Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Short Cuts are toxic

We Indians love short-cuts.

In Delhi, motor-cyclists routinely drive on the wrong side of India’s busiest roads, to save a 500 meter ride to the next intersection. A scant 100 meters from a foot over-bridge, pedestrians dart through rush-hour traffic, then clamber over a 1 meter verge, to save a couple of minutes.
In Mumbai 5 people lose their lives every day, crossing the tracks of the world’s busiest commuter train lines.*

An estimated 10,000 Indian lives are lost each year to electrocution, one-third of the global total. Hardly surprising, when home wiring circuits are rarely earthed, and fuse wire of the correct rating is routinely replaced by thick wire, so that blown fuses are no longer a bother.  

The Indian practice of ‘jugaad’ is clearly described by the Mirriam-Webster definition of the short cut, “A method or means of doing something more directly and quickly than and often not so thoroughly as by ordinary procedure.”

In India, the accent is on the last phrase - “not so thoroughly as by ordinary procedure”. At peak practice, ‘procedure’ is totally abandoned, as in a driving test for a driving licence, or attending classes to obtain a B.Ed. degree.

Culture informs governance, and in a society enamoured of short-cuts, politicians will look to serve up silver bullets that promise transformation, rather than root-and-branch reform. Corruption is rampant in India, and tax evasion wide-spread. The phrase ‘black money” is so endemic to our nation that, if you do a web-search for it, most references will be to India. Prime Minister Modi, with the unerring ear of a successful politician, knew that this phrase has become so emotionally loaded that he could play it for the galleries - demonise evil traders and hoarders, pipe his concern for the economically deprived, shill his devotion to moral rectitude.

And so, the short cut of demonetisation, to rid our country of all economic evil. This was peak short cut practice, Indian style. All procedure was abandoned, The Reserve Bank of India  was arm-twisted. The financial bureaucracy was kept in the dark. As a result, new currency notes were not available, and in a nation with hundreds of millions outside the banking system, the poorest and most vulnerable were hit the hardest. Over a hundred Indians died in the search for legal tender; agricultural produce was destroyed by farmers, as merchants had no cash with which to pay; between 1.5 and 2 million people lost their jobs**, and over 15 million exited the work force** as a result of the economic disruption of Modi’s great short cut.

And reform - forget it! Electoral finance, widely accepted as a route cause of black money, has been shrouded under anonymous bonds. Foreign donations to political parties were made legal with retrospective effect from 1976, via legislation passed without parliamentary debate.

A short cut. Without procedure. But it worked.

The latest governance short cut to visit our nation is the bold law-and-order experiment in our most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. By way of background, this is a region of 221 million, where the judicial system groans under inadequate staffing, poor case preparation, and a general apathy towards due process of law. Whether police stations register your case or not depends on their mood, your connections, and your caste. If they do, the courts gradually come into play. The state’s High Court, in Allahabad, has 13,600 criminal cases which have been in appeal for over 30 years. 13% of cases across the state have not been heard for over 10 years. Suspects are locked up for years, even decades, while case files are being prepared, or not, and India is unique in that two-thirds of our jail inhabitants are still to be tried - ‘undertrials’ in our parlance.

India’s creaky system serves neither justice nor law and order, and conviction rates have been steadily dropping. In 1953, 64 % of criminal cases led to conviction; by 2014, only 40%. Some of the most heinous crimes go largely unpunished - only 21% of cases of dacoity, for example, lead to conviction.

Given the data, law and order in U.P. is, rightly, an electoral issue, and the new Chief Minister was ushered in with promises of better governance and a fight against crime. Reforming the courts and the police has no electoral appeal for a Chief Minister eager to show resolve. Instead, the U.P police was unleashed to solve the crime problem without the inconvenient shackles of the law.

In its first year in power, the current UP government had 1100 ‘encounters’ with suspected criminals. In normal usage, the word ‘encounter’ suggests a chance meeting. In its uniquely Indian usage, the word means that the police go out hunting criminal suspects; if any are injured, or killed, the police claim it was in self-defence. No messing with charge-sheets, the gathering of evidence, and the backlog of courts.

And the presumption of innocence? Oh, that’s for sissies.

Confident of popular support for this dereliction of legal process, Yogi Adityanath’s police force killed 49 people and injured 370 during its first 12 months****.

This short cut through the process of law has met with little comment or resistance. The Supreme Court has abstained from comment, the Parliament is dysfunctional, and the Prime Minister is silent, presumably in assent. It is left to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to state,  “It seems that the police personnel in U.P. are feeling free, misusing their power in the light of an undeclared endorsement given by the higher- ups. They are using their privileges to settle scores with the people.”

When the police settle scores rather than investigate crime, it is a short cut, to anarchy, not order; to rule by power, rather than law. It is an abandonment of process, of justice, and ultimately of humanity.

The tacit acceptance of a police state is the most toxic short cut imaginable in a civilised society.  Pappu, father of the rape victim in Unnao, could have told you something of this toxicity, if he had survived the brutality of the police.




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