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Home > News > Columnists > Ashwin Mahesh

An inflected discourse

March 21, 2003

For twenty years now, if not more, we have remembered the green revolution with pride. Throughout most of that period, we have heard boasts of abundance, and rarely a word of scarcity. In recent years, however, the mounting stocks have provided very little of the promised security. The bounty has always been inadequate; if everyone who needed food could afford to buy it, the self-sufficient status will quickly vanish. This, we have blithely ignored. Little wonder, then, that starvation deaths are reported from Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and elsewhere. Right to Food campaigns have sprung up around the country. In between, our exports were ignominiously returned with the label 'unfit for human consumption'. In short, we have arrived at the brink of calamity for millions, all the while praising our extraordinary success.

This raises several questions, not the least important of which is whether we can trust the management of our food stocks to governments that are clearly failing the most insecure citizens. Do the surpluses really exist? Are they edible? Will they be available to cover the inevitable shortfall? Are these fake surpluses -- that require some to starve so that there is enough for others? What is to blame -- terrible policies, or terrible implementation? Why has a celebrated transformation added 10 million more families to the ranks of the landless? The answers, whatever they are, must include callousness and stupidity.

An important lesson is contained within this failure. Public policy and its implementation are shaped by a nuanced dialogue in which success and failure are measured piece-meal, and often by yardsticks chosen by the analysts themselves. When 50million people lose their lands, and crop production rises 130%, the totality of these numbers must be reflected in any assessment of agricultural policy. But those who would bring us these figures are often considerably invested in one alone. The public's understanding of the policy's measure, therefore, is easily shaped by those who control the information and its dissemination beyond a few deeply interested groups.

The most recent example of this in agriculture relates to the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops across the country. To understand the partisanship in this debate, ask yourself this - what does 'increased crop yield' mean? And how is that different from 'reduced crop loss' to pests and other factors? The same information can be presented in more than one form, and the description that dominates the public discourse is the one that is more supportive of the interest of those who provide it. To read government accounts, India is joining the age of biotechnology, creating new strains that will resist pests, grow faster, and take the green revolution to a higher plane. To witness opposition, however, is to conclude that policies are shrouded in secrecy and adopted without public scrutiny, and the results of early trials are plainly distorted to present a pre-determined view.

The distinction is unseen by those who see crops only in their post-packaged form. But in the lives of farmers themselves, the difference can be wrenching. This past week, opposition to GM crops reached a new phase -- with activists demanding that the government obtain compensation from commercial seed manufacturers for exaggerated claims about their products. Will the government enforce the laws of crop insurance with the same force it showed in advocating the 'age of biotechnology'? To most of us, the answer -- yes or no -- manifests itself as a small price sensitivity in some products, and little else. To the farmer encouraged down this new path, however, the decision separates bankruptcy -- and in extreme instances, suicide -- from continued livelihood. Any influence on the decision, therefore, is more than a market operation.

Government policy is the product of an inflected discourse. These inflections lend themselves to the letter of the laws passed, and to the spirit of public policy. Citizens, however, must live well within the extremes of understanding offered by different interests that seek to influence the outcomes. It is important, therefore, that we inform ourselves regularly and adequately to maintain a necessary balance.

In every realm of public policy, the devil is in the details. This allows claims of good governance to be made, even while engaging in its exact opposite. Last year, for instance, the political parties, in a rare display of agreement, passed an electoral reforms law that was anything but. The court-ordered disclosures of candidates' assets and criminal histories were completely swept away, and other laws that appeared to challenge this denial of information to voters were declared overruled by the new legislation. In doing this, all parties claimed we would make great progress towards keeping criminals out of the state legislatures and Parliament!

Criminal candidates allowed to conceal their records from the voting public would hardly be contained by laws that permitted this. Nor were many aware that the government argued beforethe Supreme Court that citizens have no fundamental right to this information. And yet, when the legislation did pass after much public opposition -- and a highly unusual Presidential dissent -- most media reported it as progress. The Court has since restrained some of this retrograde law, but the larger picture should alarm any sense of good citizenship. Our legislators, all the while claiming to cleanse politics of crime, enacted legislation that was clearly otherwise, and only a last recourse to the checks of the judiciary mitigated this action.

More examples are easily found. Did the Right to Education law really increase access to education for millions of children, or did the government withdraw from its obligation to educate them? If fewer people do the same work today as was done yesterday and the rest are idle, should we hear 'gains in productivity' or 'increased unemployment'? Should we celebrate the passing of legislation to strengthen Panchayati Raj, or should we remember that thousands of Panchayat heads rubbished New Delhi's attempts to decentralize governance as eyewash? Should we celebrate the prosperity of the Punjab or be alarmed at the access to sex-determination technology the new wealth permits?

Citizenship requires determined self-emancipation from walls that surround the good society. Where these walls take the form of rhetorical messages from vested interests, we must be especially wary. Excepting the gravest threats to national security, we must place all other information in the public domain, and open to scrutiny. The Right to Information laws that public interest groups now demand in every state promise to unshackle us from media-managed sound-bite governance, and these deserve public support. Indeed, citizens must place a high priority on transparent information in every sphere -- public offices must post the rights of citizens seeking services, employers must make minimum wage laws and anti-hazard regulations available to workers, environmental and health studies upon which public policy is based must be automatically public, etc.

An open society isn't always convenient to government, and the process of culling the best decisions by informed debate may appear quarrelsome, even inefficient. Nonetheless, this is necessary for the greater good -- the opportunity to act from knowledge of the fullest information available, and from it to seek the best the nation can be.

Ashwin Mahesh

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Number of User Comments: 6

Sub: policy making, and government officials

I agree that formulation is complex, but we should also ask - complex to whom? To the lay citizen following the discussion, yes. But to ...

Posted by Ashwin Mahesh

Sub: Point of inlfextion

Thinking in abstraction about policy matters and decision-making is not easy. We never know whether we are making sense! There is always a lurking fear ...

Posted by N J Ramesh

Sub: too flowery: cudn't get thru it.

for a person worrying about too many details, you are definitely not easy to read. I think my english is OK for an indian, but ...

Posted by saurabh

Sub: ..inflected discourse.

This article is a well reasoned and quite well written. However, to be readily accessible to the masses, for whom I presume it was meant ...

Posted by labrea

Sub: 'Alert Public and Public Policy'.

This refers to the column by Ashwin Mahesh 'Alert Public and Public Policy'. Somebody had rightly said 'an alert citizen is essential for the success ...

Posted by P M Ravindran



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