From the Desk of Chairman (November 2023)

The ongoing Israel – Hamas war was something that was waiting to happen. The first instinctive question that crops up is why this war and why now? There is nothing about the ongoing war that has not been analysed threadbare in the newspapers or on the TV screens. I do believe that no conflict is ever frozen; either you solve the underlying issues, or you suffer the consequences on another day.  The situation in Israel is no exception to this axiom. But the violence that had been unleashed has few parallels.  The Palestinians know no other mother land though they are accustomed to living like refugees in their own land.  Even slaves in closed prisons have agency. But not those living under the tyranny of Israel.  All rules have been broken by both sides without exception.  I do not think there have been so much of violence and so much of inhumanity on display in any other theatre of conflict in any part of the world.  If children have to pay a price for what is happening on the battlefield, as in this case, there is something seriously wrong with all of us. For the Israeli PM it was time to take his personal battle to the next level after his fight against the country’s judiciary. For him it is an existential issue. In the process he took his eyes off the ball when Hamas was landing on his backyard. In this war there are losers – and only losers. Netanyahu and Israel had systematically built an enviable reputation for being so tech savvy that not even a bird could fly into the country crossing the border without their knowledge.  This time they were caught napping and how. Hamas had no way of defeating the Israeli army.  That begs the question – why did they then start a war?  All these were happening at a time when Israel was all set to sign a peace treaty with Saudi Arabia.  That would have changed equations in the Gulf region.  That treaty now lies in tatters bar the shouting. A full-fledged war in an election year does not help Joe Biden either.  But then, at this ripe old age he did a remarkable job of landing in the war zone to show solidarity with Netanyahu with whom no love was lost going by their previous encounters.  Israel had no territorial ambitions.  Otherwise, they would not have vacated the areas earlier occupied by them in the Gaza Strip in the first place. Come to think of it, for Israel the tunnel economy of Gaza was a convenient arrangement for their own domestic industrial development.  With every war, humanity is losing something that sets it apart – the sense of being human.  The developments in Israel showed the world how closer we have come to the animal kingdom when it comes to inflicting pain and suffering on others. One hopes that good sense prevails sooner, and the war comes to an end soon.  Israel also needs to take some concrete steps to restore a semblance of human dignity to the people of the occupied territory. Antony Blinken the US Secretary of State was the most active of the players in the Middle East during the early days of the war. In today’s foreign relations his position demanded extraordinary nimbleness and that is what we could see when the war broke out when he shuttled between one country to the other in search of elusive peace. He also has large shoes to fill – that of Henry Kissinger, one of his predecessors and arguably the best in the diplomacy trade.  The War in Israel has thrown up one surprise for sure.  Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations has shown to the world that he has a spine unlike many of his predecessors, and he does not have to ask for permission from the US to say what he feels is right. He has chosen to speak up against the atrocities against the Palestinians. Even as I write this, my thoughts go out to all those who have been subjected to such unbelievable and unmentionable atrocities on both sides. For Netanyahu there is no time limit to end the war.  After the failure of his intelligence agencies and the way he tried to muzzle the judiciary, the longer he continues the battle, the longer he will continue as the Prime Minister.  The day the war gets over he will be eased out of his chair.  As of writing this, reports are coming in that his first priority is winning the war, and the second priority is to get the hostages to be released. Any politician would have taken the same stand under the circumstances, but few would have articulated the priorities so insensitively.

The recent issue of “The Economist” carried an interesting article apparently in response to whatever is happening in the economic landscape across the globe. It features a Special Report titled “Governments across the world are discovering Homeland Economics”.  This piece is written by Callum Williams, a senior writer for the magazine.  The article starts with this profound statement: “For a while, after the end of the cold war, it looked like the world really might be becoming a little bit more like the fabled global village. Motivated by a belief in the power of markets, globalisation took off in the 1990s. Governments loosened controls on travel, investment and trade. In 2001 China acceded to the World Trade Organisation, turbocharging trade between Asia and the West. The changes brought many benefits, reducing poverty and inequality, and were accompanied by a growing political freedom worldwide”.  The author continues with the following statement. “Now, though, a radical alternative really is taking shape. Some call it ‘global resilience’ or ‘economic statecraft’. We call it ‘homeland economics’. The crucial idea is to reduce risks to a country’s economy—those presented by the vagaries of markets, an unpredictable shock such as a pandemic, or the actions of a geopolitical opponent. Supporters say this will produce a world that is safer, fairer and greener. This special report will argue that it will, in large part, create the opposite. Homeland economics is a response to four big shocks. First, the economy. If the financial crisis of 2007-09 broke confidence in the old model, the global recession of 2020 sealed the deal. During the pandemic, supply chains buckled, adding to inflation by raising the cost of imports. A system that had once seemed to deliver efficiency and convenience had turned into a source of instability. The pandemic also encouraged people to believe that governments should do more. Second, geopolitical shocks. America and China are sparring with increasing ferocity, using a variety of economic sanctions. Russia has launched the biggest land war in Europe since 1945. Gone is the notion that economic integration would lead to political integration. That war, in turn, led to the third shock: energy. Vladimir Putin’s weaponisation of his country’s hydrocarbon supplies has convinced many politicians that they must secure alternatives, not just of energy but of “strategic” commodities in general. And then, the fourth shock: generative ai, which may pose a threat to workers. This has compounded a sense that the modern economy is stacked against the average person. By historical standards, inequalities of income and wealth are high. Homeland economics wants to protect the world from similar shocks in the future. It wants to keep the benefits of globalisation, with its emphasis on efficiency and low prices, but avoid the downsides: the uncertainty and unfairness of the previous system. This requires meshing national security and economic policy”. What’s new? We Indians have seen it all. Haven’t we?  The article talks about what some of the countries have done on the economic front especially from the point of view of insulating themselves from the vagaries of the ever-changing external environment – Made in China to Make in India.  In passing, the article also makes a direct reference to the paper published by Rahul Chauhan, Rohit Lamba and Raghuram Rajan,  economists, all – a criticism on the government’s signature initiative called the Production Linked Incentive Scheme (PLI).  The paper presents in graphic detail, for example, that mobile-phone imports jumped because of re-exporting phones via India in order to get the subsidy. If Emanual Macron calls the new economic imperatives as “strategic autonomy” Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister calls it economic “self-reliance”.  In the end the author concludes that “the progressive potential of homeland economics remains overstated”. Are we back to square one?

When Zhen Hua, the massive Chinese container ship docked at Vizhinjam near Trivandrum it wrote a whole new Chapter not only on the shipping industry in the country. It wrote some other milestones also in the country’s political landscape. Many reached out to Wikipedia instinctively first to figure out where this unpronounceable place is situated in India and what is so special about it. Vizhinjam is situated 16 kilometres from the airport at Trivandrum. The Vizhinjam International Seaport is a multipurpose Port situated almost on the southernmost tip of India.  It is also the first automated Port in India and the sole Port in the country to be located adjacent to an international shipping route. Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister of Kerala flagged-in the first ever ship at the Rs 7,700 crore deep-water international Vizhinjam Port. That was not all. At the inauguration ceremony the people present included the Leader of Opposition in the State Assembly belonging to the Congress, the BJP MP from Kerala who is the Minister of State for External Affairs at Delhi along with the renowned Sashi Tharoor who represents the Trivandrum constituency. This Port had been in the making for the last more than three decades since 1991. If you think that the galaxy of stars on the dais was impressive, add to it the name of Mr Kiran Adani, the princeling of the Adani empire. I, for one would not have believed when I saw them proudly cheering the first ship that arrived at the Port. They were all sworn enemies of each other all along till the flag off. This is not counting the ordinary people present there.  They had all protested for more than thirty long years to prevent the Port being built at Vizhinjam.  People from all walks of life irrespective of their political affiliations had been demonstrating against the Port being set up including the all-powerful local clergy. That is Kerala for you. This transhipment Port of  Adani Group can put India on the global map as an important shipping hub. It will also boost India’s foreign reserves and can potentially rev up the country’s woeful status in the global shipping world. This Port is critical for the Adani group who has the ambition of becoming the world’s biggest Port operator by 2030.  In the Port business there are broadly two types of ports, viz., gateway ports and transhipment ports. Vizhinjam is India’s first and only transshipment Port of its kind.  On this sea route Vizhinjam is sure to give open competition to the likes of Colombo, Salala and Singapore. At the inauguration of this Port Kiran Adani made this statement “Now that the first vessel has berthed, I would like to announce that we are keen to commence Phase II of this project…The port’s strategic location – just 10 nautical miles from the International Shipping Route connecting Europe, the Persian Gulf and the Far East – is a huge advantage as we enter the second phase.” Adani group expects the Port project to generate employment for about 5500 local people.  Having done, what the Adani group has done, and the Port having become operational, I am still wonderstruck as to how the Adani group could manage to get the Port operational in a state like Kerala!  This must be an object lesson that no management institute has dared to teach. May be that is the reason Adanis are what they are. “The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves forward,” said Joseph Needham.  I, for one, dare not challenge this statement anymore.

The Supreme Court of India was called upon to give its judgment on an interesting case recently. It was, in fact, more an exercise in etymology than mere legalese. In the process the Court decided in the case of Shapoorji Pallonji Group the issue of tax liability on contractual work performed by IIT Patna and NIT Rourkela. The Court held that IITs and NITs came under the Revenue Department’s Service Tax exemption in 2012 that was subsequently subjected to amendment in 2014. The issue was covered under the Mega Service Tax Exemption Notification 2012.  According to this Notification services rendered to a governmental authority were exempt from Service Tax.  A “governmental authority” was in turn defined as an ‘authority or Board or any other body:

(i)set up by an Act of Parliament or State Legislature; or                                                                                                                  

(ii)established by Government with 90% or more participation by way of equity or control to carry out any function entrusted to a Municipality under Article 243W of the Constitution’.                       

The Revenue went to the Supreme Court relying on the last line of the second clause above that mandated that there should be 90% or more participation of the Government by way of equity or control in order to be eligible for exemption. The Two-Judge Bench consisting of J Ravindra Bhatt and Dipankar Datta upheld the judgments of the High Courts on the basis of the word “or” between the first and second clauses and the semicolon at the end of clause (i). The judgment stated thus: “Going by the golden rule of interpretation that words should be read in their ordinary, natural and grammatical meaning, the word “or” in clause 2(s) clearly appears to us to have been used to reflect the ordinary and normal sense, that is to denote an alternative, giving a choice, and we cannot assign it a different meaning unless it leads to vagueness or makes clause 2(s) absolutely unworkable.”  The Court further stated that the use of a semicolon was no trivial matter but a deliberate inclusion with a clear intention to differentiate it from sub clause (ii). This is followed by this master stroke: “Merely because the statute does not yield desired results, that cannot be a reason for us to overstep and cross the Lakshman Rekha by employing tools of interpretation to interpret a provision keeping in mind its outcome.  Interpretive tools should be employed to make a statute workable and not to reach a particular outcome.” Well said Your Honour!   “Born in 1495 semicolon has always been stuff of controversy.  It once halted the prosecution of Nazis and another time made Boston go without alcohol.  Now the same semicolon has ensured that contractual work performed in IITs, and NITs is exempt from Service Tax”. (Courtesy: Times Now).  Here is another two-bit.  Law students are told repeatedly the importance of punctuations while buttressing their statements with this ever-popular example:  a judge after the trial decided not to hand down the death sentence to the accused as he found him not guilty of the crime. Though the judgement was supposed to be “hang him not, leave him”, the clerk in the court made a mistake by typing “hang him, not leave him”, thus killing an innocent man”!


Back to Israel yet again. The attack by Hamas on Israel had taken everybody by surprise.  That perhaps is stating the obvious.  Why did they do it?  That ought to be the moot question to ask.   Joe Biden, the US President thinks that he has the answer to this question.  His answer, however, has an Indian connection. Here it is.  He said “I’m convinced one of the reasons Hamas attacked when they did, and I have no proof this, just my instinct tells me, is because of the progress we were making towards regional integration for Israel, and regional integration overall.  Biden made this statement in a press conference with Australian PM Anthony Albanese. That statement by the American President took everyone by surprise. If you look at the background of him making the statement, it appears to make sense.  During the recently concluded G20 Summit in New Delhi, USA, UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, Italy and India signed an MoU to establish an ambitious India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC).  After China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) this has captured the headlines for obvious reasons.  Turkey feels left out and its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quick to counter and criticise the Corridor. He declared pompously  that “There can be no Corridor without Turkey”.  His logic was that the most suitable trade route from East to West must pass through Turkey.  Turkey is an ally of China in BRI.  As it stands, the Corridor will include a shipping route connecting Mumbai and Mundra with the UAE, and a rail network connecting the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan with the Israeli port of Haifa to reach the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  No wonder Erdogan is miffed while Modi is elated. History seems to be repeating itself as the countries come together not only to boost trade and the economy, but also to participate in a great game of economic prosperity in the Mediterranean.


Thank you.

Venkat R Venkitachalam

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