The curious case of the onion

 

The onion, infamous for its tear inducing abilities, added one more feather to its cap this year. It managed to burn quite a few pockets, with prices soaring upto Rs. 100 per kilogram in certain parts of India. The commodity holds an important place in the Indian household and has proven itself to be a politically sensitive commodity. Previously as well, it has proven itself to be quite the hot potato (ironically), with political parties crossing swords on the issue. In December 2010, the onion prices surged and caused a severe crisis due to shortfall in production (India is the second largest producer of onion in the world).  In response to this, the government banned onion exports and began to import the produce from the neighboring nation of Pakistan. The reasons provided for the restricted supply in domestic markets were unseasonal rainfall and hoarding.

The competition watchdog in India, the Competition Commission of India (CCI), decided to take notice of the issue and ordered for a report. The report titled, “Competitive Assessment of Onion Markets in India” is comprehensive, and examined markets in Karnataka, Maharashtra (The states together produce 45% of India’s onions). The CCI as a watchdog endeavors to ensure that no agreement has an “appreciable adverse impact” on the consumer. The report summed up the economy’s predicament in the following lines –

“The high volatility in prices of agricultural commodities can have a disproportionate, typically nonlinear or asymmetric impact on the economy and may fail to endure exceptional shocks. This impact is prominent if governments and households are well-adapted to normal volatility but fail to anticipate or consider making worthwhile provisions against extreme shocks.”

Usually, an unprecedented surge in prices implies reduced supply of that commodity and highlights the non-substitutability of such a commodity. Other possibilities include creating artificial shortage, hoarding, monopolies, market inefficiencies and problems in distribution networks. Why the competition watchdog would order for a report on the competition assessment of the humble onion seems absurd but what must be remembered that prices of food commodities spillover and affect the prices of other commodities.

The onion is central to Indian cooking and Indian politics. The impact of its produce rendered its entry into the Essential Commodities List post the BJP government’s defeat in New Delhi in 1998. Subsequently, it was removed from the list in 2004 which ended the government’s control on its supply and production.  Apparently, the Congress in 1980 won the general elections on account of its inclusion of rise in onion prices in its campaign issue. Considering the upcoming general elections, the victory of a political party lies in its ability to dedicate a section of its manifesto to the infamous vegetable.

One of the significant observations made by the Institute for Social and Economic Change in their report is that the price of the commodity is not determined so much by the producers as much as by the middlemen i.e. the traders.  According to report, the market for onions is dominated by few and several players (essentially an oligopoly) which act as a trade barrier. Other observations include a lack of unity among onion farmers, collusion among traders, secret bidding and trader lobbies in APMC markets.

File:Onion whitebackground.jpg

The Onion. Image courtesy: Wikipedia

One of the aspects that the report also dealt with was the curbing of exports and the fixing of the minimum export price (MEP).  The government has reduced the MEP for onions so as to encourage shipment of onions and so as to combat the volatility of the onion prices. The quandary has now been reversed. Onion prices fell drastically due to a bumper crop. In a bid to appease, the government is conducting a balancing act where both, domestic consumers and farmers benefit. However, this is temporary and might assuage the aam admi for now but reform in the onion market remains to be seen.

The middleman, the trader is seemingly the villain in this matter. Collusion and monopoly seem to be factor in the marking up of prices of onions. Other factors include the lack of representation of farmers in APMCs and other trading associations.

The onion seems to add flavor to both – food and political agendas. The hope is that, the exploitation of the issue for political means might actually lead to a certain degree of reform, necessary for both the producers and the end users of the unassuming onion.

Trials and Tribulations of a First Time Voter

Democracy involves an exercise of choice. Unfortunately, this time around there isn’t a plethora of choices. You have NaMo and Shehzaada Rahul-G. While the aam junta oscillates between these two choices, I can’t help but feel left out. 

The General Elections of 2014 is quintessentially a battle ground between the UPA and the BJP and I refuse to take sides. I don’t intend to stand as a mute spectator. Not with this blog post. We all have our bets placed on who will emerge victor. The problem is, I don’t believe in the prospective victor or the prospective vanquished. The concept of “no-vote” isn’t exciting at all. But I get to exercise my right to vote, to have my finger dotted with that black dot, be part of the “democratic process”. 

We’re asked to choose between two ideologies and in truth, between two individuals for the position of the Prime Minister.  It is not to say that that the choice is between the devil and the deep sea. Neither of the candidates inspire any confidence in me. As for the Aam Admi Party, their initiative and objective is a refreshing change but a hint of skepticism remains.

I beg to differ. Democracy celebrates opinions, however diverse they maybe.
Image Courtesy: http://www.actionwanted.wordpress.com

“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth
sounds like a pistol shot.” 
― Czesław Miłosz (Nobel Prize Winner – Literature)

Does democracy have a place for dissatisfaction? Or disinterest coupled with skepticism. As a first time voter, I find myself dissatisfied with the options available. Ideology seems almost irrelevant now. Conservatism, liberalism, socialism are concepts that find their place in a political theory class and not the political arena in India. 

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.” 
―Abraham Lincoln

 

President Lincoln’s words do ring true, including the bit about beer. Unfortunately, the concept of society is far more complicated now. Truth, is disputed and manufactured and tainted with connotations far beyond the scope of the statement. In the end, I’m more inclined to agree with this man –

“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” 
― Mark Twain

 

The Debate

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Image courtesy via http://www.sodahead.com

In light of the death penalty awarded to the four accused in the Delhi gang rape case, the oft-debated question of life imprisonment versus death penalty has spawned news articles and blog articles such as this one.

While the debate mainly ranges between two opposing arguments – that the right to life is absolute versus death should be the punishment for perpetrators of heinous crimes or as stated in the Bachan Singh case – “rarest of rare cases”.

The fast track court’s judgment regarding the death penalty will gain enforcement only upon confirmation by the Delhi High Court. The judgment has been met with applause in certain circles while many feel that the judgment will not satiate the people’s need to be secure and safe in their own city. The economics of having death penalty system in a nation has also been debated. Proponents of life imprisonment contend that death penalty is an expensive system in regard to the little benefits it offers.

A Harvard economist, Lawrence Katz proposed that existing prison conditions prove to be stronger deterrents than death. What was effectively proved was that life in prison is far worse than death.

Many believe that life imprisonment will pose as a better punishment and will actually aid in the process of reformation. While the deterrent/ retributive v. reformist debate continues, life imprisonment shall prove to be a better message to send to the society in general.

To teach a community not to rape and kill, the more effective measure would be to not kill the perpetrator of such crimes. The Sessions Court judgment appears more as a public appeasement measure than an adjudication over a criminal case. People may argue that the criminal case is of public importance and that courts while upholding the principles of equity, justice and good conscience undertakes a public service of reassurance. But that is not the objective of the judiciary. Kasab’s death did not reassure because the termination of his life did not implicitly or expressly curb terrorism in any given way. It did not reinforce a sense of confidence in the government regarding efforts against terrorism.  The object was not attained. Justice, in its truest spirit, was not done.

While deterrence and reform are the central themes in the theories of punishment. Both are not mutually exclusive, in fact, reform is a component of deterrence. Life spent languishing in prison and the stigma so attached prove to be stronger deterrents than the end of life itself.

My plea to the Hon’ble Delhi High Court would be to decline confirmation of death sentence and confirmation of an award of rigorous life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. Society demands repentance and not retribution and to not grant the same is a crime in itself. 

 

Syria: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Syria’s fate lies in the decisions made by the United States and Russia. While the world watches with apprehension and fear, decisions are made, “interests” are affected and interventions get justified. While modern public international law jurists might not vilify US and Russia’s intervention as much needed and in the “interests of nations”, international watchers and keen promoters of “democracy” have given sanction to interference under the guise of protecting the “interests” of particular nations from the use of chemical weapons.

Obama, Assad, Putin
Image courtesy http://www.news.oneindia.in

As a law student, fresh into my first year, I was assigned a project pertaining to a review of a newspaper article on a subject that was contemporary and of great significance in political science. The Arab Spring had begun in 2011, my article review was written in September 2011. The article I chose to review was written by Mr. Praveen Swami of The Hindu. When my Political Science professor asked me in my first year as to why I chose Syria over Egypt, I honestly had no concrete answer and mumbled incoherently, “It piqued my interest”. Gut, or proverbial women’s intuition deduced that Syria’s societal set up and Assad’s tendencies would be the death of Syria.

Syria: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

ARTICLE REVIEW

Syria’s uprising against the 40 year old Arab Baath rule is an outcome of the Egypt movement. Though Egypt’s revolution has almost come to an end, Syria’s revolution seems to be in full swing.

The author of the article (hereafter referred to as “the author”) mentions that Syria possesses a triple threat – from the West, an economic crisis caused by neoliberal economic reform and a mounting Islamist threat.

The author wrongly assumes that the rebellion as such has “failed”.

At the time of writing this review,  a clash had taken place between the security forces and protesters in Syria, mainly in the outskirts of Hamas and Deraa with 18 killed and many injured. The citizens of Syria screamed – “Death rather than humiliation”.

Also, similar to the TNC in Libya, a group of Syrian activists have now declared a council representing a united front in opposition to Basher Al-Assad (President of Syria) comprising of 140 members – inclusive of exiled opponents and dissidents within Syria. The council aims to dethrone Al –Assad within six months with an interim government thereafter.

The author of the article delves into the history of the Muslim brotherhood (MB) and elaborates on the origin, members, ideology – which relies heavily on the Sharia law, modus operandi, violent uprisings and so forth. The opposition council that represents Syria’s rebellion consists of a wide spectrum of ideological opinion — pro-western liberals, secular-nationalists and Islamists — not just the Muslim Brotherhood. The author fails to take cognizance of the fact that three groups, ideologically different have come together for the uprising – showcasing unity. Thus, we can safely assume that the rebellion in Syria is anything but a “failed rebellion”.

The author of the article implies that the MB is an extremely strong threat to Al- Assad’s regime on account of previous uprisings and as the MB represents the Syrian majority – the Sunnis. The Sunnis as a majority have been fighting the Alawi minority which rule the country – in the form of the President, government and the military. The MB does have a strong presence in Syria, playing the role of a supplier of arms and weapons currently. But it most definitely isn’t strong enough to topple the government.

The MB is funded by some citizens of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. However these benefactors are not in favour of the current rebellion. Saudi Arabia, a state known for suppressing dissent via force, withdrew its ambassador. Turkey- due to the mass exodus from Syria and the consequent strain on Turkey’s economy.

And as the author stated that in the past few years – the Muslim Brotherhood has softened its stand and now leans slightly to the classic liberal thought though not totally abandoning the anti-secularism ideology.

Take the instance of Lt. Col Harmoush, who defected from the Syrian army, sought refuge in Turkey and then brought back to Syria. He was disappointed as he felt that the Muslim Brotherhood failed to support – in terms of arms and money as promised. During his television confession, he stated that he returned back to Syria as he was disillusioned with certain Syrian activists and the MB.

The importance of Al- Harmoush as a dissenting figure became evident on September 8, when opposition activists and the people of Syria informed the media so as to report that the Syrian security forces had attacked the village of Ibleen, where al-Harmoush’s brother Mohammed lived. The Syria’s state news agency claimed responsibility for the raid on Ibleen, saying Syrian security forces had killed a number of “armed terrorists” who had been residing there. His brother’s corpse was shown in a video released by opposition activists. Thousands of people attended his funeral.

Dethroning of Al- Assad lies in the hands of Lt. Col Harmoush and the likes and not in the hands of the MB.

The author of the article further contends that Syria possesses a threat from the West. This is evident from the fact that the USA has been supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in an attempt to “replace it’s failing authoritarian collaborators with Saudi Arabia-style conservative regimes” and “to contain anti-western jihadists” as the author mentions. The MB also has a lobbying presence in the USA since 2006. This is further proved by the actions of Robert Ford, a US ambassador to Damascus who in an attempted to break off talks with the regime and recently defied official travel restrictions so as to meet opposition leaders in Jassem.

Though Syria’s political structure is different from that of India, it currently is facing similar problems because like India, it adopted neo liberal economic reforms. Though it enjoys steady growth, employment opportunities to people with basic education are minimal – this is what mainly affects the Syrian youth, who are the backbone of this revolution. Furthermore, the ports of Syria have comparatively less traffic with ports of Iran benefiting in the bargain. The ports of Syria play an important role in the transportation of oil- 95% of which is exported to Europe.

Further threats include an Islamist state- an outcome which looks more probable but should be less welcome as Syria, as the author has rightly pointed out, is one of the most secular state institutions of the Arab state, has women in positions of influence and a state where the rights of the minority are protected.

In the event of a transfer of power from the Ba’ath dynasty to the opposition council or the likes, efforts should be made to retain liberal thought as entertained earlier and should not result in Talibanisation.

Al Assad promised to halt military operations. However after six months of the revolution and more than 2200 deaths, it is clearly a broken promise. In the words of the UN General Secretary It’s troubling that he has not kept his words…I sincerely hope that he heeds…all [the] international community’s appeals and calls.”

And in conclusion, concurrent to the author’s statement –

Syria remains on the edge of the abyss: an abyss that black paint cannot obscure.

Contra Bonos Mores [Offensive to the conscience and to a sense of justice.]

 

 

Every individual shall have a right to his privacy — confidentiality of communication made to, or, by him — including his personal correspondence, telephone conversations, telegraph messages, postal, electronic mail and other modes of communication; confidentiality of his private or his family life; protection of his honour and good name; protection from search, detention or exposure of lawful communication between and among individuals; privacy from surveillance; confidentiality of his banking and financial transactions, medical and legal information and protection of data relating to (an) individual.

– Preamble, The Right to Privacy Bill

As per a recent news article, the Mumbai police is planning to film New Year parties that are to take place in the society. In a decision that is reeking of privacy violation and an uncontrollable urge for moral policing, this initiative by the Mumbai cops is hardly surprising. The Mumbai police in the past has resorted to CCTV surveillance in an attempt to monitor “indecent behaviour by couples” especially near Bandra Bandstand. These CCTVs were subsequently removed by the Bandra cops after a scathing media report in a local newspaper in Mumbai.

While this author patiently awaits for an equally critical media report in regard to the current issue, it is imperative for all – Mumbai cops, Maharashtra State Government – especially the Home Ministry need to realise that the absolute Dhoble-isation of a citizen’s privacy must not occur.

India does not currently have a general data protection statute. Nevertheless, the judiciary has derived a “right of privacy” from the rights available under Articles 19(1)(a) (the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression) and 21 (the right to life and personal liberty) of the Constitution of India. However, all cases that deal with the right to privacy have been decided in the context of Government actions that resulted in private citizens being denied their right to personal privacy. And it is this right that must be upheld above all especially in this matter.

“Privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite.”
― Marlon Brando

Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges [In times of arms, the law falls silent.]

“The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frame.” ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Black Cat

Post the Sandy Hook massacre, many voices across the globe claimed that affirmative action was required in regard to gun control in the USA. There were arguments, debates on gun use and the right to keep and bear arms as provided in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. Philosophies on USA’s notoriety for gun massacres abounded. When children in an elementary school were killed, the core issue was about keeping children safe from “mad gun men”. But what about counselling for disturbed and at risk teenagers/adults who were likely to resort to shooting school children or even research associates (think Virginia). Columbine in 1999 did open a lot of doors for discussion but affirmative action to end gun culture did not occur. In fact, the individual right to bear arms for self-defense was affirmed in the landmark United States Supreme Court cases District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008.

“Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor.”
 Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers

In India, the 23 year old medical student who was gang raped in Delhi, India’s rape capital, is fighting for survival. An incident of gruesome proportions, people of Delhi feel outraged now. Periodically, across the media, many mentioned that when incidents of molestation of sexual assault/harassment occur in public places in Delhi and an alarm is raised by the person so affected, nobody would really comes rushing in to help. That nobody gives a damn.  The sudden delayed rage by the Delhi public says that they have finally woken up to the cause of keeping women safe in their city. But, with demands for “immediate capital punishment” and “castration”, the Delhi public seems to have stayed true to their ground. While they refuse to admit that due process of law should take place and that a trial should be conducted, it is pertinent to note that it reflects the inherent nature of Delhi public reluctance to follow the law. The protests have taken an ugly turn with violent demonstrations and persistent clamors to have the Delhi Commissioner sacked.

“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”
― Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays

Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges [In times of arms, the law falls silent.”] Cicero’s quote might have been about war but fundamentally it reflects the true state of affairs in the USA and India. Society’s reaction to violence in any form in certain substantially influential  pockets has always been a knee jerk one. While radical changes in USA are being considered with celebrities taking up the cause of gun control and in India amendments to existing laws to make sure the six accused are hanged are being considered, its important to remember that violence in any given form has a tendency to modulate the voice of law which is undesirable in a democracy.

The Tale of the World Economy and the Black Swan.

“a good person is as rare as a black swan” expression in 16th century London describing impossibility, deriving from the old world presumption that ‘all swans must be white’, because all historical records of swans reported that they had white feathers.

Recession. Downward Spiral. Words used in the papers everyday. But I never really paused to understand a. What exactly is Recession? b. What is a downward spiralling economy?

While a whimsical, random Google search would have sufficed, I got my answers in class. Google doesn’t possess the ability to explain things sequentially, you see. So I learnt about the basics of sovereign debt, bond markets, credit default swaps and all that jargon which would impress many.

But its just not economics. There’s a sizeable portion of politics and international relations involved, a variable, very conveniently forgotten in the midst of cross default clauses and pari passu principles. So you have the Greeks, Germans and the Euro. You also have a consumer driven US economy and an opportunistic Chinese economy.

Image via whywedoit.wordpress.com

Question: Where does the Black Swan theory come into the picture?

“our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly large deviations.”

“What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.”

Mr Taleb, propounder of the Theory, himself speaks about how predicting Black Swan(s) isnt the intention. The intention is to ensure that one is well prepared against the negative effects of the phenomenon. He mentions in particular, that the economy especially is susceptible to many such Black Swans. He enumerates how losses in financial systems are not as predictable as models developed by economists and company’s financial advisors.

However, the many governmental advisors and the economic aspects have not taken in this theory in to account. One may argue, that how does one predict one cannot see or what is abstract in nature? How can one predict something that one has simply no idea about?

However, the book also talks about the observer. To state an example borrowed from Wikipedia –

“what may be a Black Swan surprise for a turkey is not a Black Swan surprise for its butcher—hence the objective should be to “avoid being the turkey” by identifying areas of vulnerability in order to “turn the Black Swans white.”

An example, ccourtesy investopedia.com

 For example, the previously successful hedge fund Long Term Capital Management  (LTCM) was driven into the ground as a result of the ripple effect caused by the  Russian government’s debt default. The Russian government’s default represents a  black swan event because none of LTCM’s computer models could have predicted  this event and its subsequent effects.

Image via yogadork.com

As irritating it may be, let us consider USA as an example. The Great Depression of the 1930’s gave way to the concept of deficit financing. However, the reason why the Great Depression occured was because of the classical school’s line of thinking – the market forces will correct the situation in the event of a deficiency of demand.

In the current scenario, think Alan Greenspan, think Classical school – “market forces will bring about equilibrium”. So clearly, USA hasnt really identified its areas of vulnerability. Infact, USA is still reeling from the Black Swan effect. However, the good part of it is that the final component ie. the justification in hindsight (with reference to the Black Swan theory) has begun. I would like to acknowledge my senior in law school for bringing forth this extremely valuable point and prays that he gets into the law school (for a LLM degree) of his choice!

I think what simply adds more credibility to the current post is the fact that the propounder of this theory was a former Wall Street trader. Just saying.