Archive for the ‘irony’ Category

No discussion, no debate, no consensus

The government came up with forty amendments to central statutes as part of the Finance Bill, 2017. Nothing unusual, you might say, except that some of these amendments affected certain basic rights of the individual. By presenting these amendments in a Money Bill, the government managed to push them through without much debate in the Lok Sabha, where it enjoys a comfortable majority, and bypass the Rajya Sabha (where it is in a minority) altogether. This stratagem is becoming popular with the present government. They used it in 2016 to push through the Aadhaar Bill with a number of provisions that sought to virtually make obtaining an Aadhaar number mandatory for the citizen. This, despite litigation pending in the Supreme Court on what could be the scope of Aadhaar and the Supreme Court’s repeated directions to the government that it (the Supreme Court) would be the final arbiter on what the Aadhaar scheme could cover. Now, in one stroke, the government has gone beyond the provisions of even its own Aadhaar legislation to compel the honest taxpayer to register for Aadhaar. Come July 1, 2017 and the Kafkaesque situation could well arise where, after paying her income tax for the financial year 2016-17, the taxpayer finds that her income tax PAN has been invalidated and she cannot file her tax return, rendering her liable for financial penalties and incarceration.

The Finance Bill 2017 has also incorporated other amendments which merited taking the considered advice of the House of Elders, the Rajya Sabha. Certain tribunals have been abolished, their functions being taken over by other tribunals, without any clear rationale being spelt out. Not only that, the central government has armed itself with extensive rule-making powers to determine inter alia the qualifications, manner of appointment and removal of tribunal members and their emoluments. Given that the government is itself a litigant in a number of cases coming up before these tribunals, public confidence in the impartiality of these tribunals is likely to be severely shaken. Existing financial limits on contributions by companies to political parties have been removed and there is no need to disclose the party to which contributions are being made. Draconian powers of search and seizure have been given to officials of the income tax department: welcome back, inspector raj!

If these facets of unilateral exercise of executive power, unchecked by legislative oversight, were confined to just the Finance Bill, one could have ascribed it to overzealousness of the Finance Minister and his mandarins. Alas, the unbridled exercise of power has contaminated many other areas of government and society. Don’t like books that run contrary to your worldview? Just drag the publishers to court and let them stew in their own juice till they capitulate (Dina Nath Batra vs. Penguin/Wendy Doniger). Take offence at comments about a historical figure in a book? No problems, go ransack the venerable institution that worked with the author and destroy priceless, age-old artefacts and manuscripts, as goons of a ruling political party in Maharashtra did in 2004 (Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune). The availability of alternative methods of civilised expression is apparently foreign to most citizens of the world’s largest democracy.

Mahatma Gandhi observed in 1947 “In India, no law can be made to ban cow-slaughter…It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus.” Like many of Gandhi’s sage views, this one too has been consigned to the dustbin, with states vying with one another to ban the sale of beef. In 2017, one state, Gujarat, has legislated to punish cow-slaughter with imprisonment for life. Not to be outdone, the Chief Minister (CM) of Chhattisgarh has declared his intention to hang those guilty of cow-slaughter. A non-binding Directive Principle of state policy has been converted into laws that infringe the right to liberty of the citizen (and even the right to life, if the honourable Chhattisgarh CM were to have his way). Meanwhile, summary justice (or, rather, injustice) is meted out by vigilante groups to those suspected of involvement in alleged cow-slaughter.

The newly-installed theocrat CM of Uttar Pradesh has trained his sights on Romeos through his anti-Romeo squads (William Shakespeare is turning in his grave, four hundred years after his death, at the ignominy being heaped on one of his most romantic characters). I shudder at the unlimited latitude given to the police force of Uttar Pradesh, not known, even at the best of times, to exercise moderation in its interpretation and implementation of the law. Dating in UP will soon be a dated concept, with no Juliet worth her salt daring to be seen publicly with, you guessed it, a Romeo.

Actually, Juliets in India are having a tough time even completing their education. School and college managements from Varanasi to Vellore have decided that information will enter the craniums of their female students only if they are suitably attired (suitability being decided by the management). Not only that, women students must keep their distance from male students (apparently to keep hormonal outbursts at bay), eschew library work after 6 PM and forego the privileges of wifi (to keep corrupting internet influences away).

And then, to top it all, we have that abomination called the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). It was bad enough when the CBFC puritans arbitrarily decided what was viewable only by adults. But now we have situations where certification is refused altogether for “lady-oriented” films. The latest news is that a film dealing with the demonetization episode is being referred by the CBFC Kolkata office to Delhi, so apparently terrified is the local officer of taking a decision on merits.

So, seventy years after India’s tryst with destiny, the Aadhaar-enabled, celibate, vegetarian, male Indian enters a Brave New World where he apes Gandhi’s three monkeys – “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” One does not necessarily dispute every decision taken by the government of the day. It is only that in a country with multiple sub-nationalities, religions, languages and traditions, a culture of debate and discussion ensures wide acceptability of laws and regulations, so essential for a functioning democracy. Jawaharlal Nehru, that inbred democrat, whose name is anathema to many of those in power today, wrote fortnightly letters to Chief Ministers uninterruptedly for over sixteen years from late 1947 to the end of 1963. Despite enjoying an unrivalled political status, Nehru was keen to justify his policies and explain their rationale and the motivations underlying them. Even in today’s rather vitiated political atmosphere, it would be statesmanlike for leaders to explain their actions to others, especially those opposed to their policies, and seek a broad consensus on the way forward. We would hardly want a scenario where people, on whom decisions have been thrust, echo the words of the disillusioned poet, penned by the inimitable Sahir Ludhianvi, in the film Pyaasa:

तुम्हारी है तुम ही संभालो यह दुनिया

यह दुनिया अगर मिल भी जाए तो क्या है




Hamam Mein Sab Nange Hain!

Judge not, that ye be not judged.                                                                                                        2For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

(Matthew 7:1-3, The Bible, King James Version)

Something is rotten in the State of Denmark”                                                                                       (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: William Shakespeare)

It was extremely depressing to read the 60 page note purportedly penned by Kalikho Pul, former Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, before he committed suicide in August 2016. The note, which virtually amounts to a dying declaration under Section 32(11) of the Indian Evidence Act (though there may be some legal quibbles about this) is a searing indictment of the Indian system of governance and leaves no institution with even a fig leaf of credibility. This is not the place to go into the details of the note and one hopes that there will be at least some anguished introspection about the incident which saw a new, rather ignominious first for the Indian republic: a public representative taking his life out of despair at the prevailing state of affairs.

Recent years have been ones of deep disenchantment for the people of India. Illusions about politicians died many years ago: most of them are seen as representative of the corrupt, venal strain of society. The socialist economy of the 1960s and 1970s established political corruption as part of the “command” economy, a legacy of the Nehruvian era. Political life has continued to touch newer and newer lows over time, as criminals realised that they could be direct participants rather than sponsors of the political drama-farce. 1991 was only a minor hiccup for the politician; by 1994, it was business as usual again. In any case, state governments continued to blithely operate by their own rules, with the new breed of politicians unconcerned about probity in public life.

The less said about my own tribe, the bureaucracy, the better. Till the mid-1970s, the uppermost echelons, the IAS, IPS and the Central Services had relatively few black sheep in their midst. Over the 1980s, shamelessness started to pervade even the elite services. The middle and lower bureaucracy in the states were infected with the twin evils of corruption and politicisation to an extent where, returning to field level administration in 2000 in the same area I had served in ten years earlier, I could hardly believe the extent to which the rot had set in. Things have only worsened in the new millennium and the ugly politician-bureaucrat nexus is now caught in a fatal embrace (fatal for democracy, that is).

Faith in the judiciary was the one reassurance one sought in an increasingly darkening scenario. Unfortunately, the judiciary never used whatever independence it had to set its own house in order. The backlog of cases piled up at a dizzying rate; measures that might have made a difference, like written arguments (in appeals), summary disposal procedures and specified, limited recourse to legal remedies were never pursued. Lawyers who, as officers of the courts, are expected to assist in the speedy provision of justice have often resorted to tactics aimed at deflecting rather than delivering justice, with judges remaining silent spectators. We now have an unseemly conflict between the highest levels of the judiciary and the executive on the manner of selection of judges to the upper echelons of the judicial system. That India has a woeful per capita judicial officer quota is beyond doubt. But neither have serious efforts been made by the government to rectify it nor has the judiciary tried to at least make the best of a bad situation and enforce accountability in performance and propriety.

The press started to crawl in 1975, when shown the whip by the government of the day. Print media at district levels had always had its share of doubtful characters, who lived off the largesse of government advertisements and downright blackmail. But the print media at national and state capitals was still peopled by stellar characters. The downward slide started with the domination of electronic media and the larger than life image of well-known media personalities. Given the incestuous ties of journalists with North-South Block and Dalal Street, it was only a matter of time before something like the Radia tapes exposed the seamy side of journalistic wheeling dealing. Today, it has become common to associate any media group with a specific political party or business house (in terms of ownership and/or ideological slant).

The biggest casualty in the morality stakes has been civil society. Corruption was endemic in Indian society, but, till the 1970s, at least attracted some opprobrium. It has now gained respectability; the honest officer faces the ire of her superiors, peers and even family members. Systemic reforms face hurdles at every level, with the Indian propensity for jugaad at its inventive best when devising methods for circumventing the law. Post demonetization, a fair amount of government energy has been expended on plugging loopholes in implementation.

Poor Mr. Pul was trying to draw attention to these national drawbacks in his impassioned letter. The meaninglessness of his heartrending wail lies in our hardened attitudes to lawbreaking and looting public money. As a nation, we have also developed the habit of blaming every institution except that one of which we are a member. The politician seeks alibis in the intransigence of the judiciary, the non-performance of the bureaucracy and the hostility of the media. The bureaucracy, when it is not cosying up to the politician, either blames the political executive/judiciary or outdated procedures and rules. The media relishes hauling the executive over the coals without seeking to understand the complexities of policy making and implementation. And, of course, the judiciary has extended its reach to virtually telling governments and other agencies how to run their businesses. No one seeks to set their own house in order. How many Ministers at Central or State level have foregone their discretionary powers in dispensing patronage or finalising contracts? None, barring the Union Railway Minister. How many officers have resisted the temptation to bend rules in their last years in service to secure post-retirement appointments? Probably a handful. How many journalists do not seek their mess of pottage in terms of house allotments and foreign junkets? The fingers of one hand may suffice for this. Members of the judiciary are yet to raise the bar of accountability to deliver speedy justice, enforce norms of integrity in their ranks and restore waning public faith in the effectiveness of the judiciary. And the general public has let institutions of governance get away with sub-optimal service delivery levels, adopting the prevailing motto of “each man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.”

In his book on the Mahabharata, the author Gurcharan Das had talked about the impossibility of being good. Our human failings make it impossible for us to stay on the straight and narrow path during the course of our tumultuous lives; even Yudhisthira had to utter a falsehood to get rid of Dronacharya. And yet, the beauty of human existence lies in our attempts to surmount our weaknesses and struggle to attain the noblest expressions of our humanity. Else, we will all be like the citizens of Mohenjo Daro in their open air baths, our nakedness visible for the entire world to see.






The Governor – His Master’s Voice?

The ongoing political drama in Tamil Nadu once again focuses the spotlight on the role of the Governor of a state. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu sent in his resignation letter to the Governor on the first Sunday of February, 2017. The Governor, who was holding additional charge of the state of Tamil Nadu, was, on that day, ensconced in the salubrious climes of Tamil Nadu’s premier hill station, Ooty. What he did subsequently defies comprehension. Instead of moving immediately to Chennai to ascertain who in the ruling party enjoyed the confidence of its legislators, he chose to decamp from the state, apparently reaching Mumbai via Delhi a day later. Meanwhile, the outgoing Chief Minister, after communing with the spirit of his mentor, decided that he would rather continue as Chief Minister. The subsequent Mahabharata saw the s**t hit the ceiling, with the current Chief Minister and his likely successor, a long-time confidant of the deceased Chief Minister, trading ugly charges of conspiracy that would have done credit to a William Shakespeare play.

More to the point, what ought to concern us is not the Tamil Nadu drama, which has all the makings of a successful Tamil movie, but the way in which, once again, the institution of the Governor has taken a beating. Governors have come (and gone) in all shapes, sizes and political hues, contributing more than their share of controversy to the wonder that is India. We have seen Governors pressurising administrations of Universities to alter marks of politically influential students, indulging in unbecoming behaviour in Raj Bhavans and, recently, leaving after allegations of sexual harassment. More par for the course have been the efforts of Governors to interfere with the constitutional process for government formation in the states (especially opposition ruled ones), generally at the behest of the political masters who appointed them. Arunachal Pradesh is still fresh in our memory, with the death of one Chief Minister and the overthrow of another following gubernatorial actions; ditto for Uttarakhand, where it needed the Supreme Court to reestablish constitutional norms. Any government coming to power in Delhi exercises its divine right to sack existing incumbents and appoint its chosen favourites as Governors. Out of work or inconvenient politicians are generally the first choices, though the list often extends to bureaucrats, police officers and army officers who have established good equations with the ruling dispensation. There being nothing like a free lunch, especially in statecraft, favours have to be returned by the appointees, mostly through political meddling and (in case of opposition ruled states) making life difficult for the government of the day. Rare, or nonexistent, would be the Governor who takes any decision of consequence without the prior nod of the political bosses in Delhi. A more recent bad habit of the central government has been its propensity to not appoint a full-time Governor for a state but to give additional charge to another Governor. A major state like Tamil Nadu, which has had more than its share of political turmoil and natural calamities in recent months, has been among the victims of this cavalier approach of the Delhi Sultanate.

It would, of course, be unfair to tar all Governors with the same brush. There have been outstanding personalities like Surjit Singh Barnala and Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who have not only displayed qualities of independence from the Delhi Darbar but have also rendered sage counsel to their state governments. In my own karmabhumi of Maharashtra, I remember the quiet dignity of C. Subramaniam, the political father of India’s green revolution and the dedication of P. C. Alexander to removing the developmental backlog of the Vidarbha, Marathwada and Konkan regions of the state. Despite being close to both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and being appointed Governor by a Congress government in 1993, Dr. Alexander enjoyed a close rapport with the Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra and, paradoxically, was supported by these parties for elevation to the post of President of India, though not by the Congress Party, proving that a Governor can endear himself to all shades of political opinion through a professional, nonpartisan approach.

However, since such Governors are the exception rather than the rule, there is need, in a situation where, increasingly, the centre and states are ruled by parties with different ideologies and political beliefs, for the Governors of states to be selected by an independent process. I suggest that Governors should be selected by a collegium comprising the Vice President of India, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court and the concerned State High Court and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. This would ensure that a totally incompetent political apparatchik is not foisted on an unwilling state government. It also gives scope for a reasoned choice where a state faces major challenges like insurgency, political instability or law and order breakdown.

Nonpartisan choices of competent public figures for the post of Governor are the need of the hour in a scenario where the professional politician in power in the states is increasingly pandering to the urges of the lowest common multiple in the electorate and is concerned only with hanging on to power at all costs, consequences be damned. More disturbingly, political flunkies who, as Governors, act neither as per convention nor in accordance with the Constitution damage the credibility of the democratic process. A misstep in a state like Tamil Nadu with a history of strong local sentiment could well have consequences that endanger the federal consensus that is the bulwark of a republican democracy. The sooner the political elite of Lutyens’ Delhi realise this, the better it will be for the health of the Indian polity.

The Perils of Power

In the news reports detailing the political battle in Uttar Pradesh, one small item caught my attention. It mentioned that the doughty warrior of many a battle, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was close to tears when witnessing on television the open rebellion of his chosen heir, Akhilesh Yadav. Part of his sorrow would, no doubt, have been caused by the absence of filial loyalty on the part of a family member he had personally raised to the pinnacle of power. But another significant contributor to his dejection would likely have been the realisation that he had reached the end of the road marking his political trajectory. The die was cast when the son mustered over two hundred legislators in support while the father barely managed twenty. Realism hit when the father was forced to postpone the National Convention of his party in the knowledge that there would be few attendees. This reminded one poignantly of that day in January 2003 when the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Vilasrao Deshmukh, landed up at Aurangabad, where I was working as Divisional Commissioner, to inaugurate the state-level sports meet of the Revenue Department. Rumours had started from early morning that the Congress High Command had decided to remove him from the Chief Minister’s post. Imagine my shock when I saw an almost empty Subhedari Guest House, with only a handful of supporters greeting him on arrival. Compare this with the hundreds of people vying for his attention on his earlier visits to Aurangabad, where he was a very popular figure. That day, the realisation dawned on me that support evaporates for a public figure the minute hangers-on and favour seekers scent that he/she is on his/her way out.

My thoughts went back to 1985, when the wife of a very senior Minister in the Maharashtra Cabinet voiced her fears over her husband surviving as Minister, following an imminent change of Chief Ministers. She was, very obviously, more concerned about the withdrawal of the facilities of नौकर-चाकर-बंगला-गाडी (servants, house and car) once they left the confines of Malabar Hill. She confessed that, after years of being used to these comforts, she was terrified at the prospect of going back to routine housework and travelling by auto rickshaw. Her husband was probably more terrified at the thought of losing the perks of office, which included a ceremonial reception at the Government Guest House, attendance of the District Collector and Superintendent of Police and the fawning audience of those seeking the crumbs of power.

More than anything else, it is the “desire for recognition” that impels the drive to cling to the trappings of power. What can explain the pitiable spectacle of an octogenarian, obviously infirm senior politician being virtually lifted onto the dais to take the oath of office? Or the phenomena of superannuating bureaucrats jostling for post-retirement sinecures and seeking to continue in public positions till well into their eighth decade of life. Not forgetting, of course, political leaders who seek to retain control of parties and governments till they are close to the century mark and an unsympathetic Providence carries them away from this world. (The Supreme Court should probably, as it has for office bearers of Cricket Associations in India, impose an age limit of seventy for holding political and bureaucratic offices as well).To all of them, I can only offer this stanza from Adi Shankaracharya’s Bhaja Govindam:

मा कुरु धनजनयौवनगर्वं

हरति निमेषात् कालः सर्वँ।

मायामयमिदमखिलं हित्वा

ब्रम्हपदं त्वं प्रविश विदित्वा।।

(Do not be proud of your friends, wealth or youth. Time destroys everything in a moment. Give up attachment to this illusory world and seek to know the Self)


Oh! to be in Estonia

I wonder how many people in India would even be aware that there is a country on planet Earth called Estonia. Tucked away in the Baltic corner of Europe, Estonia was one of the republics constituting the former USSR. The dissolution of the Soviet Republic in 1991 saw Estonia, along with a clutch of other erstwhile republics, achieve her separate identity. But what is truly remarkable about this small country of barely 1. 3 million people with a geographical area straddling not even 50,000 square kilometres is the rapid strides she has made in the digital revolution sweeping the globe. Estonia has an e-police, e-schools and an e-cabinet: you can now even apply for e-residency in that country. Estonia is virtually the digital hub for Eastern Europe and hosts the NATO Centre for Cyber Excellence. Not that digital progress does not come without a price; Estonia was literally brought to her knees by a major cyber-attack by Russian hackers some eight years ago and, has since, tightened cyber security measures. Her logic for offering e-residence facilities to non-citizens is, among other reasons, aimed at facilitating access to the European market to foreign investors at minimal cost and with a minimum of tiresome legal formalities.

No, I am not planning a shift to Estonia. The weather there is too cold, one has to keep worrying about a possible Russian re-takeover of the country and I am too tied to the earth of Bharat Mata. But I do think wistfully of Estonia’s e-topia whenever I run into India’s bureaucratic conundrums. The latest one is something called the FATCA declaration. For the uninitiated, this acronym stands for “Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act”. India and United States of America have an agreement under which the governments of the two countries will exchange information on taxable transactions by residents in the respective countries. So far, so good…but what gets my goat is the declaration to be signed by every Bharatiya whenever she opens a demat account or commences mutual fund trading, specifying her country of citizenship and place of residence. I am all for unearthing stashing of black money in safe tax havens, but getting over 99% of Bharatiyas, many of whom have not even crossed the Palk Straits or the Wagah check post, to sign one more silly document is surely the height of bureaucratic stupidity. More so, because these Bharatiyas generally transact through banking channels, where details about their citizenship, place of residence, etc. are already available with the banks.

But even the meaninglessness of FATCA pales before that other abomination, inflicted on us by the mandarins of the Finance Ministry, infamously known as KYC. Used by banks, gas agencies, mobile companies and sundry others to harry the unsuspecting customer, KYC officially stands for Know Your Customer. To my mind, it stands for Keep You Confused. I suspect that each time there is a change of Finance Minister or Finance Secretary in the Government of India, 600 million bank customers are once again asked to confirm their place of residence. Why else has one had to go through this exercise three times in the past six years? It is not as though seeking address details leads to lesser tax evasion or concealment of ill-gotten gains. We read daily about the number of fake accounts being uncovered in reputed private and government-owned banks: the mind boggles at what may be going on in cooperative banks.

As a matter of fact, asking for residential details of a customer wanting to open a bank account is itself a source of harassment to a citizen who moves for employment to different parts of the country every couple of years. I have read horror stories of young professionals who had to run from pillar to post to open a bank account when they moved in to stay with their parents and had no independent proof of residence. If the customer retains her bank account at the branch near her earlier residence and largely transacts through internet banking, she still needs to update her address to receive new debit and credit cards or for other transactions like securing loans. The agency that provides a service will invariably insist on a document like the Aadhaar card, passport and driving license or ration card for proof of residence, although a recently relocated customer is unlikely to have the new address on any of these documents. Nor do banks follow a uniform procedure for accepting address changes. One private bank allows for change of address through phone banking, while others ask for scanned copies of address proof. What defies comprehension is why the individual who can transfer/withdraw lakhs of rupees through net banking transactions cannot be trusted to change her address through the same net banking channel, without further verification. This underlines government’s basic lack of trust of the citizen and its permanent suspicion about her motives.

I have also not understood why the Aadhaar card needs to have the address on it at all. As a pan-India identity symbol, it is enough if it testifies to the fact of Indian residency. Updating the address every few years is an avoidable irritant for the geographically and socially mobile Indian: the fate of her economically worse-off migrant sisters and brothers is much more difficult to envision. Equally meaningless is the police verification at the time of issue or renewal of a passport, when any police station would have the list of persons whose record does not entitle them to issue of a passport. The police constable visits the house of a passport-seeker just to verify if she does stay there, never mind if the person moves house a few days after that. All this exercise does is to give a few more rent-seeking opportunities to the official machinery. It has not prevented gangsters and underworld henchmen from acquiring multiple passports at the drop of a hat.

Actually, the concept of a permanent residential address is so antiquated and irrelevant for members of the post-independence Indian domestic diaspora, who (and whose parents) have travelled wherever their employment took them. Most of us today have virtual email addresses that have survived longer than our present residential addresses. So when will our beloved Bharat be rid of this medieval fetish for permanent addresses? Probably when we move in the course of the next few months and years to a cashless economy. Once every transaction of ours leaves an electronic trail, there will be no need for any officious Finance Ministry bureaucrat to insist on an address. Till then, may I request the powers that be to content themselves with a correspondence address and trust the individual citizen when she furnishes that address?

Money…the root of all evil

“For the love of money is the root of all evil”
(Timothy 6:10, The Bible, King James Version)

The Bible makes it clear that it is not the medium which is evil but the inordinate attraction to it. Before we castigate that poor banknote or coin, let us also reflect that greed is only one of the human failings, on par with envy, fear, lust and anger. And yet, the action of the government of the day to render worthless ₹ 500 and ₹ 1000 denomination notes at the drop of a Prime Minister’s speech has left the common citizen speechless and in the grip of a welter of emotions. The intentions may be good and the purpose may be noble : there is a groundswell of support today for the government’s actions among the chattering classes, even though the silent masses are going through difficult times. But is “black money” so easily tamed? Since there seems to be popular misconceptions about “black money”, its origins and nature, some clarifications are in order.
Black money can refer to a flow or to a stock. It is the activity through which the money is generated which determines whether it is black or white, while the subsequent use of the money determines its colour at that time. For example, a private engineering college accepts a donation in cash from a student and declares only 25% of the amount as received. The remaining 75%, which is held in cash, or converted to other assets (and not declared as income), constitutes black money. If this money is used to pay cash salaries to the college employees, the money gets converted from black to white, since the employees use it for their legitimate monthly expenses. Similarly, undisclosed “black money” income parked abroad (as stock) is converted to a “white money” flow when it legally reenters India as foreign institutional investment from foreign tax havens. The roots of black money can lie where activities are wholly illegal (smuggling, drug dealing, arms transactions), or where the activity is legal, but part or whole of the amount realised is not disclosed, either because there has been some violation of permissible limits (illegal mining, capitation fees) or simply to avoid tax payments of any kind. The mythical metaphor could be Ravana’s ten heads in the Ramayana or the Lernaean Hydra in Greek mythology: chopping off one head would see more heads grow back again. A modern day analogy would be the Jackal, the terrorist tasked with the assassination of President Charles De Gaulle of France. With his multiple stolen passports and the ability to change his appearance to suit the passport photograph, the Jackal evaded stringent police surveillance and was finally stopped in his tracks by a patient, persevering French policeman only after he had managed to take a crack at his target. Black money is similar: just when the enforcement agencies think they have got the beast, it will reappear in a new form elsewhere.

In these days of highly fungible economies, the very processes of economic and government functioning give immense scope for the generation of black money. Since I started this article with a quote from the Bible, it would be appropriate to list the Ten Commandments that the Government of India must follow if the current demonetization drive is to come anywhere near yielding the desired results:
I. Thou shalt make bank accounts mandatory and easily accessible
The innovative idea of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) to provide every Indian citizen with a bank account has seen as many as 254 million accounts being opened till November 2016. By the government’s own figures (gathered from banks), nearly 25% of these accounts have zero balance; there is an average of about ₹ 2500 in the remaining accounts. The geographical spread of these accounts would be highly skewed: remote tribal and rural areas are likely to be underserved. It is the poor with no access to bank accounts who have been hardest hit by the demonetization exercise. The significant percentage of zero balance bank accounts is testimony to the fact that bank accounts are still not perceived as useful by the poor, especially where they have little bankable surplus and where bank locations and timings are such that they cannot easily be accessed. Making the opening of a bank account by every citizen above the age of 18 mandatory would popularise the use of banking services and compel hitherto reluctant bankers to actively seek customers. There will still be areas where access to bank branches is difficult, either because of geographical location or, more often, because of timings which do not suit the customer. It is here that the Second Commandment comes into play.
II. Thou shalt actively promote the cashless economy through the use of technology
Mobile wallets and payments through mobile phones and computers using internet and wireless technology can obviate the need to visit banks. Use of point of sale (POS) terminals at all transaction outlets would promote cashless transactions. Money transfers (salaries, etc.) can be done online or using mobile phones. Banking correspondents can ensure needed cash payments from and deposits to customers’ bank accounts. This will need some knowledge of how to use these systems. Having seen how quickly nearly 900 million Indians have mastered the use of mobile phone software, including the use of WhatsApp and the downloading of videos, I do not foresee any problems of adapting to modern technology. There is, of course, still the need to ensure that the temptation to escape the electronic trail is checked…enter the Third Commandment.
III. Thou shalt declare illegal and void any cash transaction exceeding ₹ 10000
Given the Indian propensity for jugaad, all efforts will still be made to evade scrutiny of economic intelligence agencies by going in for over and under the counter cash payments, to avoid payment of direct and indirect taxes. Black money will be converted into holdings in real estate and gold/jewelry. To ensure a clear electronic trail of all transactions, any cash transaction over ₹ 10000 should be made illegal and liable for punitive action, including confiscation. This will also, hopefully, check the widespread and pernicious practice in India of large-scale cash transfers in real estate dealings to evade payment of capital gains tax, stamp duty, registration fees and other related levies.
IV. Thou shalt demonetize ₹ 2000 and ₹ 500 notes
The rationale for introducing ₹ 2000 notes when the lesser denomination of ₹ 1000 has been scrapped has raised many eyebrows: suitcase payments become easier when the number of currency notes required to be packed into the suitcase are reduced by 50%. A strong case can be made for scrapping all currency notes of a denomination greater than ₹ 100. In fact, there is growing support from American economists for withdrawing from circulation the 100 dollar bill which, they feel, helps only drug dealers, terrorists and illicit activities while rarely being used for transactions. India may not be quite in the same cashless economy boat as the USA, but moving the economy in the cashless direction requires demonetization of ₹ 500 and ₹ 2000 currency notes. The presence of currency in only small denominations from ₹ 1 to ₹ 100 would force reluctant merchants to go in for cashless technology. It would also render more difficult the task of using low denomination currency notes in large numbers for high value transactions.
V. Thou shalt make Aadhaar and PAN card details mandatory for all transactions above ₹ 10000
Despite the objections of neo-Luddites opposed to the universal deployment of the Aadhaar card for all, it is heartening that, for schemes like the LPG subsidy transfer, Aadhaar cards are being linked to bank accounts. Since opening a bank account does not require either Aadhaar card registration or PAN card details, there is every scope for diversion of unaccounted for income to benami accounts. What is urgently required is to link Aadhaar and PAN card details and to make PAN details mandatory for any transaction exceeding ₹ 10000. This would check possible misuse of bank accounts which are not on the income tax radar (due to non-availability of PAN details) and would also ensure that non-income taxpayers (like agriculturists) are not used as conduits for undisclosed payments.
VI. Thou shalt discontinue top-level political decisions in all discretionary matters
A major scope for corruption lies in the centralization of decision making powers at the political apex, especially in state governments and local bodies. Whether it is the posting of officers, the permission to start primary schools or the award of contracts for anything from chalk pieces to supplementary nutrition for children to major constructions, the ministerial seal of approval is a must. This has spawned a major corruption industry which enmeshes a significant portion of the bureaucracy as well. We are also often regaled with stories of the MLA or local body corporator who becomes a multimillionaire within a year or two of getting elected. The standard defence is that elections are a costly business, although how that justifies corruption is beyond one’s comprehension. Be that as it may, there is no denying that, apart from lowering administrative efficiency and providing substandard services to the aam aurat/aadmi, high-level political corruption is a significant source of black money, often ploughed back into real estate and conspicuous consumption. Since this is a disease that cuts across political boundaries and is particularly common at state and local government levels, the Government of India must, through a combination of incentives and shaming, compel governments to restructure their governance processes and decentralize decision making powers.
VII. Thou shalt implement a sound public procurement policy
The Government of India had introduced a Public Procurement Bill in 2012 to regulate and ensure transparency in procurement by the central government and its entities. The bill was allowed to lapse and there have been no efforts subsequently to resuscitate it. Most state governments have no public procurement policy or legislation in place. Even in the few states where such legislation has been passed, its effectiveness has never been assessed. Since, apart from administrative postings and patronage in resource allocation, public procurement is the greatest source of political and bureaucratic corruption, some urgent action on this front is essential to check amassing of illegal wealth by the politician-bureaucrat-businessman trinity.
VIII. Thou shalt eliminate the inspector raj through online processes
The permit-license raj was curtailed in 1991; unfortunately, the then government lost steam before the death blow could be delivered to the inspector raj. There are still too many ‘inspectors’ in local bodies, police, road transport, liquor licensing, education, industry and labour welfare, whose major function appears to be the collection of economic rent, for themselves and those above them in the government hierarchy. Some streamlining of licensing processes has taken place but the overall picture is still one where the inspector-tout system flourishes: just visit any Regional Transport Office and see for yourself. This corruption has two “black money” aspects: firstly, the unlawful gains to the organs of the state and, secondly and more dangerously, the operation of a parallel economy that can threaten national security and financial stability. Technology is, again, the only answer. As more processes go online, self-certification by licensees and only minimal, essential contact with the human element can help reduce corruption and harassment.
IX. Thou shalt streamline the justice system to deliver just deserts promptly to all bribe-takers, bribe-givers, tax evaders and hawala traders
As an American jurist put it “The millstones of justice turn exceedingly slow, but grind exceedingly fine”. Justice in India often seems inordinately long in coming. It is rather ironic that, in recent times, a public prosecutor of Indian origin investigated and secured the conviction of two well-known individuals of Indian origin on charges of insider trading in a matter of four years in the USA. While we may not all support his approach, it is a fact that high profile cases involving top political and bureaucratic functionaries in the previous central government are still far from closure even in the trial court. Lengthy, tortuous legal processes not only breed cynicism in the populace at large (not a healthy sign for a democracy) but also embolden lawbreakers with political and economic clout. Sincere and speedy implementation of the provisions of the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act, Prevention of Money Laundering Act, Prevention of Corruption Act and related legislation will show that the government means business. Along with the government, the judiciary also needs to tighten its processes and dispense justice fairly and speedily.
X. Thou shalt ensure that all elections are funded only through legal contributions and that all transactions relating to elections are closely monitored
The final Commandment covers a subject which is at the foundation of the efforts to tackle the genesis of black money: electoral corruption. Election funding is itself a small portion of the black money generated. But the politician-businessman nexus that unaccounted election funding sustains has deleterious long-term implications for the economy as well as for the credibility of democracy in the eyes of the people. There are politicians who proudly claim that they have never enriched themselves personally but have taken money only for their political party. Political parties have never been required to account for the sources of their funds and have stubbornly resisted efforts to bring them within the ambit of the Right To Information Act. Demonetization should bring about a situation where all receipts and all expenditures, small or big, by parties and their candidates can be electronically tracked. This will give the Election Expenditure Observers far more teeth than they have at present. With rigorous monitoring of electoral expenses, the last fig leaf for justifying corruption before, during and after elections will be gone.

I write this piece at a time when the nation is probably going through one of its greatest phases of turmoil since independence, rivalled only by the churning of the polity in the closing months of the Emergency in 1977. As one who lived for over a decade in the vicinity of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq’s aborted capital of Daulatabad, his other aborted experiment with currency comes to my mind. Of course, 2016 is not 1333 and we are not minting brass and copper coins, though the flimsy quality of the Rs. 2000 currency note makes me slightly apprehensive. There will always be insinuations that raw political calculations dictated the demonetization decision. The current pains that large sections of the population are going through could have been mitigated somewhat if some of the Ten Commandments had been implemented prior to the “surgical strike” on the currency. As matters now stand, systemic changes on the lines suggested above would give the government some victories on the black money front in the months and years to come. Human greed will remain, the craze for conspicuous consumption and the Big Fat Indian Wedding will continue unabated and the Cayman Islands and other tax havens will always beckon those with an insatiable appetite for moolah. But the government would at least have the satisfaction that it made earning a fast buck that much tougher for those who are never going to respect the rule of law, while also ensuring that it does not make the wretched life of the common (wo)man even more wretched.

What’s in a name?


What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

(William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet)

William Shakespeare would never have had the hapless Juliet fret about the irrelevance of a name in the face of true love if he had been a twentieth or twenty first century inhabitant of India that is Bharat. My first tryst with our name-changing proclivities came when, as a newly posted probationer in the civil service, I landed at Bombay (Mumbai?) Central railway station one hot May morning in 1981. Getting into a taxicab, I directed the cabbie to take me to the Maharashtra State Administrative Training Institute located on Hazarimal Somani Marg, where I had been ordered to report for being inducted into the state bureaucratic culture. For good measure, the letter from the Institute informed me that the Institute was close to the Victoria Terminus (VT) (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus?) railway station. At VT, the cabbie asked me which road he should take. Clueless about Bombay’s (Mumbai’s?) roads, I directed him down the road to Flora Fountain (Hutatma Chowk?). Not finding the Institute, we took a one-way road back to VT and explored other alleys in our vain search for the elusive Institute. On our tenth or so sortie (as the taxi meter merrily shot up), we finally located the Institute located in a modest, single-storey premise, it’s innocuous signboard hidden from public view by large creepers. My eureka moment was spoilt by the contemptuous glance I received from the wizened cabbie who growled “Why didn’t you tell me it was Waudby Road?” before driving off with the inflated amount he received from me.

My engagement with Mumbai’s road names continued when I joined the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation (better known to the locals as BMC) in 1996. I was allotted a house within the premises of the Mumbai Zoo in midtown Byculla. Its northern boundary abutted E. S. Patanwala Road. Intrigued by the name, I made inquiries and discovered that Mr. Patanwala was the founder of a large cosmetics empire, responsible, among other products, for Afghan Snow, a vanishing cream that was applied on my face before I left for school every day. As fate would have it, my boss allotted me the subject of maintenance of Mumbai’s roads. My padayatras across many kilometres of Mumbai’s roads and pavements threw up many names hitherto unknown to me: Barfiwala Road, Veera Desai Road and Lokhandwala Road, not to mention Bhulabhai Desai Road and Gopalrao Deshmukh Road, better known by their earlier names of Warden Road and Pedder Road respectively. But it was at my weekly attendance at the General Body meeting of BMC corporators that I was privy to the extreme interest that the subject of road naming (and renaming) generated in the city fathers (and mothers), something that dreary budget items failed to excite. The meeting agenda was never complete without the inclusion of at least one item pertaining to a stretch of road that was to be renamed, often after some local benefactor or even some deceased relative of a corporator, whose memory was thus preserved for prosperity.

If the BMC was so active in the game of the name, how could the Maharashtra state government show tardiness? Shortly after it assumed state power in 1995, the ruling Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine put all its might behind renaming Bombay as Mumbai. Not content with this, the government of the day strove valiantly to rename Aurangabad as Sambhajinagar and Osmanabad as Dharashiv, hoping probably to erase the Mughal-Nizam legacy. While Bombay became Mumbai, the then state government was not successful in renaming other cities, though politicians of parties like the Shiv Sena still use Sambhajinagar to refer to Aurangabad.

If you think Haryana’s politicos showed great drive in renaming the urban jungle of Gurgaon as Gurugram, please shower your appreciation on Karnataka’s present government which has, with great gusto, gone about renaming the state capital and just about every district, albeit sometimes only to reflect the Kannada inflection of tone — Bengaluru for Bangalore, Mysuru for Mysore, Mangaluru for Mangalore, Belagavi for Belgaum, Vijayapura for Bijapur and Kalaburagi for Gulbarga. The epidemic is now spreading further; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is demanding that Shimla be renamed Shyamala!

It is almost as though the rechristening of places indicates a deep rooted desire to erase certain not so pleasant historical memories, especially of the colonial era. Delhi went through the phase of historical cleansing when Cornwallis, Canning, Curzon, Hardinge, Irwin and Willingdon, all representatives of East India Company/British rule in India, made way for their Indian counterparts after independence. Mercifully, smaller places in India named after Britishers who made a local impact — Forbesganj, Daltonganj and McCluskieganj — have withstood the renaming mania. More recently, the present central government decided to remove Aurangzeb’s name from a Delhi road, renaming it after a respected former Indian president to forestall any criticism of religious or historical bias. Each government obviously favours its admired icons in the naming/renaming exercise. While the Congress pantheon dominated the landscape in the first few decades after 1947, governments of other political persuasions have been no less diligent in introducing their favourites into road names. Sometimes, the repetition of the same name can cause confusion in giving directions; my area in Bengaluru has many roads named after the great engineer, M. Visvesvarayya. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Netaji Subhas Bose are perennial favourites across towns and cities of India and are often repeated in the same city. Ideological, literary and anti-colonial affinities also influence road names: Kolkata has its Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and Shakespeare Saranis, while Delhi has roads named after Nelson Mandela, Josip Broz Tito and Archbishop Makarios; where Olof Palme fits in this group is still a matter of conjecture.

Actually, names are meant to be markers of one’s origin, ethnicity and religion in the masala dabba that represents India’s diverse, heterogeneous population, although the forces of national integration and globalisation are ironing out these distinctions. Still, in a country that is more a continent (like India), there are delicious vignettes that highlight the complexities of names that are commonplace in some parts of the country but are foreign to the ears of those from other parts. Take my own example. I stuck to a six letter name like Ramani since, based as I was in Delhi, I was not sure how my northern confreres would mutilate Subramaniam. Now, Ramani is generally a name more associated with the female sex in its linguistic origins, including in states like Kerala, although there are hordes of male Ramanis emanating from Tamil Nadu. But when I was to join the civil service training academy at Mussoorie, the Assistant Course Director (from a northern state) used his extant knowledge to assign me accommodation in the Ladies Block. My good fortune (??) at this turn of events did not, however, last long. The other Assistant Course Director (a Tamilian) promptly rectified the gender error. He gleefully related to me how he inadvertently paid back his colleague in the same coin. The Tamilian allotted Maheshwari to the Ladies Block, till his northern colleague pointed out that Maheshwari was a male surname in the northern reaches of India. Imagine also the plight of the Punjabi receptionist at the entry desk of Shastri Bhavan, in the heart of the Indian government, who asked this strapping Tamilian visitor his name. When the visitor blithely replied “Thirunavukkarasu”, the receptionist, visibly blanching, hastily handed over his pen to the Tamilian to enter his name in the entry register, a name as Greek to the receptionist as Varoufakis (for more on the latter, refer to the Greek economic crisis).

I wonder if Nandan Nilekani devised the unique identification Aadhaar number for every Indian to get over the problem of mutilation and misspelling of names. A number (accompanied by fingerprint and iris scanning) that enables individual identification from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Dwarka to Dimapur would do away with the need to get the spelling right. Pronunciation is another matter altogether. Maybe we should all adopt the Beagle Boys formula — the three brothers were distinguished solely by the numbers boldly emblazoned on the front and back of their sweatshirts: 176-167, 176-671 and 176-761. After all, there’s always safety in numbers!


Boys will be boys

Girish Karnad essayed the role of a young, idealistic dairy technologist in Manthan, an inspiring movie on the politics of starting a dairy cooperative in Gujarat. The local overlord, played by Amrish Puri, attempts to win over Karnad by offering him choice liquor, which our young man firmly refuses. Puri then, with a sarcastic laugh, states that he is very fond of idealists, since they are bound to lose their idealism one day. I don’t know how many of the actors on the prosecution side of la affaire JNU, our recent box office hit on television, have seen this movie. Even if they haven’t, they would probably have done well to have taken a leaf from Puri’s book and treat the entire JNU episode as another case of boyish spirits which merited at most a mild rap on the knuckles and a word of reproof, with a knowing nod of the head, that “boys will be boys”. By throwing one of the more draconian sections of the Indian Penal Code at the students of the University, the government of the day unwittingly conferred a distinction on these students and willy nilly dragged itself into a controversy that led to international condemnation as well as a suspicion in the public mind that there was a political agenda behind the entire imbroglio.

My generation passed through the portals of higher education during the days of the Emergency of 1975-77. Even prior to that, there was considerable ferment in idealistic sections of the student population. The exploits of Che Guevara in Latin America, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war protests in the USA and the distant rumbling of the Naxalite uprising in Bengal were all beacons of hope for sections of youth that had come face to face with the unravelling of the post-independence Nehruvian consensus. Scores of students from the neoliberal environment of Delhi University left their studies to pursue their dreams of a classless society. Severe state repression and the vortex of violence the movement spawned led to a fairly early disillusionment with the Naxalite movement and the homecoming of the chastened prodigals. Their future careers in academia or the civil services (almost the only two job openings at that time) would have been severely jeopardised had the then Government of India not had the sagacity to overlook their youthful enthusiasm and withdraw possible prosecutions against them. Many of these potential “revolutionaries” went on to outstanding tenures in the civil services and the academic world, especially as teachers in the university that is at the centre of the present controversy (some have moved from Trotsky to the Temple, but that is another story). There was (and is) a deep humanism and liberalism informing the approach of many of them to social, political and economic issues. The Emergency represented the darkest phase of Indian democracy, but it also had one redeeming feature: it sensitised the youth of my generation to democratic values of freedom and human dignity and developed in many of us distaste for authoritarianism of all hues. Freedom to us meant freedom of thought, speech, association, profession of any religion (or no religion) and culinary choice, to name the prominent ones. Colleagues of mine in the Indian Administrative and Police Services stood up to excesses of different political formations when they attempted to trample on the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens in the name of religion, caste, ideology, ethnicity or region.

I stress this cherishing of fundamental human values, because I am aware of the educative role of the university in developing the thinking individual in each of us. It is made all the more poignant in view of the recent calls by many highly qualified persons to students to concentrate on their studies and not on politics during their stay in the university. Proponents of this school of thought seem to view the role of institutions of higher learning as producing technology zombies of the sort popularised in the Dilbert comic strip, rather than alert, aware citizens who will participate actively in the ongoing process of social transformation. Unfortunately, this betrays a highly technological view of the roles of discussion and dissent in public discourse. Any discussion on issues relating to the human condition and efforts to better it are inevitably political in nature. It would appear that significant sections of the intelligentsia still view the development of the critical faculty in individuals from an authoritarian perspective. Probably, this has its roots in the parental and social (including educational) environments which stress conformity rather than curiosity. From personal experience, I can certainly aver that independent modes of thinking and functioning evolved only when I entered college. Nor can I claim that my true education came from the classroom: rather, it was the product of hours of discussion after class on diverse issues ranging from politics to social issues and values.

V.S. Naipaul characterized India as a land of a million mutinies over forty years ago, easing somewhat the resentment of Indians over his earlier reference to the country as an area of darkness. If Naipaul was right then, we would have to term this as the land of a billion mutinies now. Assertions of identities by disadvantaged castes and communities, not to mention the struggles of the female half for their rightful place in the Indian sun and the refusal to be denied their economic opportunities, have led large sections of the population to question the traditional, patriarchal social structures. The university has served as an avenue for upward mobility and for questioning the existing power structure. Any political party which seeks to assert the monopoly of its ideology and restricted worldview over institutions of higher learning, through manipulation of teaching processes and educational curricula, is pursuing a chimera. As Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan affirmed in a recent speech at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai “The first essential is to foster competition in the marketplace for ideas…This then leads to a second essential: Protection, not of specific ideas and traditions, but the right to question and challenge…it is by encouraging the challenge of innovative rebels that society develops.” Governments learn this lesson far too late – the Congress government in 1977 reaped the consequences of the denial of free expression to the student population in higher education institutions for twenty months.

Ultimately, the Argumentative Indian will have his say. Having had his say, he will then move on to the basic business of earning his livelihood. Governments in a democracy need to provide a pressure valve to a population, many of whose members still suffer from myriad economic and social deficiencies. Ignoring this reality can prove fatal for a government when it next goes to the hustings. The first requirement for a successful, popular politician is a keen sense of irony laced with good-humoured forbearance, a quality sadly lacking in most of the political class in India today. The first generation of Indian political leaders was jailed by the British; the second generation of political leaders was jailed by the Congress. It would be truly ironic if the third generation of leaders of independent India were to emerge from those currently being jailed by the present government. Who can tell, every cloud may have a silver lining!


The perks…and quirks…of public office

I do not offhand remember the name of the 1960s Hindi movie starring two great actors, Padmini and Pran, which I saw on Doordarshan in my student days. The girl, Padmini, is obviously not overjoyed at the prospect of being married to the villain rather than to her hero. Pran attempts to convince her by pointing out to her that her hero has no wealth while he (Pran) can provide her with “नौकर, चाकर, बंगला और गाड़ी” (servants, a palatial house and vehicles). Padmini may not have been convinced, but this argument holds a strong appeal for many who aspire to public office, whether in the political or administrative spheres. I am not for a moment suggesting that the perks of office are the sole, or even major, reason for aspiring to public office. But they are a definite added attraction, apart from the aspect of job security (not guaranteed, of course, for politicians) and the social prestige that comes attached, though often with a tinge of neighbours’ envy (sometimes masquerading as self-righteous attempts to knock these worthies off their high pedestals).

Let me (from my lengthy association with the bureaucracy) take the quintessential budding Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and his entry into the hallowed portals of the civil service. I deliberately use the gender-incorrect “his”, since the male of the species exhibits, in my opinion, many more quirks; also, there is a far greater sample size to draw on for examples. It begins with his rapid elevation in the marriage market sweepstakes. Even apart from the sordid issue of dowry payment levels, there is a lengthy line of parents of marriageable daughters for tying up alliances with the eligible bachelor. Feted in his social circles at home, the young man proceeds to the district for his initial training and subsequent posting. The perks start here, with a comfortable house (generally far from the madding crowd), domestic help at the residence, a Group D employee (literally preceding the young officer on his travels) and a jeep with a driver. The perks multiply very soon with his elevation to the district officer level, as the officer graduates to a much larger bungalow, a chauffeur-driven car and a whole retinue of domestic staff at his beck and call. While the perks are alluring, it is the quirks that command one’s attention more as an interesting object of socio-economic analysis: let us turn to them.

Among the visible prestige symbols that are the accoutrements of office, the flashing beacon on the vehicle (jeep or car) is one that catches the public’s attention. Though popularly known as the “लाल बत्ती” (red light), the district/sub-district officer’s vehicle actually sports an orange beacon. Acquisition of this symbol gains one access to areas not easily accessible to the public, a wave-through without payment at toll booths and an occasional salute from the roadside policeman. In more recent years, there is also the armed security person in the front seat of the car and the pennant fluttering on the car bonnet to testify to the status of the occupant. Equally fascinating to observe is the seating plan in the vehicle. When the officer has just a jeep, he occupies the left side front seat, next to the driver. The problem of two officers of equal rank travelling by the same vehicle is resolved by one of them taking the steering wheel. In the case of a car, the senior officer must occupy the rear left hand seat, so that his door opens directly in front of the porch of his office, residence or the guest house. After observing these phenomena, I have termed them “jeepocracy” and “carocracy”, signifying bureaucratic vehicular hierarchy in a people’s democracy. The hierarchy extends to the arrival and departure of vehicles at offices, guest houses and public functions; the last in (who is the top honcho in the hierarchy) is the first out (LIFO), quite unlike the normal (FIFO) inventory procedure.

Once in office, the impressive chair behind the large table testifies to the importance of its occupier. The first law of babudom states: the size of the table is directly proportional to the position of the officer in the bureaucratic hierarchy. There was great discomfort among the Petroleum Ministry babus when I opted for a table measuring three feet by two feet, discarded from the Secretary’s office after the transfer of the previous incumbent. I would not even have ruled out my subordinates feeling that their boss had reduced their standing in the eyes of their subordinates. The second law of babudom is: the occupier of the chair shall surrender it to his superior in the bureaucratic hierarchy, when the latter visits his office. This can have unpredictable fallouts, like the time we in the General Administration Department were called upon to adjudicate in a dispute between the District Collector and a Divisional Forest Officer. Matters had come to a head when the Forest Officer refused to vacate his chair when the Collector (who considered himself primus inter pares) came visiting his office. The contrast was provided by one of my bosses who, when visiting my office, would take a chair on the side of the desk, refusing the proffered (and preferred) chair with the remark “That chair is yours; I have not been appointed to your post.” The conflict can arise even when two district officers occupy rooms in the guest house — matters can be precipitated especially when they are from the IAS and the Indian Police Service (IPS), two services that share a strange love-hate relationship.

Official residential accommodation is another undisputed perk of a public job, especially in the higher echelons of the political and administrative hierarchy and top-level district officers. The old British habit of isolating the rulers from the natives is alive and kicking seven decades after independence. Allied with the provision of official vehicles, this effectively insulates the public official from his ostensible masters, the aam aurat/aadmi. Not surprisingly, two of independent India’s biggest problems — public housing and public transport — remain unresolved, since those entrusted with the task of solving them do not themselves use or need them. The realisation probably dawns on the politician/bureaucrat only when they are out of office, at which time their successors in office have no time or sympathy to listen to their problems.

Little wonder then that politicians and bureaucrats stick to public posts like limpets, well past their “sell by” dates. India’s gargantuan public sector and plethora of public institutions enable the accommodation of defeated (and unelectable) politicians, keeping intraparty dissent muted and enabling the politician in power to get on with her job. The bureaucrat relies on a whole host of post-retirement sinecures, ranging from administrative tribunals to governorships of states and diplomatic postings; the really enterprising few become politicians themselves, extending their perks well into the sunset years.

But the day of reckoning must come sooner or later. That day will dawn for the majority of politicians/bureaucrats when the trappings of office recede and they must rub shoulders with the common man. I still remember my office boy recounting how the Chairman of a large public sector company was a few places ahead of him in the morning queue at the milk booth, days after his retirement. Without being cynical, their position reminds me of Timon of Athens (refer to one William Shakespeare for more information on this Grecian tragic hero). It is probably appropriate to conclude with a stanza from the Bhaja Govindam, attributed to a disciple of Adi Sankaracharya:

अंगं गलितं पलितं मुण्डं दशनविहीनं जातं तुण्डम्

वृद्धो याति गृहीत्वा दण्डं तदपि न मुंच्यत्याशापिण्डम्

(Strength has left the old man’s body, his head has become bald, his gums toothless and he is leaning on crutches. Even then the attachment is strong and he clings firmly to fruitless desires)






Why marks do not matter — in the long run

A recent newspaper article by a highly successful author on why average marks in school need not imply the end of the road for a student set me thinking, especially at this time of the year, when the declaration of results leads to extreme despair in those who do not fare so well, leading even to the ultimate tragedy of taking one’s own life. The author advised his young, probably apprehensive readers to take it in their stride and realise that life was about far more than just getting great marks and a plum job. Fair enough advice, as it went, except that I want to present the perspective from the other side, of a so-called “high achiever” of whom a lot was always expected and what it meant for him as he dealt with the later years of his life. Yes sir, I am talking about yours truly, a product of an aspirational system where success was judged by your marks and by your visibility as a person who has made it, who is an object of envy for others.
I grew up in a middle class milieu in Delhi where the dream was to land a prized job in the civil services or qualify as a doctor or engineer, or move to academic pursuits in the USA/UK. Competition was tough even then for the best colleges and the most highly valued jobs. As it happened, I did more than well enough to land the college and the subject of my choice. I enjoyed my college life, participated in various extra-curricular activities and, apart from a hiccup or two, acquired two degrees in my five years in the university. That I had done well academically meant that there were great expectations about me, among family and friends, and everyone assumed that I would easily be able to enter the hallowed portals of India’s civil services. This too I managed rather comfortably, apparently to no one’s great surprise.
It was after I was posted to a rural district completely removed from my earlier Delhi life that the realisation hit home — buster, you are on your own! My performance in the civil services entrance examination initially got me some attention in the Indian Administrative Service circles in my state, but I very soon realised that you are in the position of the Indian bahu (daughter-in-law): after a very short honeymoon, you are landed with many duties, with very little sympathy for your plight. I struggled with that bugbear of bureaucratic functioning in India — the achievement of targets. Whatever I did, I was often not able to meet annual targets, whether for family planning cases (a euphemism for sterilisation), biogas plant construction, land revenue collection or small savings. Realising the meaninglessness of many of these achievements, I probably never really put my heart and soul into reaching these annual targets. Matters were not helped by the bright, ambitious young men and women who were my colleagues and who seemed so fired by the zest to not just reach, but surpass, the magic numbers set for their districts. I soon got inured to the pained look on my Commissioner’s face, when, after reviewing the success of four other districts, he had to handle under-performance in my district. Slowly, I reconciled myself to the apparent truth that I was not one of the dashing, dynamic officers that senior officers in the service would laud.
It was only after I moved to a Secretariat posting in Delhi that I finally found my métier. My above average abilities in drafting notes in the English language and my passion for the subject I was handling saw a lot of responsibilities being entrusted to me. The excellent annual assessments by my bosses stood me in good stead in subsequent postings; it was then that the realisation dawned on me that you are only as good as your last assignment. Added to that was my deliberate decision to keep as low a profile as I could, within the requirements of my job description. Over the next fifteen years, I was fortunate to get a number of interesting assignments and have a warm and supportive relationship with my political and bureaucratic bosses. But what I really value is the love and affection I got from a large cross-section of people: the public I interacted with, my peers and those I worked with in my different postings across a wide geographical area. These gave me a level of comfort and confidence that enabled me to withstand such criticism as came my way. When the failure to reach revenue targets in my administrative division led to reproachful remarks from my top boss (and even a mild rebuke from the then Chief Minister), I was secure in my belief that I was pursuing more important goals impacting the lives the lives of individuals rather than striving to achieve revenue targets.
Today, five years after I took early retirement from service, I realise that there are far more important things in life than just your academic performance or even your rise up the bureaucratic ladder. As you near the sixth decade of your life and look back on the last forty years or so of life, two things come to mind: firstly, you should try to excel in (and, more importantly, enjoy) whatever you do, without getting too tied up in planning where you want your career (or life) to take you and, secondly, the human relations you form in your years at work (including, most significantly, your family relationships) are far more important and rewarding than any material successes you may enjoy in your years on the job. Of course, those marks in school and college do matter, but only for a very limited period and to enable a climb up the next rung of the ladder. It is far more crucial to develop the awareness that one may be climbing up the wrong ladder, at the cost of relationships, contentment and one’s own integrity. Remember, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs never finished college. Equally, remember all those brilliant classmates of yours, with bright futures beckoning to them, who fizzled out in the University of Life and were never able to contribute meaningfully to the society of which they were a part and which had invested so much hope in them. So, by all means, participate in the marks race, but realise that it is ultimately a game where you win some and lose some. Winning over your own fears and insecurities is what will finally make you a complete human being.