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The Many Routes to Corruption

Fellow columnist, friend, and editor of this space, Amit Varma, hit the button when he wrote last week that corruption is a manifestation of too much power vested in our politicians. Now Anna Hazare and his mob want power over the corrupt mob, by virtue of their self-proclaimed virtue.

I have no reason to doubt their squeaky cleanliness, or even their good intentions. But then, I didn't doubt those very attributes of the good doctor, Manmohan Singh. And we all know how that played out. Now the custodians of our nation and the custodians of our virtue are sitting down to draft a bill that will make us a less corrupt nation. Hah!

Meanwhile — and I love my food too much to fast for the right to shove this into parliament - here are the first three points on my bill to free our nation from the arbitrary powers of governance:

1. The premise that natural resources are the property of the state is like motherhood, or virtue — it seems impossible to attack. But this convenient iteration by our rulers allows them to wield enormous powers over the allocation of these resources, powers that lie at the heart of two of the most contentious economic battles in our nation: telecom spectrum, and petroleum product pricing. This formulation allows our courts to take sides with one brother against another, and give preferential rights to public sector undertakings, in the latter case extending the fiefdoms of our czars.

Remember that, unlike resources, the 'nation state' is an artificial construct; the entrepreneur, on the other hand, is a real person, who puts time, energy and material resources into tapping natural resources and channeling them into productive use. Giving the first supremacy over the second is a yogic headstand that causes you to see the world upside down, and has created corruption on a mind-boggling scale. In other nations, similar thinking has created some of the most repressive societies on earth — think Saudi Arabia. Instead, we need guidelines that encourage initiative, exploration, exploitation and economic activity, while allowing tax laws to channel some of the value thus added into the essential affairs of the state.

2. Land rights must be secure, clearly documented and unalienable, except by the explicit consent of the owner. Some of the most visible recent agitation in India has been a result of the nation state severely curtailing the individual's right to his property. This has been convenient for rulers who manage to find virtue in both forcing some people to part with their land, and in preventing others from doing so!

In the former category, think land expropriated for industrial development, and sold on at ten times the price, or for building infrastructure, including toll-roads and malls. In the latter, think green virtue, which wants to save forests by refusing to grant tribal land-owners the right to sell their meager lands. Or paternalism, which in some states says that Scheduled Caste farmers would get exploited if they were free to sell their land to all comers; to do so, they need to seek permission from district authorities — who, being virtuous souls, wouldn't dream of exploiting them.

And, while we're on the subject of land, let's find a way to wrest from state control the vast tracts of land that passed to it from the British Crown, and find fair ways to release it into productive economic use.

3. Members of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies need to be seen in the role conceived for them by our constitution - as rule-makers. Not as rule-breakers — a jibe I can't resist; but more importantly, not as dispensers of favour and fortune. Instead, the Local Area Development Schemes give each of our MPs and MLAs a fund to practice on a smaller scale the loot of public resources that their cabinet seniors conduct. Though minuscule in monetary terms, such schemes set up a patron-supplicant relationship between the elected representative and his constituency; among local businessmen, they allow the law-maker to choose favourites. Such relationships are unhealthy, undemocratic, and, most importantly, reinforce the sense that the role of politicians is to hand out favours and cash, rather than to frame sensible laws and supervise their enforcement.

The Lok Pal charade is about politics, about the sharing of power between the elected and the self-selected. It will do nothing to remove the root causes of corruption. Anna and his virtuous brigade have constrained the space for discussion of the contours of economic freedom; in fact, I would not be surprised if they find ways to insert more interventionist policies into their draft bill.

That gives me oodles of time to complete mine, with or without video-taping.

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