Friday, November 25, 2016

The audacity of scope

Big dreams need better planning than this

(Published on November 19, 2016 in Business Standard)

It’s always fun to read about putrescent extravagances like the rumoured Rs 550 crore wedding that Karnataka mining tycoon and political crony Gali Janardhan Reddy just organised for his daughter. This one featured a Rs 17-crore bridal sari, Rs 5 crore invitations, and 50,000 guests including Karnataka BJP president BS Yeddyurappa, who is to financial propriety what kryptonite is to Superman. It’s superfun to read about it while standing in a five-hour-long queue for the ninth straight day to exchange Rs 2,000 suddenly worthless rupees for the day. It’s the kind of thing that brings a smile to one’s face in these dark times, even if it is kind of a psycho killer smile.

The Indian government commendably wants to honour one of its campaign promises by sucking out black money and corruption. But in the hyperbolic style of the Modi government, it is trying to do it with that most powerful of economic tools: metaphor. It’s a mahayagya, said Modi, a ‘festival of honesty’. It’s disgraceful to sell state policy through religion, but if you’re going to, remember that like all festivals, this one is a temporary respite until we get back to routine; and like all festivals, it’s going to make you feel good rather than actually change your life.

Targeting black money is a fine idea, and props to Prime Minister Modi for wanting to address the problem. Forget, for a minute, the critique that demonetisation is a high-impact, low-yield exercise that will do nothing to stop corruption. Give the government the benefit of doubt. Even then, when you decide to inconvenience 1.2 billion people, you’d better have thought your plan through, because intelligent planning is the difference between dreams and nightmares. The government has shown unforgivable irresponsibility in not foreseeing or planning for most the basic of problems. We now have new currency that ATMs are not configured to dispense, not enough lower denomination currency in the market to make change for Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes, and people are being tagged with indelible ink used for elections. Nobody is prepared for the crippling cash lockdown in 95% of the economy. And it is killing people.

As a relatively hale, time-rich, urban banking customer with four ATMs at five minutes’ walking distance, I can get by thanks to the plastic in my wallet, and standing in line endangers only my mood, not my livelihood. But 55 people (and counting) have died as a result of demonitisation, and many more have gone hungry. You would think that the only time state-directed action kills its citizens is as collateral damage in times of war, or when citizens have been handed a death sentence by a judicial process. Here, people are dying because creditable ambition is backed by incredible incompetence, because an exercise that needs years of planning has been unleashed in six months. What is this unseemly haste about, if not elections? The government’s argument that secrecy was necessary to avoid giving hoarders a heads up has been debunked by reports that many of the right people knew, including allegedly Messieurs Ambani and Adani.

The really striking feature of this demonetisation exercise is India’s tolerance for shabby governance. The more empowered you are, the less you’re willing to put up with stupid or inefficient policy. The less empowered you are, the higher your pain threshold, by necessity—and the more business and politics will take advantage of you. It speaks to the extent to which ordinary people despise the corrupt rich that so many are willing to put up with their present hardships to support the government. Good governance would value that spirit, and would plan as hard as possible to minimise that pain, instead of making a self-interested and frankly legally dodgy splash; floundering; and being reduced to making it up as it goes along.

“No honest tax-payer will lose a single rupee,” said power minister Piyush Goyal. That’s not true; hundreds of millions of honest tax-payers who legitimately pay zero tax, will be losing the money they might have made instead of standing in line.

There is no doubt that black money and corruption have screwed this country hard. There is no doubt that it has to be addressed. I would love to see this exercise succeed. But not at the cost of lives. The days of Pathankot, of JNU anti-nationalism, of beef murders—those were the good old days of calm, controlled, beautifully executed cock-ups—compared to the giant cowpat we now find ourselves in. Modi’s demonitisation isn’t upsetting the economic applecart—it is blowing it up, and screwing the shards into our eyes. Here’s hoping that it will get sorted sooner rather than later, with no more loss of life.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Not another pollution column

Yes, another pollution column

(Published on November 5, 2016 in Business Standard)

A friend hoped I wasn’t going to write on pollution this week, because he’s seen about 793 pieces on the subject in the last four days. Well, here’s no. 794.

Delhi’s pollution problem is encased in what author Douglas Adams called a Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) field—a device that can run for 100 years on a single torchlight battery because it is powered by people’s total refusal to see what they don’t expect or want to see. Ours is a huge and life-threatening problem, but it requires so much patient, consistent, incremental, consensus-building work to fix, that it is too crazy boring to think about. So we haven’t. 

It’s been like that for years. At the turn of the century the Supreme Court prodded the Delhi government into making one huge leap to CNG, dissipating the ominous black cloud that hung over the capital; but over the years, that progress has been rapidly overwhelmed by more people, more vehicles, more construction, more dust, and crop burning in surrounding states. Today, despite CNG and a popular and growing metro system, the air problem is just getting bigger, worsening every winter. Yet we just go about our lives buying more diesel cars, shopping harder, building more things without tamping down dust, and burning leaves and wood, as if it simply isn’t true that we’re at risk of debilitating disease, or death, just by virtue of breathing. And it’s not like you can opt out of breathing.

Nobody wanted to think about it. It’s as simple as that.

But nothing focuses the public’s attention like wretched health. Everyone’s SEP field is failing. Today, every Facebook and Twitter timeline is filled with screenshots of air quality monitoring device readings, maxed out on the post-Diwali airborne sludge that we have no choice but to breathe. People are exchanging information on where to get face masks, how this air purifier compares with that one, and how long they’ve been coughing and sneezing. People are gasping their way to the doctor only to be told, purifiers-schmurifiers—the only way back to health is to leave Delhi and live somewhere else.

Just pause here for a minute. The air is so toxic that doctors advise people with vulnerable health conditions to simply leave Delhi. There’s no way to say this gently: you have to be a complete moron to believe that development at this price is any development at all. It’s a source of enduring amazement to me that when Delhiites speak of quality of life, mobile phones and cars come up; domestic help and groceries delivered to the door come up; but almost nobody will mention clean air and clean water. What will come up is the ability to holiday in a place with clean air and water.

People without kids can rant and rave, wear face masks and agitate for clean air; or go barefaced into the yellow miasma without caring when or where we drop dead. But for those of us who reproduced, and are responsible for someone little and vulnerable, and for all of us who have ageing parents, we really don’t have an option.

Would you be okay with locking your kids into a smoke-filled room? Would you agree to force them to smoke several packets of cigarettes a day? Would you be okay with putting a hand over their mouths so that they have to struggle for breath? Because that’s what you’re effectively doing by putting up an SEP field around Delhi air. If your answer to those questions is no, you have a duty to stand up and demand that everyone—government and citizens—work together to find a solution.

This is a long-standing public health emergency in the capital of India. That is, at best, embarrassing—but we no longer have the luxury of focusing on the best. When the AAP came to power, I had hoped that it would make cleaning up Delhi air its top priority. This season, as PM 2.5 levels in Delhi rocket off the charts, the health minister tweeted something to the effect that he would set up a committee to form other committees to look into it—I’d suspect him of gallows humour if governments had a sense of humour. The AAP’s failure to take serious anti-pollution steps ranks as its biggest, most damning failure.

Delhi can recognise and demand a minimum quality of life; or we can decide that we don’t mind living in an unliveable cesspit as long as we have shiny new malls and great cars and money—that, like cockroaches, we can thrive in filthy conditions.

But if we don’t get real now, we won’t have a choice. We’re completely out of time.