The Rumblings of Global Hunger

Every now and then, the release of a Global Index comparing countries in respect of some metric sets off a chain reaction in government circles in India, whether it be press freedom, the state of democracy or human rights. The latest controversy swirls around the release of the Global Hunger Index 2022 (GHI-22), which places India at the 107th position in a list of 121 countries for which data is available.

The GHI-22 score for each country is based on a weighted average of four standardised indicators. While one could always quibble about the excessive reliance on under-five child nutrition and mortality indicators and the sample sizes for estimating the prevalence of undernourishment in arriving at the GHI-22, there is no denying the fact that, in international comparisons, India still has way to go to reach the levels of even some of its South Asian neighbours. The NFHS-5 percentages for child stunting in Indian states like Bihar, Meghalaya and Uttar Pradesh are uncomfortably close to those in some African countries and higher than most of India’s immediate neighbours. Child wasting percentages in most Indian states are in excess of 15 percent, higher than those in most countries of the world.

Rather than spending time disputing statistics, governmental energies can be more usefully deployed in effectively tackling child undernutrition. Four areas suggest themselves for immediate attention. The first step has to be the use of real-time accurate data, based on anthropomorphic indicators of weight and length/height of every child in every anganwadi, to zero down on the specific locations where stunting and wasting are serious problems. The tablets provided to anganwadi workers under the Poshan Abhiyan campaign will serve their purpose only if online growth monitoring charts of each child, based on current height/weight/length measurements, are available to ICDS field staff (Anganwadi workers and their supervisors) to enable immediate corrective action in respect of children who are stunted and wasted and/or whose growth is faltering.

Secondly, the health and nutrition status of pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers must be given priority. Nearly 50 percent of pregnant women in most states are anemic; about 20 percent of women have subnormal body mass indices. The state must provide maternal nutrition and health support in areas with the highest incidence of child stunting/wasting and mortality — this will check the incidence of low birth weight and the onset of malnutrition at the stage of infancy. States like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka are providing pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers with a daily hot meal at the anganwadis. Apart from the nutrition aspect, this measure also enables attention to be given to micronutrient supplementation, nutrition education (especially breastfeeding advice) and peer support to women. Both the union government and the states need to provide budgetary support to this programme. The pernicious practice of contractor-driven supply of Take Home Rations to mothers and under-3 children should be discontinued forthwith, with womens’ self-help groups (SHGs), in association with anganwadis, being entrusted with the work of providing hot meals to mothers and children. Nutritional support, along with provision of creches for under-3 children, run by SHGs, would not only promote nutritional and cognitive development in these children, but would also enable their mothers to earn a livelihood to enhance family incomes.

The third policy focus should be on the care of the infant, especially in the first 28 days after birth. The SRS data of the Registrar General of India shows that 80 to 90 percent of under-5 child mortality occurs in the first year of birth. Equally dismaying is the statistic that, in nearly all Indian states, over 70 percent of infant deaths occur in the 28 day neonatal period, indicating that neonatal mortality accounts for over 60 percent of child mortality. The responsibility here falls largely on the Public Health department of states, since neonatal monitoring of the newborn is one of the weakest linkages in the nutrition-health chain in government. The NFHS5 data shows that nearly 80 percent of mothers and children received postnatal care from health personnel within two days of delivery. This contrasts sharply with the UNICEF 2021 State of the World’s Children Report which shows figures of 65 percent and 27 percent for maternal and child postnatal care, though this data may be a couple of years older. In any case, anganwadi workers and ASHAs need to regularly monitor the nutrition and health status of newborns in their first 28 days of life and refer all cases where the nutrition and health position of the child is severely compromised to the nearest medical centre.

Above all, governments need to prioritise maternal and child nutrition and health in a meaningful manner. My experience as Director General of the Rajmata Jijau Mother-Child Health and Nutrition Mission in Maharashtra showed that political and bureaucratic commitment from the very top is crucial in instilling a sense of accountability in implementing departments and in promoting inter-departmental coordination to tackle this issue which spans a number of government departments. Regular reviews at the levels of the Chief Minister, the Ministers for Health and Women & Child Development and the Chief Secretary lead to greater attention being given to solving problems at the district and sub-district levels — budgetary support for programmes in specific areas, resolving personnel issues and ironing out interdepartmental problems in implementation are some of the positives from such high-level interventions.

This is not to minimise the importance of macro interventions on the economic and social fronts. Empowerment of women, through access to higher education, skill development and income-earning opportunities and enhancing community awareness on good health and nutrition practices would impact the problem significantly. Strong economic growth, coupled with job opportunities, would increase family incomes and improve nutrition outcomes. But a determined government focus on the issues mentioned in the earlier paragraphs would lead to significant improvements in the situation in the short and medium term, even as the longer term measures take root in the country. As Nelson Mandela said “History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children”.

(Published in the Free Press Journal (30 October 2022)

A Tale of Two Elections

India benefited in two ways from her association with Great Britain — the English language and a parliamentary system of government. But there is a third useful lesson India can learn from Britain: how to conduct the election of the leader of a political party. The process that has played out in the British Conservative Party after the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in July this year stands out in stark contrast to the confused muddle in conducting the election for the President of the Indian National Congress (INC).

The procedure for election of the leader of the Conservative Party, who would become the Prime Minister, involved a two-stage process. In the first stage, Conservative MPs voted for selecting the two candidates who would confront each other for the top job. This exercise narrowed the choice down to Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, with the former emerging the winner in an election where over 80 percent of over 170,000 Conservative Party members exercised their franchise.

Contrast this with the process that has characterised the election of the President of the INC. With the anointed heir apparent to the throne playing the reluctant suitor, the election was fixed for 17th October, rather close to the crucial state assembly elections slated for December/January. Noises from various party functionaries and carefully planted media reports made it obvious that there ought to be a consensus candidate favourable to the party high command, without the need for an election. With Shashi Tharoor throwing his hat into the ring, the election process, however, had to be gone through.

In an age when electronic lists are the norm and the British Conservative Party can conduct online elections involving 170,000 plus members, the INC’s delay in releasing a list of under 10,000 PCC members bordered on the ludicrous. After much urging from some party members, the existing lists of these 9000 plus members were made available to the candidates standing for election. The campaign by the two candidates revealed clearly the culture that prevails in the party. In state after state, party functionaries preferred to go along with Mallikarjun Kharge, seen as the “high command” candidate, despite his contention that he has his independent position on various issues. The party old guard did not look too kindly on the younger interloper, and it is little wonder that the election was a one-sided affair reminiscent in style if not in degree of the INC President election of 2000, which brought Sonia Gandhi to the helm of affairs.

The high command structure in place in the INC since the time of Indira Gandhi has played havoc with the INC’s regional power bases, leading to election fiascos for the party in state after state, and at the national level. Maharashtra is a prime example: no INC CM after 1972 has spent a full five years in office. With dissidence against incumbent CMs having become the norm, it is little surprise that the INC has had 12 CMs in the 36 years it was in power in Maharashtra between 1972 and 2014. As in UP and Bihar, the INC is fast losing its relevance in Maharashtra, occupying fourth place (44 seats) in the number of MLAs in the assembly, a far cry from 1985, when it held 161 seats. The failure of the INC to establish its electoral dominance in national and most state elections since 2014 is, at one level, an outcome of the disgruntlement of state-level leaders — Punjab, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have all witnessed revolts against the party leadership.

An ambitious politician finds her/his path to the top obstructed by the “old guard” and/or by a suspicious leadership. Ambition not being seen as a desirable quality, contenders for a more meaningful role in the party are compelled to switch to other political formations.

Coupled with ambition are the two vices of greed and fear. Politics offers easy pickings through patronage networks and the non-transparent nature of decision making in government departments. This tendency has been accentuated in recent years by the allure of inducements for switching sides immediately after elections or sometime between two general elections, the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution of India having repeatedly failed in checking defections midstream. The disease of treating ministerial posts as avenues for personal aggrandisement also renders most politicians vulnerable to investigations by law enforcement agencies, a tool which comes in handy for the party in power to arm-twist politicians into shifting their loyalties. A former Maharashtra Congress Minister has openly admitted that he breathes easy ever since he switched sides.

The drama that surrounded the INC presidential election is symptomatic of the disease that affects ALL political parties in India. Most parties in India are family-managed enterprises, where the hereditary right of succession seems to be a given, regardless of whether the successor displays any political ability. Even where there is no “dynasty culture”, the party morphs into an outfit run by one or more leaders, with a small coterie to advise them. Both at the state and national levels, the preference is to nominate persons for specific posts based on their loyalty to the party bigwigs or to ram through candidates for party and government leadership on the basis of the choice of the high command.

In such a scenario, loyalty and commitment to the party’s ideology (if it has one, in the first place) and to its success in elections are replaced by individual expediency. Almost overnight, politicians spout rhetoric that was anathema to them just a short while earlier and eulogise their new leaders whom they had no qualms about abusing and criticising while in the earlier party.

The noted author Ramachandra Guha had, fifteen years ago, characterised India as a 50-50 democracy. More recently, he downgraded this rating to 30-70. Given the absence of inner party democracy across the board in Indian politics, one wonders if India is nearer a 10-90 democracy.

The many nuances of ‘Ji Mantriji’

India’s Minister for Road Transport & Highways Nitin Gadkari is a person I admire for his huge contributions to improving and augmenting road communications in Maharashtra and India. But his statement in Nagpur in August this year that bureaucrats must always say “Yes, Minister” to every order of the Minister made me do a double take. It revived memories of the BBC Yes Minister series, which I viewed four decades ago, shortly after joining the civil service. Doordarshan followed suit two decades later with the “Ji Mantriji” serial, adapted from the Yes Minister series. In these serials, the Minister is effectively house trained by the civil service.

Now, although I am a former member of the often criticised IAS, I hold no brief for the civil servant who obstructs sensible policy implementation mainly to preserve her/his turf. This has led to an unfortunate perception in the public mind that the civil service is lazy, conservative and opposed to reforms. At the same time, we would do well to keep in mind that Ministers often come to power without knowledge of the processes and procedures of administration. This is even more so in the last two decades: in the first half-century of political administration in independent India, a fairly large number of politicians, in both the centre and the states, had come up from the grassroots and had reasonably detailed understanding of how the government worked.

Ministerial desires fall in two categories. Category 1 cases are those where the Minister wishes to implement pre-poll promises made by her/his party to woo the electorate (Minister here can include the PM/CM and the Council of Ministers). The bureaucrat’s role here is to work out the nuts and bolts of the programme, point out the possible difficulties in implementation and, most crucially, assess the financial implications, given the competing budget priorities of different departments. The bureaucracy can offer its dissenting opinion on the proposed policy, but once this policy has been approved at the highest political level, it is her/his responsibility to give effect to the policy.

It is the Category 2 cases that can land a bureaucrat in the soup. These include allotment of land, award of contracts and providing jobs to those recommended by the Minister’s supporters. Such cases can be particularly dangerous when elections are around the corner, since favours have to be dispensed quickly to gain access to funds. Based on my thirty years as an insider in the system, I have worked out the possible stratagems for the bureaucrat to wriggle out of this ministerial chakravyuha:

  1. The K. Kamaraj/G.K. Moopanar approach: Kamaraj had this magic word ‘parkalam‘ in his repertoire. This Tamil word can be translated in English as ‘Let us see’. By the time I was old enough to follow politics, Kamaraj was a distant memory. However, I have heard Moopanar use the English equivalent on numerous occasions. In Maharashtra, we employed the Marathi equivalent ‘baghto‘. This is a time-honoured tactic to buy time and engage with the Minister in a battle of attrition.
  2. The “locating the file” excuse: The bureaucrat informs the Minister that the file is not immediately traceable but that all efforts are being made to unearth its whereabouts. Not too great an excuse, this can lead to a volley of abuses and a threat of transfer, these definitely preferable to a future suspension from service.
  3. Sending the file into orbit: This mechanism is specially recommended when there is a time-limit for decision making. It can be used to great profit on the last couple of days of the financial year or just before the Model Code of Conduct for elections kicks in. Select the most obstinate of your colleagues in other departments, justify why the file needs to be referred to their department and dispatch the missile (sorry, file) in that direction. Once April the first dawns or the election process starts, the beleaguered bureaucrat can heave a deep sigh of relief.
  4. Making the file and yourself scarce: Lock the file in a steel almirah in some corner of the office and ensure that you and your co-workers leave the office for the day. This trick works best near closing time and I can testify to its utility, particularly if you stay 30 kms. away and keep your mobile shut.

But whether the case falls in Category 1 or 2, the cautious civil servant is well advised to adopt certain precautions to stay out of Tihar or Arthur Road jails in her/his advanced years:

  1. Dodge discretionary cases: Even if the time-honoured practice in government is to go by past precedents, stay away from decisions that lack transparency and a rational basis. Job appointments and selection of institutions for government grants are best done through competitive examinations and laid-down guidelines respectively, where subsequent audits can show a clear pattern of decision-making free of fear or favour.
  2. Record on file and keep copies: If you don’t want some decision you signed off on 15 years earlier coming back to haunt you in your retirement years, ensure you put your views on file and keep copies of crucial pages (never rule out subsequent alterations or missing files).
  3. You are known by the company you keep/kept: Your political bosses in the departments you headed can determine your future unease. Bureaucrats have gone through the wringer even in Category 1 cases (think coal, spectrum, etc.), where they merely executed extant government policy. Totally unconscionable are those instances where the bureaucrat plays along with the decisions of her/his political boss or (what is worse) willingly participates in a division of the spoils, whether in terms of wealth or power. There are enough news headlines today pointing out the many consequences of such collusion.

In the ultimate analysis, a smart bureaucrat ought to combine the characteristics of an experienced sanitary inspector and an uncanny bomb expert to know which file/decision stinks and which is a ticking time bomb. Negotiating one’s way safely through these sewage traps and minefields will ensure a comfortable home and hearth in her/his later years.

This blog was published in the Free Press Journal on 12 September 2022 (here)

 

Let’s rescue politics from resorts

Almost exactly twenty years after ‘resort’ politics was resorted to in Maharashtra to save the Congress coalition government of Vilasrao Deshmukh, history has repeated itself in the recent rebellion within the ranks of Shiv Sena legislators. While bundling away legislators in bulk to resorts to keep away prying suitors was a novelty in 2002, it is the norm in 2022. From Gujarat to Rajasthan, from Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh, the flock of disgruntled dissidents or loyalists (depending on which side of the table you are on) have been spirited away before crucial voting or before governments are toppled. There are, of course, states like Goa and Manipur where the resort to resorts is not even necessary: it is game, set and match even as the election process ends, with wholesale defections to the party which offers the best terms.

What boggles the mind is the scale of operations today. In my view, cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) has a hoary ancestor in the Indian Political League (IPoL): the latter commenced functioning around 1967, a good forty years before the IPL was born. Players in the IPoL are free to switch teams whenever auctions take place: these could be before elections or at more frequent intervals, depending on team managements. Auctions can adopt a carrot and/or stick approach: positive inducements, such as signature bonuses and subsequent access to ATM assignments, and/or negative pressures, using law enforcement agencies to uncover the murky pasts of politicos. Once safely home in her/his newly adopted political party, the freshly laundered politician has a new launching pad for her/his political future.

Where does this continuous cycle of saam-daam-dand-bheda leave the ordinary voter? Increasingly, her/his vote ceases to matter. No matter whom s/he elects to office, there is no guarantee that that person will remain loyal to the party and the ideology which may have influenced the voter in her/his favour. The anti-defection law has proved to be a non-starter. Developments in recent years from Arunachal Pradesh to Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have not dampened the enthusiasm of Aaya Rams – Gaya Rams to jump ship at the call of the Sirens. The Tenth Schedule of the Constitution of India seems to indicate clearly that two-thirds of the MLAs/MPs of a party have to switch allegiance to another party to retain their membership of the legislature (the Goa pattern) and not attract the anti-defection provisions. Although the Tenth Schedule vests all powers to decide on disqualification of members with the Speaker (or the Deputy Speaker, as the case may be) and bars the jurisdiction of courts, there has been judicial intervention in both Arunachal Pradesh and Maharashtra. With the impartiality of the Speaker/Deputy Speaker being questioned whenever disqualification proceedings are launched, the Tenth Schedule is fast becoming a dead letter. India has made rapid strides in recent years in “anti-defecation” measures: it is time now for “anti-defection” measures with more teeth.

What is, therefore, required is legislation that discourages modern day Aaya Rams and Gaya Rams from flitting from one party to another. For a start, a winning candidate set up by a political party must resign her/his seat if s/he decides to join another party. Similarly, independent winning candidates who declare their support to the government formed by a particular political party must resign their seats if they switch loyalties to any other party. Drawing on the recent happenings in Maharashtra, I would propose that even if more than two-thirds of the legislators of a party withdraw support to the party that put them up for election and opt to join another party, the opinion of the party functionary who issued Form A at the time of nominations for election should be the clinching factor; if this functionary does not ratify the withdrawal of support, the withdrawal of support should be deemed to be grounds adequate for disqualification. The decision for disqualification must be that of the Speaker of the House and, if there is no Speaker, that of the Deputy Speaker. Additionally, the disqualified member and her/his family members (covering at least the spouse and all sons/daughters) should be ineligible for standing for election for a period of six years from the date of disqualification, thus removing them from the election process for effectively the present and next term of the House. This will rule out those legislators who think they have the necessary financial and social clout to get reelected even if they have to resign from their seats. There should also be a mandatory assessment by the Income Tax department of the income and assets of the member and his/her family members to check the flow of illicit funds to their accounts in return for the switch in loyalty.

I know that I am asking for the moon in proposing measures that will rein in incentive/disincentive-induced defections. In the current political climate, these measures are unlikely to find any resonance with political parties. The opacity of the electoral bonds regime in place today and the multiple avenues for stashing away windfall gains in safe tax havens make it highly improbable that unscrupulous politicians will be deterred from looking for easy political capital. However, we have reached a stage today where the very sanctity of the electoral process is in jeopardy. If money and muscle power can dictate who comes to power, the voter will repose little faith in the electoral system, the surest recipe for a democracy to head on the path to disaster.

 

P.S.: A little bird just whispered in my ear that future legislators whose loyalty is sought to be bought are likely to ask for more exotic resorts to spend time in while the political drama plays out. Antigua, Bali and the Cayman Islands are doing the rounds as possible venues. To which I can only quote Cicero: O Tempora! O Mores!

 This blog was published in the Free Press Journal on 29 August 2022 (here)

Bilkis Bano case – the interface of law and ethics

If 2012 saw the conscience of a nation shaken by the Nirbhaya rape incident, 2022 has witnessed an equal nightmare in the wholesale release of eleven men convicted of gangrape and mass murder in 2002 in Gujarat, that too on the very day that India was celebrating the 75th anniversary of its independence. The Government of Gujarat utilised its good fortune in being declared the “appropriate government” by the Supreme Court decision of May 2022 (which overrode Section 432(7) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC)) to arrive at the facile reasoning that the 1992 remission policy provided for remission of life sentence (even in cases involving rape and murder) after 14 years in prison. The subsequent tightened guidelines on remission by the Government of Gujarat (2014) are apparently not applicable since the 11 men were convicted in 2008, when the 1992 remission policy was in place.

The decision of the Government of Gujarat begs many answers. Let us accept the argument that, as per the 1992 remission guidelines, these 11 men were eligible for release from prison. Some other nagging questions of law still remain. The case was prosecuted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an agency created under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946. Section 435 of the CrPC makes it mandatory for the state government to consult the Union Government in cases prosecuted by the CBI (note well that consultation here means concurrence of the Union Government). If such permission was not taken, the remission of sentence is ab initio void in law. If concurrence was taken, the Union Government is a willing party to this decision. Since, as in many other decisions of the Government of India today, no clarification is provided on this issue, the public is left guessing. Even if concurrence of the Union Government under Section 435 of the CrPC was taken, there is still the matter of taking the opinion of the presiding Judge of the court which passed the original order of conviction, regarding grant of remission of sentence under Section 432(2) of the CrPC: this has been mandated by the Supreme Court as well. This process has definitely not been gone through in the appropriate special CBI court in Mumbai.

These are the legal issues on which no clear answers are forthcoming as of now. But even more troubling is the process of decision making at the level of the committee on remission headed by the District Magistrate, Godhra, and the Home Department, Government of Gujarat. Even granting that the 1992 remission guidelines allowed for remission of sentence to those convicted of murder and rape, there are still other considerations that have to be kept in mind when granting remission. The Supreme Court has, as far back as 2000, laid down guidelines for remission of sentence which include, inter alia, whether the crime affects society at large and whether recurrence of commission of crime is possible. In the Bilkis Bano case, there can be no doubt that the nature of the crimes committed — gangrape and mass murders — definitely affected society at large. On the issue of possible recurrence of criminal acts by the convicts subsequent to their release, newspaper reports indicate that witnesses were threatened when the convicts were released on parole during their incarceration. Whether these factors were taken into consideration while granting remission is a matter of speculation — there is no clarification from the state government.

However, as much as these legal issues, what ought to concern us all as citizens of a humane, compassionate society are the ethical dimensions of this entire episode. Photographs have been shown of the distribution of sweets to the released convicts; even more appalling are reports of the felicitation of the convicts by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, this in a criminal case monitored by the Supreme Court and where verdicts of conviction were confirmed by the Bombay High Court. Common decency dictated that the release, even if in accordance with the procedure laid down by law, be kept low-key in deference to the sentiments of the survivors of the crimes. A member of the remission committee and a sitting ruling party legislator went so far as to suggest that the convicts were of high caste, had good upbringing and that charges were framed against them because of ill intentions of some persons. It was incumbent on the administration of the Government of Gujarat to take steps to prevent the organisation of such events and to discourage such statements which could cause unease in the minds of the victims and the minority community.

In fact, the Government of Gujarat should have taken the initiative to organise a reconciliation meeting between the victims and the perpetrators of crimes. The effort should have been to bring a sense of closure to the tragic incidents of 2002 and promote a spirit of harmony in the village where both sides would be residing henceforth. Nelson Mandela adopted this approach with his Truth and Reconciliation Commission, following the end of apartheid in South Africa, to build an atmosphere of trust and cooperation between the coloured and white communities. Our own Bapu, Mahatma Gandhi, spent the first Independence Day wiping the tears of the victims of communal fury in Bengal.

It is this spirit of fraternity (bandhutva) that is sorely lacking in the India of today. We can debate till eternity whether the 11 persons should have been released or should have continued in prison, depending on our ideological predilections. But unless those who committed these crimes are fully aware of the damage they have caused to the psyches of their victims and are truly remorseful for their past misdeeds, there can be no meeting of minds between the different communities. Immense damage is caused to the social fabric, when vested interests dabble in spreading hatred and misunderstanding among communities. Let us, in this 76th year of India’s independence, move from untruth to truth and from darkness to light: only then will we truly be free.

The Idea of India – at 75

As India celebrates the 75th anniversary of her existence as an independent nation, it is time to reflect on what ‘India’ truly represents. What has given this country the resilience to meet multiple challenges on the economic, political and social fronts over three-quarters of a century and retain her status as the largest democracy in the world (even if there is still a gap between the actual and the potential)?

India has been fortunate that eminent personalities oversaw the transition from imperial to democratic rule, developing a robust Constitution of India (‘the Constitution’) that has, in spite of many amendments, stood the test of time. At this juncture in our history, it would be appropriate to identify the core principles that have enabled India to chart her course of nationhood. The strength of India rests on three fundamental principles embedded in her Constitution: the primacy accorded to the individual, the emphasis on pluralism and the operation of the federal structure of the nation.

India has, over the ages, taken into her fold people from diverse races, cultures and religions. The country displays a heterogeneous collection of languages and traditions. Pluralism is not confined to religion: it is the trait which welcomes and embraces different ethnicities, linguistic groups and those from diverse cultural backgrounds. The Constitution’s greatest boon has been its focus on bringing together in one nation-state people who were earlier subjects of British India and nearly 600 princely states. It has located a number of pluralist measures in the Part on Fundamental Rights (‘Part III’). These include the freedom to profess, practice and propagate any religion as well as the protection of cultural and educational rights of minorities. Discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth is specifically prohibited.

What is equally noteworthy is the primacy accorded to the individual in Part III. Article 14 guarantees equality before the law to all persons, irrespective of whether they are citizens or not. The subsequent Articles lay down clearly the rights of citizens — of life and liberty, freedom of speech and association, public employment, etc. This marks a sea change in a social milieu where the collective, in the shape of the family, clan or community, was, in centuries past, the arbiter of the rights and duties of the individual. The Constitution gives the individual a dignity of her own, not linked to any entity other than the nation of which she is a citizen.

It is significant that the very first Article of the Constitution defines India as a ‘Union of States’. The territories administered by the British and the princely states which signed the Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union were amalgamated into different states. Article 1 of the Constitution was a recognition of the reality that it was these states that constituted the nation.  There is a clear division of responsibilities between the Union and the States in the matter of governance. The Seventh Schedule delineates the subjects which are the exclusive domain respectively of the Union and of the States (as well as those where there is concurrent jurisdiction of both). The Constitution provides for a Finance Commission to propose, at regular intervals, the allocation of financial resources between the Union and the States; it also created All India Services that serve both the Union and the States. These provisions are intended to ensure a collaborative and synergistic relationship between the two, often governed by different political parties. Recognising that federalism has to strike roots below the state level, the Constitution (73rd and 74th) Amendments provided for substantive devolution of powers to rural and urban local bodies.

However, there are areas where closer attention from the Union and state governments, the judiciary and civil society is necessary if India is to serve as an example of a healthy democracy. Powers of arrest are still exercised by law enforcement agencies in a routine fashion and subordinate courts treat bail applications with a negative frame of mind, so much so that the Supreme Court was constrained to recently observe that India should not become a “police state”. Special acts have severely circumscribed the granting of bail in certain cases. These lead not only to the “process becoming the punishment” (as observed recently by the Chief Justice of India), but also to the burgeoning number of undertrials in jails in India. The 2006 directives of the Supreme Court to insulate the police forces from political pressures need to be implemented by all governments in letter and spirit if the sanctity of individual liberties is to be maintained.

The pluralist ethos has come under strain in recent years, through a combination of executive actions (and inaction) and the emergence of vigilante groups that seek to deliver ‘justice’ in a summary manner. Increasing intolerance for the views of others, especially with the explosive growth of electronic and social media, has contributed to the growing incidence of hate speech, which sows the seeds of bigotry and hatred in large segments of society. It is time governments impartially administer the laws which check such actions (and courts take a severe view of infractions of laws causing social unrest). The media and civil society also need to call out those elements that seek to sow dissensions among different sections of society.

There is an urgent need to tone down the adversarial relations between the Union and state governments. A spirit of mutual goodwill, respect and consensus between the Union and state governments, especially those governed by parties other than that governing the Union, is crucial in furthering the economic development of the country and improving the lot of the common citizen.

The promise in the Preamble of the Constitution to secure to all citizens of India justice, equality, liberty and fraternity will be realised in ample (if not full) measure when all the stakeholders in the country actively promote the values enshrined in the Constitution. Only then will India’s tryst with destiny truly be fulfilled.

This blog was published in the Free Press Journal (15 August 2022) (here)

Sisyphus and detachment

The ongoing controversy over the visages of the Sarnath lions, which form the national emblem, brings to mind the emphasis laid by Gautama Buddha on the impermanence of life. What memories of this controversy will survive the ravages of time is a moot point. Many thinkers and poets over the past many centuries have lamented the ceaseless quest of the human for the material aspects of life — wealth, fame, power, glory, lineage, you name it. What unites these thinkers and writers is their recognition of the futility of human efforts directed wholly towards material ends and the need to develop a perspective that recognises the ephemeral character of all human achievements. I am not decrying the efforts of (wo)man as a sentient being trying to achieve self-actualisation through putting efforts into actions that create things: whether objects, ideas or empires. But, in the last analysis, every creation must be accompanied by the realisation that it is doomed to change and, ultimately, destruction.

Thus, Solon had the wisdom (and the courage) to counsel the Greek monarch Croesus about the shifting sands of fortune, which proved true when Croesus was taken prisoner by Cyrus, King of Persia. Ashtavakra, in imparting knowledge to King Janaka, focused on the necessity of detachment (‘vairagya’) in the individual, thus freeing him from bondage to earthly cares and concerns. Bhartrihari, in his Vairagya Shatakam, stresses the fears that accompany the accomplishments in life: enjoyment-disease, honour-humiliation, beauty-old age, body-death.

Shelley’s Ozymandias graphically highlights the futility of seeking permanence in human endeavour in the following words

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains.”

The ruins of so many capital cities over the ages are testimony to the vagaries of fortune. Delhi itself has gone through at least eight metamorphoses over two millennia. The modern equivalent is the destruction of business empires, exemplified by Joseph Schumpeter’s term “creative destruction “, referring to the destruction of existing economic structures and their replacement by new economic structures. Only five of the top 100 US companies of 1917 retain their position today; half of the top 100 US companies in 1970 have been replaced by newer companies today. This is not because of price competition, but reflects a revolutionary discontinuity following the introduction of new technology, new products and new forms of industrial organisation, much of which could not even have been envisaged decades earlier: we are only too aware of this in the age of the Internet and the ubiquitous all-in-one mini computing devices.

In the arena of twentieth century politics, we have the empty boast of a Thousand Year Reich in Germany which lasted barely twelve years, a mighty Soviet Union that crumbled almost overnight after a little over seventy years of existence and the endless parade of monarchs and dictators in countries around the globe. Pax Americana, which was taken as a given after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, is under serious threat today, as a multipolar world order seeks to rise to the surface. Scholars like Francis Fukuyama were sanguine about the rise of liberal democracies after the end of the Cold War; the first two decades of the twenty-first century see even long established democracies struggling to avoid being submerged in the tide of popular authoritarianism.

It is in the realm of the individual that the issue of impermanence assumes its most poignant shape. We are all witness to the movie superstar who fades into oblivion or the sportsperson racked by disease or facing impoverishment. Little wonder then that in the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira gave a reply to the Yaksha that “day after day, countless creatures are going to the abode of Yama, yet those that remain behind believe themselves to be immortal”. Adi Shankaracharya’s admonition to the person who takes pride in his/her youth, wealth and lineage is an apt reminder that all these accoutrements will fade away over time and will be of no avail once the mortal body is shed.

What then is the meaning of this grand opera that we call life? Are we to shun all material comforts and pleasures in the gloomy knowledge that all these will be left behind by us one day? Not really. What needs to be realised is the evanescence of all that we enjoy today and the stoic acceptance of the fact that much of it can be taken away from us even before we leave this earth. We need to adopt the philosophy of the King of Persia, highlighted by a not so well-known American editor, Theodore Tilton “EVEN THIS SHALL PASS AWAY”.

Perhaps the last thought on this subject in the present piece should rest with a person whom I consider one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Albert Camus. His Myth of Sisyphus illustrates the absurdity of human existence even as it stresses the nobility of apparently meaningless human endeavour. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to “futile and hopeless labour”, involving pushing a rock to the top of a mountain from where it would roll down all the way to the plains below, necessitating a fresh effort from him to push it up to the top of the hill (in some ways, this reminds me of the Vikram and Vetal stories, where the king, Raja Vikramaditya, has to repeatedly bear the burden of a corpse and answer the questions of the spirit inhabiting the corpse , though the latter tale has a definite closure, unlike the former). Sisyphus is the ‘absurd hero’, going through a torment which will never end. And yet, his awareness of the torment and his scorn for the fate that has befallen him makes him a truly wise man “…who lives on what he has without speculating on what he has not…”. Only when we reach awareness of our human condition can we say “…I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”.

 

 

The loaves and fishes of office

The recent brouhaha over the extension of tenures for specific officers of the Government of India even when they are well past the normal age of retirement has brought into focus again the issues of the sanctity of the retirement age and the possible interference by government in the independent functioning of officers handling crucial organisations, especially those endowed with enormous powers to investigate offences, both economic and otherwise. However, this is no recent development: fixed tenures for the Cabinet Secretary, Home, Foreign and Defence Secretaries, and Directors of the Intelligence Bureau and Research & Analysis Wing, extending beyond the normal age of superannuation, have been in vogue for a number of years now.

What has occasioned concern in recent days has been the Government of India’s decision to give five-year tenures to the heads of two Central Government investigative agencies that have often been caught in the crosshairs of political wars. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is no stranger to controversy: no less a body than the Supreme Court termed it a “caged parrot”. To the CBI has been added the Enforcement Directorate (ED) which has come into the public eye only in recent years. These two agencies, along with their country cousins, the Income Tax department, the National Investigation Agency and the Narcotics Control Bureau, have developed into falcons from parrots, with their deployment by the Central Government in a wide range of cases, amidst concerns as to whether these serve merely political ends or the ends of justice (the Sushant Singh Rajput and Aryan Khan cases serve as examples). Of even greater concern are the cases of raids, and selective disclosures, that surface whenever election time surfaces. Karnataka in 2018, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu in 2021 are states where politicians of parties opposed to the BJP received special attention from central investigative agencies.

It is significant (and glaringly obvious) that officers were being given tenure posts or extensions in service just days before their date of superannuation (as witnessed in the appointment of the Police Commissioner of Delhi and the last-minute extension of tenure of the Director, ED). The recent amendments in Fundamental Rules and the changes in the Acts governing the CBI and ED aim to legalise extensions and attempt to put them beyond the pale of judicial challenge.

What is equally notable is the plethora of appointments to post-retirement posts, from the ranks of both the higher judiciary and the top echelons of the civil services. That this practice has the sanction of precedent is no cause for comfort. There have been far too many cases in the past three decades where the appointments to crucial posts of retired judges and bureaucrats have raised uncomfortable questions about possible quid pro quos for decisions favourable to the government of the day taken by the beneficiaries while in positions of power. While some of the pre- and post-retirement appointments go through a committee which has, apart from the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as its members, other crucial appointments, as for example, the Election Commissioners, are made purely at the discretion of the executive.

At a juncture in our democratic existence when many executive decisions are viewed with some measure of suspicion, there is need to evolve norms for appointments to the highest positions in the civil services that ease such suspicions as also mitigate the rising apprehension that serving civil servants are being induced through the carrot of continued service to shed their independence and impartiality in decision making. I venture to make some suggestions below to address this vexing issue.

Superannuation from public service should be mandatory on attaining the age of 60 for all members of the civil services. On attaining the specified age, civil servants should follow the shining example of RCVP Noronha, former Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh, who refused any extension and rode away happily from the Secretariat on his Luna moped on the day he superannuated.

For all senior positions in constitutional/statutory bodies, like Members/Chairpersons of Commissions and Tribunals, where judicial/administrative experience is required, selection should be through a process of application. This should also apply to the heads of major investigation agencies, which enjoy powers of. search, seizure and confiscation. The final selection should be done by a Committee which comprises representatives of the concerned government, the judiciary or the Union Public Service Commission and representatives of opposition parties (for specific constitutional/executive posts, as is the case at present).

Most importantly, the selection of civil servants for all higher posts (administrative and quasi-judicial) should be structured such that the person superannuates from the post at the age of 60 years. This would imply that a person would be selected for such a post around the age of 55 years (for those in government), so that (s)he would cease to hold office, after a tenure of five years, at or just before her/his normal superannuation date. This has certain implications, both for these functionaries and for those in the organisations they have left in order to hold these select posts. For one, those who move to posts outside the government structure will create openings for their juniors to move into senior positions in their departments/organisations. There may also be cases where, in full knowledge of the fact that (s)he is not likely to be in the running for the top job in the executive, a person may choose to move laterally to these posts. It would certainly enable governments, both at the centre and in the states, to dispense with many posts at apex levels, which (especially in state governments) seem to be virtually dished out with the rations.

As for the contention that officers’ talents will not be used beyond their age of superannuation, these talents and competencies can well be displayed in a variety of other fields — media, business, academics, social service and politics being obvious avenues. Rephrasing the recent utterance of a noted senior advocate, “the heavens will not fall if a worthy replacement takes on the responsibility of the retiring incumbent.” Nor does it preclude the truly ambitious from aspiring to governorships/ambassadorships/Rajya Sabha memberships, depending on their equations with the central government of the day.

In the final analysis, such a change would spare us the unseemly spectacle of persons jockeying in their final days of service with the powers that be to ensure their continued access to naukar-chakar-bangla-gaadi, apart from the heady access to power and prestige that continued occupation of prestigious posts brings. Civil servants, indeed all humans, would do well to heed the words of Adi Sankaracharya in the Bhaja Govindam:

दिनयामिन्यौ सायं प्रातः, शिशिरवसन्तौ पुनरायातः।

कालः क्रीडति गच्छत्यायुस्तदपि न मुन्च्त्याशावायुः ॥१२॥

Day and night, dusk and dawn, winter and spring come and go again.

Time sports and life ebbs away, and yet the gust of desire never leaves us.

The Road to Authoritarianism

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” (Charles Dickens: The Tale of Two Cities)

The opening words of Dickens’ novel capture the situation today rather forcefully. Liberal democracy, which has seen many ups and downs since 1688, through 1776, 1789, the 1940s-50s and 1989, is facing an existential crisis circa 2021. Human society is no stranger to authoritarian domination but its creeping engulfment of liberal democracies one after another in the absence of major wars or other crises (barring possibly the COVID pandemic) threatens the values that inspired the numerous movements for self-determination over the last few centuries. An analysis of authoritarian trends, whether in religion, society or the polity, shows that four A’s (Abnegation, Ambition, Apprehension, Apathy) nourish the growth of the fifth A (Authoritarianism).

Abnegation

Whether in social groups, religious denominations, ‘godmen’ cults or nation states, surrender of the members is the first step towards the development of an authoritarian environment. Tribal and caste loyalties and the divinity ascribed to an omniscient being, ruler or ecclesiastical organisations were prominent in pre-industrial societies. Norms and rules ostensibly handed down by prophets served to keep the masses in thrall to those in authority, with no challenge to the established order. The ferment engendered in societies worldwide over the past two and a half centuries for the establishment of the values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity seemed to have ensconced the idea of liberal democracy as the guiding principle for nation states since the 1990s. The 2008 economic crisis and the failure of most liberal democracies to tackle growing economic inequalities in their societies, coupled with a growing disillusionment with the governing elites in most countries, have deepened insecurities and led to a desperate desire for a strong man (no woman currently in sight) in countries across different continents, ranging from Trump and Bolsonaro in the Americas to Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India and Duterte in the Philippines. “The leader can do no wrong” is the mantra chanted by the glitterati and the chatterati, with enough support from sections of the electorate to see the leader and his party safely home.

This phenomenon of surrender of one’s critical faculties is rooted to some extent in the authoritarian environment that obtains to a significant extent in families, the education system, religions and the workplace. But it is equally, if not more, a reflection of the deep insecurities that confront humans as they struggle to come to terms with their lives and the desperate need to entrust their ‘souls’ to a comforting, omniscient being or organisation. The terrifying prospect of a lonely contemplation of one’s existential dilemmas is mitigated, and even removed altogether, by participation in a group with a larger purpose. A messiah with whom one can lodge all one’s worries and anxieties is the path that most such souls crave for.

However, this Faustian bargain of complete surrender of one’s soul comes with the tag of unquestioned obedience and willingness to act according to the commands of the messiah and his organisation. We have been witness over the past century to millions of humans blindly obeying the diktats of autocrats, even if it meant the extermination of countless of their fellow humans. That this was seen in supposedly “rational” societies was bizarre; that we observe its continuance today in countries with a long history of liberal democratic practices indicates that basic human traits have undergone little change despite education and exposure to liberal, humanistic values.

Ambition

Sections of society feel that they never got their just due in a liberal environment. These could range from academics with a pronounced right-wing orientation (as in India) to disgruntled politicians in opposition parties to those in the permanent employment of government who are of the view that their talents were not recognised. However, there are also many other individuals, from sectors ranging from the media, entertainment, academics and the bureaucracy, who smell the coffee in hitching their stars to an ideology that loathes liberal democratic ideals and places emphasis on adherence to nationalism, in its narrowest, exclusivist sense. Expediency rules the day: echoing the mantras of the ruling dispensation and providing unquestioning (and unthinking) “intellectual” and administrative support to the ideas propounded by the ruling dispensation enable these individuals to rise to and continue in positions of power and influence in the ruling order of the day. But ambition, to be really successful, must be accompanied by a willingness, indeed a fanatical urge, to outdo other potential competitors in anticipating the wishes of the leader (what, in Nazi parlance, was termed working towards the Fuhrer). This includes blindly implementing hairbrained schemes of the leader, unquestioningly harassing dissenters and opponents of the regime and indulging, repeatedly, in nauseous and fulsome praise of the thoughts and actions of the leader.

Apprehension

In this third category fall those who, though not really sold on the vision of the leader and his party or not ambitious by nature, fear the adverse consequences of not being seen as loyal to the ruling regime. These could include bureaucrats who fear being sidelined or media tycoons who fear that action may be taken against their empires. This group includes many political leaders who, apprehending executive action against them, find it more convenient to join hands with the ruling party. It may also cover those who participate in activities approved by the regime to avoid being perceived as not sympathetic to the ruling ideology.

Apathy

By far the largest segment of societies moving towards authoritarianism comprises those who choose to distance themselves from taking any ideological position. Their horizon comprises themselves and their immediate families and they are unwilling to, in any way, be seen as supporting or approving actions that may be perceived as inimical to the interests of the ruling group. Their attitude manifests itself most starkly at election time, when they vote for the leader’s party without any real conviction or understanding as regards its programmes and ideas. They will parrot the WhatsApp views of their neighbours, family members and friends, who are enthusiastic votaries of the ruling ideology, though they themselves would be hard pressed to explain what it is about the ruling dogmas that attracts them. The Eichmanns of the world arise from this category: even when sending Jews to the gas chambers, he was not moved by any emotion but merely saw himself as efficiently executing his job.

When the above four categories of individuals predominate in a society (generally with a combination of more than one of the four traits), the descent down the abyss of authoritarianism can be fairly rapid, even though the warning signs were probably there for decades prior to the actual denouement. The consequences for liberal democracy can be disastrous. Institutions charged with maintaining checks and balances on unbridled executive power are the first victims, as the regime sets about stripping them of their powers and packs them with its apparatchiks. Civil society is the next target: a combination of saam-daam-dand-bheda is employed to persuade / purchase / dissuade / divide people in this sphere to ensure that no effective dissent remains to question the actions of the government of the day. The stage is then set for the executive to fashion laws and rules to meet its ends: the rule of law, as understood in a liberal democracy, ceases to operate.

The real tragedy lies in the ratchet effect of the change brought about in society. Societies that go through these traumatic transitions to authoritarianism find it much harder to reestablish a liberal democracy years later. Institutions, once destroyed, are not so easily established again. The psyche of a people that has undergone a metamorphosis from a liberal underpinning to an authoritarian grip will take years, if not generations, to change. After all, it has taken not even seventy years after the trauma of the Second World War (and thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall) for serious crises to develop in liberal democracies. How people endowed with wisdom and foresight handle this existential threat to liberal democracy will determine its trajectory for the rest of this century and probably future centuries.

The alap of Raga Alapan: Musings of a retired bureaucrat

A considerable amount of heat and dust (but not light) has been generated in the past couple of weeks on account of l’affaire Alapan. The storm in a teacup (and, Yaas, I am not referring to the cyclone) may have abated somewhat but its reverberations will be felt in the country’s federal architecture and in the bureaucratic structure for quite some time to come. The perennial animosity between the PM and the West Bengal CM has led to collateral damage. As a former bureaucrat who has dealt with general administration matters during his career, I cannot resist offering my two bits on the latest Delhi-Kolkata Mahabharata.

            For over two decades, at the district and divisional levels, I hosted central teams deputed by the Government of India to assess the damage to crops, houses and public infrastructure because of floods, drought and hail. Following a wrap-up meeting with the Chief Secretary and other Secretaries of the state government, the team would submit its findings to the central government and its recommendations on the financial relief to be given to the state. I never saw the Prime Minister visiting my state in this connection. It seems things have changed now, with the hands on approach of the person at the top. But I cannot really fathom how a meeting at the Kalaikunda Air Force Base, without the presence of senior central and state officials, contributes to an understanding of the extent of damage and the financial restitution required. A formal meeting at Nabanna, the state secretariat of the West Bengal government, would have been far more useful.

            Be that as it may, the CM could also have, given the current circumstances, been present for the meeting with the PM. Granted, there were irritants in the form of certain personalities with whom she has had many a verbal joust. And yet, whether to raise the political temperature so quickly after an acrimonious electoral contest is an issue that merits consideration. Choosing one’s battles is also a matter of strategy, keeping one’s gunpowder dry for sterner conflicts that lie ahead.

            However, one would have to conclude that the central government, in this case, used a sledgehammer to try and kill a fly. Granted, the PM may have felt insulted, but his ire could have been vented at the political level. To slap criminal charges was surely overdoing things, especially when the Chief Secretary being proceeded against was carrying out his duties under the same Disaster Management Act. Nor has one heard of a case in the past (except during the recent Bengal elections) when an All India Service officer has been peremptorily ordered to report to the Central Government (rather like a soldier being sent to barracks or a policeman to the police lines), when the officer has not sought central deputation, his state government has not been consulted and no justification for his presence being immediately required by the central government is given.  A strong letter from the Cabinet Secretary to the Government of India, addressed to the Chief Secretary, conveying the displeasure of the central government, would have been more than adequate in the present case, especially since the officer concerned was at the fag end of his civil service career.

            Such moves create dangerous precedents for the future. If the same strategy is applied in future, the central government can requisition the services of the senior most officers of those state governments with which it has adversarial relations and order that they report forthwith to the centre. Not only will this cripple the functioning of the state governments, it will also create a fear psychosis in All India Services officers working in a state that their careers (and lives) can be transformed in a moment by one whimsical act of the central government.

            I have also not understood this prattle in the media about the supposed political loyalty of the Chief Secretary. By all accounts, Alapan was as acceptable to the former CPM government as he was to the successor TMC government. One thing is very clear: an All India Service officer is somewhat like the bahu in a traditional Indian household. She has been birthed by the Government of India (with the UPSC as midwife) but, once allotted a state cadre, she moves to the in-laws (state’s) house. She may visit her parents’ (centre’s) house during her career but, while in the state, she goes entirely by the diktats of the political executive in the state. I have personally worked closely with five CMs of Maharashtra, from across the political spectrum, and have attempted to implement their lawful orders to the best of my ability. At no point in my career were allegations made about my loyalty to a particular political formation and I enjoyed the best of relations with politicians from all the major political parties of Maharashtra. One point bears repetition: while serving in the state, an All India Service officer is bound by the orders of the state political executive of the day, headed by the CM.

            How this newly discovered Raga Alapan, the opening to which we have been privy so far, develops in the days to come will be watched by the bureaucracy and political observers with interest. What should not be affected is the steel framework painstakingly created by that giant among men, Sardar Patel. Securing the independence of and ensuring the efficient functioning of the All India Services is one of the keys to the federal health of the country.