Shoring up the decaying political discourse

March 31, 2014 1 comment

As the dates for the Lok Sabha polls get nearer, the decibel levels of the ongoing political discourse seems to be getting shriller with issues of least national significance being spoken about. None of the parties or the key individual players seem to be drawing the attention of the electorate to matters of collective national good. The little noise that one person or party is making regarding corruption, crony capitalism and dynasty politics have got drowned in his/their own theatrics and television antics. While one expects political rallies and public speeches to provide opportunities to communicate the key messages reflecting the social, economic, political and policy thought that the party subscribes to, they are now reduced to demonstrating their numerical strength, media visibility and financial clout. Indian democracy is known to be noisy and unhealthy. One of the ways of making it healthier is to enhance the quality of debate and discourse during the election season. Parliamentary elections provide the ideal platform for issues of national significance to be brought to the center-stage and to appreciate the general direction that the Nation is likely to move towards.

While emotions and other factors rather than mere reason are known to guide the voter in choosing his representative, one also needs to appreciate that he cannot be taken for granted and fed with morning headlines that are bereft of any serious content. Most discussions today seem to revolve around the creation of ghost issues and diverting the discourse to mere sloganeering. While we are seeing one calling another a Pakistani terrorist, another wants to chop his rival party’s leader to pieces while a third seems to be intent on sending everybody except himself and the voter to jail. This is indeed taking the focus away from issues on how the Nation needs to brace itself in dealing with the growing menace of terror-related violence and the problem of Naxalism. Neither internal security matters nor issues related to gender violence seem to attract any clarity of thought beyond being treated as ‘vote catching’ slogans. There seems to be hardly any debate on the energy crisis facing India or on how to redefine our nuclear policy, keeping both the changing international perception towards nuclear power and the local needs of the country. We are less concerned about the issues of pollution and environmental concerns in the background of the desire to rapidly industrialize and join the global bandwagon of mindless consumerism.

Despite the formation of many committees, the Nation is yet to have a scientifically validated poverty assessment process. We are still arguing about the different percentages of people below the poverty line in India, clearly derailing our understanding of poverty, the metrics of poverty and the processes to alleviate poverty. It is indeed sad that not a single party has made this an issue of electoral significance. There has hardly been any political or media space debating the impending danger of ‘policy capture’ by the elite, the rich and powerful and corporate India. Electoral funding by large corporate houses has the danger of being seen as investments, the returns of which will be amenable policies that will come later.

While UID (Aadhaar) and its implementation has been reduced to ‘noise’ at the level of one constituency, the real dangers of spending huge amounts of money on a scheme/program that has no legislative sanction has been brushed aside. Issues of data privacy and abuse of the information stored does not seem to find much space in the ongoing debate. No rational and long-term geopolitical policy involving our relations with the neighboring countries including China and Pakistan has gone beyond the usual rhetoric. We are still unsure on how to manage the changing comfort levels with the USA or on how to deal with our long time ally Russia.

Economic concerns including stimulating the primary land-based economy and creating a facilitating environment to promote the growth of the manufacturing sector do not seem to flow from an understanding of the ground realities and the evidence that stares us on the face. There is no debate by any party on how they view the youth of the country and how they intend to capitalize on the ‘demographic dividend’. Debates seem to harbor around merely giving tickets to younger people, while the larger issues of engaging meaningfully with the youth and skilling them up to participate in the mainstream economy has taken a backseat.

Except occasional articles by concerned activists and intellectuals, there has hardly been any discourse on Universal Health Access, rational drug policy (including the use of generic drugs), the burgeoning problem of adulterated and poor quality drugs, the growing burden of non-communicable diseases and on how to deal with them. No clarity seems to be there in any party’s thinking on how they intend bettering the poor learning outcomes of the millions of children in our primary schools despite spending crores of rupees for more than a decade now. Improving higher education seems to be limited to increasing the number of universities without looking at the fundamental reforms that the sector is crying for.

Except talking about general corruption, there is hardly any clarity on how to manage the growing issues of ‘collusive’ corruption that has been the bane of not just the public sector but also the private and NGO sectors. The political debate seems to focus more on stronger laws without a fundamental understanding of the fact that Indian society has to now move towards not merely ‘fighting corruption’ but ‘fighting to stay honest’.

Issues of good governance, metrics for measuring the work of Government and public servants, citizen centric polices including social accountability processes, creating opportunities for lateral entry of competent and deserving people into higher levels of the bureaucracy should necessarily form a part of the debate today. Other areas of concern that needs to be addressed are prudent fiscal policies and subsidies, Center-State relations and strengthening the federal structures. We now need to ensure that not just our development but also our democratic institutions have to be built on the principles that our Constitution enshrines. This would also mean a deeper level of debate on operationalizing the 73rd and 74th amendments and working towards deepening democracy beyond just transfer of funds and functions to our Urban Local Bodies and Gram Panchayaths.

All this can realistically happen only when the political class gets to feel the pressure created by their electorate. Citizens need to take control of the debate and start setting this agenda. They need to force questions related to these and other issues by confronting the political players with them. Unless we set the pace, intensity and quality of the debate, politicians will only dish out colorful but empty issues that reflect the society that they represent. The media has to take the lead in surfacing these issues and go beyond mere opinion polls and debating electoral arithmetic. Together, we need to communicate to our political system that the time has come for them to show us how much they agree rather than disagree with each other.

- Balu

Categories: Musings

Let the fight go on…

March 23, 2014 Comments off

Note: March 24th is World Tuberculosis Day

One of my earliest tribal friends and well-wishers was Thimmaiah. He lived in Hosahalli tribal colony adjoining the Bandipur National Park in Heggadadevanakote taluk of Mysore district. When I went there last time, I did miss seeing Thimmaiah, one of the first Jenukurubas to have welcomed me to their homes. He was one of the local tribal chieftains and also the first to take me into the Gundre forests, proudly show me the final resting places of his ancestors, climb the matthi tree effortlessly and get me its sap to drink. He had died many months ago and I felt a surge of sadness engulf me. Though he was in his early 70s then, I felt angry that neither our health system nor I could do much for him. As a physician, I was left with a nagging feeling that his death could have been prevented. Thimmaiah had succumbed to Tuberculosis. For years he had lived with his irritating cough and would have angry exchanges with our health workers who felt that he was not very compliant in taking his medications. Despite repeated requests, cajoling and chiding, Thimmaiah did not think that his disease was something serious that warranted taking so many medications for so many months. As though losing Thimmaiah was not disturbing enough, I also got to know about the death of Suresh (name changed) a few weeks later. Suresh was a painter by profession and lived in Mysore with his wife and two young daughters. Both his daughters were in school with dreams of their own, while his wife added to the family kitty by working as a domestic help. Suresh was having a persistent cough and fever and he believed that this was a normal occupational hazard for painters. A few months later, Suresh was coughing out blood and was too weak to go to work. His wife admitted him to the local Government hospital where he was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis and he died there a few days later. His wife is now left fending for herself and her two daughters, for whom higher education could very well remain just a dream. Tuberculosis not only took away her husband, but also has left her family socially and economically shattered.

Tuberculosis in India:

Tuberculosis is one of India’s greatest public health challenges and India has the highest burden of TB in the world. In 2011, out of the estimated global incidence of 9 million new TB cases, 2.3 million occurred in India. TB kills close to 300,000 men, women and children like Thimmaiah and Suresh each year. This communicable disease that spreads through the air is one of the leading causes of death in India. What is startling is the fact that TB kills 2 people every 3 minutes and nearly 1000 each day in India. If left untreated, a person with active TB can infect 12-15 people every year. The direct and indirect costs of TB in India are estimated to be $ 23.7 billion. Despite all the awareness that is being created, TB continues to be highly stigmatized, often leading to discrimination both within the community and at the workplace.

The RNTCP response:

dots-tbThe country’s response to this public health scourge is mainly through the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Program (RNTCP) launched by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 1997. The strategy recommended by the Ministry is Directly Observed Treatment Short Course (DOTS) propounded by the World Health Organization. This strategy was successfully piloted from 1993 to 96 before being widely advocated and applied. Since the launch of the program, much has been achieved and the global benchmark of 70% case detection and 85% cure rate of new smear cases has been reached. Focus is also being given to Multi-Drug Resistant TB (MDR-TB) through the DOTS-Plus services in 17 states and efforts are on to make these services available throughout the country. Treatment for 13.5 million patients has been initiated and nearly 2.4 million lives have been saved. Though impact is yet to be visibly seen, the RNTCP has begun addressing the issue of geographically challenged areas and is attempting to reach out to difficult and hilly terrains. Special attention is also now being given to vulnerable communities including tribals. There has also been an unseen positive gain of improved health systems and processes because of the RNTCP. Capacity of key personnel has been augmented and basic laboratory services in PHCs have either been introduced or strengthened. The RNTCP has also started to recognize the contribution and potential of the private and NGO sectors in the delivery of health services. The program has now involved more than 1900 NGOs, 10,000 private practitioners, 150 corporate hospitals and 282 medical colleges under a new initiative called the Public Private Mix (PPM).

The Key challenges still being faced for TB control in India:

Despite the nation being affected in such a large way, we have hardly focused on adequate research into the diagnostics required to accurately identify the disease. The current methods use the 125-year-old microscopy method that is known to miss more than half the cases. Apart from this, the problem of misdiagnosis leading to incorrect treatment, thereby increasing the risk of developing and transmitting drug-resistant TB is a real challenge.

Not all patients requiring treatment access public health facilities where the RNTCP program has ensured reasonable capacity building of its personnel and where standard protocols exist for diagnosis and treatment. Many of them go to the private sector where lack of regulation has led to extensive abuse of inaccurate diagnostic tests. Serological tests, which are not known to be of any use, are used extensively in the private sector for diagnosis of TB and it has been estimated that more than $15 million is spent on these tests. There is also the danger of irrational prescriptions from inadequately trained physicians in the private sector who do not follow the WHO recommended DOTS strategy. Unregulated and over-the-counter sale of TB drugs further adds to this complexity. The half a million MDR-TB cases around the world is another vexatious challenge. The emergence of HIV-TB co-infection is also turning out to another major issue. Nearly 5% of the 2.4 million people living with HIV are known to be suffering from TB too.

Tuberculosis also needs to be seen as a public health problem with severe socio-economic impacts. There are thousands of families like Suresh’s who are adversely impacted by this disease. 70% of TB patients are between ages 15 to 54 and the disease is most common among the poor and the marginalized. This disease is also disproportionately common amongst young females, with more than 50% of such cases in women occurring before 34 years of age.

The Next steps:

Though the Government’s RNTCP program is attempting to focus on Universal Access to good quality diagnosis and treatment for all TB patients, more needs to be done. By 2015, the program hopes to ensure the early detection and treatment of at least 90% of estimated TB cases in the community. It also aims to successfully treat at least 90% of all new TB patients and at least 85% of all previously treated TB patients.

All this cannot happen only because the Government or Public Health agencies wish it so. We must realize that Tuberculosis is not just a problem for the Government but affects every Indian citizen and the Nation’s progress. Every one of us, whether we are in the health sector or not, whether we are public servants or private employees, need to become spokespersons of the RNTCP program. We also need to see ourselves both as partners and watchdogs of this program. We need to both collaborate and demand accountability of our health systems at the same time. As concerned citizens, we need to demand and support attempts to bring in regulation on diagnostics and anti-TB medications in India. We also need to demand from our Governments (both State and Central) enhanced budgetary support to the RNTCP program. Physicians who understand the irrationality of serological diagnostic tests have the added responsibility of demanding a ban on them across the Nation. We need to understand and appreciate that every one of us is a soldier fighting this scourge and we cannot let the battle be fought only by the health personnel. We not only should show the commitment but also feel obliged to take this fight forwards till we can proudly say that India has indeed brought the disease under control.

Only then will the souls of people like Thimmaiah and Suresh find lasting peace.

Info Sources:

  1. TB India 2011, RNTCP Status Report, 2011; Directorate General of Health Services, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt of India
  2. TB India 2013, RNTCP Status Report, 2013; Directorate General of Health Services, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt of India
  3. Tuberculosis, Factsheet No.104, Media Center, World Health Organization, 2013
  4. FAQs, TBC India, Directorate General of Health Services, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt of India
  5. Tuberculosis Diagnostics Xpert MTB/RIF test, World Health Organizations, WHO recommendations, 2013

- Balu

Categories: Musings

Making the right choice

March 20, 2014 4 comments

The formal processes for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections have begun. Candidates will soon file their nominations and start canvassing for votes. Each of them will make their own promises. Some will be driven by their party manifestos and some by pure electoral mathematics. Whatever it may be, this is the time for us to determine who among the many candidates seeking our support deserves to represent us in Parliament. We should not forget that we will get the Parliamentarians we deserve. This means we need to be sure that he/she is someone who can be trusted, is knowledgeable and will do the right thing for his/her constituency.

Wherever I talk on Making Democracy Work, many people have one question to ask me – how do you decide who is best suited to represent us? While it would indeed be very difficult to prove whether a person is honest or is a capable administrator before even electing them, we can assess whether the person we are voting for deserves our vote or not. This can be done by asking a few simple questions to each of these candidates and voting for the one who gives the most satisfactory answers. If after this assessment, we still feel that no one is capable of representing us in Parliament, we have the choice of pressing the NOTA (None Of The Above) button on the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM). Here are few questions that you can ask. This list may seem lengthy and incomplete, but we can pick our questions from the list and/or add others that may seem left out. Make sure that you begin to ask the candidates questions, because we cannot afford to let them get away with mediocrity this time. Too much depends on our vote for us not to demand accountability of our parliamentarians.

  1. What is your age, qualification and what are the languages you are fluent in?
  2. How long have you been in politics?
  3. Do you have any other profession?
  4. Where do you currently reside and where did you reside in the last 5 years?
  5. How many children do you have and what are they doing?
  6. Are you filing your Income Tax returns regularly every year?
  7. What is your primary source of income?
  8. Do you have any criminal cases registered against you?
  9. What is your view on the UID (Aadhaar)? Do you have an Aadhaar card?
  10. How many assembly segments does this constituency have?
  11. What are the three major issues faced by the people of this constituency?
  12. What according to you is the role of a Member of Parliament?
  13. How many times does Parliament meet each year?
  14. If you are a sitting MP or have been an MP before, provide the following information:
    • your average attendance in Parliament
    • the percentage utilization of your MPLAD funds
    • the total number of questions that you asked in Parliament
    • the Parliamentary Committees that you were a part of
  15. Can you name the three most important promises that your party has made in its election manifesto?
  16. What are the challenges facing the Youth of today? How do you think you can address them? How can you create employment opportunities for them?
  17. What are your views on increasing the quality of learning outcomes of children at the primary level?
  18. What is your stand on Universal Health Coverage?
  19. What is your stand on Universal Pensions for the deserving?
  20. What are your views on Food Security for all? Do you think the current legislation will address the issue adequately?
  21. How should the development priorities of the Nation be balanced with environmental concerns?
  22. What is your view on the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments? How will you ensure its implementation in letter and spirit?
  23. What do you think should be the key aspects of an agricultural policy for the Nation?
  24. How will you enhance air, road and rail connectivity of your constituency?
  25. What is your view on violence against women?  How do you think you can ensure the safety and security of all women?
  26. What is your view on the economic direction that India should take?
  27. Will you agree to publish your Governance report card every year to your people?
  28. Will you agree to nominate a committee of senior and respected citizens of your constituency to oversee your performance as an MP if you are elected?
  29. What steps will you take to ensure access to you and your offices for the people of your constituency?

Making the right choice begins by asking the right questions to the candidates. Apart from helping us identify the person most suitable to be our representative, it also helps sensitize them to the needs of their constituency.

- Balu

Categories: Musings

The Reality of Corruption

March 11, 2014 6 comments

A few weeks ago two successive incidents left me grappling with the reality and the overwhelming problem of a society that is rapidly making ‘corruption’ the norm of everyday existence. While one elderly widow called me from Bangalore asking for help in saving her small plot of land and house bequeathed to her by her husband, another young widow thanked me for securing her the legitimately due pension. In the first case, this elderly lady told me how a few people were pestering her for many months to sell off her property to them which she did not want to do. She was living on the road close to the International airport and the pestering was tending to become intimidating. I was surprised at the anger in her voice when I politely suggested that she approach the local police. Apparently she had done so, only to be told that she should be happy that these people were at least willing to offer her a decent price. All I could do was to listen to her and feel her anger, pain and sense of helplessness.

The second person was a domestic help and had come to me for help to secure her widow pension. Being very poor with two daughters to take care of, she was well within the norms prescribed by the department and was eligible for her monthly pension. After more than 15 months of intense follow-up, we managed to get her the pension order a couple of months ago. She had come to me with a packet of sweets to thank me for the help and casually mentioned that she had gone to the local post office to get her first month’s pension of Rs 400. Surprised at the amount being lower than the Rs 500 that the Government was giving, I asked her about it. Innocently she replied that the postman told her that the pension would be Rs 400 if it came through the post office and Rs 500 if it was directly credited to her account. She not only believed this, but also was convinced that there was logic in the explanation. How many million poor and innocent people in this country live their everyday lives without worrying about how their lives are being affected by this all-pervasive corruption? I was also left wondering if she could have got her pension if I had let her negotiate with the system on her own. All that she would have needed to do was to grease the palms of the local officer and the opportunity cost might have been well worth it. The price of trying to work the system honestly was a delay of more than 12 months and Rs 6000 lost in the pension that she could have otherwise received. A mere Rs 3000 was the fee that she was asked by one of the ‘agents’ who had promised the pension within three months of her husband dying.

As I thought about these two incidents, my mind was drawn to another incident that had happened in our family more than 30 years ago. I was still a medical student then and we had just finished celebrating my sister’s wedding. A couple of weeks later, I found my father very distraught and worried. I learnt that he had received a notice from the Income Tax department asking him to explain how he had the money to buy jewelry worth Rs 20,000 for his daughter’s wedding. My father was then a Senior Audit Officer in the Accountant General’s office in Bangalore. Having been in service for nearly thirty years and being a senior gazetted officer, it was not illogical for anyone to understand that he could have surely saved Rs 20,000 that the jewels were worth. And being a very duty-conscious public servant, he had disclosed this purchase to his department as per laid down procedures. He was upset that a law-abiding citizen like him who had paid all his taxes and done everything by the rulebook had to be subjected to the humiliation (in his view) of receiving a notice from the Income Tax department. I could understand how he must have felt. This was the same person who would not even drink the coffee offered to him in the office where he was conducting the audit. Even that gesture of courtesy was for him unacceptable. That was the standard of ethics in his public life.

And today we live in a world where we have simply built into our transactions the cost of corruption. Whether it is getting our building or driving license, or the spectrum allocation for the telecom company or the permission to drill for oil or natural gas – everything comes at a price! It has become so much an integral part of our lives that we do not see the negative consequences of such actions. Whether it is the fire in a public building that occurred because the fire department overlooked the lacunae while granting the clearances, or buildings collapsing and killing hundreds only because the construction norms were allowed to be violated at a price or the state of our roads and utility companies today. In every sector that we can think of, corruption usually begins with the user looking for a short cut in order to maximize his profits in the short run. Very rarely does it occur to us that we are the final losers in this game of one-upmanship. From the corrupt politician that we elect after being bribed to do so, to the traffic violations that we want condoned by the local policeman for a petty sum – every one of these instances results in an unseen consequence for us. Unfortunately, most of us seem to be satisfied with the visible benefits of the money that we make or the time that we save or the losses that reduce. We can no longer talk of fighting corruption or merely nod our head in agreement watching television debates. Fighting corruption cannot be reduced to street-side sloganeering or waving the national flag. It needs to begin by we committing ourselves to staying honest whatever the inconvenience or the price that we need to pay.

We, as a Community or Society have to incentivize the actions of honest people. We need to celebrate goodness and make leading a virtuous life something that we can all be proud about. We have to disincentivize the corrupt and socially boycott such people. If we all make a collective decision not to entertain or invite any corrupt politician or official or any person who encourages corruption to any social event, and if we decide to not only look up to the honest but also look down upon the corrupt, can we then hope that this strong social signal will kick-start the change that all of us are desperately looking for.

- Balu

Categories: Musings

My aborted foray into the world of electoral politics

February 27, 2014 5 comments

The last two months has been a different kind of experience for me. It has also been the time when many of my own convictions have been questioned and tested. It is said that the true character of a person is evident only when his convictions are put to the test. Apart from this, I was also witness to the views and opinions of many different kinds of people – some of them were genuine friends and who cared for me and my welfare, some were just passersby, while many others were people whose lives would be affected in different ways by the decision I took. And what was this decision all about? Thanks to the media, my personal question was now a public one. Many who met me and knew about me had one question on their minds. Would I join the bandwagon of people contesting the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections? And if yes, which party would I be contesting from? While some newspapers had speculated that I would be contesting from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), others wrote that I would contest from the BJP. Each had a view to share, an opinion to state and a suggestion to offer me. While some felt that I would disappoint them if I joined politics, many others felt that I would surely disappoint them if I did not. It was the same whether I joined the AAP or the BJP. I was certain to disappoint people whatever decision I took. Some emailed me stating that politics was the last resort of scoundrels, while others said that I had to demonstrate the ‘nerves of iron’ and ‘muscles of steel’ that Swami Vivekananda had asked for, and jump into the fray. I have had no other desire than to work for the cause of National Reconstruction based on the principles espoused by Swami Vivekananda. How well would mainstream electoral politics go with my temperament and me? A close friend and confidante from my Harvard days put it succinctly by asking me if I could be a politician on the outside while maintaining my principled and value-driven self on the inside. He went on to say that if I could find that balance, I would be a successful politician who could still do meaningful and constructive work for the development of India. One mentioned that it would be the next logical step for me while another felt that I may now need to learn to deal with the devil.

The normal perception of the common man today is that the world of politics is dirty and needs cleaning up. But then, many including me till recently had always believed that someone else would do this cleaning up. Very few have the courage to jump into the system and attempt any change from within. Most have lost their way in attempting to do so and this today serves as an example of how impossible the task on hand is. Though I have always loved challenges, I am also realistic in my assessment of the barriers that are there for people like me. The issues of religion, caste, sub-caste, money power, muscle power, connections, family lineage – all this needs to add up to get a few doors open. Coming from an activist background and the values that I subscribe to, one can imagine how much more difficult this would be!

Amidst all this confusion, I decided to talk to a large cross-section of people from varied backgrounds. I also met and interacted with politicians – honest ones, situationally honest ones, ones with a ‘clean image’, some tainted ones, etc. They belonged to different parties, though I could not easily decipher the underlying ideology or philosophy driving them. One thing in common was that they were all career politicians who believed that politics was in their DNA and it was their calling. I needed to see the picture from their side of the fence and it was indeed a revealing experience for me. This information, I felt would surely serve me in good stead if I were to actually make the move. I remembered the old adageget yourself warm winter coats if you are planning on moving to the Arctic’.

And this is what I learnt from them…

The first thing I learnt was that people have a very two-dimensional understanding of the situation and that the view from the inside was very different from that of the outside. The setting is indeed very complex. The pressure of pampering and responding to the gallery was the unstated norm. People measured their political leaders based on whether they responded to their individual demands. The pressures that the constituents manage to create were also very palpable. Decisions were seldom based on the collective well-being of society but were guided more by the personal stakes involved, the mass appeal that such a decision would create and on whether it addressed the concerns of vested interest groups and political factions and caste combinations. Leadership here was not about giving the work back to people; it was about positional authority and being the ‘man’ up there. It was about basking in the glory of being important and occupying the limelight all the time. It was about negotiating your seat on the ‘dais’, about making sure that you were seen in the newspaper at regular intervals and about making the ‘correct’ comments at the appropriate places. It was not about speaking your mind or sticking to the truth. It was always about the truth that people wanted to hear and about catering to the needs of human ego and pride.

My leadership lessons would surely be tested – the leadership that I had learnt and teach now was to keep the focus on the ‘work at the center’. It was not about ‘myself’ but about a process of empowering the group to address the problems that besieged them. It was about getting people to understand that they were a part of the problem and had to necessarily be a part of the solution if they wanted it to work. I was unsure how this would work in the setting where constituents neither have the intent nor the patience to do it themselves. They see their elected representatives as the people who should be doing the hard work on their behalf. The people tend to see their political representatives as a wire conducting the electricity of their hopes, frustrations and desires. Anything less and they would be unforgiving and push them out of electoral significance.

And how it all panned out finally…

As the debate and speculation continued, a senior journalist friend living in Delhi and who has covered the Parliamentary proceedings for more than three decades told me that any party interested in making me their official candidate in Mysore would not be serious about my winning the elections. He went on to mention that my caste was not in my favour and I would never be able to understand the electoral arithmetic of caste and cash. One senior politician suggested that I choose a constituency where the voters predominantly belonged to the same caste as I do. Being deeply wedded to egalitarianism and a caste-less society, it was unacceptable to me. Having wanted to ‘Make Democracy Work’, it would also be unethical and a mockery of participative democracy to contest from a constituency that I neither belonged to nor knew about.

Another friend mentioned that I would never be able to convince any party that was serious about my winning to restrict their expenses to the limits prescribed by the Election Commission. One group of people belonging to a particular caste combination was more candid. They mentioned that their desire for a man of competence and integrity to represent them was not as strong as their filial affection for a man of their own community. At the end of the day, it did boil down to the ‘change that the common man desired and cared about’. And I painfully realized that the system would be forced to change only when the electorate was intent and determined about the change. And the electorate at this point of time is not fully prepared to let go off their own insecurities and concerns. They are not ready to bell the cat or be the change or not even be a part of the change. But everything is not so depressing. I do see a silver lining amidst all this. One section of society, especially the youth are beginning to get restless and are looking for a change. Many of them are keen on breaking down the barriers of entry for credible people with the appropriate competence to enter the political world. The very fact that mainstream parties did consider a person like me for electoral politics is a beginning of this change. But more needs to be done and this will happen only when the people demanding that things change reach a critical number. And I understand that till then, my aborted attempt to cleanse the system will only serve to ripen the issue. Hopefully, the years to come will be different and more and more young people will be able to realize their dream of serving this country through the political path. And only then can we boldly say that the Indian Democracy has come of age.

- Balu

Categories: Musings

The Journey of Leadership: Talk at a TEDx event

February 14, 2014 1 comment
Categories: General

Understanding the Lok Sabha and our Members of Parliament

February 10, 2014 4 comments

Many years ago, I was visiting the house of a Lok Sabha member to advocate for some provisions to be included in the Forest Rights Act. Having been a strong advocate of this Act on behalf of the indigenous tribes with whom I have worked for more than 25 years, I was trying to meet as many parliamentarians and seek their support for having this Act passed in Parliament. My meeting with this particular MP was a memorable one. Though he showed a genuine interest in understanding the plight of the forest dwelling indigenous communities, the endless stream of visitors who wanted to meet him constantly interrupted our conversation. He must have sensed the restlessness on my face and he politely apologized for this. I explained to him that I was less irritated by the interruptions but more upset by the requests that the people from his constituency came to him with. If one came looking for a plum posting, another wanted his wife’s transfer orders cancelled by the state government. Some wanted houses; others a contract to be awarded to their firm. None amongst the 30-40 people who met him within the hour ever had anything other than a personal favour to ask of him. I pointed this out to him and asked him if in his experience he was ever lobbied for a policy issue or a collective social cause. He embarrassingly mentioned that the only time someone came to him for a policy matter was when the policy actually benefited his company. He rued the fact that none came to him for any social policy or legislative matter. In fact, it did seem sad that a seasoned politician like him with years of parliamentary experience was using his time to solve the mundane and every day problems of his electorate. While I am not implying that these problems are unimportant or are not issues of concern for the common citizen, what I would like to highlight is the fact that a Member of Parliament should not be burdened with the responsibility that a Corporator or a Gram Panchayath member is mandated to address. It is indeed unfortunate that most people do not understand the role of an MP, his specific functions and how much he/she costs this nation. The sadder part is that many Members of Parliament themselves do not seem to have internalized their roles completely and only see themselves as people occupying positions of power. Before we understand how one gets elected to be a Member of Parliament (MP), we first need to understand what the Lok Sabha is and what its powers are.

Lok Sabha and its functions:

The Lok Sabha is also known as the ‘House of the People’ or the lower house. All of its members are directly elected by citizens of India on the basis of universal adult franchise, except two who are appointed by the President of India. Every citizen of India who is over 18 years of age, irrespective of gender, caste, religion or race, who is otherwise not disqualified, is eligible to vote for the Lok Sabha.

The Constitution provides that the maximum strength of the House be 552 members. It has a term of 5 years. At present, the strength of the house is 545 members. The seats are apportioned among the states based on their population. Up to 530 members represent the territorial constituencies in states, up to 20 members represent the Union Territories and no more than two members from Anglo-Indian community can be nominated by the President of India if he or she feels that the community is not adequately represented.

The period during which the House meets to conduct its business is called a ‘session’. The Constitution empowers the President to summon each House at such intervals that there should not be more than six-months gap between two sessions. Hence the Parliament must meet at least twice a year. In India, the parliament conducts three sessions each year:

  • Budget session: In the months of February to May
  • Monsoon session: In the months of July to September
  • Winter session: In the months of November to December

How can one become a Lok Sabha MP and how does one qualify to stand for the elections?

A member of Lok Sabha is a representative elected by the voters of an electoral district as determined by the Delimitation Commission of India. In order to contest the elections to be a Member of Parliament, one should fulfill the following criteria:

  • He/She must be a citizen of India.
  • He/She must have completed the age of 25 years.
  • He/She must not hold an office of profit.
  • He/She must possess qualifications laid down by the Parliament of India.
  • He/She must not be of unsound mind and should not have been disqualified by a court.

No person can become an MP unless he/she is a voter from any constituency of the State.

What is the function of the Lok Sabha and what are the powers of its members?

The powers of Lok Sabha members are conferred on them to ensure that the house functions for the purpose that it has been set up. The main functions of the Lok Sabha are:

1. Legislative: Law-making is the main function of the Parliament. All types of bills can originate in the Lok Sabha and if a bill is moved in and passed by the Rajya Sabha, it has to come to the Lok Sabha for its approval. If there is any disagreement between the two Houses, the Lok Sabha will prevail in the joint sitting with the Rajya Sabha because it has more members.

2. Financial: The Lok Sabha exercises control over the finances and has to approve the budget presented by the Government in power and ensure that money is allocated adequately and appropriately for the business of Governance. In financial matters, the Lok Sabha has a distinct superiority over the Rajya Sabha. The Money Bill can be introduced only in the Lok Sabha and cannot be moved in the Rajya Sabha.

3. Control over Executive: The Council of Ministers is collectively responsible to the Lower House of the Parliament. Thus, the government is accountable to the Lok Sabha for its acts of omission and commission. The Rajya Sabha cannot hold the government accountable to it. It is only the Lok Sabha which can force the Council of Ministers to resign by passing a vote of no-confidence against it. There are also other methods by which the Lok Sabha can exercise control over the central executive. These methods are putting questions, moving adjournment motions and call-attention motions, budget discussions, cut-motions and debates, etc. By employing any of these methods, the Lok Sabha can expose the misdeeds and inefficiency of the government and warn it against repeating such mistakes. The members are expected to oversee and monitor all the programs and schemes that the executive implements. This does not mean that they merely sit on committees approving beneficiary lists and houses and determining how local area development funds are spent. They are expected to ensure that the executive branch of the Government does its job responsibly, responsively, transparently, impartially and in line with the decisions taken by the political executive.

4. Constitutional: The Lok Sabha shares with the Rajya Sabha the power to amend the constitution.

5. Electoral: The Lok Sabha takes part in the election of the President and the Vice-President. It elects the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker and its members are also elected to different committees of Parliament.

6. Judicial: The Lok Sabha has power to punish a person on the ground of breach of privilege. It takes part in the impeachment proceedings against the President of India, and it shares power with the Rajya Sabha to remove the Judges of the Supreme Court and the Judges of High Courts.

7. Ventilation of Grievances: The members of the Lok Sabha are elected from different parts of India. They try to remove the difficulties of their respective constituencies by stating their grievances on the floor of the Lok Sabha.

8. Imparting Education on Democracy: The Lok Sabha discussions would help in raising the political consciousness of people. As the discussions in the Lok Sabha are directly telecast, the people are able to learn of different aspects of Indian politics.

9. Other Functions: The Lok Sabha discusses reports submitted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), Finance Commission, etc.

Salary and other privileges of our MPs:

We need to understand that our Lok Sabha MPs are paid well for the services that they are expected to do. The receive a monthly salary of Rs 50,000 and an allowance of Rs 2000 for every day that the Parliament sits in session. In addition to this, the members are entitled to liberal travel and dearness allowances, telephone, water & electricity allowances, constituency maintenance allowance and wages for their personal staff, etc. They are also entitled to Rs 20,000 monthly pension for the rest of their lives. These expenses being paid out of taxation revenues are reason enough for citizens to demand performance, accountability and transparency from the elected members.

Apart from the salary and other related perks, our MPs also enjoy immunity and freedom of speech on the floor of the House. They cannot be prosecuted for having said anything on the floor of the House. During session the members cannot be arrested in any civil cases.

Measuring the performance of our MPs:

Only when we understand and appreciate what our MPs are expected to do, can we as common citizens measure their performance and assess how well they are playing their roles. It is extremely important for us to know what they will be doing for the next five years as our elected representatives. Let us try to understand how well they performed over the last 5 years. The 15th Lok Sabha met for an average of around 60 days a year in comparison to around 120 days that the previous 14 Lok Sabhas did. The Winter Session of December 2013 was only for 4 hours and 31 minutes, or 6% of the schedule time. The 15th Lok Sabha has only passed 118 bills till date and of these only 27 of them (23%) were discussed for 2-3 hours. About 20 bills were passed with discussions of less than 5 minutes. As on 11th Feb,  130 bills are pending in this last session of the current Lok Sabha. Despite all this, the Lok Sabha met for only 15 minutes on the 07 Feb 2014 and was adjourned due to the Telengana issue.

We the citizens must come together and demand that our MPs bring out an annual report card clearly outlining their performance. They need to inform the people of their constituency on how well they performed against indicators like their attendance in the Parliament, the number of questions they asked, their understanding and appreciation of the different policies and laws they make, the amount of time they spend consulting their constituents, how well they oversaw the executive and a statement disclosing their income and assets. Only when we the common people continue to engage with our elected representatives even after the elections are over and continue to monitor and evaluate their performance will we be able to demand good governance from them. It is in our own interest that we do not relax but continue to demand both accountability and performance from our MPs for the next 5 years.

- Balu

Note: Information sourced from loksabha.nic.in and prsindia.org

Categories: General