Spirit of Nero Pushing the Nation into a Blackhole
Column by Navaratna Srinivasa (NS) Rajaram
As Assam drowned and Maharashtra burned, leaders like Nero who fiddled flew around in a helicopter. After sixty years and trillions spent by the Planning Commission, even the national capital is without regular water supply or electricity.
Spirit of Nero
Nero’s name like Marie Antoinette’s has become synonymous with any regime in which the rulers—their family and courtiers—indulge themselves while the people suffer. Nero, born Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus in 37 AD was emperor of Rome from 54 to 68 AD. He committed suicide on 9 June 68 upon learning that General Galba and his troops were advancing on Rome to put an end to his extravagant and highly unpopular rule.
He has been a controversial figure ever since, but the real power behind Nero was his ruthless and domineering mother Agrippina. She had facilitated his rise to the throne with the murder of several contenders including possibly Emperor Claudius. In 64, most of Rome was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome. Many Romans believed Nero himself had started the fire in order to clear land for his planned palatial complex, the Domus Aurea. In a story that was to make him infamous through the ages, Nero was reported to be singing and playing on the lute as Rome burnt. This is the source of the proverb— “When Rome was burning Nero was fiddling.” (There were no violins or fiddles at the time; Nero’s instrument was the lute.)
Ever since, Nero’s has become a byword for the callous disregard by those in power in the face of the sufferings of the common people. This is true of the government and its agencies in India, especially the Planning Commission; they are the embodiment this Spirit of Nero. We need look no further than Montek Singh Ahluwalia claiming that Rs 23 a day is an adequate income for an average Indian family even as he spent Rs 37 lakhs of taxpayer’s money on renovating his toilet. This was exceeded by his travel bills and further greatly exceeded by the money spent by the vacationing President Pratibha Patil accompanied by her children and grandchildren. As these Neroes fiddle how are the people doing?
In the same spirit was the recent helicopter ride taken by Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi over the flood ravaged state of Assam. As happens almost every year at this time, Assam is facing the full fury of the monsoon. All of its 27 districts are hit by massive floods. And at the same, states to the west like Rajasthan and Maharashtra are facing a drought like situation waiting for the monsoon rains. In this crisis situation what do Indian leaders do? Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh engage a government helicopter to fly over the flooded Assam as if they would discover something that was not known. This, like Rahul Gandhi visiting Dalit homes was a political stunt unless they hoped to carry some of the Assam waters to Maharashtra in their helicopter.
Actually, solution to this flood-and-drought menace has been known for years: link the rivers of India to form a river grid. As I indicated in a previous article, combining this with a solar power grid can solve both the energy problem and the water shortage. But in the nearly ten years they have been in control of the government Sonia, Rahul, Manmohan & co have shown no interest in solving real problems. Instead they have been bluffing the public with their political stunts and peddling their ‘charisma’. The Planning Commission has become a smokescreen for doing nothing but pointing to money spent as ‘progress’. But here is what we see on the ground.
In Delhi, residents receive water only a few hours per day, four hours at most, because of inadequate management of the distribution system. The result is contaminated water forcing households to complement a deficient public water service at prohibitive ‘coping’ costs, i.e., buy water from private vendors. The story is far worse in neighboring Gurgaon, the Millennium City that is host to numerous multinationals.
At the same time, Gurgaon boasts eight golf courses, which together consume 120 million liters of water daily– a quantity that can meet the daily water requirements of about a million people. Where does this water come from? Groundwater– a resource that has been indiscriminately exploited not only in Gurgaon, but throughout the country. All this with the full concurrence and even connivance of the Government. Emperor Nero (and Mother Agrippina) would have been proud of this— water for golf courses but not the people.
Man-made crisis: “putrid rivers” and water shortages
As of 2003, it was estimated that only 27% of India’s wastewater was being treated, with the remainder flowing into rivers, canals, groundwater or the sea. For example, the sacred Ganges river is infested with diseases and in some places “the Ganges becomes black and septic. Corpses, of semi-cremated adults or enshrouded babies, drift slowly by.” Newsweek describes Delhi’s sacred Yamuna River as “a putrid ribbon of black sludge” despite a 15-year program to address the problem.
The Arlington Institute, an American think tank recently reported: “India’s water crisis is predominantly a manmade problem. India’s climate is not particularly dry, nor is it lacking in rivers and groundwater. Extremely poor management, unclear laws, government corruption, and industrial and human waste have caused this water supply crunch and rendered what water is available practically useless due to the huge quantity of pollution.” To these the report might have added a bureaucrat’s paradise called the Planning Commission with no accountability.
This is confirmed by Professor Piyush Kumar Tiwari of the University of Melbourne, an expert on water management. In his words: “The current water shortage in most cities is not due to inadequate supplies but lax management. Solutions for water shortages are often not in inadequacy of quantity but in sound governance and operations and this is the lesson that our politicians and administrators of water utilities have to imbibe. Several examples from the developing world show that better governance can ensure uninterrupted delivery.”
Professor Tiwari makes a telling point— several developing countries and not just advanced nations are able to provide continuous water supply to its citizens through better water management. As he notes: “The problem is definitely not on the quantity side. The average per capita supply of water in Delhi is 220 liters per day and in Mumbai 240 liters per day. Most cities such as Hyderabad, Surat, Ajmer, Nagpur, Vijaywada, have an average supply of water of more than 120 litres per day but no city can claim to supply water for more than few hours in a day.”
Compared to this, cities like Kuala Lumpur and Colombo that have similar capacity of water supply per capita, yet provide water 24 hours a day. Cities in the developing world such as Jakarta and Dakar, with per capita production of less than 100 liters per day also supply 24×7. In contrast Delhi has a supply of 220 liters per capita per day, but its citizens are forced to suffer chronic water shortages. It is the same in Mumbai even though its supply is 240 liters per capita per day. So there is no way that Indian planners and administrators can escape the blame for the gross mismanagement of both water and money.
The problem is poor governance. As Professor Tiwary notes: “Efficient governance requires strong leadership that can put together enabling policies and regulation, allocate necessary financial resources and provide incentives for increased investment. “ This has worked even in the war ravaged Cambodia where the water situation is better than in India. He notes that in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, the person in charge of water supply who was protected from political interference by the prime minister himself.
How Gujarat copes with the problem
In this dismal scene there is an island of hope that can serve as a model to the nation—Gujarat. Its CM Narendra Modi has seen something that others seem not to have—that the two shortages, power and water—are related and must be addressed together. By installing solar plants over water bodies like canals, precious agricultural land remains available for growing crops. (I have suggested to the Karnataka Government that by installing solar plants on hydroelectric reservoirs, more power can be generated and water also saved.)
Properly exploited and implemented, solar power the country can achieve energy abundance just as it did in food grains and milk. This will make it possible to use electrochemical procedures to clean up sewage and polluted waters and recover fuel gas (hydrogen-methane) as byproduct. This will have to be the next step after large scale production of solar power. The point of all this is, solutions exist if we approach problems scientifically. But the Neroes of the Planning Commission are not scientists but bureaucrats.
Returning to Gujarat, the commitment shown by the State Government to improve drinking water supply can be seen by the policy directives and commitment of the State machinery, which worked in direct coordination with the Chief Minister’s office. The results were obvious; Gujarat was able to provide clean drinking water to 64 per cent of its population even while people in other parts of the country braved droughts and floods, with drinking water being far from their reach. Amidst the scarcity of drinking water in the country, especially Metropolitan Delhi, the Gujarat Government has set a benchmark in drinking water management.
The approach taken by the Gujarat Government is illustrative of the efficacy of networking through local cooperatives. It empowered people through community managed programs, where the people planned, implemented, operated and managed their village water supply works within the framework of the Panchayat Raj. The achievement is remarkable in light of the State’s increasing urbanization. It is a model worth studying by other states and metropolitan areas also.
This raises a question: how can an arid state like Gujarat provide better water supply (and electricity) while the resource rich Delhi, sitting on the mighty Yamuna, is choking for breath? Abhinav Gupta, who studied the problem provides the answer: “It is a simple case of poor management of water both by other States and the Centre. Otherwise, how would Gujarat — a State that has braved 26 droughts in the past 75 years— and still provide clean drinking water to more than 63 per cent of its population?”
He may also have noted that Delhi and much of the nation is saddled by a blackhole called the Planning Commission driven by the Spirit of Nero: the more it takes in, the less it produces.
The Blackhole called Planning Commission
Astronomers describe a black hole as a region in the universe where the inertia (in the form of gravity) prevents anything, including light, from escaping. It has this peculiar property: the more matter or energy you pour into it, less of it comes out of it. That is to say it has negative productivity—the more it consumes, the less it gives out. This is an apt description of India’s Planning Commission also.
Billions and trillions have been given to and spent by the Planning Commission, but Delhi still suffers from water shortages. A typical example is the Yamuna River, which is the mainstay of Delhi but now turned into a putrid black ribbon by pollution. Millions of dollars have been spent on cleaning it but nothing has changed. Nobody knows where the money has gone though the Planning Commission routinely allots money to ‘action plans’ but nothing happens although the money disappears. The planners however report that progress has been achieved because they have allotted money to it.
This is the problem with economists like Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Manmohan Singh: they measure progress not by results but the money spent. When we look at the Green Revolution and the White Revolution, its architects and implementers were scientists, field workers and managers— not bureaucratic administrators like economists or IAS officer. An administrator is NOT a manager. A manager gets things done, while an administrator only ensures proper procedures are followed. He is seldom a problem solver as a manager has to be.
The late President Ronald Reagan in a famous speech told the people of America not to look to the government to solve their problems, for, as he said “Government IS the problem.” This was something of an exaggeration, for government officials in the U.S. are much more accountable to the public and quite sensitive to their needs. Civil servants recognize that they are servants of the public. In India, the word ‘civil servant’ is a misnomer because he or she thinks he belongs to the ruling class and doesn’t really serve the people. Still, in every government there is the problem of accountability.
The situation in India is far worse. For all practical purposes the governments have abdicated responsibility to the Planning Commission. This is compounded by an oversupply of administrators because of the obsolete and dysfunctional IAS system. Once they get their budgets they have no accountability. So the system is both a financial and an accountability blackhole. Money gets spent, but no one is held accountable if nothing happens.
India has had several successful programs— the Green Revolution followed by the White Revolution. The first transformed India from a food starved nation into a major grain exporter, while the second made India the world’s largest producer of milk and milk products. Now India has a flourishing poultry industry along similar lines as its milk supply, managed through local cooperatives.
All these have one thing in common: the Planning Commission had nothing to do with them. They were designed, run and managed through local cooperatives with full autonomy. Here lies the solution to India’s water and power scarcity also— give full control and responsibility to local bodies and keep central planners as far away as possible. Better still abolish the Planning Commission and drastically whittle down the IAS. Otherwise these members of Nero’s court will turn India into a land of perpetual scarcity. To be convinced, just look at Delhi and Gurgaon.