Why isn’t the Lockdown working in India?

This post comes out as an outburst of anguish. The lock down in India has been in effect for four days now. Schools and colleges have been closed, all exams postponed or cancelled. Companies and establishments of commerce and trade have asked their employees to work from home. All construction work has been halted and people working in factory shops have been asked not to report to work. The poor and daily wagers being the immediate casualties.

Different state governments had already asked for social distancing practices and had started sealing their state borders days before the national announcement. States at their level were doing a good job of tracking and retracing steps of those who’ve arrived from different countries. Some states had announced relief for the poor and arrangements of free food and shelter. The body blow came when the Prime Minister got on TV and put the whole nation in a lock down at 4 hours notice.

I had uninstalled my WhatApp to avert the flooding of Corona related memes, jokes and fake news. I was hoping to experience the bliss of ignorance, too bad there’s real reality to contend with.

A TV News show on Friday evening made me feel miserable. The news was about thousands of daily wave workers and laborers leaving the big cities and heading towards their hometowns on foot. Taking to the feet is such a state of helplessness. Imagine someone so helpless and out of options to decide to take to a journey of over 1000 Km on foot! Without money or food or water, and with kids in tow! The news piece really made me sad, not just sad, sick of sadness.

Why did happen? I asked myself. The only answer I got was that the lock down was not the right decision taken to prevent the spread of Corona virus. Before we try to debate on whether the lock down was a bad option, lets look at a few things in light of the lock down.

The Poor

The census of 2011 says there are about 450 million people in India who migrate to find work. This is more than the population of USA. Out of these 450 Million, 90% if not more at unskilled or hold a blue collar job. Many of them earn their day’s meal on the same day. These people were left in the lurch which less than 4 hours notice.

The jobs they did would be closed for atleast 3 weeks, they have no means on earning, and the places they ate will no longer be open. There is no food, no money and No way of making either. Although the government in its few interactions with the nation said that landlords be kind to their tenants, employers not fire their workers and banks and other financial institutions to give borrowers a repayment leave, none of these seemed to have any effect on the lives of these poorest of the poor. So they had but one option, leave the hopeless city and head to their far off village.

In the last 2 days thousands of daily wage earners and laborers have been seen on highways walking to destinations as far as a thousand kilometers! Many have hitched rides on trucks where they’ve been bundled in as sheep – as many as 300 in the back of a single truck! No takers for social distancing or physical isolation.

The Police

The conduct of the police has been most abhorrent in this whole episode. When me and my family wanted to step out of the house for hospital visits or to get groceries, we are told beware of the cops! there are news reports that the cops are thrashing anyone who strays the streets. There have been multiple reports of police brutality. Stopping and harassing people moving about in the streets to thrashing vehicles, and beating up the public has been the general demeanor of the Police.

The Police personnel are not entirely to be blamed in this. It is perhaps the fault of the governments, both center and at the state for having sent the wrong message. The PM on his part used the word Curfew quite loose and liberally, and the state governments took it one step further by imposing the colonial section 144 through entire states. What’s wrong in imposing 144 you ask? The 144 is a criminal procedure code imposed to prevent the Law and Order situation getting out of hands. By using 144 and calling it a curfew, our leadership has tuned the minds of the civil servants and the police to treat the medical emergency as a law and order situation – which is why the beatings and brutality has surfaced.

The Policies

The poor and the police are just pawns, they don’t have an option to take their own decisions. They are just reacting to what comes from the top. Why is it that the police are issuing helpline numbers and monitoring overseas travelers in one state; and beating up curfew breakers and making the poor migrants crawl on their fours in another? Its simply because of the politicians and policies of different governments.

Different state governments have done tremendous work, our central government has also started work by announcing financial aid, food security and availability of cooking fuel to the poor. The RBI has also scripted a monetary policy to meet the government half way and ensure the economy doesn’t fall flat on its back. Experts and critics however say that the government needs to spend more. By estimates given in a working paper by the Institute for Human Development, a private think tank, the govt of India needs to spend atleast 3% of of GDP to get out of this pandemic, that’s about 6 lakh cores. We have made plans to spend 1.8 Lakh cores, that’s less than a 3rd of what’s required.

Coming to the point

Do we really need a lock out? Yes. Yes, we do. There is no cure for the CoViD 19 and the only way we can be safe is by not getting it. The lockdown is what China did, its what Italy and the rest of Europe is doing and that’s what we need to do. However there are a few questions.

How did people get food in China? Groceries? Milk, fruits and vegetables? How were the garbage cleared? There is more than 1 answer to this. Alibaba did not stop deliveries in China. Groceries and perishables were delivered to homes, China set up a hospital in 6 days, banned all PPE, medicines and Ventilators and raw materials within weeks, and hired millions to work as public servants to do the deliveries.

Even socialist countries of Europe also kept the ecommerce shopping sites like Amazon working. That’s where we had our first failing. Big Basket and Grofers, two of the largest grocery delivery Apps stopped deliveries from 20th March. Amazon and Flipkart also closed down their delivery services. All restaurants and kitchens were closed and hence no food delivery was possible.

The close down announced by the PM was intended to stop people from moving about, but the resulting shut down meant there was no food, no delivery and no commerce. If this was the plight of the urban middle class, then needless to say what the poor had to go through, now can we blame them for wanting to flee to their hometowns?

India is an aspiring Socialist nation, but we are not in a position yet to provide social security to all. This inability of the government to provide social security and sustenance is made up by the emotional and social structure of my family – and this is the reason behind the exodus of millions of migrants from the cities to the villages in the time of crisis. This is not the helplessness of the poor, but an indication of our system’s failure.

We don’t need a fail proof system, we need a system that keeps working even when it takes the hits. For now, the civilized, socialistic and democratically set up system has failed, but the belief in the system of family bonds and village camaraderie is what’s keep the hopes alive for the millions on the roads.

~*~

Taking Sides – LIC Disinvestment

The government of India has set an aggressive disinvestment target of ₹2.1 Trillion for the financial year of 2020-21. Most skeptics of this government believe that the government and its finance managers lack vision and don’t know what is the real objective behind this foolish obsession with disinvestment. But is it really a pointless obsession as some people think?

Last year, that is in FY20, the government made big decisions on disinvestment. The FM came out and gave us a list of government assets and enterprises from which it want to move away by disinvestment. BPCL was the biggest shocker in the list, a profit making company was to be sold, why? well, the government didn’t really feel it necessary to make the reason public but people speculated nevertheless.

This year, the government has it’s eye set of Life Insurance Corporation of India – LIC. The LIC came into existence in 1956 when the government of the day decided to consolidate life insurance companies and create one big state owned life insurance provider. A parliamentary legislation was passed and LIC came into being. LIC is one of the largest financial organisation in the nation and sits on a huge pile of cash. At the end of 2019, LIC has a total asset base of ₹30 trillion – that’s as much as our budgeted expenses for this year. LIC has a market share of 72% in the insurance sector, which means roughly 3 out of 4 people in India have insurance policies from LIC. Naturally everyone is skeptical when the GoI announced that it wants to sell out a little stake in LIC and make it a public company.

As I see it, the disinvestment from LIC has many dimensions. There are 4 main dimentions.

  1. The Government of India
  2. LIC as an Entity and its Employees
  3. LIC policy holders
  4. Public and the Future Stake holders of LIC

The Government of India

The humongous size of LIC and it’s assets and the Government of India’s total control over it meant that the GoI can direct LIC about how and where to spend its money. The money of LIC is used many times when the government wanted to disinvest from other PSUs . LIC also came to the aid of the government and chipped in from its huge kitty when the GoI wanted to invest in social and public works.

All governments in history have used LIC to bail our ailing Banks and other PSUs. LIC has also been a major market mover in our stock markets. Governments has leveraged LIC as a major investor to influence stock markets and all this was hidden from the general public of the nation. LIC by far is one of the most opaque organisations in the country today. No one knows where it invests or how much money it’s losing. We can only make a guess by looking at the share holding pattern of other public companies.

From what we’ve seen above, it appears the government has more to lose with this move. Going public would mean open scrutiny of the financial transactions. Will this restrict the government’s ability to use LIC for its financial needs? Not necessarily, the government has sold 20-30% stakes in many PSU banks, but still, a phone call from a big office in the government is enough to draw checks.

So we can conclude that the utility of the LIC for the GoI remains unchanged, just that the transactions will be public now. Again, when has public scrutiny scared any PSU bank managers? Can it be different for LIC? No likely.

LIC and its Employees

The employees of LIC staged a walk out on Tuesday the 4th of Feb and called for a nation wide where the 1.3 Lakh employee base would go on an indefinite strike. The employees are against the sale of 10% government stake via an IPO. The employees say that the LIC is the profit making company and has dominated the insurance sector despite privatization of the industry. The employees also say that the sovereign guarantee offered by the company on the LIC policies of the policy holders would not be in effect once the company is made public.

There has been no talks between the employee unions and the management of LIC yet. Market experts suspect that the employee displeasure is also stems from the fact that they would cease to be employees of a wholly state owned company.

As far as LIC as an entity is considered, going public would open it up for public scrutiny which will surely do good for the company. New stake holders would mean new objectives for the board – shareholder satisfaction. One needs to be careful and not expect too much. We all know that the state owned New India Assurance also underwent an IPO, a lukewarm reception and listing at a discount.

LIC Policy Holders

This people looking at the disinvestment move from this dimension. The view of the policy holder has grabbed most attention. What will happen to the policy holder’s money if the company goes bust? Now that the government’s stakes will go down and it will be a public company, the sovereign guarantee – assurance by the government – on the bonus will not be applicable. Hence the bonus is at risk and needs panic! well, not really. A 10% stake sale shouldn’t really mean all this. The company will remain the same from the perspective of the policy holder.

Skeptics however see this as a starting point and a precedent. A government of a later date may want more money and decide to sell some more of its stake and slowly lead to complete privatization of LIC. This is definitely not unheard of, but let’s not get that pessimistic just yet.

New Stake Holders

Finally, the new stake holders. What do they stand to gain or lose from this? Well for starters they will gain the privilege to have a closer peak into the books of LIC.

Secondly, if the LIC Act is amended in such a way to start treating it as any other public listed company. This way, by the provisions of the companies act, the minority share holders – which will most likely be banks, MF houses or retail investors will have rights to be heard and approve off any important decisions of the company. Does this make you feel powerful? Well.. let’s see about this.

Lastly, all PSUs pay dividends to the government from their surpluses. This can happen each year or whenever the central government is keen of getting a dividend. How are these dividends decided? how much? when? why etc etc was unseen in a non public LIC. This will or is likely to cease or atleast be reasonable once LIC goes public since the GoI will not be the only recipient of the dividends.


Looking at the four dimensions to this story, one gets a strong feeling that the Government of India will be the biggest loser by doing this. So why is the GoI doing this?

Please please please don’t tell me this is to meet the revenue expenditure. If it is.. then all the advantages mentioned above will mean nothing and mean that the government has indulged in yet another bout of sheer economic ignorance.

Tughlaq at Ranga Shankara

As always, all entry points were closed in less than a minute after the 3rd bell. Rangashankara is 15 years old and I’ve been frequenting the theater in the last 8 years, and the scrupulous adherence with time has been an uncanny yet impressive characteristic of Rangashankara since always. I was in the theater for the 76th showing by Samudaya Bangalore of Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq just before the 3rd bell and hence had to settle for a seat on the back rows. The show was on 5th Jan, 2020 at 3:30 PM. It was a housefull showing.

The play is about the dynamic and turbulent rule of the founder of the Tughlaq dynasty, Muhammad Bin Tughlaq . The sultan who is known less for his founding of the dynasty and is more infamous for his flipflopping policies, conflicted personality and his momentous decision of moving his capital city are the central pieces of this play. At two hours long it is a little demanding of the uninitiated modern theater audience who succumbed to the phubbing from time to time.

The play in itself requires no introduction and is a gem at each showing. Scenes showing the shrewd ploys by the sultan catch the audience unawares. Moments of helplessness due to conflicting thoughts make the audience edgy and the comic relief is well noted and appreciated with a lot of laughs. The audience of Jan 5th however was a little ill-prepared or expected a little too much comic relief from the play. Though the old school music had laugh cues to help out the audience, they ended up laughing at certain interesting non-comic parts of the play.

The actors were seasoned performers who have been with Samudaya Bangalore for long and have perfected the characters of the play. Malathesh who plays the Sultan’s role brings out the character’s feelings and emotions with ease. I got an opportunity to meet the crew after the play but couldn’t ask how long he had been playing the role. Online research later showed Malathesh and Sridhar had been with Samudaya Bangalore for at least 5 years, which is the case with most of the crew members.

Samudaya Bangalore’s production was near flawless with casting, acting, lighting showing maturity of the production house. The stage setup seemed to be mix of classic minimalism and modern lean symbolism. The sound however seemed to be a little dated with room for modern day adaptations. I personally thought they could’ve lost the laughter cues but the presence of many uninitiated theater audience changed my mind.

The play without a doubt is a must watch. Language and actors no bar!

The Real CAB Daddy

Ok what’s the real deal about the Citizenship Amendment Bill really?

There was a lot of opposition to this bill, and the Home Minister handled himself quite well. Of course, most of his claims revolved around righting the wrongs of the congress and plain denials of any matters on constitutionality or morality in the bill. These have been discussed in detail across the media spectrum and in many a social media drawing rooms, so let’s leave out the technicalities, legalities or moralities of the Bill and try to unearth what’s the big idea behind all this. Where does this fit in the BJP agenda?

Theory A – The Half Medallion

The biggest and most meaningful claim is that the CAB is the other half medallion of the NRC. With NRC, the BJP aims to single out all illegal migrants in India. The Hindus and other non-Muslim communities will be covered under CAB and can escape from being tagged illegal migrants and can get a clean chit. The Muslims will not – they’ll be… well, thrown in jail! since none of the 3 nations – Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan will accept these migrants and India is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention.

Ok this theory sounds great, but if you think slowly, it really sounds too farfetched a theory.  It took the supreme court of India a little over 4 years to come up with an NRC for the state of Assam. The population of Assam is 3.1 crores as of 2012 so maybe 3.5 crores now? That’s about 2.6% of India. Ouch! So it might roughly take 35 times the effort (and money?) to extend this to the whole country.

Theory B: The North East Votes

The North East of India has been on fire since December 11th or rather 12th when the people disobeyed curfew orders and came to the streets to protest and demonstrate dissent. The problem with the north east is migrants from Bangladesh have been infiltrating since independence and this has obviously put the natural demographic out of balance. Language, culture and heritage is threatened and the natives of Assam and other parts of North East feel this is a matter of livelihood and religion has no place. Hence the people demand that with religion being no bar, all infiltrators need to be thrown out. The CAB doesn’t do this.

Practically thinking, there is no way these infiltrators can be thrown out, so why not give them citizenship and make them grateful to the BJP? They would also become loyal voters of the BJP.

But really? Would the BJP sink so low? Don’t answer that! The reason I ponder on this is, the BJP is already winning in the North East, what’s the need to actually go through the whole charade to get new voters? So even this theory doesn’t really fit.

The Real Fit

The all nation NRC+CAB doesn’t really sound like something that will see the day of light – or it might become something like a single use plastic ban which was in news for 2 weeks and then died out because BJP realized they had not really understood what this meant and we as a nation are not ready for it.The theory of changing demographics in NE is also a shot in the foot. BJP can win the states and votes without having to do this, it has already done this to some extent. So even this is not the real reason

The real reason according to us is getting a foot hold. Foot hold of what? The Constitution of India! The BJP is headed by some shrewd politicians, they may not be academically or intellectually gifted, but they are really sharp and know how to play politics. The triple talaq bill is an example. With triple talaq, they tested the waters of how accepting the nation is to its tyranny. Next came 370, NRC and Ayodhya – all accepted with a bare back by the people of India.

So this move of CAB, which to be honest makes hardly any difference to our nation (except the North East), make no difference to the citizens of rest the country nor will it deliver on its grand promise to be the savior of persecuted minorities in our selective neighborhood (remember 31,313? Which btw in itself sounds fishy, like someone put their fingers on the keyboard and hit alternating numbers). This is just a two-finger test.

Once the BJP has successfully inserted some religious tags into the constitution, and we have stood mute to this saying it has no effect on Indian Muslims or get distracted by something else, the BJP on its part has more or less made an inroad or got a foot hold at adding religious tags in our constitution. So its just a matter of time now that religious tags will be selection criteria for more constitutional remedies.

And on the day we wake up in the future to smell the gowmutra, our ministers will say, oh iske baare me poora sanshodhan hua hai and sabhi party ke logo ne iski sammati di hai. “Oh we have had discussion on this in the past and all parties concerned have given their consent”  

Why RBI held onto the status quo

The Reserve Bank of India decided to hold its rates in the Monetary Policy Committee meeting on the December 5 2019.

The reaction to this decision was well received by the analysts of the economy. But still, there was a group that expected the RBI to cut the rates.

Why did people expect the RBI to cut the rates?

We expected the RBI to cut rates because the state of the economy is far from showing any signs of recovery. The GDP growth is down, and there is no improvement in private investment either. By reducing the interest rates further the RBI and the government might’ve hoped to stimulate investment.

Why was no one shocked on the status quo of the interest rates?

We weren’t really shocked because even though it seemed like common sense to reduce the interest rates to stimulate investment, it somehow didn’t seem to work.

The RBI has reduced the repo rate 5 times already and there has been no significant effect on the economy or private investment.

Why hasn’t the rate cut made a difference?

It’s simply because of 2 main reasons,

1. Banks aren’t ready to pass on the benefit

With reduced interest rates, once would assume the commercial banks would reduced their lending rates and pass on some benefit to the consumers, but this didn’t happen. There are many reasons for this, the banks are already over streched with advances, the banks have mounting bad debts and fit because there aren’t enough quality borrowers inthe market.

2. Inflation is high

Due to an increase in fuel prices and food inflation, the WPI has increased to 4.9% which is well above the RBI’s target of 4%. Making further reductions would mean more money in the economy and hence trigger more price rise.

There is also a 3rd reason, since the economy isn’t that great, there is no need to invest right now in India. A rich investor who has easy and cheap access to funds in India would be tempted to borrow in India at a lower price and invest abroad. Already our foreign remittances are increasing, we don’t want to encourage further remittances do we?

Hence it makes perfect sense for the RBI to hold its rates.

But this leaves us with a site thumb. Who then will stimulate the economy? In 2011-12 when Pranab Da ended up over stimulating the economy, his only fault was just relying on the monetary policy and loosening it without care or concern.

Today we can’t rely on the monetary policy alone to get the economy back on track, we need the finance ministry to manage the fiscal policy and help revive the economy.

But now another question sticks out, does the government have any money left to do fiscal policy changes?

Where’s all the money gone? Why has GST failed? I guess that’s another blog.

The Fall of Trust

Somewhere in financial history, the word ‘trust’ got replaced by the word ‘credit’ which divided the economic chronology into After Credit and Before Credit. Even though credit was present from before agrarian economies, it was used in an organised manner by Europeans from the 15th century which in turn fueled their scientific as well as political conquests.

Credit which is trust in future boomed when the trust was kept or got fulfilled by advancement in economies, which in return again fueled credit growth. This cyclical growth excited man and he made the cycle circle faster at each turn by lending, spending and printing too much. Obviously this made the Europeans champions of the world and hence the first to go bankrupt.

In the 21st century their credit cycle broke all of a sudden, and they found themselves staring at negative returns on the credit facilities. This meant the number of trusted parties who can avail credit had declined, resulting in the need to shell out in order to find parties willing to accept credit. This happens because the trust factor in future has declined as the number of defaulting accounts rapidly balloon and even lead to sovereign countries defaulting on credit.

Italy was in crown position of having world’s highest ratio of bad debts. This crown position was challenged by a country in South East Asia where everything happens prematurely. That’s India. Even though India saw organised credit surge and became the economy’s backbone very late only in the 20th century, we are staring at huge bad debts which is around 9.5% of the total advances, where in Italy the bad debts are at 8.5% currently down from 17% in 2015. We are facing this high ratio of broken promises for last few years and we planned many things.

Now in 2019, the bad debts have changed their status from the ‘result’ to ‘cause’. We were talking about why it happened for last few years but now we are discussing what it will result from now on. The CEO of NITI Ayog, Amitabh Kant said that trust is missing in the economy which, as we’ve seen really means credit is missing from the economy. So where did the trust go? Since 2005, we saw boom years for trust where we saw credit was flowing seamlessly and investments were soaring. We added capacity in infrastructure like power plants, airports, ports and roadways. We invested heavily in industries and we created immense capacities. This was all made possible by the basic emotion of credit or trust in tomorrow, that tomorrow will be better than today. Indians were also sure that our more than enough population itself will provide the required demand and hence the cycle of trust will be safe. Alas it wasn’t.

The lack of reforms in the Banking and Finance Industry and the policy paralysis in the second term for the UPA government started the cracks in our cycle of trust.

In the first half of the 2010s, PSB asset books were ripe with more than 10% NPA’s, this led to a fall in their lending and their share in lending was taken over by NBFCs which got their boom years from the beginning of this decade. This boom bank rolled the initial years of NDA govt where no one knows actual growth rates. Introduction of fresh initiatives by NDA such as IBC brought fresh life to the trust in future. But just like as GST, the IBC was also introduced half baked, and as of now, number of cases pending more than 270 days which was the defined deadline to be decisioned is 400. It became another Judicial system of India.

Then came the ILFS balloon burst. This took away the single engine on which the economy was running – the NBFCs. Funds became costlier or rare for the NBFCs and hence for the end users. Now we are celebrating one year of NBFC crisis and economy shows the effects. As nobody is there to fund, the demand worsened and the auto sector’s fall was first omens of impending doom. All sectors started cost cutting and the already worse unemployment hit another spike which again affected aggregate demand. This eroded the trust in tomorrow. Only trust eroded, not the money with banks. As trust in the economy eroded people are less likely to invest in the market and hence this money will go to less risky fixed deposits.

Obviously for a less trusted tomorrow, credit is not favorable and hence needs the rate cuts to encourage people who can afford a credit at this time to come on board.

Making all this worse is the attitude of the government of the day. The government is either ignorant, lazy or just in plain denial about the crisis. The actions of the government are nothing less than blunders. Perhaps that will make the cut to the second episode of this series.