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Jaipur Literature Festival 2023: A select overview of talks on finance, law, and policy

Given the crises in several major world economies, it was fitting that some panels at the JLF 2023 were about policy, cryptocurrency and legal history

The Jaipur Literature Festival 2023, which ended yesterday, featured a number of sessions this year centred around economic/financial themes and histories.

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Last week, Google fired over 12,000 employees, following similarly large-scale layoffs since 2022 at Microsoft, Amazon, Meta and Twitter. Amidst rising inflation worldwide and jobs crises in several major world economies, it’s fair to say that a lot of people are feeling less-than-optimistic about the future. No surprise, then, that the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023, which ended yesterday, featured a number of sessions this year centred around economic/financial themes and histories.

The first day of the festival (January 19) saw the Indian-American economist and author Eswar Prasad in conversation with geostrategic affairs expert and author of Negotiating the New Normal Saurav Jha, about in a eponymous session. The talk had a broad sweep, and covered a bunch of economic and socio-political changes across the globe. Prasad spoke about his work, especially his 2021 book, The Future of Money: How the Digital Revolution is Transforming Currencies and Finance. Both in the book and at the panel, Prasad spoke about the transformational power of digital currencies—but also expressed disappointment about the way cryptocurrencies (like Bitcoin) have ended up being used. According to Prasad, if the values of Bitcoin et al continue to plunge, a significant number of investors will have to sell their holdings of US Treasury securities, thereby impacting the U.S. bonds market and the economy as a whole.

On day four (January 22), the British financial historian and journalist Edward Chancellor was in conversation with Sanjeev Sanyal (member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India). The session was named after Chancellor’s 2022 book The Price of Time: The Real Story of Interest. According to Chancellor, interest is “often incorrectly or inadequately described as the price of money”, and that in many ways, a better definition is “the price of time”. Time, according to the author, is the one entity that’s universally scarce and therefore universally valued. And through the history of interest rates across different world cultures, we can understand how mankind’s relationship with both time and money has evolved.

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On day five (January 23), senior Indian lawyer and writer Saurabh Kirpal spoke to the historian and writer Tripurdaman Singh about the former’s book Fifteen Judgements: Cases that Shaped India’s Financial Landscape (Penguin Random House India, November 2022). Talking about his reasons behind writing this book, Kirpal said, “The attempt is to demystify. I think that very often, the two topics I am writing on—finance and the law—can come across as very challenging for the lay reader. Law is not fun to read about, finance even less so. But at the same time, these are the two areas that arguably affect your life more deeply than anything else. As it is, if you read judgments these days, they’re long, they’re prolix, it’s very difficult for the average person to get a sense of what they’re saying.”

The very first judgment Kirpal writes about in the book presents a fascinating conflict between the government and the judiciary — State of Bihar vs Kameshwar Singh (1952), wherein the Supreme Court ruled in favour of individual property rights (in this case, that of Kameshwar Singh, the then-Maharaja of Darbhanga, an erstwhile princely state) over the government’s mandate to redistribute land to the peasantry. The Bihar legislation was placed in the Ninth Schedule, which meant individual rights were suspended in matters pertaining to this law. Kirpal said, “The Kameshwar Singh is a great example of how one cannot understand the law without understanding the history behind this law. Once the Nehru government started the process of placing laws into the Ninth Schedule, it meant that an individual had no rights at all when it came to those laws. This ties in with a lot of what’s going on today, in terms of the friction between the executive and the courts.”

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Interestingly, Kirpal himself is at the centre of the latest ‘friction’ between the executive and the courts. His candidature as a prospective judge at the Delhi High Court has been opposed by the union government but the Supreme Court has rejected these objections and reiterated its support for Kirpal. The 50-year-old Kirpal is gay and has a Swiss national as partner, both of which were cited by the government in their objections. The question of Section 377 and India’s flip-flopping on gay rights was also brought up by Kirpal during the session, and the author noted how “the inconsistencies of the Supreme Court” make it more difficult for the public to put their faith in the institution.

Towards the end of the session, Kirpal spoke briefly about writing a chapter of his book on the Bhanwari Devi judgment, the infamous 90s case which later led to the formulation of the Vishaka guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace. Kirpal replied, “You know, I’ve been doing the circuit with this book and I’m always asked why a chapter on sexual harassment was included in a book on India’s financial landscape. And it’s generally a cis-het man who’s asking, because unless you are an Indian woman, you cannot appreciate the importance of having guidelines against workplace harassment.”

Kirpal added, for good measure, “How are we supposed to improve the lot of our economy when half of the country finds itself incapable of working or unable to work? This was the larger reason why I included this chapter.”

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

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