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'The influence of money power in public life was not that great in the old days as it is today'

In your opinion, is there some way that India's poor can be liberated from the awful reality of their situation? Is there no way poverty can be overcome?

P C Alexander There are many ways to overcome poverty. Some people believe that prosperity at the top levels of society will have a trickle down effect and in due course prosperity will reach all people. But such theories are invalid in a vast subcontinent like ours where the disparities between the haves and the have nots is very vast. Poverty eradication has no fixed formula or readymade medicine as solution. We have to approach the problem from various programmes taking into account the special and needs of people at different levels of development.

If you ask me how much time it will take to tackle the problem of poverty effectively, I will say that ten more years may be adequate. The process of development in the coming years need not take the same length of time as in the past because of the great technological innovations the world has seen in the last few years in communication, transport, health care, etc. New technology can help to shorten the transition period.

How do you assess the economic reforms? Do you believe liberalisation will make India an economic superpower?

We are not thinking in terms of becoming an economic superpower. But certainly we can become one of the largest and strongest economies of the world. In spite of the great inequalities in our society, we have developed over a period of time a reservoir of technical competence in various sectors which can help us build our economy into one of the strongest in the world.

Whether it is in industry, agriculture or services, the key word now is technology. In the old text books on economics, we used to read about factors for production of wealth namely land, capital, labour and entrepreneurship. Today, the fifth and most important factor is technology. New technology is crucial not only for manufacture and services but also for agriculture. With improved seeds, new methods of cultivation and management of water, fertiliser, etc, Indian agriculture can reach much higher levels of efficiency in much quicker time than it has been possible in the past.

Why, if these reforms are so essential for India's future, did prime ministers before P V Narasimha Rao and finance ministers before Dr Manmohan Singh not commence this process?

P C Alexander To answer that question, one has to look not at the priorities of the government but the world situation as a whole in the decades immediately after our Independence. Fifty years ago, our pressing problems were shortage of capital, of foreign exchange and shortage of trained manpower. We had to depend heavily on imports even to meet the demand for ordinary consumer goods, while dependent on imports and foreign aid, we had also to be on the guard about preserving the content of our Independence without dilution. We did not want to take any short cut to economic progress, sacrificing our goal of self reliance.

We have achieved a reasonable degree of success in building up self reliance in most of the development sectors. We opted for liberalisation after establishing a solid foundation for a self reliant economy and with the confidence that the time had arrived for such a bold step.

Were the priorities of previous governments different? Have the priorities changed over the years?

It is not that the objectives that we had during the Nehru regime were different. They were relevant to the conditions at that time. But now the world economy itself has changed and we also decided to introduce the changes relevant to the new circumstances.

The systems of licensing and control and tariff and non-tariff barriers in the world trade as a whole had been relaxed in recent years and we wanted to take full advantage of the global phenomenon of liberalisation. As far as India was concerned, liberalisation was both necessary and timely as we had reached a stage on our economic progress conducive to liberalisation.

P C Alexander So I will say it was timely. We took the steps when we realised that if we didn't, India would be left far behind. These steps towards liberalisation had been initiated as early as 1980-81. Slowly, some of the controls from industry had been relaxed, import licensing had been relaxed. Step by step, the licensing procedures were relaxed, the walls of quotas and controls were reduced. By the beginning of the 1990s, compulsions of the time made us take a very giant step at a speed much greater than what was possible earlier and thus we ushered the era of liberalisation.

You said earlier that when you joined the IAS there was no cynicism or lack of faith in the civil services. How did this contempt for idealism, this corruption creep in? Why is there such disdain for the people in the bureaucracy?

There is an element of truth in what you say about contempt for idealism or disdain in the bureaucracy. I can attribute it to a variety of reasons. When we started as young entrants to the civil service, we were still largely sheltered from public criticism and not subjected to the scrutiny by the press or by the judiciary as the case today.

For at least the first ten years of Independence, the civil servant enjoyed a large measure of protection. If anyone criticised him, his ministers would defend him if his bonafides were not in doubt. I will also say that the civil servants's failures and foibles were to a large extent shielded from the glare of publicity. Our democratic system of accountability itself had not developed adequately in those years.

Secondly, we have to admit that the standards of integrity have deteriorated from the days of the older generation to those of the present. You can say that about every field of public service whether it is politics, civil service, education, health or any other. We have to admit that there has been a deterioration in the standards of integrity. At any rate the influence of money power in public life was not that great in the old days as it is today.

Mahatma Gandhi I should add here that the older generation in India had been very powerfully influenced by the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Even those who disagreed with Gandhi's political strategies, never could question his ideals of integrity, simplicity, probity and sacrifice in public life. These values had deeply influenced a whole generation of Gandhi's India. I'm not saying that Gandhiji's teachings have ceased to have any influence among present day Indians.

What I am saying is that there has been a general lowering of standards of probity and integrity in the society as a whole since the days of the Mahatma and to some extent this is seen reflected in the ranks of the civil servants as well. Perhaps people expect from the civil servants more exemplary standards of integrity and this may well be justified as the citizen wants the administration to be not only efficient but also clean.

Dr Alexander's photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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