Saturday, January 15, 2011

Inflation and the mosque

Like the demolition of the mosque in Delhi's Jangpura area, inflation in India has developed into a major political crisis.

The first has brought into play local politicians - the employed, like Sheila Dikshit, as well as the unemployed,  like Amar Singh and Jayaprada, not to mention hundreds of hangers-on. Their reaction to the scene makes me think of ambulance chasers, carrion who descend on a scene of devastation to see what mileage they can wring out of it - lawyers' fees, or political capital.

Carrion are a fact of life, so the essential question should relate to why the devastation was necessary. In a word,  non-governance. If you walk in a city, you can see the way in shrines are grown on public land. They are not built in the way we construct legitimate buildings on land acquired or allotted for the purpose. They begin as tiny, temporary shrines, a stone idol at the base of a peepul tree, on a pavement. Their promoters watch, often for years, to see how much public support they are gathering, on the one hand; on the other, they look for the willingness of enforcement agencies to turn a blind eye to the expropriation of public property. When they find the balance is in their favour, they bump up the permanence of the structure by an order of magnitude. The stone idol now has a home - a few square feet of masonry, clad in the tiles with which we lined our bathrooms, before they came to be seen as down-market.

The expanded shrine now forces pedestrians to climb down from the pavement; not a big deal: you need to do that every few yards for the minister's security chowky, a paanwallah, or a hole in the ground.

The next time the shrine expands, it is done after serious risk assessment - major sums of money are put into it, and political backing is imperative. Without the right backers, your effort would go the way of the first Kochi IPL bid. In its final avatar, the shrine is virtually unassailable. In my view, the court order against the Jangpura masjid is a major triumph of civil activism, of  public action seeking to reclaim public land from private capture.

Politicians have long been used to being the sole adjudicators of such capture - a fact which Sonia Gandhi acknowledged when she asked Chief Ministers to give up their 'discretionary' powers in land allotment. To have their power taken away by the litigation of a pesky residents' welfare association (RWA) is a slap in the face, even if you are Chief Minister who has long preached the value of 'bhagidaari' between her government and RWAs. That's a relationship that is fine and dandy if it relates to removing garbage and cleaning drains, tasks her administration will not perform. But if not if it cuts at land, a major source of her political patronage. In which case, she is willing to jump into the fray, announce that she will have the mosque reconstructed, and risk contempt of court.

And inflation? The seeds were planted a long time ago, and have been continuously watered, by fiscal deficits, populist expenditure, and a lack of political will to adjust prices of fuels, fertiliser and power as their costs rose. By repeatedly misreading economic signals, and deliberately misleading the public about where prices were heading. Small steps taken early in the cycle could have prevented inflationary tendencies from becoming a monster which the government now admits it has no tools to defeat - just as the local policeman could have prevented the first bathroom tiles from being cemented into a structure on which the High Court needs to rule.

No comments:

Post a Comment