Monday, 5 December 2011

Dadagiri in Dwarka

You must have seen countless films with this storyline: one person bullies an entire locality/village; those who he bullies keep quiet, not wanting trouble; others say let’s keep out of his way, or he’ll get after us next; he gets bolder by the day and finally crosses his limits; the victims stand up to him, but the entire locality turns against them and cows down before him. The victims are isolated and harassed in various forms.
Did you think it ever could happen to you?
I didn’t.
But this has happened to me and a couple of others.
And we stand alone.
On November 19 this year, around 9.30 pm, the guard of the gated locality I live in came with a circular. It was from the present Residents Welfare Association (RWAs) and said an emergency meeting the following day (Sunday, 20 November) to discuss some serious issues had been convened and called all present and previous office-bearers to attend. My name was on it, though I had resigned on October 18.
I went to the meeting and what we heard there made our hair stand on end.
Two young men of the locality (one of whom is a major in the army), along with a friend, had been walking around in the campus around 2 am, chatting. The guard came and said he had received complaints and asked them to leave. They asked who had complained and that they would apologise. Meanwhile, one office bearer (let’s call him Mr X) started shouting at them from his house on the top floor, saying he was in charge of the security of the whole campus (there is no circular to that effect, though). There appeared to have been an exchange of words and then the boys started to return to their flat, cutting across the central park. As they reached the end of the park, Mr X (who had come down from his third floor flat) called them back. Let us allow for both sides not being entirely frank about their versions of the sequence of events that followed, but the short point was that Mr X hit the major with a lathi, the other RWA office bearers who had gathered by then rallied around Mr X. The younger boy had called 100 by then and at some point had received a call asking for directions. When they found the office bearers siding openly with Mr X, the younger boy said let us call the police and let them decide, the general secretary apparently said, ‘tum kya police bulaoge, hum bulayenge aur kahenge kit um logon ke gharon mein jaankh rahe the’ (we will call the police and tell them you were peering into people’s houses). (The general secretary completely denied this, but when the boys confronted him, he said it might have come out like that but that is not what I meant!!!) The altercation was somehow ended and one of the office bearers took the major to the hospital where his wound was stitched up.
When the boys’ mother came to know this, she demanded a general body meeting be convened to discuss this. `What wrong did my boys commit,’ she wanted to know. `And if they were up to something wrong, why didn’t the RWA call the police and hand them over?’ The RWA then convened the emergency meeting of only select people. Sixteen people attended that meeting.
When the boys had finished relating their story – Mr X was out of town and had to be called back, so he arrived late – others present at the meeting, feeling slightly emboldened by the mood, came out with more stories about Mr X’s bullying and intimidating ways. This changed the mood of the gathered people who thought what happened that night was a one-off incident involving Mr X.
Someone said this shows the person concerned is a permanent threat; someone else told the RWA office-bearers that if Mr X wasn’t checked he would become a problem even for those who were now backing him.
People discussed various kinds of action that could be taken against him. Finally it was decided that he would be expelled from the RWA and be barred from contesting elections for five years.
Mr X came and his version was heard. With an air of injured innocence, he said the young men were disturbing people at night and that is why he had objected to them and that he had hit them only because he feared that they were three of them and he was alone and he feared that they would assault him. (My comment: this guy is over six feet tall, extremely muscular and goes around flaunting his muscles in tight-fitting tees, while the two young residents were shorter and much slighter in build.) He said he later realized he shouldn’t have hit them and felt very sorry and that he had told his wife immediately on reaching home, and that he felt worse when he was told that the major required stitches for his wound.
Those assembled asked him and the RWA why the police hadn’t been called and the young men handed over in the first place. They demanded that Mr X apologise to the young men, undertake that he would “maintain decency and decorum of conduct” and that the decisions on his expulsion and bar on contesting elections stay. That very night a circular was issued to this effect. Everybody thought that was the end of the matter and the atmosphere within the campus would be peaceful and relations cordial.
Exactly a week later (Sunday 27 November), Mr X’s downstairs neighbour had to call the police at midnight or so. The police came and the case was allegedly turned against the neighbour. Earlier that evening, the Congress MLA had visited the block and Mr X had flaunted his closeness to him.
On November 29, Mr X’s lawyer sends a legal notice to five of those 16 persons present  at the meeting – the general secretary, the two young men, me and a former president of the RWA – leveling various fabricated charges including that of defamation (that is the only charge against me). The former president – an extremely decent, mild-mannered man of high integrity whose views are heard with seriousness in the locality – has been accused of trying to assault Mr X and instigating others to do so. (The only charge that sticks is the one against the RWA general secretary for not following norms in convening the meeting and expelling Mr X from the RWA). We have to unconditionally apologise within 15 days of receiving the notice or pay Rs 21 lakh each to Mr X or else he will file a defamation case against us.
Now an elaborate drama to get the circular withdrawn starts. The young men’s father and the former president approach the RWA asking why only four people who attended a meeting called by the RWA have been targeted and what the RWA is proposing to do. I sense a trap and decide not to speak to the RWA about this. Instead I approach some people who attended the 20 November meeting. They say we are entirely with you, how can this fellow run amok like this, we will call another meeting and take a decision on this. But soon there is a growing mood to take back the circular and the expulsion (this is the trap I feared). People start avoiding us. We hear that others present at the 20 November meeting are being threatened that there are legal notices lined up against them also and will be issued if they come to our help. But nobody will speak openly about this, let alone go to the police.
On 2 December, the RWA writes to the persons named in the legal notice asking for their comments before further action is taken. Acting on legal advice, I respond merely by saying “I have taken a very serious view of the fact that out of 16 people present at the emergency meeting of 20 November 2011 I have been singled out for the said legal notice and am taking appropriate legal action regarding the same.”
(A word about why I was targeted. On 1 November, my car cleaner told me he had been barred from entering the campus by Mr X. I rang up the general secretary (GS) and asked how he could do that. The GS said the cleaner’s work was not satisfactory. I argued that Mr X cannot decide that. The GS called the president and Mr X and there was a heated argument, at which Mr X admitted to slapping an earlier car cleaner because he wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the work and that what he was doing was only to ensure better quality of service. I pointed out then – and later in a long email to the president, GS, joint secretary and a few other residents – that a few RWA members being dissatisfied with the services of someone providing a personal service could not be a reason to bar that service provider from catering to other residents.)
On 3 December the RWA issues another letter to the 16 present at the 20 November meeting asking them to tick on either of two options – whether the RWA go ahead with the court case or whether the case should be amicably resolved by withdrawing the earlier circular. If a majority of the 16 agreed with the second option, another circular withdrawing the first would be issued. This would be done after the legal notice was taken back, those who got the circular were assured.
There was a clear attempt to influence the vote by writing in brackets after the first option (financial implication involved/rift among members may erupt) and after the second (will be able to maintain a harmonious relation). The responses were to be given by the evening of 4 December. There was also no instruction to sign after ticking the option chosen, leaving scope for the vote to be rigged. 
Meanwhile, the father of the young men asked for a copy of the circular dated 19 November convening the 20 November meeting. The RWA has been stalling him.
On 4 December evening, a circular is issued withdrawing the earlier one, saying this was with the consent of the majority of those who had attended the meeting of 20 November. This circular was to be issued after the retraction of the legal notice. It was issued before, with no assurance that it will be withdrawn.
One of those who got the legal notice asked the RWA president why the circular had been issued before the notice was withdrawn. He was told oh, Mr X has assured that it will be withdrawn. The word of a person who promises before an assembly that he will behave himself and then proceeds to revert to his old ways is to be relied upon!
A fraud has been committed on us – those who stood up to be counted.
Thirteen people cowed down.
But there is an upside to everything. Yesterday I returned from the South Asian Bands Festival at 10.30 pm. I passed my next door neighbour and his wife on the staircase. This guy who always asks kahaan jaa rahi hain/kahaan se aa rahi hain) (where are you going/coming from) – to which I always say baahar (out) – didn’t say a word. Oh the joys of social boycott!!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Shooting from the Lip

Has law and justice minister Salman Khurshid done a service to Corporate India by his statement reported in the Indian Express: “If you lock up top businessmen, will investment come?”
He has not.
Worse, he has only ammo to the opponents of liberalization, who will cite this as yet another example of the government caving in to `neo-liberal forces’ and how opening up of the economy has only encouraged big-time corruption.
Remember Arundhati Roy and Prashant Bhushan saying the economic policies post-1991 were the reason for corruption becoming pervasive.
When will these Congress ministers learn to zip their lips?
The following is the exact context of his statement: “What will affect the functioning of the government is if other institutions do not understand the kind of political economy we are faced with today: what is needed to encourage growth and investment? If you lock up top businessmen, will investment come? What optimal structure should be put in place for investment to come?”
Obviously he was talking about corporate biggies – notably Unitech’s Sanjay Chandra and D B Realty’s Shahid Balwa –  currently in Delhi’s Tihar Jail facing trial on corruption charges in the 2G case.
But what does investment or the lack of it have to do with businessmen being in jail for corruption charges? If they are innocent, they will come out free. If they are not, they deserve to be in jail.
The Indian investment scenario isn’t suffering because of corruption charges against businessmen. It is suffering due to a poor investment environment – lack of policy clarity, squabbling ministers affecting both policy and its implementation in areas like mining, red tape, corruption (petty as well as high level) and now rising interest rates.
And, yes, corruption.
India ranks 134 in a list of 183 companies in the World Bank’s annual Doing Business report. Taking action against businessmen for corruption is not a criterion. The categories are starting and closing a business, dealing with construction permits, registering property, getting credit, protecting investors, paying taxes, trading across borders and enforcing contracts.  Go to this link to see how India fares on all this.
And in 2010, India slipped four notches in the global Corruption Perception Index – from 84 to 87. Ask anyone – this is a dampener for foreign investment.
Has no action ever been taken against corrupt businessmen in the United States or the United Kingdom or any other free market economy? Nowhere in the world will a minister go out and say taking action against corruption will discourage investment.
Khurshid will probably come out and clarify that he meant businessmen being jailed without proof. But that is what the trial process is about – to decide on whether someone is guilty or not guilty. Or is it his case that in corruption cases, it is okay for receivers of bribes to be jailed but not those who pay bribes? (I am not pronouncing a verdict on those jailed in the 2G case).
Corporate India can do without such supporters.
Instead of telling the courts to go easy on businessmen facing charges of corruption, it might be better for Khurshid to tell his Prime Minister, his party leader and ministerial colleagues to do something to improve the investment environment.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Act, Mr PM, Act

The Prime Minister has said, yet again, this time in the context of the bomb blast at the Delhi High Court, that "we will not succumb".
So we are expected to go around our usual business - breakfast, office, household chores, school, college, back home, saas-bahu serials, trip to the mall, dinner and bed. Just to tell the terrorists that we are not "cowed down". 
But why not show that we are not "cowed down" - and the steely resolve with which those words are said - by carrying out the death sentence on Afzal Guru, Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar and Rajiv Gandhi's assassins? And fast-tracking the prosecution of Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab?
Wouldn't that be a better way of showing India will not tolerate terrorism in any form? And that terror attacks cannot be used to blackmail us into inaction (in this case stopping the hanging of Afzal Guru)?
In fact the latest terror attacks should be used to tell political and other groups pleading for clemency to these above-mentioned worthies (for that is what they are to these groups, never mind that each of them has indulged in senseless killings) to stop pleading their case. They never showed any mercy to the people they killed, why should they be shown any mercy?
Does this sound churlish, immature? Perhaps.
Should I exhibit more sagacity and moderation? I see no reason to.
I see no reason why India should come across as a soft state, which people can come and bomb at will.
There is a time when sagacity and moderation have to be set aside. This is such a time.
Of course, there will be the usual arguments against death penalty itself. But as many people have pointed out, why does death penalty get debated only when high profile or political convicts are involved?
Perhaps there is a case against death penalty. Perhaps there isn't. Perhaps we need to debate it.
But after Guru, Bhullar, Rajiv Gandhi's killers and Kasab are hanged.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Slander as Rejoinder

If you can't fight activists on an intellectual plane, or if they don't submit to your blandishments, discredit them. Question their integrity. Impute motives. Allege links with fanatical organisations. That is the strategy of the government which flip-flops between ignoring activists, then falling at their feet and then getting firm with them.
When Anna Hazare didn't give up his fast and the government was forced to constitute a drafting committee with civil society activists for the Lokpal Bill, the slander campaign was directed against Shanti Bhushan and his son Prashant, both members of the committee. Allegations about shady land deals and evasion of stamp duty were planted in the media, which was anyway critical of these activists. The Bhushans had a rejoinder but his got much less play than the allegations. Then came a CD which had the father-son duo reportedly speaking to Amar Singh about fixing some judges. The Bhushans got a lab test to show the CD was doctored; the government got another test to show it was genuine. Only a few newspapers carried the Bhushan version. See this story in a media website for more details.
The idea was to show that the crusaders against corruption (the Bhushans have been at the vanguard of the movement against judicial corruption and also behind the public interest litigation on the 2G scam) were not lily white.
Now it is being said that Baba Ramdev has evaded stamp duty of Rs 58 lakh and has grabbed fertile farmland. And Home Minister P Chidamabaram is on television right now, saying that Ramdev is an RSS agent. Questions are now being raised about the extent of his empire and shady deals are being hinted at. Enquiries have been ordered into the medicines and formulations his ashram produces.
Like I have said before in my previous posts, I have huge problems with the Hazare-Ramdev gang. But their analysis of problems and solutions to them can be countered at an intellectual level. Their pronouncements are so ridiculous that it's very easy to do this. They have been able to capture the popular imagination only because of a trivialising, sensation-seeking electronic media.
But that does not justify slander campaigns against them.
If Ramdev is a stamp duty defaulter, why was action not taken all this time? If his empire is involved in shady deals, why had they not been put under the scanner and action taken? If his formulations were suspicious what were the relevant authorities doing all this time? Did his political clout have anything to do with it? And was the government using all this to bargain with him to be its pawn in dividing the anti-corruption movement? Is all this coming out now only because he didn't play ball?
The latest weapon that this government and the Congress deploys against anyone who crosses their path is The RSS Slur. Chidambaram is on CNN-IBN detailing how Ramdev is a front for the RSS. The television media has been going on about it ever since Sadhvi Rithambra appeared on the stage at Ramlila Maidan. There were some Muslim leaders too. Using that same logic, Ramdev should be the front for some hardline Muslim organisation too! Parts of the media have picked this up willingly, with one shrill television anchor writing a column saying this anti-corruption movement is part of India's right-wing nationalist revolution, if you please.
This is meant to scare the urban English-speaking middle classes away from glorifying (deifying, in the case of Hazare) these activists. It is a kind of McCarthyism at work. If you are not with us, you are not just against us, you are also with fanatical organisations.
The fact that this government and the Congress has only this method to counter a bunch of loose cannons shows its utter intellectual bankruptcy.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Your Activist and My Activist

At the risk of being dubbed a RSS person, and without holding any brief for the Anna Hazares and Baba Ramdevs, I have to say this: I totally agree with the RSS  chief Mohan Bhagwat asking if Hazare and Ramdev are outsiders, what about the members of the National Advisory Council (NAC).
I have, in earlier posts, been quite critical of Anna Hazare's fast-unto-death over the Lokpal Bill and of the way his gang of civil society activists were trying to impose an ill-thought law on the country.
I have found Baba Ramdev's pronouncements on black money and corruption highly amusing and I was aghast when I found the government seriously engaging with him. It was a ridiculous attempt to pit one set of loose cannons against another and ultimately it backfired badly.
But when I see the government and the Congress depicting the Hazare-Ramdev bunch as irresponsible and asserting that the government cannot be dictated by them, then I can't help looking at the exalted status that the civil society members of the NAC enjoy.
Now the government and the Congress are saying that law making is the prerogative of the government and Parliament and it cannot be outsourced to civil society. Home Minister P Chidambaram reminds the country that we are a parliamentary democracy and elected representatives should not cede ground to civil society activists. Sure. A very valid point.
So what is the NAC doing, preparing draft legislations and using the clout of its chairperson - Sonia Gandhi - to force the government to accept them? And when the government refuses to accept ill-thought out recommendations, NAC members hold demonstrations.
On 24 May, three NAC worthies - Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze and Harsh Mander - demonstrated outside the Planning Commission along with close to 70 campaigners of the Right to Food Campaign over the definition of poverty.
Is demonstrating wrong? No. Peaceful demonstrations are a vital part of democracy. It is a way of expressing mass sentiment. (It's another matter that often crowds are paid and don't know what they are demonstrating for. Or that participating in demonstrations is just very fashionable these days, as we saw during Hazare's fast.) What raised eyebrows in this case was that the demonstration was led by NAC members. The NAC, after all, is a part of the current political establishment, though it is not a constitutional body and has been set up by an executive order.
The NAC, its website, says, "has been set up as an interface with Civil Society. The NAC would provide policy and legislative inputs to Government with special focus on social policy and the rights of the disadvantaged groups."
The NAC has been trying to dictate the agenda to the government on a range of issues ever since it was set up.  Many of its proposals, especially relating to the social sector, put a demand on fiscal resources that will strain the exchequer to the extreme. It drafts legislations and these are forwarded to the government, which is expected to take its recommendations on board.
So one set of civil society activists get a privileged status, while the rest are pilloried and discredited and set upon by the police.
Doesn't seem very fair to me.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Who Is The Irresponsible Voter?

Anna Hazare has an extremely poor opinion of Indian voters. He says they can be bought for as little as Rs 100, one saree or a bottle of alcohol. “They don’t understand the value of their vote,” he is reported to have said. His comment is finding resonance with a lot of people, especially the urban middle class voters, a fair chunk of which doesn’t vote at all.
Hazare’s comment is being seen as referring only to the poor, uneducated and illiterate voters. Why can’t it apply to the section that is concurring and even endorsing that statement?
Does this section believe that it alone votes in an enlightened manner, with national interest uppermost in its mind? That is bosh and nonsense. The educated urban middle class is as much prone to being bribed as the sections they sneer at.
This section will lament that no government will take action against slum clusters because of votebank politics. But when Jagmohan, who was urban development minister during the National Democratic Alliance government and who was a middle class hero when he razed or relocated slums in Delhi, dared touch encroachments by the middle class he was promptly voted out of the New Delhi parliamentary constituency.
Take also the issue subsidized LPG and petrol. Why is raising the prices of these in alignment with such a political hot potato and never attempted before the elections? Are these items of consumption of people who can be bribed by a saree, Rs 100 and a bottle of alcohol? Certainly not. It is the middle class who are the main consumers of these. National interest – the fiscal health of the country – may demand that subsidies on these are either withdrawn or hugely cut. But that will not be done in the name of the poor, though it is the middle class (the real beneficiary of this subsidy) vote that really worries any ruling party.
Who benefits from free power to farmers? It certainly isn’t the really small farmer or farm labourer who can barely make ends meet. It is the better off and prosperous farmer who can afford pumpsets. It is quite common for parties to come to power with promises of free power to farmers.
Aren’t these all instances of buying of votes? So it is okay for political parties to buy votes of the urban educated middle class, which barely votes, but not okay for it to buy votes of the poor?
Rs 100, a saree and a bottle of alcohol for an illiterate and uneducated group’s vote doesn’t cost the exchequer anything. But these freebies for the middle class and even the prosperous impoverish the exchequer. Will the middle class stop to think of this before it sneers at the poor and illiterate voter?

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Morally Upright Aren't Always Right

Like I said in my previous post, I have been observing this current anti-corruption crusade with some amusement and lot of cynicism. But now I am getting a tad worried.
People are just not willing to hear any criticism of Anna Hazare’s fast, the tactics employed by the worthies of the India Against Corruption movement or even objective analyses pointing out flaws in the Jan Lokpal legislation they are proposing. Business Standard carried an editorial, which had what could be called a needlessly provocative (though I found it very clever and apt) headline, The Hazare Hazard. The next day’s papers had three or four letters from readers criticizing the edit. The letters did not go into the merits and de-merits of the idea of ombudsman or of the legislation these activists are proposing, but were shocked that Anna Hazare was being criticised at all. Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s piece in the Indian Express has also invited a lot of flak.
I wonder how many people who are speaking up on social networking sites, fasting in sympathy with Hazare, shaving their heads, demonstrating and much else even know the broad contours of the Bill.
I haven’t and so I am not going into the Bill itself, Mehta’s article, this other piece by Rajiv Desai delve into those aspects.
I’m making a larger point – the unquestioning adulation we have for certain public figures who are either morally upright or highly efficient or both, because of which we are not willing to concede that they could be wrong sometimes. We are just not willing to accept that people we idolize can be flawed or that the wisdom or suitability of their actions can be questioned. And this adulation tends to make some of these public figures believe that what they say or do shouldn’t be criticised at all.
I am not even going into the whole Gandhi phenomenon here (not that I think Gandhi should not be criticised and he himself never wanted to be idolised). I am talking about much lesser mortals.
Take Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. No one doubts that he is honest. He knows that. So that is why he believes he should not be held responsible for all the scams that were taking place under his nose and which he could have, but didn’t, check.
Or take E Sreedharan, chairman of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC). I got this sms from a friend after she saw pictures of Sreedharan with Hazare: “Sridharan in a-c bandwagon. How laughable! How he fought against rti applying to dmrc! How closed his account books r!”
Neither she nor I believe Sreedharan is corrupt. I admire him for his work on the Konkan Railway and then on the Delhi Metro. But I completely agree with the contents of her sms.
How can he cheer for a movement for more transparency when his organization functions with complete lack of it? After the collapse of an under-construction metro pillar in south Delhi in 2009, resulting in the death of six workers, someone filed a Right to Information application seeking details of the design and layout of the structure. DMRC refused to part with the information and took the battle up to the Delhi High Court which finally said it had to supply the information.
I have had personal experience of the complete lack of transparency at DMRC. While working on a story, I had requested some information from DMRC and an interview with Sreedharan. Some of the information I had requested was very basic which should have been there on the website but wasn’t. I was shocked at the kind of stonewalling that ensured. One woman from the public relations team called me and wanted to know whether I was doing a positive or negative story. “Don’t tell me it will be an objective story,” she said with a sarcastic laugh. When I refused to tell her in advance what kind of  a story it would be, the wait for answers got longer and the interview with Sreedharan never materialized. Finally, after much pursuing I got some information but innocuous ones. I never got details on cost overruns (which were reported in the press), cost per km and response to some criticisms by critics of the Metro concept. There was a certain arrogance in the refusal to reply to questions from a journalist who was trying to do a balanced story.
If Sreedharan has become a demi-God of sorts, we are all responsible for it. Remember the shock when he offered to resign in the wake of the pillar collapse? Everybody rushed to stop him and he finally took it back. If the Delhi Metro comes to a standstill without Sreedharan, who is to blame? Shouldn’t it be Sreedharan himself, for not doing proper succession planning?
Also recall the controversy over the model of the Hyderabad Metro project. Sreedharan raised a stink over certain aspects like real estate development. Perhaps he had a point. But I suspect that people got swayed less by the merits of his argument and more by the fact it was Sreedharan who was opposing it. It didn’t help that on the other side was a corporate house.
What puzzles me is that this is happening in India, the cradle of Hinduism which encouraged intellectual debates and questioning of established wisdom. But somewhere along the line, that intellectual tradition has taken backseat to one where you don’t question certain people, especially those who are more educated and knowledgeable than you.
The worst manifestation of it is in the kind of following godmen and godwomen command – blind devotion. I can understand if an illiterate and poorly educated person behaves this way, but why do highly educated people also do the same? Why don’t they read or reflect on things themselves instead of taking as Gospel truth something a morally upright person has said?
Honest and morally upright people can be wrong. It will be better for themselves and for the nation if they and everybody else accepts it.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Combating Corruption

Social activist Anna Hazare is on a fast-unto-death. This fighter against corruption  (he is the founder of the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan who returned his Padmashri award because the Maharashtra government did not take action against corrupt forest officials) and campaigner for the Right to Information Act wants the government to start work to enact a Jan Lokpal Bill. Apparently, close to 150 people have joined in, according to one newspaper report.
So why am I not impressed? And why am I amused when a newspaper says the fast has galvanised the nation's fight against corruption?
What fight, I want to know.
I live in a middle class locality of Delhi built by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). DDA rules don't permit water tanks of more than 500 litres per flat on the terrace. Yet in the block I live in and in countless DDA flats across Delhi, people have installed 1000 litre tanks, endangering the structural stability of flats. Complaints are made, officials come to inspect and go away richer by a few hundreds or thousands. Unauthorised constructions abound, pavements have been encroached upon for gardens, motors installed on main water lines. In each case, ordinary middle class people - perfectly decent and respectable otherwise - have paid bribes so that they can flout the law.
When I was renovating my then recently acquired flat four years ago, a neighbour asked me if we could jointly build an extra room. I was agreeable till I found it was against the rules. When I mentioned this to his aged mother, she said, `don't worry, my son will take care of payment to the DDA officials. You don't have to talk to them." I put my foot down and said nothing doing.
These are the very same people who express shock at the various multi-crore scams our politicians and bureaucrats are involved in and rail against corruption in high places. They will praise Anna Hazare and maybe even go to see him. And when they are driving back, they will jump a red light and bribe the traffic cop.
Middle class people think it is okay for them to indulge in minor corruption but not for politicians to do the same on a grander scale. I had touched upon this in an earlier article, Morality of Middle Class Politics, where I had drawn a distinction between bribes that one is forced to give (to get perfectly legal things done) and the bribes that one gives willingly to do something that is patently illegal (unauthorised constructions and disobeying traffic rules, for example).
I feel it is possible to resist bribe demands of the first kind as well. After all, how long can someone hold back a death/birth/marriage certificate (believe me, this still happens) or an income tax refund or a completion certificate for a building.
Former chief justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court, Leela Seth, in her book A Fine Balance, relates the incident about how an inspector in Noida kept delaying a completion certificate for her house, hinting at a bribe. Finally he came to her house and denied the certificate because some column was a couple of inches smaller than the rules permitted. There was again a hint of a bribe to ignore this. Seth spent far more than what a bribe would have cost her to get the column redone. Still the inspector delayed her certificate by over a year.
This may not be a practical option for many. I know a recent case where a newly-married couple had to pay a bribe to get their marriage certificate because the bride had to appear for a visa interview with the certificate. I pride myself on never having bribed but if I was in their position would I have been able to stick to my moral high ground?
But what about bribes paid for what are known to be illegal actions? Are people who pay these petty bribes any better than the politicians involved in mega-scams? I don't think so.
Also, political parties tend to make corruption an election issue? But is it an issue for the electorate at all? Known corrupt people keep getting elected all the time. Not in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar but everywhere. Both the DMK and the AIADMK regimes in Tamil Nadu have always been marked by corruption. Yet one or the other party keeps getting elected.
Anna Hazare may succeed in getting the kind of Lokpal Bill he wants. But will that stop people from electing corrupt politicians to legislatures? Will that stop people from offering bribes for an extra floor or room that is not permitted, for flouting some rule that is based on logic and safety concerns?
Denying oneself of food is not going to stop corruption. Denying oneself some comforts that can be got only through bribes is the only way to fight it.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Rape Reparation

Today's Indian Express has a news item about the Planning Commission proposing a financial assistance scheme for rape victims. Apparently, rape victims will get up to Rs 3 lakh as compensation (apart from official assistance) to tide over the victim's immediate and long-term needs. This, the news item says, is part of an effort to ensure "restorative justice".
Restorative justice is a legal principle (am linking it to the wikipedia definition) and I still have to understand the complexity of it. Maybe the Planning Commission has a point. But I have my extremely cynical doubts about this proposal. 
Apparently, in a note to the Women and Child Development ministry, the Commission has said that apart from punishing the perpetrators the woman's dignity and self-confidence must be restored as well.
But is a sum of Rs 3 lakh (or any financial amount) going to do that? A woman's body and spirit have been violated. What she needs is justice and a few lakhs in her bank account is not necessarily going to get her that. Of course, this does not absolve the state from ensuring speedy justice for victims.
I would rather the state spends money in setting up fast track courts for rape cases and sensitising the police and the courts about the trauma of a rape victim and to deal with them with sympathy and sensitivity. Most rape victims baulk from going to the police or to the courts because of the crude questioning they are put through.
I am also worried that this could lead to other problems. To apply for this compensation, victims have to first file a first information report (FIR). Now, we all know how difficult it is to get an FIR filed and a copy obtained even for ordinary crimes, never mind what the police keep telling us. It is even more difficult in the case of rape. Now imagine a situation where a rape victim seeks a copy of the FIR in order to apply for this compensation. Once the cops know that a couple of lakhs at least are involved, are they going to make it easier for the victims to get the FIR? Won't this involve more harassment?
I also fear a rise in false allegations of rape in order to claim compensation. Many will be shocked that such scepticism is being voiced by a woman. But, let's face it, women are prone to misuse laws meant to help them. It won't hurt us to admit that.
I am not sure if in cases where compensation is being sought, the offender has to be identified, but in many cases, the victim does not know who it is. Whether it was the Maulana Azad Medical College student rape case or that of the girl working at a call centre who was abducted from Satya Niketan, neither knew who their rapists were. The police rounded up bad characters in a particular area and zeroed in on them and they confessed. 
This increases the possibility of misuse of this provision. The proposal mentions the setting up of a District Criminal Injuries Relief and Rehabilitation Board (see the story for details), but I am not sure how effective this will be, either in providing justice and compensation to victims or in preventing rape compensation scams.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Delhi’s Many Shayan Munshis

The candles are out once again. This time they are for Radhika Tanwar, the Delhi college girl who was shot dead by what is presumed to be a stalker or a rebuffed suitor. Students are going to take out a protest march about the rising crimes against women. Police inefficiency is being blamed.
There’s nothing wrong with all of that. But let’s see things in proper perspective.
Radhika was shot in broad daylight as she was descending from a foot overbridge to go to her college. It was morning and there were a large number of people on the foot overbridge. They heard some noise, saw a girl collapsing, saw someone running away.
No one stopped him or even tried to.
No one came forward to help the girl. Not even when the police arrived.
No one came forward to give a statement.
No one saw anything. They stood around watching.
Maybe if someone had rushed her to a hospital, she would have been alive and been able to say who could have shot her. Right now, there are conflicting statements, with her friends saying she was being harassed by someone and that her family had beaten someone up and the family denying it completely. The truth may never be known because no one is cooperating. And yet there will be demonstrations and Facebook pages on Justice for Radhika.
It’s easy to blame the police for everything. Sure the police isn’t the epitome of efficiency. It is, on the contrary, the epitome of callousness and corruption. But let’s face it, the police cannot be present on every kilometer every minute. You cannot blame the police for the shooting. The police can be blamed if it had not acted promptly. From all accounts of the current case, there was no delay on the part of the police once it was informed of the incident.
This time the callousness and the delay was by all of those present when Radhika was shot.
A name flashes in my mind. Shayan Munshi, the model and aspiring actor who was a star witness in Jessica Lal murder case. His initial testimony nailed Manu Sharma, who has been convicted for Lal’s murder. But he later turned a hostile witness. He did it because he must have been either threatened or browbeaten. Or simply because he didn’t want the hassle of police questioning and court cases. Maybe he thought, `is jhamele mein kyun padun (why should I get involved in this mess?)’, a typical Delhi reaction.
Munshi has been criticised and ridiculed for backtracking the way he did. He is now going to be tried for perjury. But what about all those people on the foot overbridge where Radhika was shot dead? When they stood around watching, didn’t they also think, `is jhamele mein kyun padun’?
I have dealt with this subject in two earlier posts, Middle Class Angst and Nithari and Us.
Delhi chief minister Shiela Dixit is right. Civil society, she said, cannot remain mute spectators to such incidents. The police cannot act without our help. If we are not going to vigilant and helpful citizens, we should stop demonstrating against the police. And demonizing Shayan Munshi. We are all Shayan Munshis.