My works

Business Standard

DNA

I am alive.

 

This is an email I sent to every single contributor to Project Hope on January 12, 2014, the first year anniversary of Hope.

 

 

Hi,

A very happy new year to you!
Today is a special day. It is the first year anniversary of Project Hope. What better day than this to write to you and share what we have accomplished. Nothing of this would have been possible without you. Thank you.
A few of you wrote to me in the earlier months asking my whereabouts. So here it is.
Five months, one full term and 15 kgs lighter I must say I am doing pretty good! Although I don’t have any major update at this moment as grades for the three essays from the first term are yet to be announced. Yes, I am not in the best of situations but nothing ever goes as per the plan. I really wish I could devote less time thinking and planning expenses as the money is woefully short. In my previous emails I did mention about the forex rates hitting my budget hard but this is worse than I imagined. But this isn’t anything that can’t be tackled. I am doing everything possible to make it work and will sail through. Just that, as I said, I wish I could worry less about money.
I am fully satisfied with the course and am really enjoying it. London is pretty and on many days while walking back home and looking at the skyline I think that I can’t believe I actually made it. And I think of each one of you, your emails, your words of support and thank you in my heart. I hope you get the hiccups on a regular basis.
I will write again by the end of this month updating about the grades for the first term.
Cheers!

This is it. Day Zero.

This is an email I sent to every single contributor to Project Hope on September 8, 2013.

 

Hi,

I fly to London tonight.
To be honest, there was a point in the past month when I thought that this email will never happen. But here it is.
Thank you once again. In its truest sense believe me that this wouldn’t have been possible if not for your unconditional support. I am overwhelmed by your love. Definitely my past life’s karma is paying me off.
After being in touch over the past months I am sure you have realised how dramatic I am (cues in some Gothic music), hence I am christening today as Day Zero.
This is where it begins.
Cheers!

 

Pound touches 100

This is an email I sent to every single contributor to Project Hope on August 19, 2013.

 

Hi,

Six months ago when I sat down to budget this MA plan I had to take a worst-case scenario. I took 100 rupees to a pound. Today this nightmare has come true. It is not that I don’t have this money. The question is whether I am being arrogant by still going ahead with it when affording it means looking like a fool.
This is not the first time I am apprising you the currency fluctuation. Some of you replied after my earlier email that I should have handled currency volatility by certain methods. Although, it is really not in my hands. The visa rules needed money to be in the account for a specific period of time. This means that I had no option but to see the rupee slide and see Project Hope expense swell like its been stung by a bee.
By the time I came to a stage where I could buy pounds it had already crossed 92. Obviously I made a mistake by hoping that the RBI guidelines and the government’s actions might come to the rescue.
The question is whether Project Hope is tenable? Am I being pure foolish if I don’t abandon this now? 
Sometimes one needs to go by the gut feel and discard the economic tangent. I am beginning to feel that the increase in monetary implication cannot be ignored anymore.
I am trying to find answers to the above asked questions. Its my job to keep you posted, hence this email. I will communicate my final decision by the end of the week.
Regards,

At What Cost?

This is an email I sent to every single contributor to Project Hope on June 20, 2013.

 

Hi,

To begin with, there are a few who are getting this email for the first time. Well, all of you are getting this particular email for the first time but you have been getting this newsletter kind of email for sometime now and some are receiving it for the first time.

The world has changed since I last wrote to you. And it has changed a lot. Do we change with the changing times or should we act like the stiff tree and stare at the risk of being uprooted?

I started Project Hope in January. The weather was pleasant back then. So was the journey. By March, Mumbai was scorching hot and incidentally the well of Project Hope began to dry up. Everyone waited for the monsoons. Project Hope, too, waited. It arrived. By now the weather and Project Hope were tied to each other’s fate. What followed was torrential rains. We are in the midst of it. How could Project Hope not react to it?

In January, the rupee to a pound was at around 82. I budgeted at 86. Today, pound closed above 92.

What does this mean? This means that my entire expense of 23,000 pounds goes up by Rs 20,000 each time the pound gets stronger by Re 1. If I was spending Rs 19,80,000 when pound was at 86, I am spending Rs 20,00,000 when the pound reaches 87.

Currently, one pound costs Rs 92.

At this point in time I am forced to rethink. Is this too expensive? Is this even a valid question? Am I acting plain stupid now?

The cost-benefit analysis clearly is against this. But I am glad I am not good at this cost-benefit analysis. The returns on imagination is far greater than any the numerical projections.

To some this might look like my plea to ask for more money. I am not asking you for any more money. ‘From the burrow I fell. To the Earth’s core. I did not burn. I got stronger. For I was sand before.’ (Sorry, couldn’t help at trying my hand at a few lines. Clearly, poems are not for me. Also, chemistry is not one of my strong points.)

Moving on.

Although a couple of days ago I did tweet about restarting Project Hope but aborted that plan. Coming back to Twitter to find this money somehow felt like a dent to my credibility. Now you may ask that I am whining about rupee-pound on Twitter all the time. “Yeah, I am working on it,” I would say. Habit of 26 years won’t go in a day. Bear with me.

With this email, I am apprising you of the current position of Project Hope. Turning back from here is not an option. I am not turning back. We have found Rs 24 lakh and this rupee volatility is not going to stop us.

Once again, thank you for being part of this extraordinary journey. My next email to you will be of the visa stamp.

Regards

Does our socialist economy really care about education?

Why do education loans attract the highest interest rates when the government stresses on the impetus of education?

I distinctly remember the union budget speeches of our Finance Minister and now the President of India Pranab Mukherjee and the current finance minister P Chidambaram. They both outlined the government’s focus of elementary education through theSarva Shiksha Abhiyan and theRight to Education Act. Speech after speech they stressed on the government’s commitment towards the education sector.

In P Chidambaram’s last budget speech, the word ‘education’ was used 15 times whereas ‘economy’ was uttered 13 times. However, in the 2010 budget speech of Pranab Mukherjee, he said the word ‘economy’ 19 times and ‘education’ 8 times. Inclusive growth? As part of Mukherjee’s inclusive development agenda, he proposed to increase the plan allocation for school education from Rs.26,800 crore in 2009-10  to Rs.31,036 crore in 2010-11.

“The Right to Education (RTE) Act is being implemented with effect from April 1, 2010 through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). For 2012-13, I have provided Rs 25,555 crore for RTE-SSA. This is an increase of 21.7 per cent over 2011-12,” Mukherjee in 2012-13 budget speech said.
Chidambaram, in 2013-14, said, “Education is the other high priority. I propose to allocate Rs 65,867 crore to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which is an increase of 17 percent over the RE of the previous year. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and the Right to Education Act are firmly in place. I propose to provide Rs 27,258 crore for SSA in 2013-14.”

One might argue that with the above mentioned allocations the government is dispensing its social duties. Education for all.

But is this education for all? Is this inclusive? What happens to higher education? What happens to students who dream to study more?

Of course I am not suggesting that the government should subsidise education at every level. But is it too much to expect realism in terms of affording higher education?

Now let’s look at the latest data available with the Reserve Bank of India. It says that during March 2012 to June 2013 period, the lending rates for education loans saw the sharpest decline of 63 basis points. Kudos! Now the bad part: the median lending rates of scheduled commercial banks for the education sector was 13.12 per cent in June 2013. In simpler terms, if you approached any private bank for an education loan, the interest rate it will charge you is 13.12 per cent. Even after the sharpest decline amongst all sectors, the lending rates for education were only second to credit card interest rates. Necessity versus luxury?

A home loan in June 2013 was available for 10.93 per cent, vehicle loan for 12.85 per cent and agriculture loan for 11.67 per cent versus an education loan, at 13.12 per cent. Credit card interest rates were at 26.67 per cent.

Turns out, socialist, democratic republic of India cares more about capitalism. What else could be the reason that a home loan and vehicle loan is cheaper than education loan?

The banks will tell you that the problem is with the students. They do not repay the loans and the bad debts that banks have to write off in the education loan segment are high. Therefore, as the risk is greater, the interest rates are higher. Instead of finding a solution as to why students are not able to repay their student loans, this is the solution the banks have found.

Now imagine such a situation with a big corporation? Banks would have bent over backwards to offer them a corporate debt restructuring (CDR) plan. No questions asked, interest rates lower, time period increased, more money pumped in, moratorium, etc. Kingfisher Airlines?

This story shows how CDR has increased from Rs 86,535 crore in March 2009 to a whopping Rs 2, 50,279 crore in June 2013.

Now let’s look at the RBI data on the deployment of gross bank credit by major sectors. In July 2012 and 2013,outstanding education loans grew to Rs 49,800 crore and Rs 54,500 crore, respectively The education loans, which are mentioned under the priority sector, as on July 2011 were at Rs 45,300 crore. Lowest after micro-credit at Rs 16,200 crore and export credit at Rs 33,100 crore out of the list of 10.

What does this show? The government’s impetus on education is not necessarily finding space with commercial banks?

The priority sectors or the areas important for the economic and social growth of India are identified to be agriculture, micro and small enterprises, education and housing. Interest rates for all of which are in double digits with education being the highest. Education loan, although described as the harbinger of India’s future and economic stability and growth, classified as a priority sector by the government and the RBI, is still mentioned under the ‘personal loan’ sections.

If education is supposed to uplift the people and with them their families and the economy on the whole, is it still a personal loan?

If the government’s allocation for education goes up year on year, if a student wishes to study more it becomes his personal ambition rather than an ambition for the nation?

A student who wishes to pursue his higher education abroad cannot do so because he doesn’t belong to a rich family and the interest rates that the bank charges on such loans is back breaking. Most banks offer education loan for higher studies abroad of upto Rs 20 lakh with a few public sector banks even offering Rs 25 lakh. But these loans are not without a collateral and understandably so.

But what happens to a student whose family doesn’t have a house to mortgage to the bank to secure the loan? Isn’t it the duty of the government to underwrite the loan for the underprivileged?  Is the flight of one’s dream based on the money his parents or their forefathers earned?
If education is such a top priority for the government then the interest rates, the method of lending and government’s role should reflect that.

(Shubhashish is a journalist who is now pursuing Masters in International Studies and Diplomacy in London. Email: shubhashish@msn.com)

 

This column originally appeared in DNA on October 16, 2013.

 

 

Roads to Hell: The crumbling state of roads in India

Traffic is a synonym of Mumbai. Coupled with narrow roads and the potholes, which now I am beginning to believe are a part of an idea to help people save a trip to the moon or perhaps Mars.

What is it about the financial capital of India that the basic infrastructure of roads is in such a state? And if this is the state of roads in the so-called ‘best urban centre in the country’ I can’t even begin to imagine the state of roads in other parts.

The blood-boil is coupled by the fact that the moment you step out of the cities and hit the highways the roads are butter-smooth, although still dangerous. Our roads are such beautiful pieces of gems that they deserve to awarded the ‘best imitation of the moon’s surface’. And the irony that the minister for road transport and highways is Mr ‘Oscar’ Fernandes is just not a coincidence.

Just for the sake of the tone of this column, I decided to check the website of this ministry. Describing itself, the ministry states, “An apex organisation under the Central Government, is entrusted with the task of formulating and administering, in consultation with other Central Ministries/Departments, State Governments/UT Administrations, organisations and individuals, policies for Road Transport, National Highways and Transport Research with a view to increasing the mobility and efficiency of the road transport system in the country. e Ministry has two wings: Roads wing and Transport wing.”

Nowhere the epitaph speaks about the basic task of building roads. Unless the government believes that our roads are already built and are in order. Just like how the government has brought down poverty in India to 22 per cent by formulating an ingenious policy of lowering the Below Poverty Line (BPL).

Also, read the last sentence of ministry’s self-description closely. The first word is ‘e’. I believe they wanted to write ‘The’ but ‘Th’ must have fallen in the depth of the potholed roads.

Now let’s read what the “Road Wing’ of the ministry actually states as its objectives: ‘Deals with development and maintenance of National Highway in the country.’ The road to development manoeuvres through the highways, touches the cities, misses it till it catches the next highway. After all, India lives on the highways. Cities and villages are too hipsterisque.

The main responsibilities of the ministry again begin with the importance given the national highways through planning, development and their maintenance. By now I am hoping the government should also form a ministry to look into a direct helicopter services from cities to these highways because clearly those are only roads the government is interested in.

The second and the only point that talks anything about the roads that makes our insurance premiums payments cry, it says, “Extends technical and financial support to State Governments for the development of state roads and the roads of inter-state connectivity and economic importance.” If the conditions of our city roads are anything to go by, then NASA should contract the Indian government to supply the technology to recreate the moon and its craters on Earth.

As you can read in this  article of 2010, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh outlined the spending on India’s infrastructure to the tune of $1 trillion in the 12th five year plan currently underway.

In the current and the second year of this five year plan, Singh finalised a spending of Rs 1,15,000 crore on the infrastructure sector, or roughly one-fourth of the total target of $1 trillion in these five years.

However, the impetus, as you can see, is not on the roads sector.

The road ministry had set an ambitious target of building 20 km of roads a day in 2009. However, in 2011-12 the average road construction, as this  story suggests, was just half of it.In 2012-13, the road ministry failed to even meet the half way mark of 4400 km in awarding road projects.

Even in the current fiscal, the bickering between the ministry and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) continues on the model that the government should adopt to award the road projects. As per this story, a ministry official commented, “Just because PPP projects have not taken off in the recent past doesn’t mean we junk the model and switch over to cash-contracts. We need to innovate and try all options before taking such a step.”

This indicates, if nothing else, continued delays in the road construction in India. And if this is what is happening to the government’s blue-eyed highways which are just a tiny fraction of India’s vast road network, us city dwellers and village folk can continue to save our amusement park money by enjoying the bumpy ride every day.
 
(Shubhashish is a journalist who is now pursuing Masters in International Studies and Diplomacy in London. Email: shubhashish@msn.com)

 

This column originally appeared in DNA on October 12, 2013. 

%d bloggers like this: