Thursday, July 05, 2007

Public ethics, July 1, 2007

We have been feeling pretty down recently after perhaps the most popular president in Indian history is about to be dethroned in unseemly backroom horse-trading. We have tried to console ourselves, saying that politics is competitive by nature and what else can you expect from political parties who are only ruled by self-interest. What finally lifted our spirits, however, was the news that our niece had landed a good job. She called to say that she had signed a lease for a lovely room at an ‘unbelievably low’ rent. But after two weeks she was in tears. She had arrived bag and baggage at her ‘new home’ to find that the villainous landlord had given away her room on a much higher rent. She blamed her plight on the ‘greed of capitalism’.

I told her that the landlord is not at fault for wanting more rent; he is guilty of breaking an agreement. She could go to court but it would take a lifetime to get justice. What had failed my niece was governance not capitalism. If our courts enforced contracts speedily, the landlord would not have dared. People behave more morally in the capitalist countries of the West because the rule of law allows one to be good. On the other hand, millions of workers in the government of India do not work because they have the ‘socialist’ guarantee of a lifetime job. Their moral failure, it seems to me, is far greater than the landlord’s.

My niece’s room hunting woes soon got submerged by murky reports that had the potential of gravely damaging the highest office in the land. Indeed, what should we make of the news that the front runner for the President, Pratibha Patil, had started a cooperative bank whose license was cancelled by the Reserve Bank four years ago? The bank, it seems, gave Pratibha’s relatives ‘illegal loans’ that exceeded the bank’s share capital. It also gave a loan to Pratibha’s own sugar mill which was never repaid. The bank waived these loans, and this drove the bank into liquidation. The government liquidator of the bank, P.D. Nigam, said this week, ‘The fact that relatives of the founder chairperson (Pratibha Patil) were among those indiscriminately granted loans and that some illegal loan waivers were done has come up in our audit’. Six of the top ten defaulters in Pratibha’s bank were linked to her relatives.

If these facts are true, then it is a serious moral lapse. If allegations against Pratibha Patil are just ‘mudslinging’ as the Prime Minister says, then the charges will not stick. However, if she does become President and the charges turn out to be true, then the citizens of India will punish the UPA government in the only way that they can, and that is by throwing it out at the next elections. In the meantime severe harm would have been done in diminishing the President’s office as well as the Indian nation.

Whether it is presidential or capitalist ethics, the starting point is the recognition that both democratic politics and capitalism are based on competition and this is what keeps people honest in the long term. Both democracy and capitalism are decentralized systems where no single person is in charge. Adam Smith wrote more than 200 years ago that when millions of self-interested individuals act in their own interest in the marketplace, an ‘invisible hand’ promotes the common good of society. However, institutions are not perfect and the examples of my niece’s landlord and the UPA presidential candidate teach us that ethics matter profoundly in our democratic capitalist system.

SEZs : A tipping point June,17, 2007

Budhadeb Bhatattacharjee, chief minister of West Bengal, must wonder what he did in his previous life to deserve Mamata Banerjee in this one. All his good work to make Bengal attractive to investors is beginning to unravel. Companies have begun to shy away from Bengal for safer, more attractive destinations. After Mamata threatened a few weeks ago to pull down their boundary wall, even the Tatas are worried and must rue their decision to build a car factory in Bengal. Most Indians, however, are confused by this debate, especially this animal called Special Economic Zones (SEZs).

SEZs are export zones to get around the problem of our bad infrastructure. Why do we need special zones--why not reform the whole country? It is not easy to reform in a democracy with vested interests; at our current pace, it will take 20 years to get there, and by then we shall lose another generation. But why restrict SEZs to exports? In an open economy with low tariffs, shouldn’t domestic activity be as valuable as exports, especially when we have plenty of foreign exchange reserves? True, but history teaches that industrial revolutions in all countries were led by exports. No country, not even China, has a large enough domestic market to shift its people rapidly from farming to industry.

Why not locate SEZs on India’s wastelands? The standing committee has also recommended it this week. SEZs should, in fact, come up on vast government lands beside ports and railways for easy shipment of goods. But why limit the size of SEZ’s to 5000 hectares? This is typical of the ‘license raj’ mentality-- keep Indian companies puny. Why give tax concessions in the SEZs? Our exporters suffer far more from poor roads, ports, power shortages and monthly bribes to rapacious inspectors. If you solved these problems, you wouldn’t need tax concessions. The global economy, alas, is not a level playing field. China’s exporters have a huge advantage with an undervalued currency, lower interest rates, and lower power and freight costs. Think of export tax breaks, therefore, as a way to level that field.

SEZs became controversial because the state acquired land from farmers and sold it to industry. Until Nandigram we did not realize how unfair this system was to the farmer. This is now set to change. Governments will not acquire land in the future. Although a new rehabilitation policy has not been announced, companies have taken the cue. Many have offered employment to one member of the displaced farmer’s family, and in a few cases even shares. Creating a market in land is a gut-wrenching process. Highland Clearances in Britain led to great misery, and our SEZ debate is a great tribute to our democracy.

In the end, however, the SEZ policy smells of the crony capitalism. Why should a minister have to give a SEZ license? We ought to have transparent policies instead of case by case approvals which only encourage bribes. Anyone should be able to start an SEZ, and then one day maybe India will become one big SEZ. Yes, the SEZ policy is deeply flawed. Nevertheless, I support it for it may be our ‘tipping point’ for a genuine industrial revolution. SEZs could create millions of jobs. When it comes to a choice between implementing a policy that is ‘75% right’ versus waiting for 100%, it is better to do something than nothing. This was also Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the Gita. Action is better than inaction. Babus usually prefer inaction to action, but Krishna was not a babu—he was a charioteer.