Sunday 2 April 2017

Modi’s India must abolish Regulation Raj (Sunday Guardian)

By M D Nalapat 
This country’s forest of inchoate regulations and superfluous rules is why India has a pitifully low per capita income.
The Election Commission of India (EC) has decreed that even astrologers will not be allowed to forecast election results on television or in print. Even TV talk-show guests will be barred from giving forecasts. Clearly, CEC Nasim Zaidi and his colleagues would like astrologers and exit pollsters to exit from the idiot box, lest they “influence the voter”. Exactly what “influence” exit polls or astrological or other forecasting of results has on the voter has of course been unspecified by successive Election Commissioners. Such censorship is absent in practically any major democracy other than ours. Is it because the EC believes that voters in the many countries permitting exit polls and forecasting have a maturity of mind that the Indian voter lacks? But of course. It is axiomatic in a governance construct retaining the colonial ethos of pre-1947 days that the people of India are as little able to function without adult (i.e. official) supervision as small children. Which is presumably why the EC seeks to bar them from as much information as possible. This assumption of immature and wayward minds of the Indian citizen is why the bureaucracy in India crafts rule upon rule, regulation after regulation, thereby making the doing of anything painfully difficult in India.
This country’s forest of inchoate regulations and superfluous rules is why India has a pitifully low per capita income when compared to other major democracies. Those who took over the administration of this country after the British left, retained practically the entirety of an administrative structure founded on the premise that the people of India need supervision—indeed, control—at every stage of their lives and in all activities. As a consequence, much of the life of the citizen gets consumed in matters of compliance with the official regulations, prohibitions and commands needing to be obeyed on pain of punishment. A recent experience of this columnist concerned Aadhaar. Now that the government has made mandatory the use of the Aadhaar-based Unique Identification Number (in a context where 99% of citizens already have some or other such unique number, including that of the cellphone they own), a visit was made to an Aadhaar dispensing outlet. After waiting for an hour and 27 minutes, the shop registered details of every digi t of both hands plus the irises of the eyes. However, when the Aadhaar card was sought to be procured ten days later, the reply was that “all the registrations done for those three days were disallowed by higher authority”. What happened to the biometric data taken from each applicant, including this columnist’s? Nobody knew or cared. And if months later, an ultra-high resolution camera takes images of both irises and imprints them on contact lenses, it would not be impossible for an imposter to access a facility that needs such identification for entry. As for the fingerprints, were someone to scan and imprint them on film, and that film subsequently used to plant fingerprint evidence at the site of a crime, it would be next to impossible to prove that the prints were stolen. Why? Because the biometric and other data stored through Aadhaar is regarded as too sensitive to be disclosed even to the person whose data it is. And in case the agency doing so makes other use of it, in the unlikely event of its getting found out, the only “punishment” would be blacklisting that agency for ten years. During that period, all that the owner would need to do would be to procure a new nameboard and get back into business, Dhoni or no Dhoni. Because of the not unusual disappearance of three days’ data of applicants at that particular location, another visit to the Aadhaar outlet will need to be made. Hopefully, this time the card will be ready, although there will continue to be zero transparency about what happens to the stored data. Unless, of course, one were to access some of the websites that claim to be revealing Aadhaar data to the public. Aadhaar must get cleansed of its imperfections to avoid future disasters. 
An encounter that same week with the Regulation Raj that India continues to be, involved buying a Wi-Fi device from a company that had advertised an attractive scheme. On the first visit, the relevant retail outlet declined the identity document offered. The next time around, it refused to process the request even when presented with a copy of passport details, because a passport photograph was not presented. Why this could not have been taken on the spot by the outlet through a mobile telephone remains a mystery. Fortunately, on the third visit to the store, armed with passport, photograph and loads of patience, success. Registration was done, as this columnist was informed just two days later on his mobile phone. The entire process (including the three visits) took 57 minutes to complete, including downtime. Not that the company or its outlet should be blamed. Failure to comply with any of the multiplying regulations involving telecom could well lead to prison for some of its officials. 
If India is to ever enjoy a growth rate high enough to generate 13 million additional jobs each year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will need to set up empowered working groups that would go through the country’s Walmart-sized lists of regulations. They need to trim some and remove the rest entirely, leaving behind only those applicable to 21st century needs and practices. By the time the 2019 Lok Sabha polls take place, India needs to have a leaner and citizen-friendly system of rules and regulations, so that a genuinely new India emerges from the shadow of growth-destroying mechanisms of governance. 

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