Over the last 3 years, I have been dealing with a gent - let us call him Bharat - in Nainital district. As he calls himself 'political-type', I find his behaviour quite instructive about the nature of local 'leaders', and their dynamic with the environment in which they operate.
Bharat is about 40, and comes from a relatively privileged family in Haldwani, the premier trading and commercial city in Kumaon. He went to one of the better schools in the area, and speaks English with reasonable ease, though he is more comfortable in both Hindi, and the Kumaoni dialect. I ran into him when he let it be known that he had bought some land adjoining one of my homes in the Nainital hills, and there was likely to be some clash over title to specific parcels. We were put in touch with each other by a mountain neighbour of mine, who went to school with him, but shared little else. Our common friend asked me to speak to him, "just so you you know the kind of person who is buying land on our hillside".
Bharat is sharp, and a man in a hurry. Though he adopts many surface courtesies, he has little value for other human beings. He is never on time for an appointment at the court, even though I have often traveled overnight from Delhi to transact our business. He has several balls up in the air at any time - in this case, scores of land registration papers, which he has bought, or taken an option on, by way of paying a small advance. These are carried around in a plastic shopping bag, by his driver and factotum 'Mike'. Honest, that is what he is called. Hopefully, the appropriate one can be pulled out when needed in the court!
Having zoned in on the land on my hillside, Bharat got all the relevant details from the tehsil office. On one occasion when we sat down to iron out the remaining 'border disputes', Mike sauntered up from his office with the original cloth map of land holdings, which is the badge of office of the 'patwari', the lowest level revenue official. Once he had all the details, he put village brokers on the job of finding title holders in villages scattered across the mountains and the 'terai', the moist plains at the foot of the Kumaon. The lands in our area have not seen revenue consolidation for 3 generations now, and the ownership for a single piece of land could now be held by as many as 12 people. Signatures were extracted by payment of whatever worked - small sums, bottles of liquor, force, threats.
Piecing together various bits of information over the three years I have been dealing with Bharat, my sense is that he paid an average of Rs. 45,000 per 'naali' of land - where a naali is the local measure, approximately 200 square meters. The sale price he was able to command was in the region of Rs. 300,000. This amount of arbitrage is the surest sign of an inefficient market; in this system, the inefficiency stems from 3 factors:
-firstly, the lack of transparency of data. I have several times tried to obtain similar data from the patwari and tehsil: I have been told the data is not available, or they are not permitted to release it.
-secondly, consolidating land titles and holdings should be a routine revenue task; our British rulers carried it out regularly, but it is something our adminstration has shirked.
- thirdly, the fact that the joint-holders are so scattered, and difficult to contact. The latter is changing, as most families now have at least one cell-phone, and the former is due largely to the second set of factors.
The net result is that the system has created a milieu in which huge value accrues to a 'fixer'. I had seen the value to consolidating the land around me by the mid-90s, and was on-site, as it were. Having made some efforts, I discovered that the administrative costs were too high; in other words, the system is rewarding, not foresight, but the ability to extract information from holders of public office, and extort signatures to title.
In one moment of heart-to-heart conversation with my wife, Bharat had spoken to her of his ambition - "I am trying to make lots of money, fast, so I can fund my elections*". So that, I guess, he can make even more lots of money. Sounds like Mayawati. Bharat often tried to get into conversation with my wife - he is part of the lower echelons of the Congress Party, and knows that her aunt is the Governor of his state of Uttarakhand, and a long-standing senior functionary of the Congress.
Once, he called me to ask whether I could take up with the said aunt a 'file' concering a friend's relative who was a government servant, currently employed in Andhra Pradesh, seeking a transfer to Uttarakhand. I said I had never asked my aunt-in-law for favours, and never intended to. "I understand", he said, "lekin hammey to yeh sab karna padta hai - ham political type ke hain, na."
This is the construction of 'political work' at the grassroots - someone who can game a contorted, opaque system, and trade favours. As long as this is the reality of our governance, only the Bharats who are best at this game will rise to become Councillors, MLAs, and MPs. If they are truly masterly at the game, they will become Kalmadis. And it will require talent of the most vaultingly ambitious kind to become a Mayawati, or a Sharad Pawar.
Anna Hazare and Kejriwal burning some paper in Delhi will do little to transform this reality.
* In this behaviour, Bharat is conforming to type. In a paper in The World Financial Review, Bibek and Laveesh write:
The 5th Report of the Administrative Reforms Commission quotes from the Vohra Committee Report and we end on that sobering and unsatisfactory note. “An organized crime Syndicate/Mafia generally commences its activities by indulging in petty crime at the local level, mostly relating to illicit distillation/gambling/prostitution in the larger towns. In port towns, their activities involve smuggling and sale of imported goods and progressively graduate to narcotics and drug trafficking. In the bigger cities, the main source of income relates to real estate – forcibly occupying lands/buildings, procuring such properties at cheap rates by forcing out the existing occupants/tenants etc. Over time, the money power thus acquired is used for building up contacts with bureaucrats and politicians and expansion of activities with impunity. The money power is used to develop a network of muscle-power which is also used by the politicians during elections.”9 There are no easy answers to this problem.