Thursday, December 22, 2011

My views on the Lokpal bill and the UID project

Something tells me I really shouldn't be writing posts like this one - what is about to follow is my 'critique' of the Lokpal movement - because I am a moron, untutored in the niceties of governance and administration, but I'm quite jobless at the moment and it's either write this post or die of boredom. Plus, rightly or wrongly, I feel strongly about this.

I'll make my point in a slightly roundabout way, with an anecdote.

Many years ago, I had a customer, for whom I made press tools, who was a supplier of sheet metal components to an appliances manufacturer.

This manufacturer had product lines which included televisions, refrigerators, washing machines and air-conditioners.

My customer, a small one-man-show, used to supply components to both the washing machine plant and the air conditioner plant.

One day, he was raided by the Preventive Department of the  Central Excise Collectorate who accused him of mis-labeling air-conditioner parts as washing-machine parts.

He protested. He showed them purchase orders from the customer, showing part numbers, produced drawings corresponding to those part numbers which clearly mentioned the model of the washing machine the parts were going into, and even correspondence about them.

The Preventive Department - scary looking gents they were - menacingly told him to save his breath.

"This does not mean anything, these drawings and purchase orders" their superintendent told him. "It's probably fabricated in order to evade duty"

After an hour or two - I was there, for moral support - the officials, who were sitting at my customer's table while all of us were standing around, terrified, summoned him into the cabin.

I went along, because this chap was white as a sheet and I was worried he might collapse.

The superintendent grimly told us that the duty rate differential was 70 percent and going by the production figures, and assuming this had been going on since the factory started, he would raise a duty demand of ten lakh rupees, with a like amount as penalty, and interest thereon.

"Thirty, thirty five lakhs it could be. You'll have to pay half the demand and then fight the case" he said.

My customer went limp and even more white. I propped him up, wondering whether to ask the chaps for a seat. They showed no inclination.

Then the inspector, the superintendent's subordinate, put a friendly arm around my customer and took us both outside the room.

"Look, the sahib is not a bad person. I'll talk to him. We'll discuss and come to a reasonable understanding"

The cookie crumbled, for me at least, though my customer still looked like a dying duck.

We finally settled at a very reasonable payment of one lakh rupees, with a monthly honorarium of five thousand rupees, to prevent the preventive department from replaying this scene.

I remember my customer weeping bitterly after this episode. Huge racking sobs. "What wrong have I done?" and "Why me?" were the major themes of his anguish.

And the very next year, a chap named Manmohan Singh - I think it's the same guy who's PM now, though I wouldn't swear on it - as finance minister, rationalized duty rates for excise. Many things, including washing machine parts and airconditioner parts, ended up having same or nearly the same rates of duty.

He also made rules preventing random raids by preventive departments unless there was probable cause, backed up by some preliminary investigation and a sanction from a senior officer.

And my customer stopped paying his honorarium to the excise department.

This, in my humble opinion, is what needs to be done to curb corruption. Simplification of administrative procedure, transparency and accountability. The Lokpal bill is just going to put another layer of vultures on top of the existing ones. The existing ones feed on the corpse of the nation. The Lokpal will feed on what it can snatch from the existing vultures.

One of the things that could possibly have gone a long way towards curbing corruption, the UID Bill, has been quietly killed, unnoticed by the fierce watchdog  that is Team Anna.

The UID bill was clever. It merely sought to record biometric data of individuals. That was it. Just record the biometric data, tag the individual, and make the data available nationwide.

The great P Chidambaram, among others, realized that this data could someday attach itself to bank accounts, propery records, financial transactions and overseas travel.

Suddenly, there would be no place to hide when an investigation happened. At the press of a key, everything would come gushing out. Your accounts, your lockers, your lands, your flats, your shareholdings in companies, everything.

They were horrified. And they dug out a whole bunch of very technical reasons why the project had to be abandoned. (here's an article about those reasons )

The arguments are essentially that UID will violate privacy, that the project is not technically feasible, that it is not financially feasible and that it wasn't approved by the Parliament.

Violate privacy? Well, all they've recorded is my name and address along with my photograph, fingerprint and retina scan.

Technically unfeasible? It seems that in a large population like ours, there are likely to be people who have the same biometrics. Pshaw!

Financially unfeasible? Costs some 1500 cr, it seems. Chicken feed compared to the 6,00,000 crores or whatever we're cheerfully planning to  bust up over the food security bill, no? Or the 1,00,000 cr oil deficit.

No, the harder I think about it the more it seems likely that the powers that be have figured out that the UID is going to make their lives tough and have very neatly pushed it out of their way for several years atleast.

My apologies once again for inflicting all this half-baked reasoning on you, especially if you happen to disagree with it. One of those days when I'm feeling very morose.


bloggervv said...

A good explanation with the anecdote.

Kartikeya Agate said...

Well said sire

Anonymous said...

obviously. everybody knows this.

Anonymous said...

Lokpal, well put, UID, not so much..anyway, what the hell..makes for a good afternoon reading!! (also, now i can sound intelligent in the next team meeting!!)

Anonymous said...

After I read this I wanted to ask you: "Who are you and what have you done with our dear Naren?" :)

On a serious note though, it was a thought provoking piece. Thanks for writing it.

Karadi said...

"I think it's the same guy who's PM now, though I wouldn't swear on it" - hahaha

Arya Yuyutsu said...

I began reading this ready to take arms against another git who thinks the anti-corruption movement is ridiculous because Anna is a turd. Or some shit like that.
I'm pleasantly surprised and pleased now. I think the article was great, and the UID explained very clearly. I completely agree with you.
But I do believe we need to protest and demand a change, and the possibly push the UID plan forward to make things happen. That said, I'm sitting in an office, in Paris, just typing this on a wonderful blog post that I read post-lunch. What the eff am I doing about making a difference anyway eh?
Good work though. :)

Aarya Gupta said...

What the Comman man is witnessing is is not a slugfest but a war between Italian Mafia backed Congress led by their leader Sonia Gandhi and "Aam Admi" led by their illustrious 74 old Nationalist leader Shri Anna Hazare.

Now, when HM MR. Chhidu is mocking UP CM and asking from where will the money come from for division of UP state, she must promptly remind him that as when as FM in 2008 made the nation to suffer loss of Rs.1.76Lacs Crores in 2G Scam and his valued Colleague FM Mr. Pranab is raising hands in Parliament and telling the nation that nothing much can be done to bring the Black Money stashed abroad, then from where he can expect the funds to fulfill the aspiration of "Aam Admi" of UP and other states of Union.

Muser said...

This is what exactly arguing about with my husband only you put more eloquently! We don't need another level of bureaucracy... :)

Shashank said...

Good read...Like the example too.

Giribala said...

It is all right to inflict all this reasoning with confidence! :D

Anonymous said...

A good read! I was suprised that your blog has so far not been eaten by trolls.

I agree that UID will go a long way in solving many troubles. And I also agree that the govt is probably trying to bury UID.

But not all of the concerns raised are unfair - We currently do not have a good privacy law protecting digital law. Such a law definitely needs to be passed before UID becomes a reality.

Anonymous said...

Chief, nothing half-baked about this!

Glad we agree on Lokpal and you've illustrated it so effectively with that anecdote. Compelling.

On UID - technically it's not totally dead yet. When I read the standing committee's cribs, the most startling to me was their assertion that there was no clear purpose. Wow, imagine such a huge undertaking and no one *really* knows what it was for (or so they claim). The other issue was related to a duplication of data collection efforts which lead to unnecessary costs. Here I totally agree with you that those costs are small compared to the govt's other socialist initiatives.

They also took a risk by taking the huge, significant and admirable step of mapping out India's billion+ but making it a voluntary scheme! I assume they did this because it hadn't been ratified by Parliament. Clearly, they were asking for trouble.

In theory, UID is a great idea, much better and more practical than the Lokpal.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of Anna but I'm definitely "IN" for IAC. IMO jan lokpal bill is important ... UID will help for corruption at ordinary man's level but it won't help for politicians doing big "gaflas". I would be interested in understanding from Narendra, how he thinks UID will avoid having tons of money + properties outside country.

Bishoyi b said...

Dear,writer. I thank you for putting this piece of information. But i like to add here, lokpal bill is not a new phenomenon. It has to passed from 40 years back. Anyhow it would have passed. So far there is not like anna brought this bill. Without IAC'S Or people's agitation this bill would have passed and became a burden for our country without giving any benefit(another bureacratic problem as you mentioned). But bringing this agitation to the street it helps to bring a strong useful legislation otherwise no bill at all. I hope you got my point, unless you can always put your counter view. But i pray at you to think again and please support this movement or just oppose a weak bill atleast.. Regards

Coconut Chutney said...

Loved the anecdote. Having studied what I did, I saw this all the time but wasn't allowed to talk about it because they were 'necessary procedures'!. Glad you did.

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Rajesh V said...

You should consider adding one of those passive ways of completely agreeing with every single word in your post, a la the Facebook like or the Google plus +1 (ghastly name, yes). It is a testimony to the incredibly accurate hitting the nail on the head in this article that I cannot really add anything more. Perfect. And thanks.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the sensible arguments against the Lokpal bill, you fear of creating another layer of babus is a dreading thought.

But,being from a semi-urban area, I must tell you that the policies of a late 90s have not done much. There is destitution , not so good health care system and the quality education remains a dream.. so many...

In a true sense, the so called politicians know, for the fact, what kind of law works and what will not, for they have been in this field since long. if they were of any sensible standing, they should have used the momentum built by Anna's to bring about more a comprehensive framework of governance which would reduce the pilferage and day light robbery like 2G scam that is rampant.

When you completely dismiss the idea of Lokpal, you should also need to check if there are any countries which have any of these ombudsman in place today. Hongkong is one country which has it, and it is working absolutely fine.

all in all, I believe, the government and the politicians need to rise above the party politics and self serving mechanisms to strive for the betterment of the country.

Anonymous said...

auditing and accountability are the exercises are sure fetters on development, but they are must

walk don't run said...


Sanjukta said...

I have been following your post for a long time and let me say that I like reading your stuff. This is the first time I am commenting and your comments are so similar to my views about the subject. I hope that some day the nation will stop adding unnecessary cream on the top and concentrate on making the base solid.

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Nirali N said...

Brilliantly put , somewhere i feel the same but couldn't be able to express it so well :D
Awesome i'm always waiting for you to write more . Cheers

Anonymous said...

Quick question: Are you also against the IT dept or CBI or CVC as these are also additional layers in the system?

December chills said...

Well said about a serious issue..On UID Our politicians and opponents are saying like its the biggest problem we are facing.We need UID to curb corruption..

Dibyojyoti said...

Whatay brilliant post Sir! Also, if the fact that the UID data would be made public was so much of an issue, they could have simply restricted access to it. Kind of like what they have done with the Quattrochhi case and millions of other 'public' trials till now. Hm? Ok never mind. :P

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i mentioned your blog =)