Lack of a convincing and binding narrative in the anti-corruption fight in India

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Bertrand Russell

The quote could hold true in India on both sides of the corruption fence. Administrators who have a lot to offer are fiddling and so are civil society members.

If the media brouhaha is to be relied upon then 2011 has been the year when India finally decided to do something against the corruption monster. India Against Corruption does give the notion that the whole of India has risen united against corruption and it is just a few months or years of struggle and we will soon have a ‘corruption free’ India.

The ‘much informed’ and connected world that we live in these tweets and posts and newscasts and headlines magnify into a gushing electronic river which creates an impression of some great revolution going on.

But how united is India against corruption and is 2011 really that year which will see the dawn of a new era going ahead. Is the Jan Lokpal Bill the bellwether? The media is notorious for its inability to capture lesser known but equally significant aspects of any issue. And I would like to state that the JLB campaign is the most unconvincing narrative I have heard to date about how corruption can be fought. And as regards binding, there are a number of other equally strong narratives which completely debunk the JLB line of thinking.

Those in the RTI brigade have their own stories to tell and there are the hard liners there who feel it is the panacea – one magic wand to fight all corruption. While it has helped a lot in the past few years we are now well aware of the kind of mess that RTI has landed itself in. And we are also aware of how little endemic corruption has reduced.

There are people from my line of thinking – a faction within activists,  strongly believe that if you have to run a society well there is no alternative to each and every citizen involving themselves in decisions taken for them by the government and RTI and JLB can be means but certainly no substitute for active involved citizens – in the absence of which all institutions are destined to fail.

And beyond the electronic gush and divergent narratives, if you walk the streets, travel on public transport and visit government offices you realise that there is hardly any feeling of a revolution – far less any incremental change from business as usual.

The one who shouts the loudest is seen the most but that does not mean he comprises the majority and it also doesn’t mean that he makes the most sense. Within the civil society arena there is considerable consternation at the disproportionate attention that the JLB campaign has drawn and for the little it will deliver. And I for one have been the most vociferous – though not public – critic of the JLB movement.

Most JLB supporters fall in a category which clearly showcases India as a country of blind belief, of unquestioning people and of people who believe disproportionately high in miracles – in this case a Jan Lokpal who like some avatar of Vishnu will come and kill the demon of corruption. All the while the people themselves will do nothing and only engage in rituals. Rituals like feel good messages on facebook and Twitter, hair raising melodramatic messages of patriotism and glory, amass at grounds, waive flags, sing songs, do dinchaka dances, create posters and wear some stupid caps and uniforms, rush in at the sight of their Anna, build cordons around him, hold candles with poignant faces. This is the most of active citizenry we see in India.

Mumbai is in the midst of making its much jinxed but important development plan for the coming decade and the number of people participating there are a very poor proxy for an educated middle class class, which has abandoned any meaningful engagement with their immediate surroundings. A lot of these will be found washing their sins in the JLB Ganga.

It is fascinating to see the huge amount of logistics and resources that people have decided to sink into all the activities that have gone to support the campaign, from time to money to their vehicles and offices and other resources. Ask them to come forward for supporting something substantive and all you hear is doubt. Its fascinating also to see how those who have something substantive to offer do not have an equal strength of resolve and the energy to scale their thoughts. Its like the Bertrand Russell quote.

There are the organisers and then there are the supporters. While the organisers have a lot of experience dealing with governance most of the supporters are people who wouldn’t even know their elected representatives and municipal budgets properly. And without ever participating in the governance of their cities they would like a JLB to come an rid their municipal corporations clean of corruption – Mere Bhartiya Mahan.

People who have been critical of the JLB have not bothered to come together for an anti-JLB campaign, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they would number equal or more.

It is sacrilege in India to be critical of campaigns and individuals in India, and especially of those in the civil society arena but still I have to comment on the organisers of IAC.

Having known Mayank Gandhi for a decade now I am not surprised at the manner and form of the campaign. I worked with him in 2008 in the immediate last association, where I was thoroughly disappointed with his approach towards the inner city redevelopment project that we were working on.

It was the same rallies and conventions and high sounding rhetoric without any substantive thought leadership or a plan which was well crafted to the existing reality. The much needed and important initiative tanked into oblivion.

Even before JLB Mayank and some of those who are part of IAC had been part of campaigns which have promised panacea but have only seen the targeted issues going from bad to worse – the Metropolitan Planning Commission and NagaraRaj Bill to give examples. At one time these campaigns were also peddled with equal conviction and noise as the JLB of today. All along I have been equally unconvinced choosing to stay convinced that there is no substitute to active citizenry.

Public memory is short, critical evaluation is sacrilege and Bharat Mata copiously produces blind believers so we continue to have one ineffective campaign after the other.

The only good thing maybe the current anti-corruption and JLB Campaign  have done is to help do an inventory of some of the naive people in India – the census doesn’t have one such category and so its been very helpful.

And when I say people I must qualify that it is the educated middle class – the ones with a full stomach who can afford time pass. The vast majority of the population, the economically not so well off,  have been sanguine. The electoral victories of the NCP (Anna’s bete noire) in the recent municipal council elections in Maharashtra are an indicator even after discounting for electoral malpractices.

An irrational legacy of Abdul Kalam

Into my new political avatar I got into discussion with a colleague about the river linking idea which was so vociferously supported by the ex-President Abdul Kalam. While discussing the need for having positions on various issues my colleague brought out the need for inter-linking rivers as supported by the ex-President. While I had also got the initial euphoria on Kalam becoming the President and was moved my his patriotic and well intentioned thoughts for the country, I had become increasingly begun to see Kalam as being a close minded senile man, a number of whose ideas were not well researched and indeed much damaging for the country.

I think Kalam made a fit case for the country to be very careful in choosing its Presidents and more importantly to not become blind worshipers of people.

On the river inter-linking issue it was not the first time I had felt my blood boil when I heard people discuss their appreciation for the ‘wonderful’ idea of a ‘great President’. The simplistic arguments of my colleague went as follows:

1) River Linking will eradicated famine as water from surplus rivers will flow into dry areas.

2) Russia had successfully done the same and see the benefits it has derived.

What I had to discuss was as below. These will also be the basis for my involvement in the government should my political involvement ever give me a chance to direct policy in India:

1) It is primarily water management that this country needs to start discussing rather than specific solutions like river-linking. Kalam was a defense scientist, not somebody who was involved with water or understood the issue. A frightfully large majority of people have this fallacy in their thinking, that they ascribe qualities to an accomplished person, which he/she may not have. While a defense scientist who has contributed so much to the country would undoubtedly be intelligent he would by no means be aware of the requirements of each issue. And I think becoming a President went to the head of Kalam or he was intelligently ‘managed’ by vested interests who stood to gain from the project, making Kalam a rubber stamp spokes person for the project.

2) In Bombay, while the city gets a comfortable supply of water, it is not difficult to find areas within a 200 km radius, which face tremendous water stress. All this while a lot of people in Bombay can afford to flush 10 litres of potable water every time they use the toilet. In such a scenario would it not be better to work on a policy which completely enables water recycling of grey water to be used for flushing? The resultant savings could be diverted to hamlets and villages in dire need. Where does one need water linking or heavy engineering for this? Most probably there is not enough money to be made. The Government needs to work more on enabling policies and less on being an agent for ‘some’ businessmen in finding projects or worse still become a businessperson itself.

3) As regards river-linking versus water management my point of contention is that you need to look into the cost benefit ratio of each solution. At what cost will river linking be achieved (keeping cost over runs and delays in mind) and how many cusecs of water will it deliver? As against that at what cost is water management achieved and how much water does it deliver (a large component in terms of savings arising out of efficient water use).

4) The costs for river linking are outrageously high. Does the country have the funds to get into such a costly project? Will we borrow money from donor agencies to execute the project? Which means that we will necessarily be indebting future generations who will then be repaying the loan. I read the following on the Sardar Sarovar Project – Reckless borrowing, unholy redemption.

5) Has anybody even bothered to look into the water quality in rivers in the country? Most have been converted to open sewers with untreated sewage and effluents being released unchecked into them. In such a scenario is it river-linking we are talking of or sewer-linking? Should not there be a fundamental focus on drastic improvement of the water quality in rivers across the country?

6) The country since millenia has developed wonderful water management techniques which aim to best capture and utilise water where it falls. Why then are we so enamoured by heavy engineering solutions from Russia and the rest of the world. Where does that excess pride in India and its glorious culture disappear at such times? Time to move beyond cricket and naach-gana.

7) This country and the people who run it are only interested in solutions which cost a lot of money. Solutions need to have multi-zero budgets. Solutions which cost less but possibly deliver better results (cost-benefit ratio) are not appreciated and much less find their way in policy. There are a large number of people in the country who discuss corruption and the need to eliminate then and they need to understand that many of these heavy engineering solutions are the fountain head of all corruption. Money siphoned from such projects is what finds its way to Swiss Banks.

If you agree with what has been expressed above then it is important that you make known your views to the government.