Tuesday, 23 February 2016


   For more than forty years now our politicians have been seeding the clouds above our country with all manner of poison; communalism, casteism, corruption, religious fundamentalism, appeasement politics, contempt for the law, brow-beating of the administration, hate mongering, criminalisation of the electoral system, regionalism, distortion of the justice delivery apparatus. Their efforts have been explicitly and implicitly supported by all the organs and institutions of government and society that were meant to ensure that this should never happen: they have all been either co-opted or intimidated into subscribing to this insidious blueprint for disaster.                                                                      Parliament has ceased to function in any meaningful way for many years and makes just about as much sense as an Arnab Goswami panel discussion. The bureaucracy has never recovered from Mrs. Gandhi's doctrine of a " committed bureaucracy" and any residual steel in the frame has been melted down by repeated tinkering with the recruitment processes and mindless reservations. The higher judiciary has been so content in its rarefied portals, deliberating on lofty constitutional themes and assured of instant reemployment, that it has failed to notice that the innards of our justice delivery system have become hollow, inhabited by the rich, the powerful, the privileged and that it has now become a force for persecution rather than for providing succour. The police has become indistinguishable from the lawbreaker, and is feared even more. The press does make a lot of noise, the better to drown out the tinkle of the coins being gathered at the altar of the TRP gods looming over the news editor.
  We have been sowing the wind with poison for a long time, and it is now time to reap the whirlwind. Events over the last few weeks have shown us that the harvest shall be deadly and it shall be bloody. JNU, Patiala House and Haryana Jats are just the early varieties of this harvest of discontent.

   JNU and Kanhaiya Kumar should have never happened, if only political parties had not made Universities their nurseries and governments, past and present, not sought to micro-manage them. Over the decades their autonomy has been destroyed. The present govt. has gone even further on this path to perdition: it has aggressively sought to control their thought processes and to bring them in line with their own political, social and cultural ideology. This has been a huge mistake. Universities are not army cantonements where blind obedience and unquestioned conformism are essential prerequisites. Universities, by their very nature are meant to encourage free thinking, question authority, challenge accepted paradigms and ideologies. Dissent and debate are the life force of universities, and the energy and iconoclasm of youth is an essential component of this. Since the beginning of the last millenium students have emerged as important stake holders of a country's political processes. The slogans, protests and demonstrations in universities should be seen as the the churning of ideas in young minds. Mrs. Smriti Irani and her government have failed to acknowledge this, though the rest of the democratic world has, and instead have persistently sought to " control" them and foist their own dogmas on them, through either " direct" action such as appointments, control of syllabi, and administrative " advisories", or through preferential treatment of the ABVP.
    It is not surprising, therefore, that Mrs. Irani's tenure has been marked by complete distrust and a confrontational attitude on both sides.  Incidents over the past year in IIMs, IITs, FTII Pune, Hyderabad University, Puducherry, AMU- all should have cautioned the government against rushing into JNU. What would have been  no more than the usual campus protest and blowing off of excess steam has now snowballed into a country wide agitation that has invited support from leading international centers of learning. And Mrs. Irani's solution?- fly the national flag on all campuses!
  The atmosphere in our higher centers of learning has now been irretrievably vitiated for the remaining tenure of the NDA government: academia has been set back by many years and Mr. Gajendra Chauhan and Mr. Anupam Kher have now been crowned as the new intellectuals of India.

   Mr. Bassi, Delhi's Police Commissioner, on the other hand, has rendered great service to the nation: he has demonstrated as no one else could, what happens when the bureaucracy sells its soul to its political masters. His entire tenure has been marked by a servility to the central government and a hostility to the govt. of Delhi, an overbearing demeanour of unaccountability, and a professional ineptitude that takes one's breath away. At times it has been difficult to believe that he is not a politician: in my entire career of 35 years I have never heard of any officer challenging a Chief Minister to a public debate! Mr. Bassi did so. He should have been suspended for this conduct but instead he had encomiums heaped on him by a Home Minister who tweets first and thinks later.
  Even by the standards of a police force not known for its grasp of criminal law, the bungling by the Delhi police in the JNU case is colossal. Slapping sedition charges on nine students on the basis of a few alleged slogans is itself highly questionable; arresting one on the evidence of a doctored video clip SHOWN ON A TV CHANNEL is astounding. What was the hurry, Mr. Bassi ? It has been ten days now since the arrest and the police have not found one shred of evidence so far to support the sedition charge. In the interim, of course, Mr. Bassi has rewritten the CRPC: he says he will not take action to prevent the commission of a criminal act ( beating up of Kanhaiya by lawyers) because they are " officers of the court", that averting " collateral damage" is more important for him than preventing an assault on someone IN HIS CUSTODY, that he has evidence against an accused but will not oppose his bail, that the nine students must " prove their innocence" or be arrested !
  Mr. Bassi's behaviour would be hilarious were it not for the fact that it indicates how deep the rot of politicisation has set into our bureaucratic structure. Officers today don't give a damn about rules and the courts as long as they have the backing of their political masters. People like Mr. Bassi are the norm today, not the exception, in our civil services.

    Patiala House too  was inevitable given the sorry state of our legal profession and the kid gloves with which the judiciary has been treating repeated misdemeanours by lawyers in the past. It is no secret that the legal profession has been infiltrated by all kinds of undesirable persons: the Delhi Bar Council has itself stated that it suspects that 40% of its members have forged degrees! The Bar is a law unto itself and answers to no one, not even the Supreme Court. Notwithstanding that the Court has time and again opined that their frequent strikes are not legal they continue to hold the entire judicial system hostage. They even resort to violence and destruction of public and private property, as events earlier this month in Lucknow proved
   Therefore, no rational observer of the Indian burlesque should have been surprised at the manner in which they beat up journalists and students outside the Patiala House courts last week. And, even though the Supreme Court was seized of the matter, the next day they repeated their earlier violence, just in case their earlier message had got lost in transmission. Yesterday, a sting operation carried out by India Today shows the same lawyers gloating over how they thrashed Kanhaiya for three hours, how he soiled his pants, how the police sided with them. More ominously, they also hinted that they had more plans for the student leader when he was next produced in court and these plans could even include setting off petrol bombs!
  These worthies should have been in jail by now- after all a govt. which can arrest young students for raising slogans should be able to arrest hardened lawyers for assault and battery inside a court premises, right ? Wrong. Messers Sharma, Chauhan, et al are strutting about Delhi, draped in the " nationalistic" fervour of a govt which at the moment has little else to offer in the way of governance. Will the Supreme Court take stringent action against them? We'll have to wait and see-- but don't hold your breath.

   Ever since VP Singh released the OBC genie from its bottle in 1990 ALL political parties and ALL governments have been playing games with it to further their electoral prospects. According to a survey by the Anthropological Survey of India in the 1980's the country has a mind boggling 65000 castes! Of them 3743 were categorised as OBC and provided reservation under the Mandal formula. As if this list is not already mathematically astounding, there is  constant pressure to further ENLARGE this list. If it were not for the Supreme Court and its guidelines there would have been total social disorder by now. Mandal and the Constitution have been turned on their heads- no longer does backwardness and deprivation determine selection of a caste as OBC; the deciding factors are now numerical superiority and ability to wreak violence. It is the powerful who get included, not the weak. The Jats of Haryana may be slow on the uptake but they are not stupid: having been promised OBC status by both the Congress and the BJP ( in the face of the law laid down by the Supreme Court) for long, their bucolic patience has run thin and they have now decided to take matters in their own hands.
  The Jat agitation was waiting to happen. There are two more similar agitations going on as we speak- the Patidars in Gujarat and the Kapus down South; the Gujjars are again getting restive. Having failed politically to forestall the agitation, Mr. Modi and Khattar have failed administratively too, as the swathe of destruction, lawlessness and sheer mayhem over the entire state over the last ten days shows. Most of Haryana's police force either colluded with the goondas or stood by silently, another testament to the emasculation of the country's administrative structures over time. The Army and the CPMFs could do little as their hands too were tied by the dictum of " minimum force".
  And the crowning blunder is that the govt. has capitulated to this blackmail by promising the Jats 10% reservation ( its a different matter that the fruits of this craven surrender has little chance of getting past the Supreme Court). But by this action the govt. has lit the fuse on a time bomb- now other castes who had been waiting in the wings will also wade in with similar demands. The so called " forward" castes and the Muslims and Christians will sense their impending marginalisation and cannot be expected to remain silent. I foresee in the days to come a social tumult not seen before; ironically, under the watch of a "strong" and "decisive" Prime Minister.

   Our sins are catching up with us--fast. We are not yet a failed state, but we certainly appear to be what Lant Pritchett ( Professor of Economics at Harvard) calls a " flailing state". I would go even further to say that we are a " floundering" state. One cannot do better than put it in Shakespeare's words:

" O judgement! Thou are fled to brutish beasts
And men have lost their reason. " 


Thursday, 4 February 2016


The government has announced the names of 20 cities ( out of 100) to be covered under the Smart Cities project. Over five years Rs. 96000 crores ( approx. US$ 16 billion) shall be spent on it, with the Central govt. contributing Rs. 500 crores per city and the rest being made good by the state governments.

In my view this mammoth outlay would have been better spent on developing 10000 villages ( Rs. 10 crore per village) out of India's six lakh or so villages so as to provide basic infrastructure and employment opportunities in rural areas where the vast majority of our population still resides. Owing to the abysmal conditions in most of the villages( lack of education, healthcare, employment, power, connectivity, public transport) ever increasing millions of villagers are migrating to urban centers( in Bihar, it is estimated that 40% of youth above 14 years of age have gone to cities!). Our cities and towns are already bursting at the seams and are on the verge of collapse, thanks to decades of faulty planning, corruption and misgovernance. There are already 380 million Indians living in towns, and it is estimated that by 2030 this will go up to a mind blowing 800 million. There is no way that our decrepit cities can absorb these numbers, with or without Smart Cities projects. In fact, the tom-tomming of this project will only attract more migration.

An enlightened government would, therefore, have focused its resources on developing our villages, providing them the essential services and institutions whose absence is the prime driver of migration in the first place. The priority in planning should be to stop this rural-urban migration; not only would this lead to more balanced development, it would also stop the emergence of forces and pressures that would make our cities unlivable and ungovernable, which is already happening.

This is not to deny that our cities also are in dire need of upgradation and modernisation- I have already stated that they are on the verge of collapse. But their dilapidated and precarious state is primarily of their own making, unlike the villages who have never been on our planning radar at all. Even though governments continue to pump in thousands of crores into these cities every year their deterioration has been steady. Secondly, the cities have the potential to raise their own resources, which the villages lack. If the rank politics and misgovernance on display in our urban areas were to be eradicated, they would have no dearth of funds. To give just one example, the MCD of Delhi ( which today has no money to pay even wages and pensions) recovers property tax from just one million properties, even though its records show there are five million properties in the city. Even this tax has not been revised in the last eleven years! Every town and city in India suffers from the same plague  where the priority of city governments is to win  elections and line individual pockets, and not to provide efficient services.

 What I am trying to convey is that the potential to raise funds for their own development exists in cities and they should exploit that rather than be given hand-outs by the central government through such projects. Even private capital can be attracted through PPP schemes in such areas as public transport, toll collection, parking, maintenance of green belts, waste removal etc. By putting them on state sponsored drip feed we create an adverse disincentive for them make any attempt to improve their functioning. Villages, on the other hand, are denied these advantages and should have had first claim on the nation's scarce resources.

However, we have to accept that for Mr. Modi and the NDA that old adage still applies: Big is beautiful, and Smart Cities follows other big ticket egregious schemes such as the " world's tallest statue" of Sirdar Patel and the Bullet train ( Rs. 76000 crore), neither of which, incidentally, will improve the life of the average  Indian in any way. So the project is here to stay and needs to be examined on its own merits. But here too its beginnings appear to suggest that government's thought processes have not changed and the pettiness of politics as usual has prevailed over any rational assessment of what the country as a whole needs. I refer, naturally, to the selection of the first 20 cities.

One would have expected that the first criteria for selection would have been the maximisation of benefits- i.e. choose the biggest cities with the biggest problems so that the largest number of city dwellers are covered. That has not happened. Only 8 of India's largest cities feature in the list: some of the largest such as Kanpur, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bangalore, even Delhi ( NDMC is a favoured civil cantonement) have been left out.

So have states such as UP, Bihar, and West Bengal- a third of India's population!

Not a single city in the hill states has been included- all these states are in the " special category" class, are vulnerable to earthquakes and are being devastated by mass tourism. Including one of them would have provided a model for planned and sustainable development in the urban areas of the hills. Nor has any city from the north-eastern hill states been included, confirming the general perception that they are peripheral to the national planning process. It appears that the central government considers all these states as  worthy only of being exploited for their natural resources.

The unkindest cut of all is the inclusion of NDMC ( New Delhi Municipal Committee) in the list. This urban unit is already the most favoured urban conglomeration in the country and its residents ( politicians, senior bureaucrats, rich businessmen, well connected journos, the gin and tonic habituees of premier clubs) the most pampered lot of all. NDMC covers only two percent of Delhi's geographical area and contains just one percent of its population, it is awash with funds ( its budget is 25% of the rest of Delhi's three corporations put together), it has the widest avenues, the maximun green cover, and it is not dependent on public transport. It consumes four times of water, per capita, as the average Delhi citizen. It certainly does not need the additional largesse of being included under the Smart Cities project. Its deliciously ironic that its inclusion has been announced on the same day when the rest of Delhi began its tryst with garbage( the third time this year) because it cannot pay its staff.

The selection process is deeply flawed and the central government's defence- that it followed prescribed criteria- is as disgenuous as it is mischievous. It is like fixing a tender- prescribe conditions that favour those whom you wish to reward: it is a tactic that is as old as the bureaucracy! 
The main criteria was to assess the states' plan of action in four key areas: Swachh Bharat, Make in India, making governance citizen friendly and e-governance. Is this all that it takes to make smart cities? Make in India may be Mr. Modi's pet peev but it has no relevance to city management. Citizen friendly and e-governance can only be additives to basic policies, not the policy itself. What about slums, housing, waste removal, SUSTAINABLE USE OF NATURAL RESOURCES, public transport, a healthy environment, a better quality of life, education, health ? What about GOOD GOVERNANCE, the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about but without which all else matters little ? The evidence is right there under Mr. Modi's nose- Swachh Bharat in Delhi means seventy thousand tonnes of garbage piled up on Delhi's thoroughfares and the BJP encouraging the strike instead of finding a solution to this endemic problem. The first criteria should have been : TAKE POLITICS OUT OF CITY ADMINISTRATION.

Critical developmental initiatives have to be need based, must provide benefits to the largest possible number, and must support those states which are the weakest. Development projects cannot be formulated on the lines of a Miss India contest- reward those who are best packaged and can best answer questions put to them by the judges. The best consultant report cannot be the basis for deciding that Solapur shall be chosen above Kanpur, for example. Resources should be directed towards areas where the problem is most intense. The government will always monitor progress before releasing funds and non-performance on set parameters would result in non release of funds.

I have deliberately refrained from going into the politics behind the selection, but its stench is unmistakeable. The Planning Commission, with all its arbitrariness and feudal discretionary power, may have gone but not its mentality- like Banquo's ghost it still haunts the edifices of power.