Friday 27 August 2010

A people drowning in red-tape (PO)

M D Nalapat

Under its energetic Vice-Chancellor, Seyed Hasnain, the venerable University of Hyderabad has sought to improve both its image as well as its performance. As a part of the process of modernization that he has initiated, the Vice-Chancellor decided to award honorary doctorates to mathematical wizard David Mumford and World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand. In India, the Ministry of Human Resource Development seeks to control every operation of a university except perhaps staff visits to the canteen, hence its permission was sought for the award of the honour. Strangely, some within the gargantuan HRD Ministry bureaucracy objected to the award of a doctorate to “that foreigner Anand”, forgetting both that Anand was an Indian citizen and that the other awardee was British. In the arrogant style copied from earlier colonial masters of India, the ministry demanded that Anand “prove that he was Indian”, a step that enraged the chess grandmaster’s many fans in India. Finally, a media outcry led to the HRD Minister himself apologizing for the error. HRD Minister Kapil Sibal is a well-meaning and capable son of the Punjab who is seeking to unshackle Indian education from a ministry that retards rather than promotes human resource development, but instead finding that the reverse is taking place, with more and more controls getting established.

Although the HRD ministry has, in the way usual with the Indian bureaucracy, been secretive about just who was the (hitherto faceless) official who sought to question the nationality of “Vishy”, hopefully this information will soon become public knowledge, once Right to Information queries get filed and processed. However, it is unlikely that the culprit will be punished, or even rebuked, for seeking to humiliate an Indian icon. While power is plentiful in the Indian system of governance, accountability is almost totally absent. For example, none of the many officials who slept for four years over the corruption now exposed in the organisation of the Commonwealth Games has been subject to disciplinary action. Only a handful connected with the Games themselves have been forcibly sent on leave or retired, mainly to ensure that the public stain does not reach higher than them. A country that has 200 million people going to bed hungry each night is estimated to have spent $6 billion on a sporting extravaganza that seems likely to get drenched in unseasonal monsoon showers. Certainly, several well-connected people must have gained immense benefit from such a waste of taxpayer rupees.

Friday 20 August 2010

With courage, Pak people face Nature (PO)

M D Nalapat

Unlike the catastrophe in Haiti, which was extensively covered in international media, there has been much less coverage of the recent floods in Pakistan, caused by unprecedented rains. In Peshawar, on a single day (July 28) nearly 318 millimetres of rain fell, while the previous record was 217 millimetres - in an entire month. Stretching over 1500 miles and affecting nearly 25 million people, comparisons have been made between this flood and Cyclone Bhola in 1970, which hit then East Pakistan. However, while Bhola led to an estimated 300,000 deaths, the loss from the present disaster has thus far been contained at less than 2000 directly dead, although illnesses and accidents can push this figure higher during the coming weeks. Thus far less than $500 million have been pledged by foreign countries for flood relief, although close friends of Pakistan such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia can be expected to match the US contribution, thus far the biggest. Both governments need to launch an immediate appeal within their citizens to donate money for the floods, funds that should flow through agencies that have a good track record of effectiveness in their operations.

Where in 1970 it was East Pakistan that was hit, this time around the primary damage has been done in the Baloch and Pashtun territories of Pakistan. Major infrastructure has been destroyed, and livelihoods lost. The international community will need to locate $ 5 billion of civilian assistance each year for three years, if Pakistan is to regain the assets lost in a few deadly weeks last month. Although Pakistan’s main ally, the US, has given large amounts of assistance since the 1950s, the overwhelming bulk of this has gone to the military, a situation that is expected to continue under the Pakistan-friendly trinity of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and CIA chief Leon Panetta, two of whom are loyalists of Bill Clinton, while the Defense Secretary is a George W Bush pick. Although Candidate Obama sought to distance himself from the Washington DC Beltway, once elected President, he ensured that his administration is 70% Clinton, 20% Bush and 10% Obama in its composition, one reason why the gloss seems to have disappeared from Barack Obama, who promised change but has thus far delivered a warmed-over version of the past two decades.

Friday 13 August 2010

Sonia Gandhi scripts Kashmir policy (PO)

M D Nalapat

Far and away the most powerful person in India, Congress President and United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi wields the most power within the Manmohan Singh government, and in any conflict of views between her and the PM, it is the latter who usually gives way, because of Gandhi’s total control over the legislative and organisational machinery of the Congress Party. With a preference for meeting important visitors in the book-lined study of her government-provided home at 10 Janpath in New Delhi, the “CP” is invariably gracious and warm to her V VIP guests, though she always makes her own preferences known, and expects that they will be carried out. In the matter of policy towards Kashmir, the CP’s lead advisor is regarded as being Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah,a close friend of the Peoples Democratic Party heiress Mehbooba Mufti. Very different from his father, a distinguished officer in the Indian army known for his leftist views and strong sense of secular nationalism, the suave Wajahat believes that the Government of India should walk an extra thousand miles in order to satisfy the aspiration of the Sunnis in the Kashmir Valley for “Azaadi”. He regards it as part of Indian diversity that a regime get established in Kashmir that would bring into its governance structure several of the elements of Sharia law, and where the Sunnis of the Valley would put in place policy that gives them the central place in the entire state, despite the presence within it of a majority of Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Shias, Gujjars and others.

Given the close proximity of CEC Habibullah to Gandhi, it is no surprise that this is the very policy that the Congress Prime Minister is seeking to pursue in Kashmir. Three days ago, Manmohan Singh went on national television to deliver a speech that even mentioned the word “azaadi”, although he had to suffix it with the remark that any solution had to be within the confines of the Constitution of India. It was the last remark that led to the numerous pro-Pakistan elements within the Kashmir polity rubbishing the PM’s offer, and demanding nothing less than a Kosovo-style independence from Delhi. Indeed, several within the Valley believe that it is only a matter of time before NATO forces - together with troops from the OIC countries - land in Kashmir and give them the freedom they so passionately seek. While such expectations had sharply subsided during the period when the BJP-led government was in power, the “Habibullah Line” on Kashmir that is being pursued since 2004 has led once again to a steep rise in the number of those who believe that if there is enough mayhem on the streets, international intervention will follow. Chance remarks by foreign diplomats - who seem drawn to Kashmir the way ants swarm towards honey - have only fed such expectations, thereby resulting in the present massive show of Street Power by tens of thousands of Valley Sunnis.

Friday 6 August 2010

India’s Corruption Games 2010 (PO)

M D Nalapat

The only two countries in the world that each have a billion-plus population are India and China, and there is corruption in both. However, the difference is that even dishonest officials in China seek ways of implementing approved policies, in the process, earning some money on the side. However, in India, so far as the huge army of corrupt politicians and officials is concerned, the entire objective of decision-making is to earn money. In the process, if some good gets done, that is entirely accidental. So, whereas in China the making of money is a by-product, with the focus being on ensuring results, in the case of India, results are the (rare) by-product. The sole objective behind each decision is to make money, as much of it as is possible.

During the first five years of the present Sonia Gandhi-led United Progressive Front government in New Delhi, then Union Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram (now Union Home Minister) greatly increased the powers of the tax collection and regulatory agencies, so that these days, they are as operationally unaccountable to the public as was the case during the years when India was ruled by the East India Company. The stock market regulator - the Securities and Exchange Board of India, or SEBI - passes a slew of orders that either bar some companies from doing any business or help other entities in theirs. On record, there seems to be very little justification for either step, so clearly the actual reasons are such as to be invisible to the naked eye. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) curries goodwill in financial markets in the European Union (the only location that the RBI’s colonial-era higher-level team respond to) by repeatedly raising interest rates and accelerating the very inflation that they profess to reduce.