Pratibha Devi Singh Patil (excuse me, but shouldn’t that be Pratibha Patil Devi Singh, unless Mr. Devi Singh has accepted his wife’s surname?) until elevated to the presidency of the country five years ago by reason of the ruling Congress Party’s internal calculations of interests, was a small time Maharashtra politician. For her retirement, however, she desires a manor she was not born to, that too in the quiet of the military zone in Khadki near Pune. No law has been left unviolated by an indulgent Manmohan Singh government to accommodate her, including the one expressly stipulating the residential covered square-footage (not acreage) a pensioner president can be allotted legally. Once the story made headlines, minions of the President scrambled for a justification, coming up lamely with the view that such an allotment was entirely Patil’s due, by what stretch of the imagination, they didn’t say.
Besides the spectacular imperial capital erected in Delhi, the departing British in 1947 bequeathed us a colonial system of “entitlement” so insidious, injurious, and expensive, it may well have ensured that India will remain perennially poor.
What was the entitlement system about? After the shock of 1857 and the British Crown assuming responsibility for governing India, Britons wishing to do an honest day of Queen’s work were selected for Indian service. Their job of running the empire was based on the tripartite principle that they were engaged in a mission to civilize the brown man, inculcate liberal values in an alien society, that as rulers they needed to maintain their distance from those they ruled, and that to maintain that distance and generally for their troubles, they were housed and looked after by the State in a manner that deliberately exaggerated the gap between them and the natives. So all those involved in up-keeping the British dispensation in India – from the Crown-appointed Viceroys, “competition-wallahs” of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), to engineers running the railways, to personnel manning the telegraph and postal services, and the military-men in barracks down to the hordes of clerks, were coddled, housed in government-owned quarters whose grandeur (or lack of it) matched the official grade of the occupant.
These residences were located in clearly demarcated government colonies and military cantonments, which were a thing apart from the jumble of the “native quarters”. The system of strictly stratified perquisites as per rank – with emoluments, residential accommodation, and slate of perquisites to match in the imperial capital, first in Calcutta and later New Delhi, had exact parallels operating in the other cities and districts towns, and was at the heart of the entitlement system.
At independence, the incoming government of free India had the option of doing away with this system but didn’t. Jawaharlal Nehru was contemptuous of the Indian members of the ICS, considering them collaborators of the foreign power and was all for disbanding that cadre and starting anew. The conservative instincts of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, however, prevailed and the service and the colonial administrative structure was retained, with the IAS succeeding the ICS and the new rulers – the politicians — taking the place in the highest echelon once filled by colonial bigwigs. Appropriately, Nehru moved into the palatial residence of the Commander-in-Chief, India. And the system of gross separation of rulers from the masses continued. It has resulted in a republic divided between two Indias – one of the stately lines and ample greens of Lutyens’ Delhi and the other of dirt, disorder, and decay. This divided order, as per colonial design, is replicated, as earlier mentioned, in smaller sets and subsets across this vast country.
Had Nehru succeeded in ridding the country of the wretched colonial caboodle, refused to index salaries and pensions of ICS members to the British Sterling, and replaced the sahibgiri with an indigenous, less parasitic, administrative system and ethos, India would not be in the awful state it is today. Political leaders and government officers alike, shorn of official quarters in posh surroundings, would have been compelled to live where, and as, the average citizen does.
A provision in the Representation of the People Act, requiring all elected politicians to live within their constituencies, and carry out their legislative tasks in Delhi or state capitals with only a per diem stipend to meet the living costs, would have put a damper on their excesses. Further, ministers in the central and state cabinets, including the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers, would have had to scramble for living quarters in Delhi, with official premises, such as Hyderabad House in Delhi, being provided strictly for official entertaining. This is the norm everywhere in the developed world. Political leaders residing in the inner city and outlier colonies will ensure that they daily experienced the aggravations and the grind of life in high-density population milieus, complete with water and power shortages, and the inherent dangers of negotiating decrepit public spaces – the result of a non-functioning government apparatus they preside over. It will incentivise these pooh-bahs to take matters into their hands, shake up the system, and begin delivering on development and good infrastructure. The politicians and administrators, thus motivated to improve the surroundings and the quality of life of the aam admi they routinely swear by, will seek innovative administrative, technological, and political solutions for the miseries faced by the people, if only to ease the quotidian difficulties in their own lives.
In no other country are politicians and bureaucrats pampered with houses, retinue of servants, cars, and other benefits at the taxpayer’s expense and, therefore, no other major country is as badly off as India in terms of rude bureaucrats and insensitive government. Consider this, were the real estate on which the political class and government servants at all levels of town, city, state and central governments, the railway staff, and military personnel are housed – usually in the most desirable parts of cities and towns, to be monetised it would wipe out trillions of rupees of national debt. India will be a nicer place to live in. Surely, it is not too late to do away with the entitlement system.
[Published in the 'New Indian Express', Friday, April 20, 2012 at http://expressbuzz.com/opinion/op-ed/entitlement-syndrome/383826.html ]