Thursday, May 31, 2012


India has still not used its soft powers wisely

A few days back, I was watching this movie called 'Karate Kid'. No doubt that the movie is a masterpiece. However, what caught my fancy was not merely the plot or the way it was shot but actually the place it was shot. The movie subtly showcased China’s scenic beauty in the most picturesque manner possible. Be it the way they shot the Great Wall of China or the Forbidden City or the Taoist temple in Wudang Mountain or just that small play depicting a Chinese folk tale. Apparently, it was the beauty of China and the portrayal of Kung-fu that forced me to plan a short vacation to China, in may be near future. What is the lesser known fact about the movie is that it is not a sole Columbia Pictures production but a joint production of China Film Group Corporation and Columbia Pictures!

Interestingly, countries nowadays are strategically using movies and other forms of art to showcase their nation, or shall I say brand themselves. Almost all movies shot in China (with collaboration from Chinese production houses) flaunt Chinese skyline, their culture, food or their lifestyle – thus enabling a window for the world to have a feel of China. Indian production houses on the other hand have done a lot to increase Indian tourist traffic to Switzerland and similar other destinations in Europe. Many Bollywood celebrities are today cultural ambassadors of various nations. So much so that, numerous South Asian countries are also devising strategies to lure movie-makers. The Singapore Tourism Board invested $6.5 million under its ‘Film in Singapore’ scheme and will subsidise international film productions by up to 50%. Fiji is ready to give a payback of 35%. Unfortunately, Incredible India continues to lag in this regard. Just around 90 foreign fi lm productions have been cleared for shooting in India over the last three years. The biggest predicament is the lengthy paper work required by Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. Multiple clearances with diff erent departments continue to discourage foreign film producers. Also, local authorities create hurdles and ask for bribes before giving clearance at local levels.

Like China, the sparkling image of Uncle Sam has been achieved by the most effective use of soft power. The ‘American dream’ and ‘American way of life’ galvanised the entire world. Its products like Lucky Strike cigarettes, Coca-Cola, and other mass production brands have been instrumental in beating the Soviets in the cold war. In recent Hollywood movie MIB3, the lead actors were found driving American cars (Ford) and not non-American cars. Similarly, in most of the American movies, the production houses use American products, American stores, American tourist spots, American technology and even warfare, unlike India that rarely features their domestic brands in the movies or books.

It’s sheer waste of opportunity and resources when it comes to promote our nation through movies and various other similar domains, given the fact that more than 14 million viewers visit theatres daily to watch Bollywood movies all over the world. Not only Bollywood should voluntarily feature domestic brands and promote Indian culture through their lenses, but even the ministries involved should exploit it. Till now, we have only fortified the way the world views us – a land of mosquitoes and snake charmers. That is where the difference lies between a Slumdog Millionaire and a Shanghai Dream.


Thursday, May 24, 2012


Child soldiers are the new weapon of terror outfits

Children in India are increasingly being subjected to full array of targets from groups like Naxals and North Eastern insurgents to join them as soldiers! The consequent fallout is devastating for the children as it is robbing them of their innocence, education and a thriving environment for growth and development. Historically, these problems were brooked mostly in African countries like Sierra Leone and Sudan but slowly and surely the phenomenon is finding its feet on the Indian soil.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that this exposure of children in war operation is mostly mothballed in India because of Naxalites and insurgents operating in North-East. These outfits heavily recruit children as Child Soldiers to fight against the country’s establishments. The Human Rights Watch recently released a report, named "Dangerous Duty: Children and the Chhattisgarh Conflict" where it talks about Naxalites’ drive to recruit children for all sorts of battles. This position is particularly prevalent in the strife torn states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, J&K, Manipur, Nagaland and Assam. The recent Maoists’ operational machinations have mostly been in forming a Child Liberation Army (CLA). These children (around 300 of them) are trained under the cover of dense forest of Dhanbad and Giridih in Jharkhand and are provided with crash course in small arms. Apart from using arms, the children are also used as espionage by monitoring movements of security forces. The spokesperson of Jharkhand Police, SN Pradhan confirmed that with a plain message, "The Maoist rebels use children in their propaganda war against the government and security forces."

This trend of traumatic nature is a prolonged practice in Africa for many decades. This custom is abound in Africa, with half of the world’s child soldiers emanating from the continent, as per UNOCHA reports. At the minimum, the age can be as low as 7. The stark statistics are made more troubling by the fact that they are orphaned by AIDS, traumatized by war, driven by poverty, donated by their parents so that they at least get two square meals a day. The dark reality is prevalent in most of the Sub-Saharan African nations including Chad, DRC, Burundi and Sudan.

The recent flare up of child army in India that has surfaced following African example should finally open the eyes of Indian government. So far, it has done little to arrest with the problem. Our government must tick all the right boxes like it must act strongly to prohibit child recruitment and then follow it up by declaring child recruitment as criminal offense. At present 118 out of 604 Indian districts are shrouded with the problem. The UN Committee on Rights of Child in 2004 had advised our government for a thorough investigation into the matter. However, the allusion of child soldier, in our government legislation is limited only to J&K and the North-Eastern states. Most recently, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights have decided to raise child soldiers’ problem in Meghalaya and Manipur with the Centre. All in all, Child soldiers are not only a menace to the society but would become a major hurdle in counter-insurgency operations. These children in future can develop deadly diseases like AIDS and can also get addicted to drugs and alcohol or even become seasoned criminals – a lesson to be learnt from Africa.


Thursday, May 17, 2012


Road accidents need a comprehensive policy

Whenever I travel abroad, especially to European countries, one thing that fascinates me is the scenic beauty along the road. But then, this scenic beauty looks picturesque on account of the amazing road infrastructure that has been created over the years. I rarely have come across any traffic jams or accidents during my trips abroad and all thanks to low motorization and near-perfect and automated traffic management.

The road accident curse in India is poised to take catastrophic proportions with annual economic loss figures estimated to be at Rs.1 lakh crores, according to International Road Federation (IRF). IRF underscores the attributed reasons being sheer ignorance and lack of political will to act. The Planning Commission in their effort to secure data during 2001-2003, suggested that in 1999-2000, the total loss on account of road accidents was a staggering Rs.55,000 crores, which at that point of time was 3 per cent of our GDP. According to NCRB, around 130,000 people lost their lives in 2010 alone due to road accidents. The Delhi Police Joint Commissioner (Traffic), Satyendra Garg, conceded that their hands are stifled because of antiquated penalty laws for traffic violators and there were 800,000 cases of violation in 2010 alone. This is more because the penalties set by Motor Vehicle Act of 1988 are simply archaic. As against the UN declaration of 2011-2020, ‘Decade of Action for Road Safety’, there should have been a resolute push towards curbing road accidents, but so far nothing concrete has been done except announcing series of fines and penalties.

In spite of the fact that India accounts for only 1 per cent of the world’s vehicles, it paradoxically witnessed 10 per cent of global road mishaps. The government does not seem to be gearing up for the problem as it has shown no progress in passing the National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill till date. Even developing countries like Cambodia and Vietnam are implementing laws like Global Helmet Vaccine Initiative with great results.

There has been rapid surge of number of vehicles over the past decade leading to augmentation of human fatalities. Vehicles surged from 7.3 crores in 2004 to 9.5 crores in 2007. There is a likewise increase of human lives lost from 81 per million in 1997 to 101 per million persons in 2007. That essentially works out to 4 per cent increase in fatalities between 1997 and 2004 and 8 per cent between 2004 and 2007. However, the increase of accidents with number of vehicles plying on the roads can be contained if road safeties are curbed and adequate measures are taken.

Apart from bettering road safety measures, India’s policy course on transport should encompass improving public transport. Mumbai with population of 13.9 million and Kolkata’s population of 12.7 million experiences public trips that are merely 80 per cent and 60 per cent respectively. Worse is the case in Delhi and Chennai with public trips being just 42 per cent of total conveyance each.

As I said earlier, it is just not about curbing the number of personal vehicles but is about working on various aspects simultaneously. Our policy makers only concentrate on one of the factor sidelining others which is most of the time dealt discreetly. What we need is a comprehensive traffic management act which encompasses problems of road accidents and public transports as well. Till then, I can just wish you a happy journey albeit with jerks!


Thursday, May 10, 2012


Power sector needs more dynamic reforms

Come summers, and the nation is set to face erratic power supply, frequent power cuts, and inflated electricity bills, once again! In spite of having myriad of sources for electricity, India has failed to provide its citizens with non-stop power supply. Leave aside the state of power supply in villages, even in the capital city, electricity cuts is a norm.

The power wastage would continue to take its toll unless radical reforms are not put in place at the earliest. At the want of some drastic reforms in power distribution, losses can spiral up to 1.2 per cent of India’s nominal GDP by March 2014, according to an independent research by Avendus Securities. The populist agenda of not hiking power tariff are common in majority of the states thus stoking up the losses. Reports suggest that losses augmented to 0.9 per cent in FY 2010, a sea change from just 0.6 per cent in FY 2006. The power loss is eating away monstrous proportions with accumulated wastage being estimated at 23 per cent of the total input energy.

The two biggest intractable factors that lead to such mess are the chaotic fuel situation and nonviable populist propaganda of charging lower price than the market prices. This is clear from the fact that state electricity boards and distribution utilities together have registered an insurmountable loss of Rs.3 lakh crores at the end of FY 2010-11. The CRISIL report further elaborates the financial shortcomings and estimates that at least one-third (of the total 56,000 MW capacity) of our thermal power plants have uncertain generation due to the same factors.

Decoding this problem Montek Singh Ahluwalia proposed privatisation of State Electricity Boards by dismantling them into separate companies whose business model is guided by generation-transmission-distribution! However, the model never saw itself fructifying. Privatization would have allowed power generating companies to sell their product directly to the distribution companies and then to the end consumers. Thus, allowing market forces to determine the investment, efficacy, and pricing, on a whole.

No doubt, India’s impressive economic progress needs to be complemented with increased power generation. However, it will be a self-defeating policy if the increase is not backed by plugging the power wastages. To do that efficiency must form the cornerstone along with checking corruption. The production must be based on backward integration led strategies where the end user is given the priority. This shadowy scene must be replaced by state-of-the-art distribution and consumers must be courted with world class delivery mechanism.

The 11th Five Year Plan picked up the cause of power generation reforms as an utmost need to sustain 8.5 per cent economic growth. There have been a number of tryouts over the last decade but none have been overtly successful. Most of these failed due to flawed doctrines while others lacked practicality. Even ex-World Bank President in 2002 criticized India’s loss making power plants as the basis for poor power supply scenario in India. Such malaise not only adversely impacts the power sector but creates huge negative externalities for all connected sectors. Power sector today is more concerned about profits of coal suppliers and the middlemen rather than the consumer who finally pays the bills. What else can one expect from the nation where priorities and value chain moves in reverse gear.


Thursday, May 3, 2012


Corruption at toll-points disturbs the entire economy

The President of Bombay Goods Transport Association (BGTA) recently said, “The scam of money collection at toll plazas is bigger than the 2G scam. The government has sold off major national assets, our National Highways, to contractors.” Most of other transport agencies in the country are biting the bullet as ever-increasing burden of toll plaza corruption are palming off the truckers with deceit and coercion. The rage is all across the nation, as the same story keeps on repeating itself, and the trap is affecting strangling and commuters alike!

An inevitable happened when various pressure groups (like Gurgaon Citizen Council, Shaheed Smarak Committee, Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement, Zila Sainik Board and RWAs) amassed angry commuters by storming the toll plazas at Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway. They were complaining of overcharging by organisation which is operating the expressway. Most surprisingly, the Transport Corporation of India, instead of taking a rap on the organisations operating the toll plazas decided to remain silent! This one incident talks volumes about the nexus between the two! The inherited problem is compounded by poor facilities at the toll points like lack of sensors, electronic display boards and computer generated receipts. Such automation would ensure transparency which would have eventually reduced such corrupt activities, at large.

A recent parliamentary panel's report acknowledges the apparent crisis owing to nexus between middlemen, unscrupulous contractors and bribe recipient officials, as main factors for such time and cost overrun. A joint study with Transport Corporation of India (TCI) reveals that the truckers are not only at loss from toll taxes, but also from inordinate time consuming government forms, and various other taxes collected by traffic police. This puts the truck drivers and owners under severe pressure and undermines their GDP contribution which is pegged at 4.5 per cent. These procedural complexities are perfect weapons in the hands of the authorities to extract bribes from the truckers who are left with no choice, but to satisfy them in order to keep their engines running. The spreadsheet of Delhi- Chennai route shows these ordeals cost the truck drivers 10 per cent of transit time and bribes cost 19 per cent of the total cost! Further impediments occur to the truckers, who are always rushing to meet the deadline, in the way of check posts and inspections that further push up the overall and opportunity cost (in terms of wastage of time)! These necessary check posts at small intervals are not for checking smuggling but are more for extracting extra bucks from the truckers. Truckers also pay bribes in order to dodge the maximum weight-limit, over-speeding fines and entry into no-entry zones.

Obviously this duality of corruption in road transport and road construction escalates the problem manifold. Unnecessary check-points on these roads increase the incidence of bribery. Obviously, there are no formulae to solve this problem, but of course, a more automated system and electronic transfer of funds would address the problem to a large extent. Such malaise not only delays the transfer of cargos, thus affecting the demand-supply and pricing equation, but also increases the cost of goods. All in all, every single extra penny paid at any point in this transport/transfer chain is finally passed on to the end consumer.