Millennium Post

Reforms are not a cakewalk always

According to the Wikipedia reform means the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc. There is no disagreement with the definition as such. Still there is usually huge discontent over the implementation of a ‘reform’. The problem arises largely due to difference of opinions over what is corrupt, wrong and unsatisfactory. As a result what is reform for India’s prime minister and the media that support him is anarchy for many like Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal chief minister.

But this disagreement is not of recent origin. It exists since the dawn of the word ‘reform’ in whatever language. That is logical. When one is reforming one is changing some existing dispensation with a new version. The beneficiaries of the status quo predictably will oppose the change – that is ‘reformed’ system. Viewed in this context the opponents to FDI in retail may be called status quoits, therefore dismissed.

Since reform is not revolution – not a radical change but is no more than fine tuning – there will always be voices of dissent in any reform effort. Without altering the fundamentals, reform seeks to improve the system as it stands. Intensity of dissent even in case of reform will vary depending on the governance system in vogue. For instance, when King of England, Henry VIII, separated from Papal authority over the critical issue of obtaining divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his queen, not many in England bothered to dissent. The King was too powerful and the issue was touching for him. In contrast when Christopher Wyvill, an English cleric and landowner, called for a package of ‘economical reforms’ like cuts in government spending and patronage, annual parliaments and an increase in the number of county seats in parliament, it had to let lot of water pass through the Thames.

In certain cases a reform necessitated bloody war like in the case of abolition of slavery in the United States of America – the 13th Amendment of 1865. The 13th amendment to the United States Constitution provides that ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’ President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 could finally be enacted after the rebellious south lost the civil war. Reforms are not cake walk always.

But use of force, as in the case of the US Civil War, is not a common practice necessary for implementing a reform. New Delhi need not have to alert the Eastern Command at the Fort William to tame a recalcitrant state government at the Writers’ Building on the issue of FDI in retail. Nor did it use any strong arm tactics to quell the Left in India when ‘Kalavatis’ of India were about to get enriched through the generation of nuclear power after the passage of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. If some money changed hands in the process, that is not a concern of anybody dissecting the meaning of reform. Coming back to the word reform in the context of the present day living conditions in India, an expected line of argument – any argument including the cacophony called TV debates – one may reasonably expect a ‘reform’ to benefit majority. Like in case of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal majority of Indians – their purse size notwithstanding – felt that the decision will help many of us to enjoy light at the end of a day. Unfortunately the residents at Kudankulam prefer to stand in the sea to seeing the nuclear plant operational there. Not that the residents had fishes as their ancestors as against monkeys in case of others but they suspect the lax rules governing the safety of such plants. The worry cannot be dismissed as inconsequential. Reforms, even in case of popular support, might not always address detailed issues. Even in a democracy, as vibrant as India’s, such still born reforms can take shape.

Historically, we can see reforms have their proponents as well as opponents. Take the issue of FDI in retail for example. Those advocating the case are mostly beneficiaries of current system. Many of them had seen large stores abroad. In India also they shop in organised retail outlets. They don’t mind standing in the queue for 10 minutes or more but have little patience to tolerate the delay in the local grocer. They read English newspapers and aspire to live abroad like their cousins who were lucky. They are on social media. For them the opponents to the ‘reform’ are despicable politicians catering to vote banks.

The opponents to FDI in retail are in contrast concerned of the road–side vendor or the local grocer who manages a store inherited from his family. This class of people will never get a job in the Wal–Marts or Ikeas but will continue to live life as before. Some of them might end up visiting the cash and carry stores of large foreigners and sell it to their old customers. For them only the middle men will change. The other constant in their lives is on Election Day they will stand in the queue to vote.

The nuclear deal had supplied a dream – that of availability of electricity. The FDI in retail does not offer anything new barring perhaps some escape route to India’s cash strapped organised retail companies. Read in this context the word ‘reform’ loses its value in case of FDI in retail.

Sugato Hazra is a communication professional.
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