Friday, December 3, 2010

Largest Democracy or Elected Monarchy?

The latest season of corruption scandals in India, starting with the Commonwealth Games, has left everyone baffled and more skeptical than ever. It is one of the rare moments where every pillar of our state is tainted with corruption charges. One doesn't need to state about the corruption in the executive and legislature, but this time around the media, the corporates, the army and the judiciary are also implicated in one or the other scam.

Today, the three wise monkeys of Gandhi ji stand for a different message: one should not hear anything as whatever they say is biased, one should not see anything as what they show is half truth, and one should not speak because what we believe is most probably not true. Who should we believe in these circumstances?

I feel the problem lies in the question itself. It is high time that we stop blindly believing in any institution or person. Every one is vulnerable to corruption and any other wrong doings. The root of this problem lies in the fact that after independence we inherited a colonial system of  government and we did not change most part of it after independence. Thus the British raj has been replaced by the elite raj in India. This has made every democratic dynamic go wrong.

Democracy has become a mental block in our heads and we see it as a panacea for all that is bad. Democracy has become synonymous with having free and fair elections. It that enough? Democracy is supposed to work because it provides a free, fair and peaceful arena for competing ideas and programs of different parties. Also the four branches of the state: executive, judiciary, legislature and media are supposed to be independent of each other to keep a healthy system of checks and balances. The Colonial system, we inherited, has combined all the parties into one and all the four branches of the state into one united in despoiling the nation and making sure that their colonial privileges do not get eroded in the new democracy.  

In this colonial state the executive remains the most hegemonic. While this is true for many modern nation states, in India the executive brazenly interferes in the judicial process. The government has special powers, which are used more than often, to shield it self from the eyes of the judiciary. Any prosecution of a high ranking government employee needs the assent of the government. It can sit for ever on the request to prosecute an official or a minister. This has lead to corruption with impunity and also extra judicial killings by the army. All this is occurs in the largest democracy and the government need not utter a word on why sanction to prosecute a culprit was not given. We do understand the need for "special powers"that should be used in the rarest of the rare cases, but we have a right to know why the special powers of the government were invoked or why is the government sitting on the decision to prosecute an offender? There is no provision for justification or any time limit on when the government should take a call on such issues.

Similar is the case with corruption and wrong doing the in the courts. Any wrong doing by a judge of a high court or supreme court can only be investigated after receiving sanction from the chief justice. This judicial immunity is required but again not without full transparency and responsibility for one's actions.

So is the de-facto case with the corruption in media houses. The government is too scared to investigate the filth in the houses of the opinion makers of India, lest they put a wrong spin to everything government does or says.

Not surprisingly,none of the politicians or journalists want to raise this point in any debate on corruption. They want us to believe that they are squeaky clean and would discuss only those events where others are more culpable than them.

We need to have a better check on the government and its "special powers." The government should have a constitutional responsibility to act within a time frame on any request to invoke its special powers to interfere with the other branches of the state and it must state in public all such cases on which it has taken a decision and why, and all those cases on which it is yet to take a call and why.

Second and most importantly, we need to have ombudsmen for the government, the media houses and the courts. These persons should have no relation with any branch of the state in any form and they should be able to investigate, independently and without any pressure, any complaint of wrong doings in the house and also have powers to prosecute the wrong doers. A few state governments have a Lok Ayukt who have already become a source of great discomfort for the government. The Hindu newspaper has an ombudsman to look into complaints against the paper. But these examples are more like exceptions than the norm. Most of the media houses are content with passing judgments over others and have no fair mechanism to deal with graft in their own backyard. The judiciary is yet to have an ombudsman. The bill for ombudsman for the central government, the Lokpal bill, has not been passed into a law since 1960's. Most of the cases of corruption and wrong doing by government officers lead to temporary suspension of the officer and an in house inquiry. Such inquiries almost never reach their conclusion and the belief is strengthened  that the corrupt are the kings of our country.

We are also a unique nation where there is fair amount of transparency now, thanks to more than thirty years of campaigning by Aruna Roy which gave us Right to Information Act, but we lack accountability.  Thus the reports of graft keep piling in the CAG reports but we rarely see any one convicted. Will we wait for another thirty years to bring accountability in our system? I hope not.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Internalized Colonization and The Muck of Corruption

Right to Information act (RTI) was passed after much fanfare in 2005. The leaders of our 'biggest and most vibrant democracy ' described the passing of this act as a golden moment for the nation. Very true! but should I be proud or ashamed that such a basic right came after sixty years of independence and for sixty years the colonial law of Official Secrets Act (which classifies almost every official data as a national secret) remained in force.

Many such colonial laws, which were designed to benefit the rulers (British then and our noble leaders now), are pervasive in our entire system. It took thirty years of campaigning by Aruna Roy and MKSS to get the RTI. How can we be truly liberated from colonialism? If colonialism served the British interest half a century back, today the colonized India is serving the corrupt ruling class and corporates. How can expect the political class to pass laws which would put fetters to their avarice? On top of it, the Constitution mandates that only the government can introduce laws related to money matters.

Today we see skeletons falling out from every nook and corner of the country. The Commonwealth Games generated a lot of personal wealth. The Aadarsh housing scam proved to be an ideal example of the rot in our system. The 2G spectrum allocation scam has exposed a whole spectrum of corrupt individuals, corporations and politicians. The chief minister of Karnataka, distributes government land to his sons and says that he only followed the precedent of previous governments. The Tatas, the makers of the cheapest car in the world, openly declare that aversion to giving bribes kept them out of the airline industry in India. This is a lot of scum which has come out in the last month. It makes us question the very fundamentals of modern governance systems. Can it be devoid of corruption? Is corruption always bad ?

Corruption comes in two flavors. The one is widely excepted and celebrated in the form of lobbying. This the high level corruption where companies and confederations 'persuade' the government to favorably lend an ear to their arguments and pass laws protecting their interests. The other is low level corruption; widely abhorred and prevalent in India. This corruption, on one hand makes everything unpredictable and every law unimplementable. On the other hand it effectively cancels out the high level corruption. The RTI is an effort to stamp out the the low level corruption which frustrates the government and the corporates alike. Though the RTI has also exposed many scandals at the higher level, the accountability of high ranking officers and politicians is well protected by another colonial law. According to this law, any investigating agency must take permission of the government before persecuting any high ranking official or a minister in the government. One of the variants of this colonial law, the Central Vigilance Commission Act, was passed in 2002. An earnest effort to bring our majestic rulers under the rule of law is the Lokpal Bill. The Lokpal is supposed to be an ombudsman, who can investigate the complaints made against the high functionaries of the government. The fate of this bill has remained undecided since the last forty years.

The only institution which is free from the influence of political class is the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). The CAG is protected by the Constitution from any influence of the political class. It is also protected by its sterility. The CAG produces voluminous documents about various government departments flouting rules and procedures. The report falls on deaf ears and its time to prepare the next report. This form of transparency with no accountability is very lethal for the system. The transparency ensures that multitudes of scandals come to light sooner or later, the lack of accountability reaffirms the feeling that corruption rules the nation. We badly need a CAG with more teeth and laws which make our rulers accountable for their doings.

It has been often stated that after 1947, today is the time ' when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.' This new turning point in the destiny of our nation requires a herculean effort to draft new laws and put systems in place as was done at the time of drafting our Constitution. Unfortunately, despite the good intentions of a few lawmakers, the parliament remains to be the most inefficient institution. It is more of a political theater full of walk outs, dharnas and disruption of proceedings than a source of laws for our present and future. To complicate matters further is the adamant idealism and lack of pragmatism prevalent in law making, which leads to unimplementable laws.

Take for instance, the right to food debate. The lawmakers aim to provide for a large variety of food grains to all the citizens at throw away prices. This effort to plan to feed more than a billion mouths shall require tremendous resources of the government and the resulting inefficiencies are hard to ignore. This grand plan of the government cannot be more flawed. For one, it would completely push the market mechanism out of the already over interfered agriculture and food sector. Second, it would be replaced by the ever notorious government allocation mechanisms. A pragmatic government should strive to keep within its means and plan for schemes which it can handle well. The problem of food prices and hunger are two different issues. They cannot be solved through one solution.

Instead of the grand Right to Food charade, the government would be better off to provide a legally enforceable freedom from hunger. The government should leave the task of providing citizens with day to day food articles to the free market and should strive to build a system on which a person can reliably fall back on to save himself from starvation. This system can be very limited and hence efficient. Instead of providing which an array of food grains and other perishables, the government should distribute processed food (which would have all the necessary nutrients, long shelf life, easy to store and transport, and hard to filch and sell in the market or make any derivatives ). The cost and scale of such an operation would be far more manageable. Analogously, thank God, the government is not thinking of Right to Employment act and take on the charge of providing everyone with a daily livelihood. It is the task of the entrepreneurs and private industries. It would do well to provide for some assistance to the unemployed.

We need to have a perpetual institution under the aegis of the parliament, which studies the laws of modern democracies all over the world and comes up with innovative ideas in the form of legislations to deepen our democracy and the rule of law. Such an institution shall have no fetters in terms of introducing such bills in the parliament, obtaining data to frame these bills and to hold open consultations on these bills. Such an institution cannot usurp the right of the parliament to frame laws of the land. It can certainly push the parties to openly take stand for or against any bill which aims to better our democracy.

We also need to expand the powers and responsibilities of CAG. It should not merely perform postmortems on the deeds of the government but should also take an active role in formulating and enforcing proper procedures and guidelines for the government to reduce inefficiency and corruption. Every law, should undergo a cost analysis before being passed in terms of monitoring the implementation of such a law. Accordingly, money should be set aside for the CAG to ensure the monitoring of its implementation.

Finally, technology can be a big savior when it comes to the evils of corruption. A recent report by McKinsey states that India can save 1 lakh crore rupees every year by making every government payment electronic and hence reducing corruption.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I support Azaadi for Kashmir trapped in a prisoner's dilemma

I feel baffled when I look at the turmoil in Kashmir. It is a classic case of the prisoner's dilemma. On one side of divide are the angry, victimized Kashmiris who have little faith in Indian Democracy, coz they have seen very little of it, and on the other side of the divide is the paranoid, skeptical Indian establishment. The international nature of this dispute just increases this mistrust. In this chaos, the Kashmiris are confused about who to trust and what to ask for and the Indian establishment is too afraid to raise and discuss the real questions.

Whenever there has been a talk about the divide between Kashmir and India, we have always talked about one side of the gap, i.e. all Kashmiris do not consider themselves as a part of India. We forget to mention the gap as seen from the other side: Indian establishment treats Kashmir as a battle ground and an alien state. Regardless of the historic context of the problem before 1948, Kashmir would have been much more peaceful and prosperous had we treated the Kashmir problem as we treated the separatist sentiment in other parts of India, like the demands for Khalistan and Dravidstan or insurgencies in the North East. While the separatist leaders elsewhere were accorded political space, the revered leader Sheik Abdullah was put in jail coz of a few comments. Interestingly Indian government at that time could do so only because Kashmir had a special status and it was out of the Supreme Court's jurisdiction. While free and fair elections have been the hallmark of Indian democracy, even when people chose the former insurgents as their chief ministers, there are just a few elections in Kashmir which are widely considered free and fair, namely those held in 1977, 2002 and 2008.

Kashmir is one of the most politically backward regions of India. While local governments and panchayti raj have deepened the democracy else where in India, it is yet to be introduced in the state. Every small demonstration is painted as anti national and every bite of anti - India rhetoric is used to justify the brutal handling of the situation. India has been very accommodative of the separatist sentiment else where. Even today, the photograph of the dreaded Sikh militant, Bhindrawale, is hung in some of the Sikh seminaries in Punjab and he is accorded the status of a martyr. The Akali Dal party, which also heads the state government in Punjab, has often flirted with separatist sentiments before.

While the common people suffer and protest in Kashmir. The spin doctors claim their leadership and use it to further their own interests. There are the separatists who dub Azaadi as succession from India. No one cares to define what their Azaadi means for common man in Kashmir and how it would be different than what is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Do they have a more enlightened definition of Azaadi? If yes, then why don't we incorporate it in the Indian Constitution? I would love to have that Azaadi in my home town too. Well, in reality there is no vision or idea of Azaadi in the minds of the separatists. All they want is more political power for them. While some want to enforce a Sharia based constitution in the state with a large number of people not comfortable with that, the others just borrow words from the Indian lexicon (words like multi cultural, secular, plural democracy) to define their Azaadi. Then there are the main stream politicians who dub Azaadi as calls for giving them unchecked powers and autonomy to convert the state into a kingdom, as was in the British times, with just foreign affairs, defense and communications to be a part of the Indian democracy. The track record of such kingdoms, during the British raj, was abysmal. The nationalist leaders often rued that these kingdoms were much more repressive than the colonial Indian government directly under the British. Not surprisingly, the call for autonomy is given by the National Conference party, whose current foremost leaders, father and son, have when ever freedoms guaranteed by the Indian Constitution have been overlooked.

I feel that the call for Azaadi in the valley is the call for the basic rights of the people. Those rights which have been enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The right to practice one's religion freely, the right to live with dignity, the right to elect one's government freely and fairly, the right to move freely, the right to speak freely and the right to peaceful assembly and demonstration. Are these not the demands we hear when ever the common man in the streets of Kashmir is interviewed? Are these not the fundamental rights accorded to every Indian? Yes, the demonstrations do turn violent at times, but does it not happen in the rest of the nation? Do we dub every protest in the country, against the government and the wrongs of the administration, as anti-National? Why do we have to support an inept Chief Minister, the black berry czar, who cannot go around and meet people of this state, who speaks of the people of his state in third person? Today, the protesters are under the age of 20. They were not there to experience the historical cause of the problem and like most of us would be willing to move to an honorable closure to the historical problem between Indian and Pakistan. Today the problem is the handling of the people by the Indian establishment and keeping the democratic process away from the state.

The need of the hour is to introduce real democracy in the state, where people can be sure that the elections wont be rigged. Where people can say to a wrong doer in the government that we ll see you at the time of elections. The need is to strengthen the police force in Kashmir with numbers, equipment and training to be able to handle the law and order of the state without any help from the para military forces, so that those personnel can go home and live lives with their own families. The need of the hour is to make sure that every Kashmiri enjoys the same rights and has the same duties as any other Indian. This is a game where trust would bring more dividends than skepticism and caution. And by trust I mean that Indian establishment starts trusting the people on the streets in Kashmir. The attraction of true Indian democracy is very strong.

PS: There is a similar article in The Hindustan Times on this issue:

Monday, July 19, 2010

The 10% Rule

India is a land of big disparities. India ranks among the select few in having the most number of billionaires but also tops in having the most number of poor and unprivileged. While six cities churn out 90% of the Indian IT products, 70% of Indians toil in the country sand and more than 50% barely make a living. These disparities keep on growing, if one looks at the nation state wise and get even worse with finer analysis of data, district wise. The regions lagging behind in the Shinning India story face the danger of further neglect as the government busies itself with the more visible India.
One of the common threads joining these impoverished, forgotten areas is the lack of any public amenities, be it water, electricity, roads or connectivity. I question the moral authority of the government in levying tax on people and activities in this area. Tax is a kind of a service charge paid to the government for providing services and amenities useful to all, like building and maintaining roads, taking care of people's health and education, and maintaining law and order. If the government fails of multiple counts in these areas, isn't it amoral for it to ask people to pay for the services it never provided?
I propose that the government should levy 0 taxes on any person living in or any economic activity occurring in 10% of the most impoverished districts( blocks would be even better) of India. As rare it may be, this moral grumbling also makes a lot of economic and political sense. The major part of government revenue comes from the affluent cities and urban centers of India. The 10% of the most impoverished districts would not contribute a great deal to the revenue or else they would not be that impoverished. Thus the government will not lose a lot of revenue, but create a great impulse for the industry to set up shop there. It would be attractive for professionals and trained personnel to settle in such areas for the lack of income tax. If the sales tax is also lifted from these areas, it shall lead to a better quality of life for the ordinary citizens in these areas as their purchasing power increases. With the increase in the purchasing power, there shall be a corresponding increase in the economic activity in the area and it may be able to join the Indian growth story.
It would be worth considering for the central and state governments to have a differential approach for levying taxes in various regions with the 10% of the most impoverished districts of India free of any central tax and 10% of the most impoverished blocks in every state free of any state tax and have a gradual slab based approach for other regions. Such incentives have been provided to Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in India and China and these areas have seen a boom in economic activity, so much so that exports from 111 operational SEZs in India contribute to around 58K crore rupees worth of exports and they have grown 112% in the last year and 67 % this year. This is a easy to implement tax rule with low chances of misuse and little loss to the government.
The Indian government is at crossroads on many policy decisions. I feel it would be a mistake to follow a uniform tax code with a uniform Goods and Services Tax (GST) for all regions in India. What we need instead is the approach taken while levying taxes on individuals. We need to divide the whole country into groups of districts with each group containing areas with similar economic standards and the membership of each group automatically updated annually. Uniform taxation should be followed within each group, with current taxation rates on the most affluent group and nill on the most impoverished one.

PS: Creative use of taxation can correct many ills in the direction and pace of Indian economic growth. Another such problem that could be ameliorated, though not solved, by smart taxation would be the lack of skilled persons and proper training in India and the low employability of many graduates, with the government exempting all trainees in industry, who were previously unemployed and just graduated, from income tax for a period 6 months in urban areas and an year in rural areas.

Thanks again to Anirudh for editing the post.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Need of Sanguine Red in the Tapestry of India

It looks like a quintessential Indian problem that there are too many motivated, intelligent and industrious leaders which want to change the direction of the march Indian subcontinent towards progress, albeit in different directions. How many times, has a prosperous India bled because of the intransigence of its great leaders. India did not have a dearth of able leaders when the British took over. But Sadly, whether is the great Tipu Sultan and the Maratha Peshwas, no one blinked to let the unity prevail.

Gandhi was unique in his ability to keep together the most diverse flock under his leadership. This was perhaps one of his greatest achievements which lead to a very vigorous national movement. Half a century after his death, we seem to be loosing that sense of accommodation. The leaders which take decisions after forming a consensus are called weak and Indira Gandhi Gandhi's dictatorial style is admired as the trait of a strong leader. The more we move towards the trend of strong and firm leaders in our polity, the more fragile it will become.

One's heart bleeds to see the government forces fighting the naxals and Maoists. Both the sides vow to bring justice to the downtrodden and make the development of India more equitable. Yet both fight each other, just because being accommodating is seen as being weak. I do agree that Maosits have extreme views in terms of replacing the democratic setup with a communist state, that too through a violent revolution. But so were the views of the numerous other groups leading insurgency in various parts of India. We were able to turn them around and use their genuine concern for their people to develop India.

It is worthy to note that the ultra red movement has been around since the Independence of the country. It may also be noted that leading Gandhians like Vinoba Bhave and Jayprakash Narayan termed this menace as a socio-economic and political problem. The ultra reds have been fighting for the landless and the tribals which find no space in the Indian political zoo or in Indian political rhetoric. While the farmer is worshiped by every political party and dalits have become a formidable force, the landless workers and tribals have yet not been empowered politically. This is probably the reason that the government has failed terribly in the area of land reforms and special ways and means to deal with tribals. The colonial bureaucracy adds fuel to the fire. The tribals who have been living on their lands much before any form of government existed, are asked to prove the ownership of their lands and evicted from their homes in a brutal fashion. The modern India is trampling them under its march to economic prosperity.

The Maoists present a unique opportunity to bring this marginalised section into the main stream. The Maoists have achieved what no other political party could. They have united this large constituency of India's people into one political force. The need is to urgently bring the Maoists into the political main stream. They are a political force with a mass base to recon with. The Government structure, needs to be decentralised further to empower the people of the villages and tribes to have the maximum say in deciding the the fate of their homes. The MOU's signed between the mining companies and central and state governments should be signed between the companies and the local communities. If the local bodies are empowered with a true sense of authority, many people would be willing to join the circus of Indian democracy. This way the Maoists shall be confident of bringing the revolution through ballet and not bullet (something that the comrades in other parties discovered long back ).

A large chunk of the Maoists cadre and followers is made of well educated leaders and civil society activists. They represent a very positive force, which can be harnessed to make the growth of India much more inclusive and democratic. When Yunuis Khan started the Grameen bank in Bangladesh to alleviate the situation of the poor and downtrodden, he found a great help from such groups in propagating his movement. Indian politics despite all its chaos has lost the exuberance to bring forth a change for all, to develop an Indian Utopia and have space for all. Cronies have formed around every traditional power structure and they resist any entry of a strong force disturbing the status-quo. The vast Indian tapestry desperately needs infusion of the sanguine red to breathe a new life into the lost Indian dream. I sincerely wish that talks initiated by Swami Agnivesh with the Maoists and the Government succeed.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The MODIfication of BJP

The recent episode, between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi, may seem blown out of proportion with both parties over reacting to each other. But it can be better understood from the prism of national politics and ideological battle in the opposition space. The clever manoeuvrings of the congress party and its umbrella structure, under which many conflicting ideologies can live in harmony, leave very little for other parties to distinguish themselves from the Congress party. This is perhaps one of the reasons for the excessive saffron tinge in the BJP. Leave that out and there are very few differences between Congress and BJP. This argument could hold water in the 80's and 90's but not in 2010.

Today, the voter is much more aware of the policies, programs and the track record of the political parties. This has made it possible for the common man to distinguish between the bark and the bite of the various parties. It can make a fine distinction between JD(U) in Bihar, BJD in Orissa and BSP in Uttar Pradesh on one side and Congress on the other. The saffron hue present in the BJP acts to its disadvantage and blurs the fine points of distinction between the BJP and Congress. The BJP has produced more efficient administration in many states and is more democratic in its structure. Yet it is a sad case of being good in practice but bad in rhetoric. The rhetoric of the BJP still revolves around the dead issues of partition, Mandir and Hindu right wing issues. Such issues do not strike a chord with the voters any more and the fiery leaders spewing venom at election meetings do more harm than good to the party.

It is time that BJP charts its own course independent of the right wing organizations of the parivar. It is time for the party to clear up the excessive saffron hue from the party to let the voters see its progressive face. It would take a tough and very courageous effort to do so, but it is the only way BJP can remain relevant in the current Indian politics. Narendra Modi may come handy in the exercise. His administration has been hailed by many as the most modern and responsible in the nation. His disconnect with the VHP and sangh also makes rounds in the media often. Yet he is painted as a saffron boy, in league with the infamous Varun Gandhi. The recent episode in Bihar, was a test of the acceptability of Modi in NDA. He failed badly, primarily because of the saffron hue that ties him down to the Godhra riots. It was sad to see the message, of the success of his administration in the economic advancement of the minorities, being hijacked by other contrived issues.

Modi will need to do a lot to wash of the sins of 2002 riots. The shriller the paeans of the efficiency of his administration, the more grave become the charges of connivance in the riots. Modi needs to take a leaf from the congress and emulate their example in comforting the Sikhs after the 84 riots. For one, he should shed his overly macho image of an ultra right wing saffron leader who will not bow to the public opinion. He should publicly express regret for the happenings of 2002. He should display more flexibility in accommodating other opinions, if he ever wants to be at the helm of the most diverse nation on the planet. At the same time he needs to come up with a precise policy on the issue of minorities. The BJP has always accused the secular parties of appeasing the minorities but it never came up with a coherent alternative model. Modi needs to clearly pen down the alternative and come with a white paper on the development of minorities in the years of his rule viz a viz their progress in other states. Modi also needs to fiercely battle for individual liberties and make it clear to the voter that under him, the law of the land shall remain sacrosant and the frenzy of the mob shall be under check (Gujrat has seen many cases of defiling of paintings and other means of expression). His rhetoric needs to be more focused on the bread and butter issues than on Sonia Gandhi or Ram Temple. He must prove his mettle as a good administrator by achieving the best social indicators for Gujarat in the country (currently Kerala beats Gujarat in many respects). While the central government is still debating about the food security, Gujarat should go further and ensure universal health care, urbanization of rural areas and other perks of the developed nations to show the strengths of its administration. India is racing forward to become a developed nation. Modi's Gujarat must beat India by a large margin, for her people to take notice. Let the saffron mist be cleared from the air and let the people of India have a better look at the development model, programs, policy and ideology of BJP sans saffron.

Friday, May 21, 2010

CICA -China India Common Agenda

Recently, the silver jubilee of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was held in Thimpu. It was a sad affair and the other countries rightly accused India and Pakistan for turning the multinational organization into a boxing match where all the suspense is about a handshake between the leaders of the two. While SAARC achieves to emulate the EU or ASEAN model, it is very different from the two. The major difference being the difference in the size of partners at present and also in the future. Though such differences do not come in the way cooperation but the contemporary misunderstandings and misgivings between India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh make it much more difficult for SAARC to take off. But, if SAARC is viewed as a truly multi national organization then it can come handy in disguising economic cooperation between not so friendly nations as a regional agreement.

Yet it is not sure how much yields India can expect from such an organization given the present situation and scale of economies in the SAARC region. Better opportunities are just in the neighborhood and India needs to turn its eyes to the north. India and China have been historically very similar and at the present nick of time they almost complement each other. All that is needed from India is what it has been asking from the smaller SAARC nations. India needs to shed its apprehensions about China and give the wonderfully developing nation an economic bear hug. That shall not only help India lift its millions out of poverty but also it ll be the best strategic move made by India to defend it self against China. Warmth between the two nations can have huge benefits. For starters, the Indian defense budget which is more than 1 lakh crores can come down to less paranoid levels. India and China have been at the receiving end of much of the unfair demands made on green house gas emission cuts. They have successfully fended off efforts in Copenhagen to shift the burden of the developed Nations on them. Much more can be done in the international arena if the two combine. The major challenge for both the nations is the cost of innovation that is needed to drive the economy and also solve the common challenges both developing nations face. India and China can come together to form a China India Common Agenda (CICA) to look into problems plaguing the third world, which either do not find much attention in the west or their solutions are sold at ridiculously high prices. There are a number of areas where not just India and China but also the whole third world can benefit. Major investment is needed to find cheap solutions for water availability and purification, alternative forms of energy, smarter but yet cheap seeds for food and the list can go on.

Obvious would be the benefits of having an integrated market of the largest number of consumers in the world and of eliminating wasteful competition between the two nations for energy and other resources. The talent pool in the two nations also complement each other. The large number of English speakers in India can teach English to China. The Chinese expertize in manufacturing can come handy for the Indian industry and the Indian expertise in IT and management can find use in China. India still has half the number of poor people in the world. If we wish to bring those people out of poverty in their lifetime, we need to think beyond the local den of SAARC and find virtue in shunning envy and befriending China. Nothing is better than to have a strong friend in the neighborhood and helping him getting stronger. The pervasive nature of economic activity and the benefits of trust would translate into major gains for us. We both are two travelers, traveling to the same destination and facing the same problems, doesn't it make sense to help each other on the way?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Thoughtful Governance

It is ironical that while we want every trivia around us to be scientific but no one questions about the logical foundations of the government structure and its workings. The Governance has become an inanimate being which would not change and which one has to live with. While scientists conduct studies to improve every aspect of human lives from the way one sits to the way one sleeps, there has not been a considerable contribution of science in the way our nation is governed.

Governance and politics in India attracts very little of talent and research. Albeit the IAS officers have a very good caliber and are selected via a very competitive exam, they, as IAS officers, do not have the power to challenge the governance structure. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the general perception remains that it is solely the job of the politicians and government employees to bring about change in the nation. The high threshold of political capital required to make yourself heard, in the corridors of power, restricts nation building and social change to an exclusive club.

There is a need for institutional mechanisms to involve more creativity and fresh breeze of thoughts into the process of building a nation and helping every human have the opportunity to realise his/her dreams and potential. The method of scientific discovery must not remain confined only to the traditional sciences. They are badly needed in many areas which directly influence our lives. While ample research is undertaken on the government policies and social structure, only a negligible fraction of it sees the light of the day and gets implemented. The need of the hour is to make governance inclusive of scientific thought. Fresh ideas must be tested in a conference of experts and be published in peer reviewed journals, and should form a part of the government policy. Government should be open to experimentation in governance and promising ideas on various aspects of governance should be allowed to be tested in real experiments in a small scale.

The case of the Gramin bank and its founder Mohammed Yunus is a classic example of the benefits of such an exercise. Mohammed Yunus was an economics professor in a university in Bangladesh( whose governance system is similar to that in India) who was appalled to see the condition of the destitute in the country. He started the Grameen bank as his own initiative to provide cheap credit assistance to the poor in the neighbourhood. While his idea succeeded in his locale, he had to struggle a lot to make him self heard in the corridors of power and bring about the change in the whole country. He was lucky to have met acquaintances and encouraging officials in the midst of naysayers. After years of toil, his efforts finally bore fruit and the Grameen bank lifted many people out of distress. Today countries around the world want to replicate this model. While no political leader would have been against such wonderful effort to eradicate poverty, the problem here lay in bringing the idea to the notice of the rulers.

The power of Wikinomics is well established today. Many corporations and establishments are scrambling to exploit its power and open source movements have come in the lime light in software and information industry but Governance still remains a closed source. We must realize that democratic closed governance is a contradiction of terms and to make governance an effective tool for social and economic change, it needs to get constant doses of innovation like science does and must not remain static as a dogma.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Of The People and not just By the People, For the People.

In the on-going debate about providing legally enforceable rights to all citizens of India, one of the most common and recurring questions is that why these laws should work any better than the whole gamut of laws, policies and programs in the past encouraging education, food security, employment and well being of the people? This question has been the ultimate killer for any debate on a good legislation that things on the paper and on the ground remain very different.

What we must realize now is that we no longer live in a democracy with resources so scarce that it acted like a monarchy where it was considered a favor if an elected leader got a school constructed in the neighborhood. Today, the nation has the capability and resources to provide for all. It is our inalienable right to get good education, have enough food, get employment and good health services. We must strive for these rights as we did for our political freedom. It is good that the government has made it easier for us to fight for some of these rights by legislations granting legally enforceable right to information, right to education, employment guarantee and hopefully soon a right to food security and access to health. The onus now lies on 'we the people' to make sure that all of us get our birth rights.

The civil society in India has been a very vibrant one but even today many people look to the government for every problem. We must start looking at the government as an enabler for our better future rather than as a spoon feeder. Hence, if tomorrow we feel the pinching need of a school in our locality we should not wait for the government to take suo moto notice but move the courts and other relevant fora for our rights. The model of governance, we are shifting to, requires a lot of public participation. If we feel appalled at the state of corruption in various government schemes, the onus is now on us to take action and file RTI applications to expose the corruption.

As pointed out by Shekhar Singh in the article by Lina Khan that usually laws were made for the government to control the people, but now we have moved to another level where laws are made for the people to regulate the government. These laws give us a wonderful opportunity to plug the leaks in the flow of money and resources from the top to the grass roots. 'Well Done Abba' , a recent movie by Shyam Benegal, highlights precisely how we can do so. Many instances of corruption are pretty easy to spot. As rightly depicted in the movie, there are many wells, lakes, schools and roads in India that exist on paper but not in reality. All we need to do is to find out what all is there on paper. As in the movie, I guess we can file an FIR against some one stealing our wells, roads and other infrastructure.

I propose that we all launch a nation wide social audit. A team of individuals would take up a locale in a town or a small village and then use RTI to find out about all the public projects in the area that exist in the government records as well the payrolls of all the people employed under NREGA, lists of all the beneficiaries of various other government schemes in the area, etc. Then we visit the place and actually map the things on paper to reality. That would not only expose all the wrong doings of the corrupt officials but also make the locals aware that they can always audit the working of the government and make sure that they get their due. This nation wide campaign can be coordinated on the web with various teams selecting different locales and then uploading their reports online along with the other valuable information about the locality as how one can go there and what all is there in that area.

There are many many opportunities the new legislations have provided for both social activists and businessmen. Only thing that is needed is imagination. Shaffi Mather has come up with a wonderful idea to make money by fighting corruption. The new Right to Education Act throws an opportunity for us to make money while educating poor children. The window of opportunity looks like a curse, at present, to many. I am talking about the clause in the act which makes it mandatory for all private schools to take at least 25% pupils from the disadvantaged sections in all new admissions. What many forget to add is that the government will pay the school for educating these children. The amount paid by the government per child per year would be the cost the government bears to educate the child in a government school. My thesis is that if it costs Rupees 100 to , with all due respect, the inefficient, corrupt and wasteful government to give quality education to a child, a private school with an efficient and innovative management can provide better education in around 80 Rupees (read this). Thus, quite contrary to the assumption of our HRD minister Mr. Sibal, the private sector can play a very important role in educating the children of India and even make it into a profitable enterprise.

We are seeing a new democracy evolving in India which would make the governance more participatory and accountable. While the RTI has already made ripples in the society about the way the people now perceive the government (see this article), I am sure that soon enough we all would realize our roles in the governance of the nation that the government is of the people and not just by the people and for the people.

PS: Thanks to Anirudh for editing the post

Friday, April 2, 2010

Well done India.

The ever skeptic Indian finds it against the normal instinct to appreciate the advances of the gargantuan elephant of Indian system and democracy. Perhaps, there is a feeling that we have miles to go and any sort of praise may make the elephant more complacent and it would doze off even before it completed half of its journey. The journey is a long one and the goal is one that is universally aspired by all for centuries, but it does help to cheer the slow and most of the times steady creature when it reaches a mile stone.

It was on the banks of river Ravi in 1930 that our leaders set the goal for 'Swaraj' or freedom. That freedom didnt not just mean political freedom but also social and economic freedom for all citizens. While the former was achieved at the stroke of midnight hour seventeen years later but the latter still remains an unfulfilled goal. Nehru once uttered "A moment which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new". Today again India is at the same crossroads, where she seeks to redeem its age old pledge in a substantial manner.

I have always found it unfair to judge the whole Indian political system as rotten and worth no good. Albeit there are many problems with the current state of affairs, we also have been fortunate, not once but most of the times, to be lead by great leaders whether in politics or in civil society. After six decades of liberal democracy and two decades of high economic growth, India has found the moral and material strength to reembark on its journey towards Utopia. The democracy has finally started trickling down to the roots and the voters always outsmart the politicians in every election. Development and basic needs of people is on the forefront of all political discourses. Efficiency and transparency not just words used by the elite but have found increasing resonance with the common masses.

The course of liberalization and ensuing economic boom germinated the seeds of new socialism and activism. The omens of things to come was the right to education act passed by NDA government and also the not so successful 'India Shining Campaign.' These demonstrated the new found confidence in the government to think big, though it was little too early to trumpet victory even before the battle started. None the less they made important contributions in bringing back the the bureaucracy in shape, breaking down the colonial shackles of licence raj and providing connectivity to all Indians in terms of roads and telephones.

Despite the blows the two major political parties exchange in public, the course of Indian elephant remained more or less the same after change of government. There has been a gold rush to exploit the new found monetary strength of the governments to make grand changes in the life of all citizens and reap the political benefits as did the left government after the successful land reforms in West Bengal. Quite ironically but in a quintessentially Indian way the right liberal policies gave a major push to the center left ideology. Every one from all parts of the political spectrum rushed to adopt the new and more aggressive form of Indian socialism. The days of Mandir and Mandal politics were over. The BJP ruled states focussed on food security by providing food grains to all at almost no price. Some went further ahead to relieve the parents of one of their most pressing worry i.e. cost of marrying their daughters. They promised not only support for education of the girl child but also to give a substantial amount of money at the time of marriage. The southern states soon followed the suit. It was a refreshing change to see rice and not color TV's in the manifestos. The master stroke came from the UPA government lead by congress party with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

The civil society made the most important contribution by channeling the aspirations of the public. They not only highlighted the problems with the Indian government system but also proposed very effective measures and then made sure that the masses rallied behind them.
Aruna Roy, who left her job as high ranking Government official to become a socail activist, championed the cause of right to information (RTI). Her efforts and the more responsive political system lead to the revolutionary legislation empowering every citizen with the right to get information on pretty much every public and personal matter from the government within few days of a simple request.

The ultimate responsibility of good or bad within a democratic nation rests on the people. They have been the major instrument in bringing about this change. The people have generously rewarded the social pro-activeness of the governments. It has been after a long time that people in many states voted the incumbent government back in power. Manmohan Singh is the only prime minister after Nehru to have completed one full term in office and to be re-elected again. The winds of change have blown over the whole nation and today Bihar has the second fastest growing economy in India.

Encouraged with the generous bounty, the last general election saw major social programs in the manifestos of major political parties. There is a consensus among all on the major parties on many social issues. Today, the issue for political parties is not whether the social incentives will be launched or not but how to get the most credit for the them and how to be the first or the most vocal supporter of these policies. Starting from yesterday, the right to education has become a legally enforceable right. The efforts to empower women at all levels have seen a rat race among political parties. Some states have increased the reservation of women in local bodies to fifty percent. The BJP has included one third female members in its highest decision making body. The congress is making the most of electing the first woman president and a woman speaker and marshalling the woman reservation bill through the Rajya Sabha. The food security act will soon become a reality and many other socially conscious measures will see the light of the day.

Within the last decade, India has changed beyond the imagination of many. The new found tools of freedom have worked in tandem with each other to achieve wonders. RTI has acted as panacea. NREGA and many more government schemes have seen a huge improvement in their efficacy. Judges have declared their assets and the Government officials would hopefully follow the suit in the future. Corruption is no longer a thing to live with today but something which can be fought with the RTI. Entrepreneurs like Shaffi Mather have come up with ideas to make fighting corruption a business opportunity. They would fight corruption on the behalf of their client using the new legal tools and charge a small fee for making sure that the client gets a just service from the government. The governments right from the municipal level have become more responsive towards the needs of the citizens and it is no more a traumatic experience to go to a government office for some service.

I feel appalled to hear many voices that still carry the skepticism that is two decades old. I feel rather proud that the Elephant of Indian democracy moves slowly but every step has a huge impact bringing out a gradual change and allowing the effective policies to evolve over time winning against many other alternatives. We all need to pat ourselves and say well done India! lage raho India!!.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hinduism and fanaticism

It is very difficult to define Hinduism and to establish the boundaries of this religion or a way of life or a way of thinking. Hinduism may have begun as an assimilation of various thoughts and beliefs throughout the sub continent where it encompassed and harmonized the folklore and beliefs of various tribes. Later, it kept on evolving as the Hindu thought conversed with other beliefs in the world.

There are around 330 million gods and goddess in the Hindu mythology and yet one cannot say for sure that Hinduism is not monotheistic. The advent of monotheistic religions saw the decline of many religions and their extinction but when the monotheistic thought reached the sub continent, it became a very elegant and prominent, but yet not dominating, part of the large canvas of thoughts. The Hindu religion maintained its sweet paradox and harmony of contradicting beliefs and tied them together very subtly but strongly. This amorphous form of the multitude of beliefs made it possible for Hindu faith to become a living entity evolving over time and assuming different shapes but with an eternal unchanging soul. This very ever encompassing and never forsaking quality made it possible for the Hindu thought to sail through the rough seas of time comfortably.

Hindu fundamentalism is a contradiction of terms as there are no "the basic tenants" in Hindu religion. Hence apart from inhuman behavior, its hard to do something that can be considered blasphemous in Hindu religion (even atheists form a part of Hindu thought). Yet, today we find this contorted distortion and contradiction of Hindu ethos on the rise and that too in the name of the pride of Hindu faith. Self declared belligerent saints (another oxymoron) and goons have usurped the very personal relation of a man with God. Today, any Tom, Dick and Harry can assume to be the Pope of Hindu faith and declare any art, any argument to be blasphemous.

M. F. Husian, an eminent artist often called the Picasso of India, has painted numerous Hindu gods and goddess and has captured the essence of Mahabharata and Ramayana on his canvas. His work received appreciation from the Government of India in the form of Padama Bhushan in 1973 and Padma Vibhushan in 1991.

One fine day in 1996, someone had a look at a few paintings made by Husain made in 1970's and decided that these paintings hurt the Hindu sentiment. Thus began the tale of harrying the artist. The main objection was that the Hindu gods and goddess were depicted naked in the paintings. There cannot be any argument more absurd. Hindu temples are full of sculptures and paintings of nude gods. We worship the Shiva Lingam and considered the 'Ardhnarishiwar' (the form when Shiva and Parvati become one being) as the source of all creation. In the recent years, voices raised against Husain's work became shriller and forced many exhibitions, across the world, to shut down and pushed the artist to accept Qatar nationality [1].

This sudden change of the texture of Hindu faith from an all encompassing to a narrow faith is frightening. Swami Vevekananda once said in his address to The World Parliament of Religions that "Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now." In the same speech he would proudly state that the Hindu faith has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance [2]. Today, the demagogy and competition with fanatics of other faiths to emerge as as the strongest "protector" has made the cosmos of Hindu faith seem like an imitation of other religions.

Tolerance and universal acceptance form the core of the soul of Hinduism and we must strive to keep it alive. A bunch of goons should not be able to hold our age old faith to ransom. We ought to make sure that the loud and shrill voices of such a lot are not mistaken as the voice of significant number of Hindus, let alone the majority of Hindus. The very protection our faith needs is from the Trojan horse of these self declared protectors.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Incompleteness Theorem for Indian Law

Mathematics in the early 20th century was full of excitement. Science in general had made huge strides and math was always leading it by a considerable distance of many decades. In many fields of thought, Utopia had never been closer. The celebrated mathematician Hilbert was on a mission to prove the consistency and completeness of all mathematics starting with a very small set of reasonable assumptions or axioms. But then Godel dropped the bomb shell: any consistent math built on axioms cannot be complete. In other words, there will always be some truths which mathematics or logic will not be able to conclusively prove to be true [1].

This result has been used and abused in many discourses in philosophy and theology. Let me carry forward the tradition. India has always been criticized as a soft state where citizens are not quite the perfect examples of law abiding beings. Rather, India is more like a chaotic system, oiled by corruption, which surprisingly works. I am not sure whether it is a good thing to abide by all laws and whether laws substitute ethics and morals. After all, slave trade and apartheid was legal in many parts of the world. So does it make us a good citizen by being law abiding? But, what I want to ask is that can laws, which are supposed to be based on reason deduced from some basic assumptions or ideals, ensure justice to all? Are they not precisely afflicted by the Godel's incompleteness?

I know the first counter argument to this claim would be the numerous countries where law is adhered to strictly and it works well. Well, in all those instances the countries are usually homogeneous to some extent and they have special provisions for handling exceptional cases. As one would ask, hmm..what's the problem then? Make strict laws in India and have provisions for exceptional cases. The problem is the size and diversity of India and also not the least the lack of many resources which oil the system in the first world. Assuming that even 0.01% of people shall fall into exceptional cases category for a particular law, we are dealing with 1 lakh cases. This percentage would be much higher in India due to its huge diversity. Going through the regular channels of appeals through courts and stuff, these exceptional cases would become a torturous ordeal. Having said so, it is not an argument in favor of a lawless state.

Speaking a few days before the 61st republic day, the Indian constitution has stood the test of time. But I am not sure that we would have had such a success story if every law had to be followed in letter and spirit. There have been around a hundred amendments to the Indian constitution and not the least were aimed to accommodate special cases [2] so that the courts do not strike them down as unconstitutional. Even the Supreme Court has changed its stand in many cases relating to the interpretation of the constitution[3].

While at the highest level such contradictions were taken care by intervention by the parliament or a rethink by the Supreme Court, we all live in a state of contradictions. The reason for a law gets turned on its head in many instances. Take for example the case of wildlife protection laws. Nothing could arguably be wrong with a law the prohibits keeping wild animals as pets. Yet this law lead to jailing of an innocent tribal in Orrissa who took care of an orphaned bear. Tribal people have a close relationship with the flora and fauna of their surroundings and it is not uncommon for them to handle wild animals fearlessly. The orphaned bear cub was found by Munda in the Forrest. Munda took it home and cared for it like a member of the family. Yet, this ran contrary to the wild life protection laws; Munda was arrested and the bear was "released" far in the jungle. The bear returned home and was put in a cage in the zoo as per the "law," where it refused to eat [4]. While this case made headlines in many dailies across the world, but such paradoxes happen more than often and in a subtle way at every road junction, every dhabha, bus and railway station. Had it not been for the notorious police constables many of us would have had visited the jail at least once in our lives.

There are also more challenging problems for law to find a proper clause to capture many de facto situations in India. For instance, consider the case of slums and homeless people in large cities. Slums are usually built illegally on government land and as per law should be demolished. But, where do such people go? These people have migrated in distress from the villages and other small towns, and have a right to a decent living. They perform many of the most critical jobs in the city which keep it running. The government, ideally, should provide basic facilities for such "internal refugees." In other words, the government should make the living conditions better in slums and give people a legal right to reside there. If that happens, the slums no longer remain a temporary structure for people in distress and penury to take refuge in for a while and then build their lives again. The slums transform into permanent and comfortable residence with the residents having much less motivation to move out. Thus in effect the internal refugees coming to the cities hence forth would have to build a new illegal slum somewhere else in the city. Similar is the case of the de facto owner ship of Forrest land by tribal people and their right to make a living out of the Forrest and many other cases where contradictions and diversity of India make it almost an impossible exercise to satisfy all.

Not least is the problem of implementing these laws and the vast amount of man power and infrastructure needed for the same. Ideally a law should lead to a game theoretic equilibrium where any one deviating from the law would gain nothing but that's hardly the case. All these reasons lead me to believe that we do at times go a bit far when we criticize India for being lawless. Just recently I, watched a movie Ramchand Pakistani. It is based on a true incident where a small boy, around 9 years old, unknowingly crosses the border from Pakistan to India. He is caught by the Sepoy on the border and he has to go through to the grind of Indian system for many years before he could be finally released. It pains me to see that though it was obvious to the Sepoy that the innocent boy had crossed the border unknowingly, he could not have sent the boy back without a rebuke from his law abiding seniors and fellow citizens. India is a land of paradoxes and contradictions, I do feel it is better for us that law (read law enforcement agencies) remains flexible and twists and turns it self according to the situation at hand. Of course this does have a downside, but those cases are far fewer than number of cases where law and intention do not agree.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The National Advisory Council Vacuum

During the UPA-I government, a body of social activists and experts was formed under the chairmanship of Sonia Gandhi. I was called the National Advisory Council (NAC). NAC, as the government claimed, was formed for the following purpose: [1]
"The National Advisory Council (NAC) has been set up as an interface with Civil Society in regard to the implementation of the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) of the Government of India."

It attracted all sorts of criticism from being a tool of the left to influence the government policies to being a way of justifying the role of the 'super prime minister' Sonia Gandhi. It was actually a bit of both. But more importantly it provided the vital interface between the government and the social activists. The high and mighty, elite and the rich usually form the bureaucratic and ministerial part of the government. They belong to the upper middle class and many influential persons in the government are educated in the best universities outside the country. Thus the most of the views formed by the government were actually formulated in the drawing rooms rather than on the ground. The NAC provided the government a way to look at things from a different view point other than government sources and reports formed by administrative officers, who still enjoy the colonial luxuries of sahibs and are to some extent the most disassociated from the general public.

The NAC proved to be a very beneficial body for the country and the political prospects of Congress. It conceptualized the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the Right to Information (RTI) Act and with the political will symbolized by Ms. Gandhi, the acts saw the light of the day. The skeptics bared their teeth when such socialist Utopian models started being taken seriously by the government [2]. Even the prime minister seemed not very enthusiastic about the act. But today, these acts are the two most important things that have happened to India. The impact of NREGA has been mind boggling [3] and RTI is stirring new revolutions day by day. Many nebulous ideas took shape in NAC during its heyday [4] but it started loosing some steam as the meetings of the council became more rare and many important members declined to be on the council again[5]. But it was finally buried when Sonia Gandhi resigned as its chairman following the office of profit controversy [6].

The UPA-II government came to power with a resounding public approval. Much credit for this success would go to the NAC. Yet, today the body stands dissolved and dead. The government is facing a crisis at multiple levels whether it is the climate issue or the Maoist problem. There is a a very urgent need of a fresh wave of thoughts to tackle these issues and the NAC -II can provide exactly the same. It remains unclear whether NAC became a success due to presence of left or Sonia Gandhi or both, but it is certain that we need a better dialogue between the sahibs and ground level workers to evolve into a better India.