I, Dipankan

Contradicting sense: Taxation and Development

Is there a relationship between development and taxation rates imposed by a regime? The short answer is yes, and that is a curious case of a U-trend!

On plotting a dataset of 146 countries against their HDI Index (2018) with personal income tax rates, their parabolic relationship becomes clear: While those with lower and higher taxation rates did well on the HDI front, rates put in the median bracket fared poorly. India, too, is in the median bracket. There can be several reasons for such trends. One possible way is to see why regimes impose tax on the populace in the first place. A high tax rate converts into high revenue stock for the government to spend, and hence development need not wait. Countries that put a low tax rate (primarily Islamic countries in the Middle East) have carved out State funds for purpose of welfare spending instead of putting up high-interest rates. For example, Arab states depend heavily on their oil earnings, and taxation only accounts for a lowly percentage of the GDP (Arab states had 5% of their GDP in 2002 as tax collections).

The median bracket is a paradox. Moderate rates should propel the nation towards development, but data proves otherwise- those with moderate tax rates have the lowest HDI scores on average. Perhaps, a stagnation in the tax rates for long has diverted State attention to other aspects of governance, leaving actual ‘vikas‘ behind. With #LokSabhaElections on the prowl, it would be interesting to see if the party that forms the next government will increase, albeit marginally, tax rates to help combat deficits that may arise- and in the process, push the marginalized out of their state of despair!

The Horrors of Hooch

PTI Photo: Victims hospitalised in Assam in the recent hooch tragedy

Illegal consumption of spurious alcohol is consistently on the rise. Barely a week after the UP Hooch tragedy that claimed 116 lives, this time around, it is Assam. These breweries operate hideously, often as a ‘side’ product on factory premises. As far as reports go, 110+ have been reported dead- a casualty every 10 minutes!

Governmental promises to eradicate the illicit liquor mafia look like blunt proposals nowadays. In 1992, the Parthasarathy Committee Report suggested a smorgasbord of actions to be taken in order to prevent hooch horrors. Besides laws to discourage unauthorised storage of methanol, it recommended the addition of a bitter substance to make it undrinkable. In all, 17 recommendations were put on paper. Till date, it remains to be effectively implemented.

Last year, the Uttar Pradesh government amended a section in the State Excise Act, slapping death penalty charges on those responsible for hooch deaths. Despite such a move, a week back, disaster struck. This points to glaring loopholes, and most of this is due to the khaki-clad men looking the other way in exchange for hefty fees.

Yesterday, it was Maharashtra, Bengal, Bihar, UP, and countless many. Today it is Assam. Tomorrow, it may strike terror in yet another province. How far can we tolerate this? Can surprise raids in shadowy factories not be conducted? Is it altogether impossible for the government to catch the sinister bootleggers who manufacture the concoction of death, red-handed? The answer is a clear yes. Only, the intent is missing.

Every single time.

A Year in Review

With just a day to go before we conclude 2018 on a positive note, there must be a list of unbelievable successes we have attained in the year; and a similar list of unchecked boxes that we would have liked to see crossed, but couldn’t for whatsoever reasons may be. In the span of the last 364 days, we lived out another year of our lives. Did we do something different?

Personal Joyride

2018 has been a rather eventful year for me, and one with surprises filled to the brim. Post the initial hectic months panning all the way from January to May, I earned a seat in KIIT’s Electronics department. Truth be told, shifting to Bhubaneswar wasn’t all that bad. The hostel rooms are decent enough, and mess food isn’t as pathetic as it is the case in many other institutions. Bhubaneswar is not just any smart city, it is the rank-one holder in the list of smart cities published by the Government of India. College life is easy provided you maintain the academic discipline and regularity. It indeed is difficult to keep your concentration together and channelise your energy in the right direction, especially with a number of distractions around. But once you get through, and determine that you have a target to achieve, the process becomes incredibly easy.

Furthermore, 2018 offered me a golden opportunity to restart my passion for writing columns and opinion articles, primarily based on politics, after an appreciable hiatus. This disruption in writing over the most part of late 2017 could be blamed on the strenuous nature of the higher secondary examinations in India. It has been an enjoyable time, writing a good number of columns and reading even more. It also happened to be the second anniversary of my main blog, Politics Now– which now  is a site with over 19,000 plus words of unbiased political opinion. Courtesy an extremely congenial professor, and a gem of a person in the institute for management studies (KSOM- Professor S.N. Misra), I have also been undergoing semi-formal training in macroeconomics. What a year has it been from the learning perspective, and with God’s blessings, I hope I can carry this momentum forward.

On Politics and Economy

In the political world, protectionist trends seem to be on the rise, fuelled by agressive nationalism in several nations of the world. The US-China trade feud could have snowballed into a major headache for people around the world; but luckily sense seemed to have prevailed and retaliatory sanctions have been kept to the minimal. The US-North Korea talks also seemed to have failed now after initial hype; and North Korea has reportedly not shut down on its nuclear facilities yet (any rational state would never). In Europe, political turmoil, especially emanating from Britain has taken the toll. There are concerns that the EU may let Britain out without the latter framing a proper exit deal with the European union. Theresa May has been on the receiving end of critics for long. Finally, around mid-December, the POTUS announced the withdrawal of security forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan- sparking genuine concerns of heightened terrorist attacks and a re-run of chaos and destability. In South Asian politics, too, there has been significant activity. Former Maldives strongman Abdul Yameen lost out on the elections and his contemporary, Ibrahim Mohammed Solih, was elected president. The Indian government provided a $1.4billion grant to the Maldives, a number which accurately matches the debt that Maldives owes China. Sri Lanka showed the world its strength in democracy when even after an attempted political coup, President Sirisena had to appoint (courtesy the Supreme Court and the Sri Lankan Parliament) Ranil Wackremsinghe as the Prime Minister after deposing him to put his adversary, Mahinda Rajapakse in charge.

In the domestic circuit too, things appear very charged. The 2019 General Elections are only a few months away now- and parties are all revving up their campaigns to make the most of the seat-fest. Electrification drives have been a success and the Modi government achieved 100% electrification of rural India in April. This does not mean that every household has access to electricity, however- a village is said to be electrified if at least 10% of the households have access to electricity. Yet, the feat cannot be downplayed and the government must be lauded. However, it has mostly been a year of duds for the government. The RBI-Centre spat took an ugly turn after the Centre battled for access to the RBI’s vault, ultimately ending with the resignation of Urjit Patel and the appointment of career bureaucrat Shaktikanta Das. Earlier this year on Valentine’s Day, the Punjab National Bank reported a $1.77 billion fraud by diamantaire Nirav Modi and his uncle, Mehul Choksi, who fled the country.  In Kerala, the Sabarimala judgement rendered by the Supreme Court was not acceptable to the localites and they staged massive protests, which continues to the day. Politicians have jumped onto bandwagons that suite their opportunist nature, with hardly anyone batting for an actual solution to end the crisis.

 

Economic trends from the past year haven’t been all too well. While the Indian economy is making a comeback of sorts, the strength of the recovery is doubtful. While there has been a growth in GVA figures and a corresponding rise in GDP, a closer look at the finer details would help. The services sector has performed exceedingly well, but the industrial sector has been a laggard. The RBI has changed its monetary policy stance to “calibrated tightening”, meaning that a rate cut is off the radars for now. The RBI was hawkish over the first two quarters of 2018, chasing a target of 4% inflation. A rate cut could put back some money in the economy and that the RBI could have some leeway as regards a slight deviation from CPI inflation rate is concerned. Current Account Deficit, a difference between the net import and exports for a country, is projected to widen for FY2019 at 2.6%. The recent e-commerce policy doled out by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, although favourable for small-scale local traders, have dealt a significant blow to the promising FDI sector for online retail. The law effectively mandates any move which offers customers a significant advantage free of cost, to be an instance of discriminatory pricing- so it is probably time to shell out extra bucks for delivery. In 2019, airline fares are also set to ricochet, with fresh taxes being levied on airline fuel and associated costs.

Positives and Hopes for the New Year

As we welcome a new year, it is important to remember and thank God for the gifts we all have received during the past year. If possible, go around and personally meet, or call up your loved ones, to thank them for their time and companionship. Life in the twenty-first century moves at a fast pace, a pace quick enough to blur out faint memories of people who might have impacted our lives at any point.

My 2019 vision for India would be principally centred on political stability. I hope for a stable government at the Centre that delivers on solid governance, and upholds fundamental rights including the much cherished freedom of creative expression. For long enough, there has been suppression of voices and dissenting opinions have become increasingly rare (apart from those in the judiciary). A key concern from the past year, that of institutional independence, needs to be protected with utmost priority. Compromising on the autonomy of crucial operators to attain short-term goals can severely hamper prospects down the line, as biased decision making and corruption would pave their way into the system.

To all my dear readers and visitors alike, I wish you an abundance of grace as you step into the new year. New year resolutions, for the most part of it, are ignored- but if you have a hunch on making one, do make it. If you have had regrets because you were unable to do them last year, make sure you own 2019 and make it your way!

 

Why Zero is nothing more than a pathetic eyesore

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Before I even start with describing how bad the film Zero was, I believe it would be prudent to admit that I am a die-hard Shah Rukh addict; someone who always hoped that the Badshah of Bollywood could perhaps give his acting career post his fifties a major rejig. After watching Zero, I am not so certain anymore.

Shah Rukh Khan’s filmography after the onset of 2010 has been that on a hit-loss-hit track. I, however, am not a personal fan of judging films by their Box office collections- by that record, every Salman Khan film would probably go on to become top-rated films. I watch films to ascertain the quality of content the film provides; the originality it bears, and how the film possibly integrates its core theme into the motion picture that we pay for at the end, though not being the run-of-the-mill critic who wears the glasses of a cynic. In short, I like films that I can enjoy. Chennai Express, Dilwale and Jab Harry Met Sejal were absolute disasters, but provided on their core theme of comedy and a doses of SRKian romance. Fan was a major uplift, the dual characters of Gaurav and Aryan were donned brilliantly. VFX work was commendable, too. Raaes, in my frank opinion, was a lovely treat- injecting compassion for an otherwise villainous character among the audience. Dear Zindagi was an out-of-the-box experiment that turned out very well, both in terms of critical accolades and success. The success was because it was relatable, and most of Gen Z could find an instant connect that Bollywood films typically do not provide for.

But those were chronicles before Zero.

With Zero, Shah Rukh Khan hit a new low. Right from the start to the end, the film remained a mess. Many commentators have reviewed that the ensemble featured the doomed trio of Anuskha-Katrina-Shah Rukh from Jab Tak Hai Jaan. You could take all the greatest actors of the world and engage them in a circus of a plot- and the film would still sink- simply because, there is no meaning attached to it! Films are supposed to be a form of escapade. They take our creative selves on a tour, tossing around with the ideas we can harbour. The principal fault with Zero is that the plot is an absolute zero.  Aanand Rai probably tried to stitch together three stories within one; and the sew ended up in tatters. Make no mistake, individual characters portrayed by Shah Rukh- that of a dwarf, or bauna (Bauua Singh)-Anushka with that of a disabled, but inspiring astronomer who has paved the way for the Man on Mars mission (Aafia)- and that of Katrina with a role which suited her usual arrogant self (Babita Kumari)- were brilliant to say the least. Bauua Singh’s character is an extremely difficult role to carry, the gaudy vanity of the character being a particular highlight. But somewhere, the overall connect goes missing, and with that, the film loses its way, too.

Who on earth otherwise can imagine of a plot which encompasses a groom running from the bride, attempting to romance a star beyond the ordinary, getting the boot and finally ending up as a man exiled to Mars, all for love? Is that even love? Zero looks to make its way around by introducing forced humour, and drags the second half rather unnecessarily. In fact, almost the entirety of the second half features Bauua’s preparation to leave for Mars. Heck, there is even a scene where in zero-gravity (aka, vacuum), Bauua and Aafia converse, can exist without an oxygen mask in tow. For science graduates like me, and well for everybody else, too- that is indigestible content. Forget breathing, staying in vacuum without adequate pressurised gear can prove lethal.

Zero might be a big-budgeted film, but honestly, has failed to do justice to the investment poured in it. It would have been made so much better if only a botched up ending could possibly be restructured and re-worked on. The first half is the only enjoyable portion from the entire film, wherein we are introduced to the characters and their nuances. The climax is hasty, at best- and there’s no denouement to it. The ride we hoped for Zero never took off, and that is the reality.

In the end, the verdict is clear: Stay clear of Zero, and save both your money and time. You would not regret it.

 

The Great Indian Electoral Tamasha

Governmental elections all over the world are quite important an affair in the sense that such elections satisfy the constitutional demand for a head of state, or that of a federal unit, to be elected on grounds of popular consensus. In India, electoral seasons are quite a spectacle to behold- from the campaigning process to the declaration of results, everything seems to be over very swiftly without noticeable friction. The caution, however, is that it so appears when examined from the wider lens. On panning into the depths of the electoral process in India, we find several anomalies in the entire activity.

In India, elections are held at the national level and at the state levels- called the General elections and the State elections, respectively. This entire polling process is conducted and monitored by a Constitutionally authorized independent body, the Central Election Commission, whose primary responsibility lies in the conduct of ‘free and fair elections’ on the basis of Universal Adult Franchise. Unfortunately, despite the best of efforts from the Commission in recent times, elections are hardly fair to the last vote. Elections nowadays are mostly associated with graphic displays of violence, bombings and intimidation cases. Saddest of them all, is perhaps the attempt to hijack the very process itself- through practice of rigging. It is an open secret that such attempts to deface the primary pillar of democracy is clandestinely supported by politicians themselves. The problem is, the evidence trail is cut off most of the times. Raking up religious sentiments looks to be the new norm of the day; and no one is batting an eyelid over it. Over thirty percent of the people’s representatives in the Lok Sabha have criminal cases stacked against them. Illiterate hordes with rich family backgrounds have also appeared in the foray: all these are cumulatively adding up to pull our entire democracy in the reverse gear.

Political funding in India is highly opaque. In 2014, a non-profit organisation Global Integrity, ranked India on 42nd position out of 54 countries, assessing each nation by their transparency metrics. In fact, India even ranks 6 ranks lower than its neighbour Pakistan. Despite introduction of a law by the Finance Minister to replace cash donations by electoral bonds, the cardinal loophole still exists- that of anonymous donations. While the cash limit has been decreased from Rs. 20,000/- to Rs. 2000/-, the very introduction of such anonymous electoral bond purchase defeats the purpose of the move to ensure transparency. This was reiterated by the former Chief Election Commissioner, O.P. Rawat, who demitted office on 1st December, 2018.

It would perhaps be a farce to write on the vices surrounding Indian elections without mentioning the criminal track records of candidates and elected legislators. A staggering figure of 34% of India’s Lok Sabha MPs have criminal cases lodged against their names- from rioting to murder- and everything in between (Vaishnav 2017). What is shocking is that candidates with criminal antecedents have an 18% chance of winning the poll than fresh and clean rivals- who stand a meek 6%. Muscle power and money, thereby, influences the election process in a big way. India’s elevation of lawbreakers to lawmakers is thus no short of an interesting story.

Literacy rates amongst legislators are alarming to say the least. The sixteenth Lok Sabha features six Members of Parliament who have not even completed their matriculation courses. Such a want for literacy at the highest levels of democracy effectively creates a void for constructive participation in debates that arise in the Lower House. This statistic is worse for the Vidhan Sabhas; where illiterate MLAs abound in considerable numbers. Among such states, Haryana, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh feature prominently. An absence of criteria outlining the basic educational qualifications of candidates is a major hurdle. There simply seems to be no political will in amending such a trend.

Ever since 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi ascended the chair of the Prime Minister, a wave of Hindutva nationalism has swept across the country. Religious minorities have been openly threatened and persecuted. Even caste held no bars as stories of oppression and humiliation of the Dalits poured in from every corner. This gave rise to violent clashes in Maharashtra, where the tensions ran high. Politicians from right-wing parties and members of the fringe outfits have found that religion is easily saleable to the masses to garner votes: and the trick has worked time and again. Inflammatory statements made by local politicians to gain votes in the short run bring about deep communal divides that are near impossible to repair. The Muzzafarpur riots is a good example for such a blatant promotion of religious hatred, which left in its aftermath 62 dead and a total of 50,000 people displaced.

Despite such a venomous electoral atmosphere, positive mends are being made, or at least, being sought for. In September, 2018, the Supreme Court hauled up the Central Government, asking the Union to frame adequate and necessary laws to ensure complete decriminalisation of politics. Earlier, the Election Commission had made it mandatory to declare the criminal antecedents before filing nomination for elections. There is also a general agreement on the fact that India needs to amend its academic qualification requirements for candidates contesting the elections. After all, a lawmaker who does not understand the subtle discourse of crucial agendas is no good to legislate in the first place. In Abhiram Singh v/s CD Commachen (2017) the judiciary also barred the use of religion, caste, and language as a means to appeal the voters. This was a positive and welcome move. There is also a constant pressure on the government to make the process of political funding open, and anonymous donations must not be entertained.

While steps are being taken to ensure the dream of realising free elections in the truest sense of the term; we are probably staring several decades away when the electoral process in India would be free of taint. For now, ensuring the clean up of the existing lot of mess is much more important than bringing in more candidates with questionable backgrounds.

Reflections on the 175th year of The Economist

In September of 1843, the much-cherished magazine of today, The Economist, was started. In 2018, it thus celebrates its one hundred and seventy-fifth year; an appreciably long way to go for any magazine of its kind. James Wilson, founder of The Economist, adhered by certain fundamental principles- such as the being champion of free trade, free markets and limited government. Thereby, he was in a way the pioneer of a new way of political thought in his time- that of liberalism. In fact, The Economist was founded to campaign for the repeal of the oppressive Corn Laws in Imperial Britain, which put high import taxes on food grains. Liberalism today can be defined as a way of political philosophy wherein individual and civil liberties, and rights of the individual are held sacred and of principal concern. It would thus only be fitting to explore how the concept of liberalism has evolved over the years from Wilson’s days to the present day we live in.

There are certainly a lot of positives to count on. Rapid globalisation has transformed the world in more ways than one: average global life expectancy rates have skyrocketed, while milllons have been uplifted from severe poverty. These trends are only expected to continue. All across the world, there is a general notion that civil liberties are inalienable to the man, and that has now become the cornerstone for a good number of nation states. There is a fantastic co-relation between the most developed countries today and the number of liberal governments it had at the helm. Over the period of the nineteenth and twentieth century, while isolationism, fascism and communism failed, liberalism stood out as the lone exception; perhaps a poetic ode to its core belief to evolve and sustain itself as it goes the way.

However, it would be foolish to assume that liberalism is still driving the world, and that it faces no crises at present. Over the last twelve years, civil liberties have lost ground in 71 countries, while only 35 made any gain (Freedom House Report, 2017). This is a worrying statistic. Liberalism has died an ideological death, perhaps, arising out of mere complacency. The liberal elite likes to dwell in an illusory world where everything is sugar-coated to their tastes. In actuality, it is not such a perfect scenario. Liberalism had its roots from humble starts, as a tool for change. True liberals contend that change is gradual, it cannot be enforced on somebody (thus, opposing revolutionaries). Unfortunately enough, this hunger for introduction of change has become non-existent. Liberals must remember that their founding principle remains civic respect for all. The centennial edition of The Economist, in 1943 chalked out two defining principles for liberalism: one being freedom, and the other being the idea that human society could ultimately be an association for the welfare of the multitude. Fast forward to now, and divisive forces have found significant traction across communities. Group identities defined by race, religion or sexual orientations are springing up, thus diffusing the entire idea of the second guiding principle of liberalism. What is worse, is the fact that even liberals have grown conservative- unable to accept the risk that comes with upsetting a stable system that keeps them doing better than the rest.

Today, liberalism looks disillusioned and without a proper direction. The young generation is the engine of change; and true liberals from among them must be pragmatic in their approach and adaptable to any situation that may arise. In the advent of passionate nationalistic governments and their associated propaganda, the liberals must find an opportunity to display their brand of nationalism- harping on inclusivity- and embrace it as their own. Criticism and dissent must be welcomed and not suppressed- which is something key to liberalism. Liberalism has always been tagged with reform, but reform cannot sustain itself where stagnation settles. Thus, the complexities of the twenty first century can only be dealt with gusto and vivacity– which is, precisely, the need of the hour for liberalism to revive itself from the archaism it has subjected itself to.

Preparing for a freshman year

All over the world, the seasons at the start of the year, spanning from February to May, is somewhat mundane. In India, however, this is the time for the exam season- flooding overwhelmingly with undergraduate admission processes pan-India. Millions of students apply for colleges and everyone is made to undergo the heat through various competitive examinations held to determine the merit of the student. It has been a hectic season so far for me, but I’ve secured admission in one of the premier private colleges of Eastern India, KIIT- Bhubaneswar.

KIIT Main Campus (Campus 6)

I’ve always wanted to fiddle with the radios, explore how devices really worked, and from my childhood it was my unfortunate habit to tweak with the setup. This is why I’ve taken up electronics engineering at the institute. I expect the next four years to be a rollercoster of a ride- bringing in new experiences, knowledge, internship opportunities, and a plethora of other similar activities. I would for sure, miss home- as they say, home is where the heart is!

While most of my friends have already been through with the packing and planning, I’ve checked only one of the boxes so far- that of planning. My packing is in shambles; I will need to go and get it done at the earliest. Considering the fact that I do not have much time left for my stay in my home state (West Bengal), I had a pretty busy schedule last week- meeting people, getting together, birthday parties, and the list is unending!

Wish me luck as I step out for a new venture ahead.

Why this revamp?

For people who followed my earlier blogs, this is definitely a marked change. IIS-India was my very first blog, the one which I had started in 2012. It has grown exponentially now and has a staggering view counter of nearly 260,000 viewers. This is definitely a big number on all fronts. However, IIS-India lacked a key ingredient: finesse. As I had initially started out with Google’s own in-bred platform Blogger, which offered very limited templates and customisation abilities- I was to say, constrained at best. I, being the person I am, would prefer professionalism over profit any day!

And thus I took the leap to professionalism.

This revamped look which offers a minimalist theme has been curated to exclusively focus only on the content. Content, as they say, reigns supreme. I, Dipankan- the blog- will be my personal forum where I would blog on a lot of topics that interest me. If you are here because you would like to read my articles on politics and the associated conundrum- it is located at Politics Now.

I sincerely welcome you aboard the journey to discovering the everyday, once again!