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.

These days, there are well-organized gangs that take on themselves the responsibility of sending Indian currency across the border to a neighbouring country, where it gets converted into euros and dollars and gets sent to Switzerland or other tax havens. Several of these gangs - which service top politicians and officials - are also active in funding the narcotics trade and those with links to international terrorism. However, as yet no action is being taken to check the “hawala” trade, presumably because those who would have to initiate such action are themselves its beneficiaries. When he was Union Finance Minister, the present Home Minister (Palaniappan Chidambaram) got passed a slew of restrictive laws and regulations designed to give total discretion to the official machinery rather than to the citizen, exactly as was the case when the East India Company ruled the Subcontinent. Chidambaram (who is the darling of corrupt officials because the rules designed by him have added so much to their illegal incomes) justified his harsh measures by saying that they would “eliminate corruption and Black Money”. Instead, both have multiplied, although recently Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has earned the ire of some within his political party by seeking to bring to book at least a few of the many corrupt VVIPs.

Official corruption has become the greatest security threat to India, thanks to the access that the “hawala” trade brings to drug smugglers and terrorists to influential officials and policepersons. Agencies monitoring the telephone conversations of the powerful are aware that fully 60% of the top thousand people in Official India may be condoning or even participating in activity that severely weakens the country. Take as an example the Telecom sector. While China has restricted access to its market to foreign players in this vital field, thereby creating domestic giants such as Huawei, India has opened its doors to all comers, without seeking reciprocal advantage in the other’s market. Thus, while Indian companies get blocked from operating in China, the entities of the PRC have a free run in India. Although much is being made of India’s Information Technology prowess, the fact is that increased government regulation on domestic players and unfettered access to foreign players means that competitors such as the Philippines or even China may grab the market share now dominated by Indian companies. Unless innovative steps such as “IT” (an India-Taiwan partnership that fuses this country’s software skills with that economic power’s hardware excellence) get taken, India is likely to get overtaken very soon, as it already has in so many other fields. It needs to be remembered that in 1950,when Jawaharlal Nehru had been Prime Minister for three years, the per capita income of Taiwan was 30% of India’s. Today, it is twenty times higher. This is the cost of corruption to the people of India.

As it is only those involved in illegal acts that generate Black Money, and as politics in India is heavily dependent on unaccounted money, drug smugglers and others active in the “hawala” trade create a network of NGOs and other “overground” organisations that are used to link up with officials and politicians. As a consequence, activity that would lead to immediate discovery and incarceration in the US goes unpunished in India. Because of such VVIP connivance with anti-social and at times anti-national elements, problems in India fester and reach a debilitating stage before public pressure forces some remedial action. So dense is the fog of misinformation and disinformation emitted by the multiple agencies operating on behalf of vested interests that the public in India are often misled, the way the US public was persuaded that Saddam Hussein was the main backer of Al Qaeda, when in fact Osama bin Laden hated the secular Iraqi strongman. Through NGOs and other means, efforts get made to create a diversionary hubbub, whenever a few honest officials get close to uncovering real mischief. If despite such handicaps, India is becoming one of the top economies of the globe, the credit goes to the ordinary people of the country, who are working hard and educating their children. Will the vast web of colonial-era restrictions that permeate India ever get removed? Not unless a ruthless reformer becomes the Prime Minister. During 1991-96, P V Narasimha Rao sought to make a few reforms, but made missteps that finished him off politically. The first was to allow the destruction of the Babri Masjid by a frenzied mob in 1992,despite having more than twelve thousand armed police nearby. The images of the destruction of the Babri Masjid sent shock waves through the Muslim community in India, as did the Gujarat riots ten years later. The first ensured the defeat of the Congress Party in 1996,when Muslims left the party in millions. The second weakened the BJP-led coalition, by driving Muslims away from the BJP’s coalition partners in favour of the Congress Party.

The other misstep of Rao was to cut off some of the huge volumes of central assistance that the Hindi-speaking states were receiving. Although tax revenues came mostly from the non-Hindi speaking regions, most of the collections were spent on Hindi states during the time when the Nehru family ran the country. When Rao sought to create a balance between collections and disbursements, the country’s first South Indian PM antagonized the Hindi belt, whose leaders within the Congress Party (led by N D Tiwari and Arjun Singh) harassed him mercilessly from then onwards, leading to his disgrace even after death, when his coffin was refused entry into Congress Headquarters and had to remain on the pavement after the former PM passed away in 2005. Rao was the only former PM who was not given a cremation site in Delhi, his coffin being sent away to Andhra Pradesh. Apart from the anger of the Hindi belt and the Muslims, there was also the fact that the heir to the Nehru dynasty, Sonia Gandhi, detested Rao Judging by the experience of Rao and the present travails of Manmohan Singh, reform in India is politically a dangerous business. And yet, someday, the Red Tape that is stifling the country will need to get cut, else the promise of India will remain just that. A promise.

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