Thursday, December 16, 2010

Two little hands that toil all day

Should children only play when they are very young, and as they grow older, either play or learn ? I don't subscribe to this school of thought. Work never hurt anyone, not even children. So right from the day they are old enough to do so, children should be encouraged to particiapte in household work. Whether its making their bed or putting things away or chopping vegetables or watering the greens or embroidering handkerchiefs or doing such repair jobs as they can ------ the sooner children begin, the sooner they will learn the dignity of labour, the sooner they will imbibe all the precious lessons that work alone can teach.

But if the child is made to work to earn his bread and butter, is that conscionable?

If the child begins at the crack of dawn, slaves through the day, and doesn't get to bed till late at night, do we accept that?

If the child is kicked and slapped and pushed around and treated like a slave, do we still say that its not a bad idea if children are made to work?

If the child is put to work in a hazardous environment, which could well cut short his life, or irretrievably damage his health, do we still nod in the affirmative when asked whether child labour is alright?

If the child longs to play in the sun and get wet in the rain and fly with the wind, is it not a crime to make him wait on tables?

If the child is deprived of education so that he remains, even when he grows up, unskilled and unlettered and no more able to earn a decent living than as a child, is that not a life wasted?

If the child doesn't work, he may well starve ---that's an argument advanced by many who find child labour abhorrent but do not oppose it for this seemingly good reason.Why should the child starve? Why should a country that signs multi billion deals for nuclear power plants not undertake to feed every child? Do we not have the resources? We do ---what we lack is the political commitment, which will not come till the middle class that can drive such an agenda is satisfied with the specious argument that the child will starve if he doesn't work.

An equally specious argument is that it is the parent's responsibility to feed the child he brings into the world.I do not dispute the parent's moral responsibility in this regard,  but if the State fails in its responsibility to provide employment to all those willing to work, and parents are therefore faced with the awful sceptre of their children crying themselves to sleep on hungry stomachs, the fault lies not with the parents but with the State. Were this the age of despots and divine rights, the responsibility of the State could perhaps be disputed. However, in an age where all but a small majority of States profess to be welfare States, and in a country whose Constitution makes this declaration in ringing tones, the State's responsibility to offer work to all those willing to work cannot be gainsaid.

There are those who argue that the abolition of child labour and the concomitant implementation of children's right to education should be done in a phased manner. The Western world lived with child labour for centuries, they argue. Why do we wish to abolish it overnight? To impress upon the Western world that our humanitarian facade glitters no less than theirs? To get business from countries that insist on certification that child labour has not entered the goods they buy? We should not get swept away by these considerations, some people argue, but remain firmly rooted in the Indian reality and let child labour die a slow and gradual death.

This argument astonishes me.  We, who pride ourselves in being one of the most ancient civilizations of the world that reached the acme of philosophical thought even before others began living as human beings, need to learn no lessons from the Western world regarding a very fundamental human value ---our duty to cherish our children ----nor to impress them. We must do what we must because we must, and to consider doing it in a 'phased manner" (what dreadful bureaucratese) is to condemn millions of children to misery without even hearing their cry.

Do we also not need to remember that these millions of children are India's future? Do we expect them to know their civic responsibilities, to be as economically productive as they can be , to take fierce pride in their nation and be of firm resolve to solve its problems if we cannot free them from labour, give them food, place them in schools?

Does the middle class, ensconsed in comfort, benefiting the most from India's growth story, and applauding the country's growing presence on the global stage, not have a responsibility towards these children? Will we not hear their cry, even if the cacophony of the Kalmadis and Rajas and Radias and Ambanis drowns it?


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Men may come and men may go

For men may come and men may go, 
                            But I go on for ever.

Tennyson, when he wrote these immortal lines, could not have imagined how aptly they would one day describe the investigations that our agencies undertake into high profile cases of corruption, tax evasion, money laundering etc etc.  When an investigation is initiated, it blazes across the front pages of newspapers, TV anchors gush over the spokespersons of the investigating agency or the officers leading the investigation.  In the agency's Annual Report, or monthly performance report (when there is one), the investigation adds to the tally, and sometimes to the agency's glamour quotient. The top mandarins in the Ministries  concerned talk of it as if the investigation were being conducted under their direct and expert supervision, the political bosses make statements in Parliament, to the media, in all those forums where they need to have their stock raised a little (or more !). Arrests are made, truckloads of documents are seized, summons are issued, statements are recorded. 

One would expect such frantic activity to result quickly in Show Cause Notices, charge sheets, and attachment of ill-gotten property. One would expect the agencies to vigorously and assiduously pursue such cases and obtain conviction of the accused and confiscation of the property involved. One would expect news of such developments to be splashed in the media sooner than later. One would hope that such severe and prompt action would act as an effective deterrent for those inclined to treat the national exchequer as their route to numbered accounts in bank havens. One would be an imbecile to harbour such hopes and expectations! 

What happens really is that such investigations slide softly, smoothly, silently into a twilight zone, and hardly ever see the light of the day. There they rest, year after year, to be pulled out once in a while when some semblance of activity is to be demonstrated. The reasons for such woeful neglect of cases that should have been the focus of the agency's best investigative skills are manifold.

First and foremost, these are cases booked by the investigative agency not because it is fired by the zeal to do its job in the best possible manner, but because these investigations serve rather base political motives or because there is public pressure or an expose by the media. So the moment a compromise or conciliation between political foes is reached or the spotlight moves to another subject, the investigation gets pushed to the deepest recesses of the vast ocean that is "pending investigations". If a progress report is to be submitted to an august body such as a Joint Parliamentary Committee, stock phrases such as “the matter is being actively pursued” are copy/pasted month on month, year on year, and they actually pass muster! Some of these cases do make some headway –--- that’s mostly because the political regime has changed, or the spotlight has returned to an old case.

Even when there ceases to be a reason for the case to linger forever and ever, not much progress is made because most of our investigative agencies, notwithstanding the fact that they are given such appellations as ‘premier agency”, are terribly under staffed, seriously under trained, and lacking in a work culture that places premium not on “resourcefulness”, that euphemistic phrase that describes the ability to have strings pulled, but on delivery of outcomes. The scariest part is that we do not even publicly acknowledge these challenges, and continue to live in a make believe world where our sleuths are no less than the best in the world in terms of knowledge, skills, aptitude, dedication, and training.

Interestingly, at least some of these agencies have been placed outside the purview of the RTI Act. So if a citizen wishes to know 6 months from now what the status of the cases booked today against A Raja is, he could well be told that such information cannot be disclosed under the provisions of the RTI Act, either because the agency is excluded from the Act’s purview or because such disclosure would hamper the investigation!

So citizen monitoring is out of the question, but is any monitoring taking place at all? There are several hierarchical monitoring arrangements in place, including high sounding inter Ministerial Committees, but the truth is that there is scarcely any monitoring because accountability is not a phrase most bureaucrats and politicians are comfortable with.

If our federal investigating agencies could be made directly answerable to Parliamentary Standing Committees and the meetings/proceedings of the Standing Committees thrown open to citizens and the media, perhaps the situation could be redeemed. Perhaps we need the Supreme Court, the only institution with some credibility, to give such a direction.  

Monday, December 6, 2010

The know-it-alls

One thing more than any other which has led to inefficiency in our admistrative set up is the know-it-all attitude of bureaucrats.

Some of us have studied science or engineering, others are from the humanities schools, a few are doctors, still others management graduates. None of these disciplines is really germane to the jobs we later perform. The academic rigour that is a pre- requisite for many of these degrees definitely helps hone the skills of analysis and problem solving that a civil servant is required to extensively use, but just as an MBBS cannot be expected to run a corporation without becoming familiar with the nuts and bolts of the business, a civil servant should not step into office without first undertaking a tremendous amount of learning, given the wide -sweeping impact of the jobs he performs.

We do undergo a year or two of training, most part of which is spent in making friends, having a good time, and perhaps finding the perfect match. Then we get our first postings, and would you believe it, we know it all! How is a district to be run? How are law and order to be maintained? How are taxes to be collected and tax evasion prevented? We know it all! 

We do not even take the trouble of making ourselves well and truly conversant with the laws, rather complex and arcane at times,  that we  administer. On the rare occasion that we do, in the first flush of enthusiasm right after beginning hands-on work, we are loath to continuously learn, to keep pace with developments, with international best practices etc. So if I have learned a little of the Customs Act, I will strongly resist having to acquaint myself with the legal provisions regarding Service Tax.I will be reluctant to familiarise myself what my counterparts in the rest of the world are doing, to attend seminars and workshops (unless these are in a European location or the USA !), to question, to improve. 

Having begun our careers on that note, is it any surprise that we grow more and insular as the years go by?

What trade and industry have to say become anathema to us. No matter how complex the manufacturing or business process or business model  , we sit in our offices, supremely confident that we know it all, without ever asking the specialists to explain, without asking them questions, without actually reading the relevant material. In our conduct towards those we had pledged to serve, we are rather condescending, refusing to hear them, to learn from them.At no cost will we admit that we do not know, that there exist solutions other and perhaps better than the ones we have. Decisions on the most difficult and complex issues are taken without the technicalities being fully comprehended and properly appreciated. On the rare occasion that the stake holders are invited to make presentations etc, our insistence is on getting it acknowledged that we are busy people, with hectic schedules, and that the presentation has to be brief, to the point etc, while retaining the prerogative of regaling the captive audience with long-drawn anecdotes that establish our great administrative acumen, foresight etc etc!

So poor decisions are taken, there are difficulties in implementation, time and cost over runs. Sometimes, projects are abandoned half way through. There are occasions when the intended beneficiaries actually become worse off than before. Are the decision - makers then held accountable, as they would be in the corporate sector? Of course not. Those who have to fix responsibility for delays, losses etc are kin, after all, and extremely sympathetic. The loss is of the tax payer, and the national exchequer should be well able to withstand such losses, enriched as it is by the blood and sweat of the country's bureaucrats.

And so the vicious cycle continues!!!