Another to-do list for politicos in New Year

RESOLUTIONS, promises, to-do lists. January always finds human beings indulging in some temporary exercise of will power, a willful abandonment of hedonism and a self-imposed regime of restraint. Some soldier on with their resolve, but most dump their long lists of self-imposed asceticism in a couple of months. That’s the beauty of these pledges—it’s like emerging from a crash purgatory course, all cleansed, radiant and beaming. In contrast, politicians take important vows only once in five years, and don’t even need to make any pretences of keeping up with them. But, they should see January 2009 differently.

A lot of expectations have been built up this year and the political class would do well to heed them. This year, in keeping with the season’s overdose of optimism and goodwill, might also just be that inflection point when the first strains of change become visible. Barack Obama’s “YW-C” call-to-arms seems to have had some impact in India as well. If politicians don’t want to be swept aside by a historical tide of anger washing up against their indefensible citadel, now is the time for them to draw up their own list of undertakings, thing to do over the year, in addition to their normal duty (which is, governing, eradicating poverty or strengthening the economy). Here are a few items from that list.

* Get the municipal corporations back in order. If necessary, legislate or amend existing legislation. It all begins here, whether it’s the citizen’s disenchantment with the system or the seeds of corruption, which then flower elsewhere. Most voters think at two levels — his immediate environment and then policies at the national level. The evolved ones may squeeze in a state-level tier. But, unhappiness with the immediate civic administration usually also gets expressed at the state level, as Sheila Dixit understood so well and Vilasrao Deshmukh refused to countenance. Look at the mess in the country’s richest and probably the best civic bodies (which is not saying much, given the abysmal state of all of them), Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. The muni has suddenly woken up to the prospect that the city’s water requirements is far higher than what can be supplied. The reason? Lack of co-ordination between the department that sanctions construction of new buildings and the one that’s in charge of water supplies.

* End the illegal trade in arms. It is true that, since 1990, this country has moved towards a liberal economic regime that puts great store by free markets. The shift in policies was spearheaded by the current PM, who was the FM then. But that doesn’t mean that we also believe in the laissez faire powers of an unfettered arms bazaar. It is common knowledge that firearms of any make, with matching ammunition, is available to anybody willing to shell out the cash. And, the hardware is available everywhere — Bihar, UP, Bangalore, Punjab, Maharashtra. Plus, corruption in the ordnance factories that allows leakage of ammo has been reported extensively. It’s time we ceased talking of Peshawar’s arms bazaar when our politicians and the police have been turning a blind eye to the thriving underground trade in armaments.

* There’s another business model crying out for state intervention. It’s called forced abductions, or kidnappings, which usually finds closure with the payment of a ransom. This is routinely practised by powerful thugs and patronised by politicians (in some cases by powerful ministers) and given free rein by the police force. Some times, in certain states, if the kidnapped person’s family is willing to pay the police a handsome percentage of the ransom amount, or the abductor fails to pay adequate commissions, then the kidnapped person might be rescued earlier than expected. This has turned into a perfect fund-raising exercise for political parties in the heartland and doesn’t require killing hapless PWD engineers. Surprising, Harvard or Wharton are yet to write a case study on this.

* Implement the National Police commission’s report at the earliest. The speed with which 26/11 has spurred the political class to rush through legislation (such as the National Investigation Agency or the UPAA amendment) or to create new wings of the police force (such as Maharashtra government’s decision to create an NSG-lookalike at the state level) invests the populace with a scepticism and a cynicism borne from years of misguided policies and corruption. Everybody is keeping his fingers crossed, hoping that these decisions do not become another opportunity for kickbacks or authoritarianism. There is a feeling that even if half the commission’s report is implemented, many of the problems bedevilling the police force could be sorted out. But, first, the police appointments have to be depoliticisied. A former home minister of Maharashtra was known to have opened a small time business in transfers – a literal version of the pay-as-you-go model. This arbitrary power needs to be taken away from ministers and vested with an all-party committee, probably headed by the CM.

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