Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Anna and Democracy - an analysis of Anna movement

The Anna Hazare lead campaign against corruption in India has shaken us all from the comfort of our world view. Just when the final obituaries for the Gandhian thought and charisma are about to be read, someone comes along and changes the plot. The dynamic of the current movement from the start to the end can be summed up in the famous quote by Gandhi:

"First they ignore you,
then they laugh at you,
then they fight you,
then you win."

The start of the movement was characterized by cynicism. Thanks to the government and congress' monumental arrogance and a class contempt for the ordinary man, people started identifying more and more with the movement. Then it was time for the opponents to portray the movement as a non serious one. Series of revelations and CDs came out in the open and attacks were made on the demands of the agitation. The Anna team had done its homework well. Its members, which included a retired supreme court judge, two supreme court lawyers and an ex law minister, gave the intellectual weight and further credibility to the agitation. When the agitation refused to die down, the government started fighting back in the most shabby terms. It lost the day it arrested Anna Hazare.

Many people have been left baffled by the success of this movement. After all the same methods have been applied by Irom Sharmila and her fast unto death continues for more than 10 years. Why did this agitation succeed and not the others? Arundhati Roy often says that satyagrah needs a theater where a satyagrahi can perform and keep the public, the audience, enthralled [@]. The main plot of the act is a person imposing suffering on himself to awaken the public opinion to the obvious wrong done by the society or the government. As days pass by, the suffering of the satyagrahi increases and the plot quickens everyday, contrary to other means of agitation where the public interest slowly dies down as the days go by. Essential to this form of agitation is a theater to capture the imagination of the ordinary, the absence of ego when satyagrahi starts accumulating power, the constant willingness to negotiate to always project oneself as the non obdurate one, a very simple demand which the government / society has been overlooking for long, and finally and most importantly exhaustion of all other means to have that demand met. (Gandhi did not go on a fast unto death demanding freedom of India.)

The anti corruption agitation struck right when the iron was hot. The Lokpal bill had been introduced first in 1968 and it never became an act [@]. Even the fiercest critiques of Anna would agree that without the agitation the Lokpal bill would not have seen the light of the day. The leader of opposition as well the leader of the house in Lok Sabha acknowledged the failure of the political class to deliver in this matter [@][@][@]. The nation was boiling from the revelations of one scam after another of scale never heard before in the nation. One minister was responsible for wiping out revenue worth 4 percent of our GDP. Added to it was the shame experienced during the Commonwealth games. While just before the games, India was relishing the flattering comparisons to China, the Commonwealth games scam came as a wake up call to all. It broke the myth that no matter whatever may be the mess, we do get the job done at the end, even though it is just in time. This bubbling mix of anger, frustration and humiliation along with doses of inspiration from the middle east provided the base for a movement. We must be thankful to Anna and his team to have channelized this raw discontent into a disciplined movement. While the anti establishment and anti corruption agitations were just waiting to happen, it is to the credit of the organizers of India Against Corruption campaign to have channeled this into a non violent, disciplined movement with a clear agenda.

While the fuel to run the agitation has accumulated over the years, the igniting spark came from the euphoria of India winning the cricket world cup in April. The events would have been so much different if India had not won the world cup. While all the previous events had added to the anger and frustration of the citizens, they bogged down our confidence and made the problem of corruption look invincible, a evil we must accept to live with and make a part of our lives, the victory at the world cup brought back the spirit of overcoming odds and confidence in our selves back. The very next day Anna started his first fast unto death to ask the government to listen to their view. The engine of the agitation started purring and in four days the government was on its knees.

Victory came as a shock to many people and the unexpected success of the old Gandhian tactics, called the grammar of anarchy by Dr. Ambedkar, made many uncomfortable. Many others smelled the coffee and went rushing to the drawing board to formalize their ideas about the Lokpal [@]. Team Anna grabbed all the lime light and their ego started inflating but not more than the arrogance of the elite we know all ministers in the government. After every meeting with the government the team would denounce the government at traitors and betrayers. This pricked the ego of many well educated ministers in the government and it was unbearable for them to not be in the driving seat while delivering a big reform. Efforts were on to limit the scope of lokpal to the minimum, and make cosmetic changes in the functioning of the government of India. When Anna announced second satyagrah to demand for a strong lokpal bill, people were in two minds. The government had no credibility to begin with, but team Anna was also seen as arrogant and obdurate.

The game changer was the arrest of Anna Hazare and his incarceration in Tihar jail. It was a blunder of monumental proportions on part of the government. It was so stupid that some congress MPs have written to Rahul Gandhi to order a probe into it and see if it was a deliberate attempt to help the agitation [@] . Anna and his team exploited the arrest to the fullest. Anna refused to come out of the jail until he is allowed to agitate unconditionally. The debate shifted from the lokpal to the rights of the citizens to protest. Nothing could have brought the people together than arresting an anti corruption crusader and making him share a roof with people accused of the biggest corruption scandals in our history. This all happened just a day after India celebrated its independence.  The symbolism of a Gandhian arrested by an autocratic government made sure that the battle is over, the government had lost.

The next few days were spent to create a political consensus around the demands of Anna team and to dress it up in a manner that is not against the spirit of the constitution. The question was not whether to accept the demands or not, the question was to do it in a manner that it does not become an unhealthy precedent in the democracy of India. The political parties which happily hid behind the government had to reluctantly agree to the demands of Anna Hazare. The government and Anna team showed remarkable maturity when it came to finding a solution. The hard negotiating positions of team Anna were soon dropped and a consensus was arrived at. The only card in the hand of the government was the deteriorating health of Anna. If anything were to happen, there were many people who were already accusing the team Anna of being indifferent to his health [@]. The government waited till it gave the government some leverage. The talks followed and a quick resolution was in sight.

The movement showed the ability of our democracy to give space to a million mutinies and large movements. It also shows how far along we have come and how ingrained our democracy is today, that undemocratic attitudes and ideas soon become unpopular. For any agitation to be successful, it must be within the space of ideas and methods defined by our constitution and the national movement. The agitation also displayed the amount of talent created by the political process in the country which can help organize a big protest in a peaceful manner and also help find resolutions acceptable to all sides. If it is true that whatever that does not kill you makes you stronger, India is a lot stronger nation because of these disruptive agitations which lead to political and administrative innovation.

This movement has pushed further the boundaries of our democracy. The goalposts of the lokpal bill have been set [@]. A citizens charter shall be in place in the lokpal bill. The states will follow the same template to have their own ombudsman. It would be politically hard for the government to stall the bill now. It is a lesson for the political class that if they dither too long on a reform, they may be compelled to have a reform far bigger in scope than they would like. The NAC has started looking into ways through which people can participate in the process of drafting legislation [@]. The movement has also thrown some open questions- should a representative of the people vote on a provision where the representative has a conflict of interest? Should an MP who also owns a mining company be voting on a law regulating the mining industry? Should MPs decide on legislating laws that seek to make them more accountable? While judges can recuse them selves in case of conflict of interest, can the representatives of the people do so? If not the MPs then whom?

The movement was often described of the middle class, by the middle class and for the middle class. It is true in some ways. A person belonging to the middle class had surrendered to the political class long ago. She rarely voted in an election and found ways and means to replace the government where ever possible. A multitude of private schools, colleges, hospitals and colonies, with private water and electricity supply and backups, have sprung up since then. Whenever she had to deal with the government she readily payed bribes to get her work done, though most of the bribes were harassment bribes [@]. The feeling of disgust towards the corrupt system was accompanied by the feeling of shame for being a part and promoter of it. This combined with the notion that only the saints have the right to question the wrongs in a society made corruption a part of life of the middle class. Anna Hazare came as a salvation. His rhetoric always focused on the government. His symbolism brought back the nostalgia of the days after independence, when the system was a lot cleaner and one dint have to give a bribe to get what they are entitled to. The middle class jumped into his fold to wash away all its sins and come out as a being rid of all its sins and wrong doings.

As with the movements before this one, this has given a fresh lease of life to the cherished ideals everyone wants to hold. Many people have started pushing against the harassment bribes to get what they are entitled to [@]. This time they are empowered with tools and rights to do so. Recently, a person conducted a sting operation to expose the middlemen who took bribe to ensure a person a seat in an engineering or medical college [@]. Right to Information (RTI) is being widely used to tackle corruption. An entrepreneur is already thinking of offering a service to fight harassment by the government through RTI [@]. The method of direct payments envisioned by the government will further reduce corruption[@]. Lokpal bill and the charter of rights of citizens will be a healthy addition to the arsenal of the common people to get their dues. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Incentives for Industrialization

India is transitioning from an agriculture based economy and livelihood to an industrial economy. Today, many villages of India lack basic infrastructure and means of employment generation needed to satisfy the growing the population and its aspirations. The agriculture accounts for less than a quarter of our GDP and yet ends up employing about two -thirds of our population. This statistic can explain the low incomes of many Indians and the huge rich poor divide in the nation. Given these facts one must think that the villages would embrace industry with open arms. Quite to the contrary, there are agitations from various corners of the country against  acquisition of land for industry.

Industry and industrialists are not very respectable words in the country side. There general perception of an industrialist is that of a greedy person who would not think twice before cheating the locals to make an extra buck. Rarely is an industry seen as a boon for the neighborhood. Even the respected industrial houses like Tata face the cynicism of the locals as in case of Singur. This is so in stark contrast to the perception of industries in the western world. The local governments rejoice on the news of industrial houses coming to their town. Why is there such a difference between the reactions of the two? Closer home, while the state governments vie with each other to lure the industries to their state, the local people see them as a bane. Why is there such a disconnect between the reaction of the two tiers of the government?

The answer lies in the incentives the state government and the local government have in attracting industry to their locale. Industries are usually set up in places, far off from urban centers, where the land is cheap and plenty, and also the land acquisition doesnt attract hordes of media persons. Land acquisition itself is a problematic issue as the landowners are not compensated properly. Farmers' land is usually branded as agricultural land which cannot be bought or sold very easily for put to any other use. This depresses the market price of land. At the time of acquisition the land status is changed to normal land and due to the interest shown by the industry the land prices shoot up. The farmers end up getting the price of land when it was an agricultural land and hence feel cheated. If they dont sell their land voluntarily, the state government acts to forcible take their land. A better land land acquisition bill is currently being discussed and it may bring the much needed relief and make the persons who sell land stakeholders in the industry being setup, with promised annual payments for the next 33 years. This will definitely make setting up industries more expensive but with less hassles and at a quicker pace.

This takes care of one aspect of the problem, but there is a lot more to it. The state governments love industries as they are a source of revenue for them through taxation. The middle classes are all for industries as they are the source for high paying jobs. This leaves out the landless people in the villages who had no land to sell but through the land acquisition they lost their livelihood of working in the fields. The local community and the local governments see industry as a new menace which will compete with them for water and other resources. The pollution from the industries is another headache for the locals. They see no upside from setting up of an industry which disrupts their style of living. While the state government coffers get full with taxes from these industrial units, the local government doesnt get a penny. The revenue from the industrial units is not shared with the local governments and they have little power to tax these industries. Thus there is little in terms of development of the neighborhood around the industrial units and too many problems for the locals to deal with. The government realizes this problem in at least in the area of mining.

Agitations against mining firms have taken a very violent turn. The Maoist groups feed on the resentment in locals against the mining industry and the government which almost connives with these industrialists to drive out the tribal people. To tackle the problem the government has proposed a new mining law which directs all the mining firms to share at least 26% of their profit with the locals. The hope is that it will improve the lives of the local people and subsequently reduce their opposition to mining in their area. This seems like a great idea except that it would be better to call it a tax on the the profits of mining firms which goes to the local community and it should be applied to all industries though at a more rational rate. This will ensure that the local people see the benefit of setting up industrial houses and be more welcoming to them. It is also high time that the local governments get enough authority and revenue to develop their township or village. Indian establishment remains a very centralized one with the central and state governments usurping all the authority. It is time to democratize and decentralize our governance further. Though many may argue that the local governments are inept and would not efficiently handle the revenue at their disposal, the state and central governments have done no better. We would need to invest more in the local governments to make them more efficient and ensure that they take the lead in urbanizing India just like in China. Standards and restrictions can be put on the way the money can be spent by local government but it is important to share the benefits of industrialization with the very communities that make sacrifices to accommodate them.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Banning large denomination currency notes

I just watched an interview of Swami Ramdev to NDTV. He had an incredible idea that we must ban notes of rupees 100, 500 and 1000. Before I could finish laughing at it, something did seem rational in the argument. His argument is that all shady deals are carried out with cash. Once large denomination currency notes are out of circulation, it would be very hard to make those deals under the table. Regarding the inconvenience to the public, he had a point that most of the poor anyways do not make use of such large denomination currency notes. While those who use such notes very frequently also do have a bank account along with a cheque book, credit and a debit card. Thus, all it would do is to make every financial deal leave a trace in the system. It does not seem a bad idea at all. May banning 100 rupee notes is too much but I do find some merit in banning 500 and 1000 rupee notes. Rather as a beneficial side effect the greater use of electronic cash will help bring down the cost of such transactions and make banking more accessible to the poor. It is an idea worth thinking about just as the one from Dr. Basu to tackle corruption by making giving a harassment bribe legal. Dont let the saffron robe color your opinion about the merit of the argument.

On the bench? Teach for India.

I have often come across the phrase 'on the bench', while interacting with friends from IT sector. The tech consultancy firms across the world and especially in India hire people well in advance so that they can start on a new project quickly without having to wait to hire more professionals. This often leads to a portion of the employees of a company to stay on the bench for a while. They draw a salary but do not have a project to work on. If this is a company strategy to pounce on new opportunities/ contracts quickly, then I am assuming that all times a fixed percentage say 2% of the work force of a tech consultancy is on the bench. (There are about 2.5 million professionals working in the IT sector in India.)

This resource can be put to good use in a variety of ways. One may suggest short training for the employees. Another idea may be to have a small vacation in that time or just take it slow for some period to compensate for the slogging period which shall inevitably come very soon. I propose that such talent should be used to help the education sector in the country. Professionals can go to various schools right from elementary school to engineering colleges and pitch in to narrow the large deficiency of teachers in almost every country. The innovative tech companies can come with an arrangement with schools across the country to have their professionals teach for a small duration a portion of a course in a place of their choice. This shall help the companies in the long run as the general quality of the work force betters and the academia is more in sync with the industry. Also the more direct benefit for the company is to spread its brand among the populace and practices in the academia so that the new hires are more comfortable in working there. It is good for the employees as they get a much needed break from work with a feeling of contributing to the community and following their likes. Also as a wise man once said that teaching is the best way to learn, it shall definitely hone the skills of the employees. What a better way to learn how to pitch ideas to the public than to teach school children and one woudl definitely have better tech skills after teaching engineering students. This is a win win for all.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Chinese Mirror: Pakistan and North Korea

At the end of the second world war, two of the Chinese neighbors experienced partition; North Korea and South Korea came into existence in 1945, India and Pakistan in 1947. While the former was just an administrative partition caused by deep distrust between the Soviet Union and the West, the latter was a commencement of the divide and rule policy of the British encouraged by the divide in the Indian society and the geopolitics of those times. After more than half a century, the two pair of nations have again started mirroring each other to some extent.

While the circus of Indian democracy finally found the magic mantra for economic development, Pakistan has been gradually spiraling into a rogue state which shall hold the world for ransom by using its twin strategy of nuclear blackmail and extremists ideology. As in case of North Korea, China is the all weather friend of Pakistan and may have been a great help in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. As in case of North Korea with respect to South Korea, the Pakistani establishment is largely and obsessively anti India. The trajectories of the two countries seem disturbingly similar. Will the events that took place in the Korean Peninsula repeat themselves again in the Subcontinent? 

If so, India has a lot to lose. The wild fires in the neighborhood will affect India sooner or later. Similar to North Korea, Pakistan is very close to becoming a proxy state for China to further its geopolitics. As India and China continue to grow, there will be a lot of points of disagreement and Pakistan shall come handy for China to pressurize India. As seen in the run up to the India specific waiver in the NSG, the dragon rarely shows its hand in the international arena unless it becomes inevitable. China has already started using the Kashmir dispute to gain a vantage point in its boundary negotiations with India. Pakistan is already acting as the outpost of Chinese military and navy. This trend shall increase in the future, as the west grows more impatient with Pakistan and imposes more conditions on aid. As it has happened in many African nations with despotic regimes, Pakistan government will find Chinese aid much more attractive and would readily lease a part of its sovereignty to its all weather ally.

In the larger geopolitical game for the control of international trade and natural resources, Pakistan will become a more willing pawn of the Chinese foreign policy to counter the moves of India. It would be a very scary situation for India to have a North Korea like administration in Pakistan. To prevent this scenario, India must do all it can to better its relations with Pakistan before it is too late. India must not hand over the remote control for its talks with Pakistan to extremists across the border, who have every reason to hinder the talks. Above all, India should not shy away from discussing the issue of Kashmir with Pakistan. The Kashmir issue not only provokes much of anti India sentiment in Pakistan, it also makes the Indian government to stand as a silent spectator watching with fear the democratic revolutions unfolding in the middle east.

If the Chinese mirror does show us the future, it is more important than ever for India to settle its issues with Pakistan, and help see it growing as an independent, democratic and prosperous nation.

PS: Thanks to a friend for editing