You might think I need to get my head examined for saying this, but here is my list of the three most significant good news stories of the past week: 1) the Uttar Pradesh State Electricity Board (UPSEB) workers’ strike; 2) the Dock Workers Union’s success in paralysing the major ports in the country;and 3) the threat by truck workers in Delhi to go on strike rather than pay the newly imposed toll tax for entering the Capital.
There are many good reasons why this should have normally been bad news but is actually good news. First of all, it means, in fact confirms, that genuine economic reform in the country is finally underway. There is nothing to prove the fact to you than the series of trade union protests. A bit like a doddering old immune system kicking back in sheer desperation.
Secondly, given the fact that these strikes will affect the ordinary citizen, it should give the reformist government just the platform it needs to build a constituency among consumers. Th-ere can be no greater lobby for reform than this.
Thirdly, it is just what the bloody-nosed government reeling under the humiliation of Kandahar needs to wash away the clot of being soft in the head, heart and underbelly.
The choice for Vajpayee is very clear. He could either go the Gujral or Gowda way by surrendering to the trade union equivalent of the Kandahar hijack. Or he could read a little bit of the history of the Thatcherite phase and go the way of a Maggie or an Indira. One look at the issues and you see why this is such a good opportunity for the government to show some spunk.
The workers of UPSEB want it to reverse the decision to trifurcate the electricity board. Their jobs, including retirement benefits, have been statutorily guaranteed. So what are they complaining about? The loss, hopefully, of all unwritten privileges and perks of an electricity board job? The freedom not to bill the consumer according to what his meter says but on the basis of what underhand deals you make, to allow rampant theft of power or to run the power plants at 30 per cent capacity or thereabouts and be accountable to no one. Least of all to the consumer.
Ask any long suffering citizen of UP what his biggest problems in life are and he will tell you they are electricity and law and order, in that order. Every year the pilferage of power from UPSEB exceeds Rs 2,500 crore. This comes not only out of the pocket of the taxpayer but also by robbing the poorest of the poor of the money that could have gone into anti-poverty schemes and development. This money, as well as costs of all the inefficiencies and the poor bill collection, is paid directly by some of our poorest citizens. It is too early to say if what the UP government is initiating will solve all this. But at least it has acknowledged the problem and is genuinely moving towards finding a solution.
UP Power Minister Naresh Agarwal has certainly shot his bolt a bit by almost inciting the ordinary consumer to riot by appealing to him to take on the striking powermen. His intentions are right but the method is all wrong.What is needed is not a riot on the streets but a clearer understanding of the issues by the ordinary people so that they sift workers’ interests from collective blackmail.
Once they do that, the essence of economic reform will be far clearer to them. Unfortunately, the way economic reform began in the Narasimha Rao phase, it acquired a pro-rich, pro-multinational and thereby an anti-poor and anti-swadeshi tinge. Probably because no one had the interest or the patience to address the more key issues like basic infrastructure.
The initial reforms were confined to consumer goods and luxuries. So you got “Indian made” Wrigley’s chewing gum years before an independent power producer could send one mega-watt in the grid. You had foreign fishing trawlers vacuum cleaning our coastal waters, pauperising the already marginal fisherman, before even the foundation stone of the first port was laid.
We saw prices of fuel and road taxes go up across the board without a mile of post-reform highways built. Far too many of Rao’s ministers gave reform abad name. In any case they saw an opportunity to make big money by dishing out favours and patronage. The Salve/Sukhram shenanigans in the power and telecom sectors are some good examples. The Vajpayee government now has the choice to reverse all that.
A democracy will accept the pain of reform only if it is convinced that it is good for a wide majority of its people. The reformers’ blunders so far have been to confine the message only of the Sensex-driven classes. The strikes in UP, at the ports and hopefully by the truckers can now help this government take the same message to the slum dweller in Kanpur, the marginal farmer in Meerut or the lowliest worker at a SAIL plant whose fortunes have now been well and truly nixed by the port strike just when steel exports had picked up.
Simple logic this, and it should be perfectly possible for the politicians to take it to the people.
In 1998, in the disastrously confusing week after Yashwant Sinha’s”roll-back” budget, Vajpayee was once believed to have lost his cool with his party MPs by demanding reversal of the subsidy cuts. “If we can’t even go out and convince the people why it is needed and that it is good for them in the long run, then why have we been in public life for 50 years?” he is supposed to have said. This is what he has to say to his party men, allies and himself now.
It should not take too much to convince people on the need for power reforms. Almost all of us outside cities like Mumbai, Calcutta and Ahmedabad, which are blessed with private power, have a tale or two to tell of harassment, blackmail and overcharging besides long hours of power cuts and voltage fluctuations that burn our TVs, computers, refrigerators and the farmer’s pumping set motors.
It should also be simple to explain to people what are the consequences of aport shutdown just when the economy was turning around. As for the truckers in Delhi, the possibilities are delicious. Maybe, if they refuse to pay toll-tax, you and I could also thumb our noses at our income tax officers as well.
This is Vajpayee’s moment of truth. If he gives in now he will be judged cruelly by history as just another third front-type wimp who only roared at election meetings but went out with a whimper when confronted with a real challenge at Kandahar or Kanpur. But if he stands firm now, he would be remembered as a genuine reformer who brought about a generational shift in his country’s economy and society.