Sunday, 30 December 2007

Rose-tinted Reminiscences

Tragic though the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was, it was galling to hear, amid all the outpouring of grief, those fulsome praises of her. I didn’t have a problem with the countless nostalgic reminiscences about Pinky in Oxford – people generally like to hear and read about personal stories of leaders and other famous people; such stories tend to humanize them.

But it was a bit much to be told that she was this great democrat who wanted to uplift the poor of Pakistan and had a different vision of Indo-Pak ties. This is absolute nonsense. I felt the same when she returned to Pakistan in October in this blaze of glory and was being hailed (as was Nawaz Sharif) as the democratic alternative. Two people whose regimes were marked by corruption and venality being hailed as democrats is a bit difficult to digest. Was Benazir helping the poor in Pakistan when she spent millions on importing Evian water for her family during her stint as prime minister? Or when her husband got the tag of Mr 10 per cent? Just about seven years back, the Pakistani public was bursting crackers and dancing in the streets when General Musharaff overthrew Sharif. Nobody was clamouring for Benazir then. Public memory is short. The failures of the Musharaff administration made Benazir and Sharif seem more acceptable. We’ve seen this happen in India as well, when Rajiv Gandhi was voted out on charges of corruption in the 1989 elections and was all set for a stupendous comeback in 1991 before he was assassinated. There are so many more examples. But does that mean the media and weighty commentators on public matters should also fall into the same trap? Should they abandon their objectivity in the face of a tragic death?

I find the comparison between Benazir and Rajiv also a bit odious. The only similarities are that they came from political dynasties and their parent (father in the case of Benazir and mother in the case of Rajiv) met violent deaths, which pitchforked them into the centrestage. And that both of them were voted out and were all set for resounding comebacks when they were assassinated.

But Rajiv at least had a vision for the country. It’s another matter that many disagreed with his vision and that he couldn’t help realize it. But what vision did Benazir have for her country during her first term? I have read many articles on her after her death, but nobody has talked about where she wanted to take her country.

Rajiv was really reluctant to enter politics. He was forced into it by his mother and later circumstances. Benazir, according to several accounts, often said she didn’t choose this life but this life chose her. That contradicts all the Pinky in Oxford tales from her classmates who remember how hard she tried to be Oxford University union president. Clearly she was hardly the reluctant politician that Rajiv was.

So let us mourn the tragic death of a young leader. Let us be angry about the violence that is consuming the sub continent. But let us stop idolizing someone who clearly does not deserve a halo.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Cliches Continue

I have little respect for most film critics, barring a couple. I get the feeling that they tend to bring their personal prejudices into play when reviewing. I can almost predict what one female film critic is going to say about a film. If it has Aishwarya Rai, then the film has to be bad. If Aishwarya happens to be in a film directed by a crossover film director, then the film will be good, but Aishwarya will be bad. If it’s a crossover film, it’s always good. Shahrukh Khan will always lift a film above a shaky plot and shoddy direction. Salman Khan is always to be sneered at. I now try to imagine what she will say about a movie and then read her reviews only to see if I am right. I usually am!

I find one thing common among all film critics, though – their Shabana Azmi-Naseeruddin Shah blind spot. Any film starring these two (especially Shabana) have to be raved about, no matter how bad it is. Take the case of Dus Kahaniyan, the movie which is ten movies strung together. All the reviewers gave mixed reactions to nine of the stories. Only one got a unanimous rave review – Rice Plate, starring – you’ve guessed it – Shabana and Naseeruddin. The story was sensitive, the acting nuanced. All the usual reviewing clichés were there.

Till I saw bits of Dus Kahaniyan on cable. Rice Plate quite simply appalled me. Shabana was hamming and Naseeruddin had nothing to do. People criticize Amitabh Bachchan for over the top acting in Black. Why is everyone silent about Shabana in Rice Plate. Old south Indian ladies do not carry themselves the way Shabana did. She could have taken tips from the way Konkona Sen Sharma prepared for her role in Mr and Mrs Iyer. That was authentic down to a T.

The story was a bit ridiculous too. No woman (no matter how orthodox) who has lived in Bombay for decades will sit in a taxi only because it has pictures of gods and then recoil in disgust when the driver turns out to be a Muslim. Or refuse to take back a packet of namkeen she has dropped when she collided with a Muslim man (Naseeruddin) just because he picked it up. Even village women don’t react that way, for heaven’s sake. But just because Shabana and Naseeruddin acted in this film, no one pointed out this basic problem. Clearly, for film critics, willing suspension of belief is not a malaise affecting films in which these veterans star!

Apart from this, what got me was the usual cliché about Hindu orthodoxy, a subject I’ve dealt with in earlier posts – Dixie Chicks and Parzania (16 February 2007) and Profiling and Labelling (27 August 2006). Two stories in Dus Kahaniyan made me see red (a lot of my critics would say saffron, I know but that only reflects on their prejudices).

If Rice Plate dealt with Hindu orthodoxy, another story in Dus Kahaniyan, starring Neha Dhupia and Mahesh Manjrekar, dealt with a woman saving a child from rioters. The way she tried to save the child was ridiculous, of course – she sexually assaults the sword wielding rioter! – but once again the rioter is a Hindu and the child he’s wanting to kill is a Muslim.

As if Muslims don’t have their prejudices and Hindus don’t get killed in riots!

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Two-faced Fascists

I am posting below a column written by my ex-boss, R Jagannathan, in DNA, which is so absolutely bang on.

It’ll also be interesting to see how the Taslima Nasreen case will pan out. Though several newspapers have pointed out the hypocrisy of the so-called secular brigade in taking up cudgels for victims of Hindu fundamentalism while remaining silent on Muslim fundamentalism, that group has chosen to keep a low profile. There’s no hysterical outpouring of condemnation of Nasreen’s victimisation by the more prominent members of that brigade. I can understand Brinda Karat keeping quiet (her party is involved) but what about the other prominent jholawalas? What about those who organised a protest rally in Delhi against the persecution of the artists in Baroda by Hindu extremists? Weeks after their march, Nasreen was attacked in Hyderabad. It was met with silence. As her current situation is.

The Left as a fascist force

R Jagannathan

DNA, Thursday, 22 November 2007

It's interesting to see how Nandigram has changed perceptions about the Left, and especially the CPI(M). In recent weeks, one has seen not only traditional Left intellectuals rallying against the party's violent "recapture" of Nandigram, but even stalwarts like Ashok Mitra, who was finance minister in Jyoti Basu's government, now think the party has become arrogant and inept.

This is the same Mitra who once arrogantly proclaimed, "I'm not a gentleman (bhadralok), I am a Communist." The Mitras of the world are now coming to realise that being Communist in the old mould could mean fascist as well. So much so, that even ordinary people have now started talking about Nandigram and Godhra in the same breath, never mind the dissimilarities.

Between the murder of over a thousand in Gujarat and a few score in Nandigram there is definitely some difference, never mind what the BJP and the Sangh Parivar may like to think. But the mindset is the same. If a Narendra Modi could talk of an action-reaction scenario after Godhra, it did not take long for the West Bengal chief minister to justify the party's decision to take the law into its own hands in Nandigram the same way. He said: "(In the) last 11 months, the Bhoomi Uchched Pratirodh Committee, the Trinamool Congress and the Maoists were creating violence with arms. And (in the) last two-three days, CPI(M) workers had paid them back in their own coin." If this is not state sanction for revenge, what is?

The RSS and CPI(M) are two sides of the same coin. One espouses fascism in the name of the party and the other in the name of Hindutva. Neither is democratic. One hears little about what goes on in RSS conclaves or at the CPI(M)'s politburo meetings. And the reason is the same: if one knows who said what at a meeting, then individuals will begin to matter and the party/sangh can never reign supreme.

Let's look at other similarities. The Left accuses the Guru Golwalkar of the RSS of being a Hitler fan, but sees no ignominy in lionising Stalin and Mao, the biggest mass murderers after Hitler. One mindless reference to Hitler in Golwalkar's book (later expunged) is enough to condemn him as fascist, but decades of idolisation of Stalin does not taint the Left with fascistic attributes.

Why hasn't the general public seen through the Left's mask of democratic behaviour? Two reasons. One, we all naively believe that the Left champions the cause of the poor. This automatically blinds us to the possibility that they may be after power for its own sake; and to gain power and retain it, they may be as willing as Modi to use violence. For most of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was by no means certain that the Left would win again and again in West Bengal, they were busy using strong-arm tactics to win elections. The latent arrogance and fascism is surfacing overtly only now because they have come to believe that their hold on power is absolute.

The second reason is their antagonism to the Sangh Parivar. Since few people have any doubts about the character of the Sangh, we assume that anyone fighting the RSS must be a democrat or secular or both. Clearly a fallacy. In fact, the only two groups that have fought pitched battles for non-sectarian reasons are the RSS and the CPI(M) - in Kerala. The reason is simple: they look at each other and see themselves. This is what they are trying to exorcise by calling each other fascists.

It has taken the murder of Rizwanur and the mayhem in Nandigram to open the eyes of intellectuals all over the country. We now know, fascism is not defined by the colour of your warpaint. Saffron or red, it's your mindset that defines it.

The de Soto Path

Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto was in town in last month and I did this interview with him which appeared in BusinessWorld. Funny really, how no one has invited this man to India though what he says and his writings are far more relevant to us than what a whole lot of others say. He had been invited by McKinsey. Interestingly, he told me he was to be here in October at the invitation of Sonia Gandhi but couldn’t make it. Did woolly-headed socialist Sonia really understand the significance of de Soto? He probably would have rubbished half the things her government is doing.


'Most Heads Of State I Work For Are Outright Marxists'

Few economists have the distinction of having been attacked with 500 kg of dynamite and machine guns. That's perhaps a measure of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto's influence. His first book, The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism, countered the philosophy of the Shining Path rebels of the 1980s. Designated by Time as one of the five leading Latin American innovators, de Soto is not a blind advocate of western-style capitalism, as evident from his second book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. His issues are those most developing countries are wrestling with - informal economy, property rights, unauthorised constructions, land acquisition, etc. The poor are at the core of his writings. The Lima-based Institute for Liberty and Democracy, of which he is the president, advises nearly 80 countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and East Europe. Talking to Seetha while on a private visit to Delhi, de Soto argues for empirical research and numbers to strengthen the case for market-oriented reforms that help the poor. Excerpts:

You are perhaps the only economist who has been the target of bomb attacks.

That probably means I had a meaningful and very radical message. The Other Path provided very clear alternatives to the ultra-left Shining Path movement in Peru. The book was taken up as a motivational force by many groups. As more and more people used it to explain why it was a good idea to have economic freedom of a certain sort, the rebels found it more and more in their interest to bomb us. They said they were having trouble recruiting for their ranks. But it only made us much more visible and popular. It was not just an academic work; it was a book that had consequences. It was put in a political context - to give an alternative explanation for poverty and oppression - and it worked.

You're a strong advocate of market economy but you also say capitalism is like a private club.

I term capitalism for a few as mercantilism. The first bourgeois capitalists were very exclusivist. They didn't necessarily believe in the market, though they believed in the private sector. The fact that a few succeed doesn't mean it is a real market order, but only a system that works for a few. If it is perceived as a system that does not provide opportunity for everybody, it will collapse. I favour a market economy that's open to everybody, not as an act of faith, but simply because I don't know of a better system.

In India, market-oriented economic reforms are criticised as catering only to a small elite. What could we be doing wrong?

I don't know India. People all over are basically ingenious and entrepreneurial. If the system favours a few, that means it is clogged up. You have got cholesterol in your veins. You have to trace the history of poor people trying to get into business through real cases. Once you find where the cholesterol is, both the left and the right will support you in removing it; they have to be crazy not to.

The other problem is that somebody who thinks tradition must be protected just doesn't allow an opening up, in the name of preserving the culture of indigenous communities. Generally, these desires come from intellectual classes; but when the poor people are given the choice, they move to the United States.

In India, there is a lot of talk about inclusive growth. Should this be through government programmes or simply by freeing entrepreneurial energies?

It's not a bad idea to do both things -remove blockages to the market through change of rules and provide ambulances, hospitals and wells.Everyone knows that what is achieved through charity is minuscule compared to what is achieved through rules that are inclusive. But it's human nature to do the former and get photographed. You can't photograph a change of rules.

But don't all governments tend to indulge in economic intervention and strengthen the role of bureaucracy?

The first motivating force of negative intervention in economic activity is essentially the politician. Politicians are guided by the desire to be popular, to do things that are well-serving. If they don't, it's because the arguments in favour of liberalising the economy have not been well-structured. The tendency of people who believe in the market economy is to repeat and plagiarise a western standard term. So they appear pro-elite. But if you are able to indicate - with numbers, facts and logical structure - that your programmes are good for poor people, you'll have to find a very crazy politician not to support it. More than half the heads of state that I work for are outright Marxists.

Capitalism or the market economy never looks exactly the same in any country; it has different cultural traits. Copycat movements of the west are unsuccessful. You have to have a local adaptation.

You say a lot of unrest and dissatisfaction within countries is caused by a sense of disempowerment of the poor. Is that the only reason for all terrorism?

Terrorism is usually born where there is helplessness - whatever you do, you don't see a future. Secondly, terrorists provide services - the protection of the businesses and the assets of the poor. Give the poor a property right that is efficient. It should not be only a recognition of their land. That's like giving them a knife with only one blade. Give them a land that has a series of functions - that can be used for starting a business, sold and leased, used as collateral. It should be like a Swiss army knife. People will take the Swiss army knife over terrorist protection. Then the terrorists lose their constituency.

Thirdly, don't give up on terrorists. Don't forget that some of the most radical reforms in favour of the market are done by illuminated terrorists like Deng Xiao Ping. People do change their mind. But you have to indicate to them in terms that they can understand.

You say the poor are not the problem but the solution.

The market economy is essentially about scale. How can you get scale if you don't bring in the poor? They're the consuming mass and they are conglomerated, which is what you need for the division of labour. There is a problem when you have people out in the jungle with no connections whatsoever, like the headhunters of Peru or the sheep people of Colombia. But people conglomerating in cities are the solution. Both Marx and Adam Smith said so. I'm not saying anything new. All I'm saying is identify them in our areas.

Why do you say property is a key institution for the poor?

Property is not just land or a physical object. It is simply the right that one has to give an asset - tangible or intangible - a series of functions and create an identity. Secondly, the value of all things tends to increase. When you become more productive, the value of things goes up. Financial value is captured in a property title. You ask Bill Gates or anyone from Infosys the value of what they've got and they will show you a piece of property paper. If you do not give the poor property over the little that they own, their chances of making it in a capitalistic world are zilch. Because they have no way to capture identity, location, capital or give guarantees for credit.

The issue of land rights has come up in India in connection with land acquisition for industry, giving tribals rights over common land and slum clearance programmes. How are these issues to be dealt with?

When private sector came into Britain, they had something called the enclosures. The oligarchy moved with great agility and took over the forests and left a lot of the proletariat in the situation of Oliver Twist - dispossessed. But that's not what happened in France, Germany, United States or Canada. They didn't let the oligarchy take away the forests or the buildings. They gave equal access. It all depends on how you do your laws.

Secondly, in the beginning all poor people lived in slums; that's the starting point. The question is whether you're going to have property over it and whether you're going to use it as a tool for moving ahead. Steve Jobs that started Apple started in a garage. Practically all American billionaires of today started in garages.

A property right means a person's right to something is recognised. It's like a voucher which tells them that they have a title over something that will have to be substituted for something equivalent. But give them security. If they feel you're going to expropriate them without any form of compensation, they will simply stop any movement towards change.

But what about cases where people have encroached on government land?

If you have got 100,000 people who have encroached on government land, how are you going to take them out? It's just not realistic. It's not going to happen. What you can do is empower them and find a way to make sure that when you do, you are not going to set an example for more encroaching. In Peru, it took 21 years to go from custom (encroachment) to law. If you lower the cost of getting land legally, everybody would prefer to earn their land through legal measures than illegal measures. Illegal measures are not costless - it means you have to get thugs on your side, accept corruption. People will always choose the law provided it's cheaper than the illegal part.

But when doing this, it is important to get the numbers. Numbers are very convincing. For example, in Egypt, we tried to find out how many people live in public housing and how many people were given public housing. We found that the number of people living there was ten times the number who had been allotted houses. Obviously, people had built additional storeys on public housing. So the question was do you bring down the additional storeys and destroy the city or do you say I forgive you but this is the last time you're going to do it.

The thing is when you've got numbers, you are able to see what is politically feasible and what is not. If you have to choose between 25 million people and 5,000 big landowners or a few bureaucrats who don't want change, you're going to go for the 25 million. But the first thing you need is an inventory of where you are. How big is your informal sector? What is it constituted by, where are the real obstacles? And then you will see that politicians will do very rational things. Because there is such a thing as reward for satisfying constituencies.

Should the government be acquiring land for private industry?

Logically, if what you are going to do with the land industrially is put it to a higher value use than the person who owns it now, you should be able to buy it. Let the poor people become rich because the land on which they are can be put to more profitable use. Let the market deal with it. This doesn't mean that eminent domain has no role but its use should be very selective. Property should be fungible so that the highest price takes it in the right direction.

In India, operationalisation of a legislation giving tribals rights over traditional land is being held up because of opposition from environmentalists saying this will endanger forests.

That's not a valid argument. The advantage of making sure that whoever has the land or the asset is clearly identified through property record is that you can sanction them if they are damaging the environment.

(Businessworld Issue 13-19 Nov, 2007)

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Jamshedpur and governance

This is an article I wrote for DNA last year, probably my last one there. I should have posted it when it was published, but don’t remember why I didn’t. Don't know what the status of Jamshedpur is now, but the questions that the article raises are still relevant.

Anyway, here goes.

Saying tata to good governance?

Saturday, November 18, 2006 21:11 IST

Conundrum of democracy in Jamshedpur


"It is creating anxiety in the people of Jamshedpur as they are used to a certain standard of life ..." B Muthuraman, managing director, Tata Steel, sounded very much like a colonial potentate as he said that on camera during a programme on the brouhaha over the status of Jamshedpur. The natives wanted a benevolent ruler (in this case, the Tatas) to manage their affairs for them, he seemed to be saying.

But there's no ignoring the fact that over 50,000 people submitted a petition against converting the Jamshedpur Notified Area, administered by the Tata Steel-owned Jamshedpur Utilities & Services Co (Jusco) into an elected municipal corporation. The issue of Jamshedpur's status is currently being seen in black-and-white terms - bad politicians versus good Tatas. But it is really one of a choice between a representative democracy versus a controlled democracy.

There's no denying that the century-old administration by the Tatas is what made a backward village called Sakchi into a bustling township that is India's only UN Global Compact city. On the face of it, in a liberal democracy, an elected body is to be preferred over any non-elected one, since the former is seen to be more accountable.

So when Muthuraman said, "While you have one successful model which has been there for a hundred years would you like to bring in some other model which however lofty may not yet have been tried", it did come across like a desperate attempt to cling on to control.

Except that many urban middle class Indians feel that the other model - a municipality - has been tried and has failed miserably. The politically-stoked tumult over the drive against unauthorised shops in Delhi (which has an elected municipality), only reinforces fears about rapacious politicians and urban decay. The other proposal - that Jamshedpur should be declared an industrial township - is also flawed from a democracy point of view, though the 74th Amendment relating to urban local bodies allows this arrangement where companies are willing to provide civic amenities.

Providing basic infrastructure is the function of the state and the industrial township idea absolves the state of its primary responsibilities and pushes the burden on to someone whose responsibility is to generate wealth and employment.

The controversy over Jamshedpur also throws up some larger issues about the quality of democratic governance. Isn't it tragic that in a 60-year-old democracy, a representative institution like a municipal corporation is seen as negating good governance, and a non-elected body is being preferred in its place? Isn't there something wrong with our democracy if people are scared of those they elect to office?

There is a democratic way of solving the Jamshedpur issue. Let its fate be decided by its residents, through a referendum, perhaps. If the majority wants to retain the current status, let it be so. If they want it to become a municipality, so be it.

But the choice of Jamshedpur's residents is not going to be end of story. Why should an elected municipality mean a decline in standards of civic life? Shouldn't the 50,000 people who want Jamshedpur to stay the way it is then get more involved in the way it is run, either actively or by electing responsible people to the municipality?

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. These people - and their sympathisers across the country - can probably never hold their own against greedy politicians and corrupt bureaucrats. Their own apathy will be partly responsible for this. But is the political lethargy of citizens reason enough to prefer a bureaucrat or technocrat dominated system over a representative one?

There are no easy answers to all these. But these are questions each Indian must wrestle with and find answers to. Because on that will depend the kind of democracy India will be.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Three new posts

I am posting below three articles I wrote for The Telegraph, Calcutta. These are three issues I feel strongly about.

The first one is the return of the interventionist state. Some of the stories I heard about the cement industry (which I couldn't put into the article, both for want of space as well as to protect the person who told me what had happened) is pretty scary. As is the proposal for the compulsory registration of pregnancies.

The second one is about this whole woman president hype. I have always held that reservations for women in state legislatures and Parliament is silly tokenism and that women politicians aren't working hard enough (more about that later).

The third is about how industrialists are again becoming the devils. The tone of this article may seem a bit out of sync with my usual views, but I strongly believe that the demonisation of big industry is happening partly due to its own fault.
Anyway, read on.

The new bully

The Telegraph,

Sunday, 5 August 2007

The government seems to be in Big Brother mode, seeking to intervene in a range of issues from underwear ads to smoking in the workplace. Seetha reports

The drawing room door in sociologist Dipankar Gupta's Delhi home bears a sticker: thank you for not smoking. But Gupta gets ballistic when one mentions health and family welfare minister Anbumani Ramadoss' latest salvo in his anti-smoking war - banning smoking at the workplace. Homes are workplaces of servants, so this may mean no smoking at home. "This is my home. I don't tell others to do the same in their homes," exclaims Gupta.

Ramadoss' crusade against smoking is matched only by his drive against fast foods and soft drinks. In May, acting on a missive from the human resource development ministry (prompted by a letter from Ramadoss), the University Grants Commission wrote to all universities asking them to withdraw these "health hazards" from college canteens.

If Ramadoss is trying to dictate what people should eat and drink, information and broadcasting minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi is deciding what they should see on television. Some 10 days ago, the information and broadcasting ministry told television channels to stop airing two underwear advertisements, after they had been cleared by the Consumer Complaints Council of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI).

Such intervention is happening throughout the government. When cement prices surged in 2006, first industry minister Kamal Nath and later finance minister P. Chidambaram summoned cement companies and asked them to reduce prices. "We went armed with facts and figures that showed there was little we could do, but no one was prepared to listen," complains an industry representative. Finally the industry agreed to keep prices unchanged, though some companies later increased them. Similar pressure was put on steel producers, who raised prices in March and later agreed to a smaller hike.

Ramadoss' proposed compulsory registration of pregnancies to check female foeticide and monitor expectant mothers' health is perhaps the most intrusive of policies. "It is a violation of a woman's privacy," explodes Ranjana Kumari, of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. Women who may want to hide their pregnancy will not be able to do so. "How can," she asks, "someone else decide on whether or not a woman should abort her child?" The answer to forced female foeticide, she says, is breaking the doctors-politician-bureaucrat nexus that keeps sex selection clinics in business. And there are enough mechanisms to monitor pregnant women's health. "If these are not working, address that. Why interfere in my personal decisions?"

so has the state become an overenthusiastic nanny? "A nanny state is caring, looks after you. This is a bully state, which says I know what is good for you and will make you behave," retorts Gupta. "This behaviour," says Shiv Sena MP Suresh Prabhu, who was power minister in the NDA government, "is out of sync with the Indian reality. After 15 years of economic independence people want to decide their own lives."

"Yes, we are coming across as an interventionist government," a senior Congress leader admits.

Minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) Prithviraj Chavan says defensively, "Many of these issues are on the borderline between public and private arenas." If junk food and smoking are causing serious health problems, should the health minister not be concerned? After all, other countries discourage smoking through high taxation, among other things.

The information and broadcasting ministry feels its action against the ads and AXN and FTV earlier this year fall in this grey area. "We are not acting on whims and fancies but on specific complaints," says an official. Adds he: "Can the government watch silently if objectionable content is aired just because it has been cleared by an industry body? The government has to protect children from offensive visuals."

So why is government meddling on the upswing? "The Congress always had a controlling psyche. It is now being reinforced by the presence of the Left," says economist Bibek Debroy, who sees a throwback to the Indira Gandhi era of controls.

But state intervention in the economy during the 1970s was a carefully thought out strategy to punish industrialists who supported the Congress old guard when the party split and to create a class of entrepreneurs loyal to Mrs Gandhi. "Now there seems to be no pattern," laments a secretary to the government. "There is no one who is countering this. There are no signs from the PMO," notes Debroy.

Instead, the Prime Minister's now famous remarks lamenting high CEO salaries are being seen as encouraging intervention. "He may not have meant it, but it brought back memories of the time the Companies Act regulated corporate salaries," says Prabhu, "and it gave the impression that the signals are coming from the top."

The congress leader, however, blames the individual quirks of ministers and their desire to earn brownie points by grandstanding on prices, indulging in moral policing or pampering their vote banks. "Unfortunately," he laments, "in a coalition government there is a limit to whom the Prime Minister can tick off." In other words, ministers tend to act independently, without bothering about the Prime Minister.

But it's not about this government alone. In any country with a small middle class, notes Gupta, the elite tends to assume it knows best and must take decisions for the masses.

Politicians, laments Prabhu, believe that they know the pulse of the people better than the rest of society. Politicians also want to control people's minds, one reason why no government has ever attempted to reduce control of education or of the electronic media.

So should governments then step back completely? "It is the government's job to keep certain things in place," says Gupta. "But regulation has to be transparent and respect individual rights." Agrees a senior minister, "Till we have some well thought out regulatory systems in place we will have to tolerate some idiosyncrasies."

Have reproduced below the text of the infographic which accompanied the article



(Information and broadcasting)

# Proposed broadcast Bill will mean increased government control over the electronic media.

# Forced Ten Sports to share cricket telecast feed with Doordarshan

# Banned AXN and FTV channels for showing objectionable content

# Took two underwear advertisements cleared by the Advertising Standards Council off the air


(Health and family welfare)

# Pushing for ban on soft drinks and fast food in school and college canteens

# Banned smoking scenes in films

# Plans to ban smoking in workplaces, including houses

# Proposes compulsory registration of pregnancies


(Chemicals and fertilizers)

# Proposes to expand list of price-controlled drugs from 73 to 354


(Social justice and empowerment)

# Using threat of job quota law to make private sector implement affirmative action


(Human resource development)

# Refused permission to IIMs to start campuses abroad

# Forced IIMs and IITs to implement reservations for OBCs



# Pressured public sector banks not to increase interest rates

# Pressured steel companies to reverse price hikes


(Commerce and industry)

# Attempted to force cement companies to reduce prices (along with Chidambaram)

Women at the bottom

The Telegraph

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Pratibha Patil may have become the President of India, but our women politicians have not really been proactive legislators, says Seetha

The irony was striking. Sharing front page space in the morning dailies with the news of Pratibha Patil's candidature for the presidential election was a gory story on aborted female foetuses being found in Patiala. And on the day she was sworn in as President, Kiran Bedi, senior-most Delhi cop, was bypassed for the post of Delhi police commissioner and a male officer, two years her junior, was appointed instead.

Patil's journey to Raisina Hill is unlikely to affect female foeticide or promotions of women in government. In fact, going by the record of women in politics or in high offices, there is little to cheer about. But there are those who think Patil's achievement is tremendously significant. "Having a woman President is important," exults Ranjana Kumari, president of WomenPowerConnect, a network of women's groups working for gender friendly policies.

Getting more women into politics and positions of power will, the argument goes, mean more attention to women's issues and other policies being viewed through a gender lens. "Numbers are important," adds Syeda Hamid, member, Planning Commission. "A critical mass is needed for policy making."

Yet many believe that while there are some exceptions, the performance of women in Parliament has mostly been unremarkable. Not too many women MPs, notes Indu Agnihotri of the Centre for Women's Development Studies, spoke on amendments to the Hindu Succession Act, despite its enormous implications for property rights for women, when the 50-year-old law came up for changes three years ago.

Some argue it is because parties don't give women a chance to speak. Congress leader Margaret Alva rues that party leaders tend to slot women MPs for women's issues alone. But the record of elected women MPs in non-legislative debates (where anyone can put in a request to speak) isn't very flattering either. Figures compiled for The Telegraph by PRS Legislative Research, a body doing research for parliamentarians and on Parliament, show that only 3.4 per cent of the 45 women MPs in the Lok Sabha participated in non-legislative debates in 2006, against 5.4 per cent in the case of the 497 male MPs.

Kumari puts the blame on the way parliamentary work is organised. Questions, after going through a filtering process, are put through a ballot system. Women's chance to ask questions is slimmer because they are outnumbered by men. But that doesn't seem to have stopped the 25 women in the Rajya Sabha from bettering their 220 male colleagues - a phenomenon explained by the fact that politicians are brought to the upper house mainly for their skills while winning an election is often the only criterion in the lower house.

The data do not give an indication of the subjects women MPs took up, though the long-pending bill for reserving electoral seats for women has been a common refrain. Kumari admits that WomenPowerConnect hasn't had much success in forming a ginger gender group in Parliament, much like the Young Parliamentarian's Forum. The United Nations Development Programme and Unifem had, in collaboration with the International Parliamentary Union, held several briefings and meetings with women MPs on a range of issues. But that, says Kalyani Menon-Sen, coordinator of the women's group, Jagori, did not result in the formation of an issues-based women's caucus.

The closest that women have come to forming a bloc is Parliament's Committee on the Empowerment of Women, set up in 1997. The committee is supposed to look at reports of the National Commission of Women (NCW) and suggest how they can be implemented and review the implementation of government programmes on women. One of the major achievements of the committee, Alva (who headed the group in 2003) notes, has been to get Rs 18 crore sanctioned for special jails for women and setting up halfway homes for women out on bail but not taken in by their families.

Missing, however, is any action on a slew of suggestions by the NCW on amendments to various laws and the enactment of new ones, complain activists.

It isn't as if all women MPs are poor performers. Across parties there are several who have proved to be extremely effective and vocal - from Mamata Banerjee and Sushma Swaraj to Brinda Karat and Alva. Women from activist backgrounds, says Agnihotri, are more dynamic than the others. If the late Pramila Dandavate was active both outside and within Parliament on domestic violence and dowry, Renu Chakravartty played a key role in legislation relating to maternity benefits and working women's rights. "But what drove them was not their gender but their political ideology," says Agnihotri.

Ideology (along with party line) is one reason why getting a uniform gender stance on issues could be a bit difficult, admits CPM MP Brinda Karat. Indeed, the opposition within Parliament to the Muslim Women's Bill tabled by the Rajiv Gandhi government in the mid-Eighties came mostly from non-Congress women MPs. The divide was apparent also in debates on the recently passed Domestic Violence Act, where some women MPs were uncomfortable with the legislation covering non-marital relationships as they felt this would encourage live-in relationships. "My understanding of a woman's role will be quite different from that of some BJP members. We may not be able to forge a joint stand on every issue," says Karat.

The record of women chief ministers has also been patchy, with only Tamil Nadu's Jayalalithaa standing out as having gone beyond rhetoric on women and child care issues. Topping the list is the innovative "cradle baby scheme" launched in 1991 to help tackle female infanticide. Unwanted girl children could be left in a cradle at government-run hospitals and the district collector's office and then be adopted by the government. Equally significant was the all-women police stations set up during her tenure and which now number close to 200 and the big push she gave to women self-help groups.

Even Sheila Dixit, who has been Delhi chief minister for 10 years now, has not been able to better this record. While the Stree Shakti programme launched in 2002, which seeks to empower poor women through initiatives in health, literacy, and income generation, gets applause, Dixit hasn't been able to address the biggest problem of women in Delhi - safety. Equally disappointing is the lack of action on female foeticide and sex determination clinics.

But Hamid and Karat wonder why women alone have the burden of taking up women's issues. Indeed, much of the focus on women's issues in government programmes came during Rajiv Gandhi's time. Is there a message in this?


The new devil

The Telegraph,

Sunday, 8 July 2007

From coast to coast, companies are being viewed as greedy, grasping and evil. Seetha examines why this is happening

In the July 3 episode of television serial Viruddh, the scion of a business family is trying to get workers in his factory to end their strike. Amidst the heated exchanges, a young girl steps up. "If you rich people get out of your air-conditioned homes and cars and see the plight of the workers, may be you won't talk like this," she fumes.

That same morning, television was airing some real life images. Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan was raging against Tata Tea, accusing it of running a parallel government in the idyllic hill town of Munnar as he went about 'reclaiming' what he alleged was government land taken over by the company, and personally dismantled Tata Tea signboards. Days before, his government had hinted at plans to cancel three licences already given to Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Retail chain. Some months earlier, Tamil Nadu's PMK party had made similar demands and Reliance Retail outlets were vandalised in Ranchi, in Jharkhand.

Suddenly, big business seems to have become the villain of society. And predictably, politicians are mining public hostility to serve their own ends. So while mass movements are gaining ground against large industrial projects in West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand, political leaders from Bengal's Mamata Banerjee to former Prime Minister V.P. Singh in Uttar Pradesh are protesting the diversion of agricultural land for special economic zones (SEZs) and industry use. The CPM has drafted a note on how to curb organised retail chains and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been agonising over huge corporate salaries, advising industry that "profit maximisation should be within the bounds of decency and greed".

All this invokes a sense of déjà vu. In the 1990s, some politicians, activists and captains of Indian industry railed against foreign investment. One well known industrialist privately forecast that the East India company was back - most Indian companies would soon be owned by foreigners. But the Foreign Devil now appears to have been supplanted by the Evil Industrialist. Fumes Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and coordinator of the National Alliance of People's Movement (NAPM): "It is profit over people. Industry is ruling the country, manipulating laws to serve its own interests."

Perhaps. But psychiatrists say that the sudden and fierce animus towards industrialists - not from do-gooding activists, but from the people at large - probably goes deeper than that. "As a nation we go through so much stress and strain that we need a villain to vent our spleen on," says Sabyasachi Mitra, consultant psychiatrist at the Calcutta Medical Research Centre.

To be sure, businessmen have always been viewed with suspicion by Indian society. Notes J.R. Ram, a psychiatrist at Apollo Gleneagles Hospital, Calcutta, "As a nation we have always been wary of people who make money. Our traditional middle class socialistic mentality makes us think that industrialists make money by evil means and are usually corrupt."

Industrialists are also viewed as an unduly pampered lot. Says Amita Baviskar, associate professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, "There is a sense that everything is being done from the point of view of whether it suits India Inc or not." Expertise, experience, environmental impact do not seem to be the criteria when large companies are given resources or concessions, laments Patkar. A study by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy showed that tax exemptions were a huge drain on the exchequer. Yet there has been no attempt to phase them out. The revenue lost due to tax exemptions and tax preferences to industry and business is Rs 1,46,966 crore. Of this, revenue foregone under corporate income tax alone is Rs 57,852 crore.

If big business is viewed as being greedy it may also be because companies are not perceived as being socially responsible. Says CPI leader Atul Anjan, "The corporate sector has completely forgotten its social responsibility and is ignoring the social reality."

Adds sociologist Prashanta Ray, "There is a perception in some quarters that industrialists are not doing enough for social causes. This leads to resentment and makes people think of them as villains."

Still, Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto and one of the leading lights of the Bombay Club which had lobbied against foreign investment in the 1990s, sees some merit in the hostile attitudes. "People are beginning to become more conscious of their democratic rights," he says.

But he doesn't think there is an anti-industry pattern emerging, though he's irked by the fact that private sector has become a dirty word since the United Progressive Alliance came to power with Left support three years ago.

Certainly, the wave of hostility against big business often appears to be the result of a coming together of personal agendas, lobbying by interest groups and ideological concerns about displacement of people.

In Kerala, for instance, the Munnar operation and the steps against retail chains could be the outcome of factional CPM politics. "Factionalism in the party takes the garb of ideological battles, but reducing it to just that would be totally off the mark," says a state minister. "We welcome big industry, but are against an untrammelled laissez-faire approach. They can't violate laws."

In Bengal, the protests against the acquisition of land by the state government for the Tata Motors plant at Singur and a chemical hub (to be relocated now) to be developed by a consortium led by Indonesia's Salim Group at Nandigram are being dismissed as politically motivated. "The protests began even before there could be discussions about rehabilitation and continued even after it was decided to shift the chemical hub project from Nandigram," points out CPM leader Nilotpal Basu.

In Orissa, land acquisition problems have delayed Korean steel major Posco's $12 billion steel plant near Paradip, the largest-ever foreign direct investment proposal. Though London-based Vedanta Resources' alumina refinery and bauxite mining project in Lajigarh in Orissa hasn't faced blockades, there is resentment about displacement of people and the likely environmental damage, a charge the company calls completely unjustified.

Bajaj feels the resentment stems from the fact that the government is acquiring land for the private sector. "Let the private sector acquire land on its own," he declares.

Some companies are trying to talk to people directly and make them see the benefits of industrialisation. Posco, for instance, is addressing small group meetings in project areas, talking about the benefits of the project. Local recruitment and alternative employment opportunities are high on the agenda of most companies, supplementing the compensation given by state governments. Vedanta, Posco and Tata Motors are providing houses, schools, drinking water and roads in their project areas. All three are also training or helping train local youth. Posco is offering 200 acres of alternative land for betel vine cultivators displaced by the project. "The local people understand and appreciate our efforts, not the NGOs," complains C.V. Krishnan, a senior executive at Vedanta.

Retail is another sector where emotions ride high and where even India Inc has an ambivalent stance. "There will be resistance when incumbents are displaced," says Kishore Biyani of Pantaloons fame, referring to the corner shops on whose behalf the battle against organised retail is being waged. Bajaj isn't entirely critical of moves to regulate retail giants. "We don't want socialism but a market economy doesn't mean the Wild West. Big fish eating small fish is unacceptable in a democracy," he declares.

Industry is not entirely without sympathisers, though. "Some industrialists are tying to bring in everything under their control but it is not fair or right to categorise all industrialists as villains," says Ashok Ghosh, general secretary of the All India Forward Bloc.

Support has also come from unexpected quarters.

On 3 July, a group of protestors was blocking a highway in Orissa. It demanded action against opponents of the Posco project for ostracising 42 families that supported it.

A month earlier, farmers from West Bengal's Burdwan district had offered 2500 acres for an industrial hub in the area. What they want in return is compensation and jobs.

There seems to be hope, after all, for India Inc.


Thursday, 22 February 2007

Don’t forget 1984

While working on an article on police reforms two weeks back, I met several police officers, serving and retired. Most of them, when talking about the politicisation of the police, referred to their inaction in the Gujarat riots of 2002. It was left to me to ask, “and also 1984”. And invariably they all said, “oh yes, 1984” but it was an afterthought. I found that strange. Two of them were from the Delhi Police. How could they, how could anyone, forget 1984?

I am extremely puzzled by the collective amnesia about the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 or a reluctance to equate it with the Gujarat riots.

To my mind, there is no difference between the two. The 1984 riots were as much revenge killings (for the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards) as the Gujarat riots were (for the Godhra train fire). Those riots were as much instigated by politicians (Congress) as the Gujarat ones were (the sangh parivar). In fact, in the 1984 riots, several small time Congress politicians (and some big time ones as well) were seen leading rioters or encouraging them. In both cases, there were hints to the police to go easy on the rioters. In both those involved in the riots could not be brought to book, even though names were well known. In fact, some Delhi politicians who were named in the riots were given ministerial positions in successive Congress governments.

So why this reluctance to remember 1984, even as we keep flogging the Gujarat riots for all it is worth?

We, as a nation, have to do some intensive soul searching about this. And we must never forget 1984 or allow its seriousness to be diluted in any way.

Friday, 16 February 2007

Dixie Chicks and Parzania

So the Dixie Chicks sweeping the Grammy's is being seen as a referendum on the Bush Administration (the group has been openly critical of Bush). If that's true, that, to me, should be less a commentary on Bush's politics and more a reflection of the Grammy's itself. Are singers/bands to be awarded for their music or their politics?
This isn't the first instance of artistes being rewarded for things other than their work. If the Dixie Chicks got the awards for their anti-establishment stance, there have been other examples of artistes who have suffered for it. The Hollywood of the 1950s saw a witch hunt against artistes who were seen as being even slightly sympathetic of the communist point of view or who were merely being critical of the then American establishment. Both are equally wrong.
But I wonder if the Dixie Chicks were really being rewarded for their political posturing. More likely that the left liberals (clearly, not just an Indian affliction) decided to make heroes (heroines, actually) out of them because of their anti-Bush stand.
Much the same seems to be happening over Parzania, the moving tale of a family after their little son goes missing in the Gujarat riots. Gujarat's theatre owners have refused to screen Parzania, no doubt after threats from the sangh parivar. This comes about a year after they blacked out Fanaa only because Aamir Khan had criticised the Narmada dam project.
Without getting into what he said and whether or not it was right, the threats by certain groups not to allow the screening of the film because Aamir Khan had hurt the sentiments of the Gujaratis was ridiculous. So is the decision not to screen Parzania just because it will apparently re-open old wounds about the 2002 riots.
Both are patent violations of the freedom of expression and the government stands indicted for its failure to protect this freedom, so essential to a democracy.
That said, I make a distinction between the blacking out of Fanaa and of Parzania and I wonder if the second controversy wasn't, perhaps, sparked off by those very people who are now bemoaning its fate in Gujarat. Didn't they read political colours and messages into the movie, effectively sealing its fate in Gujarat?
The story of Parzan could have happened in any riot anywhere - Delhi, Bhiwandi, Meerut. India is hardly lacking in riot-hit towns. But it happened to be about a child missing in the Gujarat riots of 2002. So obviously our left-liberals just had to start singing paeans to the movie and breast beating about Gujarat.
So even before the movie is out, a simple, heart-rending story about a family gets imbued with all kinds of political messages. That promptly gets the other side on its high horse and then things just escalate. Would the film have got so hyped if it had been set anywhere else but Gujarat? I doubt it.
I'm not justifying what happened in Gujarat (the Godhra killings and the post-Godhra violence) or the blackout of Parzania. And I think the state government should have stepped in and provided protection to theatre owners and people who wanted to see Parzania and Fanaa. Those who were angered by Parzania or with Aamir Khan for his stand on the Narmada dam could have expressed their resentment by boycotting the movies. The story of the Dixie Chicks bears mentioning here. When they first criticised George Bush in 2003, ahead of the invasion of Iraq, angry fans destroyed their CDs, their album sales fell as did their rankings on music charts. But they were never stopped from playing anywhere. If that had happened, their right to perform would have been protected by the government.
But, at the same time, our lefties need to stop politicising everything and creating controversies where none need exist.