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.