Breaking News


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The EPIC Channel’s Assault on India

Among the shows airing on the new EPIC channel the scurrilous sitcom Yam Kise Se Kam Nahin sitcom  is not exceptional. Other shows are also offensive and some are historically misleading.

One feature length movie, Shaheed Udham Singh, tells of the communist Sikh revolutionary who, in revenge for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, assassinated Michael O’Dwyer in London in 1940. The movie creates the impression that O'Dwyer was the man who commanded the troops at Jallianwalla when he was, in fact, the administrator of the district. (The man who led the troops was Reginald Dyer; he died peacefully in bed.)

The day before the assassination Udham Singh is shown celebrating in a London bar, doing the bhangra holding aloft three mugs of beer. At one point in the movie he derides the value of freedom to the poor of India. (Anyone inclined to agree should look at the ascent of Indian life expectancy after independence.) The show has several dumps on Mahatma Gandhi and one character refers scornfully to “Gandhi-priya” Indians. The producer is Iqbal Dhillon.

Dharmakshetra (26 episodes), is touted as going “beyond” the Mahabharata. The EPIC web site says “Well known characters from the epic” will be “questioned in a divine court where they explain their side of the story.”

In the episode I saw bits of costumed dramatization were interspersed with commentary by the host of the show, a woman whose name I could not decipher in the fast rolling credits. (Probably as a result of my identifying the producer of Yam Kise Se Kam Nahin, the credits on EPIC were – at this writing – either too blurred or rolled too fast to be read. A number had “Produced by” but no name. One had “Produced by R.”)

The show’s producer displays an extremely blunt understanding of Hindu scripture. At one point, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna “I am satya and also asatya,” a stunning statement nowhere in the Gita. The scriptwriter was either carried away by a misreading of the grand eloquence of Chapter 10 of the Gita or is engaging in a traditional missionary distortion.

Krishna is also shown saying that no one knows the mystery of life and death! As I have pointed out previously, the Katha Upanishad is focused entirely on that issue, and Krishna explicitly repeats the teaching in the Bhagavad Gita.

Some of the host’s interactions with "experts" chosen to provide illuminating commentary on the Mahabharata reinforce the impression that she and the producer are completely at sea about Hinduism. For example, she asks at one point, "Krishna could have stopped the war but did not. Why?”

The reply: “He didn’t want to stop the war because it was necessary to destroy adharma.”

Both question and answer are ignorant.

 Her question is based on the incorrect premise that India shares with ancient Greece and the Semitic/Western tradition, the deux ex machina concept of divinity (ie gods capable of magically transforming human narratives). The Indian concept, laid out at some length in the Gita and in common lore, is that Karma (causality) is a binding and universal law inherent in godhood itself.

The answer to her question is also stupendously wrong. The war did not destroy adharma; the Pandavas won but at a huge moral cost. The war marked the approach of the Kali Yuga when adharma is dominant.

In a more mundane take on “history,” EPIC provides brief bits on ten warrior heroes. In those I saw, Prithiviraj Chauhan is represented as killing Mohammad Ghori after he is captured and blinded by the invader.

The piece on Tipu Sultan gives the French credit for developing the rocket technology that Indian forces used with devastating effect against the British; in fact, it was entirely unknown in Europe. Bangalore techies built the weapon the British later incorporated into their own army and used against George Washington’s forces (the American national anthem recalls the vivid impact in its reference to “the rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air”).

A more respectable contribution to the history genre is “The First Heroes of the R&A Wing.” Eleven episodes will tell of the exploits of Indian intelligence agents. The first episode dealt with the role of Indian intelligence in helping Bangladesh to independence. The credits absolutely whizzed by so I could get no details about who produced it.

The show was strictly factual and made no move to follow the Western track of glamorizing intelligence operations; but the Indian political establishment must keep careful watch to prevent mischief.

Britain has traditionally glamorized intelligence operations as a way of diverting attention from its frequently thuggish and criminal pursuit of elite interests. The James Bond novels and movies, casting a serial killer as a hero, are a case in point.  

The United States offers a cautionary example that India should take to heart. After Churchill launched the Cold War in alliance with the military-industrial complex in 1946, the nascent CIA and FBI took on the “license to kill” ethic of the British, effectively subverting American democracy. Things have got so bad that hit men have become the stuff of romance and comedy in Hollywood films, neutering the outrage that should be the democratic response to such fascism.

Another of EPIC’s historical contributions was on the excellence of ancient Indian steel production; it noted, very briefly and sotto voce, that the British had killed that technology.

Most of the rest of EPIC programming is either utter nonsense or incredibly boring.

The episode of Daanav Hunters that I saw presented an endlessly repetitive battle against blood-sucking demons with occasional detours, one to ridicule a Tamil fan of superstar Rajnikant and another to present an NRI woman scientist’s view of India as a “strange country.” It should be noted that blood sucking demons and the living dead are not part of Indian folklore the way Vampires and Zombies are in the West (where they reflect the creative artistic response to the realities of the colonial and industrial eras). It remains to be seen if 20 episodes of Daanav Hunters will change that.

If the lugubrious Mughal era costume drama Siyaasat has a plot it escaped me, probably because the love story of crown prince Salim and Meherunissa will drag out over a staggering 42 episodes. 

By way of travelogue a lanky long haired host (whose name I did not catch), walked in slow motion around the overgrown crumbling ruins of Ross Island, where the British once lived in the Andamans. He is set to do the same in 10 other shows on “abandoned places” in India.

Another host, Jaaved Jaffrey, mocked at interminable length the plot of a golden oldie film, Victoria #203. He is set to do the same with a lineup of other popular old Hindi movies. This is the opposite of nostalgia; it is “feel-bad” programming.

All in all, the proof of the pudding so far is unavoidable: EPIC presents in its shoddy line up of shows a view of India that is confused, misleading, and in its political content, indistinguishable from British propaganda.

So who are the people responsible for all this?

In operational charge of EPIC is Mahesh Samat, who quit in 2012 as Managing Director of Disney India. The head of Development is Ravina Kohli, formerly of Yash Raj Television and Sony Entertainment.

Some 20 production houses are reported to be contributing content. They include Balaji Telefilms, Green Light Productions, Bolt Media, A Bellyful of Dreams, Rose Audio, Face Entertainment and Rangrez Media.

It is obviously in these production houses, under the watch of Samat and Kohli that
the offensive content of EPIC is planned and produced. To be fair, much that I have pointed out was probably under the radar of the executives at EPIC.

But there is no denying malign intent. The question is, where is it coming from?

The promoters of the channel are India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, Anand Mahindra, head of a $16.5 billion industrial conglomerate, and Rohit Khattar, a biggie in the hospitality business who headed Mumbai Mantra Media Ltd, the communications wing of the Mahindra Group.

As none of these figures has any reason for shaping the kind of content EPIC is airing, we have to look elsewhere: to EPIC’s almost sole advertiser, Aquaguard water purifiers.

Aquaguard is a product of Eureka Forbes, which is part of the Shapoorji Pallonji Group, the largest single holder of stock in the TATA Group. To fill out the picture: Cyrus Mistry, who took over from Ratan Tata, is a scion of the Shapoorji Pallonji family; his billionaire father (living in Mumbai) has traded his Indian citizenship for that of Ireland.

Both Shapoorji Pallonji Group and TATA have long-standing and strong British ties. I think that somewhere in their nexus of interests is hidden the directive British element of EPIC.

If the programming does not change course as a result of what I have written, we should expect the British propaganda element in EPIC programming to become more overt.

In closing it is necessary to note that with the enormous clout of EPIC’s promoters the channel could be a major force for India’s intellectual decolonization. It is tragic that on its current tack it will only becloud our national awareness and extend the colonial mind-set.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Schizophrenia at The Hindu

The front page of The Hindu today gives top billing to a story headlined “Britain’s MI6 helps India home in on Mehdi.” It tells of the arrest of Bengaluru-based ISIS supporter Mehdi Masroor Biswas after he was interviewed on Britain’s Channel 4 television.

Another story on page 8 directly contradicts the page one narrative; it headlines the claim by Indian intelligence agencies that “Mehdi was under surveillance for long.” They were waiting to see if he would link up with more active jihadis.

I think the reason for this odd and serious dissonance is a kind of editorial schizophrenia induced by pressure from MI6. It probably pits the pro-British former Editor-in-Chief of the paper, N. Ram (now chairing the corporate board), against his younger relatives who control the editorial side.

But why would MI6 want public credit for helping India?

To divert attention from the real reason for outing Mehdi, the need to forestall any of its jihadi agents in the country from falling into the Indian intelligence net.

To make sense of this scenario we have to look at a broader back story involving the ongoing reinvention of British imperialism amidst a global power shift.

That power shift involves four factors:

1. Strong pressure from the United States to check money laundering, Britain’s primary business since the decline of Empire;

2. Pakistan’s growing pressure on the terrorists who control the drug trade out of Afghanistan (the most important source of illicit funds flowing through the British money laundering system);

3. The threat of American shale oil production to the oil economy of the Mid-East where Britain has a dominant role as wealth manager cum security guarantor; and

4. The potential of the emerging India-United States strategic understanding to undermine British influence in the entire region.

The most overt British move to adjust to new realities is the agreement with Bahrain to open a permanent military base there, the first one East of Suez since Britain withdrew all forces from Asia four decades ago.

Perhaps more important is the under-the-radar initiative to have al Qaeda – which Britain has controlled since the Mujaheddin days in Afghanistan – open a new chapter in India. The need to out Mehdi probably became urgent because he would undoubtedly have been a magnet for new recruits in India.

Why open an al Qaeda chapter in India?

Because the country is shaping up as a major new market for opium and heroin, one in which British proxies will find it far easier to launder drug money than in Europe or North America.

As Prime Minister Modi noted in his radio address today, the drug trade is linked to the financing of terrorists.

That is not all.

Everywhere drug traffickers operate -- from African countries trapped in endless conflict to Latin American States plagued with endemic violence -- they undermine civil government and create social havoc.

Unless New Delhi moves to address this situation strategically we could all be in serious trouble.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Eternally Stupid Politics of Religion

The latest examples of the eternally stupid politics of religion come in the call to give official status to the Bhagavad Gita and a dump on Hinduism by the new Hindi language Epic channel.

The first is stupid because the Gita is so far above the government’s poor power to add or detract that giving it official status is somewhat like endowing it on the sky.Those pushing for it do it only to discomfit the proponents of minority faiths.

It does not matter that their targets are people who try to subvert Hinduism with niggling malicious propaganda such as the Yam Kise Se Kam Nahi sitcom on the Epic Channel.

The show presents Yamraj, the god of Death in the Hindu pantheon, as a narcissistic, corrupt dimwit using his power to get his wife things like furniture, a microwave, a refrigerator and a high-definition television set.

Given that depiction, the title of the series takes on an additional layer of malice, for it slimes all other Hindu deities. (The images that appear with the title include none from another tradition.)

With media reports announcing that another Yamraj sitcom is in the works for another channel, it is necessary to ask why some people seem to have decided to make that unlikely deity a figure of fun.

I think it has to do with Yama’s role in the Katha Upanishad, which explains one of Hinduism’s cardinal beliefs, that death is merely a door to another life.

As I noted in an earlier post, that teaching, long derided as absurd by the missionary faiths, has been validated by science, making nonsense of the Heaven-Hell carrot and stick essential to keep their followers in line.

Presenting Yama as a clown is the first step to closing the minds of the faithful to a destabilizing truth.

So who are the people behind Yam Kise Se Kam Nahi?

The producer is one David Polycarp. The “creative” brain is a Debbie Rao.

Polycarp used to be with the Disney Channel. He is now a partner with Vasant Valsan in Troublemaker Productions, the company responsible for this atrocity.

Epic is described as “India’s first genre specific channel,” whatever that means.

Epic went on air on 16 November 2014, and from what has been on offer so far it seems the channel will rely on a mix of the Mahabharata serial, cloak and dagger "history" (the Mughal era Siyaasat) and docudramas about real events.

As that potent mix of content can shape Indian opinion on key aspects of national life it is important to know who is behind the venture.

According to a report in Hollywood Reporter, Mukesh Ambani in his personal capacity owns a quarter of the Epic Channel; the Mahindra Group is reported to own a similar share. No mention of the remaining 50 per cent.

From that information I would jump to the conclusion that there is a directive foreign element in the venture. Indian corporate biggies are extremely vulnerable to pressure from the managers of their assets abroad, and when told to provide camouflage they are in no position to demur.

Based on that leap, I predict the channel will soon be airing a slew of the BBC productions rewriting our history and subverting our national consciousness.

As our Intelligence agencies and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry have little capacity to police this cultural front, and as Indian mass media have long been bribed into a comprador role, nongovernmental organizations must take on the task of raising public awareness.

The danger is not confined to television; it comes also from the teachings of mysteriously rich Babas, Sants and Gurus in command of armed thugs.

This should not be viewed as a purely Hindu concern, for Indians of all faiths are affected by the malicious few.

But Hindus have to play catch-up in terms of paying attention to what is being said and done in their name.

To begin with, they might set about systematically examining the content of the extremely low cost and well produced books that purport to contain English translations of ancient Sanskrit works. Those I have read contain much gibberish and seem to be an exercise in misinformation.

Even seemingly prestigious publishers should not escape inspection. For instance, The Times of India's translation of the Bhagavad Gita subverts some key teachings; the Introduction is incredibly obtuse. (Reading it made me think of the Jain recensions of the Ramayana that turn the plot upside down.) 

In undertaking all this Hindus should discourage politicians from coming to their support: our religion has survived thousands of years on its own formidable strengths.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Feedback on the International Film Festival of India

The International Film Festival of India (IFFI), the 45th edition of which concluded its ten-day run in Goa on 30 November, allows each delegate a maximum of three tickets a day. The 28 films I saw have left me dizzy with cinema.

I saw only a fraction of the films on offer and missed Leviathan the Russian production that won the Golden Peacock. As most of those at the festival also missed the film, perhaps the IFFI organizers could think of a special screening of its award winning films at next year’s festival? Or conclude each festival by special screenings accessible to all delegates?

The official feedback form asked delegates to identify positive and negative aspects of the festival. In particular it wanted information on what could be done to make IFFI a world class event. The positive was definitely the rich diversity of the films. I would like to highlight in particular a cricket centered Malayalam movie, 1983, a world class production at once funny and warmly humanistic.  (Another, Swapnam, that could have been a ferociously funny black comedy succumbed to melodrama.)

The negatives are all nitpicking complaints that could (unfortunately) be made of any Indian event:

1. Insanitary conditions: The eating arrangements at the Inox complex and at the Kala Akademi were fly infested. The consolidation of garbage at the Inox entrance gate resulted in a decidedly non-world-class aroma. The Kala Akademi men’s washroom lacked soap and some of the stalls were not clean.

2. Q etiquette: IFFI attracts a sophisticated set of Q jumpers. They don’t just resort to force majeure as the hoi polloi do but pretend to be deeply involved in conversation/reading/meditation as they edge forward. The more brazen casually attempt to join a line near its front. If someone pulls them up, they appear astonished. The line goes all the way back?! Who would have thought! In one line I had a fat man behind me who seemed oblivious his stomach was acting as a bumper. In another the man behind me had no sense of personal space and when I elbowed him away, sidled up the other side and tried to get ahead.

4. Early leavers: At every show there were people who left before the films concluded, often disrupting entire rows as they did. A special breed of early leaver is the one that seems to think getting to the exit is a competition. Its members obviously have no appreciation of film and often seem to lack even a basic understanding of content: their departure is often set off by the nature of the music in the soundtrack. They are prone to miscues and then stand in front of the hall like so many sheep, staring up at the still unfolding story.

5. Cell phone rudeness: People routinely ignored the request at the beginning of every show that mobile phones be turned off or put on silent mode. At every event phones rang and people carried on conversations despite the irritated responses of their neighbours. At one show a teenager near me had the phone out during the entire show, and when she was not involved in conversation, was checking mail and playing games.

As for program content, I think the festival could do with a new element to bring into focus the meta-text of the audiovisual medium. I tried to raise this matter during a lunchtime panel discussion but met with blank incomprehension. That was not surprising given our general state of post-colonial zombiedom.

Let me explain.

Most Indians seem blissfully unaware that our cultural/intellectual environment is heavy with propaganda meant to subvert nationalism and foist acceptance of Western dominance. Our so-called “elite” mass media have been systematically suborned to that end, as have key figures in television, cinema, sports and advertising. Items:

  • The use of the demeaning term “Bollywood” to describe the world’s largest film industry is illustrative; it has been popularized and sustained by our comprador English medium mass media.Fortunately, Amitabh Bachan in his excellent opening speech noted that he did not like the term. (Unfortunately, he then went on to refer to the "Indo-Aryans" coming to Goa.)
  • Some of our A-list film stars have actively sought to revive and sharpen provincial/communal identities the British created to divide and rule India. Their prime provincial targets have been Tamils and Sikhs. Shah Rukh Khan has not only targeted Tamils, his “I am a Muslim and not a terrorist” mantra has spread the idea of the victimhood of the entire community, the tried and tested first step to its political manipulation. (The technique was invented and perfected by the British over the last 800 years, beginning in Ireland.) The Owaisi brothers and al Qaeda/ISIS have now taken his project in hand and the first trickle of Indian youths into the nightmares of the Middle East has begun. Meanwhile, SRK has joined the ranks of the richest actors in the world.
  • Advertising agencies also contribute to the creation of provincial identities with television commercials using thick provincial accents that serve no rational marketing purpose. The most recent examples have been commercials for Red Bull (the energy drink rumored to cause male impotence) and Chola insurance.
  • Sania Mirza’s “new glamorous avatar” as a television instructor giving “James Bond lessons” on ways to a “woman’s heart” is featured in the latest India Today, perhaps the most overtly comprador magazine in India. Her on-air appearances in that role emphasize the tart like qualities of “Bond girls" and recall the insulting “Octopussy” contribution of the franchise to the image of Indian femininity. (I wonder if Sania Mirza, who certainly does not strike me as a bimbo, has thought through the impact of what she is doing on less fortunate Indian women struggling to maintain their self-respect and safety against heavy odds.)
  • The unstinting flow of praise for Attenborough’s Gandhi, a finely honed piece of British propaganda shows a complete lack of awareness that it obliterates the truth of what happened in the final phase of colonial rule in India.
  • There is general lack of awareness that the British manage "Brand India" globally. For example, Slumdog Millionaire and Midnight's Children cast India's improving global image into the mould of colonial stereotypes the British created. I haven't seen the new film on the "worst industrial accident" that killed thousands at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in 1984, but can bet it will give no credence to the reality of British-sponsored terrorism that was the most probable cause of the gas leak.
  •  People are also oblivious that television images carry a heavy emotional/cultural content and shape global perceptions of India. For instance, the image of the two girls in Badaun, supposedly raped and left hanging from a tree, packaged into one potent cocktail the India-associated ideas of caste brutality, gender violence, open defecation and police ineffectiveness. According to the reports carried by our "elite" media, the girls were raped because they had to go out at night to defecate in the fields, and their bodies hung from the tree for 12 hours -- an image that made the prime time news around the world -- because all the constables in the local police station were drunk. According to the just released CBI report on the killings, none of that was true. The older of the girls had a long-standing relationship with the prime accused, a police constable. Her cell phone shows she had over 400 conversations with him. On the night of the murders, she called to ask him for money and they planned to have sex. The CBI says the girls committed suicide because a relative discovered this. (I don't buy that for a second. Everything the CBI report unveils supports my theory that the girls were killed for money, and that they were left hanging from the tree to create an image that would wipe out the hugely positive one of the majestic transfer of power in New Delhi.)
All this points to a dire need for greater Indian awareness of the politics of mass media. If people in general understand that Indians collaborating with foreign interests are no different from the traitors of the past who profited from helping enslave the country, national security would be materially enhanced.

IFFI should develop a program element to raise awareness of the subliminal political/cultural messages of audiovisual media.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

What Mrs. Modi's RTI Filing Implies

Jashodaben Modi’s RTI application to find out what she would be entitled to in the event of the assassination of her husband means only one thing, that people more politically savvy than her, perhaps the Prime Minister himself, has warned of a looming threat.

Where would that threat emerge from and why?

If my conspiracy theory about what happened before the last general elections is right, it is a safe bet that it is linked to Britain’s disappointment at not getting the expected dividends from funding the BJP through Baba Ramdev. 

Since the election, Ramdev has been quietly shown the door in Delhi and London has probably seen the appointment of Manohar Parrikar as Defence Minister as definite indication that its hopes for rich Indian arms contracts will not be realized. General V. K. Singh continues to languish in the outskirts of power and recently had to suffer the humiliation of not being allowed to address an RSS gathering because he had arrived late.

Ramdev’s recent visit with the Prime Minister and the “Z” level security cover he now has, should be seen as confirming this threat analysis.

There is also a larger scenario to keep in mind.

The increased security threats to India dovetail with those to the United States, which has warned that ISIS could get a nuclear weapon.

American peace activists have labeled this “war mongering” and asked who could give ISIS a nuke.

Pakistan would seem the most obvious candidate but Islamabad has little to gain from such a move. The only circumstance that might lead to such action is prompting from London, which created Pakistan as a political/military proxy in 1947 and has controlled it ever since through the ISI, also its creation.

Unlike Islamabad, London has multiple reasons to be interested in a surreptitious nuclear body blow to the United States. Not only has Washington led a punishing campaign against banks engaged in money laundering, Britain’s core business, American shale oil production is a primary cause of the current plummeting price of crude oil, affecting another vital British interest. Britain’s efforts to undermine the global reserve role of the American dollar by promoting the international use of the Chinese Yuan is the most open of its attempts to retaliate.

However, that move has almost no chance of success, given that China’s once booming economy now faces the collapse of a massive real estate bubble fed in the last three years with $6.8 trillion in unproductive investment. (According to a report by two Chinese economists Xu Ce and Wang Yuan published in the state-run Shanghai Securities Journal.)

For the British power elite, the last straw was probably the announcement that president Obama would be Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day celebration, a move that heralds a shift in the Asian strategic balance that will deeply affect its narco-terrorist interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In such a situation, slipping ISIS a nuke and assassinating the Indian Prime Minister might appear to desperate power brokers in London as the only way to break an irreversible decline. 

The least that India and the United States can do in the current situation is to make clear that such initiatives will expedite a British decline rather than offset it.

It is also critically important for Indians to note that that Mrs. Modi’s RTI filing specifically expresses concern that the assassins will emerge, as they did in the case of Mrs. Gandhi, from within the Indian security establishment.

This should underline the urgent need to bring our intelligence agencies under constitutional control and put in place checks and balances within the system.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Modi Radio Talk Misfires on Black Money

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Mann-ki Baat” (Thinking Out Loud) on Black Money showed his unfamiliarity with the medium of radio.

He spoke as if all his usual visual aids were at work, the grizzled visage, the waving hands, the scornful lip and brow of cold command -- when, in fact, there was only his disembodied voice.

Radio is a medium that forces the listener to focus on meaning and significance, and in that it plays to a traditional Indian strength: we are a people whose genes bear the imprint of the countless generations who, over many millennia, kept alive by word of mouth the Vedas, the Upanishads and the teachings of the Buddha.

That ancestral feat has left Indians with an acute cultural sensitivity to the spoken word, a capacity to separate the wheat from chaff, especially among those who offer themselves up as our leaders.

It is the reason why British propagandists never had any success in India, why Gandhi’s reedy voice was no obstacle to the recognition of his great soul and why Rahul Gandhi today cannot rise in Indian esteem despite the most fervent wishes of his coterie.

Mr. Modi’s earnest third person reference to “this Pradhan Sevak” whose “article of faith” is “that every penny belonging to the poor of India should come back,” sounded tinny and insincere. Especially about the money belonging to the poor.

The problem with money has always been that it has not belonged to the poor. The rich have had exclusive ownership for as long as human memory serves, and no one has seriously contested that point except for Karl Marx and his acolytes, among whom our right-wing PM is an ill fit.

As a public speaker Mr. Modi has formidable prowess but always before in his political career he has been able to stoke communal feelings to appeal to crowds.

As Prime Minister he cannot now count on those supports, and based on the Black Money talk, I would say that he has yet to find a comfortable new metier.

Perhaps it would help if he did not underestimate the intelligence of his national audience.

He could have spoken seriously about the problems of black money, of how it is caused by people unwilling to pay heavy taxes, to see the country as their first priority.

He could have said, “I intend to ease the tax burden so that no one will have an incentive to send money abroad.”

He could have spoken of the national security aspects of having black money: anyone with a stash to protect abroad is at risk of blackmail by those who hold the money.

In that vein he might even have pointed to related realities such as the slavishly colonial attitudes in our “elite” mass media or the communal-provincial identity politics of some A-list “Bollywood” personalities. (Such light mentions can be extremely effective in raising the general level of political consciousness.)

A notable aspect of the talk was that it ignored completely the issue of domestic black money, the stuff that finances political campaigns and greases the wheels of official policies and programs.

By expert estimates it amounts to 90 per cent of wealth hidden from the tax man. Perhaps only economists and journalists have noted that gap now but awareness of it is sure to settle into the general populace, damaging the entire political infrastructure and Mr. Modi’s credibility in particular.

That prospect is unlikely to change if the government continues to deal with black money through police means. “Letters rogatory,” pleas to transnational bankers, and the browbeating of Indian suspects might make the headlines but they are likely to bring few returns.

As Press reports confirm, those efforts have so far resulted in nothing more than a shifting of wealth away from banks.

Where the money has gone is anyone’s guess. There are any number of other holdings out of reach of the taxman, ranging from pricey foreign real estate to diamonds, yachts and even foreign “participatory notes” that allow investors to fudge their real identities.

There is only one way to get every paisa of black money back to India and out of secret domestic coffers. That is by removing its root cause, income tax.

I have argued before in these columns that income tax, both personal and corporate, is an unnecessary burden on society that sits most heavily on the honest.

It is also a major source of corruption within the government bureaucracy, and as already mentioned, a particular weakness in our national security.

On top of all that it is completely unnecessary; the government could easily replace income tax with one on immovable property.

The cherry on top is surely that if India had no domestic income tax every investor in the world would suddenly develop an urgent desire to be here.

It is mystifying that instead of moving towards this win-win solution the Modi government is preparing for stronger and broader enforcement of tax laws.

Or perhaps it's not so mystifying.

Stronger tax enforcement will undoubtedly increase the arbitrary powers of government bureaucrats and bring on-stream new sources of bribery and political extortion.

But in taking that route the government must weigh in balance the further loss of economic freedom for all Indians, and inevitably, of the continued erosion of political liberty.

To sum up the matter as delicately as it has ever been put, I quote one of the few reportedly authentic sayings of Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher: “Rule a great country as you would a small fish” (i.e. do not overdo it).

Friday, October 31, 2014

Human Development in the Information Age

Through most of history land has been the primary basis for creating wealth and everywhere, farmers monetized it to enrich small military elites. After 1600, when British merchants first innovated the joint stock company to share the risk of trading with India, land lost that primacy and corporate funds became the capital of the mercantile era. With industrialization that concept of capital evolved further: money became the active agent in bundling raw materials, technology and labor in profit-making enterprises.

Just as the concept of capital changed radically in each of those transitions, it is now undergoing yet another transformation. Change is being driven by the connectivity of a world in which the number of mobile phone subscriptions is nearing that of its total population and Internet users are surging towards the 3 billion level, two-thirds of them in developing countries.

Computerized information processing technologies are now at the heart of wealth production, and that is setting off a paradigm shift in economics with historically unprecedented potential to erase poverty and move all of humanity onto the same level of socioeconomic development.  

For an illustrative example of that potential consider the target of “housing for all by 2022” set by India's newly elected BJP government.

The general consensus among Indian commentators is that it will be impossible to achieve that target. The Times of India reported on 9 August 2014 that to meet it the government would have to build 2.5 million housing units every year for the next 8 years, a very tall order considering that all programs for low-cost housing have together added only 200,000 units in the last three years.

With nearly 48 per cent of the population below the ADB poverty line (set at $1.51 daily income), it is also unrealistic to think that the private sector can take up the slack even if heavily subsidized: in mid-2014 there were only 58 housing finance institutions in the country.

However, the prospects are transformed if we consider a third alternative, using the Internet and the Worldwide Web for crowd-funding. 

Crowd-Funding the Housing Sector

Mobilizing crowd-funding for the housing sector will require an innovative new institutional framework with a web-based National Housing Lottery (NHL) as its central organization.

An NHL could be established under the aegis of the National Housing Bank (NHB), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of India with a quarter century of experience in formulating and implementing sustainable housing policies at the central and state levels.

The lottery would offer as prizes housing units provided by owners or builders, with all of them required to meet technical specifications set by the NHL in a number of downloadable templates.

The NHL would fix the number of lottery tickets sold for each unit to cover payment to owners/builders, its own organizational expenses, and the costs of developing essential infrastructure.

That infrastructure would include off-grid renewable energy (solar with supplementary biogas), sanitation, sustainable water supply (primarily from local watershed management) and broadband connectivity.

To allow people who do not want to move to a new location to participate in the lottery the NHL would also offer as prizes the services of builders to upgrade existing housing to the standard of one of its templates.

Finally, the NHL would allow anyone who won a housing unit to put it back in the lottery and take an attractive cash prize instead. That would generate continuing interest in the lottery and not just from within India but globally.

To ensure compliance with the standards set by its templates the regulatory arm of the NHB would oversee the growth of a new business sector of small and medium enterprises devoted entirely to inspecting buildings. The companies would specialize in four areas of code compliance: quality of construction, environmental standards, public health and broadband connectivity.

To jump-start this sector the NHB could invite firms engaged in similar work in developed countries to set up Indian subsidiaries.

By providing the largest profits for the housing most in demand and strong punitive action against anyone cutting corners, the NHL could regulate supply with a minimum of bureaucracy, expense and effort. A web-based information dissemination and feed-back system for end users would ensure that problems that crop up are efficiently addressed.

Such a lottery would provide housing to people for the price of a lottery ticket (which should ideally be no more than Re.10 each). It would generate a steady flow of finance to builders, create a multitude of jobs at every level of skill, implement environmental standards painlessly and improve sanitation standards rapidly.

Those multiple targets would be met without the traditional headaches of cross-sectoral coordination of policies and programs. Broader goals such as the government's plan to build 100 new "smart cities" would also become easier, for most of the essential parameters could be included in the housing templates. Perhaps most importantly, all that would be financed through crowd-funding, at minimal cost to the exchequer.

On the negative side, the conventional housing finance units now in existence would have to be wound up, but their staff could easily be absorbed by the new NHL and the expanded NHB regulatory arm.

 Other Profound Implications

The implications of the new Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) are equally profound for a range of other industrial era realities we have come to accept as part of the natural order of things.

Consider, for instance, what will happen to mass markets shaped by the requirements of behemoth corporations when they face competition from small and medium enterprises capable of locating and serving niche areas of demand.

As all mass markets are the homogenized creation of advertising they will be quickly disaggregated by such competition and giant corporations will find their lunch eaten by small and medium enterprises far more efficient in adjusting to changes in their home markets.

The full impact of this process probably will not be realized until the technology for 3-D printing matures. That technology works by coding information into a machine capable of layering a variety of materials into any desired shape; it should eventually enable production of a finely engineered Mercedes Benz car in a village workshop.

The disaggregation of mass markets will have a variety of other spectacular effects. As mass production becomes less efficient, it will power down the imperatives that have driven the growth of every modern city, taking the wind out of the urbanization globally.

The new efficiencies of disaggregated markets will give powerful impetus to the growth of off-grid renewable energy. To understand the potential of that trend we have merely to consider that the total solar energy incident on India annually is 5000 trillion kilowatt hours. At present our solar energy production capacity is only 2.5 gigawatt, constituting just one per cent of the country’s total energy production. (It is expected to cross 3 gigawatt by the end of 2014. For sake of comparison: German solar energy production capacity is 38 Gigawatt per year; China, Italy, and the US have over 10 Gigawatt.)

The rising curve of solar/biogas energy will make the coal/petroleum/natural gas economy increasingly uncompetitive; and as industrial era patterns of concentrated production and consumption fade, so will the viability of the entire sector. Efforts to cut fossil fuel consumption and reduce release of greenhouse gases should become much easier.

Other dramatic results will be radical revaluations of much urban real estate and significant sectoral reallocation of labor. Fortunately, the latter should coincide with broad growth in new employment opportunities.

In sum, these changes will be a huge plus for human development.

It should be possible to set and meet a target to get all of humanity on the same level of human development within the period envisaged by the post-2015 agenda for action.

Part 2 of this post will deal with how we can counter elite efforts to subvert the democratic promise of the Information Age.