Pay the rich, for the rich

The starkly disproportionate response of the government, media and the public to the two babas on fast over the last few days is symptomatic of a deep malaise in our democratic set-up. Ashish Kothari writes.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:49 IST

The starkly disproportionate response of the government, media and the public to the two babas on fast over the last few days is symptomatic of a deep malaise in our democratic set-up. Capturing the headlines was Baba Ramdev, fasting on the issues of black money and corruption; completely sidelined was Swami Nigamanand, fasting on the issue of mining and stone crushing along the Ganga. The former was ‘persuaded’ to break his fast even though the government had not met his demands; the latter, refusing to break his fast till the mining was stopped, perished for the cause.

This differential treatment reflects how we treat different kinds of corruption. The word itself has come to mean only financial irregularities with the intent of personal or group enrichment. But corruption can also mean the abuse of power by decision-makers, the use of personal relationships and influence to gain favours, and so on. What the Swami Nigamanand tragedy highlights is the corruption of economic decision-making by the elite in ways that undermine the life and livelihoods of those less powerful.

Tackling black money and financial corruption is essential, but it has to be complemented by fundamental reforms in the way our economy is governed. If all the black money stashed abroad is rescued and put into the same hands that today control India’s economy, it may make things worse.

Indiscriminate mining or other destructive economic activity is not confined to the Ganga’s banks, it is rampant across the country. Much of it is sanctioned and sanctified as part of an economic growth model that parades itself as ‘development’. The era of financial globalisation has rapidly changed the face of India. For the ‘upper’ classes, the change has been shining; for large parts of the rest of India, it has, at best, been neutral, at worst, disastrous.

One major casualty has been ecological sustainability. The rate of diversion of forest land for mining, industry, expressways and the like has risen significantly; exploitation of marine resources for export are taking many of our oceanic areas to the brink of collapse. Equally stark are the social impacts. Inequities amongst different classes are rising, one estimate suggesting that the wealthiest 10% of Indians now own 53% of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 10% own only 0.2%. If the abysmally low indicator to determine the poverty line is corrected, anything between half to 80% of the population would be considered too poor to have adequate food, shelter, and clothing.

One basic cause for this is that those negatively impacted have hardly any say in decision-making. Surely, it is a very shallow democracy that allows those we elect to do virtually what they want. The corruption of power and mindsets that allows an economic and political elite to take decisions that leave out half of India can only be checked if our democracy goes much deeper. If anything, this is a far more pervasive corruption to fight than financial. Citizens need a right to participate in decisions affecting their daily lives, and the capacity to engage in them meaningfully.

The only step towards this would be a Right to Participate Act. The last few years has seen a spate of rights-related legislations related to information, employment, education. But this package of laws is incomplete without a fundamental right to participate in decisions relating to local development, welfare, and conservation. This would need a gradation of decision-making institutions, since a billion people cannot participate in decisions taken in New Delhi; it would need checks and balances at the grassroots and building of capacity. Primacy needs to be given to gram sabhas and urban area councils, which can involve the full population but which today are not empowered with the citizens’ right to participate.

Such a genuinely decentralised democracy would ensure that decisions taken in state capitals or Delhi are based on what is emerging from grassroots democratic processes. It can check the abuse of power by those who listen more to World Bank, powerful corporations and the financial elite. Only then will we further the cause for which Swami Nigamanand lost his life.

Ashish Kothari is member, Kalpavriksha Environment Action Group. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Jun 16, 2011 22:06 IST