Saturday 21 January 2017

Indians need their own 21st century space (Sunday Guardian)

By M D Nalapat

The hold of government and its agencies over India’s citizens is pervasive.

At the core of colonial thinking is the belief that the people being ruled are immature and are, indeed, almost idiots in their lack of capacity to take independent decisions. Thus the British colonial government passed laws and imposed regulations that covered almost every human activity besides breathing. By this means, individual initiative was steadily reduced and a culture of dependence on the state and its minions was developed, that still thrives today. An example is the “Swachh Bharat” programme. By levying taxes in its name, Government of India has inadvertently created the public premise that this is just another government-led initiative, when the reality is that only wholehearted participation by the people can assure the success of the mission to ensure a cleaner India. Both by levying taxes in the name of Swachh Bharat and by choosing mascots not from among ordinary citizens but from within a list of celebrities, this imaginative campaign is at risk of being ignored by the people. Such indeed has been the fate of almost every government initiative, so deep is the identification of even the post-1947 governments with the colonial past, a fusion that the visible separation of the governors from the governed does little to dilute. Whether it be the separate line at immigration counters at airports, or the red lights flashing atop their vehicles, those claiming to be “public servants” seem to take pride in ensuring a chasm between themselves and the people on whose behalf they are presumed to rule. It was expected of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he would take steps to transform the administrative system from the present 19th century model into a construct in sync with the 21st century, and hopefully this will happen before the end of his term in 2019.
Transformative change means an alteration in the mechanics and processes of governance, including by ensuring that selection to the Central services be carried out through recruitment from the outside at all levels, even while a strict weeding out of deadwood gets carried out as is already routine in the military. Above all, the legal system needs to get cleansed of the thousands of laws that have zero public purpose and only serve to ensure the continued servitude of the citizen to the whims of the state. Even seven decades after Jawaharlal Nehru promised a new dawn of freedom, the space available to the ordinary citizen in India is minuscule as compared to the freedoms enjoyed by citizens of countries such as the UK or the US.
Almost daily, citizens are made aware of just how pervasive the hold of government and its agencies is over them in India, with far too many activities needing official sanction before getting carried out. Of course, each such roadblock means another palm stretched out for a bribe. Small wonder that the roads of Paris and London, not to mention Miami, are choked with family members of senior functionaries of the government spending some of the money “earned” by those in high positions. Although Prime Minister Modi has been seeking to make progress in his “Make in India” initiative, this will become possible only once it is ensured that the ease of doing business in India significantly improves. No other major power has witnessed a situation where 86% of its currency gets demonetised at four hours’ notice, or an entire sector gets drained of key players the way the previously fast-growing telecom sector was during the period in office of Manmohan Singh. All of a sudden, major global players such as Batelco, Swiss Telecom, Etisalat, Telenor and Docomo were made to exit the country, and it is likely that Aircel will follow in their wake very soon. To prevent further economic cost to the country, the Supreme Court needs to devise ways in which those guilty of misfeasance get punished (for example, by having their equity shares frozen unless they turn up at court hearings) without an entire company getting wound up. Which is what would happen if, for example, a telecom company were to be deprived of its spectrum rather than just a few individuals at the top be deprived of the rights adhering to their equity shares. The interests of customers, employees and financial institutions need to be protected by the courts in their decisions, so that the economy does not suffer loss, but instead, there be greater accountability on the part of those managing an enterprise.
Added to the almost impenetrable jungle of laws, regulations and practices extant in India, there is the added danger of a company being forced to exit its business as a consequence of court orders. Both the government as well as the judiciary need to bear in mind that only double digit growth has the capacity to prevent an Arab Spring-style chaos from proliferating in India during the coming years, because of more than two hundred million youths who are in effect unemployed, with tens of millions of them being uneducated as well. The willingness of the people to always be at the receiving end of a stream of commands is coming under strain in a context where the governance system is failing to generate enough jobs and growth. The Jallikattu agitation in Tamil Nadu is indicative of the desire of the citizen to reclaim some of the space for individual freedom and initiative that was lost centuries ago with the coming into power of the Colonial State. The people of India have shown their ability to ensure prosperity if allowed freedom, as they have repeatedly proved in countries where the quantum of individual liberty is far higher than in this country. It is time for the institutions of the state to recognise the imperative of the need for a governance system that respects the imperative of a post-colonial level of freedom. They need to ensure changes in the mechanics of governance which put into effect Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of “Minimum Government”.

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