Econ Mom on the Muthai river walk

“Please finish your milk, beta. We’ve to go out.” That was me talking to my Lil One, who was staring into his glass of milk with something on his mind.

“Can we buy a new game CD, Mom, please? Everyone in my class has the Batman game and I don’t have it. Please, mom?”

Sigh. “No. I don’t like this game thingy. And I don’t like Batman either.”

“Oh, but that’s totally not fair, Mom. I like him. Everyone likes him. You are the only one who likes some ancient, antique stuff, Mom!”

Heehee, wickedly I took a quick look at Hubby, hoping he had heard that he had been just classified as ancient and antique. But much to my disappointment, he was deeply immersed in reading and not listening to our argument and had, as usual, nothing to do with this earth shattering, critical decision of whether to buy a new game CD. Oh, I am going to be daddy in the next birth, I thought viciously, looking at his peaceful countenance.

It’s my new favourite thought these days, brought on by Lil One’s semester end exams last month when I was sweating away on the geographical peculiarities of Tanzania even as Hubby asked Lil One nonchalantly, “So, when’s the exam, champ?”Grrrrrr, I want to be Daddy.

“And I am sure Batman costs only a few crores or something?” I asked sarcastically.

“Come off it, mom, you’re always overdoing it!”

Well, perhaps I am. Econ Mom was already examining the Diamond-Water Paradox in her mind with great interest (renamed Batman-Water paradox in the present context).

The paradox, first presented by Adam Smith, looks at the ironical situation of how we pay huge sums of money for apparently non-useful commodities like diamonds and art pieces and Batman CDs, but get life-saving air and water free. Smith’s resolution of the Paradox was that since water is available freely, but diamonds require much toil to be mined, the value of labor gets reflected in the value of the diamond.

Of course, the Marginalists challenged this labor theory of value. Marshall resolved the paradox by suggesting that the price of a commodity is equal to the marginal utility that is derived from the product.

Thus, the Marginal Utility (increment in snob status) that a consumer gets by buying a Batman CD is extremely high (Sigh! Ask any mom) and hence those prices are high.

However, while Total Utility of water is undisputed (it’s a life saver), the marginal utility that the user begets from that last sip is low since water is available plentifully and hence, water is priced low. Now, it’s interesting to see that the marginal utility associated with that last sip is low because of the assumption that the water availability will continue unrestricted. But what if it won’t?

A “Muthai” river walk organized by Janwani and Jeevitnadi (https://jeevitnadi.wordpress.com/home/about/), both NGOs working in Pune, was illuminating. The walk aimed to sensitize citizenry of Pune on the history, geography and indeed, the economics of the lifeline of the city, the Mutha river.

“Walk is Sunday morning and we are all attending” I announced to a deeply antagonistic-about-Sunday-mornings-being-disturbed audience, my family. To make it more interesting for Lil One, I had also asked his Best Friend to accompany us. So early Sunday morning, with Hubby and a resentful Lil One and his equally resentful Best Friend in tow, I reached the Siddheshwar Ghat temple, which is where our walk started. Just seeing the Ghat and the black swampy waters was a culture shock for Lil One and Best Friend.

mutha

“Gosh, its so dirty, Mom! Do we get …this water in our taps?”

I resisted a triumphant “I had told you this would be very interesting” and shrugged my confirmation of his doubt.

“Someone needs to do something about it!” he said, his young face suddenly worried and upset.

What a very typical attitude. Where do they pick it up from? “Well, that someone is us, the citizens of Pune. And what is the something, is what we are here to learn.”I announced primly to the young minds, which were by now getting over the shock and were interestedly watching and urging some crows indulging in a fight on the Ghat. Sigh!

Our Janwani coordinator Juie introduced us to Manish Ghorpade and Ms. Anuradha, who were our guides from Jeevitnadi and the story of the river came pouring out, sometimes gently, sometimes in a torrent, even as the history and the human interference unfolded in front of my eyes.

The Mutha river originates in the Sahyadris at village Vegre. Fossils of elephants, ostriches and an extinct animal “auroch” have been found along its banks, indicating how dense the forests around the river must have been. Evidences of stone tools used by Homo Eructus as well as Homo Sapiens were found too, again indicating that humans seemed to have had a connect with the river for the longest period of time. As with all rivers, Mutha too provided humans the possibility of settling down into stable agricultural profiles and the Punyanagari was set up.

Pune developed into a bustling town around the river. It was the Peshwe kings, who did the first engineering creations to drive water management into Pune. Elaborate underground drain and tunnel systems were designed to drive the water from Katraj into the “hauds” in the Peth areas. These systems are so wonderfully done that plenty of the ducts are operative even today. In the photograph below, the small pool kind of a structure that you can see on the left is “Bapu cha zara,” a spring fed by the underground channels. The water quality here is distinctly superior as compared to the water quality of the Mutha flowing nearby.

bapucha zaraa

Much as water management systems are essential for the living standards in the city, they also enabled perhaps settling down at localities away from the river; this is first instance of disconnect that a civilization faces vis-a-vis its lifeline.

It is a sad commentary on the current human interference with this river that much of the rich bio-diversity that it once boasted off is simply dead. Birds such as the pheasant tailed jacana and the pied kingfishers, which were seen on the river just around 50 years ago, are now nowhere to be seen. These species require clear water and plenty of fish, both, features that the Mutha doesn’t boast of any more.

Our guides pointed out at a spot right next to the river that all of Pune stands tall around us when you look at it from the vantage point of a river. That is because rivers are typically the lowest points in a city and hence unfortunately become, points of waste accumulation as well. Pictures of just 50 years ago were stunning. I was filled with angst as to how much of damage we’ve inflicted on the waters, plants, trees, animals, fish and birds in our crazy quest to own the world.

One of the saddest points of the walk was when our guides held up two bottles, one containing water from Mutha and another, containing water as it ought to be. Let me not write anything about this. Just a look at this picture should be enough.

water comp

By this time, Lil One and Best Friend had got sufficiently interested into the whole process and were really participating in the walk and the talk. When we walked on to the bridge to Bal Gandharva theatre where Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was assassinated, the kids were amazed to see the railings full of black ribbons that people have tied, protesting against the assassination. Dr. Dabholkar was one of the key people involved in bringing the issues of the Ganesh idol immersions into the Mutha into sharp focus.

dabholkar

A person who was washing clothes in the black dirty waters was asked by the volunteers how he could possibly wash clothes in such dirty waters. “Oh, but I don’t need any detergent because the water is so soapy” came the answer.

End of the bridge, we stopped to gaze back into the polluted, unsafe waters of the Mutha.

In 1961, our guide told us, Thames (London) was worse off than this swamp. So much so, that when a ferry capsized in it, people who could swim did not manage to get to the shore because the toxic fumes drowned them. The 5 people who reached the shore died the next day. And in 2015, Thames has been declared to be the cleanest rivers in the world.

As a young student was quick to point out, UK has got more money and technology than we do. Yes, said our guide. But what they really have and we don’t is citizen’s participation. Are we really willing to spend some time mulling over these issues and creating solutions? Are we willing to use lesser chemicals in our home care and personal care products to give a chance to the river bio diversity? Are we willing to connect back to our lifeline?

More than being a role model, the story of Thames is a hope. A hope that things can and will change as people get involved.

Epilogue:

We came back home, a more reflective and quieter family than the one that had got into the car earlier in the morning. Lil One too was in one of his rarer, more reflective moods. When I asked him whether he’d like some sherbet after that long morning, his reaction was typically horrified. “What? Sherbet? Don’t waste any water, woman. Give me milk.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pay Commission 007: Bond’s Spectre pales before India’s Spectre!

Dear Reader,

Here’s a spoof piece that I wrote for my column “Tweakonomics”, which appeared today in the Hindu Business Line. You can either read it at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/columns/pay-commission-007/article7912977.ece or read it here directly. Enjoy!

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It’s back! In a richer, more generous, more fiery, more flashy avatar. With more goodies for everyone. No, not James Bond. Pay Commission 007. And it has left the Indian Administrative Services shaken as well as stirred.

Decadal corrections have come in, and how! “What took you so long, 007?” Even as the average salaries of central government employees go up by 23 per cent, this Desi 007 has created a storm by bringing the tricky question of pay parity between IAS and other services to the fore. IAS officers enjoy higher pay than their counterparts in other services by way of earning additional increments at 3 per cent of their basic pay.

The weeks prior to the release of the recommendations of Pay Commission 007 saw hectic activity and a flurry of letters from IAS officers to Secretary, department of personnel and training. It’s very difficult to understand what most IAS officers write in their letters. For the most part it does seem to be in English, but for mere mortals (read non-IAS) to understand what the brightest and the best are saying is to expect a child to fathom The Wasteland by TS Eliot.

Had we had the honour of hosting Sir Humphrey, the Permanent Secretary to Hon’ble Jim Hacker (of Yes, Minister! fame) in the IAS, he would have recorded his “profound opposition to the newly instituted practice which imposes severe and intolerable restrictions upon the ingress and egress of senior members of the hierarchy and which will, in all probability, should the current deplorable innovation be perpetuated, precipitate a constriction of the channels of communication, and culminate in a condition of organisational atrophy and administrative paralysis, which will render effectively impossible the coherent and co-ordinated discharge of the function of government within India”. Whew! That is Sarkari 007 to cut the Sanskaari Bond to size. To put it in English, “We are simply the best and hence deserve more”. It’s simply the “writing on the wall”, Bond would have claimed.

Bond heads to Mexico City with a lead from M and has his brush with Spectre, the organisation driven by IT intelligence systems, and exists simply everywhere. The Indian Pay Commission 007 is also headed by our own M, Justice AK Mathur, and now is up against the Indian Administrative Spectre, the organisation driven by Bureaucracy intelligence (?) systems and exists simply everywhere, or as an afterthought, at least in the highest levels of government.

Fathom this. Of the total 91 Secretary posts in the current system, there are 73 IAS officers and a sprinkling of other services just to keep the situation under control and maintain an atmosphere of bonhomie with the police, forests, scientists, etc. However, at the Joint Secretary level, they don’t even pretend to be interested in “What will the other Services think” . Joint Secretaries are IAS officers. Period. Having secured the joints, the IAS cadre then “adds on” muscle power. Additional Secretaries obviously have to be IAS officers; what with all these Secretaries and Joint Secretaries and Additional Secretaries, you have quite an adhesive Bond of the Indian Administrative Spectre.If Bond’s Spectre is autocratic, the Indian Spectre is bureaucratic. If Spectre works with sinister one-liners, the IAS works with meaningless realms of paper in different coloured ink filed meticulously since 1947. Pay Commission 007 is up against a formidable force. In the Indian version of Spectre, M has raised the Q. The real Q is, is there an A?

Econ Mom, Mrs. Phadke and Sanskaari Bond

Econ Mom clashes fairly badly with Mrs. Phadke many times.

Whenever I meet with my innocent (read non-economist) homemaker neighbors, there is almost always the discussion on Mehengai. “Such inflation, I tell you. Everything is totally unaffordable. And this Government is not even doing much about it. Where are the Acchhe Din, tell me!” This last, rather aggressive question, is normally directed towards me, with that look in the eye that it is my personal mistake that inflation is so high and the acche din are nowhere in sight.

“Errr, well, you know, currently inflation levels are actually technically not that high,” I begin diffidently only to be drowned in various tones of indignant protests.

“But Dal is soooooooooo expensive. Soap, oil, mobile services…everything is expensive. The maids are constantly asking for a raise. And this Prem Sagar grocer will be the death of me. Everything is sooo expensive.” That’s Mrs. Joshi, who stays in my building and has got extremely set and often err..wrong opinions on what is wrong with the world in general and with me in particular.

I squirm uncomfortably but continue, in what I hope is a calming voice I adopt in the classroom. “Yes, but being expensive and being inflated are two different things, you know. And while the Government can and ought to take steps on this, inflation control is more of a central banking thing, you know…”

My problem is that Econ Mom looks at inflation rather technically and dispassionately and clinically. She knows that CPI is doing ok and WPI is in the negative zone.

Of course, such is not the case with Mrs. Phadke. When the delivery boy from the aforementioned Prem Sagar comes home with the grocery and the unavoidable bills, I too don on the tone that would put Mrs. Joshi to shame to grumble, “Such inflation! This grocer will be the death of me. Where are the Acche Din gone…”

Econ Mom doesn’t like subsidies. It’s not that Econ Mom is heartless, but she is analytical. With limited funds to spend on unlimited infrastructural wants, Econ Mom can never quite fathom how subsidies can be prioritized. But my Gods know that Mrs. Phadke is not quite averse to the thing. When I read recently about the Government now mulling over compulsorily doing away with the LPG subsidy, Econ Mom quietly appreciated the thought. Mrs. Phadke simply shuddered.

Econ Mom is quite the cool customer. She is market oriented, has opinions on Sensex movements and hates controls on anyone and anything. Mrs. Phadke is welfare oriented, buys gold and doesn’t mind controls, so long as they are on others.

There was a fun encounter between the two, interestingly, at the local cinema. Hubby suddenly got us tickets for Spectre as a surprise and there we were in the theatre, waiting for Daniel Craig to floor us with some terrific action sequences. All three of us are huge Bond fans and hence had been following the progress of Spectre quite actively.

When the Sanskaari Bond trolls started after the Censor Board put in its say, I had a lot of fun and was laughing with glee at the different things people were putting up on the Sanskaari Bond. And when Econ Mom read that Bond asks for M’s Aashirwad before starting off on a new mission, she couldn’t stop laughing. Wicked! The troll attack on the Censor Board’s action seemed to be the best form of protest to Econ mom. When humor wounds, it can wound big time. The name’s humor. Black humor.

As we settled in our seats, however, I got a bit, just that teeny weeny bit, anxious. That’s Mrs. Phadke, of course. While Lil One is now 12, coming to the theatre for a Bond film with no remote control in my hand was causing me quite the jitters. You don’t want those questions being asked in front of 35 other strangers looking at you amusedly, tittering at your awkward hushings of the indignant and i-want-to-know-right-now queries. Sigh!

But then, Mrs. Phadke remembered the Censor Board. Heehee! And Sanskaari Bond suddenly didn’t seem wicked anymore. He just seemed perfect! I tell you, had he actually taken M’s Ashirwad by touching her photo-frame hanging in his living room, Mrs. Phadke wouldn’t have minded then! Econ Mom did whisper quietly, “Hypocrite!” into my ear but Mrs. Phadke happily dug some more into her popcorn tub, content to be watching Bond with her family. Thank God for the Sanskaari Bond!

 

Netaji gets smart on Award Waapsi

The scene again opens in the political office, where Netaji is washing down a large plate of samosas with his third cup of Chai.

Netaji (with a loud burp): Aah! Now I feel good! I tell you Guptaji, creating constant innovative campaigns on non-issues is as draining as a work-out. I feel so hungry all the time.

Clever Guptaji (mumbling): You could try some food for thought, sometime. That would good for health of the country as well.

Netaji (sharply): What is that, Guptaji? What were you mumbling about? My food intake?

Clever Guptaji (sycophantically): No, no, Sahib. I was just saying you should take care of yourself. The country needs people like you, Sir. That is what I was thinking.

Netaji (appeased): Hmmm. So tell me Guptaji, how do you like our latest campaign? I tell you, at our meeting yesterday, there were all talking about intolerance. The High Up people said that they are feeling intolerant towards intolerance. Such intellectual debates! They seem highly satisfied that such an issue has been created out of practically nothing! It takes great creativity and thought!

Clever Guptaji: I really think it was a masterstroke, Sir! And then all those people returning awards; it became quite literally, a literary attack on the Government.

Netaji: Yes, yes. This award-waapsi campaign hit the Government alright! Say Guptaji, I was just thinking, I too want to return an award.

Guptaji (in alarm): But Sahib, you have never received one. Unless you are counting that medal for wrestling you got in Std VII, which you display so proudly. And Sir, I wonder whether returning the wrestling medal to the school will be news enough to get the media running after it.

Netaji (annoyed): Of course, I wasn’t thinking of the wrestling medal. Don’t get smart with me, Guptaji. But then, I am desperate to return something. What should I return?

Clever Guptaji: Well Sir, there is all that money you earned in those real estate deals. Optionally, those stock options in that company you favoured by giving them the land. There’s also those dollars in the Swiss account, 65 godowns simply full of Tur Dal, 500 acres of land in that swanky township, 110 kilos of gold kept in the bank lockers, Rs. 320 crores in property you bought in your wife’s name..should I go on, Sir? Instead of reforming the PDS, even if they reform you Sir, the prospects of the country will brighten up! GDP growth rate will start ticking, dead assets will come alive, BoP may look better, more transparency will inspire more confidence in markets and food inflation will go down. You can return the fundamentals to the country, Sir.

Netaji (earnestly): Hmmm, you are quite smart today, Guptaji! But still, all these things you mentioned cannot be returned. Much as I want to, I cannot help the FM better the fundamentals of this country. Had you told me to return all these hard-earned assets of mine to the country last week, I would have given it up with a smile on my face, Guptaji. After all, India’s economic interests come before mine. But alas! It’s too late now.

Clever Guptaji: How, Sir?

Netaji: It’s my favourite actor Anupam Kher. The good fellow says that there is no intolerance in India! Returning stuff is unfashionable and foolish. Aapsi karo, waapsi nahi! Intolerance has been around for the longest time. Why single out anyone? Bollywood calls it selective outrage, Guptaji! If I return my assets, I will be charged with selective outrage by the I-T Department, Guptaji! No, no. We can’t let that happen.

Clever Guptaji (quietly): I don’t know about the good actor, but you politicians are truly Anupam, Netaji!

 

 

Gross Dal Product: The new GDP measure for India

Dear Reader,

Hi! Here’s a satire piece on the astronomical Tur Dal prices in India, which appeared in Tweakonomics, my column in the Hindu Business Line today. You can read it at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/gross-dal-product/article7858501.ece or read it here directly! Comments/ views welcome, as usual! Enjoy!

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Here’s the new tadka to the humble dal of economics: The government will now launch with immediate effect a new series called as the Gross Dal Product. There are a number of advantages to using this series over our regular and boring Gross Domestic Product. First, most people don’t understand what the regular GDP thingy stands for and cannot begin to imagine why Moody’s should be so sensitive to the damn thing. But the new Gross Dal Product is something close to everybody’s heart, or, at least, tummy.

The Gross Dal Product will measure how much dal was produced in the country and any reduction in the growth rate will now be able to make the most sweet-tempered homemakers Moody, to say the least. They may also make the “Standard” people, “Poor”. The Gross Dal Product will thus be able to popularise economics amongst all stakeholders in the society. The government will also be able to use the Gross Dal Product as a leading indicator for social unrest and political instability. The subsidy on the new LPG, i.e. Lentils, Pulses and Grams, will be introduced and counter-cyclically adjusted to the new GDP.

Then, there’s NDP

Together with the Gross Dal Product, we will also calculate the Net Dal Product, which is the produce that is left for the public after being hoarded by the traders and consumed by the rodents. The “Friends of Rodents” Society took objection on calling it the “Net” Dal Product, but wily economists convinced them that this has nothing to do with the nets used to capture the rats.

Dal will have to be bought through banking gateways so that all transactions on the new GDP remain traceable. Banks will issue ATM cards which will be the only way to buy Arhar, Tur and Moong dal online.

Aadhaar cards will be replaced by Oo-Dal cards and will track gastrometric prints of people together with their bio-metrics. The Oo-Dal cards will allow disadvantaged people to purchase dal by debiting their FDs and RDs: the Fixed Dal and Recurring Dal accounts. In Fixed Dal accounts, you can buy only one kind of dal throughout the year by debiting the bank account. In the Recurring Dal accounts, you will be allowed to access six different kinds of dals. It goes without saying that the interest rate on RDs will be lower since the consumer gets access to such amazing luxury.

SDR guidelines

The RBI has already issued guidelines to make SDRs, ie Special Dal Rights, the main asset backing for issuing new currency notes. Similarly, Dal Indexed Bonds have also been introduced.

Changes in the Gross Dal Product will automatically get reflected in the new CPI, the Chana Price Index. The Opposition has expressed dissent and has said that unless the Tur (Arhar) prices are factored in properly, the new CPI will keep cheating the public.

The government, however, is adamant that it has a reputation to keep and to allow CPI to reflect reality will be an insult to the indicator’s highly opaque history.

There is also a demand from the trade unions to launch a new DA, the Dal Allowance, which will be benchmarked to the new CPI, which will go up as soon as the new GDP goes down.

The Incredible India campaign is to be re-launched around Kashmir, featuring the Dal lake. Innocent tourists who’ve never seen the natural wonder lentils such as Arhar and Chana will be able to view the dals from a distance. What a scan”dal”!

Mahila Sarpanch: Lacking the Punch?

The 73rd and 74th amendment to the Constitution in 1992 gave constitutional status to the Panchayat local bodies. In order to empower women in terms of more active political participation, reservations for women Sarpanches now exist in several states.

The intent was good; let us review where the results stand vis-a-vis the objectives. Has the reservation helped in getting women to the fore? Undoubtedly, yes. Women, once they become Sarpanches, do become more politically savvy over a period of time. There is no magic here, it is simply a question of exposure. Once they answer a few questions in the Gram Sabha, start meeting with the Zilla Parishad officers, realize that their signature is important for withdrawing funds for some village scheme, they gradually start getting a sense of power. This process could take 3-4 years, depending on their family background, education levels, ambitions and inherent smartness quotients.

If the lady is simply the legal face of her more politically savvy husband or father-in-law, very limited empowerment comes from the exposure. After she wins the election, it is he who takes the victory march through the village and she just signs wherever he asks her to. It is ironical that even on the pre-poll propaganda pamphlets, you can very often see the husband’s photograph looming large.

However, if the lady is not connected to a political family and has contested the elections for whatever reason out of her own free will, there is a genuine change in her in some time. The problem is that just as she starts finding her feet and understanding the ropes, it is time for the next election. And in the next election, the Sarpanch seat in her village may not be reserved for women and she doesn’t stand a chance. Many Mahila Sarpanches hence claim that the true benefit to them could only accrue if the Sarpanch seat gets a reservation for 2 continuous terms.

Of course, there are many issues with this too. As of today, it is the men who understand the ropes. Why? Because it is they who’ve pretty much created the systems, greased the wheels, brought in the networks and generally driven the unique, person-centric, sycophantic political culture that brings critical funds for development. And as I’ve argued in my earlier blog, after all this work, when the seat gets reserved for a woman candidate and gets contested by an independently thinking woman, the polity collapses. The network through which those funds could have arrived into the village become null and void. The person with the actual power does not want to work and the person in power does not understand how to. It is a strange kind of a saddle point in the matrix of development history; it is the largest issue in the column of gender equality and the smallest element in the row of power and one that needs deeper thinking on.

The Mahila Sarpanch faces a number of extremely unique issues in her day-to-day working life too. Take the simple case of budgets. Most Mahila Sarpanches do not understand how to read budgets or accounts by virtue of never having done it before. Again, her helpers being mostly male and secretive about this main domain around which their entire power rests, are not exactly forthcoming in terms of educating her about it. It is here that community bodies like SHGs Bachat Gat groups can and do drive a huge difference. Wherever backed by such local groups, Mahila Sarpanches tend to drive much better outcomes than in other villages.

A large part of the Sarpanch’s duties is simply to liason with the ZP officials when they come for a visit or for exploring possibilities of a development scheme being implemented. However, the village culture does not allow the Mahila Sarpanch to invite these officers home for Chai-Pani and hence the male Upa-Sarpanch effectively becomes the liasoning officer. Further, the Upa-Sarpanch in all probability goes back to the ZP by just riding pillion with a junior ZP official and on the way understands where the dough lies, a luxury scant afforded by the women. They cannot do this easy talk culturally; riding in the same car or bike would be a steep moral offense and they are not given conveyance with which they can actually go to the ZP to follow up on the status of the projects. Thus, even with know-how about the Swacch Bharat project, they may not be able to procedurally drive the funds home. Add to this the apathy of the Gram Sevak and you see how acute the problem is.

Thrusting political equality on a society with inherent cultural gender-inequality can only go so far. To put the punch back into the role of the Mahila Sarpanch, multiple interventions in education, gender-sensitization, financial inclusion and cultural re-orientation would be required.