NDTV discussion on suspension of Uber and other taxi aggregators

by Ritwik on December 10, 2014

NDTV discussion hosted by Ravish Kumar in which I participated. The topic was the suspension of services of Uber and other taxi aggregators in light of allegations that an Uber driver raped a passenger.

The points that I made on the show are similar to the ones I made here

NDTV discussion

NDTV discussion

NDTV Discussion(screengrabs by Neelakshi Tewari)

Link to the full video

Suspending Uber’s Services is Politically a Good Decision

by Ritwik on December 8, 2014

The decision of the Government of Delhi (currently administered by the Central Government) to suspend the services of taxi aggregator Uber, in light of one of the company’s drivers allegedly raping a passenger, notwithstanding the company’s declaration of providing ‘the safest ride on the road’, has been heavily criticized on sections of the social media. The decision has been called knee-jerk, we have been informed how it doesn’t deal with the ‘real’ issues connected to rape, and one well known writer went to the extent of saying that banning Uber is analogous to banning elevators after the Tarun Tejpal molestation case.

A prominent right-wing columnist believes suspension of Uber’s services is on the same logical plane as suspending all cars … buses … women stepping out … police … army … men and women.

It is interesting to note that those calling for ‘real action’ on this matter, loudly proclaiming that suspending Uber won’t help, cut across the political (but not economic and social) spectrum.

The fact that Uber’s defense consists of saying “we are technically not a taxi company so the rules don’t apply to us”, or that its control room for the entire city is manned by three people, and that it had no verification mechanisms in place  for checking the antecedents of its drivers, seems to carry no weight with the social media elite. They seem similarly deaf to its bad safety and corporate record worldwide (if nothing else one hopes the ‘extreme’ nature of the government’s action will cause Uber to shed some of its legendary arrogance and listen, or risk losing a potentially huge market).

Irrespective of the administrative and legal merits of the ban/suspension (which seem to be fairly persuasive), I want to focus on the political implications of this decision.

Everybody with even a passing familiarity with my past writing knows that I can hardly be called a fan of PM Narendra Modi and his government. My ideological differences with the BJP/RSS run deep, but it doesn’t stop me from acknowledging that the Government has handled a potentially very embarrassing situation (and in the midst of poll season) very well. Strong action has been seen to be taken, not only against the driver who was responsible but a big, multi billion dollar MNC headquartered in Silicon Valley. The government has effectively sent out the message that it means business on women’s security , and simultaneously sought to counter the rising perception that its priorities unduly benefit crony capitalists and global capital (eg: Make in India campaign, SBI loan to Adani coal, see this article for more)

Strictly in terms of ‘good governance’, where governance is understood in a purely technocratic sense (eg: Manmohan Singh’s regime), the outright ban (even if temporary) on Uber is perhaps excessive. Even if not, it follows that similar restrictions be placed on other taxi aggregators, IF their practices are as odious as Uber’s.

But politics is not only about strictly observing ‘good governance’. That is the job of the  bureaucracy. A political government’s response should not be the same as a typical bureaucratic or technocratic response. Perceptions are vital. And as far as perceptions are concerned, women in India are fed up with the general lack of safety all around.

When a woman takes a premium cab, operated by a multi-billion dollar company which loudly toots its horn on safety, she believes she is cordoning herself off from the generally unsafe conditions which prevail in society. That is the implicit and explicit promise made by the company, which causes that woman to take a fancy and expensive cab, and not a public bus or an auto.

When that company is caught sleeping at the wheel, not having performed preliminary checks, then people do want to see it punished. Tooting ‘good governance’, meaningless and exaggerated analogies (banning elevators, banning husbands, banning men) and the like only shows just how disconnected the elite of social media are from every day concerns.

Troublingly, these analysts seem dangerously cut off from political actions and the art of creating winning political perceptions.

For the last few years, one has seen the Congress party, due to its incompetent Vice President, become increasingly dependent upon the opinions of this particular caste of people, who are loud, authoritative, articulate but quite isolated from not only the reality on the ground but any kind of political thought process. Such worthies have increasingly got air time as Congress spokespersons, and their ‘input’ has come to dominate much of decision making in the top echeleons of the party.

The results are there for all to see.

Delhi Kiss of Love Event: Q & A

by Ritwik on November 8, 2014

Kiss of Love Delhi chapter

As many of you will know, a ‘Kiss of Love’ event has been planned in Delhi today. It starts at 4pm at Jhandewalaan, at the Delhi headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological mentor of the BJP and other organizations such as ABVP and VHP which collectively comprise the so called ‘sangh parivar’.

This has been organized in light of the  similar event in Kochi, Kerala, which was organized against ‘moral policing’ that has seen a sharp increase with the victory of the Narendra Modi led BJP in the general elections in the country held in May.

A journalist with DNA newspaper, Mumbai asked me a series of questions about the event, and I think putting up the questions along with my answers might serve some purpose, as these questions are by no means unique and regularly come up in the public discourse in India over matters of love, sex and free expression in general. Of course, I am not attributing these views to the journalist in question – she was only doing her job in articulating precisely the concerns which many have with respect to such demonstrations.

Q. Do you support the ‘kiss of love’ event? and if so, why?

Absolutely. It has my wholehearted support. I believe it is an excellent initiative and many more such initiatives should be taken up, all across the country and particularly in areas where such things as choosing one’s own partner, which are  taken for granted in any modern society, are still huge battles (i.e., almost every Indian family, totally including almost the entire upwardly mobile, ‘educated’ middle class)

To me one of the most important measures of the health and happiness of a society is the freedom accorded to people to love freely, and choose their partners freely (of whatever gender and sexual persuasion).

Recently we have had a setback in India when the Supreme Court struck down the forward looking judgement of the Delhi High Court de-criminalizing Homosexuality. Many who had felt empowered to come out of the closet in light of the HC verdict have now had to face oppression after the SC verdict re-criminalized a completely natural sexual impulse. This battle has now been taken up again in the Supreme Court, and one hopes the Court will set aside its earlier verdict.

Q. Do you think this demonstration will serve some purpose, or it is only being organized by Delhi youth to be ‘cool’ after similar demonstrations were organized in Kochi and Calcutta?

I think it is crucial for people, especially the young, all over the country to assert their right to their bodies, to choosing their own partners and their sexual orientation. it is deeply shameful that we still witness ‘honour killings’ where the ‘crime’ is nothing but cohabiting with the person you love.

It is crucial in light of the fact that the ruling national party, the BJP, made ‘love jihad’ its main campaign slogan in recent by-elections. Love Jihad is the notion that members of the Muslim community are ‘luring’ Hindu women to marry them so as to change the latter’s religion and produce Muslim children, ultimately culminating the ‘islamization’ of India.

The fact that such absurd fears have become mainstream enough to be taken up by major national parties shows how close India is to slipping into an even more un-free, almost theocratic condition not dissimilar to the situation that exists in Pakistan after the rule of the dictator Zia ul Haq.

Q. Aren’t there ‘more important’ things that should engage the attention of the youth?

As I say above, all those who value freedom, and wish for India to remain a free society (a society in which enclaves of freedom – such as universities and some urban spaces – have been created and there has historically been the push, since independence, of modernizing more spaces) must support initiatives like Kiss of Love, to counter the poisonous, socially divisive propaganda of the Love Jihad variety.

As the experience of countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and many others demonstrates, societies which had become relatively free and open in the Sixties and the early Seventies, have slipped into soul crushing fanaticism and un-freedom after the religious Right (of which the RSS is a prime example in India) engineered a massive reaction against all kinds of progressive tendencies.

These societies, and others like them, have consequently seen the obliteration of liberal, leftist and socialist thought and social practice, all in the name of ‘pride’, ‘hurt sentiments’, ‘authentic traditions’ etc. India seems to be on the brink of something similar, where the historically open and plural nature of the society is being sought to be radically re-engineered from within.

In a nutshell, one can’t be complacent about freedoms and rights. These must be fought for and vigorously defended.

Q. Many who support the idea of freedom of choice – in abstraction – are saying that this is the wrong way to protest. India is a conservative country which frowns upon ‘public displays of affection’. Why choose such a mode of protest which may be offensive to many?

The modes of protest chosen by movements like ‘Kiss of Love’ are very useful in that they are exposing the structural hypocrisies of the authorities and political parties. It is notable that the Kiss of Love event in Kerala was not allowed to go on by the police, who have historically shown little inclination to act against violent thugs who have raided bars, night clubs, hotels and other such establishments where ‘immoral activities’, i.e., people indulging in sexual acts out of choice, rather than our glorious, animal-trading ‘arranged marriage’ tradition, have been going on.

Violent activists who have attacked couples on Valentines Day, often in a well orchestrated manner with television cameras in tow, have acted with impunity with no regard for the law or its consequences.

However those deciding to kiss on the streets, were apprehended in advance. This in a state (Kerala) ruled by the Congress, which claims to inherit a liberal tradition!

In light of this, the mode of protest chosen for ‘kiss of love’ is effective, and it exposes hypocrisies which we as a society are highly comfortable with.

 

Kiss of Love Delhi Facebook Page 

Are all forms of ‘questioning’ of the same importance?

by Ritwik on November 2, 2014

This post is prompted by the points made by Mario Da Penha (Twitter handle: @mlechchha) in a series of tweets, now compiled here, critiquing historian Romila Thapar’s approach to the notion of questioning of authority in a recent speech entitled “To question or not to question: that is the question”.

De Penha is troubled that Thapar basically turns the idea of questioning those in authority into an academic exercise, and in his tweets cites the case of the sufi Sarmad, who, as per De Penha, was an authentic and vital challenger to authority without taking recourse to the Enlightenment tradition.

De Penha believes that he is pointing out a major flaw in the discourse of intellectuals, who as per him, privilege the ‘lettered’, ‘Rational’ (with a capital R) enlightenment discourse over other modes of protest and interrogation.

These points, as far as I am concerned, appear to be (largely) trivially true, but where they are substantive, they are false and dangerous.

That is, it is undoubtedly true that there are many different modes and styles of interrogation of established authority and social structures. It is also undoubtedly true that different such modes have been used through the ages, in different societies, to highlight the need for social change.

However, De Penha (and many others today) seem to think that all such different modes of protest can be usefully bunched together on one plane. The idea that different types of questioning can be analyzed and graded for effectiveness is disclaimed.

The intentions of questioners, whatever these might be and howsoever they might be determined, are applauded. But their methods are not subjected to sufficient critical scrutiny, barring a consequentialist analysis in terms of “success”.

It is my submission that a ‘Rational’ critique is more substantive, powerful and effective, than other modes of critique. I doubt Romila Thapar, or other intellectuals, would deny that mystics and poets have usefully critiqued social ills. However, by definition, a rational critique offers up three features that may be missing in other critiques –

– a framework for analysis: on what grounds, precisely, is a present system being challenged? This requires an idea of what is desirable, and why that is so.

– a replicable, universalizable, systematic approach: based upon the framework of analysis, actions can be subjected to critical scrutiny irrespective of the contingent factors (of time and space and personality)  that surround them. This is in contrast to all protest and questioning getting restricted to the local and the temporally instant.

– an alternative: a rational critique, being framework based, requires and facilitates the articulation of alternative systems and in this sense, gives a path of progress, a sense of purpose to those who want change.

Some further points:

I see no reason why such a rational approach as outlined above needs to be particularly identified with the European Enlightenment or with European or Western or modern discourse as such. There are very important and particular things about the Enlightenment and modern scientific rationality, such as individualism and the idea of disenchantment, but analytic discourse per se is not a monopoly of the European Enlightenment.

It has often happened that the critical ideas brought out poetically by mystics such as Sarmad, who De Penha refers to, are taken up later by systematic philosophers and theorists. When this happens, the ideas of poets and mystics and other ‘alternative’ styles of protest are invested with the features I have outlined above and thus acquire greater potentiality. That is to be lauded, but we may miss out on such things if we, knowingly or unknowingly, insist that all criticality is on the same plane.

 

PS. I am indebted to Aaditya Dar (@AadityaDar) for bringing Da Penha’s tweets to my attention.

A word of thanks

by Ritwik on February 23, 2014

Thank you all for making our public meeting on ‘Justice, Human Rights and Media Trials’ organized under the banner of the Campaign for Khurshid Anwar a big success with your enthusiastic and active participation in large numbers. The large Press Club of India lawns were full, with many extra chairs added and several people standing at the back.  Special thanks to Saeed Naqvi, Seema Mustafa, Anusha Rizvi, Poornima Joshi, Sheeba Aslam Fehmi, Suman Keshari and Apoorvanand for speaking at the event and to Manisha Sethi for moderating the discussion.

We wish to thank all those who posed questions for their thought provoking and relevant comments.

We will shortly be uploading videos and photos of the event on our blog and Facebook page.

We would also like to thank several friends from the North East for attending the meeting and posing a question, and wholeheartedly welcome their call for justice for all parties involved in this struggle. We firmly believe that phenomena like media trials are dangerous precisely because they usurp the power of the courts by contravening established procedures. Doing so is most dangerous to the rights of women, minorites, tribals and Dalits.

On Tehelka’s rumoured shut down

by Ritwik on January 6, 2014

Rumours abound that Tehelka magazine is about to shut down. Strange coincidence that the rise of Tehelka triggered and accompanied the fall in fortunes of the BJP, and today when the BJP is in its strongest position ever, Tehelka is on the verge of closure.

The impending shut down, if it happens, would be painful not only for Tehelka’s employees but also for discerning readers who will lose a magazine which gave its reporters (mostly youngish voices) the freedom to do interesting stories. Tehelka has some terrific stories to its credit. Apart from Operation West End, I can immediately recall match fixing in Cricket, Babu Bajrangi’s exposure, drug addiction in Punjab and several others.

Caravan, Open, Outlook, Frontline, to name a few, are all bigger magazines with some degree of purportedly serious content. But Tehelka is (was?) different. It gave the widest scope to investigative journalism. In that sense it was probably unique, apart from being a competently produced, well-written magazine which managed to not always read like a propaganda rag.

It’ll be missed.

 

some context – this story in India Today

A discussion on trial by media and its ethical limits

by Ritwik on December 27, 2013

Saturday Talk

Campaign for Khurshid Anwar

 

A discussion on TV reporting and its ethical limits in the background of Khurshid Anwar’s media trial and his subsequent suicide.

It will be an open forum.

Prominent journalists will be participating in the discussion.

Time: 4 pm

On  28/12/13

Venue: Press Club of India.

For details contact: Sunanda Dikshit (9810906482)

campaignforkhurshidanwar@gmail.com

http://campaignforkhurshidanwar.wordpress.com

 

Some Background:

Khurshid Anwar was Executive Director of Institute for Social Democracy, a New Delhi based NGO. He allegedly committed suicide on the morning of 18 December following allegations that charged him with raping a fellow activist on the night of 12 September. The allegations first surfaced on Facebook, and then in a CD prepared in the office of the well-known activist and right-wing sympathizer, Madhu Kishwar.

Kishwar admits that she shot the footage which appears on the CD, but claims that she had no role in its distribution, which has been going on since the last week of September in several towns of North India. Dr Anwar had repeatedly asked those charging him to file an FIR and subject the complainant to a medical test, however this wasn’t done for a long three months.

The absence of inquiry by any competent authority did not deter those attacking Anwar on Facebook. Ultimately the matter reached some unsavoury TV channels, such as the notorious India TV (edited by known BJP insider Rajat Sharma). On the night of 17 December, Sharma, Kishwar and a few others including left-wing women’s activist Kavita Krishnan appeared on a hour long show broadcast in prime time (9pm – 10pm) on India TV, the content of which was slanted in a manner extremely derogatory to Khurshid Anwar.

The next morning, apparently pushed to the brink by the public shaming and vilification, Dr Anwar jumped to death from the roof of his residence building in New Delhi’s Vasant Kunj Area.

Born in Allahabad in 1958, Anwar received his Ph.D in Urdu Literature  from New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he was an activist with the All India Students Federation, the student wing of the Communist Party of India. Anwar was an atheist and a lifelong leftist and was a well known figure in activist circles in Delhi.

Over a long career as a grassroots activist, Anwar pioneered the concept of training volunteers in issues of communal harmony, secularism and related areas. He has trained thousands of volunteers to uphold these ideals in public spaces in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and other countries.

He was a fierce critic of communalism, particularly of the Muslim variety. In 2013, he wrote a series of opinion articles in the respected Hindi daily Jansatta, sharply attacking Wahabbism. He received many death threats over these articles.

His NGO, Institue for Social Democracy, was one of the spearheads of the Nirbhaya anti-rape protests in Delhi in 2012-13. His was the only organization in the country to observe Dec 16 as a holiday in memory of Nirbhaya’s struggle.

this is the kind of lazy, blinkered reportage

by Ritwik on July 9, 2013

which is the norm in the West when it comes to reporting India and is becoming the norm in India, particularly among commentators who see themselves as liberals but who have a less than perfunctory understanding of any non-Western cultural or philosophical tradition.

http://www.nytimes.com/1992/07/03/world/bodh-gaya-journal-where-buddha-s-path-crosses-the-hindu-cosmos.html?src=pm
.

Note sweeping, idiotic statements like “That conflict born in the sixth century before Christ — the clash between Buddhist rationalism and Hindu mysticism, ritual and caste — percolated through the millenniums.”

As if both ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Buddhism’ [both isms are by the way recent constructs made by westerners] are monolithic entities with all of Buddhism being ‘rational’ [um, Tibetan Buddhism?] and all of Hinduism being ‘mystic’ [um, nyaya or sankhya or for that matter the philosophical part of Advaita Vedanta?]

Mannequin Lingerie Ban in Mumbai – It’s about controlling women, not men

by Ritwik on May 29, 2013

.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has decided that lingerie bearing mannequins are akin to “sex toys” and their public display is “embarrassing” to women. Furthermore, according to the Shiv Sena controlled BMC,  such mannequins provoke men into sexual crimes against women.

A few observations:

While the BMC is trying to spin this move as a means to control men by removing from sight a ‘provocative’ object, it should be more than clear that the real attempt is to control women’s sexuality. The argument is eerily similar to one adopted by apologists for the burqa or by those advocating “traditional”, “decent”, “appropriate” dress for women – don’t provoke men, because if a women does, then the sexual harassment shes faces is, if not justified, at least causally linked to her mode of dress and her “behaviour”.

In an article published under the byline of “FP Staff”, the news website firstpost.com has asked the BMC to cut the men some slack. Much digital ink has been spilled in proving how the mere sight of lingerie, particularly on mannequins does not excite men into sexual violence. While this is true, the story only takes the claims of the BMC at face value and tries to refute them. But the action of the BMC cuts deeper, and needs to be understood as a step against women’s freedom and only peripherally against men’s (presumed) desire to get their sexual kicks off lingerie-clad mannequins.

The political and religious right has long been terrified of the appearance in public of any activities related to love, sex and individual choice. We can recount valentine’s day vandalism, the actions of the Sri Ram Sene in Mangalore where they attacked women in pubs and at parties, demands for ban on sex toys, frequent demands for censorship of films, support for curfews on women, exhortations to women to not forget their “Indian culture” and numerous other instances.

Coming as it does from the same political stable, the mannequin lingerie ban in Mumbai should be seen as yet another attempt to somehow efface sexuality, particularly, female sexuality, from the domain of everyday sights and sounds. This move is, thus, part of a larger political project which is inextricably opposed to liberal modernity as characterized by free choice of the individual.

Of course, the proponents of this political project will gladly take the technological side of modernity – they are particularly fascinated by guns and tanks and the like – but the individual freedoms side of modernity – upon which liberal democracy is based – is for them extremely cumbersome, as it necessarily involves questioning of tradition and continually altering or even rejecting past practices and prejudices.

This fear of individual freedoms is precisely why secularism means “India first” (=hyper nationalism) to the tall leaders of such ideologies. This is why their focus in multi-million dollar campaigns led by American PR agencies is on “development” – as they dream of imparting to India the gleaming external gloss of modernity, but at the same time they want a a highly hierarchical, ordered, mechanical, hedonistic and gender-unjust society.

Nandy Controversy – Not isolated but part of a worrying pattern

by Ritwik on January 27, 2013

Were Ashis Nandy’s comments justified? Clearly not. His statement was loose, sweeping and unfortunate. But isn’t freedom of speech precisely the freedom to say what others consider stupid or objectionable? Clearly the idea of FREEDOM of speech is not restricted to saying only what is palatable to the other.

My right to free speech is precisely my right to question you, object to your views and state what I think, without fear of suppression or physical retribution.

But is the State and its organs like political parties at all interested in upholding this constitutional principle? The recent incidents of banning Kamal Hassan’s film Vishwaroopam by some states and the hounding of political psychologist Ashish Nandy are part of a pattern where the “sentiments” of one or the other community are “hurt” by artists, intellectuals and common citizens. Let’s consider some examples:

– Preventing Salman Rushdie from speaking at last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival

– Banning of Prakash Jha’s film Aarakshan [the ban was subsequently revoked by the Supreme Court]

– Vetting of Da Vinci Code by “representatives” of the Christian faith

– Hounding MF Hussian by registering hundreds of cases against him in various parts of the country

– Jailing of a professor in Bengal for forwarding an SMS which lampooned the CM

– Registration of FIRs against a young girl in Maharashtra for an “objectionable” Facebook status about Bal Thackeray

No group or identity [whether Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, Christians, OBCs etc etc] seem to be immune from this widespread malady of ultra sensitive sentiments, injury to which results in threats of violence, rioting and strikes. Repeatedly we see the sight of the police and political parties bowing down to such narrow interests and failing to uphold the right to free speech.

Nandy and Gadkari – A study in contrast

Things become even more ridiculous when we consider that Nitin Gadkari’s public statements threatening government servants have so far resulted in … precisely nothing.  Here is a former national president of the main opposition party, publicly threatening Income Tax officials that if they investigate his wrongdoings, they will have to face retribution when his party comes to power. There seems to be no imminent threat to Mr Gadkari’s liberty. In contrast, an academic’s loose comments have attracted non-bailable provisions of the law!

Legal Hopscotch

We have enacted laws such as Domestic Violence Prevention Act, SC/ST (atrocities) prevention act and others under which non-bailable warrants can be issued for the most trivial occurances which can be spun as “offences”. Even more worryingly, these acts upturn the principles of natural justice by waiving the right of the accused to be presumed innocent until proven guilty – various provisions in these acts, ipso facto, assume the guilt of the accused and the burden of proof is transferred to the accused to prove his/her innocence. This dangerous pattern can also be seen in other legislation such as AFSPA, UAPA etc.

Next, the implementation of these laws remains extremely patchy, uneven and selective. Since Ashis Nandy is famous and well-connected, the investigating officer in this case has conveniently proceeded on leave and Nandy has safely made his way to Delhi. Somebody less prominent would be muzzled much more harshly.

Role of Civil Society

But what about the role of intellectuals? Too often we witness deafening silence from prominent intellectuals when the sentiments hurt are those of what are considered weaker sections of society [eg: dalits, scheduled tribes, OBCs, muslims, women]

Those who are genuinely concerned about the receding space for free expression in this country, will have to reflect upon their own role in letting things get to this stage,  every time they have chosen to remain silent because the “offender” is high-caste/male/upper class/right-wing and the “offended” are low-caste/female/minority/tribal.

Delhi gangrape case – protest at India gate!

by Ritwik on December 19, 2012

Please join protest against lack of safety, particularly for women, in Delhi. India Gate, 5pm, 19 December 2012.

———

On demands of castration and death sentences:

Its a reflection of the helplessness felt by even our “upper classes” (on fb) due to our remote and inaccessible judicial and political system that they are reduced to demanding castrations, capital punishment etc. Situation is not helped by utterly irresponsible statements of buffoons like Arnab Goswami and the entire bjp leadership. Rape, sadly, becomes the window through which we can glimpse the latent authoritarian tendencies of the great Indian middle class.

In spite of our (very justifiable) anger, let us keep mob mentality in check!

———

Rape is one (extreme) manifestation of a sick society that fundamentally doesn’t treat women as equal. Please ponder over selective (women-only) curfews at St Stephen’s, Miranda House and LSR, for example. What’s the logic in locking up the victim?

Please also ask yourself – how often it is that “respectable” members of our society, including parents, judge girls and women by their clothing, habits (smoking, drinking, partying) and lifestyle?

Rape is not isolated from all these things.

———

The “solution” is not in having even tougher laws. The solution lies in better implementation of law and most crucially, in every citizen feeling empowered to approach the courts.

The courts are remote even for our upper class elite, not to speak of the poor, marginalized and migrants.

Lack of an accessible judicial system underlies all our problems from rape to naxalism.

Corruption, Cash Transfer and Crony Capitalism

by Ritwik on October 22, 2012

Continuing with its born-again “reformist” zeal, the Government of India has announced that subsidy amount on cooking gas shall now be directly transferred to beneficiaries’ bank accounts. This is in contrast to the present situation where all cooking gas cylinders sold for non-commercial purposes are made available at a subsidized amount. However, with the government now capping the number of subsidized cylinders to six per family per year, some mechanism is no doubt required to ensure that people can’t avail of subsidy on more than the designated number. Capping the number of cylinders, and that to a small number like 6, is a silly move, but as many have dwelt upon it I shall not waste time in repeating well known points.

The government and its cheerleaders [mostly belonging to business/technocrat/economics backgrounds] have hailed this “pilot project” as a landmark step against inefficiency and corruption. They are no doubt awaiting the “success” of this initiative so that direct cash transfers can replace the existing “inefficient” subsidy regime in food, fuel and perhaps healthcare and schooling as well.

Whether or not direct cash transfers meaningfully improve efficiency in delivery of public services is a hotly contested topic. My instinct says that it may not prove very successful in India, especially if extended to healthcare and schooling. However, I am not particularly fussed about the kind of administrative regime the government puts into place to improve the lot of the poor and the dispossessed, as long as it gets it done within a reasonable time frame. That is not to say I support phasing out of subsidy and phasing in of direct cash transfers per se, but some intelligent, and preferably decentralized combination thereof is not ideological anathema to me.

But beyond the basic concept of direct cash transfer, there does exist the attendant problem of how it is sought to be executed, on the basis of biometrically-linked identity cards. I am against any compulsory citizen identification programme, particularly if it is bio-metric  as I don’t believe in the eternal-ness of the State which philosophically underpins such ideas. The Aadhar cards become compulsory “by the back door” as soon as you link critical food and fuel subsidies to them.

The second issue that I would like to highlight, which is perhaps more topical than the problem with id cards, is of how the government, the industry and sections of the policy-making apparatus want us to characterize and understand corruption. The narrative runs something like this: since middlemen [including government officials] will be eliminated through cash transfers, people will get the real benefit of what the government spends on subsidy. It will not be “siphoned-off” by greasy bureaucrats.

We may all have loved office, office and certainly the bribes demanded by a small-time [or big-time] babu to get essential stuff done are insidious and frustrating, but to conceive of corruption primarily in these terms would be a grave folly.

What is to be noted is that there has been no action or policy step on large scale looting of public resources, which is catapulting our big-boy industrialists to the “world stage”. The rocketing wealth of Ambani, Tata, Jindal et al, with which they are making splashy acquisitions, owes less to entrepreneurial brilliance [assuming that some degree of entrepreneurial competence does play a part] and more to precious, often- exhaustible natural resources [like land, coal and other minerals or spectrum] being allotted for the use of large corporations at throwaway prices and without any kind of transparent process.

Reform and liberalization have come to stand for ridiculously large profit making by a select group of top-level politicians, armed forces officers, bureaucrats and especially corporations. This is what report after CAG report has talked about – on 2G spectrum, coal etc

The finance ministry is full of imported ideas and much zeal on curbing “corruption” on part of  small time middlemen and government officials by dubious methods like direct cash transfers. If it comes off, then it shall certainly be worthy of applause.

However, we wait in vain for any real initiative on the critical political-economic issues responsible for the mind-boggling scale of corruption. Some of these issues are: electoral reform [with an aim at reducing influence of money in politics, especially to reduce money as a barrier to common citizens to join politics], media reform, national land, water and forest policies, policies on coal and other precious mineral resources, transparency in defence acquisition etc

The government had made a promising beginning by talking about GAAR [general anti-avoidance rules] with respect to the Vodafone case. The multinational behemoth acquired the Indian company Hutchison Essar Telecom in Mauritius, thereby avoiding billions of Dollars in taxes. Alas, one of the first steps taken by Mr Chidambaram on resuming charge of the finance ministry was to ditch GAAR.

This does suggest the direction the battle against corruption will take.