India’s progress is crippled by Indians holding back Indians

  • Samar Halarnkar
  • Updated: Feb 01, 2016 01:11 IST
India works for the top 40% of its people, not for the bottom 60%. (REUTERS)

Even by the impunities granted to security forces in India’s criminal-justice system, the alleged gang rape of women in the embattled tribal land of Bastar by “suraksha bal (security forces)” — to use the words in a police first-information report — was particularly disturbing. A minor girl and a pregnant woman were among those raped during an anti-Maoist operation in five villages of Bijapur district between October 19 and 24, former colleague Chitrangada Choudhury wrote in this newspaper.

“Two men held my hands down on either side. Another man sat on my legs and raped me,” the gang-raped minor told Choudhury. They said I was meant to be killed, but I was being spared. They said, the next time I would be dead. I became unconscious when it was happening.” Yet, the alleged rapes — largely ignored by the national media — were not as much the issue as was a rare official acknowledgement of crime. “When I heard the women’s stories, I was completely shocked,” Bijapur’s collector, Yashwant Kumar, was quoted as saying. The police broke tradition by registering a rape case, although no investigator visited the crime scene. I would like to proven wrong, but I am sceptical about further action.

As the new year rolled in, the Reserve Bank of India’s straight-shooting and erudite governor Raghuram Rajan — in no way referring to the incident in Bastar — provided some context to the Indian tendency to persecute and prosecute the poor. “It has often been said that India is a weak State. Not only are we accused of not having the administrative capacity of ferreting out wrong doing, we do not punish the wrong-doer — unless he is small and weak,” Rajan said in an email to his staff. “No one wants to go after the rich and well-connected wrong-doer, which means they get away with even more.”

What Rajan said holds good for almost every sphere of public life in India, a democracy notorious for protecting the strong and rich and going after the weak and poor. What happens in Bastar may not really affect or bother people like us (PLUs), but it should because this “culture of impunity”, as Rajan termed it, is holding India back from “strong sustainable growth”, which surely is emerging, aspiring India’s greatest desire.

The proclivity of Indian officials to persecute those who can be persecuted is widespread, relentless and knee-jerk, a de facto reaction to power. Of course there are exceptions, but I would argue that, in general, Indians — specifically, those in the bureaucracy — hold other Indians back in world-leading, unique ways. Indeed, the success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious plans — from a revolutionary crop-insurance policy for farmers to tax breaks and easy clearances to startups — will depend on how this culture of impunity can be addressed. That will largely depend on local bureaucracies, not as much on the Centre, which will increasingly limit itself to ideas, policy, funding and inspiration. As Modi cuts corruption at the Centre — I don’t think there is any question that he has — and gets his officials out of direct supervision, for instance, of health and education, these tasks will be taken over by the states. It’s uncertain if states can cope.

Harvard professor Lant Pritchett famously called India a “flailing state”. He likened the bureaucracy to a brain that works with limbs that refuse to obey: World-class institutions but abysmal delivery of services. TN Ninan, writer and editor, says — with marked optimism, in my opinion — that India works for the top 40% of its people, not for the bottom 60%.

A recent example: The acquittal of actor Salman Khan, who allegedly ran over one person and injured four 13 years ago while under the influence. There was against Khan — in the words of the judge — a “strong suspicion of guilt” but not enough evidence. The US journal Foreign Policy ran a story with the headline: “How to get away with manslaughter, Bollywood style.” Khan’s case, the legal advocacy Daksh calculated, moved 11 times the speed of the average case in the Bombay high court.

The impunity India offers the strong is at work, in situations more mundane and less urgent than gang rapes in Bastar and the death of pavement dwellers in Mumbai. Those so protected get true freedom — from the law. Rajan’s observations referred in particular to the failure of banks to act against India’s biggest loan defaulters, whose doubtful or bad debts now top Rs 2.67 lakh crore. Despite defaults, many got new loans anyway.

Those who are not influential must live with petty harassment and corruption. In Mumbai, homes and hotels are currently hounded by an excise department that forces on them multiple visits to get a permit that allows them to serve liquor at private parties (don’t try serving that duty free scotch), provided they buy liquor from a list of unofficially approved local stores. ‘Visits’ to homes and hotels ensure compliance.

I have my own story to share. Last year, my chartered accountant said I would have to, for the first time, pay service tax, which meant I would need to register myself as an assessee — and pay Rs 2,000 as a bribe. What for? I asked mystified. To be registered, he said. But wasn’t it all online? It is, he said, but when the final email is ready, no one hits “enter” for free.

“Our regulations are not always very clear, our staff sometimes is neither well informed of our own regulations nor willing to help the customer, our responses are occasionally extraordinarily slow and bureaucratic,” said Rajan. The important point: Discarding the protections to the rich and persecution of the weak do not mean being against business or wealth but acting against all violations — and otherwise getting out of the way. As Modi asked at his start-up soiree: “Please tell us what not to do.” Sure, but who, exactly, will listen?

Samar Halarnkar is editor,

The views expressed are personal

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