Saturday, 11 October 2014

Change

Ah, the beast awakens once more.

Time then, to turn it up a gear or three.

界王拳

(last in the series)

Friday, 5 September 2014

A Balanced Budget

(A follow-up to the post Fiscal Crisis)

There comes a point in every man's life when he must confront his past.

For some weeks in May every single day, I boarded a time machine. The dust-filled, at times soggy and almost always heavy trips took me as far back as 5th April 2013. I was sorely tested... at times stretched to the limits of crazy self-flagellation.

Let's talk about the mathematics of the situation. If you read my last post, you would find an estimate of some 150 newspapers piled up in a neglected and inconspicuous corner of my office. It seemed a decent guess back then.

With an inflated assumption of 180 I guessed the entire series could be wrapped up with 12 a day (I get 4 newspapers daily). Elementary maths. And so it began. I was diligent in completing my daily target.

There was just this small problem. The pile wasn't coming down.



I increased my paper intake. I raised the bar to 20. I toiled for a fortnight with the revised strategy. My challenge soon unfolded, the denouement a sinister joke around my infantile obsession. A series of revised estimates told me a depressing and demoralizing fact.

There were 800 newspapers in there.

It seemed a worthless struggle. I could have done better with that time. But deep reluctance in throwing away all that knowledge to the kabaadi was too much to bear - I held on.

After the tenth day something remarkable happened. On a pure whim, I upped my intake to 30 a day. And a few days after I completed 50. Something clicked. I was on fire.

My personal highest?

One Hundred Sixty Seven. In a Day.



Yeah. I did it.



HWR - 11

Haaris' Weekly Round-up is back up and running. I can sense the groans from the back-alleys of Facebook already. If there was ever a written feature that had a shambolic history of laziness behind it, I would be gutted if that wasn't HWR.

  1. A great article on the stringers that get the nine racquets of Federer ready. And for Djokovic and Murray.
  2. The maddening urge to continuously check one's email has followed me to A. An article that argues against this monstrosity.
  3. The great but senile Ed Wilson wants to set aside half of the world for the other species of the planet. Is that possible?
  4. A great piece on how the great statistician R A Fischer devised a wonderful experiment to test a person's claim of knowing whether milk was poured before or after the tea. Courtesy Prof Apratim Guha.
The promise is renewed. The dirty slate is wiped to its former pristine self once more. I will return next time with a new edition of HWR. Really, I will.

For previous versions of HWR: http://hamstersqueaks.blogspot.in/search/label/Weekly%20Round-ups


Thursday, 24 July 2014

A Failed Book Review

A couple of years ago I had read Rebecca Costa's The Watchman's Rattle. It was a zealous and somewhat perplexing attempt to explain off most of the plagues ailing our civilization to socio-evolutionary concepts. My first guess (as could be yours) was that Rebecca was a believer in kin selection famously propounded by Edward Wilson. A back ground check revealed I was right - she had been a student of the legendary evolutionist.

The cause and effect relationship the book sought to push requires a separate blog post in itself but the message was clear - we're running out of time to save our planet. The signs are there and there's no need to bring in voodoo or faith into the mixture. The evidence was in the realm of facts and science.

There's a charm to alarmist books and movies. To contemplate the collapse of all that mankind has achieved requires a certain amount of effort. In movies it takes something really big, such as an alien invasion or a cataclysmic freak climate event to cut it. And that only serves to put it safely into the cabinet of sci-fi.

Then there are books that genuinely aim to persuade the reader of the perils of real life phenomena such as climate change or the collapse of the financial system. To be sure, these works are very cautious in their treatment of the subject, knowing too well the dangers of straying into hyperbole or dystopic territory. Anthropogenic climate change, for example, is almost certainly true. But the measured debate we're witnessing has eminent thinkers like Bjorn Lomborg on the other side of the field. Read The Sceptical Environmentalist for more.

So when I picked up The Third Curve, I had mixed expectations. The author is definitely unknown but the topic is enticing enough to make a good story. You flip to the backside of the book and you read words of restrained praise from Shashi Tharoor and Jairam Ramesh, and people from TERI and civil society.

I read the book. There's nothing to write about it.

I am not kidding. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Learning Restraint

I feel terrible today.

All the months approaching the elections I was happily ensconced in a bubble of disregard and disinterest. I didn't worry about the anxious heart-on-the-sleeve debates neither was I piqued by the shocking absence of knowledge in what many friends said.

As the months went by the mood of excitement was undeniable. There was much to be argued on and there were too many people saying all the things that needed to be questioned. I succumbed to the irrestible fervour of the moment. I talked and argued. I attacked and parried. And I chose to draw conclusions on the state of the nation when all I had was paltry understanding (not a bad effort though).

The thing is, I realize I am too immature. I am too ignorant and unenligtened to have ventured so bravely forth into the world of political science. And that is what this short piece is about.

We like to be indignant about things that rankle and bite into our conceptions of the world. We defend our turf and we use all the tools and tricks at our disposal. But to what end?

How does supporting one particular side help your cause? Are we sure of our vision for the country? Have we spent time working out those demands that we as citizens are entitled to have? Is your side defining your view of life, rather than the reverse?

The trigger for this post of self-doubt is only a small consequence of the innumerous debates on the Edit Pages of the best newspapers we have. When I read the arguments I feel meek and childish. I realize my vigorous nods of approval were, at times, instinctive and unsubstantiated. I realize that a good rebuttal can shake out well-written critiques with amazing effectiveness. And I realize I didn't spend enough time to analyze the arguments as I could have.

I feel terrible.

Have you subsconsciously attached this post to refer to my stand on some issue - seeing it as a moment of personal victory? That you feel a sense of righteous justice at feeling my doubt and are therefore vindicated on your unweighted opinion?

Then you're as much a victim as I am.

I think it is time for conscious self-restraint. I think it is time to question the country we want before looking at the poor stock of merchandise on hand. It is time to restrain oneself from judging anyone so soon, positively or negatively.

I need to know more first.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Addiction

It disrupts my essence today - a precursor to inevitable future regret. Riven by guilt and haunted by fear I stay...impossible to escape this cesspool of depravity. My addled state delays the inevitable pain that is mine to bear. I run. I aspire to aid my convalescence by an ephemeral balm of sensory amnesia. It is hopeless.

The sins of the present will be paid with interest in the future.

The procrastinated pursuit of predestined purpose will prove to be mere pusillanimity.

Normative logic and a sense of severe urgency scream at me senseless attempting to overturn the tide of desperation building in me. It is useless. It is pointless. I walk down the damned and dreaded avenue towards refuge.

I shall reason on the morrow.
Knowing I reasoned every morning before the one that is to come.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Lesson from a Facebook debate - Questioning Intentions of the Author

I recently had a small Facebook fist fight with a good friend over the relative merits of an article that was being shared a lot. The article elicited cries of protest from several people who took offense at its free-wheeling and rambunctious dismissal of India's prospects for the future, particularly if seen in the light of the idea of India that was sought after by stalwarts such as Gandhi, Nehru and Patel.

The skirmish started and ended in a couple of hours and when I looked back at it today I realized a simple problem that was at the heart of the debate -  the question over authorial intentions.

It should be simple enough, in hindsight of course. Before that, an overview of the type of arguments offered today is necessitated.

The lowest, the basest of arguments, take place when people just stand by their opinions and tell the opposite side to accept the divinely inherited wisdom they propound. As useless as this description sounds, it's in most vogue on our public fora.

Then, comes the interesting part. Ideally, any debate should be on the arguments of the piece. That's difficult. For that one needs to either have subject expertise or she has to make the effort to individually research the points made and come out with conclusions and rebuttals. It is even more difficult than it sounds.

And then there's the middle rung. The one where you don't consider yourself foolish enough to reiterate your beliefs but you also can't find the time to understand the nuances of the argument. You still dislike the article but you feel you're intellectual (or neutral) enough to not simply say that.

That is the case when a debate is fought over questioning the intention of the author. As was the case in my little battle. If you can't go into the claims of the author, just disparage him by claiming he works against the nation, or that he is part of an elite, or that he is part of a West appeasing cult. There, you say that and you build your case over protecting the honour of your nation. In which case, a randomly lurking lackey will latch onto your topic with relish and fight for honour (never mind the ensuing hilarious implications).

What I missed, however, is the fact that a battle over intentions is also difficult. And well nigh impossible especially when dealing with acclaimed intellectuals. That's because you have no way of judging the intent of an author without knowing her body of work. A brief study tells you about her stature, her consistency (+1) and periodic if any instabilities in sticking to a stance (-2). In my example, the author is universally known as a man who disputes the assumption of western superiority, going on to embellish the stature of Asian statesmen. That implies a fair amount of cognitive dissonance when connected with an appeasement narrative. That is if my friend had that knowledge, obviously. Instead, the claim was coupled with vague assertions of finding weak arguments and not believing in the data shared. Without sharing the weak points and coming out with the right data, of course.

I didn't freely see it then. A debate on intention is not possible without any knowledge of the author's oeuvre. It's like calling Tarantino a racist because he uses the n word a lot. But that was the case in my spat.

Lesson learnt.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Two Cents of Electoral Wisdom

Very quickly, I'd like to give my take on the decisive mandate given to Mr Narendra Modi:
  1. End of the Coalition: As much as we'd like to talk about the benefits of federalism, one of the bigger reasons why India has faced stagnation, paralysis, even corruption (though that is more fairly shared among all and sundry) is the fact that parties have been shackled by the often unjustified and obstructionist demands of their coalition partners. This election ensures that all flimsy agenda fall back to the back burner. The country can finally breathe.
  2. The Power of Media and Perception: If not today the next Lok Sabha election will have an overwhelming number of people influenced by social media. A lesson in planning, pitching and strategic perception building - now called electioneering - was born. Brands were created. And the marginal effects of social media were visible this time too, especially for the urban voter. If other parties don't form a serious PR and media plan soon eventual irrelevance is guaranteed.
  3. Weight of Expectation: All eyes are well and truly set on Narendra Modi. He has been rewarded with an empowering mandate. The expectations are just as high. He will have the power to push his ideas onto the country at large but he also has no excuses for failure. It would be interesting to see if he will temper his nature now that he leads India and it would be important to know if he is ready to conform to the expectations of those voters who have reposed considerable faith in the hope that he will put equitable development ahead of ideology.
  4. Illusion of Left-to-Right Change: Politically and ideologically, the right of center party has won. I wonder though, if there'll be any significant change in the economic thinking towards the Right - the concept of limited government. It will be a huge call to take - the country is still predominantly dependent on our (dysfunctional) safety nets. Will radical changes be made? I wonder...
  5. A Two-Party System: I don't really buy the notion of the Congress being decimated for all eternity. One simply cannot forget the organizational strength of the party and its pan India presence. Vote share percentages also tell us that it received the second highest vote percentage, not only in India but in important states as well. The mandate is a timely reminder that just about anyone can be dumped onto the streets by the power of the ballot and that's good. The Congress would be expected to come out cleaner and lighter from this chastening experience. The writing is as stark as it can be - evolve or perish. And just as we need a strong party at the center, we also need a strong opposition. Let the country churn. Let the country grow.
  6. AAP Test: It's tough to call AAP's future. Hindsight tells us they spread themselves too thin and that voters were disappointed by their perfunctory treatment of the seats they received at Delhi. Forming a party on a wave is one thing. To carry the unit forward is another. It requires tremendous patience, a willingness to leave behind your professions and other ambitions, and also having a core principle of existence. Without these, it may be difficult to sustain the goodwill and trust they had managed once. The Delhi elections will be crucial.
  7. The economy is still screwed: The economy is going through a period of manic stress and it doesn't seem likely that it can be kickstarted in one or even two years. The policy solutions are more or less decided and in place. Vagaries such as the El Nino persist and it is anyone's guess how the many pending clearances can be delivered without making a number of grassroots people unhappy. It'll take a miracle to turn this ship around.
  8. Reading Habits: At any rate, it is heartening to see that people have finally abandoned the Bennett and Coleman stable (TOI & ET) to push forward arguments. The intellectual command of these two newspapers in particular is so abysmal I find it hard not to herd them in the category of tabloids. The quality of content in ET has deteriorated at a stunning rate. In the same vein, quoting the Kasturi and Sons' products (Hindu and Business Line) apart from other far more competent b-papers such as Business Standard and Financial Times is a welcome sign.  All is obviously not so well. In the mania of wanting to believe their biases (an overwhelmingly widespread publicly available example of confirmation bias), a number of people resorted to using blogs with no or shabby data back-up to argue their cases. The best model for us to emulate would surely be the debates on the blogs of even normal students of economics in the West, with reasoning backed by actual papers and data from accepted statistical institutions. Things have improved, however, in sum.
  9. Data: I wouldn’t call it a closed case but the debates finally did churn out discussions on facts. A discussion with data is always difficult – it being a hell lot easier to just give an opinion formed from your surroundings. Which is why politics is so popular. It gives people the illusion of arguing for economic policy, manifestos and social indices with as much knowledge as Hodor’s vocabulary. It gives people a sense of empowerment, of pseudo-intellectual stimulation. That, and Ayn Rand’s drivel. The latter stages did bring out people armed with facts and that made the debates worthwhile and surprisingly enriching
  10. It's finally over: It really is. The media had hijacked our lives with an incessant and often unnecessary cacophony of analyses. Newspapers such as the Economic Times forgot their raison d'etre and instead fed us tales of politics with unabashed and unhealthy glee. Facebook became a street for breathless, excited supporters who held us witness to all their biases and over-the-top proclamations of the weight of Destiny. By the end of it, I am glad it's over.
Let's sit back and watch our new government perform. My hope is for decisive and clean governance with focus on all sectors of the populace. My apprehension is over an increase in intolerance of our plurality (that is actually a concern; plurality meaning the ability to be yourself in different dimensions). I wish them the very best.

I have to end with a personal belief that stems wholly from Asimov’s Foundation series. The events and the relative importance of even a handful of elections will not deter the country from following the macro-level path set for it by long term indicators. That is not to change with any change in the ruling party.

At the same time, with a touch of realism and humility, I remember those famous lines of Keynes as he exhorted governments to act and not to expect that economics would save us in the long run:

“In the long run, we’re all dead.”



Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Fiscal Crisis

Every year for the past three years I have made a simple straightforward resolution. I restrict my ambitions to this one aim and fervently hope to abide by the solemn vows taken on January 1. The stifling, restrictive environment of my room is the primary reason I have lost out on that promise once more. That's what I tell myself. It's a sorry state all right...

The past few months have seen several peculiar challenges faced by the eccentric author of this blog. The most gripping and clearly the most critical of these has been what I call the surplus problem.

Now, most governments in the world are stuck in a recessionary gap and are struggling to generate enough demand and buoyancy in their countries to revive their economic fortunes. Our own country has been beset by a nasty slowdown. The elections may throw up any radical Prime Minister with vision, strength and character. Nothing will improve for the next three years as I see it. But I leave that for another post.

No, the reason why I allude to these worldly problems is my own crazy predicament of a huge surplus. That's right - I am in an inflationary sprawl and this is how the current situation looks like:

Forget those boxes. That stack of newspapers has to be read.

Needless to mention, I must read all of the 150 newspapers or so that are awaiting my scrutiny. Within a month. If I don't then I risk causing great damage to my plans of upgrading from 4 newspapers a day to a far cooler 5 per day (don't ask).

H

The exciting conclusion to the crisis of the century!
http://hamstersqueaks.blogspot.com/2014/09/a-balanced-budget.html

Change

Less than a month remains before I wrap up my two year sojourn at a job.

I can study again.

(Last part in this series: http://hamstersqueaks.blogspot.in/2014/02/change.html)

Friday, 7 March 2014

Haarisian Archives - An Essay on the CAG

Note from H: I wrote this essay in June 2011, or so my diary says. It was an investigation into the functioning of the CAG at a time when it was firmly in the spotlight with the grim emergence of a number of scams in the country. The content was mostly written in one sitting but it was never shared on any public platform. I look back on it and find certain points that I could have possibly added, and some other arguments that would have made my stance more rigorous. That's probably the hindsight bias in play and I believe that I wrote as well as a person could write in a day with most of the research coming from general knowledge rather than proper research. This feature then, shall be a compilation of the innumerable pieces, short stories, essays and accounts of contests that I wrote at some point in time. I hope you enjoy them. I have made no changes and all errors that were present originally are maintained in these reproductions.


Role of CAG in Meeting Challenges of
Good Governance

There was once a time when India’s occasional embarrassments could be shrouded under the pretext of it being a young country. Even then, more than sixty years back, we were instantly the largest democracy in the world. Add to that the prospect of having a heterodoxy consisting of enough languages and cultures that could not be matched even with the Euro nations considered together as a single entity. For the world, it was an interesting case study, an experiment into the viability of universal adult franchise. Democracy is not an easy term to define. It can be interpreted in a plethora of manners and each such definition carries subtle differences that simply change the fabric of the governance structure of that country. It is no wonder then that the statesmen who framed our Constitution took great pains in ensuring its efficacy in all eventualities and contingencies. The debates that rang between the members of the Constituent Assembly were spirited enquiries into the nature and implications of individual articles, of possible improvements and safeguards that could enhance the various constitutions of countries like France and the United States.

The Constitution is a remarkable document. It is an exhaustive “manual” for each citizen of our country and leaves very few areas of doubt as to the responsibilities, rights and mandated powers accorded to all stakeholders in the Indian democratic system. The Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary have the job of ensuring the smooth functioning of the government, and they act as counterbalances to check any errors or excesses committed on any side. Of course, the beauty of our country’s Constitution doesn’t stop here. The document provides for the formation of a few important independent statutory bodies, whose functioning involves an impartial outlook towards indispensable functions of state, such as that conducted by the Election Commission and, as the subject of this essay, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

Current Role in the Indian Governance structure
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) is the supreme auditor of the Indian government, and it is his job to ensure that the revenues collected from the people as well as spending of public money is carried out in a way that follows all laid down rules and regulations. It is also his prerogative to check if the policies adopted by the government are the most efficient ones and that they give the best returns whether they are tangible ones, such as revenue collections from spectrum auctions, or intangibles, such as the state of public hospitals across India.

Naturally, the CAG has an enormous responsibility in the Indian polity. To a certain extent, it mirrors the operations of a corporate auditor. The main aim of any corporate auditor is to give assurance to the management that all transactions and operations are in compliance with the laid down policies and procedures.

However, the CAG’s role doesn’t end here. A properly functioning democracy is one which has the elements that keep a check on it. In India’s case, these are constitutional bodies that act as self-correcting mechanisms in the government structure. It is imperative that these bodies are given full autonomy and just as importantly, that the results of their investigations are made completely public. In the current context, the potential for the CAG to become a weapon of choice against corruption is immense. Its mandate allows it to audit State and Central revenue collections and expenditures and raise questions about any impropriety occurring therein. It can be a part of the larger framework in administrative, legal and investigative vigilance. Everything procurement or transaction should be liable for independent scrutiny.

In an increasingly volatile world, where wars have been replaced by economic turmoil, problems of inflation, and ever increasing accounts of corruption, it is necessary to look at the challenges facing the CAG in the 21st century.

Challenges, realities and expectations
As mentioned at the beginning of the essay, India is starting to run out of excuses for its recurrent failures in improving socio-economic conditions of the country, not to mention the exorbitant excesses committed by the public and private sector alike.

With the recent mass outcry against corruption culminating into a national debate over the Lokpal bill, the writing on the wall is clear. Corruption has to be tackled immediately. People, even at the grass root level, are giving more weightage to the malaise of corruption in the Indian system. The ongoing 2G scam, the over the top Commonwealth Games expenditure and the mining land fiascos have firmly brought the issue into the limelight.

The role of CAG is especially important here. After the 2G scam reports, it was clear that a growing number of dubious deals are arising as a result of a nexus between elements in the private and public sector. The value of these deals has in all probability caused a massive loss to the public exchequer. The earlier phase of India’s corruption story focused mostly on small time bureaucratic corruption. We have now entered a phase of large scale embezzlement and unfair trade practices.

In this situation, it is becoming more important for the CAG to monitor such public-private interactions, especially when it concerns auctioning or allowing usage of valuable national resources, such as spectrum or mineable land. It would be a good step to allow the fulfillment of these deals only after the approval of the CAG and after giving the green light over any possible mal-utilization. India is relatively fresh into the domain of a liberalized economy and hence close monitoring of private gains through the government has to be constantly questioned and checked, before completion. The assets of our country are valuable and even an unfair deal cannot be acceptable.

Another area of attention is in the proper implementation of poverty relieving programmes. A pertinent example of this is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The programme has been well received, and in principle, is an excellent step to ensure employment for a large number of Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. Another such example is the Public Distribution System, which is much older, and aims at providing basic nutrition to poor families. In fact, there are several such programmes which aim at the people at the bottom of the pyramid, and work towards improving health, hygiene and sanitation while also improving mortality rates. The Integrated Children Development Scheme (ICDS) is yet another programme that targets malnutrition in children. Malnutrition is in itself a problem that is often forgotten, but it claims a number of lives every year.

The biggest problem associated with these programmes is the misappropriation of funds at all levels. The CAG should be given a much larger responsibility in this regard, so that audits of the fund allocation can be achieved. The problems of rising inequality have been a persistent feature of growth story and better monitoring of the system is required. It would be very difficult to have direct auditing in each village but a way out can be formulated. In particular, social audit by the local community can be thought of, which can be in turn reported to each district, where the auditing process through the CAG can begin. It is important for funds to reach the poorest sections of society and in a way which conforms to the guidelines stipulated in the act governing the scheme.

New avenues
India is a welfare state and hence, special emphasis is laid on public expenditure often in the form of Five year plans. These schemes are present in a multitude of domains and they are often very complex and have a wide scope. This presents a problem in measuring their results. The feedback from such projects is of two types. The first is the human development, socio economic changes which measure the benefits or failures of the plans. For example, on this basis a child nutritional scheme such as the ICDS shall be judged for its effectiveness on the basis of child mortality rates and on the number of cases of various deficiency diseases. This is a fundamental aspect of any development programme. It also falls outside the purview of the CAG.

The other feedback is about the efficiency of such programmes. This includes proper deployment of allocated funds in the right areas, and on targeted groups that are comprehensively covered by the implementation team. It is very important for such public expenditure to be monitored. Old schemes that aren’t producing results and are sucking away public money should be flagged for suspension or eventual termination. The participation of the CAG should begin right from the annual budgeting stages when funds are allocated for various sectors. It is the responsibility of the CAG to ensure that the funds are being used effectively and efficiently. This is a complex task. For it, output and output expenditure has to be defined. The costing and budgeting of this also involves the quality of output. Realistic estimates have to be made and must be compared with actual performance on an annual basis. It might not be possible for the CAG to monitor all such sectors but it can always consider taking a few select cases on a rotational basis. A public revelation of a scheme’s impact will do wonders for our democracy. In fact, it would be best if the CAG takes on itself the task of ensuring fiscal prudence in every budgetary session.

CAG is also expected to undertake more non-routine audits. It is time that it tries to expand its definition of audit from merely an account of collection and expenditure to one where socio-economic parameters are considered. India is not a corporate house. It is a country with a strong mandate for the promotion of the welfare of its people. Similarly, the supreme auditor of our country has to expand its purview to cover issues that are relatively difficult to audit, such as the effectiveness of acts and policies passed by the government.  Social audits are required which can judge how the formulation and implementation of a policy can be executed in the most efficient manner.

As another example, we have the case of poor reserve food grain storage which was in the limelight recently. Government godowns across the country store food grains in silos which are improperly constructed, have issues of excess moisture and are inadequately protected from pests. An audit report of the measure of damage inflicted on the people can act as a timely jolt to our decision makers. The crucial aspect here is that all such reports should continue being available publicly.

The accompanying ecosystem
A lot has been said and suggested about the future role of CAG in the improved governance of our country, even in this essay. CAG’s success in these respects however, depends tremendously on the ecosystem in which it operates. As stated by the present Comptroller and Auditor General in an interview, a vibrant media is a must.

This fact cannot be stated enough. It falls upon the citizens of the country and on the fourth estate to keep a vigilant eye on what’s going on around them. The media has in the recent past, exposed several cases of mismanagement and profligacy in various dealings of the government structure at the State and Central level. Some credit has to be given to the various media agencies that brought the issue to the fore and helped develop a strong public opinion against it. As is evident today, the issues that were often relegated to the backburner are now irrepressible as a result of the continual campaigns of media fronts.

As the CAG engages itself in more areas and fields, it is necessary for it to maintain a good system of collaboration with the other autonomous bodies of our democratic system, such as the judiciary and the election commission. This ensures that the process of auditing can be conducted without any friction between other statutory authorities. Also, in exceptional cases, a good relation with the other bodies expedites an impending issue more efficiently. Conflicts will surely arise in the future, as government dealings become even more complex, and involve more than one aspect of governance.

CAG should also look to be a pioneer in the web domain. It can have a public interaction forum, or a redressal portal online. People, especially those with access to the internet, are extremely pro-active in reporting issues of concern and in providing inputs and suggestions on a regular basis. The image of CAG has heightened immensely after recent events. The trust that the people have on it should be rewarded by increased activity on the web through the auditing body. Public dissemination is a valuable avenue to increase awareness and develop an objective public opinion.

At the farther end of possible measures, laws already passed should be revisited for their efficacy in remedying existing problems. A lot can be achieved by empowering CAG with more powers to investigate issues of common public interest. For instance, in the past several years India has had a large fiscal deficit. In such cases, it falls upon the CAG to ensure fiscal prudence in public expenditure. In the short term, routes such as disinvestment can help keep the deficit in check. It, however, leaves much to be desired in terms of better planning of expenditure and austerity in certain other domains. The CAG should be empowered to keep a tab on fiscal prudence so that the dangers of heavy deficits do not mar the future of our nation.

Conclusion
It is a time of great turmoil in our country. Only this time the upheaval is concerned with a changed mentality of the common citizens of India. Issues such as corruption and public accountability have taken centre stage; people pay more attention to issues of profligacy. It is under this setting that CAG takes enormous responsibility for the aspirations and hopes of a billion people. Self correcting mechanisms such as CAG rekindle the faith of the common man in the spirit and power of democracy. Earlier the concept of auditing itself was held as a negative activity done only to expose wrong-doings in a system. That perception has now come round to the opinion that the process of auditing is an indispensable tool for the health of our democracy.


India is still growing. We have our share of worries- rising inequality, poverty, high inflation and back breaking corruption. We have hope, however, and faith (to varying extents) in the power of democracy, in the safeguards that our constitution has provided us and in independent authorities such as the CAG.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Change

Looking back on the past 6 years, from the moment I joined college to the point where I sit on a gadda in a cluttered, semi-dark room with Arvind Kejriwal's voice blaring from a room next to mine, having eaten some over-buttered pav bhaaji and wondering if I'll relieve myself of the stress consuming my senses, I realize one simple, depressing fact.

I have changed.

Update: The last post in this series

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Must Reads - 2013

I have a draft on a look-back at 2013 and how it went but it's still incomplete and very depressing. To brighten things up, I publish a list of my favourite books from last year. The list is a short one and consists of new releases and some old classics which I could read again. Of course, a comprehensive list of all the books I read would be a far more demanding exercise but I don't reckon you'll read past item number 25.

The selection process has no rigorous reasoning behind it so don't try to find one:

1. Manon Lescaut



The Story of Manon Lescaut was a book that instantly elicited gasps of horror from the highly polished French elite. It falls, therefore, in the same esteemed bracket as Lady Chatterley's Lover or Madame Bovary in that the book was banned months after being released.

It's about this promising young lad who's got a successful life ahead of him and who's much respected and admired in society and tipped for the big time...but he falls in love with Manon Lescaut. And therein lies the tragedy of his feverish attachment for a girl who cannot reciprocate the same fidelity as her lover. The book's only about 100 pages long so I'd definitely recommend a read online. And that is also why I desist from giving out the plot - it's too short anyway. 

One of the reasons why avid readers devour the classics is to experience that belittling realization - that for all the technological progress in getting to the moon and making energy from chunks of glow-in-the-dark rocks we haven't changed much when it comes to our emotions and actions. Manon Lescaut was published by Abbe Provost in the 1700's but readers will find too many parallels with contemporary novels and more importantly, with actual life.

Read the book and shake your head at the frailty of human determination in the face of baser instincts. Some things will never really change.

2. Waking the Giant


Topping my list of non-fiction books is Bill McGuire's very intriguing work on the effect of climate change on increasing the likelihood of earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters. That's right, Waking the Giant is a review of the research done by scientists to discover possible links between, say, rising sea level and an increase in tsunamis. It turns out there is a constantly expanding body of literature on the subject. One of the difficulties of geology is that you can't really know exactly how the earth will behave to external forcings and it's even more difficult to judge exactly when the effects would start surfacing. McGuire does a neat job of picking analogous circumstances from the planet's geological history and builds a thought-provoking case for a consideration of the earth's sensitivities to the eventual outcomes of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It's very readable and a good way of brushing up your basics on the geological periods.

3. Civilization and its Discontents


Statutory warning: Reading Freud might be injurious to your mental acuity. If you feel you're hanging over the abyss already and would rather not want to tip over, don't read this book. You'll never come back out. 

I debated over the choice of Civilization and Its Discontents on my list because it's dangerous stuff - the best time to read it is actually when you're very happy in life. There is a chance, then, that you might escape its endless mind-warping implications. I ended up including the book because I am generally surprised at the condescension most people show to Freud without ever having read a lot more than the Oedipus (or Electra) complex.

First things first. Freud was a genius. I've chosen this book because it is again a little less than 100 pages long but you only need to read it to realize how meticulous and careful Freud was in building his case. He is persuasive and uncomfortably correct when it comes to how we think of the world. He only proceeds to take those axioms to their logical conclusions. It gets difficult because you have to spend a lot of time understanding the underlying assumptions behind the ideas and then it might only end up convincing you even more.

Briefly, the book deals with the concept of the individual's inner antagonism against the concept of civilization. It dwells on how the evolution of civilization actually ended up shackling man and made him, to put it simply, sad. I'm not only talking about libido here and there's a lot more you'll end up learning including the prospect of the ultimate clash between Eros and the masochistic self-destructive human impulse. Yup, it's that simple. 

4. The Last Guardian


I wrap up with a moment of personal indulgence and inexpressible, exorbitant grief. Artemis Fowl, a childhood companion, a personal idol and an inspiration will cease to exist. Artemis Fowl...deserves a separate blog post. 

Must read series.

The book falls short of coming anywhere close to the better ones in the series but read it for the memories and a final, maddeningly fleeting glimpse of the criminal boy genius.

Worth a brief mention: I re-read Dracula. Horror has never again been so classy; A collection of short-stories by Herman Melville included the poignant tale, Bartleby; Henry James wrote several complex, detailed and indisputably beautiful short stories. Daisy Miller is a must read.

What was your favourite book last year? I'd love to know...

H

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Some thoughts after today's final

After Friday's semifinal match, most people had already handed over the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup to Rafa Nadal. With reason. His supreme command against Roger Federer was astonishing and only an entrenched fool could not give some credit to the devastating, utterly unremitting Spanish bull that he is on these occasions. Federer may be a player way beyond his peak (and 32) but even his best would have had many issues in dealing with Nadal's form that night.

The final was a significant match, in hindsight. A win at the 2014 Australian Open would have brought Nadal at 14 Grand Slams, matching Pete Sampras1 but crucially also giving the Spaniard at least two wins at every Major in the circuit. The French Open would have been next and it would take a brave man, even now, to bet against him. It's not a wild assumption that most journalists would already have begun a long, winding account of the greatness of Nadal and the way he was surely on his way to becoming the undisputed greatest of all time much before the match began.

Except none of this materialized.

Stanislas Wawrinka played the match of his life. For one hour or so, he was bludgeoning balls and had completely outplayed and outmatched Nadal. The back injury, when it came, was a factor only later. Wawrinka earned the title. Improbably he becomes the first man in over twenty years to beat the top two seeds en route to winning the Australian Open. And lest we forget, today he beat a man against whom he had never won a single set in all their previous 12 meetings.

You would still tip Nadal to win many more Majors. But the match brings many more facts into perspective. To remain injury free is just as important as playing on an incredibly high level. As much as we may generate sympathy for Rafa, his constant inability to remain fit will become as important a factor as anything else when the final verdict on him is given. Injuries cannot be slotted in the category of mere bad luck - they are as much the responsibility of a tennis player as his/her backhand. The way Nadal plays is nothing short of astounding and it's true there are very few people who can beat him when he plays his best (the only exception must be handed over to Djokovic who beat Nadal very convincingly in his magical 2011 season which stretched next year to a very close 2012 French Open semi-final between the two).

The question in my mind really goes like this: How much longer will Rafa play his attritional gruelling brand of tennis? And how much more will his body take before we see his decline?

The decline will come. Of that we can be sure. Rafa Nadal is soon to be 28 years of age. He has two years by my guess to win his Slams. His body will crumble before his game does.

If I'm wrong, then I'll have no qualms about calling him the GOAT.

1: I think's that's why he was called to present the trophy tonight in anticipation of Nadal's feat. This is exactly what happened when Federer won his 14th in the 2009 Wimbledon.