Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why democracy is always the best way

In Tunisia the ruling Islamic Ennahda Party has been defeated by its secularist Nidaa Tounes opponent in parliamentary elections.

 In Brazil, incumbent President Dilma Rouseff held on by the skin of her teeth against a right-of-centre opponent and in Ukraine a coalition of pro-European parties will hold a substantial parliamentary majority in an election in which separatists in the east of the country chose to play no part.

While the results will generally be considered good news in Western capitals, the most significant winner is democracy itself. The outcomes have not been challenged; the will of the people in three countries has been respected.

These elections were held when the concept of democracy itself is under more challenge than at any time since the end of the Cold War: Elected Governments in Iraq and Afghanistan battle Islamic insurgents who want nothing to do with one-person-one-vote; in Russia, democratic freedoms are being steadily undermined in what is fast becoming a State regressing into a mixture of Soviet/Tsarist authoritarianism.

China, which has never known democracy (except possibly of a very limited kind in the early years of the last century) aggressively advocates its style of Government as best for nations in the developing world.

It points to the legislative logjam caused by the United States’ admittedly complicated system of checks and balances, even to the recent disturbances in Hong Kong – which it authored by its refusal to allow true democracy there – as the ‘dangers’ of extending political power beyond a small ruling clique.

Even in Australia which as a nation has known no other form of government, democracy has its detractors. In a recent article Ian Marsh of the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, bemoaned the country’s “failing democracy”.

“The recent record is of a system that is largely gridlocked. Short of crisis, political leaders are trapped in a short-term cage,” he writes.

It cannot be argued that Governments the world over are facing momentous change, largely brought about by a technical revolution that allows instant communication of ideas and philosophies that in the past might have taken decades to mature and develop.

But what system is best suited to adapt to these changes – in China where ideas that do not accord with the rulers are censored and their proponents persecuted and jailed? In North Korea where anyone who steps out of line simply ‘disappears’? In Russia where opposition journalists are harassed and murdered?

Or in democracies were differences, often fundamental and sometimes violent differences, are there for all to see and the people and their leaders strive to find answers in the full light of day?

Ballot boxes and voting booths do not solve problems in themselves, but they are the places where solutions can start to be found. The way forward may be slow and frustrating, but in the end it is always the best way.

They know that in Brasilia, in Kiev and in Tunis. They should be an example to us all.








Friday, October 17, 2014

Getting rid of the Raj

It sound like something from the days before independence in 1947, but India’s Inspector Raj system is widely considered to be a significant drag on the nation’s ability to do business in the 21st century.

In addition, its critics charge it is a fertile breeding ground for corruption and a major example of the mind-boggling bureaucracy that has plagued the nation ever since its founders embraced a Soviet-style planned economy in the 1950s.

In those days, anyone who wanted to set up a manufacturing plant had to gain a licence from the Government. Once the licence was granted the business was subject to periodic checks by Labour Ministry inspectors to ensure it was fulfilling its terms.

The inspections were meant to cover areas such as workers’ conditions and whether factory owners were profiteering by selling their goods at a higher rate than stipulated, but over the years the system became mired in corruption.

Inspectors, who had total discretion over which premises to visit and how often, would accept bribes to overlook deficiencies in one company, or to harass a rival organisation; compliance paperwork involved filling in 16 different forms at regular intervals — an onerous task in a nation of small business owners where some 84 per cent of manufacturing workers are employed in workplaces of 50 or less.   

Under the new regime, inspectors will lose their right to choose which factories to visit. Instead a computer will select organisations — and the inspector who will visit — at random. Reports must be submitted within 72 hours and any significant changes recommended will be subject to review.

The form filling will be reduced from 16 to one online submission.

Successive Indian administrations have backed away from the task of addressing the nation’s rigid labour laws for fear of a trade union backlash, but the Bharatiya Janata Party Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected in May on a platform of industrial reform, is sweetening the pill with a number of pro-worker measures.

These include easier access to provident fund accounts and insurance schemes and a faster system for addressing employee grievances.

The reforms are a key component of Modi’s Make in India program, which aims to attract massive overseas investment and create 100 million jobs over the next decade.





Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Toilet talk and zombies in New Delhi

There’s been a great deal of toilet talk in New Delhi recently — and I don’t mean of the scatological kind.

To be more accurate, it’s talk about toilets, because in a departure from the usual political rhetoric, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been putting the subject high on his agenda.

Actually, it makes a great deal of sense because more than 600 million Indians – that’s about half the population – have to defecate in the open. There is no other place to go.

Last year the problem took a deadly turn when two village girls, who went out into fields to relieve themselves after dark, were set upon by a gang of youths, raped and murdered.       

Modi’s aim is to have toilet blocks built in every one of the tens of thousands of rural villages that do not have sewerage connections. To ease the burden on existing services in towns and cities, he is calling for more toilets to be installed in bus and rail stations.   

Recently IT billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates was in the Indian capital and came away impressed with the Prime Minister’s passion to fight poverty and improve the health of his country’s poorest people.

“He’s setting aggressive goals and pushing people to get them done quickly,” Gates said afterwards.

“He is having a lot of intense meetings with various Ministers asking them what they can get done in 100 days; can they make their goals more concrete, more ambitious?”

Modi has repeatedly said he wants sanitation to be available to all Indians by 2019 — the same timeframe he has set for cleaning up the River Ganga, sacred to Hindus, but in places little more than an open sewer.

One issue on which he is taking some flack is his decision to pump more money into the nation’s ‘zombie industries’, inefficient State-owned businesses that have been kept afloat through generous subsidies from the previous Congress-led Government.

The companies were set up in the years following independence in 1947 when India was following the Soviet Union’s model for development. Most run at a loss and at least 20 have stopped production altogether yet still pay their staff full wages.

Modi led his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in May campaigning on a policy of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ and it was widely believed the zombies would be the first casualties.

While a number have been slated for closure, the Government believes around two-thirds could be revived with targeted injections of finance.

The move has drawn shock and ridicule from some critics who claim Modi is shrinking from the hard decisions.

However, the Prime Minister can point to his success in resuscitating zombie companies in his home State of Gujarat during his 13 years as Chief Minister there.

Some 20 publically-owned companies returned to profit through a measured injection of funds, the appointment of independent boards and a ban on political meddling.

Given that nationwide the zombies employ tens of thousands of workers, one final effort to turn them around may be worth the risk.