Govt Accepts Its Incapacity, Says ‘Decontrol, Privatise, Empower’

I reckon the Ides of March came early this year, in February, when Indian government made peace with its incapacity.

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Camerapersons: Athar Rather, Shiv Kumar Maurya

India is inexplicable. Arguably, it also has the most inefficient State on earth. Too many infants die, many who survive are malnourished, we exploit women citizens, our forests are depleting, our rivers are drying, urban drains stink and overflow, undertrial prisoners languish without bail, minorities ghettoise in dread, and young people remain unemployed in their most productive years. Yet, we see a curious paradox. Indians continue to have a touching faith in their State!

I first confronted this paradox in the 1990s – ironically the decade in which India’s private enterprise was unshackled. For nearly half a century, we had been held in thrall by the State. Whether we bought a phone, flew to another city, kept our savings in the bank, bought an insurance policy, or watched television – these routine, everyday activities could only be done via an instrumentality of the State. It was weird and intimidating.

Come 1991, State Monopolies Were Smashed Open...

Suddenly, glossy logos and jingles began to assault our senses. Airtel, Orange, HDFC, ICICI, Jet, Kingfisher, Indigo, Zee, Star, Sony – all private products trying to wean disgruntled Indian consumers away from dour/dull MTNL, BSNL, Bank of India, Air India, and Doordarshan.

Yet, every survey in those days would throw up a mysterious conundrum:

  • Which airline do you trust most? Believe it or not, Air India and Indian Airlines would win that contest hands down (I kid you not – trust Air India!!!!);
  • Which is your preferred bank? Even some of the stodgiest public sector banks would trump the classy ads and artful interiors of the newbies;
  • Now you simply won’t believe this one – even MTNL’s patchy service was preferred over the spanking new technology of the newcomers; and so on.

Why This 'Love of the State'?

Frankly, while it may have appeared counter-intuitive, there was a somewhat cruel explanation for this “love of the State”. At one level, we suffered under a super State that had kept us poor, but at another level, that grinding poverty also kept us in bondage to the state.

Our State had transformed into a post-independence “neo zamindari”, or new-age landlordism, which exploited mercilessly, yet when violence became intolerable, its victims had no option but to crawl before the perpetrator, begging for mercy. This mindset, the state as Brahma/Vishnu/Mahesh – the creator/preserver/destroyer – has remained eternal since the 1950s/60s.

'Dear Private People, Save My Country From Armageddon': Indian State

Until now. Until a tiny virus has forced the monster on its knees. In 45 days of trying to vaccinate the country on its own, the Indian State has struggled with an astonishingly paltry daily average of 350k doses. At such a poor vaccination rate, it could take 1,800 days, or five years, to just vaccinate the cohort of 300 million vulnerable people, from frontline workers to the 50-years-plus elderly.

So, the Indian State scampered/retreated, throwing everything open to the “oft ridiculed” private sector – now anybody in the cohort can walk in at any health facility anywhere in India showing any kind of photo ID to get the jab. From “no, you won’t”, it’s now pleading “please do anything, dear private people, but save my country from Armageddon”.

And exactly thirty days earlier, the Indian State had confronted yet another bitter reality, that it was incapable of running business enterprises, and needed to “aggressively privatise”.

So, we’ve seen two massive retreats by our imperious state in a single month. I reckon the Ides of March came early this year, in February, when the Indian State made peace with its incapacity.

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