Sucheta Dalal :Happy 2001: Welcome to mindless action and callous inaction
Sucheta Dalal

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Happy 2001: Welcome to mindless action and callous inaction  

January 4, 2001

Welcome to 2001. For most of northern India, the year began with a massive power failure as the entire Northern Grid tripped and the back-up system refused to function. Fortunately, the daytime failure limited the damage but it still threw train services into disarray, affected telecom services and brought industry to a halt.

Welcome to the country that many believe will leapfrog years of bad economic policies, state-induced backwardness, bureaucratic mismanagement, run-down equipment, poor work ethic and complete absence of accountability through its newly discovered skills and prowess in information technology.

The government has reacted by setting up the mandatory committee to inquire into the power failure and equally predictably, the issue would have lost its significance by the time the committee submits its report. The silver lining if any, would be if the power failure gets our politicians, bureaucrats and trade unions worried about the degeneration of government-run public utilities and kicks off much needed reform. Or, if it demonstrates that the absence of infrastructure can kill our growth prospects or our best industries. It would also have served a purpose if the Prime Minister forces his ministers to let go of key public sector undertakings in charge of utility services and allow them to become more efficient and dynamic.

Take a look at a few companies in key sectors.

  • The Steel Authority of India (SAIL), once a blue chip behemoth which represented Nehru's vision of the commanding heights of the public sector is reduced to a hugely loss-making and possibly terminally ill company.
  • Air-India, under J R D Tata's leadership, was arguably the best airline in the world. A few decades after nationalisation, it ranks among the worst and a depleted fleet, overpaid, unionised and recalcitrant pilots and poor infrastructure compound its problems. What is worse is Air-India also manages to block Indians gaining access to flights outside the country, because the government is unwilling to increase landing rights to foreign airlines because it insists on reciprocity.
  • Then there is Maruti Udyog, the government joint venture with Suzuki -- the public sector car company born to humour a Prime Minister's son. Almost simultaneously with the opening of the domestic market to foreign car manufacturers, the government gifted away its controlling stake in the company by letting Suzuki Motor Company buy a crucial one per cent to level its equity holding with that of the Indian government. It that was not bad enough, relations between the two partners are barely cordial, the company is battling labour problems, losing market share to the new car companies and has started making losses. Yet, the minister in charge of heavy industry Manohar Joshi refuses to let go of Maruti or even to accept that there may be no major bids for the government holding anymore.
  • In telecom too, the government refuses to let go of its two navratnas - Videsh Sanchar Nigam (VSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam (MTNL). Even as both companies face aggressive international competition, the minister Ram Vilas Paswan does the disappearing act at the Prime Minister's divestment committee meetings. Both companies are hamstrung by the absence of clear policies and growth path, while MTNL's most dynamic managing director, S Rajgopalan was rewarded by a letter of censure on his last day in office.
  • As for the Railways, they have failed to benefit from an honest and dynamic minister, because the lady in question, Mamata Banerjee is too busy with West Bengal politics.

If delay and obstructionism is one picture of government functioning, then take a look at the one area where decision-making is stunningly swift and alacritous. This is with respect to changing the names of streets, cities, universities etc or naming airports.

So the great city of Calcutta began the real millennium with a new name - Kolkata.

This is part of the ongoing process of exorcising memories of the British rule and in line with Bombay becoming Mumbai and Madras becoming Chennai and so on.

One has no real quarrel over going back to the desi city names - except that it seemed futile to confuse the world by discarding the better known anglicised names. Apparently I was wrong. A business paper now reports that changing names actually erodes the brand equity of a city and there is a definite cost attached to name change and one that a poor nation like India can ill afford to bear.

In India we do not stop at renaming cities. In Bombay, renaming public spaces is part of political ping-pong. One fine day, a few years ago, Bombayites woke up to find former railway minister Suresh Kalmadi presiding over a function to rename the majestic Victoria Terminus as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. That the name hardly suited the building did not worry Kalmadi, a former air force officer had largely been credited with finer sensibility - as a politician he was more interested in scoring political points against the ruling Shiv Sena government which had claimed the great Maratha emperor's legacy as its own.

The Sena, not to be outdone, felt obliged to redeem itself - so it named both the domestic and the international airports after Chattrapati Shivaji. It has ensured that every international stewardess flying into Bombay ties herself in knots trying to pronounce the name of the airport.

Contrast this obliviousness to image, brand and plain consistency with Scotland's reaction to pop star Madonna's wedding. The mayor of the little town where she got married was conscious of and exulted in the millions of dollars of free publicity generated by the wedding. The country eagerly hoped to cash in on a flood of tourists that it would attract. India, in a similar situation, refused to grant permission to a massive multi-million dollar movie on the life of the Buddha, which was to be shot in Ladakh. The film unit was forced to choose another country taking with it the free publicity and tourism opportunity when the movie became an international success.

The bottomline is that nobody really cares. Barring Goa and Kashmir (of a decade ago), Indians have never derived economic benefits from tourism so they do not even realise the damage caused by frequent change of names. They are also inured to hardship, queues, waiting lists and shoddy standards and do not demand efficiency from politicians or the government. Until the cynical disinterest continues, the country will be hurt by politically motivated and mindless bursts of action as well as debilitating and callous inaction.

-- Sucheta Dalal