Category Archives: India

Random thoughts on being an independent country

It’s been 65 years since India got its administrative independence. From a country being governed by the British, we became a country governed by our own. Looking at it cynically, from a country being looted by the foreigners, we became a country being looted by the indigenous.

This year it has been a semi-drought condition in the country and lots of news channels have repeatedly been showing images of semi-naked, emaciated, old or middle-aged farmers squatting on a parched, cracked piece of land, covering their eyes from the glare of the sun, hopelessly looking at the cloudless sky with their lifeless eyes. I told my wife, “These images were representative of an average Indian back in the 17th century, the 18th-century, the 19th century, the 20th century, and scarily, even now, in 2012, and scarier, even after 50 years, we will have these same images being attributed to an average Indian.”

We are still dying of hunger after 65 years. Garibi hatao still remains a political slogan and there is no collective embarrassment over this. People still eat poisonous roots because they cannot find proper food. There are more malnutritioned children in India than in sub Saharan Africa. According to World Bank, in 2011 32.7% people in India live below the international standard of poverty line, incidentally, which is much higher compared to our own planning commission that says that in order to qualify as a person living below the poverty line you should be unable to spend Rs. 27 per day. The international standard says it should be $ 1.25, roughly that is Rs. 70 according to current exchange rate.

India is a vast country. There are hundreds of ethnic groups that don’t seem to be able to relate to each other. Even in 2012, Karunanidhi is again trying to rake up the issue of a separate Eelam for the Tamils. We have countless languages and dialects. The caste system has kept our population perpetually divided. Our Malthusian population growth has ensured a cornucopia of scarcities no matter how much the country produces (despite the government). Within the first decade of our independence the Congress — the main ruling party — started indulging in politics of casteism and communalism that later permeated every aspect of body polity. Economic growth, social morality, public well-being, food security and education have never been at the forefront of the national consciousness. We can kill and die for religion and caste, but not for schools, hospitals and roads. So yes, conventionally speaking, many of these problems can be termed as insurmountable. Some would even say, despite these problems, we have come a long way.

Surely we have. Despite daily episodes of road rage, staggering corruption, near-absent infrastructure, collapsing moral values, twisted consumerism and an inveterate acrimony towards our fellow countrymen and women, we have come a long way. When India got independence, the world had no hope for the country, at least when it came to democracy. The experts predicted that the country would soon be balkanized. Maintaining a sense of democracy wouldn’t be possible over such a diverse demography that is perpetually in the grip of turmoil and hostility. In that sense, we have had successive elections, given a few exceptions here and there, massive booth capturing and poll rigging and all. Democracy has survived in India for the past 65 years and this is a big feat.

Fortunately for India, the people of the country have shown exceptional survival skills despite being ruled by perhaps among the most corrupt politicians and administrators in the world. You can also call it serendipity. The historical turn of events took such a shape that it was possible to make more money maintaining the semblance of democracy rather than turning despotic. Anyway, talking about the people. Whatever progress you see around you, can be attributed to 2 things: the law of probability and survival instinct.

We have a huge population in the country so all those people who have experienced success and prosperity can attribute much of their fortune to the sheer number. Our complete social fabric and administrative system is quite chaotic. Drive your vehicle on the road for a couple of hours and you will know what I’m talking about. Some of us survive and prosper simply because we are too many to be obliterated.

Survival instinct is the second attribute. A big chunk of our population, majorly coming from Hinduism, had been under various foreign rules for more than 1000 years. It must have been really crushing. Nonetheless it survived. Any other religion and population would have perished long ago. We Indians haven’t. No matter how pathetic our living conditions are, we go on living, and miraculously, we survive, propagate, and many of us, even prosper. So despite the fundamental image of India remaining that of a hopeless farmer squatting on a cracked piece of land waiting for the gods to show some mercy on him, some of us have used whatever scant opportunities have come our ways.

What’s been lacking? Why has India been so miserable all these years? Why after attaining independence we couldn’t even become a IInd world country, if not first world? What the heck went wrong?

I’m not a scholar, but my common sense says, as I do more and more reading, our founding Fathers invested very little in human development, purposely or inadvertently. Dynastic politics has ensured that no competent politicians can come at the helm of affairs right from the days of Jawahar Lal Nehru. They built monumental dams and nationalised behemoths but ignored the intellect. We had a very large population that was backward and illiterate. It needed to be educated. The imperialistic system of education needed to be abandoned in the favour of more holistic, purposeful education system. For more than 1000 years we had been under various foreign rules and that had taken a big toll on our intellectual growth and moral bearings. Everything was about day-to-day survival – looking at the skies for rains and trying to avoid crossing paths with social and political bullies. This is not a conducive environment for growth.

As a nation, we are not a proud people, and it shows through our jingoism and misplaced nationalism. As I have already said, we can kill and die for religion and caste, but not for schools, hospitals, and roads. Election after election we vote for corrupt and degraded politicians simply because they belong to our religion or caste. We don’t judge people by the work they do but by the religion or caste they belong to. In fact the moral depression has been so deep-rooted that people start making fun of people who actually want to do something constructive for the country. Spend some time on Twitter to get a taste of this moral depression and inferiority complex.

We got independence from the British in 1947 but we never got independence from our ignorance, indifference, backwardness and political immaturity. Over the millennium we became lazy and timid and our benchmarks became mediocre. We never got independence from our religious and caste biases. We have been a hodgepodge of ideologies and cultural idiosyncrasies, never truly becoming a nation. In order to become a nation we need to be proud of ourselves. We need to have a collective vision. And this vision needs to be among the masses, and not exclusively among politicians, intellectuals and think tanks. The day we decide that we need to have a collective vision, and then collectively start working towards it, we will be truly independent.

Is the government trying to create an Orwellian world?

Internet censorship in India

Remember Nineteen Eighty-Four? Not the anti-Sikh riots but the book written by George Orwell?

In that book the government controls and monitors your every action, your every thought, and every aspect of your life. Everywhere there are human and technological spies monitoring whatever you do.

The same thing seems to be happening with the latest effort of the government to monitor content on the Internet on the basis of what is “objectionable”, “defamatory”, or whatever label the so-called government is uncomfortable with.

To be frank, the Internet scares the shit out of them, especially after WikiLeaks, the unshackled conversations over Twitter and Facebook and social networking-supported civic unrests. And it’s not just the government; all the agencies, may it be bureaucracy, the conventional mainstream media and the old school businesses that thrive on people’s inability to communicate with each other, would like to throttle the free flow of information on the Internet. Precisely this is the reason why there is no hue and cry on TV channels on the government’s new censorship drive.

Wondering what’s the big deal?

According to the new Information Technology Guidelines notified by the government

  • Your Internet service provider must store your every online activity-related data that the government agencies can access any time without notification or without you ever knowing it
  • All your private conversations via e-mail and Skype (and communications via other platforms) will be accessible to the government agencies
  • All your private photographs and messages will be available to the babus
  • If your content on your blog or Facebook or anywhere else is found “objectionable” it has to be taken down within 36 hours
  • Anyone can say that your content is “defamatory” and get it removed from the World Wide Web
  • Your every tweet, every Facebook post, every video, every search on Google (and other search engines), everything is going to be monitored

The government has invested Rs. 450 crores (yes, your money) to track the undersea cables for encrypted data and more than 53 modules have already been established. It means, while I’m typing this blog post, this might already be monitored and I may have to take it down in case some nut case finds it objectionable.

This is not just an India specific problem. In the name of SOPA there are efforts also in the USA to censor the Internet and many of the Arabian countries have already convinced the rest of the world why the Internet is to be censored.

The Internet censorship is more nefarious compared to  the usual censorship because no media has impacted the world as the Internet. It is now cliched, but had Facebook been a country, it would have been the third most populated country in the world, so you can very well imagine why even the biggest governments feel sort of powerless in front of its reach. Another problem (from the control freak government’s point of view) is that you no longer have to depend on computers and laptops in order to access the Internet and social networking applications. You can interact on Twitter and Facebook even from cheapest mobile phones these days. You can even post blog posts from your smart phones. It hardly takes a few seconds for the news to spread across the country, whether you are in a train, in a bus, having lunch, having a poop, or whatever you are doing. Hence, the zeal to control it, to censor it, to severe its most important vein — freedom of expression.

Can you stop it?

You can only stop it with collective effort. Make it more damaging for the government to censor the Internet. In India it might be difficult because there is just a small portion of the population that is active on the Internet and it might not be a vote bank but were it so insignificant, why would the government try to choke it? It certainly feels threatened. It certainly has an impact.

To begin with, you can sign this online petition against the government’s new diktat. You can also approach your local MPs and MLAs and your representatives and convey to them what you think of this censorship drive (realistically, I’m not too optimistic of this approach).

Write against it on your blog. In fact, I’m going to link from this blog post to all the blog posts and articles written on this subject.

Create online forums to discuss the matter.

I mean, do whatever you want to do, but do something. Once the damage is done, it will be nearly impossible to undo it.

Related reading

 

How to handle a regional bully like China

China has been a regional thorn for India ever since the 1962 war. India took a severe beating (due to Jawahar Lal Nehru’s shortsightedness and the foreign policy ridden with a personal agenda) in that war. India’s military power has improved tremendously since then, but obviously it cannot match China’s might due to its sheer size. China knows this.

Aside from repeatedly crossing the Indo-China border and carrying out various mischieves it has also started to meddle with India’s foreign policy vis-a-vis other regional countries like Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, etc. The recent example is the indirect warning against India’s forays into oil exploration in the South China Sea in collaboration with Vietnam. According to India, ONGC-Videsh (ONGC’s overseas arm) is carrying out its operations fully in compliance with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

This particular problem is not directly related to India because China considers the region being explored as a disputed territory and it is already embroiled in heated exchanges with countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. So India going ahead with collaborative oil exploration means Vietnam taking unilateral decision and asserting its right on the region.

Anyway, this is just one of the issues. China is a tough neighbour to handle. Beyond doubt it is a regional bully and to make the matters worse, it is not even a democracy. It is headed by a communist regime and most of its people (not everybody, understandably) support such a government. It has no interest in establishing and maintaining friendly ties with the country it looks down upon: India. India is an economic competition but more than that it is a nuisance for them simply due to some perverted habit. Pakistan’s hatred towards India can be defined on the canvas of religion and historical references, but China dislikes India just for the heck of it, it seems sometimes. Both the countries have enjoyed historical ties but something happened in 1962 and they were permanently broken.

So how should India handle a neighbour who is not interested in peace and who doesn’t respect you? China is almost double the size of India and nothing can be done about that and this is a reality we have to live with. It is economically stronger, militarily stronger and even its influence on the international politics is much greater than India. China is one of the biggest holders of US debt (the US public debt is 98% of its GDP). There is practically no country in the world that can directly challenge China or come to India’s support due to whatever reason.

I think we should learn a lesson from Pakistan. Despite being comparatively smaller and despite its economy being in total shambles, Pakistan has created a significant deterrence against India. Should India have more nuclear warheads with their nozzles pointing at China? I’m not a military strategist so I don’t know how much of it is going to be effective.

By nature India is not suicidal. India can obliterate Pakistan completely and in retaliation even Pakistan can cause lots of harm to India. In desperation Pakistanis will be okay with the fact that they will be completely destroyed as long as they can inflict a significant wound to India. India on the other hand cannot have similar approach towards China. The Chinese can completely finish off India and India can cause a significant damage to China. Being a country optimistic about its future India will never tread upon such a path.

Similarly, China will be ready to bear significant damage, just like Pakistan, if such a case scenario manifests, as long as it can incinerate the whole of India. As a layperson, I see this as a lose-lose situation. Both Pakistan and China can be reckless and this makes them more dangerous. The only saving grace in the case of Pakistan is perhaps India can contain it before it can launch its nuclear warheads.

Jingoism and filibustering is not going to help. This issue needs a long-term policy. Every problem has a solution and so must this one. I think if India can sort out its massive corruption it can invest a good chunk of that money in defence-related research and development. It desperately needs to upgrade its warheads – on the seas, in the skies and on the ground. It’s high time India stopped purchasing out-of-use or second-hand warheads and started developing its own, targeted versions.

The current political establishment is quite directionless as well as pussilanimous (but then how can you expect the corrupt to have a vision for the country?). People of this country must work towards completely changing the establishment and encouraging people who have a vision and direction. We must have a strong and well-defined foreign policy. We should clearly know how the government is going to respond to unfavourable overtures, physical as well as verbal. We are always reacting and even those reactions are not actually reactions but fumblings. Just like corruption, terrorism, price rise and religious/class conflicts we should choose political parties that have a clear foreign policy agendas. The next time your local politician comes to seek votes, ask him or her, how his or her party plans to handle China?

The solution to China-problem lies more with people of India than building a strong military deterrence (although that too is necessary, but it will happen gradually). China is a real problem gawking at us and challenging us, although we cannot see it directly or experience it immediately. It is like the bull in the china shop and you never know when it will turn violent.

What our economy needs right now

I’m not an economist so I’m writing this just as a layperson.

I think there are 2 things our policymakers can do to sort out the economy, in fact 3 things:

  • Make economic corruption one of the most heinous crimes
  • Retrieve all the money that is earned by corrupt (by corrupt means)
  • Make the rich pay more money in the form of taxes

A lot of India’s problems can be solved if corruption is taken care of because it eats into whatever development takes place. It is a big financial burden and the great disincentive for common people to engage in entrepreneurship and contribute towards the overall growth of the country. Simply starting a small business can be a nightmare, still, in many parts of the country.

Billions of rupees have been stashed away by the corrupt and this money can be productively used for the benefit of the country. I’m not aware of the exact figures, but many claim if India can retrieve the money that has been stolen from the country’s coffers India will not only repay its entire debt a lot of extra cash will be left for other work. So this must be done on a war footing because this cash is basically lying there and all it needs is a strong political will to get it back.

And now taxing the rich more — something to the tune of what Obama is trying to achieve. No, I am not against the rich but I think it is not going to put a personal strain on their affluence it for some years they have to pay more taxes. Let us say I have 50 crores stashed away in my bank – it is all white money. What harm does it do to me if I have to give say, 5 crores to the country? Of course it is my hard earned money but I’m not actually creating a better world for my children if the rest of my country remains poor and backward. I’m sure not every rich person in the country wants to eventually settle in Europe or America. So if they envisage themselves living in the country in their old age and their children prospering here, they should invest in the overall growth of the country.

Of the three suggestions I have made, the 3rd one rests upon the success of the first 2. As a rich person why should I part with my hard earned money when I’m sure that 95% of that money is going to go in the pockets of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats? So the third phenomena can only take place if the first two are implemented properly.

What do you think?

A mix of reforms and monitoring

The dust is gradually settling down after almost a fortnight of public anger and high-drama negotiations and this is the time some thinking work starts. Just read this objective piece on Wall Street Journal titled Getting a Grip on Indian Corruption that suggests a balanced approach of reforms and monitoring. Although the article takes a pessimistic view of the Anna Hazare movement it rightly says that

Restricting business freedom through extensive government regulation is probably the greatest source of graft. Licenses, permits and quotas create artificial rents and self-interested bureaucrats and politicians attempt to extract these rents while entrepreneurs lobby for them. Compliance requirements and inspections worsen the problem.

Another source of corruption is the state’s welfare schemes, which are notorious for corrupt middlemen. The late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi complained that only 15 cents of every dollar spent by the government on welfare reached the poor. Too many bribes change hands for the poor to get access to their entitlements.

But people over-analyze the situation and tend to miss the whole point of the agitation. To be frank, the common person on the street (lower-middle-class, hawkers, rickshaw pullers and such) are not bothered with high-level scams where crores of rupees go waste. They are concerned with the day-to-day corruption they have to face while trying to earn their living and this was the bone of contention when the team Anna was negotiating with the government, that the lower level bureaucracy must be brought under the ambit of the Jan Lok Pal bill.

Is this problem going to go away? I’m not sure. As I have  repeatedly mentioned on this blog as well as in my Twitter postings, the thing that attracts me towards such movements is the public consciousness that is stirred by them. Whatever may the cynics say, even if 50 people are motivated and try to embrace the ideas being spread by the movement I think the objective is achieved. No political party or politician has been able to achieve this feat.

Eventually we need social, political and economic reforms and unless these reforms happen nothing much is going to change. A single agency or a lokpal (ombudsman) no matter how many thousand people are employed in the chain of control (we have a pretty big country), won’t be able to achieve what reforms can achieve. Controls, interference and misplaced incentives that are the root causes of corruption must be refined or eliminated, whether it is the reservation system, the license-permit formalities or a horde of other things that create a breeding ground for corruption.