Land Laws and Public Dreams

Reaching the pinnacle of power triggers good work in the minds and hearts of elected rulers of the world. This happens double delight way to those who are in the democratic setup. The democratically elected rulers wanted to repay the debt to the voters. Hence there is rush of adrenalin to do something immediate and getting into the good books of public. Mamata Banerjee entered public life three decades ago by doing this kind of stunt politics and catching the eyes of the public. There is no surprise in her doing the same methodological stunt after taking over as the first woman chief minister of West Bengal. The Land Acquisition Bill, beautification of Kolkata, Howrah river cleaning, pro poor schemes are few of the many miracles she is waiting to anvil for the people of Bengal. One has to keep fingers crossed and watch her plans getting realised in next five years..

 

 

Indranil Banerjie writes in The Deccan Chronicle on 8 August 2011

 

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee might well be the political paradigm of our times. Last week, she stood by the River Hooghly and announced amidst much fanfare and media attention a multi-crore rupee riverside beautification programme, in accordance with her pre-poll promise to make Kolkata another London. Like a modern-day Victoria, Ms Banerjee promised to reward the city mayor if he could complete the project in four instead of the projected six months. She either omitted to mention or did not know that the municipality was facing an acute cash crunch and had been instructed to slash development expenditure on sewage works, roads, health schemes, slum development and water supply. The reality is that Kolkata’s finances are in dire straits and although the honourable chief minister has decreed that Kolkata will be another London she really has no means to effect that transformation.

Ms Banerjee’s method of producing a public good through the waving of a make-believe magic wand is not her invention. Successive railway ministers, herself included, have shown the way by announcing new trains to woo politically important constituencies without bothering to first increase capacities in the railways. But that is not the concern of the modern-day Indian politician, who believes that public goods, public capacities and public revenues are nothing but means to further political aims.

The workings of the decree and be damned attitude are evident in two crucial pieces of legislation that are in the works. The first is the Land Acquisition Bill, vital for both development and social justice, and greatly overdue. The problem is not so much the provisions of the bill but the attempt to make it effective in retrospect. This means all the land acquired in the past decades to build townships all over the country would be affected. This would plunge the country into a frenzy of litigation and social turmoil.

This would not merely affect the middle classes who have bought houses in towns such as Noida and Gurgaon but would also bring down the fortunes of states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana which depend on new urban clusters for economic development. Any sensible government would not have considered passing such a sensitive piece of legislation with retrospective effect; unfortunately, the bigger concern here appears to be the need for a regime change in a state ruled by a political rival.

The Food Security Act is another conjuror’s trick. Unexceptionable in intent, the legislation is completely unaffordable and impossible to implement fairly. As it is, the government is having a hard time paying subsidy on the existing Public Distribution System (PDS), the bill for which is climbing exponentially; it jumped 65 per cent in 2010-11 to over Rs 74,000 crore from Rs 58,228 crore in the previous year.

While the food subsidy bill is skyrocketing, much of the food meant for the poor continues to be stolen. The World Bank has warned that 60 per cent of food subsidies do not reach the poor and that it would be folly to push more money into a putrefying system without first fixing it.

The Right to Education (RTE) Act passed in 2009 is another example of how little can be achieved by mere legislation and budgetary allocations. A New Delhi-based NGO, Accountability Initiative, has pointed out that currently only an estimated 11 per cent of government schools have the necessary infrastructure as per the act and several thousand crores would have to be pumped in to bring them to minimum standards.

It is not as if the government is being miserly; it has in fact upped expenditure on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan from Rs 15,000 crore in 2010-11 to Rs 21,000 crore for this fiscal year. This money is to be transferred to state governments for implementing the scheme. Problem is there are no mechanisms to enforce basic performance parameters in government schools; absent teachers, broken-down school buildings and abysmal academic standards have become the norm. Even in rural India more and more parents are sending their children to private school if they can afford it. India still has the largest number of illiterates in the world.

No one can dispute that the country needs more prosperity but little can be achieved by pompous promulgations and financial allocations read out in Parliament. In the past, politicians relied on strategising, long-term planning, gradual accretion of assets and building capacities to implement public development initiatives. They scoured the world for appropriate technology, expertise and finances; managers and workers were trained for the new enterprises; and it was through this process that the country was built up.

It would be a wonderful world if poverty, hunger and ignorance could be removed by decree; but this has not happened anywhere in the world, not in the erstwhile Soviet Union or China, and will not happen in India either. What will happen instead is that the government would fast become insolvent, paying out the bulk of its earnings on subsidies and interest payments, borrowing funds it cannot afford, slashing expenditure on new investments and infrastructure, and gradually but surely running the country into the ground. Already, in fiscal 2010-11, interest payments and subsidies accounted for 49 per cent of the Central government’s non-plan expenditure.

Given the country’s severely eroded mechanisms for implementing development projects, enforcing laws, adjudicating disputes coupled with the enormous corruption machinery that drains the financial allocation system, the politics of decrees translates to very little on the ground. Yet politicians continue to wave their mythical wands and hope the electorate will remain enthralled.

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