Modern India was made in Madras

Today TiE Chennai as part of their charter member dinner had invited  Madras Musings founder and writer Sri S.Muthiah for giving a talk. Muthiah as the favourite historian of Madras and tomorrow being Madras (Chennai) 375th Birthday (founded in 1639 by Francis Day and Andrew Cogan) the topic was easy to guess. It was about how The Beginnings of Modern India (was from Madras).

Having been to few of Madras day walks organized by Mr.Sriram V including Alwarpet, Old Fort Wall and Royapuram I was looking forward to hearing about Chennai’s history from the authority of the subject S.Muthiah in person. Lucky for me, after the event I got a chance to take a picture with the man himself along with my friend Pravin Sekhar.


With Sri S.Muthiah (in centre) of Madras Musings

Before the event  started Muthiah was chatting around with few of his friends. The moment,  master of ceremonies mentioned “Madras”, Muthiah transformed into a man half his age (he is 84 years old). Dates, Names, Places, Events started flowing with ease, from 2500 years back to present day.

Muthiah talked how the Arabs 2500 years back were trading between Europe and India through the high seas. Ships were frequenting from Muscat, Bahrain, Alexandra to West coast of South India (Kerala predominantly). This was the time when the Silk Route (land route) from Europe to India through present day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan was rifled with pirates. Vasco da Gama  then got his glory by discovering an alternate route over seas to India from Europe across African continent, who was guided from African east coast to India by an Arab navigator. If Arabs were to be credited of bringing in trade (they brought Islam from middle east much later) from Europe through seas, it was St.Thomas (The Apostle) in 1 AD who brought Christianity to India nearly 1500 years before Vasco da Gama and to this day San Thome Basilica stands in his remembrance.

Fast forward to 1639 when Francis Day bought a settlement for John’s Company (East India Company) in what is today Fort St.George, Chennai. That time this area had only villages (Mylapore, Poonamallee, Tiruvottiyor, Thiruvanmiyur), British built a small warehouse and for next hundred years were traders with no security forces or territory building ambitions. Around 1746 then French Governor of Pondicherry  François Dupleix attacked British in Madras (First Carnatic War). With Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748 happening in Europe, British and French exchanged between them Madras (India) for Louisbourg (Canada). Looking back now as a Madras Citizen, Muthiah joked that British got the best of the bargain :-)

Next 30 minutes Muthiah walked through this troves of Madras Photos. Each Photo showed a Madras landmark building including Chepauk Stadium, Government General Hospital (GH), Fort St.George, SBI Beach road branch (which got burned recently), General Post Office, Royapuram station, Raj Bhavan, St.Mary’s Church, Anderson Church, Ripon building, Armenian Church, St. George’s School and more. With each photo he talked how the modern institutions of India were born or influenced heavily in the Madras of British. Western Medicine in Asia, Postal Network, Railways, Imperial Bank (Fort St.George basement), Government, modern municipality (even before it got setup in Britain), Great Trigonometric Survey by Major Lambton in St.Thomas Mount (and Mount Everest getting its name) and British education system that Indians take for granted today owes its roots in India to Madras.

The Beginning of Modern India by S.Muthiah - 21 August 2014

The Beginning of Modern India by S.Muthiah – 21 August 2014

Muthiah had an interesting story of how Australian colonization propaganda by British owes dues to help from printing workers coming from Chennai St.George school trained on printing press techniques.

Bishwanath Ghosh has written a brief biography of S.Muthiah here.

India Budget 2014

For an aspiring nation with millions of youngsters its common to have lot of hopes on tomorrow (Achche Din). In India this year with a new government the expectations on the central budget were high which some say unrealistic.

In the preceding weeks when Prime Minister talked of bitter medicine to be given to the economy, I was looking forward to it so that the patient can be cured for good. Instead what we got yesterday was lot of rhetoric talk in the budget speech, 16,536-word to be precise but little of substance or anything new. We were given No medicines, only prayers on lips.

Following were the good points I could see in Budget 2014:

Brands can operate their own e-commerce portals. Hope this paves way for Apple, Dell & other branded products are sold from their own portals like rest of the world.
  1. Rs.500cr on developing 5 tourist circuits (feels like pittance but still welcome)
  2. Rs.10,000cr on a start-up venture fund (I wish to dream it be like Singapore’s Temasek)
  3. Rs.100cr each on  Solar park projects, execute ultra-mega solar projects
  4. Govt. move to ebiz portals for all clearances

I was disappointed on the following two being left out:

1. Though it was talked about no reversal of the Retrospective Tax act.  This infamous act was accused by UPA critics to have been brought in particular to target Vodafone

2. No tough measures. No labour law reforms or subsidy cuts. I hope it will not be status-quo for another 5 years

Electoral victory is a (political) capital with diminishing returns every day. The new Government will do good to remember it in coming months.

Update 15th July 2014:

Like previous years this too Indo-American Chamber Tamil Nadu branch has organized a post budget analysis event. The keynote speech was by Mr.Gopal Srinivasan, CMD of TVS Capital Funds Ltd.

Mr.Srinivasan summarised his take on the union budget eloquently as a Test Match, not a 20-20 cricket with Modi’s government playing for the long term 5-10 years. He felt the focus on government seems to be on job creation. He was appreciative of Modi government embracing lot of the policy initiatives started by the previous government, which is a welcome departure in India.


Mr.Rajat Mehta of HSBC Bank & Mr.N.Muralidharan of E & Y highlighted on the below points of budget:

  • Foreign fund managers if they reside in India doesn’t change the fund status which is a welcome move to attract best finance talent to India
  • Banks can issue Infrastructure bonds with lesser reserve restrictions
  • Disinvestment targets are double of last year which is ambitious and something previous government could never get it done
  • Advance tax ruling benefits extended for domestic companies for domestic transactions, rules of which are expected to be notified when finance bill gets passed

Nobody Can Love You More

Yesterday I begun to read this book “Nobody Can Love You More” by Mayank Austen Soofi. Its about the Life in Delhi’s Red Light District. Wait… It is not a directory of services at sale there. Its about the life of the working woman living there and people around them.

After watching me for an hour wife came near and snatched my Kindle that I was reading from. Reading the title she remarked that she understood now why I was absorbed on this book. Knowing better not to argue with wife I convinced myself the comment was unintentional and a joke.

When reading about Red Light Districts I always feel heavy hearted. For me this issue is never about morality, which I think is irrelevant and any talk of virtue here is nothing but hypocrisy. I feel sad imagining the forced labour and inhuman living conditions the girls/women are made to go through in these places. Adding salt to the wound is that in countries where the age old trade is illegal like in India, it pushes the trade to dark alleys which are beyond any governance. This makes even basic health care and safety that we take for granted being denied. 

Soofi first visits one of the Kotha’s (house of ill repute) to teach English to kids of a Kotha malik (owner). Intrigued about the lives of people there, why they choose to livehere,  he tries to talk to them to understand their story. Initially he encounters a thick wall of secrecy worn by each one of them.  Gradually he befriends them and he is able to peal one by one the layers of life in this district. The author clearly loves Delhi and its people, which comes across in his writings. He manages to transport us to the narrow staircases of G.B.Road buildings. Soofi guides us from the ground floor Sanitaryware shops to the Kotha’s in the upper floors, we are led to see that the life in the two floors are world’s apart. One is seen as a business and the other is shunned by society.

Soofi shows how divisions normally seen in society gets blurred when you enter this district. Here the real religion one follows is not relevant, a woman might follow Islam but have a Hindu name or vice-versa what ever that suits them for earning that day. In G.B. Road Soofi visits a Sufi saint temple and a Hindu Hanuman Temple, but being worshipped by people living here with equal reverence.

What I liked is that Soofi takes no sides, he never gets judgemental. Other than his dislike for the place being dirty and cramped he never projects his personal feelings of the place. Overall an engaging read!!!


Wish list for the new government

I am no political science or economic expert, but in the self improvement principal of Dr.A.P.J.Adbul Kalam “You have to dream before your dreams can come true”  I am chronicling my wish list for the new Modi Sarkar. Yes I know I am only dreaming!



  1. Get rid off immediately the Retrospective Tax act which hit the nail in the coffin of business investments. Provide assurance to Indians & the world that Indian tax laws are mature
  2. Goal needs to make India to the top 10 in the world bank list of business friendly nations (currently India is 134), implement actions to make this true in the next 3 years
  3. Bring states on board by providing tax neutral compensation, audit the overall IT systems needed and implement GST (Goods Services Tax) within next 12 months
  4. Provide economic stimulus (direct or indirect) for hard-hit sectors like Automobile & Infrastructure
  5. In a time bound manner dispose the huge number of  tax disputes and cases against businesses languishing in corridors of departments (Income Tax/Service Tax/Excise). Empower bureaucrats (you heard me correct) to settle cases and provide incentive to businesses to opt for it. In a similar spirit pay off the refunds in next 180 days
  6. To handle the NPA (Non performing assets) with Public sector banks. Though there many be a solid case to go against those in previous regime who created this mess for personal gains, now is not the time. Instead do the sensible thing, solve the problem. Capitalize the large 2 to 3 national banks, privatise rest all in phases, go with carrots and sticks to companies who are at default
  7. Work shoulder to shoulder with RBI (Reserve Bank of India) and its Governor Mr.Raghuram Rajan
  8. Spell out your vision for next five years for the economy & fiscal discipline, aim for a surplus budget in the fifth year – a reasonable target I think
  9. Sell off BSNL, MTNL, Air India, Airport Authority & others in services sector – government has no business to be in hospitality. Privatise portions of Indian Railways especially coaches and stations, again government has no role here
  10. Finally, consult extensively especially using Social Media across the country before giving shape to your second budget (the full budget for 2015-16) and enshrine that idea

Infrastructure & Policies

  1. Plan and Fund to implement warehousing facility in every district to prevent the huge wastage of grains across the country which are exposed to rodents and elements now. A time bound program of 365 days is needed for it. If Government doesn’t funds for this, then do FDI in retail in earnest with laws stipulating private companies to do warehousing in public-private partnership for public good
  2. Bring out a plan and funding for a national toilet scheme [if everyone is shy to lend their name, you can name it after me :- ) ]. To ensure no village with more than 100 people will be without a municipal toilet that is open always (No padlocks in any of these toilets by design) in next 365 days. This should be a private-public partnership, give tax breaks to corporate for doing this, give special central funding directly to those collectors who score on an annual audit for maintenance. Partner with Melinda-Gates foundation for design ideas, India can fund it, we need their ideas. Optionally remove private/executive/ministerial toilets at all central government offices/public companies. There should be a single set of toilet for visitors and staff across board
  3. In priority reform defence procurement and fund it well. A weak country can never be a prosperous country
  4. Implement  Dr.A.P.J.Abdul Kalam’s Broadband policy in earnest. Similarly provide financial rewards to state governments doing well on Renewable energy
  5. India lacks behind even our small south east neighbours in volume of tourists. In my opinion, Tourism is one industry that can provide employment (direct/indirect) to all strata of society (educated, illiterate, across caste and language) and for every Rupee invested in a direct employment in tourism by government, you will get 20 times indirect employment. Think of Mom n Pop shops, clerks, drivers, waiters, cooks, guides, porters, cleaners, house keeping and so on. Come out with a national tourism plan in 90 days and fund it well. Liberalize VISA scheme, one David Headley need not make genuine tourists suffer. Take ideas from Europe & Australia for idea on protecting and promoting national treasures. Train 2 Million people in a government funded program across the country with 1 million in metros. Promote 1000 new tourist destinations. Build airports in these places. I have suggested you privatise Air India and Indian Railways, but if you are retaining them then fund them well to ensure they operate more to North-East and inner-lands of the country, mandate to Air India & Indian Railways against Metros only concentration
  6. Make central government servants salary to be in parity with market conditions, but remove all undemocratic perks like special sirens, cooks, servants, free phone calls and so on. In the same spirit, mandate all ministers to use public services (Bus, Train, Hospitals, schools) periodically and report their usage in their ministerial website
  7. Give more teeth and autonomy to all regulators including TRAI, IRDA, SEBI & RBI. Unify all anti-corruption laws and departments including Lokpal, CVC and so on. Give autonomy to CBI and fund it to take it to international standards
  8. Provide anonymous online mechanisms for feedback from citizens and ticketing system for tracking and replying to them (anonymous if the citizen chooses to)
  9. Setup special new courts at Supreme Court and High Court levels to dispose off the millions of case in a 3 year timeframe. On a similar line reform in land records and registration (a huge area today for corruption and black money) needs to be done on priority. Implement state of art IT solutions for these, if planned correctly this can be a IT revolution showing the way to the world
  10. Finally, work hard to settle long standing border disputes with all our neighbours. Align closer to USA & China for our own benefit. Throw India’s weight in the area around Indian ocean to protect our national interests

All the best to Mr.Narendra Modi and his team.

The Accidental Prime Minister

Dr.Manmohan Singh has many accolades to him. He is the incumbent Prime Minister of India, serving for 10 years in the office, which makes him third after Nehru & Indira in the duration of their time in office. He was the finance minister who in 1991 under Sri P.V.Narasimha Rao who unleashed the Tiger (Indian Economy) by bringing in reforms which has over last two and half decades pulled out hundreds of millions from poverty. Till then whichever party was in power Economic Liberalization was a sure way to end your political career, it was a common compulsion in both sides of the house to be seen as a socialist. Dr.Singh is an alumni of University of Cambridge & University of Oxford, worked for the United Nations in 1966–69, Governor of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in 1980-82 and has held many other covetable offices.

This book “The Accidental Prime Minister” has been the most talked about in the Election 2014 season that’s underway in India. Mr.Sanjaya Baru quotes a long line of friends and pedigree in Indian Civil Services. Having served as the media adviser to The Prime Minister (PM) from 2004-2008 during the first term of Dr.Manmohan Singh, this book is Baru’s memoir. Baru is a prodigy of K.Subrahmanyam and he doesn’t miss to highlight occassions where PM seeks K.Subrahmanyam’s advise. Baru has given an apt byline for the book “The Making & Unmaking of Manmohan Singh”. The events up to the time of Dr.Singh becoming Prime Minister and UPA-1 term was the making of Dr.Singh, his second term (UPA-2) was the unmaking.


Even though Dr.Singh’s second term (UPA-2) has been rattled by scams and corruption scandals from all corners of his government, they have all stopped in front of his office door. That speaks volumes on the integrity of this man. Even though he was made the Prime Minister of India  by Sonia Gandhi in 2004, he earned his office after 2009 elections due to merits that people saw in him. Looking back from 2014 to that victory (one of the best of Indian National Congress in recent decades) in 2008, it is sad. The man who earned the title “Singh is King” (after a bollywood movie) just after the Indo-US deal in 2008 has found himself to media ridicule. The expectations and hopes of millions of Indians placed on Dr.Singh was wasted due to what his critics have termed as Policy Paralysis of his Government in the last few years – which is called as  the unmaking of Dr.Singh in this book.

If you are looking for details on how NAC (National Advisory Council), a non-constitutional authority chaired by Sonia Gandhi overshadowed PMO, then Baru doesn’t have those. Baru introducing the book says he never carried notes during his tenure and the book is compilations of incidents from his memory, not a comforting thought for an otherwise important memoir. The book has details on the UPA-1 term which is not surprising given the fact the author has served in PMO only till 2008, so when it comes to UPA-2 term he speculates reasons for the unmaking – PM’s shyness, throwing away the opportunity to enforce his will after 2009 victory, Dr.Singh’s civil service years teaching him to mind his own business when it comes to integrity which he thoroughly ensured with his family but didn’t extend to his colleagues.

In ten years of office, it is surprising that Dr.Singh has done only 3 press conferences which is indicated to be one of his major drawbacks and disconnects with electorate. Baru takes credit for the successful running of the first press conference in 2004, which was run under his watch as media advisor. Even then Dr.Singh was unwilling to develop a brand for him, instead leaving Sonia Gandhi and the party to be the public faces of his government. Baru writes how Dr.Singh did away with the Intelligence briefing done everyday to PM, instead asking IB to brief his NSA head J.N.(Mani) Dixit and later M.K.Narayanan. He makes us wonder whether this was throwing away of a leverage that a PM normally used over his cabinet and colleagues.

Baru quotes an incident when PM at his residence calling Baru to the room where he was seated along with Mrs.Kaur and queried what did you say to US Consulate general?. This was during the time Prime Minister after pushing for Nuclear Deal was kind of let down by Sonia Gandhi when she publicly indicated that they will not take rash decisions with allies and PM following up by saying we are not a single agenda government giving the impression that they may sacrifice the deal. Baru answered I told him “Que Sera Sera“, PM countering with “What do you mean”, Baru replies “Whatever will be, will be”. Mrs.Kaur who probably was familiar with the song having watched the Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in which Doris Day sang the song “Que Sera Sera”. Immediately on reading this, I downloaded the song from Nokia MixRadio and it turns out to be a thoughtful melody. Check it out from here

After reading the book when I shared it to a Rajya Sabha MP, he rightfully pointed out the incorrectness of the first paragraph in the book. Baru says “None of my predecessors in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has ever written a full account of his time there”. In reality I could find at least two books on the subject - My Days with Nehru by M.O.MathaiMy Years with Indira Gandhi by P.C.Alexander. For rest of the book is good,  we can discount this to have crept in due to publishing deadlines. Overall this book is what the doctor ordered for this election season, it helps us to understand the soft-spoken Sikh who shaped India in the last decade.

Update 13/May/2014. Today Opposition Leader of Upper House Mr.Arun Jaitley summed up  what in my opinion  many in this country respectfully feel about Dr.Singh: “It was his inability to overrule people which affected his functioning. He did not have the last word. Had he overruled his Finance Minister on the retrospective tax law knowing fully well the consequences of a retrospective taxation, the Prime Minister would have stood out. If he had stood up and cancelled the coal blocks allocation once the fraud was revealed or cancelled the 2G licences himself rather than wait for the court to do it, I have no doubt that history would have recorded him very differently” wrote Jaitely.