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
PRIYA RANJAN DASMUNSHI
(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
RAM VILAS PASWAN
(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)