WHEN SILENCE IS NOT AN OPTION

(The full version of the open letter of 10 June 2017 can be accessed at the wire.in)

Sixty-five retired officers from different services came together in early June 2017 to pen an open letter to the public expressing their disquiet at the growing aggression in all forms of public discourse, the open expression of intolerance of the ‘other’ as well as the easy categorisation of all dissent as ‘anti-national’. These officers between them represent over two thousand person-years of public service in various capacities in state and central governments as well as overseas. What really motivated them to move from their quiet, retired environs into the public gaze, knowing fully well that there is a substantial constituency that would run down their motivations, vilify their reputations and seek explanations for their questioning society (and, by implication, the governments of the day) for acquiescing in, if not actively promoting, an environment that fosters animosity and hatred for one’s fellow human beings and a dogged desire to enforce conformity of behaviour in social and cultural norms, right down to personal choices in respect of food, relationships and dress?

For there is no doubt that the trolls and Doubting Thomases have crept out of the woodwork to attack the recent effort with renewed vigour. The assaults focus on the usual reasons:

  • Why did these officers not raise their voice in the past to instances of vigilante violence and misuse of authority by the state apparatus?
  • Many of them must be officers beholden to the past regime for favours granted to them or must be disgruntled at not being considered for plum post-retirement sinecures by the present dispensation.
  • Did these officers take questionable decisions in their different assignments while in service?
  • Having ruined the country over seventy years with their maladministration of public affairs, these retired officers now seek to demoralise the present government and place obstacles in the way of its effective functioning.

Answering these four issues may cast light on why persons who hung up their boots years ago have deemed it necessary to listen to their inner voices.

Those who point to the apparent failure of these retired officers to agitate issues in the past forget that these officers (and many of their colleagues) observed the dharma of organisational discipline while in service. Opposing wrong decisions does not require rushing to the press at the first opportunity, though this unfortunate trait has been observed increasingly in recent years. There are several ways of standing up to blatantly wrong political decisions: persuading the politician to change her decision, pointing out one’s inability to implement the decision and, therefore, accepting a transfer. It is not correct to say that retired officers have not expressed their reservations over government actions (and inaction) in the past, be it the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms, the 1993 Bombay riots or the 2002 Gujarat episode. If retired officers did not come together often to voice a collective protest in the past, it was because events did not follow a predictable pattern at that time. The current hype built up over the dietary habits of a substantial section of the population and the efforts to restrict these, the aggressive responses to perceived threats to the nation and the repeated questioning of the loyalty of significant segments of the population by responsible public figures are a recent phenomenon. Many of the signatories have served in vulnerable areas at times when the nation faced both internal and external challenges. But never in the past was the atmosphere cranked up to such a fever pitch as is the case at present and certainly not at the cost of disrupting what is still a relatively delicate social fabric.

I am not ruling out that, like elsewhere in society, some of my fellow officers cultivate an unhealthily close relationship with political patrons. Speaking for my fellow signatories, I am sure that they are not in the game of repaying favours. Most of us worked under different political dispensations: I, for one, have worked with politicians of all the four major political parties in Maharashtra. While maintaining friendly ties with all, we have kept our distance from developing too cosy a relationship with any one political outfit: call it the survival instinct, if you will. We were aware of, and dismayed by, the aimless drift of the previous regime and the difficulties in working with some of the worthies of that coalition government. It amuses many of us that we are perceived as hankering after the fishes and loaves of office post our retirement. A look at the list of signatories reveals that a significant number of them resigned or prematurely retired from government service to pursue their passions or private avenues of employment. Even those who did occupy positions in the immediate post-retirement period were fully aware of the fact that 65 (that magic number again!) was the upper age limit for gainful employment, unless you were fortunate enough to be destined for governorships, ambassadorships or a political career. In any case, a disgruntled person still harbouring ambitions would be shooting herself in the foot by signing such a letter.

The easiest way to target a person is to cast aspersions on his/her character and integrity, especially in relation to decisions taken while in service. It is always easy to be an ex post facto guru, pointing out the apparent errors committed in the past. What is forgotten are the circumstances at the time the decision was taken, the processes followed in arriving at the decision and the quality and quantum of information available to the decision-maker at the relevant time. The civil servant lays no claim to infallibility: s(he) can only vouch for her/his bona fide actions while arriving at a decision. In any case, the issues presently at stake are of a nature where passing of judgments on the past actions of a signatory are of no relevance.

The final charge against us merits the closest attention and rebuttal. Politicians of all hues find it most convenient to blame civil servants for faulty policies, forgetting their role in contributing to the state of affairs. Unfortunately, the aam janata, stuck as it is between the Scylla of one political party’s rule (in one five-year tenure) and its opposing party’s rule (in the next five years) has no further options and lays the blame at the doors of the civil service. Where has the political class provided the inspiring leadership to motivate and guide the civil service to deliver great results? My seniors of the Nehruvian era and those of us fortunate enough to participate as (minor) actors in the immediate post-1991 period recall the enthusiasm in the civil services in putting together and implementing plans and programmes for economic development and change. There are many dynamic officers who innovate and bring change in their districts and departments. Alas, there is little publicity for these efforts, especially in the rarefied precincts of Lutyens’ Delhi and Dalal Street. The last thing any retired officer would do is to run down the government of the day. S(he) knows the constraints governments work under, especially at the state level, and always hopes and prays for rapid development and improvement in living standards of her/his countrywomen/men.

What has dismayed us is the approach (or rather, the lack of it) to building a social consensus on issues critical to the survival of the common woman/man. India has, unfortunately, never had participatory governance: the trend towards centralisation has been amplified in recent times, whether it be currency demonetisation, regulation of cattle slaughter or ensuring the dignity of women. Matters are not helped when public functionaries routinely ventilate historical grievances and seek to lecture the public on social norms and traditions. An aspirational society with a positive demographic dividend is routinely fed with tales of past glory (with a specific religious bent), rather than developing a scientific, analytical approach to life that can meet the unpredictable challenges of the twenty-first century. Above all, those controlling the levers of power seem to have conveniently forgotten the intricate mosaic of social and economic relationships that are the hallmark of a pluralist society. Imposing uniformity and conformity will stultify society and severely damage entrepreneurial abilities. At a time when fundamentalism and religious obscurantism are gaining a toehold (and more) all over the world, it behoves India, as one of the world’s most ancient, tolerant civilisations, to act as the beacon for guiding the world through increasingly stormy waters. Our open letter is an appeal to our fellow countrywomen/men to realise their oneness with all humanity and promote compassion, love and peace rather than intolerance, hatred and violence.

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The Ten Commandments – A Survival Kit for the IAS Officer

O Thou who seest all things below

Grant that Thy servants may go slow,

That they may study to comply

With regulations till they die.

Teach us, O Lord, to reverence

Committees more than common sense;

To train our minds to make no plan

And pass the baby when we can.

So when the tempter seeks to give

Us feelings of initiative,

Or when alone we go too far,

Chastise us with a circular.

Mid war and tumult, fire and storms,

Give strength O Lord, to deal out forms.

Thus may Thy servants ever be

A flock of perfect sheep for Thee.

(Hymn and Prayer for Civil Servants, published anonymously in the Daily Telegraph)

Like speeches, there are three careers an IAS officer will have: the one she visualises (often with a rosy tint) when she ascends the mountains to Mussoorie, the actual path over the next thirty-five years and the retrospective glance (post-retirement) at the career (and life while in service) she wishes she could have had. Being at the third stage of this cycle, I feel justified in offering a survival kit to the aspiring officer – “survival” because, in the light of recent events like the Harish Gupta, et al, conviction episode, just going through a controversy-free career and enjoying retired life themselves seem like unattainable goals. My homilies are addressed to only that category of officers who seek to do their job honestly and conscientiously, not to those who seek extra monetary returns from public service (kimbalam, as the Tamils call it) or those who are permanently gaming the system to occupy “plum” postings. So here goes:

  • Downplay your achievement:

You did get through what, when I qualified for the IAS, was called the “national lottery”. Notwithstanding all the coaching classes advertising the number of hours of study put in by their diligent students, let us be honest enough to admit that several factors, including Lady Luck, play a role in the process. So, with humility, accept the fact that you are now the member of a premier service, which brings with it a few privileges and don’t advertise your superiority (even if it brings you down a few notches in the marriage market). Above all, do not add the three magic initials to your nameplate and your letterhead and, please, do not rub in the fact of your success at the sweepstakes to others, especially from sister services.

  • Develop your human qualities:

It is very easy to become arrogant when surrounded by the trappings of power. Remember always the fleeting nature of things and stay focused on the essentials. Be a friend and guide to your colleagues, especially in field postings, and a source of support to every member of the public who you meet day in and day out. You can never satisfy everyone but you can certainly cultivate the habit of lending a willing ear to the grievances of the common man/woman and trying to help to the maximum extent possible. Your satisfaction should come not from the achievement of (often meaningless) targets set by your superiors but from the number of people who come to meet you when you return to your former haunts in later years.

  • In any job, insist on thorough process:

Caveat emptor” should be your motto, especially where you are the emptor (i.e., the buyer). Never buy in to arguments from bosses and subordinates that business was always done this way. We live in times where trust in the civil service has evaporated: what would have been accepted in 1975 as a good faith decision with no ulterior motives will no longer wash. Any decision on allocation of scarce resources (schools, orphanages, coal blocks, etc., etc.) should, like Caesar’s wife, be above suspicion. The allocation process should be accessible to all members of the public, have clear cut-off dates and have clear guidelines for selection. Where selection through a bidding process is not feasible, e.g., multiple applicants for an ashramshala or an old age home, selection from the bidders meeting pre-specified criteria could even be based on draw of lots at a public location. Of course, it would be best to aim at reducing discretion to the maximum extent by eliminating the need for licensing as far as possible and ensuring that ministerial approval is not required. If your Minister, or the Chief Minister or Prime Minister (for that matter) promise you full support for following time-worn processes, politely ask for a transfer to another post. Prime Ministers have ad nauseam promised, in every Civil Service Day speech in recent years, to protect honest decision making. We have seen the consequences today, when honest bureaucrats have gone to jail.

  • Keep track of the paper trail:

Even Albert Einstein would not remember the details of every decision he took in past years, and you are certainly no Einstein. Be rigorous in your paper work. The coal block allocation imbroglio arose, in part, because there were apparently no papers bringing out the rationale of allocation decisions in certain cases. I offer my grateful thanks to the hard-nosed Secretary of my Ministry who drilled into me the need to keep my paperwork up to date. After every negotiation, my first task was to prepare a gist of the viewpoints of all participating parties and the decisions taken or actions required and circulate these to all concerned. Keeping all the cards on the table helped in later years at the time of audit (though it did not spare me from bothersome investigations). But, a quarter of a century later, I am leading a quiet, retired life without any blemish on my career. As a matter of abundant caution, keep copies of important notings and papers in your personal custody. You never know when someone interposes in a file (on a subsequent date) some comment contrary to your view or when the next fire or flood hits the record room.

  • Travel light:

A popular baggage manufacturer used to advertise its products as “travel light”. Bureaucrats would do well to adopt this dictum. You will need to attune your spouse to your philosophy since, if you insist on process, you are unlikely to survive in “lucrative” posts. If the move is only from the fourth to the first floor of the State Secretariat, or within the same city, this is not a matter of great concern. But there will be this vindictive politician or bureaucrat who delights in moving you from, say, Nashik to Nagpur or from Lucknow to Gonda. Ensure you can move at short notice and set up your establishment in a jiffy at the new place. It helps particularly if you and your spouse/family possess a sense of adventure and can improvise even where creature comforts are lacking.

  • Get a life beyond work:

If I kick myself for any stupidity, it is for not following this maxim. Staying in office beyond 6 PM is more damaging to one’s personal life than any other vice. If your political or bureaucratic boss is determined to sit in office till 10 PM, you do not need to keep them company, especially in this electronically advanced age. Just sweetly tell them you are going home and they can call you on mobile or email you any document with a critical time-frame. I have had murderous thoughts about Ministers whose rank inefficiency in clearing files forced me to stay in office till midnight, photocopying notes for the next day’s cabinet meeting. Resist weekend office attendance like the plague: if you are forced to go, make it clear to your boss that you are doing her a big favour and expect compensatory time off in the future.

  • Make personal excellence, not the rat race, your goal:

In the middle phase of my career, I watched with envy (and not a little heart-burning) as colleagues and friends moved to the green pastures of international institutions and foreign universities. One of my seniors added fuel to the fire by mentioning that proximity to the top was the key to such lateral movements. It took me more years down the line to realise that I gained immense experience and knowledge from working in different challenging assignments at home. Set yourself goals in any job, no matter how lowly or insignificant it is considered in the bureaucratic pecking order. If you are Director of Archives, develop one of the finest repositories of historical information in the country. If you land the post of Officer on Special Duty (Revenue Appeals), set a time frame within which appeals will be disposed of and justice given to litigants. Very often, while participating in the rat race, we forget that the cheese is right there in the room where we are working.

  • Watch the company you keep:

As you move up the ladder, you will be gratified by the “Rockstar” reputation you seem to have. Leading businessmen, builders and even film stars flock to your office and invite you to lavish parties. Remember, none of these come without strings attached. Your subordinates draw conclusions from your apparent proximity to the high and mighty as does the public. “Owners’ pride” being “neighbours’ envy”, it won’t be long before the first complaint about a decision taken by you (which may be perfectly bona fide) favouring a particular person/group makes its way to the tables of the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary. In a district, do not be seen at card tables in the evening or develop a fondness for the bottle that cheers. News travels fast and you find that the value of your currency with the public has diminished rather rapidly.

  • Develop competencies/interests for the future:

I am lucky I got bitten by the technology bug early in my professional life. A laptop computer was my partner over the last two decades of my career. Equipping myself with the basic skills necessary for individual entrepreneurship, I could move seamlessly from the protected confines of service to survival on my own. Your education does not need to end on the day you join service. It is noteworthy that many officers acquire additional qualifications while in service. A law degree or a diploma in finance enables you to branch out into areas you never dreamt of while in service. Apart from mundane professional attainments, you can aspire to develop your interests in music, horticulture, vintage car repair and redesign, spirituality, astrology or any one of a million pursuits that add richness to your post-IAS life.

  • C’est la vie:

Finally, develop a devil-may-care attitude to your life in the bureaucracy. You will have your share of troublesome bosses and recalcitrant subordinates. Learn to take all issues stoically: nothing is life-threatening (generally) and, in hindsight, quite often somewhat ridiculous. You are passed over for a coveted posting or even (horrors of horrors) are superseded for promotion. The day after, the sun still rises in the east, birds are chirping in the trees and you are still in good health. Consider that, after taking all possible precautions and keeping your nose clean, you are still arraigned for a felony you did not commit, consequent on the efforts of over-enthusiastic (though inaccurate) auditors and investigation agencies, responding to the public demand for blood. Face it calmly, put your case forward to the best of your ability and prepare to avail of state hospitality in case the chips do not fall on your side. Fortify yourself with the thought “This too shall pass”. If you have faithfully adhered to these ten commandments, you will still enjoy life even in Tihar or Yeravada Jail.

 

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Indian bureaucracy – a Kafkaesque drama

Nothing disturbed me as much in recent months as the news reports of the former Coal Secretary of the Government of India (and my former senior colleague in the Petroleum Ministry) facing prosecution in the “coal scam” case; he has now been convicted. As a Deputy Secretary in the Petroleum Ministry in the early 1990s, it may be appropriate for me to detail the travails an honest officer goes through when (s)he is required to make recommendations on major commercial decisions relating to mining rights for extracting natural resources to promote economic growth in the country. I draw on my experience in the petroleum exploration sector to highlight the pressures an officer goes through during such an exercise, given the system s(he) must work with.

The officer starts with the legacy of a socialist past, where natural resources extraction was solely the prerogative of the public sector. While (s)he may genuinely believe that opening the natural resource extraction sector to competition from the private sector will promote more efficient operations which yield dividends to the country, (s)he has to contend with hostility to such moves from influential sections within the government and legislature (both political and bureaucratic), not only because of fears of losing the powers of patronage, but also because of a mindset moored in outdated socialist economics, with little understanding of the economics of efficient economic processes. Add to this the heartburn in the public-sector enterprises of being stripped of their monopoly in the natural resource sector and you have a situation where the reformist bureaucrat/politician virtually comes up against a brick wall. We were genuinely lucky in the early 1990s of having had leaders in the political and bureaucratic set up who backed these reforms wholeheartedly. In more recent times, there has been a backlash against private involvement in the natural resource extraction sector, partly because of indifferent regulation of private producers, but also because the Indian intelligentsia has joined the rising global chorus against capitalism, regardless of its contribution to greatly improved living standards over most of the globe (including India) over the past quarter century.

The problem arises where the natural resource sector has not developed a bidding/auction system to choose among alternative bidders. The petroleum sector was lucky in this respect; petroleum secretaries in the 1980s presided over the development of competitive bidding systems, drawing on best practices in the international petroleum industry. The Coal Ministry was not so fortunate: with a behemoth like Coal India and with powerful political interests controlling patronage strings in this sector, there was little chance of allowing private sector participation in this sector.  Once Coal India fell short in meeting coal requirements of private industry, there was the inevitable clamour for permitting captive coal mining by diverse industries to meet their raw material requirements. The issue of allocation of coal mining blocks to private players is made more complicated by the fact that mining leases are to be granted by state governments. The petroleum sector has been more fortunate: the central government is the licensing authority for offshore petroleum blocks; where onshore blocks are concerned, state governments have not been involved in the process of selection of private operators but are only approached for grant of mining leases after selection of the private party by the central government through a competitive bidding process.

The Coal Ministry officials did make efforts, from 2004 onwards, to introduce an auction system for allotting coal blocks. The Law Ministry, after two years of to-and-fro consultations, covered its backside in 2006 by opining that the government could go in for auction/competitive bidding either by amending the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act, 1957 or by effecting changes in the existing administrative instructions. Anyone who has worked in government will tell you that if the options are to go in for a tedious legislative process versus quick administrative action, the former will always win the battle, given that no one in government would want to be seen as hastening the entry of the private sector into a hitherto reserved sector. Given the snail speed at which decisions are taken by government, it is not surprising that it took eight years to get government approval for the auction process.   Since there was need to augment coal supply, applications for coal blocks from end users were considered, with recommendations from state governments, by a Screening Committee headed by the Coal Secretary of the Government of India. Once such a system is adopted, the element of subjectivity inevitably creeps into the decision-making process. The Screening Committee also had to rely on information provided by Coal India, other administrative ministries and the state governments in arriving at decisions on who should get the coal blocks. It is here that the Coal Ministry bureaucracy fell afoul of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), two deadly Cs that are feared by the bureaucracy, often for their limited understanding of the nuances of economic decision making. Not only does the CAG lack expert domain knowledge of the sector it is auditing, there is also little comprehension of the peculiar requirements that necessitate specific business decisions. I can point to specific CAG conclusions in the audit of oilfield operations that have drawn derisive comments from oil industry insiders. The CBI, of course, has developed the process of endless investigations into a fine art, leading the highest court of the land to wonder if it was a “caged parrot”.

More problematic are the issues a bureaucrat faces even after a bidding process has been followed. Most officers in government, especially those in the Finance and Law Ministries, are blissfully ignorant of the complexities of the financial and legal issues relating to natural resource extraction. Getting a proposal to grant mining rights to a private investor approved right up to the level of the Union Cabinet is an exercise that would tax the abilities of a Hercules. Innumerable trips to North Block and the upper floors of Shastri Bhavan later, the anxious bureaucrat (trapped between the Scylla of an inflexible bureaucracy and the Charybdis of the ire of his (her) political and bureaucratic bosses) wipes his (her) brow in relief when the all-important clearance of the Cabinet is received. More tension is in store as the contract must be negotiated and then vetted by the Law Ministry and the Internal Financial Adviser in the Ministry before it can be signed. In my time, this exercise could take anywhere from six months to a year.

The next stage of the steeplechase is the opprobrium heaped on the Ministry’s bureaucrats by those in the public sector, government and the political class who are opposed to private participation for ideological reasons or simply because their powers of patronage have been curtailed. Parliamentarians, especially from the left of the political spectrum, vent their anger by terming any such deal a “sell-out”, blissfully ignorant or dismissive of the economic arguments favouring the decision. It is at this juncture, a couple of years after the mining lease has been granted, that the CAG generally enters the picture. From my personal experience, the CAG officials examine the issue of private participation in mineral resource extraction from a very narrow, “tunnel” perspective. There are more than enough parties ready to cast doubts on the entire decision-making process. In recent years, the excessive media attention and the need to sensationalise every issue has led to public trials in nearly every natural resource sector. Most unfortunately, the CAG has a narrow auditor’s view of the subject and does not appreciate the compulsions under which the bureaucracy functions, rather surprising when one considers that this important constitutional functionary has himself gone through the same system till a couple of years earlier. To take the “coal scam” itself as an example, the CAG has found fault with the Ministry for going in for a screening rather than a bidding process. The then Coal Secretary and his subordinates have been hauled over the “coals” for acquiescing in the procedure followed of screening applications, notwithstanding what has been pointed out earlier in this piece of the efforts of the Coal Ministry bureaucracy to initiate the bidding process. I found it amazing that a former Cabinet Secretary, in a newspaper article, took the view that the Coal Secretary should not have agreed to the screening process. Given that there was no likelihood of an early resolution of the decision regarding the bidding process and given the need to step up availability of coal, the Coal Ministry bureaucracy probably took the only course of action possible under the circumstances, taking, in all cases, the approval of the then Minister for Coal, who, incidentally, was also the Prime Minister. Holding the Chairman of the Screening Committee responsible for the accuracy (or otherwise) of the information presented to him by other Ministries and state governments violates the principle of collective responsibility. In any case, as any bureaucrat can swear, it is well-nigh impossible to verify the correctness of every fact presented.

The final nail in the bureaucrat’s coffin is the entry of the courts and the CBI into the drama, which gives a truly Kafkaesque twist to the entire episode. Once the unfortunate man (or woman) has entered this chakravyuha, from which there is no escape, life is a series of courtroom appearances, punctuated by terms in prison. The tortuous legal processes ensure that the case(s) drag on for an inordinately long time, well into the bureaucrat’s retirement phase of life and sometimes after (s)he has passed on from this world. The present government’s decision to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (PCA) to exclude the all-encompassing sweep of the pernicious Section 13 (1)(d)(iii) of the Act has been criticised by high-minded corruption crusaders. This sub-section defines “criminal misconduct” inter alia as “while holding office as a public servant” obtaining “for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest”. This catch-all provision can be used to nail almost any action of a bureaucrat since every decision (even the sanction of a private school) will lead to pecuniary advantage for some person. It is regrettable that the fundamental judicial principle of mens rea, which is the most important determinant of guilt under criminal law, is given short shrift in the PCA. To their misfortune, the former bureaucrats of the Coal Ministry have fallen afoul of this travesty of a legal provision.

Harish Gupta and his former colleagues have been found guilty of not only criminal misconduct (under the PCA) but also of criminal conspiracy and cheating under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. No prior sanction of the Government of India under Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code was obtained as required under law. This, and other issues will, no doubt, be raised in appeal, but it is scarring for a bureaucrat, known for his rectitude, to have his reputation besmirched by imputations of such conduct, especially when he was implementing the executive policy in force at the time he was in office. For all the public impression that bureaucrats lead the life of maharajas, let me (as an ex-member of that tribe) emphatically state that most babus (as we are pejoratively known) are just about able to afford one post-retirement home and live off the pension. The honest bureaucrat has only the fig leaf of his (her) integrity to cover him (her)self, the rest of it, including his (her) hard work, impartiality and simplicity of living, having been torn to shreds in recent years, when there has been a virtual “French Revolution” effort by innumerable Madame Defarges to vilify the character of the bureaucracy and watch, with unctuous relish, as bureaucrats are dragged on tumbrils to the guillotine in the presence of a blood-thirsty public. It is in this context that the Prime Minister’s assurance to bureaucrats of support for their bona fide decisions, in his Civil Service Day address on April 21, 2017, lacks conviction. The former Prime Minister was the Coal Minister when Harish Gupta allegedly committed the “crimes”, but he has not uttered a word in support of his erstwhile beleaguered colleague. Not only that, he, and his political deputies, have got off without even a slur on their conduct. Who knows which bureaucrat of today will be making the rounds inside Tihar Jail a decade hence! It will not be surprising if the bureaucracy adopts the motto “each man to himself and the devil take the hindmost”. Little wonder then that, today, the offspring of politicians, film actors and businessmen follow their parents’ professions, while the well-educated, talented daughters and sons of bureaucrats become lawyers, IT professionals and academics. If the bureaucracy loses valuable human capital, we have only our systems to blame for it.

 

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Maximum Government, Minimum Governance

No, I have not got the title wrong, as some people might think. It is just that a government elected on the platform of delivering efficient service with minimum intrusion into the lives of individuals is doing exactly the opposite today. And it is not just the executive wing of the state which is displaying this enthusiasm to “govern”. As if to match the executive step for step in this exercise, the Supreme Court has ruled that all liquor vends within half a kilometre of highways will have to shut down. So, after being told what she can eat and wear, who she can be seen in public with and what she can read and view, the aam aurat is now being lectured (and hectored) on where she can buy what she wants to drink.

Not that spirits that raise the spirits are popular with our stern, killjoy leaders (let me add a disclaimer that I don’t touch the stuff myself, so there is no personal grievance involved). Chief Ministers who had a beef about beef are now concocting remedies to counter heady brews. Gujarat state and Wardha district in Maharashtra state were the only two regions to traditionally face total prohibition, probably because Mahatma Gandhi had a link with both areas. I have often wondered how IAS officers in the states survived the schizophrenic experience of simultaneously administering both liquor prohibition and augmenting liquor revenues. Probably a case of the left hand not bothering to know what the right hand was doing. Bihar went in for total prohibition in the wake of a heady election victory for the incumbent government in 2015. There are few studies on the effectiveness of this move but I am willing to eat my proverbial hat if anyone claims that liquor is no longer available in Bihar. No state in India, leave alone Bihar, can boast of an efficient, corruption-free administrative machinery that can implement such measures. Driving liquor supply (and corruption) underground will benefit neither public revenues nor public ethics.

It is, however, more the issue of government priorities rather than a specific, ill-conceived policy that ought to worry us. We see the central government tripping over itself in its haste to streamline tax administration and plug leakages. While the indirect tax reform (through GST) was long overdue and welcome, the same cannot be said for the slew of measures to reform the direct tax regime. Starting with the midnight knock (and shock) of demonetisation and the twists and turns in policy over the past five months, the citizen has faced innumerable hurdles in accessing her own, hard-earned money. ATMs have run dry (and continue to do so at various places), bank staff are loath to honour even bearer cheques (as I have personally experienced) and customers are being discouraged from visiting bank branches. Honest tax-payers are now being arm-twisted to go in for Aadhaar registration or forego their right to file income tax returns (though not from paying income tax). So, we will have a situation in Financial Year 2017-18, where people wanting to pay income tax will be unable to do so in the absence of PAN identities but will still be liable for harassment by the IT petty bureaucracy: a compelling instance of maximum government but very poor governance.

We are also witness to a rash of cases where the state is unable, or, worse, unwilling, to enforce its writ in observance of the rule of law. Cattle merchants, if they are from the minority community, risk their lives in transporting cattle even for bona fide commercial purposes. That these instances occur in states ruled by the same party which is in power at the centre rules is cause for even greater concern. Governance starts with the guarantee of the citizen’s right to life and liberty as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In fact, we may term “government” to represent hard power, in the sense of enacting rules and regulations and enforcing compliance with these. “Governance”, on the other hand, represents the soft power of the state, in the sense that citizens voluntarily comply with laws based on a broad consensus on values and an ungrudging acceptance of certain behavioural norms. Governments function successfully when governance systems are seen to be impartial, nonpartisan, reasonably incorruptible and based on the rule of law. India is, and has been, through its independent history, afflicted by far too much government and inadequate governance.

The seeds of big government were sown in the early years of independence when the state sought to arrogate to itself a role in virtually every area of public functioning. Nehru’s grand vision of the “command economy” drew trenchant criticism from prescient observers like C. Rajagopalachari. Whether in the production of consumer goods or in the provision of important social goods like education and healthcare, the tentacles of government reached everywhere: the problem was the shoddy delivery of goods and services. 1991 saw some changes, with, over the following years, competition in sectors like banking, telecom and automobiles improving both the quantity and quality of goods and services. The problem lay in the approach to liberalisation: the licence raj was dismantled to a considerable extent but the inspector raj remained strongly entrenched. The ultimate irony arose during the decade-long UPA regime, when a Prime Minister turned into a pale shadow of his earlier avatar as a progressive Finance Minister. Oppressive government continued through the entire period – the instances of retrospective tax demands, messing up the telecom revolution and discouraging private investment in the petroleum sector through a combination of ham-handed regulation and excessive doubt of private sector motives come to mind – so much so that private investment slowed down to a trickle and investors hesitated to put their money in India.

Hopes for an economic renaissance soared again when the new government assumed office in 2014, on the promise of good governance rather than big government. Unfortunately, apart from certain positive steps like the GST legislation, the present government has fallen into the same habits that characterised earlier governments. Ideology has had a role to play in this but there is also the Pavlovian suspicion of the average citizen. With the central government (and its regional formations) obsessed with the dietary and cultural habits of its citizens, policing of consumption of certain forms of meat and of the mingling of those of opposite sexes has come to the fore, with vigilante right-wing groups acting as self-appointed guardians of morality. Article 11 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly states “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law…” Recent incidents like the lynching of those transporting cattle (and the subsequent police action against the victims of violence) and the illegal intrusion of police in the private relationships of consenting adults violate this universally recognised right as well as the constitutional guarantees of rights to liberty, freedom of association and to practice any profession or carry on any trade, occupation or business. The recent moves of demonetisation and tightening of the direct tax regime, while ostensibly directed against tax evaders and corruption, hurt the small man to a far larger extent. What is forgotten by those in charge of policy formulation is the enormous scope for tyranny in the petty bureaucracy charged with enforcing laws. The income tax official has acquired substantial powers of raid and seizure in enforcing his writ on the hapless tax payer, the lower municipal and police official has considerable scope to harass butchers and slaughter houses in checking “illegal” slaughter of animals and the local thanedar can question any man and woman seen together, in public or elsewhere. What is forgotten is the centuries-old “Indian” tradition of oppression of the average citizen by the lower bureaucracy and the continued inability of the higher bureaucracy (and the political class) to enforce norms of probity on this gargantuan bureaucracy.

Ultimately, the citizen will experience freedom only when technology (and strict enforcement) compel the lower bureaucracy, especially at municipal, thana and village levels, to conform to standards that are taken for granted in more mature democracies. It is not the central government that administers these levels of the bureaucracy: however, by its own actions, it should create an enabling environment where governments at lower levels are shamed into action to ensure responsive, corruption-free bureaucratic functioning. As of today, there are still no serious efforts to restructure the bureaucracy at all levels, review outmoded laws and make it easier for the citizen to carry on her daily professional and personal life. The recent United Airlines fracas in manhandling a passenger cost the airline over half a billion dollars in lost market value as investors punished it for its executive excess. Governments lose far more in the election market place when the public withdraws its confidence in the incumbent government: 2004 and 2014 are chastening examples for the political elite in India from both sides of the spectrum. Enforcement of the rule of law without unnecessary intrusion by the arms of the government is, in the long run, a far better guarantee of a happy citizen and a happy society, as also of the continued survival of governments.

 

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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

 

 

 

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When the President of India speaks

(March 21, 2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of the lifting of the Emergency in India)

We normally get to hear the President of India speak on three formal occasions: on the eve of Republic Day and Independence Day and at the joint session of both Houses of Parliament marking the start of the Budget session. Of course, the President of India also makes speeches on various other platforms over his/her tenure. But what marks all these speeches is their standardised nature – they are either listing the priorities and achievements of the government of the day or are exhortations to select audiences on specific subjects. Which is why the publication of the first of his three volume memoirs by President Pranab Mukherjee was interesting: it was the first by a President while still in office. More intriguingly, it dealt with his first fifteen years in Lutyens Delhi during the Indira Gandhi era.

Of particular interest to my generation, which received its political education from the Emergency years, is his analysis and understanding of the Emergency – the events that led to it, the rationale for the Emergency and the happenings during that period and the political resurrection of Indira Gandhi in the post-Emergency years. Even today, forty years on, I remember my feelings on the morning of 21 March 1977 – “Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”- when a captive All-India Radio and Doordarshan had to admit that Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party had been decisively routed in the polls. At a juncture now in the country’s and world’s history when strong personalities bestride the political scene and when the tenets of liberal democracy are being seriously questioned by the inhabitants of such democracies, there is need to try and understand the social forces at work in a country like India and what these imply for a country which has defied its critics and sceptics by doggedly persisting with a democratic form of government, despite all its flaws and aberrations. A comparison of 1975/77 India and her offspring of 2017 bring out the bright and dark sides of present-day India and enable possible prognostications of what the future holds for us Indians.

  • The educated middle class expansion and its implications: Post-1991, the middle class population in India has grown significantly in numbers apart from being engaged in a variety of occupations. The 1975 Indian middle class was largely employed in government service and beholden to the rulers of the day. The present day middle class Indian could be an entrepreneur, one who works in the organised private sector or is self-employed, very often one with international footprints. She has had access to improved education opportunities, is far more aware of thought currents across the globe and has many more avenues to express herself openly. And yet, the educated middle class is today far more susceptible to the allurements of narrow nationalism, jingoistic pride and intolerance of the views of others, as evidenced by the vicious attacks on social media. The ideals which guided the framers of the Indian Constitution find little resonance with the millennial generation. The technocratic worldview has little patience for liberal, humanistic values. It is little wonder then that liberal democracy is facing an existential crisis today.
  • The explosion in mass media: Freedom of expression has been facilitated by the internet revolution and the humongous growth in electronic and social media. Those of us who had just All India Radio and Doordarshan for meeting our information needs during the Emergency find the current Babel Tower of the electronic media refreshing, even if somewhat irritating at times. Twitter trolls notwithstanding, there is opportunity for every Indian with digital access to put forth her views. And yet, the flip side can be disquieting. While print media in the past was privately owned, big business has now come to dominate both print and electronic media. Editors and news managers are under increasing pressure to conform to the business interests of their owners, unlike in the past. The dissemination of news is also coming to resemble a cricket Twenty-Twenty match, with inexperienced reporters (having little understanding of ground realities) excitedly putting forth garbled versions of the true picture. Even more dismaying is the tendency of news anchors (puffed up with self-importance) functioning as judge, jury and executioner, silencing all inconvenient voices and sending to the gallows those they consider lacking in patriotism and national pride.
  • The Big Brother syndrome – I am the State: We are now in the era of the strong man, whether in India, Russia, the USA, Turkey or the Philippines. Indira Gandhi in 1975 was strong in her own right but she did not have the wide, rapturous acceptance of her predominant position that a Narendra Modi enjoys today. The problem is that the person, party, state and nation are today all seen through the same prism. Criticism of any one of these is seen as opposition to the nation-state. An aura of invincibility is sought to be created around the superman, using the media and capitalising on an ineffectual political opposition. It is true that unlike 1975, when Tamil Nadu was probably the only prominent non-Congress state, today’s political scene is marked by a multiplicity of parties, especially regional formations, ruling in different states. Many of them are often hostile to the ruling party at the centre and lose no opportunity to oppose it on a variety of issues. However, with power and money rather than principles and convictions being the bases for political conduct, there is no certainty about the opposition either, as the recent events of manufacture of governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Manipur show.
  • Diversity – of language, customs and religion: Running a subcontinent of India’s size and heterogeneity is no easy business, more so for a centralised, authoritarian government, as Indira Gandhi found to her cost in 1977. The multiplicity of tongues, religious beliefs and customs, cultural and dietary patterns render the enforcement of a uniform, majoritarian worldview well-nigh impossible. But, in recent times, efforts are being made to impose straitjacketed versions of history, culture and ideas that are drawn from the Gangetic plains. Conformity with the majoritarian mindset is sought to be ensured through indoctrination, legislation and government action and, where these prove inadequate, through resort to vigilante action, whether to dictate what women can wear and do or what people can eat, see and talk.
  • Institutional capture: The first attempts by the government of the day to bend institutions of democracy to its whims and fancies started in 1975 with the supersession of judges of the Supreme Court and the enunciation of the concept of a committed bureaucracy, apart from very crude efforts to muzzle the media. History seems to be coming full circle once again, with steps being taken to exert the influence of the political executive on appointments to the higher judiciary and with no clear system being adopted for appointments to the elite bureaucracy at the level of the Government of India (the media has already been tamed to a great extent, as mentioned earlier). Institutions of higher learning and statutory bodies are being packed with appointees beholden to the reigning political order.

It is impossible (and highly risky) to hazard any definite conclusions about the likely direction of politics in India in the coming decades. Inferences can at best be drawn from the straws in the wind as revealed by the actions of the government and the averments of its spokespersons. In totting up the balance sheet for India’s political system, what gives cause for some comfort is the resilience of the Indian people and their refusal to tolerate incompetent, corrupt and authoritarian behaviour on the part of those elected to represent them. In the first volume of his memoirs, Pranab Mukherjee has glossed over the rationale behind the Emergency, apart from sticking to the usual Congress line of opposition indiscipline, unrest and the call for the resignation of the Prime Minister: having been a loyal Congressman for most of his life, it would be too much to expect him to frankly analyse the inner motivations of the primary actor in first imposing the Emergency and then calling for the elections that led to its end. What is important is whether, forty years hence, we as a people understand the significance of a functioning democracy and the rules and conventions by which it should operate. Sadly, we, the so called “thinking classes”, are ready to hand over our powers (and even our freedoms) in our quest for security and certainty, forgetting that democracy is eternally a story that is in the making. It is we, the citizens of India, who have to write that story, learning from past mistakes. Else, there will be need to revert to a perennially favourite quote of mine “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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Lipstick in a man’s world

Indian politicians have this amazing propensity to put their feet in their mouths. I remember the then Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister of Maharashtra lost his post because of his comment post the 26/11 Mumbai attack “Such minor incidents do take place from time to time.” The present Home Minister of Karnataka stirred up a hornet’s nest after the horrifying incident of “mass molestation” on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road on New Year’s Eve. He apparently said, according to newspaper reports, that the police force could not keep a watch on everyone and referred to the “western ways” of youngsters as a corrupting influence. More recently, he and his party men have tried to paint reports of the incident as a political conspiracy to tarnish Bengaluru’s image. However, he has been outdone by the Maharashtra Samajwadi Party chief, who has given a clear sexist angle to the episode by claiming that women should not draw attention to themselves through their attire. Not to be outdone in the misogyny stakes, the archaic Film Certification Board and its Chairman have gone one better: they have refused to certify for public screening a film titled “Lipstick Under My Burkha”, ostensibly on the grounds that the movie is ‘lady oriented’.

I strongly recommend that all these gentlemen (and the ladies on the Film Certification Board), and others of their ilk, read an incisive analysis by three women researchers on what it means to be a woman in Mumbai “Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets”. What this book brings out clearly is the attenuated access of women to public spaces even in that supposed haven of liberation, Aamchi Mumbai. Women are allowed to enter the public space on terms that  are decided by a patriarchal society. What is particularly significant is the classification of the woman when the public gaze falls on her. As long as she is in a bus, a local train or in a public park with a specific ‘respectable’ purpose, preferably with an accompanying male and with the necessary accoutrements of mangalsutra and vermilion mark (in case of Hindu women) as also ‘acceptable’ attire, in case of all women, she is deemed to be the property of another male and is not considered ‘easy game’. But let her venture forth in a public space on her own or in a group of female friends, dressed according to her own desire and seen at ‘inappropriate’ hours of the day in the vicinity of ‘undesirable’ locations and she becomes the object of unwanted male attention or moral policing, either by the custodians of law or by self-appointed moralists.

The nukkad or the street corner cutting chai shop will never be the haunt of women; you will always see apparently idle men engaging in desultory chatter, accompanied by puffs of cigarette/beedi smoke or vigorous mastication of tobacco. Obversely, look at the village ghat or the local water standpost/handpump and men will be conspicuous by their absence. The division of leisure and labour in a gender-unequal society is painfully clear. The gender discrimination is even more painfully obvious where issues like access to toilets and breastfeeding of infants are concerned. Public conveniences in cities, where they exist and are tolerably clean, are weighted in favour of male use. A vicious cycle operates here: since women are seen less in public places, urban planners skew such construction in favour of the male sex, thus discouraging women from venturing forth in public. Even such conveniences as are constructed for women do not take care of their specific biological needs. It was heartwarming to learn that specific rooms have been set aside in bus stations in Maharashtra to enable nursing mothers to breastfeed their children.

What is becoming painfully obvious is that, notwithstanding some progress in women’s access to social equality and opportunities, Indian women are still at a disadvantage compared to their sisters in many democracies of the world, including those of developing and emerging economies. Apart from the aspect of human rights (which is undoubtedly of paramount importance), India will also suffer economically if she does not harvest the benefits of what I would term the “gender dividend”. Significant movement in this direction will be possible when the following issues are focused on and tackled, at both the policy and societal levels:

Gender equality must begin at home

It was shocking to hear that 19 aborted female foetuses were recovered from a stream in Sangli district, one of the more economically advanced regions of Maharashtra state. This is of a pattern with the Indian scenario where prosperous states and the better off areas of India (especially urban concentrations) display dismayingly low female-male sex ratios. Prenatal sex determination tests are still in vogue, with the subsequent abortion of female foetuses or murder of female babies. With the lower status of women established even before birth, it follows that the girl child represents the unwanted component of the family. Not surprisingly, the girl child, who is often healthier than her male sibling at birth, comes out worse in health and nutrition status by the end of the first year of life. Nutrition, healthcare and education opportunities are lavished on the male heir, this notwithstanding enough evidence that girls outperform boys in scholastic abilities and in perseverance. Children also imbibe the ingrained discriminatory attitudes towards women in the home, which are reinforced by the latitude given to boys as compared to girls. Gender roles are also sought to be cemented in children’s impressionable minds to fix their future life trajectories. Unless a ‘Dangal’ is created in age-old attitudes and prejudices right at the family level, gender equality will remain a myth.

Equal opportunities and freedoms for children of both sexes at adolescence and beyond

Attitudes to girls harden as they enter the critical years of puberty and adolescence. The girl is now seen as a liability whose ownership must be transferred at the earliest to another patriarchal set up. Leave alone actualisation of the girl’s innate potential, even education at the secondary school or higher levels is considered an unnecessary luxury, given the fixed ideas about her destiny as wife and mother, mingled with fears about her discovery of her sexuality. To add fuel to the controversy over certain institutions of higher learning circumscribing freedom of access of girls to libraries (after certain hours of the day) and wifi facilities as also interaction with the other sex, we have no less a person than the Minister for Women and Child Development of the Government of India counselling girls that restrictions are essential to control their “hormonal outbursts”. Apparently, only girls, not boys, need to be protected from their hormones.

Equal workplace opportunities and home/childcare responsibilities for both sexes

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in her thought-provoking book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”, talks of how, when a woman executive is planning a family, the discussion moves immediately to what she is contemplating about her career, a question that is never asked of a male in a similar position. Granted, the woman has to carry the child for nine months, deliver the child and undertake nursing in the succeeding period. Companies and governments have taken many steps to ease the pressure on women through longer periods of maternity leave and arrangements for working from home, apart from paternity leave, so that the father can share the child-rearing responsibilities. In Sandberg’s case, her husband left his job at Yahoo and set up his own company so that he could devote time to the children at home, enabling Sheryl to devote time to her career. While the modern Indian urban family is slowly moving towards joint gender management of domestic responsibilities, social and familial pressures still constrain women’s choices. Even when the woman and her partner work out arrangements which enable her to fulfil her aspirations, she still has nagging feelings of guilt, a reminder of a society which still operates in stereotypes.

Make cities/towns truly smart to enable women to utilize opportunities

The real killer for the aspirational Indian woman is the environment in which she has to function. Forget rural India, where gender equality is still a distant goal. The urban woman has to negotiate a nightmare of situations in her day to day life, occasioned by apprehensions about personal security (especially after dark), creaky transport systems, inadequate toilet facilities, poor lighting and the male-dominated perception that she has no right to be on her own at the wrong times in the wrong neighbourhoods. India is proudly touting its smart cities. But a city that does not cater to the needs of half its population is not smart at all. Urban planning in India is in a shambles, with outmoded management systems and failing infrastructure. Women will bear the brunt of these deficiencies till governments get their acts together. Till then, we have to continue to live with privatised solutions to public problems in the areas of security, transport and sanitation, to name just three.

Need for social movements to create in women awareness of their rights and entitlements

As Paulo Freire, the Latin American educationist, observed in a different context, the oppressed internalise the values of the oppressor, enabling subjugation by the powerful for long periods of time. Indian women are no exception to this generalisation. Adopting the patriarchal set of values, women are often hostile to members of their sex perceived as deviants and not conforming to prevailing social mores and traditions, as evidenced by the ubiquity of the saas-bahu syndrome. There is also the fear in women of confronting a male-dominated society, with few support systems for women who stand up for their rights. Social change will come about only when women support each other and assert their rights to participation as equals in all aspects of social, political and economic life.

As the International Women’s Day rolls around once again, one is overcome by feelings of déjà vu. Two years ago, I wrote on the issue of the status of women in India in the context of the furore over the telecast of the Nirbhaya documentary (Cry, the Beloved Country). Mindsets change slowly in the wonder that is India, whether they be of Film Certification (Censor?) Boards or Vice-Chancellors of Universities. The good news lies in the rapidly growing access of women to education and economic empowerment and the increasing readiness of educated women (and their not so fortunate sisters) to confront misogyny in all its perverted forms. Applying lipstick will then be a matter of free personal choice, without any need to resort to covert stratagems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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