Posted by: Tanmoy Chakrabarti | August 23, 2011

The “C” word

The recent anti-corruption agitation in India has its good and bad. It is good because generally most people agitating have noble intention and bad because it simply sets a precedent that threatens the very tenets of democracy. Freedom of speech or protest is good but whether that should be exercised to blackmail elected government is another question. The demonstrations have done just that and even if it achieves what it is set to achieve I have my doubts whether in the long run it would be successful. Modern India has seen similar movements for social justice even before and whether it benefitted us is still debatable.

Any new institution as the new movement is set to erect, sponsored by the taxpayers money, not really accountable, answerable to anyone and consisting of unelected members cast a huge doubt in my mind. I know supporters would turn back at me and say – what have the elected members done for me? If the answer is nothing then why do we elect them?

And to top that – I just don’t understand why my view would not be heard through a referendum up for a vote on what kind of anti-corruption bill I want or whether I want a bill or not at all. Who are Hazare and his supporters to decide such issues for me? At least a large number of people have chosen the government to represent them but then who has chosen Anna to represent all Indians.

We have a number of bodies which are set to control corruption, why cannot we strengthen them, why cannot we make our legal system stricter and why cannot we foster a culture through our education systems which deters the future corrupt citizens?

We would not do these things because we are used to having government institutes set up and run on public money. We love to over-burden the government and think of everything as government’s responsibility. In turn, reliance on government becomes the major source of corruption. True, not all government servants are corrupt but the system of tremendous government involvement does breed corruption.

Post independent India has lived under control for a long time. We expect government would build roads, eradicate poverty, help us become educated, give us job, run the rail and buses, build bridges, help in times of flood, make us disciplined, buy our grains, give us grains, set the right price, clean our streets, run various research institutes, collect taxes, clean the rivers and what not. Of course, it was too much for them to do. However, since we all benefitted from this process, we preferred to continue this system.

Yes, the ideas behind state control were noble but over time as we have seen through our experiences with public distribution systems (PDS), fuel subsidy etc, the benefits have eroded away. A system which is based on licenses and various permits has made people prone to accepting bribes. Till now, we keep on filling out complicated forms, get signatures from various people, and submit numerous photocopies even to deal with simplest of issues. We hardly have any procedure which is easy. Accordingly, we have police threatening us if we go there to get a police clearance certificate, the clerk shouting at us if we get our car registered, the nurse in the government hospital behaving rudely with us when we ask her a question. Even the numerous sporting bodies we have, which don’t get us any Olympic medals are government controlled and financed by taxpayers money. Why?

As we allowed our subsequent government to get involved into the nitty-gritty of our daily lives, we allowed many officers stealing from PDS, people engage in black-marketing and most importantly we becoming tremendously ignorant about our responsibilities in contributing to clear the mess.

Consequently, a generation has been created which prefers even a low salary if the “over-the top perks” are high. In places like Jawaharlal Nehru University, I have seen a large number of students preparing for IAS not with a view to get a job but to get a prime job with a ticket to lot of “over-the top perks” and a ticket to marriage with a hefty dowry. Those students claimed their “market-value” in the dowry market increases, if they get a government job.

At this juncture, I am reminded of some people in Durgapur township who used to wait for ages for DSP Maintenance Department (a government body) to replace a broken light bulb, without realising if once a while they themselves replace the bulb then the maintenance will probably save a little money rather than being a cost centre and subsequently falling apart some day.

I do feel the exit route to corruption is less control. We should get less reliant on government solving our problems and for that we need to push for lesser controls.

The easier it becomes to pay taxes, start a business, get an approval, corruption will tend to reduce in many of the institutes. All the public administration system can be structured to ensure much smoother functioning.

Further, there should definitely be more opening up of the economy which will allow more competition and fairness. Government simply cannot be expected to ensure fairness and reduce income inequality.

A competitive market does not necessarily mean an exploitative market. For example: in many countries, the standards of government hospital are as good as private ones and it is for the people to choose where to go. Similarly, government schools and private schools are generally of same standards.

Now think of Indian government hospitals. The best government hospitals such as AIIMS are off-limits for general public. Who is to blame for that? I simply cannot blame emergence of an expensive private hospital for the degradation of all our government hospital. Also, most of our government hospitals did not become the way they are due to lack of funds. There were funds but then somehow the benefits induced a bad work culture and tremendous neglect.

Think of the days, when we needed a “known-persons” intervention to fix our telephones. Today, the state run telecommunication giants are the most efficient ones thanks to competition. Other than introduction of private operators what changed?

Wherever we have allowed too much of bottlenecks, we have created mess. We have seen better results in places where we have opened up.

It is true, that a free market devoid of regulation can pose a huge threat too as we have seen in this ongoing economic crisis but if caution is exercised through appropriate policies more than making easy money, a free market might ensure better functioning institutes. It allows government officials to concentrate on more important job of policy making.

Instead we see more and more ministries to satisfy coalition partners and loitering of public funds through these non-transparent decision making processes.

What did we achieve in last 60 years with such controls? The opening up of 1991 was a necessity not voluntary. Even with the 1991 liberalisation our farmers don’t get the world price of their produce, the tremendous income inequality is nurtured through fuel subsidy where even the rich benefits from the subsidy and the poor pays for the subsidy, reservations mean that students cheat rampantly, even with salary rises the general work culture in private and public schools/colleges continue to remain bad and immense protection meant our manufacturing sector is reeling today.

When we should have entrusted our elected representatives to focus on policy making for environment, education etc, we continue to ask them for fixing the light bulbs in our homes.

Anna’s suggestion is another burden on our already over-burdened exchequer. For some strange reason he does not want to cut the root cause of the problem and talk of things like high public expenditure, betterment of hospitals, schools etc but he targets just the bureaucrats and politicians. The bureaucrats and politicians are part of a huge system and are not the only cause of corruption. Lack of freedom to choose is the cause of corruption to me. If we can cut the sources of corruption then can we not control the malice? Can scaring people though threats of hanging, chopping their hands off etc reduce corruption as Anna envisages? I doubt it but sadly it seems many don’t doubt it. People supporting such means is not because of government mind you, but because losing all interest in electing a better government and taking up more responsibility by being more aware, less corrupt and more aware.

If through Anna’s movement we get another institution, I would wait to see if that remains depoliticised and functions the way he envisages it to be. The thought of cross-dressing sadhus, bollywood stars, retired civil servants just got a voice without even facing a democratic mandate, thanks to Anna’s blackmailing.

I hope to get educated too on this matter but I do feel that the system that we have erected and tolerated for so long need amendment and that would not happen through fasting and undemocratic means. We have to get over the mindset off expecting government to do everything for us and push for a freer system. Wonder which political party supports that?

Let me end by saying, I am not suggesting blame government for everything and end their reign. I am suggesting redefining government’s role so that the tenets of a democratic system is maintained.

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