What stands proved already is the ability of the powerful to secure express delivery from the system, for themselves
Measured for clout and power, Indian citizens fall broadly into four categories. At the very top, and outranking others by a colossal margin, is the creamiest layer from the political-civil service-corporate class. This elite force can prise open the toughest doors, bend any and all rules, and pull off the choicest bargains.
Systemic bottlenecks that torpedo the ordinary folk slink out of sight when a club member wants a wish fulfilled. Whether it is a fancy vacation, one or more luxury apartments, a share in business contracts, or a political favour in return for the contracts, there is no product that cannot be express delivered in this world: Because business here is by compact and networks forged within each segment and across the segments.
It is not beyond the imagination of the velvet set to get an entire hillside for the asking. In a November 3, 2010 interview to DNA newspaper, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar offered a fascinating account of how he came to be associated with the controversial Lavasa project in Maharashtra: “It is 100 per cent true that I selected the site for Lavasa,” he said, adding that he spotted the picturesque backwaters of the Varasgaon dam while overflying it on a helicopter. Mr. Pawar, who was then Chief Minister, introduced the site to friend and industrialist Ajit Gulabchand, and with permissions and paperwork a mere, internally-arranged trifle, things went swimmingly for India’s first privately built and managed hill station in which his family held and sold lucrative shares.
The point of this narration is not to insinuate illegalities in the project. Indeed, distinguished names have celebrated the Lavasa vision. Yet through last year, the township was engaged in a pitched battle with the Union Environment Ministry over a range of violations. More serious charges were recently levelled by former IPS officer and activist Y.P. Singh. But leaving aside all this, one thing is indisputably clear: When the powerful decide to conjure up magic out of nothing, the laws will conspire to create that magic.
In second place are the salaried people, some of them with comfortable incomes but nonetheless bound within an accountable system that lops off taxes at source and limits opportunity for financial profligacy. The less fortunate in this lot will scrimp and save to buy a home, accepting the punishing lending conditions of banks, including finding guarantors and paying monstrous equated monthly instalments. If, at the end of this, the dream home vanishes like a dream, there is no recourse because while the buyer is obliged by draconian contracts to pay up on time — or face a penalty — nothing binds the builder to deliver as promised. In the absence of real estate regulation, the buyer inescapably gets caught in a pincer between the nightmare of his iffy property and the high interests he continues to pay on his loan.
Just how skewed the system is can be seen from DLF’s differentiated treatment of its clients — those with lineage like Robert Vadra who can get impossible sums as advances and those whose lot it is to be harassed by delays, non-delivery and price escalation. In August last year, the Competition Commission of India slapped a fine of Rs.630 crore on DLF on complaints from buyers. DLF went in appeal and secured a stay order. DLF home owners were fortunate in that they could mobilise the resources to fight the realty giant, not so the millions of ordinary householders who face ruin because their entire savings are invested with dubious builders.
The third category is formed by the lower rungs of the middle and working class. Aspirationally mobile, these men and women desperately crave a better future, the starting point of which is being able to save minuscule amounts in a bank. Yet opening an account can be an ordeal with banks insisting on address proof and other documentation. A decade ago, I took my domestic help to a nationalised bank assuming my introduction would help her open an account. The bank manager was livid: his bank was not “for ayahs and maid servants.” Today, political correctness has ensured that there are standing instructions from the Reserve Bank on allowing the poor to open zero-balance (now basic) accounts with minimal conditions. But the guidelines have been lost on banks, and the plight of the domestic help who has no permanent address and therefore no proof, remains the same. Her only saviour then is the unsafe chit fund with its fantastic penal clauses. As the Sachar Committee found out, banks have designated red zones, among them Muslim-majority and low income colonies, where they don’t like to provide services.
Any property purchased by this section can only be in unauthorised colonies because buying a proper home means borrowing and elaborate bank documentation. From where does a driver or a cook or a menial worker get a salary certificate? But life in an unauthorised colony has its own threats — of papers being questioned, of demolition, stigmatisation and being refused services. It is a vicious circle where the victim is first forced to commit an illegality and then punished for committing that illegality. This is the mirror opposite of what happens to the club class whose members get interest-free loans for property which they sell back to the lender for a profit.
And finally, the landless labour class that forms the overwhelming majority of India’s working force. Property and bank accounts can seem surrealistic to a people engaged in livelihood struggles. Consider the unbeatable irony of Mr. Vadra hitting the headlines for his property adventures in the same week that tens of thousands of people set out on a march to Delhi to demand their right to land.
Gadkari and Vadra
Arvind Kejriwal was dead right when he alleged collusion between the political big bosses. It is a law of nature that those feeling the same threat will unite. Politicians know that their carefully built empires of wealth are models of each other, and if one crumbles so will the rest. Sushma Swaraj, the sharp-witted leader of the Opposition whose tweets are eagerly watched for the political signals they could convey, tweeted every hour on the day the Vadra news broke — but on all subjects except on the doings of the First son-in-law. That same day, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Nitin Gadkari was on TV admitting knowledge of the Vadra papers but arguing that they did not constitute evidence.
It is an interesting piece of news that Ajit Pawar, the Union Agriculture Minister’s nephew, has turned out to be the common factor in two recent exposés — the Maharashtra irrigation scam and Lavasa, both of which happened when the nephew held powerful positions in the State government. So when Mr. Kejriwal charged Mr. Gadkari with wrongdoing in the first, the senior Mr. Pawar rushed to his defence. The BJP chief returned the favour when the Pawars were questioned for facilitating Lavasa.
Since then Mr. Gadkari has landed himself in more serious trouble with allegations that he has set up a maze of dummy and benami companies. But significantly, the sharpest attacks on the BJP chief have come, not from the Congress, but from a BJP faction that wants Mr. Gadkari replaced by Narendra Modi.
It is not a coincidence that the same justification gets offered each time a new web of deceit is uncovered. The Congress’s single defence with respect to Mr. Vadra was that he committed no illegality. Lal Krishna Advani has similarly argued that l'affaire Gadkari is about “standards of business” and not corruption. This is in fact the crux of the problem: that the standards of business are horribly different for one set of people. Whether or not the charges against Mr. Vadra and Mr. Gadkari are ever proved in a court of law, what has already been proved is the ability of the power elite to lubricate the wheels of delivery to the exclusion of all but itself. If unsecured, interest-free loans are legitimate, why do they unerringly reach only those already powerful? If Mr. Vadra is rich enough to “legitimately” own dozens of high-end apartments, why cannot the SPG guard him in one of these locations, rather than in prime government housing presumably paid for by taxpayers?
The pessimism can only deepen when Team Kejriwal too cites “legality” to defend its members against counter-allegations. Whether it is Prashant Bhushan acquiring vast tea estate land via rules relaxed by the Himachal Pradesh government or Anjali Damania admitting to commercial use of farm land, India Against Corruption’s fiercest defence has been that its members acted within the four corners of the law.
Cattle class victims would be entitled to ask: why does the law constrict us while it bends and crawls before you?