Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fundamental Duties : A Rethink

At the outset, let me state that I am not a very big fan of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). I do hold the opinion that none of the parties in India are secular (and possibly can’t ever be), and the BJP is possibly the biggest one to openly admit that they are not entirely secular. But irrespective of party lines, I do respect individuals who I personally feel, deserve to be respected. Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a person who I hold in the greatest respect from the party. To me, he is someone who transcended the line of a politician and grew to the stature of a statesman. I candidly admit that till a few months before, I did not have a very positive opinion about Mr. Narendra Modi. Even during the heights of the campaign for general election of India this year, Mr. Modi, in my opinion, exuded hope for the people, but courtesy of the often disappointing political class of India, I mentally had a block of skepticism towards Mr. Modi and the party he represented. And to most other political parties and individuals in the fray. But his words and deeds since forming the Union Cabinet of India three months ago (from the date of this post), seem to me, to be statesmanlike.

The biggest contribution to that change of image of Mr. Narendra Modi in my mind, was the speech he made from the ramparts of the Red Fort, on the occasion of the sixty eighth Independence Day of the Republic of India. That speech reminded everyone of one great aspect for every citizen – that the Government needs me, you and everyone else to build and strengthen India. My respect for Mr. Modi shot up a few notches when, in an era of government sponsored freebies and goodies, he stressed that it was not, and should not always be a one way traffic, from the government of the day to the people. There have been many aspects of that speech that have been analyzed in detail by the media in India and worldwide, but this specific aspect made me to pen down my thoughts.

I am no expert in history but I assume the notion of “Me doing something for the state, not expecting much in return” would've been one of the platforms of India’s struggle for independence. And after attaining independence, the Constitutional Assembly authored the Constitution of India, a document to the newly formed state that was expected to be the Bible. The Constitution promised every citizen a number of fundamental rights. The rights were supposed to be equal to every citizen of India, and there have been famous court judgments that have criticized the governments or punished the culprits on instances of violation of fundamental rights of an individual (or an ethnic or religious group) by someone or the government of the day. In fact, Mr. Modi himself has been dragged to court over litigation on these. But among the clamor and commotion over the rights guaranteed to me by the Constitution, somewhere as decades passed post-independence, I conveniently forgot about another aspect – fundamental duties.

The Constitution of India mentions a total of eleven fundamental duties of every citizen of India. To quote a few, they obligate all Indians to promote a spirit of brotherhood, protect public property, abjure violence, respect the national symbols of India, and so on. However, fundamental duties are non-justifiable. The Constitution merely exhorts every citizen to follow this, but there is no legal sanction on non-compliance of any of these. And that, I have come to believe, is where the convenient forgetfulness of the Indian citizen started. He forgot that he was supposed to promote a spirit of camaraderie with his co-citizens, and he became narrow minded. Protection of public property became much less of a priority for him. All those and much more, because yes, he knew he was duty bound, but somewhere his attitude became “If my neighbor can do it, I can also do it. And if I stop doing it, will it change the schema of things in this country?”

To add to fuel to the fire, the political class migrated as well. Jawaharlal Nehru used to stress upon the role of every citizen in building the India he dreamt of. Somewhere, his posterity turned the tables around. Somewhere along our progression as a nation, the “leaders of the masses” starting downgrading the importance of this and increasingly started stressing on the aspect of the state giving to its people. The political class of the country pledged more and more to the citizens and mentioned less and less about what the citizens are obliged to give to the state.

Get it right – no government can take care of the needs (and often greeds) of over a billion people. It is against all theories of economics, ethics and pragmatism. In my opinion, every citizen is morally obligated to give back to the state in a degree he or she can. There could be a lot of arguments about how to give, what to give and so on, but I wish to stress upon only two examples here. They are, by no means, exhaustive, but to me, each one points to a unique aspect of the concept of India which was great at the time our founding fathers proposed it, but which, as a result of constant and blatant misuse, is in dire need of revision after more than six decades of their proposal and implementation. The two examples are that of subsidy on petroleum products and the concept of reservation based on caste. I would like to present a brief case on how I, as an individual, could put in my two cents to these issues, as my fundamental duty.

India has been subsidizing the petroleum products her citizens’ use, possibly since Independence. I do not know if the subsidies extend beyond Petrol, Diesel, Kerosene and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), but I’ll confine the discussion to this four. India was conceived as an economy which was supposed to be a mixed bag of capitalist and communist ideologies. And around the time of independence, the people dependent on the heavily agricultural economy were poor in majority, most of them would’ve struggled to make their ends meet. At that point of time, when there were a large majority of people deserving it, and subsidy on petroleum products would directly impact every household in the country. Imagine the impact of diesel subsidy on a farmer, who could save a lot of money on the tractor – for both tilling his land, and for transporting his produce to the nearby market or to a storage location. And when India en masse started switching over from inefficient wood to efficient LPG in her kitchens, LPG subsidy would’ve gone a long way in incentivizing and economizing her kitchen expenses. But we have come a long way from those days. One big difference between then and now is the emergence of a salaried class. A lot of them in fact, came from agricultural families. True, there still are the farmers, peasants and the marginalized classes of people (the proletarians, as they call them in Communist ideology) who might be in majority, but the salaried class (including people working in public and private sector) has emerged as a significant player like never before. And I argue that these people are the unnecessary beneficiaries of the subsidy regime. For a daily wage laborer or peasant who earns hardly Rs. 100 a day, subsidy for petrol and LPG is necessary and warranted. But for someone who earns upwards of, say, Rs. 30,000 a month (a totally imaginary figure), it is morally incorrect and unjustified to roll out subsidies. I can understand if someone on a simple motorbike, commuting to work gets subsidized fuel, but I, for all my brains, fail to understand when a chap in a Harley Davidson motorbike or in a sedan car enjoy the same benefit.

This is where I would argue that fundamental duty should come in. If I fall in the upper tax bracket, I should consider it a fundamental duty of mine that I should voluntarily give up LPG subsidy. That sense of voluntariness will not come by default. As I mentioned earlier in the article, various factors have made us forget our duties, and we would need a bit of coercion to move in that direction. An interesting article recently by Mr. Ishwari Bajpai, a senior journalist at NDTV, hits the nail right on the head when he mentions how the establishment can filter out the “affordable class” from the subsidy list. That is a bit stringent in the measures it proposes, but the intention is indeed noble. Even though I believe this should be done more on a voluntary note, with a sense of duty towards the nation, I should expect that to happen in a Utopian world. To quote from the article, he mentions a few potential steps for the government to identify people to be removed from the subsidy program:
  •  All government servants including those in the armed forces and railways, PSU employees earning more than Rs. 30,000 a month (an arbitrary number, again).
  • In a city like Delhi, where house tax rates are determined by "class of colony" no delivery of LPG at subsidized rates to Class A and B.
  • Work with the local motor vehicle authority and eliminate the 21 million car owners from the subsidy list.

The other facade I wished to cover here, is the topic of caste based reservation. Again, historically, this was highly relevant in a society where untouchability and caste based discrimination was rampant, and if we were to bring those sections of the society on par with everyone else, they needed that extra incentive, that extra push to propel them forward. And India needed them, as she needed every citizen of hers, to move forward for the nation to progress. Something that was initiated as a step towards nation development, stooped down to become a strategy of caste based appeasement. The concept of reservation is very powerful, if it is applied in the true spirit – one of uplifting a section of society from centuries of oppression to being players in building a modern nation. And thus, it is quite warranted that one or two generations of those who have been oppressed for centuries, reap the benefits of the scheme. But, on a realistic note, it has been over six decades since the policy has been put in place. A significant majority of the people who have deserved it, have used it to empower themselves, thereby, in turn, empowering the nation. But, to quote Shakespeare, “something starts to rot in the State of Denmark” when generations, one after another, keep using this policy, crossing over from use to abuse. If someone has benefited from reservation during the term of his education and/or employment, it is imperative that he not use the same policy for his child/children. The intention of the law was to bring a section of society to speed with the nation. The fact that someone has benefited from it, that someone has achieved success educationally and/or professionally implies that the purpose of reservation is served for him and his descendants. He or she should make it an obligation towards the nation that they will not use the extra privileges granted to them by the Constitution again. I know it is a big ask, but this is the very fundamental duty I mentioned earlier which every citizen has to perform. There are a significant number of our population who still need reservation for making them a part of nation building, shouldn’t you and I be making sure that we bring them forward, rather than keep abusing the reservation system so that generations of the same set of people keep using it?

Human resources they say, are a state’s greatest strength. Let us realize that we might need to make some sacrifices to keep it that way. As the incumbent Prime Minister said, if each of one hundred twenty five crore populace of India keep a step forward, it would be equivalent of the state of India putting one hundred twenty five crore steps forward. Let us ensure that we keep that one step forward for our country, irrespective of whether our neighbor keeps it forward or not. I just mentioned two facets of our democracy which I believe need to be examined by every (responsible) citizen, in an individual capacity. Let me do what I can for the country which cared for me, irrespective of what my neighbors may or may not do. A considerable amount of effort would be needed to orchestrate this turnaround of mindset. Mr. Narendra Modi has created the spark, let me conclude with the hope that the establishment and the people take this forward – one step at a time, one person at a time. If that could be done, India will owe a lot to the incumbent Prime Minister.

FOOTNOTE : I’ve been inspired by two articles which came on NDTV. The articles, authored respectively by Mr. Harish Khare and Mr. Ishwari Bajpai, can be referenced here and here.

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