Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Landing a counter-Blow

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Politics, like weather, is given to abrupt change. Just a week ago it appeared that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after observing the return of belligerent determination in his chief opponent and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, would postpone the cornerstone of his reform programme—a business-friendly land acquisition law. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Jaitley swung majority in Rajya Sabha for BJP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opponents, notably Congress president Sonia Gandhi, till the other day bargained for a united opposition bringing to a halt all reform measures initiated by the government in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP is in a hopeless minority. With this objective on her mind, Mrs Gandhi marched down the street in not-yet-hot Lutyen’s Delhi. The pretext, to protest against proposed amendments to UPA government’s land acquisition law. But it was evident that she was testing the waters for her trademark anti-BJP coalition, as she did in both 1999 (unsuccessfully) and 2004 (successfully).

Monday, March 23, 2015

No Central funds for 3 metro rails

Nagpur, Pune, Mumbai projects in limbo
Harish Gupta
New Delhi, March 22

The BJP-led governments at the Centre and the State may have been beating the drum to go a whole hog on the Pune & Nagpur Metro Rail projects, but the railway ministry headed by Suresh Prabhu disclosed that not a single rupee has been released either for the Nagpur Metro railway project in the current year. So much so, the much-hyped ` 23136 crore Mumbai Metro Line-3 project has not seen any funds during the current year.

While the railways has released massive funds to the tune of ` 9030 crores during the past three years for the Delhi Metro Phase-III and ` 6755 for Chennai Metro Phase-I, ` 609 crores for Kochi Metro and other states, no monies released for Maharashtra

No doubt, the Nagpur Metro Rail and Mumbai Metro Line-3 projects figure in the railway ministry's list of projects cleared. But not a single rupee was spent during the current year despite Modi government coming to power for almost a year now. Surprisingly, the Maharashtra government has hurriedly announced the allocation of ` 175 crores for the Pune Metro Rail project in its budget for the year 2015-16. But, the railway ministry asserted in Parliament that the Pune Metro Rail Project Phase-I is still in the process of appraisal/approval. The estimated project cost of the Pune Metro is ` 11,802 crores. No doubt, all these three projects have to be on the basis of partnership with Maharashtra government.

However, despite the much fanfare and hype created by the State leadership basking in the glory of railway minister Suresh Prabhu, the funds are not coming for the Metro Rail projects.The railway minister himself has told the Lok Sabha on March 4 in response to a question over Pune, Nagpur & Mumbai metro lines. While the Mumbai and Nagpur projects have been cleared in principle, the Pune Metroline project is under appraisal. But no monies have been allocated even for the sanctioned project so far.

It is asserted that the Union government has made an allocation of ` 126.58 crore for Pune Metro rail in its 2015-16 budget and the Fadnavis government has proposed to allocate ` 175 crore which has been delayed due to lack of consensus on stretches.

The BJP-led government had been facing criticism for "discriminating with Pune" by pushing Nagpur Metro. The State government also made a provision of `197 crore for Nagpur Metro. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) had submitted the revised detailed proposal for Pune of ` 10,869 crore. The State government is in the process of setting up special purpose vehicle company to be named as Nagpur Metro Railway Corporation Ltd in which various stake holders will be directors.

Modi wants clerks back

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Modi wants clerks back
Harish Gupta
New Delhi, March 15
The Filegate scam is set to take a major toll and the contractual Multi-Tasking Staff (MTS) may be a thing of the past.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi is understood to have ordered a reversal of government's decades old recruitment policy which dumped the Lower Division Clerk (LDC).  The LDCs, once considered the backbone of Central government offices and abandoned decades ago, may be back in the reckoning.

The need to relook at the policy arose after recent 
espionage cases exposed the role of MTS personnel outsourced 
or people on contract working at various level in the government. 
The MTS were found involved in furnishing vital government documents and the PM held a series of reviews of various aspects linked to decay in the system

The department of personnel, directly under the Prime Minister, has signalled the recruitment of LDCs sooner than expected and the hiring of the Multi-Tasking Staff (MTS) will be discontinued.

The need to relook at the policy arose after recent espionage cases exposed the role of MTS personnel outsourced or people on contract working at various level in the government. The MTS were found involved in furnishing vital government documents and the PM held a series of reviews of various aspects linked to decay in the system. 

A department of personnel note circulated to various ministries and departments last month argued for recruiting the LDC "to strengthen the level of commitment which cannot be expected from the outsourced staff."

Over the years, the strength of LDCs in the ministries and departments has come down substantially from the original level of about 5,300 after it was stopped in 2003. It is learnt that the a group of ministers did not agree phasing out of LDCs and directed that the matter be reconsidered. Thereafter, the matter remained pending for a long time during the UPA regime due to indecision.

However, the Modi government has decided to take it forward in view of recent weaknesses in the systems. It was also found that the Central Secretariat is heavily top loaded with only 6,700 assistants feeding 3,200 section officers, 1,600 under secretaries, and 1,200 deputy secretaries and directors.

The induction of LDCs will help the government cut flab at the higher levels too and would give continuity and institutional memory as compared to the outsourced staff. However, it is still argued by many in the government that in the era of e-governance and paperless office, maintaining a large cadre of LDCs to carry out routing office jobs manually may be regressive.

Five Central women ministers up in arms

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Five Central women ministers up in arms
Smriti, Uma, Maneka face massive funds cut
Harish Gupta
New Delhi, March 5
The Holi this year is not cheerful for five women Union ministers. 
They are seething with anger and disgust over step-fatherly treatment given to their ministries by Union finance minister Arun Jaitley. 
So massive is the cut in allocation of funds to the human
resources development ministry headed by Smriti Irani during 
2015-16 compared to the previous year that she strongly 
protested to North Block
It is learnt that she even registered her protests to Prime Minister, Narendra Modi as well. However, the PM directed her to take up the matter with the finance minister who expressed his inability to do anything in the matter saying he is left with no funds in the kitty. Her ministry faced a huge cut of ` 12896 crores in school education and ` 801 in high education during 2015-16 compared to 2014-15. If the inflation is taken into the account that cut is more than 23%.

The most popular mid-day meal scheme alone faced a cut of more than ` 1000 crores. Even the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan and NCERT also faced huge cuts in funds allocation. The Sarva Shiksha outlay has dropped from ` 28,000 crore to ` 22,000 crore, Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan fell from ` 4,965 crore to ` 3,548 crore while funds for model school at the block level plunged from ` 1,074 crore to ` 1 crore.

Irani is not the only woman minister to face the wrath of the finance ministry. Whether it is women & child development minister Maneka Gandhi or food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal or water resources & Clean Ganga Mission minister Uma Bharti, all have faced massive cuts in allocation of funds to their ministries. The cut in plan expenditure is so huge that one of them even considered to quit the government in protest.

The Prime Minister has been expressing his serious concerns over lack of irrigation and won the Lok Sabha polls in the name of Clean Ganga Mission. But Uma Bharti holding the water resources & Ganga project ministry also found her ministry's cut by thousands of crores. She was handed out a cut of ` 9604 crores in 2015-16. The clean Ganga Mission was allocated ` 2750 crores compared to ` 2637 crores during 2014-15. 

This is just ` 113 crores higher. Strangely, the funds have not come from the Central plan outlay. But ` 2100 crores have been provided from clean energy cess under the coal & power ministry. 

Maneka Gandhi's ministry faced a cut of nearly ` 11,000 crores for 2015-16 compared to the current financial year and she will have to abandon a number of schemes. Even the Prime Minister's own much touted "Beti Bachao Beti Padhao" project was given a mere ` 97 crores for the whole of next year. The funds for the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) alone were slashed by ` 8300 crores. A large number of schemes for adolescent children were shelved. 

The minority affairs ministry headed by Najma Heptullah was the only one to find that her ministry has been given a raise of ` 4 crores more during 2015-16 compared to the current finance year. 
The funds for the ministry were ` 3734 crores and raised to ` 3738 crores. This is despite the fact that the government would save a huge subsidy on Haj pilgrimage from the next financial year.

However, Jaitley is reported to have told them that he had to give 10% extra funds to the states due to the 14th Finance Commission report and no headroom to accommodate them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Big brother is angry

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

On the face of it, the fact of the annual RSS pratinidhi sabha that concluded in Nagpur last week, giving one more three-year term to its general secretary (sahkaryavah), Suresh Bhaiyaji Joshi, is not of much political consequence for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. Though there had been a strong buzz that Dattatreya Hosabale, a joint general secretary known for his closeness to Modi, might be the winner this time, it proved a flop. Hosabale himself said that there was no need to change the "general" as the "army is doing well".

However, there was an unmistakable sense of relief in the RSS ranks following the decision. It was felt that there would be 'business as usual' with no change of general secretary, who is in fact the chief executive of the brotherhood, while the sarsanchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, is the chief mentor, a post which is high yet mainly titular. Be it in framing policy or moving personnel, it is the sahkaryavah whose word is law in the sangh. It is a fact that every BJP bigwig including powerful ministers must keep this in mind at his own sufferance. And it is one of the 'brotherhood's' worst kept secrets that Bhaiyaji Joshi is not the one who gets swayed by Modi's reformist agenda. Nothing would have pleased the Prime Minister more if Hosabale hadn't cracked so unceremoniously. He is much younger than Modi; besides, the two had worked together in their younger days in the sangh's student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). But Bhaiyaji is a tough cookie.

Modi sensed it from his early days in power at the Centre when an RSS group confronted his acolyte, HRD Minister Smriti Irani, demanding scrapping of the four-year university programme (FYUP) that had been introduced by the Delhi University at the instance of her UPA predecessor Kapil Sibal. Reportedly emboldened by a nod from Bhaiyaji, the RSS interlocutors demanded that undergraduate courses be reverted to three years, thus making the Indian university degree more affordable to the poor. The Modi government wisely decided not to confront its mother organisation by refusing to turn back from an elitist experiment. FYUP was scrapped before its proponents could even blink.

Over time, there came numerous occasions for Modi to be reminded that the RSS hadn't given him unqualified power to call the shots. The 'Shiksha Bachao' (Save Education) committee chief Dina Nath Batra, known for his closeness to Bhaiyaji, and famous for having forced the publisher of Harvard Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger's book on Hinduism to pulp it, launched a move to make the aptitude tests for candidates seeking government jobs less dependent on English skills and more on fluency in Hindi or other Indian languages. Once again an anti-elitist move, it is known to have been accepted by the government in principle and a committee has been set up to advise the Union Public Service Commission on the nitty-gritty of de-Anglicisation of its entry tests.

But the Big Brother was not contented with needling the government merely on cultural issues. The objection to WTO's Bali Agreement that India must not surrender its right to subsidise food came not from any opposition party—the UPA government had in fact buckled a year ago—but due to persistent pressure of Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), an outfit that preaches ultra-nationalist economic ideology.
No reform measure attempted by the Modi government has gone unopposed by RSS's nationalist hardliners, whose thinking process, strangely, resembles socialists of the past. It is much due to sustained opposition from this cabal that the government's steps at labour reform have been glaciated in parliamentary committees. Notable among these are proposed amendments to the Apprentice Act 1961, or the Factories Act 1948, not to speak of an amendment that could make lakhs of small enterprises free from the costly and pointless obligation of furnishing regular returns and maintaining registry. These reforms were all tabled before Parliament last year but are yet to be enacted. There is no effort either to change the Industrial Disputes Act in line with the state government of Rajasthan, by making retrenchment of workers in smaller establishments more a labour issue than political, with the government to have the final call. It is argued that the absence of an 'exit policy' for labour and capital has been largely responsible for turning investors away. But the Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh (BMS), trade union wing of the RSS, is aligned with other central trade union organisations, including those led by the communist parties, in blocking changes in the ID Act. Moreover, the opposition parties, particularly the Congress, were no doubt stumbling block for the Modi government's land acquisition law. Surface Transport and former Rural Development Minister Nitin Gadkari took it as his mission to win over the RSS, and was successful in convincing Mohan Bhagwat.
But even after nine amendments, the Modi land bill is not out of the woods as yet. The hardcore of the RSS somehow has a distaste for the label of being “pro-industry” and “pro-growth”.    The RSS’s ideological arms, like SJM and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, always played off against modernity. During the first NDA government under A. B. Vajpayee, the late Dattopant Thengadi, founder of BMS, made it an ordeal for the government to divest its stakes in its tottering PSUs. It was an embarrassment for a government that had set up, for the first time in the economic history of independent India, a ministry for “disinvestment”. K. Sudarshan, the then RSS chief, would unleash his “nationalist” army of SJM every time Vajpayee toyed with reformist ideas.
Why does RSS refuse to come to terms with the idea of a modern state conscious of its cultural heritage yet open to new ideas? Having a big brother is never a good idea. But it would be wrong to say if the big brother is a bully and bereft of brains.

(The author is national editor Lokmat group)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Dynasty, Next Episode

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

"Politics", as Bismarck the Iron Duke, said centuries ago, "is the art of the possible". The line sounds funny when you think of the picture of Bismarck, with pith helmet on his head and riding a horse. Even such a picture of stern authority at the head of a large empire thought that democracy could be possible some day.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Two guns blazing

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

In this very page last week, I wrote about the daring racket in smuggling classified documents out of government offices in Delhi and mentioned that the people behind it could be dishonest businessmen & industrialists who might pose the biggest ever challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Who will blink”, I kept the question hanging. However, after the unusually aggressive strategy against owners of black money accounts abroad announced in Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s budget speech last week, and some stray but pointed remarks by Modi himself in Lok Sabha on Friday, at least it is clear that the Prime Minister is in no mood to blink. The connection betweenmidnight forays into government premises to snatch cabinet memos with unworried aplomb, and stashing loads of cash in a Swiss office of HSBC Bank for decades without batting an eye, is obvious. It is unaccounted money that breeds political power which, in its turn, breeds a sense of being the master of the universe. The previous UPA regime too fell a victim to these unscrupulous businessmen and their extortionate methods. But nobody protested. Not in the public, at least. However, the Modi-Jaitley team seems ready to take them head-on. The careful planning and determination the government has shown is superior to that of any previous regime crusading against corruption, including the late V. P. Singh’s government.

The tone was set by Modi himself who said a day prior to the presentation of budget that his government was committed to recover illicit money hid out in shadow accounts and would “spare no one” found guilty, even if that invited the charge that he was pursuing vendetta. However, Modi was uncharacteristically polite to the opposition, entreating its leaders not to look at the corruption issue through the “prism” of politics. “I want that this (corruption) issue should not remain confined to political debate; otherwise, we will remain engaged in ‘tu tu main main’ and ‘kiski shirt zyada safed hai’. On the eve of the budget spelling out the concrete measures against the black money mafia, Modi shared some of the secrets with MPs. He said Finance Minister Jaitley had  persuaded the Swiss authorities to be “more forthcoming” with information on those holding illicit accounts in their banks, and that he had himself lobbied with G20 leaders to hold the issue of money laundering among the grouping’s priorities.

In his budget speech, Jaitley, keen to avoid sensationalism, put the illegal foreign account issue not up top but around the middle, and maintained the even tenor of his speech. But the devil, as it is said, was in the detail.

In the Indian system of tax laws, evasion is usually regarded as a civil offence, with the chance of a hassle-free exit from the tax net being bright as long as one is ready to pay the dues with or without fine, including the compounded charges. The claim of the Income Tax Commissioner is not final as a resourceful assessee can approach the settlement commission, besides other authorities like appellate tribunal and the superior courts. However, Jaitley dropped a bomb when he said that he’d soon bring a law against those with black money parked abroad which would treat the offence as non-compoundable, nor would the offender have access to settlement commission. Even more menacingly, under the proposed act, the offence of siphoning off the untaxed riches into foreign banks would no longer be treated as civil offence; it will be a crime calling for a maximum rigorous imprisonment of ten years. It is not difficult to imagine the cold sweat Jaitley’s words brought on some brows in Mumbai.

The FM elaborated that the penalty in such cases could be as high as 300 per cent (four times) the evaded tax. It is a booby-trap Jaitley is preparing to lay because India’s robber barons usually divvy up their illegal holdings into a number of accounts in the name of their trusted underlings, thus spreading risk. If one of them is made to face trial under the new Act, he (or she) must cough up four times the evaded tax, which is difficult without naming its source; or the person must sing like a canary. A few months back, the name of a former woman MP with corporate connections was floating in the air as the alleged holder, in 2006, of an account in a Swiss bank with about five million dollars lying in it at a given point of time. If this new law becomes a reality, she may be forced to produce 20 million dollars in addition to spending ten years in the cooler. If she can’t produce the money in a legitimate manner, she will have to name her master. Which is what the government wants.

Jaitley’s budget leaves no escape route for the habitual money launderers who suppress information regarding their foreign assets while filing tax returns. If such charges are proved, they too will be liable for rigorous imprisonment for seven years. The FM’s roadmap to end the black money raj is clear. Knowing that the illicit cash parked abroad is seldom stationary and it keeps moving to and fro, often being held in India as real estate, the budget has announced a Benami Transaction (Prohibition) Bill which will make it easier to confiscate benami property. I shall not be surprised if it triggers a significant exodus from bubble property markets in Delhi or Mumbai.

In the history of Indian budgets, I think the 2015 budget of Arun Jaitley will go down as the boldest challenge to the power of ruthless moneybags who never accepted that the law is above them. They were always wary of Jaitley but had a wrong notion of Modi, taking him as just another biddable politician. But it is Modi who set up the SIT to investigate black money outflow in his very first cabinet meeting. And now he and his FM are riding full tilt at the black money badshahs, until their ‘boss’ asks: kitne admi the? Only two, but that should be enough.

(The author is National Editor
of Lokmat group)