For God's Sake Leave Us Alone-
Our leaders are made of stern stuff –tirelessly working overtime to improve the lives of the aam aadmi. The neta knows best.
Armed with the mandate of the people our leaders get down to the serious business of governance. The party manifesto, a crusty old document, which is rarely read, is then dusted out and select promises from it are culled out. These have to fit in with the ruling party leader’s vision of the India of his dreams.
The neta then decides his programmes and policies. This is done selectively and given a catchy nomenclature or an acronym which will catch the imagination of the people. These are then implemented unimaginatively by an effete bureaucracy. The leader’s rosy vision of the country is based on his pet fads and policies.
In many cases the junta at large is not prepared for these cataclysmic changes in their daily lives and recoil in shock as these programmes unfold and impact their existing life. The hapless citizen is told to grin and bear the short-term pain as “The long-term future is bright”. Often even the dynamic leader’s own party members are caught unaware and have to surrender to the onslaught of their leader’s fiat. All in all, the vast multitude of the people, are at the mercy of the great leader’s grand vision.
It all started very innocuously in the early years after India became independent from the British yoke. The vision then in vogue was that the State should capture the commanding heights of the economy. It was an idea borrowed from the Socialist ideologies in Europe. As ideologies go, its goal was noble, almost utopian in character. In practice it turned out to be flawed both in the Soviet Union under the Iron Man and in China under the great Helmsman. Having got political freedom, the need of the hour was economic freedom, so that the abysmal poverty of the people could be alleviated and living standards improved. Instead the nation got sucked into an era of controls which tied up the economy in knots and stifled the initiative of the people.
A Planning Commission was set up which decided at a macro level what was needed to be produced and whether it would be produced by the Government or the private companies. Micromanagement was left to the Ministries and their subordinate offices both at the Central and the State levels.
A complicated system of licensing was introduced for the private sector. To complicate matters further, certain items were reserved for the small scale sectors. These controls lead to shortages and a flourishing black market followed. The State slowly spread its tentacles into the lives of the people. From commanding heights of the economy, the bureaucracy then started commanding the lives of the citizens.
The economy had to be opened up simply because the myriad laws and regulations had strangulated the economic fabric of the entire nation. The country had become bankrupt. The reforms of 1991 were simply the abolition and simplification of the many rules and regulations, which governed most sectors of the economy. There is no prize for guessing who had made these cumbersome set of laws– our beloved netas and their minions in the bureaucracy. They had to be eradicated with the high sounding nomenclature of economic reforms. However, these reforms were not taken to their logical conclusion.
India has been subjected to many faddish ideas by our leaders. They trample upon the dignity of the individual, do not respect their privacy and especially hit the poor hard in whose name the entire exercise is carried out. The poor are the victims; the more well-to-do as usual get away, by either bribing their way through or by passing the law. Both the economy and the society are being strangulated by a surfeit of outmoded rules, implemented unimaginatively and occasionally by a ham handed bureaucracy.
The tragedy is that over the years both the Governments which profess to have Socialist tendencies as well as those, which can be loosely labelled Right Wing, tend to follow policies which are at the best of times paternalistic in nature and occasionally veer towards authoritarianism. This is their version of the Mai-Baap Sarkar. The leader knows what is best for the people. Their vision of Utopia or Ram Rajya is based on the latest fad in the thinking of their leader. This is implemented by a slothful and supine bureaucracy spearheaded by fawning babus and rapacious Inspectors leading to unmitigated horrors inflicted on the hapless janta. By an uncanny law, the worst sufferers are the poor and the destitute, in whose name the entire exercise has been orchestrated.
With this backdrop let me narrate a few glaring instances where the State has encroached into the lives of its citizens. The outcomes have harshly impacted the lives of the people especially those at the bottom of the pyramid.
A major attempt to curb the freedom of the individual and vastly expand the domain and writ of the State was the proclamation of Emergency on 25th June 1975. All fundamental rights were suspended, major opposition party leaders and some of their followers were arrested and censorship was imposed on the press and the media. The Government, under Article 352, assumed extraordinary powers. Let us focus on one of the most hated measures of the emergency – the Sterilisation Campaign or Nasbandi that Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi was spearheading.
As a young man in a tearing hurry to solve the problems of the people, Sanjay divined that family planning was the panacea for all ills of the toiling masses. The Family Planning programme was launched by the Government with great gusto and fanfare. The chosen method of Nasbandi was unleashed upon the unsuspecting common man, in often coercive conditions through widely organised family planning drives. These camps were co-ordinated by the bureaucracy, into which people were shepherded in assembly line fashion. It was no wonder that many casualties were reported, some of which unfortunately resulted in deaths.
Most Indians remember the Emergency primarily for the Nasbandi Campaign which was loathed by the masses. This led to the debacle of Mrs. Indira Gandhi in the elections in 1977. The Congress was practically wiped out in North India where the Nasbandi Camps were crudely organised. People showed their anger and resentment on Election Day. Authoritarianism bit the dust as the common man had his revenge through the ballot box.”
A perennial favourite of paternalistic politicians and their closet cousin, the faddist neta, is to introduce prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol in their State. This is popularly or shall we say unpopularly, known as Nashabandi. Armed with a provision from one of the Directive Principles of State Policy, which states, “that the State shall regard the level of Nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of Public Health as among its primary duties and in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption, except for medicinal purposes, of intoxicating drinks and drugs which are injurious to health.” Never mind that this provision is not enforceable in a court of law. The do-gooder politician is further armed with provisions in his manifesto which contain references to his endeavour and commitment to prohibition and sale of alcohol.
The crusading politician decides that alcohol is bad for an individual’s health, his wealth and also his family life. Having diagnosed that the poor remain poor due to alcoholism, further disasters like financial ruin and wife beating are also laid at the doorsteps of the person’s fondness for the bottle. The obvious panacea is to introduce prohibition in the State. This affects the revenues of the State which collect a large sum of money from the sale of liquor. Most States, to augment their revenues, and also to guard against spurious and sub standard liquor have monopolies on the wholesale trade and some even run their own liquor shops. Since prohibition leads to losses in State revenues, it has to be made up through other means, often more vexatious taxes on the citizens.
Braving the revenue shortfall, the paternalistic netaji feels that the wives and other family members of the tipplers would be happy by these stern measures imposed to curb the sale and consumption of alcohol. Their husbands would be reformed and all the evils of alcoholism would disappear. Being grateful to the morally righteous leader, they would all vote for him. This appears to be the cold reality of netaji’s moral crusade against the evil of alcoholism. Never does it bother our messianic leader that it may violate a person’s privacy, let alone the unintended consequences of the prohibition policy, which are often worse than the disease.
The argument of the tipplers and the preservers of the liberal order is that, curbing drinking is an assault on their personal rights and liberties. The State should have no right to decide what a person consumes. Even for the poor, in whose name all such prohibition policies are framed, the argument is that they will simply switch to other forms of cheaper substitutes or get adulterated hooch which will put their lives and limbs at risk. Illicit liquor tragedies are the grim reminder of the consequences of prohibition which many states have resorted to with little success. For the lovers of Bacchus, it is indeed a pity that our founding fathers did not enshrine the right to drink as a fundamental right under the Constitution.
Most people especially the well to do simply flout or bypass the state’s anti – liquor measures, by simply going to a nearby state, where they can purchase and consume their favourite alcoholic drink. Others simply contact their favourite bootlegger and have their choicest brands delivered at home, though the price paid is invariably higher. The liberals simply argue that the net effects of prohibition policies are, that a new business comes into being, populated by bootleggers, who violate the law with impunity and grease the palms of the excise officials and police liberally. They further prove their point with reasonable justification saying that prohibition has not succeeded anywhere in the world but simply drives a legitimate business underground, leading to corruption and crime proliferating.
Indeed the prohibition policy has had a chequered history in the country. It has been imposed in various states. Some states had imposed it in the past, but then relaxed it, as the results were not commensurate with the effort. The latest state to experiment with it is Bihar and Kerala has introduced it in parts. Mizoram has recently lifted prohibition realising its impracticality.
For part two: here
(The writer has retired from the IAS. He is former Chief Secretary of Andamans and Nicobar Islands)