Archive for September, 2018

Right to Privacy – India …

Posted on September 30, 2018. Filed under: Indian Thought |

From the Wire – In the Adhar Case, Justice Chandrachud’s dissenting judgment – a tome in itself – is, therefore, an occasion for us to celebrate our 3,000-year-old history of revering dissent.

Justice Chandrachud’s judgment, by keeping the individual at the centre, has provided the crusaders of democracy with words that will be sung in times to come.

His dissenting judgement gives us the intellectual architecture to understand the fundamentals of our democracy – of how when it comes to certain inalienable rights, bargaining cannot be an option.

And the extraordinary impact of this lone dissenting voice, in the short span of time since the verdict came out, demonstrates that an individual voice that refuses to bend still matters. Burnished by the courage of its conviction, it matters, even in a minority of one.

Governments, however, are run on the arithmetic of assembling a majority. They are known for attempting to appear tenable by making hole-and-corner compromises, more so when the people at the helm have the ability to shift their premise to suit the latest opportunity that knocks at their doorstep.

A nine-judge SC bench, by a unanimous verdict in the case of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union of India (2017), rejected the originalist interpretation of the ‘right to life’, holding the right to privacy as an extension of the right to live (with dignity), unequivocally declaring it to be a fundamental right.

The core of the message cannot be emphasised enough:

“To live is to live with dignity… Dignity is the core which unites the fundamental rights because the fundamental rights seek to achieve for each individual the dignity of existence.

Privacy with its attendant values assures dignity to the individual and it is only when life can be enjoyed with dignity can liberty be of true substance…

Hence, it would be an injustice both to the draftsmen of the constitution as well as to the document which they sanctified by constricting its interpretation to an originalist interpretation.”

It needs to be understood that well-established legal jurisprudence requires that even in cases where a “compelling interest” can be shown by the state to justify abridgement of certain rights, the policy needs to be the least restrictive possible option.

Even assuming that Aadhaar is needed for the state to clamp down on identity fraud and ensure the targeted delivery of welfare benefits, it still appears to be the most intrusive means of securing that end.

In this context, Justice Chandrachud observes: “One right cannot be taken away at the behest of the other. The State has failed to satisfy this Court that the targeted delivery of subsidies which animate the right to life entails a necessary sacrifice of the right to individual autonomy, data protection and dignity when both these rights are protected by the Constitution.”

Walter Kirn’s words have never seemed more appropriate: “Everyone loves a witch hunt as long as it’s someone else’s witch being hunted.”

 

This innocuous looking phrase was to have serious repercussions. For starters, it conferred on the government the power to introduce the Bill as a money bill. A money bill is basically a bill which can only be introduced in the Lok Sabha; and while the Rajya Sabha can suggest amendments thereto, it is the Lok Sabha’s prerogative to accept or reject them.

Jaitley’s party had a majority in the Lok Sabha, but the Rajya Sabha’s composition wasn’t as obliging. So, to him, the voice of the Rajya Sabha, of which he is himself a member, didn’t matter.

Justice Chandrachud’s observations are instructive in this regard. Passing the Aadhaar Act off as a money bill and circuventing the Rajya Sabha’s approval prompted him to call the move a “fraud on the Constitution.”

“Differences with another constitutional institution,” says the judgement, “cannot be resolved by the simple expedient of ignoring it. It may be politically expedient to do so. But it is constitutionally impermissible. This debasement of a democratic institution cannot be allowed to pass. Institutions are crucial to democracy. Debasing them can only cause a peril to democratic structures.”

Our constitution places the person at its centre. And the dignity of the person is a constitutional value and goal. Imposing a compulsory mode of identification on the citizenry as the only barter for rights he is lawfully entitled to, becomes problematic.

What becomes even more problematic is the fact of a 12-digit number determining an individual’s self-actualisation, taking us as far apart from the Lockean ideal of a “politically free man in a minimally regulated society” as is anyone’s guess.

What Justice Chandrachud’s lone voice does, is take a stand against the refusal of the State to recognise an individual except on the basis of a non-consensual agreement to subject oneself to Aadhaar.

And while it may be only a single voice in this judgment, this noteworthy remark by Justice Charles Hughes offers some solace: “A dissent in a court of last resort is an appeal to the brooding spirit of law, to the intelligence of a future day when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting justice believes the court to have been betrayed.”

The range of Justice Chandrachud’s reason has touched the hearts of the Indian people. “A defeated argument,” in the words of Amartya Sen, “that refuses to be obliterated can remain very alive.” Justice Chandrachud has delivered a judgement for the ages to come.

Chandan Karmhe is a chartered accountant and an alumnus of IIM-Ahmedabad.

xxx

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The Reading Habit …

Posted on September 26, 2018. Filed under: Guide Posts, Personalities |

Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F010324-0002, Flughafen Köln-Bonn, Adenauer, de Gaulle-cropped.jpg

Charles DeGaulle  — “Don’t ask me who has influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he has digested – and I’ve been reading all my life”.

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/13/defense-secretary-james-mattis-extraordinary-reading-habits.html

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Kargil War – Pak Story …

Posted on September 23, 2018. Filed under: Pakistan |

Article originally Published in the Dawn – By Ejaz Ahmed, a Ford scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois. He is a visiting  fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C

In her book, ‘From Kargil to the Coup’, journalist Nasim Zehra calls them the Kargil clique. Cabal would be a better word to describe them because, as Zehra says, “These generals planned operation Koh Paima (KP), as covert, unaccountable campaigners.”

Her work is the first critical book-length account not just of the operation but also its aftermath, which led to a coup. Ironically, the cabal, which should have been tried for tactical and strategic idiocy, went up the totem pole.

Then Chief of Army Staff Pervez Musharraf entrenched himself as the president of this country. His Chief of General Staff Aziz Khan became a four-star general and the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. Javed Hasan became a three-star general and went on to head the National Defence University and later, the Administrative Staff College. Commander 10 Corps Mahmud Ahmed was made director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The civilians were ousted and several, including then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, ended up in jail. Who says failure is an orphan?

India set up a Kargil Commission to look into how and why its strategic intelligence failed so badly, why its military response was so slow and sloppy in the beginning, the problems of interoperability between the army and the air force, the high Indian casualties and the flaws in logistics and leadership in the field.

The commission was headed by a civilian, not a military officer. Its mandate was wide and deep. It went into every little detail, from the tactical to the strategic. It calculated any future threat and recommended force reconfiguration. And – this is the best part – it made its report public.

In short, that country tried to learn its lessons. No such thing happened, or could happen, in Pakistan.

Instead, as Zehra’s book title says, what began as a covert, unauthorised, illegal military operation, outside the purview not only of civilian principals but also without the knowledge of the Pakistan Air Force and the Pakistan Navy and even the military’s own intelligence agencies, led to a military coup and the ouster of a civilian government.

But before that, the cabal had to handle the deep resentment within the army. Musharraf had to face tough questions. Hasan, the FCNA commander, could not face his troops. As Zehra mentions: “Internally … there was disquiet after the withdrawal. Instructions were that Kargil would not be discussed in any school of instruction … No courses would be taught at the National Defence College.”

Kargil was a taboo subject and remained so for a fairly long time.

There has been a lot of speculation since 1999 about how much then prime minister Nawaz Sharif knew about the operation and also when exactly he got the full picture.

Zehra’s book puts an end to that speculation. In one of the chapters, Necks on the Line and Lotus Lake, she describes the “deceptive briefings” that were given to Sharif: “On 29th January in Skardu, they told Sharif the general thrust of their intentions while not revealing the plan in full. In order to boost the Kashmir struggle, they said,  FCNA troops needed to become active along the LoC .”

Sharif had no clue that Pakistani troops had already crossed the LoC and entered Indian-occupied Kashmir. As Zehra mentions, he thought that “small-scale operations could complement his political and diplomatic efforts to move forward on detente and peace with India”.

A second briefing was given in February and a third on March 13 by major-general Jamshed Gulzar of the ISI. These briefings were completely unrelated to Operation Koh Paima or its specifics. Reason: the ISI, as also the Military Intelligence (MI), had no idea about the operation.

At one of these briefings, Musharraf proposed that militants scale up their operations in Kashmir. He also suggested that they be provided Stinger surface-to-air missiles.

Former lieutenant-general and cabinet member Majeed Malik strongly objected to the proposal. The prime minister, however, did not reprimand Musharraf for proposing the induction of a platform that would obviously be considered escalatory by India at a time when the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan were attempting to carry forward gains from the Lahore Declaration, held earlier the same year between Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Zehra calls it “divergent tracks”. The Kargil cabal was pushing Pakistan and Nawaz Sharif into a direction that ran completely opposite to what Sharif was trying to achieve through the dialogue process initiated subsequent to Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore in February 1999.

While the Kargil story unfolds in the back drop of the civil-military imbalance in Pakistan and has to be judged and analysed in and through that broader prism, it is also the tale of an operation poorly conceived and executed by the four generals — notwithstanding the outstanding bravery and battlefield performance of junior leaders and soldiers.

They fought like the dickens, many volunteering to fight even after reports emerged that the defenders had been left to their own devices with rations and ammunition depleting.

As Zehra writes: “The Kargil clique had no plans for [the men occupying the heights] when the enemy struck back.”

The irony is that similar plans to occupy strategic peaks along the LoC had previously been rejected at least three times.

It was not until May 16, 1999 that the cabal decided, with reports pouring in from the Indian media of skirmishes in Kargil, Dras and Batalik sectors along the LoC, to explain what had been planned and what was happening.

Finally, on May 17, the prime minister was given a detailed briefing at Ojhri Camp where the chiefs of the air force and the navy were also taken into confidence. But still there was no mention of Pakistani troops having crossed the LoC.

Those present at the briefing were told that the battle reports were all about heightened activity by militants who had occupied impregnable heights in the area while the army was providing them logistical support. Sharif was also told that he would be remembered as Fatahi Kashmir (the conqueror of Kashmir).

Unable to understand the operational maps used for the briefing, unable to figure out what the line on the map meant in terms of real distances on the ground, or what the military symbols signified, he was given the impression that “the strategic heights lay somewhere in the un-demarcated zones”.

The full extent of what had happened and the cul de sac in which Musharraf and his cabal had pushed the army and the country only became clear to Sharif when he went to Skardu’s Combined Military Hospital and saw severely wounded soldiers.

The hospital’s commandant informed him that he was transporting dozens of wounded soldiers to Rawalpindi every day. Sharif was “crestfallen and teary-eyed as he walked around and comforted the wounded soldiers.”

The book also reveals how Musharraf sent a friend to Sharif’s father, suggesting that he talk to the prime minister, his son, and advise him “to recall the troops since continued or accelerated fighting could also mean the Indians might open other war fronts. The message was conveyed and the prime minister’s father agreed to do as advised.”

Prussian officer and war theoretician, Carl von Clausewitz, wrote about war’s “triple nature”: its first level pertains to the primitive violence of people — that is, the ability to take risks and the willingness to kill; the second involves managing violence and harnessing it towards an aim — the job of military commanders; the third is a political level where a government determines the ultimate objective of a war because no clash of arms is an end in itself.

Clausewitz also understood that there would be tension between the first and the second levels as well as between the second and the third ones. But they all need to be taken together because that is what constitutes the grammar of war.

He used two terms, Zweck und Ziel, to explain these dynamics. Zweck is the purpose, the political objective, for which a war is being fought; Ziel is the aim of various battles in that war and how they are to be conducted to achieve the war’s political end. Going by this formation, Ziel must add up to Zweck.

Kargil upended this entire logic. The cabal’s assumptions – that Operation Koh Paima will bring the Kashmir dispute into sharp focus, that India will either swallow the occupation of Kargil heights or not fight back in any systemic way, that there was no possibility of India using its air force, that international arbiters, given the presence of nuclear weapons in both India and Pakistan, would seek de-escalation in Pakistan’s favour – were all deeply flawed and betrayed a poor understanding of the environment in which the operation was launched.

Of course, there were officers who realised the folly of these ‘paper tigers’, as the late lieutenant-general Iftikhar Ali Khan, who was working as the defence secretary at the time, described them to Nawaz Sharif. But they could not do much because the gang of four had given everyone a fait accompli.

Zehra’s book does not theorise about civil-military relations. Nor does it go into the theory of decision-making.

It offers the reader a story, a thrilling one which is replete with information. But because the story unfolds as it does, one can clearly see the dynamics of a system where the generals exercise a reach far beyond their remit.

In equal measure, it throws light on how civilian principals are used to pull the chestnuts out of fire and then scapegoated.

This is a story which provides ample raw material to a theorist of civil-military relations.

And The Indian Story by Gen Satish Nambiar –

I say without fear of any contradiction that the performance of the junior leadership and men of the units that took part in the operation was absolutely outstanding.

No other Army in the world would have displayed the determination, grit, spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty that our youngsters did.

Success in evicting the Pakistani intrusion in the Kargil Sector was achieved through great feats of bravery and commitment, aided in no small measure, by the performance of our Gunners using the much maligned Bofors, and by our young “Air Warriors” once they were cleared to get into action.

There was hardly any ‘generalship’ involved. Nor was there any display of ‘strategy’ or ‘operational art’.

It was my privilege to be the Chairman of the Kargil Battle Honours Committee. To that extent, I can claim to have a better idea of what the operation was about than many of my generation.

Without being swayed by all the chest-thumping, bluster and rhetoric that appear in the public domain. And here, let me go back in time before returning to Kargil.

The operations in Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-48 were forced upon us by the tribal invasion of October 1947, followed by active participation of the Pakistan Armed Forces, and were brought to a close with the 1st January 1949 UN imposed Cease Fire Agreement; apparently when our forces were at the outskirts of Muzaffarabad.

Whatever we may claim, the fact is, the operations were stalled with a large chunk of Jammu and Kashmir still in Pakistani hands. And we continue to pay the price. Can we claim it as a ‘victory’?

The 1962 conflict with China merits no discussion in context of this piece. Except to state that it was no ‘trauma’ for our generation. Because we are aware that in the overall context, our colleagues and men fought well, and gave a good account of themselves, notwithstanding the outdated clothing, weapons and equipment we were provided with, and the questionable political and senior military leadership of the time.

In 1965, for all the gallant actions and efforts, when the cease fire came into effect, it was little better than a stalemate.

Before going on to 1971, let me revert briefly to Kargil. To reiterate that, for all the outstanding actions, what we really achieved in military terms was to recapture what the Pakistanis had intruded upon. And at what a cost!

Let us be quite clear. The 1971 operations in the Eastern theatre have been the only real VICTORY our Armed Forces have achieved since Independence.

In the Western theatre, it was a well executed replay of 1965. But in the Eastern theatre: a new country was born; all Pakistani forces surrendered unconditionally; and about 93,000 prisoners of war were in our custody.


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1971 War – Why India Won …

Posted on September 23, 2018. Filed under: From a Services Career, Personalities |

And ..

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India’s First Newspaper …

Posted on September 22, 2018. Filed under: Guide Posts |

The front page of Hicky's Bengal Gazette, 28 April 1781Image copyrightUNIVERSITY OF HEIDELBERG
The newspaper was named after its founder, James Augustus Hicky

India’s first newspaper, founded in 1780, held up a mirror to British rule in India. It can also teach us about how tyrants work and how an independent press can stop them, writes journalist and historian Andrew Otis.

Known as Hicky’s Bengal Gazette after its intrepid founder, James Augustus Hicky, the newspaper notoriously dogged the most powerful men in India.

It dug into their private lives and accused them of corruption, bribery and abuse of rights. Among many claims, it accused the then ruler of British India, Governor General Warren Hastings, of bribing the chief justice of India’s Supreme Court.

It alleged that Hastings and his top aides launched illegal wars of conquest, taxed the people without representation and suppressed freedom of speech.

The newspaper also reported on the lives of Europeans and the Indian poor – often news that its competitors would have ignored. It bonded with those at the lowest levels of colonial society, especially the soldiers who fought and died in the wars waged by the British East India Company.

At the height of its power, the Company controlled large parts of India with its own armed forces. But it was disbanded after Indian soldiers in its army revolted against the British in 1857.

The newspaper, in fact, called on the soldiers to mutiny, arguing that their throats were “devoted to the wild chimeras of a madman”, a reference to Hastings.

Warren HastingsWarren Hastings was the then ruler of British India

But soon the criticisms became too much for the government to stand. Those in power sought to discredit those who held them accountable.

The East India Company funded a rival newspaper to control the narrative, while Hastings’ surrogates resorted to ad hominem attacks, calling the newspaper “insolent” and referring to its writers as “pitiful scoundrels”.

Finally, when one of its anonymous writers argued that the “people are no longer bound to obey” when the government no longer consults their welfare, the East India Company moved to shut it down.

Hastings repeatedly sued Hicky himself for libel. Hicky stood little chance in front of a bribed judiciary.

He was found guilty and, despite printing his newspaper from jail for another nine months, the Supreme Court issued a special order to seize his printing press, shuttering India’s first newspaper for good.

Eventually the allegations of abuse of power and rights made it back to England. Armed with reports from Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, the members of parliament launched an investigation.

This resulted in the recall and impeachment of both Hastings and the Chief Justice of India at the time.

The reports in Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, and later, in the British newspapers, were instrumental in building public pressure against corruption.

General Warren Hastings' impeachment trial in 1788General Warren Hastings’ impeachment trial in 1788

Like in the case of India’s first newspaper, authoritarian leaders today seek to suppress the press. The source of their power is to convince enough of the public to believe them, and not what they read in the press.

Politicians who want to be dictators are not new. But why are they so dangerous now?

They have new tools to sow divisions between citizens. Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other forms of social media have created “filter bubbles” in which people consume and share content they already agree with.

The result is that people across the world are increasingly divided into tribes as social media allows politicians to communicate directly with their citizens.

For instance, US President Donald Trump often lashes out at the news media with tweets, denigrating them as “fake news” and as “enemies of the people”.

Social media has also had a deadly effect in India, where a recent spate of mob lynchings were linked to child abduction rumours spreading over WhatsApp.

Online trolls in India have also backed a Hindu nationalist agenda. Activists and journalists in the country were arrested in August and, in the fallout, many on social media termed them “anti-national” and said they were against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.

In such a tumultuous atmosphere, it is time for companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter to be accountable for their effect on society and to follow ethics guidelines that newspapers have followed for decades. Social media companies bear a responsibility to foster connections and dialogue – not division and hate.

Dictators such as Hastings have come and gone. But these men set the stage for the subjugation of India. They created the political structure upon which British rule began. Through them, a subcontinent that is home to hundreds of millions came to be ruled by a company of a couple of hundred men.

They gained legitimacy not only through the sword, but by controlling what others could write about them.

Now we have democratically elected politicians who wield social media in the same way, using it to degrade the value of a free press and pit citizens against each other.

The fight between Hastings and Hicky is not that different from the fight we face today. The only thing that has changed is the tools used to fight.

Andrew Otis is the author of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper, published by Westland.

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Jane Fonda …

Posted on September 21, 2018. Filed under: Movies, Personalities |

Of Course there was Henry Fonda, a wee bit of Peter but there is a Wholesome Lot of Jane Fonda …

First Her Views on Men –

“Men are trained not to be empathic, not to be emotional. So it’s not easy what they’re trying to do. But they have to try to do it! So it doesn’t matter if it’s been two weeks or two years. It just matters what kind of changes they’ve gone through.’

“Why not do what the guys who lose their union jobs in Pennsylvania do? Work at Starbucks, f**k it!’

“Oh, poor top-paid executives who can’t get his job back. F**k it! Sweep the floor at Starbucks until you learn! If you can’t learn, you don’t belong in the boardroom. And there are plenty of women who do belong in the boardroom.”

And the NYT –

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WWI – Indian Contribution …

Posted on September 21, 2018. Filed under: Regimental, Uncategorized |

From Gen KM Bhimaya ...

 The Daily Telegraph, London, dated 8 September 2018, writes –
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About how Lord Jitesh Gadhia (the youngest British Indian member of the House of Lords), an Ambassador for the Royal British Legion’s Thank You campaign commemorated the services of the Undivided Indian Army – 11 VCs, of which 2 were won by The Garhwal Rifles Regiment.
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The Thank You Campaign was commrmorated together with the current visiting Indian cricket team and the current British cricket team.
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The team members wore special, unique poppies made out of khadi, in a fitting tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, who supported Indian participation and help to the British in their hour of need.

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The Indian contribution to the British War Effort is mind- boggling –
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1.3 million soldiers and over 10,000 nurses.
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Out of which 74,000 lost their lives fighting from the Somme to the Sahara.
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Contribution of over 20 billion British pounds – in today’s money,
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170,000 animals and 37000 tons of Supplies.
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Copy of this Daily Telegraph was sent to Gen Bhimaya by Mrs. Lucy Clarke, widow of Maj ARE Clarke of 2/18 RGR – and daugther-in-law of Brig AE Clarke of the 2/39th and 2/18 RGR.
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Brig Clarke was the Center Commandant when The Garhwalis celebrated the Golden Jubilee of the Raising of the Regiment in 1937.
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Incidentally while preparing for the Celebration of the Centenary of the Regiment’s Raising in 1987, the Author of this Blog chanced upon the Menu Card of the Golden Jubilee Dinner.
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In addition to details of the Dinner, at the Bottom of the Card in Italics was the admonition, ‘No Speeches Please’
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At the Centenary Dinner – ALAS!!!

 

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Urdu – An Indian Language …

Posted on September 15, 2018. Filed under: Indian Thought |

Arslan Jafri in The Wire …

A lot of people mistakenly believe that they don’t know Urdu. Chances are, if you’re a Hindi speaker, then you’re familiar with Urdu, whether you realise it or not.

In order to understand what Urdu is, we first need to understand the linguistic makeup of northern India.

The first misconception we suffer from is thinking that Hindi is the lingua franca of north India, in actuality the language that binds the region together is Hindustani, or for simplification, Hindi-Urdu.

If you were to watch an Urdu news channel or Pakistani soap opera, you’d notice immediately that Urdu and Hindi share the same grammar, but in Urdu’s cases a lot of words have Persian and Arabic roots, whereas Hindi words often derive from Sanskrit.

It could be said that one is speaking Hindi if there is negligible use of Persian-Arabic words or Hindi if she uses more Sanskrit words.

However, when it comes to our daily speech, it’s impossible to limit our usage of either Persian-Arabic or Sanskrit for a simple reason – understanding each other.

For example, if we replace the Persian word zyaada (more) with adhik (the Sanskrit version), or if we replace the word koshish (attempt) with the word prayaas, people would mock us for being “purists” and using words that don’t fit into our regular vocabulary.

Therefore, the vernacular language is Hindustani, and “pure” Hindi and Urdu survive only as literary languages.

It’s funny that most people don’t know that the language that they speak is not the language that they think they speak, simply because we rarely recognise our spoken language as Hindustani. When we write Hindustani in Devanagari, we call it Hindi, so if we write it in the Arabic script, then we call it Urdu.

Since we’re talking about Hindustani, it’s worthwhile to look at one of the theories on how Urdu originated. Dr. Masud Husain from Aligarh Muslim University thinks that the language developed around the time that Persian entered the subcontinental area with Muslim invaders, mixing with Hariani and resulting in the creation of a new language, Urdu. While this sounds like it happened instantly, new languages take centuries to develop.

We all speak a little Hindi and a little Urdu, so it’s unfortunate that we’ve come to think of Urdu as a Muslim language. Just like the religious divide emphasises more differences than there really are, this linguistic distinction draws a firm boundary where there isn’t really one.

The people who are ignorant of the Nastaʿlīq script presume that Urdu is linked to Islam because of its resemblance to Arabic, which is the language of the Qur’an. This, coupled with the fact that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan has contributed to its Other-ing in India.

The truth however remains that Urdu is a language of India. Urdu played a significant role in India’s independence, the slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ was given by Maulana Hasrat Mohani in 1921 (Zee News, 2017). This Urdu slogan empowered many freedom fighters, including Bhagat Singh. Another example is the popular revolutionary couplet:

Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna Ab Hamare Dil Mein Hai

Dekhna Hai Zor Kitna Baazu-e-Qaatil Mein Hai

It was written by the poet Bismil Azimabadi and popularised by Ramprasad Bismil during the freedom struggle.

Urdu was also the language of the progressive writers’ movement or Taraqqi Pasand Musnafeen-e-Hind as it was called in Urdu. It was a literary movement which started in pre-partition India, the movement produced some of the finest lyricists, writers and poets our nation has seen, including Sahir Ludhianvi, Munshi Premchand and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The movement thrived on the ideas of communism and Marxism, inspiring Urdu literature that veered far from conservatism and religious fundamentalism.

Even looking at Urdu as an “Islamic” language yields surprising results. For instance, only 8% of Pakistan’s population speaks Urdu, it’s official national language, as its first one.

Whereas 48% people speak Punjabi as their first language (Virk, 2016). Coming to the other neighbouring Muslim country, Bangladesh.

When, in 1948, Muhammad Ali Jinnah announced that Urdu was going to be imposed on Bangladesh (then, East Bengal), the Bengali-speaking population protested vehemently, as they felt they would lose their cultural identity by accepting an alien language.

Outside of the Indian subcontinent, Urdu is not spoken at all. Most countries with majority Muslim populations speak Arabic (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Morocco etc) or Persian (Iran, Tajikistan, etc).

Urdu is a language unique to the Indian subcontinent and so ingrained in our Hindi that it’s hard to imagine speaking without it. That’s something to be celebrated not derided.

 

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Raghuram Rajan on NPAs’ …

Posted on September 12, 2018. Filed under: Personalities |

“A Man with a Gun Will Take Your Wallet – A Banker Will Take Away All You Will Ever Have” Jefferson  —————————– Excerpted from the Wire –

A larger number of bad loans were originated in the period 2006-2008 when economic growth was strong, and previous infrastructure projects such as power plants had been completed on time and within budget. It is at such times that banks make mistakes. They extrapolate past growth and performance to the future.

So they are willing to accept higher leverage in projects, and less promoter equity. Indeed, sometimes banks signed up to lend based on project reports by the promoter’s investment bank, without doing their own due diligence.

Slow Growth

Unfortunately, growth does not always take place as expected. The years of strong global growth before the global financial crisis were followed by a slowdown, which extended even to India, showing how much more integrated we had become with the world. Strong demand projections for various projects were shown to be increasingly unrealistic as domestic demand slowed down.

Government Permissions and Foot-Dragging

A variety of governance problems such as the suspect allocation of coal mines coupled with the fear of investigation slowed down government decision making in Delhi, both in the UPA and the subsequent NDA governments.

Project cost overruns escalated for stalled projects and they became increasingly unable to service debt. The continuing travails of the stranded power plants, even though India is short of power, suggests government decision making has not picked up sufficient pace to date.

Loss of Promoter and Banker Interest

Once projects got delayed enough that the promoter had little equity left in the project, he lost interest. Ideally, projects should be restructured at such times, with banks writing down bank debt that is uncollectable, and promoters bringing in more equity, under the threat that they would otherwise lose their project.

Unfortunately, until the Bankruptcy Code was enacted, bankers had little ability to threaten promoters (see later), even incompetent or unscrupulous ones, with loss of their project. Writing down the debt was then simply a gift to promoters, and no banker wanted to take the risk of doing so and inviting the attention of the investigative agencies.

Stalled projects continued as “zombie” projects, neither dead nor alive (“zombie” is a technical term used in the banking literature).

It was in everyone’s interest to extend the loan by making additional loans to enable the promoter to pay interest and pretend it was performing. The promoter had no need to bring in equity, the banker did not have to restructure and recognise losses or declare the loan NPA and spoil his profitability, the government had no need to infuse capital. In reality though, because the loan was actually non-performing, bank profitability was illusory, and the size of losses on its balance sheet were ballooning because no interest was actually coming in.

Unless the project miraculously recovered on its own – and with only a few exceptions, no one was seriously trying to put it back on track – this was deceptive accounting. It postponed the day of reckoning into the future, but there would be such a day.

Malfeasance

How important was malfeasance and corruption in the NPA problem? Undoubtedly, there was some, but it is hard to tell banker exuberance, incompetence, and corruption apart. Clearly, bankers were overconfident and probably did too little due diligence for some of these loans.

Many did no independent analysis, and placed excessive reliance on SBI Caps and IDBI to do the necessary due diligence. Such outsourcing of analysis is a weakness in the system, and multiplies the possibilities for undue influence.

Banker performance after the initial loans were made were also not up to the mark. Unscrupulous promoters who inflated the cost of capital equipment through over-invoicing were rarely checked. Public sector bankers continued financing promoters even while private sector banks were getting out, suggesting their monitoring of promoter and project health was inadequate.

Too many bankers put yet more money for additional “balancing” equipment, even though the initial project was heavily underwater, and the promoter’s intent suspect. Finally, too many loans were made to well-connected promoters who have a history of defaulting on their loans.

Yet, unless we can determine the unaccounted wealth of bankers, I hesitate to say a significant element was corruption. Rather than attempting to hold bankers responsible for specific loans, I think bank boards and investigative agencies must look for a pattern of bad loans that bank CEOs were responsible for – some banks went from healthy to critically undercapitalized under the term of a single CEO.

Then they must look for unaccounted assets with that CEO. Only then should there be a presumption that there was corruption.

Fraud

The size of frauds in the public sector banking system have been increasing, though still small relative to the overall volume of NPAs. Frauds are different from normal NPAs in that the loss is because of a patently illegal action, by either the borrower or the banker. Unfortunately, the system has been singularly ineffective in bringing even a single high profile fraudster to book. As a result, fraud is not discouraged.

The investigative agencies blame the banks for labeling frauds much after the fraud has actually taken place, the bankers are slow because they know that once they call a transaction a fraud, they will be subject to harassment by the investigative agencies, without substantial progress in catching the crooks.

The RBI set up a fraud monitoring cell when I was Governor to coordinate the early reporting of fraud cases to the investigative agencies.  I also sent a list of high profile cases to the PMO urging that we coordinate action to bring at least one or two to book. I am not aware of progress on this front. This is a matter that should be addressed with urgency.

2)  Why did the RBI set up various schemes to restructure debt and how effective were they?

When I took office it was clear that bankers had very little power to recover from large promoters. The Debts Recovery Tribunals (DRTs) were set up under the Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions (RDDBFI) Act, 1993 to help banks and financial institutions recover their dues speedily without being subject to the lengthy procedures of usual civil courts.

The Securitization and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interests (SARFAESI) Act, 2002 went a step further by enabling banks and some financial institutions to enforce their security interest and recover dues even without approaching the DRTs.

Yet the amount banks recover from defaulted debt was both meager and long delayed. The amount recovered from cases decided in 2013-14 under DRTs was Rs. 30590 crores while the outstanding value of debt sought to be recovered was a huge Rs 2,36,600 crores. Thus recovery was only 13% of the amount at stake.

Worse, even though the law indicated that cases before the DRT should be disposed off in 6 months, only about a fourth of the cases pending at the beginning of the year were disposed off during the year – suggesting a four year wait even if the tribunals focused only on old cases.

However, in 2013-14, the number of new cases filed during the year were about one and a half times the cases disposed off during the year. Thus backlogs and delays were growing, not coming down. A cautionary point as we welcome the NCLT’s efforts is that the DRTs and SARFAESI were initially successful, before they became overburdened as large promoters understood how to game them.

The inefficient loan recovery system gave promoters tremendous power over lenders. Not only could they play one lender off against another by threatening to divert payments to the favored bank, they could also refuse to pay unless the lender brought in more money, especially if the lender feared the loan becoming an NPA.

Sometimes promoters offered low one-time settlements (OTS) knowing that the system would allow the banks to collect even secured loans only after years. Effectively, bank loans in such a system become equity, with a tough promoter enjoying the upside in good times, and forcing banks to absorb losses in bad times, even while he holds on to his equity.

The RBI decided we needed to empower the banks and improve on the ineffective CDR system then in place. Our first task was to make sure that all banks had information on who had lent to a borrower. So we created a large loan database (CRILC) that included all loans over Rs. 5 crore, which we shared with all the banks.

The CRILC data included the status of each loan – reflecting whether it was performing, already an NPA or going towards NPA. That database allowed banks to identify early warning signs of distress in a borrower such as habitual late payments to a segment of lenders.

The next step was to coordinate the lenders through a Joint Lenders’ Forum (JLF) once such early signals were seen. The JLF was tasked with deciding on an approach for resolution, much as a bankruptcy forum does. Incentives were given to banks for reaching quick decisions. We also tried to make the forum more effective by reducing the need for everyone to agree, even while giving those who were unconvinced by the joint decision the opportunity to exit.

We also wanted to stop ever-greening of projects by banks who want to avoid recognizing losses – so we ended forbearance, the ability of banks to restructure projects without calling them NPA in April 2015.

At the same time, a number of long duration projects such as roads had been structured with overly rapid required repayments, even though cash flows continued to be available decades from now. So we allowed such project payments to be restructured through the 5/25 scheme provided the long dated future cash flows could be reliably established.

Of course, there was always the possibility of banks using this scheme to evergreen, so we monitored how it worked in practice, and continued tweaking the scheme where necessary so that it achieved its objectives.

Because promoters were often unable to bring in new funds, and because the judicial system often protected those with equity ownership, together with SEBI we introduced the Strategic Debt Restructuring (SDR) scheme so as to enable banks to displace weak promoters by converting debt to equity. We did not want banks to own projects indefinitely, so we indicated a time-line by which they had to find a new promoter.

We adjusted the schemes with experience. Each scheme’s effectiveness, while seemingly obvious when designing, had to be monitored in light of the distorted incentives in the system. As we learnt, we adapted regulation. Our objective was not to be theoretical but to be pragmatic, even while subjecting the system to increasing discipline and transparency.

All these new tools (including some I do not have the space to describe) effectively created a resolution system that replicated an out-of-court bankruptcy. Banks now had the power to resolve distress, so we could push them to exercise these powers by requiring recognition. The schemes were a step forward, and enabled some resolution and recovery, but far less than we thought was possible. Incentives to conclude deals were unfortunately too weak.

3)   Why Recognize Bad Loans?

There are two polar approaches to loan stress. One is to apply band aids to keep the loan current, and hope that time and growth will set the project back on track. Sometimes this works. But most of  the  time,  the  low  growth  that  precipitated  the  stress  persists.  Lending  intended  to  keep  the original loan current (also called “ever-greening”) grows. Facing large and potentially unpayable debt, the promoter loses interest, does little to fix existing problems, and the project goes into further losses.

An  alternative  approach  is  to  try  to  put  the  stressed  project  back  on  track  rather  than  simply applying band aids. This may require deep surgery. Existing loans may have to be written down somewhat because of the changed circumstances since they were sanctioned. If loans are written down, the promoter brings in more equity, and other stakeholders like the tariff authorities or the local government chip in, the project may have a strong chance of revival, and the promoter will be incentivized to try his utmost to put it back on track.

But to do deep surgery such as restructuring or writing down loans, the bank has to recognize it has a problem – classify the asset as a Non Performing Asset (NPA). Think therefore of the NPA classification as an anesthetic that allows the bank to perform extensive necessary surgery to set the project back on its feet. If the bank wants to pretend that everything is all right with the loan, it can only apply band aids – for any more drastic action would require NPA classification.

Loan classification is merely good accounting – it reflects what the true value of the loan might be. It is accompanied by provisioning, which ensures the bank sets aside a buffer to absorb likely losses. If the losses do not materialize, the bank can write back provisioning to profits. If the losses do materialize, the bank does not have to suddenly declare a big loss, it can set the losses against the prudential provisions it has made.

Thus the bank balance sheet then represents a true and fair picture of the bank’s health, as a bank balance sheet is meant to. Of course, we can postpone the day  of  reckoning  with  regulatory  forbearance.  But  unless  conditions  in  the  industry  improve suddenly and dramatically, the bank balance sheets present a distorted picture of health, and the eventual hole becomes bigger.

4)   Did the RBI create the NPAs?

Bankers, promoters, or their backers in government sometimes turn around and accuse regulators of creating the bad loan problem. The truth is bankers, promoters, and circumstances create the bad loan problem. The regulator cannot substitute for the banker’s commercial decisions or micromanage them or even investigate them when they are being made. Instead, in most situations, the regulator can at best warn about poor lending practices when they are being undertaken, and demand banks hold adequate risk buffers.

The RBI is primarily a referee, not a player in the process of commercial lending. Its nominees on bank boards have no commercial lending experience and can only try and make sure that processes are followed. They offer an illusion that the regulator is in control, which is why nearly every RBI Governor has asked the government for permission to withdraw them from bank boards.

The important duty of the regulator is to force timely recognition of NPAs and their disclosure when they happen, followed by requiring adequate bank capitalization. This is done through the RBI’s regular supervision of banks.

5)   Why did RBI initiate the Asset Quality Review?

Once we had created enough ways for banks to recover, we decided to not prolong forbearance beyond when it was scheduled to end. Banks were simply not recognizing bad loans. They were not following uniform procedures – a loan that was non-performing in one bank was shown as performing in others. They were not making adequate provisions for loans that had stayed NPA for a long time. Equally problematic, they were doing little to put projects back on track. They had also slowed credit growth.

What any student of banking history will tell you is that the sooner banks are cleaned up, the faster the banks will be able to resume credit. We proceeded to ensure in our bank inspections in 2015 that every bank followed the same norms on every stressed loan.

We especially looked for signs of ever-greening. A dedicated team of supervisors ensured that the Asset Quality Review (AQR), completed in October 2015 and subsequently shared with banks, was fair and conducted without favor. The government was kept informed and consulted on every step of the way, after the initial supervision was done.

6)   Did NPA recognition slow credit growth, and hence economic growth?

The RBI has been accused of slowing the economy by forcing NPA recognition. I actually gave a speech in July 2016 on this issue before I demitted office, knowing it was only a matter of time before vested interests who wanted to torpedo the clean-up started attacking the RBI on the growth issue.

Simply eye-balling the evidence suggests the claim is ludicrous, and made by people who have not done their homework. Let us start by looking at public sector bank credit growth compared with the growth in credit by the new private banks. As the trend in non-food credit growth shows (Chart 1), public sector bank non-food credit growth was falling relative to credit growth from the new private sector banks (Axis, HDFC, ICICI, and IndusInd) since early 2014.

This is reflected not only in credit to industry (Chart 2), but also in credit to micro and small enterprise credit (Chart 3).

 

The relative slowdown in credit growth, albeit not so dramatic, is also seen in agriculture (Chart 4), though public sector bank credit growth picked up once again in October 2015.

Whenever one sees a slowdown in lending, one could conclude there is no demand for credit – firms are not investing. But what we see here is a slowdown in lending by public sector banks vis a vis private sector banks.

Interestingly, if we look at personal loan growth (Chart 5), and specifically housing loans (Chart 6), public sector bank loan growth approaches private sector bank growth. So the reality is that public sector banks slowed lending to the sectors where they were seeing large NPAs but not in sectors where NPAs were low.

The fact that the public sector bank credit slowdown to industry dates from early 2014 suggests that the bank cleanup, which started in earnest in the second half of fiscal year 2015, was not the cause. Indeed, the slowdown is best attributed to over-burdened public sector bank balance sheets and growing risk aversion in public sector bankers. Their aversion to increasing their activity can be seen in the rapid slowdown of their deposit growth also, relative to private sector banks (see Chart 7). After all, why would public sector banks raise deposits aggressively if they are unwilling to lend?

In sum, the Indian evidence, supported by the experiences from other parts of the world such as Europe and Japan, suggests that what we were seeing was classic behavior by a banking system with balance sheet problems. We were able to identify the effects because parts of our banking system – the private banks — did not suffer as much from such problems.

The obvious remedy to anyone with an open mind would be to tackle the source of the problem – to clean the balance sheets of public sector banks, a remedy that has worked well in other countries where it has been implemented.  This  is  not  a  “foreign”  solution,  it  is  an  economically  sensible  solution.  It  is something that has been repeatedly flagged by the government’s own Economic Survey, under the guidance of the respected Dr. Arvind Subramanian. Clean up was part of the solution, not the problem.

7)   Why do NPAs continue mounting even after the AQR is over?

The AQR was meant to stop the ever-greening and concealment of bad loans, and force banks to revive stalled projects. The hope was that once the mass of bad loans were disclosed, the banks, with the aid of the government, would undertake the surgery that was necessary to put the projects back on track.

Unfortunately, this process has not played out as well. As NPAs age, they require more provisioning, so projects that have not been revived simply add to the stock of gross NPAs. A fair amount of the increase in NPAs may be due to ageing rather than as a result of a fresh lot of NPAs.

Why have projects not been revived? Since the post-AQR process took place after I demitted office, I can only comment on this from press reports.  Blame probably lies on all sides here.

  1. Risk-averse bankers, seeing the arrests of some of their colleagues, are simply not willing to take the write-downs and push a restructuring to conclusion, without the process being blessed by the courts or eminent individuals. Taking every restructuring to an eminent persons group or court simply delays the process endlessly.
  2. Until the Bankruptcy Code was enacted, promoters never believed they were under serious threat of losing their firms. Even after it was enacted, some still are playing the process, hoping to regain control though a proxy bidder, at a much lower price. So many have not engaged seriously with the banks.
  3. The government has dragged its feet on project revival – the continuing problems in the power sector are just one example. The steps on reforming governance of public sector banks, or on protecting bank commercial decisions from second guessing by the investigative agencies, have been limited and ineffective. Sometimes even basic steps such as appointing CEOs on time have been found wanting. Finally, the government has not recapitalized banks with the urgency that the matter needed (though without governance reform, recapitalization is also not like to be as useful).
  4. The Bankruptcy Code is being tested by the large promoters, with continuous and sometimes frivolous appeals. It is very important that the integrity of the process be maintained, and bankruptcy resolution be speedy, without the promoter inserting a bid by an associate at the auction, and acquiring the firm at a bargain-basement price. Given our conditions, the promoter should have every chance of concluding a deal before the firm goes to auction, but not after. Higher courts must resist the temptation to intervene routinely in these cases, and appeals must be limited once points of law are settled.

That said, the judicial process is simply not equipped to handle every NPA through a bankruptcy process. Banks and promoters have to strike deals outside of bankruptcy, or if promoters prove uncooperative, bankers should have the ability to proceed without them.

Bankruptcy Court should be a final threat, and much loan renegotiation should be done under the shadow of the Bankruptcy Court, not in it. This requires fixing the factors mentioned in (a) that make bankers risk averse and in (b) that make promoters uncooperative.

We need concentrated attention by a high level empowered and responsible group set up by government on cleaning up the banks. Otherwise the same non-solutions (bad bank, management teams to take over stressed assets, bank mergers, new infrastructure lending institution) keep coming up and nothing really moves. Public sector banks are losing market share as non-bank finance companies, the private sector banks, and some of the newly licensed banks are expanding.

8) What could the regulator have done better?

It is hard to offer an objective self-assessment. However, the RBI should probably have raised more flags about the quality of lending in the early days of banking exuberance. With the benefit of hindsight, we should probably not have agreed to forbearance, though without the tools to clean up, it is not clear what the banks would have done.

Forbearance was a bet that growth would revive, and projects would come back on track. That it did not work out does not mean that it was not the right decision at the time it was initiated. Also, we should have initiated the new tools earlier, and pushed for a more rapid enactment of the Bankruptcy Code.

If so, we could have started the AQR process earlier. Finally, the RBI could have been more decisive in enforcing penalties on non-compliant banks. Fortunately, this culture of leniency has been changing in recent years. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20.

9)   How should we prevent recurrence?

  •     Improve governance of public sector banks and distance them from the government.
  • Public sector bank boards are still not adequately professionalized, and the government rather than a more independent body still decides board appointments, with the inevitable politicization. The government could follow the PJ Naik Committee report more carefully. Eventually strong boards should be entrusted with all decisions but held responsible for them.
  • Pending the change above, there is absolutely no excuse for banks to be left leaderless for long periods of time as has been the case in recent years. The date of retirement of CEOs is well known and government should be prepared well in advance with succession. Indeed, it would be good for the old CEO and the successor to overlap for a few months while they exchange notes. All the more reason to delegate appointments entirely to an entity like the Bank Board Bureau, and not retain it in government.
  • Outside talent has been brought in very limited ways into top management in Public Sector Banks. There is already a talent deficit in internal PSB candidates in coming years because of a hiatus in recruitment in the past. This needs to be taken up urgently. Compensation structures in PSBs also need rethinking, especially for high level outside hires. Internal parity will need to be maintained. There will be internal resistance, but lakhs of crores of national assets cannot be held hostage to the career concerns of a few.
  • Risk management processes still need substantial improvement in PSBs. Compliance is still not adequate, and cyber risk needs greater attention.
  • Improve the process of project evaluation and monitoring to lower the risk of project NPAs
  1. Significantly more in-house expertise can be brought to project evaluation, including understanding demand projections for the project’s output, likely competition, and the expertise and reliability of the promoter. Bankers will have to develop industry knowledge in key areas since consultants can be biased.
  2. Real risks have to be mitigated where possible, and shared where not. Real risk mitigation requires ensuring that key permissions for land acquisition and construction are in place up front, while key inputs and customers are tied up through purchase agreements. Where these risks cannot be mitigated, they should be shared contractually between the promoter and financiers, or a transparent arbitration system agreed upon. So, for instance, if demand falls below projections, perhaps an agreement among promoters and financier can indicate when new equity will be brought in and by whom.
  3. An appropriately flexible capital structure should be in place. The capital structure has to be related to residual risks of the project. The more the risks, the more the equity component should be (genuine promoter equity, not borrowed equity, of course), and the greater the flexibility in the debt structure. Promoters should be incentivized to deliver, with significant rewards for on-time execution and debt repayment. Where possible, corporate debt markets, either through direct issues or securitized project loan portfolios, should be used to absorb some of the initial project risk. More such arm’s length debt should typically refinance bank debt when construction is over.
  4. Financiers should put in a robust system of project monitoring and appraisal, including where possible, careful real-time monitoring of costs. For example, can project input costs be monitored and compared with comparable inputs elsewhere using IT, so that suspicious transactions suggesting over-invoicing are flagged? Projects that are going off track should be restructured quickly, before they become unviable.
  5. And finally, the incentive structure for bankers should be worked out so that they evaluate, design, and monitor projects carefully, and get significant rewards if these work out. This means that even while committees may take the final loan decision, some senior banker ought to put her name on the proposal, taking responsibility for recommending the loan. IT systems within banks should be able to pull up overall performance records of loans recommended by individual bankers easily, and this should be an input into their promotion and pay.
  •     Strengthen the recovery process further.
  • Both the out of court restructuring process and the bankruptcy process need to be strengthened and made speedy. The former requires protecting the ability of  bankers to make commercial decisions without subjecting them to inquiry. The latter requires steady modifications where necessary to the bankruptcy code so that it is effective, transparent, and not gamed by unscrupulous promoters.
  • Government should focus on sources of the next crisis, not just the last one. In particular, government should refrain from setting ambitious credit targets or waiving loans.
  1. Credit targets are sometimes achieved by abandoning appropriate due diligence, creating the environment for future NPAs. Both MUDRA loans as well as the Kisan Credit Card, while popular, have to be examined more closely for potential credit risk. The Credit Guarantee Scheme for MSME  (CGTMSE) run by SIDBI is a growing contingent liability and needs to be examined with urgency.
  2. Loan waivers, as RBI has repeatedly argued, vitiate the credit culture, and stress the budgets of the waiving state or central government. They are poorly targeted, and eventually reduce the flow of credit. Agriculture needs serious attention, but not through loan waivers. An all-party agreement to this effect would be in the nation’s interest, especially given the impending elections.
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Bejan – the Parsi Astrologer …

Posted on September 8, 2018. Filed under: Personalities |

Mark Manuel in HuffPost dated Jul 2016 –

Shree Ganesha Namah! It’s Bejan Daruwalla’s birthday on Monday. That bawdy Parsi astrologer and celebrated Ganpati-bhakt will turn 86.

He continues to be in demand. Age cannot wither him nor custom stale his infinite variety. Everybody from Narendra Modi down holds their palm out to Bejan when they meet him, hoping for a freebie.

This birthday, he’s not in Mumbai. People think he’s from here. And is always here. But he’s from Ahmedabad. Where his father owned textile mills. Bejan was into poetry and literature. He eschewed the family business to become a professor.

He was also, he tells me, Ahmedabad’s 100-metre sprint champion in his day. And he played hockey and cricket for the varsity. I find that hard to believe. Bejan is roly-poly and 200 pounds, all 5 feet of him.

He shuffles around and requires an Asthalin pump to breathe. It’s difficult to imagine him being a streak of lightning. But I like him as he is. His girth matches his mirth. And at 86, he is full of Parsi masti and dum.

2016-07-08-1467966997-785653-Bejan2.jpg

Bejan and I go back a long way, to 1984 in fact, before Indira’s assassination and Bhopal… both of which he accurately predicted. But he’s not a Prophet of Doom. He’s forecast some wonderfully accurate successes for Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar when they were down and out.

And the political fortunes of world leaders, the destinies of nations. When I got to know Bejan, he used to write a hugely popular daily astrology column for the newspaper where I was a rookie sub-editor. He used to give us one week’s forecasts at a time. I lost them all once.

Afraid of also losing my job, I fearfully began writing the daily forecasts myself under the great Bejan Daruwalla’s name. It’s easy to do — most people are emotionally bankrupt, they want to read only good predictions. But I got caught.

My editor was furious. Not with me. But with Bejan. He called and fired him. Told him that one of his “boys” was writing the astrology column and nobody could tell the difference!

We have been friends since then. I see him once or twice a year. He travels the world, but like a homing pigeon always finds his way back to Mumbai. I took him out to dinner when he visited Mumbai for the launch of his 2016 book of forecasts.

Dinner was at Trattoria, hangout of Mumbai’s foodies, expats, young blood and all kinds of party animals. A stream of strangers queued up to meet Bejan. Seeking his autograph, a selfie and some a free consultation.

Bejan revelled in the attention. He ate, talked, predicted, cracked dirty jokes, signed autographs, posed for photographs, this was his big scene. I sat back and watched. He is after all a star, India’s most popular astrologer, acknowledged as one of the 100 great astrologers in the last 1,000 years by the Millennium Book of Prophecy.

But he’s also a man. A mortal like the rest. Once, he talked to me about death. He is a Zoroastrian, he goes to the agiary, and he ties the Parsi sadra and kusti.

But he gets his assurance from Ganesha. Bejan told me, “Ganesha is my anchor, my protection, my strength. And when I die, I’ll go to Ganesha. I’ll tell you something, I practice ephemeris and western astrology, I know how to read the code of the planets, and while I can truly predict the fate of countries, I don’t know my own destiny.

The great lesson of astrology is that you are aware that life itself is change. Accept it, and enjoy it in every possible way. ”

For his birthday, he always makes a general forecast. This time he’s made three. Narendra Modi’s best year will be 2018. In 2012, Bejan predicted a landslide victory for Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “Tum todh dega, phaad dalega!” he told the bemused Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Modi thought he was delightfully crazy. Bejan also predicts 2018 will be a great year for India. “The country will become a superpower but Pakistan will not disappear,” he says ominously.

His third forecast is for the world. It’s Nostradamus-like. “The end will not come by a nuclear war, an asteroid will smash the earth, but we will not perish, we will prevail in a new space station!”

He is my friend, I love his madness, his eccentricities. But I could not let that pass. Stung by my disbelief, Bejan called me seven different names in Gujarati.

I have heard all his insults before. Several times. They are like Bejan Daruwala himself. Inoffensive, outrageously funny, well-meaning and timeless.

They are what endear him to me.

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