Cafe Baghdadi is a little hole in the wall restaurant in Colaba, Mumbai, just around the corner from Regal Theatre and next to the famous street restaurant Bade Miya. Baghdadi’s fried chicken would beat KFC’s chicken any day of the week, by the way. That chicken is good. What tickles me at Baghdadi is a sign which lists a set of rules for its patrons. The list is long and fairly detailed. It says, for instance, that “Customers are not allowed to argue with the waiters,” and that “Alcohol is forbidden.” The list tells you in no uncertain terms what you, the customer, are allowed to do, how you are to behave, and so on. Basically it puts you in your place and tells you who is the boss.
While a set of such rules is cute in a two-bit restaurant (however delectable the chicken fry), it is certainly not cute when you have an analogous set of rules that the government of a supposedly free people forces on you. In the case of the restaurant, you can take your business elsewhere, maybe to Bade Miya next door, where you are presumably allowed to argue with the waiters. It is much harder to move to a different governance regime. When the government paternalistically imposes rules which interferes with your basic freedoms, it is unacceptable. I believe very strenuously that government interference in the economy is at the root of India’s sad economic performance.
Why the government interferes in every aspect of the economy is an interesting study in itself and I will not go into it right now. Also, I will not rigorously argue my case that it is government involvement in actitivities that it should not be involved in is enormously harmful. Anecdotal evidence, though not conclusive, is suggestive of the general soundness of an argument. For instance, take the case of the telecommunications revolution in India. As long as the government was the sole provider of this service, the telecom system was one of the world’s worst. When the sector was unshackled from the clutches of the government, it boomed with an echo that is being heard round the world.
Talking of which, Shashi Tharoor wrote a very articulate piece on the matter in the Hindu called Mobile Miracle. (Hat tip: Vivek Sellappan.)
Bureaucratic statism committed a long list of sins against the Indian people, but communications was high up on the list; the woeful state of India’s telephones right up to the 1990s, with only eight million connections and a further 20 million on waiting lists, would have been a joke if it wasn’t also a tragedy — and a man-made one at that. We had possibly the worst telephone penetration rates in the world. The government’s indifferent attitude to the need to improve India’s communications infrastructure was epitomised by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Communications Minister, C.M. Stephen, who declared in Parliament, in response to questions decrying the rampant telephone breakdowns in the country, that telephones were a luxury, not a right, and that any Indian who was not satisfied with his telephone service could return his phone — since there was an eight-year waiting list of people seeking this supposedly inadequate product.
Mr. Stephen’s statement captured perfectly everything that was wrong about the government’s attitude. It was ignorant (he clearly had no idea of the colossal socio-economic losses caused by poor communications), wrong-headed (he saw a practical problem only as an opportunity to score a political point), unconstructive (responding to complaints by seeking a solution apparently did not occur to him), self-righteous (the socialist cant about telephones being a luxury, not a right), complacent (taking pride in a waiting-list the existence of which should have been a source of shame, since it pointed to the poor performance of his own Ministry in putting up telephone lines and manufacturing equipment), unresponsive (feeling no obligation to provide a service in return for the patience, and the fees, of the country’s telephone subscribers) and insulting (asking long-suffering telephone subscribers to return their instruments instead of doing anything about their complaints). It was altogether typical of an approach to governance in the economic arena which assumed that the government knew what was good for the country, felt no obligation to prove it by actual performance and didn’t, in any case, care what anyone else thought.
Telecommunications is a critical infrastructure, of course. But it is not half as critical as education. It is absolutely imperative that the government get out of education. If the government does not, the education sector will continue to be as dysfunctional as the telecommunications infrastructure was during the days of government monopoly. That is something we cannot afford. India needs to have a vibrant educational system and the only way we will have it is if the government were to let go of the stranglehold that it has on education.
The more general point that I want to argue is that the government should get out of the business of dictating to people how they should behave, what they will read, what they will eat, who they will employ, who they will give charity to, etc. One of my greatest complaint against the government of India is that it should get out of the business of taking my money and funding charities. Charity is when I freely give of my resources to causes that I believe in. When the government does it, it is robbery, not charity.
That is why I believe that if your government is run along the lines of Cafe Baghdadi, you might be living in a Third World country.
Public service announcement: The government of Maharashtra has decreed that you will not consume alcohol on five specific dates between Jan 25th and Feb 3rd. For your own good of course. Because you cannot be trusted to behave yourself. So there.