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The letter not written

February 4, 2011

The recent open letter by a group of eminent individuals was a worthy effort, but it shied away from making forcefully some sharp questions that our society and polity confront today.

ROBERT Frost’s Road Not Taken was more alluring because it needed wear. The recent open letter by a group of eminent and respected individuals chose, instead, to take the beaten path. Yet, it is worthy of attention: not so much for what it says — its homilies and motherhood statements are hardly new — but because of who says it.

That it, thereby, reinforces the personality-cult syndrome, or that it focuses on generally-known maladies, is not the point; the issue is what the letter might have said. As one astute commentator has observed, one has to read it with a magnifying glass and between the lines to get at what it is really saying. Then, too, it trod the beaten path.

The letter-not-written would clearly state how dismal governance and lack of firm leadership have given rise to scam after scam, corruption, black money and high inflation. Our indices of human development are shameful; now, the much-touted economic growth too may be at serious risk. The mood in industry is becoming pessimistic, even as the common man — squeezed by high inflation and extortionist corruption — is getting increasingly restive. These danger signals need strong and positive responses.

The missive could point to the benefits of the Right to Information Act, its immense potential to bring both transparency and accountability to governance and, therefore, object to the proposals to dilute this law. It might demand protection for whistle-blowers, and stringent action, immediately, against those who threaten or assault them.

Arecent horrific case of burning an official who sought to expose the oil (pilferage and adulteration) mafia has spurred the usual knee-jerk reaction: pious statements, compensation for the family, talk of steps to quell such pilferage and promises of prompt action against the perpetrators. The letter would remind the government that a similar issue in UP some time ago also resulted in the murder of the whistleblower. It might ask — even demand to know — what action was taken to bring to book the gangs involved, not excluding politicians and officials, who seem to be an integral part of the illegal operations. In addition to seeking the guilty, what policy and systemic changes have been made to strike at the root of the problem?

Scams, cheating and corruption have become a blot on the otherwise laudable NREGA initiative. Why, the writers might enquire, is technology not being used to ensure an efficient and transparent transfer of funds to the beneficiaries, as also to streamline the public distribution system for food grain? Why is our world-beating IT industry’s expertise not being more extensively used to first reengineer and then make cost-effective the systems and processes connected with governance, healthcare, law enforcement, traffic management, etc?

Political meddling, unprofessional subservience and corruption have decimated police effectiveness. Little wonder then that they have not been able to find any evidence to convict those responsible for the Commonwealth Games scam or for amassing disproportionate assets or for mediating weapons deals, but are able to ‘produce’ evidence to convict a person on the serious charge of sedition. While they are capable of terrorising the poor, they are neither respected nor feared by the rich and powerful. Police reform should be at the top of the government’s agenda, both at the central and state levels. Excellent blueprints exist, through commissions set up in the past. Despite this, and clear directions from the Supreme Court, both the Centre and states continue to drag their feet. The letter could insist on immediate action. Similarly, electoral reform is essential — particularly with regard to electoral funding that, many say, is at the root of corruption.

THE Supreme Court has sought explanations and used harsh words about ‘encounter killings’ by the police. The unstated justification — sadly, supported by many in the upper class — is the difficult and abysmally slow process of getting a conviction. No civilised society will support this rationale; yet, the judicial system cannot escape blame. The letter may remind the government about the dire urgency to overhaul the judicial system so that judgements do not take decades and corruption within the judiciary — seemingly on the increase — is curbed.

The letter might reiterate the collective aspiration of a happy, healthy, caring and compassionate society, with equality of opportunity and social justice. It would ask whether present policies are attuned to this goal, and urge that the right to good health and right to food be enacted as laws, along with a universal right to livelihood (as a progression from right to work). It would condemn the illegal campaign of intimidation against human rights activists, demand the release of Binayak Sen and an end to state-sponsored, private, armed gangsters who are only spurring an escalating cycle of violence.

Institution-building was one of the high points of the first two decades of the Republic. Institutions like Parliament, defence services, Election Commission and others were strengthened and respected. World-class institutions were created for R&D and professional education.

The letter could point to the fact that these institutions — and others — are in bad health, thanks to wrong policies, political interference, erosion of autonomy and increasing bureaucratisation. Public sector icons — such as Air India, Doordarshan, All India Radio, BSNL, HMT and ITI — that contributed so much and have great potential are dying, or — more factually — being killed. Explanations and action are essential.

Finally, the letter would ask for tough laws to end corruption engendered by the corporate sector. It would voice concern about the growing trend towards crony capitalism, and the need to weed out the power brokers who facilitate this. The government must be the rule-maker and, at most, the referee, but certainly not a player in inter-corporate warfare.

One admires the eminent and respected authors of the open letter for their bravery (it is, sadly, uncommon for business leaders to be even subtly critical of the government). Yet, one wishes that they had put their weighty signatures to a more forceful and forthright letter, echoing the above thoughts. Many pine for that road not taken, the letter not penned.

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One Comment
  1. Tushar permalink

    Very interesting thoughts indeed sir. Also saw your interview with Mr. Thapar tonight.

    At times one wonders on the scale of this issue. At one end is the billion / million rupee scams and at the other end is the still smaller lessons in moral science one was taught in school. So many of us would prefer to still slide the 100 rupee to the traffic policeman.

    May be the answer is in technology of eliminating the human being from the process. Perhaps by bringing in the restrains of no possibility of corruption in day to day life, like in the case of the small time police man, and trifle government processes, we can instill the right culture in ourselves.

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