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October 23, 2011

The Tipping Point

Image: Nagarjun Kandakuru

The country is witnessing a surge of anti – establishment emotions which is perhaps unprecedented in the post-emergency era. The ‘fast unto death’ at Jantar – Mantar and now at Ramlila Maidan are both cause and effect of a sense of betrayal, which a sizable number of Indians are feeling today. Anna the Gandhian has appealed to the intellectuals. With a near blemish-free past, he did not give much opportunity to the hawks like Digvijay Singh and Kapil Sibal in the ruling party to counter attack. However, Baba on the other hand, has taken the discussion on corruption to the villages, in his own rustic style. But with a flourishing business and a religious, public lifestyle, he has left several grey entry points, where the media and the establishment have dug in. While the level of anguish and opinions may vary with age, there is more or less unanimity on corruption as an issue at par with other critical issues such as development, defence, terrorism, rural development etc. The question is ‘if corruption could be the central issue around which a revolution can happen’.

For any revolution to begin there must be a tipping point in terms of the number of people who get aligned with the central theme. The tipping point for a new clothing style or a new social networking site may be 2-3 percent. But for a revolution to brew and happen, a higher level of energy and sacrifice is needed, which in turn, needs a higher tipping point. This means that at least 10 percent of Indians must have unanimity on the central issue. Clearly going by the topic of drawing room discussions in cities and the chaupals in villages, we presently are nowhere near consensus on the core. With less than 5 percent of the people paying Income tax, it would be difficult to imagine how corruption can galvanize enough energy to start a revolution.

As a country today, we are divided on issues. The reflection of this divide is visible within the election results, television channels and also in various discussion forums. At the same time, as a young country, high level of energy gets generated for each issue which concerns us. This energy gets dissipated as quickly as it builds, but leaves behind frustration. What we are witnessing today is perhaps the tipping point of people’s frustration which is oozing onto the streets. When we come out in support of Anna or Baba, we are looking for an outlet for our frustrations. We are searching for a Gandhi, behind whom we can rally. But what we forget is that Gandhi did not ride the tipping point of frustration. He led a group of people who knew exactly what the problem was. Along with Gandhi there were other leaders who had a different solution, but there was no ambiguity on the definition of the central problem.

If India has to have another revolution, we need to first debate on the core issue. We have to analyse the symptoms such as Naxalism, corruption, poor administration, anti-incumbencies, poverty, failing agriculture and rising disparities, to find the real disease. We would not have unanimity until we stop treating the symptoms. For years together, we have blamed the politicians and others in high places, for the mess that we are in. We have not looked beyond them in our endeavor to identify the core problem. We end up attributing a lot of our misery to a set of ordinary people who at worst are a bunch of opportunists. The core disease has to be something more fundamental and more powerful than the politicians. Something which impacts all of us equally, whether we live in cities or in rural areas, whether we run businesses or work in government offices, whether we are politicians or ‘aam aadmi’. It has to have a more ubiquitous presence. Until we zero down on this core issue, there is little than can be achieved.

There could be a flaw in the core system of governance today which is radiating symptoms almost everywhere. It could be a bug in the design which is showing its cracks now. The design and the bug therein could well have been imported from European countries. The system of Governance which works well enough for a small country has been replicated in a country which today is poised to become the most populous country in the world. To imagine that a country with 600,000 villages and more than 800 towns/cities is being governed on the basis of a set of common interest is like hoping to find a pair of matching top and bottom clothing within the Tsunami relief material. Today, by gathering more than 40 percent vote, a national party can come to power with a thumping majority. Considering the fact that not more than 60percent of people actually vote, this percentage shrinks to a scary less than quarter of our total population. This explains the alienation of a significant proportion of people in rural areas who are today termed as Naxals.

This also explains the anguish of the villagers when their fertile land is forcibly bought for construction of express lanes in the garb of common interest, or when issues of corruption get de-prioritised to keep the coalition government afloat. This also explains the reason for the tipping point of our frustration today. We must understand and appreciate the diversity of our rich country. Being diverse means that most of our common interests may not get aggregated at the state or the country level.The time has come when we must put people before the nation. By doing so, we would sow the seed of a powerful country which can lead the world, within this century. We need to have a bottom-up approach to Governance. More than 80 percent of decisions which impact us either positively or negatively should be taken by leaders who one amongst us and who are solely responsible to us. The rest of the 20 percent decisions can be escalated to higher levels which concern a state or the country. Today the reverse is happening. The Panchayat or the Municipal corporation are insignificant decision makers. They are at best servants of the state or central government.

While on paper the political parties are very serious about the revival of Panchayat, but in effect, the lowest seat of possible governance of 700 million rural people is slowly dwindling into toothless pawns especially in political heartlands of BIMARU states. With tax holidays for farmers, the system ensures that the elected local self governments are totally at the mercy of the state and central authorities. The Panchayats work like hired implementors of various State/Central schemes.

This has to change. Our local government should be the first and most respected point of governance. They should be elected by us and their 100 percent accountability should lie with us. They in turn can elect office bearers at the district, state or at the center after deliberations with their constituents.

This is possible only if the flow of taxes is also bottom-up. We should pay 80 percent of our taxes to the body which takes 80 percent decisions for us. There are various models which have proven that poor are willing to pay for quality service, out of their meagre earnings. Every village should either have sustainability or should plan for sustainability and work towards the same. That should be the top most agenda of all Panchayat meetings. The Government, with the help of tax payers money should step in financially to bridge the Income/expense gap of the villagers. This financial support should be in the form Viability Gap Fund and no other form of subsidy should be provided to the Panchayat. The Panchayat should have the right to chose between the various existing and future government schemes, for implementation. Spending on these centralised schemes hould also be from the budget of the Panchayat. A portion of the tax collected by each anchayat should be earmarked for state/central budget. This percentage (percent) should be fixed and should be the same for all the villages.

People have a lot to say but if their voice has to travel 1000 Kms to be heard by the actual decision makers, then perhaps the method of ‘fast unto death’ is the only way to communicate. Do we not have a significantly louder voice within the RWAs after paying a monthly maintenance fee which could be less than 1/5th of what we pay as Income Tax? If India has to come anywhere close to the dreams of Gandhi and Tagore, we need to start again and start small. Instead of disaggregating the country into states and districts, we need to aggregate communities into sustainable units, governed locally, listened appropriately and what would emerge would be a country of our dreams.


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