Monday, December 14, 2009

Doubt IV: Telangana Revisited

Three years ago, I made this post on Telangana. I, then, spoke from my observations as one among the hordes of engineering graduates who aimlessly join colleges and aimlessly pass out of it. Today, I will not claim to be wiser than I was then. But, I am, slightly, better informed. I am posted at Vijayawada and I hold the additional charge of Khammam. One in Andhra, the other in Telangana. Every week, I shuttle between the two places. Double work, double responsibilities, double reprimands, but single salary. Thanks to my jurisdiction which is predominantly rural, I got the opportunity to meet more than a dozen farmers. Farmers from both Telangana and Andhra regions. I must have spent, on an average, half an hour with each of them. The motive behind the interaction, or interrogation as they would call, was to ascertain their income. I have questioned them in an excruciatingly detailed manner about their families, lifestyles, crop cycles, credit facilities, past, present, future etc. And like any typical loquacious villager, they would tell me more than I would ask. I have also interacted with a lot of civil contractors from both the regions who execute irrigation projects in both the regions. It is these interactions which form the basis of my present post. I am not a sociologist or a political scientist. My observations could be totally wrong. But I will say, what I have to.

In this post, like in many others, it has been projected that a separate Telangana will fetch more water to the farmers in the region and, hence, greater prosperity. But, irrigation projects have become extremely complex in the present era with issues like environment, displacement of people (especially tribals), rehabilitation, resettlement, compensation etc. The separatists often project those from other regions to be shrewd, dominating and successful lobbyists. But even these attributes could not help them in making Polavaram a reality. Last year, when I cruised on Godavari from Rajamundry to Perantalapalli, all that was visible of the project were the concrete blocks placed by the survey teams indicating the extent of submergence. Polavaram is a testimony to the compounding complexities of mega projects in recent times. A new state would just be an addition to the existing hurdles. Every proposed project will reach the hallowed portals of the apex court, with the downstream farmers appealing for a stay. Yes, I understand that the constitution clearly leaves river water sharing to the legislature. But that did not deter Karnataka and Tamil Nadu from knocking the doors of the Supreme Court. And to overcome all these, political stability is crucial because decision-making becomes the first causality of political instability. Empirical observation reveals frequent leadership changes in smaller legislatures.

Hypothetically, let us assume a utopian scenario. There is an unbelievable consensus among the leaders in the proposed state. They exhibit imaginative statesmanship and succeed convincing all the stakeholders to agree for the irrigation projects. The projects are completed well within timeframe and the cost escalation is so less that the projects become a case study for schools of governances in the universities across the world. Will it usher in prosperity in the agrarian lives?

During my interaction with the farmers, both from Andhra and Telengana regions, the problems faced by them had little to do with water and more with other issues like increasing balkanization of farmlands, salinity of soil, raising prices of agricultural inputs etc. Since, most of them have to endure months at a stretch without seeing a single rupee of income, they just can’t wait for remunerative prices to arrive. Initially, I was very happy to notice the presence of large number of cold storage units in this part of the state. I was happy that finally technology has empowered the poor farmer to fetch him the best price for the crop. But my joy was short-lived, when I enquired a little. I was told that produce in the cold storage mostly belonged to the non-farmers. The real beneficiaries are the commission agents. And except a few large farmers, who have the financial strength to wait and preserve them in cold storages, the rest can never avail the best prices. The middlemen procure and preserve them in cold storages. Officially, the commission agents earn 1% of the transaction. Remember, it is one percent of the transaction, not the profit. (So they make money, irrespective whether the farmer makes profit.) But, the actual earnings would be much more due to price fluctuation, discrepancies in weighing and discounting on the account on “poor” quality of the produce. I have come across agents who earn Rs 35-40 lakhs a year. Now, consider this. A person makes Rs 35-40 lakhs a year, without having even an office. He does not have to bear the vagaries of nature. He does not suffer from risk of pests. Most importantly, he does not have to wait for six to nine months. This man does not have an identity, unless the UID cards give him one. Some have registrations. But many don’t. They don’t file their returns of income. There are thousands of such faceless agents who thrive on the sweat, blood and misery of the farmer. Yes, you have market yards, legislations, rules, bye-laws, vigilance systems and many other systems which aim to protect the farmers and ensure they get the right price. For example, the rice millers are barred from procuring paddy from persons who are not farmers. The Government has framed every possible law and rule to protect the farmer. But farmer is in such desperation for money that he would be more eager to cooperate with any deviation if he assured of instant cash.

Do those, who have burnt public property worth in the last few weeks, have any imaginative solution to such issues? I am surprised that none of the blogs have addressed these issues. Can you remove these faceless agents from Telangana? There are many of them who belong to other states, let alone other regions of Andhra Pradesh.

People speak of the employment which the irrigation projects would generate. Again, on the surface it looks very attractive. And when you apply a dash Keynesianism, it appears as if it is time-tested. Scratch a little, the facts become different. I deal with a lot of civil contractors who execute irrigation projects. And they do not use local labour. Most of them get labour from states like Maharashtra, Chattisgarh and Orissa. They claim that the labour from these regions is cheaper than local labour. Further, since the workers are away from their native, they turn up regularly for work and consequently, the absenteeism is low. Let us leave aside the genuineness of their reasons to opt for labour outside the state. The fact remains that execution of irrigation projects in a region may not necessarily translate into employment opportunities for the residents of the region.

Therefore, there is no guarantee that the new state will benefit either the farmers or daily wage labourers. These form the bulk of the poor and impoverished.

So, please enlighten me, in whose name, the public property worth crores are being destroyed?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I am not alone

An excerpt from the book "Revolutionary Wealth" by Alvin & Heidi Toffler.

As a then-leading member of the U.S. Senate, Connie Mack, once complained to us:

We never have more than two and a half uninterrupted minutes for anything on Capitol Hill. There’s no time to stop and think or to have anything approaching an intellectual conversation….

We have to spend two thirds of our time doing public relations, campaigning or raising campaign funds. I’m on this committee, that task force, the other working group, and who knows what else. Do you think I can possibly know enough to make intelligent decisions about all the different things I’m supposed to know about? It’s impossible. There’s no time. So my staff makes more and more decisions.

Very reassuring.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

You are the Assistant Commisioner of Income-tax when...

Every letter / notice / circular gets marked to you irrespective of its intended recipient. And you are expected to respond to it.

You unconsciously attain specialization in sending reports of whose purpose you have no idea and of whose contents you have no clue.

You get RTI applications asking for data pertaining to the last 20, 30 or even 50 years when the Income-tax act deprives you of any power to look into issues more than six years old.

Any file you open reminds you of the Harappan script you saw in your sixth grade history textbook.

You start nodding to everything your boss says irrespective of its practical viability and your personal capability.

You wish that you could outsource the task of hearing the Chartered Accountants / Advocates / Income-tax Practitioners to Sach ka Saamna.

You spend 90 % of your time searching for your staff while they spend 90% of their time searching for the file you asked for.

The remaining 10% of the time is spent counting the number of digits in figures of the Balance Sheet and Profit & Loss accounts.

All you see during examination of books of accounts is numbers scrolling down like the famed matrix screensaver.

You issue refunds worth lakhs of rupees, but your own reimbursement of official travel bill of Rs 340 never sees the light of the day.

You realize that if your salary is linked to the number of signatures you affix, you could breeze your way into the Forbes list within a year.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Idiot and I

If traffic is something people have to fight everyday in metros, it is boredom in smaller towns. More often than not, you are miserably alone. You wouldn’t have too many friends of your age and those who are older have families to go back to. Having got used to always-on internet connectivity for around half a decade, browsing on a USB modem is not an entirely pleasurable experience. All these have pushed me into a forced wedlock with the idiot box. It is boring and utterly irritating. Yet, I go back to it every evening and it is the first thing I see when I wake up each morning. That is why I call it wedlock.

So let me give you a glimpse of my marital bliss. Frankly, I don’t watch anything in particular. I just keep surfing the channels. Today, when my better half was turned on (no pun intended) it was showing one of those soaps. It was a close-up shot of a couple who were holding each other. The teary-eyed lady looked deep into the man’s eyes. I waited for ten minutes but neither of them even batted their eyelids, leave alone indulging in any other motion. The camera showed them in two dozen angles with jarring vocals playing endlessly in the background. I shifted to the next channel.

The enterprising channel was interviewing a maid who supposedly worked in the same neighbourhood where Shiny Ahuja lived. I immediately ran down to the one-room temple below my guest house and thanked God that dogs still do not speak a language the news channels can understand. When I returned, the programme was drawing to a close. The anchor signed off saying, “There is a glaring difference between the on-screen and off-screen images of stars.” What a revelation! Thanks dude. But for you I would have still remained under the belief that Tobey Maguire could actually jump from one skyscraper to another.

My next pit stop was MTV, which more than makes up for the unavailability of FTV. As usual, a bunch of girls were flaunting their long sun-tanned legs performing acts on which even those with abnormally low IQ would have second thoughts. Seeing them being so jobless, wandering without proper cloths or food (they seem to survive on Papayas and Watermelons), I am convinced that recession is for real. I don’t understand why those creative brains that run the ticker refuse to rename roadies and splitsvilla as leggies and stripsvilla. If you try to listen what they speak, it would something like this: “What the *beep*. I know I am the most deserving. This *beep* is trying *beep* me off. Just *beep* off, OK? “

At the succeeding English news channel, after discussing India’s loss at T-20 for more than 20 hours since the loss, the newsreader remarked that a 360 degree coverage of the loss would follow. Can’t we have a 20-20 version of news? When we can have a nano car and nano houses, why not nano news channels? Any business house which starts such a channel can claim to have delivered the biggest CSR.

An aspirin and a few clicks later, I found myself watching Gemini Music. It made me nostalgic. A lot has changed in the last three years, including the name of the channel, but the husky beauty has stuck on. Nothing has changed. Neither her voice nor her wardrobe. Who says that change is the only thing which is constant?

The following 38 channels had the same programme. People of all ages and genders were dancing or singing or doing both. Kids displayed undesirable precociousness in garments and gesticulations. And the judges were those whom people wanted neither to sing nor to dance. Even better if they stayed at home. If not singing and dancing, they set upon narrating jokes on which only the judges laughed and the studio audience clapped. Captive audience in every sense of the term.

At the next click, I returned to where I began. The lady was still looking deeply into the guys’ eyes. The camera must have zoomed in from 845 different angles. Tears, which welled up in her eyes, still did not roll down. I think I must revisit my high school physics and relearn surface tension lessons. I am sure if I can understand this, the Income-tax act would be a cake walk.

I disinterestedly set upon the next round of surfing.......

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Krishna Connection

Vijayawada. That is the place chosen for me to begin my career. Everyone would like to work in metros and big cities. That is where the action for IRS lies. Big cases, complicated issues and ingenious chartered accountants collude to sharpen the learning curve. But small towns have their own charm, I was told. If you dispute my terming of Vijayawada as a ‘small town’, all I can say in defense is that small is relative. The last time I referred to Vijayawada as small, the listener broke into a sarcastic laugh. An accomplished bureaucrat who retired as Chief Secretary, he must have felt that I was being snobbish. I can’t blame him much. Even my batchmate in the IAS, who is posted in Eluru, protested instantly at my judgment of urban sizes.

It is characteristic of my service that we don’t begin with places like Rampachodavaram. Atleast not till the Government thinks of taxing collection of honey and sale of wild jackfruits. And that, considering the reluctance to bring agriculture in the ambit of taxes, seems very remote. So for IRS, where a lot of our colleagues start their careers at places like Mumbai and Delhi, Vijayawada is a small place.

So what is it that makes small places charming? It is the people. The day I was to reach here, my train was scheduled to arrive here at 4:45 in the morning. I called the office the previous day and asked if they could send someone to the railway station as I was new to the place and was arriving at an odd hour. In about an hour’s time, I got a call from the driver. I asked him to be at the station by 4:30 in the morning. He said he would be at 4 am. And he was. It was just the beginning. It is ten days since I came here. And I have never come across anyone who thinks twice when you ask him for something. People here respect you to the point of embarrassment.

One reason could be because officers of my rank are few. There are five officers of the rank Assistant / Deputy Commissioners in Vijayawada. The corresponding number in Hyderabad is more than 50. Other could be historical. During my interaction with a senior officer, who hails from this place, I was told the behavior of people towards Government officials is result of the colonial history. Since the region, unlike Hyderabad, was under the colonial rule, the people are well-acquainted with administrative machinery and are more conscious of the power, potential and the reach of Government. This is something which would be put to test soon. How?

My jurisdiction consists mainly of old parts of the city and adjoining rural areas. The economic growth is not very vibrant in these parts. But that doesn’t grant me immunity from upward revision of revenue targets. My predecessor felt that collections have reached optimum levels and are likely to plateau. The only way to increase collection was to widen the tax net. So I have sent about 400 letters to assesses, who were not filing returns to do so. Non-filing of Income-tax returns when you have a taxable income or when you belong to particular class of assesses like companies could lead to imprisonment. The response to these letters would reveal whether the people here are truly respectful of the authority of Government.

Personally what I like the most about small cities is their contribution on the professional front. You get to deal with all types of cases. In big cities, there is an element of specialization in the jurisdiction. Some charges deal with only salary cases, some with business cases and others with companies. However, in small cities, the jurisdiction is territorial. So one gets to deal all kinds of cases and consequently the experience is more varied. Secondly, the workload is relatively more manageable. Not that every colleague of mine in the metros are getting buried under the piles of files, but a few of them do have quite a Herculean task ahead of them. And for me, after two years of slumber at Mussoorie and Nagpur, keeping myself awake when sun is still high is in itself a Herculean task.