Guess who can see your tax data

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
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Believe it or not, it has been turned over to a private firm

A few months ago in April, a number of news reports announced that the Government has ‘decided to set up a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to provide information technology support to various stakeholders under the proposed Goods and Services Tax (GST)’. The GST is a value-added tax that is expected to replace all indirect taxes on goods and services imposed by the Centre and Indian states. The SPV, termed the GST Network (GSTN), is seen as an important step in ushering in a little understood but much touted reform, because it will make it possible to bring together taxation data from the Centre and states that was so far processed separately.

But the innocuous language hides the fact that we are soon headed for an entirely different paradigm as far as our tax data is concerned. The GSTN is already in place as a private limited company despite strong opposition by senior officials of the Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC), and Naveen Kumar, former chief secretary of Bihar, has been appointed chairman. The body will control all new indirect tax data from the Centre and states and will have access to past data as well. The charges it will impose for processing this data will be the revenue that sustains its operations.

Since the Finance Ministry has recently directed the CBEC and Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) to sign an MoU for the sharing of data, GSTN will be able to access and process the entire tax data of the country, both of direct and indirect taxes. Obviously, this should have been a matter for far more public debate than it has evoked, but the actual process of setting up GSTN is far more alarming than this broad outline. Since it will have to be in place before the GST is rolled out, the Finance Ministry has asked the CBEC to hand over the processing of data for tax surveillance to GSTN, which would ensure it a revenue stream as soon as it takes over these functions.

As a result, this innocuous sounding body will be the sole information hub for linking and processing all of India’s tax data, something that has never been attempted by the Government, leave alone a private entity. And this approach appears to have no parallel anywhere in the world. This is being done in the absence of any security or privacy provisions in place. In fact, no serious discussion or planning of any sort on security or privacy implications has been undertaken. Some of the most sensitive financial data in the country—for individuals, firms and the Government—will soon be in the hands of a private entity which has not even conceptualised its approach to data security.


In January 2011, the Technology Advisory Group for Unique Projects (TAGUP) headed by Nandan Nilekani recommended the setting up of five infotech intensive financial projects—for the Income Tax Department, National Pension Scheme, Reserve Bank of India, and for tracking government expenditure and GSTN for the GST. A similar structure for each of the five was proposed, a not-for-profit Section 25 company, with a self-sustaining revenue model, where the Government’s holding would be restricted to 49 per cent and private institutional holding set at 51 per cent.

While Nilekani did not want to go on record on the issue, I did meet GSTN Chairman Naveen Kumar at Hotel Janpath in a room at the end of a long corridor that serves as GSTN’s office premises. He was quite open about the need for such a private body: “We are basically an IT company. We will build infrastructure, operate and maintain it. This sector requires very high salaries and we can hire the best people from the sector. Then there is the question of the number of rules and regulations in government. Financial management norms have to be observed. These are quite time consuming. Doing anything takes time. We need to make records, observe rules, follow procedures, follow tendering methods, undergo vetting by the CAG, CVC and be under the CIC. Here we are not bound by rules, we can work faster, be more efficient.”

Whatever the efficiency argument, the not-for-profit structure means that before the company can sustain itself by levying user fees, it needs funds to hire the staff Kumar needs. Private investors—Housing Development Finance Corp Ltd, HDFC Bank Ltd, LIC Housing Finance Ltd, ICICI Bank Ltd and NSE Strategic Investment Corp Ltd—have no incentive to provide the necessary money. Thus, GSTN has been set up on equity of just Rs 10 crore and the Government has provided it a one-time grant of Rs 315 crore. Effectively, then, the Centre has funded a start-up that it does not even have majority control of.


Despite the money, since GSTN is already in place as a self-sustaining body, it needs sources of revenue other than those that would be eventually generated from receiving and processing GST data. These according to the [Empowered Group on IT Infrastructure for GST headed by Nilekani ], will include registration—‘…there is an urgent need of national ‘Unique and Shared’ Tax Payer registration database. For this purpose, the existing registration details kept at various tax systems can be shared using one existing identifier i.e. PAN. The use of PAN as a common identifier will go a long way in inter-linking various tax systems and in ensuring higher compliance and increased tax revenues’—and a Tax Payer Profiling Utility (TPU) which would ‘leverage registration information based on common PAN’ to offer such services.

In November 2011, when the CBEC was brought fully into the picture, Sheila Sangwan, then Member (Budget and Computerisation), had summarised the problems with the EG’s proposals: ‘…a meeting was held on 14/15 November 2011 in the Chairman’s office to discuss the structure and functions of the proposed GSTN… Dr Nandan Nilekani has mentioned as minuted that there is need to go in for the SPV even without GST being introduced. He further stated that it is based on PAN data and inter-departmental sharing of return data which will generate substantial additional revenue because of cross matching of data. He mentioned that the data matching between the Maharashtra VAT department and that with CBEC has generated additional revenue of about Rs 500 Crore. Here it is important to mention that the successful Tax 360 is a pilot initiative implemented in house by the Directorate of Systems, CBEC where data on registration, returns and payments was collected from the Central Excise, Service Tax, Customs, Income Tax and Commercial Tax Departments of the State of Maharashtra. Having implemented a successful Tax 360 programme, which has detected an evasion of about Rs 500 Crore, it is but natural that the Department of Systems can claim the capability to undertake Tax 360. Besides this, Tax 360 is a core function of the Tax Departments. There was unanimity amongst the officers present that the sovereign function to be performed by the tax administration should be kept out of the purview of the GST.’

‘…If the purpose of setting up the proposed structure for this SPV with the proposed equity is to give operational and financial independence, it is suggested that this operational freedom could be better achieved for a Government SPV through appropriate legislation… There are certain concerns regarding the privacy of tax payers’ data if the proposed GSTN as a private entity were to be made a national repository of data including direct and indirect taxes. The Chief Information Security Officer for CBEC has expressed reservations about the national repository of tax data resting in a private entity, should the GSTN be designated to perform the analytics of data from all agencies including the income tax and Customs… Across the tax administration in the world, the privacy of taxpayer data is accorded utmost priority and it is the practice to house this data in Government hands …Specific attention is also initiated to the fact that the Directorate of Income Tax (Systems) is proposing to create a SPV in the public sector given the sensitivity of their Income Tax returns and payment data.’

Sangwan was pointing out that if the CBEC could implement the pilot project by outsourcing computation functions to vendors of its choice, there was little reason for GSTN. Much the same could be done through a government-controlled body that would outsource computing requirements but would not lose control over the data. This would have the advantage of retaining the security and privacy safeguards and legal controls that already exist for such data.

The apprehensions of senior officers of the CBEC at the time were set aside by its then Chairman SK Goel, who did not address the essential question of who would be the repository of the data, and instead wrote that, ‘With regard to the concern of IT Security, it is not connected to the ownership of the management—Government or non-Government. In fact, the level of security is dependent upon the standards, safeguards and control processes that are put in place by the management. The GSTN could be asked to build necessary safeguards for ensuring the security and privacy aspects…With regard to the legislative route to set up SPV as Government entity, it is in complete contrast to the decisions taken in the past and it would jeopardize the consensus achieved so far and bring the discussions back to square one.’

In other words, security at GSTN was really someone else’s worry, and since no one had earlier objected to private control, it was too late to do so now, whatever the apprehensions.


The same TAGUP that conceived of GSTN while discussing the Tax Information Network (TIN) for the Income Tax Department had conceded that ‘The Department holds the personal and financial data of taxpayers in a fiduciary capacity and carries out a sovereign function of the State. Therefore, it needs to have control on strategic assets including the software, hardware and the databases as well as exclusive control over use and dissemination of data. It is recommended, therefore, that TIN should adopt the best practices for transparency and privacy as discussed in this report.’ It is difficult to imagine that the same principle does not apply to indirect tax data, given that this is sensitive information too. But the structure and functioning envisaged for GSTN implies that neither the CBEC nor CBDT would retain exclusive control over the use and dissemination of its data.

To ensure there was no misunderstanding, I asked Naveen Kumar about control of the data. For the GST, he said, “We will start from scratch with our own servers and beginning with a list of dealers we will start building a database of transactions on our system. For this, we do not need additional data from the Customs or any other department.” Clearly then, this data would lie on GSTN servers. They would not be a processing house for data that would be eventually stored on CBEC servers.

What, I asked, if tax profiling was also to be carried out by GSTN? “We could allow each state and the Centre to access our data and connect it to the data they already have. This would mean that we would need 30 different procedures. That is not efficient, we can do much better. In practice that would mean that we have access to their data.” Earlier this month, the Revenue Secretary directed the Member (Computerisation) of the CBEC and the Additional Secretary (Revenue) to work out a date by which phase II of the pilot project mentioned by Sangwan in her letter is handed over from the CBEC to GSTN. This includes business data profiling—in other words, control over indirect tax data has to go over to GSTN. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the sharing of data between the CBEC and the CBDT has already been approved by the Finance Minister and an MoU is shortly to be signed.

Asked how issues of security and privacy are to be dealt with in such an eventuality, Naveen Kumar said, “Security will be set up and rules will be put in place. As for which government laws and legislation or other controls will apply to us, that will be part of the GST legislation.” It is not clear when the GST legislation will be passed, but it is clear that tax profiling and surveillance will be handed over to GSTN within the next few months.

Because of the sensitive nature of such data, the EG report on the GSTN had a separate section on Security which states that ‘various international standards and best practices may be customized to define a comprehensive certification framework for GSTN SPV. The certificate may include ISO 27001, ISO 15048 (Common Criteria) and BS 25999, which may be made mandatory for GSTN SPV under the agreement between the Government and GSTN SPV.’

However, in another 2011 note, Sangwan had said, ‘Any new agency which is going to be set up will take time to evolve security systems across people, processes and technology. CBEC’s ISO 27001 certification process began in 2008 and the final certification was awarded in July 2011. ISO 27001 is an assurance to all stakeholders that CBEC follows a formal information security management process. It took three years for the security paradigm to be in place. It is therefore likely that there is going to be a considerable time lag before such an agency would be in a position to guarantee security standards for such data.’

Clearly then, there seem to be two options: one, that GSTN as a private entity dealing with the processing of all tax data as envisaged now should be set aside till the matter is discussed in detail and the requirements of security and privacy are adequately dealt with, or that we are heading towards a regime where the country’s entire tax data—yours, mine, the Tata Group’s, Reliance’s et al—will be accessible through a body which will be in no position to guarantee security standards. The latter is the choice the Government seems to have made. It is a frightening prospect, but it does not seem to worry this government, or, for that matter, the opposition.


Shields Against Terror

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Village Defence Committees have played an important role in containing militancy in the Jammu region

The message was clear: a group of terrorists would strike Lihota anytime. The Muslim watchman had travelled miles to convey this to his friends in a tiny hamlet in the foothills of the Himalayas in Jammu & Kashmir’s Doda district. It was July 1999, and not very far from there, a war was on in Kargil between India and Pakistan.

Lihota had only a few families, 39 people in all. Some of them had earlier been given guns by the Government. They were part of what had come to be known as Village Defence Committees (VDCs) in the Jammu region of the state. It had not taken much time for militancy to spread to these parts from the Kashmir Valley. By 1993, militants had struck at several places in Doda and other areas, attacking members of the Hindu minority. The terrain was rugged and densely forested, and hamlets like Lihota were at least a day’s journey away from the nearest Army or police camp. That is why the few VDC members in Lihota always kept their .303 Lee Enfield rifles by their side.

That day in 1999, it is not clear whether the residents of Lihota tried to get some help during daylight. But as night fell, nine VDC members took position in a picket overlooking the narrow path leading to Lihota. At about 9 pm, they saw heavily-armed men climbing up. They opened fire. But their weapons were no match for the automatic weaponry the terrorists had. In no time, the picket was overrun and some VDC members were killed. But still, the others persisted and put up a brave fight against the terrorists, who were forced to retreat. In all, almost half of Lihota’s population was wiped out that night. But had it not been for the VDCs and their guns, perhaps Lihota wouldn’t exist on the map today.

In the wake of the recent Kishtwar violence, with the Valley’s separatist groups and some mainstream political parties making a fevered pitch to disband VDCs, it is imperative to understand the dynamics of militancy in the Jammu region.

In the 1990s, militancy first reached Doda because of its proximity to the Valley. About 40 per cent of Doda’s population is of Kashmiri origin. While militancy burst out in 1990 in the Valley, it took about three years to pose a threat to the people of Doda, especially its Hindu population. As early as October 1991, militants had kidnapped a French engineer Silva Antonia from the Dul Hasti hydroelectric project site in Kishtwar (which was then a part of Doda district). In August 1993, terrorists stuck at Sarthal in Kishtwar, killing 17 Hindus. In January 1996, in another massacre, 16 Hindus were gunned down in the region. By the mid-90s, militancy had spread to other regions of Jammu as well, including Poonch and Rajouri. Between April 1998 and February 1999, more than 150 people of the Hindu minority were killed by terrorists in these two districts.

Fighting terrorism in these areas was a challenge for the Government. Deploying troops in a difficult area like Doda was a daunting task. Spread over 11,961 sq km, the district had 651 villages, and troop deployment here in the mid-90s was less than that in Baramulla district in Kashmir Valley. Terror attacks had triggered off an exodus similar to that from Kashmir Valley, where 350,000 Pandits had to leave their homes in the wake of an Islamist insurgency. Thousands of people began to arrive in Doda and Kishtwar town from villages in the region’s upper reaches to live in temples and other such community-owned buildings.

Initially, the administration sent them back along with a police party that would then camp with them in the village. “But this method had two [problems],” says the former Director General of the J&K Police, Kuldeep Khoda, who was then DIG of Udhampur-Doda range. “One: the force was getting sucked in permanently and we didn’t have an unlimited supply; two: such a measure was only taken once a massacre had already taken place.”

That is when the decision to involve civilians in this fight was taken. Initially, many were reluctant to take up the Government’s offer of arms and training, fearing reprisals from terrorists. But soon, many elders in villages, especially Army ex-servicemen, opted for it.

Right from the beginning, VDCs have had an effective role in deterring terrorists. Says Khoda, “Terrorists realised that if they have to create a fear psychosis, they would rather do it in a non-VDC village. They started avoiding villages with VDCs.”

The formation of VDCs also put an end to the exodus of Hindus. They felt secure and continued with their lives in their villages. But the VDCs had to pay a price for their resistance. In November 2000, VDC member Satish Kumar did not let terrorists enter his village Khala in Kishtwar. In his effort to fend off a massacre, he was himself killed.

Terrorists would target family members of VDCs—largely Hindu—as well. In December 2000, four children of a VDC member Gyan Singh were killed by terrorists in the Mahore area of Jammu. Between 1996 and 2007, at least 128 VDC members were killed by terrorists. The gravity of the situation can be gauged by the fact that despite counter- terrorism measures such as VDCs, many massacres of Hindus still took place. In June 1998, 25 Hindus who were a part of a marriage party were killed in Doda. In July, 16 others were killed in two villages. In July 1999, they stuck at Lihota, killing 15, but the bravery of VDCs prevented a bigger massacre. In August 2000, 11 Hindus were killed in Doda. In 2001 as well, the spate of killings continued, prompting the Centre to bring this entire region under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

In Poonch and Rajouri, the local Gujjar population was initially wary of taking up arms against militants. Though some of them acted as guides for militants trying to cross the Line of Control, they hardly harboured any anti-India sentiments. Through the mid 90s, terrorists perpetrated several massacres of the Hindu minority, including one during Vajpayee’s Lahore Bus Yatra in February 1998 in which 20 Hindus were killed in three incidents. But by 2001, there were several cases where terrorists of Pakistani origin, owing allegiance to groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba, began to harass and intimidate Gujjars, especially their womenfolk. That is when several of them took up the Government offer and joined VDCs.

Here, a few all-Muslim, all-women VDCs were formed as well. During a major operation launched by the Army in Poonch in 2003, codenamed Operation Sarp Vinash, to weed out terrorists who had infiltrated Indian territory, information supplied by a VDC led to the busting of a major terrorist hideout. Here too, VDCs had to pay a heavy price. In Poonch in February 2001, 15 members of a VDC, all Muslim, were burnt to death by terrorists. In June 2004, another ten (again all Muslims) were gunned down by terrorists.

In recent years, some cases of VDC highhandedness have been reported. But security experts say they are few and far between. Often, VDCs have been compared to the Salwa Judum, Chhattigarh’s anti-Maoist militia of civilians. But that comparison is silly. One, in Chhattisgarh, Maoists do not indulge in massacres of a particular tribe or community. Two, VDCs do not go out hunting for terrorists. That is why there is no possibility of civilian casualties that has almost been a norm in Salwa Judum operations. Three, the Salwa Judum mostly comprises of young men, some of them in their teens, which is again not the case with VDCs. “Comparison with the Salwa Judum is ridiculous,” says MM Khajuria, former DGP of J&K. “Those who do it are either uninformed or playing to the separatist gallery.”

In the coming days, the pitch for the disbanding of VDCs will only grow louder in a state where mainstream politicians are in competitive secessionism with separatist groups. Khoda feels that the VDCs ought to stay, especially along the LoC and in areas close to Kashmir Valley. But he says in other areas, where there has been no incident of militancy in the past five years, there needs to be a review of VDCs. “It had already been happening silently,” he says. “In several cases, the VDC members opted out themselves since they got a job elsewhere or turned old.” But now, with a real threat of the migration of the region’s Hindu minority looming large, these VDCs, it seems, will only have a larger role to play.


Up Against Godmen

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Narendra Dabholkar’s assassination leaves a legislative battle unfinished with no one to take it up

On the morning of 20 August, a couple of hours before rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar fell victim to bullets in Pune, a more popular figure, astrologer Jayant Salgaonkar, died of old age-related health complications in Mumbai. Though Salgaonkar had a much bigger fan following—including renowned journalists and editors—the media chose to give his death just a passing mention. Few media houses wanted to be caught on the wrong foot on the day a rationalist was killed.

Salgaonkar, the founder of the Marathi almanac Kaalnirnay, a must-have in every Maharashtrian household, was no friend of Dabholkar. They represented two diametrically opposed viewpoints, each believing he held an edge over the other. Yet, when both died on the same day, it wasn’t surprising to see an otherwise sought after Salgaonkar fade away silently.

Such was Dabholkar’s personality. As the founder of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, an anti-superstition movement, he eclipsed the powerful and well-connected. So forceful were his arguments that there were few who could match his reasoning. And even among these few, there weren’t many who wanted to get on the wrong side of him or get into an argument.

Born on 1 November 1945, the youngest among ten children, Dabholkar, a resident of Satara in western Maharashtra, was a general practitioner of medicine. In his family, as in many others, religious practices formed an important part of life. His questioning of religious rituals within the family did not begin until his late teens when he urged his family to give it all up. His impassioned pleas earned him the reputation of a rebel in those formative years.

Though Maharashtra was going through a period of social change, Dabholkar’s task—ridding society of superstition—was not easy. Like India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Dabholkar too believed that the future belonged to science and those who made friends with it stood a better chance. There were takers for his belief, but they were outweighed by those who believed that the Universe is a creation of a god who controls every event on Earth.

Followers were difficult to come by and those there were lacked the intensity to help him bring in change. Until 1983, he practised medicine. His patients were the first people he decided to bring into the fold of social reform. Those who knew Dabholkar say he wanted quick results and was unwilling to convert to an opinion that diverged from his own. Many say his opinions were far too radical for most people.

A glimpse of this can be gleaned from a press conference Dabholkar held in the mid-90s at the Patrakar Sangh in Pune, close to where he was recently gunned down. “Why should women wear mangalsutra and sindoor on their foreheads? It will not increase the lifespan of their husbands. They should just stop wearing both,” Dabholkar had told the media. Predictably, women did not take kindly to such a radical thought and the cause died a natural death.

Dabholkar’s biggest battle has been trying to get several Maharashtra governments to pass the Superstition Eradication and Anti-Black Magic Bill which would have brought under its ambit a host of religious practices, rituals and related acts as forbidden by law. Though the bill was brought in for seven consecutive sessions of the Maharashtra Legislature, it did not even come up for discussion. The political class, with its strong affiliation to various spiritual gurus and fondness for magic stones, talismans and charms, hated both the bill and Dabholkar. Since many believed their political careers were intricately woven with the ascendency of stars and predictions of gurus, antagonising them was ruled out. Dabholkar was easier to offend.

His worst opponents were those from the BJP, Shiv Sena, the Warkari sect (followers of Dynaneshwar and Tukaram), Sanathan Prabhat, Hindu Janjagran Manch, Patit Pawan Sanghatana and Bajrang Dal. They collectively felt that the bill advocated by Dabholkar would adversely impact Hindu culture, customs and traditions. He had been warned, threatened and attacked many times by activists of these outfits. Interestingly, he was also closely associated with Christian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku, who is in forced exile in Finland, in hiding from Christian fundamentalists in India.

There is nobody else of Dabholkar’s stature in Maharashtra who can encourage constructive analysis of religious traditions and customs, who can agitate against harmful superstition and its practitioners and suggest alternatives. Dabholkar’s death is a setback to those like actor Sriram Lagoo who used the rationalist’s platform to debate the need to retire God. Dabholkar’s home state Maharashtra perhaps boasts the largest number of godmen in India.

On the Contrary

A Licence to Enter Politics

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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If Manish Tewari wants licences for journalists, then why not for politicians?

No one likes to take an exam, especially those who don’t have a very good record at it. Most journalists come under this category. You might have the odd IIT-IIM pass-out in the profession, but by and large this is a fraternity that will be nowhere near cracking a CAT or even the preliminary of an IAS exam. We are an average IQ breed. It is no wonder, therefore, that there are zero takers among journalists for Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari’s amusing suggestion that there should be an examination for people to enter the profession. And that we must hold a licence to write.

The most obvious retort to Tewari is that journalists will do what he suggests the day he has to take an exam to become a politician. We would all like to see an answer sheet on which a Sadhu Yadav will write an essay on any of these three subjects: a) good governance without rape; b) the importance of brothers-in-law in politics; c) how to get elected for three terms by the same people whose sense of law and order you destroy daily. Politicians can decide the fate of billions of people without an exam and licence, but if Tewari were to call for these measures for his brethren, members from both sides of the Well of the House would, for once, be united in their laughing fit.

The exam and licence for journalists is couched as a measure for the benefit of the profession. It comes on the back of the Press Council of India Chairman, Markandey Katju, floating a similar proposal some months ago. Both are symbolic of our great faith in question papers despite overwhelming evidence that it is possibly the worst way to create an institution. IAS and IPS officers, the frame that rules India, are selected on the basis of one exam and what it churns out is an effete, morally compromised, characterless group. People with high IQ and a good memory can clear these exams but it guarantees nothing in terms of either integrity, efficiency or common sense. Both Katju and Tewari were lawyers and it is probably the Bar Council exam that they have as a model. Which makes what they propose even more ridiculous if you consider the state of the legal profession in India. The standardisation it has created is in the art of perpetually delaying a case, bribery as a legal strategy and the fleecing of clients.

It is unclear who exactly Tewari and Katju want to filter out among journalists when they say that there should be a minimum qualification. Almost every new entrant in mainstream English media has a journalism degree. Do they want to sanitise vernacular journalism? It is true that many of those news channels are more entertainment than news. But then, what English editors and anchors like Arnab Goswami do is just a different form of melodrama and sensationalism.

This is the reason why Tewari and Katju are interested in ‘standardisation’—what the licence provides is the power to revoke it. What the power of revocation provides is control. Despite the rot in journalism, there is no single controlling entity and that is what keeps it thriving. There are so many interests, pulls and pressures—good and bad—that it is something of a salutary free for all. For every two editors sucking up to the Congress for a Rajya Sabha ticket, there will be one wooing the BJP. Journalism is all the things Katju and Tewari say and more—corrupt, biased, sensational, insensitive, malicious, a den of plagiarists—but a licence will be only one more to this list.

India is at a seminal moment in its constitutional history. All of Parliament is coming together to amend the Constitution so that convicted criminals have the right to contest elections. All geniuses in that august House, from Manmohan Singh to Manish Tewari to Arun Jaitley, with the IQ to pass any exam, are holding hands to force this disgrace upon this country. Someone has to point this out without fear of his licence being revoked.


Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara

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The sequel has lost the charm of the original film
CAST Imran Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Akshay Kumar | DIRECTOR Milan Luthria

A sequel for a retro movie is a bad idea if you don’t have the original cast available. The first film worked because both Ajay Devgn and Emraan Hashmi fit in well as Haji Mastan and his ruthless prodigy Dawood Ibrahim. They were familiar with speech patterns of 1970s Hindi movies and are decent actors, though, of course, the best actor ever to play Haji Mastan was Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar (1975).

Dobaara has got good art direction and an actress, Sonakshi Sinha, who could be credible as a 1970s aspiring star, even though her look is more 1950s. What is interesting about both the original and the sequel is how it ties the underworld and the movie business in Mumbai into a Gordian knot that, perhaps, was untied only recently. In the first film, the Mastan character, depicted as a romantic soul despite his sordid profession, falls in love with an established actress.

In this movie, the Dawood Ibrahim character, Shoaib Khan (Akshay Kumar), has no redeeming features whatsoever. He promotes the girl he likes in the film industry purely as a transactional favour. When Jasmine Mirza (Sonakshi Sinha) refuses his advances, he destroys her career, rampaging through the movie set she is on and then presenting her with an offer she dare not refuse. This is why the film, despite its reasonably well created atmosphere, does not work. With the central character so one-dimensional, he loses all audience empathy.

Shoaib’s henchman, Aslam (Imran Khan), on the other hand, is ‘Goody two-shoes’, and that, for a gangster, can be pretty unprofessional. He and Jasmine are completely naive and though it is true that the 1970s was not the age of cellphones and Facebook, it seems unbelievable that they are completely unaware of the triangular relationship they share with their dreadful mentor. That said, one song and its picturisation is memorable—Ye tune kya kiya by Javed Bashir.

Rs 74,990

Sony Vaio Pro 13

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One of the world’s lightest ultrabooks, it weighs just over a kilogram
Core i5, Core i7 processors | Windows 8 | 4 GB | 1920 x 1080 HD display

The Pro 13 runs on a Core i5 processor, and Sony also has a version that runs on Core i7. This ultrabook’s features include: Windows 8, 4 gigabytes of RAM and a 128 GB solid state disk. Its touchscreen has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 that allows full HD display and is very responsive to touch.

Sony uses unidirectional carbon fibre with a hexa-shell that makes the machine durable and yet light.

The built-in battery grants about 9 hours of operation. There is also an optional battery pack that can extend the battery life to 19 hours, so if you are a businessman on the move, you don’t need to take an adapter along for an overnight trip.

The Pro 13 also features a high definition web camera on the front, which is clear and sharp for video calls. The dual microphones are sensitive and its inbuilt speakers are good for multimedia content or just listening to music. The keyboard is very well laid out, with 82 keys, and is comfortable to use. The backlight on the keyboard is bright enough to work when the lights are out.

The Pro 13 has a full HDMI port so you don’t have to worry about using convertors when you make a presentation, and just in case you get stuck with a VGA port, Sony also includes an HDMI to VGA convertor. The model has two USB 3.0 ports for high speed data transfer, a combined audio port, and an SD card slot, assuring you full expansion capabilities.

The machine is powerful enough to take care of your day-to-day needs, though I would have loved to have a more powerful graphic adapter than the standard Intel HD Graphics 4400 on board.

I end by saying that the Pro 13 is the prettiest, and yes, the lightest Windows 8 machine I have come across in a long time.


The Value of History

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There is a lot that Bihar can learn from its glorious past to solve problems currently plaguing the state
Extracted from The New Bihar: Rekindling Governance and Development | Edited by NK Singh and Nicholas Stern | HarperCollins

Bihar, we might as well begin by noting, is an extraordinary part of India. It is exceptionally distinguished in its past—its stellar role as the centre of Indian civilisation for over a thousand years. If Bihar was the most progressive part of India from around the time of Gautama Buddha for a millennium or more, it is notable, in a very different way, in its present state of social backwardness and unusual poverty. And there is a third bit of extraordinariness in the determination of Bihar to conquer its present misery by focusing directly on economic and human development. The future of Bihar may not be a repeat of its past glory but nor would it be, it seems reasonable to predict, a continuation of its present state of underdevelopment and deprivation. Bihar is, it would appear, quite extraordinary in its past, in its present, and in the promise of its future.

...Perhaps it is right that we should begin with recognising the fact that Bihar’s history includes its dramatic role in uniting India. The first all-India empire, the Mauryan Empire, was based in Pataliputra, which is now Patna, and it established some uniformity of law and order across much of the country. That an emperor’s work is not done until he or she has established command over the bulk of the Subcontinent of India is an idea that took shape in Pataliputra. It is to complete that establishment of a united command that Emperor Ashoka waged a war in Kalinga—modern Orissa—and it is the violence of that war that took him towards Buddhism and to his extraordinary social commitments to peace and to the well-being of all.

In addition to Bihar’s role in uniting India, some of the early achievements of Bihar include the following:

Development of education

This includes the remarkable record of Bihar in having the oldest university in the world, Nalanda, along with a number of other exceedingly old universities, such as Vikramshila, which flourished as global institutions of higher learning from the fifth century BC to the twelfth century AD.

Pioneering work in mathematics

When the great Indian mathematician Aryabhata moved to Kusumpur, in Patna, in early fifth century, to be closer to the community of mathematicians, he gave recognition to an intellectual pursuit that was already beginning to flourish in Bihar. This teamwork was central to further development of mathematics in India (and through that in the Arab world), and it was also critically important for the pursuit of astronomy in India, as well as in ancient China, where Indian trigonometricians had a leading role in astronomical analysis and calculations.

Advancement of public health care

The trail-blazing tradition of free medical service for all in Pataliputra, which so impressed Faxian (sometimes written as Fa-Hsien or Fa-Hien) in early fifth century separates out Bihar from much of the world at that time. Later, in the seventh century, Yi Jing, a student at Nalanda, would make a systematic comparison between the practice of medicine and of public health care in China and India, in which Bihar received particular attention.

Government by discussion

The tradition of taking social decisions on the basis of public discussion was particularly promoted by the Buddhist global councils, the first of which took place in Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir), in Bihar, just after Buddha’s death, the second in Vaishali, not far away, a century later, and the third—the largest—occurred in the capital city of Pataliputra, hosted by Ashoka, in the third century BC. Decisions on religious and social matters were taken after extensive public discussions, with exchange of information and opinions. In the process, major contributions were made to the possibility of ‘government by discussion’—a phrase made popular more than 2,000 years later by Walter Bagehot (in a line of analysis that John Stuart Mill made clearer).

Rule of law and governance in the interest of the people

Bihar also contributed to the development of theories of governance, particularly through the treatise Arthashastra, by Kautilya, and in a less punitive form by Ashoka, which was elaborated in the stone inscriptions that he placed around all of India—and beyond. These theories were, to varying extent, put into practice by the Mauryas and other regimes based in Pataliputra, and they would serve as points of reference to later kings of India as well.

The building of physical infrastructure

Sher Shah, whose large empire in early sixteenth century was centred in Bihar, was visionary on constructing infrastructure of roads, bridges, etc., across India, including what later came to be known as the Grand Trunk Road, crossing the entire country.

Resistance to inequality and exclusion

Buddhism itself can be seen as the first pervasive protest against caste-based hierarchy. The exclusion of women from major roles in society and in the family has also been resisted in Buddhism. Interestingly, even though Buddha was opposed to the ordaining of women as priests, his teachings gave active and major roles to women (as his disciple Ananda was particularly keen on emphasising). Many of the later rebellions against traditional hierarchy in India have also originated in Bihar.

These ancient contributions demand examination not only because of their historical value, but also for their relevance to current problems that have persistently plagued contemporary India in general and Bihar in particular—including high illiteracy, frequent medical neglect, sharp economic and social inequality, low development of infrastructure and high incidence of social disorder. There is a lot that Bihar can learn from its own past and its own older traditions.

What we learn from these early achievements of Bihar helps us address and conquer the persistent disadvantages that are restraining Bihar in the contemporary world. We cannot bury ourselves in the past, but the past of this exceptional region of India offers both inspiration and guidance.

How bad is the position of Bihar in India today? It has to be acknowledged that the extent of human deprivation has been exceptionally high in Bihar, not just in global terms, but also compared with the bulk of India. Looking at the latest comparative figures that can be relied on, it appears that around 2005, Bihar had the second lowest per capita income among all Indian states (marginally ahead only of Orissa), the second highest share of the population below the miserably low ‘poverty line’ in the country (again a little behind Orissa), the second lowest ratio of female literacy (marginally above Rajasthan alone), absolutely the lowest proportion of children aged 6–14 years who went to school, and also absolutely the highest proportion of adult women with clinically low BMI (body mass index). Not surprisingly, Bihar was placed worst in terms of the Human Development Index (HDI) in 2005 and also had the highest proportion of the population with ‘multi-dimensional poverty’ also in that year.

Have the comparative figures changed since 2005? It is not easy to have comparative tables of similar reliability for more recent periods, which is rather unfortunate for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar since he came to office only in that year. However, there are many indications that things are moving, both in terms of the efforts deployed and in terms of accomplishments. For example, if we break down the growth rate of GDP in Bihar over the last decade, we see a rate of growth of 2 per cent annually in the first half, and about 10 per cent annually in the second half. The fact that in the recent expansion, the growth of agricultural production has played a very large part is a reason to expect that there will be considerable impact of the fast economic growth also on reducing poverty and deprivation in this extraordinarily deprived state. The abysmal extent of deprivation that Bihar had cannot, of course, be reversed overnight, but the breakdown of the previous model of stagnation and persistent deprivation must be seen as hugely encouraging signs.

Turning to other things, the expansion of primary education in Bihar has been a necessity for a very long time, and yet the signs of progress were rather rare—almost absent—through a long period of stagnation and decay. From the ancient times, when Bihar was the centre of Indian civilisation, and when its educational achievements were the envy of the rest of the world, there has been a very long history of neglect and complacency about the growing educational backwardness of this state. It is with the recent efforts to plan—and to powerfully execute the planned programmes—that progress is, at last, reaching the resistant mass of Bihar’s sluggish school education. A recent report prepared by the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) provides ground for much optimism.

There are certainly many signs of change. The number of schools has jumped forward; the shortfall of teachers has come down sharply; attendance of students is definitely up; and the enrolment ratio has reached the comfortable figure of 98 per cent. The ADRI report can be seen as an informed celebration of the success that is at last being achieved.

And yet it is also a report on how much more needs to be done. There is still a substantial incidence of teacher absenteeism; the number of teachers, especially of well-educated teachers, is still much below anything that can be called satisfactory; the school inspection system remains severely incomplete; and the participatory arrangement of Vidyalay Shiksha Samity (VSS) has become rather dysfunctional. There are other gaps and deficiencies to which this report draws attention, including the wide prevalence of reliance of primary school students on private tuition, outside the school—a fairly strong indictment of the quality and reach of the education that regular schools provide.

To say that we have ‘some good news and some bad news’ would, however, be an oversimplification.

We do have that mixture of good and bad, of course, but no one expected that the long-standing problems of educational neglect in Bihar would disappear instantly. We have to see the extent to which the ‘bad news’ is being noticed and addressed. There are some real sparks of hope there, and these need to be applauded. Along with that appreciation should also come encouragement to the educational authorities of Bihar to do more—indeed much more—than they have been able to do so far.

Progress not only calls for well-planned efforts, it also demands sustained commitment to try and enhance what has been achieved. The need for that commitment is the central issue today. Grounds for optimism must be seen not only as reasons for celebration, but more importantly as a demand that the good work must continue—and move even faster. If the glory of ancient Bihar provides encouragement for this forward-looking commitment, that is surely an entirely fitting way of bringing history into our lives today.


Sunny Days on Television

Rajeev Masand is Entertainment Editor and film critic at CNN-IBN
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Sunny Days on Television • Mix and Match • Another Sort of High

If the producers of Ragini MMS 2 bite the bait—which they probably will, this is Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms we’re talking about—there’s a good chance we’ll see Mallika Sherawat and Sunny Leone share the same platform.

The television channel that’s producing Mallika Ka Swayamvar (a Bachelorette-style reality show in which the Murder star will be introduced to roughly two dozen suitors) wants to pull off a coup by inviting Sunny to appear on an episode with Mallika. The idea is to bring in the Indo-Canadian porn star as a friend of Mallika’s so that she can help her pick one from among the string of men vying for her affection. Reportedly, the channel has already spoken to Balaji about the possibility of bringing Sunny on board, and has pitched the plan to coincide with the studio’s promotional campaign for the sex and horror sequel Ragini MMS 2, in which Sunny has been cast as the lead.

More than likely, those who came up with this idea are patting themselves on the back for finding a way to bring together Bollywood’s most bindaas starlet and California’s most famous export since sun-dried raisins. To be fair, it will be interesting to watch the dynamics between them. Given Mallika’s snooty reputation and her tendency to snub anyone who even remotely resembles a threat, don’t rule out the possibility of fireworks.

Mix and Match

Imran Khan’s loss is likely to be Shahid Kapoor’s gain. The Once Upon Ay Time in Mumbai Dobaara star will no longer play the lead in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Milan Talkies, which he was not so long ago considerably excited about having bagged. But there are reports now that Shahid Kapoor is being seriously considered for the project. There’s very little clarity on Imran’s exit, with some insiders saying the actor was dropped from the film, while sources close to him reveal that he may have intentionally made himself unavailable for the project when he gave away those dates to the Vikramaditya Motwane-directed film Bhabesh that he recently signed.

And although Shahid is closest to taking his place in Dhulia’s film, it appears that no concrete casting decision has been taken yet. Meanwhile, there is also some talk that Priyanka Chopra, who had been signed up opposite Imran, could also be replaced. So all those thrilled about a possible Shahid Kapoor-Priyanka Chopra reunion on the screen needn’t get their hopes up. Sonakshi Sinha, who worked with Dhulia on his Saif Ali Khan-starrer Bullet Express, could be his leading lady in Milan Talkies too.

The film is reportedly being sped into production in October, since Dhulia—who is juggling more films than Imran, Shahid, Priyanka or Sonakshi—now has an empty slot in his otherwise relatively packed schedule, what with his Hamlet adaptation starring Hrithik Roshan having moved from its original start date because of the actor’s recent surgery and recuperation.

Another Sort of High

You’ll never believe which diva seems to have a drinking problem. Industry insiders say the signs were all there, but it is now no secret. A popular female star, not in her twenties, has reportedly raised eyebrows recently for her evident fondness of the bottle. Not only was she visibly tipsy at a celebration thrown in her own honour recently, there were reports not so long ago that she couldn’t attend the funeral of a close family member because she was out cold, having had one too many. While cradling a drink at a New Year’s Eve party some years ago, she allegedly grabbed her husband’s face and proceeded to make out with him in full public view, much to the embarrassment of the poor fellow and everyone around—who had to turn away. Bitchy co-stars insist that two falls she had recently could also be pinned on her drinking habit.

Her family, however, has dismissed these as baseless rumours, attributing them to jealous rivals. Pointing to the actress’ success and popularity, they have rejected the drinking charges, insisting she could never get so much done professionally if she were indeed dependent on alcohol.

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Shoojit Sircar sees it as his responsibility as a filmmaker to make fresh, intelligent, unbiased films, regardless of commercial success

Shoojit Sircar sees it as his responsibility as a filmmaker to make fresh, intelligent, unbiased films, regardless of commercial success

arindam Wed, 2013-08-21 22:32
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The Joys of Sex

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More than three decades after it was written, Penguin publishes the ‘thinking woman’s Fifty Shades’. But it fails to live up to its reputation
The Art of Joy | By Goliarda Sapienza | Translated by Anne Milano Appel | Penguin | 670 pages | Rs 1,299

I heard of Goliarda Sapienza and The Art of Joy from The Guardian. A few weeks before it made its debut in the English literary world, The Guardian gave the book a pre-release write-up that made me mark its release date in my planner, leave requests at the neighbourhood bookstore and secure a review in Open. It’s not everyday that a publishing house ‘braces itself for controversy’ before the release of a book. Particularly for one that was written 37 years before a publisher decided to pick it up. The Guardian informs me that long before Fifty Shades of Grey became the poster-child for mainstream erotic fiction, Penguin Classics had decided to take the bold step to translate and publish Sapienza’s Italian masterpiece. It’s just that Anne Milano Appel took two years to translate the 700-odd pages of the thinking woman’s Fifty Shades of Grey, because the sex is offset against the history, politics and philosophy of Italy in the 20th century. Reason enough to be excited? You bet.

In the time it took me to go through the book, I realised a pretty basic truth about reading and writing—readers love good stories. And sometimes, the authors’ own make up for all that is lacking in their books. And I have to admit, as far as background goes, it doesn’t get more compelling than Goliarda Sapienza’s. Born in 1924 to fiercely anti-fascist and Mussolini hater parents, Goliarda spent a childhood being home-schooled by her parents to shield her from fascist influences. She spent most of her teens and early adult years as an actress, most notably her widely acclaimed portrayal of Pirandello heroines; but by her thirties, having scored nothing more substantial than a minor uncredited part in a Visconti melodrama, she went into therapy and gave her writing career a serious shot. Her first book, Open Letter (Lettera Aperta), was a memoir about her days as a young girl in Sicily. Her second, The Meridian Hour (Il Filo de Mezzogiorno), was a fictionalised account of her sessions with her psychoanalyst.

In 1967, she started work on The Art of Joy, her self-proclaimed masterpiece, and it wasn’t until 1976 that she finally managed to finish the Sicilian saga that packed in everything from rape, incest, murder, ambivalent sexuality and deviant nuns to fascism, communism, opportunism and feminism. By the time Goliarda died in 1996, she was penniless (with a stint in jail for stealing her friend’s jewellery) and heartbroken, given that no publisher was willing to touch the book, thanks to its exhausting length and the chaotic blend of subjects.

Two years after her death, her husband, Angello Pellegrino, an actor himself, managed to muster funds to self-publish 1,000 copies of the book for posterity—propelling it towards its destiny as a literary sensation in Europe, despite a renowned critic dismissing it as a ‘pile of iniquity’. In the foreword of its English avatar, Pellegrino, given his theatrical inclinations, writes, ‘Goliarda will not see her Modesta in bookstores. But I know that the sorrow is no longer hers; it’s all mine for her.’ It is difficult to ignore such sweeping sentimentality, and in a world where Donal Ryan makes the Booker long-list after facing 47 rejections from publishers, JK Rowling is given an advance of a meagre £2,500 for the first Harry Potter manuscript and Paul Harding’s Tinkers remains obscure until it suddenly wins the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, Goliarda has everything one hopes for from a posthumously celebrated writer: an intriguing back story, the trials of poverty while relentlessly pursuing publication and a manuscript that licked the dusty bottom of a chest in an attic for 20 long years before being rediscovered.

There’s plenty of material within The Art of Joy to make it a desirable conversation-starter and lubricant at cocktail parties. But does that translate into an actual inclination to pursue Modesta’s destiny through 670 exhausting pages? I would be very surprised if it did.

The Art of Joy is the story of Modesta, conveniently born on 1 January 1900. Everything that can possibly happen to people living in Italy and Europe—and for that matter, on planet Earth—over the course of the next six decades or so, happens to Mody. Her story begins explosively: soon after discovering the confusion and illicit thrill of self-pleasure, the ironically named Modesta is raped by a man who claims to be her father, who then torches her house and kills her mother and mentally challenged sister. The orphaned but curiously unaffected Modesta finds a home in a convent, where she discovers her love for words. Within the first 100 pages itself, Mody has turned into the remorseless murderess of the Mother Superior at the convent she lives in. From there it’s on to the wealthy Brandiforti estate, where she marries Ippolito, a man-child, to consolidate her power and position in the clan and bears him a child she secretly conceived with another man. All this, while carrying on an affair with Beatrice, her muse within the Bandiforti family.

Curiously, despite Mody’s multiple relationships, unrestrained by considerations such as age and gender, The Art of Joy isn’t really about sex. Anyone looking for a dirty book would be sadly disappointed. Despite the occasional forays into dialogues that are more suitable for a mediocre bodice-ripper—‘Surrendering to her, I left behind that inferno of qualms and bands and lava walls. The convent receded when I stared into her eyes. It collapsed behind me and I could see the stars again. Was that what paradise was: love?’—The Art of Joy largely has sex as a tool that Modesta uses to assert the freedom of her thoughts. While the sexual boundary-breaking might be what attracts a large portion of the book’s readers, the truly gripping parts of the story are the ones where its untarnished Italian-ness shines through. The autobiographical way in which Sapienza makes her Modesta grapple with fascism accounts for the truly page-turner moments in the book.

Did I read every one of the 670 pages that take the reader through the sometimes erratic, sometimes excruciating details of Modesta’s life? I did. Had it not been for this review, would I have abandoned the book mid-way in the sheer exhaustion of following a woman who’s life is almost schizophrenically dramatic? I probably would have. Why? Somewhere along the way, it gets tiresome to see Modesta greet each new person in her life as a probable passion. Despite the rich historical and political setting, it becomes harder and harder to believe in a character who kills many times over, feels jealousy for the first time in her middle age and is grappling with the concept of love until the very end. It is, perhaps, due to these contrived pretensions that Sapienza uses liberally while developing Modesta’s character that it becomes almost impossible to look past the obvious repetitiveness of her sexual misadventures and focus on the more layered political considerations of her timeline.

While in some ways time itself is Sapienza and Modesta’s greatest ally, in many ways, it is their greatest undoing. While everyone wants to champion the cause of a writer who didn’t get her due in her lifetime, one can’t escape the fact that we live in a world of internet over-share. What chance does a story, completed almost four decades ago and relying mainly on the shock-and-awe value of its protagonist’s sex life, have? What can she possibly have experienced that someone somewhere hasn’t already spoken volumes about in the consequent decades? Not much.

As far as characters and their stories go, I’d pick Goliarda over Modesta in a heartbeat.

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