Flawed policies

On Republic Day eve, the five top news headlines perhaps reflected the state of the nation. The first was the tragic story of  the Malegaon additional collector, Yeshwant Sonawane, burnt alive by the oil mafia while checking kerosene theft. The second headline was the finance minister claiming that the government could not reveal the names of those who had stashed black money abroad.

The third headline was of the BJP’s ekta yatra being stopped at the Jammu-Punjab border amidst noisy protests. The fourth was the Deoband chief  being pushed to quit because he had allegedly made pro-Narendra Modi remarks in Gujarat. The fifth headline was of  a young student who attacked the father of murdered teenager Arushi Talwar outside a Ghaziabad court with a cleaver. Anyone who watched the news that night would have been instantly aware of the multiple challenges that confront the Indian republic as it enters its 62nd year.

Take the Sonawane case. That oil mafias exist and kerosene adulteration is hugely profitable is no secret. An estimated 40 per cent of kerosene is diverted for adulterating diesel or petrol or for resale. Six years ago when IIM graduate Manjunath was killed by the oil mafia in Uttar Pradesh, the government promised a ‘clean up’. The kerosene ‘marker’ system that was introduced was discontinued after it was found to be ineffective to check adulteration.

The fact is that the muscle of  the oil mafias has less to do with policing and more to do with flawed government policies. The petrol pricing policy of the country actually ‘incentivises’ adulteration. If petrol costs almost Rs 60 a litre and subsidised kerosene is Rs 12 a litre, the price differential is a great temptation for oil black marketers.
Documentary evidence suggests that a small percentage of the subsidy on kerosene reaches the poor, exploited as it is by rapacious  middlemen. Yet, governments seem reluctant to review their oil policies that result in the killing of honest and brave officers like Manjunath and Sonawane.

If flawed policies aid crime, they encourage corruption too. For the first 50 years of independence, almost entirely governed by the Congress, punitive rates of taxation virtually encouraged India’s super-rich not to disclose their entire income and park it overseas instead. Tax evasion for a long time was directly linked to high rates of taxation and the unfriendliness of the tax administration.

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee speaks now of a five pronged strategy to deal with black money and creating an appropriate legislative framework. He speaks of a proposal to introduce an amnesty scheme to bring back black money by setting up a task force. What purpose will another expert committee meant to identify the quantum of  black money stashed abroad really serve?

Misrepresentation
The truth is there has been a marked reluctance to really go after the prime beneficiaries of black money. The government says a secrecy clause in the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement with Germany prevents it from naming the individuals with foreign bank accounts. But why should this secrecy clause concern a third country, in this case Liechtenstein? Unless you name and shame those who have thrived on a black money economy, a long-winded prosecution process will be no deterrent.

If corruption has stained the Congress’ khadi, religious  extremism has tainted the BJP’s saffron. The BJP claims its ekta yatra was driven by a nationalistic spirit, a belief that unfurling the tricolour at Lal Chowk would send a firm signal to Kashmiri separatists. What it has ended up doing instead is only further polarising an already deeply scarred border state. Hoisting the tricolour is a legitimate constitutional right, but when seen through the prism of  confrontational street politics, it appears a sign of  political opportunism. If a message was to be sent to the separatists, then it should have been done by focusing on what the BJP’s own prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee once described as the need for ‘insaniyat’ in the valley. Unfortunately, walking the path of ‘insaniyat’ in the Kashmir valley is arduous; so much easier of  course to prove ones patriotism by waving a flag.

While the BJP is playing with fire, so are the Deobandis who want to remove their head, Maulana Vastanwi for his alleged support to Narendra Modi’s government in Gujarat. Vastanwi reportedly said that he was happy to see Muslims participate in Gujarat’s growth story. If that is indeed what he said, why should that arouse such a strong reaction within the Deoband leadership? Or would they prefer that the Muslims of Gujarat remain marginal and isolated in their ghettoes? If the BJP’s yatra only creates avoidable tension in the valley, the resignation of the Maulana will only feed into the worst kind of  stereotype of a frozen mindset, one that breeds communal prejudice.
And then there is the story of Utsav Sharma, a fine arts graduate who seems to be in the  habit of making murderous assaults outside courtrooms. Sharma may be suffering from a psychological disorder, but he is in a way symptomatic of a rising culture of mindless violence: be it ragging, road rage or honour killing, there are many Indians out there who seem to relish the idea of taking the law into their own hands. Not the ideal way to celebrate 61 years of  the Indian constitution.

(The writer is editor-in-chief, IBN-18 network)

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