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Showing posts with label government. Show all posts
Showing posts with label government. Show all posts

Monday, December 17, 2012

Advocacy of interest or corporate bribery?

"...to secure the public interest, it is vital that the government shine a light on the power brokerages and influences peddlers in Delhi and other states."

Though the BJP's noisemakers may not appreciate it, through their hysterical outbursts against Wal-Mart, they may have unwittingly sponsored a major reform in pursuit of good governance. In its misbegotten campaign against the American firm, the BJP threatened to disrupt Parliament again, as it has done repeatedly for the past nine years. This prompted Parliamentary Affairs minister Kamal Nath to agree to a public inquiry into the company’s lobbying activities in India. Though a spectacularly ignorant BJP spokesman suggested that the minister’s assent to an inquiry proved their point, the truth is that the UPA’s quick response saved the day and it appears that much overdue legislation will now be enacted.

The BJP’s empty-vessel strategy to corner the government on lobbying by Wal-Mart boomeranged in Parliament because of Mr Nath’s finesse. Reports say the government will appoint a retired judge to conduct the inquiry. Most likely, the exercise will stretch out and will hold no more sensation value; the BJP will find some other dubious platform from which to rant against the UPA government. As such, the inquiry will join the long list of commissions that have provided not much more than sinecures for superannuated law officers.

On the other hand, the government could actually use the inquiry to clean up the murk that surrounds lobbying in India. To secure the public interest, it is vital that the government shine a light on power brokerages and influence peddlers in Delhi and in the various states.

A thoughtful judge at the helm of the inquiry might recommend the establishment of a Parliamentary registry that provides credentials to lobbyists, individual as well as firms. In accepting such credentials, lobbyists would be required to disclose their clients and fees received. The registry could go a step further and demand from various government ministries, departments and agencies periodic reports on any contacts they may have had with lobbyists.

Recommendations of this nature could bring much needed transparency to the conduct of public affairs; you won’t have a BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting bribes or a DMK minister A Raja playing fast and loose with the allocation of telecom spectrum. A whole horde of middlemen, the kind you see at power lunches in The Taj or cocktail parties at The Oberoi, will stand exposed. The business of lobbying could become professional and cleansed of the stain of corruption.

Lobbying is a time-honored practice that dates at least as far back as the signing of the Magna Carta in 13th-century England, from whence sprang the right of association and the right to petition authority, the cornerstones of the lobbying profession.

Closer to home and to the age, lobbying has had many beneficial outcomes. These include campaigns for universal primary education, against sex trafficking, to lower taxes on toiletries and cosmetics, to amend laws governing the business of financial services, courier firms and cable operators, among others. They have been successful and have benefited the public interest as much as the interests of those who sponsored them.

This article appeared in Hindustan Times on December 16, 2012.

Friday, July 6, 2012

‘I’ve maintained high standard of integrity in my conduct’

PM Manmohan Singh tells HT that never before have so many steps been taken in such a short time to bring in transparency. Here’s the full text of his written replies to an HT questionnaire.

On economy: We will bring clarity on all tax matters. We want the world to know that India treats everyone fairly and reasonably and there will be no arbitrariness in tax matters.
On charges of corruption: ...Bills such as Whistleblowers Bill, Lokpal Bill, Judicial Accountability Bill etc, which if taken in totality, will raise the standards of integrity at all levels of government.

On his legacy: I have tried sincerely throughout my life to make India a better place to live and work in ...We have an unfinished agenda. I will leave it to history to judge whether I was successful.
Q1. How do you see the economic situation today and why have we come to this pass?

We are certainly passing through challenging times economically. This did not happen overnight. A lot of it was due to developments in the global economy. The developments in the Eurozone have been a major dampener of global economic sentiment, till the Eurozone leaders hammered out an agreement a few days ago. Europe is the most important destination for our exports and any turbulence there will certainly affect sentiment here. We then had the oil price rise. For a country which imports nearly 80% of its oil, this badly hurt our trade balance. In fact, a major portion of our trade deficit is accounted for by oil imports. There were domestic factors as well.


Q2. What are the top five challenges to the economy in the year ahead?


The India Growth Story is intact. We will continue to work, as we have been doing for 8 years, to keep the story going. Measures which I intend to focus on, in the short run, are:
  • Bring complete clarity on all tax matters. We want the world to know that India treats everyone fairly and reasonably and there will be no arbitrariness in tax matters.
  • Control the fiscal deficit through a series of measures which my officials are working on and on which we will build consensus in the government.
  • Revive the Mutual Fund and Insurance industries which have seen a downturn. Absence of investment avenues has pushed Indian savings into gold. We need to open new doors so that savings can be recycled into productive investments that create jobs and growth, not into gold.
  • Clear major investments in the pipeline awaiting FIPB approval. Investors should feel that we mean business. We will also work towards improving the response time of government to business proposals, cut down infructous procedures and make India a more business friendly place.
  • Most importantly, we have given a major push to infrastructure, particularly through PPP. A lot of investment avenues are opening up in Railways, roads, ports and civil aviation. The doors are open for the world to strengthen our hands and contribute to these vital sectors which will give a further push to the economy.
Q3. How do you see coming elections in the states and the Centre affecting policies? How do you guard against populist measures, given the size of the deficit?


I am largely satisfied about the way we have progressed over the last 20 years. The fact that governments have changed many times in between but economic policies have continued means that the direction that has been set is seen to be the correct one by all parties. That is a source of satisfaction also.


However, there are a few issues that come quickly to mind when it comes to what else needs to happen. Firstly, we have yet to settle down to a stable institutional framework to manage an open economy. Our institutions are still evolving and it will take time till we see mature institutions in all sectors as we see them in advanced economies.


Secondly, the logic of an open economy and its benefits are still not widely understood among the general public. Public discourse still sees markets as anti-public welfare. The instinctive reactions of many, both in the political class and in the public at large, is to revert to a state controlled system. There is no realisation that a reversal to an earlier era is neither possible nor desirable. Even a neighbour like China has understood the logic of an open economy and is developing the institutional framework which is required for this. It is necessary that we change the discourse from a critique of an open economy to a critique of what is needed to make an open economy work better for the welfare of the people.


Lastly, there is the issue of distribution. We have lifted millions out of poverty. But, I worry that the fruits of an open economy will be increasingly captured by fewer people. I worry that a large segment of our population will be left out of the benefits of economic growth. We need to correct that fast.


Q4. Foreign investors have been rattled by events such as the tax row with Vodafone. How do you intend to set their minds at rest?


The investor community had concerns on some tax matters. The finance ministry, over the last three months, has been issuing clarifications and working with the investor community to bring greater clarity on the matter. However, there has been a slowing down of capital flows which normally would have covered the current account deficit.


That does not mean things have turned very bad. Coca Cola has announced to invest $ 5 bn in India just a few days ago. IKEA plans to invest a billion dollars. The pessimism in the media and the markets is far more than reality. Consumer spend is holding up and this has not been affected by interest rates. The Chairman of GE captured the picture correctly when he said "the mood in the market is worse than the mood on the ground". I agree with that.


Q5. There is also a perception of drift, of policy paralysis. You have used the term “coalition compulsions” is this the main factor? How do you dispel the impression of drift? Do you intend to communicate more often with the nation?

I think it is a matter of perception. We worked under far greater constraints under UPA 1. However, there were a lot of things which had been done under the previous government which we had to undo. We had to bring a healing touch to the nation, make minorities feel secure and included, and give emphasis to the needs of the common man who had moved to the background in the Shining India of the NDA rule.


The biggest achievements of UPA 1 were the healing touch which we managed to bring in and the focus on inclusive growth. We did this with widespread support across the spectrum of parties supporting us.


But difficulties existed then as they do now. Parties are entitled to their differences then and now. There were differences on the US Nuclear deal and there are going to be some differences now also. I do not think that the political landscape is radically different now as compared to 3 years ago. What has changed is public expectation. Now that the immediate problems caused by the NDA government have receded into the background, other issues are coming to the fore. This is but natural. That is the way of democracy.


As for speed, look at the way we responded to the 2008 crisis. We rolled out a stimulus package which ensured that we came out of its effects rapidly. We are passing through a similarly challenging situation and I am confident, we will roll out measures to restore economic growth once again.


Q6. In your role as finance minister what do you see as the roadmap for key pending reforms such as pensions, insurance and banking reform, the goods and services tax and the direct taxes code?


Firstly, legislation is not the bottleneck to economic growth. Barring an issue here and there, most economic steps that need to be taken do not need legislative action.


More important is that we need political consensus in the government on some policies. These are genuine differences in opinion. So, in a democracy, consensus building is the key to long term economic success and we are steadily moving ahead in doing that.


Q7. Can we expect some of the young ministers of state becoming cabinet ministers soon?


You have to wait for a while for that question to be answered.


Q8. When will you go to Pakistan? What are the ideal circumstances that would make such a visit possible?


I am looking forward to visiting Pakistan. No dates have been finalised for the visit. As you know there have to be suitable outcomes for such a visit.


Q9. How do you react to charges of corruption during your Prime Ministership?


Never before in the history of India have so many steps been taken in such a short time to bring in transparency into the functioning government, make government accountable to the people for its actions and bring in measures to control corruption. The Right to Information is a landmark Act for which the Congress Party and its President will be remembered for generations. In fact, this single act has done far more to bring down corruption and bring in accountability than any other measure. It is the information flowing out as a result of this Act which is bringing a lot of corruption to light which would otherwise have been hidden.


We have introduced a Public Procurement Bill which brings in far greater transparency into government procurement and severe deterrents for wrongdoing. This would remove a major source of corruption.


A number of other bills are there such as the Whistleblowers Bill, the Lokpal Bill, the Judicial Accountability Bill, etc. which if taken in totality, will raise the standards of integrity at all levels of government.


Coming to the personal criticism, not only have I maintained a high standard of integrity in my conduct, I have endeavoured to raise the levels in the system as well. All these measures are a reflection of our party’s will to tackle corruption. As for criticism by media, that is their job and I compliment them for doing it effectively.


My only request to them is to exercise some balance and retain a sense of proportion in their coverage of issues. Just as the pessimism over the economy is more in the markets and less on the ground, even in the case of corruption, I do not think there has been any explosion in corruption under my watch.


Q10. What is that one thing that you would like to be remembered for?


I have tried sincerely throughout my life to make India a better place to live, work and lead a fulfiling life. In some ways, I contributed to this as a Finance Minister. As Prime Minister, I have had a larger remit. I have worked on the same lines but on a larger platform. We have tried to build a peaceful, harmonious, secure, friendly, prosperous India where every citizen can aspire for the best in life. We have an unfinished agenda. I will leave it to history to judge whether I was successful.


This Interview appeared in Hindustan Times on July 08, 2012.
I've maintained high standard of integrity in my conduct'

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Power, Not Principles

Anti-Congressism is the common plank of those motivated by short-term political gain.


Peeling the onion of political ideology in India is an assault on reason. You have Hindutva rabble-rousers who held sway from 1998 to 2004. Then there is the intellectually bankrupt Left that met its Waterloo on the India-US strategic partnership agreement. Sitting on opposition benches, their one-point agenda is to defeat – which is difficult – or cause problems – which is easy – for the Congress. It is a matter of wonder how closely these two so-called inimical forces, the BJP and the Left, have combined time and again to oppose the Congress for short term political gain. 

There are also 1960s-style anarchic groups that include the Anna Hazare autocratic clique and Mamata Banerjee’s socially and intellectually challenged Trinamool Congress. Plunk into the mix the personality cults of Mayawati; the dynastic set-up of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Karunanidhi and Naveen Patnaik; the slippery appeal of Jayalalithaa and the holier-than-thou stance of Nitish Kumar. These are mercenary formations that will sway whichever way the wind blows, depending on the political advantage they can derive. 

It is not clear what any of these groups stand for except opposition to the Congress. In 1974, the great anarch Jayaprakash Narayan talked of “total revolution” and called on the army to revolt against the Indira Gandhi government; today Anna has subverted his fight against corruption into an anti-Congress political movement. Talk about deja vu. 

The foolishness of the Anna band of civil society buccaneers was exposed when the moving spirit, Arvind Kejriwal, was forced to issue a statement that they are not anti-Congress. Earlier, when cornered by thinking people on a television show, he said that India’s muchadmired parliamentary democracy is a fraud. Such increasingly shrill utterances suggest he is completely out of depth on the national stage. 

Meanwhile, BJP leader L K Advani led a rath yatra against money in Swiss banks in a nonetoo-subtle bid to cash in on Anna’s storm in a teacup against corruption. Of classic RSS vintage, he believes no one remembers his other 1990 Ram temple effort which led to communal riots. So where is the “glorious” temple he promised? He served as home minister and deputy prime minister for the six years the BJP-led coalition was in power. Advani’s confusion was complete when he went to Karachi and lauded Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a secular leader. 

There are many ideological fig leafs that political formations wear in their relentless grasp for power: socialism, casteism, social justice, identity, chauvinism, Hinduism. Scratch the surface and it all turns out to be an anti-Congress position. As such, political analysis in India is best conducted on a dyadic presumption: there is the Congress and there is everyone else. 

So let’s look at the Congress record. It has been the default option for the electorate. In the past quarter century, it suffered seminal defeats in the elections of 1989 and 1996. In each case, it was voted out of power on allegations of corruption. Each time, a coalition of parties was hastily put together that stood for nothing except opposition to the Congress. In both those defeats, any objective analyst could conclude the Congress lost because its governments undertook significant reforms that hurt the status quo. 

In 1989, an agglomeration of forces came together to restore the status quo of inequity and discrimination that Rajiv Gandhi had challenged. The motley crew of political parties that formed the opposition put together a makeshift government that did not last the full term; nor did they pursue the charges of corruption that brought them to power. 

In the ensuing decade, the BJP’s unbridled appeal to communalism brought it to power: first, for 13 days in 1996; then in two desperate coalitions in 1998 and 1999. The saffron dispensation lasted until 2004 and was then showed the door because of its misplaced nationalism that saw India conduct nuclear tests that were replayed tit-for-tat by Pakistan and because of its insensitive “India Shining” hype. 

Since then, the Congress has held sway. The key difference is the Congress’s approach to social harmony and economic development: the phrase “inclusive development” was introduced to the political vocabulary. In the interim, India, warts and all, grew to be a big player in the global dialogue. Most important, economic growth was accompanied by the largest-ever reduction in poverty. Today, thanks largely to the growth of the middle class, the Indian voice is heard in world forums. 

Unmindful of these achievements, the anti-Congress brigade has spread several falsehoods: the prime minister is opposed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi; Manmohan Singh is weak; Sonia is the real power. 

The truth is different: both Singh and Sonia are on the same page as they have always been. There has been in the history of the Congress no better combination. The former pushes reform in foreign and economic policy; the latter is the conscience to ensure there is a local sensitivity to these reforms. That is the operational definition of “inclusive growth”. 

It’s ironic that the anti-Congress formations should denigrate both leaders. Singh is a highly respected economist who forsook academic achievement to serve the country first as a bureaucrat, then as finance minister and prime minister. Sonia, who adopted this country as her home, foreswore the office of prime minister in 2004 and became the conscience of the government. 

The writer is a public affairs commentator.













Left and Right against the Centre


This article appeared in The Times of India on January 10, 2012.



Link:
http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Default/Scripting/ArticleWin.asp?From=Archive&Source=Page&Skin=TOINEW&BaseHref=CAP/2012/01/10&PageLabel=14&EntityId=Ar01400&ViewMode=HTML

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

India at the limits


Command-and-control system failure



 

If you ever needed evidence that socialist ideology, political populism and the utter lack of governance holds India to ransom, all you have to do is to study the power crisis gripping India. For the past several weeks, the country has reeled from outages that last so long that they have become the norm; the few hours that power is available are the unusual occurrence. The gap between supply and demand is thought to be in excess of 15 percent on the average: ranging for zero in the case of Lutyens Delhi, home of the ruling class, to more than 50 percent in rural areas.



India’s power crisis bears examination because it highlights the sheer inability of the public sector edifice to meet the demands of a rapidly growing economy.



Let’s start at the source. The predominant fuel used in power generation is coal. The mining of the material is in the hands of a government monopoly, Coal India Limited, widely regarded as inept and corrupt. Faced with demands for increased production, the company actually told the coal ministry it is lowering its production target for 2011-12 by four million tons. Most analysts believe when March 2012 comes rolling around, the company will report a much bigger shortfall. In the first half of the year, ended September, Coal India fell short by 20 million tons.



Among other fuels, the government has been unable to secure assured supplies of natural gas or alternative fuels to mitigate the coal deficit.



Power generation is also largely a government monopoly run by similarly inept and corrupt public sector companies. Despite grandiose plans to increase power generation, the government achieved only 50 percent of its targets in the 20 years ending 2012. A Planning Commission official was quoted as saying that if the power ministry had succeeded in meeting its targets, the coal shortages would have been worse.



One of the key risks in the generation of power is environmental pollution. The agency in charge of ensuring that the risk is mitigated is the ministry of environment and forests, which in recent years has become a hotbed of populism. The ministry, in 2009, announced a ban on mining in forests and tribal areas. It also opposed hydroelectric projects in various parts of the country. Its views on nuclear power are also skeptical, led by fears of accidents.



Beyond that, because power supply is a concurrent subject, state governments are in charge of the distribution of power to citizens. Mostly, provincial governments supply electricity through state electricity boards (SEBs). Again, corrupt and inept, the utilities are bankrupt entities. A 2001 Planning Commission report on the working of these utilities says, “It may be noted that the information provided in the report is not always based on audited reports of the SEBs as the accounts of many SEBs are audited with a considerable time lag.”



In certain cities like Bombay and Ahmedabad, where the generation, transmission and distribution of power in the hands of private companies, the costs of power are higher but the supply is reliable. I have lived in both cities and thereafter in the US, so my first experience of a power cut was in Delhi. Things improved dramatically in the capital after 1998 when the Sheila Dikshit government privatized power distribution. Just the drastic reduction in the huge (nearly 50 percent) “transmission and distribution” losses (theft) made more power available.



India’s power conundrum provides a snapshot of the challenges policymakers faces as they try to cope with the demands of a new India. The Socialist command-and-control system simply does not work. As its hold diminished, businessmen and entrepreneurs showed that without the dead hand of government bearing down on the economy, they could work wonders.



But what the noted German social psychologist Erich Fromm called the  “freedom from” moment has passed; the “freedom to” moment of the modern economy calls for bold political leadership such as greater, crony-free privatization; it demands better-trained, more responsive and transparent government agencies.



Most of all, the burden has to be shared by citizens themselves. This is not an area of focus in public debate. It’s not just politicians and bureaucrats that are responsible for taking India forward; citizens cannot absolve themselves from the responsibility of the “freedom to” opportunity.



Here’s what I mean: on a recent flight, as the plane landed and the seat belt signs went off, I was buffeted by a rush from behind as some passengers dashed for the doorway, hoping to disembark first. There was absolutely no reason to do this because in the end we were all going in the same bus and we would arrive at the terminal at the same time.



My conclusion was that these men and women who sought to push their way up front were so focused on their personal agendas that they forgot their civic sense. If passengers disembark row by row, things get done in a much smoother and more pleasant way.



It’s the same for the traffic on the roads, though the consequences there are far more dangerous. This extends to paying taxes, avoiding bribes, evade building codes,  littering, urinating in public and all the “me-first, devil-take-the-hindmost” attitudes that make it so hard to be a citizen in India and make the public space into such a disagreeable environment.



An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, November 2011.





Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Friday, November 4, 2011

Rajiv Desai: Command-and-control system failure

If you ever needed evidence that socialist ideology, political populism and the utter lack of governance holds India to ransom, all you have to do is study the electric power crisis currently gripping India. For the past several weeks, the country has reeled from outages that last so long that they have become the norm; the few hours that electricity is available are the unusual occurrence. The gap between supply and demand is thought to be in excess of 15 percent on the average: ranging from zero in the case of Lutyens Delhi, which houses the ruling class, to more than 50 percent in rural areas.
India’s power crisis bears examination because it highlights the sheer inability of the public sector edifice to meet the demands of a rapidly growing economy. 
Let’s start at the source. The predominant fuel used in power generation is coal. The mining of this raw material is in the hands of a government monopoly, Coal India Ltd, widely regarded as inept and corrupt. Faced with rising demand for increased production, the company actually told the coal ministry that it is lowering its production target for 2011-12 by 4 million tonnes. Most analysts beli-eve when March 2012 comes rolling around, the company will report a much bigger shortfall. In the first half of the year, ended September, Coal India’s output fell short by 20 million tonnes. Simulta-neously, the government has been unable to secure assured supplies of natural gas or alternative fuels to mitigate the coal deficit.
Power generation is also largely a government monopoly run by similarly inept and corrupt public sector companies. Despite grandiose plans to increase power generation, the government will achieve only 50 percent of its target of the 20 years ending 2012. According to a Planning Commission official, if the power ministry had succeeded in meeting its targets, coal shortages would have been worse.
One of the risks of coal-driven power generation is environmental pollution. The agency in charge of ensuring this risk is mitigated, is the Union ministry of environment and forests, which in recent years has become a hotbed of populism. In 2009, the ministry announced a ban on all mining in forests and tribal areas. It also opposed hydroele-ctric projects in several parts of the country. Its views on nuclear power are also skeptical, led by fears of accidents.
Beyond that, because power supply is a concurrent subject, state governments are in charge of distribution to citizens. They supply electricity through state electricity boards (SEBs). Again, corrupt and inefficient, these utilities are mostly bankrupt entities. A 2001 Planning Commission report on the performance of these utilities says, “It may be noted that the information provided in the report is not always based on audited reports of the SEBs, as the accounts of many SEBs are audited with a considerable time lag.”
In several cities such as Mumbai and Ahmedabad, where the generation, trans-mission and distribution of power is in the hands of private companies, the cost of electricity is higher but the supply is reliable. I have lived in both cities and thereafter in the US, so my first experience of a power cut was in Delhi. Things improved dramatically in the capital after 1998, when the Sheila Dikshit government privatised power distribution. Just a drastic reduction in the huge (nearly 50 percent) “transmission and distribution” losses (theft) made more power available. 
India’s power conundrum provides a snapshot of the challenges policymakers face as they try to cope with the demands of a new India. The socialist command-and-control system simply does not work. As its hold diminished, businessmen and entrepreneurs have shown that without the dead hand of government bearing down on the economy, they can work wonders. 
But what the noted german social psychologist Erich Fromm called the “freedom from” moment, has passed. The “freedom to” moment of the modern economy calls for bold political leadership such as greater, crony-free privatisation and better-trained, more responsive and transparent government agencies.
Most of all, the burden has to be shared by citizens. This is not an area of focus in public debate. It’s not just politicians and bureaucrats who are responsible for taking India forward; citizens cannot absolve themselves from the responsibility of the “freedom to” opportunity.
Here’s what I mean: on a recent flight, as the plane landed and the seat belt sign went off, I was buffeted by a rush from behind as some passengers dashed for the doorway, hoping to disembark first. There was absolutely no reason to do this because in the end, we were all going in the same bus and we would arrive at the terminal simultaneously.  
My conclusion is that the men and women who sought to push their way up front were so focused on their personal agendas as to totally disregard their civic sense. It’s the same for the traffic on the roads, though the consequences are far more dangerous. This extends to paying taxes, avoiding bribes, evading building codes, littering, urinating in public and all the “me-first, devil-take-the-hindmost” attitudes that make it so hard to be a citizen in India, and transform public spaces into disagreeable environments.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://www.educationworld.in, November 4, 2011.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

English: An Indian Language

So here we go again. Language chauvinists in Goa have launched disruptive protests against the state government’s proposal that will allow primary and secondary schools to offer English as a medium of instruction. This is in addition to Marathi and Konkani.

A bunch of rabble, associated with the Hindutva forces, stopped traffic in Panjim and threatened to hold the state hostage to their misbegotten worldview. It’s not just about Goa, it’s all over India. Same people who protested against the screening of the film Slumdog Millionaire; same people who assaulted women coming out of a bar in Mangalore; same people who renamed the airport and the railway terminus in Bombay; same people who renamed Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

English, both the language and our cultural heritage, is a convenient horse to flog. Increasingly, though, the burgeoning middle class is embracing it as the key to success in a modernizing country. Thus, while politicians go on renaming sprees, “Indianizing” names of city streets and entire cities, real estate developers across the country sell their projects with Western-sounding names such as “Provence,” “Belvedere” and what have you. In Ahmedabad, Gujarat, I have actually seen commercial and residential properties called “Manhattan” or “White House.”

Coming back to the Goa language disturbances, even the normally rational Manohar Parrikar, opposition leader and erstwhile chief minister, backed the obscurantist protest. He said if children are educated in English, they look down on their parents who don’t speak the language. He is right.

The problem with the English language is it subversive. To accept it is to accept the cultural and philosophical worldview of the Enlightenment. For example: reason, courtesy, egalitarianism and dissent. In the Hindutva worldview, these are not values that are accepted. Instead the focus is on superstition, indulgence, exclusivity and conformism. Children schooled in the English language do not easily buy into backwardness.

If you look around today, journeyman classes that offer students English-language proficiency are burgeoning everywhere. Parents and their children know that to make their way in the world, English is essential. They have no time for chauvinist arguments against the language. They just want their children to get ahead and like all solid middle class Indians place their faith in education.

This is why the Goa government’s bold move is admirable. Clearly, the state government understands that people want the choice to choose English as a medium of instruction. Given the state’s high level of literacy and per capita income, the pro-English segment is sizable and has rallied behind the government.

English has always been an Indian language. In recent years, the number of people who use English as the lingua franca has increased exponentially. A new form of the language has taken shape that incorporates Indian idioms. We are like this only. And it is increasingly accepted. R K Narayan is an early example; Salman Rushdie thrived on it.

Today global literary salons celebrate Indian writers in English bringing Indian cultural flavours to the world. I can name at least a dozen and their number is probably in the hundreds. So it is bit of madness for people in India to dismiss English as a foreign language. Supreme Court judgments are in English as are government policies. They may be translated into various languages but in the first draft they are written in English.

Vernacular chauvinists, who disparage the use of English in India, are products of a feudal mindset that portrays India as a long-suffering victim of colonial oppression. They draw inspiration from the jingoist ranting of M S Golwalkar in his aptly titled book, “Bunch of Thoughts” and amazingly enough also from the Luddite fulminations of Mohandas Gandhi in “Hind Swaraj.” Their India is a closed and diffident victim of unchaste foreigners. Today, such postures appear ridiculous and out of touch with the new, resurgent India.

Protests like the one in Goa flare up now and again, led by fringe groups that are communal and chauvinist. But they fly in the face of what citizens want. The protestors assume that the vast majority of the Indian population has no use for English. They are right; only a small section of the population use English in their lives. However, English is the language of aspirations. Even a semi-literate family in the rural areas knows that for their children to get out of the rut, the passport is proficiency in English.

Unlike yesteryear, when the language of Milton and Shakespeare was a mark of elite status, in the new India, English is the language of upward mobility. As such, it has captured the imagination of a new dynamic and youthful generation that values merit and effort as determinants of success. Its importance is gauged not from numbers but from its grip on the imagination of the burgeoning middle class.

English was introduced as a medium of instruction nearly two centuries ago by British liberals, hoping to “instruct” generations of Indian youth so they could become adequate civil servants in service of the Crown. Many young people from traditional upper caste families eagerly embraced English and parlayed it into a comfortable livelihood with steady incomes and various privileges.

As India enters a new phase, going from a uniquely-won independence to global recognition, English is again the agent of aspiration and change. And it gives me pause to think about just how prescient Thomas Babington Macaulay was when he said in his “Minute on Education:”

Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects.”

Curiously, today’s chauvinists who protest the use of English reserve their worst for those who celebrate it as a dynamic Indian language. They call us the children of Macaulay; one of several “M’s” they hate including Marx, Modernity and Muslims.


An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, July 2011.


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fast Times in Modern Democracy?

Anna Hazare’s “fast unto death” is a throwback to more innocent times when the oppressor was colonial, clearly identified and vilified. Today, it is infinitely more complex. Hazare on a protest fast may evoke a longing for the black and white simplicity of yesteryear. The nostalgic appeal has sparked a cyber rush among young chatterati who wander aimlessly through the hills and dales of social networks, seeking company, making connections, buying and selling ideas and products.

If you cut back to the 1080i high definition picture of modern life with its 5.1 surround sound track, you’ll find that Hazare and his handlers have cleverly manipulated an old symbol made famous by Mohandas Gandhi. Calling it a fast against corruption, Hazare has touched a chord among young cyber savvy Indians, who see in the old man’s protest a chance to fulfill their youthful aspirations to revolt against the system. Budapest in the 1950s; Paris and Chicago in the 1960s; Beijing in the 1980s; Prague in the 1990; Cairo and Tunis recently and now Delhi.

Clearly, the seemingly innocent khadi-clad activist and his wily handlers have managed to rally young netizens. By calling it a fight against corruption, they have cleverly deflected the glare from the hard political demand underlying the fast: give civil society activists a role in framing laws; a demand no government can concede without violating its oath to uphold the Constitution.

The notion that civil society activists must be given a say in the framing of the anti-corruption law is misbegotten. No matter how righteous the cause; no matter how pious the protest, activists have no locus standi as lawmakers. The Constitution is very clear on the separation of powers and reserves the law making function to elected representatives.

Stripped of its saintly posture, Hazare’s protest is a challenge to the Constitution. Dreamy and romantic netizens, who have been set all a-twitter by it, don’t seem to realize that Hazare and his handlers have been active since the 1970s. Styled as people’s movements, these groups have never embraced the Constitution as the final arbiter of political, social, economic and cultural diversity. Theirs was always a higher cause.

The Constitution has helped India negotiate diversity, poverty and various challenges to emerge as one of the world’s fastest growing countries. Its government now has a seat at the high table of international diplomacy; its economy has lifted millions from abysmal poverty; its political system consists of the exercise of the largest franchise in the world blessed with a “throw the rascals out” mindset of the electorate.

Hazare’s crusade draws ideological inspiration from Hind Swaraj, the Gandhian diatribe against modernity. Corruption seems to be merely a cause recruited in the long-term campaign against modernity. It’s a clever choice because indeed corruption is public affairs topic one.

Fed up with incessant reports about large-scale corruption, influenced by the Jasmine scents of Tunisia and Egypt, hundreds of young people have rallied to the cause. In North Africa, the targets were clear cut: long ruling dictators. Here there is a democratically elected government. Even if the protest can draw hundreds of thousands of people into the streets; even if the most righteous, learned and saintly people turn out; they cannot challenge the legitimacy of an elected government.

What Hazare and his fellow travelers are saying is not new; they’re on a well-charted path laid out in Gandhi’s book. They damn the entire political process as corrupt and seek to replace it with high-minded vigilantism. Even if it is composed of angels and saints, a vigilante group has no place in a modern constitutional democracy.



This article appeared in The Economic Times, April 10, 2011.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

India: Hostage to a Demented Culture


My father, who is in his 90s, suffers from dementia. As such, he has no memory of the past and no idea of the future. He lives in the here and now.

Just the other day, he fell and hurt his head. We took him to the emergency room at a local hospital, where the doctor examined him and declared him fit.

The nurses cleaned the superficial cut on his head and released him. In the interim, I was heart broken to hear him utter the words, “internal sorrow,” not once but twice.

As I got to thinking about his condition, I couldn’t help marvel how closely it parallels the state in which India finds itself: without any wisdom from the past, without any vision of the future; just the here and now.

The words “internal sorrow” are often expressed and lived out in the myriads of petty conflicts and self-centered postures.

India is in a state of dementia, largely because of the here-and-now culture that has taken hold since the turn of the millennium. It is hard to discern if there is anything learned from the past or if there are any plans for the future. And let’s not blame just the government or politicians; the citizenry has a lot to answer for.

At a recent lunch in the Delhi Golf Club, I saw the unseemly spectacle of a child fooling around with the lawn umbrella, changing its incline in dangerous ways while his mother shoveled food into his mouth; or on a Spicejet flight a few weeks ago, where a mother, diverted her bawling son’s attention by allowing him to play with the call button that summons a stewardess.

Both taught their sons to be oblivious of other people who might be disturbed and diverted their attention rather than discipline them.

Such children grow up to be inconsiderate adults, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, who have no restraints on public behavior and the need to be alive to the privacy and wellbeing of others. Thus, on an automated walkway at Delhi’s dysfunctional Terminal 3, a couple, obviously well educated and affluent, walked abreast, not giving way, unmindful of me right behind them, in a hurry to get to the gate where my flight had been called.

These child rearing practices have bred a uni-dimensional culture. Such cultures are demented in the sense that only a self-serving present matters; there is no learning from the past, no dimension of a better future other than instant gratification. Barbaric rituals and hypoglycemic hypocrisy are the hallmarks of such a culture.

In the grip of this demented culture, India is increasingly rich but less modern; increasingly powerful but less civilized. And government and politics and corruption and inequity have little to do with it.

Some years ago, I complained to a senior police official about the inability of his force to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. He looked me squarely in the eye and said, “I could have five million traffic cops on the streets but still you will not have order; the culture seems to breed chaos.”

More recent: another senior policeman told me last week the problem is that despite clear-eyed laws, “we are told to encourage consensus even in the face of flagrant violations.” In other words, “adjust!”

Yet, civil society groups, the media, the business elite and the intellectual set would have us believe that the system works but is subverted by corrupt businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats. The arguments are essentially messianic based on a belief that ascetic figures like Medha Patkar and Anna Hazare; brand ambassadors like Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan or soothsayers like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Satya Sai Baba could restore values and bring order into public life

Messianic zeal in Indian public affairs is the legacy of Mohandas Gandhi, who acquiesced in his lifetime to the title, “Mahatma.” He was indeed a great soul who challenged and ultimately defeated the British Raj.

Trouble is Gandhi had a lifelong problem with modernity. His book, Hind Swaraj, was a diatribe against modern culture, which he equated with Westernization. His retort on Western civilization, (“I think it would be a good idea”) remains in my mind the tipping point in his conversion from political strategist to the Mahatma.

In that flippant remark, Gandhi dismissed the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that brought modernity and economic prosperity to the West. Gandhi’s view of the West still has acolytes in 21st century India.

That is one reason why economic prosperity is there for all to see in India today; but modernity, defined as civil values stemming from a concern for others, is a long way away.

The key to India’s modernization is education. Today, parents demand a “good education” so their children can find steady, well-paid jobs in India and around the world. The system is geared to vocational, technical and management training; it does not provide a liberal arts perspective in which civility and socialization are inculcated in students.

What’s more, parents fail to understand that “success” does not come just being “well educated.” The most important thing is for their children to be “well bred.” This means that their children should not just be knowledgeable and bright but aware of their civic responsibilities: don’t drive like lunatics, don’t litter, don’t pee in public, give a thought for others and be courteous.

Above all, parents need to inculcate in their children pride in the neighborhood, the city, the country (not the stunted nationalism that the Hindutva hordes propagate). Children can be well-educated through schools but well-bred only through parents. They hold the key to India’s modernity.


An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, February 2011.


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bureaucratic Subversion

The Bane of New India


When the government steered the Right to Education bill through Parliament, those of us who had fought for it through two decades were pleased. The important thing, however, is how the act would be notified. The language of the bill leaves a lot of gray areas. And well it might because bureaucrats wrote it and they will fully exploit the obfuscation. For example, they will come down heavily on private schools that cater to the poor in urban slums and rural areas and impose impossible conditions that such enterprises simply cannot fulfill.

There are too many vested interests: the government school system; the high-end private schools that have bribed their way into existence and above all, the alternative NGO schools that survive on government subsidies. With such firepower arraigned against it, the RTE bill will go the way of every well-meaning initiative of the government such the NREGA or the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. The net outcome will be zero. And so everything will come to naught.

If this sounds cynical, then you should listen to my story about a small community on the outskirts of Delhi. This is an upscale community of successful professionals that includes about 30 houses. It is an oasis in the chaos of Delhi, with trees and birdsong. It’s a wonderful community where neighbors meet frequently to have a drink or dinner and to discuss issues of India’s development. The people who live there are respected professionals whose interests span public health, wildlife conservation, media, law and what have you.

The community came into being in the early 1990s. Because it was part of rural Delhi, it was offered no municipal services like water, sanitation or roads, never mind street lighting. Like pioneers, residents made their own arrangements: people built septic tanks, drilled bore wells and got their own garbage collection. Power was an issue until distribution was privatized, when the resident association petitioned the distribution company. Realizing these were high-end customers, the company quickly ensured that power cuts and fluctuations were minimized.

On the roads issue, the resident association petitioned the Delhi government arguing from a taxpayer viewpoint; so the road was built: badly but still motorable. It took several years including the fact that the first allotment of several crores was swallowed by the pirates of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Now this community faces water a problem because the bore wells have dried up. This is precious real estate but more important it represents the single major investment for most of the residents. Without water, their homes are worth nothing.

The association applied to the Delhi government for permission to drill a community bore well. It seemed a logical and eco-friendly thing to do. But between the local water authority, the local police and several residents who had bribed their way into deepening their bore wells, the application has been kicked around from pillar to post.

So here you have this huge Indian-style standoff: members of the community paid bribes to the water authority and the police to deepen their wells. As a result, other residents found their bore wells running dry. When the association sought to build a community well, some residents and recipients of their bribes in the water authority and the local police struck a dissonant note.

Between corrupt citizens, bureaucrats, police officials and local politicians, this pleasant community is caught in a cleft. It needs the rule of law to be enforced but the local government: the municipality and the police, are locked in various corrupt projects. Residents of the community are not without influence but stand divided because several members, who own houses there, are compromised because the deals they did to buy their houses don’t stand up to scrutiny.

This is a small localized community problem, to be sure. But its implications have a larger footprint. Even though the union government has introduced various enlightened policies, local governance is caught in a medieval time warp. In the matter of schools as well: a sweeping and enlightened law stands to be subverted on the rocks of bad governance. In notifying the RTE act, many activists fear the education bureaucracy will not let private schools for the poor flourish.

Then there is the issue of the RTE-mandated 25 percent quota for poor children in private schools. The vast majority of private schools, however, cater to the poor. So how will the quota be enforced? Clearly, framers of the bill were thinking of the elite private schools with no acknowledgment of the private schools for the poor.

Whether it is the private schools for the poor or the community bore well for the upscale Delhi community, governance is still held hostage to the ideology of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy lords it over the poor and is prejudiced against the affluent (not rich). In the event, private schools for the poor will be held hostage to the bureaucracy’s prejudice against education as commerce; likewise the South Delhi community must suffer because the bureaucrats of the water authority dismiss it as an “affluent colony” that deserves nothing from the government.

In the end, the admirable RTE bill stands to be subverted by bureaucrats, who oppose all change. Residents of the affluent community will have to fight for their water against the very forces in charge of governance.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, June 2010.



Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Good Policy

Need Governance


In many ways, the government has embarked on a path breaking route, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy.

To begin with, there is the issue of fertilizer subsidies. In one fell swoop, by targeting subsidies on the basis of nutrients, the government has changed the game. Now farmers will look to nutrients other than urea. This will increase yields dramatically. Urea-based fertilizers were good and government policies championed their use. Over the years, it became clear that they had passed the point of diminishing returns. Everywhere in the world, governments promoted suplhur-based and other nutrients in the mix to increase yields and protect the soil.

With all the noise about food inflation, the government has pointed to the exploitative role of middlemen in the journey that farm products make from the fields to the market. The finance minister made several references to the need for organized retail in the grocery business, most recently at the CII national meeting in Delhi.

Coming to taxes, the finance minister, in his budget speech, cut individual taxes while increasing some indirect levies. The idea is sterling: put more money in the hands of middle class families and let them decide what they can or cannot afford. If I am considering buying a car and it costs a few thousand rupees more, it is my call. By putting economic decisions in the hands of citizens, the government has made a major paradigm shift.

On internal security, the government has made major moves. It has taken on the Maoist movement in central India with force. The most recent incident in Dantewada only underscored the Prime Minister’s six-old assessment that Maoists pose the most significant threat to national security. True, there are complaints of security forces riding roughshod over the militants. But then, Dantewada showed that the Maoists are not known for their grace and diplomacy either. This tough approach seeks not only to contain the insurgents but to send a clear message that this is a hard government that will not stomach violent agitations.

On the national security front, the government has embarked on a new course. While initiating talks with Pakistan, it authorized a major Air Force exercise in the desert of Rajasthan to demonstrate its fighting capabilities. It was a brilliant move to invite most defense attaches of diplomatic missions and to leave out the representatives of China and Pakistan. The idea clearly was to exhibit hard power.

To reinforce the government’s hard line, the Prime Minister went to Saudi Arabia and urged the authorities there to weigh in with Pakistan to control the various terrorist groups that operate from there. It’s clear the Pakistan government has neither the wherewithal nor the will to reign in various terrorist groups that have a free run within its borders. A Saudi nudge could go a long way to boost the crippled Zardari government and the rogue elements within its army and the intelligence agency.

The emphasis on infrastructure is a key feature aspect of the government’s priorities. Roads, ports, airports, railroads are being built. The trouble is that corrupt and inept government agencies are in charge and its users are citizens, who lack civic consciousness. Thus it gets caught up in the bottlenecks caused by lackadaisical enforcement and scofflaw citizens.

Many cities now have modern airports; they are like white elephants because the minute you step outside there is total chaos. It’s the same thing for the highways. We recently traveled to Chandigarh from Delhi. The road is a work in progress and there are significant flyovers and wide pavements. But there is total traffic chaos. Even as you rev to the top speed of 90 kilometers an hours, you find yourself having to deal with vehicles going the wrong way, underpowered trucks, three-wheeled vehicles, bullock carts, cycle rickshaws, handcarts, herds of cows and sheep and scariest of all, daredevil pedestrians trying to cross the highway. There is simply no policing, no signage or any other accoutrements that go with modern highways. It’s almost as though modern amenities are made available to people with a medieval mindset.

Tragedy is the police have no authority to enforce the law. Even worse, they don’t even know the law. Just recently, I stopped a police car on the spanking new expressway that connects Delhi and Gurgaon to the airports. I told the police officer that the unchecked use of the expressway by two- and three-wheeled vehicles was a major traffic violation. I told him there were signs that these vehicles were not allowed. He told me to mind my own business. The government needs also to show its hard self here as much as it is doing with the Maoists in central India.

In the end, you have a modernizing government that is beset by a crude political class, a malignant bureaucracy and a pre-modern citizenry. As such, even though the government pursues enlightened policies, the ship of state seems to be caught on the rocks of casteism, communalism and corruption.

Bureaucrats blame crass politicians and the ignorant citizenry. Politicians castigate the bureaucracy. Citizens berate politicians and bureaucrats. It’s a sort of beggar-thy-neighbor view that enables the entire system to elude responsibility. If everyone’s to blame, then nobody is accountable.

This is the challenge for India that the world deems as an up and coming power.



An edited version of this article appeared in The Times of India, April 21, 2010


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010