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Creating competition – incorrect objectives and wrong methods

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Recent “Assessment of State Implementation of Business Reforms, September, 2015” report has some disturbing elements. The important one being that this is not the last, or the only one, but it is a beginning. We are going to see this report, probably every year, or as frequently as possible, This report, which assessed a 98-point action plan prepared by a workshop in December, 2014, would be followed with more reforms. While the trend seems to be patting ‘good’ reforms, highlighting lack of action and pushing the States to compete with each other. Thus, the World Bank seems to have created a reform mechanism, that propels itself, while its Country Representative, Onno Ruhl, assures that they would do the nudging, at both State and Central levels.

Methodology of this assessment itself seems to be rudimentary and unscientific, as the study team tried to benchmark and discipline States to follow the path laid down in the “Make in India” workshop. One would wonder how the study team quantified the progress on 98-point action plan, which is essentially is populated by qualitative parameters. Interestingly, and erroneously, the assessment quantifies 8 parameters based on existing applications. Though the first parameter is ‘setting up business’, the last parameter is ‘enforcing contracts’. It means a State, between March and June, 2015, the period of assessment, does not show the change or progress, but the current situation. Gujarat, a State with developed infrastructure, definitely scores high. The report says in Telangana 80 percent of district judge appointments have been done, indicating progress on ‘enforcing contracts’. A poorer State which has not done such appointments, without such need, based on its size or need, does not score high on ‘enforcing contracts’. One cannot forget that judicial appointments are not done primarily to enforce business contracts, but based on law and order, financial status and many other factors.

Overall, the methodology is distortionary, and has a sinister objective of creating political competition. Simplistically, it means reforms at any cost, and through comparison and competition. However, the disturbing aspects are in the foreword and the executive summary of the report.

In this foreword, World Bank Representative is happy to note that ‘India has embarked on ambitious reforms focused on improving India’s performance in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings’. This foreword is full of loaded words such as political commitment, agreed set for reforms, competitive federalism, renewed and vigorous efforts, etc.. He indicates that liberalisation agenda of the World Bank continues even after the change in the government. The Executive summary says, “States have wholeheartedly embraced the challenge placed upon them to focus on further streamlining the regulatory burden on business in India.” Ultimately, World Bank seems to have passed on its reform mandate successfully onto the central and State governments and they feel happy about it. Entire effort, and he is happy about the result, seems to be to create a mechanism that works outside the Parliament, and the system of Indian planning process.

Clearly, this assessment reports on the regulatory reforms undertaken by the States and Central governments to enable the growth of business and corporates. These reforms are wholly part of a liberalisation agenda, which has been rejected by Indian people many times across the States and at the national level, through elections and other means. However, World Bank seems to be coming up with new avenues of pushing for the reform agenda. Basically, this reform agenda is pushing for less or zero regulation, self-certification and no inspection. A investor-centric development model is a hazardous venture, that subsumes natural resources, poor people and regulatory systems, creating inequity, injustice and environmental chaos.

On the contrary, people would have been happy if the assessment was done on parameters such as levels of people participation in decision-making, promotion of livelihoods, efficiency of democratic institutions and official rules and procedures that enable transparency and consultations. Creating competition on such parameters would lead to positive change in the economy, employment and environment.

Blaming the Victim

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It has become common and normal for a section of social observers, and commentators, to blame the victim. One can understand a certain amount of review of any victimisation, with an objective of prevention of such recurrence. When a child falls down, parents would often advise. If falling becomes repetitive, they would bring certain other measures. In recent years, with rapes on the rise, there are people who would blame the victim, without even knowing the details or the person. In the past more than a decade, farmers are also at the receiving end of such a blame game. This is often resorted to either avoid responsibility, shirk load on the morals, or protect the structure which benefits them, and has a role in trend of suicides.

In the Parliament, recently, Radha Mohan Singh, Union Minister for Agriculture, read out a statement against a question on farmers suicides. The statement based on the report of National Crime Records Bureau lists several causes including love affairs for rising trend of farmers suicides. Interestingly, unlike last year’s Intelligence Bureau report, this NCRB report does not list any direct agriculture related causes. There was a huge media-based outrage. Government defended itself saying that it is working for the farmers. It has not denied its acceptance of the findings, nor admitted any lapse on the part of the Minister in reading out a statement verbatim, without any considerations for the implications. Arun Jaitley, Union Finance Minister, justified his colleague, by citing an earlier instance of similar statement by the previous UPA government. With this, it is confirmed, a government would take the exact route – blame the victim and shirk responsibility. All governments would be the same.

Ofcourse, this is not new. When studies pointed out excessive usage of fertilisers as the cause of soil degradation and ill health, scientists and officials claimed that farmers are to be blamed, taking the line, ‘we told them to use ‘x’ amount in ‘a’ particular area, for such a particular crop’. They are referring to a norm, and deviation from that norm. If you dig deeper, one would be aghast to know the recommending authorities have a ‘poor’ idea of the norm, and about the specific circumstances where such norms hold true, usually laboratory. Similar blame is on the farmers, with regard to pesticide and seeds.

In fact, there are think tanks and institutions that would blame the farmers for the entire agricultural crisis. They would not admit their failures, and the number of turns and twists their own theories, conclusions and findings have taken. Modern agriculture and neo-liberal governance would be ready to push the small and marginal farmers out of farming, and would prefer modern corporations to do the farming. In such a scenario, it would be within the argument to blame the victim, personalise the issue, and close the doors of good governance on them.

Farmers suicides are a public issue, and has a policy significance. Policy failures and shortcomings of governance should have been the discussant points in the Parliament, when rising number of farmers suicides have been brought to their notice. Instead by reading out a statement, wherein the farmer’s fallibilities have been highlighted, Union Minister has easily circumvented the Constitutional duties enjoined upon him. A Finance Minister who does not react, with or without precedence, on reports when banks refuse loans to farmers, springs up to defend his colleague, with a fig leaf of precedence, of a government they blamed for inefficiency and imbecile attitude to farmers and farming problems.

While failure and suicides are to be discussed in the personal domain, for the ruling elite, success is a lapel on their shoulders. GDP growth rate in agriculture is a shining armour. Even multi-national corporations, dodging regulations, equity and justice, have also started following this trend. Monsanto, which claims success of its Bt cotton for increasing yields and boosting Indian cotton production, would rather shy away from the fact that among all farm suicides, more than 50 percent are cotton farmers. Cotton bloom is on the them; farmers gloom is not their concern. Seed failures are because farmers are fools, for sowing early, not giving enough water, poor soils and poor agricultural practices. Higher harvests are because of ‘science’ behind their seeds.

The blame, of all farmer’s suicides, lies on the door steps of politics, business, science and governance, and nowhere else.

What makes monkeys the marauders? (written in August, 2011)

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If an opinion poll is done on one of the video channels on what kind of animals they would like, choices of human beings would reflect their thinking. Probably monkeys would be the last, following lions or tigers. The topmost slot would probably be occupied by birds and animals, which are ‘beautiful, serene, calm, and domestic’. Same goes with the vegetation. People would not like thorny plants even if they have berries. But, then monkeys love to eat wild fruits, even if they are difficult to get. These are the choices, which pervade the inexorable march of human beings to ‘conquer’ the plant. And our choices get reflected in our lifestyles. But, then if you take a rights perspective, monkeys, crows, thorny plants, etc., also have a right to live on this planet.

But, then with human intervention, defined by a development paradigm, has led to deforestation. Reforestation and development focuses on growing eucalyptus, coffee, tea plantations and other bio-fuel species, which responds to requirements of carbon development mechanisms. Monkeys were not discussed in Kyoto Protocol, or at many of the international conventions. People love the grace of the tiger/lion, and somebody said it is on the top of the forest food chain. So, there are umpteen programmes to save them. When a particular video channel started a ‘talk campaign’, there were many financial donations as well. I am not sure if the same channel would get better TRP ratings, if they did the same with monkeys. I am doubly sure that there would not be any donations for rehabilitating monkeys, or crows for that matter.

What can the monkeys do, if they don’t get food in the forests? They would go where food is available. It would be agricultural fields, colonies, homes, temples, etc.. Now, we call them marauders, because they snatch food. They would not wait for your permission or largesse. They would know nothing about ‘proprietary’ rights on the food. It is nothing personal for them. They are hungry, they see the food, and they would want it.

People started taking precautions. They would cover their foods in zipped bags, or any other closed containers. Monkeys knowing that people do carry their food started attaching them in search of food. Then, people started saying monkeys have become violent. All along, from their sojourn in the jungles to concrete jungles, the monkeys search was for food. They never questioned human beings where their food came from, why they deforested their jungles, why their farms are fenced and electrified, why their apartments have iron grills and why only human beings have ‘proprietary’ rights over the planetary food. They are innocent, voice-less species.

On the other hand, people also would not have bothered, if they died due to starvation and hunger in the jungle. They would not have shown concern if the monkeys were waiting for ‘alms’ from some sympathetic person. But, people would get concerned and bothered only when the monkey attacks them for food. At that stage, monkey starts becoming bad, violent or marauders. This scenario is the same for many wild species, including cheetah, elephants, etc. Like sparrows, or some ‘saintly’ birds and animals, not every specie has the courage or wherewithal to enter the precincts of human beings and challenge them. Cheetah is single. Human beings can kill it easily. It is not easy to handle a organised group like monkeys. Ofcourse, in many places, pesticides are applied to kill all ‘wild’ species which raid the food stores of human beings, from ants, foxes and wild boars. But, in India, monkeys are not killed because of religious beliefs. That is the only solace.

Apply this situation to the human society, a jungle of attitudes and another kind of life. Apply this to Indian governance, supported by ‘proprietary’ thinking of ‘haves’. The situation of ‘have-nots’ is akin to any of the wild species, who are denied their living, by government policies. They are not even allowed to have their own growth, with their resources being usurped by fellow human beings who are on the upper echelons. Their choices are accepted and their life is disrupted.

The message I am trying to bring here on this blog is that monkeys do commit violence. But it is not their choice. They would love their environment, if that is not disturbed. Elephants would not run down the ‘human’ streets, if their habitat is not disturbed. Violence is not always the choice of species, which become violent. Violence is induced because of larger environmental and socio-economic changes, which are unjust and inequitous.

This I am posting this in the context of discussions on recent political and social developments in Andhra Pradesh, and India. You are free to draw your inferences.

The analogy is general, and not aimed at categorising any section of human beings as some ‘wild species’. I have chosen monkeys because of the suitability; principal factor being the Indian belief that monkeys should not be killed. That is, how do we address the problem of injustice, without taking the extreme step?

Choices, for benefit of all

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Residents of Kundanpally, near Ramagundam, are in a very very pathetic situation. This village, just below the ash pond, reservoir of ash from Ramagundam thermal plant, is not acquired. Local temple priest informed us on 17th May, 2015, that the average age of the eldest person in the village is 50 years, indicating that mortality is very high. One woman mentioned six deaths in her family in the last one and half years. There are others also who spoke about frequent deaths. Doctors do not tell them what is causing their death. Ash storms, especially in summer, spreading ash dust, leaves them choking. Uncontaminated water is hardly found. Children, old and women have breathing problems, skin rashes and joint pains. Bouts of fever hits them. As photos below show this is huge ash pond, of more than 2,500 acres, from a thermal plant with a capacity of 2,600 MW. Another 1600 MW plant is going to be added, for which a public hearing is slated tomorrow, 23rd May, 2015. Very miniscule efforts of resistance, awareness raising and enabling informed public participation. Local ‘Leftists’ and trade unions are afraid. Telangana people are wary of loyalists to ruling party. There is fusion of interests, fears and loyalties, of all influential sections, leaving the disempowered classes rudderless and clueless on what to do. No water to drink, no proper work, improper health, fear of displacement, etc., all combinedly weakened the communities here.

Alarmingly, farmers are being encouraged to spread this ash in their farmers for better yields. Local politicians, who aspire to be elected representatives, of local bodies, vie over each other, to facilities supply of seepage water from this ash pond to the farmlands. the logic goes that any water is better in a dryland area. Ofcourse, with the mighty Godavari river nearby, and natural tanks, one would wonder why the farmers still look at these waters for salvation.

A development of much more alarm is that Jaipur, in Adilabad, where another thermal plant of 1800 MW, is slated to come, to quench the insatiable thirst for electricity, is 12 km away. Thus, within a radius of 15 KM, thermal plant capacity is likely to be 5,400 MW, more than double the current capacity. Number of ash ponds, and nearby open cast mines, are surely going to signify this area. With no acquisition plans, more villages are likely to be on the path of Kundanpally. Media, as usual, seems to be playing truant.

In this age of climate change, would you vote for a thermal plant, or solar electricity? Telangana State which was formed on the basis of aspirations for better future, cannot afford to create bands of collaterals – people who have to suffer for the benefit of the powerful and elite. Can development afford to sideline people who do not know and cannot resist? Development has choices which can benefit everyone, without harming the interests of the weak, including ecological species. Telangana has announced a solar policy. If it can pursue it seriously, within the period of erecting and running these monstrous thermal plants, solar electricity can provide solutions.WP_20150517_004WP_20150517_003

Meet-the-Press Programmes – Why and How

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I always wondered about the mechanisms behind Meet-the-Press organised by the journalists unions. Elected bodies of these Unions, who most often do not see eye-to-eye on their own issues, agree to meet the famous, and famous only. I have been observing the Meet-the-press programmes for long. I used to think this is one tool that is available in the hands of journalists, to present news, which is of public relevance. Of late, this seems is now an expectation, and not the reality.

Just to compare, a Meet-the-press with the RTC Union leaders was always relevant to the times, than with MD of Hyderabad Metro Rail on 9th May, 2015, in Hyderabad. A Meet-the-Press of a weatherman is highly relevant, for farmers and others. There is lot of interest, commercial and non-commercial, on the monsoons and rains in the days to come.

Meet-the-Press is increasingly used to meet the ‘page 1’ regulars, and give them more space. It is no longer a tool to give news space to people, who are relevant and need to be given space. During elections, top political party leaders get this opportunity, and not other candidates who cannot give advertisements and do not get space in the newspapers usually.

Given this unfortunate trend, I would now wonder who picks the costs of such Meet-the-Press programmes. Who pays? Ofcourse, journalist unions may not have funds in their coffers, even if their leaders are famous and rich. If it is true, it would be worthwhile to know what pressures are on the Unions to organise Meet-the-Press programmes. The famous and rich can anyway pay for their ‘news’ by organising their own press conferences. I do not think there would be any less news value, if MD of Hyderabad Metro Rail organised a press conference.

Further, I notice that Meet-the-Press is organised mostly, if not entirely, by Unions belonging to print media. There seems to be no such ‘cohesive’ work among video journalists. This is probably because video channels would like exclusive bites, and a common programme does not suit them. However, quickly, it does not bar them to beam the same content, across all channels, if paid, including weddings of the famous families. But with various print media houses controlled by different business and political interests, what guarantees the repetition of the same news in all kinds of print media. It does not.

Does Meet-the-press programme provide ample time for journalists to learn, question and satisfy themselves? What do the leaders on the dais do? If they are not ‘playing’ journalists at this event, why do they give so much time to such programmes? Thus, I am back to where I began to know and understand the mechanisms of Meet-the-Press programmes.

No more NCRB statistics on farmer suicides

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On 10th December, 2014, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Shri Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary in a written reply to Shri Vivek Gupta in the Rajya Sabha informed that government has decided to delete Section 309 of IPC from the Statute book. Suicide is no longer a criminal offence. Apparently, this was based on a report by Law Commission, endorsed by 18 States and 4 Union Territories. We need not know specific names of these States and UTs. The Law Commission, in its report no.201, titled “Humanisation and decriminalisation of Attempt to suicide” (October, 2008), says, “Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code provides double punishment for a person who has already got fed up with his own life and desires to end it.” In this 38-page report, the Law Commission details reasons and justification for its recommendation – “Section 309 needs to be effaced from the statute book because the provision is inhuman, irrespective of whether it is constitutional or unconstitutional. The repeal of the anachronistic law contained in section 309 of the Indian Penal Code would save many lives and relieve the distressed of his suffering.”

The decision is taken. This is probably one of the series of changes BJP has promised in its manifesto to ‘review and change anachronistic’ laws in India.

Be that as it may, a conversation with one of my journalist friends brought me the realisation. What happens to farmers suicides? We are aware that farmers suicides are happening for the past several years, increasing cyclically. The only authentic nation-wide source of such information is National Crime Records Bureau. With decriminalisation of suicide, this Bureau would not task itself with such collection anymore, and police stations would be relieved of collecting and recording suicides.

With governments not ready to accept recorded statistics of farmer suicides, by their own agency, for political reasons, they would be much more happier if there is no information collection at all. Presently, a serious issue of farmers suicides, with available statistics is buried and neglected by all the four pillars of Indian democracy. With no system of information collection, suicides can be easily be ignored and forgotten. No one can be wiser about the magnitude.

In fact, not just farmers suicides, it will be a issue for all kinds of suicides, if one sees suicides as a socio-economic problem and has policy and governance implications. In India, with a state which is ever distant from the poor and good governance, suicides are often termed as state murders, implying apathy and neglect of government. In the case of farmer suicides, the demand for compensation has been met by many State Governments half-heartedly. There are number of documents to be submitted, for the family to claim such compensations. One of them includes a record from the local Police Station. With the dropping of Section 309, the police station is relieved of such function, including filing of FIRs, investigation, and the responsibility of post-mortem. Unless, ofcourse, all suicides are recorded as suspicious deaths. Prior to the dropping of the section, affected families had atleast a suo moto procedure to rely upon. Not that it happens on its own at every place. But, atleast the police had a responsibility. Now, the onus will be on the families to get this legal procedures done, even while they are in distress over the untimely death. Which department would not collect these statistics? or record such deaths?Policy makers had a statistical burden to respond. What is the alternative?

For me, the answer lies in laws, rules and administrative systems related to collection of statistics in India. We need a thorough review of the same. We tend to rely more and maximum on Revenue Departments – anachronistic and outdated in its outlook and functioning. Like in United States and other countries, India needs to build a vibrant National Vital Statistics System. This system should be made independent of government whims and fancies and should be funded by autonomous, constitutionally acceptable financial support. Data collection and information systems at the State level are almost non-existent.

Suicides and other public healths statistics have to be made independent of the Revenue and Planning departments. As health, economic and social issues became more complex, the content of the information collected on the vital
records has to be expanded and measures to improve its quality are brought in. The function of producing national vital statistics has to be entrusted to a dedicated public research centre, and a system of regular collection, and not to be embedded in departments with bureaucracy breathing down their neck.

Changing (and sliding) election strategies

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There are many election strategies that have been adopted by many politicians, and political parties. Many have succeeded and others have emulated such strategies. However, strategies keep changing as rivals adopt the same, or respond to the challenge and bring up their own strategies. But, over years, these strategies are becoming ploys, plots and conspiracies. They are now less and less electoral battle strategies. Election Commission as a regulator of elections and political parties, and also as custodian of democratic elections is increasingly falling behind in responding to these moves, often by most respected senior political leaders. Most often the refrain is Election Commission cannot do anything about it. Syndication and ‘coordinated behaviours’ is strictly forbidden, and is enforced by the Competition Commission of India. Not that it is effective. In recent years, cement industry had to face some song because of this. In tenders, any such behaviour is curtailed leading to cancellations of tenders and re-advertisement. But, the Election Commission is way behind in such ‘syndicated behaviour’ which prevents people from having their choices, and exercising their franchises.

this is where probably one needs to look at the legislation which governs Election Commission, political parties and election process. Maybe, amendments need to be brought in after extensive consultation process, mapping of fissiparous election strategies and anti-democratic behaviour and gathering of suggestions to prevent them.

There are many, but I am listing a few here:

1. The earliest strategy was to prevent entire sections of people from voting, It could be by delisting or not listing them at all. Setting up inaccessible booths, making voters to travel long distances, etc.. Ofcourse, most of this involved the connivance of bureaucracy.

2. Preventing the emergence of any leadership in the same party and constituency. This was done variously, either in subtle or most violent forms. Elimination of the rival physically was the extreme step in this form of strategies.

3. Influencing the choice of the rival candidate. There are a few who effectively did this and are doing even now. It did boomerang, though rarely. In one instance, a candidate even financed the rival candidate investment on B-form and campaign, and unfortunately he lost to the same candidate.

4. Supporting a independent candidate, mainly to undercut the main rival candidate, probably to stem enmasse voting from certain areas, or sections (read caste).

5. Influencing the entire unit of the rival political party. This involves years of work and investment. But there are few who are doing this, as I gather.

6. Entering into local alliances, on the sly. To beat a strong candidate, local alliances were developed and nurtured. While such alliances could be at the candidate level, there are many instances where ‘small’ parties with unflinching support in certain areas or sections, do get such favours from big national parties.

7. Alliances between political parties. This happens at the top-most level and more openly. This needs a serious debate, and there has to be some regulation. How do such pre-poll alliances help the voters?

8. Floating a new political party and financing its operations to under-cut rival political party chances is the latest move on the block. Telugu Desam party for long has held that Loksatta and Prajarajyam parties were supported by Y. S. Rajashekhara Reddy to spoil their electoral chances.

9. A winner is included in the party, after the elections. With anti-defection laws this has become redundant. However, the chances of ‘winners’ of small parties of getting included in the ‘mainstream’ parties are still bright, due to loopholes and effective ‘cash’ methods.

10. The latest is floating a political party, just before elections, not contesting the elections, but forming an alliance with another party and campaigning for that party.

There are many such trends, which are intended to confuse, obfuscate and misle voters. Agendas, manifestoes, advertisements, paid news, marketing plans, pre-poll surveys, ‘partisan’ Tv channel discussions and many such strategies continue to play havoc with the thinking of voters. These ploys do influence the ‘literate’ and prevent them from a drawing a line between good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate. Direct benefit schemes such cash-for-vote, liquor, daily wages, transport allowances and other such methods continue to be deployed.

Election Commission is probably responding to election expenditure control, cash-for-vote and a few such methods, but it is way behind in responding to syndicated behaviour. For this, to be controlled and exposed, we need smart election regulation, which is dynamic, pre-emptive and effective. Do we have such legislation and concomitant apparatus?