Chidambaram s success

  • 30/01/1998

What a beautiful smile P Chidambaram, India's youthful finance minister, had on his face announcing the final results of the Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme (vdis). Some Rs 10,000 crore, equivalent to about us $3 billion or about 5 per cent of the total annual aid flow from the North to the South, had suddenly landed in the pocket of the Indian government. India's corrupt businesspeople decided that the easy way out being offered to them was worth taking. Next day, and since then, the newspapers - from India Today to the Indian Express - have raved about Chidambaram's success, except for some commentators who have raised questions of morality, asking how do those who have always paid their taxes feel about it?

Somehow, I felt very cheated at the end of the entire exercise, not because of morality, but on the grounds of who is going to benefit from this largesse. I clearly see this as a scheme in which money has simply passed hands from one set of robber barons to another set of cheats and robbers. Chidambaram and his ministerial colleagues will now simply pour this huge amount of money into an extremely weak, corrupt and incompetent system called the government of India with its vast tentacles across the country.

This amount is so large that, if used properly, it can be used to undertake watershed management over as much as 33 million hectares or over 10 per cent of India's total land. Its impact not only on the country's ecology but also on the impoverished rural economy and millions of people living below the poverty line can be extraordinary. But nothing like that is going to happen or is even being contemplated. On the other hand, the government has already squandered this sum by promising increased wages to an extremely indolent bureaucracy without any effort to spruce up government performance. It's money taken from the rich and poured down a sewer. Already, the government of India's weak-kneed policies are beginning to snowball. Even as I write this column, the Delhi High Court has ordered the employees of the Capital's electricity workers to get back to work and stop holding the city to ransom. These government employees are also demanding higher wages.

These destructive antics constantly remind me of an analogy that my physics teacher used to give in the 1960s in order to explain why the nucleus of an atom cannot grow very large. He used to say, "Just think of a third class compartment of an Indian train. It is always so overloaded that you have to fight and push to get into it when it stops at a station. But once you are inside you join the ones inside to keep the next one outside. It's the same with protons. It takes a lot of energy for a proton to join the nucleus but once it has joined the nucleus, it ensures that the next one has to spend even more energy to join the club. As a result, atoms with large nuclei become increasingly unstable."

The same is the state of the country's government today. It has become so big that to feed itself it cares little about what happens to the person outside. It must just keep collecting more and more resources to satisfy its own gluttony, even as the mayhem keeps on increasing outside. I find it difficult to look at dear Chid's success in any other light.

In fact, the uppermost question in my mind is why should anyone, honest (for instance, salaried workers) or dishonest (businesspersons, for instance), pay an iota of money as tax to such an incompetent political and bureaucratic system? Since the Indian state, which Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal had described as a 'soft' state in the late 1960s, has become even softer, we can hardly expect the Government of India to tighten up the incompetence and the corruption that is eating into its entrails. We can only expect vdis type exercises being undertaken solely to balance the government's books to deal with its growing bankruptcy. It is, therefore, for the honest citizens of India to stand up to the dishonest government and say, 'We will not pay our taxes unless you get your own act together'. We don't get clean air, we don't get clean water, we don't get clean food, precious little is being done to address the problem of poverty or illiteracy, and our cities and towns are becoming cesspools. Never before has there probably been a stronger need for a non-cooperation movement.

I say all this even as national elections are looming large. Here, too, the entire electoral issue is being presented in the wrong light. Every party is trying to tell the voter that it will provide the country with a 'stable government'. But nobody has argued that mere stability means nothing. It is, in fact, the years of stability that have brought India to this level of incompetent and corrupt governance. What India needs most is 'effective governance'. Maybe stability is a necessary condition to achieve that but it is definitely not a sufficient condition. A stable government will only prolong and worsen the existing mayhem unless it has an ability to start tightening the belt of the very system it is presiding upon. No politician has announced this as his or her agenda. Simply because we no longer have politicians with a vision or courage. They are neither left, nor right. They are simply mindless and spineless.

I am sorry to sound so cynical but I would love to hear my readers and others tell me that I am mistaken and stupid. Because it is nothing else than the whole country that is at stake.

Anil Agarwal

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