There are two kinds of printing presses which have been running overtime these days: the one owned by Ben Bernanke and the other owned by the Indian media.
While Ben Bernanke's "print-as-many-dollars-as-you-want" press is potentially worrisome for India's economic future, the traditional white, pink, and yellow newspaper presses are busy unearthing all the scandals that have disrupted India's past. And this could be potentially good for India.
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The big, fat, and ugly
We had the Suresh Kalmadi led Commonwealth Games grab the limelight for a while only to be overshadowed by the 31-story Adarsh building saga.
Then we were bombarded by the telecom scandal where "paper companies" with no track record were given an esoteric asset called spectrum at a throw-away price. The Comptroller Auditor General's reports suggest that the gift was to the tune of US 31 billion dollars - equal to the amount that India spends on its defence forces every year. But scandals even in a de-licensed raj of post-1991 India are not new. For those born in the mobile phone era, there was a Telecom Minister called Sukh Ram who was caught with a sack full (yes, literally, a gunny sack full of notes worth Rs 3.6 crore) in his house in 1996 allegedly for awarding telecom contracts. If memory serves me right, the Finance Minister in that era was Manmohan Singh, the man with the "life-goes-on" smile. (Sukh Ram was finally convicted thirteen years later in February 2009 to three years imprisonment, the money found in his homes was confiscated, and he had to pay a fine of Rs 200,000.)
And just as we were winding down the scandal-ridden month of November, we were engulfed with news of the loan-for-bribes scandal that is engulfing the real estate and banking sectors. But there is no surprise in this scandal. India is up for grabs and those with access to money can grab large tracts of wealth being offered by the politicians. So those who have the money - the banks, the insurance companies, and UTI - are constantly bribed to send a little bit down to these so-called "promoters" and "entrepreneurs" to help them in their time of need and their hunt for greed.
While all these minor scandals were playing out, the biggest one out there - and the least covered by the media, because many in the media are involved - seems to be the Nira Radia tapes. The Outlook magazine and their website has transcripts of various conversations taped between Ms Nadia and a star cast that includes journalists, politicians, respected thinkers (for lack of a better description), and industrialists.
I have not read all the transcripts but what I have read is fascinating and shows the deep sense of rot and corruption that has over powered India. And many in the media, champions at cornering the corrupt politicians, are now caught naked in their hollow claims that they were doing their journalistic duties and scooping for information. Many in the press were for sale. Just as they were in the economic liberlaised India of 1994 when Enron reportedly spent millions lobbying the press in India to write good things about their one-sided sweetheart deal in Dabhol Power Corporation. By the way, was any minister or bureaucrat ever hauled up for that loss to the exechequer? It was a blessing that Enron went bust or we would be paying for electicity in US Dollars per unit of consumption.
And in between these larger reported scandals are the countless drains on the exchequer whether it is wood stolen from forest land; iron ore from mines; gas from energy fields; or even coal from the now-listed juggernaut Coal India.
But not all scandals need to be big, fat, and ugly. The smaller scandals are cute and hilarious and populate the Indian landscape just as our road-side places of worship. Like the small town paanwalla in Gujarat, who with a few Google searches found out that many of his friends' names were being used (and probably still are) for collecting money from a willing government.
As the Financial Express reported, "A newly e-literate village paanwala's obsession with Google has blown the lid off a unique NREGS scam in Porbandar. The motley bunch of beneficiaries include affluent NRIs, doctors, government officials, teachers and well-off farmers - all shown as unemployed village labourers holding NREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) job cards. So far, the money siphoned off comes to nearly Rs 1 crore.
On paper, there are 963 NREGS job cardholders at Kotda village in Kutiyana taluka of Porbandar district. Records show they have been paid over Rs 95 lakh for their 'labour' over the past three years. In reality though, none of them have ever dug wells or built roads in their lives or actually received any money for the same under NREGS or otherwise."
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How white turns into shades of grey, or plain black
The use of Google has not been confined to unearthing just the small scandals. At the height of the SEZ scandal, when every industrial group knowingly and willingly was trying to grab land supposedly for the next industrial revolution of India. Reliance had received approvals from the government of Maharashtra and the central government in 2006 to get 10,000 hectares of land in Alibag, a few nautical miles from the Bombay port. Nothing wrong with that except that one of the conditions for granting an SEZ license was that only non-arable land could be converted for industrial use. It took a few villagers with access to Google Maps to prove that the green colour on the proposed Reliance SEZ was not Ben Bernanke's green-coloured dollar bills from his blessed printing press floating down on the villages of Alibag but, rather, this was very arable, agricultural land. Hence, the maps showed it as green! In fact, the locals claimed, the rice produced from the potential SEZ accounted for over 50% of the rice produced in the state. Therefore, this land was wrongly being given to Reliance. It took local knowledge to ensure that state and national politicians were not selling another national asset for less than what it was worth. Whether that land eventually finds its way into Reliance only time will tell but, for now, that land grab has been stopped.
And while Ratan Tata may confess about the Rs 15 crore that he refused to pay to start an airline, the Tata group did not come out of their own SEZ foray for the Nano plant in West Bengal looking like angels. Far from it. On top of that fiasco, for all the piety about the riots in Gujarat in 2002 and the atrocities of a Modi-led government, the Nano car plant finally made it on Gujarat soil at the invitation of the same Gujarat Chief Minister. I guess if you need to build a car, why worry about what happened in ancient history?
And, in my own business of running a mutual fund, I am appalled and shocked that a group led by a person of high integrity like Ratan Tata let their mutual fund house be hijacked by a distribution model that probably mis-sold their funds and gathered thousands of crore of AuM for them. Running a mutual fund can be a clean business - I know because that is the path that Quantum Mutual Fund has chosen to pursue. Gathering assets the way the entire mutual fund industry has done over the past decade (and the fact everyone did it does not make it right!) was downright unethical.
A bribe is paid to someone to change their behaviour. There was a "bribe" paid (knowingly or unknowingly) in the adoption of a bad business practice of using an army of distributors to gather assets for the mutual fund industry by wrongly selling "investment solutions" to innocent investors based on commissions paid. Assuming that the Tata mutual funds gathered Rs 10,000 crore of equity assets over the last decade and paid 4% fees to collect the assets, that is a payment of Rs 400 crore. If Rs.1,000 crore was raised then the payments made to distributors were Rs 40 crore. This opaque and undisclosed payment - a common business practice - has been outlawed by SEBI since August 2009. But prior to the SEBI ban of August 2009, the "incentives" paid by Tata Mutual Fund seem to be a lot more than what Mr Tata refused to pay for setting up an airline. So, when I hear that Mr Tata was on the Radia tapes, it upsets me - yet another blemish on the image of honesty.
I have often said that there are few things of value in India and they are (not in any order): Gold and the brand names of Infosys, HDFC, and Tata. And I admire the people who built these firms, who work for these firms, and the values they instill. But, as the saying goes, sometimes the runner stumbles. And the brands get diluted. They may have larger market caps, but they have smaller ethical values.
Ready to come clean and wear white?
"The business of business is business", said Alfred Sloan.
That may be true, but it does not make it right. Business can and must make profits, but cannot be condoned for theft or oblivious of its responsibilities to society at large.
The point of bringing two well known groups - Reliance and Tata - into this story is not to single them out as bad business groups but it is for us to recognise that however much we may curse the politicians, the politicians by themselves can do no harm if businesses and businessmen did not focus purely on money. On GDP and market cap.
Maybe our political leaders have had enough of corruption - or believe that they, or their relatives, or party have made enough of money and it is time to put a stop to it.
Sonia Gandhi recently confessed at a conference in New Delhi, according to news reports, stating that "Graft and greed are on the rise. The principles on which independent India was founded, for which a generation of great leaders fought and sacrificed their all, are in danger of being negated." So the Congress looks like it wants to focus on good governance and helping the poor.
Sharad Pawar, never wishing to be out-gunned by The Lady, as reported in the Business Standard of November 19th, "will address party MLAs tomorrow to educate them on how to improve their performance, make quick decision and refrain from corruption". The article goes on to say, "Pawar wants that NCP ministers should concentrate on their ministerial jobs and not on amassing wealth for themselves. The party needs money but it should not be mobilised through excesses. Pawar to ministers is expected to tell his party men to follow this in true spirit or face the axe."
The leader said Pawar had already expressed his displeasure about his men neglecting the party organisation and its functioning. Instead, ministers were busy making their fortunes. "This will not be tolerated in future. Pawar would ask NCP ministers to be careful in discharging their duties especially when Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has already accorded priority for transparency in governance and administration. The party should not be defamed due to their wrong doing or involvement in corruption."
Goldman with guns!
While politicians are re-defining themselves and trying to create a new brand identity, are the Indian industrial groups ready to give similar speeches. And follow it up with action?
It's being done in Japan where the construction industry has for decades succumbed to pressure from gangsters and has finally refused to play ball. This has led to a few shooting incidents on construction sites in Japan. Since owning guns is banned in Japan, the police suggest that the mobsters are behind these attacks. The International Herald Tribune quotes Jake Adelstein, a writer and observer of the evolution of the yakuza (the mobsters) in Japan, describing them as "Goldman Sachs with guns".
(Uh, oh some breaking news in case you are trying to figure out where the next scam will come from: yet another government-appointed committee on how to finance India's infrastructure needs has a Goldman Sachs representative on it. If anyone has read The Big Short by Michael Lewis, they would never appoint Goldman on any government committee.)
So will businessmen and business groups in India adopt a "No Bribing Policy"?
And will we - as individuals - refuse to work with or be employed by a business group that is involved in corruption?
A modern day version of "satyagrah"? I guess if we did follow that rule and refused to lend our talent to thieves and crooks, most of us would not have jobs and would have to set up our own companies to work for!
Hail the demi-gods!
We live in a world dominated by market cap, Bloomberg, CNBC, and Forbes where the ranking lists of the rich are worshipped and the owners of money are gods living in towers that we, too, wish to occupy.
And we emulate them by buying the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the things they do.
Money was created as a medium of exchange; we made it into a measurement of success. And as long as we live in that world measured by money, we will have scandals.
And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will continue to give us the same sweet,"why-blame-me smile" that he gave when he was the Finance Minister and Sukh Ram had a sack full of dirty notes stashed in his house.
And our beloved PM's disarming smile will make us all believe that we live in an honest country run by honest governments at the central, state, and municipal levels.
When, oh when, can we have a clean and fair India?
Which of the following do you consider to be honest beyond any doubt?
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