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Poverty is invisible when the curtains are drawn

D. Murali

BUREAUCRATS are rarely respected. Don't ask about politicians who call the shots. If you want to know why, hitch a ride with T. S. R. Subramanian on Journeys through Babudom and Netaland.

The book, published by Rupa & Co, is about governance in India, where TSR talks about the `growing subservience of the bureaucracy to the political system', and piecing together `the gradual decay in public administration'. This man from Thanjavur is dangerous, because you can't put down the book, and his stories that could outnumber the pages of the book can be gripping and spicy. Just a forewarning, for what it's worth.

"There is an unspoken conspiracy that India belongs exclusively to the ruling class, with the middle classes being the beneficiaries of the leftovers, and the poorest one-third left behind," writes TSR with anguish. "This is the post-Independence dharma of India."

If you were travelling in an AC compartment, "the bottom one-third of our population is invisible when the curtains are drawn." It is counted out in all calculations, and does not exist. Having been a witness to a system "whose innards have crumbled", TSR tells us the "tale of betrayal of the people of India".

There are, however, so many of those sub-tales: Criminal lawyer Pande who was the `vakil saheb' for all the dacoits in the region, cricket coaching in Ghazipur, and Chenna Reddy's evening visitors, to name a few. Interspersed are the author's observations. Thus, on judicial system, he says: It is meant for "the benefit of lawyers, the judiciary, the prosecutors, the investigators and the police. The litigants, the citizens of the country are bit players and are of no consequence".

On child labour: "With the massive illiteracy that pervades much of India, especially in the Hindi belt, families in rural areas can barely eke out a basic existence. They cannot afford the marginal cost of sending children to school, despite the process of the actual schooling being free. They cannot forego the marginal gain that comes out of the child's alternate occupation, however insignificant it may be."

On an affliction that is worse than corruption, "the widespread cancer of auctioning transfers, postings and recruitment for private gain": "How can one otherwise explain five changes in the position of chief executive officer in Noida in the course of the second half of 2002?"

To emphasise how research is often irrelevant to business needs, TSR cites at least two instances. The Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) that "did not cross the path of the leather industry" and the Silk Research Institute that had "very little interaction with the silk industry." Research papers meant for academic advancement get copiously produced, "to obtain overseas recognition, and sometimes to get assignments abroad."

Result: "Indian scientists in national agencies, do little for Indian industry, and that is such a waste." Also, he talks about "the poor treatment meted out to Indian scientists": Our system is designed to promote `mediocrity and sham', even when merit is `handed on a platter'.

It would be easy for a CA to trash the book as irrelevant because it doesn't talk about accounting and tax issues. Yet, give it a shot, because it is full of stories that can come in handy when you entertain your clients. And, without your knowing, those stories can also transform you to be more sensitive to public good.

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