Sunday, January 23, 2011

Some thoughts on corruption and regulation

Do we require a mass movement?

A lot of people have invoked the vision of a second freedom struggle to eliminate corruption. Taking them at their word, I will try to explain why it is not.

The freedom struggle included strands of reforming our society. But its primary goal was to eliminate a clear "other" (the British) from a colonial role. For most of the leaders, the "enemy" was NOT the British; the enemy was the colonial system itself. But when translated into a mass movement, the enemy was clearly defined.

In the case of a "mass movement against corruption", who is the "other"? The other is all among us. They are naked exploiters of the system, but we cannot really identify them and stage "satyagrahas" or anything like that.

I think this is a core problem of attitude when talking about corruption - the corrupt are not a distinct group of people.

Should India be corrupt?

Why is India corrupt at all?
Most of us born after independence have assumed that this is the natural status of things - that India is somehow "hardwired" to be corrupt. We do not know any other possible way things could have evolved.
If you read the literature on corruption in India, the conclusions are different. The reason, experts say, corruption took hold in India was because India had a huge License Raj set up very soon after independence. This encouraged, in the first 30-40 years, a systemic fault which pushed people to adjust prices through corruption. Thus corruption in India would have been at low levels if the License Raj had not been set up or did not have so much power.
Jitendra Singh of Wharton management says in an interview:

There was a distortion of incentives within the economy, such that people began expending efforts toward fundamentally unproductive behaviors because they saw that such behaviors could lead to short-term gains. Thus, cultivating those in positions of power who could bestow favors became more important than coming up with an innovative product design. The latter was not as important, anyway, because most markets were closed to foreign competition--automobiles, for example--and if you had a product, no matter how uncompetitive compared to global peers', it would sell.

These were largely distortions created by the politico-economic regime. While a sea change has occurred in the years following 1991, some of the distorted cultural norms that took hold during the earlier period are slowly being repaired by the sheer forces of competition. The process will be long and slow, however. It will not change overnight.

So it is possible that we could have evolved to be not so corrupt; there is nothing genetic or core cultural about Indians and corruption.

Will Individual efforts prevent corruption

People have suggested not paying bribes as a means of fighting corruption. This is impractical. I think this is suggested as a means for blaming the victim.
Let me narrate an incident - this is not so much of corruption, but government incompetence:
Me and a friend were coming back from Bangalore. We had booked seats in a government bus. The bus was there. We got in; had nice seats. I settled down with a comfortable blanket.
Well, about half an hour after the bus was supposed to start, the driver came and told us the bus won't go. We were all frustrated and he gave no explanation. It seemed they had a difference of opinion with some body else and they decided to protest by not driving.
We all got down and were madly trying to find some alternative ( me running around with the blanket wrapped around me). An admin guy came and told us to get tickets in another bus. We all rushed to the counter and tried to get the tickets.
There was one guy who was among the passengers - he was yelling at us that we were making a mistake. We should fight for the original bus to go and demand an explanation. If we did not do that they will keep repeating this.
I sympathized with him; but NOBODY else was listening to him. Everybody scrambled for the tickets, and I got mine too.
I felt ashamed of not fighting for our rights for a long time; but then I realized that what was expected was very high.
People respond to incentives. Given between staying and fighting for a bus that may not really go anywhere, and getting back to Chennai for our regular jobs, 99% will choose getting back to Chennai. This is not because we were all craven fools - it is because that is really the sensible thing to do.
(I have successfully refused to pay bribes elsewhere - before people rush to judge)
This is what I feel about regulating autorickshaws or refusing to pay bribes to policemen - these are problems for the COMMUNITY to fix; not for individual people to fight. People will fight for their rights if very fundamental things, such as their property, their family or their own lives are under threat. Let me correct that - they will fight if these are under IMMEDIATE threat.
A long term threat like air pollution in Chennai also affects our family, lives and property. But we are humans - not given to such long term calculations.
(In fact if we all calculated long term, no one will be building anything in Chennai, given that the sea level is supposed to rise by 1 meter by 2030)

Case Study - Regulating Autorickshaws in Chennai

Chennai autorickshaws are unique in their extortion - They never use their government mandated meters. This results in a very complicated issues for the passenger and the driver. The driver has to know the EXACT location where you are going because if they have to drive more, they lose. The drivers are also badly trained but that is another story.
How do you make sure the auto driver uses a meter?
If I want to get from Adyar to Anna Nagar for a function and the auto guy refuses to use his meter, then I will pay him what he asks after haggling. I will not be staging a satyagraha to shame him. My goal at that point is to get to the function - not the solution of the auto problem. I do know that in the long term, this is what auto drivers understand as well. The stakes are all in their favor.

This is why community organizing is important - in any community, there are people who are generally more concerned with such issues. In Chennai, there is an autorickshaw passengers association. They are trying to influence things, but I don't see much success. But the solution definitely lies in that direction; not in individuals protesting.
Ideally, given some funding, all that you have to do when a driver asks too much money, is to call some number and leave them the auto registration number. Then they take care of all the legalities of punishing the driver. You only have to show up as a witness.

When I was in Philadelphia, I worked on an elaborate website for reporting complaints to the Philadelphia Parking Authority who regulated taxis in the city. There were elaborate rules for recording complaints; for holding hearings; and punishing the drivers including an appeals process. It was very easy to report complaints. Each taxi actually had a phone number listed for reporting complaints.
(Again, I am not saying we should build a website)
But in Philadelphia, this was the city government's function. In Chennai, it IS the Corporation's function, but they are not doing anything about it. I am guessing this is the least of their priorities - because auto drivers are a special interest group. Given a special interest group and a amorphous set of citizens, the interest group will always win.
My point is that there are pretty rational explanations why the auto drivers behave the way they do; and there are ways in which you can combat them without holding a freedom struggle. Individuals refusing to pay over meter charge will not help anyone.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blogging Block

I have not blogged for at least a month. One reason was my efforts to write a big one about the "Aadhaar" project (National ID Card project) and what it means to us.
But there was also one other reason. I had a general chat over IM with a long-time friend yesterday. I ranted and raved about the state of the country. At the end of it I realized I had a nice editorial to write.
So here are my excerpts from the IM; and some additional comments.
My friend asked: What about blogging? Why are you not feeling motivated?
My response went on and on:
Too many scams; and now the mask is ripped off.I dont feel like there is anything new to say. Right now the Radia tapes and the scams and Binayak Sen's conviction basically show the ugly naked face to everyone.
Till now there was some belief that we are heading towards some manageable state.
But now I am sure that there is actually an elite which is consciously pushing the country towards some policies; and the Karunanidhi family etc are very well entrenched. If you protest they can put you in jail for pretty much anything.
If there is one thing I learnt studying the Aadhaar Law, it is this - we need an Indian Tea Party [I am referring to the American crazy libertarian, anti-government movement called the Tea Party]. Basically laws are passed by our representatives;
and these laws have consequences. But much of these are not debated and pushed in.
Then we are accused of breaking the law.
One example is Chidambaram's recent statement about Binayak Sen's conviction
He said that there is the rule of law and they have to go through due process and appeal.He said that is the only way.But he missed the point. The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act was passed by all these states and it is plainly unconstitutional.
And so now we have a law that goes against the constitution and the minister is telling us we should obey it
My friend: You think the case against Binayak Sen is fraud?
Me: I dont know, but it is two things. It is guilt by association and should not be treated under sedition. Secondly the judge's comments seem to mean that the judgement was meant as a deterrent and not as a particular sentence for Sen's crime. That is shocking. He is almost saying that because Maoists cause killing and you are associated with them indirectly, this will send a message to everyone not to link with them. That is a very shocking judgement.
It violates all sense of balance
My point is that Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha matter. They pass laws that are sometimes crafted by special interests. The most important laws are passed without debate or interest and then people only realise the laws' effects much later. Such as Sen's case. Now anyone who has "Das Kapital" in his home can be arrested and sentenced.
Take the UID modification in 2003 [ I am referring to the change in the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955, that enables compulsory registration of all citizens]. We are only now realizing its implications. When we object, we are violating the law; and they tell us to obey the rule of law.
My friend: ok
Me: Parliament matters. But nobody knows the effects of its laws including the morons who pass them, I suspect

My Friend: Do you know the conditions when the bill was created and passed?
I mean, why did they have a need for that law.

Me: I think they push these through because the police want it in Maoist states but it will be good to do some research. I suspect that other states then adopt them too
That is how the line between a police state and a democracy blur.
There are 1000 different stories there. If u had a journalist staff you could just spend days covering the chennai city budget or laws in state houses or parliament and so on.
For example I found a depressing story in the Hindu that our military and top diplomats are trading visa favors from the US for influencing policy in India
The US consciously promotes that. That was one story and no one commented on it; no ripple.
Our population is under informed and no one is taking up the job of informing them.
The media is mostly corporatised. There is a crying need for independent media
Someone who can cover stories at city level, parliamennt level. I wish there was a Tea Party in India. Just to yell "tyranny" every time.
CNN-IBN in India telecast a story about lobbying. They solicited user comments via twitter during the debate. Most of the comments were supporting lobbying.
Then one guy got the screenshots from the television and website; and looked up the twitter accounts. They don't exist
IBN team was doing this themselves in trying to influence the debate because they are corporate owned and they like lobbying. That just completely depresses me.
These are smart people who think we are all idiots.
At this point in India, no information is available to most people.

My friend got tired of me at this point and left the IM. But not before the damage was done; I may start blogging again.