Monday, November 25, 2013

Assamese Cinema - Missing the Art behind Commerce.

Assamese cinema is in doldrums. To my knowledge, none of the Assamese films in the last few years have made profits. It has become critical that we understand the reasons and do the needful to try to revive Assamese cinema.

In order for Art to survive, it needs patrons.

This is more so when it comes to commercial cinema. Commercial cinema needs much more than cinema lovers. It needs patrons at various stages of the film from making, distribution to exhibition. In other words, commercial cinema needs an eco-system to survive and flourish. The eco-system that is tightly bound by commercial and other interests. The eco-system of commercial cinema comprises the Financiers, Producers, Production, Creative, Distributors, Actors, Exhibitors (cinema halls) and Audience (Patrons).

Each of these elements of the eco-system has to profit from the act of making, distributing and exhibiting the film. The motivation comes from the commerce of the trade of making films. We have to understand each of these elements in detail, to analyze and find a solution for the future of Assamese cinema.

I don't have extensive experience in the Assamese film industry to opine on each of the elements of the eco-system. This article is primarily from my experience of producing, distributing and promoting India's first martial arts comedy - an Assamese feature film - Local Kung Fu.

Poor Dated Content

Bordoloi Trophy was extremely popular and Gauhati stadium used to be packed until television came and increased the expectation from a football match. This is the same psychology affecting Assamese Cinema. The quality of Bollywood, Hollywood and South Indian Film has improved with time. They have become accessible to Assamese audience like any Assamese film. Perhaps more accessible than Assamese cinema. So it is obvious that Assamese film has to compete with all kinds of content easily available and accessible today. It is a pure economics of demand and supply, where Assamese cinema is failing to create demand because of poor quality of content – both creatively and technically. .

As recent as last week, an Assamese film was released with mono sound. Can you believe it? Cinematography, Choreography, Editing, VFX, Sound Design, Art Design, Make-up & Styling - all these departments have to open to current trends, technology and young talent. We have educated and experienced Assamese talent in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai who have to be given the responsibility to create cinema at par with Bollywood.

Cinema is Business. Distributors are Wholesalers. Cinema Halls are Retailers.

Only perhaps Art cinema without profit considerations, supported by Government and the super-rich, will survive without a proper business strategy. Commercial cinema cannot survive without making profits. One can make profits with a sub-standard product if sales and distribution are good.

Assam does not have a single distributor whose primary business interest is regional Assamese cinema – a distributor who distributes Bollywood and other films, but has either emotional or sentimental interest towards Assamese cinema. A cinema hall is dependent on the distributors for films. A distributor has the upper hand in deciding for the cinema halls. But Assam does not have a distributor (patron), who feels strongly for Assamese cinema.

As a result of which, Assamese films today just get one show, that too in a non profitable time-slot. In a city like Dibrugarh or Jorhat, where there are multiple cinema halls, Assamese cinema is lucky to get one show and one theatre. Distributors would openly suggest to the producer to release in one cinema hall in one city / town. There are 69 cinema halls considering the defense halls in Assam, and it is unfortunate that it is a great achievement to get 17-18 halls for an Assamese cinema.

A recent release only got 7 cinema halls. 7 cinema halls multiplied by 7 shows in a week is 49 shows. If 200 people come in all the shows, we will have an audience of 9800. If we take an average of Rs. 25 as the share of the producer in a ticket, the net collection for the film would be 2,45,000. This makes the business of films a loss making proposition from the start.

Assamese cinema lovers and patrons need to invest in an exclusive distribution channel hiring the best talents, which would have the power to dictate terms with the exhibitors. The channel should get all the Bollywood mega hits to distribute in Assam. A box office hit benefits all the cinema halls, more than the distributor himself. Once the exhibitors make money out of these releases, the channel would get the upper hand to release an Assamese cinema asking for the best shows on the best dates.

I am planning to start a distribution business in Assam with the next horror film of the famous Ramsay Entertainment - Neighbours. Check the trailer here. I am in touch with producers to buy the rights for 'Jackpot', 'Dedh Ishqiya', 'Gulab Gang'. I am looking forward for investments. There is risk, but there are handsome gains as well.

Cinema halls too have a critical role to play. Most of the cinema hall owners are not Assamese by language and by community. It is not that they should not own cinema halls. But the fact is that they will naturally have a lesser interest or passion for Assamese cinema. Without Assamese people coming out to open cinema halls with all modern projection and sound equipments, Assamese cinema will have a tough time getting screened in the first place.

The cinema hall business is a profitable business if the business is done like it should be done keeping the consumers in mind. 

For instance, Assam is hot, humid and poor. Assam does not have variety in terms of cinema options. Assam does not have entertainment options. Low cost cinema halls with AC and dolby 5.1 sound with 2 or more screens with less than 80 seats may be a profitable option. It is not necessary that these halls only run Assamese cinema. Bollywood releases a new movie almost every week. Bollywood has many hit cinemas that consumers would like to watch on big screens. These halls can also be used for music functions, plays and quiz/debate competitions.

Missing Stardom. Missing Aspirations. 

Assamese cinema does not the essential STAR attraction. The actors and actresses are not bigger than life. People do not aspire to be like them, or to follow them. Most of the actors and actresses work for a living like any normal Assamese. Assamese cinema has failed to give them the pedestal of respect, fame and money, that any actor or actress gets in other cinema industry.

One of our famous actresses is a lawyer, which means she is accessible and available in the high court every other day for the common people. This undeniably takes away the exclusivity and star attraction for her, in the minds of the cinema audience.

When we were kids and Assamese cinema was doing well, Nipon Goswami, Biju Phukan, Brajen Borah, Purabi Sarma etc. were larger than life. People used to flock to have a look at them. We used to wait for a film with our favourite actors and actresses. That is no longer the case. We now instead have Bollywood stars that we follow. The media and the film fraternity has to understand this essential ingredient for a successful cinema industry. We have to lift our actors and actress to a pedestal where they become stars. Exclusivity has to be created. The remuneration has to increase many folds so that they don't have to have alternate careers. They should not get into mobile theatres, but for special appearances.

Actors and Actresses also have a role to play. They have to maintain their glamour quotient by being fit and slim, and by being good social citizens.

Alternate Distribution Channels

The world of cinema is not limited to theatres alone. With Internet and technology, films can be distributed in multiple ways. The audience is also scattered across the globe. Assamese cinema can be made available to the Assamese population staying outside Assam and India through the use of technology.

We have options like BigFlix and Netflix for online streaming of movies. We have online stores like Flipkart and Amazon for selling of DVDs. We have the DTH channels where movies can be distributed with a fee (Airtel Movies, Tatasky Showcase etc). We have upcoming technologies like Lukup, which can distribute content to any device like a television, mobile or the computer. We have the option of social media and YouTube to create awareness of the films. We can even put the whole movie on YouTube and earn revenues through advertising.

I should also mention that all the local clubs and auditoriums in various parts of the state of Assam could be instrumental in bringing Assamese cinema to those towns and villages where there are no cinema halls. All we really need is a DVD player, a projector, a good sound system and curtains to make the auditorium dark enough for viewing cinema. The producer and the auditorium authorities can share the revenue equally, helping both the parties to earn handsome revenues.

Cinema is an integral part of a culture. If cinema is not aspirational and in demand, the culture tends to get stagnated and diluted. It is of immense importance all of us - proud Assamese - should come forward and help the cause of Assamese cinema with a vengeance.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Commerce, Economic Development and Naamghars. #Assam

Economic activity is an essential activity for any active society or community. It is more so in the current times of liberalization and globalization.

Economic activity can be defined as an act of creating or adding transaction value to any commodity or service. Creating or adding value will lead to exchange of money between the seller of value and the buyer of value. According to well-established economic theories, more the exchange of money, the better becomes the standard of living for the whole society. This is one of the postulates of Keynesian Economics as well.

Economy of Assam is steadily taking a turn to the worst.  The private sector in terms of creating value through manufacturing, service industry, outsourcing industry, rural industry, etc. is almost non-existent. The ‘Government investments’ (and the black money it generates) alone cannot augur hope to a state or community. Also, it is not the Government that can be solely blamed for our economic condition. It is the citizens of the society, and not the elected body that is primarily responsible.

Assamese citizens have no inherent biological or genetic problem that is stopping them from progressing like the rest of the world. There are no geological or climatic reasons that are significant to stagnate a civilization. There are no annual catastrophes apart from the floods that trouble our economic production. We are a sharp. We place emphasis on knowledge. We are perhaps not known to be traders, but the citizens of lower Assam proves it otherwise. We perhaps just became complacent due to abundance for a long time, and it became our behavior and attitude.

It is time we realize and get back on track. It is necessary that each one of us engage ourselves in some sort of economic activity. We all have to add value to live a good life, and for Assam to prosper. The common question is ‘what is that economic activity?’ In my various trips to Assam, I have seen the youth of Assam desperately in search of the answer to this question, almost to the point of extreme frustration. It is a state of helplessness. We have to understand that it is obvious in the scenario of any state or country facing economic depression or stagnancy, and lack of honesty in political leadership. The youth is always the most effected.

The possible economic activities get hidden in the dark clouds of depression, ignorance and exploitation. It becomes a ripe environment for the powerful to exploit, giving rise to the perception that exploitation is the only way to lead a good life. The intent of exploiting gives rise to the act of corruption. It is an obvious analogy therefore that corruption has a relation to the perception of the lack of economic opportunities. As we have seen in Africa and East European countries, corruption is always a greater evil in under-developed economies. Without proper economic activity to create wealth, corruption through contacts, muscle power, and political power becomes a norm.

In Assam, as well, we can see this phenomena taking concrete shape. Earning money through corruption, bribes and other morally incorrect ways has entered so deep into us that it is becoming an accepted evil. Bridegrooms are judged basis his ability or Government job position to take bribes or ‘bahira poisa’.

The private sector has hardly developed in Assam. Agriculture except for Tea is primarily done for personal consumption. Private manufacturing sector is almost non-existent. Assam produces 60% of the Bamboo production and has a significant Water Hyacinth production, but it has not become mass business opportunities. Trading of goods and services is a size-able economic activity, but the Marowari immigrant community is predominantly managing it. Apart from its natural wealth, Assam can be a hub for various outsourcing businesses like technology, BPO and KPOs.

So, it is a irrefutable truth that there are a lot of opportunities for creation or addition of value in Assam that can have demand both inside and outside the state of Assam. With the world becoming a smaller place through Internet and other infrastructural progress, and knowledge becoming the key to economic growth, the opportunities are over-whelming.

The actual question therefore is to answer ‘how to create awareness of these opportunities for all of us?

This is where I would like to take the name of our great saint and social reformer - Srimanta Sankaradeva. He instituted the concept of 'Naamghar' ahead of its times as a place of congregation. Naamghars were instituted as a place of purity where communities irrespective of caste, creed and religion, can get together and form the basis of living in peace, prosperity and unity.

Srimanta Sankaradeva always maintained the philosophy that 'To err is human'. He believed that we are mere mortals and it is impossible to conquer all negative thoughts. He believed in controlling the negative thoughts, rather than in expecting a miracle that all of us will become saint-like, truthful and honest. He believed that if we as a community get together in a holy place everyday or frequently, we can control our negative / evil thoughts. This was perhaps the reason why he thought of the concept of Naamghar to be built as extensively as possible. He built naamghars wherever he went through out his living life.

Naamghar is an active institution even today for over 560 years. We see a Naamghar in almost every nook and corner of the state of Assam. It is a place where the community offers prayer (Naam / Kirtaana) as a group. There is an atmosphere of holiness, which can breed positive thinking. 

These naamghars can become our bed of economic activities in Assam, for all of us, for all Assamese people.

Naamghars can bring together people of all ages (wisdom), all professions (knowledge), and all faiths (culture) to create a productive forum of people collaborating and cooperating for the overall progress and development of the village or locality.

Every village and town has its unique strengths, natural resources, skills and opportunities. Secondly, every village and town today has people staying outside of Assam and India. If we give ourselves one hour for compulsory economic discussions and debates in the naamghars, we will automatically come out with ideas and the ways to execute them. We will find out help and support through social network in terms of finances, knowledge, labour etc. and economic activity through collaboration can be started.

I know it is easier said than done. We have various problems today in the way the various naamghars operate in a very non-inclusive way. It has become the place for retired Assamese and the elderlies. Over the years, it has become more of a religious centre for neo-vaishnavite traditions. We have to first list down these problems facing the institution of naamghars, address them and create overall awareness about the great contribution that naamghars can generate for the upliftment of the Assamese society, in a egalitarian and class-less way.

There are examples of Naamghars where participation of youth in its administration process has created wonders for the society. The youth brings in a new perspective in line with the times, and above all brings in enthusiasm in everything a Naamghar stands for.

Assam has one of the largest socio-religious organizations in the world called the Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha. It has over 6000 primary units with a cultural and literary wing. It has recently started bank operations to facilitate micro-credit. It is great news and a step towards economic progress. All the Naamghars of the Sangha are well connected, and can take the lead in the transformation of Assam towards economic progress.

I shall soon start discussing this thought with the Sangha naamghar in Duliajan, Assam. I request all of you who support this thought process to come forward and take this forward in their own villages and towns. You can contact me at for a discussion of how to make this a mass movement.

It is the time of the youth. It is the time of new ideas. It is not long that Assam will again become a developed state with a comfortable standard of living for all its population.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

'Assamese' in transition and the increasing significance of Naamghars

Assamese society is going through a phase of transition. We are moving from the times of abundance to the times of scarcity. We are moving from a phase of harmony to a phase of competition. We are moving away from collective identity to individual identity.

Like any phase of transition, it is a phase of chaos and instability. It is also true that transition or change is the only constant. We have to adapt to the new times and keep on striving ahead as a community, and as a culture.

We cannot get lost in the winds of change. The communities and cultures who did not adapt to the change have all perished. For instance, I had read that the original population of a lot of South East Asian countries have perished, and these countries are now inhabited by people of Chinese origin.

Assamese culture, Assamese language, Assamese people have to survive the wind of change. We can and will survive, if we are prepared, ready, willing and understand the universal truth of continuous evolution. The only way to adapt and evolve is by working as a team, as a community, together inclusively towards the overall good of the community, culture and language. There will be a lot of reasons that will play a divisive role, but we have to get together with a purpose and with a resolve for the greater good. We have to get together in smaller and bigger units, and talk, share and make action plans for the unit. A unit can be a village, a Panchayat, a club or even a Naamghar.

The unit or place of get-together is very critical to this process of inclusive growth. A particular place has to drive this inclusive growth process. That place should have the credibility of being the symbol of progress, unity and together-ness. However much I think on this, the most egalitarian, equalitarian and a place of purity is our revered Naamghar. Naamghar is one of the most representative institutions of the Assamese community for ages, present in almost every village of Assam.

The genesis of naamghar is very significant in this regard. It was Srimanta Sankaradev's immense wisdom and vision to create unity in diversity, and to create a sense of community and belonging-ness. He had built this institution for the same purpose. It was for people to get together, offer community prayers, perform various group cultural activities and to participate in socio-economic discussions. Anybody from any background could come to a naamghar.

It was the ‘Facebook’ of those times. There were groups having their own naamghars, like we have FB groups today. Group members at each naamghar used to get together every evening after their daily jobs to sing the Kirtanas and other scriptures in the praise of the Lord, and then discuss about the problems of the group among themselves.

Naamghar was built as an institution of purity and immense wisdom. Srimanta Sankaradeva believed that regular or periodic visits to any institution of purity and wisdom would help the people of the community in purifying their thought processes from all thoughts and acts of evil, short-sightedness and maleficence (bad intention). He believed in the phrase, 'To err is human'. He said that it is impossible to become completely free of the all vices and evil thoughts, and regular visits to Naamghars would help us in keeping the evils of the mind away to an extent humanly possible. He designed various art forms such as the Ankia Nat and Sankari Dance, to be practiced and performed in and around the naamghars so that the village folks can spend as much time as possible in the naamghars and keep themselves occupied to lead a very inclusive and positive community life.

Also, naamghars are an inclusive institution. Any progress which is not inclusive, is bound to generate divisive sentiments. If a particular age group, sub-community or gender is not coming ahead to participate, we have to do the necessary to include them. Naamghars were designed for everyone, but with time that essense is getting lost and divisive mentality has entered the corridors of naamghars as well. Many naamghars do not allow Muslim people. The young today hardly visit our Naamghars. Absence of youth simply means absence of new ideas. Since the genesis of naamghar had the essense of inclusivity, I believe we can again make naamghars appeal to everybody. The elder folks have to invite the youth and give them responsibilities to make them feel part of the initiative.

The logic of the naamghar system still applies. It will help in the process of continuous evolution. We should collectively start a revolution in our naamghars to help the Assamese society in these times of chaos, to build a new wave of progress and development, unity and peace.

To conclude, I would just say, "Aha ami adda maru goi naamgharat..." and take Assam into the next millenium.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Male Bashing & Delhi Rape.

This is an old write-up that was left un-published.

29th December 2012: The young paramedic student, raped and beaten up by six men in a moving private bus and thrown out of it after 30 minutes of torture along with her male friend, succumbed to massive internal injuries after battling with them for over 12 days.

This is one of the most shocking news of a young student dying at such a tender age, because of brutality of a fellow human being, sexually.
My sincere condolences to the girl and sympathy for the family. I would be first to publicly hang the culprit if given a chance.

Having said that I wonder why we are ignoring that the boy could have been dead too. Few weeks back a boy was stabbed to death by the eve-teasers near Kalyan, Mumbai when he tried to intervene physically. Fistfight led to stabbing and death. The girl is safe.

So is it any safe for men? It is unfortunate that feminists and social media is taking this to gender in-equality. Gender inequality exists but is irrelevant to both these killings.

These killings are act of crime by anti-social elements. And we should condemn from that perspective of it being a crime, rather than politicizing the matter relating it to gender disputes and a male chauvinist mindset.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The big thud! Why your parcels get thrown when couriered.

There have a lot of times I have seen courier guys man-handling and throwing the parcels when it could have been just placed. But who takes that effort? There are so many parcels to be delivered.
courier, blue dart, dhl, fedex, india

Even while boarding flights, when you see out of the window before take-off, you would notice the plight of the bags and parcels being couriered. They are all thrown into and out of the airplane. The bigger muscles throw the longest and hardest.

Yesterday, I realized why the courier companies throw our parcels with care-free abandon.

I was couriering one DVD using one of the best logistic brands - BlueDart. When I approached the counter, I was told to put the DVD in a hard DVD case, and then seal the hard DVD case into a foamed CD mailer.

I went searching for a stationery shop, found one close-by, bought the required plastic DVD case and the CD Mailer envelope. After I sealed the DVD inside, I understood the importance of doing so, and was impressed.

Now the DVD can only break if an elephant decides to weigh himself on it.

With a happy face, I went to the counter and gave the sealed DVD package. In return, he gave an agreement to sign. The agreement said that the consignment is fragile and the courier company takes no responsible if the content of the consignment breaks. I thought, do they really have an elephant traveling with this harmless DVD package?

I tried to argue saying, "This package is no longer fragile. It was fragile when I came to your desk the first time." The counter guy was surprised. Perhaps he has mostly seen consumers signing whatever documents they present to be signed. He had no counter argument to my logic, and referred my case to his manager sitting beside him.

She listened to me, and then bluntly said, "We just move things from one place to another. We are not responsible for breakages". God knows if she really meant to say that. She further added, "DVD is fragile and so you have to sign this agreement in order to get your DVD couriered".

I had to sign. Who has the time to argue with BlueDart employees, who are just following processes instituted by the higher management.

I signed and gave them permission to literally man-handle my courier package with carefree abandon, without any risk of penalty for breakage.

All of us do. Isn't it amazing?

Friday, July 26, 2013


No community is lazy when it comes to feeding its hungry stomach. We get lazy when we don't have to worry about food and shelter. We often see that sons of rich parents are lazier in terms of the work that is expected out of them in the same age bracket.

Assam had been a rich prosperous country with its citizens having enough in terms of food and shelter. For instance, if we look at sanitation, I have never seen an Assamese home without a proper toilet. Even today, you can easily survive a month in an Assamese village with Rs. 5000.

Secondly, Assamese people are content and happy with the basic needs of one's life. It is perhaps true for every place where consumerism is yet to come. Even today, apart from Guwahati, rest of Assam is a congregation of villages where consumerism is creeping in only now with TV and Internet becoming popular.

So in the Indian context, or in the context of the 'metro' lifestyle, Assamese people appear to be lazy. I actually put it in a different way. I would say that they live a happy relaxed comfortable chilled out life.

Townies like us think that things have to move fast. But is that a right expectation? Do we need life to be in the fast lane, really?

Having said that 'being comfortable' is a big inertia. If there is a need to break from the comfort zone, it always takes time to break the inertia. Human minds being like it is, it will try to take the short cut to solve the problem at hand, instead of breaking the inertia and taking the rightful path of hardwork.

So that is the negative of being comfortable. In Canada, I remember ICICI Bank sacking its Operations Head, who was a comfortable relaxed Canadian used to an easy life. Look at the GDP growth rates of all the developed economies, they are sub 2%. The reason is comfortable life. (I agree that the denominator is high, but still sub 2% is low). There will soon come a time when the developing world will catch up with them and they will not be able to break their inertia then...

Assamese people migrated for work outside of the state are doing very well in every field, and that clearly proves that 'Assamese people are lazy' is a misconception.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Corruption - Cure is in the regulation of money !

Is it possible that there will be a day when corruption will be a non-issue?

In lot of our discussions during our Old Monk sessions or otherwise, we indulge in a numerous points of arguments and reasons why corruption happens in India. It is an established argument that it is intrinsic to human behaviors and instincts. The primary opinion that arises is that corruption is omni-present and that we are a helpless party to it.

In a country like ours, the extent and effect of corruption is worse. India is been a poor country for a long period of time without enough end-resources to distribute among its very large base of citizens. British imperialism, fragmented strata-ised society, in-ept sub-optimal policies after independence leading to unequal development and distribution of economic wealth and resources, discrimination in providing education etc has made India a hot bed for the corrupt minds to wander and fulfill its desires.

It has made it very easy for a small section of the population to take undue advantages from the Indian system of administration and political governance. In effect, it has left a huge section of the population disgruntled, unable to lead a decent respected, sufficiently privileged life. Whenever the latter is getting a chance to move into the former, they are getting corrupt for its benefits with a revenge.

Adding to that is the Indian mind-set of thinking of only about his or her own self (and immediate family) with the focus on the result or the end, rather than the means. It doesn't matter to a Brahmin that he is taking a dip in one of the dirtiest river of the world - Ganga. What matters is his belief that taking a dip absolves him of all his sins.

It doesn't matter how we secure a salaried Government job, but having a job matters. If we pay through our noses to get a particular job, it is imperative that we will cut our noses and try to regain the lost wealth and more through corrupt practices.

Morality and the notion that all human beings are good is not going to solve corruption. To err is human too, and greed is one of the seven vices of human beings. Only regulation, policing and tighter controls can reduce corruption. Regulation, policing and controls can be structured in numerous different departments, offices and systems. It is too broad to even discuss.

Lets just take regulation of money and analyze how money itself can be a solution to our greed for more money. Money in India is primarily controlled by the monetary policy of the Central Bank of India - the Reserve Bank of India through its various policies and circulars that all banks have to follow in terms of dealing in money. One of the reasons I see hope in this argument is my experience of working in for two of the biggest banks. RBI has been a robust intelligent institution with an independent mind of its own, devoid of corrupt intent to a large extent.

Argument One:
All Government aid to a citizen should be in monetary terms deposited in a bank account or a post office account of the citizen.

Over the past 60 years, the Government has instituted numerous policies and schemes for public welfare and otherwise, to help different sections of its population in various ways. Mid-day meals, Cereal Distribution through PDS and almost all such schemes are not monetary in nature. The benefit goes to certain people who then must be honest to distribute it to the masses.

If all or most of the Government aid is distributed as money to the bank accounts of its citizen, I see two important benefits. One, all monetary aid will cut the dishonest middle man. Two, money is the fuel of the economy that can start or speed up the progress and development of a society. We can refer to Keynesian Economics to understand what I am trying to refer here.

In 2000, Indian Government has spent Rs. 361 Billion on social services which include education, health, family welfare, women and child development etc. It was 11% of the total Government expenditures. Imagine the amount and level of corruption that can happen in the distribution of this amount in kind through various services.

My argument is that we should set aside the capital expenditures required to build infrastructure, and distribute the rest in terms of money transfers directly to the bank accounts of the citizens.

Argument Two:
The documentation requirements (KYC) to open an account should be relaxed so that opening an account can be pushed strategically by the Banks going to the customers.

Banking penetration in India is awe-fully inadequate on all fronts. States like Manipur, Nagaland, Bihar, Assam, Chattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh have the lowest branch penetration, upwards of 26000 people per branch. Thankfully, financial inclusion is a stated objective of the Reserve Bank of India policy. The main intent is to reduce the average population per branch. The Rangarajan Committee has defined financial inclusion as “the process of ensuring access to financial services and timely adequate credit where needed by vulnerable groups such as weaker sections and low-income groups at an affordable cost”

RBI is adopting diverse modes including banking correspondents and encouraging mobile based transactions. Budget 2010-11 has, in fact, set a target of providing banking facilities to all habitations with a population over 2,000 within two years, using such modes.

My argument is that financial inclusion is a possibility when the bank account opening guidelines are made easier for all citizens. The KYC norms require a long form to be filled, identity and address verification documents and most crazily, a bank official has to meet the citizen to open his bank account. Isn't that a tough ask?

Why should account opening be such a tough task that illiterate, semi-literate and even the literate run away from opening a bank account? The reason is primarily to discourage money laundering, which is converting black money into white money for legal and illegal activities. I think this is an exaggerated fear of possibilities arrived through human logic and excessive deductions. Money laundering and such practices are done by the rich. The pertinent questions are what is percentage of rich people that we have in India, and how many of them would do money laundering or such financial crimes?

My argument is that the risk or harm is fraudulent account opening is lesser than the harm being caused by mis-apportioning of Government funds in billions in the context of the overall good of the country and its citizens. So we should make opening of accounts easy and remotely possible in mass.

Argument Three:
All cash transactions should be discouraged. Instead, electronic transfers, card based transfers, voucher based transfers, prepaid instruments etc should be incentivized.

Once we have a fix on the financial inclusion agenda in a few year, this will be easier to implement. Although, this needs infrastructure, RBI has instituted robust systems and protocols such as NEFT, RTGS, IMPS, RUPAY etc that will make cash less transfers a reality in the short future.

The argument that uneducated people can't use newer modes of payments is completely baseless. The older generation may be a bit uncomfortable with learning these new ways, but the youth of the country will pick it up and make it common-place. Who would have thought that Facebook in rural India is mostly accessed through Internet enabled mobile phones. Once the facility is available, robust, useful and is communicated well among the citizens, there is no reason that the facility won't be used.

The trading fraternity sees a lot of benefits in the cash economy. The primary benefit is tax evasion to the extent possible. What they don't realize is the indirect negative impact of tax evasion for the physical and mental health. If a business is profitable, cash transactions can never be beneficial in the long run. All big businesses therefore prefer banking transactions to cash un-accounted transactions.

My argument is that cash transactions is tightly linked to corruption and all efforts should be made to discourage cash transactions and reduce corruption.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Secularism, Socialism and Democracy are cool concepts, till we question them !

Those were the proud moments in school, when we were taught about how India achieved independence through non-violence, and how we have done a great job writing our preamble and the constitution, which were ideal from all angles. 

It was secular. It was socialist. It was democratic.

We were told about our Government, and that, it is a democratic republic of the people, for the people and by the people. It gave us a feeling that we are all together to take India towards fame.

As I grew up, studied, read news, books, listened to elders, and as I began to understand more about politics, governance, human rights, I found that secularism, socialism and democracy are good sounding theories, and perhaps not practical, given human instincts of love, hatred and fear.

Secularism, if we go by the dictionary, is a philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship. In India, however, it implies equality of all religions, and it prohibits discrimination against members of a particular religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. 

Isn't it a wrong literal definition to start with? I have a problem with an 'end' that sounds too good to be true. It only means that we have not studied the 'means' to achieve that 'end'. Or it is only rhetorical. So the more important question is 'how to achieve secularism' and that somehow is not well researched, tested and formulated. For instance, even after 60 years of independence, we are not clear about whether school uniforms be uniform for all students.

Read this news article where a mother of a four-year-old Muslim girl has moved the Guwahati High Court after her school refused to allow her daughter to wear a ‘hijab’ (headscarf) along with the school uniform.

Socialism, if we go by the definition, refers to any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods and services. It refers to a system where there is no private property.

In India, socialism, instead of spreading wealth equally and without vested motives, has bred in-efficiency, politicking, lack of respect for Government properties, and a false hatred for trade and profits (and many more such malices!). We kept profiting and profiteering in the same bracket of common understanding. (Fools, we became!). It created a generation of Indians who were lazy, comfortable with mediocrity, and afraid of the big owners of all the production and distribution of goods and services.

This was Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru pet vision, (and to me the most significant reason why India is yet to be a developed country). Later Indira Gandhi trumpeted it to absurd levels by nationalizing the banks among all institutions. (And then, ironically, she became a dictator unleashing the state of Emergency bestowing on her the power to rule by decree, suspending elections and civil liberties.) Socialism ki maa ki aankh.

Democracy, similarly has (can I say) failed in India. The quote 'of the people, for the people, by the people' is at best euphoric, rhetoric and poetic. In India, democracy is getting titular day by day with decreasing electorate, and increasing discontent with Indian politics, power games and corruption.

In a daring attack on Saturday in Darbha Ghati, Chattisgarh, naxalists killed almost the entire Congress leadership of Chattisgarh. The Congress Chief Mr. Nand Kumar was abducted and killed later. The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh has called the rebels India's biggest internal security threat. Mr. Narendra Modi - the PM aspirant from BJP has termed the attack in Darbha Ghati as gruesome, and said that the government needs to adopt a zero tolerance policy towards Terrorism and Naxalism.

Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi called it a 'dastardly attack' on the country's democratic values. To me, it sounded funny and serious at the same time!

According to the Home Ministry, Naxalism and its ideals are present in 20 of India's 28 states, and have thousands of fighters. It is a confirmed data that all these fighters are Indians. It is also evident that they are risking their lives for some common cause. Democracy gives them the right to live and choose. This is the reason why I find Sonia Gandhi's statement funny. It sounds as if Congress has the autocratic right to India's democratic values. Would she say that if 26 rebels, who are Indians, were killed instead.

The problem is killing, and the reasons why these killings are taking place. It is just a matter of fact that Congress workers got killed this time. Some other group will get killed the next time. It is common knowledge how the innocents of the neighboring villages around Darbha Ghati will suffer rape, molestation and death in the name of investigation now.

How should a democratic country (of the people, for the people, by the people) react to such a scenario? If such a significant population is against the establishment and its power centers, how should the constitution deal with such a situation? How should International Bodies deal with this scenario of basic human rights and choice to take sides and fight for sovereignty or for any cause?

It is with contempt I realize that we are yet to understand the basics of governance, of free will, of human nature. Democracy, Secularism and Socialism as we understand has to undergo a huge transformation through research.

Perhaps India is too big and diverse for the right practice of democracy, secularism and socialism.