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Not like this only

Jantar Mantar delivered a slap to India's sniggering elite. It is not the revolution we need, but it is a reminder of what we must do. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Jun 27, 2012 15:49 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

On April 8, the middle-class lit candles, tweeted, sang and rallied around their new Gandhi. The ruling classes - politicians, officials and my colleagues in the media - sniggered and expressed outrage at the undemocratic nature of the Jantar Mantar pressure group.

That same day, villagers in Chhattisgarh's Champa district gathered to utilise a democratic tool, the public hearing. Since the Adhunik Group, a Rs 3,500 crore conglomerate with interests in steel, power and mining, wanted to construct a power plant there, the government was legally bound to first organise a public hearing before trying to acquire village land. Within 30 minutes, three villagers opposed the plant. The district collector stopped the hearing. The next day, when the villagers tried to find out when the hearing would continue, they were told it was over. "How can this be?" asks local Vipin Mishra. "This is against the law."

I got to know of the goings-on in Champa thanks to CGnet Swara. It's an innovative mobile-phone-based service that lends a voice to those whom democracy fails, primarily in India's tribal heartland. If you log on to, you can hear, in Hindi and Gondi (the main tribal language), hitherto unheard voices talking about everything from petty corruption to security excesses. These are a few of India's 90 million tribals, whose democratic rights have been so routinely jettisoned over the years that many now subscribe to the dark, violent ways of Maoism.

I talk of democracy's collapse in the tribal lands because before deriding Anna Hazare's movement as undemocratic and dangerous, two adjectives that appear time and again in criticism against Jantar Mantar, it is important to assess how undemocratic and dangerous India's administrative failures have become.

If the clandestine, undemocratic sale of their lands and resources push tribals to the dark side, a series of clandestine, undemocratic deals pushed new India to swarm Jantar Mantar: the cheap sale of 2G spectrum; the construction of the illegal 31-storey Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society in Mumbai, on land cornered by generals, politicians and bureaucrats in the name of war widows; and the inflated contracts of the Commonwealth Games.

Of course Jantar Mantar was a circus. Of course it bypassed the democratic process. Of course it was cleverly positioned during a lull in 24x7 news events. But do consider that the cosy, corrupt system challenged by the jamboree is itself a daily circus that undermines and bypasses the democratic process.

"The declining capacity of the State and its institutions is a major indicator of a governance deficit in India, compounded by a growth in corruption among state functionaries," says the India Chronic Poverty Report, released last month by the state-funded Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA). Two days ago, chief election commissioner SY Quraishi, endorsing Hazare's demand for electoral reforms, told my colleague Chetan Chauhan: "There is large-scale electoral corruption. The role of criminals and money power is rampant."

We condone criminal violations of the law and Constitution, wink and laugh at them or simply don't care because at the end of the day we smirk and say, "We are like this only". India's ruling classes, comfortable with the status quo, are supremely isolated from its administrative anarchy. So, Jantar Mantar felt like anarchy to them. So, they criticise endlessly instead of pushing for real, urgent change.

Jantar Mantar is no more than a slap to the ruling elite. Its genesis, the proposed legislation to create a national ombudsman to monitor administrative malfeasance, is no solution to corruption. India is flooded with corruption-fighting institutions. There are anti-corruption bureaus, Lokayuktas, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation, to name a few. Empower any of them, and you will not need a Lokpal. The IIPA report notes that "a surge in new institutions, networks and actors has led to the neglect of existing institutions. All have a tendency to encroach on the functions of one another, demonstrated by frequent squabbles among Parliament, the Supreme Court and the bureaucracy."

Jantar Mantar has also focused disproportionate attention on the Lokpal Bill. It is good that a redrawn Bill may make politicians, officials and perhaps judges accountable to the Lokpal. But many laws now before Parliament require similar scrutiny.

Consider just one example: the Whistleblowers Bill (or, The Public Interest Disclosure and Protection of Persons Making the Disclosures Bill, 2010). It has familiar flaws. It says a vigilance commission, in certain circumstances, can reveal the identity of a whistleblower. As an analysis by the think tank PRS Legislative Research points out, this means a whistleblower can be compromised and victimised. Worse, a superior victimising a whistleblower will not be punished. But make a false complaint, and you could pay a fine and go to jail. Despite recommendations made by the Law Commission 10 years ago, the Bill does not allow a whistleblower to act against a minister and it has no time limit for inquiries. People power can deliver limited scrutiny. Intricate checks and balances can only come from reformed, strengthened institutions.

What Jantar Mantar has done is make India aware that it cannot any longer waffle about drastically reforming what Harvard professor Lant Pritchett in 2008 called "the flailing state". If it needs a revolution to change this state of affairs, Jantar Mantar is not the revolution. But the slap it delivered may be timely enough for the chummy elite to realise that while India may be eternal, Indians will no longer eternally wait for change.