Crime and Punishment

The recent controversy surrounding the clemency petitions and their commutation to life sentences by the President , unearths a larger issue.

On a transactional note, the decision could definitely be contested in terms of the degree of legal counsel that was involved before making such a decision, but what is also evident is the fact that even though capital punishment is not abolished in India, the actual cases executed have been few and far in between. What happens to the rest is a life oscillating between life and death. It has been argued that the mental trauma inflicted by keeping the fate of such prisoners on hold is far worse than death. But then, does the mental trauma of death row convict seem a little frivolous when compared to the crimes they have committed and the resulting trauma of the victim or their families.
So this brings us to the more important question of our stand on capital punishment.

The philosophy of punishment as very aptly put by Markandey Katju, former Supreme Court judge rests on four tenets : It can be a deterrent and work by creating fear. It can be retributive, making one pay for it. It can also be preventive, to stall a crime; or reformative,to strengthen the human character.

If the intention of the punishment is retributive or meant as a deterrent , then capital punishment can be deemed necessary. In all the other cases , rigorous life imprisonment will suffice. The cases which have been commuted are extreme cases of depravity and fall under the ‘rarest of the rare’ category. This again brings us to the subjective nature of the ‘rarest of the rare’ categorization. There are other known cases which prove that sometimes the death sentence have been awarded purely hinging on the ability of the defense counsel and the knowledge or subjectivity of the presiding judges.

The knee jerk reaction upon reading about most of the cases is extreme revulsion and the need for retribution. The horror of ever being exposed to the filthiest of human minds is enough to demand for permanent removal of such filth from the society. But unwillingly, we still need to cling on to the shred of humanity we possess and try to assess objectively the actual criminal behind the person.

The case of Sushil Murmu is a good case in point. On 11th Dec, 1996, he kidnapped and decapitated a young innocent child to Goddess Kali for his well-being. Another case of having committing the same deed against his own brother was pending against him at this time.The perversity of the crime is shocking and revolting. But the small voice of humanity begs to question whether the real criminals are ignorance and superstition for whom Sushim Murmu was just a conduit. Will the killing of one Sushil Murmu irradicate ignorance and superstition. There are of course, many other cases, where it’s not possible to offer any logical explanation other a human brain malfunction or some psychiatric illness.

The decision is not an easy one and needs a multi-dimensional examination from a societal, humanitarian and judicial standpoint. But the time is now ripe to take a more definitive stand on the whole issue and if its ‘eye for an eye’ that we as a society consciously seek, then lets not keep the lines getting any longer on the death rows.

References: : Sushil Murmu vs State Of Jharkhand on 12 December, 2003


While reading out the stories from Mahabharata to my son, I came across the story of Goddess Chamundi. The demon called ‘Raktabeeja’ fought with Goddess Chandika and Goddess Bhagwati.Raktabeeja was blessed with a boon that for every drop of his blood that touched the ground, it would create another form of his. So, in a short time, there were thousands of Raktabeejas fighting in the battlefield.

When I juxtapose this in the context of today’s terrorism, I see thousands of Raktabeejas. Killing one Osama bin Laden might very well sprout thousands more of fanatics. On a different note, there was a recent episode where a terrorist’s brother died during police interrogation. Being a terrorist’s brother didn’t make him a terrorist too and he too was innocent till proven guilty. When I looked at the picture of his young grieving son, I wondered how long it would be before he turned against the establishment.
Both are different incidents with basic ideological differences, but have the potential to give rise to the same consequences.

Unfortunately, there is probably not a single panacea to cure all the maladies. As some of the leading psychologists of the world propound, that terrorism could emanate from a variety of causal factors including cultural / religious leanings, feeling of persecution, low self esteem,social ostracization, personality disorders, an immature thinking or moral reasoning, exposure to violence,following role models, group dynamics which dictate sense of identities, results of frustration, retaliation against harm done to self or family,economic or political ambitions. All in all,  complex set of behavioral,social, religious,political environments intermingle to create the mind of a terrorist.

To think that the problem, which has existed since man himself, could be rooted out would be naive and over simplistic. But attempts could definitely be made to remove some of the causal factors. Sheer force, as has been evinced time and again, has been largely ineffective.’De-martyrization’, if such a thing could be achieved can definitely help. Media could play a powerful role in portraying the terrorists in a light that ensures de-martyrization. Capturing over killing has its merits and demerits. Terror attacks attract a lot of publicity and the outfits thrive on the publicity and feed on the fear they generate. Curbing publicity and minimizing impact to normal lives of citizens. Maintaining sanity checks on military / police retaliation. Counseling the family members of the victims of either terrorism or counter-terrorism.

How can the world , like Goddess Chamundi , let not a single drop of blood touch the ground ?

Microfinance – Evolving with the Times

In the wake of the recent developments in the Microfinance Industry, a lot of finger pointing has come to pass. We have seen the boom of SKS IPO shortly followed by the sacking of its CEO Suresh Gurumani and the current AP crisis. The entire Microfinancial Institution (MFI) community has been portrayed as the villains likening them to money grabbing moneylenders.

Whether there are vested parties involved, whose interests are not served if the rural population has a self sustaining model of improving their standard of living or whether these were some isolated incidents of some MFI’s going overboard in repayment collections remains to be seen. What cannot be disputed is the aggressive lending practices followed by some MFIs and also the relatively high rate of interest charged to a section of society which has low financial literacy. There is definitely a need to take a hard look at the functioning of the MFIs and bring the hitherto unorganized sector into the purview of a proper regulatory framework.

There was recently, a very informative article in the TOI by Vinod Khosla about profit making vs. non profit making MFIs both having their own role in the current market scenario. One key point made in favor of profit making MFI’s is the inherent advantage of acquiring scalability.It is indisputable that the profit making model is definitely the way to scale up which enables it to extend its reach. But having said that, the reality of high interest rates of 26% and above cannot be brushed aside. The reason, which is often touted for these higher interest rates are the associated costs of the raising the capital and the high operational costs.

Technology can play a key role in reducing these operational costs and the MFI’s have to arrive at the technological maturity to view technology as an enabler instead of viewing it as an extraneous expense. With respect to the cost of the capital, if the Bank-MFI model could evolve to a partnership based model instead of the bank acting purely as a term lender , the cost of lending could significantly come down. A still better model would be if an MFI were to be a part of the bank and acted solely as another Line of Business. In this case, the MFI would have easy access to the much needed low-cost capital. Hence, an MFI acting as an independent SBU of the Bank instead of a separate legal entity would have distinct advantages wherein the interest rates charged to the end customer could be significantly be reduced. Further being a part of the bank, the MFI could also accept deposits which could also enable it to be a more self sustaining unit. The offshoot of this model, would be the higher risks assumed by the bank vis a vis the current term lending model which isolated the repayment risks but could not protect against the risk of a possible MFI collapse.The key would be to retain all the flavors of the MFI model geared towards the bottom of the pyramid borrowers and to bring in the much required scalability and maturity in its operations.

There is a huge potential present in the MFI model which can be extended to services much beyond the plain vanilla financial services. In the near future, we might just witness the MFI’s evolve into something akin to a Microtransactional Service Provider which could enable the entire gamut of services including insurance, retail, healthcare, PDS and what have you.

The MFIs are here to stay, simply because there is a pressing need for socio-economic improvement of the rural sector and its high time, the sector got the focus it deserves.