The house is burning

Print edition : January 28, 2011

Tribal people of Chhattisgarh migrating to Andhra Pradesh, a file picture.Tribal people fear "development" because it means giving way to rapacious multinational companies and moving to unfamiliar territory. - G.N. RAO

Against a backdrop of gloom and despair, the urban elite of the country lives in a state of smugness.

THE inspiration for my column this time comes from a lecture that I recently attended in Chennai. The speaker was Amit Bhaduri, Professor Emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. A well-known economist who as introduced by my friend Onkar Rao of the Krishnamurti Foundation eludes the label of being either a leftist or anyone close to that label. During the talk that lasted for more than an hour and was delivered with great poise to an enlightened audience, the distinguished academic more than justified Onkar's description. I was struck by the clarity and candour of his discourse on the current Indian economic and political scene, which naturally covered a vast canvas. Without any inhibition I have borrowed the topic of his talk for this column because I feel that it has most appropriately profiled the pathos that we see around us. Against the backdrop of widespread gloom and despair in many parts of the country, there is a certain smugness that envelops all of us belonging to the urban elite and is as comfortable as deep slumber in an air-conditioned room on a summer afternoon. There were more than shades of P. Sainath in whatever Bhaduri told us that evening.

The talk inevitably dealt with the recent scams in the country. Economic crime is no doubt a phenomenon seen in many other countries as well, including the so-called developed countries. What was distressing to Prof. Bhaduri and made the difference to the Indian context was the alarming and growing money power and its adverse influence on the media. For instance, the Right to Information (RTI) Act has no doubt brought about some qualitative change in the situation. Gone are the days when the consummate civil servant, protected by an even more wily politician, could obfuscate what goes on behind the scenes in a public office. The irony, however, is that whatever information is extracted from government agencies now is often not projected through the media because the media are shy of publicising details that could adversely affect personalities from whom they have received favours. Prof. Bhaduri hinted that accurate and fearless reporting was of the essence if more people were to be deterred from indulging in corruption.

The professor's insight into tribal people's unrest in the Maoist belt was even more telling. He lamented that the widely used jargon development ignored the harsh realities of the current scene in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and other States. Tribal people fear the word because it means giving way to rapacious multinational companies and migrating to unfamiliar territory. They speak only their own tribal languages and live off the land. Everything else is anathema or forbidding, including the learning of new skills. This is why they react the way they do to forcible deprivation of their meagre possessions. Prof. Bhaduri also referred to the growing number of farmer suicides in certain States such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, whose significance is hardly understood by urbanites like us. This is because the infrastructure boom in cities and the populist measures of extravagant governments who dish out freebies (such as colour television sets) to massive sections of the population successfully build the illusion that everything is well in the country.

For instance, the government's deft handling of statistics makes us believe that the projected 8 per cent growth is real. What the government successfully hides is that such a rate of growth is bolstered by the arrival of huge investment funds from the rest of the world (by investors lured and impressed by the assessment of credit agencies such as Standard & Poor's), rather than by domestic creation of assets or enlargement of exports, as in the case of China. In Prof. Bhaduri's assessment, there is a clear divide between the deceptive urban affluence and the grinding rural poverty, which has dangerous implications for the country's overall stability.

All that the professor said had genuine tones of an appeal to concerned citizens that they should wake up from their slumber to build public opinion that will resist the chicanery that is perpetrated on guileless sections of the population. Apathy to the Commonwealth Games scam and the 2G spectrum allocation scam and so on could encourage more massive misappropriation of public funds, with major implications for the economy. There is a definite need to bring enough pressure on agencies probing such episodes so that the guilty and those behind them are brought to book. The Supreme Court is monitoring the investigation into at least some of the misdeeds of public servants. If this were not the case, whistle-blowers could be browbeaten into silence or actually liquidated. This is why I attach greater importance to the problem of tackling violence in the country.

There are not many who comprehend the growing trend of violence being used to settle personal scores. Attacks on witnesses deposing in criminal cases and accused persons lodged in jails have become too common to provoke public outrage or receive media attention, except in a cursory manner. What worries me more is the incapacity of law-enforcement agencies to protect the vulnerable, for instance, women and children who have no money power to buy services that, as citizens, they should be able to get free of cost. It is common knowledge that few police stations in the country register a criminal complaint unless it is backed by an illegal payment. Any follow-up action also entails an expenditure that a victim can hardly afford. It is equally true that victims become the accused, and their aggressors are treated as the aggrieved wherever a politician backs the law-breaker. This is the shameful state of affairs after six decades of self-rule. In such a situation, where will the poor go to get some redress?

The lower judiciary should normally come to their rescue. Here also one faces an intolerably corrupt system that bewilders those who want to help victims of crime. While the judiciary has received a beating from certain unfortunate episodes in the recent past, I would attach greater importance to police reforms. This is because it is the police to whom a victim turns for succour in the first instance. His interaction with the judiciary comes much later, if at all it is necessary.

Any government that ignores this crying need is not worth its salt. This is precisely what is happening in most of India. Governments are content with cosmetic changes to hoodwink the judiciary and the common man. The Supreme Court-ordered reforms that came four years ago have been implemented reluctantly and partially. The common man is ignorant of this deceit practised by the state and is, therefore, unaware of the impact of this dishonesty on his daily life. My greatest regret is that we have not been able to build popular opinion in favour of implementing police reforms.

A well-trained and well-paid police force that is autonomous but accountable is the best guarantee against injustice. This is an ideal towards which every democracy should work. But it remains a mere theory and is considered impractical and unachievable by vested interests that need the police for misuse against those who stand for fairness and integrity in public life. This is the tragedy that continues to bedevil us.

Prof. Bhaduri's commentary on the Indian scene needs to be considered mainly against this backdrop. It is easy to dismiss him as an armchair critic who is of no relevance to the harsh realities of India where poverty is stark and there is a burgeoning middle class that corners all the privileges. This is a sure road to disaster.

Giving up the fight against the oligarchy of the political class is again an easy option. It is academics such as Prof. Bhaduri who have to keep shouting from the rooftops about the increasingly divisive Indian politics and economy. Illusions will have to be debunked, whatever the costs. One just cannot allow our houses to keep burning without dousing the fire and sleep unmindful of the dangers around us.

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