governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘religion’

A “green” Diwali sans firecrackers

SupremeCourtPhotos(47)

Managing winter smog in the National Capital Region (NCR) has occupied the Supreme Court since 2015. Three interim orders — in November 2016, September 2017 and October 2017— each of which changes the status quo, imposing commercial costs, illustrate the limitations of the judicial approach while balancing commercial interests with public health concerns.

Joined at the hip

joined at the hip

Delhi and Sivakasi, 2,650 km away in Tamil Nadu, are symbiotically joined. Sivakasi produces three-fourths of India’s firecrackers. Delhi and its surrounding areas are the prime consumers. Consider that 40 per cent of 610 permanent licensees for selling firecrackers are located here. Delhi also licences 968 temporary fireworks retailers. The NCR’s stock of fireworks is estimated at 6,000 metric tons — enough to fill 600 trucks.

CPCB plays truant

The reason why a substantive decision on the sale of firecrackers remains elusive is that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has failed to define the permissible ingredients for firecrackers and their volumes thereof. Without a standard regulating manufacture, the task of optimising across public health concerns; preserving employment and nurturing business potential becomes, at best, an approximation with avoidable costs. Only blunt options like banning the sale of firecrackers present themselves. The actual public health benefit of such measures is uncertain. But irreparable harm to businesses and distress to workers is certain.

At the very beginning…

Back in November 2016, during the Diwali season, Delhi was enveloped in smog. CPCB air quality reports indicated that in 2015 and 2016, the level of pollution had spiked during and after Diwali. Pitampura, a densely populated area in Delhi, suffered an increase of pollution by four times in 2015 and more than 10 times in 2016. Dealing with an emergency, the Supreme Court suspended all licences for the sale of firecrackers in the NCR on November 11, 2016. It also directed the CPCB to submit, within three months, a comprehensive report on the air pollution impacts of bursting firecrackers. The implied strategy was clear. Take stern action in keeping with the magnitude of the crisis and incentivise manufacturers and sellers of fireworks to negotiate with the government for setting standards. Since Diwali was already over, the commercial dislocation caused by the order was minimal.

The CPCB has yet to submit the report due on January 11, 2017, on the air pollution impact. Meanwhile, prohibitions on using antimony, lithium, mercury, arsenic and lead compounds were imposed piecemeal by the Supreme Court on July 31, 2017 and on strontium chromate on September 13, 2017. The court is clearly working hard despite executive intransigence.

And more recently…

Gearing up for the festival season in 2017, the Sivakasi manufacturers and suppliers requested the Supreme Court on July 5, 2017 for a modification of the suspension of permanent licenses.

The Supreme Court recognised the harm being caused to 300,000 livelihoods, despite the absence of any proven link between the bursting of firecrackers and hazardous air pollution.

The National Green Tribunal has listed seven sources of air pollution in NCR. Firecrackers are not one of them. A January 2016 IIT Kanpur report had also not listed firecrackers as among the major sources of air pollution in Delhi.

On September 13, 2017, the Supreme Court allowed a partial lifting of the suspended licences, to enable the accumulated stock of fireworks to be sold in NCR or to be transferred out. To avoid any reoccurrence of a fait accompli, it directed no more fireworks should be transported into the NCR. More significantly, it directed that the number of temporary licences in NCR be halved in 2017, and both permanent and temporary licences further halved in 2018. Taking a cue from the 1999 experience in defining noise pollution standards for firecrackers, it constituted a multi-stakeholder, technical committee chaired by the CPCB to report on the impact of bursting firecrackers on air quality. By all accounts this was a fair and forward-looking order mitigating the commercial harm caused by regulatory uncertainty while seeking to reduce the public health impact.

The puzzling about turn

Inexplicably, on October 9, a three-judge Supreme Court bench put the September 2017 order in abeyance till November 1. The intention was clearly to postpone the restitution of sale till after Diwali, thereby nullifying the positive commercial benefits. The court invoked the “precautionary principle” in the public interest. This principle advocates abundant caution if the potential for irreparable harm exists. Thereby, the significant, negative commercial impact of the order simply became inevitable collateral damage.

Regulating better is possible

Could the regulatory process have been managed better? First, it goes without saying, that this is yet another instance of the government purposefully abdicating politically sensitive, inconvenient regulatory ground. Commercial uncertainty and public health costs are bound to escalate when this happens.

Strong action effective only if sustained

CJI Thakur2

Second, could the Supreme Court have been more consistent? Yes, it could have limited its initial intervention in 2016 to simply nudge the executive to introduce safe manufacturing standards, including by using back channels for the purpose. Possibly, its strained relationship with the government during this period, over the judicial appointments issues, may have constrained it from using this practical tactic to resolve the problem.

Optionally, the court could have issued a nuanced order, suspending temporary licenses in NCR to restrict retail sale; allowing permanent licenses to continue, but at a progressively decreasing scale and directing the executive to limit the bursting of firecrackers to collective displays at pre-designated sites. This would have reduced the quantum of firecrackers burst; minimised the commercial harm and preserved the incentive for firecracker manufacturers to actively pursue formulation of safe manufacturing standards. Despite the storm in the social media decrying the  encroachment of Hindu religious rights by limiting firecrackers, the public is in favour of clean air and a cleaner India.

Green “bangers” anyone? 

bamboo

Finally, the court could have explored the manufacture of “green” firecrackers. Before gunpowder was invented in the 10th century, the Chinese made them by heating bamboo. Northeast India is resplendent with bamboo, just waiting to be used. China might also be happy to modernise this sustainable technology and commercialise it under the Make in India initiative. Green “bangers” can preserve the thrill of Diwali, only minus the smog.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age October 12, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/121017/costly-flip-flops-over-ban-on-firecrackers.html

BJP – mega political mall

bjp-new-office

The rout of the BJP, in the Bihar and Delhi Assembly elections, were loudly touted as evidence of the deep roots of the “idea of India” — so dear to the Left-leaning, “secular” intelligentsia. Two years later, Bihar is back in the BJP stable and Delhi limps along with Arvind Kejriwal nursing his 2017 defeat in the Delhi municipal elections. In parting ways with his “less than kosher” partners — Lalu Prasad Yadav and his ilk — and realigning with the BJP, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has apparently, revised his views on the Hobson’s choice between aligning with corruption or with communalism. He has now switched to the latter, as the lesser evil, possibly nudged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public resolve to abolish both by 2022. In the meantime, he forfeits the somewhat unlikely “halo” around him as the leader of a national “secular” Opposition. Muslims and dalits also face this choice now — between a clean and effective, albeit Hindu, government or self-serving, dynastic patriarchs, posing as ersatz secularists.

Does consolidating the Hindu vote equal communalism?

shah dalit home

For the BJP, the charge of “communalism” has little meaning. Ending “casteism” – another vicious scourge, is only possible, if the Hindu vote is consolidated, ending the use of narrow vote banks based on traditional identities, around which regional parties have grown deep roots, like the RJD in Bihar and Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

BJP’s strategy is to consolidate the Hindu vote across regional and caste divides to strengthen its majority government at the Centre and control enough states to cover two-thirds of the voter population. The idea is to become like a mega political mall, encompassing diverse shades of opinion. Smaller parties, like the JD(U) are welcome to buy-in or opt-out, but none would be critical to the BJP’s survival.

The BJP sees no contradiction between resolving to root out “communalism” whilst consolidating” the Hindu vote by ending archaic caste divides. It wants Muslims and Christians, both foreign religions, to harmonise their religious beliefs to fit seamlessly into the dominant local culture.

Deeper decentralisation can be a bridge to communal harmony

naga 2

India is very diverse even within large states. Eating beef and pork is fine in predominantly Christian Nagaland. Bonding over beef is the custom in Kerala for Muslims, Christians and many Hindus. But this would be unthinkable in Uttar Pradesh. A more decentralised India can give greater space for making locally acceptable choices about customs and norms at the local government level. But the principle of subsidiarity is ignored. What can be settled at the village level is decided in Delhi or a state capital where the the minority viewpoint gets ignored in favour of across the board acceptability. Today, local governments lack the administrative, political and financial clout to matter. This means for now, the onus is on the minority community in any area to negotiate workable local compromises on cultural and religious practices which conflict with the locally dominant majority. Detractors of this “majoritarian” approach say this illustrates the disenfranchised status of minorities

Nuns

To be fair to Muslims and Christians, it is a stretch for them to reach such local accommodations. They have been misleadingly nurtured, since 1947, into expecting that the Indian State shall provide special mechanisms to safeguard their right to religion and facilitate their active political participation, in view of their numerical disadvantage. They have never before, encountered a government that is coldly dismissive of their expectations and has, at best, no desire to go beyond the letter of the law.

muslim women

What does being secular mean?

There is also disagreement on what being secular means. Should the State actively shun anything to do with religion, as in France? Or be even handed with all religions, as in the UK? Or should we further refine our version of secularism. Political theorist Rajeev Bhargava, is of the view that, in India, both the State and religions influence each other. The State actively intervenes in religion — as for example taking over the administration of Tirupati or subsidising Haj travel for Muslims or opening Hindu temples to dalits. Similarly, religion actively influences State action. Demolition of the Babri Masjid by karsevaks in 1992 breached the law. But the State watched passively out of deference to Hindu sentiment. In 1986, an executive ordinance was used to specifically nullify a Supreme Court order granting maintenance to Shahbano, a Muslim divorcee – a practise unsupported by Islamic law which had greatly agitated Muslim clerics.

Modern Indian culture is syncretic – but dominantly Hindu

Shahrukh 2

Modern Indian, popular culture is syncretic but dominantly Hindu, as best illustrated by Bollywood. Our movies cater predominantly to Hindu cultural settings, ironically often on the backs of film stars, many of whom are Muslim. With 80 per cent of the population being Hindu, it cannot but be otherwise.

The constitution reflects the fraternal bond between the State and Hinduism 

Fraternal bonds

Similarly, the founders of our Constitution were prescient in anticipating that Hindu sentiment would be politically dominant. Article 25 of the Constitution, excludes Christian and Muslim religious and social institutions from State regulation. But it specifically limits the fundamental right of Hindus (which includes Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists) to practice religion, by allowing the State to intervene for reforming Hindu religious institutions. This asymmetric provision reflects an assumption that there can never be a conflict between the Indian State and Hinduism. But the potential for a conflict of interest between the State and Muslims or Christians, exists and must be guarded against.

Muslims and Christians are not the only ones isolated by the Hindu revivalism. One-fourth of Hindus (dalits and backward tribal communities) are uncomfortable with traditional, Brahmanical religious practices. Often these are just a cover for hanging onto the asymmetric power structures benefiting the upper and the “Mandal”-empowered backward castes. Babasaheb Ambedkar articulated this apprehension as a deal-breaker for political cohesion.

Testing the efficacy of mega political power

Should we be worried by a BJP mega political power mall? We are schooled to believe that pervasive, political power begets authoritarianism. This hypothesis will now be tested. The BJP believes that a “national” government, in which, political sub-interests, defined by gender, caste, region or religion, “work” the system from within, is better than the template version of parliamentary democracy, in which an active opposition keeps the transgressions of the ruling party “in check”.

The BJP had 100 million registered members in 2015 — 18 per cent of the registered voters. It has a massive majority in the Lok Sabha and shall replicate this majority in the Rajya Sabha as legacy UPA members retire. The BJP directly controls states comprising 54 per cent of India’s population whilst another 23 per cent of the population lives in states ruled by allies or jointly with the BJP. Together this constitutes more than three-fourths of the population. Why then does it feel compelled to grow bigger?

BJP rule

In any competitive market, to stand still is to lose ground. Indian sporting teams are often criticised for lacking the “killer” instinct to convert their strengths into wins. But in politics, as in business, this genetic flaw is an asset. Leaving something on the table boosts the “feel good” factor for all. This has merit in politics, where there are no permanent winners or losers.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age , August 1, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/020817/the-politics-of-religion.html#vuukle-emotevuukle_div

Book Review: Just erratic not deranged

ghosh

Amitav Ghosh’s latest book—The Great Derangement—is an exploration of why contemporary culture, imagination and political systems have failed to prevent global warming, despite its cataclysmic long-term effects and disruptive short-term outcomes.

His choice of the book’s title reflects the conundrum facing poor nations. They are not the ones who benefited from the carbon economy. But to aspire to do this now, when there is no carbon space left, is a one-way ticket to self-annihilation. Hence, the derangement of the modern world, racing towards a future, where consuming itself becomes the only option. Curbing global warming means debunking the fundamental values on which the modern world is built. Central to this artifact is the notion that man is the centre of the universe. Non-human forces, like nature, have no place in this calculus of liberty and modernity.To recognise global warming as a problem, you first have to reject the paradigm that the unconstrained liberty of man is a leitmotif of human progress. Hence the unwillingness and the inability to face or deal with the problem.

Nature’s pawns

This is a cleverly crafted book, as would be expected from a novelist extraordinaire. Divided into three parts, it starts with “Stories”. This segment situates humans as powerless, organic sub-systems of a larger force—restless and dynamic nature. Stories of his family—climate refugees from Bangladesh; of self-doubt after a sudden, destructive tornado in Delhi; of raw beauty and sudden death in the muddy, torpid, densely tangled greenery of the Sundarbans reinforce that we are not masters of the universe.

Inequality and the urge to splurge

The second section on History, draws together three defining strands of the late 17th to the early 20th centuries. First, the availability and use of fossil fuels which were an important precondition for wealth and power. Second—the use of technology to improve productive capacity. Third—the growth of modern empires as the political mechanism for extracting the supply of raw materials; controlling access to technology and keeping overseas markets open for exported manufactured goods. Empires faded in the late 20th century but the extractive process continued. The elite—foreign and domestic—comprise not more than one fourth of the world population, but continue to become wealthy at the expense of the bottom three fourths.

gas-guzzler

The third section is on Politics. Ghosh argues cynically that so little has been done to mitigate climate change because the rich world will be able to insulate itself from the horrific outcomes. The shock will primarily be borne by the poor. Littoral countries like Bangladesh, Seychelles and Vietnam and poor communities, within countries, will be the worst affected.

A captive media

Ghosh believes the deafening silence in the media around climate change is because it has been bought out by the huge corporates who own fossil fuel assets. The silence in literature is because his peers—writers, poets and intellectuals—are bludgeoned into conformity by the formulaic path to success of shunning the unpredictable and situating a story within the predictable activities of everyday life, with the individual as the central character.

Can religion help where politics has failed?

Not much can be expected from politicians either. They are so immersed in “bio-politics”—catering to the short-term interests of a defined population of voters—that they have little appetite for long-term global risks. For what it is worth, differences in economic ideology across parties have become minimal in India. All the political parties which have ruled India since 1991 have adhered to the broad neo-liberal construct of economic development. So, quite possibly, the devil lies in the incentives created by this economic model to produce and consume in larger volumes. He cites the December 2016 Paris Agreement as subterfuge and doublespeak, promising to do much without, in effect, doing anything.

He compares this shallow and evasive, politically negotiated international agreement with the direct and forceful Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis issued at the same time. The latter fingers the ruling “technocratic paradigm” and the objectification of endless growth as the problem rather than the solution. It calls for tempering individualism with the balm of social and ecological justice. Ghosh notes that similar voices are being heard within the Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist faiths. This leads him to believe that greater community activism led by religious leaders could be the answer to mobilize opinion for definitive steps to abate global warming.

naga

Ghosh’s stand is unusual for a secular rationalist. But this is consistent with an approach which absolves religion of its divisive outcomes. He speculates (page 150) that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a former member of a Hindu party because he was perceived as weakening India by opposing industrialisation and consumerism. No references are quoted to support this “economic” explanation. The more usual view is to attribute the killing to Hindu apprehensions that the Mahatma was too politically accommodating of minority interest.Ghosh also seems to step lightly away from the conundrum that using religion for secular purposes is akin to riding a tiger, particularly in India’s surcharged environment, perpetuated by religious faultlines. Indira Gandhi paid the price for doing just that.

The world is increasingly more not less sustainable

 

cyclists

Ghosh’s rhetoric is elegant and elegiac. His reasoning is impeccably logical. But his morbid assessment of where we are today and of our future prospects does not triangulate with reality. The world is becoming less carbon-intensive. Every incremental unit of output requires less energy than the previous one. It is true that explosive economic growth in Asia since 1980 has negated this advantage and the global mean temperature continues to increase. But renewable energy options are being developed for air, road and marine transportation, thereby further diluting the link between the use of fossil energy and economic growth. Similarly, technology developments like LED lighting have vastly improved the efficiency of energy services. Climate risk is increasingly being factored into the cost of insurance and the hurdle rate of return for investors. This will drive smart green investments.

We are winning the war on poverty

International aid agencies, governments—of which China is the exemplar, and communities, all working in tandem, have successfully reduced poverty and are on track to eliminate it by 2030. Yes, inequality is on the rise but at a significantly elevated base income level. The opening up of international trade has diluted the link between political domination and market access. Even small nations like Vietnam or Mauritius have benefited from international markets. International trade has democratised resource endowment by making petroleum, minerals and metals available to resource-poor countries. Three out of the four largest economies today—China, Japan and India—are natural resource-poor. They have grown over the last half century by importing fossil fuel and technology. None of the three tops the charts in military might.

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Choice and progress

The spread and deepening of democracy has expanded opportunities for the disadvantaged and smashed earlier glass ceilings, including for women. Adoption of the open economy model has expanded imported competition while deregulation has nurtured domestic competition, for the benefit of consumers. There is more choice today than at any point in history.The world is a more peaceful place than a century ago. That this holds true despite growing sectarian violence in India’s near abroad and an increase in the number of nations armed with nuclear weapons, illustrates the high stakes everyone has in an enduring peace.

Plurality rules

Today, plural models for progress exist. These models are not country or culture specific. They are instead domain specific. Of the top 20 corporates in the world which accumulated the maximum value over the period 2009-2015, not a single company was in oil or gas; as many as eight were in technology or health care. All of them excelled at the capacity to innovate, communicate and compete. It’s a new world out there which defies explanation using traditional paradigms.

None of this means that we are on top of the problem of global warming, yet. But just as surely, there is more light visible, at the end of the tunnel, than has ever been seen before.

telescope

Adapted from the authors essay in Swarajya October 7, 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/its-not-that-scary

 

The Monk and Haryana’s Assembly

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Haryana’s folk dances are vigorous and fiesty like its people. Photo credit:alchetron.com

Haryana wears its heart and mind on its sleeve. There is a lot of brawn and bravado but little guile here. Last week, the Haryana Assembly listened in rapt attention to a pravachan (teachings of a holy person) by a Jain monk. Alarm bells rang immediately in the citadels of prickly pseudo-secular vigilantism.

The Indian Constitution clubs Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists under the broader rubric of “Hindus”. So, the choice of a Jain monk, rather than a Hindu priest, to preach to the Assembly was a clever and far-reaching tactic to formalise the mix of religion with politics. Clever, because the minority Jain community is being used as a proxy for Hindu thought. Far reaching because, frankly, it was disturbing, coming from an overwhelmingly Hindu state, ruled by the BJP.

The politico-religious cocktail 

In these fractious times, an overt mix of religion and politics is unusual. The practice has been to keep religion distanced from the formal processes of the State, whilst discreetly extracting political mileage from religious discord. Secular fundamentalists cavil that unless the strictest oversight is exercised, in this God-fearing, Hindu dominant country, religion can creep into politics and governance, to the detriment of marginalised communities. They have a point. In earlier days, prayers on public occasions were explicitly secular. Holy men from all major religions were allotted time for doing their bit. But this tradition has waned during the last two decades. Hindus no longer feel obliged to be subdued, lest they offend minorities. This is a healthy development. Truth needs to be spoken and recognised before reconciliation can happen. Paying lip service to secularism, whilst practising a more partisan strategy, has done little for those away from the mainstream.

shah_bano_20091207

1986 – Shah Bano – a Muslim, who had to fight a majority government, pandering to populist Islamic orthodoxy, for getting maintenance from a divorced husband, even after getting relief from a progressive judiciary.  

India: a “benignly Hindu” majority state

The “syncretic” culture of India is predominantly Hindu. We are more comfortable with Barelvi Sufi version of Islam than the more strident Wahhabi Deobandi type. This illustrates that strident, ritualised religion — whether Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or Sikhism, does not align with the benign and neutral constitutional provisions. Citizenship, not religion, is the primary identity of Indians. This is the essence of a modern, secular state.

passport

Haryana: Treading thorny paths

Haryana has initiated a novel experiment of democratising religion by inviting a never-before direct interaction between a religious leader and elected legislators. This has been long overdue. Legislators reflect voter preferences better than intellectuals. But their formal duties thrust them into an artificial bubble, which bars frank recognition of the extent to which religion both deeply divides and elevates India. Nothing wrong in puncturing the bubble. But the Haryana experiment will lack credibility as a “positive new beginning”, unless it promotes similar interaction with religious leaders of all denominations.

Religion can be inherently divisive, particularly in the highly-contested political environment of democracy. This is why Communist regimes stand out from other political parties, in that they steadfastly ignore religion. Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the wily politician and grand old man of the CPI(M), passed on in 2008. He was a Sikh. But at his funeral, there were no religious rituals beyond a spirited Lal Salaam. Contrast this with the traditional rituals which accompany the sendoff for other departed leaders.

The Indian “glue”: beyond religion?

Hum Hindustani poster

The overlay, mostly incipient but often explicit, between religion and politics, has been a fact in the subcontinent since Independence. Pakistan hived itself off into an Islamic state consisting of physically and culturally separated West Pakistan and Bengali-speaking East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Surely, the fact that Pakistan split subsequently, despite a common religion and that Nepal, despite being a predominantly Hindu state, holds its sovereignty dear, sufficiently illustrates that Hinduism is not the primary glue which binds India. India is predominantly Hindu. But significant political jurisdictions, where 32 per cent of our people live, are not. These states cannot ignore the salience of a plural polity. Nagaland and Mizoram are predominantly Christian; the Kashmir Valley is Muslim; Punjab is 60 per cent Sikh; 20 per cent of West Bengal, 18 per cent of Uttar Pradesh and 17 per cent of Bihar is Muslim; 19 per cent of Kerala is Muslim and 25 per cent is Christian; Goa is 26 per cent Christian.

Sanitize religion for inclusive democracy

Rather than hiding from religion as an identity, dealing with it upfront and sanitising it democratically, could have real value. The pseudo-secularist approach, driven by 1950s beliefs in modernity versus tradition as values, rather than processes, relies on insulating politics from religion as the right way to go. Nothing could be worse, if the ground realities do not reflect this belief.

Far from fading away, across the world, religion as an identity is fighting back. And this is true across all religions. The modern state needs to explicitly factor in the resilience of religion as a treasured personal belief. But just as surely, the State needs to enforce constitutional rights across all religions. In particular, the religious marginalisation of minorities, dalits, women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community come to mind. The available constitutional safeguards need to override religious biases against these communities. Upfront, visible confirmation of this intent by the leadership would be transformative.

If Haryana has this resolve then bridging the gulf between politics and religion makes eminent sense. If the moral fiber of politicians can be strengthened by religion, without diluting their constitutional commitment to safeguard the marginalised, the benefits of religious teachings far outweigh the costs. After all pragmatic Haryana filters all actions through the “value for money” lens.

But it is a thin line the legislators walk between legitimising naked majoritarianism — Haryana is 95 per cent Hindu — and spring-cleaning their minds as they run through the full gamut of multi-faith religious discourses in the Assembly. The stout bamboo lath (stick) that the archetypal Haryanvi “tau” (great uncle) is caricatured to carry is as useful to balance on a tight wire as it is to subdue dissent. It all depends on the intent with which it is wielded.

 

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Asian August 30, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/jain-monk-house-unhealthy-precedent-052

Why Planning Died in India

thebetterindia

(www.thebetterindia.com)

So what will the post-Plan India look like?

Will we veer away from the soaring flyovers; highways straight as Arjun’s arrow; high rise apartments and carefully “zoned” areas, typical of planned development and turn instead towards the squiggly, irregular lines so dear to the foreign tourist, of “charming”, little, oriental streets; buildings leaning precariously into each other; roads not wide enough to turn around a decent sized car; gloomy, shaded rooms looking inwards onto resplendent, inner courtyards with shops, factories, homes, schools and hospitals all thrown higgledy-piggledy together in the best tradition of “organic growth” fueled by private money?

Unlikely, because even the most ancient, known, Indian city-Mohenjo Daro- built in the 25th century BC was based on a rectilinear street grid (now in Pakistan) and is completely at variance with the more recent, albeit charmingly romantic, memories of traditional Indian living.

If the ancient past was at variance with recent memories, the present is rapidly evolving.  Indian values and needs are changing in response to the open economy framework adopted since 1991 and the associated diffusion of technology, competition and choice. The change is so rapid that formal institutions have yet to catch up.

Neither our laws, nor our judiciary caters to the frustration of young Indians with the plethora of “limiting”, formal traditions.

Take for instance, the case of gays, lesbians and trans-genders. Our law demonises them. But most Indians are easy about adapting to them in the same way “hands-off” manner as they good naturedly, accept foreign customs, like opening doors for women ( a custom rapidly becoming extinct in the West); as a quaint sub text of life.

Cross religion marriages is another example. It is not the norm but is generally accepted if neither family objects. Young India takes to anything modern with a vengeance. Hafiz Contractor’s lurid architecture; skin fit jeans; soppy “friends” style TV serials; head banging, electronic music, offensively fast food and horribly over-priced lounges.

Aspirational India likes multilane highways, fast bikes, week-end car holidays, fourteen hour work days, nuclear families, steel and glass buildings, swanky airports; e-commerce and want rapid change, within their lifetime.

The rapid economic growth associated with these aspirations has usually been scaled up, to encompass the middle class, only by planned investments and heavily regulated economies, as in East Asia. The downside has been rapid grow in pockets of affluence; carefully screened off; insulated from the sordid reality of the poor. Planning to skillfully create a bubble of affluence, access into which is carefully monitored for those make the bubble real but who are excluded from the bubble, except as service providers.

But if Plans and Rules cater only to the rich does it really matter if we stop planning? Even if a random approach is adopted for public investment management there is a 50% chance that investments will benefit the rich and the poor equitably. In contrast, the Impact Assessment of Planned Programs for the poor does not have a better “hit rate” so who cares?

For starters, let us recognize that the death of Planning is not new. It died a quarter of a century ago when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

First, the planned share of private sector in investment has been increasing with every plan and was at 50% of total investment in the last Plan. So irrespective of how much money the government invests, so long as the private sector meets its targets we could hit at least 50% of the growth target so long as the government ensures a facilitating investment environment.

Second, public investment spend comprises just 21% of total public expenditure every year. The rest goes towards meeting the existing recurrent liabilities of interest (33%) salaries (8%) and other operating expenditure just to feed the public “beast”. Rather than increasing public investment by increasing taxes, far better to leave the surplus with private actors and encourage them to invest.

Third, of the 21% which is available for public investment there is no easy way of knowing how much needs to go for funding completion of ongoing projects and what then is the residual fiscal space for new projects. It is telling that even the Union Government budget documents are not transparent about this important distinction in resource allocation.

The suspicion is that if Fiscal Deficit targets are to be achieved there is very limited fiscal space for new projects. A careful inventory of approved but unfinanced projects could reveal a project stock as high as investment spending over the next five years. This is not new and explains why the practice has been to spend on new projects by starving existing ones, so as to please the largest number of political constituencies.

Remember that incomplete road outside your window which rakes up columns of dust every time a motorcycle zips by? Well the reason why the engineers, you curse daily, are taking so long to complete it, is that money for a road or any other project is not allocated and frozen at the time the project is approved. Allocations lapse at the end of the year and fresh allocations made against which cash is released piece meal, depending on the relative power of conflicting political constituencies.

Fourth, planning died because Planners did not reciprocate the faith put in them by citizens. They “gold plated” projects (Commonwealth Games); failed to anticipate technological change and innovation (Public Transportation) and thereby created huge stockpiles of inefficient and unsustainable assets, financed by public debt.

PM Modi probably knows this and consequently is no hurry to devise a new planning set up. Of course every government wants to leave its “footprint” encrusted in projects. The Modi government is no different, if one is to judge from the bouquet of projects hurriedly announced and allocated notional amounts in the 2014 post-election budget.

The only hope this time around, is that there may be more emphasis on creating a facilitating environment and encouraging the private sector to invest rather than using public funds to determine the future.

The test case will be Defence Production. If the government can get the domestic and foreign private sector to invest in “make in India”, against buy back assurances, we shall be starting on an even keel. Nothing much there for the poor to cheer, except some trickle down in construction and services, but at least the middle class can look forward to more jobs and better wages.

Liberals; smell the coffee please

police

(photo credit: http://www.thehindu.com)

Liberals and human rights advocates are a queasy bunch with no stomach to face up to the honest truth that effective governance implies a better informed and more intrusive government.

Light handed regulation” is the mantra of neo-liberal economics. But such regulation fails unless the regulator can monitor compliance with the rule of law by acquiring more and better, real time data on individuals and business entities.

Take the simple case of ensuring that shop workers are not exploited by owners and get at least one weekly holiday and enjoy restricted, daily, working hours. The “heavy handed” manner this is done is by shutting entire markets down on a specific day and prescribing shop opening and closing hours. The “light handed regulation” option could give shop keepers the liberty to set their own working hours. But to protect workers’ rights, effectively, it would need to generate a real time centrally networked, database of cash transactions- to validate shop working hours and a bio-metric clock- doing the same for employees working hours.  How does this square with the Liberal preference for “small government”?

Consider the case of self-assessment by tax payers. Regulation cannot get lighter than that. But to be effective, it has to be coupled with predictable and significant sanctions against deviant behavior. This means generating a database, on each tax payer, comprising an effective audit trail of all financial transactions and a tax agent randomly trawling this data, using “red flags”, so that deviance can be detected and brought to trial.

Tracking phone call, social media, emails and physical movement of individuals all becomes part of “Big data” which needs to be captured to provide the information required for credible sanctions systems. This is especially necessary, in democracies like India, where all sanctions are appealable and hence must be backed by “judicial quality evidence”.

“Big data” does have unintended but positive outcomes. The clamour, amongst the elite,  for the status symbol of publicly provided, security guards can be greatly reduced, if “security” comes with a GPS enabled, real time, tracking of location and real time reporting, via a smart phone app, of whom the VIP is meeting as a routine procedure.

No Liberal would object to the installation of CCTV cameras where they live, to protect their lives and property. But this comes with the potential downside of intrusive government. Taking cameras closer to people generates “Big data”. Its value lies in the ability to constantly trawl it to prevent crime (or even natural disasters), by identifying “hot spots” and patterns of criminal behavior and to bring criminals to book. Constraints on individual privacy are inevitable. Also there is bound to be misuse, despite checks to prevent gaming; for example the illegal use of individual information, acquired for security purposes, to black mail individuals. There will always be “insiders”, who could trade off any inherent inefficiency in keeping “big data” secure.

Is Edward Snowden a traitor or an American hero? His country folk were divided on the fine point of the “tipping point” between an “insiders” duty to guard official secrets versus the citizens moral responsibility to fight “Big Government”. There is a stark choice between ensuring security and preserving individual freedom. Too much individual freedom (say the right to religious beliefs which may even bar or restrict social integration, as is available in India and the US) can be as negative as too little individual freedom (China, Russia) in the name of national security.

But the flash points where security collides with individual freedom are more often due to “entrenched privilege” being threatened, than the high ground of morality being squashed.  Indian Liberals, who willingly submit to racial profiling and body searches at US and UK immigration, are outraged if an Indian security personnel, so much as dares to question them about what they are carrying in their bags, whilst boarding domestic flights, trains or buses.

Of course most Liberals in India belong to the elite. For them the State and its officials are only to be suffered, not recognised. There is an implicit sense of “entitlement” amongst the elite, who expect to be “served”, even if they dodge their taxes. Much of this springs from the unfortunate spectacle, of fawning subordinates around a preening public official, in much the same manner, as courtiers may have supplicated before our erstwhile Maharajas.

Liberals mourn that there is too little reliance on “trust” and too much emphasis on “surveillance”. But isn’t it ironic, that in the US: the birth place of Liberal policy practices and “small government”, it is “legally enforceable contracts”, which are the life blood of social and even personal interaction. A society governed by “contracts” by definition, is a society which does trust anyone, including the State, to do the right thing.

It is the same with the theory of incentives. The fundamental basis of neo-liberal policy practice is to embed the correct “incentives” in regulations, which then elicit the desired behavioural outcomes associated with the desired results. The provision of artificially embedded incentives, as neo-Liberal policy practice seeks to provide, inevitably come with intrusive metrics of measurement because what is not measured can neither be sanctioned nor rewarded. Regulatory intrusion, big data and “big” government are the inevitable consequence.

In direct contrast, are systems which rely on “belief”, “religion” or “spirituality”. These seek to bind people to a higher morality and blind them to the needs of individuality. Communism is one such “belief” which relies on the morality of the State and not contracts. Of course, it also comes with high levels of State control and intrusive oversight by a bureaucracy of the faithful, exactly as any other religion.

The Liberal position becomes even more laughable when we consider the available “best practice” on poverty reduction; a key objective for developing economies. “Tightly targeted, cash transfers” to the poor is the latest mantra. But these have to be preceded by identification of the poor; close monitoring of their locations and current incomes. In fact, what this requires is a national database of the entire population of India so that we can segregate the poor from the non- poor; citizens from non-citizens and similarly along any other targeted classification (gender, caste, religion or spatial location). 25% of the Indian population is migratory. This requires “spatial location” enabled assessment of their current economic status since poverty levels vary across states. You can’t get bigger data than all these demographics on 1.25 billion people.

The loss of individual privacy is embedded in the logic of extensive digitization of information. Think of the benefits from being able to identify people uniquely; record their demographics (age, marital status, gender, health and education metrics) securely; store transactions securely and access the stored information instantly. If it is alright for the government to be intrusive versus the poor, why is it so horrible for the “privacy” of the rest to be invaded? The much touted right of the individual “to be forgotten” can exist versus other individuals (though how even that could be enforced is not known) but it must never exist against the State.

“Big data” and a better informed government are here to stay. Liberals should wake up and smell the coffee.

Hate and its adherents

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Hate is a powerful emotion. A sense of rejection, powerlessness, consistent negative discrimination or perceived persecution; any of these can invoke it. In India it is a common, albeit not a publicly expressed sentiment. But it lurks very close to the surface.

Who hates whom, is an easily answered question. But why the poor do not hate the rich remains a puzzle.

Whilst income inequality between the lowest income earner in the middle class (defined as a family of five earning more than Rs. 20,000/- per month) and the very wealthy is high and rising, what binds the rich and the middle class together is common aspirations.

My flat may be just a studio space and not a mansion. I may have only a cooler and not central air conditioning. I may travel by “reserved sleeper” rather than private jet. I may drive a scooter (with a Jaguar or a Mercedes logo on the front wheel cover) and not a Bentley. My family’s weekend outing may be to India Gate and not Chiang Mai but I empathize and fantasize with and emulate the very rich. We go to similar schools, read the same magazines and watch the same shows and movies. We wear the same clothes and have similar tastes and habits even if we do not have similar expense accounts. The “imitation rich” fit seamlessly, if sometime tenuously, into the world of the “real rich”.

In contrast the divide between the poor and the “rich and the middle” is deep and unbridgeable. Functional illiteracy is the killer, as is the absence of family safety nets for ill health, accidental death, fire or joblessness, which are often the involuntary entry points into a downward spiral of hopelessness or hate. The Naxalites earlier and the Maoists now, seek to politicize this incipient hatred of the poor for the oppressive rich.

But neither have succeeded. Blame it on our passive culture; the stickiness of traditional identities or on democracy which lets a murky light of hope shine through. Credit it to our bureaucracy and judiciary which, albeit creaky, still manage to crank out basic justice and fair play.  But the most potent reason why the poor do not hate the rich is because they have been skilfully taught not to.

They have been manipulated by the Indian elite, across caste, religion and region, to sublimate their incipient hate for the empowered rich into hate for the “other poor” who belong to a different caste, religion or region. This zero sum game appeals instantly. More for “them” means less for “me” and vice versa

Much of the notional “plurality” of Indian politics (regional; caste or religion based political parties) derives from this cynical use of “traditional identities” by politicians as electoral instruments to create “vote banks”. The result is an “empowered” group of elites in each caste; religion and region and in the many sub groups that coexist. In this three dimensional matrix Dalit/Christians/from the North are differentiated from Dalit/Muslims from the North. Ahirs, Kurmis and Jats view Dalits and each other, as competitors for state largesse. Sunni Muslims out maneuver Shias.  Bengal cannot see eye to eye with Tamil Nadu and Kashmir remains in splendid isolation.

Meanwhile, the elites of each of these groups share business interests; frequently co-habit; enjoy bonhomie and populate a common power network of amazing reach and strength. It is this trans caste, religion and region elite which has been the real gainers of Indian democracy, whilst studiously keeping at bay the real question- what is in it for the poor, of which around 70% (over 800 million people) earn less than US$ 2 per day.

The AAP has come closest to spontaneously mobilizing the disempowered. But post their “death wish” renunciation of power in Delhi their appeal has shrunk. It is now down to primarily the urban poor, who were justifiably impressed by the instant reduction in petty corruption and harassment, which had become the hallmark of State interaction with the disempowered in Delhi. But AAP is very far from being a party of national revival.

The Congress certainly has the latent potential. But it is constrained by the suffocating management control of the party, by the Nehru scions. Whilst they may deride Modi for sublimating the BJP in his own image, right down to his signature “white lotus”, one detects traces of envy. He has pipped them to the post, in their own game of “family takes all”.

This leaves the BJP as the only national party with some element of inner party democracy. However, their natural bias is towards the North and the West regions and within that to industry and trade. Also the direct linkage with the RSS does not help. A national party cannot be aligned to any one culture or religion and the BJP needs to travel a long road in that direction.

Modi shall be PM on Modi day- May 16, 2014. His incentive would be to remain PM till 2024. For someone, as savvy as him, surely the path to political longevity cannot lie through sectarian strife or caste wars. Yes, growth, jobs and better public services will be on his agenda but so must Kejriwal style, visible outreach and responsive security for the poor.   

 

 

Reclaiming a strong India

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What is common between the ongoing events in Crimea (2014), the British action against Argentina in the Falklands under Maggie Thatcher (1982), the war against Tamils in Sri Lanka (1982 to 2009), Kashmir (1947 onwards) and Sikkim (1975)?

All five incidents are text book case studies on the dos and don’ts for the exercise of State power. They illustrate that when the chips are down strong nations protect themselves rather than bank upon the charity of others.

Russia has successfully reversed a partisan decision taken in 1954 to cede Crimea to Ukraine. Possibly, at the time, it was unimaginable that Ukraine could be anything but Soviet territory. Despite threatening noises from Europe and the US, Russia has gone ahead and implemented its decision to reunite Crimea with Russia.

Maggie Thatcher sunk an Argentinian ship in 1982, in a show of jingoistic aggression, to end the armed invasion of the Falklands (population 2300 people located 500 km from the East Coast of Argentina and 13,000 km from the UK) by Argentina. The UK has never needed to assert force ever again. Had they, as a civilized nation, instead requested the UN to get the Argentine army evicted, the Union Jack may have never flown thereafter, in Stanley, the capital of the Falklands.

Sri Lanka bludgeoned the Tamil Tigers and indeed every Tamil in Sri Lanka, into submission with sheer brute force in 2009, thereby resolving the problem of Tamil terrorism at least for the near term. They did this after twenty six years of a low key war of attrition in which they got little support from the World but which sapped the economic growth. Since the war ended in 2009, GDP growth spurted to 8% per annum in 2010 and 2011 and 6% in 2012, despite the adverse international economic environment.

Conversely, half way through the process of evicting the Pakistani intruders in 1947, India approached the UN, to resolve the vexed issue of Pakistan’s illegal capture of around 40% of Kashmir. More than six decades later, Kashmir remains on the boil and absorbs significant fiscal resources and executive time at the expense of the Indian taxpayer. In sharp contrast, India absorbed Sikkim (previously a monarchy) in 1975, based on the demands of democratic reformers in Sikkim. The results of the referendum in favour of joining India are disputed, but Sikkim is today an integral part of democratic India.

The common lesson from all five cases is that governments need strong and specific domestic mandates and collegial decision making, to be decisive in national interest. How can these pre-conditions for strong governments be fostered?

First, despite the happy ending in Sikkim, in matters international, we must not blindly trust our leaders to do the right thing. We need large dollops of sunshine on decision making in international affairs to grow unanimity. This needs to go beyond closed door meetings and briefings of inter-party parliamentary committees. Issues and options need to be debated publicly; risks and rewards assessed objectively and publicly, so that we aam admis also get to know and understand why we are spending the money we are, on securing our interests overseas.

Maybe we do not actually spend enough and more needs to be spent. The point is that currently only a rarified few know what our overseas interests actually are and what we pay to protect them. Even on a “need to know” basis, this charmed circle of foreign policy wonks, diplomats and select politicians needs to be significantly expanded.

Second, vibrant democracies do not survive without a strong sense of nationalism. The World is waiting, with bated breath, for China to fall apart as it becomes more “democratic”. Being nationalistic goes beyond the tokenism of paying respect to the national flag or standing to attention when the national anthem is played. At a very basic level, Nationalism is a warm glow than can be felt, but nor easily measured. It means taking pride in what we have collectively achieved and demonstrating faith that, where we have collectively failed, we can and shall prevail.

These feelings are linked to what an individual considers to be her primary identity. This sense of national identity is very difficult to foster in a culturally heterogeneous country, like ours. Even the mighty Soviet Union failed because it remained, at heart, Russian. India is more fragile than the US, which is at least, bound by English, Coke and McDonalds. We are bound together by “Hindi movies, momos, idlis and butter chicken” but are more like the European Union, without a common language, religion or race to link us.

Like the EU then, we must be bound by strong and mutually beneficial economic ties and a common economic future. Every segment of India must perceive a tangible benefit in remaining Indian, if we are to survive together. Particular attention needs to be paid to the well-being of border areas, which are the most susceptible to dissidence.  

Third, we must reject the mindless enforcement of “National norms” in matters social and cultural. We can learn from the manner in which the Indian joint family has evolved rather than splintered in the face of urban modernity. Today, parents, even the doting, die-hard, joint-family addicts, advise their children to set up a separate kitchen, ideally on the floor above or below them as a second best option for bonding, which is better than a complete split in the family.

In the national context, this means that each segment of society (the intersections of caste, religion, race and region) must get the physical and fiscal space to manage their own affairs and evolve their own individual cultural norms, at their own pace, to cope with the stress of modern life. There can be no single pattern for evolving Indian cultural norms because no such pan-Indian norms exist.

Fourth, we must learn to distinguish between a strong State and a “Big State”. Typically despots run big governments, with large numbers employed in the security establishment, because they manage the State irrespective of the will of the people. Democracies are meant to be aligned to the will of the people and hence can have lean governments.

Large governments can be slimmed down if they choose to decentralize decision making and the use of fiscal resources to user groups. Technology now enables cost effective, real time oversight over decentralized decision making. Red flags and check points can be built into electronic public financial management systems, to avoid misallocation of budgets; budget over-runs or gross mis-procurement.

Growth is slowing down across the World. Countries need to jostle within a limited pie to enlarge their share of economic growth. Only the best shall survive.

India is too large, too heterogeneous and too democratic to escape subtle economic sabotage by competitors. Existing social fissures can be deepened into grand canyons of hate. Such subversion can only be neutralized by the collective will of our citizens. But are we sensitizing our citizens to this risk and to their role in managing it?   

Myopic Urbanization

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Divisive economics is worse than divisive politics. Proponents of Urbanization are the loudest proponents of economic divisiveness. The vision they subscribe to is of shinning cities connected by corridors of gold, glittering like diamonds in a waste land of the rest of Bharat. Their justification is that the rest of the World has adopted this approach. But India constitutes 17% of the World’s population and around 33% of the World’s poor people. It is for us to define “good practice” in development, not to blindly follow international examples, which do not relate to the context of India.

A second “best” defense of “urbanization wallahs” is that it is “inevitable” so best to plan for it. The “inevitability” is related, yet again, to the manner in which growth has happened in the past and not to the specific prospects for India in the future. The fact that even by 2039 only 50% of the population is expected to be in “urban areas” is glossed over, whilst making the inevitability argument. In any case we must not succumb, further than we already have, to the “everything is written” syndrome. It is for Indians to write their own destiny.

Here are three reasons why a divisive focus on urbanization is retrogressive.

First, people tend to fall into the category the State creates for them. Caste, gender, religion are traditional fault lines created by “Authority” such as it was defined since ancient times. None of these provide any progressive social value today. The modern World identity of Urban versus Rural is as corrosive.

The needs of a shopkeeper in a village or a city are much the same; a serviceable road linked to the habitations of their bulk suppliers and customers; electricity for extended business hours, storage of perishable goods and medicines; security of life and property; a collection service to collect the trash generated by customers and sanitation facilities; customers with money in their pockets and a bank in which to safely put her money and access credit; telecommunication links to remain in contact with current events and clean water. Why would we want to discriminate in the standards of supply of these public goods between urban and rural areas? By creating “urban” and “rural” labels we are perversely creating a modern fault lines around which antagonistic interest groups start to coalesce. Please stop this. We have enough fault lines as it is. It doesn’t help when power elites benefit from the touting of urbanization.

Second, sustainable development is indivisible. You cannot steal from the future to make the present pleasant. You cannot fatten the urbanite at the expense of the rural poor. In our democratic society, you cannot cordon-off urban development from rural prosperity as China can and does. Urban centric development is self-corroding due to unlimited in-migration from rural areas in much the same way as international immigrants storm the national borders of developed countries, spawning land and migration mafias and vote banks. Cities and rural areas are organically linked as a sugar factory is linked to the cane fields; a steel factory to the iron ore mines and an electric power generating station to the coal mines, the water or solar, wind or marine energy harvesting area.

 Area based “indivisible” development optimizing on the comparative advantage of each development area has been a standard development tool. Why have we abandoned it? Let us instead abandon the decrepit slogans of the past and opt for integrated development which maximizes value generation using resources which are available locally whilst benefiting from India’s vast, common, domestic market and the liberalization of international trade. Innovation in India need not be limited to cities it has to be a fundamental credo of growth.

Third, the literature tells us cities benefit from the economics of agglomeration. That is why incomes are higher in cities and businesses happy to locate there. Population density is higher so it is cheaper to provide public services. Product markets are larger so scale economies kick in for suppliers and effective competition can pass on the benefits to consumers. Finally, the human element; traditional identities (religion, caste and gender) are replaced by modern identities in the anonymity of cities; professional human networks leverage human capacity and aspirations change. In a recent survey, two thirds of Lady Shri Ram College alumni (admittedly an elite Delhi college for women pulling in the best) viewed their professional identity as the primary one, even over gender.

All these are indeed the virtues of cities, but should they also not make the cities self-financed? Do they justify the subsidies provided by the State to keep cities alive and humming at quality-of-life standards far above rural areas? Collection of user charges even in metros is rarely more than 40% of the cost of providing services. Revenue collected by cities from their own sources (by taxing residents and from their real estate and other assets) only meets slightly more than 50% of their expenditure. The rest is grants from the Government of the related State or the Government of India. Development schemes which are off-budget for Cities but are directly funded by the Central Government, like the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission further add to their kitty of goodies. A full accounting of the actual distribution of the government’s resources between urban and rural areas, including expenditure on education, health, science and technology, industry would further skew the allocation in favour of cities, where the elite reside. This resource allocation bias for cities is indefensible.

Relying on urbanization for economic growth is an end-of-the-pipe option, like a housewife resorting to RO filtration to drink clean water as against the State cleaning the rivers and other ground water sources. It is expensive and exclusionary.

Ignoring the human cost of migration from the villages to cities, in search for work, including the life cycle social costs of predominantly male migration, in large numbers, is scary.

Lastly, in the context of the recent democratic trend of targeted social disruption as an instrument of political power, cities are powder kegs waiting to be blown up. A “soft” State, like India, cannot cope with the unleashing of such violent and disruptive, social pressures.   

 

Hypocritical India

 

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Indians are affably argumentative (Amartya Sen, 2005). Less likably, the Indian State is intensely hypocritical. It remains very medieval despite its veneer of modernism.

Examples of medievalism abound. We value Indian lives very low. No minister has ever resigned because citizens, in their charge, starved to death or died due to lack of emergency medical aid or if large numbers of students fail to pass in public schools. Corruption is a leitmotif of even the simplest public transaction like lodging a First Information Report at a police station (this is something which should even be possible by email or sms or whatsapp); avoiding getting arrested for drunk driving; getting a copy of case records from the lower courts or seeking protection from physical harassment and assault.

The best illustration of lingering medievalism and nascent modernism is the conscious use of hypocrisy by the State, to keep alive the hope of change without disturbing the status quo. There are many such State hypocrisies but five major ones stand out.

The biggest hypocrisy is the Constitutional provision that religion does not matter for State policy formulation and execution. Everything points to a different truth. The Shah Bano episode (1986) is the best example of how religion and politics have been inseparable. In this case the Supreme Court granted maintenance to a divorced Muslim woman (as is the right of any Indian woman) but the government rescinded this progressive judgment through a perverse, new law to appease orthodox Muslim sentiment. Meanwhile, to placate orthodox Hindu sentiment, which was being fanned by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a Hindu rights outfit), it also opened the gates of the disputed site of the Babri Masjid which had been locked by the government since 1885 to preserve the status quo on counter claims to possession rights by Muslims and Hindus. Incidentally 1885 is also the year the Indian National Congress was founded. By 1986 (a century later) the Congress was not averse to play the communal card with an eye to the 1989 elections.

Other more visible “red flags” of regressive religious politics are the low pan-Indian representation of Muslims in government; the increasing ghettoization of Muslims even in new urban areas; blatantly pro-Muslim or Hindu political parties and decreasing levels of productive social interaction between the two major communities since 1947. Let’s face it. The religious cleavage exists in an antagonistic form and is increasing. It is only once we accept this that we can get to talk about how to bridge it.

The second big hypocrisy is that all Indians are created equal. Democracy and the positive affirmation (reservations) policy have solidified caste much more than the dilution effect from urbanization. If Pandit Nehru saw Sardar Patel as a biased Hindu he would be shocked at the manner in which political leaders today pander to narrow interests of backward caste and Dalit vote banks. After religion, caste is the next most significant political identity of Indians. The majority of Indians wed within their caste and vote for caste candidates. Indians are not born equal. They struggle to overcome the inherited, rigid social and economic barriers of caste and very few succeed, despite the Constitution and a range of laws prohibiting caste based biases.

The third big hypocrisy (which we share with much of the World) is that women are treated equal to men. They are not and never have been. The good news here is that since this is an international problem, the state of play is fairly advanced. Policy, law and programs are working to empower women economically in the hope that social change will follow; to measure their levels of satisfaction; to assess results and to provide special protection to them in the transition period.

The fourth big hypocrisy is that poverty is reducing at a satisfactory rate. This is far from true. Even worse, asserting this statistically, as the government does, lulls us into believing that following the current path and simply doing more of what we do already, will get us to a poverty free India. It cannot.

Average per capita income needs to triple in real terms and inequality to reduce significantly before we can even claim to have found the correct direction. Some measurable indicators are a consistent growth above 8% per year; a more equal sharing between the rich and 70% of the rest, of the benefits of incremental growth (we don’t monitor this periodically) and the rate of job creation in the formal economy.

The fifth hypocrisy is that the existing governance architecture of Parliamentary Democracy is suitable for India. It is not. Both Parliament and Cabinet have ceased to play their intended role as checks on personal aggrandizement and protecting minority interests. This has been true for State Governments over the last three decades but over the past decade even the GOI Cabinet has become the poodle of Party bosses. The sanctity and effectiveness of Parliament is eroded by the behavior of lumpen elements, more familiar with brute force than reasoned argument or moral persuasion. Corruption vitiates executive decision making to the extent that the judiciary becomes the aam admi’s “de-facto government” for seeking redress.

How can this familiar tale of woe be altered?

First what is not measured and recorded cannot be dealt with. Enumerate caste/tribe and religion in the census so we know the numbers; the spatial distribution and their wellbeing. Map caste and religion data on a publicly available GIS down to the village and urban ward level so that government interventions can be calibrated to local social norms and results assessed by third parties. Assess poverty levels bi-annually using mobile based rapid data collection instruments to better relate schemes (like the Right to Food or the Right to Work) to poverty reduction outcomes.

Second review the existing incentive structures for diluting religion, caste, gender inequality, poverty and improving the functioning of the executive, parliament and judiciary.

Caste based affirmative action (reservations) clearly perpetuates an “us versus them” psychology. Diluting it by adding poverty criterion, requires more data and monitoring, but can lead to the dominance of more modern pressure groups like professional affiliations (farmers, business owners, employees), locational interests (Biharis or Mumbaikars) or ideological solidarity (environmentalists, big or small government advocates, gay rights advocates).

All government programs and projects should be evaluated for their poverty reduction potential before approval by the government and income enhancement targets fixed. Achievement against targets must be monitored by third parties with the results made public. This will reduce pork (roads to nowhere) and gold plating (capital heavy projects which do nothing for jobs-why not let private business do these?).

The Constitution should be revised to completely separate the Executive from Parliament. The PM and her deputy to be directly elected with minimum vote shares prescribed in each constituency to ensure inclusion. The ministerial executive team to be nominated by the PM and endorsed by the Parliament. The internal emergency provisions should similarly require the endorsement of parliament to protect state government autonomy from an aggressive PM. The 2014 elections are being fought in any case on the basis of “US President like” identities.

This simple change can ensure that the PM is popularly elected and is not just a “shoo-in”. It can also  improve the quality of MPs by getting rid of those who contest for Parliament seats (often by paying for them) only as an avenue for eventually getting into lucrative executive positions. Legislative ability requires skills in law and social sciences apart from a feel for the local interests an MP represents. Executive ability requires specialization and narrow experience. The system must present separate choices to the electorate and to those desiring to enter politics.

The bottom line is to transit from being an affable but hypocritical India to a more results oriented and honest India. In the modern world time is money and the long route to poverty reduction whilst changing incrementally is costly. Social stability is a merit good in the Indian plural context. But the price for social stability must be paid by the rich and not the poor or the marginalized.   

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