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Archive for the ‘Corruption’ Category

Meditating For Moolah

Posted by anandrr on January 28, 2010

This being my very first trip to an Ashram of any kind, I was expecting to run into a strong cult of personality, but little that would annoy me. The surprises started at the get-go.

The ashram is a huge swath of land in San Ramon covering many hills, valleys, lakes, and what appear to be moderate-sized farms. We visited on a Saturday, the only weekend during Amma’s two weekend-Bay Area visit that she would be meeting with the public. “Giving darshan,” as we Indians say.

The main action is centered around an auditorium, a  middling barn-like structure built on the side of a hill. The area around the ashram had been converted into make-shift parking lots, each with a jarring title: the Kailash lot, the Rishikesh lot and so on.

The Punyam Trail to the Parking Lot

The Punyam Trail to the Parking Lot

The Kailash lot is connected to the auditorium via the Punyam trail that cuts across the intervening hill. No word on whether those who take the longer scenic route to the auditorium are missing out on the short cut to salvation.

As you walk to the event, you are surrounded by cars whose owners proclaim both their love for the mother as well as their extreme liberalism (2-heart-Amma license plates cheek by jowl with bumper stickers sloganeering for Peace) You also find that you are surrounded by a wide variety of Indians, some non-Indian Asians, and a large number of Caucasians dressed in white kurtas, salwars, and donning beads and necklaces. It is then that you realize that this combination of Indian and white is only seen in one other type of event in the Bay Area: classic rock concerts. Those who have been will recognize this readily: if you went to a Roger Waters or Mark Knopfler or Jethro Tull concert in the Bay Area in the nineties you would have come upon a curious demographic mix, old baby boomer Americans with tie dyes, pony tails and young twenty-something Indians raised on a steady diet of  classic rock. Replace the older hippies with a younger version, and you have the demographic mix of the “mother” events. As you approach the auditorium, you realize that the similarity to a rock concert is not entirely incidental, the business model seems to be almost entirely copied. There is one vital difference: the main event, the meeting (and embrace!) with the “mother” is free. But this event is surrounded by commercial merchandising that will take your breath away. To start with, just as the Stones go on tour with the prominent “lick” logo, so does the “mother.” She comes complete with a swooshy logo that would make Nike proud, as well as a slogan for the North American leg of her tour (Embracing the World, natch). Everything is on sale with a high markup. Books, tapes, CDs, holy water, holy ash, holy sandal wood, holy incense, holy puja material, holy everything, all duly blessed. Pictures and paintings of doubtful artistic value but incalculable blessing value. Food of doubtful nutritional and even less culinary value. But the one that had me gasping for air was the table with the offerings to the mother. Devotees like to take offerings to the mother when they gain darshan. Towards this, they can buy at this table a small box of Hershey’s kisses for $4 or a large bag of the same candy for $7. This is chutzpah that would make Donald Trump proud. Buy the items at Costco for a cheap $1-$2, sell them to a devotee at around 4x the price and then, follow me carefully here, get it right back from the devotee as an offering.

‘I don’t understand why you buy eggs for seven cents apiece in Malta and sell them for five cents’
‘I do it to make a profit’
‘But how can you make a profit? You lose two cents an egg.’
‘But I make a profit of three and a quarter cents an egg by selling them for four and a quarter cents an egg to the people in Malta I buy them for seven cents an egg. Of course, I don’t make a profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share.’
Yossarian felt he was beginning to understand. ‘And the people you sell the eggs to at four and a quarter cents apiece make a profit of two and three quarter cents apiece when they sell them back to you at seven cents apiece. Is that right? Why don’t you sell the eggs directly to you to eliminate the people you buy them from?’
‘Because I’m the people I buy them from’, Milo explained.

— Joseph Heller, Catch-22

At least Milo would be proud.

Once you’re past the curious demographics, the branding and the commercialism you finally find the groupies. You can’t have a rock concert without them, and the same goes for a  darshan. There they are, overcome by the mere sight of the lovely lady, alternately rapturous and stunned into speechless wonderment. I was put in mind of this one time that I ran into Vijay Amritraj at the Leela in Bangalore and my jaw dropped to the floor as I stood there and reminisced about his game-changing performance at the Davis Cup against Martin Jaite. I found myself strangely immobile, overcome by the dueling emotions of wanting to fall on my knees and kiss his ring and simultaneously unable to do anything lest this heavenly apparition suddenly disappear. I’ve never  been much for the divine souls myself, but I must imagine the feeling on encountering the amma is somewhat similar.

All told, I suppose the most egregious aspect of the experience was encountering such a blatantly capitalistic enterprise cloaked in so much anti-materialistic spiritualism. In a sense, it is a matter of  some not insubstantial aspiration and achievement that a mere girl from the fishing villages of Kerala has ascended to the head of a huge multi-million (billion?) dollar enterprise, and who am I to fault her for her enterprise and gumption if this is how she chose to get there. On the other hand, it leaves one with the realisation that perhaps nothing is really sacred any more, not even the sacred. That takes getting used to, when I get there, perhaps I’ll have true zen.

Posted in Business, Capitalism, Corruption, Culture, Economics, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

L’affaire Satyam: Two Thoughts

Posted by anandrr on January 12, 2009

Just two quick thoughts about this whole Satyam business.

Not to condone what Mr Raju did, has confessed to doing or might confess to over the days to come, but I’m forced to ask: How much of the cavalier attitude towards the law that seems all pervasive in Indian businesses is fostered by the excessive regulation of business with a low price bar set for (apparent) compliance (i.e., just pay off the official in charge of ensuring compliance)? For a country that prides itself on the entrepreneurial spirit of its people, we make it exceedingly hard for entrepreneurs to start companies. To take a tiny example, just being a Director of private company requires registration with the Government, while I would argue that even for a public company the most that should be required is SEBI clearance. I’m not a Laffer curve enthusiast for the most part, but the situation in India seems very pre-Kennedy and it seems like a reduction in regulation would increase (real) compliance very greatly.

Second, we are now in an environment where a large number of software engineers are suddenly going to find themselves out of jobs with a full blown recession ensuring that they have nowhere to turn. Sounds like a great opportunity for the Central Government. The Government has many fine labs and research centres (DRDO, ISRO, HAL, NAL…) suffering from an acute shortage of good engineers because all the good ones go to the private sector for the money. If the labs have any sense, they’ll all go and set up shop in the Satyam’s parking lot and scoop up the best people from there and make some real lemonade from lemons. If I know my Government well, this opportunity too will pass like many others before and many more to come.

Posted in Business, Capitalism, Corruption, Economics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Quickie Film Review: Sarkar Raj

Posted by anandrr on January 1, 2009

We watched Sarkar Raj recently. We waited so long because we had watched Sarkar and had been rather unimpressed. We are not big fans of derivative movies. Except when we are, of course. But Sarkar Raj was good! We enjoyed it thoroughly.  Watching it, we were struck by two things: First, an open-collar-black-jacket, clean shaven Abhishek could stand in for Obama in the movie version of 2008. Second, as often as Abhishek utters the word “change” (except he calls it badlav) in Sarkar Raj, heck, he probably is Obama. I doubt that the word change has ever been uttered more pointlessly and vacuously anywhere else except in the Obama campaign?

Posted in Corruption, Films, Politics, Reviews, Showbiz | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Stop Making Me Kill You

Posted by anandrr on September 24, 2008

A bunch of disgruntled workers got together and allegedly beat up the CEO of their company leading to his unfortunate death. Sad story. There are good ways to deal with the situation. Then there’s the Oscar Fernandes, Union Minister of Labour, way. Blame the CEO.

Describing the killing of L.K. Chaudhury, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of an Italy-based company Graziano Transmissioni in Greater Noida as a fallout of the “simmering discontent among the workers,” the government on Tuesday said, this should serve as a warning for managements.

“It is my appeal to the managements that the workers should be dealt with compassion,” Minister of Labour and Employment (Independent charge) Oscar Fernendes told journalists here.

There are disparities in the wages of permanent employees, contract and temporary workers. The workers should not be pushed so hard that they resort to whatever that had happened in Greater Noida, he said.

Well played Oscar. Well played.

Posted in Capitalism, Communism, Corruption, Culture, Economics, In Memoriam, Incentives, Politics, wtf | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Corruption is Endemic in India

Posted by anandrr on June 29, 2008

Professional economists tell us what we all already knew: Corruption is everywhere. As we’ve observed before, Indian governments are caught in a cleft stick here. The only way to solve this problem is to pay your government bureaucrats more, but we’re too poor and run too large a deficit to try either of these (paying bureaucrats more money will not win you an election, forgiving billions of rupees in farmer’s loans might). The only way out would appear to be have an independent agency do a good job of holding corrupt officials accountable. But even that is only a partial solution. If being a babu became less rewarding, people would just stop entering public service.

I am reminded here of the times we ourselves obtained our car-driving license. We have now done this three times. The first time was at the Bangalore RTO. That was a simpler time, to be sure. Much less corruption, indeed we ourselves had got our motorcycle drivers’ license at the very same RTO in the straightforward drive-the-motorcycle-around-the-block and the demonstrate-your-knowledge-of-hand-signs manner. When the time came for the car license, we had first gone to a driving school to learn. Said driving school then lined up 4 or 5 of us with a school-supplied-car (we took our dad’s) to drive around the block. Since there were about 5 of us, we got an opportunity to watch every one drive, some could barely get the car to move, some stalled on turns, yet others had no idea what the hand signals were. We ourselves had amply supplemented our driving school lessons with driving our dad’s car all around town so we had little trouble demonstrating our perfect driving skills. Needless to say, we failed the test. Others who clearly had no idea how to drive, passed. This was the very first time we had failed a test in our life, so we were completely heart broken. Perhaps it was the complete arbitrariness that broke our spirits, or perhaps it was our very first experience with corruption. Our father of course encouraged us with word and gesture to go take the test again with a positive attitude. Thankfully, we passed the next time around, and all was well with the world. One shudders to think what might have happened had we failed again.

The second time we had to get a driver’s license was when we went to the US. This time we were at school in Utah and the first break we got, my room mate and I decided to rent a car, go to the DMV, get our licenses, and then drive on down to Las Vegas for our first American-style vacation on the road. The Utah license seemed like fun. After we paid our fees, the good lady told us to go take the written test. As we headed test-wards, she asked if we didn’t want the DMV book to refer to as we took the test. An open book test! We had just spent the previous evening reading up on American signs, and which way to point the wheel when parked on a downhill, and here apparently all we needed to do was know how to read the Table of Contents. Of course, we took the books, aced the tests and then proceeded to take the driving  test. Turned out that the driving test was conducted not on the streets, but in a test driving range, complete with demarcated parallel parking spots and train crossings with flashing reds, and a complete absence of real traffic. We did the entire test well, parallel parked with ease, came to a complete stop at the stop signs, turned left into the left most lane, perfect in every way. And then we returned to the office and I was told I had failed. “You didn’t look over your shoulder before changing lanes,” the DMV officer told me rather mournfully. She was just as disappointed in the result as I was, I had done everything just right apparently, but not looking over one’s shoulder was a failing offence, nothing to be done about it. I protested that when there was absolutely no traffic anywhere around me for miles, nothing in my rearview mirrors, nothing ahead of me, it was a little much to expect me to pretend there was traffic and look over my shoulder. I mean there is a blind spot and all, but dammit, I’m not  that blind. But to no avail. She took my point however and said that since all I did wrong was that one thing, instead of having to wait the usual week or two before being allowed to take the test again, I could return the next day and retake the test, just remember to look over your shoulder this time. We returned the next day, retook the test, pointedly looked over our shoulder (to his credit, the DMV officer gave us a few chances to change lanes so we had ample opportunity to demonstrate our look-over-the-shoulder-skills). This gave us our license so we could now drive on down to Las Vegas and party like real Americans. Also, we had a non-passport id that we could show at the door of an establishment requiring age-check so there was that.

The third opportunity to interact with license-granting authorities came in California. Having postponed getting our license as long as possible (a few years beyond the legal 2 weeks), we were finally forced to visit the DMV when our Utah license expired. No driving test this time, just the written. No open book test this time either. The California test had a few trick questions requiring more than one’s common sense but also real knowledge of the law. We barely made it through, we got 3 wrong, we think 5 wrong disqualifies one. But the DMV officer was impressed! She beamed at me as if I were the smartest person to walk into the DMV that day, just 3 wrong! Personally, we were just glad we were going to get out of the DMV with our license in one try, but we weren’t about to argue with the soft bigotry of low expectations. Of course, this being California, we didn’t actually leave with our license, in fact we had to return to the DMV a couple more times before we got the damn license, but that’s California bureaucracy for you.

Now that we’re back in India, we might have to return to the RTO some time. We’d like to get all our names in various official documents to all read the exact same so we are never harassed by random officals just looking to give us a hard time. But we’re not sure we’ll leave the RTO with our wallets intact, so we’re postponing this as long as we can.

Posted in Cars, Corruption, Culture, Funny, Incentives, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »