Democracy deficiency

The pride of urban middle class India — prime beneficiaries of the national development effort of the past six decades since the Union Jack was hauled down from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort for the last time on August 15, 1947 — is that against all expectations, India has transformed into a vibrant democracy. Although to describe contemporary India, in which according to the damning report (2007) of a committee chaired by Arjun Sengupta, a former secretary in the Union finance ministry, over 700 million citizens survive on less than US$ 0.50 per day, as vibrant or flourishing would be over-stretching the truth, there’s no denying that miraculously, India is a functional democracy. Governments at the Centre and in the states are regularly voted out of office, elected and — to the amazement of people in neighbouring Pakistan, China, Nepal and Bangladesh etc — sworn in without supervision or interference by the million-strong Indian Army.

But the distinguishing characteristic of true democracies is that their governments and administrations heed and respect public opinion, particularly informed opinion dispensed bona fide in the public interest. The spectre of famine and mass displacement in rural India following the failure of this year’s south-west monsoon with 226 of the country’s 630 districts receiving scanty rainfall, once again raises vital questions relating to the quality of democracy, Indian style. For over three decades, your correspondent (as editor of the country’s first two business magazines and in this publication) has been strongly advocating development of a rural storage and cold chain infrastructure to end the massive spoliation and rot that India’s agriculture economy suffers year after year. For instance, how aware are you that over 20 million tonnes of foodgrains spoil or are consumed annually by rodents and pests in the open-air storage facilities of the public sector Food Corporation of India?

Now three decades later comes a news report in the Times of India (August 21), even as drought-beggared farmers across the country are increasingly taking their own lives. According to Priya Yadav, writing from Khamanu, Punjab’s wheat-growing heartland — the bread-basket of India — she discovered 1.8 million tonnes of open-storage wheat, “a quantity that can feed 1.5 million families for 365 days”, in imminent danger of spoliation due to excessive moisture and worms infestation.

A dialogue of the deaf — Indian democracy, 62 years on.

Extreme cruelty

Anguished appeals made by some members of Parliament in New Delhi and legislators in the state capitals to ban the hit television reality show Sach ka Samna (‘confrontation with truth’) have served little purpose other than to provide free publicity and high TRPs (target rating points) to this gut wrenching, late night cross-examination programme staged under the supervision of a polygraph machine quick to detect lies and evasions of truth. Seduced by the show’s strategy of offering the steadily increasing prize money, which could rise to Rs.1 crore and the 15 minutes of fame that television offers, millions of citizens of both sexes are ready and willing to sit in the show’s elevated hot seat, to answer deeply personal questions posed by the suave anchor Rajeev Khandelwal, who conducts the programme in a brisk and business-like yet empathetic style. However some justice and equity issues raised by the show need to be addressed.

For one, the ‘all or nothing’ format of the show by which cross-examinees lose the entire amount they may have earned for answering questions truthfully as the show progresses, needs to be reviewed. In a largely poor, developing country characterised by huge income inequalities and lack of opportunity, the attractive prize money jackpot tempts hundreds of thousands to volunteer for the hot seat and subject themselves to being put through the wringer in public. In the circumstances the all or nothing rule, which wipes out the amounts notionally accumulated by examinees for a single answer adjudged untrue by the almighty polygraph, is tantamount to extreme and unusual cruelty. Given the substantial advertising the programme attracts, the sponsors and producers of this testing reality show could pay out say, 10 percent of the prize money accumulated by each contestant. If volunteers for Sach ka Samna are expected to confront the truth, the show’s producers should be equally obliged to confront justice and equity issues.

Waiting tragedies

The huge tide of indignation in the aftermath of the detention on August 15 of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan for 66 minutes at Newark airport, USA, is indicative of the lopsided priorities of the Indian establishment and in particular, of the middle class, enamoured of Bollywood. First, there was the unwarranted media hype over the great Khan being subjected to a secondary security check, “hassled” and asked “irrelevant questions”.

Next was New Delhi’s reaction. Union minister for whatever, Ambika Soni was shown on television threatening US nationals with “tit for tat”, even as 24x7 television channels  recalled the unbearable insult of former President APJ Kalam being frisked by security personnel of the US-based Continental Airlines prior to his boarding a passenger jet for America a few months previously.

Several questions, which have not been adequately posed nor answered, arise from this much ado about nothing. First, given widespread awareness — following the 9/11 episode in the US, the Lockerbie mid air bomb blast, the Kandahar hijack of an Indian Airlines plane (1999) etc — that Islamic and other terrorists tend to view passenger aircraft as preferred targets to express their wrath relating to perceived and actual injustices, why should any individual be exempt from professionally conducted security checks? Isn’t it possible that anti-social elements or compromised aides may slip a sophisticated destructive device into the coat pocket or hand luggage of a VIP prior to his departure for the airport? Indeed it’s arguable that VIPs preoccupied with matters of state — or running up and down verdant hillsides proclaiming love melodiously in the case of Bollywood icons — are more vulnerable to such machinations of villains and terrorists.

Yet back home the frightening reality is that VIPs ranging from the President of India to sundry ministers and judicial officers of the Central and state governments are exempt from security checks and searches. Many tragedies are waiting to happen in Indian civil aviation.