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On Anna, Selfishness & Corruption..

Last week I chanced on an interview of Anna Hazare in which he talked “about the inspiration behind his social activism, his philosophy and his vision for India”. The interview was from last year, a few weeks before AAP’s spectacular debut in Delhi. It had a quote that caught my eye.  It was Anna’s response to the question, “In your opinion, what is the root cause of corruption?”

“The root cause of corruption is selfishness; the selfish nature of human beings”, Anna said.  “They go to any lengths to pursue their self-interest…Second, there is no deep thinking about the purpose of life. And since there is no purpose to life, we want to fill that void with commodities, things. You become an MLA and an MP and in a short period of two or three years, you become a billionaire. How? Do you really need so much? Since you keep increasing your needs, corruption increases.”

Keep Reading…

September 23rd, 2014 Posted by | Corruption in India, Politics and Governance in India, ToI Columns | 3 comments

On why corrupt politicians win elections in India…

RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan explains it lucidly…Excerpts from a recent speech (emphasis added):

*** Excerpts Begin ***

“….Even as our democracy and our economy have become more vibrant, an important issue in the recent election was whether we had substituted the crony socialism of the past with crony capitalism, where the rich and the influential are alleged to have received land, natural resources and spectrum in return for payoffs to venal politicians.

By killing transparency and competition, crony capitalism is harmful to free enterprise, opportunity, and economic growth. And by substituting special interests for the public interest, it is harmful to democratic expression. If there is some truth to these perceptions of crony capitalism, a natural question is why people tolerate it. Why do they vote for the venal politician who perpetuates it?

One widely held hypothesis is that our country suffers from want of a “few good men” in politics. This view is unfair to the many upstanding people in politics. But even assuming it is true, every so often we see the emergence of a group, usually upper middle class professionals, who want to clean up politics. But when these “good” people stand for election, they tend to lose their deposits. Does the electorate really not want squeaky clean government?

Apart from the conceit that high morals lie only with the upper middle class, the error in this hypothesis may be in believing that problems stem from individual ethics rather than the system we have.

In a speech I made before the Bombay Chamber of Commerce in 2008, I argued that the tolerance for the venal politician is because he is the crutch that helps the poor and underprivileged navigate a system that gives them so little access. This may be why he survives.

Let me explain. Our provision of public goods is unfortunately biased against access by the poor. In a number of states, ration shops do not supply what is due, even if one has a ration card – and too many amongst the poor do not have a ration card or a BPL card; Teachers do not show up at schools to teach; The police do not register crimes, or encroachments, especially if committed by the rich and powerful; Public hospitals are not adequately staffed and ostensibly free medicines are not available at the dispensary; …I can go on, but you know the all-too-familiar picture.

This is where the crooked but savvy politician fits in. While the poor do not have the money to “purchase” public services that are their right, they have a vote that the politician wants. The politician does a little bit to make life a little more tolerable for his poor constituents – a government job here, an FIR registered there, a land right honoured somewhere else. For this, he gets the gratitude of his voters, and more important, their vote. Of course, there are many politicians who are honest and genuinely want to improve the lot of their voters. But perhaps the system tolerates corruption because the street smart politician is better at making the wheels of the bureaucracy creak, however slowly, in favour of his constituents. And such a system is self-sustaining. An idealist who is unwilling to “work” the system can promise to reform it, but the voters know there is little one person can do. Moreover, who will provide the patronage while the idealist is fighting the system? So why not stay with the fixer you know even if it means the reformist loses his deposit?

So the circle is complete. The poor and the under-privileged need the politician to help them get jobs and public services. The crooked politician needs the businessman to provide the funds that allow him to supply patronage to the poor and fight elections. The corrupt businessman needs the crooked politician to get public resources and contracts cheaply. And the politician needs the votes of the poor and the underprivileged.

Every constituency is tied to the other in a cycle of dependence, which ensures that the status quo prevails. Well-meaning political leaders and governments have tried, and are trying, to break this vicious cycle. How do we get more politicians to move from “fixing” the system to reforming the system? The obvious answer is to either improve the quality of public services or reduce the public’s dependence on them.

Both approaches are necessary. But then how does one improve the quality of public services? The typical answer has been to increase the resources devoted to the service, and to change how it is managed. A number of worthwhile efforts are underway to improve the quality of public education and healthcare. But if resources leak or public servants are not motivated, which is likely in the worst governed states, these interventions are not very effective.

Some have argued that making a public service a right can change delivery. It is hard to imagine that simply legislating rights and creating a public expectation of delivery will, in fact, ensure delivery. After all, is there not an expectation that a ration card holder will get decent grain from the fair price shop, yet all too frequently grain is not available or is of poor quality. Information decentralization can help. Knowing how many medicines the local public dispensary received, or how much money the local school is getting for mid-day meals, can help the public monitor delivery and alert higher-ups when the benefits are not delivered. But the public delivery system is usually most apathetic where the public is poorly educated, of low social status, and disorganized, so monitoring by the poor is also unlikely to be effective.

Some argue that this is why the middle class should enjoy public benefits along with the poor, so that the former can protest against poor delivery, which will ensure high quality for all. But making benefits universal is costly, and may still lead to indifferent delivery for the poor. The middle class may live in different areas from the poor. Indeed, even when located in the same area, the poor may not even patronize facilities frequented by the middle class because they feel out of place. And even when all patronize the same facility, providers may be able to discriminate between the voluble middle class and the uncomplaining poor. So if more resources or better management are inadequate answers, what might work?

The answer may partly lie in reducing the public’s dependence on government-provided jobs or public services. A good private sector job, for example, may give a household the money to get private healthcare, education, and supplies, and reduce their need for public services. Income could increase an individual’s status and increase the respect they are accorded by the teacher, the policeman or the bureaucrat. But how does a poor man get a good job if he has not benefited from good healthcare and education in the first place? In this modern world where good skills are critical to a good job, the unskilled have little recourse but to take a poorly-paying job or to look for the patronage that will get them a good job. So do we not arrive at a contradiction: the good delivery of public services is essential to escape the dependence on bad public services?

…There is a way out of this contradiction, developing the idea that money liberates. Could we not give poor households cash instead of promising them public services? A poor household with cash can patronize whomsoever it wants, and not just the monopolistic government provider. Because the poor can pay for their medicines or their food, they will command respect from the private provider. Not only will a corrupt fair price shop owner not be able to divert the grain he gets since he has to sell at market price, but because he has to compete with the shop across the street, he cannot afford to be surly or lazy.

The government can add to the effects of empowering the poor by instilling a genuine cost to being uncompetitive – by shutting down parts of the public delivery systems that do not generate enough custom. Much of what we need to do is already possible. The government intends to announce a scheme for full financial inclusion on Independence Day. It includes identifying the poor, creating unique biometric identifiers for them, opening linked bank accounts, and making government transfers into those accounts. When fully rolled out, I believe it will give the poor the choice and respect as well as the services they had to beg for in the past. It can break a link between poor public service, patronage, and corruption that is growing more worrisome over time.

Excerpted from the RBI governor’s speech at the Twentieth Lalit Doshi Memorial Lecture on August 11, 2014 at Mumbai.

Related Posts: Reducing Corruption: The 1-min soundbite, Here’s how to “fix the system”, Kaam Aadmi Politics

 

September 20th, 2014 Posted by | Corruption in India, Elections Results, Analysis and Related, Politics and Governance in India | 4 comments

A graphic illustration of the perilous state of Indian Economy

Some superb graphs courtesy this post by John Samuel Raja on the perilous state of India’s finances, following the excerpts:

What makes it worse for the government is the inelasticity on both the revenue and expenditure sides, which limits its options.

…The government is living way beyond its means. As much as Rs137.6 of this Rs157.6 is going towards meeting running expenses, as opposed to creating assets that deliver benefits in later years. And just five items—interest payments, defence spending, subsidies, salaries and pensions—account for Rs110.
…The biggest outgo on the expenditure side, of Rs51.4, is interest payments to service loans and to buy back past debt. Since most of it is being used to fund running expenses, in inter-generational terms, it is akin to making the future generation pay for current expenses. The government can’t retire this debt because, well, it can’t—it doesn’t have the money to do so and that is what balances the books today. If a credit card user were to be in this situation, his condition would be described as being in a debt trap.

…The only expenditure item where it can squeeze out something significant is subsidies, which amounted to Rs21.9 in 2013-14.

… The government needs big chunks of funding to channel into two areas that touch lives of people and that can have a multiplier effect—spending on social services (like education and health) and economic services (like agriculture, power and transport). And this is where the real picture of our misplaced priorities emerge. In 2013-14, the government spent a mere Rs2.3 on each of those categories.

July 11th, 2014 Posted by | Development Related, Indian Economy, Politics and Governance in India | 3 comments

The fall and fall of Arvind Kejriwal..

So Arvind Kejriwal finally decided to furnish a bond and get bail. Good for him. Frankly, the drama had dragged on a bit too long. And the “Sorry Sabhas” did not seem to be having any impact either (excuse the pun). I guess people are tired of apologies – and excuses.

They wish to see something positive. Something constructive. Something exciting. Something that grabs the imagination.

Like a pledge to make New Delhi the safest Indian city for women, with the lowest crime rate to boot.  Or a pledge to ensure that everyone in Delhi has access to clean drinking water – from the taps.  Or a pledge to ensure Delhi’s streets are clear of garbage.  Or a master plan to convert Delhi’s storm drains and nullahs into eco-corridors. That would be exciting!

Although I am no longer with AAP, I retain a strong sympathy for them. We badly need more people with integrity and commitment in politics. In that sense, India needs AAP. The question is can AAP regain the trust of the public that voted for it so overwhelmingly in December?

I think they can. But for that, AAP must leave the bitterness behind. They must look – and plan – ahead. AAP may yet come back to power in the elections in Delhi. It behoves them to prepare for this responsibility.

Prepare for it by widespread consultation on what a mega-city needs. Prepare for it by drafting experts in urban planning, experts in infrastructure development, experts who know how government finances work.

So that if power does come to the party once again, its tenure becomes a hallmark of ambition and achievement. If that becomes a reality, the party will be well on its way to become a national force in time to come. More importantly, it would be seen as having delivered. Which in itself would be a cause for celebration. Who knows, it may even emerge as a powerful force in 2019 – a literal example of re-birth from the ashes.

But even if it does not come to power, it would at least get the credit for putting forth some bold, innovative ideas in the public domain on how Delhi can be governed. Let this become its primary focus in the days to come. Let AAP reach out to the citizens of Delhi with ideas.

Ideas to improve their lives, rather than ideas to agitate & to protest. Ideas that go beyond “Mera Neta Chor Hai”. Ideas that inspire. Ideas that can capture the imagination.

Let AAP truly become synonymous with alternative (not disruptive) politics. Let it be at the forefront of redefining the political narrative.

This is not the impossible. It can be done. All it needs is strong will, determination and some clear-headed thinking – in the right direction.  I hope we see some of that. Soon.  जय हिंद, जय भारत!

Related Posts:  Arvind Kejriwal’s coming out party, Now worrying about Arvind Kejriwal, On Dharnas and Governance and finally my interview over at CRI on why I left the party

May 28th, 2014 Posted by | Current Affairs, Politics and Governance in India, ToI Columns | one comment

On the mess that is RTE..

Almost five years back in 2009, India enacted a “landmark” bill and created a new “Right” – the “Right to Education”. Normally a new “right” ought to be celebrated. But as columnist Meeta Sengupta wrote around the time, “..(this) should also..be a moment of pure fear, for we have made a commitment to something big, something we have never done before, something we have no idea of how to do.

Her words – especially the part about “no idea of how to do” – were prescient.

Take, for example, the grand announcement that 25% of all seats (new admissions) in private schools will henceforth be reserved for children from disadvantaged groups and economically weaker sections (note that the quota is not exclusively for “economically weaker sections” but more on that later) and the government will bear the burden of this extra cost. Unfortunately, till date there is no clarity on how much exactly will the government pay – and for what? and crucially, when?

No wonder there are reports of private schools hiking the fees to cover the additional costs and in some cases, closing down unable to bear the burden – which is particularly ironic (and tragic) given that some of these schools were precisely the ones catering to the “disadvantaged” & “weaker” groups.

This BBC report mentions how, “..several states have been ordering non-complying private schools to close, shifting most of the children to government schools.”

Officials in Punjab said they closed 1,170 schools, Haryana shut 713, while Tamil Nadu closed “a little more than 400” and Andhra Pradesh “not more than 400″…. Baladevan Rangaraju, director of think tank India Institute, who has been monitoring media reports, has counted 2,692 schools shut and 17,871 at risk. He said states where schools were threatened with closure included Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Delhi.

There is more to come..

“(Haryana Education Minister) Ms Bhukkal said a further 1,379 schools would be closed in Haryana after the end of the school year in March…Andhra Pradesh Minister for Primary Education Dr Sake Sailajanath said the state had closed schools with 10 students or less, and a further 800 would be shut this year….(Tamil Nadu Education official) Ms Kulkarni said a further 300 schools would be shut in the state this year….Delhi State Public Schools Management Association president RC Jain said roughly 300 schools still had to shut and 750 face closure.

As you can imagine, some have figured innovative ways to get around the legislation. One of the more popular tactic is to get yourself declared as a “minority” institution, which are exempt from RTE.  In India’s continuing narrative of victimhood, an easy way to free yourself of government control is to raise the fear of being burdened/bullied/harassed/oppressed by a “majority” and seek exemption from laws that are meant to be universal.

Unsuprisingly, you get situations like these: “Commenting on this mad rush of the schools (to seek minority status), president of unaided private schools of Rajasthan, Damodar Prasad Goyal said, “The institutions have been forced to go for minority status in a situation resulting from the recent judgment of Supreme Court. Many of these institutions will definitely take the advantage of minority status to get out of the ambit of RTE.”

The tactic of “Declare-Yourself-A-Minority-and-Free-Yourself-of-Government-Control” has been tried numerous times before and has succeeded – even by otherwise “Hindu” institutions” (See e.g. the remarkable case of  “Why Did The Ramakrishna Mission Say They Are Not Hindus”).

The government – ever so keen to ensure no one accuses it of “majoritarianism” – has been eager in dealing  with such requests. Thus in August 2012, “71 institutes in Kerala were granted minority status in a single sitting”. Read that again. 71 institutes, single sitting.

No wonder you also get distortions such as these:

He cited the instance of an institute that had sought minority status on the ground that the promoter was a Sikh by birth, who had removed his hair and turban. When complaints and counter-complaints came about the institute, he said, all records were verified….

In some cases from Uttar Pradesh it was noticed that the promoters said they have converted to Christianity and in few other cases even to Buddhism. “ [source]

Vague guidelines and onerous restrictions means schools are finding it difficult to comply with the Act. No wonder that, “two years after the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) was notified by the central government, more than 95% of schools in the country do not comply with its guidelines, a study by an NGO has found.

In India, inability to “comply” with the law brings in its wake (unsurprisingly) the fear of harassment & breeds the classic under-the-table kind of corruption .  Mohandas Pai, Chairman of Manipal Education group has gone on record saying: “The RTE will give power to school inspectors for enforcement, creating a source of harassment and corruption.”  Others have used stronger words: “RTE (actually)..declares war on education entrepreneurship”, says Manish Sabharwal, chairman of TeamLease Services.  He fears that the vague guidelines will result in giving block-level education officials “..the ability to convert every school into a personal ATM

Let me now focus attention on a few insidious elements of the bill which have largely gone unnoticed (save for a few alert bloggers).

The first is the fact this is really not just about “Education for the Poor”. It is actually “Education for the Disadvantaged and the Weaker Sections” of the society.  In the absence of norms and guidelines about what exactly does this mean, this has been left open to interpretation. Different states and institutions have interpreted “Disadvantaged” and “Weaker” in their own different ways, most opting for a split of the 25% between these two sections.

The second, important, point: The act only applies to intake at Class I. What does this mean?  It essentially “…takes out 92% of school going children from availing the quota.

And “what happens is if a family enters poverty or which missed the bus in class – 1”? Well, tough luck. Turns out “..if you are in Class II, no matter how poor you are, you cannot knock on a private school’s door. Once you get/sneak into class – 1, no matter what your status is afterwards, the poor class-2 student above cant take your seat.”

Do you see the perversity?  There is more: Boarding schools are exempt.

We have already discussed “Minority Exemption” which effectively “puts most of your big name schools out of the RTE ambit totally.” As an example, here is a brief list of schools from Jaipur that are exempt from RTE: “..Several schools of the city including Saint Anselm’s, Saint Xavier’s, Saint Angela Sophia School, Saint Soldier’s, Ryan International and other residential schools are already excluded from the RTE provisions.”

And the missing details. Details on how would the act address bottlenecks in delivery? or the acute shortage of dedicated, committed and qualified teachers? or what happens to the child after the age of 14? How does one identify whether s/he has actually received “education”? What would success mean in such a situation?

But almost all these points have gone largely unnoticed. And while, “Access to education may have become a right…access to education of choice and quality is clearly not a priority”. Unless that changes, not much will change.

I started this column with a quote from good friend Meeta Sengupta. It is apt I close this piece with her. She sums up the present situation eloquently: “The ship is doomed; we need a rescue flotilla”. Sadly, we continue to sail in blissful ignorance. Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!

Related Post: A short video with my thoughts on education policy (in Hindi).. and Article 30 and Religious Apartheid in Modern India.

April 17th, 2014 Posted by | Politics and Governance in India, Politics of Minority Appeasement, Reservations, Affirmative Action | 3 comments

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