Anything that moves

The viral video by BSF Constable Tej Bahadur Yadav demonstrates the futility of the note ban

The soldier's Facebook posts backing demonetisation expose what he, like millions, failed to understand – black money and the cash economy are red herrings.

Border Security Force Constable Tej Bahadur Yadav, who on Sunday uploaded videos on social media complaining about the poor quality and quantity of food provided to soldiers at border outposts, is no opponent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, judging by his Facebook feed. He appears to have joined the social network three years ago, but produced no public posts before a burst of activity beginning on November 6, 2016. It consisted mainly of political and patriotic forwards, including a number of images targeting Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. On November 7, he posted an image of Sonia Gandhi lamenting that she would have to return to being a bar dancer in Italy since Modi had destroyed her India plans. The next post, dated November 10, is a little ironic in retrospect. It is an image of two jawans making chapatis with the legend, “People eat butter chicken and betray the nation; it takes a jawan to eat scorched rotis and die for the country.”

Next come cartoons and news items favouring the note ban, forwards from organisations such as PM Modi Fan Club, satirical images directed at Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his West Bengal counterpart Mamata Banerjee, Haryanvi jokes, recipes for home remedies, celebrations of cows and (separately) jaggery, and pictures of Yadav himself, first holidaying with his wife and son, and then back on duty. Finally, out of the blue, we have his filmed protest against ration pilferage and, as I write this, an appeal from his wife saying she hasn’t been able to contact him since his videos went viral.

Yadav’s post exposes what he, like millions of others, failed to understand about the note swap plan: Black money and the cash economy, targets of the currency ban, are red herrings. The real damage to the country’s health is caused by corruption. The generation of unaccounted wealth is just one symptom of that disease. The note swap made a marginal, temporary difference to the symptom, and none at all to the underlying condition.

I have acquaintances whose business plans are stuck because officials will not clear files until liquidity returns to the system and they receive their cut in new currency. At the other end of the spectrum, a youth I know who received an apprentice’s job in a shipyard was denied a caste certificate by the tehsildar of his village till the boy managed to draw enough money to pay him off. No doubt, millions of such stories can be told about the eight weeks since the government’s demonetisation announcement, given how the machinery of the state has evolved to maximise the short-term gains of government officials who have power over the public, or even, as in the case of Tej Bahadur Yadav, over fellow government employees.

Transparency needs

The note ban, far from stamping out networks of malfeasance, has only spurred the creation of new ones. The government makes a show of raids on those holding inordinate amounts of new notes, but since the organisations responsible for cracking down on such crimes are as corrupt as any other government department, it is unlikely that they will accomplish anything substantial beyond the generation of a few headlines.

The government’s attempt to make all transactions amenable to scrutiny involves not just a push towards banking and digital mediation but an effort to put the state itself at the centre of such transactions. The greatest exemplar of this is the BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money) app linked to Aadhaar numbers that Modi’s blue-eyed boy Amitabh Kant, the chief executive officer of Niti Aayog, believes will make credit cards and digital wallets redundant. I have a feeling, based on initial reports, that BHIM will be about as successful as former Congress minister Kapil Sibal’s pet project, the Aakash tablet, which was supposed to revolutionise low-cost computing in India.

The reputation of the Reserve Bank of India has never been so low, its independence seemingly compromised, its credibility damaged by the numerous U-turns taken during the process of demonetisation and remonetisation. Unsurprisingly, a rumour is doing the rounds that the new Rs 2,000 notes are only a stopgap, shortly to be eradicated in a new purge. A belief in the temporariness of the new currency might lead people to avoid hoarding the notes, but that doesn’t mean they will gravitate to the government’s solution. More likely, they will take further recourse to precisely those shadow networks the state wants to eliminate, buying hard currency in the grey market, and further eroding the value of the rupee.

Hawala has become a bad word in our time, but is a trust-based system that for centuries has transferred money efficiently across vast distances in South and West Asia, helping commerce through the largest continent and in parts of Africa. It remains the cheapest way for workers in the Gulf to send their hard-earned money home. If the government wants trusty systems like hawala eliminated, it needs to first demonstrate its own trustworthiness. To begin with, it must take legislative and executive measures to make its employees more accountable. If the government desires complete transparency in private transactions, it must first become more transparent itself. It ought to build on the progress engendered by the Right to Information Act instead of stymying queries and carving out exceptions.

Halfway through its term in office, the Central government has taken no steps towards either greater accountability or greater transparency. This fact will be driven home as the game of smearing the whistleblower jawan and passing the buck takes off in earnest within the Border Security Force.

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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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