Prateep Lahiri is a retired IAS official who has written an illuminating book on communal disturbances, Decoding Intolerance. In the present work he records his impressions in a miscellany, and the chapters though well written, are consequently uneven and of varying interest.
Lahiri takes us through the 1960s and the bad days of sugar rationing and drought when our foodgrain stocks were so low that it was a question of American imports being used “from ship to mouth”.
He describes how hard it was to make long distance calls, which reminds us how far India has come in 50 years. In the districts, small incidents could snowball and there are always special interests at play, whether minorities, students or, above all, politicians.
The author notes that demonstrators’ professions of non-violence should not be taken at face value, and in communal strife, early preventive action by calling in the Army is the best method to reduce tension, though the police are generally opposed to such intervention.
Are they themselves a special interest group? The propagating incident is rarely the actual cause; minor incidents become major riots, business and political interests are usually factors behind the screen, the press and right-wing groups stir the pot and inflame passions, and rape and cow slaughter are favoured allegations and insinuations. Muslims suffer most from inter-communal violence, the inference being that they are the victims, not the initiators, of violence.
The health services in rural areas are lamentable because of the nexus between medical practitioners and politicians and senior civil servants who manipulate matters so that health workers are transferred from rural to urban areas, leaving villagers in the hand of quacks and rapacious private profiteers.
In drugs and medicines, racketeering and black marketing are rampant. “It would take herculean efforts to clean the Augean stables,” says Lahiri, and who can disbelieve him?
The author was in the finance ministry in the early 1990s when our foreign exchange reserves were so low that finance minister Yashwant Sinha had to mortgage Indian gold to service international debts. Here again, we may note that India now has $440 billion in reserves, a far cry from 1990.
The incompetent Sinha, who is much heard nowadays condemning the present government, would do better to remain silent. That also goes for Manmohan Singh, whose professional competence Lahiri admires but notes that Singh was unable or unwilling as Prime Minister to curb corruption among his ministers and was not above recommending unsuitable people for employment or promotion in the Asian Development Bank.
The author cites some cases of corruption in the finance ministry concerning earth-moving equipment, woollen blankets, and the appointment of someone in a Customs post, but never names the guilty parties. It is clear that postings and transfers of officials are a matter in which politicians indulge with damaging effects on the bureaucracy.
By the 1970s, says Lahiri, “corruption had become unbridled at all levels” and it is not likely that even an empowered Lokpal would be able to do anything about it. The same pressures from high government circles were brought to bear on the author in the matter of advertising policy in his later capacity as secretary-general of the Indian Newspapers Society.
A chapter on governance covers familiar ground regarding the defects and possible solutions, but is leavened by a comic tale of the authorised uses of various colours of ink and the bumbling and tortuous manner in which the problem was dealt with.
Lahiri sums up the situation well — the bureaucracy should be liberated from archaic rules and procedures that constitute a brake on decision making. “However having witnessed decades of apathy, I have come to the cynical conclusion that governments may come and go, but the system, flawed as it is, will go on forever.”
On deputation to Bangladesh just after its liberation, Lahiri sent dispatches of excellent quality from Mymensingh. He notes astutely that few of the Hindus who fled to India during the liberation war returned to Bangladesh, and he was a witness to the Indian army’s looting of Bangladeshi property — though he believes that such cases were “odd exceptions”.
The most interesting chapters concern the global trade in diamonds and the role India plays in it; the export of cut and polished diamonds is one of our leading exports though our production of gemstones is miniscule by world standards — despite being the only source of diamonds until 1720. This is a short chapter which makes one wish Lahiri would have expanded into a full-length paper, since there was much that is new.
The same goes for the chapter on our lamentable coal mining industry. Coking coal (used by the metallurgical industry) was nationalised in 1971 and non-coking coal two years later. Coal will meet 65-70 per cent of our needs for power and the industry’s status is parlous.
Underground production is low; 80 per cent before nationalisation and now eight per cent,— the balance being from opencast—though the safest, most productive and cost-effective is underground mining.
This is due to non-application of mechanised Longwall mining technology, available abroad for decades, which could access seams below 300 metres where 40 per cent of our deposits lie. Coal cleaning plants are 30 to 50 years old and cleaned coal accounts for only four per cent of sales.
End users like power, steel and fertiliser plants, for reasons hardly difficult to deduce, prefer to import both coking and non-coking coal. Steel plants refuse to adapt their machinery to lower grade coking coal mined from deeper levels produced indigenously — “this is pure wastage of a precious resource”.
Land acquisition, environmental and forest clearances add to the near-hopeless situation. To nobody’s surprise, only partial de-nationalisation could resolve some of the problems of this industry.
The author is needlessly coy when it comes to naming persons who once held high office and indulged in corrupt practices. If you will not name, you cannot shame. One person who is indeed named is one of the last ICS officers, Ronnie Noronha, whom I also knew well.
Ronnie told Lahiri that if he allowed any communal incident to occur in his district, he would hang Lahiri from the nearest tree. Would people like Noronha have existed today! If Lahiri bends his talents to writing another book, he would do well to embark on a biography of the charismatic and remarkable Ronnie Noronha.
The reviewer is India’s former foreign secretary