Friday, June 25, 2010

And the Problem Refused to Go

What is bliss today can become a problem tomorrow. Six months ago I was very happy with my electricity bill, which, I thought, was an accurate reflection of my power consumption. Then the problem started. One month suddenly the amount doubled, although my power consumption had remained the same. The next month the bill amount was Rs.100 more than the doubled sum. And since then, every month the bill amount has increased by Rs. 100.

Was someone tapping power from my meter? Or was the meter not functioning properly? I lodged a complaint with the electricity complaint cell. They said they would send an engineer within two days to check the meter and if the meter was found malfunctioning, it would be replaced. Two days became two weeks, but no one came.

In the meantime, I spoke to the landlord and told him that the burgeoning bill was straining my finances as it was shooting up my living cost every month. He understood I was forewarning him that I might leave the place if the problem persisted. Such threats usually swing the landlord into action.

He said probably the jeweler whose shop is just under my room was pilfering power. The landlord asked me to show him the bills and promised that he would have an electrician check the meter and have it fixed. I didn’t tell the landlord I had lodged a complaint with electricity board.

Yesterday, after more than two weeks had lapsed since I had lodged the complaint, an engineer called me and said he would visit my place to run a check on the meter. I was relieved expecting it would end my ordeal.

The engineer came in a van with an entourage of staff. The elaborate arrangement made them look less like electricity people and more like bank robbers.

As they ran their check on the meter using complex gadgets in turns, I kept shuttling between my room and the meter box to switch on and off the lights and gadgets in my room. Meanwhile, the jeweler, who the landlord had suspected of power pilferage, dropped in to take stock of the situation. With a distressed look, he told the engineers: “This poor boy has been getting exorbitantly high bills for last few months. And he only occupies one room.”

After an hour of checking, the meter guys informed that the meter wasn’t defective but even when the lights in my room were switched off, the meter wheel was slowly moving, indicating power theft or ‘grounding’ problem. They also said because the meter wasn’t at fault they couldn’t do anything more. I couldn’t fully understand what the grounding problem was.

Dejected, I returned to my room and arranged the bills in order to show them to the landlord later.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

An Open Letter to Barak Obama

Hi Obama,

We appreciate that you have been sincere in moving the Indo-US relationship to a higher plane of bilateral cooperation in various spheres. We also admire you in India for being the Mr Cool of international politics. But your response to India’s demand to extradite the CEO of Union Carbide has been one of disappointment.

Your refusal to extradite Anderson to India not just makes one suspect your sincerity about Indo-US relations but also brings to focus the inconsistency in your approach in dealing with a similar problem facing the two nations: your response to the Gulf of Maxico gas tragedy is at stark contrast with how you have responded to India’s demand for extradition. How does this inconsistency square up with your claims to promote relations with India? How does it fit in with your reputation as a leader who is above general humdrum of politicians who only care about their constituencies?

The gas leakage in a Union Carbide factory claimed thousands of lives and left many more physically challenged for life. The subsequent generations were born with ailments and handicaps. The toxic gas had so maimed the victims and affected the subsequent generations that in photos they appear like remains of prehistoric humans excavated from a geological site.

The victims and their families are still awaiting justice. They say those who died were lucky as they escaped being humiliated. Do you know how much Union Carbide paid in compensation? $500 per victim! And to add to their indignation comes your smug refusal to extradite the culprit.

There are clear reports indicting Union Carbide for not putting in place any safety measures. The reports also indict the company for not informing the people residing around the factory after the leakage started. If the company officials had done so, then the damage could be minimized. The accident took place just a month before the company’s license to manufacture the toxic gas would expire. One can understand the lackadaisical approach of Union Carbide.

The Maxico gas disaster has wreaked lower scale of human tragedy and your government has promised adequate compensation to every affected family. We appreciate your concern for them. We don't need compensation from your government. (In fact, given our current friendship, we could give you some.) But don’t you think the least you could do for the victims of Bhupal gas tragedy was help India bring Anderson to justice under Indian laws and in the land where he perpetrated the crime?

In the meantime, some of us have to answer for a few things as well.

Take care, and hope to see you in India this November.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ascent of Money - by Niall Ferguson

I am always a little skeptical to pick up a book on finance or economy because I fear that I might not understand most things. Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson confirms the fear but it also suggests that a readable book can be arresting regardless of its topic.

The Ascent of Money traces the evolution of financial system – through the growth of banks, bonds, etc. – and how they influenced course of events (if not always the final outcome) of apparently non-financial matters. The book explains how difficult it is to understand the causes that influenced the turn of great historical events without visiting the backwaters of financial dealings and the men who did them.

The book, however, will sometimes put you off with chunks of intricate financial details. The author could have tried a little harder to simply matters for the uninitiated reader.

Among the interesting facts the book brings to light, I want to share this one with you. Shylock, the Jew money lender from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, reflects the condition of Venetian Jews of his times, the community that invented loan sharking, lending small amount of loans at high interest rates. Hounded from other places, a sizable population of Jews had flocked in Venice, Italy. The Venetian authority had demarcated a place in the town for the Jews to stay and banned them from all forms of businesses, leaving them the option of money lending.

This professional choice had met with religious sanction in the Old Testament, the religious book of Judaism, albeit in a round-about way. The Old Testament forbids the Jew from Usering (lending money) but also presents an exit clause. The Jew shouldn't lend money to his brethren, the book ordains. Taken in another way, it can mean the Jew is free to participate in money-lending as long as he his lending money to a person outside the Jewish community.

According to the author, the Merchant of Venice perfectly establishes the ground rules of loan sharking. The judge’s ruling that Shylock cloud insist on his claim - a pound of flesh from Antonio’s chest - but without shedding a drop of blood – shows how loan sharking works:

a)The lender’s right to claim his money
b) The importance of court in settling financial disputes without recourse to violence
c)Linkage of interest rates with risks: when Antonio had agreed to become the guarantor of the loan, Shylock had forecasted – although Antonio was wealthy and so a good guarantor, his source of wealth was fleet of ships going to various parts of the world – a business which is always fraught with risks.

The book has many such interesting trivia.
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