Sunday, June 23, 2024

Public service meant private pleasure!


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By Indranil Banerjea

In April 2001, nearly two dozen BSF jawans were first tortured and then killed by units of the Bangladesh Rifles. Prime minister A.B. Vajpayee did nothing, and life moved on. Ten years later, two dozen Pakistani soldiers – each of them perhaps up to no good – got killed by US fire. In retaliation, Islamabad denied the use of the Shamsi airbase and blocked NATO convoys from crossing the Durand Line into Afghanistan. In Kashmir, several dozen Indian soldiers have been killed as a result of the ISI’s covert war, but Manmohan Singh follows the Vajpayee precedent and merely shrugs his shoulders. In contrast, Pakistan has set a very different benchmark on the response it will launch to a perceived hurt. Action even against the US, the country where even a former President of India, Abdul Kalam, gets subjected to repeated body searches, without any retaliation barring a few gruff comments by S.M. Krishna or Kapil Sibal on television. Contrast Pakistan’s response to the situation in India, where Afzal Guru and Amir Ajmal Kasab continue to pursue their (formally closed) cases through the numerous channels open to them. In the 1960s, Gunnar Myrdal used the term “soft state” to describe governance in India, but clearly, the Swede believed in understatement. After all, the term “soft” implies structure and a modicum of cohesion, albeit soggy. In fact, the governance system in today’s India, despite its horrendous cost to the taxpayer, best resembles ectoplasm, a slithery mass that takes on new shapes and sizes at the slightest prod.

Ectoplasm gives the appearance of form while lacking substance. An example is the requirement for elected representatives to periodically file a declaration of their assets. This should be an annual requirement, rather than get filed every five years. Also, the information filed should include the income-tax paid each year. If we were to match the asset declarations of our legislators with the taxes they pay, it will be seen that several have perfected the science of acquiring assets out of thin air. They need to explain just how they are able to perform such feats of wizardry, so that the rest of the population can follow their example and become as wealthy as our politicians have become.

Judging by the assets our rulers declare, the numerous visits to Dubai and London (often in private jets) made by their offspring and the expensive watering holes they frequent there and in this country must be funded out of the charity of friends and relatives. As for those who share the privilege of Cabinet rank, they seem to be using 1911 values while pricing the properties they own, judging by the figures they have provided in their returns.

Both at state and central levels, each member of the council of ministers as well as each secretary-level official should give an annual account of his or her own assets and income, including tax paid. This group also need to make transparent similar details about spouses and children. A provision needs to be made that any citizen has the right to purchase any of the assets of the public servant concerned, by paying 50 per cent more than the value given in the asset declaration. Since the time when Jawaharlal Nehru (in the estimation of Amartya Sen and Sunil Khilnani) brought democracy to India, “public service” has in practice usually meant private pleasure. Until those holding high public office get subjected to a high level of accountability and transparency, the people of this country will continue to have to endure a governance system that retards rather than promotes welfare. In the Nehru system of governance, the people suffer, while the overlords have a comfortable time, a seamless continuation of the situation that existed when London was in charge of India’s destiny. This ought to get reversed, with public service being made a high-risk occupation except for the competent and the honest. In India, it is usually such individuals who suffer. Honest IPS officials get transferred repeatedly, disrupting their families and preventing them from gaining detailed knowledge of the locations in which they get posted. “Obliging” officers, in contrast, have their pick of assignments, even if this means making the (innocent) husband a prime scapegoat in a sex case, as is now happening in Rajasthan with the ersatz investigations into Bhanwari Devi’s disappearance. As for the IAS, here too, the greasier the pole the faster “adjusting” folk make it to the top, leaving the honest to slide down.

Even the Fourth Estate appears to have got converted to Deng Xiaoping’s maxim, “To get rich is glorious.” Niira Radia has done a public service in informing us about how easy it is to manipulate media persons. By trading credibility for access to power, a perception has developed among readers that the news and views appearing in media outlets is “fixed”. Fortunately, despite the efforts of the UPA to muzzle them, internet outlets are still operating in India with a freedom not exercised by print and even television journalism. However, it does not require much research to know that matters are seriously awry in India.

When Manmohan Singh took office in 2004, he correctly identified energy, communications and infrastructure as critical to economic success. Unfortunately, not only has he has been unable to improve the situation, but during his time in office, matters have gone from just bad to unbearable. Coal remains a preserve of the mafia, whether in the western or the eastern fields, and because of an absence of clear-cut policies (fog being the best way of ensuring bribes), industry in India imports coal from Australia, China and even Indonesia, despite the fact that this country has immense deposits of coal.

As for the power sector, there has been near-zero growth in operational capacity, and because of environmental and other blockages, each of which requires the services of an approved fixer to remove, power projects are taking as long to go online as it takes to decide a case in courts in India. Getting assured supplies of fuel for such plants is a nightmare under the UPA dispensation, where the only track that moves is that which involves a lot of “goodwill” to be handed over. As for the education network, what is one to say about a system where a single state, Maharashtra, is estimated to have as many as two-crore bogus names listed for the midday meal programme, much of which is run by politicians themselves? From a soft to an ectoplasmic state in three decades. That’s progress. INAV


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