Sunday, September 04, 2011

A step backwards

My father being a keen follower of scientific developments, I first heard of Annasaheb Hazare from him in my early teens, around the time the successful story of the village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra became more widely known. There, Annasaheb had employed what is now known as a 'comprehensive watershed treatment' approach to tend for natural resources and transform the village agriculturally and economically. A few years later when I chose a career in watershed hydrology, I may not have listed Anna Hazare as a direct motivator, but thinkers/doers like Anil Agarwal and Rajendra Singh who influenced me certainly did count him as an inspirational figure.

Anna Hazare would sometimes be invited to speak/advise at Center for Science Environment, a New Delhi environmental think tank where I worked for a period of time. As a rookie, I was once charged with receiving Anna at the railway station and riding back with him to the office. At that point of time, he had little recognition in broader public life but was already a hero in water/environmental circles, and I remember feeling privileged and in awe. Being a non-native Marathi speaker, I don't look forward to conversations in Marathi with native Maharashtrians for fear of sounding boorish, but Annasaheb was quite comfortable conversing in his Marathi-accented Hindi, and my last name never came up, so it was all good.

In my later years in rural watershed development, Anna Hazare and Ralegan Siddhi were always in the backdrop, as ideological tools to be employed during friendly debates with colleagues about our work. For rural watershed practitioners, Anna holds a place similar to what Frank Lloyd Wright holds for some young architects or John Milton does in the minds of some aspiring economists.

The purpose of the above passage, besides gloating about my remote brush with fame, is to preempt the projection of prejudice against Anna Hazare when I make the following argument. I hold the man in very high personal and professional esteem.

I do not have the same warm feelings for what went down with the Lokpal bill. As unreasonable as the idea of an unelected ombudsman is, let us assume for a moment that it is a good idea. But it is certainly questionable whether the way it was hustled to debate is a healthy precedent for a democracy. Ironically, the blame for it does not lie with Anna Hazare's movement. As a free citizen, he has the complete right to advocate a position in an orderly and non-violent way like he did.

Should the central government have acted on such a long-range and weighty issue, given the fact that it had no electoral mandate on it (i.e., the government was not elected on a manifested position for or against the Lokpal bill)? Perhaps not. It had two options - to negotiate tabling the issue till the a mandate for it is won in the next election, or offer to dissolve the government and see if the Lokpal bill is mandated by voters in the resulting election.

There is no disagreement about whether many Indians want the Lokpal Bill enacted, the question is whether implementing policy changes through a show of strength at Ramlila Maidan is not an abuse-proof way to proceed.

I rarely agree with Nitin Pai on anything, but when he says that this development has "injected a dangerous element into the Indian polity", I must grudgingly nod in approval.

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