Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Girish Shahane - From garbage dump fires to Pathankot: How the contract between citizen and state has broken down

For the past 15 years, my family members and I have participated in a peculiar ritual. We place recyclable materials in one bin and food waste in another, following a globally popular practice that is mandated by the Bombay municipal corporation. At some point in the day, after a gong has announced the arrival of a garbage truck, paper, plastic and leftovers all go into the same vehicle, to be driven to the same dumping ground.

Within that landfill, scavengers, often young rag pickers, will sort through the rubbish to unmix recyclables from waste. Occasionally, they light fires to get at valuable metal by burning off everything around it. Not long ago, some of those fires got out of control and had half the city coughing. The police couldn’t tell who was to blame, since cameras pointing at the massive garbage dump were, quite predictably, out of order. They have now jailed a few local hoodlums under the extraordinarily stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, a law introduced as a fallback of last resort, but defined broadly enough to allow routine use. The police have required little prompting to expand the scope of MCOCA. What’s not to like about a law that lets them put people away for long periods without bail, and makes confessions extracted by torture admissible in court?

The Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, which made it obligatory for citizens to sort waste, also placed certain responsibilities on local and state authorities. The duties make impressive reading, until you realise how few of the elaborate measures outlined have been implemented in the past 16 years. Boys and girls who should be in school are still tramping through garbage piled as high as a tower block, picking recyclable shreds. For this important service, they gain a meagre living and a variety of infections. Now, the environment ministry has framed the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, defining additional responsibilities for the government, along with execution timelines. What the new regulation does not state is the officers who will be responsible for carrying out the work, and the consequences they will face if they fail.

Fixing accountability
And that’s the crucial difference between laws made for citizens and those made for government. Citizens may be punished at any time for breaching rules, but bureaucrats escape accountability unless they happen to antagonise members of their own tribe. The implicit contract between citizen and state is founded on mutual accountability, a reciprocity that has completely broken down in India.

We spend much of our time arguing over political issues such as nationalism and sectarianism, and while I don’t want to minimise the importance of those debates, they are irrelevant to our most pressing problems. When Narendra Modi came to power, I had no illusions about his agenda of hatred and division, but hoped he would compensate for it by making the country’s bureaucracy accountable. “If there’s one positive legacy Modi will leave,” I wrote at the time, “it is likely to be a sincere effort to get rid of obsolete and irrational regulations.”

Unfortunately, the slogan of more governance, less government has proven as empty as all the other clever phrases Modi and his team regularly invent. It is true that corruption among top level bureaucrats is probably lower than it was in the Congress-led government’s term, and that’s no mean achievement. But the greater honesty is a result of the prime minister imposing his will on a small set of people, when what is required is structural change that will not only outlast any one personality but percolate through to every branch of government.

The seriousness of the crisis is hard to overstate. The current furore over the Agusta -Westland deal has become a back-and-forth between the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress, but far more disturbing is the involvement of officers at the very top of the Indian Air Force and Indian Police Service. Corrupt politicians one can deal with, but the idea of a corrupt Air Chief Marshal saddens me greatly. It was the same with the Adarsh scam, where the media focussed on allegations against a former chief minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, while the most melancholy aspect of the case was the role played by high-ranking officers of the army and navy.

Mapping the downside
As far as introducing structural change is concerned, the Modi administration is doing an abominable job. Not only has it failed to usher in an era of accountability, it is creating new regulations that reinforce the asymmetry between citizens’ obligations and state rights. A good example of this is the proposed Geospatial Information Regulation Bill proposed by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Built upon an archaic understanding of what a map constitutes, the bill criminalises a range of commonplace activities, places an insurmountable burden on companies that utilise GPS and maps (which is to say virtually every firm in the digital space), and institutes the most swingeing punishments against transgressors, while specifically excluding government agencies from its ambit and offering an entirely insufficient appellate process for those accused of transgression.

There’s a good chance the bill will be modified, following a hostile reception from experts who have said it will kill innovationhurt civil liberties, create a license raj ripe for misuse, and eliminate manyconveniences and comforts that we take for granted. Even if the final regulation is changed, its draft form reveals an administration as comfortable with intrusive government as the last regime. In fact, the BJP has gone further, to the point of seeming like a throwback to the days of Indira Gandhi, fighting whose abrogation of citizens’ rights Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley cut their political teeth.

The regulatory fever touches the biggest things as well as the smallest. The tele-communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad says all mobile phones sold in India beginning next year will need to have a panic button. This is supposedly to enhance women’s safety. Obviously, a nationwide agency will have to be created to ensure anybody pressing a panic button will be saved before it’s too late. The mind boggles at the complexity of setting up such an organisation. How likely is it that the government will be up to the task, given its failure to maintain a relatively simple security hotline for Bombay’s railways which have been targeted repeatedly by terrorists? A recent article by Reema Gehi in the Mumbai Mirror describes the inadequacy of the railway authorities’ response when informed about unaccompanied baggage in a compartment.

Minimum government?
Or take the case of Pathankot. Considering how long crack forces took to engage terrorists inside the base, how likely is it that ordinary police will be able to intervene in time to prevent the kind of attacks that have women hitting panic buttons? What will their responsibility be in cases where they fail to respond? Let’s not even get into the number of times panic buttons will be pressed by mistake.

In pursuance of a hare-brained scheme that will provide women no added security, the government is going to drive up prices of feature phones by forcing a design change, and criminalise millions of people who can only afford old, second-hand phones.

It was clear by the end of Narendra Modi’s first year in power that his government was basically, in Arun Shourie’s memorable phrase, Congress plus a cow. Then, the Aam Aadmi Party won a spectacular victory in Delhi, and hopes rose again that structural change was possible. Hadn’t Arvind Kejriwal come to power on an agenda of making government servants accountable? Unfortunately, Delhi’s chief minister has spent too long in debates such as the one about Narendra Modi’s educational qualifications and, when it came to issues that matter deeply, has shown himself an old-style statist, more interested in proscriptions and unreasonable regulations than in enhancing civil liberties by ensuring government servants are held to account for their misdeeds. The dream of a responsive government waits for the next deliverer, but there is none in sight.