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Friday, July 29, 2011

And Accountability For All

This article appeared in The Times of India, April 21, 2010.

In many ways, the government has embarked on a path-breaking route, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy. For instance, some time ago, the issue of fertiliser subsidies came up. In one fell swoop, the government changed the game by targeting subsidies on the basis of nutrients. Thanks to the policy change, farmers will look to nutrients other than urea. This will increase yields dramatically. Urea-based fertilisers were once 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 have 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 farm products make from the fields to the market. In recent times, the finance minister has made several references to the need for organised retail in the grocery business, most recently at the CII national meeting in Delhi.

Coming to taxes, the finance minister 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 citizens' hands, the government has been making a major paradigm shift.

The emphasis on infrastructure is also welcome. Roads, ports, airports and railroads are being built. The trouble is that modern infrastructure is at the disposal of government agencies and citizens with zero ethics or civic consciousness. Thus, it gets caught up in bottlenecks caused by lackadaisical enforcement and citizens who habitually violate the law.

For instance, 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 highways. We recently travelled 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 km per hour, 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. They make the journey a nightmare. There is simply no policing, no signage or other facilities that go with modern highways. It's almost as though modern amenities are made available to citizens with a pre-modern mindset by officials with no clue about modernity.

The tragedy is that 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 and that there were signs that these vehicles were not allowed. He told me to mind my own business. The government needs to show its hard-headedness in such matters as much as it is doing with the Maoists in central India.

Talking of internal security, the government has made major moves. It has taken on the Maoist movement with force. True, there are complaints of security forces riding roughshod over the ultras. But then, the Maoists are not known for grace and diplomacy either. A tough approach will not only contain the insurgents but also send a clear message that this is a hard government that will not stomach violent agitations.

On national security, the government has embarked on a new course. Even while initiating talks with Pakistan, it authorised a major air force exercise some time ago in the Rajasthan desert to demonstrate its fighting capabilities. It was a brilliant move to invite the defense attaches of major diplomatic missions, leaving out the representatives of China and Pakistan. The idea was to exhibit hard power.

To reinforce the government's hard line, the prime minister went to Saudi Arabia and urged its authorities to weigh in with Pakistan to control terrorist groups operating from there. It is clear Pakistan's government has neither the wherewithal nor the will to rein in various terrorist groups with a free run within the country's borders. A Saudi nudge could go a long way to boost the crippled civilian government against rogue elements within the army and intelligence agency.

In the end, however, you have in India an enlightened government beset by a crude political class, a malignant bureaucracy and a pre-modern citizenry. Also, the ship of state seems unable to deal with 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-neighbour view enabling the entire system to elude responsibility. If everyone's to blame, nobody is accountable. What's clear is that citizens have to take on responsibility; blaming the government and politicians is not enough.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011.