Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wrong advice that we must avoid

Banking reforms are definitely needed, but they have to be driven by recommendations that people who are thoroughly conversant with the sector, make

The idea of inclusion, otherwise a ‘progressive hypothesis', has been sadly confused with ‘technical overplay' by the Reserve Bank of India and the Union Ministry of Finance. The most sightable case is Aadhar that lays too much emphasis on technical procedures and the opening of a maximum number of bank accounts. But merely having a bank account does not make someone genuinely aligned with formal banking.

Financial inclusion is a broader aim, and its ambit is far too wide to be limited to symbolic gestures. The incentive-based system, especially in private sector, has rather ensured the low effect of recently channelised banking access. In such a backdrop, Mr Nachiket Mor-headed Committee on Comprehensive Financial Services for Small Businesses and Low Income Households, makes the chance of financial sector reform even more distant.

The sharp corporate edge is visible in the recommendations of this committee — as it was expected of RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan. Quite naturally then, Mr Mor has seen the real solution of financial inclusion in covering each and every Indian with a bank account in next 24 months.

It is not that all initiatives taken by the RBI in the past had failed. Some did really well in increasing the delivery of institutional credit and relationship-based banking with the masses. In the first four decades after India's independence (1951-1991), the reach to institution credit went up from 7.2% to 64 per cent but to fail again at level 57 per cent with the opening of economy that year. Also money lenders have largely stayed on in the post-reform era, with some statistical differences.

They kill business with spirits of ‘wayward innovation' and walk easy step in this jubilant phase, when lobby rules the whole course. Mr Mor has missed an opportunity to re-define the utility of micro-lending. Instead, he committed blunder by underestimating the contribution of regional rural banks and cooperative societies. Probably out of focus, he couldn't check the past and present of RRBs, which are serving the rural segments, and solemnising the real intent of financial inclusion.

The RBI has played stringent with the branch affairs at banks. It is hardly a revelation, though the committee presented both malady and cure as something in fledgling state. Even before the birth of this committee, Mr D Subbarao, the former RBI Governor, had taken some crucial steps which, although not in the limelight, have done well in relaxing certain norms of banking.

In the ambit of financial inclusion, the basic rights should begin with making banking simple and accessible to all. Moreover, the services offered should be diversified and not restricted to offering a bank account, and stay satisfied. The overtures with people have to be at fast pace and fine carved out — disconnect with people or potential client makes the equilibrium of ‘good intent and business', impossible to achieve.

While opening another round of bank licensing, Mr Rajan has a fair opportunity to circulate in the vein of new entrants, sustainable determination to go ahead for achieving genuine financial inclusion. A lot would depend on how the RBI will deal with the aspiring banks and those existing ones.

A great deal has to be achieved in the months ahead, but mostly without any support from Mr Mor's recommendations. The RBI will realise this sooner than later. Next time, hopefully, it will include some bankers who have worked across this wonderland. India is a complex set of systems and our corporate lieutenants need to sharpen their knowledge and intuitions thoroughly, if they have to remain relevant in the changing environment.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Pioneer,on January21,2014)

The break Nitish Kumar will rue

As long as the Janata Dal (United) remained aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party, Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan could be kept at arm’s length. By snapping ties with the BJP, the JD(U) will feel the heat

Bihar is passing through an unprecedented transition. This time it is imposed by the political compulsions rather by malfunctioning of the state machinery, which hitherto plagued the State on many occasions. The JD(U) and the BJP had changed the political discourse at the height of the RJD’s misrule together.

The end of the JD(U)-BJP coalition in Bihar has returned the subversive rhetoric to the forefront, which makes the present political scene in the State look like what it was in the 1990s. Back then, the Left and the Congress were in bonhomie with the RJD to fight the imagined threat to communal harmony. Although toothless, they will now do something similar in the Lok Sabha election to escape slipping through the cracks of untravelled political routes.

The Lok Janshakti Party’s Ram Vilas Paswan is too consistent in his own way. He has been a face of central politics, and his coalition choice will be decided according to which major alliance will have a better shot at Delhi’s throne.
Lalu Prasad’s son is another politician who was born into this role out of miserable cricket career and his father’s lack of trust in the senior leaders of his motley camp.

So, Mr Tejashwi Yadav is a poster boy and together with RJD’s old horse, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, they are struggling hard to make their presence felt on the rough political turf of Patna.

This is the state of affairs inside the opposition parties in Bihar. Their claim of giving the State a better governance model than the present regime is based on flawed raw material and reckless manoeuvrings. However, the three-dimensional polarisation in the State will give leeway to a certain extent to these parties. But assuming that edge too significant would be an over-estimation.

It is axiomatic that in isolation, both the JD(U) and the BJP will see the upcoming election unprecedentedly tough.
The division of votes and the lack of a natural ally for any potential coalition will haunt both the camps equally. Danger is looming large for another round of devastating political plays by the desperate RJD and the LJP. They will not prefer missing any chance to get back the State.

Development as a political agenda was not commonplace in Bihar before the NDA rose to command in Bihar in 2005. The feudal construct in the State significantly diminished in subsequent years. Besides, social and political changes fast-paced and Bihar performed remarkably well in economic sphere too. But in the changed circumstances now, it is uncertain that the erstwhile component of the NDA will be able to reap any benefits out of that success.

Another crucial factor is the rising expectation of the masses from the Government. This is a positive phenomenon and even if the State Government is being criticised for not curing all ills of public services, it should be seen differently. Recently, Bihar has overcome its chronic power crisis too, next in line with other visible developments.

But the improved infrastructure is not happening in crucial areas like education and industry, and on this count the people are genuinely angry with the incumbent Government. A lacklustre attitude towards industry is another sightable drawback that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Government has been afflicted with.

A casual attitude in the recruitment of teachers, doctors and other professionals is another disastrous move of the regime. When such moves were resisted, they were met with an arrogant response from the Chief Minister. Despite having a stable fiscal position, it is bizarre that Mr Nitish Kumar has no interest in avoiding such treatment to the educated unemployed.

The state of higher education is no less pathetic. Most students are still compelled to migrate for university education. The only improvement is the secured finances to many sick universities. It is not that moves were not made to improve the situation. But, wrongly envisioned, they met with failure. Surrounded with the wrong set of advisers, Mr Nitish Kumar seems to forget the pain of his people
Notably, these advisers come from different orbits and they hardly know the State outside of Patna. Those living in the State are acknowledging the welcome changes of recent years, albeit shunning the insensitive stand of the Government on key issues. As they vote during the election, their anger could impact adversely on the immediate prospects of the JD(U).

It’s time Mr Kumar looks beyond his statistical progression with developmental plans. He must recognise the excluded areas where his Government has failed to go far. Officialdom has its limits and Mr Kumar must not forget that. In the next few weeks, the scenario of alliances would become clear. Bihar will usher into a difficult phase. This time, it would be losing its ‘reformed politics’.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Pioneer, on January7,2014)

The Height of Clamour

Book Review: Non-fiction/ A Great Clamour: Encounters with China and its Neighbours by Pankaj Mishra, Penguin, p.325; Rs499 (Hardback)
Pankaj Mishra’s A Great Clamour comprises a significant commentary on contemporary China, an examination of the contradictions and potency that shape and define the country

In the earlier work titled From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra had conducted an effective analysis of the western model and presented reasons why he believes Asia has a better chance in the new world, set free as it is from the complex constructs of its colonial past. Mishra’s latest book, A Great Clamour: Encounters with China and its Neighbours, once more, and just as winningly, challenges the burden of western influence on Asia.

In the course of writing these two books, the author has traced the journeys and ideas that contributed to the building of Asian solidarity—first through intellectual engagements and later via trade collaborations. But in the wake of decolonisation and emergence of modern states, based on western political ideas, that solidarity, he believes, has become somewhat incoherent.

Mishra, who calls Mashobra in Himachal Pradesh his home, has intermittently spent over two decades there. Living in such proximity to the mountains, on the other side of which lies Tibet, meant that it was natural that China would figure a big part of his research, a country he deems as complex and possessing a comparable degree of civilisational attributes as his own.

Another factor that threads India and China together, in Mishra’s view, is the role they play in global capitalism. The upward mobilisation from rural areas to big cities is a visible trend in both, with varied internal effects, of course, including the springing forth of a new kind of politics which necessarily focuses on issues related to unequal access to resources and lack of accountability in governance.

But beyond borders, as Mishra puts it, the common experience of modern capitalism offers new grounds for fraternity. Then again, the author does express reasonable concern towards the impediments that continue to exist on the path of solidarity—as in the case of China and India, the contradiction within their respective political systems and economic interests.

The book attempts a frontal attack on capitalism and western notions of modernity; the last part of the volume, for instance, takes into account five other Asian countries—Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia, Malaysia and Indonesia—as sufferers of these very forces.

In doing so, Mishra often seems to be penning a report cart of sorts on these nations, with taglines like “Japan’s aged modernity” and “Shanghai’s garish newness”, among others. As interesting as these are, however, given the fact that he doesn’t list any viable alternatives to replace the western model, they prove a bit aimless in the end.

A Great Clamour can be considered, for the most part, a significant commentary on contemporary China, supported by fine observations on crucial antecedents. Though very briefly, the book also explores the controversial issue of Tibet, as well as the dismal state of Nepali migrants in the booming towns of a “very aggressive China”.

This isn’t, of course, the first time Mishra has touched upon Nepal in his works; his Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India has a detailed chapter on the country, wherein he captures the sense of disillusionment among the masses incited by both the monarchy and Maoist rule, at a time when royals and radicals were the biggest players in national politics and the path ahead was still murky.

As for the subject of Tibet, it is appreciable that Mishra has chosen to write on it, given how under-covered it still remains in the mainstream press, in terms of real, qualitative research that is built on anything other than a western perspective. Although commentaries and books can be found, there are very few works among these that are able to evade personal judgment to offer a more objective view, something Mishra is clearly hoping to remedy.

The author, who has emerged a major thinker in recent times, further demonstrates his competence with this latest release. In the last few years, Mishra has spent a considerable amount of time in the West, and he’s used the experiences gained therein to challenge the ‘western wisdom’ in circulation around the world, a stance already made crystal clear in his much-hyped spat with Niall Ferguson and Patrick French, during which he accused the first of being racist and the second for overlooking elitism in India.

Mishra’s last two books had aimed to highlight the apathy of Asians towards their own history, and investigate why it is that the western model—ridden with crises of idea and direction—is still being religiously adhered to in Asia. Most likely, he argues, this is because the world has now a more or less undivided economic vision—beyond symbolism, even a country like China is afflicted with the consumerist agenda. The weakening of radical political ideologies and failure of existing leftists to find an alternate route regarding ‘intelligent economics’ has turned the scene dangerously idle, he says.

A Great Clamour largely shows the double-wheeling of the Chinese regime, sans democratic provisions like fundamental rights and transparency. The surging cities, unprecedented aggression on Tibet and calmness of citizens—it’s a country that is expanding with countless contradictions within its belly. But China is a world unto itself; other worlds on the outside have no clear access to this land. And over the decades, it has placed itself in the unique position to be able to play strategic ‘hide and seek’ with entities within and beyond its physical fortress.

India has a rich tradition of wandering scholars, and Mishra appears to be next in line, behind the likes of Rahul Sankrityayan ,Nagarjun, Nirmal Verma, travelling and writing on alien lands. The man, who loves isolation and working outside of the public glare, is greatly suited to unravel the realities of unexplored terrains. Throughout his career, he has been promising with his chosen themes, and this new book too is certain to be read and liked widely.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on February1,2014)

The House with a Thousand Stories

Book Review: Fiction/ The House with a Thousand Stories by Aruni Kashyap, Penguin, p.226; Rs399
Aruni is among those few, who practically objected the stereotypical portrayal of northeast as a ‘subject matter’. These seven states, otherwise, are far too diversified to be approached with narrowly preoccupied views. But from the ‘mainland’, any attempt of correction remained elusive so far, alas!

The House with a Thousand Stories is set in the backdrop of turbulent Assam, especially on the killing years in the late 1990s-early 2000s. Politically conscious albeit modestly judgmental, Aruni weaves many stories into a complex fold that intricately separates the soft notions from real tragedies in action. The novel is basically plotted in Guwahati and Mayong—or alternatively, between the ‘land of bad politics and black magic’.

The story moves around young Pablo—a city boy who has mostly lived a sheltered and privileged life in Guwahati. He visits his ancestral village for his aunt’s wedding—exactly like an ‘absentee native’ in rural hinterlands. As the wedding formalities advances, Pablo gets him into low comfort by squabbling aunts, dying grandmothers, cousins planning to elope for love or lust, and endless gossips. Amidst the flurry of rituals and aspiration, also looms large the dark shadow of insurgency and brutal counter action of state.

In patches, still ‘normalcy’ attends the scene of wedding home—more or less, as ‘hope’ comes in the minds of conflict sufferer. The marriage here ends in grave tragedy—Pablo finds and loses his first love, and he sees his family surrounded with boundless troubles. But as can be expected, life goes on—few survive with memories and rest others perishes by the harsh knock of unforgiving time.

Pablo is a thinking protagonist, who too is a sufferer, but under the different circumstances. Hence he looks on the wider upturn of the events and recalls ‘short-lived moments’, as and when he grips with the load of nostalgia or finds him in particular acquaintances. Yet he is firm to go ahead but without ever ceasing to be perplexed with the closest surrounding, fated abnormal.

Here, the chaos is multidimensional and touches personal as well as the collective spheres—so the stories are in thousands, though unlikely they would make much impact outside the ground zeroed, for such sad theatrics. As stories are the accounts of unrelenting grief, so these are not enough convincing for ‘power consuming minds& souls’. The thousands stories, thus, are buried in the insensible disconnect of ‘mainland and conflict land’. The deafness is too high all around and this is a chronic issue, to be dealt with ‘precision and resistance’.

Sincere in narration and evidently without lack of insights, this debutant novelist has justified his keen orientation on his milieu. He breaks the monotony in literatures on Assam and offers the world, a fresh perspective to look on this unusual part of the east. This state has been in tussle with its existential paradigms—however, the recent years have witnessed some alteration in old discourse.

The insurgencies, falsified by insurgents and political animals with no sense of practical politics, have come timid with good effects. Technically, this is the hibernation phase for reactionaries—but people at large are not a happy lot. The exploitation of resources and political guided turf of migration inside the state, is still not allowing fairness to be effectively grounded. Indifference with the pathetic situation is still a ‘mainstream culture’—hardly anything could be more agreeable than this.

Even today, the violence of different sorts is not letting Assam to live its potential. Next to the plundering of natural resources, insurgencies and political downplays, now Assam is grappling with the ‘arrival of easy money’, heavily involved in real estate and various shady businesses. In all probability, the rise of these unhygienic elements would be called an ‘entrepreneurial upsurge’—but in actual, that would be the height of ‘absurd hypotheses’.

In the beautiful first hand narrative of Pablo, The House with a Thousand Stories recounts many crucial issues in broader frameworks. Aruni, restless with pen has immense potential to be in the league of front running fiction writers—however, with his first book, he must be known as a remarkable writer of his generation. Of late, Assam has now its own bilingual chronicler
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kashmir Walla,January,2014)