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More and more politicians are adopting old-style agitation, brought back to fashion by Arvind Kejriwal, because it is probably the only way one can force a government to care about us
You may agree with him or disagree with his tactics, but there is no doubt that Arvind Kejriwal, by demonstrating electoral support to his Aam Admi Party (AAP), has shaken up an inconsiderate and insensitive political system. The jury is still out on whether these hit-and-run tactics, devoid of a clear plan for economic growth or governance, are good for the country or we will dissolve into mindless anarchy and public protests. But the AAP’s success has signalled that the educated, non-voting, chattering, middle-class has woken up and is willing to go out and vote when it finds a seemingly plausible alternative.
The AAP experience shows that ‘new generation’ political parties (a phrase used by the founder of NavBharat Party) are just as capable of playing to the voters’ gallery by making economically unviable promises about government jobs, subsidies or law & order issues. Consider the AAP record so far. Delhi’s law minister, Somnath Bharti, encourages mob action against two women because the police refused to obey his order to raid without a warrant and arrest women after dark.
This was followed by a street protest by an incumbent chief minister to demand action against the police officials who did not heed Mr Bharti’s illegal order. That agitation fizzled out with considerable loss of face to AAP, but its already implemented populist decision with regard to power tariffs and water charges, at the cost of the state exchequer, remain in place. Importantly, AAP is in no hurry to act on the allegations of corruption against the previous Congress regime. However, this article is not about AAP’s actions, but about its fallout in Maharashtra.
A couple of months before the general elections, the Congress and the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) have chosen two middle-class issues for their protest—the MNS is going after high toll charges while Congress MP, Sanjay Nirupam, wants electricity tariffs cut in Mumbai’s suburbs.
MNS leader, Raj Thackarey, exhorted party workers not to pay tolls and to attack anybody who obstructed them. It led to predictable violence and destruction at several toll plazas near Mumbai. A few weeks earlier, the Shiv Sena had resorted to arson and violence at Kolhapur to protest against toll collection. The Maharashtra government made little effort to check the violence or book Raj Thackeray for openly inciting violence.
The toll issue has been festering for years and public anger against usurious levies, cost escalation, poor road maintenance and non-transparency in collection have agitated people for several years. Bankers openly tell us that toll-collection is a cash generation machine because the traffic, in most cases, has far exceeded the projections. The nexus between toll companies and politicians is also an open secret. Contractors, such as Ideal Road Builders (IRB), maintain close relationships across political parties as well as the media. In 2003-04, when I criticised IRB first toll hike for the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, IRB promptly sent me a ‘VIP pass’ to avoid toll.
This nexus was probably key to the stunning silence BJP leader, Nitin Gadkari, has maintained about the many changes in the Mumbai-Pune Expressway contract which ignored alternative modes of revenue generation. Mr Gadkari did not utter a word when every non-toll measure to raise revenues and meet construction costs was dropped. A truck terminal, an IT city at Chowk, advertising hoardings along the Expressway and revenue from food courts and petrol pumps were supposed to be part of the plan. Mr Gadkari also did not challenge the repeated increase in toll fees by IRB under a one-sided contract with a hefty escalation clause.
The situation gets worse at the entry points to Mumbai. A Congress MP admits that his government’s inaction, despite many letters of protest, is embarrassing. At Dahisar, he says, people pay toll “every time they drop their children to school or go out to the market.” Why hasn’t the problem of local residents been addressed by issuing them passes? He throws up his hands and points to the current chief minister who has become known for his monumental inaction.
Contrary to the national policy on tolls, which mandates a distance of 80 kilometres between two collection points, the Maharashtra government permits toll plazas at a distance of 35km-40km. Nobody seems to know why. Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan has asked public works minister, Chhagan Bhujbal, to conduct a comprehensive review of the policy governing the road sector. But many believe that Mr Bhujbal has already failed to act on the recommendation that all toll collections in the state must be linked to a central server to monitor collections.
Meanwhile, media reports say that there will be no change in the 20% hike in toll rates from October 2014 at Mumbai’s entry points. Congress leaders themselves express frustration at this attitude. They point out that Anna Hazare first protested against arbitrary and non-transparent toll charges three years ago; the government’s failure to initiate corrective action makes this a ripe issue for the AAP to capitalise on. AAP, which is hoping to make a mark in Maharashtra, has already jumped in the take up the cause of traders protesting the LBT (local body tax) that replaced octroi.
Congress MP, Sanjay Nirupam’s protest against high electricity tariffs in the Mumbai suburbs is even more interesting. Mr Nirupam went on a fast and had to threaten self-immolation to get the Congress-led coalition in Maharashtra to agree to look into his demands. Having ended his fast, Mr Nirupam has written to the chief minister levelling serious corruption charges against Reliance Infrastructure as well as the electricity regulator. He claims that tariff proposals from Reliance Infrastructure receive ‘benevolent’ consideration by the regulator which has been receiving ‘huge payoffs’. Mr Nirupam wants the government to “rein in vulture capitalists like Reliance Infra (RInfra) to prevent them exploiting and looting their consumers;” he also wants action to ensure that power reforms actually benefit consumers. Having openly alleged corruption and pay-offs, he says that if an independent investigation does not reveal complicity, he will withdraw the allegation.
This tactic of alleging corruption and calling names was Arvind Kejriwal’s modus operandi before the Delhi elections. He even waved around a bunch of papers allegedly containing evidence of corruption against former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit. It is startling to see a Congress MP use the exact same strategy in a Congress-ruled state without raising any eyebrows.
Interestingly, neither Reliance Infrastructure nor the electricity regulator seems to feel defamed or offended at these charges. There was a time when these companies sent out legal notices against hard-hitting media reports, even when they were accurate. Has corporate tolerance for abuse increased dramatically after the scams exposed in the past few years? Or, are power companies keeping mum because they know that an independent audit by the comptroller & auditor general (CAG) will establish how they have reaped huge benefits through the transfer of massive public sector assets (as is alleged in Delhi, where CAG has already begun an audit) while consumers face repeated tariff hikes.
The rage and political protests over tolls and electricity tariffs reveal a dangerous new trend in public life and only time will tell whether people choose good governance in the coming election or we face the danger of anarchy and violence.
Sucheta Dalal is the managing editor of Moneylife. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2006 for her outstanding contribution to journalism. She can be reached at [email protected]
Speaking at Moneylife Foundation’s 4th anniversary, Dr Ashok Khemka, while reiterating that he would not join politics, said, good governance is not a rocket science and all it requires is right intent
Dr Ashok Khemka, an amazing Whistle-blower and Secretary to Government of Haryana delivered a short but powerful speech about good governance, justice and equality, to a packed hall at Moneylife Foundation's 4th Anniversary in Mumbai.
Addressing a crowd of over 500 prominent citizens, activists and whistle-blowers, Dr Khemka said, "Governance is not a rocket science. All it requires is a good neeyat or right intent. For good governance, justice and equality, one has to be effectively good and honest."
Talking about being called a ‘whistle-blower, Dr Khemka said, "I am not a whistle-blower as whatever I did and am doing is part of my duty and responsibilities. I will continue to do my duty. This is not about whistle-blowing, it is about doing your duty effectively."
Since several bureaucrats are entering into politics, people everywhere were wondering, when Dr Khemka will join the race. He however, ruled out joining politics. "I am not a quitter. I am part of this system and will stay in it. I am proud of it."
In October 2012, Dr Khemka became a household name, when heading the land consolidation department, he simply cancelled a sweetheart land deal between DLF, the real estate giant and Skylight Hospitality owned by Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law. Dr Khemka had been in this job for less than three months. Vadra had got this land transferred to him in February 2008 for Rs7.5 crore and within a few months flipped it to DLF for Rs58 crore, for a 700% windfall gain in a few months.
The government chargesheeted him saying that he is guilty of administrative misconduct and that he violated the rules by discussing the controversy in the media and criticising government policy. Just a few weeks ago, the state government charged him for showing favours to a particular party when he was the managing director of Haryana State Warehousing Corporation when all decisions were as per norms and taken by the board of directors.
Dr Khemka is anticipating more chargesheets and private complaints but his disarming question is what should he have done when he saw a scam or a sham deal? "Should I have just ignored Mr Vadra's land deal? Is it only that poor people will be probed?"
Interestingly, the land deal for which we all got to know of him involved Vadra and so we all tend to assume it was the Congress govt, which went after him. Here is a dose of reality. The same Dr Khemka was the blue-eyed boy of the Congress when the party was in the opposition and he had strongly opposed the acquisition of land worth crores in Gurgaon district for a private builder for a paltry sum.
Congress was very happy with him too when as the director secondary education, Dr Khemka stopped the mid-session transfer of hundreds of teachers even though the CM Chautala had personally issued transfer notes. He was promptly shunted out to an inconsequential post without an official vehicle and office. He started walking down to his office. The Congress, then in opposition, clapped from the sidelines.
Dr Khemka has worked with four chief ministers - Bhajan Lal, Bansi Lal, Om Prakash Chautala and Bhupinder Singh Hooda - and has had run-ins with all of them over his stand on various issues. As long as he does his job, Dr Khemka will be a target of politicians, no matter which party is in power. And this why people like him need the support of citizens.
It is matter of some consolation that he has been recognised for his outstanding work. Apart from the nationwide recognition he has received, Dr Khemka has been recognized Crusader against Corruption chosen for the SR Jindal Prize in 2011 along with Sanjiv Chaturvedi, another upright officer of Haryana. He also received the Manjunath Shanmugam Trust Commendation on Public Works in 2009.