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Friday, December 12, 2014

As citizens, we are the system

This post is in response a comment on quora ( http://www.quora.com/What-are-the-biggest-misconceptions-that-Indians-have-about-India/answer/Prashant-Bhattacharji/comment/2765540) and a couple more comments from the same user in that same thread.


Dear Abhijeet Choudhury,

A lot of what you have said here is true, about the politicians, thugs and the plight of poor people in India. However I think there are some misconceptions. First of all here is my inference about who you are based on your comment and quora profile (Ignore if my inference is wrong ) :

1) You are an IT engineer (mostly at TCS) from a middle class or upper middle class family who has been in an urban place for most part of your life, there by lacking touch with the ground reality, especially what happens in rural and semi-urban places.
2) You probably had been to USA for work and were impressed by the much efficient system and people there
3) You probably follow Hollywood and US news/comedy etc and have a very positive view of USA

Now the misconceptions

1) USA is definitely advanced than India in several aspects. But remember that
 - They got independence centuries before we did. Their situation was also pretty bad even till the first half of 20th century. The poor people like the mine labourers, construction workers suffered very badly. (Read these : Truck system   Sixteen Tons ) It was mainly during and after the second world war that USA super charged and surged ahead, primarily by accepting people from across the world and creating an ecosystem where innovation thrived. (That is something we definitely have to learn)
 - their population and population density was and is much lesser than that of India
 - they sort of (not entirely) had a clean slate to start with while we had a much older history/legacy to deal with. The older it is the more time it takes to change.

None of these are reasons for us to be complacent with the current state of affairs. Singapore is a perfect example of how development can be achieved in short time also. I am merely saying that a comparison of current India and current USA is not fair. We are definitely progressing. May not be at rate which is impressive to you, may not be at the level the west is, nevertheless we are moving forward and there is ample proof of this. Just look around you and compare the 90s with the current. Has there been no positive change at all? After 67 years of independence we are definitely ahead of where USA was after 67 years of their independence. This is of course because we have leapfrogged in various fields. And that is precisely why we can catch up with the developed world. Let us be positive and give ourselves some more time. Because of our huge mass and very old history, the inertia is very high. Change will be slow but it will happen. It already has started (and no this is not a reference to Modi coming to power).

2) You "almost all common people in USA have a lavish life" - Who are these common people you are referring to? The middle class and upper middle? Your USA counterparts? Fact check : These people are not "almost all" by any statistic. It is true that the urban middle class people are having a decent life in the USA. But so is the urban middle class in India. We sure have more friction when we deal with certain archaic govt institutions but on a day-to-day basis the urban middle class has a fairly smooth life (except may be traffic woes..!). The poor and jobless, even in USA, have a lot of problems. The number of homeless people is increasing like anything. The wealth distribution is very skewed there too. Well qualified people are spending nights in buses because they can afford an overnight bus journey but cannot afford to rent a home. (Read : The dark side of Silicon Valley - Telegraph). I also belong to this same urban middle class category and my life is pretty smooth. May not be lavish but definitely not struggling. So is the case with almost all the people in my circles. You cannot compare the picture of a poor farmer or a construction worker in India with the picture of an IT guy in USA. The blue collar workers suffer in USA too (Read : 'Being homeless is better than working for Amazon')

3) You talk about loan to poor people. Here are some things you should know :
 - Govt provides "interest free" agriculture loans to farmers. This facility is being used by many farmers (albeit being misused also).
 - Co-operative societies provide loan to the poor at 3% interest rate (which is less than the interest your bank gives on your SB account)
 - Micro finance institutions exist through out the country (and several other neighbouring countries) which are helping workers and entrepreneurs at the rural, grass-root levels. These are people who sell fruits and vegetables on hand pulled carts, people who put up small mobile recharge shops, etc.
 - Govt runs the rural employment guarantee scheme which is analogous to the "Unemployment compensation" in USA. Again, this is also being misused but this has indeed prevented a lot of migration of poor people from rural to urban places there by reducing the "slums" that we see in all cities.

There are other several steps being taken by the govt to help uplift the poor. Sure the execution is not the best and efficient. There are a lot of leaks. But it is not summing up to a zero. There is a positive effect and we are progressing. It can definitely be a lot better, but that won't happen with negative attitude. We have to keep a positive outlook and be ready to get our hands dirty. Otherwise we will just be like those people sitting in a comfort chair in front of tv watching Sachin get out and then say "Arre square cut maarna tha yaar..!".

4) In your another comment you talk about traffic violations. You say people do it because they see politicians and other big people doing it and also because police extort money from people. I fail to recognize the correlation. If a politician is breaking traffic rules, what is stopping you from following the same? I see so many people jump signals while I always make a point to stop when it is a red. People behind me honk like crazy, some switch lanes and point fingers at me when they overtake me and jump the signal. I still don't budge. It is not just me. I have seen several other people do the same. If you are genuinely interested in creating a lawful ecosystem, then start following the rules. You cannot say that I won't do it until every one else starts doing it. That mentality won't get us anywhere. As Gandhiji said "Be the change that you wish to see in the world".

That brings me to my final and most important point : In all your posts you are just pointing fingers at others : other people, the system, the politicians, the police and so on. You compare all of these in India and USA. You declare that all of this is better in USA. But you fail to recognize what contributed to making all of this better in USA. Did it magically happen? Of course not. The people of the country toiled hard to reach there. People like you and me.

There was a time in USA when child labourers in coal mines was a common place. There was a time when farmers in USA paid lawyers with grains and nuts because they did not have money. There was a time in USA when racial discrimination was so strong that the African-American folks were as afraid of just talking as were the shudras in India when untouchability was at its height. The USA too had a lot of shortcomings. But they worked to overcome all of that and fullfil their dreams, albeit in their own ways. There was several altercations and fights. People had to fight for their rights, their safety, for development. They still do. (Remember "Occupy Wallstreet", Ferguson shooting?). It only through such fights that we weed out the bad. Not by complaining.

You might say "What could a regular corporate employee like me who works 9 to 6 for 5 days a week do in this matter?". The simple answer is that there is not easy way out. If we want to bring about a change we should be ready to face hardships. To start with pledge to abide by rules everywhere you interface with government. Getting your driving license? Do not go through an agent or pay any bribe to the RTO officer. Purchased a piece of land? Do not under-quote the value to save tax and pay a bribe to the sub-registrar. Is there a pot hole in the road in your locality? Go notify that to your ward corporator. If it doesn't happen in one complaint, do it many times. You sure will be spending quite a bit of time, at least initially. Please don't think of it as a waste of time. That would just be a short sighted view. Eventually they will give in and do the work. There are a lot of things that each and every one of us can do as citizens to improve the situation. Complaining is definitely not one of them. And pessimistic attitude definitely doesn't help one bit.

Not until too long ago the Americans looked up to Europe like you look up to the USA, picturing Europe to be that much more developed and sophisticated place. That in no way reduced their national pride. Everything they did, everything they said was about USA and people of USA. Majority of the people aiming to be the best cared about being the best in USA. They did not look for a stamp of approval from some other country. Their growth and development period was characterized by indigenous innovation and not by simply importing ideas and technologies from the already developed world. That is what we should be doing too. Be proud about our nation while accepting our shortcomings and working towards overcoming them.

All said and done, please do note that India is not at all a failed democracy. Compared to a host of oppressive regimes around the world we have freedom of speech to a vast degree. Except for a few isolated incidents like the one you mention (two mumbai girls being arrested) we have a lot of freedom of speech and it is improving. The 66A of IT Act (under which the girls were arrested) has been challenged in the court and the court has already opined that the legislation is very vague and ripe for misuse. The hearing is still on and soon we will see the legislation being revamped to be meaningful, if not scrapped altogether (Read : Sec 66A of IT act lacks guidelines, arrests made over social media posts prone to abuse: SC).

Things will change. They will improve. They are just waiting for each of one of us to do our part. Let's not shy away from confronting the problems and work on solving them instead of just complaining.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

My response to request for feedback from AAP (Aam Aadmi Party)

Today I got an email asking me for feedback on AAP (Aam Admi Party). The first question was

What would make you volunteer in future? What stopped you from volunteering this time? *
Give us as much detail as you'd like

I took the sub-text literally and a little seriously and wrote a really detailed answer. I thought I might as well put it up here and share with the world (or the one or two who actually read my blog.. :P ). Anyways here it goes :

Not interested in volunteering for AAP.

AAP as a party has acted in the most irresponsible, selfish and foolhardy manner ever since it formed the government in Delhi. People of Delhi whole heartedly supported AAP with the hope that they would get some real stable governance for the next 5 years. Instead what they got was utter chaos.

I expected changes like corruption free governance, no undue fiscal burden on the state, public works development, fulfillment of election promises for once, but all I got to see was a couple of filmy style sacking of corrupt officers, some agitation and finally a resignation just after 49 days. If that was not irresponsible then what is?

And what do you do after resigning? You forget Delhi altogether and try to become the prime minister of India. If this isn't selfish then what is it?

Prime minister of India, no less. Are you kidding me? You could not run the state of Delhi for two months and you expect me to hand over the reins of the country to you for the next 5 years?

Alright lets assume that you genuinely felt that contesting the Lok Sabha elections was a key thing and something that you had do. What did you do? Again like the typical filmy style you go out like an underdog hero and challenge the most popular leader, in a place which is not even your home turf. If this is not foolhardiness then what is it? How much would it have mattered whom you win against. Wouldn't you be able to serve the people better being an MP from somewhere in Delhi (your home turf) instead of creating all this drama of challenging Mr. Modi from Varanasi. Look at how Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayaprakash_Narayan_(Lok_Satta) ) has done it. His party was never in power anywhere, but that never deterred him from becoming one of the best performing MLAs. I believe you wanted to show that you are not afraid of facing anyone in elections and you have the peoples' mandate to contest and win against Mr. Modi. But who cares about that Mr. Kejriwal? Sure you might have put up a good fight, but what does it account to in the end? All that I see is that you were trying to be a bollywood hero in the Indian politics, who wants to the take on the big bad guy (again as declared by yourself). You now lost your chance to voice the opinion of the people you represent in the LokSabha.

Then comes the ultimate flip-flop you did with the Delhi assembly. Until LokSabha election results were announced you kept hounding the Lt. Governor to dissolve the assembly. You even approached the Supreme Court for this. Then on one fine Tuesday you go and meet the Lt. Governor and make an announcement to the public that you have requested the Lt. Governor to NOT dissolve the assembly but give you another chance and that you will ask people about forming the government again and then decide. And the next day (on Wednesday) you make an yet another U-turn announcing that you have asked the Lt. Governor to dissolve the assembly and you will now ask people about contesting again in the elections.

How do you think this reflects on you? You accuse every politician out there of corruption, double standards and every other accusation possible and you yourself act in such an irresponsible and opaque manner, saying contradictory things on a daily basis and on top of it claim to be "THE ONLY HONEST POLITICAL PARTY". How can I believe anything you say after you have done so much of circus?

All this drama eroded complete faith in the capability of AAP to form and run a government in any form, let alone provide better governance than the existing political parties.

Please note that I have talked only about your own actions and what I feel about those. I have not mentioned any of the other accusations made about AAP or Mr. Kejriwal, like Mr. Kejriwal coming to Varanasi by train saying he has Rs. 500/- in his pocket and going back by flight, or the episode around Mr. Kejriwal's official residence as CM of Delhi, or the incident of Mr. Somnath Bharti and certain people of African origin or the mayraid images and posts circulated on the social network which, of course, you totally accuse as baseless and a defamation propaganda by the IT cell of BJP. I am not even making the comparison between Mr. Modi's Gujarat model and your achievements, because you say that its all an eyewash. So be it. That's why I have mentioned only the actions of AAP and it's leader Mr. Kejriwal.

Now a few times AAP has come out and said that it is a new political party with inexperienced people and hence they could have made some mistakes. It's good that you acknowledge this. But with this statement you can't ask people to hand over the country's administration to you. If you are new and inexperienced, then start with the basics. Gain that experience that you think is needed. I don't have to tell you that you need to start from the grass-root levels. Making noise in urban places, parading urban youth with the "Aam Aadmi" cap is one thing and working at village panchayat level, addressing rural problems is entirely different.

You do not have to be a MLA or MP to provide good governance. Those are not the only places where good politicians are needed. Those are not the only places where big time scams and plundering of public funds is done. Gram panchayat, taluk panchayat and Zilla Parishad are equally in need of good politicians and bureaucrats. If one were to accumulate the amount of money siphoned off in the name of NREGA through out the country then I am sure it will beat any of the other big scams that the previous government(s) have been accused of. The amount of pilfering that happens is insane. It easily runs into crores for each panchayat, every year. And I know this first hand.

Start at those places. Let people across the state and country know you, not just by your agitations, but by real work that you do, by some real meaningful change that you bring about. It's ok if you are unable to bring in a strong legislation like Jan Lokpal. You don't have to throw your hands up in the air in despair saying you were not given enough support. There are other innumerable things that you can and should do and those will have a big positive impact on people even without the Jan Lokpal. If you tell me that there is absolutely no machinery to fight corruption in our system currently then you are absolutely wrong. You do not have to put every single corrupt bureaucrat in jail or suspend them. It's sufficient if you make an example out of one or some of them in a few departments on a regular basis. The rest will automatically shy away from corruption. And you have enough ways to enforce such a thing.

Also, corruption is not the only problem plaguing our country. There are numerous other things that require attention. Being in a position of power allows you to address these other issues while you carefully maneuver the juggernaut that our system is. It doesn't have to be a head on collision. It's not a "Last man standing" kind of battle. I have personally seen government officials doing this in a very intelligent manner at various levels and I have seen it from very close quarters. It is possible. It is doable. Above all it brings out the desired positive changes and makes the lives of people better. It provides them what they really crave for. It's going to be difficult no doubt, but our constitution and our legal system provide so many options to deal with this juggernaut. This same government infrastructure which the corrupt are mis-utilizing can be turned around as a weapon against them.

No matter which legislation you bring in, we will not be a corruption free state overnight. It's going to be a long road and you need to be patient about it. We as a country are definitely in a much better position than we were a few decades back. So we can get better. Its just that we have a huge inertia owing to our big mass (aka population). Change is difficult. One is easily tempted about the idea of bringing about a revolution and making overnight changes. Personally, I feel the cost involved for such a revolution is very high and more importantly the desired result is not guaranteed. In comparison the slow and steady here will indeed be the winner.

You ask me what would make me a AAP volunteer in future. I say look beyond cities. Look at the vast majority of semi-urban and rural places. Go there. Find like minded people in those places. I am sure they are there. Empower them with all that you have. You have top class lawyers with you who can carry out a PIL right up in the supreme court. You have contacts in the press. You can mobilize man power. You can draw the attention of the nation and beyond. You know how to effectively use the RTI. You run NGOs which, despite the allegations of being funded by the CIA through various organizations, can do a lot of good. Do all of that. Become a party of the rural India. Become a household name as the best choice in panchayat politics and then I will probably become an AAP volunteer. Well technically you will not need me at that point and thats a fine contradiction to have. :).

I say probably because apart from the stuff that I have said above I am not really a fan of AAP party principles, which according to me are very close to communist ideas. So that's altogether a different matter and a commentary on that will have meaning only after the above mentioned things are addressed.

Oh and one more thing which I almost forgot. Please groom local leaders everywhere. Or rope in existing local leaders whose thought process aligns with yours. Personally a tie-up with Loksatta would have been really good. Nevertheless, do not be a typical "high command controlled" party. Be true to your vision and words and be truly federal even in your party structure and operation.

P.S : I might have come across as a staunch BJP supporter through out, which at the moment is true. In the recently concluded elections BJP under the leadership of Mr. Narendra Modi has been the best option for the country according to me and I am positive about India's future under the current government. Ideologically though, I think Loksatta is more appealing to me than AAP.