I’m talking to an old friend. The conversation veers around to ageing parents and he speaks of the difficulty in talking to his 80-year-old father about end-of-life choices, putting his assets in order and writing a will. Over the past decade-and-a-half he says he’s been through various stages—indifference (this will sort itself out), denial (my old man won’t cop it so soon—we come from healthy stock), guilt (what am I doing thinking about the death of my own folk?), worry (gosh, the run-around XYZ went through to get basic bank accounts unfrozen and don’t even talk about the real estate mess) and then courage (I’m going to nail this talk next time we meet) and finally to despair (dad doesn’t want to discuss it!).
Imagine this: there is a large hospital chain of national scale. Doctors are salaried employees and they’re found to be prescribing medical products that are harmful to their patients. They recommend these products as they carry higher kick-backs from the drug companies. For example, they prescribe drugs that are known to cause sugar in diabetics to rise — not very different from bankers who sell life insurance products to those above age 60. They recommend expensive muscle enhancers instead of multi-vitamin to economically weaker patients suffering from poor nutrition, not very different from selling sector funds to fisherfolk who come looking for a bank deposit. What would you say if the regulatory authority that oversees hospitals said this: “If there was negligence in the medical care, we are responsible, but correct drugs are the responsibility of the drug makers – it is not our problem. Go to the drug regulator.”
Ramesh Kumar is disgusted. At 55, he’s had a long innings as the administrator of the Indian Paneer Board. (For those unacquainted with paneer, it is a milk product that used to be in short supply in the glorious socialist years of the 1960s and 70s and the government had set up a Paneer Board to facilitate procurement.) Kumar is just one of the many that suck away at the milk and honey as it flows through the system, he works hard to keep the system intact. Right now Kumar’s surfing channels in his office cabin, he’s just got the latest flat screen installed, right next to the 3.8 horsepower treadmill that he will surely use soon. He’s watching the second episode of the Cobrapost.com expose (http://bit.ly/15vUzy8). The first, he remembers, had bank officials of three private sector banks across 20 cities secretly taped offering to turn black money into white for a person fronting for a politician. Episode two expands the sting to include 23 banks and insurance companies—both public and private.
It is almost as if the seething Indian aam admi is finding one more thing to get furious about—there has been a string of financial sector failures in the past few years that have directly affected the wallets of the average Indian. While the telecom and the VIP helicopter scandals add to the widely held belief that people in positions of power or those who have access to them, are corrupt, these are still far away from directly affecting the everyday finances of the household. But the institutional theft from the wallets of the average Indian is something that hurts real time. And we’ve had plenty of these in the past few years. Speak Asia, a multi-level marketing company, lost more than Rs.2,400 crore of retail money. StockGuru lost Rs.500 crore and mis-sold life insurance products cost Indian investors more than Rs.1.5 trillion. The latest is the collapse of the Kolkata-based Saradha Group where more than Rs.20,000 crore is at risk.