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Robin Hood, My Foot

Robin Hood, My Foot

“We are going to tax people who can afford to pay. Somebody who has a car or bike is certainly not starving. Somebody who can afford to pay, must,” says the latest talent spotted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Tourism Minister K J Alphons. His comments was in response to a journalist’s question if it was fair for the Centre to levy high taxes on petrol and diesel when international crude prices have fallen by half in the last three years.

Is it the policy of the Modi Government that those who buy petrol must feed the poor? How will Alphons’ government ensure that all money extracted from sale of petrol will go directly to feed hungry mouths? There is no special fund earmarked as was the case with Krishi Kalyan Cess, Swachh Bharat Cess or Education Cess. How badly these cess were used for the purposes intended would be known if one goes through the CAG audit. But even these cesses have now dissolved into GST.

Is it Alphons’ case that it is a crime to use a private vehicle since someone in the country is going hungry? If so, should not the Prime Minister of the country be the model first by sitting at home than trotting around the globe? By that logic, how can we spend money in developing missiles or airports before the last woman is sufficiently nourished?

I do not own a vehicle, nor does anyone in my family. We mostly use public transport and hire a car when that’s more suitable or convenient. Given the subsidy that Uber and Ola cabs offer and lower fares of LPG-run taxis, they remain cheaper options than buying a vehicle. In other words, I’m not someone who is hit by the high artificial price of petrol.

The surge in sale of passenger cars, in India’s big cities in particular, makes it imperative for the government to build a proper public transport network and encourage people to use it. It would keep the environment cleaner too. However, I find it objectionable when the government tries to justify its uneven and unfair imposition of taxes on fuels by saying that those who can afford it are certainly not starving. A lot of poor people in small towns, including Alphons’ Kerala, ply autorickshaws to make a living. Those who hire the autorickshaws too are mostly relatively poor people. Then there are cases where poor people are able to go to work only because they own a motorcycle or scooter.

If social media postings are to be believed, Alphons owns a Mercedes Benz car and a Mahindra Scorpio SUV and during the UPA regime he supposedly said that he would have to stop using them and start pedalling a bicycle because of the high fuel prices. The difference is that the retail prices then reflected the international crude rates, while today’s is ‘nation-building’ burden imposed by the Modi regime as oil prices have plunged to less than $50 a barrel, while it was well over $100 a barrel five years ago.

Alphons may imagine that people would think he sounds like Robin Hood. But more than the English folklore character, his latest utterings reminds one of a sentence wrongly-attributed to French queen Marie Antoinette: “If they can’t have bread, let them eat cake.” But I guess one should be considerate to Alphons who has spent most of his adult life travelling in a state-owned car which ran on taxpayers’ money. It is natural for those who have been cut off from reality and have no idea about how the poor eke out a living to make insensitive remarks.

Mandatory Answers

Reverend Tom Uzhunnalil is finally free. After his 18 months ordeal as a captive of the Islamic State, the king of Oman is supposed to have played a key role in getting Uzhunnalil released, upon which he was flown to Vatican.

Cardinal Gracias of the Bombay Archdiocese met Uzhunnalil in Vatican. “I was afraid that he would come out a broken man, but no…it’s a moment of grace, a moment of faith, a special experience,” Catholic News Agency quoted Gracias as saying. The Cardinal was also quoted as saying that Uzhunnalil told Pope Francis “just tell everybody that Jesus is great…That was like the sum of his experience.”

The Cardinal added “The Holy Father was telling me he was surprised with the calmness of the man… and not bitter about anything. Particularly about his captors, he was very understanding.” Gracias also said it was better that he went to the Vatican because, “I think if he had gone to India he would have been mobbed by everybody.”

Given the photo opportunity top functionaries of the Indian Government would have sought and how channel vultures would have tried to use Uzhunnalil’s arrival to whip up a controversial debate, it was wise. But these could still happen.

However, Uzhunnalil makes news not just for the vulture media. Even religious as well as responsible secular media would want to know more from him, including the way he was treated, the likely identity and mannerisms of his captors and all such related information.

Uzhunnalil has already been quoted as saying that his captors did not ill-treat him and provided medicines. That is good publicity for the ISIS. It would be only wise for the Catholic Church/Uzhunnalil’s order to release a precise and complete story of his days in captivity and how the release happened.

Reasons of security and diplomacy may require that certain details not be acknowledged but it would only be prudent, honest and wise to briefly mention if a ransom was paid for his release. Also Uzhunnalil need to briefly explain the circumstances under which he was forced to imply ‘enough was not being done for his release’ in a May 2017 video remark that had racial overtones. It’s best not to brush things under the carpet because only truth can set one free.

Yen Trap

Two news portals have given additional reasons to why Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim that the Japan Government’s loan of Rs 88,000 crore at 0.1% interest rate was “almost free” is absurd: The Japanese Yen keeps appreciating against most currency and particularly against the rupee, as inflation is nil in Japan. One estimate says at least Rs 1,50,000 crore will have to be repaid for Rs 88,000 crore in 20 years. In other words, this ‘free Jumla’ will cost the nation dear for a train corridor that is likely to be operationally unviable because of the passenger ticket cost and travel time vis-à-vis air ticket price and travel duration.

( abey.kay@gmail.com)

(Published on 24th September 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 39)