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Governance is nobody's baby

Governance is nobody's baby

Author: Nirmala sitharaman
Publication: The Hindu
Date: July 14, 2011
URL: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/article2221856.ece

If there has been a near unanimity on any subject across the political spectrum it is this: India is in the throes of a governance deficit. This year began with 14 eminent citizens writing an "open letter to our leaders" to express alarm at the "governance deficit" in "government, business and institutions." They underlined the "urgent need" to tackle the "malaise of corruption, which is corroding the fabric of our nation."

An honest admission in February, by the Union Home Minister to The Wall Street Journal voiced the concern at the highest levels:

"There is indeed a governance deficit in some areas and perhaps there is also an ethical deficit. But to conclude that these deficits have surfaced only now, in my view, would be totally wrong. These deficits have been there and we have from time to time tried to put in systems in order to meet the challenges of these deficits. But it is obvious that the systems that have been put in place are not entirely adequate and therefore any suggestion to improve the systems should be taken into account seriously."

The time to take suggestions seriously has indeed come as they are pouring in from the Supreme Court of India. By now we know they are coming in with a regularity that can fatigue the nation. But is anyone listening?

Unenviable standards

Last year, the UPA set unenviable standards in governance. The Economic Times (January 17, 2010) reported: "The government's stamina for running the course with policy decisions nosedived in 2010... This confirms the widespread sense that governance has suffered in UPA's second term... The union cabinet managed to sign off on an abysmally lower number of decisions in 2010 compared with previous years."

As if this were not enough, for the first time in independent India's history, in November 2010, in the 2G case, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) was asked to file an affidavit in the apex court when it was not satisfied with the oral submissions of the government's top law officers. Even by late October, the Court's anguish was being voiced: "the nature of the complaint is serious. You have not done anything till now. The same minister is continuing".

In January 2011, on Hasan Ali Khan not being interrogated in custody and taking objection to the victimisation of officials handling this case, the Supreme Court gave vent to its frustration, "What the hell is going on?"

Early March 2011, quashing the appointment of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, the Court said, "the High Powered Committee's (HPC) selection of Thomas was non-est in law."

Black money issue

The incessant reprimands did not make the government sit up, as it were. Only a few days ago, the Supreme Court appointed two retired judges to lead a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into the issue of black money and plan for ways to get the money back. Reporting directly to the court, it has been asked to "prepare a comprehensive action plan, including creation of necessary institutional structures that can enable and strengthen the country's battle against generations of unaccounted monies, and their stashing away in foreign banks or in various forms domestically". But wasn't a comprehensive plan in place already? The Finance Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, had appointed special study groups to ready a plan, hadn't he? Even the special press conference held in January, the Minister claimed, "had its roots in a suggestion by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking the Finance Ministry to place in public domain the strategy to deal with black money" (Livemint.com, 25 January, 2011).

Contrary to the view expressed by the Home Minister that if the systems that are put in place are found not adequate... suggestions... to be taken seriously, the government is likely to seek a review of the appointment of the SIT on the ground that it is unconstitutional! The UPA's formula to govern seems to be: We shall not, neither shall we brook others. The nation be damned!

Grain distribution

Corruption and black money are not the only issues where the government is in a state of shocking inaction. About distribution of grains, the Court felt that the government "allots 35 kg food-grains to a family of 10 persons. The same quantity is given to a single person. The single man is likely to sell his excess grain for a profit, while the parents in the family of ten are forced to purchase additional grain at non-BPL prices in order to feed their children".

There is no gainsaying that UPA came to power in the name of aam aadmi. However, till date they have not resolved as to what defines poverty and how many people are indeed below the poverty line (BPL). The dichotomy in the views of the Planning Commission and the Tendulkar Committee was brought to an end with the Supreme Court agreeing with the Committee's view. Further it directed the Planning Commission to re-examine its criteria for BPL.

Even health concerns such as those relating to Endosulfan do not move the UPA to action. It was the Supreme Court that slapped an eight-week ban on the pesticide while expert committees objectively looked at its impact on people.

Trisanku-like state

Going by these examples, people on the death row, understandably, cannot be of any priority to the UPA. On being approached on one such case, the Supreme Court reacted as to why people are kept in this state, like in a Trisanku swarga, and for how long?
So, what's new about this narration? After all, this chronology of events is well-known. The irony is that the government which is elected to govern also feels so! There are no indications to hope that lessons have been learnt and systems are being improved upon.

As this is being written, there is not a minister to take responsibility for the tragic derailment of the Kalka Mail. The Minister of State defied the Prime Minister's instruction to visit the accident site, citing ongoing relief work. Surely, as the concerned minister he could better enable the operations and ensure better systems are put in place to assure the public on railway safety. Unfortunately, the railways have got accustomed to be headless, now for over two years.

Even a Cabinet reshuffle is difficult for this government. Cabinet positions are left unfilled for months on end. Two questions need answers: Whom did the aam aadmi elect to govern us? Is governance deficit mandatory for sustaining growth?

- (The author is a spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party. The views are personal. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

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