November 1, 2006

Ghostly Cows and Spooky Bridges

There have been reports of ghost sightings in Slovenia this week — ghost cows, that is. Has Halloween been globalized too? No, this is not about fiendish little Slovenians dressed in ghostly cow outfits, threatening fellow Slovenians with tricks, if not treated with milk chocolates. It's about some Slovene farmers embezzling Euro credit, ostensibly to purchase cows. Only that no cows were really debited against the credit. According to Rory Watson of the Times Online¹, the EU auditors found that,"half the cattle that Slovene farmers said they owned, so qualifying them for special EU cow and beef grants, did not exist. A quarter of their sheep and goats were equally invisible." Subsidies for the ghost cows followed inflated or wrongful payments last year to olive producers in Spain, Greece, and Italy.

After investigating how the €105 billion EU budget was spent last year across a range of policy areas, the auditors identified “a material level of error in underlying transactions and weak internal control systems”. As a result, for the 12th year in succession, they refused to sign off the accounts, giving them only qualified approval.

The story of the spooky cows of Slovenia reminds me of the ghostly encounters that I've had during the heydays of the socialist India. In a survey of cottage and small scale industries, I have personally come across scores of ghost factories and establishments in various parts of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Rupees, given as grants and loans by the nationalized banks and other government credit agencies, never saw the light of the day — or the night — in the industrial estates, where they were supposed to have provided employment workers? Not infrequently, one would find that the owners of the units were ghosts, too (the so called benami - literally false named - owners, sometimes real and mostly fictitious, are to be found in every asset market of India, I believe, even today). The ubiquitous caste hierarchy was also evident in this ghost society. The ghost owners were mostly from the disadvantaged and backward sections of the society, who were to be given priority in credit allocation. A friend of mine, who worked for one of these nationalized banks then, told me how he had faced the damned if you did, damned if you didn't dilemma, when he was forced to choose between a tranfer to the boondocks or the approval of credit to non-existent poultries and milk cooperatives.

I came across the most bizarre instance of such shenanigans in the Indian state of — you guessed it — Bihar. It happened during a study of the Public Works Department. When I was scrutinizing the various project reports, I noted that a suspension bridge was supposed to have been built across the river, Burhi Gandak, near Samastipur. Finding no such bridge at the specified location, I immediately brought it to the attention of the Chief Engineer. When I returned to the books at the PWD office after a week, I spotted a note in Hindi alongside the entry corresponding to the bridge in question, which, when translated, said, "There is no bridge. Locals say that fish had eaten the bridge"!

In the Indian media these days, there are several heart-rending stories about credit crunch and killer GMOs, driving farmers into financial distress. I couldn't but wonder how many ghost farmers must be among these, commiting hara-kiri in desperation! If only the financial institutions had been shamed into providing the much needed credit for the farms instead of the Ferraris, at least some of these ghosts would have been saved. Really, how many call-center operators, working around the clock in ghost shifts and weekends, does it take to finance their buffalos and barns?

¹ Link to the Slovenia ghost story from The Glory of Carniola via Veronica Khokhlova of Global Voices. Thanks, Veronica.
  1. the hyperlink The Handmaid's Tale in the inspirations category is not active anymore.

  2. Thanks. Fixed the entry. Piece of cake when compared to fixing entries like "fish ate the bridge" ;)

  3. In the bank I worked for, the inspectors routinely noted missing wells, cows, borrowers and I thought this was unique. I do not know if i should feel happy or sad to see that the phenomenon is universal.


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