Tuesday, August 14, 2007

WHAT DO WE WANT?

When I was in Texas visiting my friends recently, I visited the George Bush (the more decent one) presidential library. After looking at a nice, detailed replica of the White House, with the interior meticulously duplicated, we were about to walk out, when the lady at the desk asked me if I wanted "a letter personally signed by President Bush, in which he answers a question".
I thought, how uninteresting, because I could be sure I am going to get pre-scripted answers from a machine where you type the question and then get it answered. I chose one of the most cliche questions, "What do you think is the most pressing problem that America faces"? Out came a prewritten sheet of paper with a copy of el Presidente's signature. It was a nice touch, but the answer was so cliche (dealing with eradicating inequality or something) that I have forgotten the details.

So it is surprising that, on the eve of Independence Day, I find myself having a rather simple and unequivocal answer for the question, "What is the biggest problem that India faces?". There are of course many answers, but I find myself easily cutting through the thicket of these and finding the one.

Lack of individual freedom.

A look at newspapers in the last five years should be enough to see why this is the case. We pride ourselves on being a free democracy, and still are being stifled at the individual's level through many means. Individuals don't have property rights, individuals cannot honestly start a business without glitches or without politicians and contracters demanding a share of the profits, individuals cannot criticise the government without receiving threats and getting censored, individuals cannot seek quick and easy redress in courts and in the corridors of the law, and contrary to outsiders' belief, individuals don't have the freedom of speech to openly say something (including personal opinons on "controversial" matters) without fear of retribution from corrupt politicians and their hired goons, and at the least, face covert or overt censorship tacitly supported by the government. If the threats don't exist in the books, they at least informally exist over the telephone. And in spite of being a secular country, individuals really don't have the freedom of religion, and they don't have the freedom to criticise other religions. In the muck that covers many of our poverty-ridden streets, the most dominant element is the individual.

Mobs, on the other hand, as well-described in a post here, have almost every possible freedom. In India, freedom of religion means the freedom by religious mobs to cause untold destruction to public property and individual well-being while the police stand by. That means that by inference, it emphatically does not allow for the freedom to practice one's religion without interference. No individual freedom to criticise religion exists, and all such criticism, no matter how mild, is arm-twisted by religious leaders to justify sending in their goons and attacking the individual.

If we were a dictatorship, this stifling of individual freedom would be obvious and there would be outcry. But in India, the stifling of individual rights always is draped by resorting to a show of democratic ideals. Without individual freedom, the word "freedom" loses its meaning, and in our country has thus lost a lot of its meaning. And this false show of freedom that we tout makes the problem even more serious, and the situation more dangerous. Because in a police state, everyone knows there is a problem. But in a country which lives under a veneer of freedom, identifying and solving such problems is much harder (although at least identifying them seems to become tragically easier every day)

I am not an unabashed fan of libertarianism, and I find some of its tenets untenable. I always wondered why Indian libertarians are always so vocal and passionate in their writings and arguments. But I realised that the reason of course is that libertarianism is first and foremost about individual freedom, and I realised that India perhaps more than any other country (with the obvious exceptions of totalitarian-like states) needs a desperate dose of libertarianism, mostly because of the, how shall I put it euphemistically, unusually inefficient government here. Right now, that dose is woefully missing. The government still decides what is good for us. It still takes away farmers' lands because it thrives on the lack of individual property rights that the farmers don't have. It censors movies and allows gangs of political goons to burn theaters, because it does not give a damn about what we as individuals and adults should be free to decide in terms of what we want to and not want to watch. It has accepted definitions of what it considers to be "Indian culture", and will uphold them by forcing them on individuals who might want to live their own culture. By implementing archaic bans on homosexuality, it does not even think of people's personal lifestyle preferences that do not intrude on others' privacy. The Indian government is a true champion in prosecuting victimless crimes, among other things.

I realised that it is not without reason that libertarians especially in India have agonized so much about an absence of their principles. I believe that government action is necessary in some sectors, but in our country, government action in almost every aspect has become unbearable and despicably misimplemented. And the most significant way in which this government makes its action unbearable is by interfering with the freedom of the individual. Some government in my opinion is always better than no government at all, but increasingly and more easily it seems to me that no government at all is eminently better than the Indian government. I may argue with libertarians about which taxes are necessary, and whether government action is the only suitable one for preempting environmental pollution and global warming, but when it comes to criticising the beast that is the Indian government, I am right there with them.

Ironically, in the few cases where even libertarians agree that government should levy taxes, such as law and order and public construction, the Indian government is so inefficient as to give good reason for losing faith even in those basic beliefs. I will be very uncomfortable if law and order is privatised, but given the way that our government implements law and order (or rather does not implement it), I am slowly starting to find privatisation of even law and order a comforting thought not just in my moments of madness. In the list of lesser and greater evils, the Indian government is wallowing at the top end of the scale in many respects. Again, I am not an unequivocal advocate of privatisation, and economist Kaushik Basu says that instead of privatisation of all services, the government should make its existing services competitive with private services. While this seems perfectly reasonable, given government inefficiency in even basic matters, this action seems to be an untenable dream. And once again, mostly because the government does not want to respect individual voices that demand better things for themselves.

So on the eve of our independence, in reply to the question, "What is the biggest problem facing our country today", probably for the first time, I could cut through the complexities of our problems, and instead of saying "Hmmm...it's hard to say which one is the most troublesome...there are just so many of them", I find it refreshing that I can give a quick one line answer largely free of ambiguities.

Lack of individual freedom.

And I find it depressing and alarming, precisely because I could find this answer so easily.

P.S. This is a tag...for everyone who reads this blog. "What is the biggest problem that India faces?"

P.S. 2: In general, I have to say that I mistrust both corporations and government, but some corrupt corporations are at least efficient, especially so in India!

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13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know the focus is on the role of government in individual freedom, but there is also the case of societal pressure supressing individual thought and action. Too many times, I have heard people not do what they thought was right because they were afraid of what others would think, or how it would look to society.

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the contrary, you might say that there is too much individualism in India - hence the littered streets, the roaming stray dogs, the traffic that never moves because someone decides to fit his car into a place designed for a scooter, the peeling paint on both government buildings and private homes, the dirty public loos, the dirty private loos, the harassment of women in public, the harassment of women in private...and depsite it all, I still love the place. It's impossible to tame despite everyone's best efforts. Come on, you're living in a libertarian paradise and you don't even know it.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Anon 1: That's definitely true...it's a combination. But government is overarching, and if it did not have these ridiculous restrictions, people would be more prone to fighting societal pressure. Gradually, society would change then.

Anon 2: I hope you are kidding...or maybe you are describing anarchy, not libertarianism!

7:57 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

India is a big country, in many ways it is a unique one. In a country of such a huge size, such cultural diversity and such a rich history, there are bound to be problems of extraordinary magnitude. It is also worth noting that our history as a democratic, secular republic is not very old. A period of 60 years is by no means enough time for the seeds of democracy and freedom to evolve into a fully blossomed giant tree that could yield ripe fruits of peace and prosperity. I agree with you that there is much in India to feel depressed and angry about, but in my more reflective moments, I can not help but feel only optimism for the future of our country. Despite a number of setbacks, freedom and liberty in our country has not eroded in general, infact I think that we have only seen an upward march for these ideals over the last 60 years. We may not still be there compared to more advanced countries in the world, but we have to keep in mind that we have managed to sustain our unity and our freedoms mostly without any large scale civil wars or catastrophic world wars unlike some other illustrious members of the world community. There is every reason to feel optimistic and even cheerful for the future of India in the long term, short term problems not withstanding.

The biggest problem facing India, in my view, is lack of quality education and the resultant intellectual stagnation. I think this problem is the root cause of all the other problems we face, including the attacks on individual freedom. An intellectually lethargic society can not protect its freedoms for long. The existence of a large intelligentsia class is a prerequisite to maintain the vigor of a society. I believe that Indian government should invest heavily in the educational infrastructure and try to keep the intellectual class inside the country instead of letting them go abroad where they find better opportunities for their abilities. What is needed is an intellectual revolution, something akin to the renaissance in Europe.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

This is of course a personal take. But I wholly agree that education is of the utmost importance, especially primary education. My real problem is not that we have been relatively free of civil wars and other such things since independence. That is surely a good thing and India is much better relatively in this respect. My problem is that the situation in terms of both civil liberties (including economic ones) and education does not seem to be improving. Also importantly, as long as we have a coalition government who caters to minorities and the commies for remaining in power, how can we easily envisage progress in these areas. Also, clearly, even the minorities and the reserved castes are not as much interested in primary education as they are in higher education. Otherwise wouldn't there have been as much of a struggle on their behalf to get themselves free and easily available primary education? But what's happening is that that government is not interested in providing them with that. Just like in an Orwellian kind of scenario, the government wants them to get degrees not knowledge and wisdom, because with the latter, they can possibly rebel against the government.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

"My problem is that the situation in terms of both civil liberties (including economic ones) and education does not seem to be improving."

I disagree. Civil liberties have certainly improved over the years. An example is the passing of 'right to information act' a couple of years ago. As for the economic liberties, economic liberalization has made people considerably freer than they were even about a decade ago. India's booming economy and a rising entrepreneur culture bears ample testimony to the fact.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Kapilmuni said...

In what ways has any of your freedoms been curtailed?

8:57 AM  
Blogger Kapilmuni said...

Do you cross post these entries on any other blog? It is irritating to keep checking this particular post every few days if you have responded to my comment - do you know of a way for me to set a tracker for this?

9:01 AM  
Blogger Kapilmuni said...

Just a thought - are you trying to drum up reasons for you to not return to India? ;-)

9:03 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

There was no such provision on BD. You did not complain then. People get used to it. Unfortunately I don't see any trackback. Cross post an entry somewhere else just for you?? Why not!

10:09 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Vivek, is it really easier to actally get the information? Or is the act just on paper like many others? This is a valid concern. Also, when we talk about the rising entrepreneur culture and the booming economy, how many people are we talking about? More than 10% at most? Also, is ventire capitalism actually very easy in India, without either or formal or informal but despicable constraints of bribes and corruption? I am not saying things have not improved. But at most, I see them continuing to improve at a snail's pace, with my most optimistic assesment. And reservation is not helping.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Kapilmuni said...

No, BD doesn't have the feature, but BD has the protocol of replying to comments with an "RYC" tag on the commenters diary & latest entry. This at least ensured that replies to comemnts are noticed.

Here on blogger, I have to remember that I had left you a comment and come back to see your reply on an entry which is already several days old. So how are we supposed to have a conversation / discussion?

Oh and you never replied - which of your individual freedoms was curtailed when you were in India?

6:28 AM  
Blogger Kapilmuni said...

There are instances where some GOI agents / officials have done what you have stated. Does it mean that GOI officials ALWAYS do these things and nothing else? Does it mean that the checks and balances that are built into the system always fail? Does it mean that these inequities are the norm?

Newspaper reports are not a fair unbiased random sample - newspapers are meant to highlight such inequities. If there are 100 rationcard transactions that happen without a bribe and one which requires a bribe - that one instance will become the news, not the 100 bonafide transactions. Is it appropriate to draw such sweeping conclusions from news reports?

6:50 AM  

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