Tuesday, August 15, 2017

7 reasons for cheer and 7 reasons for worry as India turns 70

Time for course correction
Today, it's 70 years since India won Independence. It has been a creditable journey for a nation like India, unique in many ways. There have been many defining personalities, events and issues in the seven decades. If one were to look at the world around us, the fact that we have survived this long, without any major and long-lasting bruises is itself a singular achievement.

As I introspect, I am proud of: 

Democracy: While it has not been a success in many nations, in India it has worked reasonably well; there is no foreseeable threat. May be we should be careful not to take our democracy for granted.

Technocrats: Our researchers in a variety of fields from agriculture to space and computer science have found indigenous solutions to our problems.

Diversity: India is a continent, in a sense. North, East, West and South have very few things in common - be it local traditions or weather. The vibrancy of variety is truly refreshing.

Tolerance: Our nation has gone through hell during these seven decades. The social fabric has been stretched a great deal. We have withstood it all.

Equal opportunity: In the eyes of the law, fully; and on the ground, to a reasonable extent, all people, irrespective of any differences, are equal. The strides some of the disadvantaged have made is truly remarkable.

Inclusivity: The vastness and diversity of India has meant that there is space for all. Like any society elsewhere, in India too there is social stratification. But this is one country where you have the luxurious and the spartan, or modernity and tradition, or science and faith coexisting side by side.

Indianness: Diversity has not taken away the Indianness from all of us. When the need arises, as it has on many occasion, all Indians have rallied together as one.

However, I am not too proud of: 

Casteism: There was a time when it mattered. We are done with it. There is no place for it in today's society, and we need to move on.

Insensitivity: Big issues bring us all together, but not the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. There is a certain amount of selfishness, and lack of concern for the person beside. This lack of social etiquette is reflected in our daily interactions everywhere.

Indiscipline: I get a feeling that we love creating problems and then taking pride in solving them. There is so much chaos and disorder. While the law of the land has generally prevailed, there are numerous instances of that being breached. The State machinery is weak, because it's the same undisciplined lot who get the power to rule the State.

Lack of accountability: Any society will have its share of disrupters. But here they seem to get away because they is no one holding them to account. That in turn becomes an incentive for that tribe to breed.

Lack of professionalism: Be it any profession, there is a lack of willingness to conform to standards. Rules are bent at will in total disregard to the severe damage our society suffers.

Pollution: Sound, air, water and the general environment around all of us is constantly getting polluted in every way.

Symbolism: We love slogans and labels. We like grand stages and large displays. We make a big show, even if on the ground, there isn't much happening. Cosmetic changes give us the false satisfaction of a mammoth achievement.

The fact that we have reached this far should not make us complacent. The future is more challenging than ever before. Unless we correct ourselves, each of us individually, in our daily lives, we will be saddled with more problems than we can solve.

(National flag image credit: All India Roundup)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Why we have no time

When we aren't able to do something, the standard reason offered is: "I didn't have time."

I remember a conversation between a senior and a junior colleague of mine a few years ago. The senior had asked the junior to do some task. When it hadn't been done, the junior was asked, why he hadn't done what he was told to do. The response, "I was too tied up; there was hardly any time to do that."

The senior's retort was: "Did you have time to brush teeth? Did you have time for a meal? So, don't tell me, you didn't have time. I won't believe that. Tell me, I didn't want to do it. I will believe that."

A bitter truth, is it not? "I didn't have time, is the most common euphemism to say it wasn't important for me.

It all boils down to priorities. We all have more stuff to do than is humanly possible to do, with 24 hours in a day. We need to prioritize.

So, why we do what we do? Because it is important.

What is less important, can wait; they give way to what is more important.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Unending struggle to link Aadhaar and PAN, even though there is no mismatch of name, date of birth

(There are updates at the end of the post)

This is a tale of a continuous struggle to link Aadhaar and PAN. The struggle is on going. No one knows why the two aren't getting linked. Worse, no one knows what should be done, to resolve the mysterious issue.

It all began some time mid-June. If you recall, within days of the government mandate to link the two, there was widespread uproar about the problems being faced.  

The most common reason was the individual's name was different in Aadhaar and PAN. In PAN, it was the full name spelt out. That is because the PAN application form requires you to spell out the First Name, Middle Name, Surname. There is no option for initials.

But since the Aadhaar application  form (at least when we filled them up) didn't specify so, many wrote their names with initials. And thus, the way the name appeared in PAN differed from the way it appeared in Aadhaar.

Following the howl of protest, the government simplified the process. Thus, in the Income Tax E-filing site, where the linkage has to be done, there is now a column to specify the "name as in Aadhaar".

This brought relief to many people. So, names like, (a fictitious example) Ravi Madhava Kumar in PAN matched with variations in Aadhaar like M. Ravi Kumar or Ravi M. Kumar or Ravi Kumar M. But still, in many cases, this hasn't worked. And people had to update PAN or Aadhaar to have the names in both same.

No mismatch

But what about cases where the name in PAN and Aadhaar are written the same way, but still the linkage didn't happen? That's what has happened in my wife's case. She just has her First Name and Last Name. No Middle Name, no initials. There is no mismatch of either the date of birth or gender. And still PAN and Aadhaar weren't getting linked.

The message that propped up was: Either the name or date of birth or gender is not matching.  On closing the pop-up box, we see a thin red banner saying: please enter the correct Aadhaar number. 

The conventional wisdom was that it could be a network problem or a server-related issue, and that the linkage would happen, if one kept trying. 

Since the two weren't getting linked, in spite of multiple attempts on multiple days, on July 21, we headed to the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) office. We presented both the Aadhaar and PAN card. They logged in to the Aadhaar data base and checked her details. Everything was in order.

Why then  the two aren't getting linked? 

One official said, "Everything is clear from our side. Just check the PAN details." They said they have logged in a complaint, and asked us to try linking after two or three working days.

So, we headed to the Income Tax office. Presented the case to an official in the Public Relations Department. One official herself tried to link. She failed. Another official logged into the PAN data base and checked her details. Everything was in order.

Why then  the two aren't getting linked? 

No one seemed to know. Just mysterious. We were sent to the Computer Room. There two people (probably engineers) again checked the PAN data base and found nothing amiss. There was no mismatch with Aadhaar details either.

Why then  the two aren't getting linked? 

No one seemed to know. We then met a senior official. We took a while to convince her that we have been trying to link the two for almost a month now, and we have tried all known methods. Then she spoke to an official, who also confirmed, that there is no mismatch, and he couldn't find a reason why the two aren't getting linked.

She suggested us to raise a ticket (meaning, register a complaint) in the Income Tax E-filing website. We thought we would wait for three or four working days, before we register a complaint.

A glimmer of hope

Thus on July 27, she posted a detailed note on the issue in the e-Nivaran section of the Income Tax E-filing site. Within 24 hours, there was a reply. Status: Resolved.

With so much of eager anticipation we clicked open to view the "Resolution". We were disheartened to see that the reply read like a copy-pasted message from a template. It suggested that we try different name combinations. And we could visit a particular link to make corrections in the PAN card and another to make corrections in the Aadhaar card. 

Very clearly, our problem hasn't been understood, if at all it was ever read.

However, there was an encouraging one last sentence in the Grievance Resolution message: "Note: Now you may file the ITR return without linking of Aadhaar in efiling portal by entering Valid Aadhaar number in the ITR form to proceed further."

That means, e-filing of Income Tax Return can be done, even if Aadhaar and PAN aren't linked. 

That was a major relief. And, no one seemed to know that.

Meanwhile, some people suggested that we should actually update the details in both PAN and Aadhaar, just in case the failure to link was because of possible mismatch in address details or some such thing. However, we were clearly told by officials in both Income Tax office and UIDAI that matching of only three particulars, name, gender and date of birth were critical in the linking of PAN and Aadhaar.

Why then  the two aren't getting linked? 

Our quest for answer continued, while we continued to make attempts to link the two on the website.

Since the message in the Grievance Resolution mentioned that e-filing could be done without linkage, last night she filled up the ITR-1 form, checked all the particulars, and decide to submit the return. 

Failure, again. There is red banner alert saying that the individual has to link PAN and Aadhaar in order to e-file the return. 

What the heck was this?

The error message

So, we went back to trying to link the two again. This time, there was no outright rejection, or proclamation that there was some mismatch of important details. Instead, there was a message to the effect that the request has been forward to Aadhaar data base and the status of the request would be emailed.

Within a few minutes there was an email in the Inbox. "Your Aadhaar-PAN linking request is failed due to the below reason.
aadhar.error.code.map.998."

For the first time ever, there was a clear-cut reason mentioned.

We Googled to find what that error message meant. On a government website that deals with biometric attendance system, error 998 has been described as "Template not in Aadhaar. Try after 15 minutes after first Try".

The whole thing has been so frustrating that there was no energy to repeat the process. 

At Palace Grounds

So, today morning I headed for the Special Counters set up at Palace Grounds to help people file their returns. I was directed to the E-Filing section. I presented the problem, for the nth time. And presented them with the photocopies of Aadhaar and PAN card. 

It was 11 am. I was told to wait for 15 minutes, as the servers were down. After about an hour and a half when the server came up, one officer made an attempt to link the two. He failed. It was a repeat of what happened last night - a message saying that the request has been forward to Aadhaar data base and the status of the request would be emailed. But unlike last night, today afternoon, there was no email in the Inbox.

With time running out to file the returns (today is the last day), I wondered what is the option. No one there had any clear idea of what we could do. One official, finally said, if there is no refund to be claimed, or tax to be paid, then just wait. The problem will get resolved. He sounded like a soothsayer.

Evening, the much-expected announcement by the government on extension of the last day for filing returns came. It is now August 5. Also, the last day for linking PAN and Aadhaar is now Aug 31. The returns will be processed only after that. 

But, what Income Tax officials have missed is that when e-filing is not possible without the linkage, what is the point in making the last day for filing ITR as Aug 5, but the last day for linking Aug 31. Ideally the last day for e-filing too should also be Aug 31.

By night, when the Income Tax servers had stabilized, we made one more attempt to link. The same message: your request is being processed.

Hopefully, someone soon will find a solution to this highly perplexing problem; and the Aadhaar and PAN of my wife will get linked; so that the IT returns can be filed before Aug 5.

August 04

My wife gets an email - seemingly in response to the attempt we made on July 31 to link. It said, "Your Aadhaar-PAN linking request is failed due to the below reason.
Invalid Aadhaar Number. Please enter valid Aadhaar Number."

This is so strange, and the whole effort seems to reaching a ridiculous extent. This reply is like the final blow to our attempt at linkage. What more you want ... The Aadhaar number itself is invalid!

Tomorrow is the last date to file the income tax returns. I have decided that may next week, we will make another visit to the UIDAI office, present the case; and hope someone will realize the seriousness of the whole effort and help us set the problem right.

August 05

She logged into the income tax e-filing website and for one last time, on the last date to file the ITR this year, and decided to see if the tax return can be submitted. The filled up data were checked once again, and the Submit button was clicked.

Ten seconds of wait; expecting that very same thin red banner to appear again across the screen, saying the return can't be submitted without linking Aadhaar and PAN.

But most surprisingly, the tax return got submitted.

We couldn't believe this.

The likely possibility is that the Income Tax Department is now allowing e-filing of tax returns without linkage of Aadhaar and PAN. After all, the government has now allowed time till August 31 to get the two linked; and has said that the processing of tax returns will begin only after that.

Anyway, what are relief!

However, the battle isn't over; the efforts to the link the two will resume next week.

Friday, June 30, 2017

GST -- what it means for consumers

Tonight India ushers in a landmark reform in indirect tax regime by rolling out the GST (Goods and Services Tax).

In fact, the whole process of reforming our tax structure had begun many many years ago; and whenever any government moved forward in this direction, all political parties "played politics". And today, we have politics in full action, many opposition parties are boycotting the special parliament session.

My understanding is that in the long run GST is going to do good for our economy: one, evading taxes will become more difficult; two, taxes won't be a taxing thing. There are many more advantages that GST will ring in. At the same time, any initiative is bound to have its flipside. I feel it's our call to see and leverage the positives, rather than harp on the negatives.

For a vast country like India with multiple laws governing goods and services in different states, this transition to a common tax regimen, isn't by any means going to be easy. But I am sure we will get used to this in a few months, if not earlier.

Here below is a very easy-to-understand table compiled by KPMG, which explains how GST will impact us, consumers, in terms of prices.



SOME QUICK FACTS ON GST (COMPILED BY KPMG)

Tax %
Goods
Services
No tax – 0%
  • Jute, fresh meat, fish chicken, eggs, milk, butter milk, curd, natural honey, fresh fruits and vegetables, Cereal grains hulled, Palmyra jaggery, flour, besan, bread, prasad, salt – all types
  • Bindi, sindoor, bangles, kajal, handlooms
  • Stamps, judicial papers, printed books, newspapers,
  • Bones and horn cores, bone grist, bone meal, hoof meal, horn meal
  • Children's' picture, drawing or colouring books, human hair
  • Hotels and lodges with tariff below Rs 1,000, Grandfathering service has been exempted under GST.
  • Rough precious and semi-precious stones will attract GST rate of 0.25 per cent

5%
  • Fish fillet, cream, skimmed milk powder, branded paneer, frozen vegetables, coffee, tea, spices, pizza bread, rusk, sabudana, Cashew nut, Cashew nut in shell, Raisin, Ice and snow
  • Apparel below Rs 1,000, packaged food items, footwear below Rs 500,
  • Medicines, stent, Insulin, lifeboats
  • Kerosene, coal, bio gas, agarbatti, kites
  • Postage or revenue stamps, stamp-post marks, first-day covers
  • Transport services (Railways, air transport) - because their main input is petroleum, which is outside GST ambit
  • Small restaurants


12%
  • Apparel above Rs 1000, frozen meat products , butter, cheese, ghee, dry fruits in packaged form, animal fat, sausage, fruit juices, bhujia, namkeen, ketchup & sauces,
  • Ayurvedic medicines
  • Tooth powder, agarbatti
  • Colouring books, picture books, exercise books and note books umbrella, sewing machine, cellphones
  • All diagnostic kits and reagents, Spoons, forks, ladles, skimmers, cake servers, fish knives, tongs
  • State-run lotteries
  • Non-AC hotels, business class air ticket
  • Fertilizers
  • Work Contracts
                          
18%
  • Footwear costing more than Rs 500
  • Bidi Patta
  • Biscuits (All catogories), flavoured refined sugar, pasta, cornflakes, pastries and cakes, preserved vegetables, jams, sauces, soups, ice cream, instant food mixes
  • Mineral water, tissues, envelopes
  • Tampons
  • Note books
  • Steel products
  • Printed circuits
  • Camera, speakers and monitors
  • Kajal pencil sticks
  • Headgear
  • AC hotels that serve liquor
  • Telecom and IT services
  • Branded garments
  • Financial services
  • Room tariffs between Rs 2,500 and Rs 7,500
  • Restaurants inside five-star hotels

28%
  • Bidis, chewing gum, molasses, chocolate not containing cocoa, waffles and wafers coated with chocolate, pan masala
  • Aerated water
  • Paint, deodorants, shaving creams, after shave, hair shampoo, dye, sunscreen
  • Wallpaper, ceramic tiles, water heater, dishwasher, weighing machine, washing machine
  • ATM, vending machines, vacuum cleaner, shavers, hair clippers, automobiles, motorcycles, aircraft for personal use
  • Private-run lotteries authorised by the states
  • Hotels with room tariffs above Rs 7,500
  • 5-star hotels
  • Race club betting
  • Cinema
Key Facts about GST
  • 81% items to be taxed below 18% tax slabs
  • The GST would be applicable on the supply of goods or services as against the present concept of tax on the manufacture or sale of goods or provision of services
  • The GST would apply to all goods other than alcoholic liquor for human consumption and five petroleum products, viz. petroleum crude, motor spirit (petrol), high speed diesel, natural gas and aviation turbine fuel
At the Central level, the following taxes are being subsumed:
  • Central Excise Duty,
  • Additional Excise Duty,
  • Service Tax,
  • Additional Customs Duty commonly known as Countervailing Duty, and
  • Special Additional Duty of Customs
At the State level, the following taxes are being subsumed:
  • Subsuming of State Value Added Tax/Sales Tax
  • Entertainment Tax (other than the tax levied by the local bodies), Central Sales Tax (levied by the Centre and collected by the States)
  • Octroi and Entry tax
  • Purchase Tax
  • Luxury tax, and
  • Taxes on lottery, betting and gambling



FACTOIDS – WHAT’S UP, WHAT’S DOWN (COMPILED BY KPMG)

Sector
What’s got costlier
What’s got cheaper
What saw no change
AUTOMOBILES
28% GST + CESS

  • Small cars
  • Luxury cars/SUVs
  • 2 Wheelers
  • Mid size cars
HOME APPLIANCES
GST: 28%

  • ACs, TVs & Washing machines


TRAVEL  SERVICES

  • AC Train Travel
  • Business Class Airfare
  • Economy airfare
  • Uber/Ila
  • Metro/Suburban rides

GOLD JEWELLERY
GST: 3%

  • Gold - Opens window for cheap jewellery imports from Indonesia & South Korea


TELECOM & CONSUMER TECHNOLOGY
  • Mobile Phones
  • Wi-fi services
  • Telecom services


SERVICES
  • Life Insurance premiums
  • Banking services
  • Investment management services
  • Online bookings
  • Business Class airfare
  • DTH services
  • Courier services
  • Wi-fi services

  • Watching movies
  • Ola, Uber services
  • Metro travel
  • Suburban train travel
  • Economy airfare
  • Religious travel


WHAT GST MEANS FOR YOU
WHAT’S COSTLIER?

  • Small cars
  • Tea/coffee/masalas
  • Shampoos/Deos
  • Gambling/betting
  • Metals/cement
  • Aerated drinks
  • Tobacco
  • Courier services
  • Insurance premiums
  • Banking charges

WHO GETS TAXED WHAT?

  • GST has 4 basic tax rates
  • 5%, 12%, 18% & 28%
  • Basic staples (foodgrain, milk, veg) are tax exempt
  • No tax on services like education & health

GST: WHAT’S THE CHANGE?

  • Pre-GST: 17+ state and central taxes on goods and services
  • GST: Single tax with 4 basic rates
  • Pre-GST: Multiple taxes at different rates
  • GST: Single tax at point of consumption

The GST CLUB and ANALYSIS across countries/continents
THE GST CLUB

  • 160 countries have GST
  • India’s rate among the highest (28% the top slab)
  • Scandinavian countries have highest single rate of 25%
  • Uruguay & Argentina follow with 22% and 21%


GST COMPARISON

  • Global VAT/GST rates:
  • South East Asia: 7%
  • Asia:       12.8%
  • Europe & CIS: 19.8%
  • Africa: 16.8%
  • Latin America: 15.7%




Monday, June 26, 2017

Book review: Shadows of the Past by Jeena R. Papaadi

Shadows of the Past
There are different reasons why you pick a particular book to read. I selected this one because of the theme that ties different short stories together: coincidences.

The introduction says: ... Sometimes these coincidences stop us on our tracks and make us wonder, “Was that really just a coincidence – or did the hand of Destiny strike ever so gently?” We call them ‘eerie’ or ‘uncanny’, or ‘a miracle’ or ‘a stroke of luck’ or ‘fate’.

In my personal life too, I have had many experiences which have led me to think: was that a coincidence or was some force at work?

The author, Jeena, has weaved together a good number of incidents, and each of the stories has an interesting twist. Though in a couple of stories the narration drags a bit, the author has been able to hold the plot well, and keep me engrossed, awaiting the twist. The language is very simple, the book is small and easy to read.

Jeena says, "Shadows of the Past” takes you to the crossroads where coincidence meets luck, miracle meets destiny, on the thin line between the strange and the eerie. Maybe those incidents are indeed mere coincidences, and there is nothing inexplicable about them. I leave you to judge.

I wouldn't delve into the stories, lest I be a spoilsport!

Friday, May 12, 2017

James Comey: a tumultuous career ends

James Comey
It was an early morning shocker today: President Trump fires FBI Director James Comey,

Only yesterday former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were testifying before the Senate on the Russian involvement in the US presidential poll. The Senate hearing brought the Russian story more into focus.

James Comey has had a tumultuous tenure, not just as FBI director, but before that too.

In 2002, he led a probe into the pardoning of Marc Rich, an affluent global financier, by Bill Clinton on his last day as the President in 2001. Interestingly, one of the cases of Comey 15 years earlier as an attorney, was the successful prosecution of Rich for tax evasion. According to Time, "Despite evidence that several pardon recipients, including Rich, had connections to donations to Bill Clinton’s presidential library and Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, Comey found no criminal wrongdoing."

Then, in 2004, Comey, who was Acting Attorney General, had refused to sign some crucial papers sanctioning the NSA's domestic wiretapping programme. His signature was required for the programme to continue. Bush had to intervene to lift the hurdle.

Barack Obama brought him as FBI Director for a 10-year term in 2013. That was the time when wiretapping by was back in news, and Obama had backed the plan, saying only generic data was collected. But the fact that Comey, had once opposed wiretapping, didn't go unnoticed. But then, he said post 2004 Madrid blasts he has had a change of mind.

His most recent tryst with controversy was in the run-up to the US presidential elections. He was leading probe into the use of private servers by Hillary Clinton while she was the secretary of State. In 2016, he declared that though Clinton was careless, there was no criminal charges against her.

Quite expectedly the Trump campaign was critical of Comey.

Then came the dramatic turning point. In October, it was revealed that sleuths looking into the alleged sexting between Anthony Weiner had found on his computer emails between Hillary Clinton and his wife and Clinton aid Huma Abedin. He went public that the email controversy was being reopened.

Trump's view of Comey changed. He praised him.

It is widely believed that Comey's latest move might have cost Clinton the White House bid.

After Trump assumed charge, the focus shifted to Russian involvement in US poll. Though Trump cited poor progress into Clinton email probe, it's said that Comey sacking had much to do with increasing focus and progress in the probe into Trump's proximity to Russians in the poll campaign. Comey was getting too close for comfort.

Very interesting days for US politics in the coming days. I really doubt if this is going to die down. It will only get more intense, and probe will only widen and deepen.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Emmanuel Macron is new President of France

(This was a live page)

0055
Marine Le Pen supporters are saying this is not a defeat. But another landmark in the march of their party. At the very start of Front National, it got around 0.4% votes. In 2002 they got around 17% and today it's around 35%. They say they will continue to move ahead.
Le Pen said the party will get a revamp. Already the present FN is far diluted version of the party her father founded in 1972. Is the original FN dead? Now how will the new FN look like?

0040
Emmanuel Macron makes a short and sober speech. Thanks voters. Assures the people that he would protect the country and keep it united.
0030
France is at a turning point. Beginning of a new chapter in its political, economic and social life. We will await who Macron's Prime Minister will be. Macron will also need support in Parliament to rule; and remember all the major parties were rejected by the people in this election. The National Assembly election comes up in January, that will give a clearer picture what lies ahead for France in the four to five years from now.

0010
En Marche is the party that Macron belongs to. And that party is just one year old. Imagine such a party winning the Presidential election of a country like France, quite historic, a world record of sorts. Just shows the sort of polity that exists in France. I guess, many people would have voted for Macron to be on the safe side, in order to not make matters worse by voting for Le Pen.

0005
Nearly a third of voters cast blank ballots.. apparently the highest. .. That's the protest vote.

2345
Marine Le Pen concedes defeat
2335
2331
According to the BBC Emmanuel Macron is the new President of France with 65.5% of votes

2328
Opinion polls have been putting Macron ahead of Le Pen... Let us see who the people have actually voted for. ... We will know in a few minutes.

2325
Polls will close in another five minutes; and in a few minutes we will get to know who the next President of France.