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 National interest – the fiscal health of the country – may demand that subsidies on these are either withdrawn or hugely cut.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.