ECONOMY

The Broken Institutions Of The Indian State

India’s criminal justice system is in the dock itself. Its latest and most severe indictment is how callously Father Stan Swamy died in its care.

The facts are searing. India’s mighty state got so scared of an ill, 84-year-old priest and tribal-rights activist that the National Investigating Agency strained every sinew to keep him incarcerated. It vindictively denied him even a straw and sipper to manage his Parkinson’s ailment.

The agency had finished interrogating him. His trial had not begun. An extremely contagious pandemic was felling old people by the hundreds of thousands. Reasonable doubts were cast by a credible international publication that hackers had planted the so-called ‘clinching’ evidence in his computer, thereby perhaps trapping him in a false case. An honest criminal justice system would have at least taken cognisance and investigated the truth of these allegations.

Meanwhile, a civilised society would have released the frail octogenarian on tough bail conditions, keeping him secure and under surveillance. Unfortunately, his pleas fell on deaf ears, and he died. Similarly accused and vulnerable citizens – among them Varavara Rao, Sudha Bhardwaj, Hany Babu, Gautam Navlakha – are facing the same threat. This should jolt the conscience of the criminal justice system into remedial action. It would be an infinitesimally tiny atonement for Fr Stan Swamy.

Fr Stan Swamy’s tragic case should be the last straw to break our cruel criminal justice system’s back. Because too many of its atrocities have been censured and indicted in the past few weeks. Giving bail to three student activists of the Pinjra Tod movement, the Delhi High Court said “in its anxiety to suppress dissent, the state has blurred the line between the right to protest and terrorist activity”. If such a mindset gains traction, it would be “a sad day for democracy”.

In yet another order, the court was “gravely concerned” at how governments have begun to speak lies in court. “It appears false claims are raised with impunity because there is no accountability of any government officer … courts seldom take any action against a person.”

In fact, the Supreme Court said it’s “terrible and distressing” that police is invoking Sec 66A to arrest people for social media posts even though it was struck down in 2015. “Shocking is the right word to use. What is going on is distressing.”

Finally, the system’s excesses seem to be triggering judicial outrage. The night had descended to its darkest point, and either the darkness would have swallowed all virtue, or as the saying goes, dawn is at hand.

Besides the criminal justice system, which is another state instrument that is also totally broken? India’s vast and unaccountable public sector companies. In the just-concluded second decade of the 21st century, India’s PSUs have lost over Rs 3 lakh crore of taxpayers’ – i.e., yours and mine – money. Their market value has crashed by half even as private stocks have doubled!

Perhaps the primary reason for this sorry performance is the government’s stranglehold. Over a third of all independent directors on PSU boards are political leaders of the ruling party. Most have been defeated in recent polls, so have been given a board position as a palliative, a sinecure. They bring no expertise or vision, but influence contracts and tenders, all the while copiously consuming the enterprise’s resources, whether cars, or guest houses, or travel perks.

Now guess which cabal runs the politicos a close second in grabbing board seats of private and public sector companies? You guessed it – India’s hallowed civil servants led by the IAS. In fact, the truly blessed ones retire, become chiefs of key regulatory bodies, and after re-retiring, find a place on the boards of companies they once regulated! The most sought after are officers who served in economic ministries, followed by stints in regulatory bodies like SEBI (securities board), RBI (central bank), CCI (competition overseer) and IRDAI (insurance authority).

It’s a breath of fresh air when India’s policymakers lead, rather than follow, global practices. We curse them so often for being ostriches in understanding and harnessing modern economic trends that we must celebrate when they actually are trendsetters. I am talking about the newest global regulation, ie a minimum corporate tax rate of 15%. Well, India was early in mandating both for domestic companies. What’s even better, India was once isolated as it slapped an equalisation levy on cross-border digital sales, disparagingly called the “Google tax” by disagreeable westerners. But today, India’s been vindicated. Now every major economy in the world will look to tax multinationals that sell more than a million euros worth of goods and services locally. With this, India’s “Google tax” gets a universal footprint. Well done.

Raghav Bahl is Co-Founder – The Quint Group including BloombergQuint. He is the author of three books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’, and ‘Super Century: What India Must Do to Rise by 2050’.

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