Many years ago, I was traveling to Bangalore to attend a meeting convened by the State Government at Vidhana Soudha. I had drawn up a long list of things that I needed to do on that day and was feeling rushed. En route, at the wayside hotel that we had stopped to get a cup of coffee, I reached out to my pocket for my purse only to realize that nothing was there in it. It took me a few minutes to gather my wits and sheepishly approach the cashier and explain the situation. He seemed to understand my predicament and having recognized me, agreed to my paying him the next time I went there. I felt distracted and sombre the rest of the journey to Bangalore. I was still unsure if I had left my purse behind at home or had lost it somewhere else. My purse not only had money, but also my credit and debit cards and my driving license. I suddenly realized how empty and insecure I felt without it. In a strange way, it was my purse which seemed to give me not only a sense of identity but also the security that I needed to function effectively on a daily basis. It was then that I realized that what was a one-off isolated feeling for me is something that millions of our fellow men experience as a way of life itself. Only then could I understand how the women members of the many Self-Help Groups that we had started in H D Kote felt when they learnt that the local bank had closed its operations. This was a rural bank sponsored by one of the larger nationalized banks and had been in operation for a few decades and was located around 5 kms from the tribal colonies. The banks were now being pushed by the Government of India to become profitable and hence were trimming down their operations. This meant that all the branches not making profits were being closed down systematically and most of them turned out to be rural branches. The women had come to me seeking my assistance in ensuring that the local branch was not closed. They explained how difficult it would be to travel the additional 30 kms to the next nearest branch in order to continue get the required banking services. It looked ironical that they had to now spend Rs 40 each time they traveled to deposit their collective weekly savings of Rs 100. I went to the Chairman of this Gramin Bank and requested that he reconsider closing down the branch. He expressed his inability and explained how their priorities had now shifted from social responsibilities to becoming financially viable.
While this may sound true of a rural area, things are no better in the city of Mysore too. Last year, a poor widow met me seeking help in opening a Savings Bank account in a major bank. Wondering why she needed my ‘influence’ for something so simple, I suggested that she approach the bank directly. It was then she recounted her harrowing tale. She had been to a couple of banks located in her area and had similar experiences in both the places. Apart from making her feel unwelcome, she was discouraged from opening an account with them, as she was not a ‘viable’ consumer. In other words, she was poor and would not have enough money with her to maintain the account with them. Being poor meant that she was not someone the mainstream financial system would waste its time on. Infuriated, I had asked one of my colleagues to accompany her and threaten the manager of approaching the banking ombudsman before an account was opened for her.
We need to see the recently launched Pradhan Manthri Jan Dhan Yojana against this backdrop. Speaking at the launch, the PM mentioned how this scheme was not just about having a bank account but also about helping eradicate financial untouchability. For all those who are born financially included, a bank account may seem to be just another everyday convenience. Exclusion from the mainstream financial system is not just about having a bank account or a debit card. It is something much deeper.
Traditionally Financial inclusion is understood as the delivery of financial services at affordable costs to all sections of society, especially the disadvantaged and low-income segments. An estimated 2.5 billion working-age adults globally, who are the unbanked or under-banked have no access to the types of formal financial services delivered by regulated financial institutions. The political will has generated pressure on the system and nearly 2 crore accounts have been opened in the last few days. The PM’s promise of providing financial inclusion to 40% of the Indian population in the next 7-8 months will not be about just new bank accounts. The system needs strengthening with opening newer branches in remote and inaccessible areas, novel initiatives like mobile banking solutions including mobile ATM vehicles and mobile banking agents and using post offices as banking institutions. More importantly, in needs a mind shift amongst the banking personnel to consider the poor as not mere beneficiaries of a Government led scheme, but as partners in the progress of the nation.
One needs to realize that a bank account for many goes beyond the financial to the social too. It is a great leveler and makes the poor feel important and part of the larger economic framework. Inclusion also brings along with it dignity and self-esteem. Handling a debit card is not just cash being made available at all times and at one’s convenience. It is also about financial independence and the feeling of empowerment and social status. All this calls for a major shift in the thinking of not just the banking sector, but also of entire society. The haves need to accommodate and accept that it is as much their responsibility to include the have-nots in the economic scheme of things. The have-nots need to shed their apprehensions and suspicions of the fortunate many and appreciate the significance and benefits of integration. They need to use financial inclusion to climb up the social and economic ladder and not become dependent on a patronizing system. They need to develop the entrepreneurial skills to maximize the gains of this process and use the ladder of financial inclusion for social and economic mobility. Only when all this happens, will the country start seeing social gains of a growing economy.
This is the audio recording of the talk that was given by me at Sri Kshetra Dharmasthala to the Directors and senior faculty of RUDSETI, in the presence of the Dharmadhikari, Sri Veerendra Heggade on the 13th August, 2014.
I have lived all my life with a great deal of optimism and hope. Many a time, close friends have argued that I am only blinded by my belief in the message of positivism, hope and optimism that Swami Vivekananda rendered and was not being a realist. Till recently, I would put up strong objections to this view. But of late, I am rather forced to reconsider the reality that exists today in India generally and in Mysore specifically. The dictionary would define an ‘Optimist’ as a person who never ceases to give up hope in something that they believe. The word is originally derived from the Latin optimum, meaning “best.” Being optimistic, in the typical sense of the word, ultimately means one expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. Having lived through very difficult and impossible situations for decades, especially with some amazing indigenous tribal communities, I could never imagine that I would now start doubting whether ‘good times will actually come’. I will not be ambitious in talking about the larger national issues and would like to focus on what we as Mysoreans are subject to, on an everyday basis. Just a year ago, the optimist in me was happy that a seasoned administrator from our district became Karnataka’s chief minister. Having known his abilities and no-nonsense attitude, I had hoped that ‘good times’ had surely come to the city of Mysore. With a year having gone by, I have to now re-calibrate how I feel based on the reality that surrounds all of us.
Driving around in the city is an adventure by itself. Potholes would indeed be a misnomer to describe the gaping craters that are now the norm. My faith in god and my views on being lucky has been exponentially enhanced considering that I drive on the ring road each day. It would not be an exaggeration to describe the roads of Mysore as real-time, hands-on training in survival. One has to only travel on the KRS road and the ring road section from the KRS road towards Hunsur road to believe what I write. Despite all the valiant efforts that the police team headed by a sensible Police Commissioner is putting in, nothing much seems to have changed. Let us look at the simple helmet rule. Standing at a signal light, I found 2 young girls on a scooter going to their college waiting for the lights to turn green beside me. I looked at them and politely reminded them that they should consider wearing a helmet as their heads had to be safe too. The pillion rider was quick to snub me and retort that it was her head and not mine. As though this was not enough, I saw three young men whizzing past unmindful of the fact that the light was still red. I approached the police constable standing nearby and asked him why was he standing their doing nothing. His answer was a rude reminder of his helplessness. He bemoaned that people no longer feel it is important to be law-abiding nor fear the consequences of not being so. He asked me if I was unaware of recent incidents where people in a particular part of the city gheraed the police personnel and the police station for doing their job on the streets of Mysore. And then he went on to add that it would take just 15 minutes for him to be called by a local politician or his son, chiding him for minding his business of policing. It is no longer about the police making the citizenry feel safe; it is now about the citizenry making the police feel safe and secure in going about doing what the city desperately needs. As though all this was not enough to teach me the lesson of grinning and bearing it, I had to chide another set of people who had decided that their scooter could not only carry three people and a huge parcel but can zoom down on the wrong side of the road too. Imagine my surprise, when the pillion rider whose son was riding this scooter without a helmet (and possibly without a license too as he seemed younger than 18 years) stare me down and ask me whether I was the newly appointed local policeman. With parents like this who are poor and negative role models for their children, how long can one hope to be an optimist?
As I continued my road adventure feeling impotent, helpless and frustrated, I had to be mindful of not driving over a stinking rivulet of sewage flowing down the ring road. And the irony of the situation was that this overflowing manhole is located exactly opposite the Karnataka Pollution Control Board. I am not sure if the KSPCB is trying to advertise the fact that pollution is a reality that we need to contend with or merely reminding us of what happens when civic administration breaks down. It does’nt seem to matter that the Chief Minister and few other political heavy weights in his cabinet have their residences in this city.
Not being able to absorb the morning’s adventure, I decided that a good refreshing walk would calm me down and re-charge my spirit of optimism. I could not have been more wrong. What greeted me as I entered the local park was parthenium, slush and tobacco smoke from the beedies that a few urchins decide to try out. As I stood desperately looking for the walkway, I realized that all that my walk in this park would do was to further increase my melancholy. So much for the lung spaces of this city. I decided to take my morning walk the next day at the Kukkarahalli lake. While the University of Mysore who owns it, is trying to do a good job of its maintenance, I am sure that they too feel helpless in not being able to prevent the sewage and sullage that is being let into the lake. In a few years from now this lake will only serve as a symbol of the inaction and indifference of not just the civic authorities but also the citizenry who are enjoying the walk around the lake today. One of my friends who was walking along with me was bemoaning the fact that 2 local government officials belonging to one of the regulatory departments was insisting on a bribe from him. He was mentioning how business nowadays could just not be ethical even if one wanted it to be. He was one of those who followed all the rules laid down, but saw no incentive in doing so. He mentioned that it was easier to be part of a corrupt system than try to be an honest rule-abiding business man. How does one convince oneself that we are in for good times, when honesty get dis-incentivized and street smartness is all about beating the system and manipulating it to one’s own personal advantage.
If I were to narrate all my experiences over the last month or so, this column may well become a book. Every one of us would have seen or experienced something similar. It does not take a long time even for a hardcore optimist like me to be worn down by the negativism, apathy and ‘it does not concern me’ kind of an attitude. Civic agencies, government officials, the political and business class and we the people have to all come together to ensure that we all stay optimistic of the city’s future. We need to understand that human progress can be noteworthy only if it is built on the solid foundation of good governance, citizen engagement, democratic principles and value-based leadership. Is anybody listening?
It is now more than 2 months since the results to the Lok Sabha elections were declared. Many of us are now looking at the post election scenario and have been caught up in the mood for change and the many decisions that the new Government is taking. Very few of us give a thought to the people who made the transition of government at the national level so smooth and devoid of any major turbulence. Only when we compare what is happening in Afghanistan or in Indonesia where elections were also held around the same time but the results are yet to be formally announced, will we understand the significance of the enormous task that the Election Commission of India (ECI) has undertaken be understood. Ever since the first general elections was held in 1952 to the recent one this year, the ECI has conducted itself admirably and with little or no public appreciation. In fact, we are quick to criticize them for everything from enforcing the model code of conduct, to partisanship to inaction after poll violations have been reported. As I sat a few weeks ago discussing with Mr. Sampath, the Chief Election Commissioner of India, I felt that it was time for us to understand how and what the ECI did to ensure a free and fair election this year.
The Enormity of the Electoral process: One can appreciate the enormity of the electoral process only when we come to appreciate that 834 million people were eligible to vote in this elections. This was 120 million more than the number of people who could vote in 2009. There were 0.923 million polling stations and required 4-5 persons per polling station along with the EVMs to conduct the elections. This is apart from the large number of security personnel drawn from the central police and para-military forces. We need to see this in comparison to the fact the number of voters in India far exceeded the number of voters in all the European countries and the United States put together. Keeping the geographical spread of the country and the need to ensure that the elections had to be conducted in a free and fair manner amidst proper security with the fair enforcement of the model code of conduct; the elections were held over 9 phases between the 7th April and the 12th of May. And we need to remember that the general elections till 1962 were all one-day affairs. The date of announcement of the general elections was made by the Chief Election Commissioner on the 5th of March and followed up within 2-3 weeks by the Presidential notification formally kick starting the process. The counting from the EVM machines used was done on a single day on the 16th of May and the results nation wide was known by 2 p.m. This was surely the largest democratic exercise held anywhere in the world. This quick declaration of results also ensured a smooth transition of power.
Using EVMs: The Electronic Voting Machines are all made in India and are now becoming a regular feature in all our elections. They have been an object of criticism from the time they were introduced. In the words of the CEC himself, “Earlier political parties which lost the elections used to criticize the use of EVMs; now we have moved on to only a few candidates criticizing them.” Apart from carrying the names and symbols of each of the candidates, they also now have the ‘None of the above’ (NOTA) option. The EVMs are always kept in physical custody in sealed godowns before and after the elections. Checking them begins 6 months before the elections and they are all shown to each of the political parties by the district administration all over the country. 5% of the machines used across the nation are tested and checked thoroughly for their functionality. As a 2nd level measure, the candidate settings are checked before the polls and the agents at each polling booth can also perform agent checks. At 6 a.m on the day of the polls, the final check is done in front of the candidate or his representative by undertaking 50 button presses and only then is the machine finally used in the polls.
Model Code of Conduct: The Model code of conduct is a uniquely Indian innovation in the electoral process and comes into force the day the CEC announces the calendar of events. This is to facilitate a level playing field and prevent the party in power to indulge in what can be construed as an attempt to induce or influence the voter by different means. Our politicians are also becoming cleverer and have started offering inducements much before the elections are announced. Many candidates know that they are likely to be nominated by their parties and begin to canvass and offer different inducements to the electorate much earlier itself.
Monitoring the election process: Such a large exercise can truly be a nightmare to monitor and ensure that it is free and fair. A large number of reliable and impartial personnel are needed to do this. The ECI uses its constitutional powers to draw personnel from different states and at many levels to ensure this. The ECI has now introduced the concept of observers. To ensure political neutrality and that they are not coerced to perform in a particular way, the observers are not posted to the states of origin or work. There are two kinds of these 1200 observers – General observers who observe the general conduct and the Expenditure observers who watch over the expenses incurred by the candidates. The campaigning as well as the actual voting across the country is also videographed and the digital records stored by the ECI. The entire campaigning is recorded in a Shadow Observation Register and the activities undertaken by the candidates for the period between 14-21 days is fully recorded. The election authorities reconcile this register with the information provided by the candidate after the polling is over. Aggrieved candidates can submit a election petition within 45 days of the results being announced to the local High Court, which functions as the Election tribunal. Security to the entire machinery and the process is provided by a large number of personnel drawn from CISF, CRF and the state police and the Armed Reserve Police. As a policy, the military is not used in providing security during the elections.
Innovations used in the 2014 General Elections: The ECI is constantly trying to ensure that more and more citizens involve themselves in the election process. We must bear in mind that voter enrolment in India is voluntary and voters can only be motivated to participate by appealing to their sense of citizenship. The ECI had introduced the SVEEP campaign through their own machinery and with the help of NGOs and CSOs across the country and this has surely helped increase the voter participation to an all time high in the country. The ECI also ensured the provision of voter ID slips to the voters at the booth level itself and gave repeated opportunities for them to verify their names and other relevant details. Providing the signed printout of the voter card with the photo of the voters and permitting their use, as a Voter ID card in this election was another first. The Election Commission also extended the working hours and voting began at 7 a.m and went on till 6 p.m. The presiding officers were also instructed to keep the polling booths open till the last person in line (at 6 p.m) got to vote. All the polling booths were also provided with basic amenities for the personnel and in line with the Supreme Court directions, a few polling stations had the voter verifiable paper trails created.
Challenges in front of the ECI: Despite all that is being done, the ECI does face many challenges. Sustaining voter interest & motivation in a growing population is no easy task, especially when voter cynicism easily creeps in. Ensuring updated rolls and inclusiveness is a real challenge and we had situations (in Mumbai and other places) where large numbers of people were excluded from the rolls. Dependence on physical forces to monitor and ensure security is also another huge challenge. The election commission needs to move on to other monitoring methods, especially as the campaign environment is now evolving with advances in digital technology and social media. The ECI was also challenged this time in selecting local partners to work with in SVEEP campaigns as some of them had political affiliations. Sustaining the independence of the ECI is also another key issue for the ECI. The Commissioners are appointed by the political system and they need to ensure the standards set are kept up without fear or favour to anyone. Article 324 gives them Constitutional protection and an impeachment process can only remove the Commissioners and this should ensure that they function with total independence. As monitoring methods evolve, so do the voter inducements given by the candidates and the parties. The election commission needs to appreciate that voters are willingly participating in accepting the inducements and curtailing them is going to be a major challenge. Ensuring that ruling parties do not offer inducements, as state patronage is also another issue. The ECI has traditionally been distant from the citizens and political parties and they need to over haul their PR and Communication strategies. They need to ensure that their actions are widely disseminated and voter engagement has to go beyond being mere events during elections to a sustained democratic process in between elections too. They need to work with the Government of the day in removing the dichotomy of laws with reference to technology, Internet, Television and usage of Social media. And finally we need to remember that our politicians carry no scruples when it comes to winning the elections and the ECI must be in a state of constant evolution and one step ahead of them in dealing with them and giving us a free and fair election process.
General Elections in India are easily the world’s largest democratic dance. Conducting them smoothly is indeed a tribute to our system and to the millions of Indians who make it possible each time. Integrating the lessons of interdepartmental convergence, coordination and efficiency that our elections demonstrate in other public services too will surely take our country to the next level.