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Political economy's dilemmas

October 30, 2006 14:49 IST

While cleaning up my stock of accumulated press cuttings over the Diwali holidays, so many reports left me depressed - particularly, those which evidenced strongly that, as Mark Tully said so well in the title of his book, "There are no full stops in India". Here's a partial list of the issues our political economy will continue to debate until at least the next Diwali.

One is the question of foreign direct investment in retail trade. The Left continues to oppose this because of its concern for the corner baniya or lala: Does it really believe that the baniya pays his employees better than a retailer from the organised sector would?

However, there is no objection to Indian retailers acting as franchisees of foreign names: We do not mind royalty payments but object to risk capital coming in! (Whether it will protect the corner baniya or his employers or not, the Left's stand about foreign investors certainly benefits domestic businessmen with retailing ambitions!)

I also read about the Left's opposition to entry of foreign education providers into India. We, of course, have no opposition to FEPs providing education to Indian students abroad, or to spending $4 billion a year on foreign education for our students. We also do not object to Indian teachers giving tuitions to American kids in subjects like mathematics, over the Internet. But we would not like FEPs coming here and creating jobs and competition locally.

The debates about FDI in telecom, insurance and banking also probably will continue till the next Diwali.

Our political masters support the hugely costly National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which provides 100 days of guaranteed employment, that is, it allows no work for 265 days.

But the garment industry's offer to train rural people and provide guaranteed jobs for 150 days, and that too at higher compensation than the NREGS, without any cost to the exchequer, is not acceptable, because it will contravene the labour laws.

Now CITU is planning to unionise well-paid Kolkata BPO employees. What will be the cost to India's credibility to deliver, and in lost or uncreated jobs? Is there such a strong vested interest in continuation of unemployment and poverty that only ineffective solutions are acceptable?

Meanwhile, we would also continue with the farce recently witnessed in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, of farmers getting cheques for Rs 2, 5 and 20 as subsidy for the lower prices they got. Do we ever think of the cost of preparing and mailing those cheques, entirely apart from the sheer absurdity of the amounts?

But the mess about the policies and regulations relating to the special economic zones probably is in a class by itself. To my mind, it exemplifies the several weaknesses from which our political economy and governance suffer, and may continue to do:

Given the kind of objections that are now being raised, it almost seems as if none of our esteemed and honourable parliamentarians had taken the trouble to go through the provisions of the SEZ Bill before they enacted it in 2005. Surely, many of the issues now being raised should have been debated then?

The feudalism of our political class: The moment Sonia Gandhi expressed reservations about the use of agricultural land for SEZs, everybody jumped on that bandwagon - as if no agricultural land can be put to any other use. In any case, what is the maximum number of acres we are talking about and what is that as a percentage of the total agricultural land? If creating employment is the need of the hour, what is the ratio of jobs on, say, one acre of agricultural land, and a similar quantity used for SEZs?

We recently topped the Business Bribe Payers Index released by Transparency International, the anti-corruption NGO. One has not come across such an index for citizen's propensity to pay bribes - we might top that as well. The surge in moral policing - dance bars in Mumbai, couples holding hands in Nagpur, cricket betting, most of which are victimless crimes - is also worrying.

What of the jobs lost by the banning of dance bars, for instance? In another surge of morality, we banned child labour in domestic and restaurant jobs. Chances are that either the rules will not be implemented, or that many of the intended beneficiaries could well be worse off than now in the absence of any alternative family support.

This apart, are we not creating more and more avenues for the guardians of law to squeeze ordinary citizens? Are there not more essential issues for our administrative setup to focus on? Incidentally, a recent report on governance indicators released at the IMF World Bank meeting in Singapore last month, places us at pretty low levels in respect of several measures.

I was about to forget one perennial newsmaker: Medha Patkar. What will she be agitating against a year from now?
A V Rajwade