Independence Day

When I started this blog, I wanted to keep tabs on the Indian Government’s promises of development and good governance, and after the third Independence Day in the Modi era, it seemed appropriate to review where the country finds itself today.

I had always taught my students the UNDP version of Good Governance, for which I also gave them an easy mnemonic: E-PARTICLE: Efficiency and Effectiveness, Participation, Accountability, Responsiveness, Transparency, Inclusion, Consensus Orientation, Law (Rule of) and Equity. And I had defined Governance as Government + Citizen. Silly, silly me!

As any search engine will now tell you, governance was first used and defined by the World Bank as “…the exercise of political powers to manage a nation’s affairs”. And according to the same august institution, the Worldwide Governance Indicators are: Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and absence of Violence/terrorism, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law, and Control of corruption. So by these criteria, both Saddam and Gaddafi were providing excellent governance, then why did the West have to wreak such havoc on two great nations in the name of regime change? Because big business decreed that it be so, mainly to safeguard their oil interests in these two benighted countries…

In an excellent op-ed piece in the Hindu last year, G Sampath traces the origins of the this new ‘corporate-centric’ idea of good governance: “This trajectory – of aspirations first raised and then betrayed by economic reforms, leading to mass discontent, which zeroes in on corruption as the problem, with good governance presented as the solution – is very evident in recent Indian history. But it is by no means unique to India. As Jenkins points out, the “international anti-corruption consensus” has been a powerful vehicle for manoeuvring recalcitrant nations onto the neo-liberal track.” And of course, UNDP’s inclusion and equity are no longer relevant…

What this means is that accountability is no more to the citizens, but to business and to investors, who are risking their money with expectations in return. Similarly, transparency has translated into ‘ease of business’, especially for foreign investors, “… who are tired of trying to find their way through the intricate webs of political patronage (also known as corruption) and often lose out to domestic capital, which enjoys a cultural advantage (so-called crony capitalism).” As for empowerment, the emphasis has shifted from universal rights, to individual ‘consumer’ rights, according to Sampath. And as for participation, this is again increasingly limited to the ‘haves’ with the disenfranchised and poor reduced to nameless ‘populations’ that simply do not matter!

The inevitable conclusion is that the only ‘development’ model available under this paradigm of good governance is market-led development, which reduces a government to a facilitator of big business rather than a guarantor of the socio-economic rights of the citizens.

Is this the ‘tryst with destiny’ that Nehruji referred to on that historic night 70 years ago? I should think not…



Business as usual – and damn the environment!

Two stimuli for this post: the first being John Grisham’s searing novel Gray Mountain, about the havoc wreaked by Big Coal on the environment and people of small town Appalachia, in the United States, aided and abetted by unscrupulous law firms and corrupt politicians; and Donald Trump’s smug assertion that he has been ‘buying up’ politicians for years as a ‘donor’ to campaign funds, in anticipation of seeking their help in his business in the future.

This is termed clientelism and when the clients are big industrialists and businessmen, it soon leads to capture of the economy to favour the rich. This deadly combination is popularly termed as crony capitalism.

Some form of clientelism exists in all democracies where election campaigns are funded by private donations, and is therefore considered ‘legitimate’. However, when the donors call in the favours, that’s when it begins to undermine the very institutions of governance. And that is why clientelism and capture as part of the political culture are more pernicious in the long term, than overt corruption and bribery.

India for the first time in its democratic history has in power a party which makes no bones about its links with big business, and boy are they in a hurry to call in the favours! So first, we had the amendments to the land bill, which virtually gives government carte blanche to acquire any land anywhere to be handed over to private parties for ‘infrastructure’ development. However, for once a united opposition has partially stymied moves to do away with the consent clause and the socio-economic surveys, mandatory in the unamended Act. I say partially, because the Centre can now pass the buck to State Governments, and as its party or allies are in power in the most industrialised States in India, the amendments can still sneak in through the back door.

Already, the State Government of Maharashtra is contemplating an IT Policy offering greater incentives to IT Parks, like a Floor Space Index, or FSI (built-up to open land ratio) of 3 as against the 1 for commercial premises, and 2 for IT Parks. The proposed policy has also diluted the concept of IT-enabled services (ITES) to such an extent that every business which uses computers (practically everyone these days!) can claim ITES status and buy premises in these IT Parks, and get the benefits of lower stamp duty, utility charges and taxes.

The question is ‘cui bono?’ Who benefits? Those self-same industrialists who were granted vast swathes of urban land in industrial zones at throwaway prices a few decades ago, and have let their manufacturing units go under with the influx of cheap Chinese imports. Well they can now build swanky IT Parks on their industrial land, get extra FSI, get tax concessions and sell their offices to alleged ITES companies and make huge profits. Something similar is also in the works for the private Special Economic Zones in the country.

At the rural and tribal level, the government is also taking a much tougher line in dealing with those fighting for the land rights of indigenous people, branding all dissent as a ‘law and order’ problem, and even terrorism. And infrastructure projects are being cleared with such alacrity that environmental concerns are being pushed aside in haste.

The latest sleight of hand comes in the form of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015, which was introduced in the Lower House of Parliament on May 8, 2015. It essentially allows use of land in a Reserved Forest or Protected Area for infrastructure projects, upon the payment of a levy, which goes into a Compensatory Afforestation Fund, allowing for the planting of trees in another location, to compensate for the area of forest lost. But as every schoolkid knows, trees alone do not a forest make. What about bio-diversity? Or the displaced forest dwellers? Or the wildlife? The environmentalists can shout themselves hoarse, but who cares, so long as the area has a new power plant, a new 6-lane highway, or whatever…

The rest of the world has closely scrutinised and criticised China for such development policies, but as the major beneficiaries of India’s ‘development’ are likely to be western MNCs, the global environmental and human development community is suspiciously silent.

In fact, in a recent infographic on the world’s 15 most polluted cities (based upon data from the World Economic Forum), Statista expressed surprise that these cities are not in China, as every westerner expected, but in India and Pakistan!

Most Polluted Cities

So tell me about it!