Monday, August 25, 2008

Fair paying job

The intent of the Sixth Pay Commission is not quite problematic but implementation is key.

With the acceptance by the union cabinet of the recommendations of the Sixth Central Pay Commission (SCPC), five million employees working for the central government of India have finally been able to benefit from a wage restructuring after nearly a decade since the last such revision. This move should provide some relief to most of those working in the government sector, whose salaries do not compare that well with those of similarly positioned workers in the private sector, especially in the higher rungs. This wil soon be followed as before by the state governments too implementing the recommendations of the SCPC.

The recommendations in the SCPC highlight the necessity to reward qualitative performances and this is done through the instrument of the performance-related incentives scheme apart from the creation of running pay bands within groups of employees so as to avoid “stagnation”. The other emphasis in the recommendations is on incentives for employees who wish to retire after a minimum duration of service and on a gradual increase in pension benefits with age, apart from giving cognisance to reduction of gender biases in employment by provision of a better working environment and other pecuniary and gender-specific rules such as the availability of a larger number of days for maternity leave. These emphases need to be welcomed but proper implementation of the recommendations wuld be essential. A complaint of the defence forces that they have been discriminated against in the recommendation has been addressed with the provision of a special pay– albeit more at the junior/middle officer level and not for the jawans -- by the government in the final order.

As such, the intent in the recommendations is to provide a fair amount of compensation in government jobs through the instruments of the pay structure. Yet, such an exercise can only be successful if the implementation of the recommendations are in tune with the intent of the Commission. Critics of the public sector have argued that the SCPC's recommendations will not effect any change in the “system” as it is marked by corruption and wastefulness, but such a critique of the commission is misplaced as its brief was to lay out a rationalising structure of pay relative to performance and to provide for a recognition of skills and training as part of the structure. Corruption and reform of administrative structure of the government was not a part of the brief to be handled by the SCPC and they have to be targeted through other reforms in public administration.

There is the other critique that the pay commission's recommendations would perforce have too much of a fiscal impact on the centre's finances, by way of providing an average of 21 percent hike in the salaries of central government employees (as claimed by the government). The pay commission award would amount to nearly Rs 22,000 crores which would include the railway bill as well. The government's response that this fiscal pressure of Rs 22,000 crores has already been budgeted and factored in while calculating the targets for the fiscal deficit seems reasonable. The burden will no doubt be more on the state governments when they implement a similar revision.

There has, however, been resentment among certain sections of the labour force, particularly those in the lower rungs, that the increase in emoluments is not sufficient in comparison to those in the higher rungs. It is to be noted that the intent of the commission was to recognise skill upgrade and training, in contrast to the last Commission's emphasis on downsizing of government.

One problematic recommendation of the commission pertains to the effort to encourage early retirement through incentives such as full pensions based on a minimum level of service as opposed to full service. It would have been prudent for the government to raise the age of superannuation or at-least avoid the over-emphasis on downsizing on the basis of age, as there is no adequate proof to suggest that efficiency of the workforce is directly and inversely proportional to a decline in average age. This would also have given greater recognition to the rising life expectancy of the general population. As for the critique that the lower rungs of the public sector are paid too much in comparison to the private sector, it is to be borne in mind that spiralling inflation necessitates the emoluments currently paid to such workers apart from the fact that the private sector underpays lower skilled workers very poorly and those in the informal and unorganised sectors are paid a pittance.

At the same time, the effort has to be made to ensure that implementation of the recommendations do not tend to be subjective. This would mean judgement of performance and skill should be a decentralised exercise with adequate remedies, again an administrative detail beyond the purview of the Commission. In essence, the SCPC's recommendations and their acceptance by the government open up avenues for reforming the nature of government service by incentivising performance and at the same time provide emoluments and benefits of a fair order to those engaged in the service. It is now left to the means of administration to ensure that this intent is executed fairly and transparently.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Friday, August 22, 2008

Textbooks, Religion and Politics

An opportunistic opposition sets alight passions in Kerala, merely to embarrass the ruling Left coalition.

The class VII textbook controversy in Kerala has brought back memories of the Vimochana Samaram (liberation struggle) agitation that resulted in the dismissal in 1959 of the E M S Namboodiripad-led government by the Nehru-led Congress government in the centre. At that time it was a combination of religious groups along with the main opposition, the Congress, leading an agitation against an education bill that sought greater control for the government over the administration of educational institutions. Today it is the text of a chapter on religious tolerance and secularism in a social sciences school textbook that has brought similar groups together in opposition to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government.

The textbook presents concepts in social science in a critical and reflective manner and introduces students to social issues through various analytical exercises – all this apart from learning from history. One could ask if the contents, which are supposed to be part of the first of a series on social science, are presented too early in school learning. But having posed that question there is nothing in the contents that justifies the irrational and inflammatory passions that have been aroused by the political opposition in the state.

The chapter (in Malayalam school books) talks about a schoolboy, Jeevan (“life”) whose parents belong to two separate religions. At the time of Jeevan’s admission to school, his parents have not declared any religion for him and they suggest that he will be free to decide his religious faith when he grows up. Following this lesson is a series of quotes from history from a variety of sources: Jawaharlal Nehru’s will, and from religious texts about tolerance, and exercises for the students. The reaction to this chapter by the various forces such as the opposition Congressled United Democratic Front, some church organisations, Muslim groups and caste bodies has been a vociferous demand to withdraw the book, and street protests, in one case leading to the murder of a school headmaster in Areekode.

The government’s constitution of a committee headed by senior academic K N Panikkar to review the textbook ultimately led to some changes in the controversial chapter (the lesson was renamed ‘Freedom of Faith’ instead of ‘Jeevan with No Religion’ as in the original), amendments to correct errors in the quotations, and the inclusion of sayings on tolerance by other social reformers such as Sree Narayana Guru. These changes were more than token alterations and they went even further than what the Congress Party and its motley allies had initially demanded. They could even be seen as a mild rebuke of the LDF government. Though the government has accepted the recommendations of the committee, they have been rejected by the opposition who have now chosen to raise questions about the membership of the committee and have raised other irrelevant issues. The opposition has constituted its own “committee” and has also produced an “alternate” textbook. What else does this response say other than that the issue is not about a so-called state interference in faith but an insistence on fanning communal and religious passions to embarrass the ruling coalition.

The presence of normative values such as tolerance and the freedom to choose one’s faith as expressed in the Jeevan chapter has been interpreted by the opposition as an attempt by the LDF government to instil “atheism” and “communism” in the students through textbooks. Such an interpretation is plainly indefensible. Even if one considers that Kerala’s society is a mosaic of various religions and people are now showing increasing religiosity, the opposition to the textbook can be only seen as regressive, revealing a communal fear of religious tolerance.

The agitations on Jeevan have brought to the surface the traditional discomfort among religious and communal institutions in the state with the Left. Be it the issue of education reforms involving controls over self-financing institutions or efforts by the government to reform certain practices such as entry of women into certain temples, all these have been opposed by communal and religious groups. The dependence of the Congress Party and its allies on communal-caste organisations for support is now there for all to see. Yet, it is also a fact that after more than half a century the Left in Kerala has not yet learnt how to relate to the subterranean passions on religion and caste.

The question one can ask is how is it that a state like Kerala, which boasts of high social development indicators, can still arouse so much anger about the inculcation of values such as inter- religious marriage and freedom of expression of religion. Surely, this must be attributed to the lack of sufficient political work to defeat the obscurantist revivalism led by organised religious and caste groups in the state. Even the left organisations in the state have at times tempered their radical political discourse, so as to not to antagonise the entrenched religious outfits because of electoral considerations.

The relative defiance of the left led government in the textbook issue against the concerted efforts of a regressive opposition should be a good precedent for those who want to continue the social renaissance of Kerala, but more political work is required to halt the increasing influence of communal organisations in the state.

Editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

Monday, August 11, 2008

The way out in Zimbabwe

Cartoon courtesy, The Economist

Robert Mugabe's authoritarianism takes Zimbabwe into a downward spiral

From a freedom fighter who led Zimbabwe's movement for independence from British colonialism, to a ruler with an iron fist, refusing to honour democratic commitments, president Robert Mugabe has come a long way. Mugabe now presides over a Zimbabwe whose economy is in a tailspin with raging hyperinflation (in more than a million percentage points), 80 percent unemployment, food and essential commodity shortages and a nation wrecked by continuous violence unleashed by members of Mugabe's party, Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

In recently held presidential elections, Mugabe lost out in the first round to opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), but official results showed that Tsvangirai had not managed to get the mandated 50 +1 percentage vote to win outright. Tsvangirai refused to participate in the June run off because of daily violence unleashed by ZANU-PF on the opposition supporters even as Mugabe was declared winner in the sham polls.

Robert Mugabe was the hero of the liberation struggle against the British and became the prime minister of liberated Zimbabwe (only after a commitment to the erstwhile colonisers on a ten year moratorium on constitutional amendments). However following impressive social and developmental gains in the early years of liberated rule, Zimbabwe under Mugabe followed a reform programme with guidance from the IMF, a move that ultimately resulted in hardships for the vast poor and black majority. Faced with elections in 2000, Mugabe embarked upon land seizure from minority white farmers who controlled large farms part of a profitable export oriented cash crop economy and redistributed this land to the poor.

The main reason for the economic instability has been the anarchic manner in which Mugabe went about restructuring the lopsided agricultural land ownership in the country earlier in the decade. A handful of “white” owners had controlled the most productive land in the country and Mugabe's moves to appropriate the same triggered a flight of such owners away from the country. The land seizure and redistribution process was however chaotic with many intended beneficiaries hardly in knowledge of farming practices. Adduced to this anarchic measure was the steady system of cronyism and patronage that Mugabe had developed with many of the ZANU-PF leaders having a strangehold over institutions in the country.Mugabe and ZANU-PF have used repressive measures against urban workers, farm labourers and even the intelligensia to stem out any discontent against the regime.

The collapse of the cash crop economy and agriculture in general meant that Zimbabwe, a food surplus country was now a net importer. Shortages of essential commodities and some irrational monetary policies resulted in situation where hyperinflation took over. How Mugabe has managed to retain his support despite the grave economic situation that Zimbabwe is in today is most perplexing. The key to his support is the fact that many in the majority tribal group, the Shonas, particularly in the rural areas still look to Mugabe as an anti-imperialist saviour of Zimbabwe. But given the fact that the economic issues and shortages have touched even those people dependent upon subsistence farming, the MDC has managed to go beyond its traditional urban base and gain wide support. The ZANU-PF has retaliated with violence, while Mugabe has branded the MDC as agents of imperialism and has blamed economic sanctions by western countries (which were imposed on some of the leading members of the ZANU-PF) for the steady deterioration of the economy.

Owing to the chaotic economic conditions and the difficult conditions for the population, Mugabe is now forced to have talks with the MDC's leaders. South Africa has offered to mediate, but initial negotiations have yielded only a deadlock. It is now pretty clear that Mugabe's continuance in power with the support of his cronies in the ZANU-PF as well as the military is not going to solve the grave economic conditions in the country.The fact that Mugabe still commands a degree of support from the populace means that the best way out of the impasse is an initiative that involves both the ruling as well as the opposition parties in positions of power. .

Zimbabwe's experience as a post-colonial nation proves that the replacement of colonialism with authoritarianism has only disastrous consequences. A short term solution of a unity government featuring the MDC can bring about confidence back into investors, could restrain authoritarian impulses of the ZANU-PF leaders and eventually bring a halt to the downward spiral of the Zimbabwean economy. Strengthening democratic institutions and credible elections are a must to prevent a catastrophe of the nature unleashed by Mugabe's authoritarianism.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Monday, August 04, 2008

Setback for the left in Nepal

Article written for The Post, Lahore

Just as the trust vote in India saw dramatic intrigue featuring some dubious moves that ultimately mattered in the result (the government won the vote), the presidential election in post-monarchy Nepal came about with a thrilling climax. There was equal intrigue, deceit and backstabbing, sudden friends and instant enemies made in the presidential elections story, which saw the Maoists outsmarted, just as the leftists in India were unable to stop the nuclear deal’s operationalisation.

The Maoists had won the elections in April but the win was nowhere decisive. This resulted in a situation where the formation of a new government was put off till alliances were created that would ensure a numerical surety for whomsoever who had the majority claim. Initially there were attempts to generate consensus among the seven party alliance for the major executive posts (president, vice-president, prime minister and speaker). That consensus was elusive. The main losing parties in the constituent assembly elections, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified-Marxist-Leninist (UML) – were nowhere willing to partake in a consensual understanding with the Maoists. So after much haggling and drawn out processes of talking between every political party, some kind of understanding was worked out between the two largest leftist forces in the country, the Maoists and the UML. The idea was for the UML to get the post of president while the Maoists would retain the chief executive post of prime minister. It all looked hunky dory at this point of time till the UML announced its preferred choice for president.

Madhav Kumar Nepal is one of the senior-most communist leaders of not only Nepal, but the subcontinent. Coming of age in the Jhapa movement, he had steadily grown in the ranks of the party before eventually becoming the main leader of the UML in the mid- and late 1990s. He had however lost out in the recently held CA elections in both the constituencies where he had been fielded by his party. That in one stroke meant that he had lost moral authority to lead his party and he promptly resigned from the general secretaryship of the UML. Over the past few months since the elections, he had been replaced from the leadership by other leaders such as Jhalanath Khanal and had gradually faded away from the limelight, before the decision by his party to suddenly pitchfork his name for the post of president.

The Maoists were deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Madhav Nepal as the president for many reasons. For starters, they perhaps wanted someone who was not part of the old political guard that dominated Nepali politics in the 1990s and the 2000s; which ruled out Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress and Madhav Nepal for the largely ceremonial post. The Maoists were also keen on pitching a Madhesi face for president, to mark a symbolic break in the history of Nepal with a name from the plains for the highest (if purely ceremonial) constitutional post in the country. They were also thinking of arranging the executive posts (president, vice-president, prime minister and speaker) in a manner that various identities were represented in them; a Madeshi, a person from the hills, a janajati (roughly translating to a tribal identity) and a woman. And this idea was what motivated the Maoists to suggest the name of Sahana Pradhan, a senior UML woman leader for the post of president, but the UML were adamant on getting Madhav Nepal the post.

When the understanding between the UML and the Maoists led to a deadlock, the latter thought it best to propose a new understanding with the largest Madhesi party, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) and get a Madhesi face elected as president. And the candidate was Ram Raja Prasad Singh, a veteran and militant republican from the plains. It seemed that the Maoists’ new coup wrought out with the alliance with the MJF would catapult Singh to president, but it was not to be.

The rug was pulled out from the Maoists’ feet by last minute machinations worked out by the NC, UML and surprisingly by the Madhesi parties too, as all these players ganged up and rejected the primary Maoist candidate by putting up Ram Baran Yadav, a veteran Nepali Congress leader from the plains. And the MJF got the vice presidential post nomination, with Parmanand Jha named as the joint candidate of the newly formed front of these parties. In one sweep, two Madhesis were elected president and vice-president and although the Maoists’ idea of ensuring representation of a prominent name from the plains succeeded, the persons finally elected were a “soft” monarchist from the Nepali Congress and a former judge from the plains representing the MJF. Surprisingly, neither of these posts were occupied by anyone closer to the Left, even though the Left parties in Nepal had enjoyed nearly two-thirds majority together in the constituent assembly.

Eventually, the Maoists were checkmated in the plain old game of Kathmandu power politics. They were still determining whether or not to join the government and to take the prime minister’s post, which according to the mandate was rightly theirs. A unity government with Left domination had proven to be a mirage, with the UML and the Maoists unable to get over their differences, much of which were got to do with their leaders’ ego, in this writer’s opinion. The UML was not able to think beyond minor considerations of getting their senior-most leader accorded a ceremonial post, while the Maoists were being too calculating in their approach to get a configuration of executive posts to their liking.

The machinations wrought out by the various parties against the Maoists could be used by the latter to get more support from the people who are already tired with the shenanigans that have accompanied government formation since the elections and declaration of a republic. To get more popular support from the people by pointing out the machinations, would require the Maoists to sit in opposition. But that would mean that the levers that the Maoists would hold in the creation of an egalitarian and progressive constitution will be considerably weakened.

It is a new dilemma for the newly entered force into mainstream polity. The Maoists had a lot at stake while they were entering the mainstream. They had to pacify their radical constituency which had sacrificed a lot in ensuring power for the radical party, whose armed wing was barracked and is still awaiting a decision to either integrate with the armed forces or accept a new “security” role. Criticisms have emanated about their tactics to integrate completely into mainstream polity at the cost of their stated aim to achieve a revolution in Nepal immediately. But so far, the Maoists were consistent in manoeuvring the various political steps to be taken in Kathmandu toward achieving a progressive constitution and toward laying the foundations of a radical democracy, before this new setback that they received. Lack of consensus, primarily with the UML has been the main reason for the setback to not just the Maoists but to the Left in Nepal.

It is high time that the Maoists sat down and had long and elaborate talks with the UML about their vision and the need for unity. Or else all gains made so far in constructing an agenda for genuine change from the discredited parliamentary and unitary system in the newly declared republic will come to nought.