Age of the middleman

The one constant in our lives was the middleman, who got us what government owed us: birth certificates, driving licences, registration, etc.

July 26, 2016 12:54 am | Updated 12:54 am IST

Josy Joseph

Josy Joseph

Ironically, the true age of the middleman dawned in the wake of India’s economic reforms in the early 1990s, even if the system was perfected during the licence raj that preceded it. Before liberalisation, India was a socialist state that practised import substitution and state monopoly. That old India had its own monsters, chief among which was the creation of a complex web of state controls in every walk of life. To buy a vehicle or to start a business, perhaps even to dream or breathe fresh air, you needed state permission. Bureaucrats and political leaders became immensely powerful — and extremely corrupt. Economic growth averaged just about 3.5 per cent annually, the state and a few families dominated most areas of economic and industrial activities, and the consumer had very limited choices. Middle-class Indians smuggled aerated drinks and television sets into the country.

With bankruptcy and international shame staring it in the face, India was forced to liberalise its economy in 1991. Overnight, a new vigour was palpable.

The one constant

In 1991, I too was suddenly an adult, out of the safe confines of a military public school, thrown into the civilian realities of India. In many ways, India’s journey as a liberal economy paralleled my own discovery of life, work, love, failures and values. Along with most of India, my generation migrated from typewriters to touch screens, from villages to metropolises, from a socialist economy to a thriving market economy — all in a matter of two decades. The one constant in our lives was the middleman, who got us what government owed us: birth certificates, driving licences, registration, appointment, name change, passports, etc. As the wave of economic liberalisation swept India, entrepreneurs began to dream big; bold investments and wild proposals were the order of the day. In a few years, India became the fastest growing major economy after China. Global investors began to celebrate India, and world leaders queued up to visit New Delhi even in the oppressive summer heat.

The teacher who forced me to use the index finger of my right hand — I was born a leftie — on the loose silica sand of our village in the 1970s had retired. I traced the Malayalam equivalent of the vowel ‘A’, and the rest of the letters on the ground, seated in a temporary shed with a thatched roof that was my first school. That is what set me on my educational journey. In the kindergartens of my village, English is now the preferred language. The government elementary school where I studied up to class four is only a pale shadow of its former self. Along the tarred road in front of its small compound, private buses ferry children to private schools. Only the poorest still troop to the old school.

The government hospital that my three-year-old sister was rushed to early one Christmas morning, because she had suffered a severe seizure from high fever, is no longer the preferred health facility in our town. Private hospitals have mushroomed in recent years. The government hospital, however, continues to be in good shape — a rarity in India.

The sparkling white silica-sand mounds have but all disappeared. A broken road and a lonely telephone line snaked their ways through those mounds to reach our home by the backwaters. We ploughed through the loose sand as we walked to the local school. But many people in my village and those in neighbouring areas have been engaged in rampant and irresponsible mining of silica sand. The surreal white village I remember has been replaced by the dullness of concrete houses and shallow pits that often fill up with rain water.

The rapacious, mostly illegal, mining of natural resources is not the story of my village alone. If anything, it is one of the defining characteristics of India’s liberalised economy. Across central India, where tribal communities coexisted peacefully with their environs in what are some of the most crucial biodiversity hot spots of the country, businessmen, with active support from the administration, are mining coal, iron ore and other minerals. An armed left-wing insurgency has taken root against this uninvited intrusion and the Indian state’s failures. The tribal people are trapped, while the insurgents, agents of an insensitive state machinery and a new ruthless entrepreneurial class play out their games and ambitions.

These insurgencies are equally a response to the growing disparities in the country. Unrest and disaffection have been an integral part of India’s evolution as an independent nation. Many of the world’s oldest armed conflicts rage here, and hundreds of thousands of people — security men, insurgents, kidnappers, hooligans, informants, as well as people who were not directly involved in the conflict — have been killed. Some of the insurgencies in the country’s north-east are almost as old as independent India, and Kashmir has been burning for over three decades. In central India, left-wing extremists have been fighting security forces for decades now.

Evasive discourse

Instead of dealing with the grievances that fuel these insurgencies, politicians, the mainstream media and security analysts have worked to create an ill-informed, often abusive and intolerant discourse around them. With no one to hold them accountable, the security establishment and its many arms rampantly abuse human rights. The establishment conveniently blames all the drawbacks of the Indian democracy on Pakistan, China, the US and other external forces. As this book was being completed in 2015, the government in New Delhi had just rediscovered an old ghost — NGOs — accusing them of organising a grand international conspiracy to pull down the Indian economy and the government.

(Extracted, with permission, from the forthcoming A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India , HarperCollins India.)

Josy Joseph is National Security Editor of The Hindu.

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