Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Fight for More Democracy

Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried. 

- Winston Churchill

The world, or at least its youth, the torchbearers of our society, culture and democracy, are really angry.

They are angry about lack of jobs. They are angry at inflation and price rises. Go to the European countries fighting recession, and there is a strike a day targeting government betrayers and vested interests (namely the financial world) for leaving them high and dry on every front, ruining their prospects for a better tomorrow. China is worried about the repercussions of the inability to absorb millions of fresh graduates in the next few years amid suicides over pathetic salaries for making iPhones. Brazilians were angry over increased bus fares in the light of abysmal low wages.

They are angry about the state of law and order within their countries. Brazil, India and even Nepal have seen massive protests where law and order has been a major topic of debate. China has been bristling over the sexual overtures of their government officials. Turkey has become an inglorious leading light in jailing journalists, authors, painters – basically anyone who can have an opinion. Well, all these other emerging giants are also doing the same by bringing in draconian laws on imprisonment for ‘nuisance’. So aggravated are the youth that they themselves create law and order situations to express their frustrations at the glacial pace of change (or is there anything slower than that) they see happening in front of themselves.  And before I forget, Brazil is also protesting for better public sanitation facilities (that must certainly be a first for a Third World country).

The young are unhappy with their governments, who also contribute by behaving like idiots. By banning coverage, serials, movies, documentaries and what not, the governments only end up provoking the same bunch of ‘young influential minds’ who they think they are protecting. China’s WEIBO is full of anti-government rants that create mirrors despite attempts to block the raging discussions that fire up a country much to the chagrin of the Communist Party officials. France saw its people take to streets over a legislation that would legalize marriage amongst the homosexual people, making a committed government back off within weeks of introducing it in the French National Assembly. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan thinks he can continue to bully the media into not speaking out against his wolf in sheep’s clothes games over democracy and secular traditions of Turkey. Here in India much like Turkey, our governments at Central and State levels think they can just water cannon and baton their way through people protesting against absolute lack of governance and zero law and order. European leaders have been somewhat better – they wash their hands off when they are to blame in a more convincing manner, which makes me understand just where our Third World politicians gain their lessons in spin-doctoring and repeating a lie so many times it starts to sound like the gospel truth.

What is really going on?

Amidst the seemingly disparate thread of events there is a common underlying factor. In 2010, Chris Kijne made a documentary aptly titled After Democracy that discussed what follows after democracy. It is a worthy question to explore. Societies were supposed to transition from feudalism and autocratic set ups to free, democratic, more representative societies and administrative regimes. At least that is what people like Comte, Marx and Weber thought would happen (each thought of it partially though). But then, if countries across the world are at varying stages of this democratic experiment, why are all of them protesting, almost as if on cue? And once we achieve democracy, then what? Where are we headed to as a world, together?

The crux of the matter perhaps lies in the very definition of the idea of democracy. The word idea is an interesting creature. One of the meanings attributed to it is ‘a concept or mental impression’. The very interesting thing about this ‘concept’ as is with many other concepts is that you cannot hold it within a boundary. Every idea evolves on its own, independent sometimes of its origins and originators. Democracy is one such idea which, much like society and culture is highly fluid and easier to understand than explain. What we are witnessing today across the world leaves to my mind no doubt that this is the start of a process. The rules of engagement within democracies are changing even as we speak. The best part of these protests is that 

  1. It is driven entirely by the young people, the real source of new ideas, a new energy and the ones who bring in change when needed the most;
  2. These protests have been spontaneous, spurred by young men and women who care about what it means to be a citizen in today’s age of modernity and rationality; and 
  3.   The protesters are highly political in their worldviews and are keenly aware of what they want, though this is paralleled by the absence of political affiliation amongst these protesting groups.
These are positive signs, for it shows that a whole new bunch of people are preparing to take over the mantle of political leadership, and are pragmatic about their position in the world. The old guard will eventually have to listen to this new bunch and make way, since the youth of the world has not refrained from challenging the very ideas that the older politicians have put forward. The overarching theme in all these protests is a simple one – involve us. It makes sense, since we never had so many young people on the planet as we do today. 

It is even more ironic that in spite of overall better education, health and life spans than ever before, it is the youth that has borne the brunt of the economic slowdown, wars across the world and violence against which people have been protesting vehemently in several countries. Being part of the political process is imperative for the youth since we have excluded them so much from every other sphere of the national dialogue today. There was a time when the youth drove the global agenda. The wheel has come full circle again. However, this time the youth is not just disillusioned against wars and coup d’états, it also has fresh, bright and innovative ideas of changing the way people are involved in the daily discourse of democracy, government, freedom and society and culture. Failure to involve them now will only cause the whole world to fall apart. The youth of today is fighting for what would be described as more democracy. It needs to be supported by all means if we want to move forward into a brighter future.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Dysfunctional Local Administration and the Change We Seek

Yesterday, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the municipal body of Bengaluru, uploaded a document that was submitted by an expert committee to the Honourable Karnataka High Court on the issue of garbage (mis)management in the city. A good look at the document shows all that is wrong with the manner in which local governance takes place in India. It is ironic that at the very beginning of this document the committee notes that the garbage disposal issue has in recent times become an issue of grave concern. What it conveniently ignores (though it is not their mandate) that while this issue was growing in menacing proportions, the councillors of BBMP, cutting across party lines, were busy fighting with Vijay Mallya, Anil Kumble, Karnataka Cricket Association (KCA) and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for free passes for IPL matches taking place in Bengaluru. Even as you scan across the document, you see how confused and muddled the issue is, with the expert committee also giving contradictory statements on making Bengaluru a ‘zero waste’ city. But this is just a symptom of the real issues that governance at the local level fails.
The 73rd Amendment of India’s Constitution has enabled the provision for participatory governance at the rural and urban levels in India. Even as the rural areas have seen some sort of governance reform with the partial strengthening of gram sabhas and panchayats, urban areas have been unable to do so. Major cities of India have the opportunity to access funds under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), the funding cum urban governance reform scheme launched with much fanfare in 2004. However, a look at the level of funds utilized clearly highlights the underwhelming response that the scheme has received even in its Phase II. A lot of talk has been put forward about the various ‘administrative hurdles’ in accessing funds and ‘lack of capacity to spend these funds’; however, the real reason is a simple, powerful yet clear one. Amongst the conditions laid out for accessing the funds for various purposes, the government of the concerned state has to enact a Community Participation Law under which urban conglomerations within cities will have access to JNNURM funds via a Community Participation Fund. With the help of the Community Participation Fund’s initiation, the people can directly participate in the daily affairs of the government, and even enact locality level urban improvement projects by accessing funds separately mandated under the Community Participation Fund.
So far, hardly any funding has been accessed in the second phase of the scheme, where this particular administrative reform has been made a necessary condition. It is clear that the Barring Mysore, no other city in India so far has enacted this law. Even the state government of Delhi rejected efforts of the erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to enact the law citing multiplicity of agencies, when a simple solution to this problem could have been delivered by incorporating the various Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) under the Bhagidari scheme could have been made the representatives for representation and allocation. Even as the government of Karnataka and BBMP put forward the document and talked left right and centre about the various manners of waste segregation, management, charging bulk vendors or even putting forward money on processing facilities assembly constituency-wise, the document conveniently ignores the Community Participation Law. While the BBMP has already mandated the source management of waste especially for housing societies and localities, enacting the Law can provide funds for the management of waste at local levels so desperately needed, cutting down the overall expenses of the municipal body on everyday issues to a large extent.
While this was just about waste, there are several other issues in the urban domain that such a law could have easily dealt with before it gains monumental proportions. Urban areas can undergo major uplift to remove the ugliness of the cities and managing the urban design issues in a localized manner while also helping motivated communities preserve the heritage zones within cities. There are several Urgent enactment of the law is necessary for several reasons. More than 30% of India lives in urban spaces and produces 65% of India’s total GDP output. Also, the transition to urban spaces is an unstoppable phenomenon, and redeveloping cities for this transition can be facilitated through the participation of the residents of the city. However, this would entail weakening the grip of the elected representatives at all levels of the urban sphere as it would translate into greater accountability and would mean direct access, thus diminishing chances of swindling funds. Sample this: Mumbai, Bengaluru and Ludhiana are amongst the richest municipal bodies in India and even in Asia, and yet the state of infrastructure in these cities is worse than pathetic. Curiously, in these cities renowned for local body corruption, placing this law into the picture would change the discourse in an irreversible manner. The political economy of not transitioning power is skewed right now in the favour of vested interests within the several constituents of the state and city administrations, with local government being under their purview through the Indian Constitution, and there is an urgent need to rescue city administration from them in order to revive Indian cities.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Rohan Murthy’s Induction into Infosys - Killing the Indian Aspiration

A popular joke has been doing the rounds across India’s digital circles, harking the return of the 1990s. After all, Sanjay Dutt is in jail, Madhuri Dixit is on the big screen and Murthy is again heading Infosys among other things. However, what is not a joke is the induction of Rohan Murthy, N R Narayana Murthy’s son, as an executive assistant to Mr. Murthy, even if he gets paid only Re.1.
Infosys had a difficult gestation, but it saw through that tide of difficulties in the License Raj. The nascent steps towards India’s economic liberalization two decades ago meant that companies that had talent driving them all of a sudden discover opportunities never seen or heard of before. All of a sudden, merit, and not proximity to the corridors of power, mattered in succeeding in business in India. All of a sudden, it was big business that was eating the humble pie for refusing to acknowledge talent when it needed it the most. In the Indian business scenario, there have been only Goliaths. There would have been no David but for Infosys, who proved more than a thing Infosys proved just what economic reforms could help ordinary Indians achieve. It made all our advantages and disadvantages become irrelevant. Sure Mr. Murthy had problems back then importing computers. Today however, Infosys sells the stuff that runs these computers, making the world sit up and take note of India’s potential. Infosys became a symbol of India’s economic transformation and its ability to absorb anyone and everyone, treating them all at par without any extra efforts. Infosys was, and still perhaps is, the only company that allowed its employees to vent out on an official portal, and started to take cognizance of its employees’ problems. Name one company of Indian origin which has the guts to do so. The answer is an emphatic none. It paid attention to hiking salaries for its employees, and though not ideal, is certainly worth an exploration even in terms of human resource practices, even if it was fuelled by several monetary and manpower factors.
What really had distinguished the company from other Indian companies is one simple but critical factor. There are no big surnames helping the firm any which way. Who would have thought that a company with no big surname amidst its board actually turn into a billion dollar plus enterprise? And yet, it proved people wrong by setting up a firm which has not indulged in corporate fraud, which has a clean image and also appreciated corporate and technical talent. This was evident by the fact that apart from the wives of the original board members, there were hardly any family members in the corporate ladder of Infosys. Heck, we had been excited to see that the head honcho retired, giving over the executive functioning to someone who was not his son, daughter, son-in-law etc. etc. Merit was the company’s foundation, and would continue to remain so.
Or so we thought.
As the company’s fortunes dipped, tough decisions were made. Eventually, the company, bereft of the original set of innovators, had to fall back on NRN to revive the sagging fortunes of the company. The induction of his son, an MBA graduate from the United States, into the company as his executive assistant, has sent rumour mills flying into overdrive. All this was a well managed plan, it is now believed, to keep the Infosys label gripped into the Murthy family’s hands. He was managing the family’s foundation, notably engaged in CSR activities, prior to this ‘assistant’ stint.
The problem with his induction is the fact that all of a sudden, merit has become a casualty to profit making and securing family interests. Infosys stood apart from the crowd because it did not ensconce any family cartels or shareholder cartels. Only the best was supposed to go to the top of the ladder. By bringing in Rohan, NRN has shattered the perceptions about image and revived the stereotypes about Indian business houses – that we are all typical family establishments, too attached to the business to ever give it up. Not learning from Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or companies like Apple and GE, who ensured founding members’ families remained out of the business, we have again demoralized the rise of merit by demonstrating that talent will never really get the opportunity in India, and there is no option for the talented but to chart untested waters abroad, for they will never truly be appreciated in India.
Thanks a lot Mr. Murthy, for shattering millions of Indian aspirations, much like the other business corporations.

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