Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Our legacy, our liability, our future

Can we solve a problem without acknowledging and analyzing the problem before we attempt solving it? Let me put in other words. How a woodpecker find rotten wood that might have its food- the wood boring insects, grubs and ants? Can a woodpecker survive if we ask it not to drum or peck the dead wood? The topic I'll discuss below have a lot to do to these questions, seemingly unrelated. I'll come back to the woodpeckers later.

Yesterday lower house of Indian parliament, popularly known as Lok Sabha, passed (mostly) the government version of Lokpal bill. It is yet to be passed in the upper house, Rajya Sabha. Many think the bill is too weak to have any impact, while many others think that it will increase corruption, instead of minimizing it. On the other hand many believe it as a total betrayal by our elected representatives and parliament considering its promise (formally referred as "parliamentary resolution" or "sense of the house") made in the floor of the parliament to make and pass a strong lokpal bill that will include (i) Citizen's Charter, (ii) lower bureaucracy under Lokpal through an appropriate mechanism, and (iii) establishment of Lokayukta in the States. Today Anna Hazare ended his fast in Mumbai. Many of his followers are disappointed. They think the fight against corruption is over, at least for now. Many are worried about the long term consequences of our culture and social acceptance of corruption. 

The problem of extremist movement arises from systemic blockage of civic protests, as happened to many previous socio-political movements and as happening to Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. We are yet to show any sign of maturity as a democracy and learn from our past mistakes. Our system in independent India has been doing it since its birth in 1947. Our 'elected' representatives and ruling elites inherited the legacy of the foreign rulers, since 1192- start of Muslim rule. Such elites include mainly the blue eyed boys of Muslim invaders (for ~600 years) and then the British (for ~200 years), who facilitated their rule over this country- in form of maharajah  nawab, jaminder, feudal landlord, businessman and    bureaucrat (including police, judiciary, civil administration bosses). It is also true that many of such maharajahs  nawabs etc were nothing but local dacoits or leaders of organized crimes (that include many businessmen). Such elites were remunerated not only by prestigious awards, powerful positions and blood-money, but also awarded admission to prestigious British universities like Cambridge and Oxford. That was like passport to culture and education accepted to our ruling elites. Responsible positions in civil administration were severely compromised. In subsequent years, oppression was accompanied with the awe and ego of 'culture' and 'education' of the scions of the looters aka rajas, nawabs, jaminders and bureaucrats. That tradition continued. It did not take much time for British trained wolves to get into 'Indian' sheep outfit.

Emerging elites start buying famous books and other items of art to decorate their homes and offices. Such books, movies and other items of art are hardly used, less understood, least followed. Another preferred way to get reputation as 'cultured' is to get the son/daughter (mainly daughters are sacrificed for such noble act!) married to a spouse already having heavyweight degree(s) or sending the would-be groom to buy some degrees, preferably from abroad. Such seemingly 'educated' and 'cultured' sons-in-law are excellent showpieces to advertise the glory of the family. By the way, this type of offers are not valid for brides, generally speaking.

No, such people are not much worried about any certificate of honesty, as they know that ignorance of general people allow them to accept heavyweight degrees and employment hierarchy as the gold standard for all virtues like honesty, hard work and talent. They would afford to ignore few skeptics who still dare to question why so many of our 'highly educated' politicians and other elites are so corrupt, least talented, but no less gifted with awards. Paid headline news in national media are not so uncommon these days. On the other hand, our typical 'good' students from less fortunate background seldom afford the courage and ability to ignore the easy and fast track to succeed, provocation of assured career, and most importantly, wealth and power- simply by being associated with such powerful and wealthy families.

Severe shortage of trained manpower and commercialization of education in western countries made the job easier. Gradually Oxbridge was replaced by american universities as the glory and power of British empire eroded, new world order established. Occasionally such elites promote backbone-less cronies as we see in some high positions, only to show that one can prosper only if s/he obeys them - the ruling elites. In short, the culture of endowment, distribution of national scholarships/fellowships/awards to cronies and relatives continued unhindered in independent India.

That culture of a feudal society and all pervasive corruption has another serious implication. It does not allow natural leadership quality to grow. In such a society people with actual leadership quality have to face severe consequence- ruthlessly crushed if not supported by some god-father/mother or powerful dynasty. The vacuum in leadership are filled by non-natural, promoted 'leaders'. There is no internal democracy in majority, if not all, of the political parties in India. That's why there is hardly any chance for India to get its own Barack Obama in near foreseeable future. That trend is not limited to politics or bureaucracy but present in almost every field including private sector companies.

Of course, not everyone belong to this category but majority does and it follows a pattern. You can describe it as 'profiling'- successfully used by security agencies and policy makers. It's the same reason a person can expect little more scrutiny while applying for US visa from its embassy/consulate in Delhi or Mumbai as compared to Kolkata. 

The cycle of deprivation, oppression and exploitation continued almost unhindered since 1947, as the British handed over the right to rule (not govern) to more dishonest and no less oppressive desi “brown sahibs”, who sometimes behave more British than actual British rulers. On top of that, the good-for-nothing fellows who failed as students were groomed by mainstream political parties as student "leaders". Then modern day criminals, big businessmen joined the loot.

Now several business tycoons are members of our parliament, many in Rajya Sabha (the upper house) where members are nominated by political parties without public referendum. There are an estimated 300 MPs with assets worth Rs one crore (10 million) or more in the new Lok Sabha, with 543 members having combined asset of Rs 3,075 crore. Now the  number  of crorepatis is almost double, from 154 in the 14th Lok Sabha. Four MPs in Lok Sabha have assets worth more than Rs 100 crore. If anyone still thinks that these rich and powerful people are there to serve the country and its people then read this article published in Economic Times which describes how "MPs have managed to find a place in many House panels despite having business interests in the sectors concerned". Please keep it in mind that the above information is only the declared asset value where the most powerful Indian politician, Sonia Gandhi, has only Rs 1.38 crore total asset including a house in Italy that is valued around Rs 18 lakhs (1.8 million) (USD ~36,000) and no car, as per her election affidavit.

The trend accelerated fast after Indira Gandhi institutionalized corruption. National institutions were ruined, started resembling party offices and increasingly being dominated by cronies. In the meantime, we committed another grave mistake. We kept most of our old laws, bureaucracy, police, judiciary that the British introduced in their native colony, which was significantly different than what they had in Britain. Our policy makers never seriously tried to reform the core institutions, even though talks of reforms are going around since ages.

Last few weeks I was watching debates on Lokpal Bill in Indian TV channels. Most of the politicians, mainly from the ruling party, talked as if they are the kings. We all seem to have the constitutional obligation to obey them and, most importantly, those who support Anna Hazare and Anna himself is nothing but insignificant bugs which "would have been crushed if our great forefathers, great administrators, were present" (as per one prominent Congress leader in NDTV). 

Many believe that it is now pay-back time. Fast spread of naxals, increasing tendency of general citizens to take laws into their hands, more support towards hartals, bandhs and gheraos by common Indians now (as compared to 1971) are just few symptoms of the all pervasive rot. Check this BBC article that says- "today 223 districts - India has 636 districts - in 20 states are "Maoist affected", up from 55 districts in nine states six years ago. Ninety of the affected districts, according to the government, are experiencing "consistent violence". PM Manmohan Singh calls it the country's "greatest internal security challenge". Such facts show the increasing distrust over our political system and civil governance, more so after 1991 economic liberalization. That is supported by many reports, fact and figures. One such reports tells- Indian government gave three times more subsidy to rich Indians (Rs 4.6 lakh corers) as compared to middle class and poor people (Rs 1.54 lakh corers). It is high time for us to ponder why India is among the worst of the emerging economies in terms of poverty, income inequality and social discrimination since globalization (i.e. since 1991- in case of India). Emerging economies like Indonesia, Argentina effectively reduced social and income inequalities significantly in recent times while India is among the worst affected ones. 

Anna's movement is (probably, was) a rare opportunity to bring a systemic change in our system of governance and force our "elected" representatives and public servants to govern- not rule. Only those get democracy who deserve it and ready to fight for it. By now we know that chanting the mantra of peace does not guarantee peace. The same way, chanting the mantra of "parliamentary democracy" and shouting from the roof that “parliament is supreme” does not transform a corrupt, feudal society into a productive, prosperous democracy. One must be able and ready to pay the price as and when needed. At the end of the day, we get what we actually deserve. It does not matter if we like it or not!

Remember the woodpecker whom we asked not to drum or peck when we started this article? Wood boring insects, grubs, ants are not the only food woodpecker can eat. In fact, adult woodpecker change its diet  according to what food sources are most abundant. In the fall, nuts, seeds and fruit are popular because of plentiful natural harvests. In the spring and summer, these birds feast primarily on insects that provide high levels of protein for breeding birds and growing hatchlings. If we ban our woodpecker to drum or peck dead woods it will not only create rippling affects in the relevant ecosystem but also will have huge negative impact on future generations of woodpeckers, without not-so-immediate and acute impact on the adults.

**added later: The bill was not passed in Rajya Sabha. The house was adjourned without voting amid chaos after a debate stretched to midnight.

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