Populism invariably has fiscal and electoral consequences. The Akali government of Punjab gave free electricity to farmers, but it created resentment amongst the general populace that rich farmers were unduly benefiting from it. Not only did it hurt the state by depriving worthy development projects of support, it is held responsible for the defeat of the Akalis in the elections that followed.
The new Congress government in Andhra also started with free electricity to farmers, ostensibly to deal with the problem of farmers suicides. But the cause is not the cost of electricity; it is that the farmers have taken loans from the unorganised credit market at usurious rates.
Farmer suicides have been going on in Andhra for years, yet the legislature has not addressed issues related to credit and insurance. Banks ask for land as collateral security for giving crop loans. This disqualifies tenant farmers from any institutional credit. Many suicides had leased land after borrowing from private moneylenders, because in the corrupt banking system one often is required to pay commission to middlemen.
The solution is to develop proper loan instruments, together with crop insurance, within the banking system with guarantees from the state, and to use the justice system to go after loan sharks. But that would require real work in the legislature and administration, and the chief minister, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, found it much easier to blame high cost of electricity.
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Farmers are killing themselves also because the prices of the crops have collapsed. Even those who have insurance are often not served because it kicks in only if the yield of the mandal falls below the average of the last three years; it doesn't address the question of the market prices. No wonder, after the announcement of free electricity, 300 more farmers have killed themselves in Andhra.
The continuing farmer suicide story has meanwhile become stale; it's off the front pages. Reddy has now got back into the limelight with his announcement of 5 percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions for the Muslim community.
It is good to be concerned about the Muslim community, as for any other community that is lagging in development. But blanket quota is hardly an appropriate instrument to deal with the problem. Such a broad-based reservation will be taken advantage of by segments of the population who are already economically well-off.
Religious quotas have been used before with disastrous results. They were in place in Kashmir when I was growing up. The Muslim quota was filled by the children of the Muslim elite in Srinagar, and the poor communities from Srinagar and the rural areas felt left out. I believe one of the main causes of the Kashmir revolt that began in 1990 was the frustration of the common man with stifling governmental control over public life, exemplified by such policy.
One can foresee new problems in Andhra. What if someone named Ramakrishnan writes on his form that he is a Muslim? Would he then be eligible for the Muslim quota? Or, would the government insist that only those who have Arabic or Persian names are eligible?
What if Ramakrishnan has truly converted to Islam and decided to keep his name? This should not be disallowed because the language of the name and religion need not be coupled. Indonesian Muslims continue to have Sanskrit names (example, Megawati Sukarnoputri). I know Americans with 'Christian names' who are Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims.
Will the government draw up regulations regarding who qualifies to be a Muslim? Will one have to go to the mosque a certain number of times to be certified?
Now suppose Ramakrishnan has truly converted to Islam and been admitted to college and subsequently to a government job out of the religious quota. Further, suppose he has a change of heart and becomes a Hindu again. Will he lose his job?
What if someone has a Persian or an Arabic sounding name, but is actually a Hindu?
One can think of other equally perplexing possibilities. To deal with them, the government will have to get into the personal life of individuals; the bureaucracy will have to be expanded. One can even think of thought police. Was this the intent of placing the term 'secular' in the Constitution of the nation in the seventies?
Hyderabad, originally named Bhagnagar after Bhagmati (princess of fortune) the dancer who was the love of the ruler Quli Qutab Shah, has seen a makeover in the past few years that has become a model for other Indian cities. But the good times for Hyderabad may be coming to an end.
Sounds of disapproval of the Reddy policies have started to come out from potential investors. Business tends to draw back from regions where government follows reckless policy. With the religious quota, and further talk of quotas in private jobs, China, East Europe, and Philippines begin to look far more attractive.