Saturday, December 31, 2011

7 Mantras for 2012

Let us welcome the New Year with the “7 Mantras for 2012”, given by Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravishankar, whom I had the opportunity to meet this year. As it happened, on one of my visits to Bangalore, I thought of presenting him a couple of books and visited his Ashram. I was guided to a large hall where “he would be coming soon to give Darshan”. As I looked around the jam packed hall for a place to sit, he walked in. And as luck would have it, came in the same direction where I was standing. I stepped forward, handed over the two books I had brought (one written by my father and the other by my mother) and gave him a brief introduction. He opened the books, browsed through them and expressed words of appreciation.

Sri Sri Ravishankar, enchanting his devotees during a satsang in Bangalore

So here we go - the 7 Mantras for 2012:

  1. Reflect on your life in relation to the Cosmos. This will drop the smallness in you & you will be able to live fully. 
  1. Remind yourself of the highest goal in Life. You are not here to grumble / complain. You are here for something bigger. 
  1. Serve! Engage yourself in community service to whatever extent you can. 
  1. Have faith & trust that the Divine loves you dearly & is taking care of you. 
  1. As we flip the calendar, we need to flip our mind too. Don’t fill future dates with past events. Learn & move on. 
  1. Smile more! True sign of prosperity is an unconditional smile on your face. 
  1. Nurture yourself with music, prayer & silence. Meditation, pranayam & yoga rejuvenate; give depth & stability. 

Amazing Andamans !

It is that time of the year when one tends to sit back and reflect on the year gone by. Some wishes fulfilled, some others carried forward to the future. These become resolutions for the next year.

For me, one of the highlights of the year gone by was undoubtedly a visit to the Andaman Islands. A completely chance meeting over the internet with a long lost friend who is now in Port Blair, and the next week I had landed there, wife and kids in tow, for a trip he said ‘you will never forget in your life’.

Little did I know how true these words would be. After all, how much excitement can you pack in a single week? 

Stunningly beautiful islands with water as clear as mineral water. 
Thick tropical rain forest with trees towering tens of meters above ground. 
Limestone caves standing still since the beginning of time. 
An aboriginal race that takes you back to the origins of Homo Sapiens. 
Snorkeling, undersea corals and a glimpse of the exceptionally beautiful marine life. 
Amazing mangroves and strange trees like you have never seen before. 
First hand stories of the Tsunami. 
A luxury boat cruise. 
Japanese bunkers dating back to World War II. 
A British era jail where conditions were so harsh that its inmates wished for death. 
And much more, Andaman even has India's only live volcano.

Andaman has so much to offer. It turned out to be a place like no other I have ever visited.

Andaman has things you will not find elsewhere

Grub Island, one of the 572 Islands that form the Andaman & Nicobar Group of  Islands

Rhizophora Mangle roots grow up from the ground and reach the tree  top !
Trees such as the Andaman Padauk grow taller than a ten-storied building
The Limestone caves takes you back to the origins of the Earth
The Cellular Jail is the harshest chapter of India's freedom struggle. Don't miss the Sound & Light show here.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Property Prices - Part II

(This is the concluding part of a two-part series on property prices. The first part is available here. We continue from where we left off……)

The Central Government has proposed to set up a Real Estate sector Regulator ‘to ensure transparency and ensure fair practices’ (see here). The draft Real Estate (Regulation & Development Bill, 2011) proposes steps such as compulsory registration of projects with the Regulator, deposit of money collected from home buyers into an Escrow account to avoid diversion, setting up of an Appellate Authority to address complaints and grievances and stiff penalties including jail terms for guilty developers. Though the provisions of the Bill are welcome, the Bill will do nothing to increase supply and bring down prices.

Can the demand come down? In a country like ours, it seems impossible unless we are talking about a calamity of such massive proportions that buying property will be the last thing on anyone’s mind at that time.

My belief is that normal economic cycles such as an industrial slowdown and high interest rates are just not enough to cause a sustainable price correction in property prices. What are needed are sweeping legal reforms with far reaching implications. Some suggestions that come to mind: 

1. Eviction of an uncooperative tenant needs to be made easier. Then a big chunk of supply (click here) currently locked up empty will come into the market. The ‘stay order’ culture has to end. 

2. Transaction costs are just too high. Stamp duty, registration, service tax, VAT etc. add to almost 10% of the cost of the flat for the buyer. What the seller sells for Rs.50 lacs costs the buyer Rs.55 lacs. Atleast the first flat for every buyer should be made tax free. Getting a decent place to stay is a basic necessity of life, a Right as much as Right to Education or Food or Freedom of Speech. 

3. Stamp duty based on the value of the agreement provides a strong incentive to under report the transaction value. Today, it is almost impossible to complete a transaction without the ‘cash’ component. This reduces government revenues, which ultimately is compensated by higher taxes from those who pay. Stamp duty should be made payable based on the area of the flat or the ‘ready reckoner’ rate alone, not on the value of the transaction. 

4. Technological solutions that allow mass production of houses in some kind of CKD (Completely Knocked Down) form should be promoted. Such technologies exist, such as pre-fabricated buildings (click here) but need to gain wider acceptability. The governments have to drive this. This is the only way supply can be increased dramatically.

It is too much to expect innovative solutions that genuinely help the people from our present crop of politicians, who are actually beneficiaries of high property prices. A large chunk of their legitimate and illegitimate wealth is invested in property. From time to time, populist announcements such as increase in FSI or redevelopment of old buildings or mill land are made to pacify a gullible population. But such steps can never change the demand – supply imbalance and bring down prices. The batch of college students who is passing out today is not going to ever be able to buy a decent house in Mumbai.

In the long run, this will feed into social unrest. Social unrest can manifest itself in any manner, not necessarily into a demand for cheaper homes. One day, a benevolent dictator may decide that legislative fiat is the only way to alter the situation and dictate ‘all tenants become owners from tomorrow’ (or something similar). Such instances are not unknown to history.  This may seem far fetched today, perhaps it is, but we are heading in that direction only.

Until that happens, do not expect a correction in property prices. Getting a decent accommodation in the city of work will remain a pipe dream for a major part of the Mumbai’s population. “Affordable housing” is just a slogan, unless you believe that staying in Boisar and working in Mumbai is a life.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Why property prices did not fall, and will not. Unless....

(This is the first of a two part series on this subject)

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) seems to have completed one full series of interest rate hikes with its pronouncements in the latest monetary policy announced this week (full text here). But despite almost two years of continuous interest rate hikes, industrial slowdown, scams and what not, and the prognosis of some experts, property prices have remained stubbornly high. With the talk now turning to when the RBI will reduce rates, you can discount any chance of a price correction. In this two-part article, I pen down some thoughts on Mumbai's property market, based on my observation of the business.

I. Demand:

1. India has 17% of the world’s population (see here), but just 2.3 % of the world’s land mass (see here). From this, if you reduce the land occupied by its water bodies, deserts, forests, hills & mountains and agricultural land, the land available for civil habitation reduces even further. It is only natural that India should have one of the most expensive land rates in the world. Reports such as this should not take you by surprise. 

2.  Considering the population growth rate around 30 years ago, demand today might be growing at 1.1 % p.a. or around 75 lac houses per year for the country as a whole. (Here I have assumed that a person enters the property market at the age of around 30 and two births create a demand for one house 30 years later)  

3.  To this, you can add demand caused due to migration from rural to urban areas, and move from smaller homes to bigger homes due to rising prosperity, and it is clear that the actual demand growth is much higher  than 1.1 % in cities like Mumbai. The economy just cannot build enough houses to keep pace with it. 

4. Property is also bought as an investment. People don’t mind buying a flat and simply locking it up. This absorbs supply without meeting demand of those who want a place to stay.

II. Supply: 

You cannot manufacture buildings on an assembly line
1. You just cannot mass produce houses, as if on an assembly line. Construction is a highly labour-intensive manual process. My observation is, even for a medium sized project involving a few buildings, a few hundred apartments which will accommodate a couple of thousand families, it takes anywhere upto 4 years from the time a project is announced to the time the last of flat is built and families can move in. By that time, demand would have gone up manifold!  Does the economy have so many project managers, architects, civil engineers, labourers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, etc. who can work cohesively and dramatically increase supply? The truth is - supply can only increase inch by inch, while demand is increasing by leaps and bounds. In my opinion, this is the single biggest factor that drives prices in a country like India.

2. A builder may need as many as fifty different approvals from various government departments to get a project cleared. At each stage, he either faces red tape or bribery. This either reduces supply or increases the cost to the ultimate buyer.

3. Builders ‘release’ only a few flats for sale at a time, usually the least saleable ones first. They have enough supply of money, formal as well as informal, to enable them to hold on to their inventory. If they find themselves in trouble, banks restructure loans to protect their own NPAs. So there is no urgency for the builder to sell. This happened in 2009. 

4. There are thousands of flats lying empty and unused in Mumbai and elsewhere, just because the owners don’t want to risk renting them out. This supply is permanently out of the market. 

5.     At a systemic level, the leveraging among buyers is just not high enough to force distress selling due to a marginal interest rate hikes, such as what we have seen: 3 to 4 per cent increase over a two year period.

In other words, the supply - demand gap is just too much to allow normal economic cycles to induce a price correction. Even the hint of a correction will bring in a hoard of buyers at support the market.

(to be continued)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Is petrol actually very cheap?

There has been a lot of clamour about high petrol prices, and rightly too. Of the Rs.70-odd per litre that petrol is retailed at, only Rs.35-40 would be the true ‘economic price’ of petrol (including a ‘normal’ level of profit and ‘normal’ taxes) and another Rs.35-odd are taxes.  This is nothing but government loot, no other commodity is taxed as much, except liquor and cigarettes where ethical reasons may justify exorbitant taxes.

Drilling for oil in the deep sea
At these levels of Rs.40 (or even Rs.70) per litre, is petrol really that expensive? Consider the economics. Drilling for oil is a difficult business. Oil is formed in the belly of the earth by a gradual process of degradation of fossils over millions of years of earth’s formation. To get it to ground, you hire a team of highly educated geologists, purchase sophisticated satellite imagery, and identify potential areas where oil could be found. Inevitably, most of such areas happen to be inhospitable, such as barren deserts or at the bottom of the ocean. You need expensive drilling equipment that reaches the core of the earth. Of the many wells that one drills, only a few yield oil in quantities large enough for commercial exploitation. The whole process, from prospecting for oil till the first drop is sold may take anywhere upto 10 years. The company employs highly paid consultants, engineers and project managers who work for years together to make the project a success. The exploration company ends up spending tens of billions of dollars, over several years before its first revenue is earned.

World's largest refining complex is at Jamnagar
Crude oil that comes out of the ground needs to be refined before it can be used. Refining is also a highly complex engineering operation, requires another several billions of dollars of investment, and sophisticated engineering and management skills. Building a refinery takes as much as 3 to 5 years.

Refined petrol, one of the many outputs of the refinery, is now ready to fill your fuel tank, but it is yet to reach the consuming markets. Large and small petrol pumps, located in the nook and corner of the country need more money to build than say, a warehouse storing rice or timber or any other commodity. And when it enters your fuel tank, the fuel is burnt within days and is lost forever!

Throughout this process, huge amounts of time and money are also spent in transporting the commodity. World’s major oil exploration centres are in the barren deserts of Arabia, the deep sea in the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil, or in Siberia in Russia. Major refineries are located thousands of miles away, such as in India, China and the Far East. Consuming centres are in Europe and the US. At each stage, oil is transported through massive tankers which themselves run on oil, or by pipelines, which take several years to build and cost several billion dollars. There are pipelines which run across the entire length of Russia, from Siberia in the East to the developed markets of Europe. Giant ships circumnavigate half the globe from Reliance’s giant Jamnagar refinery to the United States and elsewhere.

I have written all this in some detail to give you an idea of what a drop of petrol goes through, before it enters your fuel tank.

Compare this business to that of making any other household product such as a shampoo, detergent, fruit juice or ketchup. These products can be manufactured in any tin-roof shed just across the lane with a handful of uneducated labourers, and sold in a matter of a few days to recover the costs and make a profit.

Prices of some common household products
Rs. per unit (MRP)
Effective Price (Rs./ Litre)
Dabur Vatika Shampoo
165 per 400 ml
Dove shampoo
58 per 90 ml
Fiama Di Wills conditioner
40 per 50 ml
Lifebuoy handwash
40 per 200 ml
Rin fabric Whitener liquid
18 per 200 ml
Coolmint mouthwash
95 per 250 ml
Baygon spray
138 per 500 ml
Old spice after shave
150 per 100 ml
Colgate toothpaste
91 per 300 gm
Dettol shaving cream
45 per 91 gm
Tropicana Fruit juice
90 per 1000 ml
Red Bull
85 per 250 ml
Maggi Hot & Sweet sauce
107 per 1000 gm
Del Monte tomato ketchup
102 per 1000 gm
Real Fruit Juice
90 per 1000 ml
Navratna Hair Oil
115 per 300 ml
Garnier Deodorant
150 per 300 ml
Thums Up
10 per 200 ml
Petrol (with taxes)
72 per 1000 ml
Petrol (without taxes, approx.)*
40 per 1000 ml

 When we consider all this, does petrol not appear very cheap?

(Note: Images may be copyrights of respective owners)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Kambli Vs Azharuddin - whom should you trust?

Vinod Kambli has claimed that India's 1996 World Cup Semi-final with Sri Lanka might have been fixed, and Azharuddin is at the forefront in rubbishing his claims. One does not know about this specific match, but existence of match fixing and the association of the underworld with cricketers, especially in the 90s is well known. Dawood Ibrahim was a regular at cricket matches in Dubai. Sharad Shetty, D-company’s financial advisor was his key link with international cricket betting syndicates, and advised Dawood on cricket betting. Ashraf Patel, businessman and a close friend of Azharuddin was shot dead by Chhota Rajan’s men in April 2000 for his alleged links with Dawood Ibrahim’s gang. To read a very interesting report on the subject, click  here.

It was also believed at that time that Patel's murder was related to the sensational match fixing allegations made by South Africa’s Hansie Cronje, against which the Delhi Police had registered a case. Azharuddin was questioned by the Mumbai Police after Patel’s murder.

The CBI investigated the match fixing allegations. The full text of the CBI report on match fixing and betting syndicates is available here, but I quote from one of the paragraphs:

“……….Azharuddin was paid a sum of Rs 50 lakhs as an advance with the arrangement that the initial amount would be adjusted against the matches he would 'do' for MK. Azharuddin promised MK that he would provide the exact information as to when India would win or lose. He does not remember the exact number of matches which Azhar 'did' for him during this period………….”

Azharuddin’s cricket career ended when BCCI banned him for life for match fixing.

But public memory is short. In 2009, Azharuddin joined the Congress and won the Lok Sabha election. And today, we have to take sides - Kambli or Azharuddin.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tintin is here !

Went for Tintin movie today. As a child, I was a voracious reader, and read a whole lot of books, on a wide range of  topics. Without doubt, Tintin comics was one of my favourites. The Tintin series had everything one would wish for – comedy, adventure and originality. So yesterday, when I heard that a movie has been released on the Tintin series and that too, from Steven Spielberg, in 3-D, it was too much to resist.

Admittedly, the Secret of the Unicorn is not the best of Tintin's stories. There have been others that I have liked more. In fact, this movie is a mix of three of his titles. The director’s choice may have been dictated by the need to show a lot more action, than what a Tintin story normally has. Whatever the reason, the movie is worth a watch for its outstanding animation and the sheer memories that it will bring back to you – Snowy, Captain Haddock and of course, Thomson & Thompson!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Durgotsav 2011

Some glimpses of the local Durga Puja celebrations in our neighbourhood, the Lokhandwala Durgotsav 2011.

The Durga idol in the main pandal 

Robindro Shonggit?
Noted singer Abhijeet also joined in the celebrations

And what's this unique traditional dance form called?

Finally, the most important pujo....!!

Tasted my favourite 'misht doi' after a long time.....!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sikkim and me

An earthquake of magnitude 6.9 on the Richter scale hit Sikkim this month, bringing back memories of my visit to Sikkim in this same season last year. Reports suggest hundreds of people have died, with inaccessibility of the region and difficult terrain hampering rescue operations. In several cases, entire villages have been obliterated, leaving no one around even to count the dead.

“Inaccessible” is a gross understatement. Sikkim has no Airport, though one is currently under construction. The state has no railway, not even of the “toy train” variety that the British built in places like Darjeeling and Simla more than a century ago. There is only one road – the NH 31A – which connects Sikkim to the Indian mainland. This road is a two lane ‘highway’ that winds its way along the Teesta river, giving you breathtaking views of mountains & valleys at the foothills of Himalayas. Even at the best of times, there are frequent landslides that block the road and bring traffic to a halt. People then wait for the Army to arrive and clear the road, so that the traffic can resume. Monsoons are, of course, worse. At times, you may have to spend the whole night in your car till the road clears, but no one complains. People have resigned themselves to their fate.

The epicenter of this quake was said to be near Mangan, a small town north of Gangtok. I passed through Mangan on my way to the magnificent Yumthang Valley, on the Indo – Tibet (now China) border. Yumthang lies at a height of more than 14,000 feet above sea level. The entire region is controlled by the military; you need a permit to enter the district. As you go higher and higher, civilization becomes more and more sparse. At one stage, we were more than 25 km away from the nearest village.

I traveled to Yumthang with 7 other strangers in a hired jeep. The road was dotted with extra-ordinary sights - thick green forest, deep valleys and stunning waterfalls. At several places, the road was ‘broken’ (monsoon hai!) and descended into a kachcha road of mud or stones (see the attached video which I took from my car for the condition of the roads there). At times, we suddenly encountered steep ascents, so steep that the car would not climb. The driver would then ask all passengers to get down and walk up the climb, while he would just about somehow manage to take the car up, sans the weight of its passengers! At several places, we made way THROUGH the flowing waterfalls – water falling down from several meters above us on one side of the vehicle, crossing the road in front of us and the falling down to the other side, hundreds of feet below into the deep valley! It felt as if any moment the car would be thrown away, down the deep valley on the other side. It was a frightening experience, and yet a memorable one! At one place, our car got stuck deep in the mud and all of us had to get down and push it out to get going! All this, in a desolate forest, several miles away from civilization at a height of several thousand feet.

On the day of my return from Gangtok, I almost missed my flight. All exit routes going out of Gangtok were closed as it had rained the previous night and there were landslides everywhere! We spent four hours searching for ‘a way out’ of Gangtok. I started ten hours in advance for a five hour journey, and reached the check in counter five minutes before it closed!

To get a glimpse of the beauty of Sikkim, click here.

Tailpiece: There are no petrol pumps anywhere in North Sikkim. Fuel is sold in grocery and general stores. On enquiring about this strange thing with our driver, I was told that fuel from military vehicles is sold by the personnel to these shopkeepers at a discounted price. The shop owners then add their own margin and sell to others. So much for tax payer’s money!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The two-snake conundrum

Two snakes are locked up in a completely empty room with no escape route. With the passage of time, they become extremely hungry and realize they face death by starvation. The only option for them to survive is for one snake to eat the other – whoever eats the other first, survives. Accordingly, each of the snakes starts to swallow the other. Assuming both the snakes are of the same size, start to swallow the other at the same time and continue at the same speed, and each is determined not to stop till it has finished the other, what will happen next ?? How will this situation resolve itself ??

Saturday, September 3, 2011

15 per cent = Rs. 263 crore

After several reminders, the Union Council of Ministers have today declared their ‘official’ assets. Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath has emerged has the richest Minister with ‘official’ assets of Rs.263 crore. 

In a conversation (click here), from the Niira Radia tapes, Tarun Das, the ex-CII head talks to Niira Radia about Kamal Nath getting the Road Transport & Highways Ministry, where he says Nath can “serve the nation and also make his 15 percent”. Das also says that Kamal Nath uses the Ministry like an “ATM”.

Kamal Nath has several controversies to his credit. He was named in the cash-for-votes scam, which helped “Mr. Clean” buy MPs and survive a confidence vote in the Parliament. The Supreme Court is now forcing the Delhi police to investigate this scam (see the details here)

In one of the Wikileaks expose, a senior congress Minister talks about Kamal Nath to a U.S. Diplomat: “Formerly he could only offer small planes as bribes………now he can pay for votes with jets." (click here)
Kamal Nath has also been held  guilty by the Supreme Court (click here) of causing environmental damage and changing the course of the Beas river by building a Hotel in an ecologically sensitive area. There are also several other controversies surrounding this gentleman, such as the Rice Export Scam  and his involvement in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ay dil hai mushkil jeena yahaan…

A recent survey by The Economist ranks Mumbai among the "world’s worst cities to live"

In a global ranking of 140 cities, Mumbai has finished at 116. The city’s poor ranking has evoked hardly any reaction from its political leadership, or even its people, who seem to have resigned themselves to their poor fate. Are things really this bad, or aren’t they? After twenty years of economic reforms, the financial capital of one of the world’s fastest growing economies (all the things the ‘experts’ on CNBC or elsewhere tell us) ranks 116th on “livability”. What is it that the world looks at, that we are missing out on?

The Economist’s survey gauged cities on five categories - political and social stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. Here is my take on the topic.

1. Stability: Prevalence of crime, threat of terror / military conflict or civil unrest:

Look at the numbers. More than 5,000 cases of petty crime and violence, such as chain snatching, rape, dacoity, theft etc. were reported in Mumbai in the first four months of 2011 alone. This excludes white collar crime, corruption and the like.

The city has seen 8 terror attacks in the last 10 years, killing nearly 500 people and injuring many more, not to mention the communal riots of 1992-93 or the serial bomb blasts of 1993 that killed more than 250. The world gives no marks for the “spirit of Mumbai” which springs back to its feet the next day after every bomb blast. Against this, I have visited countries where I was told there is no need to lock your home while going out – “nobody will take anything”.

2. Healthcare: Availability of private and public healthcare, drugs and general health indicators:

This is something that India itself scores very poorly on, and Mumbai is no exception. The United Nations’ Human Development Index ranks India at 119 out of 169 countries. The HDI measures life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide. It is a standard means of measuring well-being.

In Mumbai, public healthcare is the responsibility of the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation. But for a city of more than 1 crore people, the BMC provides just 4 ‘teaching’ hospitals, 5 specialized hospitals, 16 peripheral hospitals, 28 municipal maternity homes and 14 maternity wards. Most of the residents (80 % plus) rely on expensive private medical care. The result? 32 per cent of the reported ailments in the city remained untreated. Even today, seven to eight per cent of all deliveries in Mumbai happen at home.

3. Culture and Environment: This covers factors such as climate, culture and environment.

Air pollution levels are five times higher than acceptable levels and a quarter of water the city drinks is actually  unfit for consumption.

Noise pollution is high, rising and during festivals reaches alarming levels.

4. Education: This covers availability and quality of public and private education.

Mumbai has literally thousands of schools, colleges and educational institutions. Clearly, no shortage of quantity here, but when it comes to quality, like the rest of the education system in India, there is still a lot to be desired. The education system is actually an ‘examination system’ and churns out graduates who are skilled at nothing. As per an Assocham study, India was at the last position in terms of quality of secondary education in seven emerging market economies.

Goldman Sachs says the lack of quality education was one of the 10 factors holding India back from rapid economic growth.

5. Infrastructure: Quality of road network, public transport, international links, availability of good quality housing, energy, water etc.

Ah! The less said about this the better! Mumbai’s transport system is one of the most congested in the world. More than 1.5 million vehicles cram the city’s potholed roads with utter disregard to traffic discipline. Even the smallest of rains are enough to clog the streets with water. Trains of 1700 passenger capacity ferry more than 4500 passengers each during peak hours. More than 60 % of the city’s population lives in slums, where even  shanties cost more than a couple of million rupees. 

For water, the city still looks to the Rain Gods every year. According to a World Bank study, of the 27 Asian cities with populations of over 1,000,000, Mumbai is ranked as second worst performer in terms of hours of water availability per day. And despite this, 700 million liters of water, or 20 % of its daily supply, is lost daily due to theft, illegal connections and leakages.

Basically, nobody cares.

Building sky-scrapers and flyovers does not constitute development; there is a lot more to making a place ‘livable’ than the city’s leadership would like to believe. But is anybody listening?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The 'unwanted'

The discrimination against the girl child knows no bounds. The Times of India reports that in a shocking incident, the District Health Administration in Satara District of Maharashtra has identified 222 girls in the age group of 0 – 16 with names “Nakoshi” (meaning ‘Unwanted”, in Marathi) who will be rechristened and given ‘regular’ names so that they are able to carry out their lives normally.

Many of the developed countries have laws which permit or prohibit what name a child can be given. For example, New Zealand has a list of 102 names, which include “Adolf Hitler” which are banned. Portugal bans ‘Mona Lisa’, while in Norway, there is a ban on ‘swear and sex words, illnesses and negative names’. In Australia, Registrars can refuse to register a name which is considered ‘obscene, offensive, too long, consists of symbols without phonetic significance or is contrary to public interest’. In the USA, ‘numbers are not allowed’, while in Denmark, prohibited names include ‘monkey’ and Japan bans ‘Akuma’ (which means Devil).

India’s problem is however, different and no such law is likely to solve it. As parents of these 222 children would vouch, a girl child simply is ‘nakoshi’, whatever name she may be called with. The latest census data shows that the child sex ratio in India has deteriorated over the last 10 years. ‘Progressive’ and prosperous states like Maharashtra fare significantly worse than the National average and sit at the bottom of the National rankings.

Child population in the age group of 0 – 6 years:
Females per 1000 males
All India
1.4 %
3.3 %
(Source: Census of India, 2011)

A recent paper predicted that India would have 20% more men than women in the next two decades due to sex-selective abortion and craze for male child. Clearly, hundreds of girls are being in killed our country even before, or soon after they are born. This is mass murder at the highest scale. It is estimated 8 million female fetuses may have been aborted in India in the past one decade alone.

Little is being done to arrest this trend. The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PC & PNDT) Act was passed in 1994, which makes sex determination of the child before birth illegal. But there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that abortion of the female fetus continues with impunity. The number of convictions under the PC & PNDT Act are minimal, with only 13 convictions across the entire country in 2010 and only 2 in Maharashtra.

Ironically, the rapid rise in the number of Sonography Centres in recent years might have contributed to this disturbing trend. For example, in 2004, there were 4,345 such centres in Maharashtra, a number that has swelled to 7,939 by 2010-11. A study conducted in 2004 observes that higher the number of Sonography centres in a region; poorer is the sex ratio. Selective sex abortion is now a Rs.1000 crore industry. The Maharashtra Government is now working on a system of compulsory online registration of every sonography conducted by a Sonography centre in the state. But it is doubtful how successful the experiment will be.

Policing can only do this much. What is needed is for attitudes to change. And until that happens, hundreds of Nakoshis will continue to be killed even before they are born. And many of those who are lucky enough to be born will be left to suffer a lifetime of discrimination and injustice.