Atanu Dey On India's Development

The King of All Telecom Scams — Part 4

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[Previously in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.]

To the rather distinguished list of superlatives about India — the largest democracy, etc. — we can add “India is the largest banana republic in the world.” The Wikipedia notes that “the purpose of a banana republic is commercial profit by collusion between the State and favoured monopolies, whereby the profits derived from private exploitation of public lands is private property, and the debts incurred are public responsibility.” Generalize “public lands” in there to mean “public resources” and you have a pretty good description of what we have going on in India.

How did India end up to be a banana republic? Was it inevitable? Was India endowed with so little social capital that it is ruled by a small band of especially corrupt politicians? What is striking is that the highest ranking members of the Indian political class come from a small group of families. The closest parallel that comes to mind is the mafia.

At the head of each mafia family, there’s a don, the godfather. These families fight it out for control of territory. Bloody battles are fought and power shifts from one family to another. Fortunes are made by the families, and regardless of who wins in any conflict, the losers are always the ordinary people who just pay “taxes” to keep from getting their knee-caps broken.

The most powerful family in India is the “Nehru-Gandhi” clan. A son or a daughter or an in-law takes over after the assassination of the don — which happens fairly regularly. (India shares this feature of family succession following assassinations with its neighboring Islamic states.)

Then there are the regional families. For example: M Karunanidhi is “the Leader,” the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. His eldest son, M K Azhagiri is the Union Minister in charge of chemicals and fertilizers. The Leaders’s younger son, M K Stalin (named no doubt in honor of the mass murderer), is a deputy in the TN government.

It would take too long to list out all the families that control India. Since the pattern is the same, when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

The succession usually goes to a spouse (or a mistress), son or daughter, or an in-law. No special skills are required. You can even be totally illiterate and the only skill you have is of milking cows and cooking. But if you are related to the king, you can be the chief minister of a state that is larger than a a few Western European countries combined. One day you could be a glorified bus driver and the next day you are deciding the fate ofhundreds of millions of impoverished people.

There is nothing in the laws of the universe which says that the offspring of someone extraordinarily skilled cannot be also exceptionally skilled. It is possible although not very probable. So also, it is possible that the most able leader in the land happens to be the daughter of the Great Leader. Unlikely but can happen.

You start to climb mount improbable (sorry Richard Dawkins) when you try to figure out how probable is it that the Great Leader’s daughter, and his grandson, and his grand-daughter-in-law, and his great-grandson are also the ablest leaders out of a population of around one billion people.

On analyzing this “running the country as a family-owned enterprise along the lines of a mafia family” I have to sadly accept that perhaps India lacks social capital. Lack of financial capital or physical capital can be fairly easily overcome by the simple expedient of borrowing from abroad. Social capital cannot be so easily imported. It has to domestic.

But let’s move on. The organizational structure to control a large economy like India has to be large and complex. However, to help in our understanding, we can model it as three separate — but inter-related and interacting — subsystems.

One of them is what we pointed to: politicians, usually grouped into mafia-like families. The second is a small set of large corporations. The third is a small set of big news and information companies which control information flow to the people.

Let’s briefly look at the small set of large corporations. India’s industrial structure is fairly small. How small? Only about 7 percent of India’s labor force is organized labor. The organized labor is partly in the public sector. The public sector is naturally controlled by the government. The families control the government, the government controls the bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy controls the public sector corporations such as the railways, power corporations, etc.

The private sector corporations are also controlled by the government, although indirectly. In a license-control-permit-quota raj, who gets to produce what, when, where and how much is determined through a bargaining process involving big corporations and the government. Big businesses cannot afford to antagonize the government, and the government (the families, really) depend on the corporations for part of the funding required to win elections. It’s a symbiotic relationship and it is not in the interests of either party to throttle the other. It’s a live and let live world.

The third important subsystem is the press. The press is actually a catch all for print, radio and TV. (The internet is not part of the press as I define it here.) The government controls radio, directly through ownership of “All India Radio”, and indirectly through regulation of private radio. It restricts private radio stations to broadcasting mindless fluff.

The government also controls private TV channels, aside from its own TV channel “Doordarshan.” Doordarshan is part propaganda, part government mouth piece, and part entertainment. You pay for what the government wants you to watch. The commercial TV corporations operate under government dispensation. They know which side of their bread is buttered and behave accordingly. In exchange, they are rewarded with public awards such as “Padma Shree” and “Padma Bhushan” for services rendered.

The newspapers that toe the government line are rewarded by the government. The government spends large amounts of ad money. The government taxes you, then uses part of it for promoting its interests by paying newspapers to print what it (the government) wants you to read. It’s something like the mafia sending you a bill for the bullet it will use to dispatch you to the great beyond.

One could object to this model saying that it is too simple. Yes, indeed it is. Merely because a system has a large number of components does not mean that it cannot be understood as a small set of mutually interacting subsystems. At the level at which we need to understand a car, our understanding that it has an engine, a power train, a steering mechanism and a body is sufficient for us to know how it works.

The telecom scam is the latest in a series of scams that has characterized the Indian economy. Every major process or event, including the biggest scams, have to have all three subsystems outlined above working in concert. The press was intimately involved in the decisions relating to who controls the government ministry; the ministry decided which corporations were to be awarded licenses.

It is probably the case that there must have been some quid pro quo between those who controlled the licenses and those who got the licenses. Selling spectrum licenses cheap to corporations (which then indirectly resell them for huge profits) is an easy way to extract some of the gains that use of telecommunications makes possible.

In the next part of this series, I will explore that last statement a bit more.

I will also like to quote some of the recent articles related to the telecom scam in a post so that we have some easy reference to the particulars of this case. I want to do that as part of the record for this blog.

See you later, alligator.
In a while, crocodile.

[Next: Part 5.]

  • larissa

    off topic
    Hey guys,

    I came across this beautiful foundation. Indians needs to do more as individuals for the 25 million orphans in India. Imagine if one middle class family can just see one child though school and college what a difference that would be! This organization has no religious affiliations. Support at least one child or take part at least in an organization of your own liking, or better yet, adopt an orphan if you can. Government does nothing, so private individuals have to raise awareness. Why do Westerners have to run such organizations in India? Why can’t Indians come up with more like these? We cannot afford to see any more children on the streets! It should be a matter of national shame!

    http://www.miraclefoundation.org/index.php?pid=294

  • larissa

    Flood money also stolen! Will these people ever stop?

    India flood control fund ‘stolen’ (BBC Headlines!)
    “More than 70% of flood control funds in the Indian state of Assam have been “stolen” by politicians, officials and contractors, it is alleged.

    The farmer and workers union said it had used the freedom of information law to find that money had been “siphoned” from the $2.5bn relief budget.

    The government has not yet responded to the allegation.

    Floods in Assam usually occur during the monsoon season, which generally lasts from June to September.

    Millions are rendered homeless and deprived of livelihood as crops and properties are destroyed after the Brahmaputra river and other smaller rivers burst their banks and submerge scores of villages.

    Protective embankments built by the water resources department routinely collapse during floods.

    ‘Funds siphoned’

    The All Assam Shramik Krishak Kalyan Parishad (AASKKP), the largest union of farmers and workers in the state, said that more than $2bn had been allocated for flood control programmes in Assam since 2000.

    But not more than 30% of the money had been spent on flood control or anti-erosion measures, the union said.

    “We can say with certainty now that much of these funds have been siphoned off,” Baleswar Rongpi of the union said.

    He said that a federal investigation should examine the use of the funds.

    In Rohmaria area villagers have prevented the state-owned Oil India Limited (OIL) from lifting crude in their area for the last 10 years in protest against the government’s alleged failure to implement effective anti-erosion measures. ”

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11796086

  • larissa

    Is India going the way of Russia (state assets sold at peanuts and oligarchs stash money at SwissBanks).

    John Galbraith was prophetic:
    “After stealing every penny from the development work and stalling the development work these scoundrels will declare socialism to be ineffective and move on to capitalism”

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  • RC

    Why do Westerners have to run such organizations in India?

    One reason is that in Catholicism adoption is very highly regarded and encouraged. Traditional catholic towns in past had almost all houses adopt an orphan. I have not noticed similar tendency in various Protestant denominations, I could be wrong.
    Basically I am arguing that the reason is cultural.

  • larissa

    RC
    I have seen many people in the regions I am familiar with adopt (mountain areas in the North), but they adopt in their own ethnic group, that is fine, as long as they are doing something!

    More scams galore:

    http://www.dailypioneer.com/296434/Forsaken-in-his-own-land.html

    I think Ananu needs another post to just list the different scams!

  • http://flawsophy.blogspot.com flawsophy

    excellent series breathing sanity amidst the hyper-energetic media language …

    I think you hit on a very true point – India’s lack of social capital. The narrow bandwidth of professional choices particularly among urban crowd with supposedly good exposure is a huge concern. 90% of the young are getting into 6-7 disciplines : engineering, management etc.

    We need a diversity that brings and nurtures leaders in unusual situations …

  • Mohan Raj

    Not a word about the BUREAUCRACY in your article…
    How nice … how convenient……..
    Great way to divert attention away from them…
    Politicians , Corporates , Media…..
    Wait a minute….
    Politicians have to face elections , Corporates have to answer share holders,
    Media has to guard readership base …..
    But BABUS….aha, what a lucky bunch…..
    99% of the population of this poor country will shoulder all your bills till the end of your life…
    and the beauty of it is that you are not accountable to them…
    in fact not accountable to anybody…..
    just enjoy the periodic pay commission windfalls…arrears …
    Always criticize politicians…
    Bring up our children entitled….teach them entitlement….
    Let them believe that if you qualify some examination , you are entitled to everything.
    Then it is the duty of the people to provide you all the comforts.
    Teach them to criticize politicians….
    never let the attention fall on bureaucracy.
    Send them to US so that they can start blogging ….
    attacking politicians , corporates , media…
    But never point the needle to BABUDOM…..
    Try all distraction tricks….

    Great Work , Atanu…Great work

    Long live Babudom !!!!!

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Mohan Raj, you write,

      Not a word about the BUREAUCRACY in your article…

      Awfully sorry but I cannot help you with reading comprehension.

  • Mohan Raj

    Income of Indian Govt (2010-2011) -Rs 7.47 lakh crore.
    Salary Expense – Rs 4.19 lakh crore

    That is before DA hikes and Pay commission hike this year.
    (Now it seems all the income is just enough to satisfy Babus)

    Won’t Comment….right?

  • Subramanian

    Mr Dey,

    I come daily with the hope that you would get to the main topic quickly but it continues like a mega serial.Do you plan to finish it anytime soon :(

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Mr Subramanian,

      Sorry to disappoint you. As the old saying goes, “Good, fast, cheap — choose at most two.” If I choose fast and cheap, I would not like the quality. So I go for the quality — which means it will neither be fast nor cheap :)

      Yes, I do plan to finish this soon. Thanks.

  • Venkat

    Awesome awesome awesome as usual Atanu! Waiting for the next parts :-)