June 27, 2012

Crowdsource RTI data in XBRL to curb corruption

By clamouring for a Lok Pal, the anti-corruption campaign is barking up the wrong tree. We have laws against corruption for citizens. We have police and the other government agencies to enforce these laws but they are corrupt as well. So we have higher agencies like the CBI and CVC but they are corrupt as well. Now we want another layer, the Lok Pal, but by recursive extension there is nothing to stop the Lok Pal from being corrupt. We can go higher and higher, Parliamentary Sub Committee, President of India …  but even if we involve the Divine Lord Krishna himself, the nation will surely find a way to make him corrupt as well!

So let us look at another model -- that of the notorious American gangster, Al Capone. and read the story of how he was caught and brought to justice, not by some muscular policeman but by some very nerdy, if not wimpish, men from the IRS -- the US equivalent of our Income Tax Department. Mr Capone was too smart to be caught out on his main crimes, namely illicit liquor trade, murder and extortion, but was caught and sent behind bars for tax evasion. Can we apply this model to tackle corruption in India ?

In this case, our goals are obviously slightly different. We are not not interested in tracking tax evasion. Instead we want to know if, how and when public money is being diverted away from the public purpose -- in other words, being stolen. The tool that we should will be a modification of the Right to Information but restricted to economic information.

the image and idea of the 0 rupee note is taken from http://india.5thpillar.org/front_page

In its current form, RTI assumes that some citizen suspects that there is something wrong and demands documents to substantiate his suspicion. But why leave the onus and the responsibility on the suspicious citizen. Instead why not make it mandatory for each and every government department to place all financial information in the public domain in a digital format ?

The immensity of the task may seem daunting but if one looks closely, this is not so. Each and every department must already have a mechanism to track all financial transactions. If it does not have it, that itself is a first broad hint of a problem, but given the rigorousness of our bureaucratic processes this is highly unlikely. Now if this information is available then there can be no reason why it should not be formally and automatically placed in the public domain.

Once this information is available in digital form in the public domain, say in form similar to that offered by the British government at http://data.gov.uk/ -- then it can be scrutinised and checked for inconsistencies by the public and by colaboratively tracing the flow of money across the country it would be possible to detect, investigate and plug points where “leakage” or theft happens.

Given the extremely large number of financial transactions that the government enters into, both with itself and with its citizens, it may appear that this is easier said than done but a little application of mind will show that the problem is not intractable. Chartered Accountants already have a set of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and all corporate entities are mandated by law to publish accounts. We simply need to extend this to all government agencies -- for example municipalities, departments, schools, colleges or anything else that is funded by public money -- and ensure that the resultant data is available in a standard format, say XBRL -- the universal financial reporting language that can be used in any computer system.

In fact RTI activists, instead of asking for a wide variety of data in an ad-hoc manner, can co-ordinate their activism and structure their campaign so that data from each corner of the country and the government is asked for and obtained in this standard XBRL format and then pooled into a public domain digital infrastructure that can be used by all. So it is either that every government department or agency publishes its financial data in the public domain or the RTI is invoked to make it do so. In a way, this is roughly analogous to data being sourced by the crowd, or crowdsourcing. This way, say, NREGA funds being despatched from Delhi can be traced as they move across the country through states, districts, panchayats and villages by tallying the XBRL documents obtained by RTI activists at each level.

What is being suggested here is nothing new. Each and every department that handles public money must already have a way for accounting for every receipt and payment. The RTI Act already  empowers a citizen to ask for these details -- the rules may need to be amended to mandate the delivery of digital data. The GAAP clearly specifies how this data is to be reported and there exists global standards, like XBRL, that allow this data to be digitally stored. Finally there are enough data mining tools around to make sense of this mountain of digitally data and spot deviations and discrepancies. In this context, forensic accounting techniques can be used to locate suspicious discrepancies in financial data.

What may be missing is a financial accounting software that needs to be implemented in every government department and people must be trained to use it. This will be a very small investment compared to the returns that will accrue and will be a good business practice to introduce in any case. After all any small and medium enterprise today uses such a financial accounting software and it is high time every government agency has one. ( Full Disclosure : the author is neither in the accounting profession, nor is he associated with any accounting software! )

We have all the pieces in place. Do we have the will to join the dots ? If not, can our RTI activists and anti-corruption campaigners do something to make it happen ?

June 19, 2012

The Hindu Heritage of Kashmir

 Ever since the Independence of India, Kashmir has been the leitmotif of the hostility that has poisoned the relationship between the two South Asian neighbours. Born in the crucible of Hindu-Muslim antagonism that is erroneously attributed to the British policy of Divide & Rule but in reality has its origins in the clash of civilisations that has reverberated through the past 800 years, the Kashmir "problem" has been in the headlines for nearly half a century.

The Himalayas are an important part of the cultural heritage of India and Kashmir is no exception. Unfortunately, the Muslim rule of India that began with Qutb-ud-din-Aibak in Delhi (around 1206 CE) and ended with the deportation of Bahadur Shah Zafar to Rangoon (1857) has had the effect of rubbing out most of the Hindu footprint from Kashmir. Today, despite the uniqueness of Kashmir of being a beautiful valley situated high in the Himalayas, a geographic feature that is found nowhere else in the region, Kashmir has become associated with the image of terrorism and jihad and of a conflict between India and Pakistan, between Hindus and Muslims and between the syncretic culture of the South Asia and the medieval intolerance of  the Middle Eastern deserts.

I had visited Kashmir with my parents in the late 1960s and had visited the traditional tourist spots -- Gulmarg, Khilanmarg, Sonmarg, Pahalgam and Wular. This summer when I went back again we did the same circuit again but with a difference -- we were looking for the pre Islamic, Hindu heritage of Kashmir and to our great pleasure, this is what we found.

On the from Srinagar to Pahalgam are the ruins of the Avantiswamin Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Built in the 8th century AD and having fallen into neglect it was rediscovered by the British in the early years of the 20th century. A huge silver idol of Vishnu that was found here was promptly carted off to England but the smaller, stone idols are apparently stored in the museum at Srinagar.

Most of the intricate carvings on the wall have been damaged beyond recognition

but we could locate the Navagraha idols along the wall panels

The figure above can be recognised very easily as Vishnu reclining on a serpent -- the Anantnaga.

Out next point of interest was this tiny, temple at Pahalgam that has a history stretching hundreds of years into the Hindu past of Kashmir.

This temple on the right bank of the Lidder river in Pahalgam is mentioned in the Royal Chronicles of Kashmir, the RajaTarangini and so must have been built prior to 1100 AD

This is a Shiva Temple and what is interesting is the spring of pure water that emerges in the pool in front of the temple that you can see in the picture above

Our next point of interest is the very famous Khir Bhavani Temple, devoted to Shakti, the Mother Goddess. Legend says that the Goddess was the resident patron of Ravana, in distant Sri Lanka, but left her southern paradise after Ravana's misadventure with Rama, and took up residence in the cool climes of TullaMulla in present day Kashmir.

The temple of Khir Bhavani is a rare example of Hindu-Muslim fraternity in an otherwise troubled relationship. It is said that when Pakistan invaded Kashmir in 1947 -- before the state formally acceded to India -- and the Pakistani army was in the neighbourhood of the shrine -- the local people, including many Muslims, misguided the invading army away from the temple and saved it from destruction and desecration.

A strange seven sided spring inside the temple complex has the curious property of changing the colour of the water to reflect the national mood. During the Pakistani invasion of Kashmir and just prior to Indira Gandhi assasination the colour of the water is reported to have turned black.

Today, the pristine environment of the temple is heavily guarded by loyal elements of the Indian Army and the Central Reserve Police Forces.

Khir Bhavani is right on the way to the more popular tourist destination of Sonmarg but most taxi drivers and tour operators would like to give this temple a miss. Despite our strong exhortations, our taxi driver refused to take a small diversion on the way to Sonmarg and so we had to come back again the next day. Interestingly, while at Khir Bhavani, we heard of another ancient Shiva temple in the neighbourhood -- near ManasBal which is a lake just adjacent to the more famous Wular Lake.

Once again the taxi driver feigned ignorance about this temple but after getting an extra Rs 500 bucks agreed to take us there.

This temple too was built about 800 years ago by Raja Maithivarman but has since fallen into disuse and disrepair and is sinking into a pool of water that is an extension of the Manasbal lake. If you notice closely, you will see images of a strange variety of fish that is found in this pool.

But the highest point of the Hindu heritage of Kashmir that we could visit -- both physically as well as metaphorically -- was the Sankaracharya Temple that is situated in the heart of, and dominates, the city of Srinagar.

Legend says that great Sankaracharya himself, when he had visited Kashmir, had met with and had engaged in a dialogue with Abhinava Gupta, the famous Shaiva seer of Kashmir in the neighbourhood of this temple itself and was convinced of the need to invoke the Shakti of the Mother Goddess to manifest the Brahman of the Advaitin in the physical world. The current temple is built on an octogonal base that goes back hundreds of years till the era of Shankar himself.

Situated at the highest point within the Kashmir valley and looking down on city of Srinagar, the Dal Lake, the Hazratbal Shrine and Moghul fort of Akbar, this small temple -- lovingly guarded by the Indian Army -- is one of the loudest proclamations of the Hindu heritage of Kashmir

No travelogue on Kashmir is complete without descriptions of the snow, the saffron, the pashmina, the houseboats, the walnut wood artifacts, the shikara rides and the moghul gardens. However many others have written about these things and should the reader be interested there is no dearth of information that can be accessed through Google.

However just as we were about to embark on our return flight, I came across a lovely book on Lallashweri or Lal Ded the famous lady shaivaite saint of Kashmir. Once I finish reading that book I shall post some information about her.

June 15, 2012

Double decker bus!

After a long time I saw a double decker bus - actually a fleet of them - on their way to Bangladesh. Photographed at the Dhulagarh toll booth on NH6