Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Reported scandals about illicit gains made by people in high places, whether Congress, BJP, corporate or otherwise, may be based on motivated leaks or mere allegations without clinching evidence, but not all these charges are duly investigated

Fight Corruption But Keep Going

Few believe that India has been serious in fighting corruption, which is accepted as the grease that drives politics.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 11 November, 2012

Even as American voters have endorsed Barack Obama for a second term, China has ushered in a new regime with the 18th Party Congress in Beijing crowning Xi Jingpiin a far less open process to succeed Hu Jintao as President next March after a 10-year term. India has welcomed both developments and hopes to consolidate its relations with the US and improve ties with China.

The US is in demographic transition with a rising population of American Indians, Blacks, Hispanics and Asians that could impact on its politics and global perspectives in the decades to come. Currently, however, it faces a grave economic challenge whose outcome also will affect the world.

China too confronts a considerable challenge of transition with the growing contradiction of a closed political system driving a liberal, consumerist economy. How China will manage its rapidly increasing global power with its promise of “peaceful rise” also remains to be seen as it has been manifestly assertive in pressing territorial claims against its neighbours. Increasing regional and social disparities and restive minorities constitute other worries.

In an echo of the furious on-going debate in India, Hu has warned against mounting corruption which he fears could result in the collapse of the Communist Party and the fall of the State. He accepted responsibility for this situation even as the New York Times reported that Premier Wen Jibao’s family is embroiled in corruption while another powerful leader Bi Xilai was earlier removed after a corruption scandal was exposed. Recalling this is not to extenuate corruption in India by any means but to suggest that nations in the process of complex social, economic and political transition are prone to fall a prey to this ill. Nevertheless, corruption must be firmly confronted at every level but not allowed to paralyse governance or throw the nation off balance.

However, it must be admitted that few believe that India, across all parties, has been serious in fighting corruption, which is accepted as the grease that drives politics and the routine delivery of services. Reported scandals about illicit gains made by people in high places, whether Congress, BJP, corporate or otherwise, may be based on motivated leaks or mere allegations without clinching evidence, but not all these charges are duly investigated and tend to be defended or extenuated politically rather than by due process. This is true as much of Robert Vadra as of Nitin Gadkari. Few have sued for defamation – which could be put on a fast track. The state and Central governments are not even handed in probing malfeasance and would prefer to retain evidence of wrongdoing as bargaining chips against political opponents. And what is one to make of Gadkari’s proclaimed axiom about Yeddyurappa’s exposed wrongdoing being legal though immoral!

The just concluded Congress conclave at Surajkund rightly defended economic reforms and pledged to go forward with them but failed to address the decline of due process and the urgent need for system reform. Police reforms have been stoutly resisted. The CBI and IB are used as handmaidens of those in power and the Supreme Court recently castigated the Union Government for not filling vacancies in the ranks of the CBI for long periods resulting in an unconscionable prolongation of investigations of corruption cases at the cost of good governance and justice. It was equally unsparing in admonishing the States for not setting up special courts to hearcorruption casesas advised by the Prime Minister in a letter sent to chief ministers in July 2009.

None of this, however, justifies the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s telling the World Economic Forum that he is appalled by the government’ s “brazenness” with regard to the manner of taking decisions. He went on to urge constitutional status for the CBI and CVC in order to make them effective instruments in fighting corruption. It was not the right forum to make such a suggestion nor was it prudent for the CAG to go off on a tangent in public on a matter not within his province. As it is, we have enough hit-and-run artists running wildon issues of corruption without adding to the confusion.

Yet, not all public pronouncements should cause the indignation they do. Girish Karnad has been excessively belaboured not just for what some consider a poor sense of occasion or timing but for expressing reservations on some of Naipaul’s views on Islam and for rating Tagore as a great poet but an indifferent playwright. Such views should, if at all, be challenged in debate and not by denunciation. Writers and artists of all descriptions influence minds and should and will be questioned by others. Anything beyond this should be taboo.

Amidst all the chatter, the increasingly unpredictable and wayward West Bengal government under Mamata Bannerjee has favoured labour feather-bedding in Haldia dock to the detriment of the Kolkata Port Complex and cargo handling. The labour unions at Calcutta dock have always aggressively fought to maintain low productivity standards in order to justify an over-sized and inefficient dock labour force. From its inception, Haldia dock was compelled to adopt lower labour output norms in keeping with Calcutta dock’s poor productivity standards. This became an added millstone around Calcutta, an already dying Hooghly river port with low drafts that could only accommodate smaller vessels on accounts of constricting sand bars and bends upstream of Haldia, requiring the lightening and topping up of vessels. Haldia too is not ideally sited and West Bengal urgently needs a deep draft ocean port that has been under discussion for many years.

What has now happened is that Haldia Bulk Terminals Ltd has pulled out as it has been compelled to deny sufficient cargo to its two mechanised berths with far higher efficiency so as to feed the other non-mechanised berths operated, in some cases, by alleged friends of the Trinamool Congress. The volume of cargo handled at Haldia has fallen from 44 m tonnes in 2007-08 to 31 m tonnes in 2012 with a corresponding reduction in revenue from Rs 432 crore to Rs 89 crore. HBT’s mechanical handling could earn the Port more revenue and cut down demurrage charges on account of delays;but this has been sacrificed at the altar of predatory unions and partisan politics.

Calcutta city, once the dynamo of eastern India, has suffered disinvestment, economic decline and urban blight over decades on account of political-labour insistence on keeping alive the nostalgic pretence of a sick “ocean” port. Instead, it could be regenerated as a great poly-nodal river port from Sandheads-Haldia to Farakka that could resuscitate the city, generate investment and employment and handle maybe 100-150 million tonnes of riverine-coastal traffic or more without expending as much as 35,000 cusecs of lean season Ganga flows to maintain the mirage of faded oceanic glory.

The Union government must share responsibility with West Bengal for not restoring Calcutta city and Port as dynamic hubs of economic and social growth.

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