Archive for March 24th, 2010

The blinding power of black !

March 24, 2010

Pritish Nandy,  22 March 2010, 10:52 AM IST

Every election in India has been fought on three promises. One: To fight corruption and punish the corrupt. Two: To reduce the generation of black money in the economy and bring it back from wherever it is secretly hoarded overseas. Three: To fight back inflation, bring down prices so that you and I can protect our standard of living instead of fighting a losing battle against inflation every year.

Curiously, these are the precise counts on which all Governments fail. They fail not because they make a serious attempt and lose. They fail simply because these promises were never meant to be kept. The men and women who rule India have always encouraged corruption because that is what oils the huge machinery of power and keeps it running. They also love the corrupt because unlike the languages we speak, Hindi, English, Bengali, Tamil, Marathi, the language of corruption is universal. It binds together parties, alliances, devious political objectives. It’s the language politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen understand. It’s the actual vocabulary of power.

You and I may hate corruption and sneer at it as an ugly thing, but those who play with power love having corrupt people around them. They are the deal makers who fix every problem, cash every political opportunity. Without them, we would lurch from one crisis to the next because blackmail and extortion have become an essential part of the political process today. Most transactions of India’s power elite are conducted in dark corners with corruption as its main currency.

Corruption and black money go hand in hand. So it’s unlikely that those in power, who depend so heavily on corruption will ever clamp down on black money. In fact, once elections are over and Governments are formed, all talk of fighting black money disappears. Yes, we hear the occasional grunts and groans, so that issues of public morality are still kept alive, but everyone is eager to bury the agenda of recovering black money. That’s not just because our politicians and bureaucrats love Swiss Banks. (In fact, the largest amount of money held in Swiss banks belongs to Indians.) But also because the process of recovering this huge amount of money, estimated variously between $500 billion and $1400 billion, represents not just what you and I have lost through political venality, it’s also what keeps our politics going. It’s what you can call reverse apartheid: Black money is all powerful here. White is for petty wage earners like you and me.

The third promise never kept is that of fighting inflation. Apart from a few scary recession months when the world was collapsing around our ears, we have never seen prices fall. If some price falls or is brought down to score a political point, the uproar is so huge it’s quickly reversed. Most of our businesses feed off rampaging inflation. Just look at the Worli Bandra bridge: its cost grew from Rs 300 crore to Rs 1600 crore just in the making. Food prices keep spiralling and yet farmers commit suicide because they don’t get remunerative prices. Who makes the money in between? The answer’s obvious. No country, however rich, however many people it may have in the Forbes Top Ten, can afford 20% inflation in food costs, particularly when half the nation goes to bed hungry. Funnily, by raising fuel prices in the much acclaimed recent budget, we have now successfully pushed the overall inflation to double digits as well. If you think that’s scary in the current economic scenario, wait. Economists say inflation will further grow even if your salary doesn’t. In any case, salaries can never keep pace with inflation. An average Mumbaikar spends 65% of his income only on paying rent because builders, with Government connivance, have created this monstrous bubble in property prices. Now they want to add 12% service tax on it, beginning with commercial leases.

Last week we saw pictures of millions of tonnes of foodgrain infested with rats, rotting in the open in Punjab because our godowns can barely store 16 million tonnes whereas we need to store 48. So, even as millions of Indians, men, women and children, struggle with hunger and malnutrition, we allow millions of tonnes of foodgrains to go waste. It’s not my intent to calculate here the cost to the national exchequer for this colossal waste, money that could have saved us taxes and brought down prices. The human cost is far more unbearable and any Government with self respect must punish those responsible.

Actually, that’s the real problem here: Waste. We allow vast sums of money to be lost in corruption. We allow billions of dollars of funny money to lie in Swiss banks even when the Swiss are ready to reveal details of ownership. We allow millions of people to starve when millions of tonnes of foodgrain openly rot. How can we be so corrupt and so inept at the same time?

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