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.