Sunday, May 4, 2008

It's all about who you know

Wider Angle | S.Mitra Kalita

All he did was “put in a word”.
That is how Union shipping, road transport and highways minister T.R. Baalu defended his move to procure gas for two companies owned by his two wives (yes, two) and sons, companies that happened to be previously headed by him.
According to news agency Press Trust of India (PTI), Baalu admitted he had spoken to petroleum and natural gas minister Murli Deora to ensure gas was allocated. “I put in a word with the petroleum minister,” Baalu told Parliament, according to a PTI report. “What is wrong with it?”
He didn’t add what he very likely also felt, what many of us realize on a day-to-day basis: That’s just the way life goes in India. Everyone uses connections or else nothing gets done.
If you’re squirming with discomfort, recognition, uncertainty, you’re not alone. For, many of us—from salaried professionals to the working poor —largely accept that bribes are wrong: Paying or gifting someone to grease the wheels is immoral, corrupt. But pulling a favour to get the job done?
It happens.
Think about it. Need to get your three-year-old into nursery school? One after another, the calls go out to principals and board members of elite schools—or their friends and family. Attached to applications are the letters vouching for your child and your character from Prominent People.
How can a retail entrepreneur secure the licences needed to stock yarn, put up signs or even play terrible background music? It’s time to make rounds among The Influential.
This deep tapping into networks is especially acute in this connection-conscious Capital, but other cities certainly suffer their share, too. By no means is India alone, but the problem worsens here because connections, often, must be relied upon to get the littlest thing done.
It is not just the government to blame. Even as the growth of the private sector has spoiled us for choice, it has created new hurdles to getting services smoothly. Well educated and intentioned they may be, but bank tellers rarely have a clue about foreign exchange or money transfers. The cashier who fields your mobile payment has little power to do much else, like print out a bill statement from six months ago. And so we seek out those second and third cousins who work at Citibank and Vodafone for rescue.
Every time I raise this issue, old-timers shrug, saying: “It used to be so much worse.” One writer on the blog,, reminds, “In the ’70s, if you wanted to buy any car anywhere in India, money wasn’t the problem. The waiting period was. It ranged from a few months to a few years depending on the model and your political connections.”
But guess why he raised this point? Recently, the blogger noted that folks eager to book the Rs1 lakh Tata Nano were already in queue, buttering up dealers and plastering automobile websites with their emails and phone numbers so they could be first.
So, how much has really changed?
Are there just shades of grey between paying a bribe and invoking a connection? In many cases, the answer might lie in our professions. Politicians, journalists, government contractors should be held to higher standards because for them, a favour is rarely just a favour (for a copy of Mint’s code of conduct, visit
The more important question is why the straight and direct route is failing so many Indians. Crumbling schools, tight regulations, lack of access, crooked civil servants, all of the above? As with much of middle-class woe, if it’s tough for us, the poor and lesser connected are the real victims.
“The normal systems have collapsed in most spheres in life,” says Arvind Kejriwal, the former bureaucrat who pioneered the right to information movement. “If you normally apply for something, you wouldn’t get it, even if you deserve it, so you need connections or money. The people who have connections feel comfortable about it. But if I don’t have connections, I’ll say it’s a rotten system.”
In Baalu’s case, it has been revealed that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, master of the art of crafting a squeaky clean image—even in India—made “certain references” on the shipping minister’s behalf to secure gas. Of course, the implication of the Prime Minister’s Office getting involved is more damning: Give this guy his gas—and whatever else he wants.
The actions in regards to Baalu and his family’s companies smack of nepotism and cronyism. If only the elected would show so much concern over the public they represent. We wouldn’t even need 10,000 cubic metres, as Baalu requested.
In fact, I think most Indian households would settle for just a letter from the Prime Minister’s Office guaranteeing steady power in these summer months.
And maybe, for good measure, he’d throw in an extra gas cylinder?
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