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.”

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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.

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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Econ Mom, voter perceptions and a dash of Tennyson

“Hi, Mom! What’s for dinner?” That was Teenager, back from his badminton practice at about 8:00 p.m.

“Well,” I said enthusiastically, “there’s roti, beans, dal and carrot raita in curd!” That was me, happy and secure in my belief that I’m feeding all the right stuff to my family.

“What? Beans? Uuuuuuuuuugggggggggggghhhh. NOONE eats beans, Ma, except us. And we eat it every third day! Beans, potato, beans, brinjal, beans, capsicum, beans…?”

I looked at him speculatively. Teenager has taken this one thing from me, for sure. He can exaggerate. The boy can have a golden career as an economist, I started thinking. “The GDP growth rate of India is 7%, nnnno, its actually 7.3%, nnnnnnnnaaahhh, it’s more like 7.8%!” Yeah, he can really do a fine career out of this wonderful trait. Put him in the RBI, and your CPI will go crashing down to 4% or wherever it is that Urjit wants it to be. Put him in NITI Aayog, and you will get your growth numbers right. Put him in the Commerce Ministry, and India’s trade to world trade ratio will cross the dreaded 3% psychological benchmark in a matter of minutes! Heehee, the boy has potential, I tell you. He simply HAS to become an economist.

“I am NOT going to eat this! Give me something interesting, Mom, I’m hungry! And I’m bored” That broke my reverie and jerked me back to reality. And the reality is that teenagers have absolutely no clue or interest in any career profiles. They have only two massive sensations. One, hunger and two, boredom. Sigh.

“Beans are great for health! And …”

“Mom, why can’t you make Chhole-bhature or pasta for dinner?”

“Because the former is oily and the latter is maida. Only calories. No nutrients. Beta, dinner has to be healthy! And this week, we’ve not really had beans for about…”

“20 hours,” piped in the Hubs, with a sly smile. “This time she has really broken all records and cooked beans within the usual 24 hour deadline!”

“Oh, shut up, both of you! And boys, you can’t declare a strike at 8:00 p.m. Food is ready, I am beat and I am not going to cook anything else. It’s too late for that.”

“This is so not fair!” Teenager, indignant with rage and upset at the gastronomical disappointment. “If it’s not possible to change the menu at the last minute, then ask me earlier, Mom. Next time, ask me when you go shopping for veggies. ONLY the vegetables I approve should be bought next week. Else you’ll keep on dishing out what you feel is right…”

That’s interesting! Thought Econ Mom, surfacing suddenly in Mrs. Phadke’s kitchen. Hmmm, isn’t that exactly what the State Election Commissioner had been saying, just a couple of days ago, in our meeting at Mumbai?

“We need to take a look beyond our usual role.” The Commissioner, as always, had come well prepared with his ideas on what needs to be done. “The role of the State Election Commission of Maharashtra (SECM) is to conduct local body elections in a free, fair and transparent manner. And we do that, to the best of our capacities and abilities. But the real question is, even if the election is conducted fairly, are people really getting a fair choice to choose from?”

For the uninitiated reader, let me just put in a little bit of gyan. When the candidates file their nomination forms for an election, that is when the voters come to know what is the mix of people from which they select a people’s representative for themselves. With great foresight and I must say, with a lot of gumption, the state of Maharashtra offers a “NOTA” i.e. “None Of The Above” option for its voters, so that the voters do not have to always choose the least of all evils. They are getting a choice to say that they want none of the candidates at all. And this, is supposed to be an absolute triumph for democracy.

However, deeper thought tells you that while NOTA is great for freedom of expression, the fact that hordes of people have this expression is itself worrisome. Thus, what is happening is that candidates filing nomination do not match the expectations of the electorate. The authorities know this, but they can’t do much about it. So, they decide to give the NOTA option to the electorate so that their voice can be heard loud and clear on the day of the election. “We do NOT like these candidates.” The problem is, that it is kinda late to do anything about this, just pretty much like it was too late for me to cook a different recipe for Teenager at 8 p.m.

“The true solution is to give them a voice before the elections.” That was what the Commissioner was saying in the meeting. Is it really necessary to do that? Even while this thought hit my mind, I got the answer. “Our job is to do everything in our scope to strengthen democracy. If the electorate is not happy with the candidature, we can’t just sit around offering NOTA. NOTA might bring the issue to light, but it certainly does not resolve it.” NOTA is the dressing on the wound. The team was brainstorming on why there is the wound in the first place.

And out of that emerged one solution. Accordingly, we’re currently doing a snap poll on voter perceptions, or what the voters want. What kind of a candidate do they really want? Do they want people who are clean, or is the priority on efficiency? How many voters feel that candidates ought to be well-educated in order to be a good representative? What proportion of voters feel that women make better representatives than men? How many people are of the opinion that good candidates stay away due to criminalization of politics?

Data analysis will soon reveal voters’ preferences. This is to be done prior to the filing of nomination forms, so that the political party heads too will get a pulse of what the common man wants. This will hopefully feed into a more scientifically designed ticket distribution process, with at least a few deserving candidates getting the tickets. Rather like buying only those veggies that Teenager approves of. This will truly give voice to the electorate and make the process more participative, which is exactly where we want to go, right?

Right, but, will this work? Even if the data analysis brings out these trends, are political parties going to toe the line? Are they going to go by statistics, or by the simple chemistry of dynasty and money? We all know the answer, don’t we? Then am I doing something futile? Why should we create this data-base on voter perceptions when we know that the true users of this data, the political parties, can, but won’t use it?

I sat in my chair, post dinner, brooding over the futility issue, when Teenager started a discussion with Daddy dearest on poetry. They were both arguing about what a line in some poem meant. I was far away from the discussion, disturbed and restless. Suddenly, Teenager propped his English text in front of my eyes. “Mom? Have you ever read these lines?” he asked.

And Econ Mom found her answer. In a dog-eared literature text-book. The answer to why a scientifically designed statistical survey has to bring out voter issues, political parties be damned. “Tis better to have loved and lost”, said Alfred Lord Tennyson, “than never to have loved at all.” Bravo.

 

Surgical, Purgical and Mergical Strikes in the Indian Budget

The surgical strikes carried out by the Indian Army have taken the imagination of the country by storm and rightly so.

In the meanwhile, “Surgical strike” has become the absolutely new buzzword in town. Such is the lure of the word that Chetan Bhagat has immediately decided on his new book: Surgical Strike-Point-(at)-Someone. The fellow is simply incurable.

Newshour has declared 8 weeks of Surgical Strike analysis and apparently been calling up Pakistani politicians furiously to book their dates for the period. This single-handedly has caused dizzying levels of relief for Indian politicians, who for the first time in many days, feel completely free to make idiotic statements and mini-scams without fear of being grilled by the One and Only. The PR team of the UPA scion’s Kisan Yatra is said to have collapsed amidst mingled tears of joy and relief. The Kisans though, are on the run.

B-Schools, tired with meaningless terms such as “leveraging marketing strengths to enhance ground zero” are simply overwhelmed by the discovery of such a powerful new word. Harvard Business School has now officially included a new strategy in the corporate mantras: The Strike with a capital S. Bewildered students are now being asked to “leverage marketing Strike potential to enhance ground zero”. Financial Management Journals, which hitherto described “Strike Price” as the price at which a security can be purchased due to an option, now also include the definition of the “Surgical Strike Price”. This is the price at which security can be enhanced when no options are left with us anymore.

Amidst such corporate celebrations, however, the FM has been sulking. Had he known the term before, he could have leveraged it to enhance ground zero, errr, to highlight main points of the fiscal policy. How? Well, getting the GST passed was no less than a surgical strike, was it? To trump the Opposition in LS elections so as to get the majority in the Lower House, and then to diplomatically isolate them by highlighting their attempts to stall the Bill, was just the start. And then, those incessant sessions with the State Committees to understand the sticky issues and accommodate the sensible demands. Hadn’t he too, spent sleepless nights, before the passage of the Bill?

Take the case of removing the Plan – Non Plan design of the Budget.  For the first time, the Budget will be presented, way before its usual February date, without the usual priorities as suggested by a Five Year Plan. The Budget accounts will only be classified into the Revenue and the Capital Accounts, with zero mention of the legendary Plan and Non-Plan Expenditure classification. To remove the influence of the Five Year Plan from the Budget as well as do away with a separate Railway Budget has been no mean feat; a “purgical” strike, anyone?

Hmmm. And that masterstroke of creating the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), while at the same time allowing the Governor the autonomy of a casting vote. He had simply changed the dynamics of the game; now there would also be growth combatants together with inflation warriors within the RBI. He had successfully merged growth objectives with inflation management, and how! “Oh, I should have called it my “mergical” strike” he thought wistfully.

Of course, the decision of the MPC, in its very first policy review, to slash rates has not gone down well with all economists. Dr. Rajan, the erstwhile Governor shuddered delicately in Chicago, when quizzed about his reaction to the rate cut. “It’s more of a “splurgical” strike,” he said. “A classic case of too many cooks spoiling the Booth.”

 

Econ Mom as the confused driver!

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaarghhh! It’s been such a nutty week and poor Econ Mom is a complete, total, confused mess.

It all started a couple of weeks ago, when my car started making strange noises on applying the brakes. Now, a good ole Honda doesn’t ever create any which noise, forget strange noises, and I was spooked. I tried applying the brakes fiercely, gently, with a smile and with a professional pan-face. Nope.

The car wouldn’t be persuaded and was taken off for an overhaul. In the meanwhile, the Hubs sweetly offered me his car. I’d have liked it with the Hub-chauffeur, but no such luck. I got only the machine minus the man. And the main problem is that it is German.

We, of the Honda tribe, detest German engineering. Gott im Himmel! Hubby’s Polo doesn’t start till you apply some serious muscle tension to the key; and the reverse gear is the first gear plus tension. I tell you, I was unused to such tension in my regular driving life and it was freaking me out.

But, you don’t know the worst yet. The Polo indicator controls and the wiper controls are on the wrong side. The Germans may be marvellous at engineering, but the idiots don’t know their left from the right. OMG. This is magnificiently spooky. I was feeling like a right wing economist being forced into writing a poem “In Praise of Marx and Controls.”

The first day on the Polo and some weirdo who came from the opposite side of our super narrow street flashed his headlights at me. Now this, is a pure-ghee Indian driving phenomenon. The person flashing lights first apparently has the moral right of way, other things be damned. “Oh yeah, I’ll show you who goes first,” I thought viciously and flashed the light indicator viciously to be met by a most efficient German water jet on my windscreen, causing me to jump madly in my seat. “Hell,” I thought, automatically moving my left hand towards the wipers, in the process switching on some indicator lights. “Oh, this is really quite merry”, I thought with gritted teeth as cyclists and bikers behind me started to swear, not quite sure where I might eventually turn. By now, in addition to switching on all possible headlights and indicators, I had also started the wiper on the backscreen. My car does not have the feature and I was terrified. Germans, you back stabbers!

I had a real bad first week with the Polo. Even the radio wouldn’t play soothing songs and after listening to that idiotic woman pleading “DJ waale babu mera gaana bajaa do”, followed by Yo-Yo Honey Singh informing me conversationally in the middle of the downpour that “Din Hain apparently Sunny Sunny Sunny Sunny Sunny Sunny”, I was completely disheartened. I had had it.

Hubby was absolutely enjoying the whole process and had started taking unusual amount of interest in my daily “Aaj ki Polo khabar” ravings and rantings. After listening to my conspiracy theory on how the same radio stations were playing different songs for the Polo drivers, he couldn’t control his glee at all. “You could try writing “Who moved my indicator controls? We’ll get Subbarao to write the foreword for your book,” he suggested wickedly. “Oh, shut up. I’ll write Econ Mom and the Cursed Car instead,” I muttered darkly.

Sigh! As if I did not have enough on my plate, J K Rowling, of all the people, had decided to come out with a badly written book.  Lil One and I had quite a merry little boxing bout the day it arrived home, which I won mostly by virtue of tickling him (“That’s cheating, Mom!”) and then packing him ceremoniously off to school. But I was so badly, badly disappointed. The max humor content the book has to offer is when Albus Potter tells Scorpio, “Yeah, you can’t be Voldemort’s son. You’ve got a nose!”

Oh, really. C’mon, is this Rowling? To read a Potter without the witticism and the detailed plots and well-developed character nuances was such a culture shock. It was exactly like putting a Honda driver into a German car.

And then, the GST Constitutional Amendment Bill was passed. Such a rude shock for us economists! I mean, how could they? The monsoon session had started properly enough, with Rahul Baba dozing off and the rest shouting madly. Now, technically, this fervour had to be followed up with paper balls, flinging of chairs, and well, maybe pepper spray for high drama. Chidambaram had to shout that the NDA does not know its economics, and Subramaniam Swamy had to follow it up by saying that nobody in the world knows economics. An apoplectic-with-moral-rage Arnab, falling markets and a witty Tweakonomics piece by Yours Sincerely would wrap it up nicely.

So there I was, waiting for the Amendment not to go through, when it went through! Unanimously! And that is BIG news. It’ll mean a lot of changes in the short run, but the longer run gains should make up for the trouble. A single-window for indirect taxation, lesser administration, more transparency, lesser subjectivity in assessments, lesser time in transit and hopefully, a fair sharing-between-states system. It is what every economist had dreamt of.

And yet, there I was, confused. How can the UPA behave so professionally? Now whom will we blame for the low-pace in reforms? When you have all politicians rooting for taking reforms ahead, rather than play their own silly partisan games, it creates a rude shock in the minds of innocent citizens like me. Exactly like putting a Honda driver into a German car.

Epilogue

After driving the Polo for about 10 days, I got my car back. Oh, the feeling! I could have run to it and honked in slow motion! God must have sensed the romance and sent a small drizzle my way.

I immediately sat in my car and then, to my horror, started reflexively moving my right hand to start the wipers. To my consternation, the indicator lights started ticking, while the wipers wouldn’t budge. The radio informed my frayed nerves that “Hafte mein chaar Shaniwar hone chahiye”. OMG. Now I’m a German driver in a Japanese car. Help!

 

 

Econ Mom, Brexit and the Wimbledon finals

OMG. It’s that time of the year again, when Team Phadke moves into Antagonism Extremis.  As the loyal blog reader must know by now, we, the Phadkes, have never quite taken to the Amicable Extremis family model of the Smriti Irani prototype TV shows. We hate each others’ guts, and we’re superbly candid and proud about it. Even Lil One does not quite like his parents. Even when he was in third grade and all the ickle ones wrote reams and reams of stuff on “What I like about my mom”, Lil One had sat in school with a puzzled expression on his face, really not sure what he quite liked about Mommy dearest. He had finally ventured to write “My mother is funny. She makes faces while telling stories. She looks weird. I think I like her.” I hadn’t quite known whether to fret or be proud of the boy.

Well, so, to come back to the point, we don’t normally see eye to eye on most things, me n Hubby. But our usual arguments (which are fairly Ouch!) seem almost….sweet in comparison, when June arrives. Why? Because, June is TENNIS! The French Open followed by Winbledon, back to back. It’s enough to send our household into a complete, no-holds barred war scenario.

About a decade ago, when the Roger Federer – Rafael Nadal rivalry was at its peak, the June season at our place used to spark some of the worst marital issues ever. Even worse than who’ll do the dishes at night. Even worse than who didn’t fill the icecube tray after last use (That, single handedly is the cause of 73% of the famed Phadke arguments. BTW, it’s always Hubby. Though he’ll never agree to it. I am now thinking of putting in a mini camera in my ice-cube tray just to prove him wrong. Hehehe.) Even worse than who’ll clean the toilets. And that’s saying something. Sigh!

What with me supporting Nadal and Hubby dearest supporting Federer, emotions used to run sky high. French Open and the clay courts would normally bring out the best form in Nadal and the best scowl in Hubby. Oh God, after Nadal won the French Open final against Federer in 2007, Hubby had sulked and sulked and didn’t speak to me till Federer beat him back in the Wimbledon season. That I didn’t speak to him for an entire 2 month period post-Wimbledon is just a logical extension of the argument. Hubby is quite fond of that particular memory and gets this glassy eyed expression whenever he thinks of those two blissful months with me not shrieking at him.

This year’s been no different. “Nadal not playing French Open due to injury!” Hubby piped up suddenly, over morning tea whilst reading the news. “Tch. Tch. Tch. The poor man’s getting old. He should retire.” That came in a gleeful, teasing tone.  He spent most of the day passing idiotic comments on me and singing, “Mujhe buddhaa mil gayaa” and generally making me mad. Heehee. The next day Federer crashed out due to injury. I now joined in the singing fairly enthusiastically. By day end, we were getting on each other’s nerves and had a mother of a fight that evening. Even with both of them NOT playing, we again stopped talking to each other. AAAAAARRRRGH!!!!

Wimbledon was to start on the 27th June; in the meanwhile the Brexit referendum was held on the 23rd. The leave lobby won by a very slight margin; it was 52% voting for leave as compared to 48% voting to remain. I wasn’t amused. “I really don’t understand what they are going to gain by exiting.”I was talking to one of my colleagues on phone. “45% of UK exports are vis-a-vis Europe. How can one expect to create that kind of an export share with some other country? They are worried about the Syrians coming in and taking their jobs. But frankly, if Brexit happens, there won’t be too many jobs around in the first place for anyone to come in and grab. Brexit is so not a good idea!”

I have been reading up by the ton on Brexit analysis that is coming through and the more I look at the issue, I get a feeling that this is going to be one major setback for the EU in general, and UK in particular. Colossally bigger in scale and management than Greece was. The Grexit was about a fiscally indisciplined, small problem-child wanting to exit the family. UK has a fairly big presence in the EU and will create multiple issues upon exit. There’ll be something of a case that EU will want to make out of it and will make it painful for UK to exit, just so that others do not entertain similar fanciful ideas. The pain will obviously come in through squeezed out market access, high tariff and non-tariff barriers against UK, lower accessibility to capital flows etc. UK, which will be at the receiving end of the cold shoulder, does not have an immediate ally such as the US to help them tide over the crisis. Hmmm, Brexit is going to be fairly painful for UK.

“Mom! Are you coming here?” yelled Lil One from the living room. “The semi-final is just starting! Raonic vs. Federer!” OMG. Of course. I hurried into the living room. The tension was palpable. Hubby and Lil One turned blue, green and a delicate shade of yellow as Raonic unleashed those aces on Roger Federer. It was sad. Federer lost the semis and the final would now be between Raonic and Murray.

“I hope Murray beats him 6-0. 6-0, 6-0.” That was Hubby, brooding with a dark gaze on the dinner table. This is interesting. Hubby has never quite supported Murray, whereas I am well, not too fond of him, but I like his game.

“Gosh! Does that mean we ALL support the same player in the finals?” Lil One was quite impressed by the uniqueness of this situation. The poor boy has never quite seen his parents support the same player during tennis season. I wonder if he’ll be able to handle this spirit of bonhomie during Wimbledon finals.

“Yes, Lil One,” said Hubby winking at Lil One wickedly. “I so totally agree with Mom. Brexit is such a bad idea!”