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India’s economic growth & the entitlement culture

March 28, 2010

Nobody likes to play a spoilsport in the face of buoyance and optimism about India’s economic growth potential. But sometimes it is necessary to acknowledge reality and anticipate possible speedbumps in what is expected to be smooth cruise towards an economic peak. Shankar Acharya’s column on Business Standard refers to the pre-Budget Economic Survey of the government, published in late February, and the Budget speech by the finance minister, as the sort of optimism that any government is prone to express.

The pre-Budget Economic Survey of the government, published in late February, exudes optimism about economic growth: “Indian GDP can be expected to grow at 8.5 +/- 0.25 per cent (in 2010-11), with a full recovery breaching the 9 per cent mark in 2011-12.” In his Budget Speech, the finance minister said, “With some luck, I hope to breach the 10 per cent mark in the not-too-distant future.”

However, he is baffled by Martin Wolf’s declaration that he has “little difficulty in imagining that India can sustain growth of close to 10 per cent a year for a long time” (Financial Times, March 3, 2010).

Shankar points out several truths many in a celebratory mood might be averse to acknowledging. For instance, that the expansionary fiscal actions has doubled the combined fiscal deficit in 2009-10, compared to the pre-recession 5% in 2007-08. The situation could be exacerbated with inflation and policy rate increment expectations. And, significantly, that the the economic growth in recent years has been lopsided, with very little contribution from industries, which are still burdened with poor infrastructure, unfeasible labour laws and complex tax structures. Furthermore, RBI’s six-currency real effective exchange rate (REER) index of the rupee has shown an appreciation of a hefty 15 per cent but remains exposed to vagaries of inflation and policy changes in China with respect to the yuan.

I share Shankar’s skepticism about extraordinarily high growth rates in India in the face of a government which only seems to be nurturing a culture of entitlements – the latest of which could be this.

Not By Reason Alone

February 24, 2010

It was India’s Republic Day about a month ago on 26th Jan and while this is a public holiday in India, this is not a cultural or religious festival. For symbolic reasons, there are often events held at the Indian High Commission and the media reminds us through marketing gimmicks and editorials that we are a lucky nation to have a constitutional rights as we do and that we are a united nation beyond the regional, linguistic, religious and other differences – a realization that seems to dawn upon the country only twice per year, on Independence Day & Republic Day, after which we go back to our ways of parochial and coalition politics. Alright, that might have been an excessively caustic and cynical take on the occasion, I admit.

In a clever case of good timing, Nand Kishore Singh launched his second book, Not By Reason Alone, on India’s Republic Day, at an LSE Public Event which was packed with students and professionals skiving from work (the session started at 4pm on a work day!). On the panel of eminent personalities were Dr Montek Ahluwalia, Mukesh Ambani, Professor Lord Desai, Shekhar Gupta, Ed Luce, Lord Patten, and Professor Lord Stern, apart from NK Singh himself, of course. In attendance also, were personalities such as Shobhana Bhartia (who opened the discussion), and several other VIP’s. Indeed, what desi event is complete without a truck-load of them?

The event was moderated by Barkha Dutt – any use of ‘moderate’ in the same sentence as her seems like an irony in itself – and, as can be expected, she constantly tried to badger and rile the panelists into giving strong reactionary views on matters large and small. A few snide (but astute) comments were made by a couple of panelists on her tendency to stir up news-worthy stuff where there might be none. All in all, the panelists were mature in their stance and did not launch into pointless diatribes. If anything, the pleasantness of the entire affair was almost diabetes-inducing. The ‘India Shining’ pride was erring on the side of over-optimism and there were only references to all the good that has taken place in India in recent past and little acknowledgement of how much further we have to go before we can deem ourselves to be anywhere in the league of a developed and humane nation.

Most of the Q&As were pre-selected and left no room for hard, squirm-worthy questions. One of the two impromptu questions asked about the corruption levels in Bihar and in a classic case of ‘look-at-the-bright-side’, NK Singh pointed again towards the high levels of growth in the state, eluding completely the original question. The other question was asked by a moron who wanted his 2mins of lime-light and chose to ask a lame question, the answer to which was self-evident to everyone in attendance and elicited a collective groan from the audience.

All in all, it was a nice event with a high ‘feel good’ factor but I suspect I was not the only one who walked out of the auditorium feeling like there needed to be more of an ‘action plan’ and less idealistic rhetoric for things to get off the ground in India, as several people on- and off-stage aspire for them to. Perhaps, an acknowledgement of the fact that India had chanced upon its dizzy growth due to many more factors than just astute planning would create some room for honest evaluation of the work that needs to be done. Not to discount the massive benefit from economic liberalization policies put in place by the Chidambaran-Manmohan camp, but the happy coincidence of a young demographic, skilled IT force during the run up to Y2K, certain capitalistic models which allowed for outsourcing of work and such proved to be a few of the key factors which has brought India to where it is now. Ours was hardly a case of a structured plan for success like in Singapore or Dubai, and admitting this would be the first step to laying down coherent frameworks and plans for times ahead.

This event was telecast live and covered and referred to extensively by the Indian media, especially for the comment Ambani made about Mumbai belonging to everyone and the expected lambasting by Shiv Sena.

‘Sacred Made Real’

January 23, 2010

It was the last week of the ‘Sacred Made Real‘ exhibition and last Sunday, the boyfriend and I decided to skip the routine of weekend lazing and head to the National Gallery for a dose of high culture. It helped that it was an uncharacteristically beautiful winter day with ample doses of sunlight, a scarce resource this time of the year; we were in rather a sanguine mood when entering the exhibition.

We were pleasantly surprised to note that the free exhibition guide (yes, it’s online too!) presented a page of commentary for each piece on display and its history, which made for a great supplement to our audio guides, an accessory I consider essential for a wholesome experience at the gallery. The audio guide contained detailed commentary on over 75% of the pieces on display, and included additional material such as 20mins of music specifically composed  and orchestrated by Stephen Hough for this exhibition.

This was an exhibition with timed entrances, presumably for reasons of crowd control, and yet the rooms were chockablock full with people. Anymore, and the freestanding displays of Spanish multichromed sculptures would have people pressing right up to them!

What was striking to me from the moment I entered the exhibition was how familiar several of the Biblical images, especially those relating to The Passion, seemed to me. The images of the Crucifixion displayed in Spanish style were strongly reminiscent of what I saw in India, growing up under the influence of a Catholic Church which drew great inspiration from Spanish & Portuguese tradition. The hyper-realistic theme through that era of Spanish painting and sculpture is striking, especially in the lighting arrangement at the National Gallery – some of the sculptures proportioned to be life-sized seemed so real that I wanted to touch their outstretched arms.

The exhibition had the usual suspects – the Spanish masters, Velázquez (who, along with Delacroix & Gericault, is one of my favourite European artists) and Zurbarán – and also showcased gracefully the masters in sculptures who are not remembered often enough – Juan Martínez Montañés and Pedro de Mena, for example. The most memorable and shocking piece in the entire exhibition had to be the sculpture which meditated on death, ‘Dead Christ’ by Gregorio Fernández – the blue-ish tinge of the parted lips, the glassy eyes, the angular posture – it is a morbid fascination with death itself that draws the viewer to the sculpture.

The couple of hours we spent going through the 30 exhibit pieces thoroughly, listening to the accompanying music, appreciating the techniques (a separate room showed the painting and sculpting process in great detail) and watching some artists making sketches while standing in the gallery left us quite enervated. The violently real imagery in the paintings and sculpture of the time is emotionally exhausting to take it all in together. A latte and a Chelsea bun with raisins at the National Gallery cafe was a fitting finish to an exhibition which left us enriched spiritually, even as it depleted us emotionally.

Rules of Engagement

January 19, 2010

As my previous post on the Google-China issue might have hinted at, I am definitely NOT a fan of the arm-twisting tactics the Chinese engage to gain capitalistic success while denying its citizens the basic elements of a democracy. That said, something about the juxtaposition of the old world/new world paradigms in this HBR article by Haque kindled some annoyance within me, not necessarily on behalf of China, but on behalf of all developing nations.

I do not wish to cast aspersions on Haque’s intentions but this cynical voice within refuses to stop asking this uncomfortable question – right, so when the white Western world wanted to make its riches and various western European nations wished to reach their respective ‘developed world’ status, they were allowed to indulge in slavery, hegemony, colonialism, racism and so many unforgivable crimes of humanity, but that’s OK? And while we all know that freedom of speech and thought is fundamental to the very idea of freedom, most of us would also concede that restricting someone’s freedom of speech is not as inhumane as, say, shipping human beings from a continent to do manual labour and using them as resources towards building empires.

I do not mean to say that two wrongs make a right, or that developing nations should be allowed to run amok with human rights to accommodate for the several crimes done to them in a different era – nothing can ever compensate for the past mistakes. Several modern business practices in India & China, especially child labour and sweatshops, are deeply reminiscent of the crimes committed by the Imperialists and colonialists and should be censured accordingly. But to say, that, oh, the rules of the game have changed now that the Western world is comfortably rich – that is a bit preposterous, nay? Isn’t this moral righteousness just a tad bit grating on the nerves? Perhaps, it is just me, but I refuse to think of the Western bloc as blameless as they claim to be, when they point fingers at China.

Haiti

January 15, 2010

To UK residents, donate to Disaster Emergency Committee’s Haiti Earthquake Appeal here to pay more efficiently – you can GiftAid your donation so that the tax can be claimed towards the cause too.

Thanks.

Do No Evil

January 13, 2010

I remember sitting in my entrepreneurship class a few years ago, perhaps in 2006, when people were still marvelling at Google’s stratospheric rise from a startup to an MNC in less than a decade. I think I had just finished reading ‘The Google Story‘ and I was suitably impressed by the brilliance of its founders. I also remember the vehement fanboy-isms among my classmates on how Google had got everything right and how Microsoft was clearly an evil bully. Several discussions often ended with references to Google’s ‘Do No Evil’ policy. I remember being glared at in class for suggesting that people were so much in love with Google only because it made for such a cuddly David in front of the massive Goliaths that Microsoft, Sun & such were.

I have to admit, it was (and is) fashionable back then to be staunchly anti-Microsoft and I might have been more than slightly unkind to them. Yet, I also rolled my eyes at fanaticism towards Apple & Google. Perhaps, as a result of having worked in large corporations myself, I knew that the persona that Google projected in its early days would be hard to sustain as it grew bigger. And indeed, as Google became the big boy in the Silicon Valley, people worried about its clout, the weight it could afford to throw around and, predictably enough, were laudatory of the newer, smaller kids-on-the-block.

It has been a few years since, and I keep catching myself indulging in brand/tech fanaticism and evangelising (Firefox, Billmonk, WaveSecure have been a few of my favourite things). But I’m trying hard  to be more tame in swearing allegiance to ANY tech camp; experience has taught me that, in time, even the coolest of technologies can seem stodgy and outdated, so being open and somewhat skeptical is so much better.

But today, I’m going to indulge. I’m feeling all warm and fuzzy about Google thumbing its nose at China by taking a stand on freedom of speech – I am a fan of Google for not abetting the crackdown on human rights activists, as Yahoo has previously done in China. At a cerebral level, I am aware that such decisions are not necessarily made for ideological reasons alone, but because business might dictate it too, as several skeptics have pointed out and yet, at an emotional level, I just can’t help signing up onto the Google Groupies Foreva list (Ok, I jest, there is no such site or list. Sorry.) Even if this is merely a marketing tactic, to follow up on the somewhat underwhelming response to Nexus One, by God, what a bold move indeed.

Jokes aside, this is an important move, not only in technology and business, but in the political arena too. As Fallows rightly points out, this incident and the way it has got everyone talking about it, heralds the ‘Dick-Cheney era’ for China, the ‘bad boys’ if you may, while everyone fawns over the wunderboy that Obama is.

To get an inkling of the annoyance/outrage one might feel upon having information held back from them, try this exercise. And Do No Evil.

Live Debate…

January 11, 2010

…On whether India should deploy troops to Afghanistan, it can be reviewed here. On the panel were Nitin, aka Acorn, Sushant from Pragati & Rohit, aka Retributions. Unfortunately, the panelists’ comments and those of the members of the audience have not been differentiated in this transcript – apologies for some incoherence.

Several members of the audience chimed in with questions and comments and while there seemed to be widespread skepticism towards the proposition, the poll showed that there was a two to one support for sending Indian troops to Afghanistan.

My view was that, apart from the right and the wrong of it, the question to ask is – does the Indian Army have the kind of muscle required to pull off this overly ambitious mission? Albeit in an informal context, it was hard to miss the constant references to the dearth of quality military leadership in the Indian Armed Forces, perhaps because I grew up hearing about it through my childhood! While it is true that India has deployed troops to various regions around the world as part of the UN Peace Keeping Forces, for us to be able to prove ourselves a force to reckon with, our Armed Forces would need to ramp up both technically and in terms of manpower. And then there’s the question of the fickle power play that the US is now notorious for.

And in a timely reference, Pragmatic of INI points to an interview of Lt. Gen VK Singh, who is most likely the next army chief. And as the interview demonstrates, in no unclear terms, the Indian Army is not designed to fight wars on foreign territory. And, my view is, rightly so – India as a developing economy cannot afford a murky war for PR reasons alone, if nothing else. It is foolish to assume that FDIs will continue to come our way, irrespective of our internal and external security issues, especially if we choose to dive headlong into them.

That there is a clear security issue due to Pak MJC cannot be denied but to fight them, we need to engage with them directly, not fight America’s war in Afghanistan and lose goodwill in the international community. Also, it cannot be discounted that Pak MJC (a conglomerate of Pakistan-based Jehadi outfits) can continue to undermine our domestic civilian security despite our best efforts to quell them on the Af-Pak frontier.

And as Pragmatic points out, despite a good case being put forth by Acorn & Retributions, if the policy makers and military leadership see this as an unfeasible operation, this entire discussion is moot.

Elephant in the Room

January 8, 2010

Barbara Crossette, an old hand at foreign journalism, wrote this rant of a piece, bemoaning the cloyingly positive view everyone seems to have of India, while in reality, India is the true villian in the arena of global policy making, whether it be climate change matters or nuclear proliferation. Several ‘facts’ she quotes in isolation make for a solid case in favour of her argument. However, Ms. Crossette, as a journalist herself, should know that fragments of information do not tell a complete story. Her bias seems to have overtaken any desire for objectivity and she has filtered quotes and statistics to discard any substantiation of a viewpoint contrary to her own. As several people have been wondering on Twitter, what on earth has she been smoking?

A fitting rejoinder, if you may, to Ms. Crossette’s diatribe, has been written by Nitin Pai, better known as Acorn online. It is a well-written response to correct any misconceptions one may develop reading Crossette’s piece and the amusing use of pachydermous metaphors help to maintain some levity even as he displays his outrage. That said, it wouldn’t entirely hurt to acknowledge that, yes, India does have some ground to cover with respect to corruption and that sporadic episodes of communal violence persist and that serious efforts are being made to address them.

Nonetheless, sir, I doff my hat at thee for ripping apart an article reeking of an irrational distaste for India’s increasing influence and soft power in global politics. Oh, and I did buy a Fedora hat last weekend, how very timely.

Yelp!

January 7, 2010

So someone on Twitter pointed out to me the Yelp ‘Burst’ Birthday Party happening in a few days, and I promptly signed up and RSVP-ed, because it would be a shame to waste a good party like that.

And lo presto, look what they have done – in just over a day, I Yelp-ed over 7 restaurants/pubs and I foresee more of the same. If you are someone who enjoys going out to bars, pubs, restaurants and such in London or even need reviews on hairstylists, specialists stores and more, look up Yelp London, and this here would be my review page – keep up with me and how I rate London’s hangouts, ta!

Ok…

January 7, 2010
tags:

What happened? Why are people Googling me all of a sudden? See graph of blog-hits today, and the day’s only about half gone…