Rushing In Where Angels Fear To Tread

News reports stated that an eleven years old girl from Simdega district in Jharkhand died apparently because her family could not get their food grain entitlement as their ration card was not Aadhaar-linked. I say “apparently” because, in this post-truth age, one never knows how to separate fact and fiction in media reports. There will also be the usual controversy over whether health or nutrition factors were primarily responsible for her mortality, with all commentators blissfully unaware of the close linkages between the two. But, knowing how things work in India that is Bharat, I am certain that the failure to link their Aadhaar numbers to their ration cards must have cost many families access to subsidised food grains. This view is bolstered by reports that seem to confirm that the ration card of the family in question was not linked to the Aadhaar card.

I am not going into the merits of Aadhaar linkage to beneficiary schemes, on which enough heat and sound has been generated without any light. But I am concerned about the haste in rushing in to implement policy measures without adequate backup systems. This has a lot to do with the current obsession in governments to show results immediately. In the Jharkhand case, time could have been taken to ensure that most of the population had obtained Aadhaar cards and efforts could have been made over some months to ensure Aadhaar linkage with ration cards. But the childish enthusiasm of the political and administrative executive of Jharkhand to score brownie points with the higher-ups in Delhi probably led to their claiming that they had managed almost full linkage of ration cards with Aadhaar numbers.

The same issue bedevils MGNREGA payments in Jharkhand as well, with documented evidence that the system of online bank account transfers has resulted in inordinate delays in wage payments. If you think such poorly planned policies have troubled only the really poor, think again. Major financial decisions taken over the past year have played havoc with large segments of society, not because of lack of intrinsic merit, but because of the desire to impress the public that this is a “government that works”.

Demonetisation was intended to be the sledgehammer that would eliminate black money, check counterfeit currency and improve tax compliance through reliance on digital transactions. A year down the road, even after all the travails borne by the long-suffering public, it is evident that the black money scourge refuses to die, the introduction of more and more currency notes in different denominations will be a boon to counterfeiters and that tax compliance will become a reality only when simplified tax structures are in place and when sound legal systems exist to penalise defaulters quickly and effectively. Which begs the question of whether demonetisation could not have been handled in a more graduated fashion, with new currency notes going into circulation before the withdrawal of old currency notes.

The same thought haunts one when observing the hasty digitisation of the GST. Considering that it took thirteen years for this baby to be born, the infancy phase could have been handled better. The “tryst with destiny” has certainly altered the destiny of small retailers and merchants, many of whom find the process of filing returns excessively cumbersome. In its fourth month of implementation, technical glitches still thwart the filing of returns: GSTR1 filing for July has just been completed, with filings for subsequent months pushed to November. Despite the promises of the Union Finance Minister to process refunds expeditiously, CAs are of the view that refunds could take six months or more, affecting cash flows of businesses. Gradual phasing in of GST online systems with continuation of the service tax regime for some more months would probably have ensured less transitional pain.

Ramming Aadhaar compliance down the throats of income tax payers and bank account holders will, I suspect, unleash another Pandora’s Box in the months to come. Again, I am not questioning the rationale but the speed of expected compliance, consequences be damned. Filing income tax returns for FY 2016-17 required all those not having Aadhaar cards as of April 2017 to get them by July 2017. Pensioners and the elderly were particularly inconvenienced. Linking Aadhaar numbers to bank accounts has its own technical problems. Most banks have no robust online mechanism to enable the account holder to verify that her bank account is indeed Aadhaar-linked. Come February 2018, citizens may well be faced with the nightmare (actually, it should be called daymare) of their accounts being frozen, leading them to beg on the streets. The insistence on linking mobile numbers to Aadhaar numbers, apparently mandated by the Supreme Court, is yet another nuisance around the corner.

Make haste slowly” is a salutary motto for good governance. This tendency of the civil service is viewed unfavourably by professional politicians, obsessed with the five-year election itch: why, even an ex-bureaucrat like Arvind Kejriwal has commented unfavourably on IAS officers sitting on files. Many of us were roasted by Ministers and Chief Ministers when we insisted on listing on file the pros and cons of any decision, probably a reason for at least some of us being overlooked for prize postings. Pointing out all the possible implications of a decision ensures at least that, if Plan A goes wrong, Plans B and C can be put into operation. It is the current fashion to run down the 1991 economic reforms as being rather halting and piecemeal. As one who was in Delhi at that stage, I am happy that even those reforms that did take place at that time went through, given the attachment of establishment politicians to “crony socialism” and the hostility of an established elite to the whittling down of its gravy train.

The rush to push through major decisions has, no doubt, been influenced by the relatively narrow window before the 2019 general elections. If the favourable results take time to mature, the government may well have to reap the whirlwind of short-term resentment. In the present climate of harking back to our glorious past, I take the liberty of recounting the story of Bhasmasura. Blessed by Siva with the boon of turning whatever he touched to ashes, Bhasmasura sought to test the boon on his benefactor. It took the wiles of the damsel Mohini to persuade Bhasmasura (in the hope of acquiring her) to place his hand on his own head and be turned to ashes. Governments would do well to heed this parable. Chasing the electorate (Siva) to test its powers, the government (Bhasmasura) is finally enticed by Mohini (the election process) to destroy its continuance in power through unwise, ill thought out steps. Yet again I resort, ad nauseam ad infinitum, to my favourite quote:

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

This article was originally published on Indus Dictum, a site where thought leaders from diverse fields, spanning business and technology to politics and modern law, contribute unique insights and experiences. You can access the article here.

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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.