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Tryst with distress

 | August 16, 2013

It is time for India’s parliamentarians and bureaucrats to set an example.


India got a gift on the eve of its Independence Day.

A day before Aug 15, when India completed 66 years of freedom, the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Hamid Ansari, wondered whether Parliament’s upper house had become a “federation of anarchists”.

For a long time now, both the upper and the lower house (Lok Sabha) have not been allowed to function with any modicum of decency or decorum on one pretext or the other. Parliament has been witnessing angry outbursts ever so often.

While India’s main opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party, objected to Ansari’s statement and the party’s leader, Ravi Shankar Prasad, felt that it was natural for Parliament, representing the people of India, to echo their anger, agony and ecstasy, there is a widespread feeling today that limits are being crossed in the hallowed premises of the country’s legislature.

But, yes, the ire and irritation, the disappointment and disillusionment we see in Parliament, day after day, mirror in many ways the mood prevailing outside – on the streets, in the cities and in the villages.

As I woke up to India’s Independence Day and scanned the newspapers, the headline on most front pages screamed about the gruesome murder of a 48-year-old woman official of Chennai’s renowned Race Club.

A former security guard – who along with many others was dismissed last year after a city businessman was killed in the club’s parking area – slit the woman’s throat with a knife as she was walking to her car on the evening of Aug14.

In a profound way, this gory murder reflects India’s despair and rancour. Sixty-six years into independence and the country has not been able to provide its people with a life which is even vaguely comfortable. Most Indians do not live. They survive, and to survive they have to struggle in utterly degrading conditions.

For the security guard, the loss of job would have meant a further worsening of an already hard existence. With the prices of even the lowly onion touching the skies in a nation where food is already criminally expensive, most Indians labour through an endless path strewn with obstacles.

Of course, this is not to justify killing. Not at all.

Money power

Sadly, the guard has merely pushed himself deeper into suffering by murdering the official. But then the turmoil and torture at having lost a source of livelihood can be excruciating in today’s India. So painful that it can drive one to lose one’s equilibrium.

So, Prasad may not have been wrong when he said that Parliament was only reflecting the people’s sentiments.

Fine, but what is the revered House — or the government — doing about this? Precious little I would think.

Politicians, bureaucrats and even others have been merrily plundering the nation, never missing an opportunity to show off their swanky cars (on horrible roads), the thousands of smartphones (with bad connections) and muscle might (often against the weak).

Here are some telling examples which appeared in two leading English dailies dated August 15, 2013.

Shyam Selvadurai, a Sri Lankan author, whose latest novel, The Hungry Ghosts, was published by Penguin, writes in The Hindu about a nasty experience of his in India.

When Selvadurai and his friend boarded a bus from Jodhpur (a tourist hotspot in Rajasthan) many years ago and sat in their allotted seats, some boisterous (and well-to-do) doctors got in. “ ‘Excuse me’, one of the women (in the group) demanded, ‘you are in our seats.’ We looked at her in confusion, brought out our tickets and showed them that we were in the correct seats. ‘No, no,’ another woman declared emphatically, ‘you are in our seats. Move, you must move.’ It was an order, delivered in that harshness so much a part of life here — a harshness which, despite all the Indian novels I had read, surpassed expectations because of its quotidian presence. In Sri Lanka, even with the ongoing war, people on an everyday basis were easy and friendly with each other, soft-spoken and quick to smile and help. A stranger addressing another like this, would have led to fisticuffs. ‘No,’ I insisted politely, ‘these are our seats. Can we see your tickets, please?’ I added trying to be helpful. The women held their tickets to their chest and glared at me, with that same glare Indians directed at beggars, who were treated so differently from the way we treated ours back home.”

Money power translates into muscles power. Especially when the opponent is seen as weak and defenceless. The Sri Lankan author and his friend must have appeared so to the doctors.

Srivatsa Krishna, an Indian Administrative Officer, writes in The Times of India about how the country’s bureaucracy and political class impede progress and growth.

“Skanray is India’s only USFDA certified medical equipment manufacturer, founded by ex-General Electric employees. They make astonishing products including the lowest radiation x-ray machines in the world, which they sell to some of the biggest medical companies globally. They bought land from the government in a designated industrial zone, yet local politicians resorted to violence to make them abandon the land and pay ‘protection money’.

“Likewise Labour Department inspectors showed up asking for bribes, or else they would file a ‘use of child labour’ complaint during the construction phase to penalise them. Approvals were delayed at the single-window, in part because of description of the factory area in square feet instead of square metres!

“The Vinod Khosla-funded drip irrigation company, Driptech, offers an excellent, innovative, affordable solution to Indian farmers at a fraction of the cost of higher-end solutions. Deployment of the latter gets huge subsidies from the government, which dealers in partnership with babus cream off in part, making farmers wait for months before giving them the rest. No wonder mass adoption of drip irrigation remains a distant dream”.

Krishna concludes by writing that “no amount of deregulation, removal of discretion and introduction of technology is a substitute for sound human character”.

Of this, India has a huge deficit. Maybe India’s parliamentarians and bureaucrats can set an example – to begin with.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at[email protected]


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