Friday, February 25, 2011

India's Uneven Development Woes - Part II

In a few states like Gujarat, the government was able to push through its urbanization and industrialization agenda. In in less than 2 years of SEZ policy implementation, the state saw creation of about 2 million jobs. The state has also seen sharp fall in its poverty rates. In contrast, in West Bengal, one of the poorest states in India, where the first such SEZ was tried in Singur, it led to violent protests and clashes. Tata Motors plant was shut down and this stalling helped the opposition party make huge electoral gains. The poverty and unemployment remains as high as before in the state.

Due to such opposition to spread of industries to the rural areas and under pressure from activists, the Indian government then tried to implement National Rural Employment Scheme (NREGA). This meant paying minimum rate wages to all rural households for a minimum of 100 days under the guise of employment. The central government outlay for the scheme is estimated to be a whopping 5% of the GDP. Now coming to the implementation, which is the main problem in all such schemes. Corruption and discrimination has already seeped into the project. Making a job card requires bribes ranging from Rs5–50 and caste, gender and religion based discrimination has been noticed. The benefits have been cornered by local powerful elements and better off sections in the villages leaving the lowest castes, women (particularly widows) as well as the below poverty line populace relatively untouched. Social audits reveal that the number of job cards issued have been in excess of numbers employed, indicating that the funds have been embezzled by local officials. Studies show that there is little evidence that NREGA is being implemented any better than the panoply of poverty-focused schemes introduced by the government of India over the past 20 years, where a large share of intended benefits have been captured by the elite classes, including petty functionaries. "Jawahar Rozgar Yojna" was a similar scheme tried in the 1990s. This costly initiative is also at a time when India is facing large budget deficits as well as a ballooning debt problem. Ultimately, this kind of reckless spending without any long term payoffs leads to an inflationary economy as has already happened.

Let us examine in simple plain terms how a decentralized economy alleviates poverty. Let us say a few factories are opened in a rural area. Apart from direct employment as industrial labor, a lot of secondary and tertiary employment is generated. People come to live there and houses etc. have to be built, someone opens tea stalls, small eateries, someone caters to the factory canteens, housekeeping jobs are created, and small shops will open. Employment is created, in a sustainable manner; no supervision is required, people get paid for the work and initiative and it remains largely corruption free. Further, it would not put a burden on the already stretched exchequer; instead the government earns taxes from these business operations. Employment generation thus becomes the prime means of alleviating poverty.

Unlike in nations like Venezuela, the Indian government understands that development needs require spread of industries and urbanization, but it is the populace and their opinion leaders who stand opposed to it. As Narayan Murthy also notes in his book on India, all pro development and pro urban politicians lost elections in 2004. Looking at it from people's point of view, living amidst hopelessness and destitution, the poor populace relates to a leader who comes and distributes something free. He sees that as pro-poor and thinks this is the party that cares for him and must be voted for. It is hard, if not impossible, for him to fathom the intricacies of a market economy and how its "invisible hand" is going to benefit him. The model is rejected before even trying it.

This kind of a societal conflict over industrialization happened in the Western nations too, in the early part of the 19th century, but as they did not have democracy right through their development process, they did not have to convince the entire rural poor populace of the long term benefits of it. The poor, now as then, view development with suspicion, believing it will never benefit them. This insecurity is further fuelled by opposition parties, activists and even portions of media. Even in China the development and the resultant poverty alleviation program met with tremendous resistance and people did not support it initially, but the program was not derailed as Chinese leaders do not have to campaign for votes.

In an underdeveloped democratic nation, however, development is actively opposed but the need for instant gratification dominates the voters demands. There is a tendency to demand everything “free” from the government. And increasingly the governments that oblige with freebies like bags of rice, saris, cash, loan waivers, etc., are termed “pro- people”. In reality these are just short term programs that instill scope for corruption as political middle men hack away at the sums being doled out. Further to fund such pro poor programs, the governments start printing money which leads to inflation as has already been seen in India and far worse in a nation like Venezuela which has also tried some very ambitious "distribute something free to the poor" programs. Alternately, in a democracy, if a government follows a more long term and prudent approach of working through the economy or investing in infrastructure, it gets labeled as “pro-rich”. Such parties and leaders lose elections to make way for "pro poor messiahs" who distribute cash, TVs etc. free to the people but ultimately, it is unproductive use of already stretched and meagre resources. Further, benefits from such pseudo pro poor programs are cornered by the corrupt middle men but the inflation that results from such reckless spending hits everybody, whether or not they received any benefits.

Industrialization does pose challenges that ought to be addressed but the solution is not to avoid development altogether, leaving people destitute and agrarian. All the developed nations have followed a decentralized market economy as their basic poverty alleviation model and overall that is what has been the defining point between developed and under developed countries, not democracy. However in nations like India, a turn to democracy without developing first, has led to a stalling of the process itself. That is why poverty remains high and development uneven

What about education - why does such a large proportion of population remain illiterate? - Let us examine next..

Complete Essay in the Book Democracy on Trial, All Rise! - "Democracy Derails Development - How and Why"

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Democracy's Myth - India - Part I

Coming to the core of the argument on democracy in the developing world – let us unravel the successes and failures of the Indian democracy.

In most of the developing world, democracy’s failures have been blamed on improper implementation – military intervention, international intervention, ineptitude of local leadership, cultural factors etc. etc.

The one example that stands apart is that of India. India has a fully functional democracy with regular elections, freedom of speech, thought and assembly, citizens led initiatives, independent media, independent judiciary and separation of powers. The Indian government respects rule of law and the central government is transparent, open and tolerates criticism and dissent, at times much more than even some of the developed nations.

All in all, democracy is alive and kicking. But, after 60 years of its earnest implementation, where has it taken India?

42% of the population lives below the poverty line of $1.25 a day and about 34 % remains illiterate when the world averages today are about 26% and 16% respectively. There is substantial criminal infusion in politics at the grassroots, law and order has been on a decline, infrastructure is crumbling and the agricultural sector is ailing and sick. Yet through market oriented reforms that began in 1991, India’s GDP has grown but the development remains uneven and has failed to benefit a vast majority of people.


A truthful answer will help the entire developing world face up to the propagation of a system that is ill suited to their socio-economic context and one that is inherently crippling when the majority in a nation is – poor, rural and uneducated. The answers are complex and require an in-depth analysis of the problems. Bumper sticker slogans like “solution to bad democracy is more democracy” will simply not do anymore.

Let us analyze India’s crippling problems one by one and see why democracy is not helping and is indeed standing in the way of development.

“Satyameva Jayate”

– hopefully!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Food Inflation and Democracy

Rising food prices have always led to revolts especially among the poor. In most poor regions of the world, food comprises upwards of 50% of Household expenditure and needless to say, most of it is in the territory of staple food - just 2 - 3 square meals a day. Food inflation has been going up especially since 2007 and despite earlier World Bank prediction that it would ebb by 2010, the rates have continued climbing upwards at an alarming pace.

The inflation rates in the developed world have been between 1- 3 % only but the problem is acute in many of the developing nations. Let us take a snapshot of the inflation rates - consumer prices for a select set of countries (2010 est). Since the discussion is also about democracy, let us see if prima facie there is any apparent correlation between having an elected government in place and inflation :

Country - Inflation Rate ("Elected" Govt in place - Yes/ No)

Venezuela - 29.8 % ..............................(Yes)
Democratic - 26.2 %.............................(Yes)
Republic of Congo
Argentina - 22 % .................................(Yes)

Nigeria - 13.9 % ...................................(Yes)
Pakistan - 13.4 % ................................(Yes)
Egypt - 12.8 % .....................................(No)
Iran - 11.8 % ..................................(Can't Say)
Sudan - 11.8% ......................................(No)
India - 11.7 % ......................................(Yes)
Ghana - 10.9 % ...................................(Yes)

Turkey - 8.7 % ...................................(Yes)
Russia - 6.7 % ...............................(Can't Say)
Rwanda - 6.4 % ..................................(No)

Algeria - 5 % .......................................(No)
China - 5 % ..........................................(No)
Brazil - 4.9 % ......................................(Yes)
South Africa - 4.5 % ..........................(Yes)
Tunisia - 4.5% ....................................(No)
Libya - 3 % .........................................(No)
Cameroon - 1.9% ...............................(No)

So far, it does not look like that the democratic developing nations are doing any better than the non democratic ones!

The full report of inflation rates for all countries as well as a comparison with their respective 2009 rates can be accessed here.

Important Note

You may wonder why I didn't use any of the established Indices of Democracy instead of this simple "elected / non- elected" definition to denote what kind of a government a country has. In my view, the indices are self fulfilling prophecies. In most of these indices, if a democracy produces bad results, it is called as flawed democracy or not a democracy at all. The indices are seemingly designed such that they preclude even the possibility of judging whether or not democracy led to good or bad results. If it led to bad results, then we classify it as not a democracy. So, how would we even assess whether or not democracy is good or bad for a country? This would make for a lengthy debate perhaps, but should you be interested , please feel free to email me - I would be glad to exchange ideas and thoughts on this. ( or

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Wholesale Democracy"

Nigeria - here is an excerpt from an article I came across in one of Nigeria's news channels owned by "Timbuktu" Media:
"Our attempt to import the American model of democracy wholesale has removed this link (cultural adaptations), and people do not know whom to turn to so in their confusion, they attempt to solve problems for themselves. This is why there is so much anarchy in Nigeria today because almost every individual in Nigeria, within the limits of his abilities and resources, has become a government, and as a result, a law unto himself."
The author, Cheta Nwanze further suggests some alternatives that might work better etc.
While more on Nigeria later, the important point here is why are "people" like Cheta Nwanze, or myself questioning democracy? Sure, when tyrants and dictators advocate against it, there is a vested interest. But why would people who have no political ambitions question a system like democracy? Surely, the idea of living under tyrants or dictators is scary to us all!

Because we have lived it. If we had never experienced democracy, we would be among protestors demanding it - thinking it brings with it some amazing prosperity, freedom etc. as promised in theory. But having gone through it in reality, we know it does not. While it meets higher order "aspirations" like freedom of speech, thought and assembly, it fails to meet basic "needs" like food, water and shelter for a vast majority of people in the developing world. Most of the Western intellectual world promotes democracy as a panacea for all problems. It would have been great if it had been, but sadly it is not. Here is a suggestion or hypothesis for why not-

The idea of a representative democratic republic was invented to bring in a checked form of government that respected the rule of law, freedom, and civil rights, and worked for the greater good of the society. This did not happen in the developing world as universal suffrage democracy was implemented in nation after nation. One of the key reasons is that poverty is hard to break out of. It takes nations decades, if not longer, of concerted effort to pull people out of abject poverty in a perceptible manner. Yet elections have to be won every 4–5 years. Not having a credible story to relate to the electorate, increasingly democracy politics revolves around distribution of freebies or bribes as well as hijacking votes through emotional, divisive issues. A general rise in crime as well as public support for radical and often violent ideologies are all too common phenomena as a result of premature political opening up. Thus, in most nations democracy itself does not bring stability. Even in the few where it has stabilized the society, it has not met the development objectives. It may be time to challenge our perfect theory—democracy may not be the answer to the developing world’s problems.

But if it is not democracy, that does not mean it necessarily is a reversal to inherited rule or lifelong dictatorships! I think the options extend beyond these two extremes. The West itself, while today an ardent patron of democracy now, democracy somehow, or this version of wholesale democracy, did not have democracy till the early 20th century. It developed under an oligarchical version of democracy where voting rights remained limited to a small minority and were extended gradually, over two centuries, in tandem with growing economic prosperity. Alternately, China has developed under a unitary state model but with a lot of party mechanisms which are often not highlighted but ought to be recognised.

May be we need to open up this debate and find the transient models that would work "in reality"to help the developing struggling nations cope with their problems!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Democratic Republic of Congo - Better to be ruled by a bad tyrant than be a bad democracy?

A great many African nations gained freedom from colonial rule around 1960 and started out with hopes and dreams of a glorious free era, with democracy. But what followed was bloodshed and violence unprecedented perhaps even in their long history of slavery or colonial rule and apartheid. What caused this violence and what are the political lessons from it—lessons that can lead us to solutions? Did African people fail at democracy or has democracy failed them?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo—the Most Violent Place on Planet Earth
It may come as a surprise to some that the most violent place on planet Earth is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, yet this has been so since about 1998 post the overthrow of a dictator in a quest for democracy. The civil war which then started has been proclaimed the deadliest conflict since World War II, with over 5 million deaths.

Why then is Congo not always in the news?
Why is it not in the limelight, why isn’t everyone thinking and talking about it? Maybe because we don’t know whom to blame! It is always easier when a dictator is in the seat of power, like in Zimbabwe or Sudan, as we can lay the entire blame on him. We also have the quick fix solution—bring in democracy and all the problems will solve themselves. But we already condoned the overthrow of a dictator in Congo and nearly a decade after that (2006), democracy too has been ushered in. Yet violence has only escalated and no solution seems to be in sight.
In retrospect, Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the nation for 30 years, did not develop the country as expected—but he only led it to stagnation, not complete ruin. That came only with the ethnically-inspired power struggles between different rebel factions after he was overthrown to establish a democratic republic.
As per the UN reports, the government troops are involved in the worst forms of violence, especially sexual violence. The common people themselves engage in widespread crime and brutalities against each other. Even the UN troops allegedly have been involved in gold and arms trafficking. This seems a textbook example to prove Plato’s theory that a bad tyrant is far better than a bad democracy, as under the former only one person is responsible for bad deeds whereas under the latter all the people are now responsible for such deeds.
Congo has descended into lawlessness and is on a suicidal path. It was already suffering from weak leadership under Joseph Kabila, whose main claim to the "democratic throne" has been that he is the son of the slain rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila. The nation has suffered even more in the wake of democratic reforms that seem to have further weakened the state authority. The assembly and legislature are merely paper-pushing entities meant to keep the international forces happy but having no relevance or meaning in reality. Congo is without hope on the current path.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Let me start with an anecdote.

Once while doing some sort of research in rural Eastern UP in India, people were asked what does freedom mean to you. One group's response was freedom means death. Upon probing why, the people said yes only when we die, we will be free from this wretched existence. We pray to God, please, in the next birth, make us a dog, a cat or a cockroach, just don't make us a human being.
If you could see their "wretched existence" with your own eyes, you would understand what they meant.

However, "Freedom of expression" has, nowadays, come to mean the entirety of what it is to be free. In reality, people living amidst violence or extreme poverty would hardly consider themselves free even if they have freedom of speech, free elections and free media. Freedom needs to be understood from citizens' life perspective, based on how free a person really feels. At the first level, people ought to feel free to exist. If there is widespread crime and violence in a society, no one can feel free. Next is economic freedom. People living amidst poverty are helpless and not free, even if they have freedom of speech. Only upon fulfillment of these basic freedom needs does a higher order need like freedom of expression become relevant or meaningful.

In reality (not how it is all supposed to be, in theory), democracy has enabled freedom of expression but not economic or physical freedom in the developing world. In that context, would you not say that an argument for democracy (in the developing world) is elitist, not the one against it?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fundamentalism - Radical by Choice

To define it first, “Fundamentalism” is a return to orthodox dogmatic principles, usually guided by tradition or religion, and rigid adherence to them as well as their imposition on the society as a whole. Intolerance, rabble rousing, extremism and even violence are various manifestations of it. While free to choose, people have often voted for fundamentalist parties over reformist ones in the developing world. This has puzzled intellectuals who believe democracy is the instrument that would deliver these societies from their backwardness. In reality the reverse has happened. Helen Keller once said, “The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next.” Given that at any time orthodox elements are in a majority over the reformist ones, all decisions through votes would keep us grounded in the past. Democracy in its essence is rule by the will of the majority, which need not necessarily mean progressive or benevolent rule. In most conservative developing countries, retrograde attitudes and practices abound. There are reform minded leaders as well as progressive sections in each of these societies. But they are in a minority and power, prematurely, has been placed in the hands of the conservative majority, thus making democracy a basic tool of promoting fundamentalism. Genocides, civil wars, communal riots, hate crimes, gender based oppression and rising vigilantism bear testimony to this.

To give an example, American columnist Ben Tanosborn summed this up nicely in his observation of the Iraq elections, “And just as often, many of the characters involved in those elections turned out to be the same old autocratic rulers now dressed in democratic vestments, their faces painted as if white mimes. The same old cast of characters—good old commissars, tribal leaders, and other power-laden chieftains, their names appearing in the ballot box after a democratic whitewashing of sorts had been done to accommodate the apostles of the new political religion, said to be democracy.” Likewise, in Pakistan, post return to democracy in 2008, in many provinces like Punjab, several of the earlier banned militant groups have now become "elected representatives".


Democracy on Trial - The Book,
MWC News (Media with Conscience),
News Central Asia - (The Voice of Greater Central Asia)
Middle East Online

Ref - Iraq’s election results will confirm but not bestow power, Ben Tanosborn, Middle East Online, 2010,

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Wooing the Voters - Rules of the game

A government “by the people and of the people” should quite naturally deliver ideal governance “for the people.” But in reality it does not. While it starts with this simple motto of people power, it soon meanders its way into a more complex terrain. A basic problem with democracy is that voters do not make rational or truly informed choices. Their political decision making seems to be driven by emotional criteria plus they have a bias for instant gratification thus keeping most democracies focused on the short term. Freebies, divide and rule, candidates’ X factor and smear campaigns have a large bearing on the voters’ decisions. Long term programs like infrastructure creation and investment in education are hard tasks where benefits come with a time lag and entails a possibility that the one who sows is unlikely to also be the one who reaps. Politicians shy away from such selfless agendas. Emptying the exchequer and giving short term freebies or using a divide and rule strategy has immediate returns with a surer shot at winning elections. The resultant governance in essence is an embodiment of electoral preferences and politicians ability to maneuver around these tendencies. “Elections,” the fundamental process of a democracy, ironically, are the starting point for most of its troubles. Unearthing electoral erroneous zones is the first step to understanding what changes are necessary to move democracy closer to its end goal of good governance as delivered.