Monday, 22 April 2013

Ambani is more deserving of VIP security than others

My initial reaction to the news that Mukesh Ambani would get Z-plus category security was one of absolute outrage.  For the usual reasons – why should a few Indians move around in armoured cocoons while the rest of us live in absolute insecurity; why should the taxpayer bankroll the security of a man who, as a friend pointed out on Facebook, lives in the world’s costliest home; this will start a trend of other businessmen seeking the same level of security.
Just 20 minutes earlier, my heart had been gladdened by a report in the Newsline section of the Indian Express (devoted to city news). That said the Delhi government had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that visiting VIPs from other states could bring their own security only if they were staying in the Capital for less than 72 hours and, in any case, they could not use sirens and flashers nor could the armed personnel accompanying them brandish their guns at or intimidate the public to clear traffic on the roads. That is a common sight on Delhi roads, where Black Cat commandos bully others driving on roads to give way to VIP cavalcades. (Read this report here.
When I read the report about Ambani’s security in the main paper after this, I was angry once again.
My mind went back some years ago, when P Chidambaram had just been shifted to the home ministry after 26/11. I was stuck in a traffic jam and suddenly noticed that the car next to me had a red beacon on top. Other cars were honking and trying to manoeuvre in whatever little space they got (as only people stuck in Delhi traffic can do) but this car remained where it was (I don’t recall if the beacon was flashing) and didn’t use the siren (as Delhi VIPs are wont to do to get ahead in traffic or to jump traffic lights). Then I found that the person who was sitting in the back seat, rubbing his eyes tiredly, was none other than Home Minister Chidambaram, entitled to Z plus security. There were no escort vehicles surrounding his car.
I asked a friend to tweet about this contrast – between Ambani and Chidambaram. The latter had refused to take any security though his predecessor, Shivraj Patil, continued with his full complement even after demitting office. Chidambaram had also initiated a review of VIP security and struck 130 people off the list, generating a lot of heartburn.
By late afternoon came reports that Ambani would pay the government for the cost of his security, but that didn’t mollify me. Trained people would still be diverted for his use and even if he pays, replacing them won’t be easy.
But by evening my opinion had changed. By then I had read about how Chidambaram’s successor, Sushil Kumar Shinde, had reversed his approach and been pretty generous about granting security cover to a host of politicians as well as a petrol pump owner in Rae Bareli, Sonia Gandhi’s constituency. Read about that in this report.
That’s when it struck me. What is the contribution of these worthies to the country? In what way are they enriching our lives? At least Ambani is contributing to the GDP, generating wealth and employment. Even his obscenely humungous Antilla would have had tremendous trickle down on other industries – cement, steel, construction, to name just three. Whatever else you may call him, you can’t call him a parasite.
He, perhaps, is more deserving of security than they are. Yet they will demand it as an entitlement. While he is paying for it.

Best tribute to Ambedkar: don’t treat Dalits with condescension

This was published in Firstpost on 14 April 2013, B. R. Ambedkar's birth anniversary.

Today is Ambedkar Jayanti and to observe it, the Delhi unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has arranged for a ‘mass meal’ where party workers of all communities will eat together. All top leaders of the party will attend the mass meal.
The president of the Delhi state unit, Vijay Goel, has promised that party will also do all of the following:
• organise medical camps for Dalits
• provide books to Dalit students from “Class 1 to IAS-level”
• tell every party worker to employ at least one Dalit
• ensure that Dalit auto rickshaw drivers who have not been issued badges get one so that they can have their own auto rickshaws
• Goel will go to Dalit colonies “on foot” to understand the problems they face.
It’s silly season in Delhi, with assembly elections due towards the end of the year, and the BJP has been out of power for 15 years, so that explains why it has suddenly realised, as Goel puts it, the low literacy and graduation rates of Dalits and the lack of medical facilities for the community in the Capital. Make no mistake, if the roles had been reversed and the Congress had been in the BJP’s place, it would have done much the same thing.
But it’s not just poll-bound Delhi. Across the country, there will be similar examples of tokenism. None of them will make any difference to the lives of the Dalits. Worse, all of them smack of a patronising attitude towards Dalits and reinforce the perception that their upliftment is dependent on the munificence of the upper castes.
What is both laughable and extremely unfortunate is that this betrays a complete misreading of how much the target group has moved away from such handout-driven progress. Does Goel really expect Dalits to feel honoured that every BJP worker in Delhi (there are a couple of lakhs of them) will employ one person from their community? Doesn’t this only reinforce the jajmani system of yore, where Dalits served the upper castes and were, in turn, taken care of by them? Doesn’t this send out a message that Dalits are only meant to serve others?
And this at a time when there’s a growing sentiment that Dalits should not just be job-seekers, but job-givers as well. The Dalit entrepreneurship movement has been gaining ground slowly but steadily, buoyed by first-generation entrepreneurs who may have studied with the help of reservations but want to shape their future without that prop. There is a significant Dalit middle class that is taking its place in the world with a self-confidence that does not come from job quotas. The bechara image of Dalits is also being challenged – aggressively in Punjab and quietly elsewhere.
In Punjab, rap and pop albums celebrating the Dalit identity are all the rage and people are proudly sporting the chamar tag. A research study, Rethinking Inequality: Dalits in Uttar Pradesh in the Market Reform Era by Devesh Kapur, Chandrabhan Prasad, Lant Pritchett, D Shyam Babu shows how, in two districts of Uttar Pradesh, between 1990 and 2007 there has been a very significant change in the eating, grooming and consumption habits of Dalits. More importantly, the relationship between Dalits and non-Dalits is also changing. Dalit attendance at non-Dalit weddings had decreased as had instances of separate seating for Dalits. As the study notes: “Poverty and dependence might explain why more dalits attended nondalit weddings in 1990, even though separate seating was more a norm then. By 2007, though such humiliation had become rare, fewer dalits were keen on attending non-dalit weddings. It is a mark of dalits’ new-found independence – both from upper castes and the food in their feasts. (emphasis mine)”
Given this, are Dalits supposed to feel honoured that upper caste people will break bread with them at a mass meal on Ambedkar Jayanti? And is it not more a reflection of those who come up with such ideas that they do not normally interact with Dalits socially?
Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad often makes the point that the nature of violence against Dalits is changing. Earlier, he says, the violence was one-sided with Dalits being the passive victims. Now, it is more in the nature of clashes because Dalits are challenging social, economic and political equations in the village and the upper castes are not able to deal with that. Whether it is in Gohana in Haryana or Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu, the target of attacks, Prasad points out, were two-wheelers, television sets and books of Dalits. It is the upper castes that are feeling insecure in the face of Dalit advancement.
This is not in any way meant to advance a mitigating argument for Khairlanji, Dharmapuri, Gohana and umpteen other incidents of caste-based violence. Nor am I suggesting that Dalits are now living in a discrimination-free paradise. Search for Dalit music or chamar music on Youtube and see the kind of filthy abuses that the videos invite. Caste prejudice lurks beneath the surface of the most suave and sophisticated veneers. The heartening findings in two districts of Uttar Pradesh are not indicative of even the entire state, let alone the country. Remember, below poverty line school-children refuse to eat the free mid-day meals cooked by Dalit women. In our villages, poverty and hunger take second place to caste.
In a 2010 study, Dalits in Business: Self-employed Scheduled Castes in North-West India by Jawaharlal Nehru University professor, SS Jodhka, had 42 percent respondents admitting that they faced discrimination in business and 63 percent saying they faced it in their personal lives. In blue-collar jobs, there is a perceptible discrimination against Dalits.
A few hundred Dalit entrepreneurs do not indicate that Dalits are now an economically strong community. In villages, they are perhaps the most wretched of families. The fact that Dalit entrepreneurs had to set up a separate chamber of commerce – the Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Dicci) – itself testifies to the fact that they are not part of the mainstream. Dicci, its founder-chairman had told this writer once, was formed because mainstream chambers could not understand the problems Dalits faced.
There are Dalit intellectuals, activists, politicians and others who insist that this mind-numbing oppression is the only Dalit narrative and dismiss the strides the community has made. But the Dalit story is a far more complex and multi-layered one. And, on Ambedkar Jayanti, it would be best for our tokenism-loving politicians across parties to keep that in mind. Or else, far from wooing the Dalits, they may well end up alienating them.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Rooting for a Minimal State

This piece first appeared in Firstpost. Unfortunately, the heading was not quite in tune with the article. Apart form the fact that it won't endear me to either Narendra Modi or Digivijay Singh, and got me a lot of abusive comments from Modi-bhakts who seem to rule cyberspace.
As I listened to Narendra Modi hold forth on the theme for which he is being feted all around – maximum governance, minimum government – my mind could not help but go back 11 years. On 27 May 2002, a then-celebrated chief minister and now Modi’s arch baiter, Digvijaya Singh, delivered the first Minoo Masani Memorial Lecture. The topic: More Governance with Less Government.
Singh had used this phrase when I had interviewed him for the business magazine I then worked for. That was so much in line with the philosophy of the Swatantra Party that Masani had co-founded that I got him to deliver the lecture.
There is no text of Modi’s address at the ThinkIndia dialogue series for readers to judge for themselves, but as speeches go, I rate Singh’s lecture higher. It put the issue in a historical context and provided a perspective that Modi’s chatty-jokey sermon did not. 
Singh had wowed the audience at the India International Centre then, much the way Modi captured everyone’s imagination when he first articulated his now pet phrase while addressing students at the Sri Ram College of Commerce earlier this year. But there was no social media then to hype up the speech and the speech-giver.
But, just look at the irony. The Congress had a headstart over the Bharatiya Janata Party, with a chief minister who was probably the first to articulate this idea and, dare I say, attempt to implement it as well. And it is the Congress that is heading a government whose actions are designed to perpetuate the mai-baap orientation of the government, thus increasing its size, even as governance suffers.
Take education. As chief minister, Singh experimented with government financing of education and leaving provisioning and supervision to the community. The jholawala brigade castigated him for initiatives like para teachers – part-time teachers drawn from within the community who were paid less than government teachers but were more accountable than them – but it was a commendable experiment. In contrast, his party first pushed through and is now implementing a law – the Right to Education – that insists all schools must pay government salaries to teachers and hence shuts all community and low-cost private initiatives for the poor, even as the government schools are unable to meet the demand for education.
M. R. Madhavan of PRS Legislative Research, an independent research initiative, had once pointed out how some of the new Bills that the United Progressive Alliance had either introduced or mulling – the National Food Security Bill, the draft Communal Violence Bill (the National Advisory Council’s version), the Lokpal Bill and the Right of Citizens for Time-bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill – would result in a large number of new posts being created. The Food Security Bill, for example, requires the appointment of a grievance redressal officer in each district and for every state to have a State Food Commission, comprising a chairperson and five members. The Grievance Redressal Bill stipulates 11-member grievance redressal commissions at the centre and the states. The Communal Violence Bill talks about an Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice and Reparation, at the centre and in the states, each with a chair, a vice-chair and five members.
Meanwhile, the state’s primary responsibility – law and order and rule of law – suffers because of shortage of police personnel and judges. Clearly, Singh hasn’t managed to get his own party to buy into his model of governance. Its motto, on the other hand, appears to be More Government with Little Governance.
Both Singh and Modi would bristle at this, but there are many similarities between the two lectures, despite their contrasting world-views.
# Both spoke about the need to right-size the government as against the more reviled concept of downsizing, with examples to show that rationalising the workforce need not affect the quality of government services. Singh got jan swastha rakshaks (educated village youth trained in primary health care) to provide basic health services in villages; Modi got students from engineering colleges to do internships with departments that needed technical help.
# Both spoke of the need for effective decentralisation and devolution of power to the grassroots and how the country cannot be governed from Delhi or state capitals.
# Both drew attention to how people’s involvement in governance leads to better outcomes. Singh’s experiments included rogi kalyan samiti (government-run hospitals being managed by people’s committees), joint forest management and water users’ associations. Modi’s P4 formula (people-public-private-partnership) is somewhat similar.
# Both also highlighted the fact that people are willing to pay user charges if they see a clear benefit for themselves. The rogi kalyan samitis, for example, managed to raise finances through such user charges which were then used by hospitals to buy equipment. In Gujarat, people are willingly paying a fee at 200-odd One Day Governance centres where paperwork related to 160 services is completed in one day, with the help of technology.
Singh’s lecture has some tips for Modi, who lamented that politicians often delayed unpopular decisions – retrenchment of excess government staff being one of them – whenever there was an election around the corner. Singh’s government abolished thousands of vacant posts and retrenched 28,000 daily wage employees in municipalities, despite criticism from within his party, just before elections to local bodies in 1994. The Congress won those elections.
Does his speech indicate that Modi really wants a small but effective state in the classical liberal mould, one which will confine itself to national security, internal law and order, upholding the rule of law and protecting individual liberties and the provision of public goods?
It’s difficult to decide on the basis of one speech. Such a concept of a state will mean doing far more than allowing self-certification of boilers and lifts or electronic delivery of services that Modi boasted about. These, in any case, are not initiatives he or Gujarat pioneered or invented. Besides, this is just tinkering. A minimal state will require a complete change in the way both politicians and the people view the role of government.
A strong but effective state will leave little scope for patronage by politicians and will definitely not have any room for the state to be in business. Modi is not an unconventional politician so it is unlikely that he will willingly give up the heady power of patronage (ditto for Singh). And when quizzed about privatisation of state public sector enterprises after the lecture, he very clearly waffled.
In any case, even if Modi does subscribe to the minimal state idea, it’s not certain if he can carry the rest of the BJP with him, just like Singh couldn’t influence the Congress.
But what I found encouraging about the two speeches – 11 years apart though they may be – is that the two mainstream parties have people who appear to be thinking alike on issues of basic governance.
May their tribe increase.