rather inverted insurance pyramid. Think about the upper middle classes of the country- typically IT engineers with a fat salary package, two cars, one kid and near-zero risk. These are the classes that are fully insured- their life, their houses, cars, health. Everything is insured. Zero risk, high insurance penetration.

And look at the farmers. Rain-fed agriculture, high uncertainty, three kids, one hectare of land, and zero insurance. High risk, zero insurance penetration.

The insurance industry has really failed to penetrate in the area of the highest risk – Indian agriculture. Sometime in the eighties, the Government of India started a scheme called as the “National Agriculture Insurance Scheme (NAIS)”. The Sum Insured under the scheme was limited to the scale of finance. To put it simply, if a farmer took a loan of Rs.20000 from a bank, and if the crop were to fail, the sum insured would be Rs.20000. In a way, what was being insured was the ability of the farmer to repay the loan to the bank. What is important to realize is that the crop loan taken by the farmer often is a fraction of the actual input costs that he incurs, which is often a fraction of the total crop value that is at stake. So, by limiting the Sum Insured to the scale of finance, the Government did not really provide an insurance for the entire standing crop.

This has now changed with the Government declaring the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) in 2016. The Sum Insured has been de-linked from the scale of finance and what is insured is the value of the entire standing crop. The value of the crop per acre is assessed by simply multiplying the yield per acre for a crop by the MSP declared for that crop. The Government has allowed private insurance companies to bid for providing crop insurance in different areas; the competition should help in bringing down the premiums.

While all these points about the PMFBY are rather encouraging, the main issue with ANY insurance policy in the world is: How do you establish that a loss has occurred?

This particular question is relatively easy to handle with life insurance. I am awfully sorry for putting it this way, but well, the person is either around or no. But look at medi-claim, and the problems start immediately. And in the case of agriculture, OMG! It is scary to even approach the issue of whether there has been a loss or no, and hence, whether the insurance cover ought to get triggered or no.

How do you establish the instance of a loss on a farm? The Government has come out with a superb solution (Errrr…that it doesn’t quite work is obviously not that important here): The Government officials will conduct a “Crop Cutting Experiment (CCE)” to decide the yield of the crop in an area.

How does a CCE work? Well, to put it rather roughly, the Government officials randomly select 10 farms in a Revenue Circle. In each of these farms, some part of the field is cordoned off and the crop is harvested there separately. The produce is weighed and measured and the Talathi “enters” the yield of the crop into his records. Manually. With paper and a pen. The average yield from 10 such CCEs helps to fix the yield for a particular crop within a particular Revenue Circle.

What is wrong in this, you might well ask indignantly. Well, when you have someone “entering” the records to calculate the yield based on which the assessment of a loss/ profit will be done, there is immediate incentive to cheat. If there is an election around the corner, then heaven help the insurance companies! Mantriji will want to distribute Bima money to his electorate and so will be keen on establishing a yield loss. With a manual “entry” to establish the yield, well, you know what I am saying here, right?

So there have been instances of yields getting massively under-reported in a few areas, helping the farmers to get higher insurance claims. Insurance companies were simply livid! “Crop loss assessments are flawed,” they cried. So, the Government asked them to co-witness the CCEs. It was as simple as that. If there are co-witnesses from the insurance companies, then there would be no question of cheating, right? Wrong! In the aftermath of the insurance companies co-witnessing the CCEs, the yields started getting errr…over-reported! If Mantriji can do it, so can we, seems to be the popular refrain out there amongst the insurers. What a mess!

So, here we are. Humming the song which good old Govinda gave us in the nineties. “It happens only in India…”

However, there is a solution to this mess. Switch to the other Bette Midler track from the nineties. “God is watching us…from a distance!

From a distance. Wherein the satellites are orbiting the earth. If we can carry out crop loss assessment using Remote Sensing Technology (RST), then there is no question of relying on either Mantriji or the Insurance Companies to tell us the extent of crop loss! The question is- can RST help, and if so, how much?

My wanderings to ISRO and later to its agri-application unit called the Mahalanobis National Crop Forecasting Centre (MNCFC) have been nothing short of fascinating. How the Remote Sensing Output is converted into Vegetation Indices and how the Vegetation Indices can help us to assess crop output more correctly are the main questions that are being handled at these Centres.

In the USA, where a farmer may own 500 hectares of land on which he only sows maize, it is relatively easy to use RST to identify which crop is being grown. In a country such as ours, where the average field size could be as tiny as a hectare, on which the farmer may use multiple cropping – two rows of Jowar alternated with a row of Mung – deciphering crop signatures is challenging.

Secondly, just because the vegetative index of the crop is good (the RST imagery tells you how the biomass is growing), it does not really imply that the crop will bear fruit. Biological processes defy statistical modelling with a stubborn teenage kind of resistance.

“Rather like our garden at home,” observed Teenager nastily, after having heard me out with great interest, masked with that insolent I-know-this-since-I-was-born look. “You know, all those tomato plants, which I’ve NEVER seen bearing any fruit at all. They should have never let you loose into ISRO. Economist gardeners have the potential to completely nullify any potential tech-intervention.” Sigh.

The Rural Budget: 7/10

Did I like Arun Jaitley’s Budget? Ummmm…Yyes, is my overall assessment. The “ummmm” preceding the Yes and that extra Y indicate that Econ Mommy is not quite convinced there. Hmmmm, and yet, readers will note that I have not said Nno. I have said a Yyes…so let me qualify.

What is a Budget as an intrinsic instrument supposed to do? Well, it is supposed to spur growth. Now, in the reduced growth trajectory of India, if you try to analyze the rogue fundamental that is contributing to lower growth, it is private sector investment. One of the chief reasons for the investments not picking up has been the presence of the huge excess capacities built across major sectors (think automobile, cement, steel, IT). Whilst this is indeed a systemic issue, the other one (comin’ up!) is not. The second major reason as to why the growth rates have been down and out is demonetization, the lagged effects of which have taken their own sweet time to move through the system.

Well, till such a time as the investments do not pick up, the GOI is supposed to be the driver of the very growth it diminished with that demo move. And yet, if it spends too unwisely, it risks creating a fiscal deficit, the presence of which forces banks to lend to the public sector, leaving the private sector starved for funds. (Crowding out) Now, hence, whilst the Government spends, it cannot spend beyond limits.

And this is where I like the Budget. Fiscal prudence as a theme was not really majorly abused; sticking to the 3.5% overall fiscal deficit target is good. This implies that the Government is serious about allowing space to the private sector to grow out. It also implies that Urjit will not be under major pressure to control the deficit induced inflation- the poor man is already shivering under the impending oil price hikes.

Having said that about prudence, let us examine the quality of spending of the Government. Almost everyone from my neighbour Mrs. Joshi to Arnab have been talking about the rural focus of the Budget (Mrs. Joshi snootily, because she doesn’t understand it and Arnab loudly, because it is just one more thing to yell about). And sure, it was a rural budget. Does that mean it was an election budget?

Frankly, I do not think so (Except for that ridiculous target of doubling farmer income by 2022). I mean, it is time that we seriously learnt to focus on the farmers. I have been staking out in rural areas too much. Too much, if you ask me. According to Hubby, I now have the dubious distinction of visiting all the romantic hotspots of Maharashtra: Beed (extremely unfortunately, the suicide capital of Maharashtra), Latur (Acute water stress and trains laden with water), Malegaon (abject poverty and religion dynamics), Osmanabad (all of the above). I have been trying to analyze what drives farmers to the edge, what brings suicides culturally into Marathwada. And I have reached four solutions, if you want to keep your farmer away from suicide.

1.      Get him water

2.      Get him cash-flow

3.      Get him better prices for his produce

4.      Sabse important, get him INSURANCE

Water is the soul of rural dynamics. If you do water conservation or Jalasandharan in a planned way at a watershed level, there are lives to be gained. (Planning a blog on this soon, since we have worked actively with Jal Biradari)

Water brings about the options of supplementary occupations: Suddenly, it is possible to host a cow or two, sericulture is possible, small ruminants (goats) can be domesticated. And that gets the farmer a cash flow. He starts depositing milk in the local co-operative and gets paid for it. That is the key to survival. Those obsessed with doubling farm income should initially also start thinking about getting increased cash flows into the rural economy. Farmers, in my observation, are never unviable. They are only illiquid. That problem needs to be sorted.

Prices, in all of my observations so far, have been pricey. Governments till date (including Modi Sarkar) have all increased the Minimum Support Prices (MSPs), wanting to woo the farmer. But tell me, what is the use of declaring a minimum procurement price, when the procurement machinery is completely unprepared to procure? Decades after decades, prices have been announced and the FCI never comes a-calling into the Mandi. The farmer now does a distress sale at 20% of the MSP, and commits suicide, in absolute poverty and in virtual wealth.

When water is not available, cash flow is not available, procurements are not happening, there is only one thing that can keep the farmer alive. Insurance.

And this is where, the Budget, in my eyes, scores big. It has focussed on the Prime Minister Fasal Bima Yojana, increasing the outlay on the scheme by about 50%. That is great news in a country scarcely worried about its food-makers.

I am also personally thrilled about the other insurance I saw in the Budget: Health.

Again, my experience with the urban grassroots is that health expenditure is the chief reason for families slipping into poverty. Give them insurance, and they will have a chance of staying slightly above the poverty line.

That huge expenditure the Centre will create (Rs.2000 crores) on the National Health Insurance Scheme, with another Rs.3000 crore coming in from the States, will create a total kitty of Rs. 5000 crores for paying the insurance premium. If we assume that Rs.1000 is the family premium for a cover of Rs.5 lakh per annum, that means that 5 crore families will be under the health plan in year 1 and another 5 crore families will come in next year.

There are issues about direct public health spends (creating hospitals and mobile X-ray clinics) being more productive than insurance spends, since the latter can potentially become profits for ICICI Pru and cronies. I have two thoughts here. One, the Budget has retained space under the National Health Program for direct spends, so it is not that we have done away with it altogether. Two, I don’t really have a problem with ICICI Pru or any of those delightful companies earning profits; after all, they are getting profits against potential risks. They also stand to lose all their money if the claims: premium ratio is greater than 1.

Well, so if I am so happy with the scenario, then why the extra Y?

Because as Jagdish Bhagwati, that wily old economist says, Tier I reforms have to PRECEDE Tier II reforms. Growth has to precede distribution- “If you do not have growth, what the hell do you think you will be distributing anyway?”

In Rowling’s terminology, there is a time and a place to sprout a distributionist mouth. Had Modi Sarkar given this emphasis on insurance before demonetization, no, even better, instead of demonetization, I would have given the Budget a resounding Yes.

Of course, I have a lot more to say on the Budget, but I am getting tired with all this typing. And hell, I reserve the right to write about the things closest to my heart and top of my mind. So there. I give it a 7 on 10. Yyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two to Tango: IPL and GST, a match report!

Dear Reader,

Hi! Here’s a piece on what happens when Parliamentarians are gripped by the IPL fever 🙂

This piece appeared in my column “Tweakonomics” in the Hindu Business Line today. You can read it at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/columns/two-to-tango/article9631178.ece, or read it here directly. Cheers!

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Team FM was celebrating. They’d pulled off the GST feat in record time i.e. before the IPL began. Many of the NDA MPs had threatened not to be present if the Bills were not introduced before April 5. That had got FM Jaitley really worried. He had been pushing his team hard, and yet, some of those clauses looked tricky. “A strategic time-out, that’s what we need,” he told his beleaguered team, working out the clauses yet again to make them Chidambaram-safe. “Such express pace! If only there was an assured follow-on in 2019. Then we’d have done this in style!”

But the PM was pitching it hard and had asked him to put his best foot forward. He had to deliver not only the doosra and the teesra, but also the choutha! The Central GST Bill, Integrated GST Bill, Compensation (to States) GST Bill and the UT GST Bill, all at the same time. And all this with the Delhi Daredevil mufflers breathing down his neck.

To add to his troubles, there was Chennai Super King P Chidambaram in the Rajya Sabha muttering about how he’d goofed up in writing the clauses of the GST, especially with the wording of the anti-profiteering clause. With the anti-profiteering clause, the FM had just wanted to make sure that if companies were not passing on reduction in the GST rate to the consumers, there would be a third umpire to examine the case. “The presence of the third umpire is ok,” said the Super King snootily. “Who is the selector, is what worries me. Unorthodox and draconian, is my verdict. Howzzat!”

The BSP had another set of issues. In the first year of implementation, an offence, if compoundable, should not be non-bailable, they kept on hankering. Normally, the stumps hold the bails, grinned the FM to himself. But here the bails have them stumped. Heehee!

But his team had delivered. On March 29, all four supplementary GST Bills were passed in the Lok Sabha by voice vote. It was actually just a noisy out-break of relief that the damn thing was done before April 5. It meant that the entire “Wah bhai Wah” IPL season could now be enjoyed happily in front of the TV without worrying about how to ask intelligent questions and participate in the debate tomorrow just as Lasith Malinga came out with that Yorker. “Neat thrownnnnnnn,” roared the Gujrat Lion, pleased with the new phrase, new bill and new year. It sounded very English, and yet, had the pleasant Mitt-rrron impact on the Parliament.

The FM was super pleased. Here was the ultimate legal boundary- all four Bills passed at the same go! In the meanwhile though, the scene had shifted to Rajya Sabha, where there was a lot disappointment because Sachin Tendulkar didn’t turn up.

“He never turns up in the other sessions. That is ok. But it should be made binding on him to turn up in March. After all, we want to discuss important issues here. What are the prospects of the Mumbai Indians winning this season, we really want to know,” said a Rajya Sabha MP.

“It’s ok, we still have Dhoni,” said Super King cleverly.

“What? Now when did he become MP? Tch, tch, I really must start reading newspapers again!”

“Idiot! I’m talking about Sakshi Dhoni making that comment on Aadhaar. Oh, we’ll raise privacy issues now. Silly point to the rescue! You want the GST, eh? We’ll catch you, alright! How? Simple! Gully, Slip and the Third man!

It’s Showtime! Sarabhais and the Markets

Dear Reader,

Hi! I resume the Tweakonomics column in the Hindu Business Line today, after a hiatus of about three months. A very, very special thank you to my Editor Raghuvir Srinivasan for thoughtfully sending in the sweetest email I ever got from the Business Line, asking me to drop whatever it is I’m busy with and get down to writing pronto! Thanks, Raghu!

So, here’ s a piece for Sarabhai fans ONLY 🙂 What happens when popular CNBC TV anchors start talking like the crazy Sarabhais?

You might want to see the article directly at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/tweakonomics-on-rbi-fed-and-the-rate-hikes/article9591444.ece

Else, read on here, directly. Enjoy!


That the Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai Season 2 is set to make a comeback after 7 years has taken the Indian public by storm, as the RBI Governor discovered, much to his dismay on a regular, boring, nondescript working day in the RBI. Janet Yellen raised the rates and thankfully, the markets, which had already factored in the move a week earlier, did not show a knee jerk reaction. There was no major outflow from stocks, and the Governor found himself breathing a bit easy. “Let me see what news analysts are saying,” he thought, and switched on the TV.

“OMG! Janet Yellen has raised the interest rates, Mummyji!” shrieked a female spokesperson of Franklin Templeton Investment Funds, in a Monisha-esque voice. “Sahil, mein ghar chhod ke jaa rahi hoon!” Sahil, which in this case is supposed to be the Sensex, reacted positively and went up a few points. “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” wailed Monisha Templeton. “Here I am thinking of leaving home, and your mood is upbeat. Now I know Indian markets don’t value me!”

“Gawd, what the hell is the matter with these folks!” thought the Guv and flipped channels to CNBC, where Lata Venkatesh was looking at the Franklin Templeton move of selling on Indian bourses. “To sell and move just because Yellen has behaved predictably is Foreign Institutionally middle-class”, she said with an upturned nose. “The least they could have done is looked at the UP story and what it means for the speed of reforms in India. What do you think, Rosesh beta?”

Udayan looked simply delighted. “I’ve written a poem on this, Momma,” he squawked. Lata didn’t look too pleased at being addressed thus, but just maintained a stoic silence. To have reacted to this would have been professionally middle-class.

“Janet Auntie has acted like a hawk/ Now the markets will listen to Momma talk!”

Lata was now simply quivering with the effort, but didn’t react to the poem.

“And here’s another one, Momma.

Us waali auntie, US waali auntie, kitna bhi kar lo rates ko hike, hike, hike/

FB par Sensex ko hi milenge like, like like!”

Deafening silence on the show.

“How is it, Momma.”

“Why don’t you take a break, Udayan,” said Anuj Indravadan Singhal, with clenched teeth, “before I break somebody’s head here. This show is called the closing bell, but any more poetry from you, and we’ll have the show closing before the markets do. And yes, Maya, let’s have a cheeseburger on the Breakfast show today!”

“I thought we’re here to discuss the heavy weight stocks, and not ourselves become heavy-weight, Indu,” said Lata, icily. “How about food for thought?”

“Here’s Maya in top form, folks! Why don’t you take a break while my heart breaks from the lack of sympathy on this show..”

“This is it! Everybody has gone complete nuts!” thought the Governor, switching off the TV as his special hotline rang softly. The ring tone was Mittrrrrron.

“Looks like politics is controlling economics, Urjit. Markets are up, Congress is down. I sometimes wonder about the NCP though. Can it pose a threat at the local level?”

“NCP? Unki ghadi kahaan kaam kar rahi hain?” said the Governor, before he’d realized he was being Dushyant. Horrified, he tried to cover up. “I mean, Sir, errr…”

But he was met by a chuckle at the other end. “You’ve been watching too much TV, Urjit!” the PM said laughingly. “Ye jo najar aate hain, Mittron, Ye toh woh hain nahi…”

 

 

Econ Mom is back!

Hi there, readers! I know I’ve been absolutely absconding on the blog front and have written simply nothing for the past 3 months. But well, I’ve been writing serious stuff for a change. And have come out with something like 10 reports on different aspects of local body elections for the State Election Commission of Maharashtra. And those too, completely formally written, not even a whiff of a joke. Its so not me, and its taken a chunk of my mind to be that serious!

Well, actually, I would have completely given up on Econ Mom, had it not been for Anagha, who’s not only my best friend, but also my blog follower and severest critic. It so happened that we met suddenly, without planning it, both of us after having dropped respective charges to respective classes and enjoying that “I am free for 50 minutes now!” mommy moment. I guess we could both recognize the slightly wild and loony look in each others’ eyes which only mothers are known to identify, and after laughing madly for a minute, got gossiping about this thing and the other.

And after a while, it came to why I’ve stopped writing. “Don’t you stop writing, Econ Mom,” said Anagha wickedly. “People may start thinking that Teenager doesn’t bother you anymore and that Hubby gives you five-star treatment at home.”

WHAT! That is a serious charge. Teenager grows more obnoxious by the day and Hubby, hmmm. The lesser said about him, the better. Nah, this won’t do! So I got down to writing the blog, pronto.

Three months of continuous election research has converted poor ole’ Econ Mom into a Political Mommy though. But I’m not complaining. It’s been exciting, using econometric methods on political databases, and it gives one a rare look into why the economics of decentralization and development just cannot work in this country. The representatives of the people are so ill-equipped to do any which developmental project at even the basic levels; hell, most of them do not even know what their own job is!

Last week. Around 5:30 p.m. The Phadke household was whirring quietly. Teenager was reading a book (I think he’s reading the Wimpy series for the 131st time or something), Hubby was browsing through newspapers, happily humming an old Geeta Dutt number. He was going wrong on the lyrics, but I was too busy to be reacting. Hmm, but it gives me ammunition for a fight later. Heehee.

I was peering quietly into my laptop, which was simply spewing up data on those candidates who had filed their nomination forms and affidavits for contesting the Pune Municipal Corporation elections. Hmm, 36% have a criminal charge against them. Of these, 30% have serious criminal charges- rape, murder, assault. 45% are Crorepatis or have patis which are Crorepatis. Interesting, of these Crorepatis, 45% have studied upto the 8th standard. My stats package gave out a negative correlation between education levels and assets, and I got worked up.

“Nonsense!” I exclaimed loudly.

 Hubby sauntered over, didn’t quite understand the SPSS screen and asked me, with evident interest, “What happened?”

“Oh, I’m so irritated, I can’t tell you. Look at these buggers who’ve got aspirations of becoming people’s representatives. “4th standard pass”, this particular entry says. And this other one is even better. It says the woman is not only B.A., but also XII pass, and also X pass and also 4th Standard. GAWD! If this woman does not understand that when asked for the education level, she has to only tick the MAX education level she cleared, tell me, what does she think she is going to do for my city? AAAAAAAAAAARRRRRGH, I am BUGGED!”

“You’re over reacting, honey. It’s ok, give that poor woman a break!”

“You know what? I would have, had there been one of this type. But there are something like 217 such completely idiotic applications and they feel they can represent ME!”

“Mom? Don’t yell. I’m getting disturbed. A child can’t even read peacefully in his own home these days!” That was Teenager, making stupid remarks, but quite obviously enjoying the “Mommy is mad at someone else” moment.  

“And you know what, young man..” I turned to Teenager, sharpening my claws for an attack, when the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it!” said Teenager hastily, getting out of intellectual harm’s way.

Two women, wearing saris. Stoles around their neck, bearing the symbol of the political party they represent, were standing at the door. Teenager was quite taken aback at the visitors and hollered for me.

“Namaskar!” said one of the women. “I’m going to be contesting the election from this Ward and I thought I’ll come and see you all…”

“Oh! That’s so nice of you! Please do come in. You must be tired with your campaigning!” I was a bit intrigued that a candidate had come home.

She was a bit reluctant but did come in and accepted a cup of chai. “So Madam, why should we vote for you?” I asked her chirpily, even as a sharp intake of breath from Hubby told me that I was being rude.

“Ummm…” she faltered. I think she too was a bit taken aback at being asked this so openly. “Because…because, yes, because I’m going to really work for this ward!” she concluded triumphantly, with the other accompanying lady making strong, encouraging noises to egg her on.

“And, what work have you done in the past, Madam?” I asked, keeping my voice non-threatening and as even as possible.

“She has done great work!” That was the companion. “Last year, she held a vaccination camp for polio vaccination! You really should vote for her!”

“Madam, it is Amitabh Bacchhan who gets the mothers into the camp with the Do Boond Jindagi Ke campaign. You have to tell me what it is that YOU have done about it!”

The lady was scared by now. “Yes! I remember! I…I..I held a Haldi Kunku in the Sankranti festival!”

The Companion nodded vigorously. “Yes! Haldi- Kunku! And she distributed gifts and spread cheer and good will! You really should vote for her!”

By now I was upset. As in, really getting into top form.

“Madam,” I began in my most steely voice (somewhere in the background I could see Hubby making frantic movements to get me to stop), “people in this ward really want some development. You have to tell me your plans for solving the traffic issue, for segregation of wet and dry garbage. I need better streetlights and safety. I can NEVER park my car anywhere in this God forsaken ward; you have to create parking spaces (My voice had climbed up 10 decibels and I was unstoppable). You can’t be serious, Madam. Your pitch for my vote is extremely weak; unless you tell me your solutions for my problems, how do you expect me to vote for you?”

The women were looking extremely frightened by now.

Hubby pitched in helpfully. “Oh, don’t worry, Madam!” he said in a booming voice. “She says that to every candidate! She will definitely vote for you!” (Teenager was busy suppressing a giggle). I glared at Hubs.

“No, I won’t. Tell me your plans, Madam!”

Madam was looking positively scared.

“Well, actually I don’t really have any such plans..But I still want you to vote for me!”

I think even she realized how terrible that sounded. And then, the poor poor woman ventured in a low voice, “Ma’m, I really don’t know what plans to talk about. Could you advise me, what should I say to the voters?”

I must admit, this threw me off balance. I wanted to laugh out aloud. Oh, the irony of it! The candidate was asking me what she should tell other voters! But I recovered, quickly, I must say. And I informed her snootily, but quite kindly, “Madam, you need to tell people your vision for this ward. For example, there are no parking spaces. Parking cannot be planned horizontally in a growing city. Build a 14-storey parking tower in Kothrud!”

“Why 14-storey, Madam?” The Companion asked me idiotically.

“Aaaaaaaaargh, any number of storeys will do! Rather these storeys that stories!” I caught Hubby’s eye, seeking appreciation for my well-placed pun. I instead got a “Please stop talking” look.

“Tell people how you plan to have compost pits in gardens or something like that..”

“Wow, Madam!” said the candidate, suddenly full of confidence. “Bas, this is it! I am going to put in a 14-storey parking tower in Kothrud…and have compost pits!” She had the damn thing by-heart.

 “Well, now, people want an educated candidate in the ward, and someone with Community Building experience, Madam..I am a researcher with the State Election Commission and see these reports?” I waved some of my reports to them…”In these reports, we’ve created strategies for…”

Hubby and Teenager were rolling their eyes at each other.

But the women were done with me. “We really really need to leave!” They said hurriedly.

“You have to vote for me! I’m going to put up a 14-storey parking tower!” The lady told me sheepishly on her way out. The Companion nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes…lots of parking. Vote for her!”

And that was that. As I closed the door, Hubby shook his head at me. “Have you lost it, woman? Why the hell did you wave your reports at them? Gawd, you positively terrified them, Manasi..please control yourself.”

Teenager was on the phone, talking to Best Teenager Friend. “Embarassing. She keeps on and on about her election work. It’s ok petrifying people outside home. At least I can pretend I don’t know her. But at home! Can’t even claim I don’t know her!”

Just then, the doorbell rang…

“We come from the best political party in town! We’ve got you your voter slips!”

“Oh, won’t you come in?”I said icily…And Econ Mommy continues…

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