February 19, 2001


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Ashwin Mahesh

The Beavis Society

A Press Trust of India report on the other day, quoted Union ministers expressing support for legislation to control population growth. Speaking at the launch of Census 2001, one eminent representative of our nation's government observed that the population explosion is a hurdle to the country's development. He claimed that 'in countries like the UK and the US, the population level has virtually been the same for the last 20 years or so and as a result there is no need to build new schools or hospitals as in India. In India the booming population growth marginalises all our achievements. If we set up a school for 500 students, we find there are already 5,000 students waiting to get admission. The same is the case with hospitals'.

Really? In the United States of America, according to US census figures, there were approximately 227 million citizens in 1980, and in the 20 years since -- this being the period the aforementioned minister referred to -- the population has grown to an estimated 281 million. That's a gain of 54 million people, or nearly 24 pc. Not the sort of change you would call "virtually the same". As it turns out, in fact, the "explosive" growth of the Indian population over the same period has seen the addition of about 31 pc more of us, and while this is larger than the American growth rate, it is not substantially so. I admit that the actual numbers show greater differences, not withstanding the rates being comparable, due to the bases being so different.

Could it be that the minister's error was the result of some harmless glitch in informing himself? I think not. Population is a pretty telling public concern in India, its historical and potentially future devastating effects are not the sort we can shrug away. One doesn't address the public at the onset of the census and toss about ideas on population control by accident. Even more specifically, even if one grants that the number of citizens of other nations may be unknown to our government, the oversight is especially galling. We could do a lot better, he tells us, if only the population didn't grow as rapidly. Perhaps, but when he offers as evidence the example of states where his claim is simply not borne out, even this feeble defence of inconsequential government is rendered false!

We could argue the point about schools too. The American population, driven largely by immigration, adds a significant number of the new entries in lower-age brackets, ie, school-age kids; this is less the case in countries with little immigration. My intent here, however, is not to delve deep into the particular ignorance of one individual on a specific matter now in the news. Instead, I use this only as anecdotal evidence to suggest a greater failing in government. Too many of those who profess to debate, craft, and enforce legislation and policy in India are quite simply, not bright enough to do this job.

They're routinely unaware of the facts, and often unable to judge the socio-economic consequences of their choices. They're unread, unsuited to creating wide-spread prosperity and unable to engage the rapidly changing world in meaningful ways to derive advantages for the Indian people. It is another matter that many among the netas simply have no desire to traverse any path of service to their constituents or the nation, as many citizens have concluded. My assertion here goes further, that even if we were to grant their fine intentions, we must nonetheless recognise that they're simply not able.

At the highest levels of our government, the people entrusted with creating and directing policy for managing change in India are flailing about in search of answers, or pursuing desultory policies of no lasting benefit. The bureaucracy, originally intended to assist various governments and ensure their proper functioning, is now, besides being a vassal to the crimes of caste and pilferage, equally incompetent. The few who mean well do not possess the political acumen to override their shackles, and more often that not, leave the civil service. Pretty much everyone who remains is indebted to some extra-constitutional authority that secured his appointment, and hungers after his self-interest in the name of representing you and me.

That isn't all. In the evolution of the political-economic-criminal nexus that now governs the state, the media's role is especially culpable. Lured by the quick riches of sound-bite coverage on television, and advertising-supported entertainment veiled as news in the print media, there are few journalists who now pursue stories of real public interest. The hallmark of the public information repository that journalists maintain has become the "scoop". Not the thoroughly researched exploration of your rights to education, housing, accountable public finance, or any of those things. It is rare that public officials are challenged on the spin they present as facts.

Issues that place a burden on journalists to examine at some depth and present with some clarity are ignored, but perhaps only partly from commercial considerations. To some degree, it must also be that the dumbing down of news has turned away those who would otherwise commit their lives to significant explorations of pressing matters. The intricacies of the contract between the Maharashtra State Electricity Board and Enron, the wrangling over the Narmada Dam, the Cauvery waters dispute, rehabilitation of disaster victims, any major issue is presented only in terms of outcomes that are easily quantified. 17,000 dead, 8 bucks a kilowatt hour, three feet higher, as if those were the only things that mattered.

Consider this example. How many people, do you think, can say readily why convicted -- and sentenced! -- politicians like Jayalalitha or Narsimha Rao are not in prison? The simplistic answer -- that they obtained bail -- does not sufficiently reveal to the reader the nature and intent of bail. A provisional clause reserved for use in disputed matters is available post-conviction, yet we see few examinations of this abuse. So poorly educated is the public that there is even a fair number, I assure you, who cannot distinguish between bail and exoneration! To the uninformed, they both mean the same thing -- set free! Intellectually effete journalism inspires further idiocy, and the corporations are glad to subsidise the process. The Beavis society is thus entrenched.

A few days ago, on the telephone with my brother, I was discussing the examination format for the Graduate Management Admissions Test. Among the many types of questions that challenge an applicant's analytical abilities is one where, given a number of very similar statements, the respondent is asked to determine which one among them is false. The challenge to the potential student is only the apparent face of the process, however; the deeply inherent consideration in the problem posed is also that those who see no distinction between subtly different choices are simply unsuited to the programs they wish to attend.

As with our personal aspirations, so with national ones. The difference between spending 4.1 pc of the budget on education and spending 4.11 pc is enormous, and counts in the tens of thousands the number of fewer children who will be helped by the lower amount. The impact of varying federal interest rates on economic growth, the response that population planners expect from incentives and disincentives, the income levels that will help parents keep their children in school and not see them as potential earners to augment family income -- these and thousands of other considerations have something in common. Choices that appear fairly similar can nonetheless have hugely divergent consequences.

This extreme sensitivity of outcomes to the decisions made at the top is a powerful reason why those who make them must understand the science of their efforts. Ideology alone is not sufficient reason to choose one path over others. When socio-economic policy is held hostage to the motivated steering of ideologues, millions of ordinary Indians pay a heavy price. The media-persons who should normally sift through competing arguments behind such choices being chosen from among those who will abide by vested commercial interests, the circle of self-delusion is complete.

In this scenario, we can ill-afford to pretend that there is no virtue is learning. At the very least, a minimum education should be required of all public office-holders. Specific portfolios must require a background in the issues over which the potentates hold jurisdiction. This essential consideration has so far been applied only to a few ministries, and even then rarely to genuine stalwarts in the field. But such standards aren't optional to the public interest; indeed, without such minimum safeguards there can be no measure of it, and society meanders between unintended consequences, offering hope at some turns but frustration at many more.

As voters, we must demand greater scholarship from our leaders. Even the most vitriolic disagreements over national policies should be acceptable, so long as they advance the process of culling from among the exchanges a well-founded mechanism to serve a widely-accepted purpose. But absent the intellectual exercises that challenge interested views, what results can never satisfy the aspirations of the public, even their limited material ones, meaningfully. We each owe to ourselves this much -- that we shall expect of our representatives that they be able to understand the issues, comprehend alternate solutions to problems, and offer a well-considered basis for their choices. No matter that we may embrace or detest such choices, we forget at our own peril that they ought to be constructed with the force of reason and the skill of the learned.

Ignorance is not a point of view.


The Commonsense Fix
A Personal Weakness

Ashwin Mahesh

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