Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Present regime... as part of the problem"

Again I'm putting  up a posting inspired by a comment on  my previous one. This is my third article on corruption and I expect there will be more, since few issues are more fascinating or more relevant in India today.

The comment was from Cheeta, who wrote among other things:

"The entire system has been hijacked at the top by bandits, whose only morality is self-gain and whose only aim is to take more and yet more. We not only allowed these criminals to gain power but rewarded them with both high office and adulation. That's what really, really needs to be addressed: cleansing the system of these modern-day dakoos and recovering the loot. Alas, the present regime is not up to it. They're right there as part of the problem; not any portion of the solution."

Let's set this view off against my last two postings, wherein I argued that corruption is a participatory phenomenon on which all categories of the powerful conspire in various ways to preserve their power. In this connection I also pointed out that upper-middle-class views about corruption tend to sound distanced  and helpless while in reality we are well-connected and privileged and we benefit, as a class, from corruption.

Now what I see in the above comment is a distanced write-off of the UPA government in India, and possibly, by implication, any other government that might be made up of similar people (this would include, say, a BJP-led government) and  indeed the entire Indian political class. I would like to argue that such writing-off is not borne out by facts on the ground. Precisely in its "distancing" tone, such comments (which I hear on a daily basis) mistake the complex interplay of multiple forces carrying India into the future for a simple, linear narrative of greed and generic evil.

It would be hard to write a nuanced (and ultimately partial) defense of the present political class of India without taking a few hundred or a few thousand pages. So I'll try to  make my basic case in a few  relatively short points and leave the rest for further discussion.

1. Everyone agrees that development is what India needs. However the objective reality of India's vast size and diversity means that what constitutes development is itself open to enormous debate. Do we need large dams to irrigate farmland, or do we need to preserve the dwellings and livelihoods of people who --  after all -- are our own fellow citizens? Do we need rapid urbanisation or greater rural  infrastructure? Do we need governmental control or privatisation? Is primary education more important or higher education? Within higher education should one emphasise universities or vocational courses?

The simple answers to the questions above are, in each case, "all of the above". But these are also the simplistic answers. How do we prioritise? Is it possible for a single right-thinking citizen like myself (or Cheeta) to prescribe the correct choices? Or does it take a combination of expert inputs, as well as pressure from different groups with competing interests? I believe it's certainly the latter. The UPA government has done a fair job in getting expert inputs and many of its leaders are impressive, scholarly folk who certainly know a lot more than I do about governance: P.Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh and Prithviraj Chavan come to mind. How well the Prime Minister has handled the pressures of electoral politics is surely open to some debate -- however, I don't think that e.g. walking out of the coalition with DMK when the Raja issue started to surface was the "obviously best" choice, as people keep saying nowadays. A collapse of government would have an economic cost. How many percentage points of our economic growth should we be willing to sacrifice for such a noble act? I don't know the answer but it's not simple, and clearly the rich have the maximum luxury of contemplating this possibility without personal cost.

2. Despite everything, India is an emerging and powerful global presence and  a lot of poor people are moving daily into a better standard of living. This is thanks to ALL factors involved: the business community, professionals and academics, farmers, labourers, the judiciary, bureaucrats and politicians... The fact that such an incredible diverse "team" could pull together over a long time is a miracle. Truly inept governance could have easily collapsed the understanding that makes all Indians -- on average -- work for India. That this isn't happening is remarkable when  you consider that so many other countries are today on the brink of revolution/civil war/regime change (with devastating  consequences for growth at least  in the near term). I don't see why the Indian political class shouldn't get some credit for this stability.

Yes it's true that one shouldn't be given special credit for doing what one is supposed to do. But  keep in mind that an important component  of politics in most countries -- the highly educated class -- has in post-independence India largely seceded from politics. Politics is not a career they would themselves embark on or wish on  their children. Indeed, far from working for India, the children of the most highly educated Indians simply migrate overseas. When an entire empowered class declines to shoulder any part of the burden of running the country, we ought to appreciate the people who are actually doing it.

3. A very specific point. The single most powerful blow against corruption in India today has not come from hand-wringing or even from an intelligent suggestion by middle-class people. It came from Sonia Gandhi's pet project of implementing the Right to Information act. We may remind ourselves what a landmark this has been by reading Price-Waterhouse Coopers' study on the RTI act, circa 2009. The Executive Summary is quite compact and well worth a read.

The Wikipedia entry on the RTI act also contains some useful historical background. Among other things it recalls that in the previous NDA-sponsored Freedom of Information Act, "there were no penalties for not complying with a request for information." So today's rigorous implementation of the act, which is seriously working, is entirely to the credit of the present government. You can read here about how the Adarsh and other housing  scams were uncovered using this act.

In the RTI process some corrupt Congress politicians and allies have come out deservedly bloodied. Yet the government continutes to support the act, and the affected persons (Ashok Chavan onwards) have been sacked. Hardly the action of "bandits, whose only morality is self-gain".

For lack of space and expertise I won't discuss the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the National Knowledge Commission and the Unique Identification Authority of India.

I don't deny, of course, that everything could be better. Equally, it could all be worse.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Impact versus morality

To Rahul and Neelima, thanks for raising a key point in your comments to my previous posting Ruining the land and thereby provoking this new posting.

The question essentially was: "is it as bad to give Rs 20 to a cop for `chai-paani' (a bribe) as to loot crores of rupees?" Indeed the two are not comparable in their impact on the nation. But if you're talking of impact, consider a different comparison. Economics not being a conservative system (in the physics sense) it is possible hypothetically for a person/government to loot crores and still deliver more to the country in terms of real benefits (health, employment, infrastructure, stable economy) than someone else who is scrupulously honest but -- out of either incompetence or apathy -- fails to carry out any development, thereby condemning the poor to a short and miserable life. So if the impact of corruption, rather than absolute morality, is the question, some of the crore-makers might have a defense. The question would become not: "did you loot crores?" but: "did you loot crores and still fail to deliver?". If you think about it, much of the buzz about the Commonwealth Games had this tone to it, since the organisers were perceived to be guilty of precisely the latter sin.

I'm deeply uncomfortable with such a morally relativist view, but I put it forward because it deserves discussion and because the poor have good reason to be less uncomfortable about it. In fact the upper and even middle class have the luxury to say "no corruption, even if that means no development" because that proportionately hurts them less than the most vulnerable sections.

If instead the discussion is about morality, then the monetary extent or impact of one's corruption does not matter so much. The question to determine the degree of corruption would now be on the lines of "if you are corrupt, did you actively seek to become so or did you merely give in to the opportunities for corruption available to you?". And here I believe most people actually do not seek to be corrupt, but at the same time most people who find themselves in a corrupt society tend to participate in the game without much reflection on rights and wrongs. A frighteningly large proportion of people I know (including young people) feel it's OK to fudge a travel claim or medical claim and pocket a few hundreds of rupees in cash. If the same people are put into a ministry, would they not pocket a few crores using the same philosophy?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ruining the land

The Kinks, a highly underrated British rock band, came out with a song called "Money and Corruption" in 1973, whose chorus goes as follows:

"Money and Corruption
Are ruining the land
Crooked politicians
Betray the working man,
Pocketing the profits
And treating us like sheep,
And we're tired of hearing promises
That we know they'll never keep."

The bandleader and composer of this song, Ray Davies, had not to my knowledge ever been to India. So it's safe to assume this song was written in reference to his own country. But now the lyrics appear  to have been written specifically for India circa 2010-11.

For several months now, the middle-class in this country is in a tizzy about corruption and can't stop talking about it. With good reason apparently, for corruption is shameful, and it's obviously quite degrading to find one's entire country indulging in it. But after sitting through months of newspapers articles and coffee-table chat about the recent cases of corruption in India, I find myself more and more skeptical of the received wisdom, and would like to describe my skepticism here.

Richard Feynman once said: "You can know the name of [a] bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird." I  think it's the same with corruption. When you read different people's comments about it, you learn little about corruption but a lot about the people.

What I've been hearing from various friends, relatives and colleagues, and what I'm reading in  the newspapers, purports to show we are all disgusted, and outraged, and shocked. But when I listen carefully to the words of the people in question (mostly Upper Middle Class) I find, behind the outrage, clear evidence of a guilty conscience. Virtually everyone in this class is a direct beneficiary of corruption in the form of black money (even though a Malabar Hill lady once assured me it was the paan-wallas who had all the black money!). Now this is basically tax money stolen from the government of India -- and the common excuse that "politicians would steal that money anyway" really amounts to a confession. The total amount of black money is estimated at up to  50 percent of GDP, which -- I assume -- makes the 2G spectrum scam look like a picnic in the woods.

The same class is also guilty of small and large actions that they undertake regularly and consciously to maintain their privileged position  in society -- namely, bribing police and other officials. The excuse is that such corruption is necessary "to get things done". Since I have a fine-tuned antenna that warns me when I'm listening to humbug, I generally ask the following series of questions when a concrete incident comes up: "Were you actually asked for a bribe?", "If yes, did you try telling the official you don't pay bribes?", and "Was the bribe for something that the official was legally obliged to do anyway or for something illegal that you wanted the official to do especially for you?". The variety of responses is fascinating, but most often the respondent turns hostile and changes the subject to "That's how things are done around here" and "you don't know about the real world".

The two characteristics I get from  this are: (i) distancing: "Corruption is a fact of life, I don't actively participate in it", (ii) helplessness: "I can't do anything but comply with corrupt people, see how vulnerable and disempowered I am/we are". This is fascinating because we are not talking about tribals in Bastar but owners of companies in Bombay, or journalists at NDTV, or -- dare I say it -- scientists at TIFR. "Distanced and helpless", rather than "connected and privileged"? Sure!

Each one has apparently excellent reasons for putting  up these excuses, and in the end each one ends up blaming  the one class of people we all rarely meet: politicians. Now due to the sheer weight of numbers, politicians in India are mostly elected by the poor. So the logical conclusion of this tirade against corruption appears to be that people in Malabar Hill are ultimately threatened and exploited by villagers and tribals (and paan-wallas). No one is foolish enough to say this, except the lady I referred to above. This Upper Middle Class world-view is so patently silly that it's only conveyed by winks and nudges.

Readers of this blog will point out that I appear to have missed the central issue. Not everyone is UMC, and surely common people (truly middle class, or working class, and truly not connected) do suffer because our politicians are in fact corrupt? Of course they do, and of course they are. But take a look at the standard newspapers and tell me how much space they devote to actual problems faced by (i) common people e.g. a labourer who wants to register a police complaint or get a document, (ii) government officials e.g. a young man or woman who would like to enrol in the police force but must pay a bribe for this and therefore is committed to travel down the slippery slope of corruption at the very outset.

Such stories and others like these might at least get us started on a serious discussion, involving questioning of the myriad methods that the powerful in every society use to maintain their power. Instead of the chest-thumping stuff that conveniently distances the speaker so that corruption is always someone else's fault.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Palace Towers over Terminus

Yesterday and today there were protests by Colaba traders whose shops are located behind the Taj Hotel in Bombay. The lane there has been shut, for the most part, since Obama's visit here nearly three months ago. Security concerns, specifically a terrorist threat to the Taj, have been cited -- on New Year, Republic Day, and almost every other day since early November. The traders were suffering disastrous business losses due to the closure of this lane.

As I was happy to note this morning, the lane (which I can see from my living room window) has now been opened. But at the same time Police Commissioner  Sanjeev Dayal has publicly advised the shopkeepers to "look beyond profits"! Certainly if anyone profited from this closure it's been the Taj, whose visitors have had a lot of space to park their cars. Basement parking at the Taj was closed following an earlier bomb attack in front of the Gateway of India and there doesn't seem to be any plan to reopen it.

Now it's true that the Taj suffered casualties, along with the Trident Hotel across on the other seafront, during the 26/11/2008 terrorist attacks, so one cannot be too complacent about a terrorist threat. But I just now thought to check out the numbers, and  was surprised. According to this website, 31 people were killed at the Taj and 30 at the Trident. But another 58 persons - almost equal to the sum of the previous two numbers - were killed at CST station. Today there is massive security at the Taj, modest security at the Trident and (for all practical purposes) none whatsoever at CST. The hierarchy is worthy of note.

Over the last two years there's been a trend of VHPP's (Very High Profile People) insisting on staying at the Taj apparently to "express their solidarity". Besides Obama, the list includes former White House residents George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton. Not to mention the President of France (that short guy, I forget his name) and his attractive wife  Carla.

In fact the trend to stay there started even before 2008. This puzzles me because there was a time - during my childhood - when all visiting heads of state would be put up at Raj Bhavan, the Governor's residence with a spectacular private beach and helipad in a classy Malabar Hill location. Why did everyone stop staying there and decide to risk the ugly decor, indifferent food and atrocious Husain mural at the Taj? I'm not sure when it started, but now it's an epidemic.

With all these visitors as well as the threats we keep hearing about, roads in these parts get closed all the time (for the Obamas it was nearly three full days, starting well before their arrival). So it's hardly surprising that Colaba residents and shopkeepers are tired of it. For now, the latter seem to have won the day. But the Police Commissioner's absurd request to them to sacrifice their profits for an elite hotel - that wouldn't let most of them in - leads me to worry that the barricades will soon go up again and privatisation of the road will resume.