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Silver linings and a bright future

January 6, 2011

New beginnings are a time for hope and optimism – more so when it is not just the dawn of a fresh day, but the birth of a new year. Like the last dregs of stale coffee, the old year leaves a bitter aftertaste, what with the depressing string of scams – each bigger than the last – a non-functioning Parliament, and a justice system that is seriously flawed.

Despite the successes of our sportspersons, it is easy to be overcome by a sense of depression and cynicism. As an alternative, here is the lighter and brighter side of things, the silver lining to the dark clouds of yesteryear.

Take the preparations for the Commonwealth Games: after years of dithering, marking time and doing practically nothing, the sudden rush to finish things was a grand lesson for marathon runners – plod along till the last minute and then make a dash to finish somehow. Many thought that the negative publicity about the terrible state of the Games village and some of the stadia deeply dented India’s image.

Little did they realise what a smart stratagem this was: it helped India win more medals (by keeping away many top foreign athletes). On the all-important security front, our police uncovered two new weapons – books and keys – and the reported ban on these for some events undoubtedly helped to ensure peaceful games. It is rumoured that footwear will not be permitted in public meetings and events in future, since shoes have been used as a ‘weapon’ – kinetic and cultural – against leaders in India and abroad.

The Games organising committee must be given credit for inventing a unique and clever means of crowd control in the stadium. In a global first, it distributed hundreds of free tickets to Delhi’s ‘connected and powerful’ people, who – of course – did not turn up.

The result: sports fans disappointed at finding ‘house-full’ signs, but peaceful, quiet – if empty – stadia. Finally, the much-publicised scam: not only was it a great method of getting otherwise obscure Commonwealth Games known to all and sundry, but also provided a big boost to the sagging TRPs of TV news channels. It is unfair to comment on the ‘scam’ or the guilty, since the final judicial pronouncement may not be available before your children become grandparents.

Many have criticised the slow and ponderous procedures of government. In this, too, new and path-breaking initiatives were taken last year. As an answer to those who cavil about the long and arduous process of tendering, the government is going ahead and buying nuclear plants worth thousands of crores without any call for quotations.

It has also decided that buying defence equipment from private US companies can be treated as a government-to-government deal, again requiring no competitive bidding. Other unimportant things like building highways have, of course, to go through the process of multiple rebids.

The rigour and detail of various processes is also seen in the meticulousness of inquiry commissions and investigations, which do their job so thoroughly that some take a decade or more to finish their work. Remarkable flexibility – unlike the rigidities for which we condemn bureaucracy – is seen in the ability of CBI, for an example, to start and stop investigations on issues like disproportionate assets of politicians.

Its efficiency is visible in the speed with which it has closed its investigations in the Aarushi murder case, for lack of evidence. On the other hand, the police have proven that they are proficient in finding or creating evidence (no matter that the courts often find it unreliable). The overall justice system – long criticised for slackness in enforcement – has shown its decisiveness in finding a person guilty of sedition because he is alleged to have played postman!

The ministry of environment, in keeping with our Buddhist traditions, decided to follow the middle path: having sided with the people in Niyamgiri, it decided to even things out by ignoring local sentiment in Jaitapur. A similar balance was struck on gas pipelines: while the Iran-Pakistan-India one was dumped because of ‘security considerations’ (imagine our gas supplies being held hostage by Pakistan) and high price, an agreement was signed for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India one. Since we are a certified ’emerged’ power, this was proof of our independent policies and had nothing to do with US pressure.

Mumbai, unwilling to be eclipsed by the scams in Delhi, decided to unleash one of its own, only to prove – through Adarsh – the flexibility of its bureaucrats in interpreting and even transcending laws, including those related to land ownership. But then Delhi had the last word, with the 2G spectrum scam making all others seem so trivial.

Why waste time on a few thousand crores involved in the Games, when here was something hundred times as large? Bofors, the epitome of corruption in the 1980s, involved but 64 crore – loose change, by today’s standards. Who said India’s vision is limited? ‘Start small, think big, scale fast’, the mantra of the internet and ICT world, has never been put into practice so effectively.

The year also brought home the nuances of the English language: the difference between taking a leak (relieving oneself) and making a leak (relieving others – of their aura, even of their job); between advocacy (good), lobbying (not so good) and power-broking (very bad); and between exclusive (as on TV channels) being good versus inclusive (as mouthed by politicians) being good.

The start of a new year – indeed, a new decade – is, more seriously, an opportunity to introspect and to draw lessons for a better future. Hopefully, politicians will see the Bihar election results as a vote for good governance and development, as opposed to identity and quota politics; corporates will go beyond conventional CSR, to take on responsibility for broader issues, including human rights; and government will stop mistaking the symptom (Naxalism) for the disease (inadequate and lopsided development). The biggest danger is not Naxalites, but – to borrow from Wen Jiabao – “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and ultimately unsustainable” growth .

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