Monday, November 28, 2011

Travelling was at 3 Miles an Hour, but in that Era too, Mamool was a Habit

How times change! It is routine these days for a Chennai businessman to take a morning flight to Delhi, complete his work there, and return the same night to the bliss of his own bed. A briefcase is more than enough by way of baggage.

Things were somewhat different in the days of Enugula Veeraswamy, a Madras denizen of 1830s. He went on a pilgrimage to Banares which took him “one year, three months, five days and ten minutes” to complete. That was mainly because the mode of transport was the palanquin. Which meant a large retinue of palanquin bearers, attendants, cooks, porters, handymen for urgent repair works en route, tents and of course armed guards. Veeraswamy was travelling with his wife and children which meant that the retinue had to be that much larger.

One had to be rich to go on a journey of that kind. Veeraswamy obviously had no problem on that count. He was in the service of the East India Company and had risen to the then enviable position of Head Interpreter and Translator in the Supreme Court of Madras. That also gave him valuable contacts with company officials and regimental units along the way.

With all that, his average travelling speed was two to three miles per hour. According to one diary noting, he left a village at 2 in the morning and reached the next halting point at 9 that morning – seven hours for a distance of 16 miles. The progress would be slower when there were rivers to cross, or thick jungles infested with wild animals, or pathless rocky hills to negotiate. Or indeed wayside attackers; the menace of professional assassins called thugs had not yet been eliminated. Sometimes visas were required to cross from one kingdom to another.

Finding resting places was a problem too. Veeraswamy, an orthodox Brahmin, records his joy whenever he found the “convenience of a Brahmin habitation”. His status occasionally helped him enjoy the hospitality of company officials and army camps. For the most part, though, he had to pitch tents on his own. At one place he found that “ a spacious chavadi could be built at a cost of Rs 10” on a tank bund using forest wood. He built one and left the next morning.

At Srisailam, where the holy temple was not easy to reach, he had three dholies (mounted conveyances) built for two rupees each. “I fixed up eight palanquin bearers at four rupees each, eight uppada boyees to carry luggage, one other luggage carrier to carry the luggage and victuals of the luggage carriers. In addition I was accompanied by 15 Brahmins; food for them for five days was also carried in our entourage”.

Being a government servant, Veeraswamy took note of the administrative structure imposed by the East India Company. The areas in and around Srisailam were in the territory “granted” to the Nawab of Kandanur who paid a lakh of rupees to the Company as annual revenue. He in turn collected money from pilgrims. During Shivaratri, for example, the fees were “Rs 7 for a group of Sudras, Rs 5 for a horse, Rs 3 each” for various rituals. During Brahmotsavam, the receipts would amount to 400 varahas. “The Nawab appropriates all these fees and thereafter neglects the maintenance of the shrines”.

That tradition is still maintained by our state authorities and legislators who receive allocations for various schemes, and thereafter neglect the performance of their duties. Rather reassuringly, palm-greasing was also a hallowed tradition. Recalling his boat journey from Prayag to Kasi (pleasurable, though it took six days), Veeraswamy cautions: “Ordinary travellers by boat are troubled by customs peons called 'permit-men'. The poor have to pay a rupee for each person by way of bribe. The salary of a Ghat customs dheroga is only 15 rupees but they earn 200 to 300 rupees by way of these bribes.”

How times never change!


Enugula Veeraswamy's Journal (original in Telugu) was published in English translation in 2000 by the Andhra Pradesh Government Oriental Manuscript Library and Research Institute, Hyderabad.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mamata Banerjee: A Big Disappointment, and Pointer to a Dangerous Phenomenon

Mamata Banerjee is a street fighter. Which is fine; street fighters have a role to play in a stubborn democracy like ours. What is not fine, however, is that she does not see the difference between a street leader and a government leader. Six months into power, she has not done a thing to show that she knows what it is to be the chief minister of a state. Vision? Forget it. Dashing everyone's expectations, she has become India's biggest disappointment.

Consider the way she walked from her house to a police station, shouted at the senior officers there and got two hooligans released from the lockup. The youthful pair had been causing nuisance in the area with loudspeakers and blocking the busy road with a puja celebration. When they were told to clear the road, they stoned the police, damaged vehicles and ransacked the police station. What made them so haughty? They were members of a local club called Sevak Sangh which was run, among others, by Baban Banerjee, the chief minister's brother. Mamata won cheers from the mob by ordering an inquiry into “police highhandedness”.

The police is of course highhanded, all across the country. But when it is a confrontation between hooligans and the police, no chief minister in the country has taken a position against the police. This is the same Mamata Banerjee who said that she would turn Kolkata into India's London. She won't do that in her lifetime because she does not understand what makes London London. Prime Minister Tony Blair was once stopped by the traffic police on a motorway and fined for speeding. The Prime Minister did not walk up to the police station, shout at the officers and order an inquiry. He just paid the fine.

Mamata Banerjee does not have the mind to understand that kind of culture. She does not even understand the need for a head of government to show empathy when tragedy strikes citizens. When newborn babies died in disquieting numbers in Kolkata's government hospitals, unacceptable problems of neglect came to light – lack of doctors and medicines, pathetic facilities in the general hospital, overcrowding and unhygienic conditions. And what did the Chief Minister do? She kept silent for an inordinate period, then made wishywashy statements that seemed to justify the hospitals.

London is a place where the red double-decker bus is maintained as a proud ikon. Models four or five years old are replaced with the latest ones, looking not only new but impeccably clean and gleaming. Kolkata is the only metro in India where the oldest buses still keep running, dilapidated, even scary. The ramshackle trams are no better. Nor the rickety Ambassador taxis of 1960s vintage, museum marvels of survival. All that the people's leader has achieved so far is to give a fillip to Rabindra Sangeet. A good deed, but no big deal.

We look for signs of change on the industrial front. There is none. Improvements in the living conditions of the poor in central Kolkata? There is none. Some badly needed cleaning up? None. Untreated water from the Hoogly passes for water supply in several parts of the city. And the all-important Maoist problem? In her race to power, she seemed to work with the Maoists. Now she has ordered a new campaign to destroy them.

She is not only doing nothing to take Bengal forward; she is still doing what she can to take India backward. Thanks to the “coalition dharma”, she controls the Indian Railways. Never has Indian Railways been so hidebound, so badly led.

Actually, the plight of the railways illustrates the central problem of the Mamata Banerjee phenomenon. She is, like Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi, a one-person universe. Nothing moves without her say-so, and all those who are supposedly in her cabinet are no more than office furniture. Such phenomena are the sustaining force of dictatorships. When they enter the democratic space through legitimate means like elections, they become a dangerous half-breed: Legitimate dictatorship.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Even the Mahavishnu of Market Economy Cannot Equate Slumdogs with Tycoons

Trust deficit is an expressive phrase. But it is applied only to India-Pakistan relations. It is just as relevant in describing people-government relations in India. The trust deficit on this front was highlighted by two recent statements. The first was by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who said in Cannes that food prices shot up in India because of prosperity.

Less than half the population of India is prosperous. The other half-and-more is at varying levels of misery. A few hundred millions live in abject filth. A few thousand farmers have been forced to kill themselves, a phenomenon that still continues. Do these people have to pay impossible prices for essentials because some Indians are prosperous?

India ranks 134 among 187 countries in the UN Human Development Index. The proportion of underweight (read, deprived of nourishment) children in India is the highest in the world, higher than even African countries notorious for poverty. Barring Bolivia, Cambodia and Haiti, India has the lowest level of access to sanitation (read, highest level of public defecation). This is the country where skyrocketing prices must be accepted as a sign of prosperity?

If the government had been paying less attention to scam-making and more to improving social indicators and basic hygiene, it could have claimed some justification in relating unbearable living costs to prosperity. In this case, it is doubtful whether the Prime Minister can be justified even as an academic theoretician because textbook economics, too, makes a distinction between development and economic growth.

At best, the Prime Minister's statement was a half-truth. The second statement, made by Pranab Mukherjee, was not even that. When petrol prices rose to the highest levels in the world, the Finance Minister seemed angry with the people who protested. The prices were raised, he said, by the oil companies, not by the Government.

That is a new one. It is like saying that taxation levels are raised by the Income Tax Department, not by the Government. Indian Oil and Hindustan and Bharat Petroleum replaced Burmah-Shell, Caltex and Standard Vacuum by courtesy of nationalisation. Like Indian Railways, they are children of the Government.

True, the oil companies incur heavy losses and government subsidies to them are hefty. They make out a case for higher prices that often seems strong. But that does not answer the lay man's questions: Why doesn't the excuse of international prices apply to oil prices in other countries including Pakistan and Bangladesh? Why does petrol cost Rs 230 per litre in Lakshadweep? Why was Murli Deora, a close family associate of oil tycoons, made petroleum minister?

No angry fulminations by Pranab Mukherjee and no academic highfalutin by the Prime Minister can hide the trust deficit caused by bad governance and by equating slumdogs with the Formula One elite. The economist that he is, Manmohan Singh will be the first to realise that there is something to worry about when the United States, the Mahavishnu of market economy, goes through a historic upheaval. The Occupy Wall Street movement is an explosion of public disenchantment with the way the principle of free enterprise has developed in the US. It amounted, in the last few years, to tycoons walking off with public money, with banks collapsing because of licentious mismanagement and the ordinary people being forced to pay for the luxury class's selfishness. People are losing faith in the way capitalism is being misused.

Or is it no misuse after all? Astonishingly Karl Marx had foreseen exactly what is happening today. In Das Kapital, he wrote: “Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and mechanical products, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalised, and the state will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism”.

Scary? Re-assuring? Re-read the slogans of the “We are the 99 percent” movement – and wonder.

Monday, November 7, 2011

When a Decision not to take a Decision is the Only Decision, Nemesis Awaits

Deepak Parekh said it on television. Fourteen industrialists said it in a group statement. The Reserve Bank said it. The Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council said it. On each of these occasions, the Government pretended that it heard nothing. Then Azim Premji said it. Suddenly the Government's apologists took note. Premji must be one business leader the Government is afraid of. Or especially fond of.

The irony is that what they all said was also what the people have been saying for about two years – that the Government is avoiding taking decisions on critical issues. “A complete absence of decision-making among the leaders of the Government”, is how Premji put it.

Deepak Parekh, a pioneer in the financial sector, had given us a rather graphic account of how the leaders avoided their responsibility. Whenever a serious issue came up, they would appoint a Group of Ministers to talk about it. If the issue was very serious, they would pass it on to an Empowered Group of Ministers. The bottom line was that no individual minister would be held accountable for a decision.

Why? What are they afraid of? The best guess would be that ministers are following the Prime Minister's penchant not to take decisions on his own. And the Prime Minister, we know, takes no decisions because the Remote Control is not with him. When a situation of conflict comes up, we see the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister and the Home Minister rushing to explain things to their party President who never lets the people know what her counsel is in such situations. Citizens are left with an impression of secretiveness in the affairs of the state.

Explanations, if any, come from inconsequential spokespersons. They do it with all the fatuousness and absurdity at their command. Premji's comment, Minister Ambika Soni said, did not reflect reality. But of course it did. Absence of decision-making was the main feature of not only the investment and reform sectors the business leaders were referring to, but also the scam sector the lay public was worried about.

Manageable problems turned by indecision into unmanageable ones are numerous – the Commonwealth Games muddle, the 2-G spectrum corruption, the Adarsh Housing scam, Telengana, a series of security-related issues, even urgent defence procurement schemes. Premji was stating the obvious when he said the country's economic growth would suffer if prompt corrective action was not taken.

Issues on which the Government does take a decision end up in disaster. The decision to set up a thugs' army called Salwa Judum to fight Maoists in Chattisgarh actually swelled the ranks of Maoists as government atrocities turned more villagers into rebels. The decision to arrest Anna Hazare boosted his profile and reinforced middle class resolve to fight corruption. The Supreme Court found the Salwa Judum illegal. People found the Hazare arrest stupid.

The Government still does not understand that the people are capable of seeing through pretensions. In a permanent state of denial, it goes on saying there is nothing wrong in what it does, or does not do. And because it does not see anything wrong, it will not set anything right. It has created a trap and fallen into it.

If there's anything worse than not taking decisions on time, it is taking decisions under pressure from public opinion and the courts. Money going illegally abroad is an old story. Published reports mentioned names like Hassan Ali. The Government took no action leading to the conclusion that VIP interests were involved. It is taking no action now about illegal account holders. France has furnished a long list of their names. America has demonstrated how banks can be forced to yield information. Yet, India does nothing and the names of black money hoarders remain secret.

Of course a decision not to take a decision is also a decision. But a Government that protects those it has a responsibility to punish will itself be punished. Sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Our Own Grand Prix: Rath versus Formula 1. Advani's Yatra Isn't About Corruption

Singlehandedly L. K Advani had turned the rath yatra into a cliché of Indian politics. A bankruptcy of ideas still pursues him and he is using a rath yet again to compete in what has become a Formula I Grand Prix. We could have enjoyed it as a comedy if it were not such a tragedy.

It is comic that the Congress scams are boosting the BJP while the BJP, with scams to match, is reviving the Congress. The various Dals and Samajs and Desams and Kazhagams add their own comic reliefs. But tragedy envelopes them all. On one side, the Digvijay Singhs and the Kapil Sibals think that denying sin is equal to eliminating sin. On the other side, Advani's yatra against corruption dramatises the corruption engulfing the BJP.

To a tiny extent at least, Advani could have avoided embarrassment by keeping clear of Karnataka. After all, last time the BJP organised an all-India campaign against corruption, it was wise enough to pretend that Karnataka was not part of all-India. But this time the Advani-blessed group in the faction-ridden Karnataka BJP persuaded him otherwise. Actually the public disgrace of the BJP in Karnataka has gone beyond factions. Advani's visit will only draw attention to the party's luminaries being in prison.

The chatter in Bangalore these days is that there is a regular bus service from the Vidhana Soudha to the Parappana Agrahara central prison. Despite occasional detours to a hospital or two, the bus maintains its schedule which must be reassuring to the nearly half dozen members of the cabinet who are currently embroiled in FIRs and things.

Unlike the Parappana bus, Advani's bus has been running into problems all along the way. Senior party colleagues fell ill because the airconditioning conked out. Moral: Other leaders are not up to it like the Big Leader. The roof of the bus got trapped while trying to clear a low bridge. Moral: Bend low if you want to proceed.

The messiest pickle the yatra got into was at Satna, Madhya Pradesh, a state under BJP rule. Since the whole purpose of a yatra is publicity, the main yatri holds a daily press conference. At Satna, attending journalists received envelopes containing currency notes. One journalist objected and went public. A humiliated Advani cancelled his press conference. But it showed how corruption, like God, was everywhere and in everything – in anti-corruption campaigns that bribe journalists and in journalists who take bribes to do their work.

Undeterred, a BJP spokesman announced that Advani's rath yatra was creating a hype against corruption. In the first place, it was Anna Hazare who created a hype against corruption while the BJP tried to hitch a piggyback ride. Secondly, if anyone from the BJP has created a hype against corruption, it is B. S. Yeddyurappa. Even trail-blazers of yester years like Sukh Ram and Buta Singh pale before Yeddyurappa's daring.

Corruption cannot be tackled with gimmicks and cliches. It is doubtful whether Advani's purpose is to tackle it at all. The yatra is more like an internal party manoeuvre. He started not from his constituency in Gujarat but from far away Bihar. The ruler of Gujarat is known to be eyeing the chair that is dearest to Advani's heart. The party's president has even gone through a stomach surgery in his bid to get close to that chair. Ambition is a noble thing, but the wise have told us that ambition also drives many men to become false, to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue.

The fact is that BJP has contributed as much to the culture of corruption as the Congress and variations on the theme like the NCP, the Bahujan Samaj and the Samajwadi. This lot of politicians will not destroy what sustains them. More jail and more rejection by the people may bring about a new lot of politicians. For now the judiciary is our hope. And eternal vigilance by the people.