PAYING THE PRICE OF DEMOCRACY

by: Indrajit Barua

 

On the eve of the swearing in of our newly elected government, the world woke up to the advent of Gen. Pervez Musharraf as the self appointed chief executive of Pakistan. The contrast between the two nations that gained independence at the same time was too striking to be missed. Gen. Musharraf has come out with a host of reasons to justify his coup d'état. The ends do not and can never justify the means. But something he said did strike an emotive chord in my heart.  This is what he said: we have struck rock bottom; we cannot sink any further; we must rise and rise we shall, by the grace of God."

My fellow citizens, we in Assam have also struck rock bottom. Our economy is in ruins, thanks to the bloated political and bureaucratic executives who do not generate any goods and services for the wealth they take away from us. There is no governance to speak of. Nothing is done in a government office without the benefit of a bribe. Our infrastructure is in a mess; the road system is in very bad shape; municipal services are almost non-existent; the electrical power system is on the verge of a total collapse; public sector units have eaten up their net worth, and .. this litany of things that have gone wrong has become a cruel joke on the people.  The two elections to Parliament have witnessed a debacle for the ruling party: not a single seat could be won by the AGP in two successive elections. In a silent rage, the citizens have struck back at their rulers - in the only manner left to them. If things go on in this way, the people will surely express their anger yet once again. But the problems besetting Assam will remain, for a change of the political executive is no guarantee that our fortunes will change for the better.

The weakness of our political executive has never been more obvious. The bureaucracy has proliferated beyond all good sense and reason. Assam with one-third the population of Andhra Pradesh has twice as many government employees. The gap between revenue income and the salary bill is currently at Rs. 130 crore per month. This gap will never be bridged in the given scheme of things; on the other hand, it will increase with every passing year.

Funds meant for developmental works are consumed in a routine manner to pay salaries. This huge cost of governance is a luxury we can no longer afford. Common sense dictates that expenditure should not exceed the tax realized, and that investments should not be less than borrowings and external aid funds. Thus, the very size of the government is its fatal weakness. The Union Government has asked some States (including Assam) that habitually live beyond their means to put an end to further recruitment in government departments. This is no doubt a sensible suggestion. But what is disturbing is that our state government has protested against this move, and that too on the grounds that banning further expansion of the bureaucracy will cause unemployment and social disorder. This wrong perception that government can go on expanding in size just to create employment is a gross error and is also a travesty of facts, for no one - governments included -- can go on living beyond their means for ever.

To make matters worse, the State Government has launched some ambitious new projects that are bound to lead to further economic distress in the given situation. The projects are such that they can never contribute anything to the State's income and will, on the other hand, consume whatever little funds are left for the improvement of infrastructure facilities like roads, schools, health care units and similar facilities which contribute to making life better for the citizens.

The only reason why we tolerate any form of authority - even democratically bestowed authority - is that we prefer to live in a regularly organized society where the authority - the government - is committed to improve the quality of life of its citizens. What we find here is that government exists only to make things better for those within the system. There is no accountability, no attempt at anything like good governance and no serious attempt to improve the quality of life of the citizens. The only issues that should concern us are the economic issues. It seems that our political executive does not understand economics and does not have any wish to learn. Until such time we have a political executive that understands and appreciates the necessity of sound economic policies, we are bound to be adrift rudderless in a world of our own making.

The first task of our government is therefore to downsize itself - to reduce its fat and flab that does the people no good. The reluctance of the political executive to cut salary bills will only exhibit its own weakness and insecurity. If the exercise is carried out in an even-handed and fair manner, the people will understand and appreciate that what is being done is for their long term good. Vested interest groups will of course protest, and political adversaries will try to take advantage of the situation. Governments routinely take unpopular measures like increasing taxes and the prices of administered commodities like petroleum products. Sounds of protest are heard, but governments do go on increasing taxes and prices nevertheless. The irrational fear that a social revolution will result because of job cuts in government is a bogey that politicians have used to buy votes. If the government takes the people - including its own employees and the opposition parties -- into confidence, there is a very good chance that bad blood could be avoided. The problem is that governments do everything in a secretive, ham handed and an officious manner and hurt everyone's feelings in the process. This is when political wisdom is needed -- to separate the chaff from the grain -- to tell the people that the government is living beyond its means, and that the time has come to put and end to such luxurious living to ensure our future survival.