Sunday, 8 November 2015

Manipulation Software Spreading in Post Offices

Changes are happening everywhere and people are start using gadgets and computers on a larger scale.  As a result of this, new generation people are searching for various solutions for getting their work done very quickly and smartly by bypassing some traditional mechanism.

The spark of above said changes can be seen in the newly originated work culture of India Post employees also.  Through this article, I am trying to showcase you one of such changes happening in India Post.


The practice of using unauthorized Software Tools developed by officials of India Post or third party is increasing day by day.  We can see this activity from different perspective.  I cannot say blindly that whether this practice is good or bad.  I am just trying to watch this activity from different view point.

After reading this full article, surely you can make a clear decision or at least you can understand the facts.


Few years back, when an error shows while doing an operation in any of the modules, the official would call the concerned System Administrator and explain the error. Then he would execute a solution supplied either by CEPT Mysore or SDC Chennai.  If the solution was not readily available with him, he will call another System Administrator who is working nearby office and ask for the solution supplied by CEPT or SDC.

He would report the error to CEPT or SDC and would get solution with in one or two days if it is a new error.

Likewise if any report was not available in a particular version, they had to wait until the next version has been released.

Now everything has been changed.  Let us see some questions or statements frequently used in the conversation between staffs in India Post.

Do you have any tool to rectify error …………….…? 
Do you have any tools to change the status of accounts in database?  
Please send me the tool for reviving all silent accounts?
Have any Tool for taking that report?
Use that tool and clear the discrepancy quickly, etc.

In short, Tools rules the operations of India Post.  Every one asking for tools and more people start developing tools.  Officers are also formally or informally insisting for using these type tools. 

Majority of the people insisting or using the software are not well aware of the software development concept and database security issues. That is why I have come with this matter to explain the background.

Evolution and Cause of Birth

While analyzing the evolution of such tools, you can see that the reporting tools were the first of this kind.  In certain case some required reports may not be available in the official software but the data will be available in the database.  Inorder to overcome this issue, persons having good understanding about the database might have developed reporting software for taking a particular or number of reports.

After the development of different types of reporting tools by various ‘in-house’ developers, the developers had started exploring new possibilities through such tools which was actually a risky job in different ways.  Let us discuss risk factors later.

In certain cases, inorder to complete a work within a stipulated time, changing database value is easier than doing it though the actual module.  In such case a new updation tool may be developed for bypassing many application level activities.

Delay for getting solution from CEPT or SDC Chennai may be one of the reasons for developing updation tools.

Picture of support from CEPT has already written in the previous post See how CEPTsupport team distract employees through HDMS

Good numbers of newly recruited Postal Assistants are engineering graduates or highly qualified persons and some of them are interested in programming and application development.  If such persons are working as System Administrator, they can easily study the database structure and thereby they can develop software tools based on local database.  Such tools may make the developer more popular through various blogs or social media sites.

In short fame or popularity may be one of the reasons for such development.

What is behind the curtain?

You will be happy if the error gets solved while executing a solution/Fix tool. But have you thought about what had happened in background while using a particular tool.  I know, you might not think about it.  That is why I have written this article.

I shall try to explain the back ground of database tools and its applicability as simple as I can.

Let us assume that some gold or equivalent valuable are kept inside a room and this room has two doors, one front door and one back door.  This room also has a very small window.  Here there are four possibilities to access the valuable kept inside the room.

a)   Through the front door( The Direct way)
b)   Through the back door (In Direct way)
c)   Through the window(Difficult but possible)
d)   By making hole on the roof or wall(Extremely difficult but possible)

Likewise in database concept, there are many way to access or manipulate the data.  Database is the collection of valuable data stored on the server which can be compared with gold in the above example.  Here Database may be accounts details or article details or employee details, etc.

If you consider the Database of a Post Office, it is also accessible through different ways like below.

1.    Through Application Level: - Accessing database through Front Door, This is the direct way of accessing database by end user and it is very easy and completely legal.

2.   Through Database Engine: - This is a formal back door activity.  Formal way of accessing database by database administrators.

3.   Through Custom made executable: -   This is using the advantage of window.  Here window means the knowledge about the database structure and its week security.  Person with insider knowledge can access DB through this way.  This is also an unfair activity.

4.   Hacking: - This is lime destruction of wall or roof.   A hacker can access the database by destroying the security or can intrude by using the advantage of week database security.  This is purely illegal in nature.

Developers of the manipulation tools use the third option to alter the database. You may think that developing a small manipulation tool is very difficult and only a smart programmer can do this.  But actually anyone with basic understanding of SQL query and programming language can develop a manipulation tool.
Instead of running SQL query in the Query Analyzer, the developers will run the same query using executable files in such tools. A programmer can include any number of queries in one exe file so while running this file he can make any modification in any database according to his will without your permission.
He can change the balance of all accounts in Sanchay Post or can delete all accounts by writing a single line of code.  In short the manipulation is as much as easy by using executable.

Inserting values in some columns of a table in a database according to the will of programmer is very common while developing a solution fix exe.  In certain circumstances while developing a solution exe, the programmer cannot insert the original values back into a particular column due to various constraints and such values will not be affected by the working of an application. In such cases developer of the tool may insert dummy value in to that field.

Such changes will not be identified by an end user but even if it will not make any adverse effect now, it may be questioned in future if any fraud has been committed.

Major Threat

99% percentage of the Software tools spreading and using in the Post Offices are developed with good intension.  They may not make any unnecessary changes in database.  There is another side for this case.  You people knowing only about the fair tools spreading through blogs or social Medias but there may be some other secret tools spreading or exchanging for malpractice or fraud.

Even if chances are very rare, special care should be given while preparing for CBS migration.  A culprit can make changes in database using this method without knowing any person and can reap the advantage after migration from any other office.

There is another chance for unnecessary alteration of database due to partial knowledge of the developer.  The change may not be intentional but it is also dangerous.

Administrative offices are very keen about Data Entry module and they are reluctant to give permission for data entry.  Because they think that data entry module is the only means through which a Post Office staff can do fraudulent activity.

But persons having knowledge in programming are actually laughing while hearing such comedies.  At the same time Administrative offices are silent about the use of manipulation tools which are more vulnerable than data entry. But in some places they are also encouraging database manipulation and tool developing.  This is actually giving license for doing fraud.

The administrative staffs are well aware that getting a solution from concerned software development centre is not practical and they are reading and hearing every day about the lapses from the part of Development centres.  So they may be forced to do such promotion due to pressure of circumstances.

How to Avoid This Threat

This is very simple as below.

1.   Avoid using unnecessary outside tools or Fix.
2.   Use the solution provided by official software development centres only.

3.   If it is absolute necessary, please receive from reliable source and verify the credibility of the developer.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

BSNL Customer Care – More Scare Than Care

                “Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.”
 —Guy Kawasaki

When the feature of Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) was introduced in India some four decades ago, the customers had to make numerous attempts to get through one call. Often the experience was testing and tiring. In view of this, some smart aleck gave a witty expansion to the abbreviation STD as Subscribers Trying and Dying.  As technologies kept advancing, the situation improved much and this humorous expansion of STD was forgotten.  Or so I thought. But I realized that BSNL customers would still ‘try and die’ – not dialling STD calls but trying to register a complaint online through its Customer Care portal. And this is the story of my first and last encounter with BSNL customer care portal.


It all started with the falling speed of my BSNL broadband connection. The service plan to which I subscribe should give me a speed @2 Mbps for the first 8 GB of data transactions in a month and @512 Kbps beyond it.  My broadband use is limited to accessing my email accounts and managing my blog, Google and Facebook accounts. By no chance could I run up a volume of 8 GB data a month. Thus, I have been enjoying a speed of 2 Mbps all through the month. But lately I found my connection agonizingly slow. And before making a formal complaint, I decided to confirm my feeling of low speed through a broadband speed test.   



I did a Google search and discovered the link provided by BSNL to test broadband speed online at the ‘BSNL Broadband Speed Tester Portal’ (http://speedtester.bsnl.co.in/). The page that opened had a link ‘Click To Start Speed Test’. That was easy, I thought. No questions… No hassles... I clicked the link. Another page with a message appeared on the screen. It read, ‘Conducting bandwidth tests. It may take a few seconds to exchange payload’. (Payload?  The operation sounded more like the launching of a guided missile, rocket or torpedo!)

In a moment’s time, the test result appeared on the page. It said. ‘Your current bandwidth reading (in Mega bits per second) is: 0.00 kbps. The tool obviously was defective. My connection was slow, but certainly not as slow as 0.00 kbps. I did another Google search. This time I found another speed tester provided again by BSNL at http://218.248.245.5/initialmeter_slow.php I clicked the link.  The look, feel and messages that appeared on this portal were exactly similar to the previous one. The system did the ‘payload’ exchanges. I waited expectantly. Lo and behold! The test result came in through a message that said, ‘Your current bandwidth reading (in Mega bits per second) is: 90.30 kbps’.    

I should say something about the speed tester portal before turning to my attempts at resolving the speed issue of my connection. I am afraid that the developers had paid little attention to the script displaying the result of the speed test. The static part of the message reads as follows: ‘Your current bandwidth reading (in Mega bits per second) is:' A broadband connection does not necessary have bandwidth in Megabits per second. In fact, the initial definition of a broadband was a connection with a minimum data speed of 256 kbps. This was subsequently revised to 512 kbps. Bulk of the BSNL broadband connections operate with plans offering a speed of 512 kbps to 2 Mbps.

The output message would become confusing when the speed tested is below one Mbps. For instance, assume that the speed as measured by the system is 550.35 Kbps. This would generate the message, ‘your current bandwidth reading (in Mbps) is 550.35 kbps. (Incidentally, Megabit is a single word and not two separate words as appearing at the portal).

Turning to the test result of my broadband speed. At 90.30 Kbps, the speed was roughly one-twentieth of the speed to which I was entitled as per my service plan. I decided to lodge a complaint. Since I mostly worked online, it was easier for me to register an online complaint rather than suffering the agonies of traversing IVRS maze. (Besides. I avoid phone conversations since it often ends up in bitter quarrels). I was already a registered user at the BSNL portal (http://portal.bsnl.in). So, lodging a complaint online should be cakewalk, I thought.    

When I tried to connect to http://portal.bsnl.in, I was automatically redirected to another address (http://portal2.bsnl.in/myportal/).  I glanced through the page and realized that it had undergone some major changes since my last visit. Overall, the page appeared more appealing than the previous one.  

I signed into the portal using my username and password previously registered with it.  Once inside, the system sought extra details to facilitate the migration of my account from the old system to the newly mint system. The first field I had to enter was my Customer id. I did not know it. In any case, it was too lengthy a number for most people to carry in their heads. Thankfully, the portal informed me that I could obtain it from my phone bill.  

I did not have a phone bill close at hand. I knew that the portal itself must have been holding some of my recent bills. I looked for a way to get it. I clicked the menu item ‘Land Line’ followed by its sub-item ‘Postpaid Accounts’ and its sub item ‘Individual/FTTH Bills’. The portal was displaying the numbers of both my landline connections.  I clicked on the phone number over which the broadband was riding.

A summary information on the last bill appeared on the right half of the screen. Account number and bill number were there. But there was no Customer id/Unique Id. A message at the bottom in extremely small print said, ‘For detailed billing information, please use ‘View Bills’ option’. Somehow, I had missed it in my hurry. I just could not understand why Customer Id was not part of the bill information displayed.

But I had no time to waste on higher thoughts. I had to get some previous bill. Then I remembered that I was receiving my phone bills by email. I opened a new tab, logged into my email account and located the last bill. I noted down the Customer Id and hurried back to the BSNL portal.  But it had already timed out.

I logged into the portal once again and entered the Customer Id and other information that the portal sought. It said that the username of the new system would be my mobile number, email id or the username of the previous system (How does it help having no fixed username Sir?). I decided to retain my old username and password.  But the system would not accept the old password since it did not fit the password specifications of the new system. I modified the password and my account was eventually migrated successfully to the new system.  I thought I was finally ready to register my service complaint. But I was downright wrong.

I scanned the menu, located the item ‘Book Complaints’ and clicked it. Another drop-down menu appeared asking me whether the complaint was with regard to Landline/FTTH, GSM, WiMax, CDMA or Pre-paid Mobile. Again, the portal just did not have the intelligence to understand that I had only my Landlines registered with it.

Since I had no choice ‘but to do and die’, I clicked the ‘Landline/FTTH’ option.  Another selection ‘Before Payment/ After Payment’ was presented. At this point it struck me that ‘Book Complaints’ item actually meant ‘Book Billing Complaints’. I had no billing complaints. But just out of curiosity, I clicked the option ‘After Payment’.  

A list with Radio Buttons appeared. The first item read, ‘Previous Paid Amount is included in the Current bill’.  I selected this and got the following message on the screen. “If the present outstanding bill is including with the past bill, please contact your accounts officer for rectification. However, if you wish to pay the bill, the excess amount paid will be adjusted in the next bill automatically …blah…blah”. 

Now, I do not understand what is meant by “If the present outstanding bill is including with the past bill”. Perhaps, what was intended was something like this. ‘If the amount payable on the current bill includes dues related to bills already paid, please contact the Accounts Officer concerned’. So much for the attempts of BSNL in ensuring user-friendly language.

Another problem with the advice was that the Accounts Officer often sits some fifty or even hundred kilometers away at the SSA headquarters.  Why should BSNL advise a customer to waste his day to go and meet the Accounts Officer?  Is it rocket science to capture the specific details of payments already made and pass it on to the Accounts Officer?  Why should not the system allow the customer to click a button to send an appropriate message to the Accounts Officer enabling the AO’s office to call back the customer to obtain further details, if any it needed? Or at least, why is the customer directed to the AO and not to the nearest Customer Service Center?

I cannot help observing that people in BSNL are still living in the 20th century. They should know that after the rolling out of the CDR based OSS/BSS (Operation Support System/Business Support System) the Technical and Finance functions related to services no more remain separated in to two watertight compartments. There is considerable overlapping and flexibility. I do not know whether the portal is directly integrated with the CDR system. If it were, the portal activities would have been directly notified to both Engineering and Accounts personnel.

Incidentally, standalone systems employing outdated technologies have been the bane of BSNL. It was hoped that the CDR system and an ERP system integrated to it would be the only two Management Support systems operating in BSNL. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the reality on the ground.  For instance, take the case of ‘Leased Lines’ which is high income and ARPU business segment for BSNL. God alone knows how many different systems were created and how much money was spent in the past by BSNL to deal with the management and billing of this service. It was hoped that CDR system would be the final solution for all services. However, I understand that ‘leased lines’ service is not dealt with through the CDR system but through some other crude system independent of the CDR system.

I hope that someone would seriously look into the CDR implementation agreements to assess the extent to which the requirements as per agreements have been fulfilled in actual execution. And just wait and see how fast the CDR based system would be besieged by primitive non-standard systems since people have vested interests in keeping things in an utter mess. Also, it would be revealing to conduct an inquiry into the amount of money spent on IT system development and implementation in BSNL. Systems were procured and either not used or where discarded in a matter of months. I believe that IT system costs are one huge expense item that has been bleeding BSNL white.

The curse of BSNL has been an over-abundance of technology experts. I hope that BSNL would disband all its in-house software development groups (if they still exist) where talent badly needed on its core functions are simply wasted or are self-groomed for seeking greener pastures outside. (This is more or less the case with its plethora of training centres). For instance, does the BSNL management really know how many ‘Inventory Management’ systems have been developed internally and also bought from local vendors and how much money went down the drain on it? It would not be an exaggeration to say that BSNL could have purchased a dozen Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems with the money it invested on the silly solutions it developed in-house or bought from outside.  In-house solution development endeavours and local non-standard systems were relevant 15-20 years ago. A modern organization simply cannot afford the luxuries of such experimentation. It needs systems of international standards.

Returning to the story of my adventures on the booking of broadband complaint, I left the ‘Book Complaint’ page. It was clear that the portal offered no facility to ‘book’ billing complaints. At best, it was a poor attempt at FAQ. Even at that level, it was not an easy one to traverse.  

I returned to the main menu and looked for an item on booking a service complaint. And there it was – ‘Customer Care’. Interestingly, it was the last item on the menu. (Speaks volumes about how serious is Customer Care for BSNL). I clicked it. I was taken to another website (http://www.bsnl.in/customer-care.html). I found a rectangle with the label ‘Complaint Booking’ in big fonts on it. Underneath it was the names of the services viz.
LANDLINE/BROADBAND/GSM/CDMA. I clicked LANDLINE. I selected my State and was asked to login.

As a registered user at the BSNL portal, I entered my username and password.  The system threw an error message saying that password was wrong. I knew that the password was right and tried again receiving the same error message. Then truth dawned on me that the problem may be that the customer care portal might not recognize the payment portal registration. I needed another registration for the customer care portal.

I clicked ‘User Registration’.  The registration form popped up. I entered the details starting with Customer Id/Unique Id once again. I tried to use the same username of the (payment) portal. It would not accept it. The rejection had nothing to do with the username already existing in the system. The rejection was because the customer care portal has system prescribed specifications for username (like there must be at least one alphabet and one numeral etc…). To make a long story short, after considerable struggle, I was successfully registered with the customer care portal.   Hallelujah!

Now, I could not find a link to register service complaints on the home page of this portal (http://selfcare.sdc.bsnl.co.in). I tried clicking the menu item ‘Service’. A page opened and to my immense thrill, the first item on this page was ‘Submit a Complaint’. The message underneath the link said, “Are you unable to make calls or hear clearly…for solutions to all your service problems, just submit a complaint”. Look at BSNL’s idea of a telephone complaint. I wonder why BSNL did not limit the description to just the second part…

I clicked the ‘Submit a Complaint’ link. A page carrying the heading, ‘My Service Complaints’ popped up. Great! The first item to enter was ‘Service Id’. I was stuck once again. I had no idea what ‘Service Id’ was. On the registration page, I was asked to provide Customer Id/ Unique Id. On this page, I have to provide Service Id. I once again glanced through the bill available online. I could not find any item matching the description ‘Service Id’. In fact, the bill had only Customer Id and not even Unique Id.  

Since I knew only Customer Id, I entered it. The moment I left the field, the screen refreshed and the entry vanished. After several attempts, I left the Service Id item blank and moved to the next item ‘Complaint Type’. I had to choose one of the two options displayed. One was ‘Technical’ and the other ‘Billing’. I chose Technical and the screen suddenly banked out. A message appeared which said: 

‘The page at selfcare.sdc.bsnl.co.in says: Your session timed out because you were idle for too long. Please login again to continue’.

That was reasonable. But there was second part to the message that read:
‘If you had Seibel attachment open, your changes may have been lost. Please save the file locally save it and reattach it to the appropriate record’.
What on earth did that mean? No idea… No idea… No idea…

I once again logged in to enter the portal. This time I went straight to the second item ‘Complaint Type’ and selected the sub-option ‘Technical’. The next item on the page was ‘Complaint Sub Type’. I clicked the arrow underneath the item. A little field in blue appeared. It was a dummy. There were also other items on the page like Service Type, First Name, Last Name etc. that neither sought nor displayed corresponding values.

There were two blank text entry spaces to record the complaint. The first part was ‘Summary’ and the other ‘Description’.  In the Summary rectangle, I typed in ‘Low broadband speed’ and in the ‘Description’ space a couple of lines explaining my broadband speed problem.  I did not supply the ‘Service Id’ for fear of the page going blank.  If the value was in error it should have said so at the first instance and helped the user get the right value. I decided to test my luck with the Service Id column blank.  

I looked for the ‘Submit’ button. I expected it to appear somewhere at the end of the page. It was not there. I eventually located it squeezed underneath the page heading. I do not know how many page designers would put the ‘Submit/Cancel’ option almost as part of the page heading. I clicked the submit button. For once, I was happy receiving the following message, “OM00116: Service Id is a required field. Please enter the value”. And for once, the page was not blanked out.  

I entered the Customer Id in the Service Id column. With my heart racing and hand trembling, I moved the cursor to the submit button and clicked.  The page shuddered for a moment and refreshed wiping out everything I had entered. I found the following message on the top of the screen. Wrong field values or value types detected in field Service Id <font color=red><b>*</b></font>. Please re-enter your field values. If you need additional assistance, please refer to the documentation (SBL-UIF-00299)”.  

My foot! That was unmitigated insanity...   

At this stage, I decided to seek some ‘additional assistance’ from the system. I pressed the help button. A page opened. At the very bottom of the list of help items, I found the link, ‘Contacting Us’. I clicked it. I had two options. One was ‘Finding Contact Information’. The other was ‘Submitting Feedback’. I clicked the former and another page appeared. It carried the same two links ‘Finding Contact Information’/ ‘Submitting Feedback’. I clicked the first link. Nothing happened. I clicked the second link. Again, nothing happened. I glanced down the page and found some text under the above headings.

There were no Phone/Fax numbers or email ids under the heading ‘Finding Contact Information’. There was no mention of ‘BSNL’ anywhere on the page. It was clear case of copy/paste…

The following items were listed under the heading ‘To find contact information’:

1.   Navigate to the Contact Us page.
2.   Click the hyperlink for the communication channel that you want to use.
3.   Follow the on-screen instruction.

I navigated to the ‘Contact Us’ page.  The page had two items. The first one was ‘Selfcare Portal Help’. I clicked it. Nothing happened.  The second item read, ‘Dataone Broadband’. I clicked this too with the same result. I wondered when the page was last updated. For instance, ‘Dataone’ is no more the brand id of BSNL Broadband service. Similarly, its Mobile Phone service is, perhaps, not ‘Cellone’ any more.  

I looked at the Copyright information. It said the solution is copyrighted to Oracle Corporation. Holy Cow! Sorry, ‘Cow’ could be a dangerous term to use in these times in my country. Holy Christ! Could Oracle Corporation produce garbage like this? I am sure that BSNL must have paid through its nose for this sickening solution.

I was too exhausted to go any further with my experiments with BSNL portal. I was more or less convinced that BSNL created its customer care portal simply because it was fashionable to do so.  Customer tries it. Finds it does not work. He tries again. Some go mad trying. Some die trying. Some others like me quit at the nick of time and save themselves from serious harms…

---------------

Tail Piece

This morning, I measured the speed of my broadband connection. The reading showed 3.6 Mbps! Really! But, my connection was supposed to have a maximum speed of just 2 Mbps. Well…That is BSNL. Truly, “BSNL Best Hai Mere Liye”.  

PS
I have since been told by a friend that Service Id is actually the phone number! When would BSNL start speaking plain English?

Read more articles by the author here

Monday, 12 October 2015

Happy Retired Life Is a Huge Lie

“Retirement is a stage where an employer discards an employee that he cannot exploit further.”

― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Introduction

We often believe that superannuation would finally set us free forever from the wearisome encumbrances of a career life.  So, when I walked out of my office for the last time on 31.12.2012 after spending nearly forty long years on work, I too thought I was stepping into a life of rest, peace and happiness. But I was unsure I was happy. As Charles Lamb, writes in his essay ‘The Superannuated Man’, “For the first day or two, I felt stunned, overwhelmed… I wandered about, thinking I was happy, and knowing that I was not…”   

After three years in retirement, I realize that the life of a pensioner is not a paradise, as many people often assume. His life is beset with a plethora of troubles. The two major troubles that the Pensioner faces are Money Troubles and Health Troubles


Money Troubles of the pensioner mostly arise out of:   

  1. Inflation Rates
  2. Interest Rates
  3. Taxation Rates
His Health Troubles fall under two categories:  

  1. Psychological Health
  2. Physical Health
This post seeks to briefly discuss these troubles. 

1. Money Troubles of the Pensioner    

The pensioner receives a substantial amount as lump sum payment on retirement by way of Retirement Gratuity, Commutation of Pension and Encashment of Leave. It is assumed that he has also a good sum saved in instruments like the Provident Fund. He invests the lump sum receipts to earn interest to supplement his monthly pension.  People apparently expect this pensioner to simply sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of his life free of all money as well as work related worries. But the real life in retirement is an altogether different kettle of fish. It is often more worrisome than working life.  


The primary worry of the pensioner is related to money. In the best case, his basic pension is half his last basic pay. He is ineligible for any allowances other than Dearness Allowance (DA) aimed at neutralizing the changes in the cost of living. DA is computed based on basic pension. Thus, DA too is halved. While people in service receives annual increments and periodical promotions which regularly raises their basic pays, the pension once determined, remain unchanged until the implementation of the report of the Pay Commission coming once in a decade or more.  Also commutation of pension by which the pensioner surrenders part of his monthly pension for its value in lump sum, substantially reduces the monthly pension. The point is that the income of the pensioner suddenly drops to roughly one third of what he earned while on the job. And the difference keeps increasing. 

Besides the fact of static pension and denial of all allowances other than DA, Inflation Rates, Interest Rates and Income Tax Rates contribute to the progressive reduction of the real value of the income of the pensioner.  Let us see how this happens.

a.   Inflation Rates

Inflation is the result of too much money chasing too few goods resulting in general price rises.  As prices increase, the pensioner needs more money even to retain the existing level of consumption. In theory, the DA based on the official rates of inflation should fully take care of price changes. But in actual practice, this does not happen because of the mismatch between market realities and the official statistics. For instance, the Crude prices have fallen from $150 a barrel to less than $50 a barrel. But for the consumer, the petrol and diesel prices have not fallen correspondingly and the transport fares remain at the levels when crude oil was selling at $150 a barrel. The truth of this situation may not fully reflect in the statistics.

According to official statistics, inflation based on Wholesale Price Index (WPI) stood at (minus) 4.95 per cent, as in the month of Aug 2015. In the same month, inflation based on Consumer Price Index (CPI) was at (plus) 3.66 per cent. In other words, wholesale prices have crashed while consumer prices rose at moderate rates. Then there is another price related statistic called Food Inflation, which has an altogether different dynamics. Most of us do not have the expertise to understand the implications of these complex statistics. But one thing we all know is that prices have always kept moving in the upward direction.   

Because of the mismatch between official statistics and market realities, every installment of DA released leaves a gap between the real price changes and the actual set off provided through DA. Consequently, as time passes, the gap widens and the pensioner is driven more and more into poverty. 

b.   Interest Rates

The pensioner is expected to find his livelihood out of the regular monthly pension and the interest earnings from the lump sum receipts he invests in long-term instruments. Again, the Price Indices based inflation rates hurt the pensioner.

Since inflation rates keep coming down, there is an eternal clamour for interest rate cuts for stimulating economic growth. These rates are controlled by the Reserve Bank of India. The theory is that cheaper loans increase consumer spending and corporate investments. Powerful lobbies like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) are behind such demands.  The Governments tacitly and at times openly support it. But every one conveniently overlooks the reality that state-run banks are groaning under the huge burden of ever increasing Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) or bad debts arising out unrecovered loans.  
  
Until the other day, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India was being portrayed as the enemy of India’s economic progress for his refusal to oblige the rate cut lobby.  In an article published in the Hindu on 18.09.2015, Dr Subramanian Swamy, Professor of economics and former Union Cabinet Minister, wrote, “Incidentally, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor, Raghuram Rajan, has single-handedly brought a huge slowdown to the Indian manufacturing sector and exports. As a doctor, he believes that best way to bring down the temperature of a patient (i.e. inflation) is to kill him (investment starvation)”.  

On 29 Sep 2015, Dr Raghuram Rajan surprised even the rate cut lobbyists by slashing the policy rates by a whopping 50 basis points. None anticipated a cut exceeding 25 basis points. And it was the fourth rate cut this year. It is strange that the good doctor, who was counselling the nation just ten days earlier to resist the tendency to go for quick fixes citing the example of the economic turmoil in Brazil, suddenly discovered that the economic situation in India is ripe for such a hefty rate cut.  Well…he reportedly said during the press conference, “Everybody and his cousin have a theory on how to run the economy…My name is Raghuram Rajan, I do what I do…” 

The lobbyists are thrilled and Dr Raghuram Rajan apparently gets to keep his job for the time being. After the RBI rate cut, the Union Finance Minister said that the government is planning to reduce the interest rates on Post Office Small Saving Schemes.

When RBI cuts its policy rates, interest rates on deposits too fall. The pity is that none bothers about the hardships of the pensioners/senior citizens whose economic survival is dependent on the interest earnings from the retirement corpuses or household savings they deposit into the banks and Post Offices. As someone recently wrote, “the key question is, why when everyone roots for a rate cut to facilitate easier lending rates, there is not even a whimper of support for those who want at least status quo in deposit rates?”

c.    Income Tax Rates


When it comes to personal taxation, the pensioner is more or less treated on par with the salaried employee. The only concession he enjoys is limited to the extra fifty thousand rupees allowed as non-taxable income in tax computation. Incidentally, pensioners below the age of sixty (like state government pensioners superannuating at the age of 55/56) do not receive even this benefit. And the policy makers expect the pensioner to save Rs.150,000 a year (Rs. 12,500 a month) to obtain the full tax relief available on savings (U/s 80C). The insensitivity of the policy makers do not end with these…

As already discussed, the interest rates have been on a downward slide resulting in the steady fall in the interest income for the pensioner. When the RBI Governor was asked about the adverse impact of frequent rate cuts on the returns on the investments of the pensioners and domestic small savers, he replied saying that with inflation at 6 or 5.5 per cent, if the fixed deposits earn 8% interest, the investor gets a real return of 2 to 2.5 per cent. What he and other votaries of rate cuts do not mention is that when tax on the interest income is considered, the return often falls below the erosion in the value of money because of inflation.

For example, consider an interest rate of 8 per cent p.a. on a 10-year fixed deposit of Rs. 5 lakh. The interest earnings in this case would be as follows:

Tax Slab
 (%)
FD
 Amount (INR)
Interest
Income (INR)
Tax on
Interest (INR)
Net Income (INR)
Post-Tax Earning (%)
10
500000
40000
4120
35880
7.18
20
500000
40000
8240
31760
6.35
30
500000
40000
12360
27640
5.53

Hardly anyone ever speaks about post-tax interest income. Incidentally, Dr. Subramanian Swamy asks the rhetorical question. “Why have household savings, which were the bulk of national domestic savings, dropped from a high of 34% of GDP in 2005 to 28% GDP in 2015?”  

Perhaps, the answer is obvious.  Because of the low post tax earnings from simple and safe saving instruments, people are forced to gamble with their hard earned money by entrusting it with fraudulent firms offering sky-high returns or investing it in speculative instruments like company stocks hoping to become billionaires overnight. Incidentally, on Monday, August 24, 2015, the BSE Sensex fell by 1,624.51 points and NSE Nifty index lost 490.95 points. The investors lost nearly seven lakh crore rupees in the crashes. And we do not know how much is being swindled by fly-by-night financial firms.  

If you are a pensioner enjoying post-retirement healthcare provided by your former employer, then you would be surprised how your tax liability increases while nothing is added to your real income. Whatever actual medical reimbursement you receive (beyond Rs.15,000 a year) is treated as taxable income.  The problem here is that when you add up incomes from your monthly pension, interest earnings, medical reimbursements etc., the rate at which you would pay income tax might climb to the 20 or even 30 per cent levels. 

It is difficult to understand or appreciate the logic behind the manner in which pensioners are being taxed. Any sensitive government that has concern for the increasingly distressing situation of the senior citizens/pensioners would be more realistic and sympathetic about taxing them. The irony is that the government that ignores the pitiable circumstances of the pensioner has no compunctions about proposing the reduction in corporate tax from 30% to 25% under the pretext of incentivising economic growth.  We may shout from rooftops that we are the fastest growing economy in the world.  But the sad reality always remained that while the rich become richer, the poor become poorer.  

2. Health Troubles of the Pensioner  

There is joke about a young college girl introducing her grandfather to her friends. “He is in his nineties“, she said. The old man reacted with a seductive grin on his wizened face, “Only in my early nineties”. The moral is that it is killing for people to accept the reality of ageing. 


Old age is often portrayed as a time of rest and reflection. It is also considered an opportunity to do things that were put off while raising families and pursuing careers. Sadly, the process of ageing is not always idyllic as often imagined. There is real pain and anguish in the process of moving from a healthy and active person to a sick and sodden one.

Ageing related health troubles of the pensioner have at least two dimensions –psychological and physical.  

a.   Psychological Health


Retirement can be emotionally devastating. It is often a shattering experience for many and more so for people retiring from senior positions. Until yesterday, they were symbols of power, charisma and prestige.  They sat behind massive desks in their swanky offices. They were surrounded by an army of people and all the paraphernalia of authority. Their signatures decided the fate of people and projects. Their orders saved or snuffed out lives, released or blocked billions on war or on peace, ruined or protected lives and livelihoods of many.  They basked in the glory of public and media attention. The sudden and eternal loss of all these through retirement could badly break them mentally. Many people become melancholic after retirement and might even go through a period of grieving over their lost forever losses.

Although most employees look forward to retirement, the sudden changes arising out of the exit from a career life can be unexpectedly traumatic. As someone rightly said, “work is not simply about trading labour for dollars”. Work is the means by which individuals discover their own individual identity and fulfillment. It is also a means by which others identify us. The sudden loss of identity and esteem is often emotionally devastating. 

As the pensioner ages, he would also sense a loss of control over his life due to physical changes and financial and other pressures.  Prolonged sufferings arising out of serious and chronic illnesses, kids leaving home, painful losses of loved ones and friends, and the awareness of the close proximity of death, often lead to negative emotions like sadness, anxiety and overwhelming sense loneliness and of being forsaken by all. These are all what psychologists often term as ‘life-change’ issues. Life-change issues often take a heavy toll on the ageing individual’s emotional well being

b.   Physical Health  


Comparing himself to a car, an old man joked, “Almost every time I sneeze, cough or sputter: either my radiator leaks or my exhaust backfires”. For most people, physical changes related to ageing are very embarrassing and hard to accept. Few have the capability and inclination to age gracefully. Most try to camouflage the external signs of ageing like greying hair, wrinkling skin, sagging bosoms and bulging waistlines through costly restorative procedures. But none would succeed in hiding for long, the signs of the steady and unstoppable decline of their bodies as they age. The creaky joints, the shivering limbs, the flaking skin, the failing faculties, the unceasing pains are all changes that none can wish away or conceal for long. As time passes, we realize that everything hurts, and what does not hurt; does not work.

I often think that every component in the human body has an expiry date stamped on it. Each component starts faltering as it approaches its expiry date. Modern medical science could carry out some recalibrations, repairs and even replacements if one has the capacity to bankroll the huge costs involved. But all restorations would only be temporary since the originals are always the best.  In due course, these components would start breaking down…  

Eventually matters worsen. The pensioner starts spending more time in hospitals than outside it. He struggles to find the resources to support such frequent and long duration hospitalizations. In a world of mammoth ambitions and merciless competitions, the pensioner would be foolish to bank on his children or others to support him physically or financially at this stage.  If he is a central government pensioner receiving a pathetic sum of Rs.500/- a month as medical allowance, he is doomed for sure. However, if he has a post-retirement health care facility provided by either his ex-employer or a health insurance company, there is some hope and comfort. 

Finally, the health situation of patient takes a turn for the worst. The hospital knows that the man simply cannot be saved.  Yet, it would keep him in the sterile environment of its Critical Care Unit attached to a maze of tubes inserted into every imaginable spot in his body.  The hospital would continue drawing samples of all kinds of body fluids for costly lab tests. Everyone concerned knows that once the tubes and wires are pulled out, the person would be a corpse. But the commercial interests of the hospitals keep him alive just for the records.  The hospital bills keep mounting. The family starts selling everything saleable to fund the treatment.  Then it borrows and might later beg or even steal…

At last, the hospital realizes the dangers of artfully postponing the death of the patient. It decides to disconnect the masks and machineries to release the pensioner to death. The sad part of all these is that many would make the final exit Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”, leaving their families bankrupt.

Conclusion

The pensioner has economic issues. He survives on a fraction what he was earning while on his job. The real worth of this income keeps falling because of inflation not neutralized through DA.  Added to these is the progressive decrease in his income from his investments because of interest rate cuts under the pretext of falling inflation. Amid all these adversities, his expenses keep mounting because of his deteriorating health and the increasing dependence on others for tasks he once carried out on his own... 

So, if you are still an employee, my advice is to be careful with your money and always keep a part of your salary aside as long term savings. Else, you would live in regret after retirement and die in penury.  If you are a pensioner, well… your fate is already sealed... 

Retirement and ageing are life-changing experiences. Such changes are inevitable.  It is easy to be drowned in the thoughts of the miseries of it. But it is necessary to be realistic about it. One has to anticipate and prepare for the inescapable changes that lie beyond retirement. Getting depressed or anxious could only add to the sufferings.  

“The only way to avoid being miserable [in retirement] is not to have enough leisure to wonder whether you are happy or not”, said George Bernard Shaw.  I agree. The average person has roughly 15-20 years to live after retirement. This must be time enough to write a masterpiece, run a marathon, or mentor a contingent of youngsters.  So keep yourself busy. Remain productive even when you are out of your formal career.

Remember that not everything is negative about old age and retirement. There is at least one positive aspect to ageing. The aged have Wisdom. They have seen more of life and its trials and tribulations, dealt with more people and learned to see through them quickly, encountered diverse problems and discovered the means of tackling them, made mistakes and learnt lessons from it… They possess that extra insight missing in younger people. It is precious. The family can benefit from it. The society can benefit from it. So go ahead and devise strategies to use your experience to benefit others…  

And finally, let us all remind ourselves that today might be our last day on this earth. And today might be our final window to stamp our footprints on the sands of time. Tomorrow might be too late. For tomorrow, we might be ashes flying in the air or floating on the waters, or corpses lying eternally buried in a graveyard…  
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P.S.   Click Here for more articles by the author.


1.The pensioner I have in mind is an incorruptible and thrifty one belonging to the government/public sector. Also my pensioner is a honest Income Tax payer.

2. Male pronouns (he/his etc.) used for the convenience of narration are meant to cover both genders.  
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