Saturday, 11 November 2017

Demonetisation: When Rumours Gained Wide Currency

It is often described as India’s 9/11 (our date writing convention is different from Americans). On November 8, 2016 night the Indian public was subjected to the now momentous ‘Mere Pyare Deshvasiyon …’ speech. Unfortunately I was deprived the privilege of hearing that historic address as I had just stepped out of my office hall to attend a phone call. During my telephonic conversation I could overhear loud shrieks from the hall.

After I returned I came to know about the momentous decision by the Union government to make high value currency notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 denominations illegal tender from the following day.

The next day during my morning errands I came across queues in front of all banks with the public sector ones being thronged by much larger number of people. So when I decided to deposit the illegal tender under my possession, I chose to deposit in my Yes Bank account, as it was a low key bank, when compared with public sector banks and its more popular private sector peers such as HDFC or ICICI banks.

However, even there I was greeted by an unprecedented crowd, though not as intimidating as in other banks. Fortunately Yes Bank had provided separate queues for deposits (for account holders) and exchange (open to general public), a luxury not offered by many banks.

Hence the lives of account holders were made less miserable as they could opt for the less torturous deposit queue. But each transaction was taking longer time. And I got stuck behind one fat cat couple.

They had come with a backpack full of demonetized currency notes. It still beats me under what provision they were able to deposit that much amount, easily running to around Rs 15 lakh, without inviting scrutiny of taxmen.

While the cashier was busy putting bundle after bundle into the currency counting machine, the couple got into a small talk with the relationship manager, a twenty-something woman and probably a freshly minted MBA, who was standing nearby.

The couple started off by asking her how she and the staff were coping with the work overload. The woman readily conceded about the work load and then prattled on to a morality trip, betraying her upper class entitlement and admiration for demonetisation.

She sounded very gung-ho. “It is very good for the country,” and then marveled at how the prime minister was able to keep everything under wraps and took all ‘dishonest’ people by surprise. Those with unaccounted wealth would have no option but to destroy them, she asserted.

With a patronizing giggle she continued, “Oh god, what all tactics people are using to turn their black money to white.” Some are depositing money in their second wife’s name. Some of ‘these people’ (no points for guessing which community) have so many wives, she guffawed and the couple too giggled in agreement.

Then she trained her guns on the opposition. She accused them of ‘playing politics’ and how they were putting so much ‘pressure’ on the prime minister who was trying to ‘do something’ for the county. That was a day after he made his lachrymose ‘Meri jaan khatre mein hai’ speech, which would make yesteryear tragedy queen Meena Kumari proud.

Thankfully by that time the bundles got counted and my turn came. The relationship manager retreated to her cubicle.

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Those were the early days of demonetisation and even hardened pessimists thought all this chaos due to cash shortage would subside within a week. Almost everyone had underestimated the government's lack of homework to carry out the exercise, especially with regard to arranging for new currency notes and re-calibrating ATMs to accommodate the new notes, as they had a different dimension.

It was also an open season for myths and bluster with wide circulation of 'forwarded as received' messages in the social media, especially WhatsApp. The government's much vaunted premise of panic stricken black money hoarders flowing their unaccounted stash in the Ganges or setting them on fire enjoyed wide currency. A few who decided to stick their necks out were trolled into silence.

While standing in serpentine queues in front of banks and ATMs (which became a national duty) many self-righteously speculated about how much of the Rs 16 lakh crore demonetized currency will not return. And a widely held guesstimate was that between Rs 3-4 lakh crore would stay away from banks. Even sceptics thought close to Rs 1 lakh crore may not come back to the banks.

Another popular myth that died an early death was that of nano-GPS chips embedded in the new Rs 2,000 notes. Some TV channel anchors waxed eloquent about its magical powers claiming that they can provide precise location of the currency and every note can be tracked. 

They bragged that the chips are so powerful that even if they are buried 120 metres below the ground they can send signals to satellites! Once those pink Rs 2,000 notes arrived, the myth was given a quiet burial.  

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A strong sense of Schadenfreude pervaded through all sections of the society. The poor who were the worst hit took cold comfort from the fact that their 'maaliks' too were struggling. They were amused to see them spend sleepless nights over getting their cash stash in old currency exchanged and even approaching them to deposit in banks for a commission. 

The TDS weary salaried class was happy that businessmen, whom they perceived as tax evaders, are being made to come clean on taxes and wet dreamed of lower income-tax in the next Union Budget. Some fake news sites also floated the yarn that income-tax may be even abolished, which further warmed the cockles of their hearts.

For the rich it was a feeling of relief as they did not have to stand in queues. No famous personality was ever seen standing in queues, but all obviously got their money exchanged - courtesy jugaad.

Those with money parked in tax havens abroad were patting themselves on their backs for their foresight and tweeting in favour of demonetisation with missionary zeal.

For a long time Reserve Bank of India played coy saying it is not yet done with counting the amount of banned currency notes deposited in banks. When it became very jarring like a battered kettle tied to a dog's tail (my apology to W.B. Yeats) they came out with the 'projected' numbers which was nearly 99% of the demonetized currency, not considering the banned currency lying in Nepal and Bhutan vaults, which is yet to come. 

No wonder they were so secretive. Nobody got browbeaten enough to torch their currency stash, and thankfully the already polluted Ganges was spared of further influx of toxins!

Monday, 2 October 2017

Elphinstone Road: An Inevitable Tragedy

They are often touted as Mumbai's lifeline, as these suburban trains bring millions of commuters from suburbs as far as 60-70 kilometres to their offices and businesses located in the central business district. But it has also been a reason for grief to many as death and injury lurks at every step while these trains go about their humongous and unwieldy daily grind of gorging and disgorging thousands of passengers at various stations.

Nearly 8-10 commuters die on a daily basis while boarding or alighting the coaches, which are crammed four times their capacity, or while crossing the tracks. But these deaths rarely rise above being a mere statistic. And we all shrug it off saying life is cheap! The only time the death in trains become 'breaking news' is when there is a bomb blast or if a certain gentleman from across the border decides to do some target practice at one of these stations.

However on Friday the city and the country were jolted out of its festive Ayudha Pooja stupor by a stampede in Elphinstone Road station, a low profile mill district which of late has metamorphosed into a corporate hub.

For those not familiar with Mumbai suburban rail network, the city has three rail lines - Western, Central and Harbour. Western and Central lines intersect at two points and Elphinstone Road on the Western line is one of the options for commuters to change to Central line, as it is linked to nearby Parel station on the Central line by a foot overbridge.

The other option is Dadar station which has platforms catering to both the railway lines. However, the volume of crowd at Dadar is far too intimidating and it calls for the strength, aggressiveness and endurance of a rugby player to board and alight trains.

Its too early to find the actual reason for this calamity and newspapers are still flush with 'eyewitness' accounts and political slanging matches played, often on social media with hashtag jousts.

From the newspaper accounts it appears that Elphinstone Road and Parel stations continue to be interconnected with a lone overbridge that is barely eight feet wide and was built decades ago when these two stations were catering to a fraction of the commuters they handle now.

This is despite the fact that the transformation of Elphinstone Road and Lower Parel as an extended central business district has been a work in progress since mid 1990s. Those were the early days of gentrification of mill districts and I remember when a well known advertising agency shifted its office from upscale Nariman Point to Lower Parel, it was acutely coy about the down market location of its new premises and mentioned it as 'Worli East' in its invitation.

However, the Railways remained oblivious to large scale shifting of corpoate offices to these areas, most of them in order to cut costs, or the burgeoning number of skyscrapers being built to accommodate them. The rising number of office goers and the resulting congestion in these stations no way stirred them from their Rip Van Winkle slumber.

As the overbridge was woefully inadequate, many started taking a chance of crossing the tracks, thereby risk getting run over by trains.

But the railways chose the easy way out to treat the symptoms and not the disease. It fenced off the tracks to prevent trespassing, but did nothing to ease the passengers' difficulty in moving from one station to another. It was like putting a patient in quarantine, but providing him no treatment whatsoever and leaving him to the mercy of fate.

Hence even a mundane task of commuting to and from offices located near these stations has become a high-risk, life threatening affair.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat


Wednesday, 23 August 2017

RBI - Ha, Ha, Ha!


RBI was never a laughing matter until Urjit Patel came along. Before that the Central Bank job used to be a very boring and staid affair with jaded, bald headed men in grey suits and grand-fatherly air appearing on business TV channels from time to time and talking about the intricacies of monetary policy and announcing interest rates. Apart from bankers, pensioners (as their fixed deposit income was at stake) and the Sensex driven class, it went totally over the heads of the plebeian masses.

Along came Raghuram Rajan, who added some pizzazz to the post with a touch of glamour. The pink press and the society ladies were swooning at his good looks (he was probably the first governor with full crop of hair) and athletic prowess. He was a keen marathon runner and TV cameramen used to keep an eagle's eye to spot him among the teeming runners during Mumbai marathon.

His financial wizardry and his gumption to stand up to the political bosses were dismissed as a mere footnote. He left the stage for good and with his integrity intact. Though it left many female fans heartbroken and their nascent interest to differentiate between repo rate and reverse repo rates, to impress their peers at kitty parties, died a premature death.

After his exit many names started doing rounds and most were the chip of the old block - the bald headed grey suited mandarins who had graced various posts in finance ministry and the now defunct planning commission.

The mantle finally fell on a totally unknown commodity - Urjit Patel. Political commentators yawned: Oh no! Not another Gujju. As all key posts were already cornered by them.

Patel came across as what the TV comic character Mr Bean would have been if he had gone easy on calories. Unlike his predecessor he is extremely wary of media and sometimes even provided Bean like moments when confronted with TV flashbulbs. During the high noon of demonetization, he almost succeeded in making himself invisible. When nosy TV journalists once made a rare sighting of Patel, their Salim Ali moment lasted a few nano seconds. They had to rest content witnessing his rare ability to sprint away!

The then Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das held forth on behalf of the government and the unenviable job of announcing changes in rules regarding deposit and withdrawal of money from banks on an everyday basis.

Those were the early days of demonetization and the much vaunted premise of panic stricken black money hoarders flowing their unaccounted stash in the Ganges or setting them on fire did appeal to many and sceptics were bullied to silence.

However, after the initial shock and awe the deeply ingrained jugaad mindset of the Indian populace took over. New money laundering techniques were improvised and demonetized cash started flowing into the banks. RBI, which used to reveal the exact inflow of money on a daily basis, suddenly clammed up.

Now more than eight months after the exercise, RBI continues to be coy about how much money actually got deposited in the banks. “They are still counting,” is what our Finance Minister would like us to believe. And Patel too like 'his master's voice' continues to parrot the same line in one Parliamentary committee after other.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Return of The Prodigal

First it was the hoardings, then the front page advertisements in newspapers of a well known bespectacled and smug face. For the first time I noticed he has a mole on his forehead. 

After a hiatus of six months, post-truth icon Arnab Goswami was coming back to TV screens, and his fans began feeling giddy and delirious. With their echo chamber bereft of its favourite nightingale, they were battling cold turkey conditions all these months.

After all how long can one make do with cheap imitations like Gaurav Sawant! Even during his earnest display of machismo (being clad in battle fatigues at newsroom) Gaurav seemed like Ben Stiller trying to pass off as Rambo Sylvester Stallone. 

Now the fans wanted to make up for the lost opportunities of the inimitable Arnab fix that transports them to a feel good delirium. His force multiplier vocal cords, which he uses to decimate Pakistani panelists, were sorely missed while the country was going through tumultuous events such as surgical strikes, demonetisation and UP elections.

As the launch date of the Republic TV channel approached the hype was gradually built up. His fans regrouped under various hashtag battle formation across all social media platforms, ready to blow Republic's trumpet and pounce on detractors in a manner which would make even Goebbels blush.

True to the hype he began from where he left off. For fans and worshippers their echo chamber was once again vibrant with the hyper-ventilating jingoism they were addicted to. The template continues to be same: Find an 'other' and attack him or her in a pack, never allow them to put their views across. What amazes me is how some of the panellists, especially the Pakistanis, even agree to appear for the show considering its pointlessness.

So finally it is achche din for the fans, with onerous tasks like trolling (read act like keyboard lynch mobs, intimidate and even issue rape threats) the detractors and playing cheerleader to the anchor thrown in. For them he remains the minstrel of utmost happiness!

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Vinod Khanna's Unforgettable Role

The death of a yesteryear superstar often brings back memories lying mothballed in remote corners of one's mind. Few weeks before his death a picture of a sick and ailing Vinod Khanna flanked by two people sent shock waves across the social media. Those on the wrong side of 40 were aghast that their teen idol has become so emaciated. He was reportedly suffering from bladder cancer.

After a couple of rumours about his 'death' the inevitable ultimately happened. And he was 70, not an untimely exit, but still looked a tad early considering that he was an adorable hunk during his prime. At the death of every actor there is a flood of write ups listing among others his most influential films.

Though many had listed movies like Amar Akbar Antony, Lahoo ke do rang, Chandini or Jurm, but to me the movie that remains hauntingly etched in my mind is Mere Apne (1971), a little known film which he did in the early part of his career when he was transitioning from a villain to hero and still many films away from stardom.

Directed by legendary Gulzar, the movie steers clear from the Bollywood binary of good versus evil, with all characters having shades of grey in varying degrees. The only exception is Meena Kumari, who after having lived all her life in a village comes face to face with changing mores of city life in the autumn of her life.

The film was about campus violence, educated unemployed and the ongoing rivalry between two gangs - one led by Vinod Khanna and the other by Shatrughan Sinha. As both Vinod and Shatrughan were newcomers they had a lot to prove, with no starry airs to distract them. Hence one gets to see some great acting on display. As for Gulzar, he showed lots of promise in his debut venture and later went on to make masterpieces like Maachis.

Much later after Vinod Khanna had become a Member of Parliament he had told a journalist that during the shooting of Mere Apne there was a cold war going on at the sets between the FTII trained actors and the rest. Shatrughan, Asrani, Paintal were FTII trained whereas Vinod Khanna wasn't. But he did make up for his lack of formal training with amazing screen presence and carried off his role with aplomb.

Later he went on to become a very bankable star and a formidable rival to Amitabh Bachchan, but suddenly left all that to join Acharya Rajneesh's ashram, leaving many of his producers and fans befuddled or heartbroken. Thankfully, unlike Rajesh Khanna, whose career suffered a sudden shipwreck from which he could never recover, it was not the end of his film career. He returned after few years and proved his could still set the box office on fire.

Be it his acting career, quest for spirituality or taking a plunge into politics Vinod Khanna lived his life in his own terms, without caring much about 'log kya kahenge'.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Monday, 24 April 2017

Notes From Kashmir

Mumbai ka fashion aur Kashmir ka mausam, donon ka koi bharosa nahin hai (Mumbai's fashion and Kashmir weather are unpredictable and change abruptly) quipped Hilal our affable cab driver while referring to this year's unseasonal snowfall in Kashmir on April first week. Later I heard the same gag from others.

For someone fed on a daily diet of TV footage of masked stone throwers, a couple of disturbing viral videos and political uncertainty in Kashmir, I was wishing the above quip on uncertainty was strictly confined to the weather and not about any other aspect of life in Kashmir.

Srinagar airport provided a picture of surcharged security. Here the CISF men were wielding guns, instead of metal detectors and while leaving the airport we saw a line of vehicles waiting to get in. "While entering Srinagar airport people have to undergo two baggage checks, one at entrance and one inside," explained Hilal pointing to a check post outside the airport and a posse of security personnel.

As Hilal cut his Toyota Innova through the dusty narrow streets of Srinagar on our way to Pahalgam, the day of our first night halt, the landscape of houses, shops and mosques with sloping corrugated tin roofs, mostly green in colour, caught our attention. "This is to prevent snow from accumulating on the roof," said Hilal. Later I discovered that many of these roofs had ornate wooden ceilings underneath.

When we reached Srinagar outskirts, names like Pampore, Pulwana rang a bell, as they were scenes of recent bloody gun battles between the terrorists and security personnel. All through our stay in Kashmir (April 15-19), we used to constantly run into armoured trucks, with mounted guns. The presence of security personnel was all pervasive with jawans from CRPF and BSF, wielding automatic guns, at prominent street corners and sensitive areas.

As we neared the town of Anantnag, the traffic became dense and there were jams in various stretches, so were the potholes. Sensing our displeasure, Hilal quipped that to "reach heaven you have to first cross through the hell!”

At Anantnag we came across the first spray painted anti-India graffiti calling for azadi on walls and shop shutters and some praising Burhan Wani. During our stay in Kashmir we did come across similar graffiti with alarming regularity while passing through other sensitive places, especially Lal Chowk and Downtown Srinagar. At some places they were overwritten using red spray paint. All this provided a grim reminder of seething discontent amid the outward calm.

After Anantnag the traffic became thinner and it was a much smoother ride with lesser amount of potholes and landscape too became much more scenic. Then we entered Sangam village, and we were informed it apparently acquired the name as Raj Kapoor's Sangam was shot there.

At Sangam we came across neatly piled up well chiseled wooden pieces arranged in a square pattern at various places. "These are cricket bat manufacturing units," explained Hilal.

Quite surprisingly most bat making units had Virat Kohli as their poster boy on their signage and just one such unit had picture of Shahid Afridi and that too sharing space with Kohli. Probably it was done keeping in mind the Indian buyers or because Pakistani cricket is currently going through a lean patch with no master class wielders of willow on the horizon after Afridi.

Once the road started running parallel to the gushing Lidder river the landscape underwent a picture perfect makeover. Tall trees, including the much famed deodar and pines, made up the breathtaking landscape and it continued well up to Pahalgam.

While unloading suitcases at the hotel in Pahalgam, Hilal advised us not to go out of the hotel premises after dark. By nightfall the place became cold and the streets were deserted barring some lone men clad in pheren (a long woollen overcoat) or some random vehicle passing by.

Kashmiris have a peculiar way of wearing pheren. Very rarely did I come across someone who has slipped his arms through both the sleeves. The first person I came across had slipped right arm through the sleeve, while the left sleeve was dangling freely. I assumed probably he was handicapped! Later I came across many who had both sleeves dangling and realised it was their way of beating the cold.

Due to unseasonal snowfall in April first week, the mountains had lavish toppings of it and a lot had flowed down the ravines. From a distance they looked like white shards and as our vehicle traversed towards Aru valley they were visible from close quarters.

These were huge blocks of ice with 2-3 foot thickness. They were not so white and appeared mixed up with mud and even the remains of vehicle fumes. As our vehicle neared the Aru valley I came across houses that had small tank like structures made of stones to store snow!

Treading on snow can be extremely treacherous and slips could take a toll on your ligaments and even bones. But I was astounded by the enthusiasm shown by some senior citizens. At Chandan Wadi I came across an elderly gent, easily a decade or two past his retirement, being pulled up the slope on a sledge by a guide.

Another Sikh gent with a flowing grey beard had a slip while posing for a photo while sporting a 'V' sign. As a reflex action my eyes got shut, but a while later I was amazed to see him get up. Later at Gulmarg too I saw such boisterous senior citizens happily trying their hand at skiing and sledging down the slope. Age no bar – For Indians from plains snow makes them do crazy things!

While returning to Srinagar from Pahalgam we came across many shops that had downed shutters. We thought it was because of Sunday, but later realised it was due to a bandh call in protest against police firing on protesting students.

Fortunately during our itinerary we never ran into any untoward incidents, though we did tread many times through usual trouble spots such as Lal Chowk and Downtown Srinagar. Quite often on returning to hotel after sight seeing trips, I used to find the front page of Greater Kashmir daily awash with news of unrest in Srinagar.

I have been hearing about Dal lake right from the geography classes in school, and later saw many film songs featuring Shammi Kapoor with the lake as background. Even then its vastness astounded me, especially when viewed from the Pari Mahal.

The shikara ride could have been pleasant but was marred by floating hawkers trying to sell their wares ranging from handicrafts, shawls and even offering photo sessions in traditional dresses.

One of the most visible signs of protracted militancy in the area was total absence of liquor shops and cinema halls. A sundowner during cool nights would have been welcome, but most hotel managers told us alcohol is banned in State and we too did not come across any liquor shops while traversing through the city. And Hilal being a devout Muslim was of little help!

Cinema halls too were conspicuous by their absence. The only remnant of a hall we came across was Shiraz at Khanyaar, but it had elaborate barbed wire fencing and was now functioning as a CRPF camp. Hilal reeled out some 5-6 names of cinema halls that used to function in the city during his childhood days and recounted that the last movie he saw in theatre was in 1999. Ever since VCRs, VCDs and now pen drives have been providing the tenuous link with visual entertainment for most Kashmiris.

During our stay in Srinagar I was quite surprised by the presence of Sikhs. First I thought it was because of widespread presence of army, but later I realised that many of them were traders and long term residents. Some were even part of Jammu and Kashmir police. The presence of gurudwaras in Srinagar and even in remote Pahalgam indicated that their presence was deep rooted and long standing. 

Srinagar's streets continue to be swarmed by now defunct Maruti 800 cars. Though in other cities they may have become as rare as house sparrows, here the iconic family car continues to have a good presence, while newer small cars like Alto and Hyundai Eon have so far met with modest success.

For tour operators last year was a tough one and they are hoping and praying for a better tourists inflow in 2017. According to them there are three evils - politicians, some black sheep in their society (read militants) and media, a comparatively new entrant in this hall of shame. "One stone throwing incident happens and TV channels keep playing the footage for days together," was their common refrain.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Travelling Back In Time


Hi,

Have a close look at me. Apart from being a watch of Soviet era vintage you may have noticed that I just have one hand.

Now don't think I am a defective piece, caused due to bad workmanship. I was meant to be like that only. 

In an era when watches are turning into wearable devices and checking time comes way down the priority list, I may look like a laughable oddity.

I may evoke the same amusement as Mumbai's ancient Premier Padmini taxis, with their clumsy column mounted gears, to a Formula One driver.

I know the questions coming to your mind. "How the heck did guys those days check time? Were they only concerned about hours and not minutes?"

Relax, those were early days of watches and people had a different way of looking at it. In fact during 16th century telling the time using just a single hand was the normal way. Timekeeping began with just a single hand, sundials and the early church clocks kept time this way and pocket watches too followed the norm.

The second hand was introduced only in late 17th century and for the people then it seemed as odd as single hand watches appear to you today.

Reading time on single hand watch does not look as difficult as it may seem. A dial is divided into 144 markers and each of them represents 5 minutes. The 15 and 30 minute markers are bolder.

Now using that yardstick, the time shown on the above watch (double click to zoom the image) is 10:20. Simple, isn't it!

Also Read: Bangalore Beat