So the fiery and often unpredictable “Didi” of Indian politics, Mamata Banerjee is all set to do what many felt was inevitable. Even as I write this, I honestly don’t know if the Trinamool Congress will actually walk out of the UPA or not. Nor do I know how Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and Karunanidhi will act. Some friends tell me that the countdown to the end of this UPA regime has begun and that it is a matter of time before the Manmohan Singh government falls without completing its full term. Some other friends tell me that the Congress has legendary “management” skills in this field and will ride out of the storm. They point out to how a minority Manmohan Singh government won the trust vote in 2008 and how a minority P.V. Narashima Rao government won the trust vote in 1992.

I really don’t believe that the survival-or-not of the UPA government is the most significant problem confronting India at this time. I think the real problem and the real challenge is the direction that economic policy making is taking in the country. Let us look at the grievances publicly aired by Mamata Banerjee. She has slammed the UPA government as being anti-people and is convinced that the diesel price hike, the rationing of LPG cylinders and allowing FDI in multi-brand retail will harm the common man of India. If they are actually harmful for common Indians, then I am all for the stance taken by Didi.

The thing is, I have repeatedly said that India is awash with unnecessary and unsustainable subsidies. I have repeatedly said that we have to both reduce and eliminate subsidies that often end up being gobbled up by the rich instead of the poor for which they are meant. So in principle, I would tend to agree with a reduction of subsidies for both diesel and LPG. But the problem is the manner in which this UPA government has been behaving since 2009. It has been so brazenly practising crony capitalism that nobody believes it when it talks about good intentions. Let me just give one example of how the common Indian views this latest LPG controversy. The latest decision stipulates that a family will be entitled to just one subsidized LPG cylinder every two months. Any cylinders required beyond this limit need to be purchased at market prices. The government claims that an average family uses one cylinder every two months. That is absolute nonsense. An average family almost always uses one LPG cylinder every month. Worse, this arbitrary decision – given the famed ability of Indians to indulge in corruption – will lead to massive black marketing. Already, when people are calling for booking an LPG refill, dealers are claiming that they have no stock. Of course, the stock is there if you want to buy at black market rates. This is taking India back to the notorious days of rationing where rice, sugar, cooking oil, cement, phone connections and Bajaj scooters were always out of stock but available to those who had enough money to pay black market rates. This is not reforms or a forward moving decision. It is downright regressive. Why can’t the government find a way to ensure that those who can afford will pay market prices for LPG? We have had the UIAD project going on since 2009. Of what use is so much expense on it if we can’t solve even the simple problem of targeting subsidies to those who really deserve them?   Read More....

An Initiative of IIPM, Malay Chaudhuri and Arindam Chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist).

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The Indian government is becoming a joke by the day! Now The Economist, my favorite magazine, has written about the irrelevance of Rahul Gandhi in an article asking, “What’s the point of Rahul Gandhi?” Before that, TIME magazine had dubbed our Prime Minister as an underachiever! The harsh truth is that the term ‘underachiever’ is such a mild word to use for a politically comatose man who has been literally sleep-walking in his monotone voice over his two stints.What a letdown for a democracy and the electorate, for never has India had a worse and more inactive man as its Prime Minister. And then, of course, Washington Post came down heavily on him. And what was the Indian government’s reaction? Well, like immature intolerant fools, they lodged an official protest – exposing to the world that the article was indeed right and more; exposing to the world the government’s mindset, which looks eerily similar to that of Mamata, who shows complete disdain for democratic values and goes about arresting lecturers to farmers – and betraying the sentiments of the same democracy and all those voters who brought her to power. And if that was not enough, then the Indian government gets a cartoonist arrested by using a law that should have been discarded ages back. Yes, it is the same mindset which protests against a Washington Post article, that gets a professor arrested for sharing cartoons on Facebook, that makes an Aseem Trivedi a victim of an archaic law! The way this law has been used to suppress the voice of Binayak Sen earlier, and that of his likes, stinks of an intolerant and draconian government that is becoming irrelevant by the day. It is a matter of utter shame how even today, we cling on to our colonial past and their discriminatory laws, which were crafted to bootlick a select few who ran the government.

The completely shameful arrest of Aseem Trivedi has brought to light again this prevailing archaic law whose legitimacy can only be comprehended after going into its historical milieu and the reason why it was drafted. As I wrote last year during the Binayak Sen case (Read my two related editorials at http://arindamchaudhuri.blogspot.in/2011/01/binayak-sen-victim-of-state-and.html and http://www.thesundayindian.com/en/story/-change-sedition-law-free-binayak-sen/13763/), in the Indian context, sedition dates back to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, wherein the objective was to forcefully suppress the democratic aspirations of a particular section of society. The skeleton of this section was derived from the common law of seditious libel, meant to control press and publications during that time. This law, regardless of being touted as curbing resistance, is nothing but a rotten remnant of the colonial past with the sole intent of suppressing potential paradigm change-makers. In its current state, the yardstick that gauges the amplitude of disaffection and the resultant violence is very vaguely defined and is highly subjective.  Read More....

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Almost a month has passed, since a teenaged girl in Guwahati was molested by a mob and the video went viral all across the nation, but neither the state government nor the central government woke up to counter such a menace. This being one discreet case of molestation, the government could comfortably choose to ignore it at large. But then, the recent riots in Assam and now its retaliation in Indian metros, which largely got instigated through hate SMSs that went viral all across, highlight the repetitive indolent behavior of the government towards an entire set of people belonging to one region. The choreographed hate messages played a significant role in the migration of people of Northeastern states of India from cities like Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune and Mumbai; and such a migration clearly is a blow to the pledge of a free India with equal rights for all.

The government on its part banned bulk messages for 15 days, as well as multimedia messages of over 25 KB throughout the country. The government also blocked a total of 310 web pages, which provided, in one form or the other, morphed images of riots in Assam which had been instigating hate sentiments among over 60 million Indian net users. The banned web pages include specific pages from Twitter and Facebook as well – it’s estimated that 36 million in India use Facebook and 15 million use Twitter. Our ruling elites have perchance presumed that banning SMS texts and some social networking sites is enough to stem the trouble – these in reality are actually the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper-rooted problem. Although the government has set the tone of its action by blocking the hate pages from various websites, this is more of a juvenile and a temporary step. What our policy makers forget is that till one and a half decades ago, there were no social networking sites, yet there had been numerous catastrophic riots in the region.

Thus, simply blocking web pages and SMS texts would not serve the purpose. This would neither deter the nuisance creator nor help in zeroing in on the actual perpetrators. The real criminals (or groups of criminals) are still scot-free and would be planning their next target. The government should have rather deployed and mobilized resources that could have traced the source of such hate messages, filtered them and brought the real culprits to task at the soonest – the speed, intensity and accuracy of action from the government, if there had been relevant ones, would have deterred the perpetrators instantly.
Read More....


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Dear Muslim Brothers,
I first thought of writing an open appeal to our Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. But then I realized that it would be worse than banging my head against a granite wall. I also thought of making an emotional appeal to the President of the Congress Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi. But then, people far more powerful, important and experienced than me have tried doing that.

When I read about the riots in Assam, I was slightly perplexed. Why now? And then I was bewildered when riots broke out in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, a town that was spared communal violence and divide even at the peak of the Babri Masjid crisis. I was shocked when I saw visuals of a mob rampaging in Mumbai, desecrating and destroying even the Amar Jawan Jyoti. I was boiling with anger and helplessness by the time I read about how bona fide Indian citizens belonging to the Northeast felt so threatened that they were fleeing cities like Pune, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Chennai. And I felt really bad when I saw pictures of a mob trying to destroy a statue of Buddha in Lucknow.

These are truly dangerous times for India, perhaps even more dangerous than the 1980s when the Shah Bano and the Babri Masjid controversies eventually resulted in insane communal violence across the country. India had been spared the madness of communal riots since 2002. Suddenly, they loom again over India like a malevolent cloud. Predictably, the demoralized, dispirited and disgraced UPA government led by Manmohan Singh has sought to evade taking responsibility for this mess by blaming Pakistan for the mess. Apparently, morphed and false visuals of Muslims being allegedly persecuted and killed in Assam and Myanmar originated in Pakistan and were deliberately spread across India through social networking websites and text messages. That may be true.

But my question is: is that justification for molesting lady constables, desecrating the Amar Jawan Jyoti, randomly attacking people from the north east and threatening them and also destroying a Buddha statue? This is where my blunt question to my Muslims brothers, who are also fellow Indians must be asked: why are you getting so worked up over the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar? Why are you not holding rallies and organising protests against the daily massacre of Muslims in countries like Syria? Why are you not protesting against the senseless manner in which Shias are being butchered in Pakistan? Even more important: is there any dearth of real problems that Muslims face in India, while they remain one of the most economically marginalized sections of the society?   Read More....

An Initiative of IIPM, Malay Chaudhuri and Arindam Chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist).

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One needs to be a Sanjay Dutt to fetch lakhs in auction for his work, and that too while serving his jail term. For other prisoners, even a few hundreds is a boon. Indian prisons are still more like Nazi-era concentration camps than being places for correcting the guilty. With over 3 lakh prisoners packed across 1200 plus jails, the government is shamelessly unable to manage these centers and has reduced our prisons to human slaughter houses, where self-respect, dignity and morale are butchered at every single moment.

Prisons in India are not only a liability on society but have lost the very essence of their objective. Let me discuss this issue point by point. Most of the prisons in our country (barring two or maximum three) are a cost for the nation. The total expenditure on all prisons combined, across the nation, was estimated to be around Rs.2,69,726.80 lakhs during the year 2010-11, with every prisoner, on an average, costing the exchequer Rs.19,446.60 (2010-11 data)! Now, here is where the paradox lies. These criminals are stuffed (literally) into our prisons since they have created either an economic loss or social loss to the country; and they are then made to survive on the tax paid by that very aggrieved society. In simple terms, the total cost on all prisoners put together is shared by around 150,000 taxpayers!

What’s worse is that our prisons are no more corrective centers. With time, these are increasingly become training centers for to-be criminals. Since there is no such concept of correction in our prisons, even a one-time criminal comes out as a seasoned criminal. And why not? With the training of inmates for skill enhancements being poor, they are left with no option other than resorting back to the criminal world. For the uninitiated, the functions performed in Indian jails include tailoring, paper and leather work, carpentry, baking, textiles and candle making. And it requires no NSSO-type survey to find out that such skill sets without an enabling environment generate little productive engagements.

Strangely, Gautam Doshi (group MD of ADAG) was assigned the work of making chairs and baking cakes and was paid peanuts in return. With 42.9 per cent prisoners being educated till class 10 and 6.44 per cent being graduates and above, it makes little sense for our authorities not to utilize their competencies. At least the more educated (professionals) can train those who are not that well educated, so that they can lead decent lives after their incarceration is complete. It’s astounding but true that the average monthly output per prisoner in India is no more than Rs.150, which is at the ebb of utilized resources. The compromise with performance is writ clear on the wall with annual pan India turnover being a meager Rs.66 crores.  Read More....

An Initiative of IIPM, Malay Chaudhuri and Arindam Chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist).

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My colleagues tell me that India changed decisively in 1982. I was in school so I don’t really remember the detailed newspaper headlines of those days. But I do know that the politics of Andhra Pradesh changed forever in 1982. Apparently, the then Chief Minister of AP T. Anjaiah wanted to pick up the slippers of Rajiv Gandhi. And history was made. Rajiv Gandhi was the anointed leader of Congress and somehow, fact or not, that gesture to please Rajiv Gandhi prompted a film star called NT Rama Rao to launch a movement and a party to reclaim Telugu pride. Rao and his Telugu Desam party swept the assembly elections in 1983.

Cut to about 30 years down the line and you see something dramatically different; and yet dramatically similar. Despite the huge hype that surrounded the Congress campaign led by Rahul Gandhi, it is Akhilesh Yadav of a regional outfit called Samajwadi Party who has won. In 1982, when Rajiv Gandhi took over the reins, Tamil Nadu was the only major state where the Congress party had been pushed to the sidelines as a fringe player dependent on outfits like AIADMK for votes and seats. In 2012, as Rahul Gandhi takes over the party, Congress has become a fringe player in almost one third of India.

Many political pundits and scholars are ascribing many reasons for this latest series of defeats confronting the Congress. Quite a few have gone on to say that the charisma of the Gandhi dynasty is irrevocably fading away. Some uncharitable analysts have even started questioning the credentials of the Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi to lead the party during 2014 Lok Sabha elections. I personally think it is too simplistic to start drawing such conclusions every time an election happens. In 2009, when the Congress won more than 200 seats in Lok Sabha elections and about 21 seats in Uttar Pradesh, everyone hailed Rahul Gandhi as a miracle man. Now, with such heavy defeats in the assembly elections, the same sets of people are writing off Rahul Gandhi.

A better way would be to look at the undercurrents of change that have been sweeping across India since 1982; some very visible and noisy and some low profile and silent. These changes are what have made things more difficult for Rahul Gandhi than they were for his father Rajiv Gandhi in 1982. It is for Rahul Gandhi and his advisors to understand and interpret the significance of these changes if they want the Congress to perform well in 2014 and beyond. I would list 10 major changes that have transformed India between the Rajiv era of the Congress and the present Rahul era. A lot of these changes are interlinked and have reinforced each other, without a doubt making India a more mature democracy despite all its flaws and blemishes.
 
1. Everyone talks and writes about the miracle of Indian democracy; about how free and fair elections have always been a plus for the country. I personally don’t think Indian elections were always free and fair in the true sense of the term. Booth capturing and rigging were often the norm. In a state like West Bengal, rigging had been developed into a fine art. That was mainly because the Chief Election Commissioner of India and the Election Commission were often hesitant to challenge the power of money and muscle during elections. That was till a gentleman called T.N Seshan took over the Election Commission. It was T.N Seshan who actually started the process whereby the Election Commission became a truly independent body. Seshan ended up offending many political parties and even challenged many goons openly. So powerful was his impact that politicians actually tweaked the law to ensure India has three election commissioners at one time rather than one. But there is simply no doubt that a more independent and fearless election commission marks the difference between 1982 and 2012. The process has moved so far ahead that the commission now takes on even the media when it comes to the dirty practice of ‘paid news’.
 
2. Back in 1982, telephones were a luxury that only the rich or the powerful could afford. People had to book a trunk call and wait for hours for a conversation. And phone calls were terribly expensive. It often cost Rs 90 for a 3 minute telephone call between Mumbai and Delhi. But the communications revolution – many ascribe it to the original vision of Rajiv Gandhi – has completely changed India. Today, the country has more than 800 million mobile phone subscribers who are constantly interacting with each other not just through voice but also text, chat and many other ways. In just a few years, India will have more than 400 million active users of the internet. In contrast to the India of Rajiv Gandhi, today’s India is all about instant and continuous communication. Both good and bad news spread instantly and no political party can now claim a monopoly over communication channels. Till not too far back, Mulayam Singh Yadav was known for publicly asking for a ban on English and on computers. In these elections, his son Akhilesh Yadav actually promised computers and tablets to voters. That is the power of the communications revolution in India.
3. Along with the communications revolution, India has also witnessed an unprecedented revolution in media. Back in 1982, the whole of India was in a tizzy when Rajiv Gandhi announced the launch of colour televisions on the eve of the Asian Games. In 2012, more than 100 news channels are round-the-clock telecasting bad news for the Congress and analyzing the performance of Rahul Gandhi. There is no doubt that India has enjoyed a free media since 1947, but it is only the advent of electronic media and private news channels that has made a deep impact. No doubt, private news channels go overboard, but it is their relentless coverage of scams and scandals that has ensured that even Akhilesh Yadav publicly distances himself from an alleged bahubali like DP Yadav. You may recall that DP Yadav’s son has been convicted for the murder of Nitish Katara and no one can deny the role played by media in highlighting and following up this crime to its logical conclusion. Already, every major town in India has a local news channel and this process will deepen even further in the future.     Read More....

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The future of the inheritor, and more importantly, of India, depends on fighting corruption. Here is how Pranabda can use the Budget to tame the monster

February 28, 1958: “While we should always be prepared to reconsider the methods we adopt, should this become necessary, we have to strive with all our strength for our planned development by conserving all our resources, increasing production and trying to ensure progressively a more equitable distribution and to thus raise the standards of the great mass of our people,”

- Jawaharlal Nehru as Union Finance Minister

February 28, 1970: “It is generally accepted that social, economic and political stability is not possible without the growth of productive forces and the augmentation of national wealth. Also, that such growth and increase in wealth cannot be sustained without due regard to the welfare of the weaker sections of the community,”

- Indira Gandhi as Union Finance Minister

February 28, 1987: “Twenty nine years ago, presenting the country's Budget, Jawaharlal Nehru told this house [that...] we have to strive with all our strength for our planned development by conserving all our resources, increasing production and trying to ensure progressively a more equitable distribution and to thus raise the standards of the great mass of our people…Our principal objectives are the elimination of poverty and the building of a strong, modern, self reliant independent economy,”

- Rajiv Gandhi as Union Finance Minister

Some of you would be aware of how and why these three former prime ministers also had to don the hat of a Union Finance Minister. For those who haven't found time to check out this bit of deliciously ironical history, here is a brief recap. In 1958, the son-in-law of Nehru and Indira Gandhi's husband raised uncomfortable questions about the role of the then Finance Minister T.T Krishnamachari in what became the “Mundhra scam”. TTK, as he was popularly known, was forced to resign in February 1958 and Nehru had to temporarily take over as the Finance Minister. In 1969, the Congress party split and the then Union Finance Minister Morarji Desai quit the government. Desai was strongly opposed to the “socialist” vision being gradually adopted by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She preferred to take over the Finance portfolio after the exit of Desai. Her titanic tussle with Desai and its consequences resulted in the ‘license permit' and ‘inspector raj' era, issues that continue to haunt India till date. In 1987, V.P Singh, a loyal and trusted aide of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, was ready to present his third successive budget to the nation. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, for reasons future historians will be better able to explain, shifted Singh and chose to present the budget. Within a few weeks, the Bofors scam started tormenting him.

Many of you who have been waiting for my 12th successive Alternative Budget this time must be wondering why I have taken a historical detour even before talking about the proposals I have in mind this year. Many of you might even be wondering about the headline for this year's Alternative Budget: “A Budget for Rahul Gandhi”. I'll address the second issue first. One fine day in August 2010, out of nowhere, I got a call from the office of Rahul Gandhi informing me that he wanted to meet me. I was taken aback as I had made no such request to meet him. Despite my initial surprise, I decided to go and meet Rahul to see what he had in his mind. In the brief meeting we had, he kept asking me what I wanted from him and since I had gone with no expectations, I spoke to him about the Alternative Budgets that IIPM Think Tank comes out with every year. I didn't expect him to give it much of a thought but I was pleasantly surprised to see him quite interested in it and asking me several questions around it. The meeting ended with him requesting me to send a copy of my next Alternative Budget in time for his perusal. Come February 2011, I did that. However, there was no response from his office and the real budget hardly took note of my suggestions, which were all to do with changing the plight of the farmers in our country (http://www.thesundayindian.com/en/story/do-dooni-chaar-budget/12869/). So this time, keeping in mind that in any case, there is a very high probability of Rahul Gandhi becoming Prime Minister in 2014 (and since history repeats itself endlessly in India, I wouldn't be shocked to see Rahul Gandhi like his great grandfather, his grandmother and his father present a Union Budget in the future), I thought of addressing the budget directly to him; Rahul being young, I believe he has a higher probability of taking a note of it than Pranabda! Moreover, I am certain even Pranabda will be presenting this year's budget with Rahul Gandhi's future Prime Ministerial prospect in mind!

But it is my historical detour quoted at the start that I think holds more relevance for the future of India. The reasons I have quoted Nehru, Indira and Rajiv in their avatars as finance ministers are twofold. The first: there is no doubt that all three were passionate about India and did try their best in their own ways to at least minimize, if not eliminate poverty from India. No objective analyst can doubt their intentions. The second: the primary reason why all three largely failed in their efforts is because of corruption that started as a harmful disease in the Nehru era and now is a malignant cancer that is corroding the insides of India, even as Rahul Gandhi makes a pitch for his personal tryst with destiny. As Dr Pranab Mukherjee makes the final preparations to read his speech as Finance Minister on March 16, 2012, and as Rahul Gandhi gets ready to absorb the import of the verdict delivered by the voters of Uttar Pradesh, both surely must be aware of two things. Corruption and good governance will most definitely play a big role in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. And that it could well be a kind of a last chance for Dr Mukhrejee and the Gandhi scion to use the two remaining budgets before 2014 to send a loud and clear message to voters that the two (and Congress per se) actually walk the talk when it comes to curing India of corruption. On this hinges the political future of Rahul Gandhi. More importantly, on this hinges the future of India. Quite simply, India can no longer afford tall promises and noble intentions even as we march towards hell for the poor.

In 2009, when the UPA surprise, surprise stormed back to power and the Congress an even bigger surprise won more than 200 Lok Sabha seats for the first time since 1991, I presented my Alternative Budget with a headline that raised quite a few eyebrows. The headline was “Khao aur Khilao Budget”. My premise was simple: it is impossible to change a rotten system overnight in an electoral democracy and yet Dr Mukherjee should be able to implement many proposals that would make a huge difference to poverty, inequality, education, healthcare and governance “even if corruption continued, albeit on a lower scale”. That Alternative Budget surprise, surprise again was a huge ‘hit'; and many economists, analysts and bureaucrats, and even politicians, appreciated some of my ‘realistic' proposals. One such proposal went with the following headline: “A census, a national database and biometric cards for the Poor.” I further wrote, “The FM must allocate another Rs 2000 crore and rope in the Election Commission to provide the poor with biometric photo identity cards. Smart card technology is easily available... I estimate that at least 250 million Indians will get these smart cards and claim welfare scheme funds and resources. Knowing Indians, many undeserving people will sneak into this database while many deserving ones will get left out. But we are not talking about achieving perfection in this budget.” (For more details, log on to http://www.thesundayindian.com/en/story/arindam-chaudhuri-presents-the-khao-aur-khilao-budget/19/7719/)

I doubt if Dr Mukherjee and the former Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani found time to read my Alternative Budget in 2009 in this magazine and our sister publication Business and Economy. And yet, I was delighted a few months later when UPA-2 actually announced the UIAD project that was all about biometric cards. I feel a little sad when I read newspaper reports about how vested interests are trying to stall, or even kill the UIAD project. And yet, it made me think that there are people in policy making who are genuinely thinking about tackling ‘leakages', which is a polite word for blatant, shameless and parasitic corruption. As with everything else in India, when it comes to corruption, there is a lot of despair; and a lot of hope. The very fact that biometric cards are now a reality for the poor in many districts of India makes me concentrate more on hope than despair.

But to give the devil her due, I have no choice but to highlight some statistics and studies that reveal how corruption must be a cause of despair for all well-meaning citizens of this country. The primary reason for a country being ranked very low on ‘the quality of life indicators' is not poverty or lack of resources but corruption and poor governance. Despite tall promises and about 65 Union budgets some presented by charismatic prime ministers India's ranking continues to be pathetic at just about 125. Not surprising because 400 million Indians are still illiterate, 750 million Indians lack access to basic sanitation and 1,000 million Indians spend their own family money on healthcare because the State has failed to act in that area. Look at the Transparency Index, or the Competitiveness Index or any other damn index and you will realize that India has a pathetic record of taking care of its poor and underprivileged. And it continues to do so despite so many social welfare programmes launched by this UPA government since 2004 when it came to power. The astonishing thing is that Indians still appear to be largely optimistic when we see results of global surveys. And then I realize those survey guys probably never went to slums or villages where farmers were committing suicide.

There is another way to look at how corruption is corroding our innards. Back in the 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi said that about 85% of the money meant for social welfare schemes was eaten away by corruption. If anything, despite RTI and the rise of social activism, media activism and judicial activism, corruption has only gotten worse. One interesting data here. Together, the Centre and all the states have spent close to Rs 20 lakh crore on education since the UPA came to power. This includes plan and non plan expenditures. Assume that Rajiv Gandhi was exaggerating and only 50% of the funds get ‘diverted', you still have a figure of close to Rs 10 lakh crores siphoned away in the name of education. Add health, irrigation, rural electrification, roadways et al and you can well imagine the extent of corruption in India. And almost all of it could have been used to lift the desperately poor above the poverty line. Forget Swiss Banks and black money. I honestly think we in the media should start an audit of expenditures on these schemes meant for the poor and prove how much was actually ‘diverted'. I know activists and the media are already doing it. But no positive outcome seems to come out despite judicial intervention. That brings me close to my proposals this year in my Alternative Budget.

But before I start presenting my proposals, let me share something that we all know. Corruption is flourishing in India because the corrupt are more likely get away with it. I have nothing personal against the former Telecom Minister Sukh Ram who has been convicted again and again on charges of corruption. But the case has dragged on for so long that he is now in his late eighties. I felt troubled about the future of India when I read in a paper that the 96 year old Sheila Kaul a former Congress minister who faces corruption charges was summoned to appear in court despite her lawyer arguing about her age and health. I think Indians are so fed up with corruption and the system that encourages it that they might think that people in their late eighties and nineties are getting just desserts. The simple reason why corruption flourishes in India is that our judicial system is completely broken down and paralysed. We get occasional glimpses of what the judiciary can do like in the cases of Priyadarshani Matto, Jessica Lal, the 2G scam and many others. But they are not even a drop in the ocean.

So what can Pranabda do if he presents a budget for Rahul Gandhi?

Well, he should tackle the key issue of corruption that has rattled the government this year, in particular during the Anna Hazare movement and the Ramdev fiasco! Yes, as of now, both the issues have been managed, but the truth is that it won't be long before more agitations rock the country if it is not tackled properly. Thus, this budget keeps tackling corruption as its top priority! The biggest sufferers of corruption are the poor as the high and mighty use corruption to their benefit.

Here are my suggestions for this year's Alternative Budget.

Key resource allocations:
Transform the judiciary
The Lokpal has been given its silent burial with a completely manipulative and flawed bill. Though the Lokpal bill in its ideal best had the power to make a big impact to deter corruption, I never believed that this was the first priority when it came to tackling corruption. The first priority as I also told Arvind Kejrival during one of our interactions has to be necessarily a massive focus on judicial reforms. Unfortunately, most people don't understand its real relevance and those who do are sitting in power and thus keeping it dysfunctional so that the corrupt can make merry! If Rahul Gandhi is really keen to change this country and make an impact in the field of reducing corruption, he has to awaken the sleeping and completely dysfunctional judiciary of this country!

I was truly shocked when a colleague pointed out that less than 1% is allocated by the Central and State budgets every year for the judiciary. In the Ninth Five Year Plan, the government set aside Rs 385 crore for the judiciary. That works out to 0.078% of total plan expenditure. In the tenth Five year Plan, the allocation was increased to Rs 700 crores; about 0.071% of total plan expenditure. In the Eleventh Five Year Plan which is in progress, the allocation was ‘generously' raised to Rs 1470 crore. As a percentage of total plan expenditure, things haven't improved at all. These figures are so laughably small that I marvel at how the judiciary functions at all!

All this, while new laws, amendments to existing laws, a massive increase in corruption and the rise of activism have led to more and more cases piling up even as old cases continue to languish. As I stated earlier, and have often stated in the past, the only way to reduce corruption in India is to make the judiciary more effective. Till the corrupt remain convinced that they can either escape punishment or delay it indefinitely, corruption will continue to increase. The one and only solution for corruption is a functional judicial system. Corruption and greed are globally prevalent, yet it touches far less lives in the USA than in India simply because the American judicial system is functional and ours is dysfunctional. In America, they have ten times more judges per million people than in India. If we are to try and achieve such standards we need to have about 100,000 more judges. It sounds huge but is surely achievable in a span of five years. And to have 20,000 additional judges per year, we have to budget for an additional amount of approximately Rs.6,000 crores per year, assuming that the expenses around a judge and his office assistants put together is definitely not more than Rs.30,00,000 per year.

So if I were Pranabda, I would use the 2012 Budget to announce that Rs 6,000 crores have been allocated for the judiciary in the coming fiscal, with a commitment to increase it to Rs 10,000 crores in the next fiscal. India desperately needs such a big ticket and transformational move. The budget must unveil a concrete plan whereby the Law Ministry works with Supreme Court and High Court judges to draw up firstly a concrete blueprint to “quadruple” the number of judges and courts before the general elections in 2014; and secondly, to draw up a blueprint that will compel litigants, lawyers and judges to commit to a time frame to settle cases. First, this will send a huge message to voters that the government actually means business. Second, it will actually transform governance in India. If those facing corruption charges know that they could be convicted in less than a year and their property confiscated and auctioned as it has started happening in some isolated cases the incentives for corruption will vastly diminish, if not disappear altogether. This is far more important than making noise about a Lokpal. This is very doable. No progress was made for almost two decades in Bihar when it came to tackling corruption cases. Then Chief Minister Nitish Kumar set up fast track courts and lo and behold, the corrupt actually started getting convicted quickly.

These massive allocations for the judiciary will ensure that ‘fast track' courts do not remain exceptions but become the norm in Indian judiciary.

Focus on education and healthcare
For close to a decade, I have been repeating the simple fact that without education and healthcare, there is just no way that India can ever hope or dream of catching up with China. It is a disgrace that public expenditure on health and education at less than 2% of GDP is less than the share taken away by myriad subsidies and exemptions. The only way out is a massive increase in allocations for schemes like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan and National Rural health Mission. But as I have often pointed out, merely allotting more money without improving governance and reducing corruption will not help. For a more detailed perusal of my proposals, do read my 2010 Alternative Budget that went with the headline “A Budget for Three Idiots” (http://www.thesundayindian.com/article.php?category_id=28&article_id=637). The recommendations I have made in that proposal are even more relevant today.     Read More....

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I was too young then to really remember it all; but I have heard from many people that the mass protests generated by the arrest of Anna Hazare are similar to the uprising called Total Revolution led by the late Jaiprakash Narayan in the early 1970s. In fact, it was the Total Revolution and the chaos that followed – and a historic blunder by Indira Gandhi – that led to the imposition of the Emergency in India in 1975. Many people are comparing today’s situation to the Emergency days.

The people of India are so fed up and so disgusted with corruption and our rotten and corrupt system that the wave of protests we see is hardly surprising. I have often publicly called India not a democracy but a demonocracy where crooked politicians and their criminal cohorts are openly plundering the nation; well aware that a dysfunctional judicial system will allow them to get away. In almost all cases, they have actually got away and have hence acquired the arrogance and swagger of pirates who know they are above and beyond the law. To that extent, the waves of protests, demonstrations, candle lit vigils and passionate slogans that are being witnessed across the nation were inevitable. And there is little doubt that the simplicity and stark clarity of the message being delivered by Anna Hazare has convinced thousands and thousands of Indians that Anna Hazare is a modern day messiah. I still remember the Jantar Mantar fast of April when even I was moved to write very strongly in favour of Anna Hazare and even bring out a special supplement on the power of civil society protests. I still think that there is enormous power and truth in the anti-corruption message that Anna Hazare is delivering.


And yet, I must confess that I do find some things a little disturbing. I know, passions and emotions are running so high at the moment that I run the risk of being vilified as a government stooge if I dare criticize Anna Hazare and his methods (Anyone who has been reading my editorials and columns over the years will, I am sure, laugh at the suggestion that I am a pro-establishment man!) . But just as I have often gone against the tide and slammed the government for many policies and actions, I feel strongly enough about this issue to point out to all passionate and emotionally charged Indians some basic home truths about this controversy.

Across India, people young and old are lambasting the government for being arrogant as well as adamant. Often rightly, they are accusing the government of not even bothering to listen to other viewpoints. There is no doubt that some highly irresponsible and uncalled for statements by senior leaders of the ruling alliance have strengthened this perception and further fuelled anger amongst people already fed up with corruption. And yet, if the government is guilty of being adamant and arrogant, is not Anna Hazare guilty of being the same? Anna Hazare and his supporters accuse the government of being intolerant and insensitive because it is refusing to accept their version of the Lok Pal Bill. But are they not displaying similar intolerance and insensitivity when they routinely brand anyone who expresses doubts about their version of the Lok Pal Bill as a traitor and a stooge? How can Anna and his team declare so confidently that it is only their version of the Lok Pal Bill that is perfect and no one else can say anything critical about it? If the government is hiding behind the fig leaf of a ‘popular mandate’ and the supreme authority of the Parliament, isn’t Team Anna guilty of hiding behind the fig leaf of sanctimoniousness? I fully support the right of Anna and his team to criticize the ham-handed manner in which the government is treating the Lok Pal Bill. But I also fully support the right of any Indian to criticize the draft prepared by Team Anna. Surely, not blindly agreeing to whatever Anna says doesn’t make a traitor out of an Indian? Quite frankly, over the last few months, both the government and Team Anna have been guilty of being intolerant, inflexible and insensitive. So many thousands of Indians are genuinely angry because some Congress leaders have publicly abused Anna and his team and accused them of being corrupt. But what has Team Anna been doing since April, if not publicly abusing the Prime Minister, the Parliament, Indian elections and even Indian democracy? And yes, I do agree that many should be abused in the government; but at the end of the day, there has to be a democratic way to it. It can’t be imposed through the dictatorial will of one group just because they are able to rake up popular frenzy. There is a Constitution; there is a court; there is an elected Parliament, and things have to happen as per its guidelines. Anna must protest. But he can’t be adamant about imposing it. Protests have their own effect and change does happen. But it can’t happen without the support of our Constitution and democratic machinery.

 
 
TOWARDS LONG TERM PRODUCTIVE MEANS AND NOT ALCOHOL!

When NREGA was launched in the year 2006, it was one of the biggest leaps taken by the UPA government to productively engage the underprivileged rural folk and connect them to the mainstream, a move which was due for long. From Rs 11,000 crores as the initial outlay, the same NREGA has grown to Rs 40,100 crores in the current year, encompassing each and every district of the country. Although a phenomenal initiative, from the very beginning, the NREGA has been marred with delivery bottlenecks. Like in most other cases, corruption this time too at every stage robbed the poor rural folk of their dues. The only consolation being that at least something is reaching them, compared to nothing in the past! But then, I recently came across this disturbing news! It has been reported that Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL) sales have been going up as an aftereffect of the NREGA scheme. On hindsight, this was clearly predictable, but this was something that should have never happened in the first place! Predictable, because this is apparently a global phenomenon, that an immediate spurt in income disproportionately increases the propensity of consumption, and if it is backed with illiteracy and lack of awareness, the outcomes are even more hazardous, like we are seeing in our case! But then, what is most unfortunate is that a scheme which had the promise to transform the rural economy is actually pushing it to a bigger crisis! And if corrective actions are not taken on an immediate basis, we ourselves would be blamed for funding this nation into becoming a nation of alcoholics!

So when the government was all set to distribute around Rs 40,000 crores through NREGA, apart from ensuring that the money reaches the targeted population and does not get eaten up by the system, the government should have also ensured that there was a serious cap on the supply of alcohol in these regions. What happened was just the reverse. In fact, over the past few years, liquor outlets have on an average doubled in the rural areas. In Bihar, for example, the number of liquor outlets in the rural areas in the year 2006/07 was around 2800, which has gone up by more than 6000 currently. And this is all set to rise further as it is reported that the Excise and Prohibition Department is about to sanction one liquor vend in every three villages. It’s tragic that state governments don’t show a similar commitment for opening schools and health centres across each village. The bigger tragedy is that the per capita consumption of cereals is reducing every year, whereas that of liquor is increasing. The per capita consumption of cereals has fallen by almost two kg in the last decade. Bihar is not the only case in point, a similar growth in liquor supplies and consumption is being observed across the country. In Andhra Pradesh too, in a recent auction of around 6500 liquor vends, the rural areas put up the highest bids!     Read More....

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As this magazine goes for print, the inhabitants of Manipur possibly would be getting some kind of relief from the ordeal that started on 11th of April. It was on that day that the All Naga Students Association blocked the National Highway 39 (the lifeline of Manipur) in retaliation to the Manipur state government’s decision to not permit National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) leader Muviah to visit his native village in Manipur. The Manipur state government took this stance as they feared that Muviah’s visit might again instigate unrest in the region. In fact, they even turned down the request from the Center to provide adequate security to Muviah during his visit, forcing Muviah to camp at the borders of Manipur. The situation further flared up when a couple of NSCN (IM) supporters got killed in police firing. What followed after that was an indefinite blockade by NSCN (IM) supporters, which almost drove Manipur to a state of complete collapse. With rice selling at Rs. 100 a kg, petrol at Rs. 150 a litre, to a gas cylinder at Rs. 1500, prices shot up to such an extent that it was out of reach of most in Manipur. It was finally when the Prime Minister intervened, and met the Naga students, that they agreed to lift the blockade, temporarily!

Although for the time being, there would be some momentary respite for Manipur, but the problem is complex and it would require the intervention of the Center on an immediate basis. There are three key stakeholders to this problem. First, the NSCN (IM) – who since decades have been demanding a larger and extended territorial right for the state of Nagaland, which eats into the territories of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, much to the dislike of all the three states. The second stakeholder – the state of Manipur, which has been at the receiving end, and is determined not to allow Muviah to visit his native village for the abovementioned reasons. And the third stakeholder is the Central Government, which has been a mute spectator while the situation moved from bad to worse. In fact, the Center’s stance is nothing unexpected. Neither is it the first time that Manipur faced such a situation nor is it the first time that the Center has chosen to remain silent for such a prolonged period when a state, any state, has been suffering. Be it Telangana, Bodoland, Vidharba, Purvachal or Kashmir, the Center seems to deliberately delay, perchance to seek the maximum political mileage from the same. It has become almost a routine that prior to elections, every political party would commit to honour the demands of regional entities with respect to formation of separate states, clearly to gain maximum political mileage from the announcement and mollycoddling. Once in power, neither do they honour their commitments nor do they provide an alternate workable solution. Territorial problems are ubiquitous to India and lack of political decisiveness has a historical precedence. Kashmir has been a classic case in point where perpetual indecisiveness has not only cost the nation crores of rupees, but most importantly also thousands of lives!     Read More....

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