A Wishlist For 2008

Pragati, January 2008

The cover story of the latest issue of Pragati is by me, and though I carry it in full below, I encourage you to download the full issue (pdf link), as it has some excellent articles. You can also find archival issues here.

To survive in India, I sometimes think, one needs to be a wishful thinker. There is much about India that is beautiful and inspiring, but there’s quite as much that is terribly frustrating. For decades since our independence, we have languished as a poor country – and even though we opened up parts of our economy in 1991, much of the country is still desperately poor. Our imperial overlords handed over power in 1947 to a government that was almost as oppressive – one that we now take for granted. There are so many ways in this could be a better country, even a leader among nations.

So as 2008 begins, I present to you my wishlist for the new year. This is all fantasy – none of these wishes may actually come true this year. But they give us something to aim for, and hopefully we’ll get there one day – and truly be a free country.

1. Get over the religion of government. For all our problems we turn to government. This is folly. Government consists of human beings as fallible as us, in whose hands we place enormous amounts of power and money. What’s more, the incentives of these people are aligned towards increasing their power and their budgets, and not necessarily towards serving us. We should stop empowering it with our blind faith, and demand that it lifts all restrictions on private enterprise – there is no surer route to prosperity.

2. Start questioning taxes. If you were forced to work for the government for four months of the year, you would call it slavery. Paying one-third of our income in taxes is no different – and yet we do not protest. Most of this is wasted by the government in tasks it has no business doing. Sure, taxes are necessary to sustain a government that defends our rights and provides some public services – but our government does far, far more. Let us at least start questioning this, and not demand government spending for everything as if that money comes from the skies, and carries no cost.

3. Abolish most of our ministries. Most ministries are redundant. (For example, the ministry of information and broadcasting.) We should do away with them. Those worried about how those ministers or civil servants would be employed can donate their own money to support them, and not force it on others.

4. Support free speech. As long as giving offence is a crime, free speech becomes redundant. We should do away with Section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and amend away the caveats placed on free speech in Article 19 (2) of the constitution. And those who claim to support free speech should not be hypocrites about it: both MF Husain and the Danish cartoonists deserve our support.

5. Stop punishing victimless crimes. Let us respect individual choice, and not punish any act that does not infringe on someone else’s rights. Section 377 of the IPC, which effectively criminalizes homosexuality, should be scrapped. And we should rethink our attitudes towards prostitution and drugs – we would be able to protect the rights of prostitutes and drug users better if they were legal.

6. Make the right to property a fundamental right. Well, it started out that way. Then, in 1978, with the 44th Amendment, it ceased to be one. It needs to be reinstated, so that battles for justice as at Singur, Nandigram and even Narmada can be fought on the basis of principle, not emotion.

7. Oppose all tariffs and subsidies. They all amount to forced charity – certain producers benefit at the expense of us consumers. We don’t owe those producers a living.

8. Stop trying to protect the corner store. Same principle as above. Businesses exist for the benefit of consumers, not the other way around. If – and it is a big if – consumers abandon kirana stores and shift to big retailers, we will do so because we save money and time doing so. We will do something else with that money or time, and the economy will accordingly benefit. That is how economies grow – through the voluntary and unrestrained actions of consumers and producers. We shouldn’t mess with that process.

9. Fund schooling, not schools. Our education system has failed because parents have no choice. Two things can change this. One: We should allow private schools to open and run without any conditions at all. Two: Instead of funding schools, we should give school vouchers to parents, empowering them with the power to choose whichever school they want for their kids. 

10. Stop assuming that Big Business = Free Markets. Big businesses don’t often speak in the interest of free markets. Typically, they lobby politicians for protectionist policies that protect them from competitors. We should be wise to this, and should not confuse cronyism for free markets. The biggest beneficiaries of economic freedom – We, the People – should take it upon ourselves to fight for them.

11. Stop playing cards. Earlier this year, the Congress pulled off a supposed coup by playing the gender card in the presidential elections. Elsewhere, we have played the Dalit card, the Muslim card and so on. Enough already. The business of running the country is not a game.

12. Stop tolerating mobs. An individual can’t get away with burning a bus, but collect a mob, and anything goes. Especially in the name of religion. We should be more tolerant of the diversity around us, and of free speech, and completely intolerant of mobs. 

13. Realise that Hindutva is not equal to Hinduism. As Ranjit Hoskote once wrote: “[T]he roots of Hindutva do not lie in Hinduism. Rather, they lie in a crude mixture of German romanticism, Victorian puritanism and Nazi methodology.”

14. Bring delayed justice to the victims of past massacres. Let us bring to justice the perpetrators of New Delhi 1984, Mumbai 1992-93, Gujarat 2002 and Nandigram 2007. Let us not let politics get in the way, and shout against one or the other.

15. Reform agriculture. Around 60% of our country depends on agriculture and allied sectors for a livelihood. This is unsustainable – the figure in developed countries is closer to 5%. There are a variety of ways to reform agriculture, such as allowing farmers to sell agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes and removing the restrictions placed on farmers that prevent them from selling their produce outside a limited area. But what farmers really need is alternative career options, for which:

16. Remove all restrictions on business. Let’s dump all that’s left – and there’s a lot of it – of the License and Inspection Raj, reform our labour laws, carry out product market liberalization and, essentially, remove all restrictions on free enterprise. Then we can finally become the manufacturing superpower we should have been 30 years ago, and provide feasable options for our beleaguered farmers.

17. Demand more of our politicians. Our prime minister is 75 years old. The main leader of the opposition is 80. Most young politicians in the country are scions of politican families. None of them have expressed any new ideas. For India’s sake, let’s set higher standards for the people who run our country.

Phew. That’s a long list, and I’m sure any reader of Pragati could easily double it. There is so much to do, and so little will. And yet, it is important to keep shouting from the rooftops about what India needs to fix, and Pragati will continue to do just that. Are you with us?

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On a lighter note, check out my earlier piece, A Blogger Looks At A WTF 2007.