Sunday, January 22, 2012

Soup Boys Down Under

With the Indian cricket fan screaming from the rooftops of social networks and baying for the blood of the humbled Indian cricketer, the UPA Government finally caved in and formed an expert committee to probe into the pathetic performance of the Men in Blue in Australia. Disrupting the monthly aestivation period of the MPs, an emergency session of the Parliament was called despite threats from Agent Fog and Agent Snow, and it was unanimously agreed through a voice vote that while cricket will take its own course, the Parliament must do what it is expected to do – setup committees.

A four member working group was setup in due haste with Rahul Gandhi as the Chairperson and self-nominated loud mouths Suhel Seth, Asaduddin Owaisi and Arindam Chaudhari as its members. Suhel’s ability to mumble incessantly, when placed in front of a TV camera or a microphone, on sensitive topics like the mating habits of ostriches or the folk dances of Andaman was considered a plus point. Owaisi’s standing as a modern rabid fanatic Muslim who swears by his beard and is inspired by the gentle Taliban provided the secular perspective that Governmental committees needed while Arindam's  reputation which soared after the success of his classic Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch (described by The New Yorker as a work of post-modern surrealistic pastiche existential angst) gave the committee the intellectual celebrity quotient that it needed to make it acceptable to gossip hungry audience, who swore by the Mumbai Mirror.

In response to critics questioning Rahul Gandhi’s cricketing acumen to head this panel, Congress spokeswoman Renuka Chowdary, in her animated petite coquettish style, bloviated that Rahul was a natural leader and had captained the Toddlers United when it toured Guinea-Bissau as part of his granny’s efforts to promote democracy in the mid-70s. Unfortunately, since no statistics were available in Cricinfo to prove this claim, this could not be verified prompting Arun Jaitley to remark that Rahul Gs chequered career as a batsman was only limited to ducking Opposition bouncers and he was as clueless about the sport as Katrina Kaif was about acting.        

Nevertheless, acting with an exaggerated sense of responsibility, the committee (christened Kingfisher India Against Cricket or IAC in short) made a trip to Napier immediately after the Perth debacle. An ocean facing villa was taken on rent with a facility to travel daily to Australia to carry out the investigation; critics who pointed out they were too far away to do any meaningful work were scoffed at by angry Mumbaikars who said that it takes more time to travel from Virar to Churchgate and such an opinion was an insult to the famed resilience of the Marathi Manus.

The month long secret assignment by the IAC was covered extensively by the local news channels and India’s biggest entertainment channel Times Now. Videos of the panel members in various strip bars and pubs were widely circulated on YouTube, demonstrating the serious nature of the trip. The committee went around the length and breadth of Australia, spoke to the Twitterati, fans and the cricketers themselves and finally returned home to a grand welcome. Fearing the ire of the ever vigilant Election Commission, they were immediately frisked away by Home Ministry officials at the Delhi Airport to ensure that no information was leaked to the public.

Nevertheless, uninformed sources Wikileaks revealed that a copy of the slim 700 page report had found its way mysteriously into the lap of Arnab Goswami, the barking powerhouse conscience of the Indian media. We managed to bribe Arnab Sir and get a copy of the glossy looking report titled Soup Boys Down Under with a cover page photo of Dhoni's boys regaling themselves in a drunken stupor (The Hangover?) and Clarke pulling the strings (of his guitar) to the tune of Why this Kolaveri, Mite (sic)?

Tendulkar’s perennial wait for his 100th ton received wide coverage in the report. The IAC analyzed hundreds of videos of SRT, probed through all the widely trending discussions on Twitter, spoke to Aussie fans high on beer and finally concluded that there was an international conspiracy behind this (specifically not an Italian hand). As a one man entertainment industry who still caused dedicated office goers like 'Kodali' Dasan and 'Kattapurathu' Vilasini to bunk work and watch Test Cricket, there was wide spread fear that the moment, the ton-ton was reached, he would retire, people would switch off TV sets and start living normal lives and even be misled by the senile St. Anna.

The report suggested a cartel comprising democratic governments and media channels had paid off cricket boards across countries to prevent this catastrophe from happening in the cricket world. The IAC, however, recommended that SRT must be given an honorary ton, his name changed to Ton-dulkar and gifted a Bharat Ratna so that he can ride to the sunset gracefully.

It branded the seniors of the team as the Axis of Discontent who were determined not to contribute in Australia due to jealousy in the team over the share of brand endorsements that the captain had captured which was totally disproportionate to his abject dismal performances. Plotting a bewildering assortment of graphs and curves that would put even Vidya 'Entertainment' Balan to shame, the report showed how the seniors spent more time planning their post-retirement financial strategy than the actual playing strategy. The IAC also lambasted the selectors for modeling the team on a Brahmin Bania party like the BJP with minimum minority representation and suggested that they follow the England model which had a global all inclusive multi-racial line up.

The IAC absolved the team of its inability to face the rising ball, saying that that if the Finance Minister had no clue on how to handle rising interest rates, how could you single out the Indian team for a similar folly? The report attributed the lethargy shown by the team on the field to poor dietary practices and suggested that the solution to this may lie in Arindam Chaudhari's forthcoming book Count Your Wickets Before They Fall. The book advocates an Arindam diet comprising Beef and Toad Legs Soup, concocted with  aphrodisiacs from China (can't just ignore those bu****s) and sprinkled with cow urine to help cricketers to rise to the occasion and deliver; this delicacy is reportedly being served in IIPM canteens (except in Madhya Pradesh) to encourage students to dream beyond the IIMs. 

The report also underlined the importance of following the stars in the sky than in the team while deciding on cricket schedules. Quoting renowned astrologer Attukal Radhakrishnan, it said that the tour had been played when the Saturn was in retrograde in the 7th House – an inauspicious time to travel abroad. It recommended that a full time astrologer should be part of the Board so that such mistakes do not happen again. Additionally, it was pointed out that playing an important Test Series in the midst of the World Go Karting Championship was a blunder (especially with some of the cricketers having stakes in it) and the Board had not done its homework properly while preparing the itinerary.

To improve the team morale, the IAC report made several other recommendations including banning all Indian cricket jokes in the social space, doing away with post-match press conferences when the team loses, inclusion of the cricket team under the Janlokpal to ensure accountability (to placate the real IAC members  miffed at not being nominated to the panel), increasing the team strength to include a PR Manager, an investment adviser and a fashion consultant to take care of the interests of the players and present them in proper light, cross-culture training for youngsters like Kohli and Ishant Sharma (they had assumed that the middle finger salute was a way to cheer crowds in this part of the world) and very importantly, recalling Poonam Pandey as the Brand Ambassador of the team (Fans may recall her inspiring presence in the World Cup but since it is widely believed that she only exists virtually, this may not be possible to implement).

An additional point was added in fine print at the bottom of the report recommending that the IAC be made a Constitutional body and allowed to tag along with the team in all future foreign junkets. Rumours suggest that this may be the only recommendation that will be accepted when the report is tabled in the House since Constitutional bodies are widely accepted as the only Game Changers in this country. Also, the general opinion is that after plummeting to such depths, we can only go up now, as Virat Kohli had indicated so gracefully to the Sydney crowd. 

The report contents are too damaging to reveal and so only selective portions of the report have been leaked here; readers may keep in mind that care is also being taken not to hurt the sentiments of the Loyal Indian Cricket Fan –a species that is rap(b)idly going extinct.  Since most of the report talks about either Owaisi defending Salman Rushdie's right to offend the Prophet or Suhel Seth’s discovery of the promiscuous nature of Australian women or Arindam Chaudhari’s management quotes, we used our discretion and decided to publish only the cricketing facts and be loyal to the oldest profession in the world………. journalism. 

Image Courtesy -

Sunday, January 08, 2012

A Question of Food Security

Amidst all the brouhaha of the Lokpal Bill, the UPA Govt has introduced arguably an ultra-ambitious food security programme that strives to put food into the thalis of lakhs of famished Indians. The Bill was introduced in the Parliament and referred to the Standing Committee immediately. It has far reaching implications but has not attracted sufficient national attention or media eye balls, like the Lokpal, maybe because it deals with hunger – a theme that has lesser TRPs.

So what does the National Food Security Bill provide for? The present draft of the Bill seeks to provide legal entitlement of food grain to 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population.  Eligible households will be divided into two categories – priority and general – wherein the priority group will consist of atleast 46 percent of the rural population and 28 percent of the urban population. BPL (priority) families will be entitled to a monthly provision of 7 kg food grain per person and APL (general) families will be eligible to 3 kg per person, at half the Minimum Support Price. The 7 kg will comprise rice for Rs 3 /kg, wheat for Rs 2/kg and coarse grains for Re 1/kg.

In addition to this, the bill envisages maternity benefit of 1000 Rs per month for 6 months for pregnant women and lactating mothers, free or affordable meals to destitute, homeless and disaster-affected persons and nutritional meals for children upto 14 years. In effect, this would translate subsidies worth almost Rs 1 lakh crore for close to 75% of our population (an additional cost of 40,000 crore over the existing food subsidy Bill of 60,000 crore, making it 1.25% of the GDP.

The Bill in its current form looks like a Utopian drug that doctors would like to administer to a dying patient so that he is up the next day.  The moral imperative behind such a law is agreed to by everyone; a country with 45% malnourished children and a lowly ranking of 66 among 88 countries on the World Hunger Index, below even sub-Saharan countries is a pretty damning statistic! The problem of hunger is a national shame and so while we must be careful of the fiscal implications of such a solution, a decision cannot be driven by economics alone – what is the price that we can pay for a human who dies of hunger?

To quote Sainath -
The corporate giveaway in the current Indian budget is 18-19 billion dollars in direct income tax and if you add other corporate concessions under excise and customs, it crosses over a hundred billion US dollars. According to UNDP, that’s the amount you require every year to solve all the basic problems of the human race. But the same Indian budget cuts 4,500 million rupees from food security. Last year the same amount, nearly 10,000 million rupees had disappeared in 24 months from food subsidies in a country which has the largest number of hungry people in the world.
The primary concern of the Bill deals with identification of the target groups to whom the scheme is to be directed at. Umpteen committees like the Tendulkar Committee, NC Saxena Committee, the Planning Commission (remember the 32 Rs starvation line) and other smaller groups have come up with figures which quote different definitions of what it means to be poor in this country. The Bill has left it to the wisdom of the Govt and the Parliament to sort this out but the experience of the Lokpal does not indicate that the Parliament has any Solomons to provide solutions. Until we really know the quantum of people to whom the scheme is targeted, the real cost and strategy required to handle this cannot be estimated.

Nandan Nilekani’s UID Project (which still has no Parliamentary law to back it) has run into rough weather and the Standing Committee on Finance has come down heavily on it for being a badly designed scheme with no clear objectives. The Home Minister is not comfortable with its working and the socio-economic and caste census to determine eligibility is well behind schedule.

One way out of this target based conundrum suggested by most experts is in looking at the success story of the Universal PDS popularized by Tamil Nadu. Here, population segregation for distribution of grains has been done away with and every family in the state, BPL or not, has a colour-coded card that entitles it to draw rice under PDS with a provision that those under the ‘needy’ category get a larger amount than the others. The task of minimizing diversion and reaching rice to about 2 crore cardholders across 31,439 outlets in 32 districts is being carried out using technological interventions, drawing up innovative fool-proof delivery mechanisms, proper policing, surprise checks and constant reviews, efficient supply chain management system including a GPS tracking of trucks carrying food grains to tackle pilferage and fixing responsibility at each.

The FSB requires large scale foodgrain procurement, storage planning and construction, creation of a distribution system from scratch and strengthening the existing PDS. Currently, the Government procures close to 52 million tonnes of food grains every year and the new entitlement would lead to an enhanced requirement of close to 25 million tonnes. Such a massive exercise of procurement and distribution will be handled by the Food Corporation of India but does it have the capacity and logistics to handle such large volumes? When food grains go rotting every year due to storage problems, where will this additional procurement go?This is assuming that every grain of food procured is actually distributed to the stakeholders - RBI data shows close to 50% leakage in the PDS and corruption estimates of around 20,000 crore every year! Reforming the existing leaking PDS structure is probably a better thing to do than rather than increasing its size beyond controllable limits.

Govt data about a decade back estimates the cost of procuring wheat at 134 Rs/quintal and transportation of the same at 289 Rs – a massive expenditure involved merely in the to and fro movement of food among states! Does the Centre have to be involved in such an activity? Each State must decide the best way to carry out such programmes locally and even here, a decentralized design where the Grama Panchayats can act as the agent to carry out these activities will ensure a lower cost and proper delivery to people. Schemes like free kitchens run by villagers and mid-day meal have done more than any Central driven scheme in handling the issue. States like Chhattisgarh and Gujarat have devised working mechanisms like door step delivery and computerised PDS which can be emulated in the rest of the country.

Alternate solutions in the form of food coupons or cash transfers directly to the needy have also been discussed. Bihar uses a system of food coupons which unfortunately has very little to show because of the corruption nexus between dealers and Govt officers while the cash transfer scheme is largely untested in India. Access to banks and markets is still pretty low in rural India and so the cash transfer is possibly too early an option but it makes sense to run pilots based on these schemes in various regions so that empirical data is present while making a final decision.

There is also a larger question of whether hunger and poverty can be eradicated by legally ensuring dole outs in this manner. The adage of ‘teaching a man to fish rather than giving him fish’ is equally relevant; state interventions which put grains or cash in the hands of struggling individuals can only ensure that they can survive but in the long run, they are  dependent on the State to bail them out. Dipali Rastogi, Commissioner – Food Supplies (M.P.) writing in the Indian Express refers to South Korea’s Saemaeul movement where the Govt strived to eliminate absolute poverty through harnessing the labour of the poor to carry out development and infrastructure projects – something on the lines of NREGS but in the form of incentive-based programmes to fund high capital concrete development of villages instead of beneficiary based entitlements that provide no incentive to tackle the real problem.

There is a danger that any discussion on this Bill will degenerate into a fight between the rich and the poor. It is imperative that we put aside the political background of the Bill and judge it purely what it is trying to implement – right or wrong can be debated even without judging the affiliations of the people who have drafted it. Most of us agree with the fact that it is a well-intentioned bill but then as they say ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’ and it needs all the debate it can to make it effective..

There is no readymade consensus strategy to combat this alarming situation – the Left talks about Govt subsidizing food similar to wages for labour in NREGS while the Right talks about growth being the only natural panacea to deal with the problem (actually, looking at the way FDI in Retail and the Pension Bill have gone, the current polity looks too confused to decide on whether they are on the right or left side of the debate). The solution has to lie somewhere in between, similar to all other solutions that India needs to tackle its gargantuan problems.