(For more on how our government loots us, click here.)
My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.
To buy it online from the US, click here.
I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.
If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho
Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.
And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.
(For more on how our government loots us, click here.)
(For more on how our government loots us, click here.)
(For more on how our government loots us, click here.)
It was both ironic and poignant when, a few days ago, Anna Hazare remarked that his crusade for the Lokpal Bill was akin to a second freedom struggle for India. Hazare is fighting against the right things in the wrong way: as I wrote a few weeks ago, corruption arises from an excess of government power; creating an alternate center of power, as the Lokpal Bill attempts to do, which is neither accountable nor democratically elected, solves nothing. That said, Hazare’s rhetoric, borrowed from the likes of C Rajagopalachari from decades past, was correct: India does need a second freedom struggle.
Every nation is a work in progress, but India is more so because our independence was a job half finished. In 1947, we gained freedom from the British—but not from oppression. As the country heaved a long sigh of relief at gaining political independence, a new set of brown sahibs took over from the white ones. The great hope of this new democracy was that it would lead to a government that would serve us—but we found ourselves with one that continued to rule us, with laws either directly retained from the British, or even more oppressive than those that existed before. We were colonized by our own people, and eventually enslaved by ways of thinking that saw a mai-baap government as the solution to all our problems—even when it was often the source of them.
There is no Mahatma Gandhi to lead this second freedom struggle, and most Indians, complacent with how things are, would not even think it is required. But if it was to take place, what would its aims be? What would it fight to change? The goal of that first freedom struggle was to free ourselves of a colonial power; the aim of this notional second freedom struggle should be to drastically reform the system that denies us freedom in so many areas of our lives. From the classical liberal/libertarian perspective, here are a few things I’d love a second freedom struggle to strive to achieve.
One: Limit the power of government
As things stand, we are ruled by a government as oppressive as the British were. Ideally, the function of governments should be to protect our rights and provide basic services. But our government is a bloated behemoth whose tentacles, like a modern-day Cthulhu, extend into every area of our lives. This is hardly surprising: those in power are always looking for ways to extend their power, and government, if adequate safeguards are not in place, just grows and grows and grows. This is exactly what has happened in India—our government functions like an officially sanctioned mafia, controlling our lives and curtailing our freedom. It’s all a bit of a scam.
Two: Unleash Private Enterprise. Remove the License and Permit Raj
The liberalisation India carried out in 1991 was a half-hearted one, forced upon us by a balance of payments crisis and not out a genuine desire for change. The reforms halted once the crisis eased, and the License and Permit Raj largely remains in place. It has stopped us, in the past, from being the manufacturing superpower we should naturally have been, given the abundance of cheap labour in this country. It continues to act as a huge shackle on private industry: I’ve pointed out earlier the abominable fact that you need 165 licenses to open a hotel in India, including ““a special licence for the vegetable weighing scale in the kitchen and one for each of the bathroom scales put in guest rooms.” Every businessman in India has to go through surreal hurdles to go about his work, and given that businesses exists to fulfil the needs of the people, for how else can they make profits, it is doubly criminal of an inept government to stand in the way of private enterprise. In the areas where it has been allowed to operate, look at the impact private enterprise has had: consider how many years it took to get a telephone from the state-owned MTNL in the 1980s, and how quickly you can get one today. We are a resourceful people, and every problem of India can be solved by private citizens—if they’re allowed that freedom.
Three: Reform the Indian Penal Code
The IPC is an abomination created by the British in the 19th century to make it easier for them to rule us, and to impose their Victorian morality on us. That it still exists is a disgrace. It contains ridiculous laws like Section 295 (a), which makes it a crime to “outrage religious feelings or any class” and Section 153 (a), which criminalizes any act “which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility”: both of these have been used to clamp down on free speech in the country. So has Section 124 (a), which aims to punish anyone who “brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government established by law,” and could be applied to this column, as these laws are open to interpretation and discretion. Section 377, which effectively criminalised homosexuality, has thankfully been overthrown in a court of law, but other archaic laws remain on the books, including some that punish victimless crimes. Many of these threaten our freedom directly.
Four: Ensure Free Speech in India
The IPC alone cannot be blamed for the absence of free speech in India. Our constitution itself does not protect it, and while Article 19 (1) (a) pays lip service to it, Article 19 (2) introduces caveats to it under the guise of “public order” and “decency and morality”. Practically anything one says could be a threat to public order, depending on how it is interpreted, which makes it easy for those in power to clamp down on those without. If we don’t even have freedom of expression, how can we call ourselves a truly free country?
Five: Respect Taxpayer’s Money
I run a series on my blog called “Where Your Taxes Go”, chronicling the various absurd ways in which our tax money is spent by government. These including paying the salaries of 22,800 fake employees of the Delhi Municipality, a Rs 42 crore mansion for Mayawati on “a sprawling 1,00,000 sq foot area”, a school for monkeys, the sponsorship of second honeymoons for people who delay having children, and, most recently, on a newspaper advertisement where the chief minister of Karnataka challenges his predecessor to do ‘God promise’ on certain allegations he made. (Yes, you can’t make this stuff up.) Governments need taxes to exist, but if you strip our government down to its necessary functions, you might find that we will pay a miniscule percentage of what we actually pay now.
It’s ironic that Mahatma Gandhi’s famous Dandi March was held in protest against an unfair tax; most taxes today are far more draconian. Sit down sometime and calculate what percentage of your income goes into taxes: if you pay 33%—chances are you end up paying more, if you include indirect taxation—it means that until the end of April every year, you are effectively earning for the government. This is freedom?
Six: Treat the Right to Property as Sacred
In 1978, the 44th amendment removed the right to property from our list of fundamental rights. Even had this not happened, the poor of India are habituated to having their property snatched from them: eminent domain has long been used by corrupt governments in a crony capitalism system to line their own pockets. One of our biggest problems is that even after so many decades of independence, clear land titles do not exist in many parts of the country. (My fellow columnist, Mohit Satyanand, wrote about this a few weeks ago, as did Devangshu Datta in an old piece.) This makes it ridiculously easy for a ruling government to infringe on the rights of its poor people—and it stands as a huge impediment to economic growth.
Seven: Reform Schooling
The state of education in this country makes for black comedy: the government pours more and more money into education, and after decades of this, the results remain dismal. There are various complex reasons for this government dysfunction, but a huge one is that the private sector is hugely constrained from entering this area. As I wrote in this old piece, even desperately poor people have shown a preference for those low-cost private schools that do manage to exist, despite governmental hurdles, than inefficient government ones. It is ironic and tragic that while private enterprise is allowed to flourish in trivial areas of our lives, like the production of shampoos and potato chips, it is constrained from competing with the government in this most crucial field. I am not recommending that the government stop spending money on education: just allow private enterprise to flourish as well. Consider the cost and quality of air travel in India when we only had Indian Airlines at our service—and look at what it has become today. Isn’t education far more crucial to our progress as a nation?
Eight: Reform Agriculture
We romanticize the farmer, and we want to keep him poor. It is shocking that 60% of our countrymen work in the agricultural sector: the equivalent figure for most developed countries is in single digits. There are various reasons for this, one of many being that farmers are not allowed to sell agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. This prevents an escape route for many farmers, and also hampers industrial growth in many parts of the country, which would automatically provide alternative avenues of employment. More industrialisation would lead to more urbanisation and greater economic growth, but we hamper this process right at the start. It is a vicious circle that traps poor farmers in poverty. As Manmohan Singh once said, “our salvation lies in getting people to move out of agriculture.” He is right, which is ironic, given that he is our prime minister and is doing exactly nothing in terms of reforming that sector. Words come so easy.
I can think of many other worthy aims, such as making government more local and less centrally directed, so that it is more responsive and accountable, and reforming our legal system. I’m sure you can add to this list. But at one level, India’s second freedom struggle remains a pipe dream. We are a nation colonized by the religion of government, and we display a lazy reverence for it. We look for specific quick fixes to problems, instead of recognising that many of them emanate from structural issues with our system of government—and from how we think about it. What is worse is that we largely do not even think of ourselves as unfree—so who needs a freedom movement then? Do we? What do you think?
* * * *
Also read: this similar wishlist from another time.
* * * *
My thanks to Shruti Rajagopalan, Parth Shah, Arun Simha, Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan, Salil Tripathi, Deepak Shenoy and Gautam John for providing inputs to this piece.
The Bombay High Court has stayed the disbursal of Rs 1,000 crore of the taxpayers’ money — in the form of subsidy by the Maharashtra government — to distilleries that make alcohol using foodgrains.
The subsidy is applicable to 21 distilleries, many of which are controlled by politicians.
Questioning the state’s policy, the court on Wednesday asked: “What is essential commodity — foodgrains or wine?”
The beneficiaries include former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s son Amit and Nationalist Congress Party leader Govindrao Aadik.
That last line I quoted is the killer, isn’t it? What’s the point of power, a politician might argue rationally, if you can’t enjoy its spoils?
That’s right: it’s been discovered that 22,800 of the 127,094 employees on the rolls of the municipal corporation of Delhi do not exist. These non-existent employees get a salary of Rs 17 crore per month. Guess who pays their salary.
There’s an ecosystem of ghosts out there that you and I are funding. At night, while the city sleeps, they get to work. They deliver mail that was never sent, sweep streets that were never paved, file applications that will never be read. When morning comes they’re gone, giving way to a government that is not much better.
(For more on how our government loots us, click here.)
On doing up BS Yeddyurappa’s home. The Times of India reports:
An RTI reply has revealed that Yeddyurappa has [...] spent a staggering Rs 1.7 crore to renovate his bungalow, Rs 35 lakh of which went into redoing his bedroom. [...] Renovation and fittings of the master bedroom cost Rs 34.55 lakh. This includes toilet works and interiors at Rs 10 lakh, marble flooring at Rs 10 lakh, a false ceiling and wall designs at Rs 4.40 lakh and Rs 10.15 lakh for gypsum board and wall panelling.
Since that’s our money, that’s our bedroom, and we should all be allowed access. How would you like to spend a night in Yeddyurappa’s bed? I’m sure he has silk sheets.
Somewhere, though, Mayawati is snortling.
(Link via email from Dev. For more on how our government loots us, click here.)
I’m actually okay with that—if you want to attract good people to join the army and defend the country, one of the few functions of a government that I consider legitimate, then you should give them their perks. But what is WTF about this whole thing is that the army claimed it had spent this money on “silent reconnaissance vehicles for missions beyond enemy lines.”
I can totally imagine a Pakistani military convoy cruising outside Islamabad and suddenly coming across a golf buggy with an Indian general in it. They stop it immediately, and the Pak commanding officer asks the Indian, ‘WTF are you doing here?’ And the reply comes:
‘Have you seen the 18th hole? I think I’ve lost my way.’
(Link via email from Anand Bala. For more posts on taxes, click here.)
On a Rs 42 crore mansion, on “a sprawling 1,00,000 sq ft area”, for Mayawati.
Mayawati’s latest mansion is to be seen to be believed. With 18-ft high stone walls and matching copper and brass gates, it looks more like a fortress on Mall Avenue, the most prized address in Lucknow. With every second house here having been taken over directly or indirectly by Mayawati—be it in the name of the Bahujan Trust or the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) office—her detractors, including Mulayam Yadav, have taken to calling the street ‘Maya Avenue’.
The chateau-like bungalow betrays Mayawati’s weakness for pink Dholpur stone and expensive granite.
‘Maya Avenue’ is a suitable name in more ways than one. The nugget I found most delicious in the report was that to make room for her bungalow, “Behenji ordered that the Sugarcane Commissioner’s office shift out from next door.” A sugarcane commissioner? Why the fug do we need a sugarcane commissioner anyway?
Mayawati has featured in the Where Your Taxes Go series before, here and here. I’m no longer surprised at the scale of her excesses, though. The way our political system is structured, it is entirely rational to enjoy the spoils of power after you get to such a post. We elect governments not to serve us, but to rule us. As long as that is so, our rulers will take full advantage.
(Link via email from Noor. For more on how our government loots us, click here.)
This is wrong on three levels:
One, the premise that population growth is a problem is mistaken. Malthus is dead in more ways than one.
Two, such social engineering is unethical. What business does the government have influencing the personal choices of people in this manner?
Three, that’s our money being spent there.
Coming to think of it, this whole business is a bit perverse even from the government’s point of view. They’re spending taxpayers’ money to ensure that there are less taxpayers in the future. WTF?
(For more on how our taxes are misused, click here.)
No, no, I’m not being rude, I mean that literally. The Punjab government has sanctioned Rs 1 crore “to set up an ultra-modern facility to tame, train, rehabilitate and teach manners to rogue monkeys.”
I agree that rogue monkeys are a problem—no Varun Gandhi jokes here, please—but I don’t see why so much of my taxes should go towards teaching them manners. What next, finishing schools for stray dogs? Reservations for all of them in government posts?
That said, I wouldn’t have minded it if they’d started this school a couple of years ago. They could then have sent a graduate or two to Rakhi Ka Swayamwar.
On gold rings for all children born in city corporation hospitals in Chennai and given Tamil names. This is a move by the Tamil Nadu government to “commemorate the 86th birthday celebrations of chief minister M Karunanidhi,” who has been “working to promote Tamil language for more than 70 years.”
Meanwhile, it seems that since last September, 11000 newborns have been given “dresses, baby soap and baby powder.”
No doubt you are outraged at this use of your taxes. Perhaps you are thinking, Hell, if someone wants to promote Tamil or give baby powder to newborns, let him do so with his own money. Why mine?
I urge you to stop protesting. This is all for the good of society. And I further propose, inspired by the legendary altruist Jonathan Swift, that we take a step further and use these newborns to end all starvation deaths in India. How so? Well, to quote Swift:
A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.
In an Indian context, you could have Tandoori Toddler, Baby Biriyani or Kadai Kiddo with naan. To promote Tamil culture, you could also have Infant Idlis. Boom, no more starvation deaths in India.
Yes, that’s disgusting. No, I’m not serious. But the Tamil Nadu government is, and the cup of the absurd runneth over.
(Link via email from Shyam. More on taxes.)
In the midst of hectic ministry making, the Congress leadership has taken out time to deliberate on the future of one of its senior most leaders who is ill in hospital, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi.
Sources confirmed that his wife, first time MP, Deepa Das Munshi who contested and won from the Raiganj constituency in West Bengal is likely to be sworn in as a Minister of State when the Manmohan Singh council of ministers take oath.
An exception is being made for first term MP Deepa to ensure that Munshi is provided with the same level of medical care as he has been receiving for the last many months.
So, according to this report, Mrs Das Munshi is going to be sworn in as minister just so that her husband gets medical care at state expense. This is another illustration of the the party in power treating state resources as their private property, distributing largesse where they wish. Hell, the money being spent on these ministers did not land up from the sky, that is our money, taken from us ostensibly to serve our needs. The vast majority of the people who have coughed up that money—remember, anytime you buy something in India, you are effectively paying taxes—cannot afford the kind of health care Mr Das Munshi is getting. Why should our money pay for his health care?
The report says that “it was Pranab Mukherjee who sought that Deepa be made a minister for the sake of Munshi.” If Mr Mukherjee feels such compassion for Mr Das Munshi, he should pay for the treatment out of his own pocket. Why dig into mine?
(Link via email from Anand Bala. Click here for all my posts on how our taxes are misused.)
Sports Minister M S Gill on Thursday flayed the ‘casualness’ of India’s cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh for skipping the Padma Shri function and said the Ministry would soon issue a circular to ensure sportspersons treat national awards with utmost respect.
Dhoni and his India teammate Harbhajan were conspicuous by their absence at the Rashtrapati Bhavan [Images] ceremony, where they were expected to receive the Padma Shri from President Pratibha Patil.
[...] The Sports Minister… said he would not brook such casualness by anyone. [...] And to ensure it does not happen again, the Ministry would issue a new circular soon, he said.
I don’t get this crap about issuing a circular to “ensure it does not happen again”. Gill makes it sound as if Dhoni and Harbhajan thrive under the patronage of the government, and are therefore beholden to it. That is not true. On the contrary, the taxes that Dhoni and Harbhajan and you and I pay are responsible for keeping Gill’s AC running and the fuel tank of his official car full. He talks as if he is our master, but really, a minister is no more than the servant of the people. Our government is notionally there to serve us, but behaves as if it rules us.
In my view, Dhoni and Harbhajan bring honour to the country, and the Padma Shri, like other government awards decided by an essentially political process, do not bring any additional honour to these fine sportsmen. Their fidelity is to their sport, not to the politicians running the government, and that is how it should be. Sure, Gill is entitled to hold the opinion that it was tasteless on the part of these two to not receive the award personally. But a circular? Give me a break.
And do note that these circulars and awards are all paid for by the sacrifices you and I and my maidservant are forced to make. Do you think it’s worth it? I don’t.
PS. In case you’re wondering whether I’m against the government spending taxpayers money on sport, well, I am. The reasons for that are pretty much the ones I’d articulated against government spending on the arts in my piece, Nadiraji Wants Your Money. If you think Padma Shris and sports ministries are a worthy cause, you fund them with your money. Why force me to pay?
Writing about the infamous AIG bonuses, Allan Sloan says:
If you want a real bonus outrage, consider this: The operation getting the biggest taxpayer subsidy of all - the federal government - pays bonuses to its employees too. This year it plans to hand out about $1.6 billion of bonuses, despite running more than $1 trillion in the red.
Ironically, many of the people who have cried themselves hoarse about how a private company is misusing taxpayers’ money have nothing to say about the astronomical wastage that takes place of the taxpayers’ money that is actually with the government—in any country. It is almost as if the government has a right to that money, for they are our rulers and we, their subjects—and not the other way around.
And here’s a thought—it’s much harder to bail out a government than an insurance company or two.
The WTF line of the day comes from The New York Times:
In a week when Mr. Obama scolded business executives for creating a culture of runaway salaries and bonuses, a disclosure form filed Tuesday showed that he signed a new $500,000 book agreement five days before taking office in January.
Does it even need to be said that the $500k that Obama got in his book deal is not taxpayers’ money? And that the AIG bonuses Obama has been pissed about are just that? The juxtaposition makes absolutely no sense, and I don’t see why Obama’s outrage over AIG even needs to be mentioned in this piece. Seriously, if I was paying anything to read NY Times, I’d want my money back just for this.
And while we’re on the subject, I agree with Michael Lewis that as a scandal, the $163 million that AIG paid in bonuses pales before the $173 billion (or $173,000 million, to put it in perspective) bailout that the US government gave AIG to begin with. Such large amounts, and the uses they are put to, boggle the mind, so taxpayers ignore them. Bonuses to fat cat executives are an easier target.
Aishwarya Rai, in an interview with CNN-IBN, says:
He [Abhishek Bachchan] is the real ‘Padma Shri’ and I’m his ‘Padma Shrimati’ (giggles).
Immensely cloying cuteness, but they’re a young couple, so fine, we can forgive them that. But if we are to take this line of thinking further, Amitabh is Padma Babuji, Jaya is Padma Mom, and Amar Singh is Padma Uncle. I think all government awards are a waste of taxpayer resources—true achievers hardly need government validation—and this is a perfect opportunity for the government to stop this Padma nonsense. “No more government awards,” the minister in charge should announce. “Our sentiments have been hurt.”
This is quite the WTF headline of the week:
Actually wait, on second thoughts, what’s so WTF about it? Why is this odder than any damn subsidy that the government of India gives? If the GoI can support failing businesses (for by definition only a failing business needs a subsidy), and pilgrims headed on pilgrimage, and all manners of interest groups, then why not housewives? If you take from Peter to pay Paul, and Prakash, and Pervez, and Pestonjee, then why not also pay Parvati?
Needless to say, that’s our tax money out there, and we’re all Peter. But we’re reconciled to that now, and apathetic towards it, so we’re never going to fight over the way it’s used. Also, some of us are fighting to be Paul and Prakash and Parvati, so there’s that. Maybe I should start a movement to subsidize bloggers?
(Link via separate emails from Shyam and Vineet.)
One day I also want to vanish through the Great Black Hole that our money travels through, and build a life for myself in the parallel universe on the other side. Such affluence must be there, no?
The WTF line of the day comes from Rediff:
A beaming Tricolour will flutter on the moon now.
I never knew flags could show emotion or something could flutter on the moon, but what would I know, I’ve never been up there with a flag. And this is also very funny.
There will be much celebration this week on India reaching the moon, but I’m not sure if the benefits of getting there are worth the cost to the taxpayer. Unless that flag really is fluttering, and we can be the first nation to open a golf course on the moon.
The Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha are usually adjourned because of commotion. But on Thursday the Upper House was forced to adjourn briefly for an interesting reason—malfunctioning of the presiding officer’s seat. [...]
Deputy Chairman K Rahman Khan, who was in the chair, rose to cool tempers. But, when he was about to sit, the back cushion seemed to fall off. [...]
Soon after, Khan adjourned the House for 10 minutes. [...]
But the problem with the seat persisted when the House reassembled at 12:45 pm and Khan adjourned it till 13:30 pm.
There are two things to note here:
1] Parliamentary proceedings cost taxpayers Rs 26,000 a minute, and these dudes showed a remarkably cavalier attitude towards that money. If I was the speaker, I’d just have taken any random chair available and sat on that. Khan’s attitude is of a man who thinks that politicians rule the people, not serve them.
2] If our government can’t maintain a simple thing like the seat of the presiding officer of the upper house of parliament, what chance do you think they have of running the rest of the country well?
(Link via email from Deepak Iyer.)
A shorter version of this piece was published in Friday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal Asia.
It was a gunshot heard across a subcontinent. On Monday, Abhinav Bindra, a 25-year-old shooter from India, took aim for his final shot in the 10-meter air rifle event at the Olympic Games. The pressure was intense, but Mr Bindra shot an almost-perfect 10.8 to win the gold medal. His fans and supporters jumped up in delight in the stands, as wild celebrations began across the country. India’s 24-hour news channels became 24-hour Bindra channels, and there was much talk of national pride.
Mr Bindra’s achievement warrants such celebration. On a national level, this was, astonishingly, the first gold medal India has won in an individual sport in any Olympics. And on the more important personal level, it was a testament to the years of single-minded hard work Mr Bindra dedicated to his sport. Not surprisingly, the government immediately took credit for his achievement.
India’s sports minister, Manohar Singh Gill, came on television and said, “I congratulate myself and every other Indian.” But while India’s shooting association is better than most of the bodies that run sport in the country, it was Mr Bindra’s family that enabled his success. Mr Bindra was lucky that his father is an industrialist who dipped into his personal wealth to support his son. He built a shooting range for Abhinav in his farmhouse in Punjab, and made sure he never ran out of ammunition, which is not made in India and has to be imported.
India and China are studies in contrast. The full might of the Chinese state goes into creating sportspeople who will bring it pride. The Indian government, on the other hand, does a pathetic job of administering sports in the country. Rent-seeking bureaucrats run the various sporting federations – or ruin them, as some would say. A great illustration of this is hockey, a sport once dominated by India, which failed to qualify for Bejing. Even though there is no Indian hockey team at these Olympics, four hockey coaches have duly made their way to Beijing. Franz Kafka would feel at home as an Indian sports journalist today.
Most of India’s finest sportspeople are self-made athletes who owe nothing to the system – Viswanathan Anand, the world chess champion, is a case in point. The sport where India has been most successful, cricket, is not administered by the government. Surely, nationalists would argue, there is a case to be made for pumping more money into our sport.
Such arguments are wrong. India’s leaders need to have a clear sense of priorities, and there are two things they would do well to consider. One, despite the gains sections of our economy have made since the liberalization of 1991, India remains a desperately poor country. Two, unlike China, India is democratic, and its government thus carries a certain responsibility towards its people, and the taxes it collects from them.
Any money that the government spends on sport could be better spent on building infrastructure: roads, ports, power-generating units etc. It would also do a lot of good simply left in the hand of the taxpayers, who would then spend it according to their own individual priorities. Hundreds of millions of Indians are forced to part with their hard-earned money through direct or indirect taxes, and it is perverse if that money is spent towards something as nebulous as an outdated notion of national pride.
For too long now, India has been an insecure nation craving validation from the West. Even many of us who speak of India as a future superpower have one ear cocked towards the west, straining to hear similar forecasts in a foreign accent, ignoring the condescension that such pronouncements sometimes carry. Similarly, we look to the sporting arena for affirmation of our self-worth. That attitude might have been understandable during the days of the cold war – but it no longer is.
Sport is a zero-sum game – for one nation to win, another must lose. But real life is non-zero-sum, and nothing demonstrates the win-win game of life as well as globalisation, with nations (and individuals) trading with each other to mutual benefit. In these times, it is clear we do not need Olympic medals to be a great nation, but economic progress that all Indians have access to. It is beyond the scope of this piece to spell out the many reforms that are needed for that happen – but spending taxpayers’ money responsibly is a key part of the puzzle.
I shall go against the prevailing wisdom, then, and say that I don’t mind if our government spends less money on sport, or even none. Where will our Olympic medals come from then, you ask (as if the last few decades have brought us a slew of them). Well, lift enough people to prosperity, and the sporting laurels will roll in. Ask Abhinav Bindra.
Ishmeet Singh’s death might be a tragedy for his family and his fans, but I don’t see why people who do not fall in either of those categories should have to pay for his funeral—and that chartered flight carrying his body from Ludhiana to New Delhi at taxpayers’ expense. If Parkash Singh Badal feels that Ishmeet deserves a grand funeral, then Parkash Singh Badal should pay for it out of his own pocket. That goes for everyone else who holds that opinion as well. Why should the taxpayer pay?
Yes, yes, Badal is obviously just making a populist gesture here. And it will work, because the people who praise him for it won’t figure that it is their money he is spending. Such it goes…
(For more on how our government loots us, check out my Taxes Archive.)
I’m not kidding you, see the link above. A farmer named Siddalingappa Choori was shot by the cops for no fault of his own, and then:
[...] Choori’s wife, Kusuma, was given an appointment letter to work in the Haveri tehsildar’s office, and the government undertook to pay her children’s school fees and promised to install a statue of Choori in the town.
Compensation and suchlike is fine, but why on earth should my hard-earned tax money go into building a statue for a dead farmer? (Or even a dead politician, but that’s another matter.) If they really need to get rid of that money, just hand it over to Kusuma, it’ll be more use there. Who thought of a statue and why? I want to smoke what he was smoking, I do.
On a bigger statue for Mayawati. The Times of India reports from Lucknow:
A statue of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati has been removed from a prominent location by the authorities here barely 45 days after she unveiled it, officials said. She wants a bigger statue of herself in its place.
Officials said Mayawati was not happy with the quality of the sculpture. She had also expressed her displeasure over the fact that it was smaller than the statue of her political mentor Kanshi Ram.
Now there’ll be anti-incumbency in the next election and Mulayam Singh Yadav will take over and want an even bigger statue than Mayawati’s, and then Mayawati will come back and want one size bigger, and so on until some low-cost airline’s airplane crashes into Mayawati’s nose and there are enquiries and Rajesh Talwar is blamed for that also. I love my India.
On foreign holidays for our esteemed judges. CNN-IBN reports:
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, KG Balakrishnan, wants judges to be kept out of the purview of the Right To Information (RTI) Act.
Now an RTI application put in by CNN-IBN has thrown up interesting details of how judges have extended their holidays, often for personal purposes, at Government expense.
Ironically, the urge to travel starts at the top. Balakrishnan, after taking over as Chief Justice, made at least seven trips abroad in 2007 traveling First Class with his wife with the air fare alone costing over Rs 39 lakh.
For instance, during his 11-day trip to Pretoria, South Africa in August 2007, the Chief Justice took the following route - Delhi, Dubai, Johannesburg, Nelspruit, Capetown, Johannesburg, Victoria Falls, where the judge finally didn’t go and returned via Dubai to Delhi.
Sure, a judge might need to make an official trip to study the judicial system of another country or something, but this is clearly tourist travel happening here, and according to the CNN-IBN reporter, there are “government rules that say judges cannot be accompanied by wives on work tours.” When the law minister HR Bhardwaj was asked about this, he replied:
How can you deprive the wife? You are a woman. You should understand.
I hereby demand that all Indian women be sent to South Africa for a holiday paid for by HR Bhardwaj out of his personal savings account. Thank you.
(Link via email from reader Shyam. For more on how our government loots us, check out my Taxes Archive.)
On celebrating a mutiny that took place 150 years ago. MSN reports:
India spent Rs 130 crore to celebrate its First War of Independence, 1857 revolt, without constructing a memorial for the martyrs or their directory.
A day after the government officially ended the year-long celebrations, a member of the National Implementation Committee (NIC) on 1857 revolt has termed most of the expenditure as “waste” on a “national tamasha”.
A tamasha it is, and an ironic one at that, for our government is closer in spirit to the British forces of 1857 than to the mutineers—this waste of our money, coercively taken from us, is a great example of that. Will we ever rise up against such theft?
Also read: The Republic of Apathy.
... ‘Torture Hour’ costs Rs 15.6 lakhs.
That’s your money. And mine.
In unnecessary gizmos for government bigwigs—especially ones that will keep them occupied during traffic jams. Mid Day reports that Mumbai’s mayor Shubha Raul recently threw a “tantrum” and demanded a laptop.
“Raul liked the additional municipal commissioner’s laptop and said she wanted one like it, but we gave her a better model,” said an IT officer. “It’s the best laptop in the BMC.”
Raul obviously is happy. “Who doesn’t want to get the best in the world? I am no exception. At least now, when I’m stuck in traffic jams, I can entertain myself with the laptop. I have never been tech savvy, but I will learn,” said Raul.
I don’t grudge our mayor a laptop, even if her post is largely ceremonial, but see the one she got. It’s a Toshiba Qosmio G40 costing Rs. 1.65 lakh. That’s like buying a Merc as an official car—it’s simply not necessary. I bought a beautiful Dell Inspiron 1525 a month ago for 45k, and it performs every function the mayor could possibly require—unless she’s editing films or creating special effects for Star Trek .
And see the woman’s gumption. Who doesn’t want to get the best in the world? she says. That’s my money you’re spending, Mrs Raul. Have some shame.
(Link via email from Amol Chavan. For more on how our government loots us, check out my Taxes Archive.)
This is right out of Calvino, it is. Isn’t the sky enough for Mayawati?
On 62 sandstone elephants in Lucknow. Their cost, according to CNN-IBN: Rs. 38 crore. They will be part of the Ambedkar Memorial, which, according to The Economic Times, is being built at “a whopping cost of Rs 7 billion.”
That’s Rs. 700 crore.
Yes, yes, I know that’s your money, and mine. But it’s not like we were planning to do anything useful with it. The nation needs an Ambedkar Memorial. And the memorial needs sandstone elephants. No?
(Link via email from Akshat Kaul. For more on how our government loots us, check out my Taxes Archive.)
Taxpayer money running into several hundred crores is being splurged annually on the upkeep of bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi.
These bungalows, used by India’s political and bureaucratic leadership, are white elephants in terms of running costs, thanks to their elaborate colonial style construction, huge lawns and staggering security paraphernalia.
The residences of the Gandhi family — Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka — saw a spend of nearly Rs47 lakh collectively during these three years.
I don’t have an issue with senior functionaries in the government getting perks with their jobs, but why on earth should the taxes you and I pay go towards Priyanka Gandhi’s plumbing and electricity expenses? Truly, the Gandhis are a royal family. I suppose I should just be glad that we live in the 21st century, or they’d have me hanged, drawn and quartered for my audacity in questioning their entitlements.
For more on how our government loots us, check out my Taxes Archive.
Towards establishing a professorship in Jawaharlal Nehru’s name in Cambridge.
I rather like R Vaidyanathan’s comment on the matter:
It is also ironical that the professorship is for business studies, while Nehru was the architect of the licence permit quota Raj in India. It is like the butchers’ association of Texas providing a chair to study Gandhian thought in some US university.
The butcher’s association, of course, would presumably do so with its own money. The Nehru Professorship is paid for by money taken forcibly from us. Such it goes…
Headline of the day:
You can’t deny there’s a certain logic to it.
(Link via email from Shrek.)
... the Labour government is using tax-breaks to incentivize polygamy. Heh.
Don Boudreaux writes another great letter.
... are hazardous to the taxpayer, reports IBNLive.com. A study has found that “the health costs of thin and healthy people in adulthood are more expensive than those of either fat people or smokers,” and “healthy people live longer and may develop long-term diseases in old age like Alzheimer’s which are very expensive to treat.”
The solution here is not to prevent people from living long and healthy lives. Instead, it is to question what our governments do with the money it coerces out of its citizens. Is it fair to take money from the obese to pay the medical costs of the relatively healthy, as is effectively the case here? Would it be fair the other way around? Is the government taxing us to provide certain basic services like law and order, or to redistribute it according to the interests of a few politicians in power?
I hope to live a long and healthy life— and even if I don’t, to be a burden on nobody. Is that unusual?
(Link via email from Andy.)
Rising hemlines saw temperatures going up in the Tamil Nadu Assembly on Tuesday with an actress’ short dress triggering a demand from the PMK for a law imposing a dress code and the ruling DMK counselling its ally that it should exercise restraint.
While the DMK advised the PMK that restraint, not the length of a skirt, was the solution, M K Kanimozhi, daughter of Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and MP, was attacking the ‘hypocrisy’ of imposing a dress code on female actors elsewhere in the city.
The fundamental problem here is that our governments want to rule us, not serve us. And that negates the purpose of parting us from the taxes we pay. No?
Headline of the day:
It seems that the central government “has proposed to offer additional grants to nearly all the 12,000 madrassas, which get Government funds, to celebrate national festivals namely Independence Day and Republic Day.”
If politicians wish to bribe or pander, they are welcome to do with their own money. But why on earth should you or I have to pay for it? Immense disgust comes.
(Link via email from Vikram Chandrashekar.)
A few days ago, the respected theatre artist Nadira Babbar spoke to the newspaper DNA about the state of theatre in Mumbai. She felt that there weren’t enough good auditoriums in the city. “My appeal to the government is to build small, simple auditoriums with basic infrastructure,” she said. “I am seriously thinking of meeting the chief minister and put before him certain stark realities of the state of theatre. Some of my proposals are to subsidize the rates of the halls. Secondly, it would be of great help if they subsidize the rates of placing advertisements in newspapers; not only for the theatre events, but also for other cultural events.”
Most of us would sympathize with her. The arts are essential to a civilized society, and deserve our support. And there are many neglected areas of it, besides theatre, where an infusion of funds would help. Traditional folk arts are dying out, literature in regional languages gets a raw deal, and so on. So, naturally, many of us turn to the state.
But should we?
If so, so should tall men, argues a new study by Greg Mankiw and Matthew Weinzierl.
No, they’re not being facetious. The abstract of the paper states:
Should the income tax system include a tax credit for short taxpayers and a tax surcharge for tall ones? This paper shows that the standard utilitarian framework for tax policy analysis answers this question in the affirmative. This result has two possible interpretations. One interpretation is that individual attributes correlated with wages, such as height, should be considered more widely for determining tax liabilities.
Alternatively, if policies such as a tax on height are rejected, then the standard utilitarian framework must in some way fail to capture our intuitive notions of distributive justice.
You can download the paper here (pdf link).
(NY Times link via email from Ravi Venkatesh.)
Check out this entertaining excerpt of a recent question hour at the Rajya Sabha. My favourite bit comes at the end:
Mr Chairman: The Question Hour is over.
Dr V Maitreyan: Sir, it is very unfortunate that you are giving opportunity to ask questions only…(Interruptions). I am raising my hand for half an hour. This is very unfair. I want to protest against this. Only Members from Congress and BJP do not exist in this House. From tomorrow, I will disrupt the Question Hour…(Interruptions).
Apropos of nothing, I remember school.
(Link via Prem Panicker, who points out that “this is what is costing all us taxpayers Rs 26,000 per minute.” My happiness knows no bounds.)
Here’s Frédéric Bastiat on the subject:
Does the right of the legislator extend to abridging the wages of the artisan, for the sake of adding to the profits of the artist?
And to extend that question, what causes justify abridging the wages of the artisan?
(The quote was from Bastiat’s great essay, That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen. Read the full thing!)
Yes, the Maharashtra government is giving Rs10 Lakh each to Ajit Agarkar and Rohit Sharma, and the Delhi government is handing out Rs5 lakh each to Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. This is disgraceful. If Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sheila Dikshit wish to use India’s victory to make a statement, they should spend their own money. All poor people in this country, from maids to chaprasis to cycle-rickshaw drivers, pay taxes every time they buy anything. It is ludicrous that their hard-earned money, coercively collected by the state, should be spent on cricketers with endorsements that are worth crores.
Update: Speaking of endorsements...
(Link via reader Surendra.)
Here’s the gist of it: A few IT companies are getting together with the government to set up incubation centers for entrepreneurs in New Jersey and Chicago. The government is going to pay half the setup costs, and it will also “bear the operational cost of the facilities for a period of three years.”
This is a great initiative for the private sector to take up. But there is no reason why my maid’s taxes should go into this.
If the US government has regulations that demand irradiation of mangoes, and inspectors, and suchlike, I don’t see why you and I should foot the bill. Surely the exporters should. Why on earth are we funding mango exporters with our hard-earned money?
This essay of mine was published today in the Independence Day special issue of Lounge, the weekend edition of Mint, as “Those Songs of Freedom.”
Just thinking of it sends a chill up my spine. On 12 March 1930, at the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat, 79 men went for a walk. For 23 days they marched, covering four districts, 48 villages, 400 kilometres. On the way they picked up thousands of other ordinary people, animated by a cause so much bigger than themselves. Then, on 6 April, by the sea at the coastal village of Dandi, Mahatma Gandhi picked up a handful of salty earth and said, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.”
The empire shook. The purpose of Gandhi’s march was to protest the oppressive and unfair salt tax, and across the country people joined the battle. They made their own salt. They bought illegal salt. That year, 60,000 Indians were arrested during these protests. The Salt Law was not repealed. And yet, “the first stage in ... the final struggle of freedom,” as Gandhi described it, had made an impact.
More than 77 years have passed. We have been free of the British empire for 60 of them. If we were to get inside a time machine, go back to 1930, pull in some of the men and women who marched to Dandi, and bring them to this present time, how would they react? Would they think that they were finally in the India that they had fought to achieve?
Or would they set off on another walk?
So the next time you file your returns, don’t be grouchy. At least someone’s having fun.
“You may now need licence to own toaster,” read the headline of a news report this Tuesday in the Hindustan Times. The article began: “You do not use the Toast Authority of India’s toasting services, but may soon have to pay a one-time licence fee for the toaster you own and an additional tax on any new toaster you buy in the future. Why? To support the Toast Authority of India and its employees.”
“Wait a minute,” you tell me, “you’re pulling a fast one on us. This is way too absurd to believe. Our gentle, compassionate government would never do something like that.”
Right. Well, I did make some of that up. The headline actually said, “You may now need license to own TV.” And in the para I quoted, replace “TAI’s toasting services” with Doordarshan, “toaster” with “TV” and “TAI” with “Prasar Bharati”, and there you have it.
Now tell me, is that any less absurd?
The Indian Express reports:
For the past few months, the Hardayal Municipal Library in Chandni Chowk has been witnessing a heavy rush of people — more than 700 — every day. Unfortunately, they are not readers but library staffers, all hired in a span of four months, ahead of the municipal elections earlier this year.
These employees, mainly college students, were hired by former Congress councillor Ashok Jain between December 2006 and March 2007. The library, Delhi’s oldest, is fully functional with 15 staffers. The remaining 700 spend their day protesting against the MCD for non-payment of salaries since April.
My favourite part of the story is when the current councillor tells IE, “[O]ur readers find no place to sit now.” That so typifies the essence of government.